Scarred for Life

So I back when I was in grade school, I started my first book. It was actually a writing assignment, but I knew it was going to be a book so I confidently titled it “Chapter One.” I’m not sure now what the exact instructions were. I was just excited that I was going to get to write something.

Back in those days, I was very into animal stories. Not the cheerful happy Disney kind. The kind where everyone dies at the end. I’d just finished reading one where the main character was a wolf cub who hides in a crack at the back of his den to avoid being killed with the rest of his littermates. I thought that crack idea was the cleverest thing ever. (Okay, okay, I was ten, all right.) And the murder of his family quickly paved the way for the wolf cub to become an orphan and have a series of adventures. That was pretty much the plot of all the books I’d been reading. Step one, protagonist animal’s family gets wiped out. Step two, adventures.

So I decided that I would write a story about a cougar cub because I liked cougars better than wolves. A cougar cub who was totally black like a black panther. (I know, I know, cougars don’t come in black, but I wanted him to be black. Ten years old, remember?) And he would have some kind of identifying white mark on his shoulder (because being a totally black cougar was not identifying enough apparently.) His siblings would all be normal beige cougars who would show up fine in the darkness, but because he was all black, he could hide in the back of the den and not be seen.

As long as he covered up that damn identifying white mark on his shoulder.

Anyway, Shadow or Midnight or White Spot or whatever his name was, survives a little cougar Armageddon by hiding in a narrow place at the back of the den. It was a variation on the crack thing only better because he was already pretty invisible to begin with.

We had a substitute teacher the day we turned our assignments in. She collected them all and went off to read them in the back of the room while we studied history or something. I was rather proud of my work. I mean it was about a black cougar. How could she not like a story about a black cougar?

Half an hour later, she showed up at my desk, story in hand. The look on her face was not promising. “You didn’t write this story. You copied it from somewhere.”

I felt a tremendous surge of guilt. “Well, just the crack thing. The wolf in the book hid in a crack.”

“So you did copy this from a book. Do you know what that’s called? That’s called plagiarism. That is illegal. These aren’t your words.”

“They are my words.”

“You said they came from a book.”

“No, the hiding in a crack came from a book. But it’s not exactly the same.” I was tremendously confused by this time. She was getting angrier and angrier.

“You can’t steal other people’s words.”

Everyone was staring at me. I sank down into my chair. “I borrowed the crack idea.”

She was practically breathing fire by now. “I don’t care about the crack idea. Did you write this yourself or not?”

“Of course I wrote it myself.”

She looked at me for a long moment, trying to decide if I was lying or not. “You wrote this all by yourself?”

“Yes.”

She tossed it down on my desk. “Then it’s very good.”

I threw the story away on the way out of class that day. I was so terrified by the whole encounter that I never wanted to show anyone anything I’d written ever again.

I got over it.

Sort of.

But still, years later, today to be exact, when a co-worker reads something I’ve written on a project and asks “Did you write this yourself?”, I totally freeze up. I’m ten again looking up at that lady who is certain that I’ve copied my entire first chapter from another writer’s book and I don’t know what to say.

Of course I wrote it myself. Why do people keep asking me that?

There wasn’t even a crack in it.

Revising Myself

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The Boot (little Tosca dog added for cuteness)

So let me tell you about the mental deterioration caused by having a boot Velcroed to your foot. The emotional arc runs like this. First, anger and self-pity. (“Why did I have to break my stupid foot AGAIN?” “Why am I the only one who has to drag this heavy boot around?”) Which segues into a sort of grudging acceptance. (“Well, my foot does feel better with the boot on.”) And, perhaps, even occasional glee. (“What a great time of the year to have a handicapped placard!”) But as time and patience wear on, the boot feels less and less like a help and more and more like an anchor. By the end of six weeks, I was ready to chew my leg off. Plus, it is pretty much impossible to sleep with the damn thing on so by the seventh week, I was not only depressed but severely sleep-deprived.

Which turns out to be the perfect state for doing a final reread of a novel because a) it keeps you from thinking about the Boot and b) your internal critic has fallen asleep in a corner.

Now I’m not recommending that anyone who is having trouble revising a novel should run out and break a foot. I’m just saying that rereading stuff you wrote years ago is much easier when you are semi-conscious.

Oh, sure, certain parts are fun. There are whole sections that are fine and then, suddenly, there’s an inexplicable scene, something so off the wall that you don’t even know why it’s there.  Then you spend several hours trying to read your past self’s mind. Failing that, you take the scene out and put it in the discard file. Not the trash, mind you, but the discard file, because sometimes, half a book later, you realize why you needed that inexplicable scene so you have to dig it out, dust it off and put it back in. Much easier to do when you aren’t totally sane or well-rested.

But then I got the Boot off.

About the time I hit Book Three which, well, needs work. A lot of work. First twenty-six pages are great, page 27 is a mystery to me.  Then there appears to be some important stuff missing which I didn’t notice when I wrote it originally but realize I need now. And as the pages go up, so do the places that need shoring up or rewriting or discarding or something. And I begin to wonder if maybe I should just abandon Drac and company and go see what’s on TV.

You know, like normal people.

There’s a scene near the end of the movie Oliver! where Fagin, master fence and pickpocket, has decided to give up his life of crime and work like everybody else. He is confidently walking into a brand new sunrise when suddenly, from behind a pillar box, out steps his prize pupil the Artful Dodger, all decked out in top hat and tails, holding up a stolen wallet. Fagin hesitates, reviews the situation, and decides that maybe he’d been a little too hasty about tossing aside his old profession. He takes the wallet from the Dodger and off they go to look for more.

That’s kind of how revisions are for me. I work until I’m frustrated, hip deep in the spaghetti of intersecting plotlines, no idea how to get out from where I am. I decide I hate everything, that none of it is good, that no one wants to read it anyway. And the burden of making all the little pieces fit together right falls away. I’m free, released, heading off into the sunrise. But then I turn a corner and there is Drac, a little smirk on his face, holding up a shillelagh.

“Bet you wonder what I’m doing in Ireland.”

“No, I don’t give a damn what you’re doing in Ireland. I’m done, I’m finished, I don’t care.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I don’t.”

He twirls the shillelagh. “You know, it’s not actually my shillelagh.”

“I don’t care whose shillelagh it is.”

“And after the Ireland story, I think there’s one about Texas.”

“I’m not listening.”

He pulls out a Carney’s chili dog. “And, of course, there’s this story.”

I hesitate. “Oh, yeah, I like that story.”

He takes a bite of the hot dog and smiles. “I know.”

“All right, all right. Gimme that.” I tear the hot dog out of his hands. “So what happened in Ireland?”

“Hell if I know. You’re the writer.”

Good thing he didn’t give me the shillelagh.

Taking the Characters for Chili Dogs

 

Sometimes you write the story; sometimes the story writes you. I generally have more luck when the story does the telling. When I jump in, it usually ends up like it does when I jump into someone’s conversation at a party and suddenly realize that they were talking about real saints and not the New Orleans football team.

Anyway, the current story takes place in Hollywood. Mostly. Important bits of it do anyway. And when I think of Hollywood, I think of faded glamour and hot dog stands, not movie stars and Kim Kardashian.

Which means that I would be a lot less disappointed on a sightseeing tour of the Sunset Strip.

But I digress.

The story needed a location in Hollywood and I immediately thought of Carney’s. Carney’s is a hot dog stand in an old train car, well, actually, two old train cars, that has been selling chili dogs on the Sunset Strip for almost forty years. Back in my Hollywood days, we used to pass by it many times a night as we cruised aimlessly down Sunset, but I’d never actually been inside. Still, there are photos on the Internet, so I figured I could wing it.

I figured wrong.

Because me randomly picking a place I don’t really know is not the same as a character grabbing hold of a location himself. The characters know what they are going to do before I do. I’m not sure how that happens, but if I get out of the way and let them, the story comes out much better.

So here I am with a scene that could best be described as useful. It moves the action from here to there, but it is about as energetic as a dead possum. This left me with two options. Go to Carney’s or just make stuff up. I chose Option A.

Because Option B does not involve chili dogs.

Elaine took pity on me with my broken down car and my broken down foot and agreed to drive me up to Carney’s for some lunch. She was a little concerned about the traffic. She needn’t have worried.

Turns out there is nothing more deserted than the Sunset Strip on a Sunday morning.

We pulled into the driveway beside Carney’s. No one at the picnic tables. No one at the windows of the train car. Only one car in the parking lot.

“Are you sure it’s open?”

“Well, if it isn’t, we’ll go to Canter’s.”

Which wouldn’t help the story at all, but they have a Reuben to die for.

So we park and get out. I’m at least going to take a few photos of the outside of the place. As I’m framing my first shot, another car drives in. A friendly couple from Texas gets out and they immediately volunteer to take a photo of Elaine and I with the train car if we will take a photo of them with the train car.

Which leaves me in the embarrassing position of having to explain that I don’t really want any photos of anyone in front of the train car, just photos of the train car, all by its lonesome.

For a story.

About vampires.

On the Sunset Strip.

Damn it.

I may not have mentioned the vampires because I usually don’t if I can get away with it. I don’t remember. I was too busy feeling awkward.

Elaine saves the day by offering to take a photo of them. I go back to taking shots of various angles of the train car, hobbling around as much as my foot will let me.

I took pictures of everything because I wasn’t sure exactly what I needed. I took pictures of the tiny train car bathroom. I took pictures of the zigzag handicap ramp. I took pictures of the picnic tables out front. I took pictures of the view of the hotel across the street from out of the train car window. Pretty much everything but the far west end of the train car because it was far and I was gimpy.

So I get home, full of chili dogs and inspiration. Things are flowing nicely. I know almost every inch of Carney’s now. I can use anything.

Drac decides he needs to make an entrance from the far west end, the only part of the entire building I hadn’t had a good look at.

Thank goodness for Google Maps.

Useless Writer Mode

So I’ve been stuck in Useless Writer Mode the last three weeks or so. I got a sudden urge to reread Books One and Two, do a little editing, make them presentable for public consumption, that sort of thing. A simple little plan.

That has rendered me utterly useless for the duration.

Oh, I look functional. I get stuff done. I go to work, I make dinner, I take showers, I pay bills, all the requisites.

I just don’t do them willingly.

Because inside, I’m just jonesing to get back to the stories, back to my characters, back to that dream sequence that may be a little too long, back to that scene where I want to switch the first two paragraphs, back to Page 123 where I need to take out the word “the.”

Yes, it’s that bad.

Of course, when I’m actually working with the characters, it’s heaven. We are literally on the same page and, if we aren’t, a tweak here and there puts us back in sync. All the little flaws jump right out at me. Take a word out here. Add a sentence there. Better, much better.

Damn it. I need to go do something else. Okay, okay. Just until the end of the chapter then. Because I want to see if that last scene works. And then I can go.

Maybe.

And life sort of goes on and I sort of go with it, but in a vague sleepwalker sort of way. Because no matter what else I’m doing, my mind is still working on ways to clean up the end of Chapter 7.

Years ago, after my mom died, I went to see a therapist for a while. And I remember one session where I just sat on the couch and cried. “I don’t want to be a writer. I want to be a normal person.”

And Dr. C would say, “But you are a writer.”

“But people don’t have to be writers, right?”

“What do you think about when you’re driving on the freeway?”

“My characters tell me stories.”

“But don’t you see how wonderful that is? Most people have to settle for working on their grocery lists.”

I never did see the wonderful. And I spent a great deal of time trying not to be a writer (of course, writing all the time I was supposedly not doing it). I was supposed to keep a journal, but that never happened.

Because it’s not my life that I write about.

Shoot. Now I’m late for work.

Maybe Drac can write me a note.

The Content of One’s Characters

A New Post!

So I had a disturbing conversation with my friend Mark. It wasn’t meant to be disturbing. In fact, he was trying to be helpful. “Why don’t you publish your vampire stories as e-books? You have a lot of content.”

Content.

And my first reaction was “My characters are not content.” Well, okay, my first reaction was “Really? That’s all they are?” in a heartbroken, sudden revelation of the ways of the world sort of way, but then later, I got a little angry. Not at Mark, who was just trying to be helpful, but at the whole concept of characters as content. I mean, this blog post, that’s content, or writing a power tool manual, that’s content, but a character who shows up unexpectedly and whispers stories in your head? That’s not content.

It may be mental, but it’s not content.

A good character is like the Pied Piper, leading you along with beautiful words, but with no idea where you’re going. You might try to put on the brakes (“Wait, no, you can’t do that!”), but if you deviate from the path, the character will just get sulky and refuse to tell you any more.

Or at least that’s the way they always are with me.

It’s kind of a drawback from a practical point of view. Docile, puppet-like characters who do what you tell them would be a lot easier to work with. But if you know what’s going to happen in a story from one end to the other, where’s the adventure? Instead of following your characters down hidden trails, you’ve got them building walls, brick by brick.

I think that takes all the fun out of it.

Content is very passive. I could delete this whole post without repercussions. Except for the part where I’d have to write another post. But when I did write that new post, I wouldn’t have a character glaring over my shoulder telling me “That’s not how it goes.”

I suppose the reason I find this content stuff disturbing is because I put a lot of myself in my characters. Not in a Mary Sue sort of way. For those who have never read a fan story, let me quickly explain the term Mary Sue. A Mary Sue story is one in which you literally put yourself in the story, not so thinly disguised as someone else. You and Captain Kirk save the universe. You and Edward Cullen kick Bella to the curb. You and Doctor Who do whatever it is that Doctor Who does.

You get the picture.

(Yes, I have written fan stories; yes, some of them are still lurking on the Internet; no, I’m not going to tell you where. The point is that I’m not in them.)

So in the end, they may not be content, but I do have a whole boatload of vampire stories. Maybe they would make good e-books, I don’t know.

I’ll have to ask my characters.