Practicing Acceptance

Just going to throw it out there: it’s been a rough year. Started in January with a layoff (narrowly averted by a rehiring at the same company), continued with losing a family member in March, and since then it’s been one thing after another: expensive car repairs, ill pets, more lost friends, an unexpected move, and so on. It’s been overwhelming, and I’ve had to constantly adjust my mindset and emotions to deal with the new realities. It takes a toll, and that toll drags the brain away from other matters.

What I’m trying to say is that writing goals are way off for this year, and likely to remain there for some time. It’s caused a great deal of frustration and agitation for me as I try to find more time or the will to write and draw a big fat zero day after day. Well, not a zero, that’s not fair. More of a three or a four compared to my normal, optimal eight or nine.

The good news is that the first draft of the new Chapter Four is in the can and I’ve made significant progress on Chapter Five. Would much rather be at Chapter Ten, but what can you do? So I just keep reminding myself to appreciate what I have done and continue to do rather than dwelling on what I “should” be doing. It feels weird to know that I will not release a novel this year. It’s been clockwork the last three years. Just need to remember that this is a different type of novel and it will be worth the time and effort in the end.

Anyway, if you’re waiting for this one I apologize. It will get finished, no doubt about that, it’s just going to take a little longer. I don’t anticipate the books following this to take nearly as long, at least. Just one of those books and one of those times in my life. Thanks for the patience.

Mulholland Drive, Character Progression, and Illusion

Slow week last week and I fear this week will not be much different, as I am in class starting tomorrow afternoon and lasting until Friday. It’s kind of frustrating, as this is typically the time when I ramp up my word count heading into the productive months of September and October. Unfortunately, the move, this class, and something else (that I currently can’t discuss but is potentially very exciting) have been eating up my time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still writing about 8,000-9,000 words a week, but it’s not the level that I’d prefer. Anyway, just wanted to vent some frustrations.

On the writing front, I’m taking a break from editing and am digging into the all-new Chapter Four. Quite the fascinating chapter, as this is the first real glimpse at Dean interacting in more of a real-world environment and not being controlled by his addiction. We also meet fellow sex addict Peggy, who previously served as a sponsor for Lindsay, Dean’s future wife. She still serves in that role but gets a much-expanded presence in the latest draft, providing Dean and Stephen with information on sex addiction and why they should consider going to a recovery group for it. The reader learns more of her history and it sets the stage for what happens with Lindsay and Peggy later in the novel.

It’s always fun when bit characters step up and fill an expanded role. Sometimes it happens because they’re interesting and deserve to share the spotlight; other times it’s a necessity of the story. This one is a bit of both, and I think it ultimately strengthens the novel. Hoping to at least get that chapter knocked out this week.

In other news, Mary and I have been re-watching Twin Peaks and recently discovered that Mulholland Drive was not only supposed to be a television pilot but also would have starred Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey Horn, a Twin Peaks character. David Lynch had also made statements that the movie still shared a common universe with TP, so we decided to watch it (in my case, re-watch it). This led to watching Lost Highway last night, as Mary had not seen that one either.

I’ve spoken before about my love of David Lynch, but re-watching the show and these films has cemented it. Watching this many of his films back-to-back also reveals a common language and approach to storytelling, such as the use of red and blue to denote different emotional/spiritual states, red curtains, and yes, even bare breasts (wow never realized how much he has those).

It finally occurred to me that it’s pointless to ask whether his stories actually “happened” and have supernatural elements or whether they happen in the characters’ heads. In Mulholland Drive he almost explicitly states that any alternate worlds/dreams are one and the same as a character’s thoughts. He does this a lot, actually: see any time a character talks about having a dream and it comes true, such as the Winkie’s scene at the start of Mulholland Drive, which informs the viewer that this is not all fantasy or dream.

To me, this is key to understanding all of his films: a person’s emotions and thoughts might as well be reality or some form of it, as they ultimately leak out and have an impact on everything surrounding that person. He just presents a more literal form of this “leakage”. It lines up with the old magickal theorem that a magician can direct what happens in his or her life by altering patterns of thought, behavior, and ritual (otherwise known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in more base terms).

So his films, to me, are essentially an attempt to show you a character’s inner world via the literal language of film, almost a new approach to bridging film and the written word.

With that in mind, I suspect that, much like the circular portion of Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive is a story told in reverse – we see the events that lead up to the start of the picture toward the end, and those provide the key for understanding what comes before. I’m convinced that the world of the movie’s first two hours is the afterlife, but an afterlife that is driven by the emotional states and experiences of the main character. It flirts with some Buddhist principles, specifically that individuals are a combination of habits, memories, sensations, desires, etc., which come together to present the illusion of a single, unified being.

In Mulholland Drive we see Diane’s pieces broken up and scattered to form different personas and situations that also appear to be singular, unified beings but are ultimately part of a bigger illusion. These parts are being directed around by a higher power (represented by The Cowboy) and need to be combined in certain ways for Diane to understand who she “was”. In this way, she can be set free of the cycle of reincarnation, represented by the blue box.

I don’t know, just a theory. The best thing about these films is that Lynch leaves a lot of answers waiting for you to find them, but you have to seek. Again, much like magick. That’s why he’s so influential on my own more fantastic works.

Now I’m itching to write something like that again. Perhaps soon.

A Brief Update

It’s been a relatively quiet week here at the Muse compound. Lots of exciting things going on that I can’t really talk about at the moment. Of course, with excitement also comes exhaustion, which makes for not such a great writing bedfellow. As a result, my productivity is way down this week, but I’m keeping my chin up and pushing through it all. The only truly frustrating thing is that this Summer will not and cannot possibly match last Summer’s output. Too many external factors. August has always been something of a halcyon month for me, but unless some things change I just don’t think it’s going to get there.

Oh, well. Not the end of the world. Received some more comments on the first few chapters of Came to Believe and am working on tying a ribbon around all that and calling it DONE for now. I need to get on with the new material and stop swirling the drain with edits. It may mean the early chapters are good, but it’s slowing everything down.

In other news, signed up for another Fall into Fantasy this year, though it feels somewhat disingenuous given my current subject matter. Oh well. Worth a shot, right?

Anyway, that’s all I really have to say today. Just checking in to let you know I’m still here and plugging away in some capacity. Hope all is well.

And The Beat Rolls On…

Late last week, I had just about finished up making my critique group’s suggested changes when a very gracious email arrived from someone else in the group who had been unable to attend the previous meeting (thanks Mark). As previously documented, the first few chapters of my latest work, Came to Believe, have been shuffled around and as such it has become more critical than ever to find the proper balance of having my main character Dean be a dick, but not too much of a dick.

The first attempt didn’t work. Took it to critique group and he was just a little too loathsome. Thankfully, we brainstormed some solutions and inspiration handled the rest; he would face a tug-of-war between his gentle, civilized side and the addict who rages in his mind. One side, the addiction, would bear strong resemblance to his alcoholic father, while the other side would represent the voice of his mother, who always went along to get along.

Mark suggested flipping it: making Dean hate his father and strive not to be the man. That intrigued me a great deal – wouldn’t it be interesting if, in his efforts to escape becoming the beaten, downtrodden codependent father he instead became the addicted mother and didn’t even realize it? So a lot of his projected hatred of women is, in fact, self-loathing. So much potential for the idea I had to go back and re-start Chapters 1-3 yet again.

That’s okay, though. I’m fine with redoing the first handful of chapters as many times as needed to make sure the tone is consistent from the very start. Not all the chapters will need such scrutiny, it’s simply a matter of…okay, think of it like a space shuttle launch. Once they’re in space there’s room to improvise, but the launch phase has to be pulled off flawlessly. Same sort of idea here. The idea has enormous implications for the early going, then kind of ebbs and flows with the tides of the story.

So! One more time through, and it should be done, though Mary has offered to take a look. She’s fresh to the story, so may be a good idea to take her up on it, just to make sure I haven’t missed any other connotations for the decisions.

Then it’s off to that cabin in the woods for Chapter 4, and the portion of the book where Dean learns that he really is an addict and what that means. This is a strangely fun portion of the book, so I’m looking forward to it with great eagerness. Will keep you guys updated on the twists and turns that come.

I Climbed the Mountain, I Turned Around

Quick update today, as I have a lot of stuff to do, but wanted to check in with folks. Went out of town this weekend to see some friends and take care of some things for my parents, which was actually quite fortuitous. You see, I’m writing new scenes set in new places in the Shenandoah Valley and I needed to get a feel for those areas – specifically some scenes set in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. So, met up with a friend in Bridgewater and we set out toward the Hinton/Briery Branch area and then up into the mountains proper.

While my hometown is near the mountains and not far from West Virginia, I grew up in sort of the “gateway” between the more developed areas of the central Shenandoah Valley and the mountain’s edge. We had a hill in the center of our town, one that bisected the town and gave the two sides of Dayton very distinctive characters, but it was a 15-20 minute drive to get to the mountains proper.

Even with that background, it’s the mountain that calls my name when I need to get away and reset my internal stress levels. So, we took the winding roads back into the country and climbed the mountain. This time my friend, J, suggested going to Reddish Knob, which is somewhat legendary among locals but which I had never actually seen. I didn’t understand that this meant climbing along a ridge and then up to a peak, which sent us through this narrow, winding one-lane road. The whole way up and down I prayed for no one to be coming in the other direction, which worked out great, by the way.

And the top? Well, they call it the parking lot in the sky. The thing about the knob is that from one side you can see Virginia, and on the other West Virginia. Not only that, it’s the highest spot in Virginia, so the view is really breathtaking. The place inspired me, and will make an appearance in a future novel, no doubt.

So, back to work, but I thought I’d share some photos with you, along with some of the graffiti we saw up there:

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Feel the Magic

First off, apologies if I came across as something of a sad sack on the Monday update – I felt a little intimidated by the path ahead of me, but in general pretty excited that I had created something that hit so well with readers. Writing challenges don’t get me down very often, and if so not for long, because scaling those brick walls expands your writing skill to places you had never imagined.

It seems to have happened again, in fact. For those who missed Monday’s post, my critique group took a look at the latest incarnation of Came to Believe, in which the new, more linear method of storytelling revealed the character to be even more of a lecherous pervert. The information was always present in the story, we just also saw a more human side of the character right away. With this stripped away it became more important not to cross the Jerk Line that divides “interesting character” and “complete turnoff”.

The group found him to be more of the latter than the former, but in a good way. Total visceral reaction. My challenge would be bridging the gap, showing Dean as this horribly flawed person who faced a steep uphill battle to a redemption that the reader would want to see, rather than them wishing for his comeuppance.

I think I found that path yesterday, and it brought some new insights to the character and the story. You see, Dean’s back story had always been a struggle. Clearly something terrible happened to him that sparked his sex addiction – that “something” was always clear, even if the reader didn’t discover it for some time, as the recognition is part of his transformation. The problem lay in Dean’s need to obfuscate his own past. In short, it became difficult to dig into the character’s past precisely because he refused to look back. He became a puzzle box that would not open. I had a hard time articulating his home life as a child, or his relationship with his parents. The “interview a character” approach is all fine and well with an open character, but what to do with someone like Dean?

Somehow yesterday that all changed, and while I’m not sure why, I can only be grateful. It turns out that Dean had an overbearing, overly macho, misogynist father who never understood his more sensitive son and pressured him into suppressing his gentler side through verbal threats, intimidation, and outright physical assault. This created a persona that constantly pushes that softer side down while pursuing an ephemeral ideal of the “real man”, a phrase that he uses a lot.

It’s both a subtle and a fundamental change to how the story will be told, with all sorts of implications, especially when it comes to his friendship with a gay male prostitute. That really is the ideal set-up for a guy who’s obsessed with machismo and hookers, and I think it takes the character arc to a new level. I’ll keep you guys updated on how that evolves.

Crossing the Jerk Line

So if you don’t remember, I posted a few weeks back talking about the Jerk Line – i.e., that mythical line that separates a compelling and deeply flawed character from a deeply flawed character that is just impossible to watch. This is the question I asked:

…How do you find that line where a character goes from sleazy but interesting to just a total turn-off slime ball? I call it the Jerk Line. It’s a valid question more than ever now that I’ve transformed Came to Believe into a more linear story.

At the time, my main concern was whether my protagonist crossed the line from being an interesting character to someone who turns off the reader so much that they aren’t going to stick around for his redemption. I didn’t have a good feel for how much was too much, having never really attempted this before.

I believe I have my answer now.

You see, yesterday was my return to our critique group (I’d been out for all of June and a good portion of July owing to the move). Loved being back and while it took me some time to regain my groove in brainstorming new elements, I think we came up with some great solutions for everyone’s work.

Then came my chapters, and…well, it’s not all bad. The good, nay great, news is that Dean brought forth a visceral reaction in the group. He evoked emotions! Very good thing. The bad news? They were negative reactions. Strong negative reactions. I was told that he’s a slimy, creepy misogynist jerk – and fair enough, he is, and begins to change almost immediately, starting with Chapter 3, but there’s an issue with getting the reader to Chapter 3.

So we talked this over. I checked on where the problems start and at what point it becomes too much to continue. Thankfully, I think I have a plan on how to rewrite the first chapter with the idea of softening him slightly and providing an intriguing hook for the reader, one that makes you wonder just what the hell is going on with this man and what turned him into such a cold monster. The key lies in letting the mask slip a few times and showing the wounded child hidden inside this raging, egotistical man. There’s a good way to do this, to show the war that goes on inside his head, it’s just a matter of finessing it. That’s what I’ll be focusing on over the next few days, then will run it by some folks to see what they think. Hopefully it will all come together. I sure hope so, as I’d hate the book to die before it even gets off the ground. More as I work this chapter.

Why I’ll Never be “Famous”….and Why I’m Okay With It

Bit of an epiphany this morning, and a good one, though some might not see it that way. All started when I checked my mail this morning and found the latest post from Karen Cioffi. For those who don’t know, Karen writes a wonderful blog about book marketing and whatnot, a real essential during my morning walks. Regardless of your feelings on the topic of book marketing, I suggest that any author subscribe, as she covers some handy topics and offers a lot of useful information. Even as a cranky author who refuses to define his success in terms of sales and reach, I think it’s important to to stay on top of what’s “expected” these days.

This morning Karen got my attention by publishing an article about the importance of an author’s online platform and its effect on an author’s success with finding a publisher. These include some metrics of the numbers that publishers like to see before taking on an author. I suggest you read the article, but the crux of it is that publishers like to see, at a minimum:

-5,000 newsletter subscribers
-Speaking to 1,000 people a year (this is optional)
-If you’re self-published, sales of at least 2,000 a year

Here’s how she sums it up:

Writers are no longer simply writers. Writers are now a business with a marketing plan and hopefully a marketing budget. Authors now need to allocate a significant amount of time toward marketing themselves and their products.

I suspect these numbers may be a little different with smaller publishers, but they seem to check out, and that statement is pretty much iron-clad by this point. Here’s the problem, or rather my problem: it’s reality, but the reality makes me want to rebel against the whole damned establishment.

Ani Difranco once said that if you don’t want to end up working for the man, you have to find an alternate plan, and I suppose that’s where I am at this point.

If I’ve learned one thing about myself over the last three years, it’s that I’m not a marketer. Oh, sure, I go through the motions and technically this would be a marketing activity, but I find the process tiresome. More importantly, I find that it diminishes the time I can spend writing new fiction, which is a sin in my mind.

I’ve spent the last year pushing aside the compelling push to market my work and instead focused on writing. Did it improve sales? Hell no. Did it make me happier and better at my craft? You bet. Oh, and During that time, I cannot recall a single instance where I would have been happier going through the marketing motions rather than writing.

Oh, sure, a pang struck here or there, a little voice telling me that I wasn’t doing “what it takes to make it”, but each and every time that came from a place of fear, not a place of joy.

You know what came from a place of joy? Writing.

Not every single time, true. Sometimes it’s punching in and punching out, doing the lunchbox work of the craft, but regardless of my commitment to any particular day’s work, my quality of my life appreciably diminishes when I don’t write. The world’s edges become harsher, and I lose touch with myself in ways that frighten me.

Simply put, writing is in my blood and part of my psyche. I wouldn’t stop even if I never sold another book in my life. Would it be awesome for more people to read my stuff? Absolutely, but the characters come first.

And so, I do not expect to find much “success”, but who knows. Stranger things have happened.

In the meantime, work on Came to Believe continues. I finished editing all of Chapter 1 and most of Chapter 2 and now leave them to the hands of my critique group while I push forward. I’ll talk about some of their suggested changes on Monday.

Cure for the Pain

Happy Monday all, and what a glorious one it is, right? No, no, I’m not sarcastic at all, why do you ask?

Molasses: not just for hair any longer!

Molasses: not just for hair any longer!

Okay, yes, I may have struggled to get up and get going this morning (and why do we sometimes feel like we’re struggling through a swimming pool of molasses after a restful nights’ sleep, anyway), but thankfully I’m starting to shake out of the torpor and get down to this business of writing and working and living again. That’s a good thing, because so far this month has been a little frustrating on the writing front. Oh, I’ve come close to hitting my writing targets thus far, it’s not exactly that, it’s just a matter of finding time to work when there’s so much to be done on the unpacking front. Terribly frustrating, and it doesn’t help when you spend so much time tired and out of it. Thankfully, things are starting to ease and I have some writing commitments to meet this week so it shouldn’t be a problem to push that stuff aside and focus on the good stuff: writing.

This morning it occurred to me…well,  the proper place to start is in explaining that I suffer from a recurring back problem that dates back to around age 15. You see, I was (and still am) a major baseball junkie, and would do anything to play with just about anybody. Whatever it took to get some playing time, and I liked to experiment with stances and possible ways to hit the ball, like going the other way on an outside pitch or what would happen if I tried to push an inside pitch to the opposite field, that sort of thing. On this particular day I was attempting to recreate the batting stance of one Phil Plantier:

PhilPlantier

Not pictured: the end of his career due to back pain.

Thing looks hilarious but it quickly became apparent why he used it: you could generate tremendous torque and thus power when you “unfolded” and hit the ball. Long story short, it resulted in tremendous home runs, with an additional side effect of shrinking the strike zone.

You might already see where this is going, however; the stance stresses even a 15-year-old’s back pretty fiercely. On this particular day I got a pitch too low for even that stance and went for it (plate discipline might not have been my thing). I was rewarded with a strikeout and searing agony that shot up the center of my back. Spent a good deal of time writhing in the dirt, but managed to get home and fake it for about five seconds before Mom decided an ER trip was the appropriate response.

Sigh.

This led to a week or two of having to sit bolt-upright, even as I slept, for the slightest false move sent another flare up the back. Imagine this as an active 15-year-old. Absolute torture. Eventually, however, it cleared up.

I don't even know what this is about.

I don’t even know what this is about.

Unfortunately, as these things tend to do, it crept back into my life. Over the years a wrong move would cause another flare-up, or perhaps a too-long period  of sitting (or sleeping, ye gods) in the wrong position. It acted up very badly about ten years ago and the doctor gave me the great news that this injury had resulted in a bone spur on my spine, which causes arthritis from time to time. Only option would be cutting my back open and shaving the thing down, which is not a journey taken lightly.

Now imagine the stress of moving, the packing and unpacking, moving furniture, all of that fun stuff, with such a back problem. Fantastic, right? Well, the good news is that I’m on a treatment that helps my muscles heal much more quickly and reduces the time it takes for me to bounce back for injury. I can do a lot more and not worry about the consequences so much, but when it does catch up, watch out.

Giant_handSo, and we’re getting to the point of this, as well as perhaps a tortured metaphor. My back is pulling the old tricks again, but it’s added a twist of making my hand go numb when I lie on my back too long – doctor thinks it’s a pinched nerve, whatever, it’s not fun and only clears up when I roll on my right side and push my elbow into the bed (odd, I know). But the affliction is not necessarily the thing here, it’s what it represents, or so it seemed as I mulled it over in my head on the way to work.

It occurred to me that the entire situation bears resemblance to emotional wounds. You might undergo something that sucks at the time, but you think you have moved past and healed. Years, sometimes decades, down the road, it pops up again in the strangest places. Perhaps you’re buying a latte and hear a song that played when the traumatic event occurred. Maybe you stumble across a phrase that evokes that period. You could also find yourself in a repeat of the situation, facing down some of the same fears and frustrations from all those years ago.

And sometimes the body’s response is to numb up, to shut down any sort of incoming pain. I’ve learned to cope with this response in many different ways; sometimes you can prod your psyche into pushing on, sometimes you do your best and phone in emotional resonance until it resurfaces, and sometimes you throw your hands up and realize that you can’t do anything until the situation passes. It sucks, but it happens.

The relevance? This entire situation sums up Dean’s addiction in Came to Believe. So much of it is autopilot, his body trying to shut down any attempt at facing the painful reality in which he lives. His story is about lowering his defense mechanisms and letting the world come in. It’s about the things that threaten to derail that self-awareness and ability to cope.

Ultimately, it’s about surviving a wound and learning to thrive again. Sometimes, a day feels like a microcosm of all this. It’s good to know that I can return to that world and watch as “someone else” (admittedly, a projection of my own psyche) overcomes this stuff. If nothing else, that can keep somebody going. That’s the power of writing – and reading.

Re-Invention is Fun

Character re-imaginings are a funny thing. You’d think I’d have gotten used to the concept by now, as I’ve done so many of them. Hell, Room 3 turned out to be a never-ending exercise in re-inventing those characters and while it turned out great, the characters had become radically different people by the end of the writing process, often of “their own” volition.

That’s the thing about character re-inventions: nine times out of ten, they seem to happen on their own. Take my most recent one, for example. In the original draft, I had crafted Stephen as a stick-in-the-mud sexual addiction sponsor, a bit of a narcissist with a difficulty in relating. He happened to be gay, but it wasn’t a main function of his character outside of a few lines with Dean. His sexual addiction centered around writing erotic stories and sleeping with his groupies, but that didn’t come up in anything other than a passing fashion.

In creating the new version of the novel, I decided that Stephen would need to be the one who got Dean into treatment in the first place. Biggest problem? The original Stephen would never have associated with Dean were it not for the group. It required a rethink on the character. I decided he would be arrested at the same time as Dean on an unrelated charge, leading them to meet in jail (which later became a bench waiting to see the court clerk).  The original Stephen would not have ended up in jail, so…time to re-mold the character.

I had envisioned this new version as a redneck in the closet who got picked up on soliciting a male prostitute and had figured out a dodge to get out of jail time – he would propose counseling for sex addiction, a strategy that he would share with Dean.

At some point in writing this, however, the character took a left turn. By the time I finished, he remained an in-the-closet redneck, but one who would moonlight as a gay prostitute. But that’s not all. I needed him to be the kind of guy who talked to strangers as a matter of course, who would always be looking for some advantage in a situation.

Thus Stephen became the guy who wears the “witty” T-shirts, can’t sit still, and sees life as a continuing long con. When we first meet him, he is the kind of guy who wears this shirt:

Half Man

I loved the visual and I loved this quirk, so I put together a collection of shirts that he wears throughout the course of the novel. Now, his character changes during the course of the story and he is born again, becoming a more fitting choice as a sponsor, but some of those parts of his personality don’t change, they just get directed toward “good”. He will continue to wear this style of shirt, just the Christian versions of them. Something like this:

Noah

Annnnyway, he’s a fun character who I look forward to writing. If only all re-imaginings could be such fun. I’ll keep you posted on the character as he progresses.