Failed so hard

Bess is a mess. I tinkered, I deconstructed, then school got away from me and I ran out of everything even resembling free time, and now I have nothing left even resembling a story.

I also didn’t win NaNoWriMo for the first time in a few years. I blame school. It has, however, been fun to watch other people win, and even though I’m not the best cheerleader in the group I’m still trying to encourage and congratulate those who finish.

But this isn’t really about NaNoWrimo. I’ve got to get something else off my chest:

While I was watching the new Gilmore Girls over the weekend (yeah, yeah – instead of writing – so maybe school isn’t entirely to blame) I got this twisty-tangled feeling about the writing. Some of it was bad. It’s possible that a lot of it was bad, but I was too sentimental to realize it. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved going back to Stars Hollow and checking in with some of my favorite characters in fiction, I definitely cried a couple times, and that one scene with Luke in the kitchen was probably some of the best character-driven writing I’ve ever seen. All of those things can still be true and the writing can overall be terrible.

I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, but the phrase “full circle” was used about half a dozen times, two characters had a really awkward conversation for the sake of nothing else except what I’m about to write next, and then we got those infamous “last four words” that made me think all seven hours of TV had been written solely for the sake of getting those four words on screen. This wasn’t good theme work, hell it wasn’t even “telegraphing” – it was Three Stooges-style bashing-the-audience-over-the-head. That doesn’t respect the audience—even in such low-brow media as an early-2000s television show that featured more pop culture references than actual plot developments—and that should be enough to satisfy the definition of bad writing.

The show did fix some things, if only in the way that wistfully imagined conversations with former lovers can put a neat bow on a once-broken heart. We got to see people say the things we never get to say in real life, and that let the writers retcon several relationships from the original series into foils for preceding (and, in one instance, “current”) relationships. It’s better to have had these conversations than none at all, but throwing almost every character from such a large ensemble cast back in the mix made several of the interactions seemed forced, which made them more than a little bittersweet.

And in trying to figure out why all of this was so frustrating, because—again—I really did enjoy the revival and it was in almost every way all that I could possibly have hoped for, I couldn’t decide if I was wishing I could have edited it, or thinking about writing a fanfix (is that word? it should be), or if I was just despondent because my subconscious mind was tired of my conscious mind being all holier-than-thou when it was also utterly abandoning its obligation to just fucking write.

Which is all to say, I failed. Hard. And in critiquing the Palladinos’ efforts to bring Gilmore Girls back to the screen—which, let’s be honest, should earn them some sort of prize or medal or giant parade in addition to however many buckets of money Netflix has already given them—I found something I’d lost without realizing it. School isn’t to blame at all. My heart just wasn’t in NaNoWriMo this year. And my heart isn’t in Bess or Charlie or Daniella or any of the characters I sketched out when this project started. But my heart is in the game. And I’ll keep writing.



Checking in…

am writing. I promise.

Today was a fantastic day of writing and editing. Grigory is ready for a second round of beta readers, and I made good headway resetting Charlie. Daniella is still technically “done,” but I’m not happy with her story. I think I’ll edit her down while waiting on my beta readers – like Grigory, I think her story should just be a few short scenes instead of the winding rumination I ended up with.

I have outlines up through Kevin, and I’m doing better at making a habit of sitting down to write every night. I should be able to get through Willard before my year is up! But even if I only get through Rachael (or even if I don’t get past Charlie and Bess), I am glad to have written outside of November and NaNoWriMo.


Bess turned into an experimental piece playing with what Rick DiMarinis (and Albert Einstein, probably) called “Time’s Arrow.” I’m still tinkering, but I love it.

Charlie‘s not dead anymore. At least I think not. Mainly because he didn’t think he was dead. At first he seemed to think he was just “in between worlds,” but his descriptions reminded me of The Twilight Princess and that turned into some Ready Player One fanfiction. I plan, to continue the theme, to hit Reset on his story. If I don’t like it, I’ll publish the fanfic.

Daniella needs to be edited, but otherwise she’s ready.

Eb turned into a chapter for last year’s NaNoWriMo novel. I’m not sure what to do with that.

I have no story for F.

Gregory O’Sullivan is a low-level bureaucrat in an alternate-reality version of Kansas where (this is not in there, it’s just backstory) America doesn’t leave Vietnam after the Tet Offensive and the USSR, having watched America fail spectacularly in southeast Asia, plays a better ground game in Afghanistan, reunites Pakistan and India, and backs a Chinese invasion of the West Coast. They buy off UK peacekeepers with cheap oil and establish a puppet/satellite People’s Republic of America in the American Midwest (China gets the West Coast and what’s left of the US becomes the American Union, mostly relegated to territory between New York and North Carolina, reaching no further west than Pennsylvania; Cuba gets Florida and Mexico gets most of the South–drawing the map was almost as fun as writing the story!). He snaps in a moment of weakness, and questions his allegiance to the Party. There’s a bit of a metaphor in there, but due to my work situation I didn’t want it to be too sharp. TSCPL will eventually own the copyright, since this is my submission for the Community Novel, but if I publish the first draft here they’ll get a derivative work and I should be okay. At least, that’s what I tell myself as I try not to remember that adage about lawyers and fools and being your own client. Look for Tovarishch O’Sullivan later tonight or early tomorrow. (That’s the Russian word for Comrade. Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Where are the stories?!

I’m behind. I know.

I think I’m going to skip Bess and Charlie, at least for a while, because Daniella is almost ready. I have an outline for Eb, which is a start at least, but I should have had all of those done and an F story out this week if I was keeping on schedule. But I’m not.

The long and short of it is, writing is hard. One short story per week was a ridiculous idea. I know I’m holding myself to a high standard with my writing, and I also know I’m not setting aside enough time to write, but writing isn’t just writing – it’s also coming up with a new idea each week, outlining, writing, revising, and editing, then revising and editing all over again. It’s a lot of work.

I’m not giving up. I would love to have fifty-two short stories under my belt by next February.

But if I’m being realistic, it’s probably not going to be more than thirty.

Which would still be thirty more short stories than I’d ever written, and thirty more than I would have if I hadn’t started this project. And that’s something for me to look forward to.

Week Four: Meta (Or, What’s In A Draft?)

Yes, I know I’m now three stories behind. And I should be publishing another story, not another “meta” post. But on Tuesday night I went to a short fiction “how-to” event with Thomas Fox Averill, an O. Henry award-winning author and professor at Washburn University, hosted by the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. And now I’m ready to get back on track.

I’ve been reading some short fiction “how-to” books, but sitting in a room and being able to make eye contact with someone who knows what he’s talking about is different somehow. I figured out why Bess’s story has been so hard to write, came up with some ideas on how to re-write a second draft from a slightly different perspective, and participated in a writing exercise that gave me a huge jump-start on my fourth short story, Daniella.

Professor Averill’s lecture, at about an hour long, was truly a crash course in short-fiction writing. (I italicized that in part because my assignment at the end was to write a story involving the collapse of the Topeka Avenue bridge.) To cover such a huge amount of territory in such a short time, he framed his lecture around several words all starting with the letter P:

  • Person – who is your main character, and what are their strongest/deepest traits?
  • Place – where is the story taking place, and does that give your story a narrative frame?
  • Problem – “Trouble [is] the backbone of literature.” – Eudora Welty. Testing your character’s character, for example by trying their strongest traits, makes for the most interesting story. (This is essentially the core of Ayn Rand’s theory of the plot-theme.)
  • Point-of-view – who is telling the story, and how does that affect the story itself? For example, first-person POV is traditionally the “survivor’s” POV; I don’t think it’s an accident that I selected first-person POV for the first two sections of Adam.
  • Plot – in addition to the generic “what structure does this story take?” we also talked about plotting, for example is a story based on a traditional narrative (like “the hero’s journey”), or are you starting with the end (or the beginning) and making up the rest as you go?
  • Parameter – I didn’t write anything down next to this while taking notes, but I remember thinking about plot-theme again. If I had to guess, I’d say this one means: what are the bounds of your story (number of characters, place, time elapsed) and does each one test your characters and reveal something meaningful about them?
  • Practice – this one is obvious: “writer’s write.” How can you be a writer if you don’t sit down and write?

The only thing we didn’t really cover was outlining; Professor Averill seems to be the type of author who starts writing and then lets the characters give him the story. Here’s what that looks like for me:


I don’t really like writing like that, because it leads to what I call reiterative editing. That is to say, I keep going around and around making little nips and tucks and tiny changes and improvements to the point where nothing ever actually gets written. (For example, in the first paragraph, two consecutive clauses use the word “problem” – yes, homework problems are called “problems,” but I would find another word or find another way to describe the action; like “rewriting the equation using the arctangent formula” or “transforming it into the arctangent formula.”)

That works well enough, but it doesn’t help me fill in the blanks (helpfully set off in brackets in the image above). I like to outline. I’m a planner. If I had outlined Bess, I could have taken each bracketed idea, compared it to my goals for each character, and put something in there that would have moved the story forward.

I don’t have to hew too closely to my outline, but I find that constraints promote creativity and that I work better when I have a sense of where I am going with a story.  Adam started out with four scenes that mirrored the first four stages of grief, with a planned denouement that implied acceptance not only of losing his father-figure but also his acceptance of the android version of “the human condition” at the very end.

About halfway through, I realized that the first two scenes had a lot of thematic overlap, the third and fourth scenes were a little slow, and the fifth scene wasn’t going to have the right tone if the reader got too far into Adam’s head. So I rewrote it as three scenes, with a change of POV in the third scene that looped back around into the narrative so the first two scenes, told in the first person, could be read as Adam telling his story to the technician; the third-person POV in the final scene pulls the reader out of Adam’s head so they can experience his final narrative section in the form of a confession and come to their own conclusions about what happens next. Is the final line hopeful? I think so. But it’s not unreasonable to think that line is tragic, that Adam will never be able to feel anything but only continue parroting human emotions.

I’m going to try outlining more, starting with Daniella. I already have an outline for her and the beginnings of one for Eb, so if I can catch up with Bess and Charlie next week, I should be able to stay more-or-less on schedule from now on. Keep your fingers crossed!

Week Three: Meta

Where’s Bess?

Pouting, probably. I started to see a narrative link between her stories and poked and prodded her too hard and she stopped talking to me. Then I had three work-night evenings in a row where I didn’t get home until 9:00 and on two of those nights I still had work to do; I had a volunteer shift and a game night on Saturday; and I’m not quite sure what else happened on Sunday but I do remember chasing a mouse in the basement.

Needless to say, writing has been slow. I’ll try to finish her story over the weekend – assuming the nice weather doesn’t distract me.

Oh, and Charlie’s dead. In the literal sense. He gave me a good 800 words last night, right on schedule, in between steps of my Quiche Lorraine recipe (which was both more difficult and more delicious than I expected). That was for work, too. I have a weird job. But not as weird as Charlie’s. (Ooooh, spooky!)

Stay tuned, stay patient, stay awesome. Keep up with your own projects, even when life intervenes and it feels like you won’t ever be able to get back to them. “The best way out is always through.” I think Robert Frost said that. Or maybe The Doctor.

Week Two: Meta

My goal is to alternate POV between male and female protagonists as often as possible. My next character is Bess, which I just noticed means I’m going to have to keep this A, B, C thing up and next week is going to be Charlie, then Daniella, then Eb (he might be an alien), and so forth. Z is going to be hard. And because there are 26 letters in the alphabet and 52 weeks in the year, I’ll have to use each letter twice; maybe male letters will be female during the second round, and vice-versa?

Anyway, Bess is not the most cooperative character. Every time I check in on her, she is sitting in her math class. She’s a high school senior, and this is the only part of her life she’ll show me. No before school, no after school, no other classes, no lunch, no weekends, no extra-curriculars, no gossip in the hallways, nothing. It’s frustrating, to say the least. I’ve never had a character do this, but after four days I’m too invested to drop her and find another one. And I don’t usually have characters who can’t be outlined, or plotted around, or treated like a marionette, but Bess is certainly too strong-willed for any of that.

So I’m writing what she shows me. It’s tender, but only in the way ordinary things become tender when they’re carefully curated and shared with someone you trust. There’s a metaphor in there, somewhere, I think – and hopefully I can use it to string together the quiet moments of her life. Look for “Bess” on Monday, February 15.