Saturday, March 30, 2013


A deadline approaches, nearer now than last week.  I have been staring at the screen for days and fret, my mind remains empty of ideas and the blank screen beckons me to fill it, but I cannot.  I am blocked!

It happens, this absence of thought, my mental state a wasteland and barren of ideas.  When this sort of thing happens the screen seems an infinitely deep pool at the bottom of which there might lurk an idea, a spark, some hint of direction.  But no, nothing rises from the depths. I can detect nothing that might help relieve my frustration. Despite all my practice at this writing business I find that my cupboard of ideas is depleted, discover that the horse has flown the coop, understand that my muse's dog howls at nothing in the dark of despair, and that the barn door swings open to reveal that all occupants have departed.  Worse yet, I've suddenly devolved into miserable inept metaphors.

Usually my mind is brimming with story ideas, of things I want to explore or test, and of techniques that might expand my repertoire a bit. But for days I've sat bereft of thought, knowing not what words to type or where they might take me.  When a scene does pop to mind with bright promise I hope that it is part of a larger narrative that I do not yet see, so I pursue the lines, troweling one brick of a paragraph upon another, building a foundation only to discover that what I have constructed teeters and falls into incoherent directionless dribble.

Frustrated at the wasted effort I still think that some of that failed attempt can be salvaged.  So I embark on another thread that might lead to some sort of resolution, only find that once again the narrative fails to gel.  There is no light at the end of that tunnel.

Daunted, I roll another sheet into my blank screen and begin to free associate, producing fragments of scenes, bits of dialogue, snippets of description - a scrap of hair there, a plaid vest here, perhaps a pocket watch or a robot - all of which fill pages with no rhyme, reason, or relationships.  Despite how much I type, I can produce nothing more than blocks of unconnected words, words, words!

 I consider holding on to these random pieces and then, sometime next week, maybe, I can brilliantly tie them together in a neat package to meet the deadline as an entire story. But then, how can I depend on the future me to be any more competent than the extant model of the here and now who can't get this damn piece done?  I stare at the computer - a stone of a thousand tons that my fragile writing chisel cannot  hope to pierce to find the story within.  So I continue to stare at the white screen, hoping and waiting for my muse to return.

This is writing.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Feed the Beast

It's an insatiable beast, the expectations.  Not only your own but those of the readers,editors, publishers, friends, and, worst of all, other writers. You sell one damn story and find that the editor anxiously "awaits your next." Have two stories published and everyone wants to know why there aren't "more."  It's insane, as if  you are a frigging fountain that only needs a touch to have you pour forth endless streams of narrative. The beast always wants another bite, raising expectations of more, more, more, and on a regular basis.  Crank it out, writer - it's just words and you string them so well so keep doing it. Dance marionette, dance!

Novelists and short story writers alike soon find the beast's appetite enormous.  Once you start feeding it there's an obligation to continue, offering it ever more to consume.  Besides outside demand, a writer worries that delay in production for too long will mean lost momentum of sales, of publications, of (scant) adulation.  A writer is also concerned that the fickle public may shift their attention to another should they fail to produce.

The worst is the goad you administer to yourself.  Were those sales mere flukes, accidents of luck and the fickle taste of a slush reader, the momentary inattention of an editor, or the slip of a copy editor's pen? You feel impelled to write another, just to prove that you can, just to prove to yourself that ....

Neither you nor the beast is ever satisfied.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


I've said this before, that the real writing begins with the editing of a completed story, of revising, correcting, polishing, and structuring the mess of words that first draft produced.  It isn't getting the bare bones down, the underlying skeleton of a story but more about making the draft into a story.

Of course you are going to do minor edits as you write - bring the hand back to change a word, a sentence, or more.  Some do not do this, preferring to plough along headfirst, often sacrificing logic and sense on the altar of flow.  I tend to dither over a word, a fact, a sentence, and frequently change something already written. Regardless of which method is being followed you finish with a block of text, subdivided into sections, paragraphs, and sentences.

The real editing starts when you revise the structure of the story, putting scenes into their proper order, and generating the logic that brings the story together.  Do not confuse sequence with order - a good story often jumps about chronologically, the better to influence the reader's view.

When the story has the proper sense I try to make the language of the story fit the circumstance.  This is where word choice, lyricism, and rhythm are put into play. These revisions require a sentence by sentence examination, criticism, and adjustment. Here taste matters more and each writer should mind their own muse.

The worst/best revisions leap into my mind in the dark of night; these are the  "I should have said...", "Why not change....", and "Oh God, why did I ever start this ...." thoughts. They occur with disturbing frequency throughout the life of a story, even after submission, always after publication, and never without a wish that I could have written it BETTER.

Friday, March 8, 2013


I just read Barry Maltzberg's piece on being part of a "big f-club" and, boy, can I relate to his sentiments, just as I saw myself in the character of the protagonist in Jo Walton's Among Others! It's miserable, being on the fringe, where you look with longing at the table of the neat kids who seem to "get it' and realizing that you will never sit there.

I know I am one insecure son-of-a-bitch, worrying about whether anyone reads my stories, concerned that they may not get the point (and not always the obvious one), worrying about where my name appears, worrying about whether this or that young upstart squirt, still living in his parent's basement, is writing and selling better than me, worrying about my ability to build a coherent story ( I've  never really thought about plot, but one never fails to magically appear), worry about when the next BIG idea might come along, or if, worrying about whether I should waste time going to conventions where mostly I stand around chatting with whoever passes by and become embarrassed when recognized by ANYBODY and even more when any praise is involved.

Is this  a way to live?  After few hundred stories (some sold) and over a jillion words edited away I still feel like that young (I started writing seriously at 51) scribbler struggling to learn his craft, reaching out to make connections, and envying all those who I saw as more successful in the field and whose excellent writing I hunger to emulate. My watchword has always been "Gods, I wish I could write like [fill in your favorite author here] who must NEVER ever pen an unsalable word."

It's horrible to feel this insecurity, of being an outsider, of sitting at the side and watching the others.  Yet I wonder if it is that feeling of unworthiness, that embarrassment I feel at undeserved praise, that burning desire to be one of the neat kids is what keeps me striving, keeps me creating, keeps me writing, even if it doesn't always produce salable stories.

Will I ever "get it?"

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Sand Castles

As a very young kid I carried a pail and shovel and loved to build sand castes on the beach. Crude at first my sand castles grew more complex, more detailed, and larger over time until, one day, I realized that my time for building sand castles was at an end.

My approach to writing was very much like those early attempts.  My pail were the few words and my pail the constructions. In concert these two tools could be used to arrange the sand of creativity into nearly infinite combinations to form a simple story.  The first few stories were modest efforts, hardly complicated in form and content, lacking in detail for the most part, and most failed to impart anything of lasting value.  Later, like the sand castles of my childhood, the stories gained increasing detail, the structures became  more rigorous, and, but only occasionally, I managed to craft something meaningful for the reader.  I even learned to elicit an emotional reaction.

Eventually, as it will with any craft, practice gave me better control over my virtual shovel and pail, and I began dealing not only with background and environmental detail but with more convoluted plotting, increased depth of character, and, hard to believe from this point, actually making conversations sound like, well, conversations.

The one thing that links those first sand castles to the modest body of work that I have built over two plus decades is that neither the sand castles nor the stories last: changes of taste, style, and fablation will eventually wear them down to where they are no longer discernible.  The tides and winds turn the castles into mounds of sand that first mark where they might have stood and later become a faint residue that eventually will become part of the ever freshening sand.

Where the new kids will build their own sand castles.