On the Censor, and Finishing the Damn Book

ghandi01 Gather close, my chickadees. After a long while of not dispensing writing advice (really, most of what I wanted to say is here) I’ve had a question–or a set of related questions–reach critical mass, and will take a shot at answering them at one go.

These are things I have heard recently:

“I don’t think my work is complex enough, and that stops me from writing.”

“I don’t have a theme, and that stops me from writing.”

“My plot’s been done before! And that stops me from writing.”

“I get to the halfway point and then I can’t think of anything else to say, and that stops me from writing.”

“I’m not sure about the quality, and that stops me from writing.”

You get the idea. These are all related to a particularly insidious attempt on the part of what Julia Cameron calls “the Censor”. That’s the asshole inside your head who prefers you to keep everything safe, so there’s no chance of rejection, because rejection fucking well hurts and nobody likes that sort of pain.[1] To do that, the Censor attacks you right in the self-worth–or the perceived worth of your writing/painting/basketweaving/other art. It’s a song of “this isn’t good enough, so why even try?”

Normally I would advise kicking the Censor right where it hurts and taking a chainsaw to it, but: One, it’s an invisible psychological contract; two, it exists for a reason, even if it’s misfiring; and three, I’ve been working on my anger issues lately. So chainsaws are not allowed, for at least the rest of this week.

The Censor exists to keep you from getting hurt, in some twisted fashion. In normal functioning mode, it’s the same mechanism that might stop you from handing your beer to a friend and saying “Hey, Earl, watch this!” before you land in the hospital if you’re lucky and the morgue if you’re not. The trouble is, the Censor can so easily go haywire, and decide the best way to keep you safe is to cripple you before you try anything new or risky at all. Besides, our Censor has a couple of insidious little buddies–Anxiety and Misplaced Economy of Energy. (The latter is the sort of laziness people mistake for efficiency.) Together, they fight…well, you, and your art. (They can fuck up your life in other areas, but that’s–say it with me–another blog post.)

All that being said, the Censor has a point. Unfinished drafts are ugly creatures. This leads us to the solution, and the best way to roll the Censor in broken glass and set it on fire.[2]

Finish it.

Set your kitchen timer, set your wordcount, keep digging into what comes next for as long as it takes. But finish it.

Finish the damn book.

Complexity? Theme? Well, you won’t be able to get away from either of them. Themes will pop up in your work because you’re a human being interested in certain things, and those things will show up in any art you do. You can’t get away from it. But in order to find those themes and layer in complexity of character, plot, or the dinner-party menus your characters are discussing, you need a whole word-corpse on the table. You need to be able to see the arc of the story before you can correct it and trim here, pad there, and paint over that to make it purdy.

Sure, every plot’s been done before. But it hasn’t been done by you, and even if you do revisit a plot time and again (hello, Anne Rice? Charles Dickens? Even yours truly?) each time you do so you are at a different point in your life, and have a different constellation of words and thoughts to bring to bear on the matter. Plot matters, yes. But the point is how you perform the plot, and if you like turning out a certain batch of notes there’s nothing that says you can’t figure out how many variations to play on that theme. Finish the damn book, then start refining.

I’ve talked before about the long slow slough of despond that hits between a third to two-thirds of the way through a book. This is why writing is an endurance test. This is not about sprinting, or about how fast you can vomit up a chunk of text that may or may not be a book. This is about the discipline to sit down regularly (I recommend every day, we’ve already been over that) and keep at it until you’re done. You all know how action movies go, so consider this as the buildup to the big battle near the end. That feeling of having nothing else to say halfway through? That’s the Censor and Misplaced Economy of Energy getting together and desperately pulling out the stops to keep you from their Villainous Fortress of Solitude. Getting you to back down is the Censor’s endgame; that way you can stay in the “comfortable” tar-pit of “well, I just couldn’t finish it.”

That tar-pit is familiar. It’s safe, even if it burns and slows you down. The Censor is trying to tell you that it hurts, burns, and outright batters you less than having other people judge your work and possibly reject it. I’m here to tell you the two pains are about the same, so you might as well go for the one that has a prize attached. There’s no reason to pick the tar-pit over the scorpion-pit of getting reviews. (Especially online reviews.) Or the gladiatorial blood-pit of querying. It’s going to hurt either way, but at least with reviews, queries, and the like, you have a finished book to salve the pain. You have an achievement nobody else can take away–you finished the goddamn thing, which is more than most people who call themselves “writers” have. Once you have finished that marathon, that achievement is all yours. It’s sweet and it’s a goddamn sight better than the tar-pit.

That leaves the ever-popular, ever-famous “I’m not sure about the quality,” which is one of the Censor’s most insidious asshole moves.

Look. 99.9999999% of unfinished drafts are fucking horrible. 99.999% of zero drafts are fucking terrible too, in different ways. Most first drafts aren’t all that great either, but they’re a damn sight better than unfinished ones because you’ve had a go at shaping, trimming, and beautifying the whole corpse instead of just looking at a pile of rotting body parts and throwing up your hands before retreating to the castle cellar to moan at Igor about how hard it all is. It’s work to stitch your monster together, hard work to throw the switch during a lightning storm and attend all those dials and contacts and get the horrifying creature breathing. In the end, though, when it sits up and screams, it is proof of creation itself. All you have to do is apply some makeup and teach it to dance.

Even if your finished book does not see publication, even if it’s the most horrific steaming pile of word-shit that exited the runny bowels of a diseased mind, it is still an achievement. It is a whole book. It means you went the distance, stayed the course, and didn’t let the goddamn Censor keep you in the tar-pit. You get the marathon T-shirt and the knowledge that you can do it–you can make that monster, you can make it breathe, and you can even teach it a waltz. Nobody–not fellow writers, not your parents, not reviewers–can take away the fact that you did what you set out to do, goddammit.

It can help to know the Censor only has a limited bag of tricks, and tends to use the same ones on everyone. (Much like GamerGaters and MRAs all seem to work off the same toxic little playbook.) Fellow wordsmiths, what other insidious little tricks does the Censor use on you?

[1] Even masochists have their limits.
[2] Chainsaws aren’t allowed, but I’m a creative sort.

Schpring

WhatsOperaDoc Spring Break is here. The children are ecstatic, I don’t have to worry about getting them to school or extracurricular activities, and it’s a perfect time to catch up on that huge pile of work…

…oh, man, I knew there was a catch.

Friday morning was sad, because we had to take Frau L to the airport. Her group was off to spend a few days in San Francisco before flying back home to Germany. It really doesn’t feel like she was here for three weeks. We didn’t get to do half the stuff we wanted to, mostly because of the group activities–with a significant proportion of That One Damn American Teacher Being Consistently Late and Habitually Changing Venues So Everyone Else Has to Scramble. (Can you tell I was underimpressed?) ANYWAY.

We sent her off with snacks and a triple-weighed bag, plenty of pocket money, clean clothes…and yes, I teared up a bit to see her go. (I get attached, you know. And she’s such a sweet girl.) Her parents are anxious to have her home. I don’t blame them one bit, I’m going to be climbing the walls when the Princess goes overseas this summer.

The weekend was all cleaning and piano lessons and weeding, since the weather was nice. Today, as befits the first day of Spring Break, I’m off to a late start. I did put a chunk of candied ginger in my coffee, so there’s that little zing to help me get started. There’s a morning run to get in, another fifty pages of revisions, planning out the next few weeks’ worth of scheduled work, putting in some transcription time…

…crap. Can I just go back to bed? Please?

*staggers away, mumbling*

Inefficiency Bothers Me

sixstringsamuraiicon You don’t change the location of a potluck two hours before the damn thing starts, especially on a work day. Apparently, though, one of the American teachers involved in the exchange program thought that was an appropriate thing to do. This is the same teacher that’s consistently twenty minutes late to every event, and whose indifferent organizing meant that at least three times several of the students were unable to contact their host parents when pickup times changed. *eyeroll* The inefficiency bothers me.

As I’m sure you can tell.

Most of all, though, I’m embarrassed by her. We’re supposed to be putting our best foot forward for the exchange program.

ANYWAY. All of this meant that instead of being able to attend two events for two different sets of kids, I could attend neither because I was busy driving everyone to where they needed to be. In any case, it’s over now, and I am hoping I don’t ever have to deal with this particular teacher ever again.

Revisions on She Wolf and Cub proceed apace. I’m doing a pass for formatting and basic things, since all my italics seem to have been stripped out. (You know how much I love my italics.) When that’s done, I’ll make another pass for details. The setting is so very clear in my head, but that needs to hit the page as well. If there ever was a book where I need to luxuriate in the background, it’s this one. The stacks of towering stone, the endlessness of the sand, the silver and indigo of the dunes at night, they all need to be brought forward.

So that’s my day. After, of course, I get out the door for my long run to sweat out the irritation from yesterday. I can even taste it, thin metal at the very back of my tongue. I never thought, when I started running, that it would be a mood regulator. Just one more benefit, I suppose, along with tiring out Miss B and working plot tangles loose.

Over and out.

Autopsy

"Mom, you are enjoying yourself a little too much."
“Mom, you are enjoying yourself a little too much.”

The rice cooker died after many years of solid steadfast service–regular readers will remember there were sparks, scorching, and flipping of circuit breakers–and, being ever curious about how the damn thing worked, I took it apart. (It was non-repairable. TRUST ME.)

Heating element, spring, molded plastic, metal–there was a lot to marvel at. What I liked looking at most was the circuit board. Such tiny things! Brightly colored! I could guess what most of it did, and had fun prying at things. The Little Prince wanted to wield a screwdriver and deconstruct it, and Frau L was fascinated by the circuit board too. The Princess’s favorite part was the spring and the heating element, such elegant solutions to the problem of knowing when rice is done.

Autopsy means “to see for oneself”, and I am fascinated by it in most forms. Gandalf held a great deal of disdain for those who broke a thing to see how it’s made, but he said nothing about sifting through the already broken. (The older I get, the more I think Gandalf was a bit of a cranky Luddite.) Anyway, the rice cooker was full of recyclable materials, and I’ve saved the people at the plant the trouble of breaking it apart to get at them.

There is so much wonder in the world. Even in the broken things.

Dead Steam Soldier

Last night was taco night. I sautéed the dry grains for Spanish rice, put them in the steamer with the diced tomatoes and chilis (and carrots, any tomato-based sauce is better for the addition of a few shreds of carrot) and plugged the damn thing in.

A terrific blue POP! and the fridge died.

It’s on the same breaker as the outlet for the toasters and the rice steamer. I unplugged everything and sighed. The Princess’s eyebrows went up.

Fortunately, a quick flip of the breaker fixed the outlets, but then I looked more closely at our faithful, steamy servant.

dead soldier

Copper wire heading into the steamer’s body, nice and exposed. A little soot and burnt plastic, too, just to make things fun. Fortunately, I could plop some enameled cast iron on the stove and cook the rice that way, but I have become spoiled and am having longing thoughts of slipping out today to fetch a lovely Zojirushi or something similar. For a bonus, I can take this dead soldier apart and see how he’s made. (Yes, yes, only one Frankensteamer joke per person, please.)

The Princess expected me to be more irritated, but I was just glad the whole wall of outlets hadn’t been fried. In the grand scheme of things, one dead rice cooker is only a minor annoyance. Now, if it would have caught on fire, like the sweet potato in the microwave–which the children are STILL teasing me about–that would be something.

I’m just happy the incident didn’t involve a squirrel.

Proprietary Imperative

victory The mason bees are back! I checked their little house recently and found a female busily filling one of the tubes with mud to seal up her freshly laid eggs. It feels like a small victory, even though I’ve been worried the little fellows won’t have enough to eat since it’s been so warm but the flowers aren’t really out yet. I hope they haven’t hatched too early.

They probably know what they’re doing, and all my worry is for naught. Still, I can’t help but feel proprietary.

Cormorant proceeds apace. Why is it that a book only heats up when I have fifty million other things going on? It’s like the Muse only wants to show up when she knows you only have a few minutes to steal, because time you’ve specifically set aside is so boring. Everyone has that time, but it’s the heart-in-mouth, slightly sweating, sneakthief moments she’s after. Maybe she’s only attracted by that heart-pounding sense of doing something forbidden.

She’s a bitch, but she manages to get the job done.

So we’re down to just the characters for the last half of Cormorant‘s third section, and as far as I can tell, the book is just about to heat up to the point where I can’t think of anything else, the point where I lunge for the end of the zero draft and pretty much everything that isn’t writing (or dealing with children’s critical needs) gets tossed out the window. This book would choose the week we have an exchange student and several events that require my complete (and maybe somewhat grudging) attention.

I keep telling myself I can just stick to the wordcount for each day and not go over, just get up and walk away when I’m finished with the day’s minimum quota, but that never happens in the last third of a book. The goddamn things worm inside my head and beat in time to my pulse, a swollen-sweet pain.

I wonder if that’s how the bees feel when it’s time to hatch. An imperative, so to speak. There comes a time when one has to struggle out of a mud-caked hole and fly, and when that time comes, nothing but testing your wings will do.

There’s no point in staying safe when there’s living–and writing–to be done.

Deep Desire

split infinitive Today, along with the laundry and prepping for our dinner (Frau L is going to show us a German method of making potato noodles and cabbage with bacon) I get to lunge through a bit more of Cormorant Run. I already have an editor asking, “Can we change the title?” and I have to say, “Not this one.” Some books can have their title changed–I’m thinking specifically of Valentine’s Fall here, which I wanted to use very badly for both Dead Man Rising and Saint City Sinners–but with others, the title is an integral part of what’s happening in the rest of the book.

Part of having a longstanding relationship with an editor is that you have to pick the hill you want to die on. I don’t set my heels very often, but when I do this particular editor knows better than to push me. I can be reasoned, and in some cases even bargained, with–but not always. On the other hand, I have to have the sense to know when my editor is right, and the sense to listen. It’s always a balance.

Anyway, today I begin to ratchet up the tension among the survivors in Cormorant. They’re in the Alley now, and that’s a very dangerous place. The sad thing is, no matter how hazardous one’s environment, it’s always other people who represent the greater threat. I learned this early and well, and it permeates much of my work.

There’s also, in this book, the idea that people will fool themselves much more easily and easily than any con artist could hope to. Everyone is in search of their deepest desire, and that desire is rarely ever conscious. Digging down layer by layer to know yourself–and to know that deep, deep wish–is strange, difficult work. Sometimes I think it’s what writing, on its most basic level, is. Each book is a processing of something, even the fun ones. Climb the mountain just a little, to prove that it’s a mountain[1].

Of course, writing is such a multifaceted thing, any time I start thinking “oh, it’s this and only this” I get rudely disabused of the notion. Never get too comfortable, or the Muse will pull out some pins to stick in your behind.

Over and out.

[1] And that’s all the Bene Gesserit I’m going to quote for the day.