AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 5: CREATE vs. WORK

This series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing continues with the fifth of eleven commandments. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want another look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

Having learned to work on one thing at a time (sort of), not spend our lives rewriting the same thing over and over again, to write with some sense of joy, and to develop some kind of reasonable program to keep ourselves on track, we’ll look at what to do when the muse abandons us.

Henry Miller says:

5. When you can’t create you can work.

He’s not alone in offering this advice, of course. We’ve all heard something similar from lots of authors, including Harlan Ellison, who said: “People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.”

This has tended to be an issue with me. I’ve always felt as if I had to be inspired—at least a little. I had to be “in the mood” before I could really sit down and write. “What has mood to do with it?” Gurney Halleck asked in Frank Herbert’s Dune, “You fight when the necessity arises—no matter the mood! Mood’s a thing for cattle or making love or playing the baliset. It’s not for fighting.” And, yeah—writing is like playing the baliset!

But then there were those deadline driven novels I wrote, to deadline, even on days when I wasn’t particularly “feeling it,” where the muse was more like an accountant or taskmaster than a giver of precious creative nectar. And here I am, on a Tuesday morning, writing my weekly blog post, which some Tuesdays feels like work to start off, but I (almost) always get to the end of the post and think, Okay, that’s not bad at all. That’s postable!

So maybe what we’re looking for here, to explain Miller’s distinction between “create” and “work” is more related to that idea that on a good muse day, when the bovine mood to create is there, we can explore our amazing flow state and live in the story. But on those other days we can at least grind something out.

Dani Shapiro wrote in Still Writing:

Don’t think too much. There’ll be time to think later. Analysis won’t help. You’re chiseling now. You’re passing your hands over the wood. Now the page is no longer blank. There’s something there. It isn’t your business yet to know whether it’s going to be prize-worthy someday, or whether it will gather dust in a drawer. Now you’ve carved the tree. You’ve chiseled the marble. You’ve begun.

It may not be perfect, but there they are: words. Words are the result of work, of the act of typing or piloting a pen. Perfect? Impossible! Publishable? Maybe . .  eventually. Destined to be deleted en masse? Possibly, but you can learn as much from your mistakes as you can from your successes. Or as Ray Bradbury taught us in Zen in the Art of Writing:

We should not look down on work nor look down on the forty-five out of fifty-two stories written in our first year as failures. To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done and behind you is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous and therefor destructive of the creative process.

So then what if, today, that precious and elusive muse has fled and there is no looming deadline, no agent or editor expecting this thing to be done in two months? Not feeling it today? Okay, don’t create, then. Work instead.

For me, this means sit down and write . . . something. Anything.

Do you have a blog? Write a blog post. Write a poem—try to write the worst poem ever! Find a writing prompt and just start writing as if that were some kind of work assignment and you have this hour or two set aside in your program and you need to just keep exploring this idea until time’s up.

At the end of that hour or two will you have one terrible poem, one good one? One short story that forever remains unfinished? The beginnings of a new novel? A completed short story that, with some work, will actually be good? Maybe you’ll end up with something that surprises you. Maybe there’s one single line in that otherwise awful prompt-driven short story that really sings—and you can find a place for it in your novel. Maybe all this does is add to your pile of failures.

So what?

You have written.

You have worked.

And as Jane Yolen wrote in her brilliant, must-red book Take Joy:

There is a big difference between the wannabes and the worker bees. The worker bees are the ones who get published. The wannabes just want to be published, they don’t want to write.

You have to write, and so do I. We have to be worker bees or we’ll never get in the necessary practice to ever get the slightest bit good at this.

But as I’ve found in my deadline-driven work, and in these weekly posts, getting started can feel like work, can feel like drudgery, but once I get going—and that moment can come one sentence in or right before the last sentence—I find that the work has turned into joy. That ecstasy we’re all looking for is there—at least in a small dose. And through that work, I’ve managed to create. That being the case, I’ll rewrite this commandment to read:

5. Write something . . . anything . . . but write!

There.

I have written.

 

—Philip Athans

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 4: WORK ACCORDING TO PROGRAM

Continuing with this series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing we’ve arrived at the fourth of eleven commandments. If you haven’t been following along from the beginning, or want a second (or third, or fourth) look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

This week, we get into much more specific process stuff, bringing in Henry Miller’s own work “program,” beginning with the command to . . .

4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!

I have to admit I have the worst problem with both parts of this: working according to any “program,” but also stopping at some “appointed time.” I tend to keep going when I get going, but getting going can be tough.

But before I get into my own whining—and I promise it won’t be all whining—let’s look at Henry Miller’s to do list template:

 

MORNINGS:

If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.

If in fine fettle, write.

AFTERNOONS:

Work on section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.

EVENINGS:

See friends. Read in cafés.

Explore unfamiliar sections—on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.

Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.

Paint if empty or tired.

Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.

Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.

 

Whew—sounds like a full day!

Actually, sounds like a fantastic day.

Let’s break it down a little, compared to my own version of a work “program.”

Fresno Bob and Ripley, aka Intrusion and Diversion

First of all, I never write in the morning and I never have. Maybe once or twice . . . maybe, but we’ll say effectively never. As is I tend to my consulting business in the mornings, which is when I go through emails, respond to clients and prospective clients, manage my online courses, and handle various bits of personal business like paying bills, handling my simple accounting, and I try my damnest to exercise. But my exercise bike broke and now I need to figure out what else to do. Summer is here, so this is a good time for me to find some alternate exercise program. Maybe Miller’s evening stroll through “unfamiliar sections” could actually work for me. No more morning exercise would actually help me get my butt in the chair earlier and get through all those morning business things earlier, so maybe I could actually write for an hour or so in there somewhere.

Still, if you aren’t groggy, and don’t have some kind of “day job” that intrudes on your morning, try Miller’s morning writing program and let me know how that works for you.

Afternoons . . . now that tends to be my Achilles heel.

I work like a madman most afternoons, switching between a number of projects in any given week—edits, ghostwriting projects, courses . . . not a lot of my own writing, though. I have, on the other hand, had some solid success with a “program” of my own, not at all dissimilar to Henry Miller’s. I’ve started blocking out time on my calendar to help keep myself on task during the day.

It’s been working for me—increasing my productivity by leaps and bounds. To do this, though, first you have to have a solid sense of how long things actually take you. How many words can you write in an hour? How many words can you revise or edit? Or, I suppose, you can set your goals by time rather than words: Write continuously for an hour. If that gets you 800 decent words on Monday and 1200 on Tuesday . . . fine! I do have a good sense of the relationship between words and time, though, so I know I can write a reasonably solid, if rough, 1000 words in an hour. I also know that I can actually carve out an hour in any given day to do anything—even at times like right now when I have a particularly robust workload. So I need to, if in fine fettle, write for an hour every afternoon!

I hereby add that to my calendar in the name of Henry Miller!

His advice to stay on task in your afternoon writing session goes back to the previous commandments. I’ll let my revisions of those stand and say work on the novel if you want to, a short story if you’d prefer, and so on, as long as you’re, y’know . . . writing.

Still, this is Henry Miller, full time writer we’re hearing from, so what about the 99%+ of us who have other work responsibilities—even people like me who’s “day job” often is writing, if not full time fantasy novelist sort of writing?

If you need to pay bills like a grow-up and need to keep your job at the law firm or the library or the pizzeria . . . can you still write everyday on that one (or small set of) current projects(s)?

I feel good about being able to carve an hour of writing out of every afternoon because with a few exceptions I tend to be in charge of my own schedule anyway. I’m very rarely expected to be at certain place at a set time. So if I write from, say, 2:30 in the afternoon to 3:30 and that means maybe I need to work an extra hour later in the evening to finish up an edit, or better yet, sit down to work an hour earlier in the morning . . . I can do that. But if you have actual office hours, work a set shift, you won’t be able to stick to Henry Miller’s plan, or mine, with my blocks of time on a Mac calendar so reminders push me from task to task like a virtual project manager.

Where is that hour to be found then? On the bus or train on the way in and the way home from work? Do you get an hour for lunch? Or do you shift this writing time to the evening, when gentlemen of leisure like Henry Miler are wandering the streets of Greenwich Village, scowling at the local hooligans? Or do you get up an hour earlier in the morning and fight through the grogginess? Give up an hour of evening TV viewing and let the DVR hold onto Better Call Saul for a bit? Wherever it comes from, you’ll have to find it on your own.

As such, I’m going to revise this commandment to read:

4. Work according to the best program of your own devising, built honestly and sincerely around the realities of your individual life, which can and should—even must—include writing.

Honestly, Henry Miller’s whole evening plan just sounds great to me. My evenings? Fight with my family over dinner I’d rather skip, cook it anyway, eat it joylessly, then watch TV while feeling guilty about not working for a couple hours before falling asleep sitting up at 8:30 pm. I used to write at night, but I don’t anymore. I used to have hobbies (not painting, per se, but hobbies), but I don’t anymore. And I never allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride.

Shit.

This Miller guy might be onto something here.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 3: DON’T BE NERVOUS

I’m just going to keep going with this series of posts inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing. If you haven’t been with me from the beginning, or want a second (or third) look at the full list of commandments, you can click back to the first post here.

This week, we get to the third of eleven commandments, in which we are cautioned . . .

3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

I’ve covered this before, in various forms.

In particular, I exhorted you to Write in Ecstasy, Edit With Intent, and to joyously, recklessly approach every new novel project as a short, bad book. But I don’t think I’ve ever addressed this idea of being “nervous.”

Writing a book can be scary proposition, which is what Dani Shapiro was hoping to help us with when, in her book Still Writing, she described this idea of starting out with the goal of writing a short, bad book. It takes some of that nervousness away.

Building on that is a concept you can find in all sorts of pursuits, and that’s breaking a big project up into smaller pieces, each less intimidating than the whole, and stressing those smaller, shorter-term goals over the bigger, longer term whole they’ll eventually make up. It’s pretty much the heart of Agile and Scrum project management, breaking down big software projects into “stories.” Self-help guru Tony Robbins refers to it as “chunking”—breaking down big tasks into smaller, less intimidating chunks. You don’t have to write the book today, just Chapter 1, or any thousand words, or whatever sized “chunk” works for you. Then you take on the next chunk. And as I’ve said before, you don’t even have to write those chunks in order.

When one chunk is “done” in rough form (don’t worry about pesky details like spelling, grammar, manuscript format, quality . . .) move on to the next short, bad chunk. Keep doing that, one chunk at a time, until you get the whole story told—in it’s rough form. With that rough draft in hand, you can then begin revising, more slowly, more carefully—but you can’t edit text that doesn’t exist. First, get it down on paper (or, y’know, in your computer . . . you know what I mean).

That concept of breaking big tasks into a series of smaller tasks has always helped me overcome the nervousness of facing down the daunting task of a 90,000 word novel. It can be a good reason to outline, for you nervous “pantsers” out there. An outline can help you delineate the “chunks.”

But the act of writing—typing, writing by hand, dictating, etc.—the actual words might not be what’s making you nervous. It isn’t always what makes me nervous.

I keep having trouble making progress on what’s become kind of a perpetual work-in-progress because I’m nervous about the story itself. I have doubts. Is there any action in it? Is my big surprise ending just awful? It might be really predictable, and it might feel like a cheat. I’ve written part of that ending already and I like it . . . ish. It seems to work, but then there’s no way to know for sure until I’ve written the huge story that leads into it. I’m also nervous that the whole idea is too passive, that it puts my hero on an impossible quest he isn’t actually equipped to do, and some earlier version of the outline did have him being more or less pushed along by other characters, which does tend to make for a disappointing hero . . . But then I saw that and had some interesting ideas to lessen it, to make him more active. That’s a good thing, right? But now I’m nervous about that. What else is wrong with this idea that I just haven’t noticed yet?

I’m nervous as hell, actually, and that might explain why I’ve been spending more writing time on little flash fiction pieces and poems than this novel.

But as nervous as I am about specifics, as often as I’ve written some version of an outline, I actually think I have this book in my head. I have the mood of it. I have a way around the passive hero disease. I think the ending will work, and not because it’s some kind of gimmicky M. Night Shyamalan thing, but because it’s the right emotional close point and has something to say. So what’s wrong?

Now I think maybe I just have residual nervousness—some kind of post-nervous stress disorder.

Maybe this is why Henry Miller drank.

Alcoholism is about the last thing I need in my life right now, thanks, so how do we do this sober? How about I do the same thing I advise authors I work with to do. After all, I have been challenging myself to take my own advice, to try my own exercises. What I’d tell an author I’m working with as an editor is:

Just write it.

Maybe it will suck. But that’s what Dani Shapiro was saying, too, and Ray Bradbury, and Robert A. Heinlein, and now (or actually before any of the others) Henry Miller. They’re saying, and so am I:

Write the damn thing.

If the hero is still passive when I’m done with the rough draft I’ll revise him to be more active. If in the rough draft the ending lands with a thud I’ll revise it so it ends with a bang. I’m not live-broadcasting here. I don’t have to show the thing to anyone until I’m happy with it.

Once I get going I know I can write joyously, especially by hand in one of my trusty cheapass notebooks. I wrote a few scenes of that novel already and it was joyous. I was calm. I didn’t care if any particular word was spelled wrong. I recklessly wrote scenes way out of order and only pieces of chapters. And that’s me writing. The nervousness only happens when I’m not writing, when I let other projects and just other things in life intrude on my precious writing time. Maybe “nervousness” is an excuse for not making time to work on the thing.

Hell, I feel better already.

And taking another look at the rest of Henry Miller’s commandments, they all seem to hang on this one idea: Write the damn thing. This thing. Now.

For my revised list of commandments, I’m going to fall back on this:

3. Write in ecstasy, edit with intent.

I think that about covers it.

 

—Philip Athans

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS, PART 2: START NO MORE NEW BOOKS

Let’s continue from last week’s post inspired by Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing, which I found via Brain Pickings. If you haven’t read the first part, or want a refresher on the full list of commandments, you can click back to last week’s post here.

This week, we get to the second of eleven commandments:

2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’

This follows “Work on one thing at a time until finished,” which I added to for my own purposes last week. This second commandment seems to be two commandments pressed together. The first part, “Start no more new books” reiterates the first commandment then “add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’ ” gets into the often tricky territory of how you know when a book is done.

If we’re only working on one book at a time (and maybe also the occasional poem, etc., but one novel at a time, anyway) is Henry Miller trying to tell us that once that book is done, stop fiddling with it? Or is he trying to tell us that while we’re writing this one novel, not to go back and revise the previous novel?

I think I need to do a few minutes of research to see if I can shed some light on what he meant here . . .

These commandments, and the work schedule we’ll get to next week, were published in the book Henry Miller on Writing, which was first published in 1964 but has an earlier copyright of 1939, so I assume at least some material therein was first published then. The work schedule was from the earlier book Henry Miller Miscellanea, published in 1945 and is noted as having been written in 1932-1933. His novel Black Spring was first published in Paris in 1936, or three or four years after his work schedule was written, so what should we make of this reference to Black Spring?

The easy assumption is that at some point between 1933 and the 1945 publication, at least, of Henry Miller Miscellanea he added that reference to Black Spring. Assuming they were written in the order they were published, Black Spring is his second novel, following Tropic of Cancer (1934) and followed by Tropic of Capricorn (1939), leading me to believe that the one book Henry Miller was working on when he wrote the commandments as published on Brain Pickings was Tropic of Capricorn and he was telling himself not to keep revising Black Spring, instead concentrating fully on Tropic of Capricorn.

Safe assumptions, at least, so let’s roll with that.

This means, then, that at some point Henry Miller felt he was done with Black Spring and safe to move on, even if he felt he had to occasionally (or at least this once) remind himself not to keep fiddling with the previous book.

His first commandment reads “Work on one thing at a time until finished,” too, so that further backs up that he felt he was done with Black Spring and only started Tropic of Capricorn after the first commandment was satisfied. Looking back at the rest of the commandments, these first two are the only ones that seem to indicate that there’s a clear “done” point, and Miller doesn’t get much deeper into that.

Still, this is a question that, as an editor, I’m asked over and over again:

When/how do I know I’m done?

We still sort of glossed over that in my examination of Dean Wesley’s Smith’s look at a similar list of “commandments” from Robert Heinlein. I want to focus, then, on what I mean by “done,” whether or not either Henry Miller or Robert Heinlein would strictly agree.

First, you know when you’ve made it to at least the planned ending of the story, assuming you’ve planned at all. Some people rigidly reject the idea of an outline while others rigidly reject the idea of writing without one. I tend to outline, revise the ever loving crap out of that outline as I go, and maybe three times out of four end up more or less at the ending I originally had in mind. That other 25% of the time I’ve had an idea for a better ending somewhere along the line, and so begin writing in that direction. It’s still an “outline,” but it’s an outline that’s being revised as I go.

If you are a confirmed so-called “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants) that’s perfectly fine by me. If you’re actually writing stuff then by all means get there however you get there. But still, I think everyone has a sense of “this is the end of the story.”

If you don’t—if you don’t feel that and have gotten to either your outlined ending or some other more arbitrary goal like a target word count and it doesn’t feel as though the story is over yet . . . keep writing until you feel it.

Then, if you’re at all like me, you’ve also collected up a few scribbled notes here and there as you went along for revisions to be revised later, research to be researched later, plot holes to be filled later, worldbuilding to be built later, and so on. Once you’ve written in ecstasy up to “the end” it’s officially “later,” so time to do all that stuff. This is the revision pass that I think even Dean Wesley Smith would condone and (pretty much) everyone else assumes has to be done even in the simplest of short stories.

After all those holes are filled, placeholders made permanent, etc.—give it a top to bottom read. This is where you’ll find some typos, at least, but quite possibly identify another missing scene, some weird logic gap, or other issue that’ll mean some work.

Do that work.

Next, give it to someone else—anyone else—to read. Preferably that “anyone” should be smart, reasonably well read in the genre in which you’re writing, and positively inclined toward you enough to spend their time reading your novel (it’s a fair imposition, so approach these “beta readers” with respect and humility) but who you can also trust to offer real, actionable advice. Someone who just tells you, “It’s great!” isn’t helping. It may well be great, but it isn’t perfect. That’s not possible. So make sure you give that beta reader permission to criticize, point out issues, ask questions, etc. Then actually listen to those opinions, but always understand that they’re opinions and not commandments, so you still get to decide what to ignore, what to take to heart, and how to incorporate that into your manuscript.

Now you’re “done” at least to the point where Heinlein would say “You must refrain from rewriting unless to editorial order” and Henry Miller would say “add no more new material.”

Keep in mind, always, though, that creative writing is the very triumph of the subjective. There is no set of commandments, rules, no checklist that will tell you, definitely and definitively, that this book is as done as it’ll ever be.

If you’re sure it still needs work, do the work. If you’re sure it’s done, it’s done.

If you’re not sure, stop what you’re doing, sit down, and think. Better yet, find a kind ear to help you—your beta reader is a good choice, so is literally any other writer—and let that person play therapist, listening as you bitch about not knowing if your novel is done or not. Hopefully that person will smile and nod and occasionally say stuff like, “Okay,” and “Are you sure?” but otherwise not play the role of collaborator. By the end of that one-sided conversation, if you’re still not sure then I say you’re not done. Get back at it until you are sure, but if you get to the end of full revision pass number three and you still hate it, you’ve probably written a shitty book.

It happens.

It’s okay.

Add no more new material to it and start working on a new novel, to the exclusion of all others.

When you’ve finished or even while you’re working on that one, maybe some flash of inspiration will hit you and you can go back to the previous book and finish it happily. Maybe it’ll forever lay there on your pile of failures. Either way you’re writing, and it’s the writing that’s the thing.

That having been said, I’ll revise Henry Miller’s second commandment to instead read:

2. Start on your next novel only when you feel you’re done with your last novel, and take a break from the new novel only to revise that last novel according to editorial advice or flash of inspiration, then get back to the new novel as soon as you can.

More wordy, less restrictive, and admittedly more prone to navel gazing—to endless revision. But if you take that not as a separate bit of advice but in the context of the rest, which we’ll continue with next week, you may find that though Henry Miller doesn’t get into the concept of “done,” per se, a lot of the rest of what he has to say will help you avoid the kind of endless revision shame cycle we all dread so much.

 

—Philip Athans

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AS HENRY MILLER COMMANDS

In the last week or so I came across Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments of Writing, thanks to Brain Pickings. I’ve had some recent successes with a new to do list scheme, and have been writing more, if still not nearly enough in the first almost-half of 2017, but any good advice is always appreciated.

This morning, though, I woke up a bit out of sorts. I took the long holiday weekend off—did a little work around the house (some much-needed spring cleaning, especially in the garage) and spent more hours than I planned just kinda hanging out. Then it got to be Monday night and I knew I was going to wake up to a to do list already a full day behind. Maybe for that reason I ended up with a restless night of sleep plagued by weird and upsetting dreams. I fell asleep at about 9:30 last night, woke in an agitated state of mind at a little after 1:00 am then got a bit more nightmare-plagued sleep from about 3:30-5:30 am—not exactly the healthy seven hours it might add up to.

Now it’s Tuesday—blog post day and already a day “behind”—and Henry Miller comes to mind. First off, here are his eleven commandments:

1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.

 

2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to Black Spring.

 

3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

 

4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!

 

5. When you can’t create you can work.

 

6.Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.

 

7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.

 

8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.

 

9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

 

10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.

 

11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Most of that really feels like solid, even basic advice, and in some cases matches up with a lot of things I’ve talked about before like writing quickly (recklessly), or writing in ecstasy (joyously), but there’s more in here—a lot more—and it’s worth a deeper look.

Why don’t we try taking these one at a time . . .

1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.

This used to be me, but hasn’t been me in a while, but maybe should go back to being me.

I used to only ever write one thing at a time. When I was writing a short story, I would work on that short story till it was done. When I was working on a novel, I would work on that novel until it was done. When I worked on a book like Writing Monsters, I worked on that until it was done, to the exclusion of fiction, etc.

But then I started to think, hey, I’ve started reading as many as half a dozen books at a time (not including books I’m editing), switching off as mood strikes. That’s got me reading more and reading a greater variety of stuff. So what if I start writing multiple things at one time, switching off from one book to another and another as the mood strikes  so I write more and write a greater variety of things?

But . . .

More than one novel at one time is one novel too many. If you’ve proven that last statement wrong, well . . . more power to you, but I know for sure that though I can have dozens (literally) of ideas for novels in my head at any one time, the concentration required to write one requires too much of my up-front, conscious brain to try to tackle two at the same time.

But . . .

I have found that I can work on a novel while also shooting out the occasional poem (like “Kaiju Sonnet No. 1” in the current issue of Bloodbond), short story (especially very short stories/flash fiction as with “Just Exactly Like” in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Word Fountain), and hey, I write a full article on writing once a week, too! You know, you’re reading one right now!

But . . .

Though I’ve got a bunch of poems and stories in circulation, and that’s great—actual work on the novel is not being done. A bit of a scene here; another bit of a scene there; some thinking and notes; an idea for a better way to outline it, which you’ll see in a future post here . . . but it’s not really being written—in ecstasy or otherwise.

Is Henry Miller right? Should I finish the jungle pulp story I owe Pro Se then set aside other stuff for now and concentrate on the novel?

But . . .

I also have a couple of ghostwriting gigs happening at the same time that I can’t talk about and will never talk about, but they’re happening—and edits—and Fantasy Author’s Handbook. This is my “day job,” and yeah, it’s an awesome day job. It’s what pays this month’s bills and I just can’t take the next few months off to write a novel to the exclusion of all else. I need to juggle multiple projects.

And . . .

I have! I wrote all those Forgotten Realms novels while holding down a full time job editing Forgotten Realms (and other) novels. I wrote The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction and Writing Monsters while paying the bills with edits, articles, ghostwriting, coaching, teaching . . .

I’m not a full time author and very likely never will be, so is Henry Miller’s first commandment applicable to me? Is it possible to follow this?

What if I edited that commandment to read:

1. Work on one novel at a time until finished, while also writing the occasional poem, short story, article, and weekly blog post.

I bet Henry Miller probably did the same, no?

That’s only the first of eleven commandments . . . looks like another series of posts!

 

—Philip Athans

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WHAT I’VE LEARNED IN THE LAST TWENTY-THREE YEARS, PART 3

To finish up this little series of posts that began here, I’ll let the 2017 revision of my 1994 horror short story “Piece Music” speak for itself . . .

 

Piece Music

It was a hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground, a growling, hissing sound, and it came up fast behind her. She turned, unable to go any farther. The fence across the end of the alley was thirteen feet high and she wasn’t in any condition to climb it now. Fear, anger, frustration—all the precursors to a violent and premature death—raged in her head along with stolen moments from her whole life: The time she pissed her dress in her third grade classroom. The time her Aunt Lilly touched her there. The boys, the men, the needles like vampires taking out more than they put in. Her mind went to parties and laughter and humiliation and death and fucking.

She shivered and the blood flowing freely from the long gash on each forearm cooled against her skin, raising gooseflesh as if in a futile attempt to repel this thing coming at her.

And what came at her was impossible. Impossibly grey and glossy like a brain. Like something from inside you. It had eyes and holes everywhere. Were those teeth? More than anything she didn’t want them to be teeth. Not that many teeth. Not teeth moving like that. Moving all by themselves, each alive and hungry and impossible. She had no idea what this thing was that was about to kill her.

It stopped running and approached her one stiff-legged step at a time. It drooled from lots of places and the smell hit her like the inside of a dumpster in which a dead body had been left to rot. She gagged and almost threw up. A bizarre sense of embarrassment slid across her face and she could have sworn it smiled thirteen, fourteen, fifteen times.

It went onto her all at once and she cried as it ripped her apart, but she never screamed. She had always resented her mother, but she begged for her now. She wanted somebody to hug her and just make it go away. The pain was beyond anything. She wanted this grey thing to go away and leave her alone. She even told it, out loud, “Leave me alone,” but it wouldn’t. It just wouldn’t.

In the morning they found enough of her to identify her by dental records. Her face was pretty much intact from the bridge of her nose down to about the middle of her neck. The shredded thing that was her shoulders held bits of gravel, asphalt, the impotent bites of alley rats, and the beginnings of a dry crackling around the jagged edges and flaps. She had one eye left, hanging limply out of its socket. It was crystal blue and the contact lens had popped out.

The medical examiner told Detective Reyes he hadn’t seen anyone torn apart like that since Vietnam. Reyes was eight when the Vietnam war ended, so all he could do was shrug. Reyes had given up hope of not puking. He could still taste it in his mouth and wanted nothing more than a tube of toothpaste. The coroner guys thought it was pretty funny when he ran out of the room, but those guys have a very sick sense of humor. When he came back he saw them all crowded around the table that held parts of the girl’s face. According to the computer downtown she was a hooker. A nobody really, some drifter that came in from San Francisco or some place like that. Seattle attracted those types of people. Reyes never understood that. She was twenty, HIV positive, and still working. It was a complex world.

When Reyes got to the table he heard it and immediately puked again. One of the coroner guys ran out of the room, his pressed white lab coat rustling behind him like a superhero’s cape. One of the other guys said, “Holy shit,” and Reyes heard the voice again, guttural, throat full of something. Spit? Blood?

“Where,” it whispered, then more loudly, “am I?”

It was the girl, the face, the pieces. Reyes remembered prayers and recited them around the foam of watery puke coating his lips. No more than a quarter of the girl’s face survived. By the coroner’s best estimate her body was in thirty-seven pieces in two separate laboratories. They figured that nearly seventy percent of her body mass was missing, taken away or eaten by one or more extraordinarily sick individuals. She rolled her hanging eyeball up at Reyes and sputtered, “Am I in the hospital?”

Two more of the coroner guys took off. One of them puked in the hallway, the other just kept repeating, “Sweet Jesus,” over and over again. That left only the chief medical examiner, Tillis, and one of his assistants, a pretty young doctor named Sarah something, and Reyes, and the piece of face.

“Am I?” the face asked again, impatient.

“Yes,” Tillis answered. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

Sarah mouthed “Oh my god,” but nothing came out. She turned her face away. She was crying. She had no idea what was going on. It was better that way. She had dinner with Jeff last night and almost went to bed with him. During lunch today she bought a CD and was going to listen to it in her office. The parts of a woman’s face were talking. She forgot to buy coffee and tampons.

“Do you,” Tillis started, then seemed to be fishing for something. “Do you remember what . . . happened . . . to you?”

It screamed loud and shrill and Reyes screamed back. They did that for a full thirty seconds, they did it for a long time.

“Are you in pain?” Tillis asked, louder, his voice shaking along with his body.

Sarah slipped on her way out and sobbed into the hallway where people were starting to congregate. She couldn’t remember the name of the CD she bought during lunch.

“I’m like this,” the pieces screamed, her voice an insane thing, a wild animal thing, “I’m like this. I’m like this.”

“Like what?” Reyes shouted back at it, his voice a little girl’s voice. “Like what? What are you like?”

“I’m in pieces!” she shrieked. “I’m ripped into pieces! I’m ripped into pieces. I’m ripped into pieces!”

She established a rhythm they followed, their questions taking on a melody, “What did this?”

“I’m ripped into pieces!”

“Where did it come from?”

“I’m ripped into pieces!”

“How can you be alive?”

“I’m ripped into pieces!”

“What ate you?”

“I’m ripped into pieces!”

Their questions and her screaming and the echoes of the screaming and the muttering in the hallway was like hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground where they listened, writhing in hideous pleasure, slick and grey and impossible and full of teeth.

Recording it.

Recording it all.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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WHAT I’VE LEARNED IN THE LAST TWENTY-THREE YEARS, PART 2

Last week I posted a short story that I wrote twenty-three years ago and had published in the now-defunct magazine Aberrations. I asked a big question: What have I learned in the last twenty-three years? Or as I said last week:

Though I stand behind this grim little bit of post-Lovecraftian mayhem, I’ve done an awful lot of writing, and a whole lot more editing, in the couple decades and change since it was first published. How would I have done this differently now? What would Editor Phil fix? How many of the items in my Common Comments file can I attach to this early example of my own work?

If you haven’t read last week’s post, including the complete text of “Piece Music,” the story in question, click here and start with that.

This week, let’s answer one of those questions and see if it also answers the others . . .

How many of the items in my Common Comments file can I attach to this early example of my own work?

At risk of seeming lazy, I’ve made a Word document I call Common Comments in which I’ve collected some of the advice I’ve found I’ve had to type into lots of different manuscripts in various genres by various authors of varying experience. It’s a time management tool for me.

I don’t care who you are, you can’t be both an editor and a writer—definitely not at the same time. And believe me, Writer Phil makes all sorts of crazy mistakes from simple typos to what-the-hell-were-you-thinking disasters that makes Editor Phil cringe. This is a little weirder for me in that now Editor Phil 2017 is looking at the work of Writer Phil 1994. That does make the text lots more fresh for Editor Phil’s eyes, while at the same time allowing Writer Phil to hide behind a couple decades’ more writing practice. And writing is something you get better at the more you do it.

So anyway, what Common Comments can Editor Phil attach to “Piece Music”?

Sentence 2, It was a growling, hissing sound and it was coming up fast behind her. gets this comment:

That construct: “something was verbing” is often a sign of passive voice. It’s almost always better to let the action be more direct: “something verbed” so that thing is happening in the past tense “now” and doesn’t come across as feeling as though there’s an extra layer of delay between your readers and the action. https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/active-search-something-was-verbing/

And yes, I link authors back to this blog.

The question then becomes, would that sentence, in context, read better as: A growling, hissing sound came up fast behind her.?

Not necessarily, because the “growling, hissing sound” adds detail to the “harsh music” of the first sentence. “Can I get away with this one?” asks Writer Phil. Editor Phil is nervous, and thinks maybe the better thing to do would be to rewrite the first sentence accordingly, combining the two into one thought:

It was a hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground, a growling, hissing sound, and it came up fast behind her.

Editor Phil might warn against “it was” as passive, but not always, and will give Writer Phil a pass on that this time.

Not in my Common Comments file, but I have to ping myself for going to the “this and this and this” well too many times. There’s no rule, and I don’t want to make one, but if you do that twice in one paragraph, that’s probably once too often:

It was a hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground, a growling, hissing sound, and it came up fast behind her. She turned, unable to go any farther. The fence across the end of the alley was thirteen feet high and she wasn’t in any condition to climb it now. Fear and anger and frustration, all the precursors to a violent and premature death raged in her head.

And the first paragraph ends with “this and this and this” number three: Her mind went to parties and laughter and humiliation and death and fucking. But Editor Phil will give that one to Writer Phil because it bookends the first sentence, and it’s not all about rules of grammar and syntax . . . Let’s not forget the art!

The first sentence is echoed in the last paragraph,and I definitely want to keep that agreement in place, so let’s fix the second one:

Fear, anger, frustration—all the precursors to a violent and premature death—raged in her head.

Editor Phil thinks he knows what Writer Phil was going for with this: Adjacent to that was her whole life. but isn’t sure Writer Phil got there. The intent was to show that, basically, while she was afraid and angry and frustrated, her whole life was flashing in front of her eyes. I like the little bits of her life that follow—they add some backstory in flashes and make her feel like a person, if an unhappy person, who’s already been through some stuff, so neither Editor nor Writer Phil wants to lose that. So Editor Phil will ask Writer Phil to look at that little sentence: Adjacent to that was her whole life. and find a better alternative.

The second paragraph has more “something was verbing” issues but worse, a weird transition from how she feels to what the monster looks like, and Editor Phil sends Writer Phil back to the drawing board on that one. Paragraphs don’t have to religiously be about one thing and one thing only, but there does seem to be too big a separation between those two ideas. You’ll have to come back next week to see if Writer Phil could figure that out.

Then we get to: It was drooling from lots of places and she could smell it.

An easy “something was verbing” fix to start with but then: she could smell it gets this from the Common Comments file:

Since this is all in this character’s POV, we get that this is what this character smells (or sees or hears or thinks, etc.)—an easy trim just to get to the heart of it. More at: https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/active-search-he-could-see/

And that easy trim is: It drooled from lots of places and she smelled it.

That’s not really good enough, though, and Editor Phil asks Writer Phil to go back and show what it smelled like, inhabit that smell for a few words at least.

Editor Phil thinks we have an “it” problem here: The pain was beyond anything. She wanted it to go away and leave her alone. in that the “it” in the second sentence seems to refer to “the pain” but is meant to refer to the monster. That should be fixed.

Then we get to our first POV issue. The first few paragraphs are clearly from the point of view of our unnamed victim, but then a hard transition with: In the morning they found just enough of her to identify her by dental records.

The easy solution would be to simply add a scene break—some little indication that we’re jumping time and/or place and/or point of view. Writer Phil will try that even though he’s worried that maybe the “blended POV” (his words, not Editor Phil’s) is a . . . good thing . . . ?

What follows then are a couple strong paragraphs that are clearly from the point of view of Detective Reyes, even if the first paragraph doesn’t necessarily nail that down right up front. But Writer Phil will get pinged with a Common Comment on this sentence: She was twenty, HIV positive and still working. The comment being:

The Oxford or serial comma is non-optional in long form prose—doing without it is a relic of print journalism where any opportunity to save column width is taken.

Right. So: She was twenty, HIV positive, and still working. Easy enough.

Editor Phil will then compliment Writer Phil on ending that paragraph with: It was a complex world. Writer Phil feels good about himself for the way that landed.

Perhaps infused with a transitory sense of mercy, editor Phil chooses to let this instance of “Reyes heard” pass: One of the other guys said, “Holy shit,” and Reyes heard the voice again, guttural, throat full of something. It may be “passive” but it works, and works always trumps correct.

Transitory sense of mercy spent, Editor Phil puts the hammer down on this sentence: There was no more than a quarter of the girl’s face left, her body was in (by the coroner’s best estimate) thirty-seven distinctive pieces in two separate laboratories. That “There was” is just too passive and hey, Writer Phil, “distinctive” means: characteristic of one person or thing, and so serving to distinguish it from others (according to the dictionary app I use). Surely Writer Phil meant to say “distinct”: recognizably different in nature from something else of similar type, but actually it’s better just left as “pieces” anyway. And Editor Phil has a weird bias against parenthesis, so . . .

No more than a quarter of the girl’s face survived. By the coroner’s best estimate her body was in thirty-seven pieces in two separate laboratories.

Then we get to our second flagrant POV violation in this paragraph that jumps from Reyes’s head to Sarah’s:

Sarah mouthed “Oh my god,” but nothing came out. She turned her face away. She was crying, and then suddenly she stopped having any idea what was going on. It was better that way. She had dinner with Jeff last night and almost went to bed with him. During lunch today, she bought a CD and was going to listen to it in her office. The parts of a woman’s face were talking. She forgot to buy coffee and tampons.

Editor Phil might suggest just cutting that whole paragraph but would also agree with Writer Phil that one of the strengths of this little story is that a small group of people, including the victim herself, are confronted with the shared experience of this horrible weirdness, which we then hope pays off in the end with the revelation of the intent of the monsters.

Now Editor Phil starts to think, Okay, then, just use another scene break, but hesitates because in a tiny little story like this, just barely over a thousand words, too many scene breaks will break it up too much, visually chopping the text and bumping readers out of the moment, however briefly. And a thousand-word horror story is all about sustaining a single moment, so here’s where Editor Phil grits his teeth and realizes that though it is patently “incorrect,” the story—the reading experience—is better served with the blended POV.

Editor Phil can be a tough nut to crack, but he can crack. In this case, he cracks so much he goes back and deletes the scene break he added in previously.

Still, this sentence: She was crying, and then suddenly she stopped having any idea what was going on. in that same paragraph calls out another Common Comment:

Be careful of words like immediately, suddenly, abruptly… a full rant here: https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/immediately-suddenly-and-abruptly-stop-using-the-words-immediately-suddenly-and-abruptly/

In this case, the “suddenly” is troubling because it indicates a sudden transition from crying to not knowing what was going on, but by this point in the story it’s clear that no one, including the victim, actually understands what’s going on. We have another “was verbing” moment there but this is another case where even Editor Phil thinks it’s okay since it indicates what she had been doing while we were over in the other character’s POV. So let’s try this: She was crying. She had no idea what was going on. because sometimes you have to just say it, and short, declarative sentences do that.

Editor Phil also deleted a comma in there, but refuses to tell you where.

Now, all that having been said, this next transitory POV jump, to Tillis, is too much, or maybe more accurately, too little:

“Do you,” Tillis started, then seemed to be fishing for something and he couldn’t stop it in time to disbelieve. It was just happening. “Do you remember what. . . happened . . . to you?”

It seems to begin in someone else’s POV (Sarah’s? Reyes’s?), as indicated by “seemed to,” then goes into Tillis’s head. In the next sentence, though, we fall back into Reyes’s POV. Editor Phil needs Writer Phil to fix this so Editor Phil won’t have a stroke. Editor Phil can sometimes manifest physical symptoms in response to bad writing.

Actually, the story continues by jumping back to Sarah’s POV. Look at the whole exchange:

“Do you,” Tillis started, then seemed to be fishing for something and he couldn’t stop it in time to disbelieve. It was just happening. “Do you remember what. . . happened . . . to you?”

It screamed loud and shrill and Reyes found himself screaming back. They did that for a full thirty seconds, they did it for a long time.

“Are you in pain?” Tillis asked, louder, his voice shaking along with his body. Sarah slipped on her way out and sobbed into the hallways where people were starting to congregate. She couldn’t remember the name of the CD she bought during lunch.

Both Editor and Writer Phil like touching back with Sarah and the CD she bought, so let’s keep this all in Sarah’s head, mostly with a few careful deletions, a needed paragraph break, and hallways changed to hallway:

“Do you,” Tillis started, then seemed to be fishing for something. “Do you remember what. . . happened . . . to you?”

It screamed loud and shrill and Reyes screamed back. They did that for a full thirty seconds, they did it for a long time.

“Are you in pain?” Tillis asked, louder, his voice shaking along with his body.

Sarah slipped on her way out and sobbed into the hallway where people were starting to congregate. She couldn’t remember the name of the CD she bought during lunch.

Leaving almost all of the rest in Sarah’s POV works okay, but we find another Common Comment: “Never use ALL CAPS for emphasis. Italics in context should be fine,” when we get to:

“WHAT ATE YOU?”

“I’M RIPPED INTO PIECES!”

Easy enough to make those italics instead.

That brings us to the all-important last paragraph:

Their questions and her screaming and the echoes of the screaming and the muttering in the hallway was like hectic music from a dark and cramped and dead place deep underground. What did it was the rest of them, slick and grey and impossible and full of teeth. Recording it. Recording it all.

Sticking with our only-okay-in-very-short-short-stories blended POV structure it’s okay for Writer Phil to pull back to the POV of the creatures in the end. But Editor Phil still has some gripes with the writing in here and Writer Phil is concerned that the big idea, or at least what Lester Dent would call “the snapper, the punch line to end it” isn’t landing properly.

Editor Phil sends Writer Phil off to think about this and see what he comes up with.

The results of all this will be revealed next week, when we look at the revised “Piece Music.” Whether or not it’s been made better or worse, or just different, I’ll leave up to you.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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