Today I’m guest posting over on Writer Unboxed, talking about that wonderful, horrible moment when you re-read your first draft and discover you’ve written complete gibberish.
I’m pretty sure you all know what I’m talking about.
It’s a heck of a sobering day—even for those of us soused to the eyeballs—and includes elements of Garry Trudeau, Uncle Duke, Hunter S. Thompson, author M. Terry Green, even a fortune cookie in the comments.
I’m gone again. (I’m actually perennially off in my own little world, but that’s not what I mean.) We’ve headed to the San Francisco Bay Area this past weekend for O’Reilly Publishing’s Maker Faire, which if you don’t know about it you should. Maker Faire is based on O’Reilly’s Make magazine, and it’s a huge two-day festival of Do-It-Yourself projects that will make you crazy to become a Maker so you can own your own lightning machine. It’s basically Burning Man for mad scientists. (Hi, Harley!) And today I’m going to tell you why I’m not taking my cat.
He does not like to share
My cat and his brother have a long-standing routine in which one of them finds a comfortable place to sleep and the other turns up two minutes later and tries to lie down in the same place. Often they try to lie down on each other’s heads. This is, naturally, quite annoying to the one who owns the head, so after a certain amount of mutual grooming their conscientious tidying-up turns into bear-trap locks on each other’s spinal columns, and suddenly everyone is screaming.
Makers and writers, however, have one big thing in common: we like to share.
We like to share so much we’re willing to spend practically all our leisure time (and an unrecorded amount of ‘work’ time) sharing the visions that inhabit our teeming brains.
Makers envision shareable material that can be built in their kitchens with a bit of papier-mache, alligator clips, small motors, and a whole lot of duct tape.
Writers envision shareable material built out of words.
He thinks he’s more important than anyone else
You know Zaphod Beeblebrox of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the two-headed narcissist who gets himself elected the President of the Galaxy and then kidnaps himself so he can steal the one-of-a-kind spacecraft Heart of Gold with its bizarre Improbability Drive? (If you don’t, then you haven’t been paying attention for something like thirty years.)
And when Zaphod is put into the ultimate torture machine, in which you’re shown the entire universe and your own teeny, tiny, inconsequential place in it so that your brain implodes, Zaphod comes out utterly pleased with himself because it’s shown him the entire universe, and he’s the most important thing in it?
Yeah. That’s my cat.
But Makers and writers are not the centers of their universes. That’s the whole point.
Makers live in universes populated by other Makers, with their infinite communal potential to create cool stuff nobody has ever created before, like the Leave Me Alone Box that, when turned on, opens up so a hand can come out and turn it off again.
Writers, of course, live in universes populated by our characters. We’re not the centers of those universes. In fact, we’re not even visible in those universes. We are the Divine Scribes watching from on high and frantically recording everything so we can share it later with the occupants of other universes, universes to which we do not have the keys.
He can’t take deviation from his routine
I’ve already mentioned my cat’s extraordinary faith in his own judgment, which leads him to do things like sit in a prominent place during dinner every blessed night (the top of a stepping stool, the middle of the kitchen floor, sometimes even one of our chairs at the table) with his back facing us so we will get the message that it’s time to stop dilly-dallying and give him his bedtime snack.
He has the most articulate (and aggressive) back I have ever seen in my life.
However, Makers and writers can’t afford to be locked into routine.
If Makers refused to open their minds, they would be stuck inventing the same things over and over again. Lightbulb! Wow, amazing. Lightbulb! Yep, there it is again.
And if we writers refuse to open our minds, we have no reason to write. We can’t all write Wuthering Heights over and over unto infinity, although I know some people would like to try. Emily Bronte already wrote it, and she wrote it beautifully, and nobody else is ever going to write it again.
Really. . .done.
We must write new stories, develop new characters, have our own special new perspectives, explore the same classic themes through the infinitely new variety of specific, perceived, telling detail that is the stuff of life on this earth.
He poops in the car
And I’m not even going to elaborate upon this one.
Suffice it to say, I’ve never met a Maker who pooped in the car. That’s where they carry their cool gadgets they’re taking to Maker Faire. It’s their transportation, the way they get where they want to go. If they ruin their cars, they can’t get anywhere.
Now, we do see a lot of fouling of nests going on in the publishing industry these days. But writers’ imaginations are our transportation, it’s how we get in and out of our fictional universes, it’s where we carry the virtual pens and paper on which we record everything our characters go through. If we ruin our imaginations—skating on the thin ice of imitation and television and brand names and movie-inspired gore and instruction-manual sex and quick marketing-crazed lunges for easy bucks—we’ll never write anything worth the effort.
So I’m going to condense all my writing advice to you down into five simple little words, and I hope you take them to heart. They have certainly served me well in my decades of professional writing and editing:
Last week I was finishing up work with Stu Wakefield on the second novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Memory of Water. Stu is so sweet and smart and talented, and he’d already been a Kindle #1 Best Seller with his first novel, Body of Water, and he approaches the craft with such utter joy and utter dedication. . .
. . .and as we came to the end of our time together he sent me a video he’d made about working with me.
Cats don’t act as though you’re the one bright ray of sunlight in an otherwise clouded existence.—Raymond Chandler
You all know my cat. He sits on my blog banner staring into space with the studied expression of someone who is being prevented from walking on a desk he knows perfectly well he walks on all the time when I’m not looking.
He’s my inspiration.
He is undeterrable
When he wants something, he gets it.
If it’s not lying around where he wants it, he yells. If I don’t respond, he yells louder. If I still don’t respond, he comes and finds me.
If it involves walking on a desk upon which he is forbidden to walk, he waits until I leave the room and then he walks on it.
This is how writers act about the stories we so desperately want to write. Time and again, our stories fail to come out right. So we write them again. And again. And again. And again. . .
Until we get what we want.
He knows what he likes
Specifically, what he likes is lying on my shins.
Now, do I always want him on my shins? No, I do not. Sometimes I prefer to move my legs once an hour or so, at which point I disturb him, and he gives me a look that tells me exactly how heartbreaking it is to own an insensitive blockhead for a human being.
Then he settles back down again. Because he likes it there.
This is why we write what we write. Not because someone tells us to. Not because writing is going to make us rich. Not because we have a guarantee that if we write something we find boring and insipid that it will morph our lives out of what they are now into some daily routine for which we have always longed.
But because we like it.
I know—cats are known for being indifferent hipsters in black turtlenecks and berets.
“I am zo tired of zees world before me,” says the caricature cat. “When will zey understand my geniuz?”
But cats aren’t indifferent at all. In fact, they’re the most emotional pets I know. Dogs like sticks and barking. Horses like eating and running. Rabbits like hiding. Canaries like flinging seed. Turtles like pretending to be rocks. But when was the last time you heard any of them purr?
Writers don’t write because books are sticks or food or shelter or things to be flung. (Well, sometimes that.)
We write because writing—exploring the vast panorama of human nature through very particular character traits, following devastating motivations wherever they naturally lead, picturing specific events in which wherever those motivations lead is just exactly where the characters don’t want to go, and then polishing, polishing, polishing the prose through which we’ve create these scenes until it does to the reader exactly what we want it to do—makes our insides feel good.
Writing makes us purr.
He doesn’t mind complaining
I have yet to meet a cat too demure to object. And I’ve lived with a lot of cats.
Some will snarl. Some will hiss. Some will fight back. And some will take you apart from the elbows down if they feel it’s necessary.
But they do not roll over on their backs and expose their bellies when they feel threatened.
Writers, especially in the early years, must fight an enormous urge to make things nice for our characters. We like them! That’s why we hang out with them! But happy characters are excruciatingly dull characters when they are put into their settings, the stories that bring them alive.
What readers really want is protagonists willing to scratch and tear their way out of every single situation they don’t want to be in.
He trusts his own judgment
Oh, it’s so easy to get derailed. It’s so easy for writers to doubt ourselves and begin to wonder whether or not this whole business of writing is not just an inanely bad idea.
But not him. He makes decisions about his life and follows through on them, no matter how hard I try to convince him he’s wrong.
Does he feel like carrying his food, piece-by-piece, out of the cat room and dropping it in the kitchen traffic lane, where he eats it at his (extremely slow) leisure?
Then that is what he does.
Does he feel like crying at the front door five minutes after he’s just come in because he likes seeing his human beings turn the knob, even if he has absolutely no intention of going outside again?
Then that is what he does.
Does he feel like expressing his displeasure with my decisions about what he is allowed to do or not to do—regardless of how or why—by leaving little calling cards that I will later have to clean up, in high dudgeon, with a sponge and bucket of soapy water, roundly cursing him and all cats that came before him?
Then that is what he does.
Has any of us ever managed to convince him that these ideas are not, in fact, the sterling guidelines for successful living that he so fervently believes they are?
No, we have not.
He spends practically all his time in dreamland
He eats, drinks, sharpens his claws, and bathes. Then he kicks his brother’s butt, curls up with him, and goes back to sleep.
Now, he happens to be a fortunate creature in that someone else buys his food, provides his clean water, and gives him someplace to sleep in comfort out of the weather.
But I also yell at him for sharpening his claws on perfectly good claw material—especially the leather armchair I inherited from my grandfather—and give him hell for all the fur his bathing leaves on my furniture.
So the business part of his life is kind of a draw between us.
Fortunately for him, a good three-quarters of his life has nothing whatever to do with any of this. He’s someplace else. . .living the lives of innumerable thrilling imaginary kitties.
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield's second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his work-in-progress Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with Dunn to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.