Frustration…and Failure

IMG_0163The stars (mis)aligned, I think, and I didn’t get my IWSG newsletter/prompt.  Dagnabbit!  I actually look forward to those things!  Ah, well, I’ll tackle a writing-specific post, anyway.

Now, if I’m honest, most of my blog posts can be rather, erm, random.  In general, they reflect mostly what I’m thinking at whatever particular moment I sit down to write them — which, most often, is when I’m taking a break from other stuff.  I DO try to tie all (well, most) of my posts back to writing, but sometimes the rest of my brain decides to just take over and write about other stuff.

Damn my (tiny) brain!brain1-e1312872869675-281x300

So, since today is the first Wednesday of the month, what to write about for IWSG Day?

Oh, hell, why not?  Let’s go with it: frustration & failure.

Oh yeah.

Oh freaking yeah.

Simply put, writing is the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done.

Look, I play hockey at a (fairly) high level.  I do my best to ignore reality and play with folks who once made the sport their living (and some who still do).  And you know what?  The frustration and difficulty in THAT is a whole lot less than what comes with writing even a single story.  To be embarrassed by a player young enough to be my child is easier to take than those days when the words just won’t come…those days when, in sports terms, I just “don’t have it”.

In all honesty, there are those days when I wonder if the words will ever come again.  Kinda like the last two months.

Kinda like right now.

Yeah, I’m in the middle of that frustration.  I’m fighting myself.  I’m fighting the vision that was once so clear…and is now, to all intents and purposes, gone.  I have, to return to the sports motif, lost my confidence.  And not just a little — I’ve lost all of it.

To put that statement in context: aside from these blog posts, and a handful of small freelance projects, I’ve had only a handful of productive writing sessions since the middle of January. I’ve written fewer (fiction) words in the last 2 months than I expect to turn out in a single day when things are going well.

So…let’s talk about frustration, and about failure, shall we?

I mentioned once before, in a previous IWSG post, that momentum is everything in writing.  That writing involves pushing that Sisyphean boulder up the hill.  Well, I stopped pushing…and the damned thing ran me over.

So how do you deal with it?  How do I deal with it?

Hemingway and a host of others aside, the answer is not to crawl inside a bottle.  Nor is it to retreat from the world, just as it isn’t to run off and join the circus.  Not anymore than it is to rant and rave and blame the universe itself for the blank screen on my word processor.

I’ve given the advice to others…more than once.  I just can’t seem to give it to myself.  For me, the answer is to go simple, to “navigate small,” as I put it another post.  I know that.  I know it very well.

But can I?

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Maybe I should’ve waited a week — or a month, or a year — to write this post.  Maybe I should’ve waited until I’d actually fixed the damned problem, but, well…

I don’t talk about my own failures very often.  Hell, I don’t generally talk about them at all.  I’m far too proud, and far too private, to (generally) dive into that particular pool, but…

But, there’s always a but…

But, no one learns from having things go right.  No one learns from having all the answers. In sports terms, once again, no one learns the drive it takes to win without also learning what it’s like to lose. And right now, I’m not just losing, I’m getting my ass kicked.  Too many of my fellow writers out there can sympathize with that frustration, and that failure, so why hide it?

Besides…if writing blog posts and microfiction is where the words are at this moment, who the hell am I to argue?

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From The Seats

Storytelling is an art. No, wait…that’s wrong — storytelling is THE art, as far I’m concerned. And stories can — and should! — be told in a variety of ways. Hell, the oldest stories we have are songs to be sung around the fire at night. It’s not just books, or poems, or songs: movies are nothing more, nor less, than storytelling in visual form. Just as is a photography exposition, or a good painting, or a decent manga. Honestly, don’t get me started on just how many powerful ways we humans have to tell stories…

On the movie front, we could talk all day about the directors I admire. Start with my love of, and respect for, the Russian directors, then move into Malle and Kurosawa and a thousand indie directors who still have no “name”…

Never mind, we don’t have the time, and I don’t have enough words in this post.

One name, however, enters every single discussion of directors. One name, that of a man on just about every list of must-sees: Steven Spielberg.

Look, I write. More than that, I write sci-fi and fantasy, which is about as “mass market” as you can get. Because of that, in part, I respect the hell out of folks who can create something popular and relatively simple — something “popcorn” in movie terms — and make it not just fun, but also intelligent.

Spielberg does that.

More, he also makes “serious” movies…movies that most definitely have something to say. Most folks will point to the obvious, to Schindler’s List or The Color Purple, as those works of his that rise to the top of the “serious movie” category. Those are fine, don’t get me wrong, but do you know what did it for me? Empire of the Sun.

christian-bale-in-empire-of-the-sun-1987I’ve mentioned that movie before…for good reason. It is a storytelling masterpiece on the sad meeting of childhood and war, and a commentary on the price we make our children pay for, well, pretty much everything we do. A very young Christian Bale, by the way, is another reason to watch — he was absolutely brilliant as Jim.

I read an article the other day, one that got me to thinking about directors in general…and about Spielberg in particular. The title of the piece was semi-click-bait, but it was effective click-bait: “Can Steven Spielberg Remember How to Have Fun?”

He mentions, in the interview at the heart of the article, that the best of his “popcorn” movies were written and filmed “from the theater seats.” In other words, they were made by someone who loves movies, by someone who loved to sit in those same seats and watch.

Now, the interview is fairly long (read the whole thing here), and it gets into more serious movies as well, but it was the concept of “fun” that got me to thinking: what happens when you lose that sense of fun?

Not just as a director, but as a painter, or a singer…or a writer.

I don’t know about you, but I find it fairly easy to “lose” myself in my stories, and especially in my characters. That’s good for immersion, and for caring about what I write, but does it cost a certain sense of the fun? Does it put at risk the story’s connection with the reader?

It’s hard, I should add, to go through my own stuff as a reader, to go through it with that sense of fun. I have so much invested in what I’ve created, so much energy and time and emotion, that it really is like a parent looking at their kid. And what parent can be truly honest about their own child? There is too much there for complete honesty: too much knowledge, too much intimacy, and far too much history.

On the other hand, that is the point of the whole question, as far as I’m concerned: can I — can any creative storyteller — remember the fun of our creation? Can we, in the end, stop taking ourselves quite so seriously, and write/film/create from the seats?

Pen Names For The Win

Okay…so you’ve decided to take up your pen and start Writing for Fun & Profit*, but you have questions.

*Err…not Trademarked because, well, no one in their right mind believes there is much in the way of “profit” in writing…

Honestly, when I talk to folks about writing, I tend to get the same questions…over and over.  Here is what that generally looks like:

“Do your characters talk to you?” — Yes.  Yes, they do.  They make fun of me, too…all the damned time.    {Shut up, Oz!}

“How do you come up with your ideas?” — Beer.

“What’s the best way to write convincing dialogue?” — Read your stuff out loud.  When you read out loud, especially dialogue, you better understand the rhythm, pacing and problem areas.

“How do you deal with writer’s block?” — More beer.  Or, for the really acute cases, scotch.

“What advice would you give aspiring, new writers?” — Walmart offers benefits.

“How much money did you get in advance?” — What’s an advance?  For that matter, what’s this money thing you speak of?

Okay, okay, I admit it — I may be a wee bit cynical and irritable today.

Let’s go to one of the few questions that doesn’t give me (as much) room for sarcasm:

“Should I use a pen name when I write?” — I do.

**Sarcasm alert!**  Of course you should use a pen name*!  Do you really want anyone to know that you chose to do this for a living?  If ever I go to a high school reunion (not freaking likely, by the way), I’m pretty sure I’ll tell folks I’m the cleanup boy in an adult bookstore before I admit to being a writer…

*It’s interesting, by the way, that my spellcheck system likes to correct “pen name” to “penance”.  Is the Universe trying to tell me something?

Now, look, if you’re using a pen name to hide who you are — from, say, the mob, or the IRS (same thing), or the court system, or student debt collectors — don’t bother.  The courts and the mob will just call the student debt people, and there is NO hiding from those assholes.

If, however, you have legitimate reasons — or even semi-legitimate — then have at it, I say.

Look, I use a pen name for a couple of reasons…reasons I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before…

The DockRat series is sci-fi.  Not just that, it’s a series with a very specific tone and feeling to it.  It is, when you get right down to it, bitter, angry, pained…and personal as all hell.  I’ve mentioned before that Oz represents, in many ways, those friends I’ve lost to suicide; that, of course, means that I’m writing with…well…baggage.

I prefer to keep my baggage semi-anonymous, thank you very much.

Alright, so that’s the personal part of it.  The personal, by the way, is the less important part.  The more important part?  That’s simple: I’m a former Marketing & Sales monkey.Chimpanzee_seated_at_typewriter

Besides being the main reason why I’m drinking scotch at this particular moment, that former career also left a legacy of knowledge and awareness.  Specifically, that worst and most abused of marketing-knowledge: Brand Identity.

The only people who get pigeon-holed and type-cast worse than actors are writers.  I’ve been beyond-addicted to sci-fi and fantasy since…well…let’s not get into just how long…and still I can count on one hand the “names” who succeeded commercially at both sci-fi and fantasy.

Honestly, when folks check out the aisles at the local bookstore — or (far more often) the categories on Amazon — they look for names they know.  And not just know, but know are good at the genre/story for which they are looking.  They look for the brand, in marketing-speakthat oh-so-important confluence of author and genre and reputation.

I am, by the way, as guilty of this as anyone else: I know the writing team known as “James S.A. Corey” is good at writing sci-fi, but what if they came out with a fantasy story?  Yeah, I’d probably wait to buy it.

The simple fact of the matter is that I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into one genre.  I already have a story series in mind for when DockRat is done, and it’s completely different.  Not just different in genre — fantasy versus sci-fi — but different in tone and voice and message, as well.  As you probably guessed, that series will “live” under a different pen name than does DockRat.

When you get right down to it, Connor & Oz are unique to their setting, and to their stories.  And I refuse to have the other stories I want to write be judged by the “reputation” of two drug-addicted, criminal characters — much as I love them.

Ignore The Writer In The Corner

“Hey — I was wondering if you could give me a hand…wait, are you okay? What’s wrong?”

A wipe of the eyes, and an excuse: “It’s nothing, just some allergies…what do you need?”

There’s a reason why I train the staff and regulars at the brewery to leave me alone when I write. I get very into what I’m writing at the moment; if I don’t care about the characters, and about the death scene I’m writing, why the hell would any reader?

This is part of the deal, for me, as a writer. I’ve described before how my ideas are the ghosts that float around the back of my mind…and about how Connor & Oz were those ghosts who just wouldn’t shut the fuck up, who wouldn’t leave me alone and let me get on with other shit. No, they demanded to be written…and they became, over the course of all the effort and thought and emotion I’ve put into them, real.

Do your characters talk to you?

Is there any question more awkward to answer to non-writers? Because…well…of course they do, of course my characters talk to me.

If they didn’t talk to me, they couldn’t tell their own story. If they didn’t talk to me, they couldn’t force me to change my plots and plans and ideas to suit themselves. If they didn’t talk to me, they couldn’t, in the end, be real.

But it does make things awkward as hell when you write in a public setting. Especially when you’re killing one of those characters off…

I have become, it must be said, incredibly scattered today.

One (death) scene written…not really planned, nor really tied into the other stuff (because it’s the end of Flicker, and has nothing really to do with Silence), but written nonetheless. A second scene half-finished, before the emotion and the words ran out…

Hey, let’s try something different! I know — blog posts!

Two blog posts — yep, TWO — half-finished, as well. After the intensity of the first scene, it’s just hard to truly follow through and finish…well, anything.

This is why I usually try to have a plan for what I’m going to write in a given session. This is why I (usually) don’t just “wing it”.

On the other hand…I made myself cry. And, yes, as much as all the rest: this is why I write.