Category Archives: Bad Advice

Novels Made on Butcher Paper

[DRAFT]

Why, my girlfriend asked, do you need butcher paper?

I looked at her with what I thought the prescribed measure of disdain.

I have big ideas, I explained.  I need to draw them out.

I showed her, and explained, the arc of my plot, how it was planned out  to masterfully ebb and flow in a rhythm within a rhythm, building toward a crescendo of ever-increasing conflict.  Just like I had read about.

I could not write my novel now, I explained, because I had not acquired butcher paper.  How could she be such an idiot?

She said nothing more about it.  I brought home a huge roll of butcher paper Thursday, enough for a lifetime of novels. Then Sunday morning she took her things and left behind a letter.  It read:

Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.

RAY BRADBURY

When I found out she was gone, I got out my knife.  I carefully butchered the remains of my feelings for her.  I wrapped each piece carefully in the white butcher paper.  Then I drove them in reverent silence to her place, where I laid them on the doorstep.

The whole thing made quite a mess.  I cleaned the bloody footprints in my apartment.  I hosed out and returned the rental car.  I cut my hair short.  I filed a retroactive police report about my phone being stolen and I bought a new one.

I forgot to cancel the appointment with the priest, however.  I decided to go, anyway.

You’re alone, the priest asked, that won’t really work will it.

He smiled.  He always smiled, even when he was explaining to people how they were going to hell.  I liked him anyway.

It’s not going to happen, I explained.  I killed it.

I’m sorry, the priest said, do you need to confess?

I did, and so I did.

Say 3 Hail Maries, he instructed.  God has a plan for you.

Does he, I asked,  truly wondering, does he have it all plotted out?

The priest smiled again, and said more pacifying words.  They never reached my ears.

Somewhere, I thought, God may have it all planned out in an enormously complex diagram, on butcher paper the size of the universe.

I tried to imagine God plotting our lives with a pencil and an enormous roll of butcher paper.  Instead, what I saw him doing was wrapping up still beating hearts.  He puts them in the freezer, away from the warmth and light.

Maybe a Writer Should Not Read

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I hate my favorite author.

He writes, of course, the kind of story I like best, and in a superior style.  His prose, at times, unfolds the most sublime metaphor – the kind which can blur the line between prose and poetry.

I’ve read a paragraph, alone in some corner of the world, and felt compelled to exclaim aloud the fucking brilliance of his fucking words.  And then I’ll read that paragraph a second time for the sheer joy of the tickling in my skull it produces.

I don’t hate my favorite author because he shows me what could be, but that I can never bring to a page.  Now that I think about it – maybe I do – or should – hate him for that.  Just a little.

No, the reason I hate my particular favorite author is because he does all this, and keeps me glued to every word, with an outsized use of the passive tense.

It does not bother me when I am reading it.  In fact, it is perfect.

But as soon as it is my turn to write, all I’ve got is “the sea was stormy” and “the plan is rotten” and “the sex will be gray”.  The intruder never storms the castle, the hero never forsakes good advice, and she never takes him by force – he is just taken.

We all know the trite saying that you are what you eat.  I keep waiting to wake up and find that I am a bowl of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, with an extra cheese packet added.  Maybe that saying is not quite true.  I live on that hope.

What we read, however, can affect what we write.  We pick up more of the form than the brilliance, it seems.

The logical conclusion is that you, if you’re a writer, should read mediocre authors who follow Strunk and White’s rules.

Right?

 

P.S.  Thou doth best avoideth Shakespeare and the Bible when thou art writing.

 

 

 

If the Dead Talk to You – Ignore Them

Wikipedia image of a ghost
This ghost has the wrong address, I swear, Belinda! You’re much better looking and I don’t even like blondes. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Time_to_let_(her)_go!.jpg

The dead talk to me.

Last night, the voice of a dead man thundered as I lay in bed. I immediately put my book down. I looked around.  In my best Scrooge voice, I asked the ghost to stop toying with me, and I let him know that he might just be an undigested bit of beef.  The voice faded away.

Then, as I started reading again, the dead man’s voice picked right back up.

Why I listened is hard to say.  What can the dead know?  They are, after all, dead, and we alive.  They can be no more than echoes of what was, and we are what is.  For now.

Not realizing his irrelevance, this dead man talked to me as I lay in bed reading.  He told me of a Hero’s Journey, and a thousand myths.

The next day, I promised myself, I would take that book to a graveyard, and bury it there, next to the head stone of one Mr. Campbell.

Some things I know.  Modern story is not about heroes and myths.  It is about the elegance of language.  It is about knowing and breaking the rules.  The modern world has nothing in common with the worlds of old.  We, as human beings in this age, are unique.

I shall not worry about whether the not-yet-living would want to read my book, should I one day be a ghost, I told myself.  I shall not worry about whether my tale illuminates some universal struggle within men and women.  My work is above all that.

It had gotten late, and the fog was wafting in through the open sliding glass door.  There were sounds outside, strange sounds, and I could not see from what they came.

Being a modern man, I Googled poltergeists, then I fell asleep to kitten videos on the Internet, as the sound of chains rattling crept into my dreams.

When I woke inside my sleep, a journey I had no interest in undertaking awaited me.  But I knew the plan.

The First Step to Overcoming Literism is to Seek Help

English: "Only were to be seen the policemen, flashing their dark lanterns into doorways and alleys" Photograph first published in: Jack London, The People of the Abyss, Macmillan, New York, 1903, 319 p., facing page 115. [1]
Giving into the evil of write has long been acknowledged as a path to self destruction. Jack London photograph, 1902. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Only_were_to_be_seen_the_policemen,_flashing_their_dark_lanterns_into_doorways_and_alleys.jpg
His clothes fit for 30 years, and then they did not. Nothing fit.

The words popped into my head, the spear tip of a story piercing right through the fog and into my conscious mind. I could feel the whole shaft in that first prick of the sharp words. I could sense a story, I could almost touch the whole thing, complete.

For a moment it felt good. Like crack.

Then the alarms went off. Oh shit. This is how it starts, the literary thinking.

In a moment, I’ll find myself rushing off to find paper and pen. I’ll be curled up in some dirty, dark alley, a month later, scribbling, smiling, and talking to myself.

Begging pencils from strangers.

I have to stop it now. I must resist.

Let it go. Do other things, I told myself.

I went onto Facebook. The status box asked “What are you thinking?” And what I thought is: I could write a a few lines in there, or even a page, a short story. Is there a Facebook word limit? I could probably cram 80,000 words right in there. Once I start, it’ll be easy, like falling off a cliff, but believing you are flying.

No, no, you don’t. I closed the browser, and brushed by Microsoft Word as quickly as I could before powering down my laptop.

I took a walk. Words followed my every step, lurking just behind me in my subconscious. I felt a theme, ever so gently touch my shoulders. I walked faster, but the words quickened, too, more and more of them, and ideas, right behind me. I felt a little high, a little feverish.

I thought about getting a drink to drown the words out. Then I remembered Hemingway’s warning: Write drunk, edit sober. There are words in drink, he had tried to warn us; alcohol gives no quarter.

I knew I was on the very edge of falling into writing.

What I needed was some literary methadone.

I found Jill, who leads my writing support group, at Starbucks. Jill is my sponsor.

“Tell me about your story,” she said.

I did.

“And your themes,” she added, “What about the climax, and turning points?”

I told her everything. I released the ghost of a story right out of my mouth. I gave the virus to her, and she took it all, selflessly.

And then I was OK. The story was gone.

I went back home, never more thankful for belonging to a writing group.

I went to sleep.  I did not dream.