Wednesday, September 23, 2015


I am very into crafting and making art, especially mixed media collage and art journaling, but I'm not really good at it. That doesn't bother me so much because part of what I like is the challenge of getting better. Plus, I know why I'm not good. I never put enough layers.

Here's a thing I made earlier.

This is the back and the front of a sketch pad that I am going to use as an idea dump book. I'm super happy with the end product because the front is the pretty and pink that I love and the back, with the reproduction of a Jack the Ripper letter, is the dark morbid horror that I also love. Still, there's something missing. Not from the back so much because it's the back and I won't see it a lot, I just like knowing it's there, but from the front. It's incomplete because of the lack of layers.

But you may say "Stevie, there are like 10 different elements! How much more can you layer?!" I know, imaginary audience! But trust me there was a lot more I could do. Like, I should have done something with all my edges, like any of the many different ways you can distress something. Or maybe I could have done more stamping on a few pieces.  Or maybe I could have added some ribbon or lace around the number wheel. Or any number of other things. There's a chance I might still try to add one of those ideas but I'm afraid I might ruin a design I pretty much like overall. And that's the other part of layering: editing. (Did you think I was going to say fear? Because I could have, but fear is another post and this is strictly about layers.)

Bringing an editing eye, as they like to say on Project Runway. Knowing when to stop or keep going, preferably before you glue all the pieces down.  It's the difference between looking like a kid did it, or an amateur did it, as opposed to a real artist doing it. It's the kicking it up a notch and BAM! that takes a piece from good, fine, finished to POW! POP! and other Batman sound effects. And it's just as important in art, in cooking. and in writing.

There are about a million ways layers and layering play into writing but I want to focus on backstory.
The other day I posted a short excerpt of backstory for Jan, a character in PB+J. Since I hand wrote it, I'm typing it up now and think a lot about how I should revise it. Technically this is already a revision and about a third of the length of the first one, and since I'm cutting 2 of the main characters' povs, I expect this next revision to be cut down to another third. Anyway, everything I cut out isn't deleted. It doesn't mean it didn't happen and that it's gone forever. It's still there, in the backstory of the character that only I know.

For example, in the next revision, the story will start at the reception after the funeral, instead of the morning before the funeral but everything that happens in the morning is still there. Jan yelling at Bobby, Bobby deciding to confront Jan later, and Pete accidentally letting it slip that Jan plans on leaving town after the funeral happen in the past story instead of in the present story. And even though the audience won't see those actions, they still give depth to character, add layers to events and relationships that persistently peek out in the current action, like the peacock print at the edge of my sketchbook cover.

It's sort of crazy to think that the first draft of this story is 15, 000 words and the final draft might only be 2,000. Or that I know the stories for a handful of characters who don't even appear in the final draft, including the original owner of the barn where most of the story's action takes place and who never appears in any version. But that's just how I write or how I think when I write. I need to know those things so I can understand whatever is happening in the current story and make it feel alive, fully fleshed out and not just words stacked on the next and next and next word.

Besides they say editing is where writing actually happens and you can't edit a blank page. So those ten thousand words I cut, become backstory I can reveal in bits and pieces to add interest, tension, and drama until I have a well-balanced, multi-layered work of fiction that reads like it's been written by a real writer.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Hand Writing

A few pages from PB+J

When I was a kid, when I first started writing, I wrote a lot by hand. I also wrote on the computer, then printed it out, and wrote by hand. It wasn't until college that I started doing more and more creative fiction on screen. But it was never easy. I still wrote a lot by hand, in the margins of class notes and the back of syllabi or graded papers.

The worst was when I started creative writing classes. I was so anxious about the first piece I had to write for an actual workshop that I started and stopped several completely different stories until I finally turned in some short story I'd written a few years earlier, not even caring that it was awful just that it was finished. My professor hated everything about that story but he was super impressed by my revision which shows what several years of experience can do for your writing.

Anyway, for years after that, it became easier to create fiction via computer. It got even better when I started using Scrivener and I could write electronically in a way that mimicked how I wrote by hand, i.e. piecemeal, jumping around in the time-line, several versions of the same scene, etc.  Then something happened this year: it suddenly became impossible for me to write anything on a computer.

It's a strange sensation to have words trapped inside you and for reasons you can't rationalize, they won't come out on a keyboard but put pen to paper and I can't stop it from coming out. It obviously wasn't fear of a blank page, I mean a digital page and a physical page possess the same amount of blankness. One day, browsing Pinterest, I found this blog post that pinpoints a handful of reasons why hand writing fiction can be beneficial. I mostly agree with her list but I think there's something missing.

Writing by hand is more natural.  I can rarely type at the speed that the words and stories present themselves in my head yet, writing by hand, there seems to be no slow down between imagination and words. Plus the faster I try to type the more likely I am to misspell words, so now my novel is a word jumble puzzle instead, or I leave whole words or descriptions entirely. More times than I can count, especially on high word count days or NaNoWriMo marathons, I've gone back to read my words and I can't even figure out what I actually said, much less what I meant. Yet, even when my handwriting is illegible, I know what I wrote, either I can figure it out easier or I simply remember, even years later.

I honestly don't know why I'm this way now when for so long a computer and a notebook were interchangeable mediums to me. Obviously both typing and the act of writing are learned activities and I learned them pretty much at the same time. I grew up around computers being as available as pencils and paper, even when most people didn't even know how to use one, much less owned one (my dad's a computer nerd). I learned really simple programming language at the same time I was learning really simple poetry forms.  I've really done both for nearly 30 years now.

But I guess knowing why I do something has never really mattered. And writing is writing is writing. Just, maybe keep it in mind the next time you think you're stuck writing, try changing mediums. Just write.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Coming to an End

In my last post, I talked about my latest project, PB&J. Now, I think I've reached the end. I can't quite tell because I'm not fantastic with endings, I prefer conclusions. Conclusions are finite, definite, the end because there is nothing else to do or say. But that's not how short stories end or literary literature, they don't conclude, they just stop.

I once read that you should end with an image. I think it was a famous writer who said it but I don't remember nor do I want to Google it. Anyway, that's also frustrating,  to write or to read. I remember when I read The Great Gatsby and it ended with an image, that stupid damned green light. Until I saw the Baz Lurhmann movie, the only thing I could remember of the book was a hot, tense hotel room, mint juleps, the car crash, and my fury at that stupid fucking green light. It made no sense to me, mostly because it was eighth  grade and it wasn't explained well enough in class. But I've always remembered how angry I was about it, even now that I understand a lot more about a lot of things. Still, I don't want to end with an image.

I am also not great with imagery. I prefer dialogue to description when I write. I'm pretty sure I haven't described the physical appearance of my main three characters through this whole thing. But they sure do talk and feel, that's more what I explore when I write.

But, whether I'm ready for it or not, PB&J is coming to an end. There's nothing left but the typing of it. I just don't know which ending. Right now, I have forgiveness. But it doesn't feel right. I think it's because one character changed too much and the other didn't really deserve it. I think I started writing that version in attempt to conclude the story instead of end it.

I'm also horning in some backstory, which is a problem. Back when I still thought I was writing a novel, I created this whole town, these entire families histories, maps, stories, mini dramas to fill out the tapestry the novel would be printed on. Eventually I realized there was just the one conflict, the one drama, for these characters and it didn't need a slow build. I cut the other stuff, but I still can't let it go. It's resurfacing, it wants to get out, and I'm pretty sure it shouldn't be randomly showing up at the end, so I thought I'd share it here.

Some of Jan's backstory

“So, Mina was in there talking to Mrs. Miller while Old Miller was snoozing behind the counter.  She was saying that her husband, Mr. Mina, was at the bar last night when your dad came in, ordered three whiskies and kissed Margaret Johnson on the lips.  Then he ordered drinks for the whole Cider House, charged it to your grandad’s garage and roared out of town with Margaret on the back of his Harley. And Mrs. Miller told her that she was at Lauren’s this morning for a touch up, where Mrs. Johnson was saying that Margaret had told her last week that they were leaving town and it wasn’t a surprise to anyone who had eyes since your mom and your grandad Crocker had been trying to control his every action since their shotgun wedding. Then Old Miller snorted awake and told them that they were addled with gossip and Crocker hadn’t shot anyone since Korea. And Mrs. Miller told him to shut  up. Then Mina noticed me and went all poo faced and started mewing something about those poor girls and how ashamed your dad should be for carrying-on like a fool.”

“So, he’s gone? Like he just left town?” Pete spoke softly.

Suddenly, life rushed at her. The sun shone harsh on the back of her neck, the old peeling picnic table they were sitting on dug splinters into her thighs, her Cherry Coke fizzed, sickly sweet in her mouth and her mind boiled with white hot anger. Truckloads of anger.

“Of course he left. Who wouldn’t leave this shit hole town first chance they got?! “

Her friends were stunned to silence. In their short, fairly typical lives they hadn’t had to deal with anything like this before. Sure, they had their troubles, Bobby’s parents couldn’t seem to stop having kids, and Pete’s Mom fussed over everything from Pete wearing a coat to the precise date the milk might go off.  And they all had to deal with Alice Crocker hating them for no good reason. But they had never had real drama or complications. Their parents didn’t even swear so freely.  They got most of their swearing vocabulary from hangin out behind the Cider House or Jan’s Grandad’s garage but they had no need to curse before.

Before either boy could think of the correct response, Alice Crocker and Sheila Saddler strolled up. Alice was Jan’s cousin but they had never gotten along, mostly because Jan wouldn’t let Alice push her around.

“Granpa said your lowlife father finally blew town with a trampy waitress,” she taunted.

Sheila didn’t meet her eyes and took a step back, like she wished she was any place else in the world then next to Alice. Pete and Bobby were stunned by her callousness. No one expected Jan to drop her soda can, lunge at Alice, and pummel her mercilessly.

Alice busted Jan’s lip and scratched her cheek. Jan gave Alice a black eye and a bloody nose. Both girls lost  handfuls of hair and scrapped various body parts on the concrete. During the fight Sheila looked horrified, then ran inside Miller’s. Bobby and Pete were slack-jawed and continued the afternoon’s trend of doing nothing. When Mr. Miller and his son, Dr. Miller, pulled the girls apart, a breathless screaming match ensued.

“You’re trash, Janice Wagner! You’re trash, trash, trash!”
“Fuck you, Alice! You. . . uptight bitch!” She hadn't learned that one at the garage, she'd heard it from her father towards her mother.

Mrs. Miller, who had come outside, slapped Jan then. Which was the same thing  her mother had done to her father.

“Mom!” Dr. Miller said, who had been holding back Jan and examining her lip at the same time.

“That kind of language deserves a slap." Mrs. Miller she said, indignant. "I’m going to call both their par-,” she stopp, then self corrected, “their mothers.”

“Always have been and always will be trash,” Alice muttered.