How Not to Become Clutter

by Christina Lay

Like most people in this era of the New Weird, I’ve found myself stuck at home with a lot more time on my hands. And, like most people, I suspect, my eye has turned to the many neglected projects and pockets of irritation in my house. One dire enemy of my serenity is clutter. Being a writer, I have enormous piles of paper everywhere. Even though I rarely print out entire manuscripts anymore, I still have an abundance of notebooks, random papers, sticky notes, folders, and all sorts of failed attempts at organization. My cabinets and closets overfloweth.

And then there are those piles. You know the ones. Books. Teetering towers of to-be-reads covering coffee tables and blocking passageways.  Now normally, I don’t consider books clutter. They have a clear reason d’etre and are not to be filed away. Each one is like a little work of art just waiting to be opened and savored. Nevertheless, at some point one has to acknowledge the growing fire hazard and do something to organize the stacks.  This process got me to thinking on a certain phenomena: the abandoned book.

Most of the books stacked around are still waiting for me to crack the cover, but there’s another class of book altogether: the ones I started but never finished, usually with a bookmark or feather stuck somewhere about halfway through the pages.  They create a sense of unease in me as I pick them up, read the back copy, and try to remember why I stopped reading.

I’m a writer, so I can’t help analyzing books as I read, even if it is on a low simmer in the back of my mind.  If a book really grabs, I whisper to myself; how did the author do this? How did they get me to forget these characters are fictional and convince me stay up late, read just one more chapter, worry about their fate even when I’m not reading? And then I look at my own work and wonder if I’m achieving that magic.

The flip is also true. If I find myself losing interest, or being kicked out of the story too often, or actually getting pissed off, I ask myself why. That’s usually more obvious. It’s been a while since I’ve flat out thrown a book across the room, but I have decisively put certain books aside.  More common though is the Slow Drift.  The loss of interest. The putting down and actually forgetting to pick up again. I didn’t really mean to abandon those books, I just found something better to read.  These books for the most part are well written, and good enough to get published by a major publisher, but they stumbled when they could’ve soared.

I’m not really interested in giving bad reviews, so I’ve been gathering notes and keeping them to myself.  I’ve got a compendium of mental notes on “How These Books Became Clutter”, and thought I’d collect them to share them with you.  Mostly these are books that I received for free at writers’ conferences, where publishers will give away large stacks of books in order to create buzz. Mostly they don’t. Learn from their mistakes and don’t do these things:

Spend a lot of time building up to one big event or conflict, and then have it happen off-stage, or not at all. In the particular book I’m thinking of, I was stunned to realize the author had jumped ahead a decade or so, completely bypassing the big conflict (a war) that all the dramatic tension had been leading toward, or so I thought.  Stoking the fires of expectation and then dousing them with disinterest is never a good idea. And yet, I kept reading, because the author was very good. And then, they did this:

Suddenly switch genres.  This again plays into readers’ expectations.  Up until the point where I lost interest in the book, it had been an alternate history in the steampunk vein, with little hints of magic here and there. Then, after the above referenced time jump, a new cast of characters was introduced, one of which was a magician cat shifter. Now normally, I’m all over that sort of thing, but it was like I was reading an entirely new book and everything that had happened before didn’t matter. I lost interest.

Develop interesting characters and then abandon them. Multiple points of view are awesome if you’ve got a good knack for voice and characterization and I don’t mind chapter-to-chapter head hopping at all. However, I do expect to revisit a character after I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know them. In the book in question, there were several POV characters and imagine my surprise when I discovered that one who I’d considered a major protagonist was dead, murdered off stage with barely a mention.  I never did find out what happened because I set the book aside and forgot to pick it up again.

Have allegedly smart characters make mind-numbingly stupid choices. I shouldn’t even have to point this out, but it continues to happen. In service of the plot, a writer forces a character to do something that is so obviously wrong, bad and doomed to crushing failure that even the least attentive reader will be going “No, no, no!” Now, characters are human, they are flawed, they make big mistakes, sometimes whopping ones, but they have their reasons.  Might not be something we’d do, but we can understand why they might do it. The choice that enrages your reader is just never good (although kudos on making them care!)

Create a relentless atmosphere of gloom and doom and fill it with hopeless, unlikable people.  Now if you’re writing grimdark horror, maybe this is okay, but in your average novel, the reader needs something to root for.  Sometimes protagonists are not likable. Sometimes we might root for their failure and comeuppance. Sometimes a dark and evil world might be fascinating in it’s own right.  But if the main protag is a jerk, and everyone else is a jerk, and there’s no hope of any redemption, then at some point I’m going to ask myself why I’m reading this story. And then I’ll stop reading it.

Explain to the reader in excruciating detail all of the protagonist’s emotions and the historical reasons for those emotions. Repeat ad nauseum. I’m exaggerating this particular flaw, because that’s what I do, but I find a book is so much stronger if I feel the emotions alongside the character, rather than having them explained to me. This is one of the trickiest and most rewarding skills in writing; creating emotion without saying “Fred was sorrowful because his parents died horribly when he was a wee lad”.  Instead, let me know about Fred’s parents and then show Fred acting out in his own special way, or not. Show the reader how that event affects him to this day.

Hide the fact that the book is part of a series and not a stand-alone. Boy, does this one grate on my last nerve.  I’ll be about two thirds in and start to notice that the remaining pages are rather thin. There’s no way the author is going to be able to wrap this up in that many pages, I think. And then, I get suspicious. I start scanning the interior matter and that’s when I’ll find buried somewhere in a tiny font that this is Book One out of fifteen.  Perhaps I don’t abandon this book if I’ve been enjoying it, but if it ends on a cliffhanger without warning, I’m much less likely to rush out and by Books 2 through 15, because I’m pissed.  This is easy to fix. Just put Book 1 on the cover. Or the name of the series, at least. Hiding the truth will not earn you any fans.

I suppose that’s enough for now. I’m sure I’ll have another long list of not-to-do’s as I work my way through these piles, but hopefully, I’ll have a longer list of to-do’s.  Readers want to love your book, they really do. Don’t make them set it aside.

The Definition of Insanity

By Christina Lay

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I once again found myself on the periphery of one of those conversations between mothers. You know the one, where they coo over newborn baby photos and then quickly descend into recounting the horrors of a 48 hour birth procedure that included suction cups, multiple doctors and gravity. Then, as always, one of the mothers leans back smiling and says “But then you forget about all that, and have another one!”

I nod sagely. Yup. Writing novels is just like that.

Now I know there are mothers out their gritting their teeth and composing terse missives to me about how writing is NOTHING like giving birth and are lining up many terrifying and explicit examples for me to ponder. But I will blithely continue in my ignorance, because poetic license.

As you might know if you read my posts, I’ve been consumed in a two-year birthing process of a novella that turned into a novel that turned into a many tentacled monster that has no intention of every leaving the cozy confines of my computer to enter the harsh fluorescence of a published reality. And you know what my go-to solution is? Well, I’ll just write another one. That one will go smoothly and will require no suction cups.

Haven’t we all been there? After a tortuous year or two or ten, we deliver onto the world a misshapen squalling mess of a thing. It is beautiful in our eyes only, and requires more attention than ever, which we give it in the hopes that it will someday move out and stay in touch via the form of royalty checks. So what do we do once the thing no longer requires 24-hour care? We immediately start another, sure this one will be much less painful, and more easily pushed out of our brains into the light of day.

And the really sad thing for us writers, and why we deserve more sympathy than actual mothers, is that nowhere in this process is sex involved. In many ways, writing is anti-sex, because it’s a lone endeavor, and one that doesn’t promote social skills or bathing. If there’s any comparison to be made, it is that those first moments of inspiration, those early pages of infinite possibility and gleeful spewing of words, is a tiny bit orgasmic. But there’s no climax. No, the flirtatious tease that is our muse develops a sudden headache, and we are left to bring up baby on our own.

If we’re lucky, we belong to a coffee klatch of writers who gather occasionally to recount tales of horror and express sympathy, and maybe one of them is even lucky enough to have pictures to coo over in the form of cover art. Oh, blessed day!

If writing a novel is like giving birth, than composing a blog post is like passing a kidney stone. No, I’ve never done that either, but a kidney stone is smaller, so I’m assuming the process is proportionally shorter and less painful. But no tickle fest either. If there’s one thing I deeply regret as I look back over this past year, it’s allowing my post to be scheduled for New Year’s Day. This is the day when any writer worth their salt summons up all the Facebook meme wisdom they’ve absorbed over the past year and distills it into an inspirational post that will lift their fellows from the mire of despair and bring relief to the hearts of those pummeled into whimpering piles of sleep-deprived misery by the unrelenting joy of growing a novel in their brains.

I could probably come up with something inspirational if I dug deep, altered my perceptions, took on an attitude of gratitude, had more coffee and attended a 12-Step meeting or two, but I’m not feeling it. My baby refuses to move out. It’s a surly teen now and lurks in the basement wearing all black and not speaking to me (yeah, I’m gonna milk this metaphor for all it’s worth).

So as I am locked in this battle yet again, I reflect upon a piece of wisdom I’ve heard many times in many Al-Anon meetings: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

I have to ask myself, has my compulsion to craft stories become an addiction? Is it insane to think that I will ever “get the hang of” the noveling thing? Is it self-deluding to hope for an easy birth? The answer to all of those things is Yes. Does that mean I should stop? Hell, no.

The problem isn’t the writing, No, never the writing. The problem is that word “expect”. Here’s another bit of annoying 12-Step wisdom: An expectation is a resentment waiting to happen. In this case, a writer who expects an easy go of it, who expects their next novel to be perfect, wonderful, Harvard-educated, with great posture and clear skin, is doomed to fall into resentment. Resentment of the very story they’ve conceived and nurtured, resentment of themselves for not living up to their goals and dreams. Insanity is expecting that we’ll be able to do this thing, write these novels, and look good doing it. That we will one day become that person in the memes who wallows in joy, wildness, creativity and spirituality all while looking great in a flowing frock on a beach or a mountain top, backlit by a sunrise.

No, there will be drool. Blood maybe. Tears definitely. All days will be bad hair days. Mysterious stains will appear on all our favorite things. We will trudge, fall down, ugly cry, and doubt. Oh, there will be so much doubt.

Inspired yet?

Okay, let’s try that again. The thing to remember is that we will forget. Forget the pain. Remember those exciting moments of foreplay, and the wonder of creating something new. Insanity is believing the resentments and doubts and drool and letting them stop us from doing our thing. Sanity is doing what we love no matter how much it hurts. For someday we’ll look back on those stories and novels and oh-so-many pages, and be able to say, “I did that” and be proud. Maybe we’ll even have pictures to show.

From Fantasy to Reality and Back Again

by Christina Lay

Perhaps you’ve found yourself wanting or needing to write about a place you’ve never been, but you feel confident you can pull it off because you’ve read so many books about the place, watched so many movies, and done so much research when you should’ve been writing that you feel like you’ve been there, that you know it through and through.

This happened to me a while back. I decided to finally write that steam punk fantasy mystery that’s been swirling in my mind for years. I had the story completely figured out. I set pen to paper (or actually, fingers to keyboard) and…wrote about a page. I quickly realized I didn’t have the knowledge, the words, or the grounding that I needed to continue. You see, this story began in London. I’ve never been to London, but I truly felt that I knew it so well I could have my characters walk the streets and the descriptions would come to mind as I went. After all, it’s one of those places that permeate popular culture. I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes, Charles Dickens , even Paddington Bear. I’ve probably read hundreds of books set in London and its environs, and watched even more movies. The images are there, but the grounding details are not.

As I sit here and think the word “London”, innumerable scenes scroll through my head; all supplied by other people’s fiction and news reports. Yes, I can do copious amounts of research and fill in all those missing words and street names, but nothing can replace actually walking the streets, smelling the diesel fumes, turning a corner and stumbling across that unexpected something that unlocks the key to your next scene.

The Expected

I’m writing about this now because I’ve recently had the experience of finally setting foot in another of those iconic places: New York City. If there is anywhere in the world more entrenched in my imagination than London, it’s probably New York, and this mostly from television. Isn’t every other TV show set there? Isn’t every other comedian born there? We studied it in school, starting with pictures of Dutch guys buying Manhattan from the Native Americans for a handful of beads and culminating with a barrage of vivid images from 9/11. Hardly a day goes by without some image being beamed at me from Times Square or Wall Street or Madison Avenue. I had definite and firm images planted in my brain, and not only images, but expectations and emotional responses. I knew NYC would be exciting to visit, and full of interesting things, but I also had a pre-loaded set of expectations fueled mainly by 70s era TV. You know, Starsky & Hutch, Barretta, that sort of gritty crime show. Cold, hard, dirty, scary, unfriendly. Vast blocks of rundown slums. Shady characters menacing people in Central Park and on subway cars.

What I did not expect was the vast amount of historical buildings in fine shape, the beauty of the skyline, the European elegance, and the friendliness of most of the people. And a rather disappointing lack of shady characters.

I’m not here to do a travelogue for Manhattan. What became important to me is how vastly my internal NYC landscape has changed. It has morphed from a frightening, sprawling Metropolis to an endlessly intriguing patchwork of neighborhoods where real people live and work. And the big picture is now peppered with small details, little glimpses into daily life. True, ten days as a tourist does not an expert make, but I can now confidently have a character walk through Central Park without relying wholly on outdated scenery supplied by someone else’s artistic eye.
I thought a lot about the TV show Seinfeld while I was there. So much reminded me of that show, of what I expected to see, and I was happy to see it, but I was even happier to see the unexpected.

The Unexpected

The Highline is a great example; this is an elevated train track that has been converted into a raised park, a pedestrian skyway full of vegetation, art installations, fascinating backstreet views and yes, tourists. I’d read about it, but walking it let me peek not only into the “backyard” of the meat packing district, but it gave me a glimpse into the heart of the people who live there. It’s an amazing civic project, one that says a lot about the city that grew it. And what it says is nothing I ever would have expected.

I can talk about the sensory overload of being in a place, but you know that already: how valuable it is to stand on the corner and smell, touch, listen, and taste the environment. To meet real people instead of observe characters, to walk through Central Park at night and be only a little bit nervous.

Displacing a landscape crafted over decades is a touch trickier, and truly a fascinating experiment in rewiring one’s brain. Even now, I can feel the reality slipping back beneath the layers of fantasy that I, as a compulsive storyteller, can’t help but weave. But now, at least, my fantasy is grounded in reality. There are many places you can’t go; ancient Babylon being one, The third moon of Saturn another. But if you can go, and if you want a place to play a major role in a writing project, there’s no substitute for being there. Only your own experience can displace the imaginary world in your head, and then seed it,feed it and regrow it into a more authentic fantasy when you return.