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.

Free Time in the Time of Corona, Let’s Bitch About It

By Lisa Alber

I see many optimistic and supportive posts out there about how to survive — no, thrive during! — shelter in place. I’m past all that. I want to see posts by people who are flailing and not doing their best and going a little nuts. People, where are those posts?!?!? Those are the posts that would truly help me. Just to know I’m not the only one, you know what I mean?

(I live alone; this might be a factor. Heh.)

I re-read my last blog post, dated February 26th. Oh my god — seems ridiculous and hilarious now. I’d just gotten laid off from the day job and was full of hope about my new writing journey. Then a few weeks later, the Corona virus arrived and the shite hit the fan. My life didn’t change all that much — I was at home anyhow — yet it did.

The 2/26 post feels like a lifetime ago. I’ve been writing/revising most mornings, so that’s good. Yet it’s amazing how little I’ve accomplished. I like a desultory pace of life, but something about being forced into this pace has dulled my brain. I hear this is called “pandemic fog.”

There’s a difference between being at home building a new life and being forced to stay home feeling uncertain that I can build a new life (given the economy, etc). My neurotic tendencies are on high alert, ready to send me into a stressed state for no good reason. (Case in point: Yesterday, my inability to find the Cancel Subscription button on the sundancenow.com website.)

At first, I was all bustle and vigor. Hey, this is a lark! This is quite the fun little period! It’s peaceful and there’s no traffic and people are friendlier than usual! I have so much time and I’m going to accomplish all my dreams!

Now, it’s more like: Which streaming channel has the longest free trial period?

As a friend said last week, “This isn’t cute anymore.” The bloom is definitely off the proverbial rose, and I’m feeling it. (I WANT TO HIT MY LOCAL FOR A PINT, WITH FRIENDS OR NOT, I DON’T CARE!)

I have a half-baked theory that the protests surged when they did, in part, because people maxed out their tolerance for “me” time. God forbid we have time to ponder our lives, really THINK about who we are, what we want, and so on. It can be uncomfortable, even painful. Some people will do anything to avoid discomfort, no matter how short-sighted  and idiotic.

I have a high tolerance for “me” time. Even so, to lessen the impact of shelter in place on my psyche, I journal every morning. I’ll burn the journals after all this done, that’s for sure. Witness this gem from today’s drivel-fest: “Yep, got up earlier to get going, so that’s cool.”

Uh-huh. What’s the point of getting up earlier, anyhow? Who cares that I’m succumbing to nocturnal tendencies, lights out at 1:00 A.M.?

As the days pass in a blur of uniformity, I’ve also succumbed to binge-watching obscure foreign crime dramas. (Recently watched an Icelandic one called “Trapped.”) At first, I diligently walked the park every day to get out of the house, keep sane, randomly chat with people (socially distanced, of course). Now I don’t care so much.

A few days ago I realized I’d reached my lowest point when I bought a jumbo bag of Red Vines. Jumbo. Bag. One thing to eat Red Vines at the movies — which I don’t do anymore, anyhow — another thing to plop the bag on the coffee table, readily available while I binge-watch.

When all this was a lark, I grooved on cooking, and even baking. Now I’d rather go pick up a Papa Murphy’s pizza, or on a healthier note, Trader Joe’s ready-made salads. Not doing so well in the food department, generally. Standing in line to enter grocery stores feels too Soviet Russia, and who wants to be reminded of that country given the upcoming election? I surely don’t.

On that sourpuss note, I’ve officially reached the end of my tolerance for bitching. FOR NOW. Hope everyone is keeping healthy, mentally as well as physically, xoxo

A Writer Finds Hope Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

I’m receiving varying messages through my artistic virtual channels.  Some of my friends are sheltered in place writing, and painting for hours on end.  Their creations, I am certain, will reflect the circumstances surrounding their current reality.  Those feelings, those never before felt nuggets, will flow through them onto a blank page, or canvas.  For some the message will be easily understood, in full display for all to see, while for others it will be hidden, like the Easter eggs I wish my grandchildren could be searching in my back yard on Sunday.

Then there are those who say they can’t seem to create a thing.  I hope for them to have clarity soon, because I find being able to immerse myself in any creative endeavor the best way to soothe my frantic nerves.

Unfortunately, I have not been sheltered in place.  But luckily, there are only a few of us working in the now closed facility, and we can easily manage the six-foot distances, and then some.  As a small business manager, I have been going to my quiet office and attempting to make sense of with the mountains of paperwork necessary to keep said business viable and able to reopen when allowed.  I hope to have dug myself out of this important task by next week. And like many of my creative tribe, I hope to be able to allow myself the grace to not force creativity, permitting it to instead flow easily, and at its own pace.

It seemed fitting since it’s National Poetry Month, and also because this poem begged to be written, that I carve out time to place it’s somewhat chaotic voice upon the page.  Is it the poem’s voice, or my own?  I leave you with these thoughts to ponder as you read on…

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C is for the many closets and cupboards which will be sorted and left spotlessly clean.

Who can sit to write when those cluttered spaces whisper and beg for a bit of much needed hygiene?

But rest assured, when all is put to order, your creativity will kick in.

The laptop, pen and paper,  will come out, and your writing will begin.

 

O is for the oath you took, once self-quarantined,

Yes, we all had this eloquent, if not, foolish dream.

To sit, and not get up until you’ve written at least a thousand words a day,

please for our own sanity, and those with whom you live, let that vow slip away.

I promise it will all be, okay.

 

R is for the mounds of reading you will undoubtedly get done.

Please don’t forget, when your massive pile is down to one, or none,

remember to support your local bookstores, in any way you can.

After all, when your books were published were they not your biggest fan?

 

This O is for those organizational skills not so readily seen, but who have now magically been awoken.

Those stories tucked in desk drawers and saved in computer files are calling to you. Send them forth, for they have spoken.

Now that it’s done, don’t you feel better?

No don’t begin to obsess over some phantom rejection letter.

 

N is for a different type of novel.  The one you’ve labored over for years, the one you know needs just one more revision.

Let’s let this one go.  Why, you can even call it your pandemic decision.

Think of the mighty fire it will create outdoors.

While you keep a six-foot distance as you roast yummy, melting, smores.

 

A is for all the other artistic skills you may possess.  Rip up that shirt or dress,

and make masks so those in need can stress, less.

Or what about planting something green, be it a flower or a vegetable.

Think of the accomplishment when you’ve grown something deliciously edible.

 

V is for the victory and validation you will feel,

when one of those stories comes back with a contract deal.

By then I’m certain you will be able to socially celebrate.

But if not, Zoom with willingly hook you up with at least one writing mate.

 

I is for the insecurities you will have as you sit quietly with all this time to think.

When it gets too much to bare, please call someone before you succumb to that 3rd or 4th  drink.

I is also for the abundance of imaginative stories and illuminating art that will be birthed from this pandemic.

I have been assured of this phenomenon by friends both alchemic, as well as academic.

 

R is for the formidable resilience each and every one of us will possess.

After we’ve come through this arduous cosmic test.

And what about all the budding new relationships that will be born,

as they visited virtual movie rooms, while eating popcorn?

 

U is for the Universal Unity which will ultimately defeat this foe.

Through our joint socially distancing efforts, we can, and will, stop its flow.

Then think of all the varying stories, from every corner of the world, we will write,

Of the time when human beings around the entire earth stood still, to fight.

 

S is for the symmetry this virus has allowed us to glimpse.

Dolphins swimming in Venice’s canals is not mere happenstance.

Where once there was death,

Mother Nature has been allowed to take a long, overdue breath.

Now it is up to we the human race to follow suite.

How do you feel about a socially sensible reboot?

 

What creative projects have you taken up, or completed as you shelter in place?

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