Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Post Draft Anxiety

“I need a fix 'cause I'm going down”—The Beatles

Every time I finish a draft of a longer project, first or final, and put it away to cool, I never know what the fuck to do with myself. This hits especially hard on the weekend, when I have no contractual obligations to anyone. It's not exactly boredom. It's a combination restlessness and fatigue. I'd like to be content with reading or watching something all day, but I guess if I could do that I never would have started writing in the first place. I just can't get my mind to sit still. Any time I spend not writing makes me feel like I'm screwing around the week before a paper is due.

I'm not complaining. Or at least that's not the reason I'm writing this. Maybe you feel the same way sometimes and it's worth knowing other writers struggle with the same post-draft anxiety. Right, because I'm so talented and successful.

I have two projects laid out on the cooling slab now: a screenplay and a novel. The novel is with my personal editor and trusted reader, KP, who has worked with previous drafts of the same story. The screenplay, a re-write of a late undergrad project, is waiting on my hard-drive for a second pass. I just finished the screenplay. I suppose a great deal of my restlessness comes from my excitement about both projects. That excitement, without a proper outlet, turns back against me, and then here we are kicking around the bottom of nowheresville.

Then I suppose there is the fear, but that's much deeper. Fear of bad writing, wasted effort, and more painful toil if the work is ever going to be good enough.

But even that is only anxiety. Bad writing is always unappealing, especially your own when you are forced to see it for what it is, but no effort is ever wasted in this art. As long as you are attentive to understanding your missteps and work to correct them, you are always moving forward. Sometimes things click, and you actually feel your writing improve from one project or draft to the next. You can hold more of what you have to do in your head at once, and better intuit how the task must be done. But mostly writing is a game of inches, and you only see your growth retrospectively.

As for the pain, don't worry, there are no writing injuries. No one ever went blind on account of a rambling plot and misplaced character motivation, though we may wish it on others fiercely when reading such faults in their work.

There is a significant sting when you first see those red hashes on your manuscript, but that does not linger long. As soon as your mind returns to construction, any temporary damage is quickly repaired. Then again, when you are on your own it can be much harder to get out from under, not knowing which way to go. You have to be prepared to make hard decisions. Keep your old drafts and you can always put any cuts back in.

The challenge in this lost and scrambled state is not to dive straight back into the familiar. Leave your work to cool or you'll never get anywhere with it. Yes, the characters all feel close. Yes, the setting feels rich in your head. That's part of the problem. You know it all so well now that you won't be able to put yourself in a position to be introduced to any of it for the first time. You'll remember too well what you wanted to do, or what you thought you did, and this will obscure what you actually did.

It's hard enough to see your work as a reader. Give yourself a fighting chance.

Starting is always difficult, but that's the best medicine to calm your brain. It doesn't have to be serious. It doesn't have to properly start or come to an end. Write an unconnected scene that breaks every writing rule you can think of. Write a poem. Take up an old rag of yours and finesse part of it into a pleasing shape. Pick something your writing lacks and chip away at it in your workshop. No one will see any of these things if they come to nothing, and it's just as well if they don't. You do it because you have to write. Writing is your fix.

Sorry if this came to nothing.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Prejudice Against Genre Fiction

“You eat what you like, and I'll eat what I like!”—Yukon Cornelius
Genre is a four letter word in some literary circles. It's tossed about with derision. Those works unfortunate enough to fall under the label are condemned as inferior, the playthings of lesser minds and lower sensibility. Not such a grave sentence, maybe. Some of us are not the least ashamed to relieve the burden of our sensibility by dragging them along in a sack. But the word is tragically misapplied when used this way.

In the first place, everything is a genre. “Genre” is simply any collection of works that share enough of a family resemblance for them to be reasonably grouped together.

For instance, stories with a central character who navigates challenges, gains allies, learns skills, and acquires knowledge on the way to overcoming a final obstacle are a genre. We refer to them as Fantasy, especially if they trade in magic and archaic landscapes. But contemplative, closely interpersonal stories guided largely by themes rather than action or plot that line the Literature shelves are a genre as well. Maybe you couldn't pick them out straight away by their covers, but that does not somehow set them apart.

But literary fiction is broader than that, they say. You can't just wrap it up in one so-called genre, that's what makes it exciting. Yes, the Literature section can have a great deal of variety, notably because it so often robs the nests of other genres. Magical Realism, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery; Literature drops down with its heavy talons and plucks its choice from each. What is The Road (2007 Pulitzer prize winner) but a sci-fi horror—the struggle for survival in a burned out world where cannibals and blood cultists are the only visible survivors.

So when anyone snidely says “genre,” what they really mean is “those other genres.” Those few genre books that enjoy an elevated literary status are the exceptions. But this sort of thinking begs the question while ignoring its own conclusion. There is not one kind of fantasy novel, just as there is not one kind of literary novel—clearly, or there would be no fantasy novels in the Literature section.

Yes, there are plenty of cliché, one dimensional fantasy novels. Go to the appropriate aisle in your bookstore, pull a book off the shelf at random, and there's a good chance you'll have selected one of these books. They're popcorn fiction. One piece tastes like the other, and after you've had a handful you probably can't remember much about any of them, or which was which. But the same can be said of books shelved in the Literature section. Slow, run-of-the-mill, “my mundane/tragic life makes it hard to be happy” novels are published every year—books that try very hard to be big serious stories, and throwing their weight around, fall all over themselves and land in a heap.

If our literary regents bent their astounding linguistic potential to the task for a moment they might say “plot fiction” is the real offender. But since when is there anything wrong with a story that's headed somewhere? Where the story goes and how it gets there is only part of the thrill, though. A good plot is a mode of conveyance, and there are all sorts. Bullet trains cover more ground than roller skates; maybe one is more direct than the other, and the scenery goes by faster, but it's who's inside them that makes all the difference.

I suppose there is little sense trying to talk the literary faithful out of their prejudice, sad though it is to see. But they like what they like, and only what they like, and if you like something else, you simply have poor taste. For my part, there are too many fantastic novels across every genre to think of excluding any of them from consideration. And anyway, who the hell doesn't like popcorn now and then?