Notes on “The Apology”

The Apology” was inspired by the song, “Cheap Whiskey,” on Martina McBride’s debut album. The song is about a man coming to terms with his alcoholism having driven away “the light of his life.” I wanted to explore what might happen if he decided to apologize, and discovered that the apology didn’t make anything better.

In the first draft, there wasn’t much more to it. I felt like it was thin as I wrote, so I introduced additional characters: four customers and the cook. It wasn’t terrible, as first drafts go, but my critique group suggested that I cut the other characters. Removing them made me realize how thin the characterization was, especially of Margo, and that gave me a clearer vision of the story.

Margo, especially, was little more than a cardboard cut-out. What was in her heart and mind when Nehemiah walked in? What would it do to her to hear an unwanted apology? Deepening my understanding of her also gave me fresh insight into Nehemiah. These insights changed the story for the better.

What I’ve learned from this is not to clutter my scenes and stories with extra characters. The other customers, Margo’s brother; I’d put them all in as scenery, basically, and then I’d felt obligated to give them something to do. They distracted me from the heart of the story. In my next first draft, I’ll be ruthless about keeping the scene focused on the only people who actually matter.

Small Assignments

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I set a goal of writing three blog posts this week, and I finished one, but the second one completely got away from me. I wanted to write one more thing about my experience in the Pentecostal church, but then I had to explain something else in order for the one thing to make sense. The something else also needed to be introduced, and that introduction had half a dozen components, and so on. And I kept thinking, “This topic is just so big; I don’t know how I’m going to boil it down into a single post.”

I stepped away from it for a little while this morning hoping that doing some chores would generate insight—it happens that way, sometimes—but alas, when I returned to the page, the topic was still so big, and it grew even longer as I worked. I took another break, and picked up Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. There, I found my answer:

“The first useful concept is the idea of short assignments.”

If the topic is too big, don’t boil it down. Break off a piece. And if that’s still too big, break off another, until you get something small enough to write. I don’t have to tell my whole life story in one page.

Image by Stasi Albert.

Slower

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I have posted something every day for 35 days. When I started the first two week challenge, I didn’t think I’d succeed. That I’ve kept it up for five weeks is an amazing run for me, and I’ve proud of myself. Now I know that I can maintain a daily posting schedule if I want to.

That said, I’m going to back off daily posts for this week. I’ve got a hectic schedule ahead of me, and I don’t want to add unnecessary stress to my life. I’ll be happy with three posts, not counting this one, between now and next Sunday night.

Blogging: a personal history

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Yesterday’s post was my 100th since starting this blog almost six years ago.

That’s right. It took me five years and ten months to post 100 blog entries. I wrote almost half of them in the last twelve months, and more than half of this year’s posts have been published in the past four weeks.

Pardon me, I get excited about metrics.

My desire to write a blog goes back almost to the beginnings of the term “blog” itself. I started my first blog in 1999, shortly after my divorce. I used a personal web page from my provider, and it was so obscure that wayback machine doesn’t even have it archived. I hadn’t even heard of Blogger at that point, and WordPress was years away, so it was a static page, hand-coded using HTML 4. For feedback, I provided an email link.

I wrote mostly about liberal politics, but I might as well have been posting random words from the dictionary for all the attention it got. No one read me. I had no idea how to draw readers. The one and only time I got a response was on September 12, 2001, after I wrote a post critical of the sentiment that one must not disagree with the President after the September 11 attacks. Someone emailed me to call me a traitor, and offered to kick my ass.

I suppose I should have been afraid, but I was actually thrilled. Someone had read me! Someone I didn’t even know!

Unfortunately, that was about it in terms of audience engagement. I eventually moved to Blogger and embedded LiveJournal into it, but all the action was within LiveJournal. Eventually, I shut down the blog. Without an audience, why bother?

The desire persisted, though, and I made half-hearted attempts a couple of times. I tried blogging about Scrum, but I felt like I didn’t know enough to write about it. I’d lost interest in writing about politics, because increasing polarization meant I was only talking to people who already largely agreed with me. I didn’t feel like anyone was interested in reading about my life in general.

Now I’m blogging every day but I’m still not sure what I’m doing. When I started the daily blog challenge four weeks ago, I thought I’d write mostly about agile software development. But when I get home each night, work is the last thing I want to think about. My posts about my experience in a Pentecostal church were well-received, so maybe I should write more about that topic. It would be good fodder for the novel I plan to write next, and maybe exploring that part of my past will be good for my psyche.

Going through the motions

I wasn’t happy with yesterday’s blog post about my decision to leave Mercer. I started out with a different angle, but the first 300 words I wrote were mainly throat-clearing as I tried to discover my topic. By the time I realized what I wanted to get at, it was late, and I wanted to post something quickly so I could go to bed. As a result, I didn’t refine the entry as I would have liked. It could have been much more powerful, and made a great lead-in to the series of entries I want to do, about my experience as a member of a fundamentalist church. My next novel will be greatly informed by that experience, so it will be worthwhile to explore it. I feel like I can get a short story or two out of it, as well.

This second challenge iteration hasn’t been as good as the first. The freshness has worn off, and although I set my goal at 250 words per day, not 250 words per entry, it has amounted to the same thing, since I haven’t written my entries until later in the evening. If I’m going to hit 250 words, I have to do it in one entry.

I’ve got three entries left in this challenge, so I’m going to finish, come what may. But iteration three of this challenge will have no minimum word count. I also need to either write them early in the day, or write them a day ahead of when I want to publish them.

Critique Group

On Sunday, I attended my monthly critique group meeting. I’ve been part of this group since about 2011 or 2012, and it predates me by a couple of years at least. I’ve grown a lot as a writer thanks to the feedback I’ve received. Also thanks to the feedback I’ve given. Examining other writers’ work with a critical eye has helped me recognize some of the same problems in my own prose, and to stop making the same errors.

I haven’t grown as much as I could have. As I mentioned in the first post in this daily blog experiment, I have often been reluctant to take risks and show unpolished work to the group. As a result, I’ve robbed myself of opportunities by going months without a submission, or by submitting something I’d worked on so much that I’m reluctant to make changes when I do get feedback.

This month, I submitted a raw first draft: a short story of 1,300 words, warts and all. A character appeared in paragraph four, then vanished. Another character changes location from one paragraph to the next without covering the intervening space. (This is not a science fiction story.) The ending is simply the place where I stopped telling the story.

Previously, I would have held onto this story. Turning it in helped me realize that the internal dialogue that the protagonist carries on is not distracting, as I’d feared it would be. Had I revised the story before turning it in, I probably would have edited that element out. In fact, my group gave me suggestions for a stronger ending that relies on the fact of the that internal dialogue. And one of my partners shines when she slices my paragraphs to ribbons, and rewords and reorganizes them. I often don’t like the exact suggestions she makes—our writing styles are so vastly different—but the changes she makes often give me fresh perspective on how the words are recieved, and the next draft will be much stronger.

If I ever do manage to have a novel published, it will be a direct result of this group’s advice.

Scrivener 3.0 for Mac

Today, Literature and Latte released Scrivener 3.0 for Mac. Although there are many new features, the one that caught my eye has long been on my wish list: true paragraph styling. Previously, the RTF formatting was difficult to manage, and whenever I compiled a Scrivener project as a Word document, fixing the formatting so that I could use styles the way I’m accustomed to was tedious and cumbersome.

I created a document with each of the predefined paragraph styles, then compiled it as a Word .docx file. I was happy to see that each style came through as a true Word paragraph style, with Scrivener’s default “No Style” mapped to Word’s “Normal.” In a second test, I created a brand new style with a unique name; it showed up as expected in Word’s Style gallery when I compiled the document. Creating, modifying, and deleting styles are all simple tasks, and switching between paragraph styles is simple.

The new style system comes at a cost, though: Scrivener 3.0 files are not backwards-compatible with previous versions of Scrivener. Round-tripping a file between a Mac and a Windows PC now requires exporting the Scrivener 3 project as a Scrivener 2 project. That’s frustrating, but I imagine that the number of people using both Mac and PC to round-trip projects is very small. The website says that version 3.0 for Windows will be here next year, I’ll believe that when I see it. Literature and Latte’s track record in that regard isn’t promising. The original Windows version took forever to be released, as did the iOS version.

The new interface has a lighter, more modern look to it, but the overall layout is much the same as Scrivener 2.0. I’m disappointed that I still can’t customize the formatting buttons—I almost never user Underline, so that button is wasted real estate for me. Meanwhile, I use strikethrough frequently, and I’d like to add that button to the formatting bar.

That’s a small matter, though, since I can always use the shortcut key for strikethrough. The paragraph style system was the big selling point for me, and it does what I’d hoped it would. It’s a bummer that I can’t round-trip projects, but I will learn to live without that. The primary use case for that scenario is my writer’s notebook, and I can use my iPad in a pinch.

Whether Scrivener 3.0 is worth the upgrade price ($25 if you bought before August 20, 2017—newer users get it gratis) for users who don’t care about paragraph styles, I can’t say. But for me, it solves my biggest frustration with the product, so I’ll gladly shell out the money come next payday.

Struggling

I’ve struggled to write blog entries for the past few days. Although I haven’t skipped a day, the topics have been anodyne, simply a recounting of some aspect of my daily life. I suppose that’s OK. Everything can’t be a deep, soul-searching memoir or a reaction to the latest gun idiocy.

Speaking of which… you heard about the idiot who was showing off a pistol in church and ended up shooting himself and his wife? Nothing says “responsible gun owner” like ignoring all four of the basic rules of gun safety. But I digress.

Oddly, I feel bad about the daily life posts, as if I’m not giving my best. As though my day-to-day life is not worth writing about. The inner critic whispers, No one wants to read about that. It says the same thing when I delve into memoir, too. Who cares about your past? No one wants to hear it.

I do it anyway. I want to be able to draw on the events of my life in my fiction, so it’s important to capture moments that might seem inconsequential right now. It’s also valuable to explore events in my past with an eye toward understanding how they shaped me. That will lead to more robust characters in my stories.

Mostly, what’s important to me is the discipline of writing every day, and more importantly, sharing it every day. The only way I’ll ever feel comfortable writing honestly and openly is to keep doing it, even when it feels uncomfortable.

 

Pardon me

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Yesterday, I wrote about my experience as a member of a Pentecostal church when I was in my twenties. I struggled to write it, and I struggled with publishing it.

The first reason I struggled was that I would be publically acknowledging something about myself that has been a source of shame to me for a long time. How did someone who was once thoroughly skeptical of fundamentalist Christianity get caught up in a Pentecostal church to the point where he would pretend to speak in tongues? That’s a topic that would take more than a few hundred words to explore. For now, what’s important is that it was very difficult to make this embarrassing episode in my life a matter for public consumption.

The second reason I struggled was that I was sure that it would offend some people. When I posted a link to the piece on both Twitter and Facebook, I added this note:

 

As I write this post, I have no idea if I was right or not. I haven’t logged onto Facebook, haven’t looked at my Twitter notifications.

I felt as though I had to take the risk, anyway. Fear of giving offense is the inner critic’s backup attack vector when, “You suck” stops working:

  • Your mother won’t like being presented in that light.
  • Your father will be so disappointed in you.
  • What will your family think?
  • What if your boss/potential employer/customers sees that?
  • You’re going to lose friends over this.

It sounds so reasonable, but once you give in to the impulse to self-censor, it grows. Today, you can’t write about religion. Tomorrow, politics. Soon your own memoirs are off-limits, and eventually, there is no topic you can write about.

I’m just starting to find my voice again, so I refused to shut myself down.

I had another reason to find the courage to publish the piece. I often counsel other writers to overcome their fear. How could I have any credibility if I couldn’t do the same thing? I had to show the same willingness to be vulnerable, the same courage to speak my mind that I advise others to develop.

Now, having finished this entry, I’m going to check in on social media and see if anyone hates my guts yet.

Noise

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I flew home today from visiting my family in Colorado. Unlike Friday’s flight out, when I had extra legroom and an empty seat next to me, I couldn’t write. Wedged into a cramped airline seat next to a guy as big as I am, I couldn’t get to my computer to get it out. Even if I could have extracted it from my bag, I couldn’t have used it. The woman in front of my tilted her seat back as soon as we got off the ground, and the keyboard would have been crammed into my stomach.

Instead of writing, I read. I had brought Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, The Golden House, which I had started reading a couple of weeks or so ago before I got distracted. Other than discomfort, there were no distractions in the sky, so I finished the book. One line jumped out at me:

I need to think and the city is full of noise.

It occurred to me that my life is full of noise, and that noise makes it hard for me to think. Social media. Television. Even work. Noise, noise, noise. If, as journalist William Wheeler said, “Good writing is clear thinking made visible,” then I’m going to continue to struggle to write well as long as I am too distracted to think clearly.

I need to find space and time in which to think so that I can write well. Maybe a repeat of last year’s social media sabbatical is in order. Maybe I should cut back on television. I definitely need to set aside more time for meditation and reflection.