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The Death Of Books: Deja Vu All Over Again

April 9th, 2010 Comments off

What could this ancient ad possibly have to do with publishing in 2010? Oh, it's a reach, but...

I’ve been hearing the death knell ringing for the book again a lot lately. Not any particular book. All of them. The book as an object, as something you can carry out of a store or, as Hemingway demonstrated, use to whack someone who gave you a bad review.

The death knell has been ringing for years, but periodically the monk in the bell tower works overtime. The latest uptick has been a sidebar to last weekend’s release of the Apple iPad, which encroaches into Amazon Kindle territory by featuring a built-in e-book reader and access to Apple’s new digital bookstore.

If Apple’s in, that’s gotta be the final stake in Johannes Gutenberg’s heart, right?

Before proceeding, full disclosure:

(1) I don’t have an irrational fear of, or hatred for, e-books and their requisite hardware.

In fact, I like the whole idea. E-delivery makes a lot of sense in many scenarios, especially when instant or rapid obsolescence is a factor, as with newspapers and magazines.

I like the idea of being able to market to anyone in the world with an Internet connection, at any time, independent of shelf stock and the geo-patchwork of where I have or haven’t sold foreign rights.

Plus you don’t have to look any farther than J.A. Konrath’s blog to see the enormous potential in making one’s backlist available as e-books.

(2) I have an emotional investment in this issue.

As someone who not only loves books, but has his byline on and in quite a few, I long to see the form continue. Just as forecasters who hang ten on technology’s cutting edge have an emotional investment of their own in shucking the old and seeing their predictions for the new come true.

(3) I have no clue how this is all going to shake out.

Books, physical books, could die. I’m not saying they won’t. Yet I can’t help recall that I’ve seen this play before, and that it didn’t remotely end as predicted:

With music synthesizers in the 1980s.

No, really!

I’ll make this as succinct as possible for the non-geek.

A Relevant Detour Into Music Tech History

In 1983, music technology landed a broadjump into the future with two events:

(1) Yamaha’s release of the first affordable digital synthesizer, the DX7. If you’ve heard any pop music at all from the ‘80s, trust me, you’ve heard this synthesizer.

(2) Industry-wide adoption of MIDI, a communications protocol that allowed digital components to talk to each other.

Prior to digital, synthesists were confined to analog instruments, whose sounds came from regulating electrical voltage. Maybe you’ve heard of Moog synthesizers? Analog.

The DX7 and all that it represented were almost universally regarded as THE future, and digital undeniably had lots of advantages over analog. It sounded brighter and shinier, it stayed in tune, it made sounds analog couldn’t, sounds could be saved as data and thus bought and sold and traded, instruments could be manufactured more affordably, and on and on. Plus MIDI let you do things like play a chord on one synth and hear it erupt out of five more at once.

“Analog” soon became synonymous with “unwanted” and “dinosaur.” Instruments that might’ve cost as much as a car languished at garage sale prices. Analog was pretty much given up for dead.

However: If you were keen on sculpting your own sounds, early digital synths weren’t particularly user friendly. All those retro knobs, sliders, and switches had disappeared beneath the hood, their functions vanishing into menus. The DX7’s programming interface had just one moving part: a data slider. It was for editing numerical parameters accessed by membrane switches, like on a microwave oven. Just tons of intuitive fun.

Digital synths got better, of course, but players still eventually smacked palms to foreheads with a hearty cry: “What were we thinking? We miss all those retro knobs, sliders, and switches!”

So along came the virtual analog synth: digital guts, analog-style controls.

And before long, the market for genuine analog gear came back. Even for modular synths, old-school behemoths that look like vintage telephone switchboards.

Another death knell was heard after computers grew powerful enough to run sophisticated sound engines, and software synths began to flourish: Well, that’s it, that’s the death of hardware.

It didn’t happen.

Instead, it all co-exists. Analog, digital, hybrids, modular, hardware, software — it all lives side-by-side. The ecosystem of choice and preference has never been more diverse.

And this is a relatively small, highly specialized market, compared to publishing.

So is it really that difficult to imagine a similar future for books? One that doesn’t come down to either-or, but both-and? Apparently for many prognosticators it is.

Apples And Oranges, Or Fruit Salad

I’m fully aware that, on the surface, this is a comparison of two things that have nothing to do with each other. One is a tool used in service of creating an artistic vision; the other, a means of delivery for a vision that’s already been completed.

But they have a couple of qualities in common that go deeper:

(1) User experience. That digital instruments provided a new way of synthesizing sound did not, in the end, supersede the old way of doing it, any more than synths as a whole superseded violins, marimbas, and grand pianos. Rather, once the novelty wore off, the shortcomings became apparent.

The book, as has been widely pointed out, is so good at doing what it’s designed to that it hasn’t needed an upgrade in centuries. It doesn’t take batteries, doesn’t crash, still works fine if it cracks, is easier to notate and highlight, you’re not out $399 if you drop it in the bath, and it’ll forgive you the indulgence of throwing a crappy one across the room.

Searchability, space efficiency, and ease of delivery, though — e-books win there, no question.

Still, a simulation of printed content, complete with flipping pages, is not a replacement for the real, tangible thing. Simulations hardly ever are.

(2) Cachet. On the surface, it makes no logical sense for a musician to pay $3000 for a new Minimoog when he could get a software emulation of it for $199. Few of his listeners would ever know the difference, or care if they did.

But the musician knows and cares, and it matters because he’s not just looking for a tool, but a relationship with something that appeals to his sense of distinction.

Likewise, readers have relationships with books. All of them? No. Some? Absolutely. A copy may be one of 200, or 20,000, or 2 million, but it’s still a unique individual. It occupies space and has a history. It’s yours. There isn’t another one exactly like it. This crease, that coffee stain, the lingering smell of some room.

To a reader, a physical book has worth apart from its monetary cost. It’s a vault that contains some mix of knowledge, wisdom, ideas, expression, and artistry, and agree with it or not, like it or not, the fact that it made it through the long and sometimes torturous route to ink and paper means something.

That our fingers and eyes spent hours mingling with its molecules means something.

That its spine can face us from a shelf and remind us of those hours, or entice us back for a return visit, means something.

And I’ve yet to see anybody who’s predicting the extinction of the physical book tackle why these associations will cease to be a factor with readers, much less argue that readers can transfer them over to an item we can make disappear in a split-second with a Delete key.

Yet, for all that, I welcome it.

I’m excited by the possibilities of the e-book, on its own terms. I like it for the things it can do and the places it can go that physical books can’t, at least not as easily. I embrace it for what it is and in spite of what it isn’t … and right now, top of the ISN’T list is this: the successor to analog books, the rumors of whose death, I suspect, have been greatly exaggerated.

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Hello world!

September 28th, 2009 1 comment

Welcome to Storytellers Unplugged. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

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Keep Watching This Space…

March 9th, 2009 4 comments

…for my replacement.

After close to three years of pinning down the 9th of each month, I’ve decided to relax the chokehold and turn the slot over to someone else.

Maybe this departure will end up being just a sabbatical. Or maybe not. The future is a writhing anaconda that way. For now, though, it’s the right thing to do.

Thanks for the feedback and commiserating nods along the way.

And in all things that matter most, the things that make you hate to see the day end, or glad to see the next one begin, may you flourish.

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24

January 9th, 2009 9 comments

I’m looking at the days a little differently lately. Wanting them, each and every one of them, to count for more than most of them seem to.

It’s the kind of feeling that naturally goes with January, and the empty, formless mold we’re given into which to slowly pour the coming year. But that’s not it this time, exactly … or if it is a contributing factor, that’s only because January’s blank slate, functionally arbitrary but flexing big symbolic muscle, reinforces what’s really on my mind.

His name was Tom, and I got word of him about a week before Christmas.

Because so many people knew him better, it seems important to not overstate the friend status. We hadn’t exchanged words or the sight of each other’s faces in more than a decade. Our lives periodically overlapped in pleasant but generally superficial ways for several years, and then they didn’t.

But Tom worked his way onto the thank-you page of a novel once, a novel that featured several characters who worked in radio, and because Tom was a radio guy for real, I absorbed a lot about that world by sharing a bar table with him and his co-workers for many of their off-hours, and sometimes watching them work.

Tom’s voice was his art, and it should have continued to shine along with the rising sun for decades to come. Radio guys are like blues players that way: Their best days are always ahead of them.

His earthly sign-off had just enough absurdity behind it that I can imagine us laughing about it once upon a time, as long as it was something that remained safely in the abstract: He slipped on ice and hit his head on a step. Didn’t think it was serious enough to see a doctor, although the impact evidently caused a slow breaking of something inside. Give it a few more days, he said after admitting to experiencing double vision. But by then he only had two days left, and he died alone. His teenage daughter found him at home.

He shouldn’t have died, I tell myself. He didn’t need to die.

But then, too, I recall a line of Neil Gaiman’s that’s always stuck with me, from The Sandman or one of its offshoots, placed with exquisite economy and timing on the lips of his perky-Goth personification of Death: “You got what anyone gets. You got a lifetime.”

Either way, I stand reminded that the days should count for more.

Because there’s an absurd little constellation of circumstances not unlike those that befell Tom that could claim me, you, anyone.

I think of how it might’ve been different: An MRI scan. Someone’s more thorough scattering of winter salt. Starting up/down those steps on the opposite foot, or six inches to either side. A few degrees more warmth that day. A different pair of shoes.

Instead, it all came together perfectly wrong.

And so I’m left with the gnawing feeling that the days should count for more, because I don’t know how many of them there are … and convicted that if I think there’s room for that in the first place, I’m the one who has let the gap exist, and the only one who can close it.

If you believe the conclusion of the most widespread survey never actually conducted, no one on his deathbed says he wishes he’d spent more time at work. Which sounds splendid, and maybe it plays fine in the kind of soul-sucking cubicles depicted in movies lit by the most uglifying fluorescents the set designer could find, but it ignores one thing: If you enjoy something, is it really work?

No, two things: Some callings are more than something you do, they’re something you are … and I don’t know but what it isn’t some sort of non-denominational venial sin to shrink from the task of becoming the best avatar of this calling that you can be.

Storyteller, for one? Yes. Yes. And let’s use the word Storyteller in its broadest possible sense, too, because even though we traffic in narrative here, Story is bigger than that. Story is embedded in the contours of a sculpture and in the pigments that coalesce in a painting; in the notes and silences of music, in the framing and exposure of a photo. If it arouses emotion, then somewhere in there you’ll find Story, and it probably came from a teller who, where his or her life’s calling is concerned, never really had much of a choice.

Not just something they did, but something they were.

And the thing about the pursuit of Story that always surprises and worries and delights and awes me — compared to, say, the perusal of spreadsheets — is this: What a difference a day makes. How different the idea or the execution of Story, ostensibly the same Story, can be from one day to the next. It can take an afternoon detour on a comment overheard at lunch, find a new symbol in a passing flock of geese, weave in the previous night’s dream, absorb the flavor of that morning’s argument or elation. For all I know, it can bend to something as unnoticed as a change in barometric pressure.

Each day in the service of Story is as rife with possibility, as many combinations of outcome, as there are potential variations in a pairing of sperm and egg.

This is the promise, the magic, the gamble, of each day.

And right now I’m loath to let one slip away without counting for more.

Because a legacy is more than something that gets catalogued and quantified at the end of a life, or the close of some long tenure behind a desk.

Each day has a legacy of its own, in its impact on our life’s loves and ambitions and dreams, and the sprawling, messy Story they comprise. The day will advance them, or hinder them, or, worst of all, let them mark time in place, right where you left them.

Remember that, and the year should take care of itself.

Here’s wishing you the best possible 2009 you can write.

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One From The Judge’s Chambers

November 9th, 2008 1 comment

If today’s title sounds familiar to long-time S.U. readers, that’s because I’m resorting to a rerun from August 2006. I had a fresh one underway but for the time being can’t see well enough, for long enough, to finish it, now that a cold has morphed into my first-ever case of pinkeye and both orbs are goo factories. If you’ve ever looked through a Vaseline-smeared lens, then you get the idea.

*

Throughout June and the first half of July, I served as a judge for a short story contest. It’s not something I particularly recommend doing when you already have a full platter or two of other stuff to tend to — which must be why the organizer asks waaaaay in advance — but it was an education.

Almost immediately, I gained a revitalized respect for editors. I wanted to get in the car and track down everyone I ever submitted to in the early days, and clutch their hands and tell them, “Thanks for reading. And I’m sorry. Really, I had no idea. I am so so sorry.”

And I only had to read 72 stories … 60 in the preliminary round, plus another dozen later when each of the judges read the others’ semi-finalists. Seventy-two stories, several of which were quite good — if I had my own periodical or anthology in the works, I would’ve bought some of them, and suggested revisions for a few others. Nonetheless, before it was over, I had at least a couple episodes of despair while watching the incoming e-mail status bar: Please, o gods, make it stop.

So: Editors who do this year-round — or even just once every year or two — I salute you.

What made the process so time-consuming is actually quite a good thing. It would’ve been much easier if a number of the entries had been the work of obvious semi-literates that could be weeded out after the first few paragraphs. Instead, even though some stories seemed to be early, derivative, or not-terribly-inspired works destined for their authors’ proverbial trunks, the entire batch came from people who no doubt passed their English and composition courses with flying colors. Which I found very heartening, given the usual statistics you hear about declining literacy levels.

(I know, I know — this wasn’t a representative sampling of the public at large. Let me cling to this fragile hope.)

Thus I tried to give each story as fair a reading as possible. Except, I confess, for the entry whose author had formatted it in single-spaced, 9-point Arial, making it fatally annoying to read. “No, I’m not going to do your formatting for you, so you’d better grab me in the first few — NOPE! SORRY! Thanks for playing, though!”

Really, now, do something like that, and aren’t you just begging to take the hit right out of the gate?

This may have been the most egregious example, but the hapless soul at fault was hardly alone. Several times I wanted to ask: Wherever did you get the idea that this even remotely approaches proper manuscript form? No paragraph indentations, or indentations that began as far over as the middle of the page; single-spaced text; double-spaced text in block paragraphs separated by 2 and even 3 punches of the Return key; and so on, and so on. One person had padded his or her story with so much white space that its 3800 words were spread out over 22 pages. Another had left the Microsoft Word document peppered with inserted comment balloons musing over alternate word choices, as though having sent in the story during the middle of revisions the writer couldn’t be bothered to complete.

To all these folks, I wanted to say this: High marks in grammar and composition are one thing. Manuscript mechanics are another … and this formatting stuff is NOT a secret. So do your homework first, and try to look as though you really care about what you’re doing.

If I were an editor, I can imagine that in some instances, regardless of a story’s merits, I might never get to them simply because the writer seemed so blithely unconcerned with making a good first impression. And if I, as the editor, had gone to the trouble of delineating the expected formatting in the writers’ guidelines … well, then I’d really feel peeved.

Cue Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction: “I won’t be ignored.”

What I found most educational, though, was a consequence of the blank slate of expectations that can only come from complete anonymity.

Before forwarding the stories to me, the person in charge of the contest had deleted the page 1 and header information that would identify the author. No name, no idea of age, gender, or how widely published the person was or wasn’t. Leaving no choice but to approach the story with zero preconceptions.

That’s a very different set of circumstances than reading a story by someone whose name you know and trust … which can sometimes be all you need to get you through a deceptively slow opening, or to forgive an uncharacteristically clunky bit of dialogue, or other lapses we can all be prey to.

Even when you don’t recognize an author’s name, you may still, if unconsciously, give him or her the benefit of the doubt out of association, to whatever extent you know and trust the editor of the anthology, magazine, etc.

In an anonymous contest, though, all these little graces are gone, and any advantages go with them. Which is as it should be. Each author had only words to win me over.

Soon I began to wonder why some did and others didn’t. Why does this one pull me in immediately, and this one leave me indifferent?

I tried to pinpoint what was going on, in a general sense, whenever it all seemed to click and the magic happened. Without exception, these stories declared themselves in their first few lines. They just seemed to exude a quality the others didn’t.

Unfortunately, as these intangibles so often go, it’s easier to eliminate what that quality isn’t than peg what it is. It has nothing to do with hitting the ground running, literally … like the preliminary slammer that so many movies begin with, as though their makers fear the audience will nod off to sleep unless they’re immediately hit with fireworks. And it has nothing to do with the kind of vague tip-off that some writers seem to think kick-starts instant suspense: “From the moment he woke up that morning and put on his stocking cap, Waldo knew that today was the day he was going to be found.”

Instead, what these stories had was something much more subtle. In each of them, the opening felt a bit like a curtain being pulled aside … but not all the way, sometimes allowing the merest glimpse past it. And, too, letting hints escape, maybe nothing more than whispers, but enough to make me think, I want to know more about this person, this scene, this situation, this world. Because I’d been given a tentative promise that it was all there, waiting inside, and would probably be worth the trip. Somehow, in just a paragraph or two or three, the author had managed to establish a connection, a trust. From the very beginning, there was a sense that I was in the hands of a natural born storyteller.

This brought to mind a statement I read several years ago, and which my memory wants to attribute to Ramsey Campbell: that the difference between a professional writer and an amateur lies in how they begin their work.

But back to the phrase “natural born storyteller.” This may sound as though the ability to pull the reader in is something genetic, and if you weren’t born with It, well, tough toenails. Au contraire. I’ve been reading some writers long enough to see them develop a much surer touch with their material than they displayed early on, and far greater adeptness at drawing the reader in from the first few lines. Then again, some people, though dextrous enough with language, never do seem to make the leap into compelling storytellers, so practice doesn’t always lead to perfection.

If I had to pinpoint the one shared fundamental among the contestants whose stories worked best for me, it would be this: They all had their own voices, or at least seemed further along than most in developing them. While I never knew their names, these writers nonetheless transcended anonymity.

The good news/bad news conundrum here is that voice is something no one can teach. You have to find and develop and refine it on your own. At any given time, it’s the fusion of 1001 little aesthetic and stylistic choices. It’s in the words you choose and the rhythms that emerge from the way you string them together. It’s in the details you notice and the observations you make and the turns of phrase you employ to make them. It’s the linguistic fingerprint that sets you apart from everyone else.

And, if you’re lucky, it may flow from you almost as easily and naturally as your breath. More likely, getting there may take so much work it feels as though you’ve had to follow the old advice on how to carve a horse from a block of marble: chisel away everything that doesn’t look like a horse.

In short, voice doesn’t come from adhering to a formula. It’s more akin to alchemy.

Of course, an enticing voice is no guarantee that the story will work in the end. During my brief and solemn judgeship, it was a big disappointment to, a time or two, watch a writer deliver a promising opening that pulled me right in, only to later go off the rails.

But you know…? Weeks later, I remember these near misses a lot better than I do the stories that may have successfully incorporated all the requisite 101-level components, but never rose above the merely adequate. Because the near misses showed more promise. Because they related a more singular vision. Because one’s story sense can catch up to one’s voice with greater experience. And because, for a while at least, these stories brought the magic.

And if their authors were able to step forward, identify themselves, and let me read their next work, I would genuinely look forward to seeing it … no less than I would welcome something more from those contestants who had me from beginning to end … even if they didn’t necessarily wind up with a prize. They had something better: a solid foundation to build upon.

Instead, it’ll have to be enough to watch and wait, pulling for them without knowing who they are … and someday listening for the strains of a voice that I suspect maybe, just maybe, I’ve heard before.

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The Right And The Wrong Of It (So Far) – Part 2 Of 2

January 9th, 2008 9 comments

by Brian Hodge

[Podcast edition available through iTunes, or here.]

I promised you a beating this month. My own.

As sketched out in Part 1 last month, I turned 2007 into a more introspective year than usual. The schema was to be as honest with myself as possible while sorting out where I’ve come from, where I am now, and where I intend to go. A crucial part of this was qualifying the instincts and strategies that have helped move me forward, along with the blunders and bad habits that have done the opposite.

The overall objective should be obvious: to identify what’s worked so I could increase my commitment to it, and to put the boneheaded screw-ups in the rear-view mirror while still being mindful of their consequences … if only to make room for a whole new crop of boneheaded screw-ups. I’m only half-joking. Nobody gets very far in life without realizing that failures often end up being a lot more instructive than triumphs.

So, this month, for your dancing pleasure, some of the hardest lessons I’ve ever learned.

But first, there’s one last item that belongs in the positive side, which only occurred to me the other day. It’s so integral that I can’t believe I overlooked it last month. It’s not a works-for-me-but-may-not-apply-to-you thing. I feel safe in declaring this to be of universal merit.

I got anal-retentive about turning in the cleanest manuscripts I could.

This goes beyond the mechanics of formatting and eye appeal. Before a manuscript goes anywhere, I try my best to scrub it of every typo, grammatical lapse, inadvertent homonym, and every other brain fart that I can chase down.

Say so we all? I’m sure we all do. I can’t fathom anyone knowingly turning in sloppy work. Well, on second thought, I can, since I’ve been a contest judge, but I believe most writers take enough pride in their work to present it in the best form they can.

Still, consider this: I’ve received compliments on the cleanness of my manuscripts from editors at small press outfits, computer/electronics monthlies, and on up to Simon & Schuster. I don’t say that for self-aggrandizement, but to point out that if I’m getting complimented for clean manuscripts, that can only mean they’re standing out from what the editor usually sees.

You’ll never catch every mistake. When you’re so familiar with your own material, the eye can see what it expects to see rather than the blooper that’s actually there. Editors understand that. And, in the end, story trumps all. But anything you can do to make your editor’s life easier, while at the same time demonstrating pride in your work, will be noticed and appreciated, and that never hurts the future of a working relationship.

And now, finally, the flipside: those things that make me whack my forehead and say “If only, if only…”

I concentrated more or less equally on short stories and novels.

Waaaait a minute … wasn’t this the leadoff item in the plus column last month?

So good of you to notice. What we have here is a blatant example of someone trying to have it both ways. Nobody ever said writers have to be consistent in their outlooks — in fact, it helps a lot to be able to look at the same thing from opposing points of view.

Last month I listed many positive things that short stories had done for me. Nothing’s changed since then. It all still applies.

And yet…

The plain truth is, in this era, a writing career generally isn’t built on short stories. Novels count the most. Novels get the most prestige. Novels get the most attention. Standard publishing wisdom holds that readers aren’t nearly as interested in short form fiction, and that story collections don’t sell nearly as well as novels, and contracts tend to reflect that.

I can’t say that short stories haven’t been artistically satisfying. I’ve written and published around 100 of them. I have a handful in progress now. I’m proud of them. Proud of the three collections I’ve compiled, and am happy to be nailing together a fourth.

Yet I can’t help looking at my bookshelves and wondering what the impact on my career to this point would’ve been if the time and effort that went into those collections had gone into three or four other novels, instead … and another three or four more in lieu of the stories that remain uncollected.

There are no do-overs, no chances to try it two ways and see which works out better. There are only fences, and grass on the other side that looks greener, or not, depending on the light.

For a period, I skidded into a mindset in which I felt one novel had to be in place before I could really commit to the next one.

There have been times when a novel didn’t sell right away, and instead of doing the smart thing and moving on to the next one while waiting for time and circumstances to catch up to the orphan, I found it almost impossible to look ahead, let alone step ahead. It could reasonably be diagnosed as a paralysis brought on by a lingering sense of unfinished business.

I honestly don’t know how that happened. I certainly didn’t start out that way, and in fact had early proof that when time and circumstances do catch up to the orphan, things can turn out even better than what seemed likely before. And I’m pretty much past it now.

But I’ll never get that time back.

I let one significant setback defeat me for much longer than it should have.

I’ve debated whether or not to use numbers here, even in the most general sense, or if metaphors wouldn’t be the more polite way to go. Screw it. Numbers it is. No metaphor can convey the degree of the blow half as well.

A few years back, I went from a six-figure book to cold zero on the next. Reactions to such a turn of fortune can be complex and evolving, but for starters, “gutted” is as good a description as any.

I’m a boxing fan. Awhile back I read that George Foreman said he went through a two-year depression after he lost the heavyweight title to Muhammad Ali in Zaire in 1974. This stopped me. I thought, Yeah … that sounds about right. Not that I was the heavyweight champion of the world. I just felt on top of it.

Climbing out of that hole took its own time, across a landscape of ups and downs, and the one thing I couldn’t begin to think of attempting was probably the one thing that could’ve sped the process along: the occupational therapy of getting another novel going. But the fear of repeating what happened was just too great.

I’ll never get that time back, either.

Worse, in fact, the whole situation may have been avoidable, if I’d used better foresight. May have been. There’s no way of knowing. But it makes a better lesson if I believe that it was. Because…

I thought there was time to coast.

Once that lucrative book was in place, and slated as the publisher’s lead title for its month, I felt exhausted by what it had taken to get there, and just wanted to curl up for a year or so and write short stories.

They’ll wait for me, I thought.

And they may have. Except they weren’t there anymore. By the time I delivered the option novel, the publisher had been taken over and everyone I’d dealt with had been fired in wave after wave of corporate bloodletting. I was part of the clean sweep too.

I don’t know what would’ve happened if I hadn’t waited. I like to think I could’ve had one more go-around, at least, with the editor who’d fought hard to win the earlier novel, who got what I was doing, and with whom I’d hoped to have a long and fruitful association. I’ll just. Never. Know.

But I do know this much now: Coasting only works on the downhill side of the slope.

I have an Xbox 360.

You may have picked up a recurring theme by now, about the importance of how one chooses to spend one’s time.

If there’s a bigger, more crack-headedly addictive waste of time than a high-def gaming console, please, I beg you, please please please don’t tell me about it. And don’t show me any pictures, either. Especially don’t send them to my web site e-mail address, brian [at] brianhodge [dot] net. Because that would be wrong.

Admittedly, I bought the Xbox because I needed it to write a magazine article. I could’ve, should’ve, sold it immediately afterward. But I didn’t. Because I’d already itched for one even before the article came up.

And please don’t offer to buy it from me now. I’ll have to find an excuse to say no, and that will make me an even bigger hypocrite than I already am.

What — you thought I was going to go out on a downer?

Sorry, I don’t see the point of that. As the man said, there’s no crying in baseball. In writing, maybe a little, but we can get away with it because we spend so much time behind closed doors. Writers are, by-and-large, self-made men and women, and on occasion we may be the obvious products of green and inexperienced labor.

We blow it sometimes. Blow it a little, blow it in an epic way. But if we know our strengths, and what we’ve done right, they’ll always be there, a core foundation to turn to when we need to regroup, take stock, and put ourselves back together again.

The main thing: just turn the page. Even when, especially when, you have to write it yourself.

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Extract

October 9th, 2007 Comments off

by Brian Hodge

[Podcast edition available here … but it’s not just a straightforward story reading. It’s a 5-minute, 26-track audio production with ambience and atmospheres, music, sound effects, different voices … a movie for the mind.]

Just like last time, you awaken in the middle of the night with the taste of blood on your mouth. It’s thick and gummy, has been drying awhile. The moon drapes a bright trapezoid of silvery light over the top of your bed, crosshatched like the panes of your window and slashed with the bare branches of trees.

When you raise your head, no more than you have to, you spot the dark, coin-sized stains on your pillow. They hadn’t been there when you went to bed.

You sink down in the covers to become invisible beneath them, in hopes that it won’t see you if it’s still in the room. You try to lie motionless, refusing to surrender to that urge to tremble, because if it’s still there, it might hear even the tiniest chattering of your teeth.

It knows teeth. Intimately.

You listen for the soft sigh of its breath; through slitted eyes dissect the shadows for its shape, maybe the glint of an eye or two. You remain razor-alert for the creak of a board, for the metallic click of the tools it carries.

And somewhere on the far side of forever, you realize it has the inhuman patience to outwait you all night.

Demons, you suppose, must enjoy the waiting.

If you weren’t so convinced it was still there, you’d run to the bathroom for the aspirin. The throbbing in your jaw is starting to grow more pronounced, pain taking form out of the numb void.

But the only movement you’ll risk so far is something it can never see … although you wonder if its ears might not be so sharp that it can hear the sliding inside your mouth. The way you can’t help but press the tip of your tongue into that fresh hole in your jaw, exploring the hot moist socket newly emptied of tooth. It feels huge, another gaping wound gouged in gum and bone, big as a bucket and still brimming with blood.

Then, slowly, the recollections start to piece themselves together again:

Awakening to the prick of the needle.

The immense pressure of that hard round knee — or whatever it was belonging to the thief’s anatomy — bearing down on your chest, to hold you in place.

The taste of metal in your mouth, its firm, insistent grip.

Then, after the ordeal of twisting, of tugging, of cracking, the sigh of something’s satisfaction — definitely not your own.

Reliving all this, you shudder in the moonlight, knowing if it’s still in the room, it can’t help but notice you now. With this much lost, your invisibility betrayed, you let curiosity get the better of you, and slide your small cold hand back, beneath your pillow…

Where it closes on another crisp dollar bill.

No such thing as a tooth demon, your best friend told you at school, after the first time; not that she’d ever heard of. For a while this reassured you, because if anyone would know about these things, she would.

She’s got the kind of parents you wish you had, at least when it comes to the movies and comics and magazines they let her see. How you love going to her house, because the family room becomes a magic theater where you get to watch all the films forbidden under your own roof, and walking into her bedroom is like a trip to a museum where you can learn about all the terrible and fantastic creatures that make their homes behind the dark of night…

But aren’t really supposed to creep uninvited into your room while you’re asleep.

So this tooth demon must exist, obviously. Just look how hard it’s breaking the rules.

Ever more educated about such things, your friend once showed you a comic book that told about the one rule that all demons, no matter how mighty, must obey: If called by name, their true name, they must submit to your control.

A board creaks. A shadow disengages from the deeper darkness along the far wall, while moonlight glints off the pliers clicking in its eager hand.

One name is all you need, strong enough to contain all your hopes and prayers that your friend is worth such trust. One name.

“Daddy?” you try, and this works. It stops.

But only for a moment.

As soon as you can talk again, you’ll try another name.

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The Other Final Frontier

September 9th, 2007 9 comments

by Brian Hodge

[Podcast edition also available here. Now with 200% more Monty Python clips.]

Since last we spoke, the miracle has happened once again. Yay.

Each time, I welcome it with the kind of gratitude and awe that I imagine my distant ancestors must have lavished on the returning sun each winter solstice as those first rays of dawn broke over the horizon and between the menhirs. Like them, I’ve experienced the cycle enough times to confidently expect that the latest one won’t be any different from all the ones before…

But there’s always that awful chance, isn’t there? That during the longest night, the sun might lose its way, or a trickster might snatch it from the sky.

That the novel won’t start to create its own illumination.

The new one has been underway for a while and following a pattern so familiar that it seems almost as codified as the Stations of the Cross.

In beginning, I pick my way along as though finding a path across a minefield. Progress can charitably be called torturous. Any momentum is less a reward for my efforts than a spastic lunge after tripping over my own feet. The English language turns strange and clunky, and I wonder if vital centers of my brain haven’t sustained some irrevocable damage. Characters feel as if they have all the originality of tobacco shop Indians, and about as wooden.

A confession: I’ve always envied those writers who can hit the ground running, and usually been gracious enough not to wish they’d slip and twist an ankle.

In spite of it all, one by one, the pages mount up…

…eventually ushering in the day that changes everything, a day that is to the novel as the Solstice is to the sun: Huh … that wasn’t so bad today, now was it?

Finally, the novel and I have arrived at what I call the Headspace.

Name something and you’re closer to owning it, but even so, there are no easy definitions here. Like subatomic bits that can be both particles and waves, the Headspace is a polymorphous concept. Sometimes it’s a state of mind. Sometimes it’s a place. At other times it’s even akin to a state of grace. Very early, before the novel boasts a page 1, the Headspace has no more substance than mist and vapor and shadows thrown by sparks. It exists only in the future tense, a dream of something I need to grope my way toward, without much to sustain the effort other than the faith that it really is out there, a slippery hybrid of something that is found and built and grown.

And for all the cosmic blather, you’d think that attaining the Headspace would announce itself in a spectacle to rival the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In a pig’s ass it does.

Because it’s a quiet affair, with a dismaying absence of trumpets blaring from the sky. Too bad. Trumpets really would help — if nothing else, as a monster ego booster. Instead, it’s more like the scene in every movie ever made that features an old-school safecracker. With ears as sensitive as his fingertips, he leans against the door next to the combination lock, and after some excruciatingly precise finessing about and a few beads of sweat, there’s that first satisfying click of the tumblers.

I’m in.

And it’s about damned time.

This summer, when I proofread the galleys for an upcoming edition of an earlier novel, Prototype, it crossed my mind that, even though it first came out in 1996, if forced to add more to it, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Prototype’s Headspace has long been complete and intact. As with a house I once may have lived in, I would always know my way around if I ever went back.

When a novel is complete, I can hold it in its entirety. Not just in my hands … in my head and heart and soul.

But before I can hold the novel, the novel must first hold me.

I must live inside it as it’s spun around me like a cocoon. Its fibers are made up of story and character, incidents and consequences. But these are just the inert materials you can find in an outline. They lie on the slab waiting to be animated. They need more. Emotion and nuance and style and atmosphere and a jillion other things that comprise the lifeblood that flows between the words, and the DNA that marks this novel as unique among all others.

This is the Headspace, and it’s where the magic happens.

Characters open up and surprise me with depths and histories they’d been coy about sharing before. Snatches of dialog are overheard from the future and demand to be transcribed now, stored for whenever their day comes. Connections and possibilities bloom in fields that once looked barren. Lines that may be used on the next page, or not for another 200, drift in like feathers from passing birds … along with droppings, too, but that’s okay. Today’s manure is tomorrow’s fertilizer.

This is the Headspace, and I carry it with me for the duration, like an ever-thickening cloud.

There’s a danger here, too. Because we’re talking about a long commitment filled with demands. The Headspace must be fed and tended; it needs maintenance and upkeep. Frequently. Otherwise, it can drift away before you realize you’ve lost your hold on each other, like a balloon from your fingertips, leaking air and deflating into a sad, sagging lump that no longer looks familiar.

This is the Headspace, and it endures only when it’s complete.

Sometimes I wonder about the possibility of the things we create having attained an objective reality of their own … not just on the page, but having congealed into living, breathing form somewhere. Somebody steeped in the theories of quantum reality could riff on that for hours, probably, although they may not convince me that I haven’t gotten it backwards the whole time: that what we write is an imperfect reflection of the Platonic Ideal of a novel that already exists in the ether, which we try to recreate the best that we can.

Either way, whatever it is, to me it’s the Headspace, and I’m sure there must be better places to live right now.

But I sure can’t think of any.

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Untangling The Webs

August 9th, 2007 8 comments

by Brian Hodge

[Podcast edition also available here.]

I lie so that I may tell the truth.

Somebody said that about writing, but I can’t recall who. And Google’s no help. The only hit that comes up is when I used the same quote here last September.

Always had better luck with this one:

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.

July 2007. I’m proofreading the galleys for this autumn’s new edition of my 1996 novel Prototype, about a young man trying to understand and overcome the rare new chromosomal mutation he carries, and its personal and societal implications. Nice to encounter old friends again, even if many of them are prickly and distraught.

Not Sarah, though. She’s one of the most life-affirming characters to have ever graced my pages.

Sometimes we write characters we would fall in love with if they walked through the door, even when we’re in love with someone who already has. Except Sarah’s a lesbian, so friends is all we could ever be.

A detail when we first meet her: She scuffed around on wide peasant feet, a legacy from a barefoot childhood. At twenty-nine, Sarah still distrusted shoes.

Elsewhere: She wore rumpled socks and a T-shirt that fell to mid-thigh, promoting some den called Club Cannibal, on the Ivory Coast … its tribal mask design staring…

I’d half-forgotten these traits. But I know where they came from: Oh yeah, that’s right. I gave her Doli’s feet, and one of her T-shirts.

The encounter makes me happy. Time has folded and pressed then and now together like two dots on opposite ends of a sheet of paper.

Doli still has the feet. Then I wonder whatever happened to the T-shirt. Haven’t seen it for years. Probably wore out and got recycled for dust-rags.

The realization makes me sad in ways I find hard to clarify. Maybe because, as went the T-shirt, so too will her feet turn to dust. Someday.

November 1987. About a dozen miles from my Illinois hometown, from my front door, a family named Dardeen is murdered in and around their home. Father, mother, three-year-old boy, infant daughter born during the attack.

Savage hardly even begins to cover it. The county sheriff’s department and State Police detectives say it’s the worst thing they’ve ever seen. Some are veterans of Vietnam, and say they never saw anything this bad even there. Local reports stress the enormous strength of the killer or killers.

The crime won’t be solved for more than 12 years.

For the duration, I’m haunted in that distant way you can be haunted by the fates of people you’ve never known. Imagination fills voids. There’s no face to the killer, so I’m free to imagine one. Given the horrid strength and extreme inhumanity of his deeds, and his vanishing act, it’s easy to envision something more or less than human. There’s something perversely comforting in flirting with the notion that some other realm coughed up a monstrosity that evening that did its work, left a family dead and the surrounding communities terrified, and then returned to … wherever.

I have no idea how I’ll write about this one day. Just know that I’ll have to.

Spring 1997. I’m writing a novella called “As Above, So Below.” It’s intended to be the capstone of my second story collection, Falling Idols, and some years later will also be chosen to fill the 1998 slot in the massive The Century’s Best Horror Stories anthology.

Its central character, Austin, is after many years reunited with Gabrielle, a childhood friend he grew to love in young adulthood. At the time, he’s retreated to a shack in the desert where, while he maintains a grip on reality, reality is losing its grip on him. Somebody else whose motivations make no sense at the time leaves Gabrielle’s feet on his porch for Austin to find one morning. Of course he recognizes them. Because:

What a privilege that he’d been able to see them over so many years, in so many circumstances — child-size to full-grown, wading in streams and kicking in lakes, running through grass and skipping over hot pavement, and, more languidly, tracing chills of pleasure along his legs, his chest. Her feet … Her dear feet.

I don’t make the connection until summer 2007, a few paragraphs into this essay.

It unsettles me in ways I find difficult to pin down. Because it makes me think I don’t know myself at all.

January 2000. Tommy Lynn Sells, now 35, is arrested for the rape and murder of children in Texas. He’s been drifting and killing since he was 16. Dozens of times, he estimates. Thirteen confessions are soon confirmed. Including a family in Illinois.

I once spent 3 days not knowing who kidnapped and murdered a friend for his car. Can’t imagine what 12 years of it does to someone left behind … only the staying power of life’s worst mysteries.

April 1994. Kurt Cobain has just blown his brains out with a shotgun. The news makes me sad in ways I find hard to articulate.

A few days earlier — or was it a few days later? — an area TV weatherman took his private plane up just high enough so he could perform a deliberate nosedive into the tarmac. Reports say he was distraught over an affair with a co-worker.

I should be concentrating on my newest novel. Prototype, I guess this would’ve been. Except for four consecutive mornings I get up and write a story about a recent college graduate, adrift in purpose and haunted by the fates of a TV meteorologist and Kurt Cobain, people he’s never known. He finds a strange solace in starting a freelance business writing other people’s suicide notes.

I send “Mostly Cloudy, Chance of Kurt” to a magazine editor who wants a story from me. It only seems to confuse him. I ask what sort of thing he’d rather see from me. His only touchstone: Was I familiar with the old Kolchak: The Night Stalker series?

I tell him, in essence, to take it or leave it, that that’s where my head has been lately. He takes it. But the whole exchange sort of leaves me wanting to blow out my own brains.

August 2002/Autumn 2003. When I finally see Tommy Lynn Sells on the CBS news program 48 Hours, he looks nothing as I’ve imagined. He looks … kinda runty. He has a mullet haircut. He should be playing bass in a cheesy ‘80s nostalgia band on the Holiday Inn lounge circuit.

A year later, when I research the case for an essay I’m writing for a fundraiser anthology, Sells’s interior life rekindles the dread that seeing his external self had defused. “I’ve woken up before in places where I don’t know how I got there and I got blood on myself,” he told the investigator who arrested him.

The self-preservation instincts that must have been operating on a level beneath his conscious awareness are terrifying to contemplate.

Great — a new haunting.

January 2005. As if there isn’t enough to contend with while
trying to finish a novel with a tight deadline that’s due soon after the holiday season, and Doli injecting the chaos of a redecoration project that overflows its borders, my mother informs me that she no longer has any feelings for me, and doesn’t care to ever see or hear from me again.

This is rooted primarily in religion. I developed a different spiritual outlook than the one I was raised in, with a less restrictive concept of the divine, and no amount of condemnations and interventions could change that. Also, she says, my writing and I are a huge embarrassment to her in the town where I grew up.

I remember her telling me she quit reading Prototype as soon as she realized that two of its main characters were lesbians. “What about all the ones before them that were killers?” I want to ask. “You didn’t seem to have too much of a problem with them. Or with showing up at my local book-signings with your camera and a smile.”

February 2006. John Shirley, a writer whose work I’ve always known much better than the man himself, writes the Foreword to the new edition of Prototype.

An excerpt: He’s also a damned dark writer. He illuminates our own personal darknesses by showing us the darker dark. And this book, Prototype, is, as far as I know, the darkest thing he’s ever written. It is as if, after he wrote this one, he saw some light himself and never needed to go back down to this depth.

For a bit over a decade John would’ve been right. But because we’re respectful acquaintances, rather than pals who keep in touch, John has no way of knowing I’ve finished about as deep a dive a few weeks earlier, for a short novel called World of Hurt.

It involves, among other things, the corrosive potential of religious intolerance and control, and a killer who can’t be caught even if he tries, because people don’t see what’s really there.

Written in a few months. Over 18 years in the making.

June 2007. After 2½ years of ignoring periodic contacts, my mother calls to tell me that someone is dead. My aunt. Her sister-in-law. She doesn’t know how or when, other than sometime last year. She didn’t know because she’s also been estranged from her brother for several years. My uncle the lay minister. She found out only when she saw a newish tombstone near the grave of my grandfather.

I’m glad for the call, for the contact, for the sound of her voice, although one of her statements ranks among the more puzzling I’ve heard in a while: that she felt she had to choose between Jesus and me.

I guess he’s welcome to her.

Still, it perplexes me in ways I haven’t sorted out yet.

She doesn’t ask what I’m working on, and I’m not sure I’d even tell her if she did. But it’s been germinating for a long time, maybe since 2002, and two of the main characters are siblings whose mother has no affection for them, and no use either, other than whatever prestige that their obedience to expectations might bring the family.

There’s a part of me that feels grateful to have had real insights into what that’s like. The rest of me thinks, no, I’m not … but it’s just too much to waste.

Spring & Summer 2007. Our deck overlooks a plot of ground I used to call the dog park. Dogs still run there, but over the past two years neighbors have cultivated part of it, 7 of the most beautiful, bountiful little vegetable gardens you’ve ever seen. They make me happy in ways that are no mystery. Samwise Gamgee is, overall, my favorite hobbit, for his loyalty and optimism and his love for green and growing things.

Beyond the gardens, though, something malignant seems to be growing.

It’s happened annually for, what, five years now? The Colorado winter subsides and everyone leaves their windows and sliding doors open most of the time. We let the air in and part of ourselves out.

And, often, a couple across the way scream at each other. We’ve never seen them, only heard their voices carrying over the grass, past the gardens, through the trees. Nights and evenings, typically; some weekend afternoons.

Every year, the same initial reaction: I can’t believe they’re still together.

She’s a lot louder than he is. But he’s getting there. They transcend mere arguments so profoundly that I have no way of conveying the depth of hurt and loathing they broadcast. Yet if they’re still together by now, it all must be wrapped up in some grotesquely warped version of love. It seems a horrible way to live. She always shrieks that she’s sick of it. Still, they keep living this way.

But this year it’s worse. You can hear things getting thrown at walls. They’ve added early mornings to their schedule.

Mostly, though, it’s in the timbre of her voice: a level of sustained hysteria I’ve not heard before, that makes me wonder if there’s something seriously emotionally wrong with her, and if living this way has caused it. It’s like the sound of metal being twisted past stress tolerances.

Every year, the same secondary reaction: a sense that this auditory Rear Window–type situation will work itself into a story, a novel, something. Until this moment, it hasn’t.

I wonder if I’ve just been waiting for something worse to happen.

Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. Almost everywhere you go, you have to answer the same question: “So, what do you do?”

My answer has always been straightforward. And I thought it was honest. But maybe it could be more truthful.

“I rob graves,” I could say. “Past, present, and future graves.”

Or maybe, “I’m a cannibal. Of sorts. Really — the woman I love used to have the T-shirt to prove it.”

It gives me a sense of purpose in ways that don’t always make sense until later.

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In Praise of Concrete and Rebar

July 9th, 2007 7 comments

by Brian Hodge

Spend enough time online and you’re guaranteed to encounter certain things:

Foreign-language speakers apologizing for poor English when their written communication skills are far more coherent than those of a distressingly large number of the English speakers to whom they’re apologizing.

Displays of courage dot com whose bluster puts professional wrestlers to shame.

And, if it’s a site where the number of writers hanging out has hit critical mass, neophytes seeking advice. Anxiety-ridden, whiff-of-panic pleas on how to continue wrangling some project that started out with promise and, after a few dozen pages, morphed into an overgrown briar patch devoid of exits.

I saw another one not long ago. The Stricken Writer’s dilemma: Should he keep grinding onward … or back off long enough to make more sense of where he was and what he had, reworking it as necessary, before continuing to add to it?

Nobody ever lacks for answers asking something like this. Either/or — it’s easy. And the answers had come in one after another after another: Grind that sucker out. Don’t look back now. You have all this momentum built up, so you don’t want to waste it. Finish while you’re in the grip of inspiration.

You could almost hear the voice of George Kennedy from Cool Hand Luke: “Git mad at them damned eggs! Eat it there, boy! Gnaw on it!”

Uniformly, the rationale behind the counsel Stricken Writer was getting was that the sensible thing to do was pound the novel out while the creative fever was hot, and then, only then, start trying to make sense of it.

After several of these theme and variations, Stricken Writer acquiesced. Everybody was probably right. Yes, he should get over his misgivings, cowboy up, and soldier on.

I had a couple of simultaneous reactions.

First, to myself: Wow … am I some kind of towering, overly cautious imbecile because I think this ranks among the worst consensus advice I’ve heard since a few of us talked our pal Keith into peeing on an electric fence?

Second, to Stricken Writer: Why are you lending this much credence to people who may be well-meaning, but, as near as I can tell, don’t have substantially more experience or credits to their bylines than YOU do?

Not that I posted this. There’s no way to say a thing like that without insulting everyone involved, and I really try to steer clear of bulletin board pie fights, and especially try not to start them, because it’s awfully hard to come out of them looking good under all that meringue.

Fortunately the cavalry arrived a little farther down the thread, a prolific writer whose work I was definitely familiar with, whom I respect professionally and like personally … and who’d already found a more diplomatic way to convey the rebuttal that was formulating in my mind:

That Stricken Writer might instead find it more beneficial to invest whatever time he needed to get a handle on what he’d written, and clarify where he saw it going and how best to get there, before trying to advance any further.

In other words, shoring up the foundation and feeling secure in its integrity before continuing to build. Grunt work — drudgery, even? Yeah, maybe so … but the next time you look at an ornate cathedral or gleaming office tower, consider all the drab, unheralded parts that it’s standing on.

If memory serves, Stricken Writer acquiesced here, too.

Now, let there be no mistake: I wholly believe there’s a time for blindly whipping a troublesome beast across the finish line before you actually know what you’re riding, or if it bears any resemblance to what you thought it would.

But I also believe that doing this successfully is a product, more often that not, of a certain degree of confidence, and earned confidence at that … and in this instance, Stricken Writer clearly didn’t have it. Even if he was predisposed toward barging ahead and was looking for validation of what he’d already decided. Because when you’re truly confident, you don’t need anybody else’s validation.

If every project of any significant size is, at its heart, a journey, consider the two strategic polarities in how to undertake it:

(1) The Jungle Explorer. Hacks away and forges ahead no matter what. Continually fueled by the thrill of discovery. Doesn’t matter if he can’t see three feet in front of his face — trusts that a viable path always lies before him. (Or her. Doesn’t usually let pronoun genders get in the way.)

(2) The Travel Agent. Meticulously arranges all stops and routes in advance. Minimal room in itinerary for surprises or detours. Insurance and inoculations taken care of before departure. Currency rates checked daily, phrase book always handy.

Two polarities, but in practice, an infinite number of hybrid positions along the continuum between. There’s no objective right or wrong about any of them, only what subjectively works best for a particular project. Most of us gravitate to wherever we need to be based on habits, comfort zones, and instincts rooted in prior experience, which has supplied a base of practical knowledge to draw from.

Still, if there’s one instinct that operates independent of experience, it’s the sense that tells you when you’re in trouble. It obviously served Stricken Writer well — he knew he was in the thick of it. He only needed someone to tell him that it was OK. That it happens. That if he wasn’t yet ready for a freefall into the Amazon Basin, there was nothing wrong with taking extra time to study the land and chart a better course.

Why, then, such a dogged insistence on telling someone to press ahead even when he’s just admitted to losing sight of what he’s doing and where he’s going? I have to wonder if it isn’t because, being human, we naturally crave quick gratification … and we live in a culture that teaches us to define progress in readily quantifiable terms. Numbers. Thus it’s a lot easier to count the pages you racked up today and exclaim, “Look how productive I was!” than to evaluate whether or not those pages work, or even belong there in the first place.

Does this mean they have to emerge ready for typesetting? Absolutely not. But they should leave you with a sense that they serve the project as a whole, and don’t comprise some unrelated or incoherent tangent you’re on because you don’t know what else to do.

We all need to explore sometimes, and follow where a path seems to lead. Wondrous things can be waiting on the other side of a leap of faith. But there can come a time when racking up pages just for the sake of racking them up becomes a distraction, a refusal to stop and think about what you’re really trying to accomplish … and if you’re anywhere in sight of that goal.

It’s frustrating enough to contend with this when you’re a seasoned veteran. But if you’re a novice with 60 or 80 pages that have turned into an ill-defined, unfocused, poorly constructed mess … well, I can’t think of many things more dispiriting than amassing 300 or 400 pages, and being forced to admit that your problems have only increased exponentially.

So. A few observations:

(A) It’s a lot less daunting to fix 60 or 80 pages than it is to fix 300 or 400.

(B) Maintaining momentum is invaluable … but not if you’re heading for a brick wall.

(C) If your idea is really worth pursuing, don’t worry about your inspiration deserting you. It’ll survive your efforts to serve it better. And you
may even find it invigorated once you’ve found your footing.

(D) If your inspiration doesn’t survive, then consider that the idea wasn’t that strong in the first place.

(E) The only gut instincts really worth trusting are your own.

(F) If you encounter an electric fence and your friends look at you and start to grin, feign deafness.

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