This post is not funny. Because writing humor is hard, y’all.

Today was the day that I was supposed to take a break from my labors and work on a humorous essay that I could sell/publish/give to a journal. Or any publication, really.

I was looking forward to this task, because I like writing funny, because I needed a break from revising some decidedly unfunny parts of my novel, and because August is trickling away to nothing and if I don’t write now, I’ll be up to here in class prep work and nothing will get done.

So I sat down, hellbent on being funny. And you know what happened? I pulled a Fozzie Bear.

Nothing I write today is funny. Oh sure, I managed a funnyish status on Facebook and a moderately amusing tweet this afternoon, but really? Everything else is so much wocka, wocka.

This is not a problem I often have. Normally, I can find the funny in my writing, but I think the trouble today is that I’m trying to be funny. Writing humor is like writing love or writing scary. It only works (for me) when I sneak up on it.  I do best at writing humor when I’m concentrating on some other aspect of the piece.

Photo courtesy of Roger H. Goun, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License on Flickr.

It’s like hunting. Actually, no. My  only knowledge of hunting comes from watching Elmer Fudd in Warner Bros. cartoons, so let me relate it to something I’ve actually done.

Writing humor is like being a jilted education reporter on deadline. You see the school board member who hasn’t been calling you back at a press conference for something else at City Hall. You know she sees you. You need her quote, but you can’t head straight for her or she’ll bolt. So you pretend you don’t even see her, and you sidle up to the Superintendent of Schools and the Teacher of the Year because they’re standing between her and the door, and hell, you could use a quote from them as well, why not? And then, just when she thinks you haven’t even seen her and she can make a quiet escape back to her Suburban in the parking lot, you step right out in front of her and BAM! That slippery vixen is trapped. What’s she gonna do? Vault over the Teacher of the Year and make a break for it? I think not. “So sorry your phone doesn’t seem to be working, ma’am. Lucky we happened to both be here at this fine event. I might have never gotten your comment.”*

And that’s how I think humor ought to be written.


*This specific situation is fictional, but the tactics are real.

It’s a time for evaluation, and letters of recommendation …and other things ending in “ation.”

It’s college finals time, a special time that only comes twice a year and, as the title of this post suggests, has certain traditions associated with it.

As does Hogswatch.*

Maybe that’s the reason I simply cannot concentrate on writing and revisions. The steady pace of the college semester is replaced by two weeks of constant motion for everyone in the college community – be they adjuncts, or students or professors. I’m just an adjunct, but there are still plenty of emails to send, and plans to be made and grades to be given. People who might be employing me over the summer break need to be called and emailed. Letters of all kinds must be sent.

So it could be that’s what’s breaking my stride this week as I try to buckle down and work. Writing has been unreasonably difficult this week. I  find myself staring out the window at weather that’s not so great. Or zoning out in front of my computer with a blank document open in front of me. Or clicking on Yahoo! News items. (“Star’s incredible transformation into Linda Lovelace!” “Kim dates Kanye!” “Mom takes toddler tanning!”) Or typing the same words three times and then deleting it all and cleaning the bathroom instead.

Really? What happened to all that April productivity?

It could be the changed pace of finals that’s throwing me off.

Or it could be my birthday, which falls this month. My mother used to say that as soon as my birthday rolled around every year, summer would begin for me and me alone. In my mind, my birthday heralded the start of a big ol’  Festival of Ann that started in May and stretched into the summer. I thought I’d abandoned that mindset in middle school, but hey, maybe my 34-year-old self is trying to regress.

Whatever it is, I’m going to beat it down with a word count of 500 words a day, even if they are 500 awful words a day. And I plan to do that while writing letters of recommendation. Even if I’m staring out the window between paragraphs.

* See below for the Terry Pratchett clip I’m paraphrasing. Recognize someone from Downton Abbey? You’re welcome.


How to revise a novel, according to my commenters.

So, I hear (via the  #AWP12 hashtag on Twitter) that last night, Margaret Atwood brought the house down at AWP with her keynote speech.

I cried a little on the inside when I read those tweets, because I love Margaret Atwood and I’m sad that this was her year to be at AWP and my year to not go. But as I said a few days ago, just because some of us writers aren’t in Chicago doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have some knowledge dropped on us.

Earlier this week, I blogged about my fear of revising a novel and issued a plea for help. And, as always, my fellow writers came through in the clutch with all manner of advice.

Here, in no particular order, is the revision advice that I received this week. It’s enough to make a girl want to get revising right away:

“I go over my text a few times, says SickBoyMcCoy, writer of the online serial Bad Blood Bandits. “The first is just to enjoy it. If I can’t do that due to grammatical or spelling or just structure then it warrants change. The second time I go over it and look for ways to push what I have just a little further. The third time I try to detach myself from what I have written and try and think of the most radically different ways I could have told the story and if none of them outshine what I’ve done it stays. It’s enough to drive someone to drink.”

HannahKarena (whose blog is sadly no longer available for me to link to) recommended a technique she read about in No Plot? No Problem! a craft book written by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWrioMo, (For the uninitiated, that’s National Novel Writing Month):
“I’m about to start revising my own novel this weekend–I’ve been putting it off for weeks because I’ve never done it before–but I’m going to try the index card organization of scenes method that everyone is raving about .”

E.S. Cameron recently wrote that she’s addicted to revision. Here’s her advice:

“I haven’t yet finished a first novel draft, so I haven’t yet revised one – but it seems to me that how you revise depends on where you are in the process. Start from the top and work down, from macro to micro. This is how I would approach it:

MACRO: The first thing I would look at is the story/plot, and fix any gaping holes/problems. Then I would look at form/structure: is this the best way to tell my story? If the answer is no, I would start moving things around until it worked.

IN BETWEEN: From here, I would look at elements like place/detail, character development, dialogue, etc. to make sure that I’m hitting all my targets in these areas. This step would probably involve adding a fair amount of text.

MICRO: Then I would go though chapter by chapter and start cutting mercilessly – any sentence/scene not carrying its weight would have to go. Finally, I would start doing line by line revisions, looking at my specific word choices and sentence structure, making sure that every sentence does what I need it to. (I feel strongly that people underestimate the importance of sentence structure.) This last step I would repeat as necessary.”

Matthew Dicks, author of Something Missing and Unexpectedly, Milo tweeted this advice: “Read aloud. Remind yourself that this is just the first of many revisions. Try not to hate yourself when it sounds like dirt.”

UPDATE: Whoops! Matt Dicks has also penned another book, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. It was released this week in other countries, but as with all delicacies (seasons of Sherlock, fashions from Europe, etc.) we will have to wait months (it releases in August) before we can get our hands on it in the U.S. European and down-under folks, go find this book! Read it, review it and don’t include spoilers!

Alena Dillon of The Time is Write has revised four full-length manuscripts. Here’s her process:

“When I’m done with my first draft, I print the whole thing out. I too am an underwriter (you mentioned that you are in a blog a few days ago), but most times I have a feeling where I’ve gipped my manuscript. For instance, if I think a theme or a character may be lacking, I’ll flip through the manuscript and highlight whenever it/he/she appears so that I can visually see its/his/her arc. Each theme or character would get its own color: green for mother, pink for loss, etc. I like to see physical presence as vividly as possible, and when I get a sense of that, then I read through and mark where I could write more (or, rarely, less), and what I could write–but I don’t actually do the writing until later. Revision takes a lot of courage and momentum, so I don’t interrupt that if I can avoid it.

If I don’t have a sense of what is needed, I’ll read a craft book, keeping my particular manuscript in mind as I read. For the novel, I read Manuscript Makeover by Elizabeth Lyons and took notes of what came to mind that my novel might need done. Then I placed those notes beside me as I read through the manuscript AND MARKED THE HELL OUT OF IT. The more cross outs, stars, arrows to the back page with a list of what is needed, the better.”

After reading all this good advice, I remembered that I myself am not completely without revision resources. One of my mentors once told me to put work away for a month, then to read the whole thing in one day as if I were reading someone else’s work. Also, Rick Moody visited my MFA program to give a lecture on revision. His lecture, I remember, was so exciting that I couldn’t wait to get out of there and revise something.  I didn’t have anything to revise at the time, but I still have the notes from the lecture. I plan to re-read the notes from his lecture, re-read this blog post and get crackin’.

Maybe E.S. Cameron is right; maybe a writer can get addicted to revision.

Bloggers’ block.

I have bloggers’ block.

Lately, all I’ve been able to do is blog about the various guest posts and interviews and reviews that I’ve been doing for my book’s blog tour.  Don’t get me wrong – those posts are absolutely fabulous, but this blog is about so much more. It’s about paranoia, synesthesia, the zodiac, theoretical monkeys, Facebook, natural disasters and bad grammar, all the things the universe is made of.  This blog has it all.

Or rather, this blog it had it all. Because recently I have been completely unable to blog about anything unrelated to the book.

It’s a good problem to have, but there are several other things I want to post about. The problem? I sit down and my mind goes slack. I’ve been able to complete work projects. I’ve been able to write fiction. But blog posts? Nope.

Gloria Swanson in 'Sunset Boulevard' or me with my backlog of unfinished blog posts? You decide.

So, in a last ditch-effort to prime the pump, I’m doing what mediocre writers have done since the beginning of time to get rid of writers’ block: I’m writing about it. Right now. It’s like making a movie about Hollywood or singing about rock and roll, but lamer.

It’s not like I haven’t tried. I’ve been starting blog posts all week; I just haven’t been able to get anywhere with them. This week, according to my WordPress drafts folder, I started four posts. They are titled, according to the folder:”Playing in the dirt,” “Wit and sarcasm are related, but they’re not twins,” “Starting a new habit,” and “Betrayed by an author.”

My plan is to finish one of those four in the next few days.

I could, actually, dig much further into my Drafts folder, because all told, there are 39 unfinished posts hanging out in there. Some are two years old. Most are untitled. Some went to the Drafts folder to die because I felt they were unfit for public consumption; either they were too boring (“You’re getting very sleepy”), too confusing (“Story-telling and the shovel”), too niche (“Lovecraft!”) or too angry (“Natural selection: a child-rearing philosophy.”)  But some of them look kind of intriguing: “Email from the 20th century” might be decent, as could “Why I hate Fight Club,” a beloved rant of mine. And then there’s “British education scandal,” which, if I recall correctly, has nothing to do with the U.K., education or scandals. I may decide to resurrect one of them instead.

One thing I know –  in the next week I have to write something, and it’s probably going to be something from the Drafts folder. Have a preference? Want to hear about my betrayal by authors? More interested in sarcasm vs. wit? Do you also hate Fight Club? Leave a comment.


Life after the MFA, or Where has all the writing gone?

Every morning I write myself a to-do list.

The list usually reads something like this: Walk dog, email insistent but upbeat reminders out to students, check in with Editor A, remind Editor B I am still alive, call sources, haul trash to car, RSVP for two weddings, call more sources, go to work.

And then, down at the bottom of the list, written in tiny, introverted letters is one word: “Write.”

Lately, it hasn’t been getting crossed off.

Recently, I was talking to a writer, who asked me about my habits. “I try to write 500 words every day,” I said, with great gravitas.

Yeah, that’s a crock. I used to write 500 words a day. This time last year I was writing 500 words a day. All spring and some of the summer, I wrote 500 words a day. But in the last several weeks? I’ve been writing 0 words a day. I feel it my body. I feel the words I want to write building up like venom in my system all day.

So why am I not writing? No idea. I have lots of good reasons for not writing more than 0 words of fiction a day: I’m working again. We have a major building/repair project happening at our house. My husband’s truck broke down and I sat on the side of the road with him for an hour and a half. It’s the beginning of the school year and I have to devote a lot of time to my students. My friend just had a baby the other day and we’re off to go visit her.  These are all completely invalid as excuses, because I clearly have the time to write if I’m writing this blog post.

I think it might have something to do with my MFA program being over. Right before graduation, several professors ran a panel called “Life After the MFA.” At this panel, the profs first machine-gunned us with gloom and doom (“you’re graduating, you’re losing your monthly kick in the pants to produce work for a grade, you’ll lose your support system, you’ll write in a vacuum, everyone who supported you during this program is going to now expect you to come back out from underneath your MFA rock and contribute to your household while single-handedly publishing novels”).*

Then the profs attempted to offer us hope (“write every day, only your own willpower stands between you and literary greatness.”)*

Here’s the part that was not said: “If you don’t possess the willpower to write daily, you’re not a writer and you’re a bad person with low moral character because you will lie and tell people that you’re a writer when you’re not writing. You will never be one of those alums that we brag about in the brochure. Instead you will become one of those other creatures, the ones we don’t talk about, the ones who have an MFA but aren’t making a living with their art. Good luck with that.”

It wasn’t said, but I heard it.

So what’s happened? Why did I stop? Well, I scoffed at the panel and graduated in July. And then I spent several weeks rewriting a novelette and then I decided to give myself a nice long, happy break. It seemed well-deserved; two of my short stories have been accepted for publication this fall in various literary journals, the novelette has been submitted, and I’ve been doing well on the freelance front. I mean clearly, I can afford to be lazy. Right? Wrong. Without a kick in the pants from a mentor, or a prof or an editor, the words have dried up. Thank god for my writing groups. They are the only folks pushing me forward with my work right now. Because I know they’re waiting for it, I make the time to sit down and write for them.

A couple days ago I rewrote the intro to a chapter I was submitting to a group. I was in a better mood all day. So I’m trying to get back on track. Yesterday I jotted a few lines of my novel down in a notebook while I was waiting for my students. I decided to blog more often in an effort to prime the creative pump. I need to create some sort of schedule so that I can revise my novel while creating new work – I have an unfinished zombie piece which I think is very exciting. Tomorrow I’m going to place “Write” at the top of my to-do list, and I will write it in all caps.

Writing recess

A couple weeks ago, I sat across from one of my professors at a coffee shop. We were discussing my novel. I had just finished the first draft of it and I was obsessing over several minor plot points because I’d shown it to a couple of writers’ groups and gotten conflicting reactions.

My professor sat patiently as I allowed my OCD* to ride roughshod over my common sense and my ability to remain calm. After about 20 minutes of listening to my nonsense, she cut me off.

“Don’t workshop it anymore. Now is the wrong time to workshop it.”

I blinked. I belong to three writers’ groups, two of which meet monthly. I’m headed off to my final residency for the Fairfield University MFA program. All of these groups require substantial writing samples from me on a regular basis.

I need to feed those beasts. And I have just the fodder for them: a 273-page, mostly unread and largely un-workshopped novel. I mean, come on. What else do I have to hand to my writers’ groups? A sheaf of angsty college poetry written in Spanglish, complete with coffee stains and cigarette burns? Darkwing Duck fan fiction from 1992? Because that’s what’s left in the bottom of my filing cabinet.

"I am the terror that flaps in the night. I am the fanfic that lurks in your past."

I communicated this to my professor, leaving out the bit about Darkwing Duck.

“Don’t bring anything. Or you know, bring something else you’re working on. But don’t workshop your novel now.”

My professor told me to fuggedaboutit , literally. She said that I needed to protect and incubate the work. She told me not to look at it, or think about it, for at least two weeks.

“I know that might be hard for you to do, but you have to try,” she said, and looked almost apologetic.

She needn’t have. It wasn’t hard. Not even a little bit. My inner procrastinator seized onto that piece of advice, and by the time I skipped out of that coffee shop, I had already pushed all thoughts, worries, or concerns about my book to the very back of my brain. I walked out of there carefree. I had permission to forget about my novel. Great! My professor had let me out for recess!

There is a problem with this. The problem is that my professor’s advice had two parts. The first was to forget, and the second went like this:

“In two weeks, sit down and read the whole thing. Try to do it in one day. Read it with a legal pad in hand, as if you were reading something written by somebody else. Then you will begin to see what changes need to be made.”

Oh dear. It’s been two weeks. And I am having a hard time resurrecting my interest, enthusiasm or desire to look at my first draft. I can’t even write other things. I just got back from a writers’ retreat, at which I wrote at least 1,500 words of another two projects. All of it was crap. All the sentences were Subject-Verb-Noun, the level of the most basic Dick and Jane reader. (Jane writes novels. Jane drinks wine. Booze doesn’t help.) I lost my mojo, and I don’t know where to look for it.

Actually, that’s a lie. I do know where to look for it.

Because as soon as my prof told me to forget about the novel, I (as I stated earlier) pushed all of my worries and fears about that novel to the very back of my brain. I opened a mental closet door, chucked in all my concerns about the novel, then shut the door quickly before anything else could come tumbling out of that closet and walked away quickly. Now I’m loathe to return.

Not only have I enjoyed a stress-free couple of weeks, but I don’t want to go rooting around back there to find my enthusiasm for my novel.

Here’s an example of some of the other items I’ve housed in that part of my brain:

• Things I learned in high school pre-algebra

• Memories of the ignoble things that I’ve done to other people

• Everything I know about the phrase “mill rate”

Good lord. I’ve put my novel behind the Gee-I-hope-I-never-have-to-think-about-this-again door. Why? I have some theories.

It could be plain old fear of failure. (Ahh! What if I work very hard and fail?)

It might be fear of success. (Ahh! What if I publish it? Then people will hold me responsible for what I wrote!)

It could be something I like to think of as Queen Midas Syndrome. (If I touched it, it’s already gold. No need to touch it further.)

It could be my short attention span. (I should work on my novel… Ooh! Something shiny!)

It could be laziness. (I’d rather play Scrabble on Facebook.)

It could be that it’s summer. (School’s out!)

It could be any of those things. Or it could be something else. But while I was typing the above list, I realized something. None of the bullet points are valid excuses for not printing out my novel (an exercise that takes my printer an hour to complete) and reading it some time this week. I mean really. I’m too arrogant to fear failure, I love smugness too much to fear success, I’ve never been diagnosed with ADD (*or OCD, for that matter), and although I’m lazy and it is summer, neither of those things has ever kept me from doing things that I hate. That leaves Queen Midas syndrome, but who cares? It doesn’t matter why I’m making excuses for myself. It matters whether or not I pay attention to the excuses.

Well then. Recess is over. I’m printing it, and I’m reading it, just as my professor suggested. But I will ignore her advice about submitting something else to my writers’ groups. They’re getting chunks of novel this month. After all, I am lazy.


The elusive ending.

As my MFA program winds down, I’m seeing lots of members of my cohort (that’s MFA-speak for “my class”) writing Facebook statuses that look like this:

Joe Schmo has typed the last words.

Jane Doe sending her thesis out, OMG collapsing brb.

BobTodd just typed THE END.

I’m going to be honest. While I’m happy for my classmates and proud of their accomplishments, I’m jealous. The portion of my novel that is acting as my thesis is  complete, but I want to type THE END. And I thought the end was imminent (and not in a Harold Camping kind of way). Two weeks ago I wrote that I was beginning to write the end of the novel, and I was, but here’s the thing – the end of the novel just keeps getting further and further away.

The excellent Phil Lemos (who typed THE END on May 16) recently blogged that he was proud to have finished his novel. He wrote that he had started many novels in his life:

I emphasize the word “start,” because I would always get about 20 pages in before something else would command my attention — birthday parties, homework, the latest comic book — and I would toss the novel aside.

I know the feeling. I have a filing cabinet drawer dedicated to dead novels. Below are a few examples of the things that languish in my little drawer of horrors:

•There’s one novel, written when I was 15 years old, which thankfully petered out by the time I turned 16. I wrote about drinking and drugs and lots of other things I had no experience with as a 15-year-old. As a result of my innocence, bizarre things happen. My characters take one sip of beer and are wasted. Someone walks by a pot smoker and suddenly starts acting as if they’ve been dropping acid. It’s like Reefer Madness, but in the form of a bad novel. I should have thrown this manuscript out when I was in college, but I keep it as a reminder of how bad my writing can be.

•There’s another, almost complete novel, which features dinosaurs and a theme park in a dying Midwestern mill town. It’s a really good science fiction novel, if  I do say so myself, and I’m very proud of it. I hope to salvage it someday by rewriting everything in third person, because it does have some flaws. The biggest flaw?  Michael Crichton already wrote it. It’s called Jurassic Park.

• There’s an action novella (written before Sept. 11) featuring a reluctant member of a domestic terrorist group who is forced to go to Boston in order to  pick up a mysterious package. That piece is almost done. I’ve already written the ending. It’s missing two pages, right between the ending and where I stopped writing. It’s been like that for a decade. Just two pages.

And there’s my real problem, because that’s where I always stop writing. I write the end. I write almost all the way up to the end, and then I stop. I get distracted by life, or, more likely, by another novel idea.

I’ve overcome some of these obstacles. I’ve been dragging my feet creatively for some time, but I’ve stayed strong – I’m writing at least 500 words every day. And last month I knew I must be getting near the end because I came up with a new novel idea, an opening scene and a soundtrack to listen to while writing it. I jotted down some notes and resisted it. I kept on plugging along with my current project.

But now I realize that I’m falling into my old habits. I’ve already written the last page. And I’m trying to close the gap between where I am now – which seems not far from the end – and that final couple of paragraphs. Two weeks ago I thought the end was very, very close. No more than a day or two of writing.

But the more I write, the more it seems like I’m just filling out my daily word count and not advancing the plot. All of a sudden my protagonist heads off to do something completely unrelated to the story. Or stands in a park, musing. Could it be that I’m actually trying not to finish the novel? Am I afraid to say good bye to the characters? It seems more likely that I’m just afraid to finish my draft.

Why? Maybe because  a finished draft brings me one step closer to being accepted, rejected  or ignored by agents, publishers, the reading public and potentially by my friends and family. Or maybe I just like a little self sabotage to spice up my semester.

Or maybe it’s none of those things and I’m just the slow kid in class. It always did take me longer to eat my lunch and finish my math homework.

Writer’s block and the cat.

I haven’t written anything in the last week. Nothing. And it’s not like I haven’t tried. It’s just that everything I’ve tried to type has turned into an obituary for my cat, Copy, who was put to sleep last Tuesday evening. So – although I can understand how you all might not want to read a eulogy for my cat – I’m writing this now, in the hopes that once I’ve posted it, I can get back to work on my novel.

Writing without Copy might be extra difficult because she liked to spend time with me when I was writing. But probably it’s just been hard to write because I’ve been preoccupied with losing such a big part of my home life. I adopted Copy when I was just six months out of college. She was there through my first 10 years of real, honest-to-goodness adulthood: new jobs, new apartments, new boyfriends. Through shack-ups, break-ups, break-downs, break-ins – she was there for everything. Often, she was more of a roommate than a pet. She woke me up in the morning, hung out with me when I got dressed for work, met me at the door when I came home, sat on my lap when I wrote and always knew when I had a migraine.

It was a very satisfying friendship and I knew it couldn’t last forever, but it was a shock when the vet told me that Copy would have to be put to sleep.

Suffice to say, very little last week went as planned. We canceled our Thanksgiving trip to Texas because the cat – before we knew she would have to be put down – was too sick to stay in a kennel. And then there were several free days when I could have spent hours writing, but was unable to. Every blog post, every short story, every section of my novel I’ve tried to work on, has drifted toward the subject of cats in general and my cat specifically. So I decided to not write at all.

It’s nearly been a week now, and I have to start writing again. I’m hoping that this blog will get the ball rolling again. I think it might be working. I have an idea for a short story already, and there aren’t any cats in it.