Editing my Book is Scrambling my Brain (and other terrible metaphors)

skeleton with hand up to mouth as if thinking
Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

I’ve never thrown a boomerang before, but I understand, when you do, it’s supposed to come back, at least according to the cartoons I watched in the 80s. What it’s not supposed to do?

Let’s say I pull my arm back across my body and enthusiastically whip that boomerang into the air. It starts off at great speed, hurling through the atmosphere as I grin at its agency. Then, my smile falters as the boomerang does the same. It’s not turning as I’d expected. It’s slowing down, slowing down, drifting. Soon, it starts to break apart and the pieces fall away from each other in a lovely example of entropy.

It’s like throwing a boomerang on the moon, I assume, as a person more in love with astrophysics than comprehending it.

The point is, you start off feeling perfectly assured your toy will return to you, neatly falling into your grasp but instead, it escapes and disassembles itself, lost.

This is what happens with some ideas. I sit my coffee on my desk, pull my hair back, stretch my arms and flex my fingers. I go to town on that brilliant idea about parenting or privilege or where all the socks go — whatever. I create confident, directed prose for a few paragraphs. Then, it happens. I digress into eight different free-associative ideas, going from tulips to gender norms to the heat death of the universe. I type slower, there are long pauses. I wonder….

Where was I going with this?

I had a point, didn’t I?

Is this blog post turning into a book?

Oh, god, what is happening….

I stop typing, I stare, I get up to pour more coffee and never come back. It’s the heat death of an idea.

Heat death, as I loosely understand it, is not about a fireball explosion, ending all that we know, it’s about a slow dissipation of the universe’s heat so that all is evenly distributed — no clusters of temperature or particles remain to form galaxies, planets, atoms or anything interesting.

I, morbidly, find the idea of the heat death of the universe somewhat comforting. It seems like a really calm, zenlike state, not that any of us will be around to appreciate it. However, when it happens to ideas I’m trying to wrangle into engaging essay form, I find it really fucking annoying.

(This is a really good book on the heat death of the universe and more by Katie Mack — well written, in engaging non-jargony terms. She is an astrophysicist and a fabulous writer; I am super jealous. Please do NOT rely on my interpretation of her science, in any way, as fact. )

This happens to me a LOT lately.

Thoughts that seem so meaty at first, get flung forward in the name of progress and fall apart like a raw burger patty tossed carelessly across the backyard, missing the grill and falling into ground-chuck crumbles in the grass. (How many more completely unrelated metaphors do you think I can cram into one post?)

Why?

  1. It’s May, and there are too many end-of-the-school-year activities going on to allow me to focus.
  2. I cull an income from several different sources, which lends itself not to focus but to constant shifting.
  3. I have a book to edit that I am avoiding because going through a manuscript you wrote and have now read 106 times is as much fun as going to the dentist. (Don’t click on that link unless you want to see exactly how long I’ve been running away from this.)
  4. I have SO MANY IDEAS in my head right now, it feels impossible to choose one to sit with. Also, I am going through a bit of an existential writing crisis in which I’m not sure I can write well, and I’m not even confident I know what good writing IS.
  5. There are flies in my house, and no matter how hard I try to be cool with it (What are they really hurting?) their incessant buzzing and purposeless zooming around my office is making me feel murderous.

Have you enjoyed my long-winded explanation for why I haven’t published a post in four months? Because I have (for the too busy and also existential crisis reasons) been having a hard time making myself throw the boomerang. And when I do, it often doesn’t come back. It just hovers out there before disintegrating and becoming a general part of the microwave background of space.

This is terrible writing.

I’ve just taken up your time complaining and making excuses for not working whilst dressing it up in at least three disparate, messy metaphors, two of which I tried to tie together (a boomerang and the heat death of the universe, really??). The third burger-in-the-backyard clunkiness I just left dangling out there by itself.

You can tell by now, this little scrap of text is not going to have a neat ending. It is not calm or zenlike; it doesn’t feel anything like heat death. (Heat death is good? Bad? I don’t even know.) Editing my own book in May has turned my brain into an exploded file cabinet, with documents as disparate as tax forms and half-written poems mingling together in chaos on the floor, filling the room so you can’t even get in the door…

Shit, I’m doing it again.

Writing is Like Life; It Sucks Sometimes.

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Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Writing a book is hard.

That doesn’t sound like a revelation until you try to write one.

Starting a book is easy. You’re lying in bed one morning, and you get a flash of brilliant story, running through your mind in full technicolor. You run downstairs in your underwear, flip open your laptop and start tippity-typing away, eager to capture the scenes on paper. This is the part they always show in movies — the writer version of the Rocky training montage. Pages ripped out of typewriters, pencils behind ears, many cups of coffee consumed.

Then, you get to the hard part.

You spend hours, days, months, years, writing and staring off into space thinking about your story. (Daydreaming as a work-related activity is one of the few perks of being a writer.) Your characters are selfish friends who take up all your time and energy and don’t give anything in return. Writing a book is, as far as I can tell in my extensive experience of one completed manuscript, five percent blinding flash of inspiration. The other 95 percent is tentatively typing things you know you’re going to have to redo, all while secretly fearing the whole thing is shit. It’s a lonely endeavor — just you and your imaginary people.

You’ve decided you need accountability.

You tell your real-life friends, relatives and strangers in line behind you in the grocery store, that you’re writing a book. They ask how it’s going periodically, and even though you have no real answer, it does sort of keep you on track. Then one day, they ask, “How’s the book coming?” And you finally get to say, with a triumphant flourish, “It’s finished!” often followed by, “No, you can’t read it (because I’m secretly still afraid it’s shit.)

The hard slog up the mountain is over.

You have written the denouement and the conclusion. You have typed  “The End.” (For real, I did that.) You rise from your desk chair, stretch your aching, hunched back, holler to your spouse and open a bottle of wine in celebration. But then you stand on top of that massive mound of paper, ink and tears and look up to realize you’ve only just climbed a foothill. The big, bad specter of editing and rewriting is looming over you, daring you to start scaling it. It’s enough to make you cry. Or to put off even looking at your story again for at least six months.

That’s where I am right now.

I am reading every single word of that “completed” manuscript, rife with inconsistencies, plot holes and typos. I am rewriting the entire thing because that’s the only way I know how to do it. I am starting to hate my characters and my story. I am sick of them, and because they are now real, I fear they are also sick of me and my waffling on what they get to do, feel and say. It all convinces me even further that I’ve written a B-minus novel at best.

So, if you were wondering whatever happened after I wrote that post ALMOST A YEAR AGO about being done with my novel, there it is. It’s done. And it’s so not done.

Writing a book is not hard.

It is excruciating to the point that sometimes I want to delete the whole file and all the sub-files of notes and pretend the whole damned thing never existed. It’s like having a baby; if you knew what it was going to be like before you started the process, it would never happen.

I once heard a favorite author of mine speak, and it took her six years to get her first book published. At the time, my jaw dropped, but at the rate I’m going, I may be editing my own AARP application before I get this thing done.

And yet it will happen.

I keep getting derailed by my own insecurity and laziness, but damnit, I will slog through this swamp of a story, clean it up and see it published one way or another. By that time, though, instead of reading like commentary on current social standards, it may be more of a historical novel.

I could pretend this post is intended as advice for the young writer or a reality check for anyone considering starting a novel, but really it is entirely selfish. I needed to vent, to complain, and let’s be real, avoid editing. Now I can get back to rewriting the book….oh, will you look at the time! Well, there’s no way I can start now.

Writing for Business: More Isn’t Always Better

writing and editing for business
Photo by Peter Lewicki on Unsplash

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

I read these words in Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft several years ago, and they stuck. They percolate to the surface of my mind whenever I am editing a piece, especially my own. Whether you write for a living or are in a business that only occasionally involves writing, it’s good advice (and appropriately stated, coming from the master of horror.) What it means is this: cut out the unnecessary parts, even if you love them. Why you might ask, would you love those parts if they were unnecessary? Several reasons:

Issue #1:

You feel strongly about a point – perhaps it’s political, possibly it’s part of your chosen profession. When we are passionate about the subject matter, we tend to re-state the same points over and over again in consecutive sentences, rephrasing it each time. You’ll say it once and then say it again a different way. You’ll say the same thing twice or even three times. It’s the same point just reworded. You’ll just repeat yourself…repetitively.

Fix It:

Pick the sentence that says it best, or combine parts of sentences for what most accurately says what you mean. Cut the other ones out. The “Issue #1” paragraph above is about four sentences too long.

Issue #2:

Your thoughts on your subject matter are not well-formed, but you know it’s an important subject. Let’s say you want to write about tips for exercising, but you haven’t thought through the details. Your sentences are full of passion but ramble without ever getting specific, and suddenly you’re up to 1,000 words without having written any concrete tips.

Fix It:

Two words: research and organize. If your thoughts are more broad-scope than specific on a topic, do some digging online. Then, write up an outline of the specific points you want to make. Afterward, as you edit, ask yourself, “Does this sentence serve to help make my point, or is it off topic or vague?” Example: There is no need to tell people what you are not going to talk about. Anything you follow with, “…but this is beyond the scope of this article,” can almost assuredly be cut out.

Issue #3:

You know a lot of detail about the topic – the opposite of problem two. If you are writing about your profession, you may be tempted to go into more detail than your audience can bear. Sometimes we lose touch with what a layperson knows and will find intriguing when we are entrenched in the minutia of our own craft.

Fix It:

As fascinating as you may find the technical details of how your particular widgets are made, the general public is usually interested in a broader stroke they can relate to in their own lives. Have a friend not in your profession read your piece. Consider cutting anything they find confusing or boring. Again, stick to your overall point. More detail is not always better.

Sometimes, keeping to a certain word count can be helpful. If you are determined to get something down to 500 words for a blog post, you are less likely to indulge yourself in rambling. No matter what you’re writing, you want people to read it. So kill your darlings, because they are just that – yours – and not necessarily your audience’s.