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.

So I’m Writing a Book

 

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Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

And the first thing everyone asks me is, “What’s it about?” I usually respond with, “It’s fiction…” then I devolve into the existential meaning of my story in partially mumbled sentences and eyes glaze over. I decided I need an elevator pitch.

 

An elevator pitch is a handful of words you could deliver to someone in an elevator while they’re your captive audience for the short duration of the ride. It can be just five words but definitely no more than 20. Within that brief description, you’re supposed to communicate why your story is unique, striking, fresh and compelling. It’s supposed to make the listener intrigued in a “tell me more” kind of way. So here’s what I worked up:

A woman chops off her thumb one day and runs off to live in the woods, struggling to survive.

The thumb chopping part is both unique and striking. The struggle to survive is compelling. I’m fairly sure it’s fresh. I know I’ve never read a story like this before. Does it make you want to know more?

That’s the question I can’t answer. I am about 30,000 words into this story, and I waffle back and forth between thinking it is an awesome, adventurous statement on the modern world and thinking it’s utter shit. I can’t see the forest for the trees. So friends, help me out. Do you want to know more? I need honest opinions, not reassurance. Thanks in advance.

 

I’m Going for It…No, Really This Time.

old-school typewriter

I tend to beat myself up, periodically, for not being a better person.

I’ve been saying I’m going to write a book for…well, most of my life, and it has yet to happen, which is embarrassing.  For a long time, it was just that I lacked the confidence in my abilities, and then I had little kids, which took up too much space in my brain for anything longer than 500 words. Oh, I have started a book plenty of times.  I’m in the running for an award: “Most half-books on a hard drive ever.” I always get cold feet and quit, though.

Why?

Unfortunately for me (and for you) the “why” is a complex mess. I’m writing, creating story like crazy, then… I have a few days where the creativity is flagging. I feel like I should be doing something more productive or lucrative. Read “lucrative” as something that makes more definitive money, since that is the measure of success in a capitalist society such as ours. But money is a personal thing, too. Jason stresses about money, and I would like to relieve some of that mental burden he carries because I love him and we are partners.

Then, I write a book, self-publish it, no one buys it, and I lose money on the deal. Jason loses his job, we’re in danger of living in a cardboard box on the street and end up in a flophouse in Duluth. Jason hates me because it’s all my selfish fault for wanting to do what I love instead of making a living to support our family. You see how quickly I can get from publishing a book to homelessness?

So then I stop writing the book

and go back to my piddly freelance jobs that don’t make a ton of cash either but at least make it more quickly. And then I don’t want to sit in front of my computer writing a book (or anything else for that matter) in the evening because I’m tired, both body and brain, and I want to hang with my family or read or go to bed early.

All of these thoughts stemmed from my getting pissed off at advertising this morning

for taking up too much of my time and attention — popup ads in front of articles I’m trying to read, junk email, junk snail mail. I swear I recycled a whole tree after leaving the mailbox this morning.

The junk mail led me to all the other things that are distractions from writing a book. There are a lot of them. Some of them are forced on me like door-to-door solicitors and pop-up ads, and some are tempters like my phone games. Some are guilt inducers like volunteering at school.

I’ve tried to cut the cord so many times,

tried to simplify my life. I go on an “unsubscribe” rampage, but I always get sucked back in. Now though, I think I’m ready. It still feels scary, but I can do it. I’m going to stop writing for other people, stop accepting the distractions, and focus on writing my stuff — my blog, my book — and have the confidence that, even if the book is a flop, we’ll figure something else out before we end up in an actual flophouse.

It’s time for me to belong to myself,

to belong everywhere and nowhere. (Thanks, Carrie Harper, Brené Brown and Maya Angelou for that idea.) Deepak, a friend of mine who took the leap to quit his existing, comfortable career to start a business about which he was passionate told me he knew, in order to be successful, he couldn’t have a “way back.” He cut the cord completely with his old company so he would HAVE to make the new business work. It was scary, but it’s working. That’s been rattling around in my head since he said it to me, so it must resonate with something inside me. Yep, I’m going for it.

Working for Yourself (Esteem)

Rejected_Stamp_shutterstock_65298541_260Freelancing is hard. I got a rejection email yesterday, for a project I thought I was perfect for. I was surprised and disappointed. It caused me to question myself, my career choice, my direction, my abilities. A bit of imposter syndrome snuck in. I don’t have a degree in journalism; I don’t have an MFA; I didn’t write for the school newspaper. Maybe I’m just a hack.

It’s easy to become insecure when something you truly want and think you’re good at doesn’t work out for you, especially if you get no feedback as to why. It’s even more likely you’ll question your worth if you’re taking an unconventional path.  You read what other people in your field are doing, what official qualifications or experiences they have, and you contrast yourself against them. You don’t have what they have, and that breeds self doubt.

Of course you don’t have what they have, but if you are pursuing you passion, don’t let doubt creep into your brain. If it is your calling and you are committed, you DO have something to offer – likely something unique that springs from your own path to where you are now. There’s a reason you love this thing – photography, graphic design, real estate – and it’s probably not because you suck at it. And, if you love it, you breathe it. You read professional journals, talk to others in your field, go to seminars; you are constantly learning and growing. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a PhD in underwater basket weaving. Grab your snorkel and raffia and dive in! (unless you’re a surgeon, in which case, we all kind of want you to have gone to school)

In your quest for knowledge in your chosen field, you may…no, you will come across experts that give you six tips on how to be successful in the biz or the “one habit every successful person has.” That does not mean you have to do it that way. Read up, by all means, but not all advice applies to you. Take what you can use, leave the rest. Above all, be true to yourself. If going to every godamnned networking meeting within fifty miles of your house makes you want to vomit, don’t do it. Find another way that suits you. We all have to do things we’d rather not from time to time, in order to be successful, but we still need to be ourselves.

It takes bravery and a thick skin to freelance or run your own business. It takes the kind of person who can get knocked to the ground repeatedly and get back up and move forward again, even if it makes said person kind of feel like shit. You don’t have to have a positive attitude all the time. You don’t have to pretend that rejection doesn’t hurt or cause you to question your abilities. You just have to keep moving forward. Keep fighting the good fight and stay open to opportunity. Something good will happen, and it may or may not be what you expect.

If you’re an unconventional aspiring writer (or aspiring anything) check out Jeff Sommers blog, The Unconventional Writer.

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.

Why I Write

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The other day, someone asked me what I was qualified to write about. I thought and came up with a very long list. Sure, I have my favorites, but, because I’ve had various careers and  come from a long line of do-it-yourselfers, I have a colorful array of experience upon which to draw.  I have…changed the oil in cars, shingled a roof, taught elementary school, read plumbing plans, done presentations, built websites, made hand cream, studied gardening, used social media marketing, done taxes, changed spark plugs, made play dough, taught fitness classes,  bought and sold houses and potty trained over 30 children. I even know a little about fashion and finances.

This is part of what makes me such a good freelance writer. Business owners don’t want blog posts full of technical jargon your average person has no desire to wade through. They want articles written with the general public in mind. So the fact that I have a base knowledge of a lot of things and I’m a good researcher, means I can craft a piece that educates on a level that interests the average person. I have the advantage of having a little pro-knowledge while maintaining the perspective of the consumer.

The last piece to the puzzle is my writing talent. All that knowledge, perspective and research is no good if I can’t communicate it effectively, efficiently and eloquently. I’m naturally good at it, and I continuously study and practice to improve.

The bottom line, though, is this: I love it. I love writing, and I love doing it with purpose. When I craft a piece for a business, I don’t just take the facts and put them on the page. I look for glimpses of personality. What’s important to this business owner? How does she see herself? What’s his demeanor? That’s the really fun part – putting personality on the page and bringing it to life.