Sweater

In my closet, I hang a sweater.

An old, worn and raggedy thing, the sweater bears the words Nintendo across the seam of the zipper in bold neon-orange letters.

It goes without saying, but my wife does not like this sweater.

I don’t wear it often. Usually I wear this particular article of clothing when I’m working on the car or when I’m painting a room, but I keep it anyways.

You see my wife, the wonderful woman that she is, does not understand the significance of the thing. She wasn’t there for its purchase. She did not see her own dream, presented to her like an angel in that dimly lit Hot Topic, calling out in the form of knit wool and a nostalgic word.

Because at 17, before the tours began and the pounding the pavement in a dingy van with three to seven other smelly guys — before the shows with the Quietdrives and the Plain White Tee’s and Ryan Cabrera’s and the other teenage idols — what I had was a sweater and a dream.

It wasn’t much, but it was there. And that made it important.

There’s a certain duplicity that exists in the old worn fabric. 

On the one hand, the sweater represents where I came from — what types of things led me to the place I currently stand. It’s an odometer that accounts for the miles and the wonder and the heartache.

But on the other hand, the sweater represents knowing something that others do not know.

Because only that 17 year old kid could truly describe to you the music in his head. Only he could do it justice. And yet he had a long path ahead of him to get there. It wasn’t a path everyone else took. For the rest of the band and the fans and friends and family, their path was inherently shorter. But it was a path he had to take.

Long before anyone would believe in him, he had to believe in himself. 

An old ratty sweater doesn’t represent the future. It represents the idea that a writer, or an agent, or an editor, is perpetually dreaming a year or two or more in the future.

A writer has the idea for a book long before the book is finished. An agent reads the book before the general public, sees a vision for it and moves it forward. An editor captures the potential of a book, rips it to shreds and gets the work in order. And after a time, the book is born. Each member of the team plays their part.

But for the author, the book was born a while ago. The book was a living breathing thing, an organism inside his or her brain trying to take life. For the author, they’re forced by the sheer time it takes to write, to be a step ahead of everyone else. 

Because before Narnia, there was an idea in C.S. Lewis’ head. He was — in some regard — a time traveler who ventured into the future and saw how much people would enjoy this place with talking animals because he enjoyed it. But his time machine broke, and the only way he could bring himself back into that world again was to write it down.

We are time travelers. We forget it sometimes.

We forget that this idea, even if it puts leagues of other writers to shame, even if it is worthy of a seven figure publishing deal or even a pullitzer, we forget that we are both cursed and blessed to live in that world before anyone else.

The best anyone else can do — the very best — is experience the finished product of what was once an idea two plus years ago, and determine based on that idea the potential trajectory of that Creative.

So can we really hold it against anyone if they don’t see Narnia, or Hogwarts, or Middle Earth or the Seven Kingdoms like we see it? Do we have a right to be angry? Can we shake our heads at them?

I don’t think we can.

I think all we can do is throw everything we have into making that world more real — until people can not only see it, but feel its pulse, hear it breathing.

It’s a dumb sweater.

I admit it openly.

But it’s more than polyester and hot orange letters. 

It’s duplicitous. It’s monstrous. It’s a time-travelling blue phone booth.

 

That, and its warm.

Does your book have problems? #bookproblems

You’ve finally made it.

You’ve hit that point of no return in your book where little more than a few finishing touches need to be applied and you can present this brilliant product to a friend for critique.

You send the e-mail, earnestly waiting for their comments. A few days later you get that reply, only to read the opening line of your book and their comments below — “This needs some reworking”.  And it only gets worse from there — red comments filling the pages like smeared strawberry jam all over what once was shiny and new.

Grab your tissues, friend. You’ve got major #bookproblems

 

Let me tell you first and foremost — all is not lost.

First drafts, even second or third drafts or fourth or fifth drafts are rarely perfect, especially when you are the only one who critiqued the work. It’s not that all of the work you did was for nothing… but to someone new, they might as well be staring at a first draft. They did not experience the original plot holes you fixed, or the horrible dialogue you corrected, or the gaping logic-jumps you ammended. They only have this first view of your book.

Now with any luck, before you reached this stage of bookproblems, you’ve been critiquing in a group and have had a chance to see some of the common issues other writers have hurdled.  I think doing this is one of the best ways to avoid a lot of tropes, but more importantly, reviewing other peoples’ work is the best way to find your own voice and know what you like and dislike.

For instance – I’ve learned the following for myself:

I hate meta openings — where someone begins a book takling about writing a letter or a verse or a poem or — get this — the very BOOK you are READING.

It’s not like this is a horrible thing. There are good books that do this. But I probably hate those books too.

Another popular one that seems to really piss off agents is this — books that begin with the FIRST day of anything. First day of school, first day at a new job, first day of your life. Doesn’t matter. When you start at the first day, you are basically admitting to your reader that your character didn’t exist before this moment, before you touched the pen to the page.

Stories that begin on a first day need to work much harder to prove they have any history or any real beef to them.

Oh, and don’t get me started on dreams. I don’t like reading about a main character who just woke up from a dream, especially in that opening. Worse than that, I don’t want to read about a character who struggles through being unsure of when they are awake and when they are asleep. You know why? Becuase it’s confusing. I mean, even when it’s executed well (think Inception) it’s still REALLY CONFUSING.

And I get it. It’s cool to have an untrustworthy narrator. But an untrustworthy narrator and a narrator who can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy are two different thing. One is just a liar. The other belongs in a psych ward.

 

But these are mostly just my preferences.

I learned this stuff about myself by reading books. And not just the nice shiny polished ones on the shelf. I feel like I learn more about what makes a book good or bad from reading things in my critique group than from reading books alone. Published works tell you what is really good, but unpublished drafts tell you why its good and how it can get there.

The key to solving book problems is pretty simple really. Put some distance between you and your work. Put it in a drawer for a month. Start writing something new and then come back to your book. Read your book start to finish, like your reader would do, with no explanation or correction.

Because at the end of the day, whether your opening has your main character in a school or in an airplane or driving down a highway, there is still a plot in there — and that plot will proceed with or without the opening scene you originally thought was the best idea ever. Don’t be afraid to be wrong once in a while.

Think of it this way. If someone gave you the chance to go back in time and fix any part of your life that didn’t work out the way you had wanted, would you be mad at them for assuming you had ever been wrong? Or would you be signing at the dotted line and patching up that botched life-event in no time? In life, you may not have the opportunity to undo what you’ve done and go back to do it right, but in books — you can.

Being wrong doesn’t mean you didn’t create a fantastic book, just like making a mistake doesn’t make your whole life meaningless. It just means you put a less than perfect idea in a great book.

The good news, however, is you can change any part of your book that doesn’t work. You can move whole cities closer together. You can cut down mountains and turn them into valleys. You can make up new family members that you didn’t know existed before. You have that power to weave a stronger story. So take it. Use it.

Don’t get bogged down by #bookproblems because they’re not really problems when they’re fixed.

Think of them as #bookopportunities

Now go write!

 

This Is Why You’re Effed!

So I’ve got this friend. Let’s call him Bob.

Bob wakes up most mornings, heads to a job he doesn’t really like, heads home to his recording setup that collects dust on his dining room table or his laptop with an unfinished manuscript, and he does the logical thing — watches Dragon Ball Z.

But that’s not all Bob does. Every single day of his life, invariably, something goes wrong for Bob. He can always, and I mean always, tell you what went wrong.

Maybe he was driving down the road when he ran into traffic, saw the low oil light come on, tried to make it to the gas station, and then his car exploded. He gets it towed, calls his friend to get a ride to work tomorrow, but his phone dies halfway into the conversation and he left his charger at his girlfriends house, and by the time he gets home he just wants to sit on the couch and watch cartoons because life is too tough to record songs or write the next great space opera.

Bob is Effed.

He has

(E)xcuse

(F)or

(F)**king

(E)verything

(D)isorder.

Lets back up for a moment here. You see, this mess did not just happen upon my good friend Bob. Despite what he will tell you, Bob suffers from perpetually being Effed for good reason.

For one, he procrastinates more often than my dog drops a toy on my lap (approximately 3,485 times a day). Most of the time, this procrastination is for no good reason. He sleeps in because he’s tired from staying up too late watching television. Then he goes to work tired and unproductive, which wears on him more than it should. So by the time he gets home, he doesn’t change his oil because he wants to watch another episode of Gilmore Girls. Or he had a rough day at work and doesn’t feel like going outside. Or the temperature isn’t below 85 and above 83 degrees.

You see, Bob’s car didn’t explode because he has bad luck. No. Bob’s car exploded because he made a series of horrible decisions which (and i know this might seem like a crazy jump) led to a series of horrible results.

People who have chronic Effed generally do this – make a series of bad decisions and then blame God or the universe or their hamster for causing their lives to be horrible. In fact, the cycle of Effed at times becomes so intense that it begins to feed on itself. Soon one bad case of the Effed’s leads seamlessly into the next so quickly that it becomes hard to tell where it all really went wrong in the first place.

Worse yet, some people have such horribly persistent Effed that they end up convincing their friends (none of which have a medical degree) that their condition is desperate. And suddenly – like a zombie apocalypse – it spreads.

It’s not like Bob is an awful person. It’s not like he doesn’t have dreams or aspirations or goals. Bob just doesn’t want to fail.

Because it’s easy to have dreams, isn’t it, when you suffer from Effed. There’s always a built in reason that your dream failed, or that you ran out of time and missed your window, or that it went too slowly. It’s a lot easier to have dreams with excuses than dreams without them.

Maybe you’re like Bob. Maybe you’re suffering and finding reasons for it. Maybe you too would prefer to blame a lack of movement and motivation on your exploding car or hamster or the weather or religious piety or your dogs bad breath. If you’re in this camp, let me tell you two things that someone should have told you a long time ago.

First, there are always, have always been, and will always be excuses. If you keep giving into them, your dream is going to die. It’s simple really. Not chasing your dream is like sitting on a conveyor belt heading into a furnace. You can run away from the flames. You can run into them. Or you can sit on your butt and be ushered there anyways.

Secondly, your dreams are worth chasing. They’re worth chasing whether they end in fame, fortune, and eternal love, or a fate worse than death — failure. Because at least when you chase them — at least when you take that plunge and try to see if you are capable of enduring the criticism and the pain and the sleepless nights — at least then you know how capable you are.

I spent 10 years chasing my dream to play music. Sometimes I was just like Bob. Sometimes I suffered from feeling Effed. But more often than not I handled the grind. And even though none of it worked out the way I had intended, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t all worth the trouble. Because that passion, that drive, that motivation — that hatred of procrastination and of blaming myself — and that tiny taste of success… it was worth it. Because now I know who I am.

And let me tell you, now that I’ve unearthed the real dream — the one that has been buried in my bones for so many years — I have all the skills I need to achieve it.

So just Eff it.

Go get your dream.