“Just because you thought of it, doesn’t mean it has to go in the story.”

Such was the advice I got, on several occasions in various forms, from Mark Axelrod when he was reading chapters out of my thesis.

I started this blog in December with the idea that I’d post once a week, that I’d write for no more than two hours at a time on each entry, that I’d keep the subject material light, and that I’d leave the posts “raw” or unedited.

Then Sandy Hook happened, my second week out of the gate, and I couldn’t let it go by without at least a couple words, and those couple turned into to quite a few rather weighty words, and since then I haven’t been able to get back to the speedy, lighthearted blog I originally hoped I’d be writing, despite a couple attempts to do so.

Another reason for this – the more immediate reason, probably, than that I have oh-so-much weighty stuff to say – is that I wanted to finish this short story I’m working on first, before I “get back” (after four posts) to blogging.

The problem is, I’m now about eighteen-thousand words deep.

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For those of you who don’t do word counts, that’s about 50 pages. For those of you who haven’t spent much time with the nuanced definitions of fictional forms, that’s already twice (and approaching thrice) as long as the upper range of what most journals or magazines will publish as a ‘short story.’ It’s already a novelette, maybe a novella, and probably has enough going on in it to be fleshed out into a novel.  It definitely has enough characters. Thirteen, if you want to know. Which is a LOT for a short story.

This – the characters, the complexity, the ceaselessness – is an example of what They mean when They talk about overwriting, and it’s a problem I have all the time. An anecdotal example:

My thesis advisor – the abovementioned Axelrod – counted the number of characters in the draft of my unfinished novel thesis and said (I paraphrase), “You have 33 characters in 198 pages. Dostoyevsky had 47 characters in Crime and Punishment, which was 475 pages. At the rate you’re going, you’d have 79 characters in a book as long as Crime and Punishment, which I believe is the length you’re going for. So, you’ve outdone Dostoyevsky. Congratulations.”

The very obvious fact that so many characters might be tough to handle hadn’t occurred to me, until I heard it put in such simple terms. After all, I was having no problem keeping them all straight…

In addition to posting regular blog posts, I also resolved (in a rare conformity to new year’s tradition) to finish one short story a month, in the hopes of having three or four decent new ones by the end of 2013 to start shopping around alongside the three I have in rotation now. This will require that I write a little differently than I usually do – or always have, really – and practice writing more quickly to practice writing less. The result of which will (hopefully) be a streamlining of my writing process.

And by writing differently, quickly, and less, I mean like this:

Ray Bradbury, in his Art of Fiction interview in The Paris Review, said, “I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard.”

Raymond Carver – one of my all-time favorites – defined a short story as something that “can be written and read in one sitting.”

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Now, Carver was known to rework a story into as many as 30 drafts before considering it finished, and Bradbury would put stories in his filing cabinets to marinate for weeks or years or decades before pulling them back out to finish them.* And as my girlfriend reminded me last weekend, these guys were pros by the time they said these things, and pros have a tendency to say things as if they’d never learned them and never done otherwise. And maybe I still need to get all that backstory out and down on paper before I can shrink it down and suck it back up and put it behind the words and between the lines.

“I’m just trying to learn everything,” as Erin would say (in the little-British-boy accent of the lad she’d be quoting).

Oddly enough, some of the stuff I’ve already learned doesn’t do much for me. Remembering that Hemingway wrote around 400 words a day and would break off mid-story, mid-paragraph, mid-sentence if he needed a swim (or a drink), or that Burgess wrote and rewrote and worked on one page at a time until it was done – which could take him an hour or could take him days – doesn’t help right now. For whatever reasons (well, I know them, but they’re boring internal-struggle/insecurity type reasons), I’m focused on prolificacy right now. I want to produce, to generate, to FINISH things – and then I’ll worry about separating wheat from chaff later.

Or so I think. But when I sit down to start-and-finish expeditiously, I keep adding things in or adding them on, and I end up with a story Lucille-Ball-bread-loaf of a story. Which I usually “save for later” (read: abandon). I’m beginning to suspect I might be wasting time. Maybe this whole tactic of tacking things on when I catch what time I can catch at the keyboard isn’t working out as well as I like to think it is.

I’m beginning to suspect that this is a kind of procrastination. A weird kind, because I’m working, I’m writing, I’m actually getting stuff out and down on paper. But I’m not completing anything. And this is stupid because I no longer think that I’m putting the ending off to avoid rejection. This was more than likely the primary reason I procrastinated SO bad for SO long on SO many things – if it’s done, someone has to see it. And judge it. And likely find it wanting.

But I’ve gotten over that, and have the growing stack of rejection letters to prove it – a rejection-letter-stack that’s like that loaf of bread… So, I think this ceaselessness is really just a bad habit that I need to break. And I’m hoping that the new year’s resolution and the making it public (to what limited few might read this declaration) will help.

It’s interesting to me to hear about the different ways we get in our own way, the tricks, the bs we come up with for not doing things. I see this in myself, and it makes me think how many people this happens to – how many it’s happening to right now, this very moment – how many writers/artists/filmmakers/entrepreneurs/inventors/people do this to themselves in any and every aspect of their lives. Which makes me realize how special simply doing something is, just doing anything, really, anything at all that requires follow-through.

There are two ways to look at the world once I’ve thought myself, or paid-attentioned-myself into this realization. I can be overwhelmed by how many other people are doing it and feel like shit for being not-one-of-them, or I can think wow, what an amazing world, look how many people are self-actualizing all over the place! Isn’t it rad to be one of them!?

{Yeah, I did just write “self-actualize.” I live in Southern California – people say that here.}

I try to choose the latter, and usually it helps.

I have three days to get to the end of this behemoth of a story. Two-thousand words, probably, to bridge the final gap and introduce the end. Then I’ll put it down and see sometime later whether it wants to be cut in thirds and bundled up as a short story, or stretched out a little bit and passed off as a novella.

In the meantime, sometime during the second week of February, I’ll start something else, and I’ll try to do a draft of it in one sitting. At the very least, I’ll try to put in only the right amount of ingredients so the oven doesn’t explode. I think I’m aiming for something close to what Ian McEwan, one of my top three favorite living authors, says on the UK’s Creative Choices web site: “…take as long as you like. It doesn’t matter if you write a short story at 200 words a day, because in eight weeks it will be done… [and] If you spend four weeks writing a short story and it’s a disaster, you’ve only wasted four weeks.”

I also have six or seven draft posts for At the Wellhead. Some, about my Thailand vacation and another post on guns, have some grist, but most of the drafts are just titles with a line or two to be riffed on… later. So I’ma try to make that LaterTime happen sooner-rather-than.

This was something to tide me over. Thanks for stopping by.

Any suggestions for or experiences in breaking this cycle – of overwriting, of procrastinating, of freaking out about not-having-anything-to-show-for-yourself, of whatever this post inspired (disgust and frustration count) – I’d love to hear ’em.

* Bradbury on finishing unfinished stories (also in that PR interview): “I do keep files of ideas and stories that didn’t quite work a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago. I come back to them later and I look through the titles. It’s like a father bird coming with a worm. You look down at all these hungry little beaks—all these stories waiting to be finished—and you say to them, Which of you needs to be fed? Which of you needs to be finished today? And the story that yells the loudest, the idea that stands up and opens its mouth, is the one that gets fed.”

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Header image: marinni (you gotta check this stuff out it’s amazing)

Writer, reader, runner, surfer. Buddhist, humanist, baker of bread.

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