Unfinished Business

Some days, you wake with a song in your head. This morning, I woke up with the feeling of melancholy I got when I finished Douglas Adams’ unfinished final novel, The Salmon of Doubt. To be fair, some of that melancholy was the fact that, to pad out the incomplete first act of the novel, his estate included not only early essays, but eulogies by his friends, but the bulk of it comes from the knowledge that Dirk Gently will never solve the mystery set out.

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Not to mention the dozens of other Adamsian characters we’re never going to meet. The few chapters we did get introduce us to a cab driver who is convinced that, because no one has ever said “Follow that cab!” to him, he is the cab everyone else is following. What else would there have been.

I bring this up because, twice today, I also encountered the tale of The Day the Clown Cried, Jerry Lewis’ Holocaust drama about a clown force to lead children to the gas chambers. He was so embarrassed by how bad, bad, bad” (his words in an interview) it is, that he decreed it not be be released for 36 years after his death, and another producer has added years to that, according to a recent AV Club piece. The combination of the two got me thinking about my potential legacy of unfinished stories.

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While I understand the drive to pore through every scrap of paper ever touched by famous writer (which I am not, although wouldn’t mind being), there is a part of me that feels uneasy about this. There’s a reason I write some things in, say, this blog or on my Facebook page (my two largest current soapboxes), and other things in text messages or emails. There are dozens of things I’d really rather not be seen by the general public: under-cooked ideas and unintentionally offensive remarks being merely two of them.

In some ways, this is one of the great quandaries of my generation, we of the Foodstagram and Foursquare check-ins. If Apple unlocks the iPhone of a terrorist, what is to stop them from doing the same to mine (aside from not owning one)? Is the NSA truly watching everything I do?  When we are sharing everything, is there such a thing as privacy?

This may also go back to the question I posed previously: How do I know when an idea has legs, and when it’s going to die in the Steamer Trunk?

The one facet, at least the one that relates to this line of thinking, is my control. The half-formed ideas lack the grace and poise of the edited ones. They are naked, they are raw, they haven’t had the time or consideration that can transform a questionable notion into a reasonable one; there are things that sound okay in my head, but sound offensive to someone else. I don’t much like being exposed in that way.

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(Incidentally, this speaks a lot to why I hate conversations on the phone, too. When I am speaking face-to-face, I have the context of another person’s body language and any props they may have; on the phone, it is my words and tone alone that must convey my message, and I can’t edit them as with an email or IM.)

All this is to say, a small part of me wishes I hadn’t read the Salmon of Doubt, and I don’t think those who watch Jerry Lewis’ film will be edified by it. The former is incomplete, raw, and unedited; the latter will–if it does see the light of day–smack of voyeurism. While we all wish we could see into the minds of our heroes, my sense is that the end result is less satisfying than anything we would have imagined for ourselves.

So, when I die, burn anything that isn’t ready for publication. It’ll be clearly and cleverly buried somewhere I’ll disavow all knowledge of.

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‘Dracula’s Daughter’ Bad

Generally, I’m not that into live albums. They’re recordings of a concert I wasn’t at, and listening to an incomprehensible mass of other people having a really great time isn’t my idea of fun. I make an exception for Colin Meloy Sings Live, largely for the banter, but he does something that I find endlessly funny and endearing each time I hear it.

“Tonight, I’m going to play you the worst song I ever wrote. And it’s bad to the core.” Meloy says. “The fact that I put pen to paper is really terrifying. It makes one want to retire and become a college professor or something. It’s the sort of thing that shakes the very foundation of your being. But I’ll let the song speak for itself…”

I love a lot about his length intro to what’s ultimately a third of a song. The song is campy, it’s goofy. It’s a little catchy, it will get stuck in your head. But, he’s right: it is a far cry from the complex and often intellectual writing style of Meloy’s typical work. It’s a first draft of a song through and through.

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On the other hand, there’s another piece of media I unabashedly love: Mike Mignola’s The Amazing Screw-On Head, the story of a robot who helps Abraham Lincoln fight the forces of darkness and his former butler-turned-Zombie. What I really love about it is that Mignola (as I heard it), wanted to make a series out of it, but felt like he got everything he wanted to do out of a single issue of the comic. When he tried to adapt it for TV, he had the same feeling about the pilot episode: this is pretty much all it needed. (Also amazing vocal performances from Paul Giamatti and David Hyde Pierce).

After writing about my own recent first draft the other day, I started thinking about the Purgatory folder. The place that bad story ideas go to sit the rest of their days in incomplete mediocrity. This is different than my steamer trunk folder, where “meh” drafts go to marinate. But what sets them apart? What makes one story worth working on and the other less so?

I’m not really sure. But I figured it was worth rambling about for a few hundred words.

What I do know is that this is one of those “Your Mileage May Vary” scenarios, as some ideas that I can’t make work, someone else can. Then again, there are a ton of ideas that I think are dumb that someone else has already packaged and sold (I typically use this idea to calm myself when I’m worried that I’ll never get published).

Maybe the ‘this is the worst story ever written’ feeling that comes with your average first draft feels different when you know the potential could be a lot stronger. Perhaps it’s that you get to the end and the internal BS-o-Meter hasn’t tripped any alarms. It could even just be that I reach the end and am still madly in love with the idea, whereas another idea might be one I met at a party, took home and gave a fake number to in the morning. At the moment, I think it’s that I got to the end and saw some of things that were wrong with it, but knew I could fix them–see also, the reason people sink hours upon hours into Minecraft.

I don’t really know. So, I figured I’d ask the other writers out there: what’s your threshold for seeing a story through to the bitter end versus canning it forever?

Permission to Suck at Writing, Captain?

Think for a moment about the last book you loved. The experience of reading it was likely something not unlike this:

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Here’s the thing. I can almost guarantee that the book you read isn’t the same book the author started writing. For the non-writers in the room, this is because no matter who you are, if you’re writing something, the first draft is going to suck. It is going to suck hard. It is going to make Transformers 2 look like a work of art. It’ll make The Room look like it has a coherent plot, dialogue and characters. It’ll make [insert widely-regarded bad thing] look like [widely-regarded awesome something]. (You can fill in your own pop culture references. This blog is interactive!)

Every book. Every short story. Every script for every movie, play, radio show. No exceptions. That’s what a first draft is, it’s what they’re for. Anyone who says otherwise is a pretentious hack. Writing a crappy draft is not the hard part.

The hard part is allowing it to suck.

A couple of months ago, I picked up and read through one of Chuck Wendig’s writing advice books. From it, the tip that stuck out most was giving yourself permission for the first draft to suck. There was also something about hacking your way through the narrative swamp with a machete? (His advice is a lot of fun).

It stuck with me because it’s not something I really know how to do. I’m hardly a perfectionist; there are many, many areas in my life in which mediocrity is acceptable. But when I set out to write a story, I want instant gratification or nothing. I want this story to be an exact carbon copy of the idea that’s in my head, and I want it to be perfect.

See where the problem starts?

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I recently finished the first draft of a story. It’s an idea that’s percolated in my head for a few weeks now. I’ve mentioned it to a few people who are excited about it. I’m not going to say more, as I don’t want to over-hype it, in case it turns out to actually suck. Which is a possibility for these reasons:

  • Characters have little to no personality.
  • There are only two named characters.
  • Their names are so dull.
  • They’re also both good guys.
  • All of the bad guys are outside of the narrative.
  • There’s no conflict.
  • There’s a giant plot hole at the end (because I changed my mind about something halfway through).
  • The ending is mostly exposition and a little rushed (because once I saw the end in sight, I galloped toward it)
  • Oh my god, what was I thinking with the names?
  • I’m not 100% the physics work.

The idea that’s in my head is a lot more bad-ass than the one that wound up on paper. The temptation is going to be to can it. Leave it there, like the half-dozen other stories sitting unfinished in a folder in the Cloud–or as I like to imagine it, Idea Purgatory. That’s what it gets for being unsatisfying.

Those of you who are writers are likely to tell me exactly what I’m about to say I should do, so I’ll beat you to the punchline: Let it sit for a while, then suck it up, and jump back in the saddle; that’s the only way to fix it.

I think this is an idea worth finishing, so I’m going to. I’m going to let the crappy story marinate in my head for a few days more. The intent is two-fold: One, new ideas are going to come to the fore that’ll make this story more interesting; two, I will get so annoyed at how bad the draft is that I’ll have to start the second in order to get it out of my system.

In the meantime, I’ll keep reminding myself that it’s okay for this one to suck. Because this is the version only I have to see.