I was invited to be on an author panel to discuss beta readers/critique groups and how they benefit writers.
A rather dry topic to anyone outside the craft but, hey, I thought I could contribute a little something.
I soon found myself drowning in things like Google Forms, Google Drives, Google Docs, Excel Plotting Sheets, Newsletters and newsletters within newsletters, Project Management Tools, Questionnaires, Beta reader pools alongside ARC groups, and two things, Storyorigins and Trello, that I have yet to look up.
Luckily, I have the superpower of Lying My Ass off (my therapist called it sublimation), so I just nodded and agreed to the benefits of everything. Yeah, sure. Yeah. Definitely.
Inside, it was like being in high school geometry where the teacher was explaining the mysteries of the cosmos via triangles and polygons. The entire class nodding and obviously drinking this in like mother’s milk while my eyes crossed and my brain imploded.
What. The. Ever. Loving. Fuck.
Where do these people find the time to even have the time to plan out their days?
One author said she would outline the entire novel with synopsis and plot points and send it off to her critique partners with the challenge to break the idea BEFORE EVEN WRITING IT.*
I spent two hours last night researching the history of poor farms in the 1800s before ditching the whole idea.
And newsletters. The idea of subjecting myself to littering people’s emails makes my stomach hurt.
And joining online writing groups, newsletter swapping sites…streetcrowding or some such fuck…..oh gawd….I just can’t.
One author said she had presold 500 copies of her book. PRESOLD. Fuck me. I got excited when I saw that one of my books sold 6 copies on Amazon.
Suffice it to say, my Imposter Syndrome came on strong. REAL STRONG.**
And I can’t be the only one who wonders am I cut out for this? I just want to write fun stories.
I guess it all comes down to what you define as success.
If I want to be the next Brandon Sanderson and make quadrabillion $$$, have a fan base that obviously bleeds into other dimensional realms, well, that’s going to mean a big lifestyle change.
If all I want to do is write some cool stories that find themselves magically into a few dozen hands, well, sweetie, that’s the track you’re on.
Still….a newsletter might be a good idea.***
*Frankly, that sounds brilliant. I might steal that idea if I could ever get the squirrels in my brain to outline something that intensively.
** A bit of retail therapy and Lindor chocolate truffles fixed that up.
I check the kitty litter box. Oh yeah. Someone, a dog I suspect (because if it was a cat….man, would we know it) had pissed on the Puppy Training Pad we keep next to the box for just such occasions. However, today being a SPECIAL DAY*, the pisser had aimed for the edge so the urine was half on the absorbent pad and mostly on the very non absorbent linoleum.
I get on my knees, start cleaning up the mess and instantly regretted the decision when upon standing I find that both knees are drenched in piss.
Sweeping up the disaster, clumps of litter and grossness gets caught up in the bristles. Now that needs to be hosed off.
Here is now my updated chore List:
*Dispose of litter
*Sweep and swiffer the offending floor
*Put down new Puppy Pad
*Take the broom outside and hose it down
I grab the bag of shit, the pisspad and the funked up broom and dustpan. I dispose of poobag, put the broom on the porch and then gather up the utensils to swiffer the floor clean.
After taking care of the bathroom floor and getting that mess sorted out, I grabbed the broom, opened the porch door…..and Jack** entered into the fray as he took this moment to bolt out to freedom.
FUCK! I tossed the broom into the yard and ran after him.
He darted under the shed, his usual first hiding place. However, I have been tossing potatoes out there for the rabbits that live under the shed so I had projectile weapons to hurl at him.
He looked at me like, “ARE YOU THROWING TATERS AT ME? STAHP!”
Then Jack ran out from under the shed and toward the bird feeders. SHIT SHIT SHIT….too close to the gate! He could get out. I run, cursing and shouting. Jack flattened himself to the ground and then bolted towards the porch but the door was closed so he turned and ran towards the back fence.
The back fence closest to the clump of trees and bushes outside the border of the yard. If he gets out there, we’ll never find him.
FUCK! I curse and start running with my arms and legs flapping like Phoebe from friends.
Jack flattens himself to the ground, looks at me like I’m a monster*** and then darts back to the house. Brenna opens the porch door and he races inside, probably looking for his Da to protect him from the crazy bitch outside.
FINALLY, I go wash off the broom and find a massively dead mole.
Now I need to take a picture of it because my sister is having an apocalyptic war with the moles in her yard.
I go inside, mud and grass trailing in my wake, find my phone, go back outside, take a pic and send it off.
THEN I wash off the broom and leave it to dry in the sun.
Back inside to change clothes that are now covered in mud and wet from piss.
My daughter sees me and asks, “Are you taking the day off? Why aren’t you at work?”
And this all started with a smell….
*Checking the calendar I learn that today is Friday the fucking 13th. So, obviously.
** Jack is a cat. Just in case you might be under the delusion that we have a person named Jack trapped in our house desperately looking for help. Please don’t call the police.
A long time ago, I played around with the idea for a story. The basic plot was that when a writer died every story that was not capped with the blessed words The End formed a link in the chain that kept them trapped in this world. The writer was cursed to become the Muse of another creator and with each new work finished by their charges, a link was undone. Once the chain was completely dismantled, the writer could then ascend to the Great Wherever.
I never finished it.
To be quite frank, it never got any further than a few pages in a notebook. Hell, I think I fleshed the idea out better in that paragraph than I ever did while working on it.
Which brings us to now.
See those journals? Every one of them contains a story. It’s part of my process. Every story gets a journal to act like it’s pseudo womb. And none of them have ever made it past the journaling process.
And those are just the ones I keep nearby. In the attic, I have boxes….BOXES….of newspaper clippings for source material, research, outlines, first drafts and other abortive ideas for the Travis Dare stories.
The same goes for Crown of Feathers, two different Sherlock Holmes stories, the Ulysses K. Todd and Mrs Dowell series, the Untitled UFO story and another novel idea currently titled, Dark Horses.
My friends, my chain is long.
Which brings me to today’s lesson: When to Quit.
I’ve been working on a story with the working title of Meat Prison. I’ve racked up 1350 words and filled a few dozen pages in its journal trying to figure out the story. It’s a curious concept that came to me during a Pilates class.
Wouldn’t this be an excellent way to teach aliens how to use human bodies?
So, I started up my meat machine and got the Boys in the Back Room* to run wild with ideas.
I came up with the idea that Human Bodies are used as prisons by Cosmic Entities for dangerous convicts. Planets on D-level universes such as ours are used exclusively. Any sentient being is up for grabs. The prisoner is injected into the flesh prison. It is a very painful process and sometimes…very rarely….the corpus rejects the prisoner and explodes in a fiery disaster. This is where the idea of Spontaneous Human Combustion comes from.
Prisoners inhabit the bodies until the end of their natural physical lives. If the Prisoner does anything to damage or hasten the end of the lifespan, they are given demerits. Enough demerits warrants Oblivion.
Nobody wants Oblivion. Death….maybe. Oblivion….not so much.
At the end of the lifespan, the Prisoner goes up for Parole. If they are granted parole, they are released back to their bodies held in stasis. If they are rejected, it’s back to another meat prison.
Our Prisoner is an inter-dimensional creature outside of our ability to even conceive. Like Lovecraft shit on acid. Its name is unpronounceable with our tongue and the name is a curse to write. It is a megalomaniacal, planet erasing, all around Bad Guy. Think Psycho Goreman without the charm.
This is not its first corpus rodeo. It’s name has been laced into nightmares across a dozen galaxies. There is no hope for parole.
And its tired. Oblivion is starting to look pretty good.
Normally, during a reset, the consciousness of original tenant will either pop like soap bubbles or go screaming into the void. In the end, they ALL eventually dissolve until all that remains to puppet the corpus is the Prisoner.
But something has gone wrong with this meat prison.
Her name is Sheila. And she’s pissed.
I’ve decided to make Sheila a middle aged woman, covered in tattoos, scars and a very active schizo-affective disorder. Because of her mental illness, she has innately “sublimated and compartmentalized the trauma”. Terms she has memorized from therapy.
She is a conspiracy nut. Believes that what happened to her is a direct assault by the CIA that activated the nanobots in her bloodstream that were inserted during her root canal surgery. The U.S. Government has been trying to assassinate her ever since she received the divine calling to become Empress of the North American Continent before it breaks off from the other land masses and takes its rightful place as the Midgard of Earth.
That’s as far as I’ve gotten.
Two great characters but….no fucking story.
I’ve been beating my head in trying to figure out where to take them. I started with the idea of a cosmic horror story but….is this becoming a buddy movie? I don’t know!. My Muse has abandoned me.
So what do I do?
Sometimes, you gotta know when to quit. Put the story aside and let the Boys in the Back Room do their business.
Who are the Boys in the Backroom**? I’m glad you asked.
When I’m working on a story and get stuck, I toss it to the Boys in the Back Room. They live in a small windowless room with a naked light bulb, hanging from the ceiling. Under the bulb is a square table with four chairs. One each side is a man, sitting in front of a typewriter. They are all wearing white collared shirts, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. They all have cigarettes dangling from their lips as their fingers pound on the keys of their old school typewriters. And, of course, fedoras pulled down low.
And now I wait.
Maybe they’ll cough up a storyline and I’ll finish Meat Prison.
Maybe this story will end up as another link in my chain.
But sometimes, you have to know when to quit. And start something new.
*An excerpt from a ten minute car ride with my son*
“Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this,” my son began, “but I never expected to live past 25.”
I gripped my steering wheel a little tighter. Here we go….. “Okay.”
“Ya know, because of my mental illness and stuff. I always figured I would’ve found a way to off myself by now.”
Just let him talk…. “Okay….”
“So, last year when I hit 26, I decided, well, shit, I guess I need to get my life together and get stuff going, ya know? I started to make plans. All kinds of plans. And then, it was like BOOM. Ya know, if my life was storyboarded out like a comic strip, it would go like this. One panel would be me, looking optimistic, my arms over my head, ready to Carpe the Shit out of that Diem, and then the next panel would be a newspaper floating past with headlines like, “PLAGUE SHUTS DOWN WORLD”. Then in the next panel, it would be me, in a hazmat suit, staring blankly out on a decimated world.”
“Yeah, I swear, I know that the world doesn’t revolve around me and Covid has really fucked up a lot of people’s lives but sometimes, it feels like my life has been just been leading up to a massive, cosmic punchline.”
“Yeah…..I know. So, we’re having pizza for dinner tonight?”
I am looking at a photo of you and tapping away on a machine you couldn’t have imagine.
Frozen in time, you are forever four years old, in a lacy yellow top and matching shorts with your hair in a sloppy pony tail. Your bangs are jagged because a few weeks ago you thought Captain Hook was in your hair and you had to cut him out.
What the hell were we thinking? Mom was so mad because we had an appointment at Olan Mills to get a photo taken that weekend. HA!
In the photo, you are perched on the edge of a rocking as if you want to leap off. You weren’t interested in modeling for memories. There was chocolate cake, ice cream, balloons, shiny tinsel and presents outside! There was a pink and silver tiara waiting for me to claim my title as Birthday Princess! Why are we wasting time here?!?!
You were ferocious.
A tiny thing, all arms and legs, skinny and tan, we wanted nothing to do with Barbies. We wanted to run wild in the fields, play in the creek, climb trees, look for crawdads, pull up rocks and see what crawled beneath.
The world was so big. Magic was real and everywhere. Angels lived inside clouds. Birds and animals carried messages. A towel fastened around your neck with a safety pin gave you super powers. A ring of clover tied end to end became a crown. Sticks were Excalibur. I remember how the wind rushing through my hair made my feet swifter and I felt like The Flash, running faster than anyone else in the world.
Our imagination was untamed. We had yet to be told of what things Could Not Be or Should Not Be. We only knew What If and Why. The day we learned to read, it was the greatest gift because then the Universe unfolded in our hands. Books were magic. Stories were in our blood from the very beginning. When someone read a story, it came alive, in sound and color, right behind our eyes and inside our brain.
Remember when we learned that not everyone could do that? How sad that made us?
And later, much later, when the life began to dim, books became our refuge, our solace, and our truest friends.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk to you about. Forgive me. My mind rambles and my memories cascade.
I found this picture of you, of me…Jesus, it’s hard to think of me so young…..and I wanted to connect again with you….with me. That young wild thing that you are, that I was….Jesus….I still am. See, I am that strange sort of adult that never really grew up. Not completely. I mean, I’m fully capable of taking care of myself, paying bills, holding down a job, doing laundry and all sorts of Adulting but…I never lost that part of me that sees magic in rainbows, finds delight in clouds and whose mind is constantly distracting by shiny, new ideas and things.
Here I am, thinking about you and wondering if I measured up to what you dreamed we’d become. All I can say is that I tried my best. I did. I may not have accomplished everything I wanted or promised but I can say that I am still trying.
And I can promise that I will always hold that piece of you, that fiery, wonderful, magical girl, inside of me.
And I promise to never give up. Never grow old. Never lose the fire.