Dismembered Stories and Their Amputated Sentences

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As a writer, I have this recurring problem.  Film school education and the etiquette of screenwriting has a way of tarnishing my short stories, blog posts, and all of my writing in general.

In a screenplay, it is rude to overly describe sets, locations, characters, and really just about everything.  Every excessive adjective punched onto the page steps on someone’s toes.  Leave the wallpaper to the set designer.  Don’t back the casting department into a corner by fussing over the characters’ appearances.  Only list props necessary to the plot and let the professionals fill in the rest.

When you apply this way of thinking and the formatting of screenplays to narrative writing, you end up with front heavy information dumps followed by dialogue between vague, faceless characters in an unfurnished room somewhere sometime.  This was my initial problem with narrative writing:  a hesitance to describe anything other than the action (but only just a little bit because you don’t want to step on the director’s toes or stifle the actors’ performances).

To remedy this issue, I’ve wildly overcompensated.  My rough drafts tend to describe every little thing with as many pretty words and phrases as I can conjure, killing all plot momentum along the way.

Needless to say, revision for me is a matter of carving it all up.  For every word I add, I delete about ten.

Below are some words that I really liked, but deleted nonetheless.  I won’t provide you with any context for these, because it’s probably more fun that way!

From Hellfire Chicken Wings:

“The bulging gut that hangs over top of the husband/father’s jeans and his stained work shirt are unseemly sights easily found topside, but the two stunted, crooked horns that protrude from his forehead, the cellulite-ridden tail coming to an arrow point at the end – those are unique to this particular location of Fat Mike’s Bar and Grill.

This customer’s misfortunate daughters have equally spaced red bumps in the corners of their own foreheads that look like mountainous pimples – the awkwardness of adolescence is not unique to the mortal world.  Their crooked teeth are reined into line by grizzly-looking metal wires and brackets from a horror movie.  They look roughly the same age, Irish twins maybe, but one appears just enough older for it to be noticeable.  The younger has tangled brown hair that looks so grungy that Kristen thinks the girl might actually be a blonde with inordinately poor hygiene.  The older has dark black hair, too dark, a bad dye job, with reddish blonde roots showing for about an inch and a half.

The matriarch of the family is enormous.  Rolls of fat cascade down her wide frame, peaking at her hips – which must measure nearly three feet across.  Her double chin has its own double chin.  Her facial muscles can’t hold taut the weight of her cheeks and they sag in jowls.  She is wearing light makeup on her face, which is an inhuman fire engine red, peppered with enough whiskers to make Kristen wonder whether a pointy black beard lurks within the folds of flesh hanging from the woman’s chin.  Her eyes, “the window to the soul,” are vacant like a cow’s, hinting at the vacuum of intelligent thought within her skull.  Her horns might be the most pronounced of the entire brood, though it is impossible to tell given the ways that facial fat has folded around them.

Regardless of whether or not the customers sitting in Kristen’s section are poorly-bred and unattractive or brilliantly handsome and brimming with seductive facial expressions, she sees their horns and pointy beards and arrow-ended tails all the same.

She can’t remember exactly when she began seeing people this way, whether it was a week, a month, or a year ago.  These details just so integrated themselves into her perspective so well that she assumed that they were there the whole time and that she had never overlooked them.”

From Trail:

“Though I did not belong, the forest adopted me.  It became a part of me, and I, a part of it.”

From This is Where…:

“My head bobbing just above the water for days, weeks, months.”

From Last Will and Testament:

“But that wasn’t true.  The house was Wilbur – run down and neglected on the outside, untarnished and full of potential on the inside.  Or at least that must have been the way that George had seen it.”

From Decomposing on Your Doorstep:

“It could be the setting of a fairy tale.  Unnaturally lush green grass carpets an unused plot of farm land roughly fenced in and forgotten, complete with rusting tractors and farming equipment.”

“Born of inspiration greater than anything that ever fueled my painting, my ploy for notoriety will finally show the world my life’s work.”

From Antisocial Networking:

“The boredom went up in flames, kindling for Jake’s newfound fascination with strangers.  Soon he was reading their 140-character opinions and insights on Twitter, inspecting the photographic evidence of their alien lives on Instagram, even tracking their professional developments on LinkedIn.”

“All of those insignificant, boring things that bore people can take on a whole new light simply by viewing them from a different perspective.”

Don’t worry, I will share with you the stories from which these words were amputated sometime, just not today!

The Problem with The Brantley Blog

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To anyone who is still here after my year long-hiatus from this blog, I feel like I owe you a big apology and an explanation.

The Brantley Blog was discontinued for two primary reasons.

Bad Feelings

What began as select drinking stories and misadventures from college slowly turned into a broader story arc of my coming of age after leaving home for the first time.  This was a natural evolution, but it came with a price.

I struggled with a lot of loneliness in my first semester of college.  During my second semester, I finally made friends and I got really close with a lot of people who didn’t have much in common with me other than our shared affinity for inebriation.  This didn’t end well.

Petty conflicts, jealousies, and certain individuals’ affliction of talking about people behind their backs led my group of friends to a boiling point.  We all met on top of a parking garage to air out our grievances with each other in a structured act of full disclosure.  We called it, I kid you not, a “Pickle Pow Wow.”   Instead of the kindergarten classroom tool of a “talking stick” with which speakers take turns so that they don’t end up shouting over top each other, we passed around a pickle in a pouch.

Tears were shed, hugs exchanged, bandaids applied to minor emotional scratches and wounds, but deep down we all knew that the group of friends was doomed to collapse in on itself.

I know that this is all incredibly stupid and “high school” dramatic, but it really genuinely mattered to me back then.  A lot of people that I cared about stabbed me in the back and friends that I tried to help resented my efforts.  It left a sour taste in my mouth.

Needless to say, the fun of mocking my youthful naivety and the joy of embellishing drinking tales were far preferable to describing how I lost numerous close friends over the course of just a few short months.  When the story that I was telling one blog post at a time reached this point, I suddenly found myself unmotivated to continue.  These events weren’t much fun to write about and I assumed that it wouldn’t be much fun to read.

I had it in my head that someone out there was piecing these individual posts together and reading them like a book; that this heavily foreshadowed climax was hotly anticipated.  I put a great deal of imaginary pressure on myself to get the story right.

Now I know that this was a silly thing to think.  I understand that blogs are typically consumed piece by piece rather than as a unit and that I could have neglected the hard parts of the story and nobody would have noticed.  But it was still enough to suck the fun out of The Brantley Blog for me.

Brantley:  The Great Disappointment

A recurring problem that I had with weaving my underage drinking stories was the looming presence of my parents in the back of my mind.  Both mother and father had recently joined Facebook and had dropped comments (Mom especially) here and there that made social networking lose its luster.  Thoughts of the shit storm that would arise should they find my blog and read about my youthful mistakes (most of which were intentional) prevailed over every revision and every edit of every post.

Over the last month or so, I’ve come to realize that it goes much deeper than fear of my parents finding out that I enjoyed being a little troublemaker in college.  A big part of my tendency to hold back in my writing has been knowledge of their inevitable disapproval of what I have to say.

You see, my parents are very religious.  As a kid, I remember my Dad making this objection throat clearing noise every time a character in a movie swore.  I remember him changing radio stations and calling certain pop songs “garbage.”  I remember my Mom forbidding me from seeing certain movies and how upset she was when she found out that I had used Napster to burn CDs with cuss words in them.

I, on the other hand, have more or less oscillated between atheism and agnosticism ever since the day that my parents decided that I was too old to get away with napping during church services.  I used to lay my head down in the pew every Sunday morning and rely on my family to wake me when it was all over.  Once that was no longer an option, I found myself increasingly uninterested in the entire body of rituals.

Every part of my worldview is so radically different from my parents that it makes for awkward silences during the holidays.  It would be stupid to let my political opinions alienate me from them, but at the same time, there are certain things that I feel very strongly about and it becomes really difficult to see any basic human decency in differing opinions on some issues.

Really, the worst part is that I get the feeling that they don’t even notice these awkward silences, these times that I shut my mouth in polite dissent.  It makes me feel like they probably don’t know very much about me and who I am, who I became once I left their house.

All of this is in the back of my mind during every keystroke, every sentence.  These things that I write, they are an extension of me.  To hate my writing is to hate me.  When it comes to my parents, that’s a lot of stress to handle every time I push that “publish” button.

It isn’t easy suspecting that a falling out with my parents will inevitably be a big part of my artistic journey.  Some days, it’s enough to keep my fingers from hitting any key other than “Backspace,” but I just can’t live that way forever.

I’m 26 years old.  I’m smart, thoughtful, kind, compassionate, and patient (though I struggle with this one sometimes).  I’m stubbornly optimistic and I don’t want to accept defeat, not for myself, not for society, not for the human race.

I’m proud of who I am and I’m proud of my writing.  My parents should be too.  And if they aren’t, then that’s an issue upon which I can’t courteously keep my mouth shut.

From Here   

I plan on continuing to tell my stories, to laugh at myself and the things that have happened to me.  I plan on sharing my insights on petty injustices that I encounter in my day to day drudgery.  I plan on trying to make readers laugh or smile, to entertain a person or two if only for a few minutes out of their day.

I plan on doing these things on a wider level.  I’m going to share this blog with actual people that I know and if my parents find it, I hope they enjoy it.  No.  I hope that they can’t help but enjoy it, even though they disapprove.  I hope that they are just as proud of me as I am of myself.

Freelance Writing Update:

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On July 1, I kicked off a more serious pursuit of freelance writing.  It’s been quite an emotional roller coaster so far and I haven’t made enormous gains, but I’m still optimistic.  I began my gig hunting with a wide open mind.  This led me to read a lot of job postings for opportunities that I’m not in the least bit qualified for.  That led to me becoming really bummed out.  Eventually I put that approach on hold to pursue another one.  More on that in a little bit.

My biggest accomplishment in the past month was easily the writing Fellowship that I’ve scored with TheDodo.com.  It’s like BuzzFeed for wildlife and conservation.  I’ve published two articles with them and both have made the front page!  They advertise that they are working with the same venture capital groups that were behind BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, so hopefully I’m getting in on the ground floor of something that could go really big!  

My one complaint about this website is that they pay 45 days after the end of the month that you publish the article (according to a Writer’s Agreement that they made me sign).  I was, however, paid within 10 days for my first post so I have no idea when to expect checks in the mail from this website.  At least I know that they weren’t lying about paying me though!  

The goal of 100% self-sufficiency through freelance writing has both sustained me and pushed me to the brink of a nervous breakdown.  You see, I haven’t shown off my writing very much, and so the idea of putting myself in position to be published in a wider way has been pretty terrifying.  So naturally, I used my go-to technique for handling scary things:  avoiding them at all costs.  I worked on everything but the things that frightened me.  I half-wrote like three articles while researching several more, all the while guaranteeing myself that I would never finish anything that I could publish.  All of my writing has to be squeezed in between my two jobs, so eventually the time drain of never finishing anything weighed on me heavily.  

I was throwing the ball for my dog in the yard as I researched the fates of failed presidential candidates.  I wasn’t paying attention to fetch.  I just picked up the ball when Magic dog brought it back and then chucked it into the pool for him to swim after again.  It wasn’t long before the ball smashed into the little frosted lights that hang from the overhang of our back porch.  Tiny white glass shards spread all over the pool deck and (I feared) into the pool itself.  

That’s when I lost my damned mind.  

I had put so much pressure on myself and I had so little time for writing that picking up these tiny pieces of glass would leave me with less than half an hour to pursue my ambitions.  I led the dog away from the scene of the accident, brought him inside, dried him off, and then went back out to search for glass shards.  

Frosted white glass on a white concrete pool deck on a sunny Florida (read “unbearably hot”) day don’t make for a fun scavenger hunt.  I looked high and low and didn’t find nearly enough glass.  I swept everywhere within a 10 foot radius of the incident.  That’s when I feared that the glass was in the pool and conjured horrifying mental images of my pup accidentally swallowing glass-laden water while joyfully swimming towards his orange rubber ball.  I started cleaning the pool thoroughly, vacuuming and skimming to no avail.  I was defeated.  We couldn’t let the dog near the area until I found more of the glass (which I did find in a small gutter next to the back patio a few days later).

This was the first time that I realized how much pressure I was putting on myself.  

That’s when I came up with what seemed to be a great way of coping with my self-inflicted frustration:  I would write a quirky, charming biography of myself from the point of view of my writer’s block!  I was a half-dozen pages into the project when I realized that I wasn’t all that interested in it and that it only served as a way for me to feel productive about avoiding writing that could be more realistically published.  

As I mentioned before, I abandoned depressing job hunting because it was eroding my soul and undermining my elusive, occasional, and probably hypothetical self-confidence.  I altered my strategy to involve finding out what the market would bear in terms of selling my writing to leads that I had already located.  I would bank articles and then try to sell them in bulk.  (Ex:  This site pays $100/post and they bought 5 posts from me in one week.  Thus they are good for $500/week).  Just to keep myself from regaining too much sanity, I created an arbitrary deadline to strive towards and stressed myself out by forgetting its meaninglessness.  

I had 4 out of 5 articles ready to sell to a website that I had never worked with before.  I would write the fifth article over the course of the week.  That was the plan.  Upon delivering the first post, I realized that hidden on the website as a lengthy list of Writer’s Guidelines that I had never seen before.  Committed to my imaginary deadline, I observed the ones that I could and ignored the rest.  

The article was rejected with a form letter.  I crumpled into despair, certain that I couldn’t possibly reach my goal now.  The next day, I moped more heavily than usual as I read carefully through the Writer’s Guidelines and realized that of the 5 posts I intended to sell that week, only one might be of any interest to the website.  I had jumped the gun in a fit of courage and now I had reaffirmed my mercurial low self-esteem.  I thanked them for reviewing the article and adjusted my goal to getting one thing that I had written accepted by the site.  

Once we had a more solid relationship, I reasoned, I would better understand what they would and would not buy from me.  I realized that this would need to be my approach with other leads as well.  

In the meantime, I was a neglectful jerk to my girlfriend who I treated like an obstacle to my ambition.  She confronted me on it and I saw how much of a turd I had been and reevaluated my obsession with fictional pressures that I put on myself and how I let them affect the person I love the most.  

I revised my one last hope, an article about hate groups that was surprisingly thoroughly miserable to write.  Did you know that we live in such a politically divided country that we can’t even seem to agree on who is and is not a hate group?  

I adhered to their guidelines, submitted it, and received a more cordial rejection.  This time it was a human responding.  They said it just wasn’t a good fit, but that they would love to give me feedback on some pitches before I spent the time to write another full article to submit to them.  

You better believe I took them up on that offer!  I pitched about 5 potential articles and thanked them for taking the time to review my much hated hate groups post, also asking if it was rejected for form/style or content.  

Now I’m re-tooling the hate groups post to pitch it elsewhere.  I’ve got about 12 hours of excessive research, rough drafting, and revision into this stupid post so I’ve gotta sell it somewhere!  

In the meantime, I’ve realized that writing web content is enjoyable and fun.  Even though the research takes hours sometimes, it’s a really awesome way to learn new things about this big weird world that we’re living in.  With that in mind, I’m going to take up my job search once more with a narrower focus on the type of writing that I find interesting.  Hopefully it will stave off the boringness of corporate form postings and the depression of confronting my limited professional-experience.  

In the meantime, here are my published posts from the first month of my freelance pursuits:

How You Can Help 6 Critically Endangered Species with Populations of 500 or Less:

https://www.thedodo.com/fellows-pitch-6-critically-end-628725703.html 

A Muggle’s Guide to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Universal Studios:

http://www.americansky.co.uk/blog/muggles-guide-wizarding-world-harry-potter-universal-studios

8 Endangered Species Making Epic Comebacks:

https://www.thedodo.com/8-endangered-species-making-ep-652564299.html

A Muggle’s Guide to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Islands of Adventure:

http://www.americansky.co.uk/blog/muggles-guide-wizarding-world-harry-potter-islands-adventure 

NaNoWriMo Update

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Those of you that have followed my blog since November know that I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  I completed the 50,000 words in one month part of the challenge and had no dissatisfaction with the fact that my novel was far from completed even after I crossed that finish line.

December, I vowed, would bring 50,000 more words to my tale.  This didn’t happen.  January, then, would be the month that I completed the rough draft.  That didn’t happen either.  February, the shortest month on the calendar, was all that I needed to get back on track and finish the book.

In the three and a half months that followed my 50k word November victory, I was only able to write 58k more words on the novel.  Part of it revolved around time management issues as well as my increasingly busy schedule.  I knew that these were just excuses though.

My real problems had everything to do with the actual story.  I decided on the fly to throw a monkey wrench into my narrative.  It was a rich, action-packed plot choice that would push my characters to see who they really were and just how far they were willing to go in order to survive another day in the zombie-ridden post-apocalyptic landscape.

And for a while, it was a great decision.  They story continued to write itself.  Sentences turned into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages, pages into thousands and tens of thousands of words.  Suddenly, I was writing an 800-page story, and this was just the first in a series.  I waffled between reeling the plot back in and continuing on my epic journey or splitting the book I was writing into two books.  I didn’t like the latter option.  At all.  It felt like I was moving the finish line closer to me so that I could still say that I finished a full book.

But eventually I had to concede that this wasn’t one extremely long story.  It was two stories that I was trying to put into one book.  I made peace with this, revised my outline, and got excited about where I was heading again.

Then my perspectives came back to bite me in the ass.  I have 5 characters telling my story.  For a while, three of them were fighting for their lives while the other two were bickering and whining and engaging in conflicts that were trivial by comparison and boring to write.  I would fly through those three action-packed perspectives before stalling out on another “talky” chapter.  I  added a wrinkle to their problems to make everything life and death.  I was back on track!

And yet I still had trouble writing the story.  I knew where it was going, and how I was going to get there.  I just couldn’t make myself sit down and be motivated.  When I did write, I was telling the story, not showing it.

All of the changed plans had slowed my pace and filled my head with regrets about what I had written previously.  By splitting this into two books, I had entire subplots that I had procrastinated on and they wouldn’t even begin before I wrote my last line.  Continuity had become a nightmare that I was trying so hard to ignore in order to keep pressing on.  The pace of the story was horrendous.  The climax felt artificial.  There was no build to it.  It just happened to the characters all of a sudden.  I just wanted to drown all of these thoughts out and finish the rough draft, but I couldn’t make it happen.  I wasn’t doing the story justice with the half-hearted writing I was churning out just to get through it.

So I quit.

Well, not exactly.  I decided to just call this hot mess a first draft, despite the missing third act.  I paid good money to print it out and bind it.  I know that it should have felt like cheating, but it didn’t.  It just felt right.  The feeling of those 213 single-spaced pages in my hands only reinforced this.

Which leads me to where I stand today.  I’m sorting through my mythology to make sure that it makes sense before I actively apply it to governing my universe.  I’m deciding what details to slowly unravel throughout the course of this first book.  I’m fleshing out my characters better so that I can give their perspectives a richer voice.

After I’ve finished all of that, I will go start reading through this first draft.  I’ll take a red pen to it and scribble in every inch of the margins.  I will keep my chin up.  I know that the storytelling was a catastrophe, but it’s littered with tons of decent and even pretty good writing that might just survive into much later drafts.

Yeah, I cheated.

Yeah, I moved the finish line closer to me so that I could cross it and start patting myself on the back.

No, I don’t feel bad about it.  Not one bit.

UPDATE:  To be perfectly honest, I wrote this post several weeks ago but didn’t get around to scheduling it until now.  I have since flipped the order of my next steps.  I was hashing out mythology and starting to compile a character questionnaire when I ran out of steam again.  

The remedy, I supposed, was to start rereading the damn thing before going into such granular details about the characters.  I’m only three chapters into the tome.  I’ve had a lot of difficulty making time for it because I take copious notes as I go.  Even though it didn’t help me regain my momentum, it has done so much more for helping me understand my characters than any questionnaire ever could.  

I feel like instinctively I know who they are, what they want, how they will react given any scenario.  Further bolstering this notion are the notes that I’ve taken about these first chapters that I wrote so long ago, way before I knew who these people were deep down in their souls.  

I won’t bore you with the gory (very, very gory) details.  I just wanted to confide in everyone that I lost a lot of urgency after November 30th and see if the wisdom of the internet has any recommendations to help me light a fire under my ass again.