Where My Writing Momentum Goes to Die: Procrastination & Writer’s Block

The Story That Never Ended...

The Story That Never Ended…

For the past 5 years (4 months and 4 days) there has been a place where my writing momentum has gone to die. I say a place, but it’s really a story, one particular short story to be exact.  This is separate from my usual bouts of procrastination or writer’s block—the terrifying certainty that this time I really have run out of ideas. I don’t lack ideas when it comes to this story. I can be so accurate about the years and months and days because I finished outlining the story on September 19, 2008. It wasn’t just a few notes jotted down, or vague concepts. It was a proper outline—setting, characters, plot—all laid out, ready to be written. And I recall being very excited by the idea in 2008 and raring to write. Since it was historical, it required some research before I could begin, but I enjoyed the research, and at the time managed to avoid falling into the research/procrastination hole I can be susceptible to. At the time I tried to handwrite all my first drafts, so I began writing, and that’s when things started to fall apart.

I wrote the first sentence. I wrote the second sentence. I’d had those in mind since the idea first came to me. I stopped. I decided to switch the order of the sentences. I wrote the first paragraph. I rewrote the first paragraph. I rechecked some facts (there’s that research/procrastination hole I was mentioning). I got busy with other things—life, the universe, and everything. Eventually, I returned to the story. I wasn’t as happy with it as I had been, but I still liked it. I rewrote the first paragraph to get back into the flow of things. I got writer’s block, or distracted by another project, or distracted by life. Something always happened. Sometimes I even made it as far as the fourth or fifth paragraph. Sometimes.

This doesn’t mean the past 5 years have been a barren wasteland. In that period my tally of complete stories has climbed into double digits and I’ve written hundreds of pages of varying degree of usefulness and quality. And every time I finish a story or a project, I wonder if I should start on something new or return to old faithful, still fully outlined, still sitting on my hard drive waiting to destroy my momentum yet again. It got to the point that I could feel it happening: my will to write dissolving, my doubts multiplying. I still don’t know why.

But the why no longer matters, because this month I finally did it. I finished the story! I’m not entirely sure why this time was different. This time I got through it. I’ve been more organized in my writing habits lately—logging start and end times, taking note of word counts. I’ve also been taking the time before I start writing to plan out what specifically I’m going to write this session. It helps to know, even if I change my mine. It helps to have mini-goals I can check off and feel productive. Perhaps that gave me the final push, but perhaps not. After all, I could feel the old habits creeping in. I stopped writing for days at a time; I felt the urge to go back and reedit and rewrite, the dreadful certainty that the story was terrible. I read it over the other day and it’s not half as bad as I thought it would be/feared it was. It’s a first draft, and like all drafts it needs work, probably lots of work. But it is finished. I reached the end. In the long run this probably means very little. I haven’t banished writer’s block or anything so superhuman. However, I did just get through my largest manifestation of writer’s block, after 5 years of trying and that has to count for something. Or maybe it just means my next bout is right around the corner. It was only the first draft, after all…

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Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a uniquely clever and intriguing blend of fantasy with a series of intriguing, dare I say peculiar, old photographs from private collections. These photographs are often as intriguing to the reader as they clearly were to the author, and their integration into the story is the novel’s greatest success, lending it a wonderfully dark, moody, and whimsical texture. The story itself, however, does not quite live up to the promise of this unique and intriguing blend of vintage photographs and fantasy novel.

Fifteen-year-old Jacob Portman loves his grandfather dearly. He has spent his life listening to the old man’s stories, stories of monsters, magical children, and the wise old peregrine who watched over them. Jacob is too old to believe in fairy stories now, even when he sees his grandfather’s old photos. He knows that his grandfather was the only one of his family to escape Poland and the concentration camps in WWII, and that the “monsters” of the stories are Nazis dressed up and made palatable for children. Jacob knows all of this, until his grandfather is killed, and he starts to see the monsters himself. Trying to understand his grandfather, and come to terms with what happened eventually takes Jacob and his father to a small island off the coast of Wales, where the orphanage from his grandfather’s stories used to be. Jacob finds the sad, bombed-out ruins of the home, and almost gives up. Then he discovers that it isn’t as abandoned as it appears.

The opening of the novel is wonderfully mysterious. It draws the reader into a strange off kilter world enhanced by the photographs. Jacob’s family life, as he attempts to cope is well drawn: his parent’s shaky marriage, the psychiatrist visits. The island itself is suitably atmospheric, as well, but once the plot starts in earnest, the novel begins to come apart slightly. The peculiar children are, with a few exceptions, largely forgettable, and the titular Miss Peregrine never made as large an impression on me as intended. Perhaps Riggs hoped that the pictures of a pipe-smoking Victorian woman, which he included, would provide the necessary impressions.

The plot itself, once the mysteries are revealed, is relatively straightforward and unremarkable. The beauty of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children lies not in the story, but in how it is told. The artful use of vintage pictures is brilliantly matched with a well-written, though not flawless, young adult fantasy. This is a promising start to the series, and despite a few reservations I look forward to the recently released sequel.

Book Review: Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez

Authors and writers have an unwritten obligation to fulfill the promise of the premise. This isn’t always easy. In fact, more often than not, they fall just a little short. The over-the-top pulp fiction whimsy of Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain starts with the title and doesn’t let up for a single page. Martinez appears to have thrown as many pulp science fiction and adventure stories as he could muster into a blender and sprinkled his particular brand of humor on top. The titular Emperor Mollusk is the (retired) Warlord of Terra and the most wanted criminal in the Solar System. With the help of Zala, his sometime-nemesis and reluctant bodyguard, Emperor Mollusk must avoid increasingly elaborate assassination attempts, and foil an enemy who threatens to supplant him, and possibly destroy the universe…if the math checks out. Along the way there are the requisite number of robots, dinosaurs, giant jellyfish, Saturnite Warships, Lunar Resorts, a trip to the Not-So-Lost City of Atlantis, and, as the title suggests, a Sinister Brain or two.

This is a tongue-in-cheek infectious romp through a pulp science-fiction universe with an evil genius, world-conquering mollusk from Neptune as your guide. It is seldom laugh-out-loud funny, but it is constantly amusing and addicting. I read it cover to cover in a little under two hours, simply because I couldn’t stop. Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain is perfect for some mindless, fun reading. This is the first book by A. Lee Martinez that I’ve read, but I have definitely been inspired to search out his other works.

Book Review: Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

Winter’s Tale is an ethreal, mystical, and philosophical novel of New York stretching from the turn-of-the-century to the turn-of-the-millennium. Mark Helrin attempts to capture both the soul of a city and an age, while simultaneously reaching for philosophical and spiritual themes. His ambition is both staggering and inspiring and Helprin comes remarkably close to achieving that ambition. Nevertheless, there was something missing, that kept it from being the masterpiece it could have been.

The novel opens in a mythical version of Gilded Age New York. This is a wonderfully rendered setting filled with bridge-builders and thieves, nightclubs and mansions, sewers and cloud walls. This is the home of Peter Lake, an orphan who arrives in the city in a whicker basket and is raised by the clamdiggers of Bayonne Marsh. He becomes a mechanic, a thief, a burgler, and eventually a man unstuck in time, rescued by magical white horse. The early parts of the novel are chiefly concerned with Peter Lake—his rivalry with Pearly Soames the leader of the Short Tails Gang, and his passioante abiding love affair with Beverly Penn, a young woman dying of consumption who recieves visions. This part of the novel is engrossing, and fast-paced—a near-perfect balance of history and myth, magic and reality. When the novel shifts forward in time, however, Helprin’s grip on the narrative loosens slightly. Peter, Pearly, and Beverly largely drop out of the narative, although they will return in various gises.

The majority of the novel takes place at the turn of the millennium. Written in 1983, this was originally set in the near future. This adds adds a retrospective irony to the events and the setting, but doesn’t detract from its pleasures. This is as much a mythical and ethreal vision of New York, as the Gilded Age version. The cast of characters multiplies, though none of them are as well drawn as the original threesome, and their various triumphs, tragedies, and love stories can seem at times to be simply marking time until Peter Lake returns and the mysterious machinations of the seemingly immortal bridge builder, Jackson Mead, to stop time and bring back the dead reach fruition.

Winter’s Tale  is a hugely ambitious novel with an expansive cast, a century of events, and an ever-changing city at its core. If it occasionally gets lost in his own ambition, and some narrative strands are left to fade, Mark Helprin has still created a magical, absorbing work that is deservedly considered one of the best novels of the late-20th century.

Book Review: Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson

Darwinia: A Novel of a Very Different Twentieth Century by Robert Charles Wilson is a novel of ideas, and what fascinating, vast, and engrossing ideas they are. The novel begins in 1912 with the Miracle, a night of portents and celestial lights that changes the face of the world forever. All of Europe is gone. Every country, every person, every animal, and every tree. And in their place is a brave new world of jungles and monsters, and lost cities, a world drawn from the imaginings of Edgar Rice Burroughs or H.G. Wells.

At a single stroke the Old World is lost. The Great Nations reduced to their colonies. There is still America, of course, and China. Suddenly colonialism is in reverse. Suddenly it is Europe which is the undiscovered country, and the novel follows the life of young Guilford Law, a child in 1912, as he journeys through this alternate 20th century, first as a member of a scientific expedition into this new land.

In the beginning, Wilson pays homage to the adventure stories of Burroughs and Haggard as Law and his compatriots delve deeper into the jungles of Darwinia. The sense of mystery and wonder is well captured, but there are deeper mysteries to be uncovered.

The transformation of Europe into Darwinia, the Miracle that sets this story into motion is but the tip of a larger iceberg that I will not spoil here. At about the midway point, Wilson shifts the focus of the novel towards the larger mystery and as a result the novel begins to lose more and more focus. The new world Wilson had created in the opening parts of the novel is sufficiently interesting to hang an entire book around. Even in the prologue there are hints at an entire alternative history, where arrival of a New Europe effects all of history. Wilson mentions in passing decades of stock market crashes, strikes, religious upheaval, rival Papacies, and colonial wars. These events are passed over briefly. This is not an alternate history novel, per se. Wilson is not interested in all the repercussions of his premise. He is primarily interested in the premise itself, which takes the novel step by step from a Lost World homage to an epic story of war beyond human comprehension.

As a result, the human drama and plot can seem more by the numbers. Character moments or even deaths that were clearly meant to have impact fall short and are per functionary at best. Darwinia remains a novel of brilliant thought-provoking ideas, but it becomes increasingly disjointed and detached as it goes on, leaving the reader cold and without anything to latch on to.  For me at least,  this is was a disappointing book, one with a great premise and great setup that ultimately failed to live up to its own promise.

Fantasy Book Review: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The ability to grab the reader from the very start is one that many authors struggle over, the power of the first sentence to entice the reader into a new world, and hopefully never let go. In Daniel O’Malley’s first novel, The Rook, he achieves that and more. “Dear You,” the story begins, “the body you are wearing used to be mine.” The novel opens with a woman in the rain surrounded by a ring of bodies, reading a note from herself. O’Malley has gathered together an array of fairly common ideas and tropes: the amnesiac hero (or in this case, heroine), the secret society protecting the world from monsters, the hunt for a traitor within their midst. Individually each is enough to hang a novel on, but O’Malley blends them together with an almost giddy excitement. This is a supernatural thriller; its cover originally provided the tagline “On Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service” which tells you not only the kinds of supernatural espionage hijinks that will ensue, but that the author’s tongue is planted firmly in his cheek. This is a knowing book, filled with loving touches and a deliciously dry wit.

Our amnesiac heroine, Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany, as we are helpfully informed on the very first page) is not a typical fantasy heroine. She has a desk job; for one thing, at least she did before she lost her memory. In between magical battles, page-turning action sequences, plots, counterplots, and ancient enemies returning, the reader is invited to glimpse the amusingly bureaucratic side of saving the world. O’Malley intersperses excerpts from the original Myfanwy’s letters to herself throughout the story, often causing wonderful juxtapositions. As a result, Myfanwy (both versions) forms the backbone of the novel. It sinks or swims depending on her. Luckily, O’Malley has developed two distinct yet similar well-rounded characters to serve as his heroine and entrance into the strange and wonderful world of the Checquy, the secret organization that battles supernatural forces in Britain.

The plot itself is a fun blend of espionage and mystery, filled with more than enough weird science, weird magic, and twisted characters to satisfy any genre lover. There’s the elderly Victorian lady who can enter people’s dreams, and then there’s Gestalt, a single entity in four bodies. The Rook is a first novel, and occasionally the growing pains show a little. The late introduction of a character very important to Myfanwy felt a little mistimed and clunky, and the ending was a little rushed and confused for me. But on the whole this was an impressive, taunt, playful and altogether fun addition to the urban fantasy shelf. The Rook has already been relabeled the first of The Checquy Files series, and I, for one cannot wait for Book 2.