>Learning and Pain

>I just had the worst 24 hours of self-doubt in my writing career.

It started out with a standard R from a very nice editor, which I couldn’t let just sit there. Mistake #1. I responded to the R that I thought it was some of the best stuff I’d written (which I did believe up to that moment in time), and had she really read it? (Oh yeah, not a wise move on any planet. It was a genuine question—I really did want to know—but there’s just no way to make that question sound nice in email.)

She responded, very nicely, that yes, she’d read it. “The story didn’t engage me and lacked the depth in plot and characterization we look for. I found the writing and characters to be flat, and requiring a stronger heroine.” Okay, yeah. A story I really loved actually sucked—no mistake. No confusion. (A buddy of mine once pointed out to me that “the truth is a bitter pill that goes down better with a Whine Cooler.” I think about that.)

And Step 1 of my massive insecurity complex and crisis of faith is complete.

Step 2 began that evening. Another buddy of mine mentioned a first paragraph contest to me, and I thought, “I’ll find something to enter.” So I ran a few possible beginnings by her. Oh yeah, step 2 was underway.

“The sound of slogging boots joined the jerky movements of her body and woke her. Shifting images of trees, mountains and driving snow flickered. Her mind didn’t want to cooperate as she tried to form clear thoughts, but each jarring, agonizing movement helped focus it.

She was alive. Someone was carrying her and each step he took awoke a new stabbing agony. Where were they going? Who was he?


“No? Just ‘no’?

“It’s flat. I don’t understand what’s happening. There’s nothing there. And it’s 2 paragraphs, not one.”

There was that word again…flat. “How about this one?”

Harrison’s face drained of color. Crete set the plate of eggs, bacon and toast on the diner table in front of him. “Eat something, man. You look like hell.”

His brother pushed the plate away, shook out his fifth cigarette and applied the lighter with trembling hands. “I can’t think about food. I can’t think about anything but all that blood. Crete, man, he’s going to kill me.”

“No. It’s also 2 paragraphs and it’s flat.”

Conversation ensues with me being irritated and developing a righteous hate for the word “flat” while trying to understand what the everlovin’ crap she’s talking about.

“Read some of the entries. See which ones work.”

So I do read them—about a hundred of them, and we’re still talking. “Oh, man, this one stinks. I didn’t make it past the first two sentences.”

“Uh huh.”

“And this one…ugh. Boring!”


“Hey I like this one. Listen to this:”

My best friend, William Ottern – Ott to most everyone he knows — forbade me to come here today. That’s what he said. Forbade. “I forbade you to go, Carson Flynn, you fucker. I forbade you. The Wilkes Club is filled with nothing but assholes and you know this. Don’t act like you don’t know this,” were his exact words.

–a YA entry from someone named CC

“Instant voice. We’re in the story!”

“Yes. We are,” she says.

This goes on for a while. Some of the entries are fantastic—some are “flat”…the clouds are parting and yes, the pill is sliding down easier now. But I’m still pissed to the sky.

“I’m going to bed now.”

“K. See you tomorrow.”

Not if I stay invisible on Yahoo you won’t, I thought.

But as my mother always says, “There are few things a good night’s sleep and a hot shower can’t cure.” I got both. I went to work, I came home. I fixed them both.

She appears again. I take the high road and bravely (or stupidly—wasn’t sure at that point) show her the rewrite:

The sound of slogging boots joined the jerky movements of her body. Someone was carrying her. Shifting images of trees, mountains and driving snow flickered in her vision. The woods. Something bad had happened here. The snow pelting her cheeks helped wake her but did nothing to alleviate the alternating piercing and throbbing pain in her chest, neck and right knee. She should be dead; she was sure of it. Every crunch of the boots awoke a new stabbing agony. She couldn’t get her mind to remember why, but each jarring step confirmed one thing—she wasn’t dead.

“That’s much better!”

Nodding, I show the other:

His brother’s face was drained of color, his sweaty, black hair framing the pasty flesh. When they were kids Harrison continually stumbled into shit and ended up stinking more than a three-hole outhouse. Twenty years later, he’d learned exactly nothing. Crete shoved a plate of eggs, bacon and toast in front of him, but he pushed the plate away. Shaking a cigarette from his crumpled pack, he applied the lighter with trembling hands. “He’s going to kill me.”

“Yes! Not flat at all!”

Now, neither is great literature. I know this. But I also know that they are better. They make sense for one thing. And neither are two paragraphs masquerading as one.

Another writing crisis averted. Hey, check out the contest. Even if you don’t enter, it’s very instructive.

Nathan Bransford is having a first paragraph contest. If you haven’t entered, you’re missing the party, and I do mean party. As of this morning, over 1600 entries.



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Filed under The Process, Writer Angst

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