dear self

Dryer of Doom

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series dear self


You are tumbling in the dryer of doom, fumbling for more quarters to feed into the beast.

Stop. Dust yourself off and start moving forward. Face your fears. For example:

  • Pajama Girls will sell, or it won’t.
  • The critics will be even handed or they will feast on its still twitching flesh, laughing maniacially.
  • There will be more electoral shenanigans, or the people will prevail.
  • The Grey’s Anatomy writers will come to their senses, or you’ll turn the channel
  • You’ll finish book six, or you’ll go get a different job.

Move on. Right this very minute: move on.


This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series dear self

My guess is that many authors (especially those who write series) will find lots familiar in this list.

1. If you ask me a question about some particular plot point in the Wilderness stories, half the time I won’t know which book it happened in. So if you say — ‘you know that time Hannah amputated a leg? — I’ll remember the amputation itself, but not the book it’s in.

2. Hundreds of minor characters, the majority of which only show up once or twice — I forget their names, too.

3. If I pick up one of the early books and open it to a random page, I often have absolutely no memory of writing what I read there. I often am surprised at a turn of phrase. I have asked myself: where did you get that from? And not been able to answer.

4. There are scenes in various novels which I really dislike, and would cut, if I could. In a similar way, I sometimes listen to one of the books on tape and cringe (although not too often) at a word choice.

5. Sometimes an author gets tired of a character. In these cases, a heart attack or carriage accident comes in very handy.

6. Sometimes authors vent their frustrations on characters by giving them a really unpleasant case of hives or a head cold. A character who won’t shut up is easily dealt with by means of a bad case of laryngitis, or simply by getting lost in the woods for a day or so.

7. An author who is sure of his or her audience can explore some of his or her darker impulses and get away with it. Stephen King, for example, has a fascination with nose picking and the products thereof. There are whole paragraphs about this in some of the Dark Tower novels that go to such extremes that I got distinctly nauseated. My personal promise to myself: if I ever get to the point where I am compelled to put stuff like this in a novel simply because I can get away with it, I will quit writing, or see about having my meds changed.

8. When you write a long series of books, you run out of names you like to use for your characters. Sometimes in a fit of desperation you decide to name a new main character Harvey or Harold or Geraldine. This is something like what happens (or used to happen) in big Catholic families, where the first kids were named Mary, Ann, Jean, Carol, Betty, Susan, etc etc and then the parents just gave up and let the older kids name the youngest ones. I personally know somebody whose name is Coco, for this very reason.

9. It’s really hard to keep relative ages and dates straight in a big novel or series of novels. The Mathematician makes charts for me but sometimes even that isn’t enough. So if you think there’s some weirdness about somebody’s age or a date, you may well be right.

10. Anybody who writes for a living reads a lot, and most likely started reading intensively at a fairly young age. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books. Thousands of stories, characters, conflicts, resolutions. Every author sits in front of the blank piece of paper and reaches for the right words to describe what’s happening. How Connie feels when she finds a page ripped out of her high school year book, how Mark reacts when a telemarketer interrupts dinner. Every author reaches for something unique, but simple arithmetic indicates that a lot of what ends up on paper has been there before. A truly original way to describe a sunset? I doubt it. You can work toward a way that’s particular to your character at that moment.

But here’s the thing: Sometimes I worry (and I would guess this is true of most authors) that the really solid image I just put down, or the bit of dialog or description isn’t really mine. My subconscious grabbed it out of the distant past, from a book I read twenty three years ago at age twenty, riding the Clark Street bus on the way to work, a book that I might see tomorrow in the library but not recognize.