Wednesday, April 27, 2011

That Special, Secret Something

I stole that title from Krista V's blog post about Fear. It got me thinking, again, about the spectrum between assembling words and really writing. (I just thought up those terms on the spot, so I'd better define them to keep them straight in my head. And yours.)

Assembling words:  This is what I do when I line-edit a scene to death and back again. (Or more frequently, just to death.) It's like building a brick wall, a tower of blocks. I do it one piece at a time, carefully choosing and lining up each word, seeing only the bit I'm working on.

Writing:  The fun way to tell a story. I sit down with a few thoughts and let them carry me through a scene. Most commonly done when drafting or rewriting sections, I've heard this described as the writer's trance or the zone.

Now, most of what I simply sit down and write comes out badly formed and requires some assembly. When I first started going to a writing group and getting critiques from multiple people one chapter at a time, I did a lot of reassembly. It really helped my writing—sort of. I cleaned up a lot of redundancy. I learned better how to show instead of tell. I learned how to use dialog tags. I also lost my Voice.

Ah, Voice. I don't know how many times I've seen agents say that's primarily what they're looking for. It's always among the top three on everyone's list. There are also numerous helpful (and less helpful) definitions and tips for finding your voice. I've yet to see one that really clicked with me.

But I've settled on something that feels right to me, makes sense, and most importantly, gives me hope. Because if there's a special, secret Something that my manuscripts need to reach an audience, it has to be something I'm capable of delivering. And I think that something is me.

Yes! Me! I'm so awesome, who could resist?

No, actually it's not just me. It's everyone. And all writer's know this to some degree. We tell each other shades of this all the time. Write what you care about. Write with passion. Write what you have to, what no one else can write, etc. etc. etc. We're all chasing the same notion, aren't we? That's the feeling I've picked up from y'all out there on the Intarnet.

I won't try and sum it up one neat little mission statement. I prefer to leave it a nebulous feeling in my gut and simply call it Voice. After all, if you pin a recipe on a secret sauce, it loses its allure.

I will share my motto:  Write fearlessly.

I feel every fear that Krista spoke of, in spades. Driving in the car, sitting at work, lying in bed, I can think of a million things to fear. I do my best to set them all aside while I'm actually writing. Whether I'm writing or reassembling words, I try not to strip out that special something, the traces of myself in my writing.

And in honor of that philosophy, I'm not going to edit this post at all!

What do you think; did I completely miss what's meant by the term voice?

Friday, April 15, 2011

I love my job.

Sure, I'd rather be writing novels, but this ain't bad. I work at Autonomous Solutions, Inc. We make robots. And by "we" I mean "my coworkers." I test and write user manuals, mostly. Sometimes I get to make things like this:
Automated Vehicle Warning Sticker

Get the point? I was inspired by a John Deere tractor manual with a drawing of a person's entire body wrapped neatly around a driveshaft several times. No blood. No bones sticking out. Unless you're Elastigirl, you can imagine how uncomfortable it would be.

Our robots aren't stationary industrial robots. They're mobile. Most have steering wheels, which means they were originally meant to be driven by humans. Most retain that capability, and can switch between manual and auto modes. In auto mode, actuators work the brakes, gas pedal, and gear shift. A motor of one sort or another turns the steering wheel much faster than a person ever could. We've automated everything from golf carts to mining haul trucks.

I do the opposite in the novel I'm writing. I take people and stick them in vehicles that were designed to be unmanned. We make robots to do the dull, dirty, or dangerous jobs. But throughout human history, there have always been people to do them for one reason or another, even if it means death. Drivers is about one of those people and his reasons. I'm 45,000 words into it.

Another fun thing I get to do at work is make movies.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

LDS Writer Blogfest: The Atonement Covers All Pain

By way of introduction, I'm taking part in the LDS Writer Blogfest today. (LDS = Latter Day Saint, as in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.)

For this blogfest, I picked a favorite talk from the church's most recent General Conference, and now I'm going to write about it. I chose the talk given by Elder Kent F. Richards called "The Atonement Covers All Pain," and you can read, listen to, or watch it at

So, yeah. Pain.

Dang, this is harder than I thought it would be. I've written the beginning of this post five times, deleting each approach. I ought to forget trying to be clever and just say what I need to say.

I've hurt. So badly I wanted to die. So bad I nearly killed myself to end it. For several years, I dealt with depression ranging from moderate to severe. Ten years ago when I was twenty-one, my illness faded quietly away for the last time. My life now is sweeter than I could imagine during my darkest years.

I've been fortunate not to experience chronic physical pain, but I'm very close to someone who does. My wife developed rheumatoid arthritis a couple years ago. The various medications she's on have been only partially effective, and she has to stop taking the strongest ones whenever she catches a cold or any other infection.

There's this thing about pain that I discovered the other day while discussing Elder Richards' talk with my wife. Though maybe I've known it for years and only just found words to wrap the thought around. I realized that pain is necessary for some of us.

Yeah. I know how that sounds. Preachy. Cold. The uncomforting words of someone on the outside. Maybe I can explain it better. And actually, it's closer to why pain is necessary for some of us. Here's where Elder Richards' talk comes in. He said:
Sometimes in the depth of pain, we are tempted to ask, “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there?” I testify the answer is yes, there is a physician. The Atonement of Jesus Christ covers all these conditions and purposes of mortality.
Do you know what that means? It means there's salvation from more than just the spiritual pain. The Atonement covers emotional and physical pain, too. It covers everything and everyone, from the expiring cancer patient to the depressed young adult. And why not? Are not physical, emotional, and spiritual pain all an equal part of life, of us? Doesn't one inform the others?

But how? When loss and despair grip your chest and squeeze till there's no tomorrow, what on earth does the Atonement have to offer? Simply believing that Christ suffered for our sins offers no answers. Forgiveness doesn't heal disease. It doesn't even cure depression, no matter how much some people think it should. Elder Richards, who is a surgeon, said:
Late one night lying in a hospital bed, this time as a patient and not as a physician . . . I pondered: “How is it done? For whom? What is required to qualify? Is it like forgiveness of sin? Do we have to earn His love and help?” As I pondered, I came to understand that during His mortal life Christ chose to experience pains and afflictions in order to understand us. Perhaps we also need to experience the depths of mortality in order to understand Him and our eternal purposes.
President Henry B. Eyring taught: “It will comfort us when we must wait in distress for the Savior’s promised relief that He knows, from experience, how to heal and help us. … And faith in that power will give us patience as we pray and work and wait for help. He could have known how to succor us simply by revelation, but He chose to learn by His own personal experience.”
Wait in distress for someone who knows how to heal us, but won't for some reason. Patience. Yes, yes. Be long-suffering. About as helpful as "Hey, cheer up! It could be worse!" Right? Okay, maybe I'm more cynical than I should be, but when you're in pain, this isn't the balm of Gilead.

Faith in the Savior's power to heal will give us patience. But only if we have faith that he will eventually heal us. Belief in the afterlife offers the same comfort. But as I said to my wife, only partly in jest, sometimes the afterlife can't come soon enough. Sometimes you want to take yourself there.

In such distress, two questions are paramount: Will healing come? When will it come?

The answer to the first is Yes. The answer to the second is—at the best possible time.

You see. . . no, you don't. Neither do I. We're blind to the future. Ignorant of what lines the road we follow. Everyone feels this uncertainty, and those who are suffering feel it keenly. When will it end?

Here's where to set your faith. And here's what Elder Richards says:
As Elder Dallin H. Oaks has taught: “Healing blessings come in many ways, each suited to our individual needs, as known to Him who loves us best. Sometimes a ‘healing’ cures our illness or lifts our burden. But sometimes we are ‘healed’ by being given strength or understanding or patience to bear the burdens placed upon us.” All that will come may be “clasped in the arms of Jesus.” All souls can be healed by His power. All pain can be soothed. In Him, we can “find rest unto [our] souls.” Our mortal circumstances may not immediately change, but our pain, worry, suffering, and fear can be swallowed up in His peace and healing balm.
Read that last sentence again. "Our mortal circumstances may not immediately change."

How can that be healing? The pain remains. Swallowed up? What does that mean?

For my wife, it means being able to smile at her kids when they jump into our bed in the morning even though her ankles and wrists are on fire. It means days with constant pain don't equal constant grumpiness. It means that some days are endured and others are relished.

For me, it meant having strength to return from a midnight walk when it seemed there wasn't a single person who would really lose anything if I vanished. It meant that even when I hated myself with a venom so toxic it translated to physical pain, deep down I always knew who loved me.

It also meant a dozen small miracles kept me alive long enough for a greater healing, complete and profound. A transformation wrought with counseling and Zoloft and only God knows what else.

Counseling? Psychotropic drugs? What sort of miracle is that? One of modern science? No one on the outside can really know.

But I know. I endured depression long enough to know that it wasn't trivial, wasn't a stage or a passing thing, and wasn't under my control. It's so easy to dismiss inconveniences, illnesses, and daily tragedies as simply part of life. If God had healed me the first, second, or twentieth time I asked Him to, that's all it would have been. A trial to overcome, one that didn't really change me.

But I know I didn't overcome it. I was healed, first in ways that let me live in pain, and then completely. And that stays with me. It's part of me. It finds its way into my perceptions, my opinions, my writing.

I won't make any claims about being a great person because of my past. (Or any sort of good person at all.) I'll say only that my experience set me on the road I now walk. It's not the road I envisioned as a young man wrestling with life, and yet—somehow—it is the same road.

I can't see what's ahead, but I see what's behind. And it's beautiful. Such pain and such wonder along the same path. Now that I know it's possible, yes, I do have faith. And it does give me patience.

There is a physician.

Others in the LDS Writer Blogfest:
Annette Lyon: “Desire”
Annie Cechini: “The Spirit of Revelation”
Ben Spendlove: “The Atonement Covers All Pain”
Chantele Sedgwick: “LDS Women Are Incredible!”
Charity Bradford: “LDS Women Are Incredible!”
Jackee Alston: “The Eternal Blessings of Marriage”
Jenilyn Tolley: “What Manner of Men and Women Ought Ye to Be?”
Jennifer McFadden: “Establishing a Christ-Centered Home”
Jessie Oliveros: “Establishing a Christ-Centered Home”
Jolene Perry: “It’s Conference Once Again”
Jordan McCollum: “What Manner of Men and Women Ought Ye to Be?”
Kasey Tross: “Guided by the Holy Spirit”
Kayeleen Hamblin: “Become as a Little Child”
Kelly Bryson: “The Atonement Covers All Pain”
Krista Van Dolzer: “Opportunities to Do Good”
Melanie Stanford: “What Manner of Men and Women Ought Ye to Be?”
Michelle Merrill: “The Eternal Blessings of Marriage”
Myrna Foster: “Opportunities to Do Good”
Nisa Swineford: “Desire”
Sallee Mathews: “The Eternal Blessings of Marriage”
Sierra Gardner: “The Atonement Covers All Pain”
Tamara Hart Heiner: “Waiting on the Road to Damascus”
The Writing Lair: “Waiting on the Road to Damascus”

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Old Gray Goose

We used to have two geese. They were always together. They swam around the pond together. They waddled up the hill and pooped on our sidewalk and lawn together. They honked in harmony in the middle of the night. They took turns dipping their long necks into the feed bucket. They got rather playful in the pond occasionally. (Daddy, the geese are trying to drown each other!)

One day, I noticed they hadn't eaten their food. When I stopped to think about it, I didn't remember seeing them at all in the previous few days. The next day, my wife and little boy put on their boots and went looking for them. Their was still snow on the ground, so they followed two sets of goose prints up the hill from the far end of the pond, through a hay field, and down into another nearby pond. And they found the geese.

One was dead. The other was standing by her body, which was in the water near the shore.

All that day and the next, the remaining goose stayed by its mate, swimming around the smaller pond. He never came back to eat, and we worried he'd starve.

That's when I finally sucked it up and did my duty as the man of the house. I put on a pair of gloves, grabbed a big black trash bag, and collected the dead goose. The other honked at me, but stayed behind as I carried his companion away. (Domestic geese are pretty heavy, by the way.)

I found a patch of dry ground and dug a grave. It was about a foot wide, two feet long, and as deep as my arm is long. With my wife and kids and one of my daughter's friends watching, I dumped the dead goose out of the bag and into the hole. No one cried. The real mourner was still by the other pond, mourning. There's a small mound of dirt to mark the grave, and that's all. The other goose has no idea what it is.

So, life went on. The remaining goose came back and ate. But he kept wandering around the hay field, honking plaintively. I got the distinct impression that he felt lost, like the world had changed and nothing looked the same anymore. One day his mate lay down and never got up. Then she disappeared completely.

The widower took up a new residence by our neighbors'—my wife's parents—back door. I still fed him in the usual spot down by the pond, but he spent most of his time and even slept by that back door. They scared him away, but he always came back. No one knew why.

The other day we finally figured it out. There's a full length window by that door. It's covered with the traces of goose kisses. He wandered past one day and saw a goose in that window, dim and trapped behind cold glass, and found the missing part of his life. He stayed there because he thought she was there, out of reach, but within sight.

My father-in-law covered the window with cardboard, but it didn't work. He found an old window pane and covered the back with black plastic. He set it up down by the pond, next to the food bucket. Our lonely goose spends his time down there, now. 

Sometimes he follows the wild ducks around the pond. Sometimes he waddles up the hill onto our lawn. He honks solo in the middle of the night. The food lasts twice as long. And he falls asleep in front of an old window pane.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Note to Self: No! Don't go in there!

You ever been watching a movie or TV show, and you know there's a dangerous, evil beast lurking somewhere, and the characters ought to know it too because they just discovered a mangled body or something and the door's ripped off its hinges and broken into matchstick-sized pieces and you can hear breathing from the darkness, either inside or outside—and the idiot in the movie picks up a butter knife to defend himself and walks through the freakin' doorway ANYWAY, and you just want to scream DON'T GO IN/OUT THERE YOU IDIOT, but you don't, because you no longer care what happens to that character because he's too stupid to live, and the only tension is because you know there's blood and screaming and crunching noises coming in the near future and frankly, it kind of grosses you out?

*pant pant* That was a looong sentence.

Have you ever noticed that? I see it all the time. It's a standard part of television, like montages and laugh tracks. And like montages and laugh tracks, we see it so often that it almost works, sometimes.

Well, self, it doesn't work in writing. Actually, I'm sure in some circumstances it might, but for the most part it either makes your characters look like idiots or simply deflates tension from the scene. This was pointed out to me in my own writing, recently. A little more recently, I noticed this mistake in Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games book.

Yes, I said mistake. Maybe it works for some people, but not for me.

In theory, the reader knowing something that the characters don't is a kind of dramatic tension. The reader knows there's a monster waiting outside. The character is either completely oblivious or suspects something but doesn't quite know what or where. If the character is the protagonist, the hero, and should by all rights be smarter than the reader, then one of two things will happen:

1) The reader thinks, "Okay, Jade would know if there were really a danger here, but she's not concerned, so I don't need to be." *Hissss* There goes the tension.

2) The reader thinks, "I've lived this entire book in your head and seen nothing more than you have, and you still haven't figured it out? You're a moron, Katniss!"

Note to Self:  Either make the characters just as smart and scared as you want the reader to be or don't let the reader in on things the character hasn't figured out. (Or make sure there's no reason that the character should know about the monster, but that's only an option in third person with multiple POVs.)

Ideally, the reader should figure out what's going on a page before or exactly when the characters figure it out.

Disclaimer:  The Imaginary Friends blog makes no claim as to the suitability of this writing advice for any purpose whatsoever, including, but not limited to, writing better and entertainment.