Writer’s Journal: How To Keep Your Spirits Up Through The Long Cold Dark Of Editing Books

My entire project is, objectively, a mess that no one will buy. All the same, I’ll have put a year of work and thought into it this March, and I can’t let it go until I get it out of me. For me, editing is far harder than actually writing.

Here are a few techniques I use to keep my spirits up:

* Get a good night’s sleep.
* Exercise.
* Socialize.
* Caffeinate. I hit myself with some afternoon espresso for the first time in months a few days ago, and it was amazing how awesome my book became.
* Stand while writing/editing, to keep the blood flowing.
* I use rainycafe to get in the zone. Once I’m there, I might switch to some kind of happy music, set on repeat, with the volume turned town. I listened to Banga yesterday (wish I could get a better link, but it’s a rare song).
* Read books that have something in common with what you’re writing. Read books that have nothing in common with what you’re writing. Read.
* Take breaks. Walk around. For me, the pomodoro method has too many breaks, but I start getting pretty antsy after an hour. Or, like, five minutes.

Even after doing all this, I was feeling pretty down yesterday, so I have a lot more to learn.

If you’re interested in what I’m working on, here’s the long version:

I’m editing the second volume of a multi-genre trilogy. I’d put it down for a few months while I worked on the third and the first, and when I finally got around to the second again—twelve days ago—I was just astounded at how incompetent it was. It’s obvious from page one that I was just like, wouldn’t it be cool if X did Y, and that was it, for 250 pages of absurd, unbelievable, un-researched stories and characters. To paraphrase Van Jones, there was no way to polish this turd: a total rewrite was in order—after I’d told my editor, a few weeks earlier, that I’d have the whole trilogy ready for him in February.

Now, as I rewrite like a madman, I’m finding it pretty hard to get excited about the characters—apparently the only thing anyone cares about—and I’m terrified that the whole thing is just boring. I want it to be exciting, full of drama and conflict, but that shit is hard. It’s easy to just have everything work out for your main character, the pages just fly by, but that’s poison for readers.

To make things interesting you have to throw problem after problem after problem at your main characters, but that involves throwing wrenches into your mental machinery as well—you have to stop, think, get out of the zone, and then work yourself back into the zone again. Stories everyone loves are written this way: characters somehow survive slews of seemingly insurmountable problems and impossible choices, changing, reacting, growing. When you find stories like that, you know the writers have been sweating their balls/ovaries off.

After all this work, I’m 99% sure that no agent will touch it, and that when I publish to amazon the best I can hope for is a sale a day. But if I abandoned this project, it would gnaw at me forever.

Writer’s Journal: Habits of a Good Day

How often do I write? Three or four hours a day, on average.

I’m 29 years old, married with two small kids. How do I do it? University teaching in Korea. 20 hours of work per week and four months of paid vacation a year.

My kids are getting older and my wife and I have decided to move back to America for their schooling, where I’m guessing I won’t be able to keep this habit up. I have until July to turn the $40 I make each month from amazon.com into $1,100 per month, at which point my wife might be okay with me not working a full-time job—and I’m not interested in writing erotica. Once I finish the trilogy I’m working on I’m going to try to draft a giant spaceship potboiler in 30 days.

I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I used to write mostly in the morning but now I spend that time procrastinating and waiting for my kids to wake up. Sometimes they get up at 7, other times at 9.

I do most of my writing midmorning and afternoon, standing almost the whole time to keep myself awake and to burn a few more calories. I use the Allocacoc portable standing desk, rainycafe or a song-of-the-day (today was Hjaltalin’s Goodbye July, but for years it’s mostly been the oldest Ali Farka Toure tunes I could find), and I usually work in a library facing the wall so I don’t get distracted and so I don’t spend the day’s kindle earnings at a cafe. The Freedom app has helped when I find myself researching too much online.

Today I only pumped out five pages because I had to spend a lot of time figuring out the plot to the current chapter (I’m a pantser who’s always trying to be a gardener/plotter). I try to do 10 pages every day but I fail a lot. A few times I’ve done 20 pages. Quantity has a quality all its own. Chris Fox’s books have helped a lot.

99% of the time I drink a small cup of strong coffee around six in the morning (and no more than that!) and use honey and apple vinegar just before bed to help me sleep (been battling middle-of-the-night insomnia with some success). I used to run a lot but I’ve switched to r/fitness‘s Bodyweight Fitness app and am currently doing the 7×7 card method to get myself to work out at least a little every day (I’ve almost finished the third row!). I also try to meditate for at least a few breaths every day. AND try to work an hour of computer programming into my schedule.

Reddit and netflix are my guiltiest pleasures. I’m reading Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise. Would kill to read it in French. I read in the mornings and evenings.

Whew. I think that’s it.

Writer’s Journal: January 8th, 2017

(a little background: I’m working on a novel about an old Korean lady who gets trapped in an elevator and teleported to pre-Islamic Arabia)

At least two hours yesterday went to research. I determined that Meccan traders went north to Syria in the summer and south to Yemen in the winter; these seasons may be the same there as they are here, or they may be in reference to the monsoon, which comes to southern Arabia (which is apparently some kind of unknown tropical paradise, Arabia Felix!) during summer in the northern hemisphere, and which would have brought spice traders riding the winds from India. This is apparently their autumn…

At that point I was exhausted. It had been incredibly hard to find that information. I also researched the situation of women in Pre-Islamic Arabia; the topic is infested with Muslim (Wahhabist?) propaganda and difficult to trust, as it largely, laughably insists that women’s lots improved under Islam. Based on the facts, however—Muhammad’s first marriage, for one, as well as widespread worship of feminine idols (to the apparent exclusion of masculine ones)—it seems to me that the reality is more complex: some women, at least, must have had positions of power and respect in Mecca before Muhammad took power.

Although I’m fascinated by Pre-Islamic Arabia, by the apparent relative freedom before the Muslim conquest, I’m frightened by the consequences of depicting this period in a manner which strives for accuracy. Anything less than hagiography will obviously enrage certain dangerously insecure parties.

I pushed on, somehow pumping out nine pages while standing in the library. Around the time I was finishing up I had been there five hours or so, and my feet were aching so seriously I decided to sit down, at which point I began to lose concentration and fall asleep while clutching my laptop (this is one among numerous reasons I write standing up). Just as I was nodding off I got a phone call from my five-year-old son, who was wondering when I was coming home; initially I was annoyed, but the call came at the perfect moment, restoring my energy without knocking me out for too long, so after talking with him and his younger brother I got back to work and finished rewriting the second chapter, accomplishing my goal of ten pages.

It took thirty minutes to walk home, largely beside busy highways of smelly, roaring cars. Initially I listened to a podcast, but soon it was too loud to hear anything, and I seized the opportunity to think about my work. Something felt wrong about it. The chapter felt rushed. It took time, but eventually I figured out that there wasn’t enough conflict or drama. Things are too easy for the main character, while the secondary characters are sort of monologuing—explaining situations they would already definitely understand to one another. Yet in some ways this is realistic; how many people constantly repeat the same few trains of thought virtually whenever they open their mouths? Still, if you have someone saying something like, “Xactar, you know the reactor core will blow if you push the lever to maximum!” it’s pretty poisonous, isn’t it?

So, back to work today on making things more difficult and realistic, even if reality isn’t realistic a lot of the time. This is the pattern I’m seeing in Breaking Bad, which I’ve been watching for a few weeks now (I’m in the middle of season three): each character is constantly beset with mounting difficulties, which they almost always barely overcome, and which generally lead to greater disasters, which causes panic, machinations, and decisions which lead to still more disasters, and on and on and on. The show’s writers, to their credit, are constantly turning up the heat in each episode, cooking the characters into their opposites: the loser slacker dad into the evil drug kingpin, the good faithful wife into a cheating hypocrite, the unbearably cocky DEA agent into a coward tortured by his fear. People take this kind of magnificent feat for granted, but I think only a minority of professional writers is capable of even attempting to pull it off. Breaking Bad manages to do so with a handful of characters; The Wire does it with dozens or even hundreds—writing scenes and sequels again and again, transforming characters before our eyes.

Plot, characters, style.

This Changes Everything

…We might point out that the name of God, Elohim, which appears in the first verse of the Bible, is also a plural, though the verb it governs is in the singular (‘In the beginning the Gods made [sing.] the heavens and the earth’) and that this locution has been called the plural of plenitude.

—Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings

What? Since when did multiple gods create the Earth in Genesis? Why was this not reflected in any English translation I’m aware of?

The passage quoted in English doesn’t make much sense because third person singular and third person plural conjugate simple past tense verbs the same way: God made the heavens and the earth, Gods made the heavens and the earth. It looks a little different in Borges’ original Spanish, however: “En el principio hizo los Dioses el cielo y la tierra.” The verb hizo, to do or to make, is conjugated here in the singular; under normal circumstances it would be hicieron. In English this is like writing “I likes my coffee black.” The subject and verb don’t agree.

If we have a look at the original Hebrew side-by-side with English, we get the same result: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Is there a millennial conspiracy afoot? Why is it that philologists are probably the only ones aware of this discrepancy? Why make the choice to translate the plural noun, Elohim, into the singular?

The wikipedia page for Elohim explains the word as a kind of holdover from the extensive polytheistic past of the Jewish religion; in other words, Jews did not always worship only one god. Borges, in this part of The Book Of Imaginary Beings, uses the first verse of Genesis to explain that in the Hebrew Bible, plural nouns are sometimes used to show how massive a single thing can be: the word behemoth means beasts, even though it apparently refers to only a single monster, the elephant, which is as massive as multiple creatures put together.

There are further explanations of this bizarre discrepancy on the internet which essentially say that sometimes plurals in Hebrew are singular or because the verb is singular it makes more sense to translate the noun into the singular as well. In English, though, the verb made is the same regardless of whether it’s He or They conjugating it, so there really is a conscious choice being made, across the centuries, to render Elohim as God in English, when it really means Gods, because when these stories were first being told the people telling them and listening to them were polytheists; the story of the Flood, which is also in Genesis, has close parallels with polytheistic Mesopotamian literary works like Gilgamesh, which were apparently popular for thousands of years—the oldest versions are about four thousand years old, while the most recent date to the 7th century BC, around the time the Bible was being written down—supposedly, according to Wikipedia, at the behest of the Jews’ Persian overlords.

This changes everything for me because, while I was aware that at one time the Jews or their ancestors worshipped multiple gods, I had no idea there was any real evidence of this in the Bible—much less in its first, and most famous, verse.

If only Hebrew and English were more like Korean, a language which has, for the most part, no plurals.

The Lost Week

I thought there was a rule that people are only allowed to get one disease at a time. Actually I know that’s totally wrong, since multiple relatives of mine have been brought down into the dust by a devil’s decoction of viciously incurable maladies, but at least in my own brief and pleasantly healthful lifetime I have never knowingly contracted more than one disorder at once—until now.

I am the proud owner of a strain of Adenovirus as well as Coxsackievirus—yes, that Coxsackievirus—also known as tonsillitis and hand, foot, and mouth disease, though it may be more properly called hand, foot in mouth disease. It does not, according to popular lore, transform your feet into sheep’s hooves. At the moment it instead means that I have a sore throat and several sharply tingling, itchy red spots on my hands, and that if I interact with any other human beings they will also probably find themselves with similar spots on their hands before long.

I caught the latter disease from my toddler, who has been pottytraining for the last few weeks and therefore leaving triceratops-sized pyramids of dung all over the house in homage to Jurassic Park. He is currently singing to himself in the living room, which means that screaming and crying are sure to follow very shortly, which likewise means that I shall soon be leaving to spend the rest of the day babysitting—when I could be writing spectacular novels!

This was my first week of vacation from work, the first of four, but it was largely spent tending to my younger son, who could not go to daycare lest he spread the dastardly red spots, and tending to myself, as the tonsillitis, on its first day, laid me so low I was barely able to stagger into the hospital—throwing myself onto the couch for the rest of the day and reading hundreds of e-pages of Paul Theroux’s truly wonderful Dark Star Safari, which should be subtitled: Travel Through Africa Without Having To Actually Travel Through Africa.

The week was marked by a different sickness, a sickness of the mind. I actually went and did that one thing which is contemplated sooner or later by every foreign English teacher in South Korea. Lured by the incredible salary, I applied for a teaching job in Saudi Arabia. And, more incredibly, they accepted me, they even interviewed me. I sensed the interview was more to make sure that I was not a complete fuckup, though I suspect you have to be at least partially fucked up to consider working in that place.

The interview was odd. It was to be over skype, and I thought that would mean a video-call, but my interviewer, who was a woman, told me to turn off the camera to help the internet connection, which was indeed spotty. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if it was actually because she wasn’t allowed to show me her face, which I never saw. All I did see was a black screen. Her accent sounded North American, however, and when I asked her about that she answered, pleasantly and politely, that she’d lived in the US for numerous years, but was a Saudi citizen. Was she therefore comfortable living in the Kingdom? She said she could live anywhere. I guess if you can live for long periods of time as a woman in Saudi Arabia, that’s not exactly an exaggeration.

I received a job offer without any mention of a salary, and spent the day reading about the cost of living in what is apparently nicknamed The Magic Kingdom, discovering that to raise two foreign children there would possibly bankrupt me even with the insane salary thrown into the bargain. Coupled with human rights abuses that would have the CIA shaking their collective heads, the lashing and imprisonment of Raif Badawi, the public beheadings, the hatred of Jews and the declaration that atheists are terrorists (do agnostics count as well?), the sadness of actively choosing to live in a place which has enormous portraits of the white-robed sunglassed king hanging everywhere, the obvious involvement in 9/11 and all kinds of other reprehensible crap all over the planet—like America, minus the good stuff—meant that I eventually decided to turn them down.

I wrote an email not so different from that last paragraph, mentioning my Jewish ancestry and my agnosticism—what to do if a student asks me about this?—and they didn’t respond. The university itself was located some distance from its host city, it had only a few small ugly buildings, it was just a year or two old, in every picture I could find of the apparent university president there was not a smile to be seen, and the students I found in a video advertisement appeared to be struggling desperately to keep their eyes open.

The book I’m currently writing has also taken a Saudi turn in the last few months, so I would either have to change the book completely or risk imprisonment in a Saudi jail. No fucking thank you, I’ll take my fifty-plus percent paycut in exchange for being permitted to live in the Land Of Miniskirts, Kimchi, Relative Freedom Of Expression, And Hoof And Mouth any day of the week.

Interests

I had to look up this Winnie The Poo quote—”How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard”—because for the last few days I’ve been feeling the same way about all the interests and conflicting desires I have, or I’ve been trying to put a positive spin on the fact that I don’t have nearly enough time or willpower to do all the things that I want to do: “How lucky I am to have so many interests!” At this moment, 7:10 on a smoggy-but-sunny Saturday morning in Gyeongju, South Korea, I feel like doing the following things:

  • Continuing the writing of a short story / novella about being trapped in an elevator;
  • Continuing the writing of an epic series of books about colonizing another planet;
  • Beginning the umpteenth round of editing for Saving Hitler, this time with the help of a paid editor;
  • Beginning the writing of all kinds of stories, most of them science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, dystopian, or some mixture of them all together;
  • Continuing the reading of a Korean translation of Animal Farm;
  • Writing a post on a language exchange website in Korean (lang-8.com), to have it checked and commented upon by native speakers;
  • Translating an atheist/agnostic pamphlet into Korean, to be handed out to the cultists who hand me their pamphlets in public once every few months or so (and to be posted for free on the internet for others to use / comment upon / modify as they wish);
  • Reading Explosion in a Cathedral by Alejo Carpentier in English, or 100 Years Of Solitude in Spanish, or The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire in English;
  • Going for a run, a hike, or a photo expedition;
  • Taking my kids outside to play soccer or basketball, to go hiking or to explore a Buddhist temple they haven’t seen before;
  • Emailing my long-lost friends;
  • Traveling to one of the thousand places I want to see but haven’t seen in Korea, Asia, or the rest of the world;
  • Cooking some decent burritos (pretty much automatically decent as long as there’s some guacamole inside);
  • And now my kids are up and I can’t figure out how to exit this list and my younger son is begging me for candy (what an excellent breakfast) so I have to terminate the writing of this post.

The Cherry Blossom Marathon

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The cherry blossoms are almost all gone from Gyeongju, and have been that way for about a week now. I’d thought I’d gotten used to them after living here for how many years, but when my parents visited they seemed pretty awestruck by the snowstorm of blossoms falling wherever we went—the trees which looked like they’d been doused in a blizzard. Some cherry blossoms, some flowers were still hanging around Bomun Lake, where I went for a quick walk with my wife this afternoon, the first time we’ve been able to spend an hour or two together without having kids screaming at us in who knows how many months. There was definitely a bit of a flow of soul going on. Life seems almost effortless without small children. At the same time they’re well worth the trouble—you look at them, talk with them, and wonder how you ever existed without them for so long.

Still, one of them hit my face with his watch yesterday. I can’t even remember why. I think I had just told him that he was incredibly beautiful, actually. We were sitting outside in the wind and the sun, and he slapped my face, maybe even my eye, with his watch, just out of nowhere, and I was so angry I snatched it from him and threw it at a fence that was ten or twenty feet away, where the watch itself—this is difficult to describe—separated from the band and disappeared inside a patch of dry yellow grass.

I had just gotten through telling my son that day that I consider myself a pretty liberal parent, but I’m also willing to try more conservative methods if he keeps ignoring me. The boy is an expert ignorer. Maybe literally throwing his watch away counts as an example of a conservative parenting method. I regretted what I’d done a moment later, apologized to him, and then got up to look for his watch, which had utterly vanished inside the dusty grass, which was packed with—you guessed it, this being Korea—years and years of discarded candy wrappers and broken glass. An incredible amount of refuse was tucked inside, and it took me fifteen minutes—I checked my phone multiple times—to brush the grass into the wind and discover the two pieces of the watch and reunite them. The watch face was scratched, but it still worked, thankfully. That’s good old-fashioned Chinese craftsmanship. Later I asked my son what he would tell people if they asked him about his watch. Our conversation went something like this:

“Someone asks you what happened to your watch, what do you say?”

“It fell on the ground.”

“Why did it fall on the ground?”

“Because my dad threw it there.”

“Why did your dad throw it there?”

“Because I hit him with it.”

“Where did you hit him with it?”

“On his face.”

“Why did you hit him with it?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s my boy.”

Nine minutes until my half hour is up. What else can I discuss? I ran for almost seven miles this morning, which usually wipes me out for the whole day, but I’m feeling pretty good because my baby is taking care of my babies somewhere else, and will be doing so for another ninety minutes or so. I have to re-read the last few chapters of a book I was working on a month ago—I didn’t finish that sucker, it’s 350 pages long and when it’s finished it’ll be two or three times that length—because I can’t remember exactly what I was up to. I found a reddit group that requests reviews of books, I think it’s r/reviewcircle, and I’m feeling pretty good about that, since any cursory glance at my self-published books will show that getting reviews is hard. I may contact a Korea-related blog I like and see if they’ll let me post the first chapter of the new novella I’ve pumped out, once an editor gets back to me on editing it. Just kind of blabbing here. Six minutes to go.

What else happened today? During my run a young lady started to smoke me—I was running alongside the river—but even though I was almost finished and feeling pretty beat I picked up the pace and smoked her, in turn. I checked out of the corner of my eye a few times to make sure she stayed behind me, and she almost passed me a few more times, but I managed to keep up the pace for awhile, and pulled off an average pace of less than ten minutes per mile for seven miles, which is pretty damn good for me, although probably not for you.  It seems like half the battle of running faster is just running with other people who are as good or better than you. I know I tend to really slow down unless some kind of competition is involved. That’s also part of the reason marathons are so fun—being surrounded by hundreds or even thousands of gasping, sweating people, and you kind of naturally fall into place in the company of those who are at a similar skill level as you. I once just randomly joined a marathon that passed me while I was out on a morning jog, I found myself near the front of the pack I guess, because the people were just breezing past me. I was also wearing some huaraches I’d bought—not the ones I’d made from a carmat—and those really slowed me down, I’m sorry to say.

Time’s up. Six minutes to write that paragraph. Goodnight.