A supportive friend accompanied me to the Cotati Accordion Festival this weekend. It was my first time and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The atmosphere alone was worth the price of admission. Everyone was there because they loved music and wanted to have fun with it, and it showed. I also bought a tiny handcrafted ceramic chicken figurine that reminds me of the children’s book character Minerva Louise and it gives me great happiness every time I gaze upon it.
I left my accordion at home for this one, but maybe not next year.
The key to being a writer, as they say, is writing. Seems easy enough, except I’m a human.
Getting my butt in a chair in front of a computer is not the hard part; it’s getting me to open up Scrivener and type and not to open up Firefox and plumb the depths of some blog I found or watch every SNL Celebrity Jeopardy! sketch from 1996 to the present. Because going down Internet rabbit holes is easier and less scary than writing what I know will be an awful first draft.
I’m really good at coming up with excuses to not write. I’m not in the right mood, I tell myself after a depressing news tangent. Now I just feel like an Internet glutton; I need to detox from the computer for a while, after a YouTube tangent. I’m thinking about [some media franchise I’m a fan of] too much to write, after a Netflix binge or video game play session. Or how about this one: I can’t write now—I feel like all the people in that awful comments thread I just masochistically read through are watching and judging me. And then, finally, after a full day of this stuff, It’s too late at night. I need to go to bed.
And that is how novels don’t get written.
I’m still working on avoiding temptation and practicing self-control. Something tells me this is going to be a lifetime struggle. But I’ve found a cheap little thing that’s helped me quite a bit. “One Weird Trick,” if you will.
It involves three very inexpensive things:
A 50-cent glass candle holder from Goodwill
A 75-cent votive candle from the Yankee Candle discount basket
A $3 barbecue lighter
And it is a simple 4-step process:
Declare candle the WRITING candle.
Place WRITING candle in candle holder.
Light WRITING candle with barbecue lighter.
Why is this so effective for me? It plays into a lot of my quirks—my desire to squeeze every penny out of that 75-cent candle, for example. If you’re familiar with those little 2-inch votive candles, you know that they never burn perfectly symmetrically; the wick always curves in one direction, pushing the flame out from the center of the candle and melting more wax on one side. Eventually (after about an hour, in my experience) the outer edge of the candle on that side collapses and all the wax drains into the candle holder, dramatically shortening the life of the candle and making you have to chip the wax off the glass after it cools. Worse, the wax now covers an area bigger than the opening, so it’s impossible to get it out in one piece.* To prevent this from happening, you have to extinguish the candle before the wax melts, around the 60-minute mark.
And since that is my WRITING candle, I do not want to spend my one hour of WRITING time on dumb Internet tangents.
The trick is to light it before that nonsense even begins.
Sure, while I’m writing I get writer’s block now and again, but the candle gives me something mildly interesting to stare at while I wait for more ideas to come. (Once I leaned in too close and singed my own hair a little bit. Don’t do that.)
By the time it’s time to blow out the WRITING candle, I’m often on such a roll that I just keep going. If I need inspiration, I just smell the candle. (I don’t know if that actually works or not. It’s just something to do.)
Just—y’know, be safe about it. Don’t leave burning candles unattended; don’t put flammable things near or above the candle; make sure the candle is on a stable, heat resistant surface; keep pets and kids away, etc. Don’t make dumb decisions. Don’t singe your own hair.
Anyway. There you go. Maybe it’ll help someone else, too.
*The trick to getting wax out easily is freezing the candle holder after the wax is completely cooled. (Freezing it before the wax has completely cooled is a good way to crack the glass.) The wax will shrink and pull back from the glass. The you can just snap the wax into a few pieces and take them out one by one.
“I should really sign up for lessons” is something I say a lot. Currently the only musical instrument I play that I’m taking lessons for is the djembe, and I can see the difference in how I play that vs. how I play piano, accordion, folk harp, and ukulele. The last time I took piano lessons was 2004, and I stopped accordion lessons in 2012 when I left the country. Since then I haven’t really pushed myself on either instrument. I used to be able to do scales on the bass buttons on the accordion, for example—now at the Celtic music sessions I mostly oom-pah (or oom-pah-pah) the bass in a very vanilla, uninteresting way. I’ve never had a teacher for folk harp and ukulele, and my experience with them has been pretty much messing around plus the occasional YouTube tutorial. I can’t tell if this is helping me develop my self-expression or holding me back. Maybe both.
Thing is… lessons are expensive, and I’m not exactly rolling in dough. Djembe is a group lesson, so that one’s affordable, but for everything else it’d probably have to be one-on-one. For the unusual instruments it’d be even more expensive (and I’d probably have to travel).
Dunno, just something I’ve thought about as I’ve plucked my harp and strummed my ukulele this week. Guess I’ll just keep going my own pace till I find opportunities and means to learn from real people.
On a related note, the Cotati Accordion Festival is coming up, and while that’s a bit of a drive for me it’s still something I intend to check out.
This past week I didn’t get a whole lot done on that sequel, for a few reasons, including homework and errands… but also a bit of an emotional shake-up with an important decision. Can’t go into detail, but I’m all right now, I think.
In other news, I got another commented-upon draft from a third friend, who is exceptionally talented at worldbuilding and has given me lots of good tips in that regard. He also included some meme images that made me spit water on my keyboard. (Just a little bit, though.)
Last week I got 2,000 words into a sequel to the Untitled Novel Based on a Talking Cat from “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (UNBoaTCfAFHV for short). UNBoaTCfAFHV isn’t close to polished/finished yet, but I figured after nine months of dedicated work on it (after four years of almost no work on it) it could benefit from being shelved for a while.
This is only the second serious first draft I’ve started, and it’s been almost seven years since the last one. I don’t like dealing with the messy, inevitable crappiness of first drafts, so I rarely start them. But the ideas I have are so strong and I can’t stop thinking about them—even if I don’t know where they’ll lead.
When I first started writing it, the ideas and the words flowed relatively easily, which made me think that perhaps the rest of the draft would be just like that: 1,500 words, rough but workable, in only a couple of hours. Maybe I could do that every day and have a complete first draft in a couple months! I thought.
But I have to remind myself that the same thing happened when I finished the first draft of the original. It was “103,680 words of plot holes, inconsistent characterization, telling (not showing), awkward dialog, and just plain bad writing,” I wrote after finishing it at 4:00 in the morning. I wondered if I’d ever be able to wade through it.
Rewriting is a huge task; don’t get me wrong. But the nice thing about rewriting (at least, in my experience) is that the more you do it, the clearer your story’s direction becomes. I allow myself to become overwhelmed with the task as a whole: rewriting ENTIRE CHAPTERS? But writing them the first time through was hard enough already! etc. But taking it little by little, allowing the story to show itself, made the task manageable. And, hey, sometimes rewriting flows easily, too.
In other news, just in the last hour an email showed up in my inbox from my friend (a different one this time), with my UNBoaTCfAFHV Draft 3 and her comments attached. Huzzah, supportive writer friends! I look forward to reading her perspective.
I spent much of last week visiting my friends from college, one of whom was the one who gave me those helpful comments on my draft back in January. We had a ton of fun, caught up on the last six years of each other’s lives, made good food, played board games and card games and a D&D one-shot (I was a human rogue), watched one of my friends start playing Breath of the Wild (the local Target had seven Switches in stock. Seven!), and talked a lot about writing and reading. Book recommendations flew. I brought (the finished!) Draft 3 on a flash drive to be passed around. I’m a little nervous about the revisions this time around because I let myself be just a wee bit more vulnerable. They say vulnerability makes one’s writing better, but it’s also terrifying. I await critiques.
In the meantime, a few ideas for a sequel have been bouncing around my head (which is kind of a surprise, but a nice one), so perhaps while I take a break from Untitled Novel Based on a Talking Cat from “America’s Funniest Home Videos” I can get started on that. Maybe it won’t take six years to get to a presentable draft this time.
A side note: I’m currently reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik at my friend’s recommendation. I’m only a few chapters in (maybe 11 or 12) but I’m totally hooked on the story and setting. I’m a sucker for good worldbuilding. It’s also one of my greatest weaknesses.
Last Tuesday night I excitedly and painstakingly transcribed the chords for the extended version of Kass’s theme I got all excited about a few weeks ago. It was 11:00 and I have neighbors, so I didn’t pull out my actual accordion; I just used a crappy keyboard from when I was a kid with the volume turned way down to confirm them. I’d had trouble in transcribing it previously, but discovered that I had just been failing to recognize diminished chords. Once I got those in there, I thought I had a pretty faithful transcription.
And then Wednesday morning I pulled my accordion out and made a horrible discovery.
My accordion does not play diminished chords on the left hand.
It has six bass rows—counterbass, bass, major, minor, dominant 7th… but whatever the sixth row is, it’s not diminished. (I think it may be augmented?) Based on my limited knowledge and preliminary Internet research, this seems to be nonstandard. That row is supposed to be diminished chords. I can’t even fudge a diminished chord with another key’s dominant 7th since my accordion’s dominant 7th bass buttons play the root.
I’ll have to ask about this when I take it in. Unless a reader with accordion knowledge happens upon this blog and has an idea of what’s going on here?
I took a leap today and brought my accordion to a local Celtic music session that welcomes beginners, something I’ve been wanting to do for a while.
Everyone was friendly, but as soon as the music started I found myself staring at the most eighth notes I’ve ever seen in my life (this group seems to like very fast jigs and reels). I ended up not playing most of the songs, and leading one very awkward rendition of “The Ash Grove” that I kept forgetting was in G, not C. My sight-reading is crap—and let’s face it, my accordion technique has gotten SUPER rusty.
I spent most of the session with alternating feelings of determination and immense shame that I’m not as good at my instrument (instruments, actually—I’m not particularly good at any of them) as I want to be. I tried to avoid wallowing in the fear that I’m destined for mediocrity. (That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.) At any rate, I was pretty embarrassed at how much I couldn’t do.
And yet, at the end, people came up to me and expressed hope that I’d return, and that they’d be able to hear me play more. Bless them. Now I have an accordion case full of sheet music to practice before the next session in two weeks.
And then I’ll call the accordion repair guy, promise! I just need the accordion for another month or so. Hopefully it won’t deteriorate any further till then… but it did last forty years in a garage before it came into my hands.
Meanwhile I need to tend to my novel. I depart to visit my friends in less than a month, and those rewrites ain’t gonna… rewrite… themselves.
Oof, school kicked my butt this past week. A six-page paper plus a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation plus mandatory discussion all due the same day. And that’s just in one of my two classes.
I was out of town visiting family for most of the last week, which is always good for stepping away and reevaluating how you’re doing life. At times I found myself worrying about “wasted potential”—wondering if I could be doing something amazing if I just hadn’t watched so much TV as a kid, or had eaten a better diet growing up, or just tried harder. Such thinking isn’t terribly productive, though, and eventually I decided to stop worrying and think about what I want to do with the days ahead. Being out and about tore me away from the Internet for long stretches of time, which I realize has made me a generally happier person. I read too much news anyway, and news is overwhelmingly negative and largely about things outside my control. Spending less time with TV and video games was good for me, too. I can’t see myself ever saying “I’m sure glad I spent my entire summer consuming content in front of a screen.”
Now that I have a bit more breathing room before my next big assignment is due (well, kind of; there’s a 10-page paper due next Wednesday) I’m going to make sure I take time this week to pick up and delve into the stuff I want to be doing. (And call that accordion repair guy, for reals!)
A side note: On the trip to visit my relatives I took a couple of paperbacks for airplane reading: Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens and Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13,* and while I enjoyed both (or at least the first half, in the case of the 432-page Good Omens, which I haven’t yet finished), I’m still partial to middle-grade fantasy. I have to constantly quell the fear that this affinity is a sign of stunted development (more wasted potential!), but that doesn’t stop me from visiting that section of the public library every time I’m there. Also, I’ll read anything by Eva Ibbotson. She might be my favorite author ever. Island of the Aunts made me cry.
Here’s some relevant Neil Gaiman from a 2013 Guardian column that accurately reflects everything I believe about libraries and children’s literature:
And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.
If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.
As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.
*It’s about a pure-hearted boy raised by horrible stepparents whose destiny lies in the magical place accessible only through a secret portal in King’s Cross station. If that sounds familiar, note that The Secret of Platform 13 was published in 1994 and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997. When asked about the striking similarities, Eva Ibbotson reportedly said that she’d like to shake J. K. Rowling’s hand, and added, “I think we all borrow from each other as writers.”