What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Of your peers. The laws of the United States are designed to make it at least marginally difficult to arbitrarily throw people in prison. We’re entitled to have our case tried not just before a judge, but also a jury of our peers. This week I kept my part of the civic compact by serving as a member of the county’s jury pool. I got a chance this week to see a cross section of the group whop could be called upon to serve as “peers” should I ever find myself accused. That’s the moment my faith in the judicial system was rattled. A few of our number seemed to have at least a partial clue about what was going on, but many more looked vaguely confused and distressed by the whole process. A few more were sleeping and I’m fairly sure at least one was a tweaker who showed up just to get his $20. I’ve never had copious amounts of faith in “the people” as a group… but after seeing them in person, I think I’ll be taking my chances with a judge.

2. Shock and alarm. Most of my day-to-day work is routine. Read this. Assess that. File a report on some other thing. Given the right knowledge base and a bit of critical thinking it’s not all that hard to do – and even when I get something badly wrong the collateral damage is fairly limited. There are, from time to time, some projects that I work on that could end in profound leadership embarrassment in the face of the community, our business partners, and our own workforce if they aren’t run exactly right. I can promise you that when I’ve been beating the drum that things are trending off track for months now I won’t be a bit embarrassed when they come sliding fully off the rails. I have an ass-covering paper trail that will mostly protect me when someone in the wheelhouse finally has their moment of shock and alarm.

3. Writing. I haven’t stopped writing, but at last count I have six works in progress sitting on my desktop and I’m not in love with any of them. They feel like an exercise in writing something just to keep writing. Wherever the muse resides it’s currently not near my desk and that’s something of a shame because I really want to be good at this craft. If I can’t be good, I’d at least like to be good enough… but every time I double click on one of those files and try to find the next few hundred words the struggle is very, very real. I never thought I’d miss a case of run of the mill writer’s block, but I’d talk that all day every day over ideas that are just plain bad.

Research…

There’s always a fine line when a project starts between wanting to just do the work quietly and wanting to blog about every step along the way. In the interest of not giving away the store before it’s even written, I’ll try to keep my discussion points fairly general in terms of the next product in the jeffreytharp.com pipeline. Suffice to say it’s not going to be quite like any of my previous efforts.

I haven’t set down to a writing effort yet that didn’t start off with research… and that’s where the lion’s share of my self-imposed writing time is allocated at the moment. I’m doing my best to spend an hour a day sourcing background information in the hope that once I have a stack of notes, I’ll actually be ready to sit down and put words on the page.

What I supposed you need to know now is there is a fresh work in progress. What I hope you’re going to see at the end of this trail is a deeply personnel (and intensely sarcastic) look at my relationship with life, work, and social media. It may not be of interest to anyone. It may not sell a single copy. But from the preliminary research I’ve done so far, I’m wholly fascinated by the ground this effort will end up covering.

Editorial control…

I enjoy almost everything about the writing process. I like that, for me, it’s a solitary effort. I like that it forces me to live inside my own head. I like that it demands a focus and discipline that I don’t always want to demonstrate in other aspects of my life. Most of all, I like that when the final period is added, I can sit back point at the screen, and have the deeply personal satisfaction that I put all those words on all those pages. Even though I spend most of the day writing at the office, there’s no sense of ownership. A finely crafted email or policy letter just doesn’t have the same feel. Most of that kind of writing is set within strictly proscribed left and right boundaries. You can pretty the words up a bit, but I’ve never finished rewriting a section of policy and thought, “damn that’s good.”

I’ve left my work in progress sit for a little more than a month. It’s a much needed cooling off period, so I can try to read through it with a little bit of objectivity. And therein lies the current problem. I love the creative process of writing. I love it right up to the point it becomes the editorial process of reworking all the bits and pieces into a more cohesive and understandable whole. It’s maybe the most necessary step, but there’s nothing at all in it that I find enjoyable. In fact forcing myself to sit down and do it is far more difficult than expecting myself to sit down every night and create brand new material.

Exerting editorial control is a necessary evil. It’s an evil that I started tackling last night. It’s an evil that I’m going to spend many more nights wrestling with… mostly because it reveals that the story that I thoughtfully crafted over the winter is full of plot holes, grammar and punctuation problems, inconsistencies, characters that go nowhere, and generally shows that all I’ve done so far is finish a first draft. I knew that intellectually, but the intervening days gave me the space to realize it with more than my brain.

It’s time to get back to work… and by “work” of course I mean that activity that takes inordinate amounts of time and shows absolutely no promise of ever paying for itself. Even knowing all that, a bad day editing is better than my best day doing most anything else I’d consider work. So yeah, it’s time to get back to work.

Interregnum…

Most people who write never actually talk about how much their first drafts suck. Since I clearly have no shame, I’ll say it out loud and in a public forum: I know for a stone cold fact my first draft sucks. It’s legitimately awful. It’s full of spelling and grammar issues. It’s likely to have favored words and phrases repeated every few pages. There are whole sections that I’ll want to rip out, stomp on, and never think of again. That’s the nature of a first draft. As much as we’re tempted to think of it as the beginning of the end, it’s really just the end of the beginning.

My tendency, and I can only assume it’s shared by others, is to want to launch a new project out into the world as quickly as possible. Of course this is a terrible, terrible mistake because it doesn’t give you the time and space necessary to really work out the kinks and rough spots. Since I know that going into it, what I’m planning on doing now with this short story is absolutely nothing. I don’t want to re-read it. I don’t even want to think about it for at least two weeks. A month would be better if I can convince myself to stay away that long.

Time and distance is the only thing that helps give a layer of objectivity when I get back to a work in progress. For me at least, if I try to edit my own work just after it’s finished, I know I’ll do a lousy job of it. Being too close to the story, I’m reading what I think is there (or maybe what I wish was there), rather than the words that are actually on the page. Really editing your own work is mostly a fool’s errand. That’s why the best editors can make a boatload of money plying their trade. Those of us who can’t afford the best editorial support, simply make do by asking trusted associates to take on the job for peanuts. Frankly, if you’re interested in more than a free copy of the finished product, I probably can’t afford your editorial services at this point anyway.

So where I am now is in a bit of an operational pause, somewhere between active writing, re-writing, and editing. Since I’ve built up a good head of steam and have forced myself into the habit of writing every night, though, this isn’t the time to lay in the cut. My job now is to keep writing, even if that means taking on another project or maybe doing a little freelance work to keep my chops up. I’m tinkering with a few ideas and even managed to free write for a while last night which is something I rarely ever get the chance to do.

Whatever small project I take on during this damned interregnum, you can rest assured that it will be in some way geared towards continuing to build my little hobby into something a bit more substantial. This may never been what I do to pay the bills, but I’m still fairly certain it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.

Best efforts…

This was very likely to turn into a long, rambling collection of words that wouldn’t end up saying anything at all. It felt like that kind of night. Actually, it’s felt like that all day, maybe even longer than that. Despite my best intentions, it may yet turn into a bit of a ramble. It certainly feels like it could.

The good news is that the Muse hasn’t left me high and dry. I’m still sitting down every night and making progress on the short story in waiting. I sit down as close to 7PM on the nose as I can manage and don’t get back up until there are at least 300 fresh words sitting in front of me. Sometimes it takes 20 minutes, other times closer to three hours. Admittedly, sometimes the words that end up there just plain suck. More rarely, the ones that appear are actually rather good. Like Gump’s chocolates, when I sit down I never know what I’m going to get.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, the quality of the output doesn’t particularly matter. What seems to matter is the routine, the habit of writing consistently day in, day out, when you’re sick, when you’re tired, when there are a dozen other things screaming out for your attention. What matters is sitting down and letting the words flow – or sometimes forcing them to flow against their will. It can feel like that a lot.

What I’m going to end up with 4000-odd words and 14-ish days from now is generously called a first draft. I know that draft is going to suck… and I don’t mean just a little. It’s going to be God awful – full of half formed ideas, words that aren’t really words, and phrases that are repeated on at least every fifth page. That’s fine. Not fine for public consumption fine, but fine by the standards of the first draft. It means finally there’s something there that wasn’t there before. Something that I drug into the world kicking and screaming out of my own head and onto the form of evil that fills me with the most dread – the blank, white page with its solitary flashing cursor.

Even after it’s no longer a first draft – maybe a 3rd or 4th version – after it’s been anointed as “final” I know I won’t be entirely happy with it. I’ll want to change and tweak and craft just a bit more. Right now I know it’s not even in the realm of good enough, but it will be. I think. That’s the theory I’m working under, anyway.

OK, yeah, so maybe this did turn into a long, rambling collection of words despite my best efforts to the contrary. Sorry about that.

It will be…

It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve finally built up a sufficient head of steam that I feel comfortable saying a few words about a current work in progress. As I’m writing, it feels like a short story in waiting. As of last night it’s 2904 words and will most likely offend those with deep religious convictions. Being an offensive douche wasn’t really where this all started out (and it’s still not my intent), but any time you so much as touch on Christianity and are anything but strictly differential to the Almighty, there’s a certain subset of the population who will get their knickers in a twist. That’s ok. They’re entitled. As I’ve said before, opinions are like certain anatomical orifices – everybody’s got one and needs to use it often.

The fun (and admittedly frustrating) part of this whole effort is that after tinkering around for a couple of weeks, I actually have no idea where it’s going, how it will end, or what the point of the whole exercise is. There’s no outline. No concept map. Every day I sit down, re-read what I wrote the day before, and then have a little exercise in free writing. I’d like to bring the draft in around 10,000 words, but I’d be happy with anything from 8,000 to 12,000. Really, the plan is to just keep plugging away until it feels like something close enough to done to justify pasting it with the “first draft” label and chunking it over into my version of the editorial process. I’m not bold enough to even suggest a date when that might happen, though. It’s just going to take as long as it takes.

I’m not going to sit here on a sunday morning with a few thousand words on the page and guess whether it will be good or bad. At best, I can promise that it will be. That may not sound like much, but for a guy who’s been taking about trying his hand at fiction since high school, it’s a pretty big deal.

Casting around…

After spending two years milling about with Nobody Told Me… The Cynic’s Guide for New Employees and a few months hashing out What Annoys Jeff this Week: 2012 in Review, it feels a bit odd to be sitting here without a current work in progress. Not a bad odd, just a different one. I should be putting this time to good use on something, but so far I have no earthly idea what that will be at the moment. Of course there will be a 2013 eBook edition of What Annoys Jeff this Week, but with 24 regular weekly installments yet to be written, I’m nowhere near interested in putting the cart so far out in advance of the horse. In the meantime, I’ll just sit here hoping that inspiration strikes in a big way.

For a few weeks there I was tinkering around with the idea of working up a survival guide for new teachers, but that experience is so far in the past, getting somewhere beyond the obvious was a problem. I wish I would have kept better notes of the pitfalls and foibles of my brief brush with the teaching profession. Sadly, I didn’t start keeping detailed book until I shifted careers and realized the true value of documenting most everything. Since fiction doesn’t really feel like my genre and God knows I don’t want to get bogged down into a multi-year long research project, I’ll keep casting around until I land on something that can hold my interest for 20 or 30,000 words.

If anyone has ideas, consider this your opportunity to become part of the process.