The Stupid 365 Project, Day 59: The Cholla Writing

November 28th, 2010

Stephen Gipson, a virtual friend, e-mailed to say he’d recommended the FINISH YOUR NOVEL material to two friends who were having trouble completing their own books.

(Before I continue, the photo above is a cholla, the meanest little bastard cactus in the desert.  It’s knee-high, making it easy to walk into, and Madison walked into one today.  Cholla is pronounced “choy-ya,” so the title is a labored pun on “The Joy of . . .”  Ya know?)

Stephen made a point of telling me that his friends were very intelligent but still hadn’t been able to navigate to the end of their stories, despite years of working at it.  I answered him at some length and thought, hmmm. Adapt that some, and it’s today’s blog.   So here it is:

Being smart is no guarantee against getting stuck.  In fact, it may make it more likely a writer will get stuck.  Smart people tend to question everything and also to be unwilling to let go of anything — a book, a chapter, a paragraph, a choice of a verb — until it’s perfect.  Guaranteed dead end, from my perspective.

Writing a novel, as nearly as I can describe it, is like herding a daydream for however long it takes, getting down as much as you can as the story arrives and the characters lead you in unanticipated directions.  I think it’s anathema to try to polish each word, or even each page, as the story is arriving; you can miss some of it.

Writing sometimes feels to me like reading and trying to hold a conversation at the same time.  You can’t do both with full attention — one of them (in my case, usually the conversation) is going to suffer.  It’ll descend to the level of place-keeper grunts:  Umm, huh, really.   He did?  Jeez. Wait, sorry, what was that again?

In this tortured simile, the story that’s arriving in your head — often, as I sometimes say, in bolts, like lengths of fabric — is the book you’re reading.  The place-keeper grunts are the writing, the minimum amount necessary to get the broad strokes onto the page.  Then, when the story stops arriving for a while, it’s time to go back and write it better.

The flaw in this simile is that the story we’re reading moves on sometimes when while we’re looking elsewhere (or polishing our writing), and you can’t always back it up to the point at which you stopped paying attention. You just do whatever you can to get it while it’s arriving.

And then, of course, there are the times when no story arrives at all, and you venture a word at a time, hoping to pick up the scent.  Those are the days when writing 500 words feels like Finnegans Wake.  But sometimes, the best pieces of story arrive this way.  I think it’s vital to keep in mind one of my (very few) Absolute Rules of Writing, which I have to put into a list one day:  We never know whether we’re writing well or badly.  Just because it’s coming easily, it isn’t necessarily any good; conversely, just because every word feels like ten pounds of sludge, that doesn’t necessarily mean it stinks.  Those “bad days” have produced some of the writing I like best, a few months later.

So that leads to another of my Absolute Rules:  Keep writing anyway. You never know when you’ll hit the vein of quartz that leads straight to the gold.

17 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 59: The Cholla Writing”

  1. Bonnie Says:

    Another name for the cholla is “jumping cactus.” Not that it really jumps, but all those little segments are just lurking, waiting to attach themselves to a passer-by. When we first lived in Tucson, relatives would visit and we would take them out to Saguaro National Monument for hiking and picnics. Inevitably one child would get a cholla segment stuck on a sleeve, and another child would try to remove it, and somehow a tennis shoe would get stuck, and eventually an adult would have to come along and detach a pile of screaming kids.

  2. Gary Says:

    Keep writing anyway. Oh, yes!

    As someone once said: The process of editing presupposes a text to be edited.

    I’ve always found producing the stuff – good, bad, or lousy – to be much harder work and much less fun than editing and polishing something I’ve already written. Because once it’s there and you’re reading it, you can say along with Mario Lanza/Fred Cocozza: “Ah, Mario, Mario, you sing[write] like the son of a beetch!”

    But it’s kind of hard to admire an empty page.

  3. Sylvia Says:

    Keep writing anyway.

    BUT I DON’T WANNA! *wail*

    I mean, what if it’s just simply the case that I’m not good enough to finish this story? Staring at the document and whimpering quietly is a sort of progress, right?

    (I’m still trying to do this revision. It’s um… not going well.)

  4. Gary Says:

    The Choy Ya Writing. Oh, that’s good.

    Almost as good as the guy who submitted ten puns to the humor competition, to see if he could win a prize. But no pun in ten did.

    (Munyin! Did you know your husband completely lacks a sense of humor? I tell him these HILARIOUS jokes, and he doesn’t even smile!)

  5. Glenn W. Says:


    Your thoughts on the writing process/life couldn’t have come at a better moment. A new day, a new week, a blank monitor, pages written sitting beside me on my desk ready for yet another editing and I wonder if it’s all worth the effort. Then comes today’s blog and I am grateful for your insights. I take all the encouragement that comes my way.

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Bonnie, and thanks for that. I think I’m going to use the “jumping cactus” thing in the story to fairly horrifying effect. I’d forgotten that the little balls of spines stick to passing animals and people — that’s how the cholla spreads. All I can say is that whatever is in the middle of all those spines must taste really good; it’s the best-protected plant in the entire desert.

    Gary, thanks for appreciating the pun — and you don’t know how I really react to your jokes. When I get up and leave the table, it’s not to avoid hearing more of them, it’s so I can go someplace private and laugh and laugh and


    So . . . where was I? You and I are on opposite ends of the stick about the phases of the writing process: I love discovering the story and then doing the immediate rewrites — either the same day or within 2-3 days. Sitting down purely to revise gives me the heebie-jeebies. That’s why reading the MS to Munyin is so important — I’m working at it, trying to make the story interesting, and the bad patches and lapses in logic or causality become extremely clear. (One exception — the plot problem you pointed out in CRASHED.)

    No pun in ten did? Excuse me while I change rooms for a moment.

    Hi, Sylvia — Whimpering counts. Almost anything counts as long as you’re still rooted in your story. I wrote that piece yesterday and then proceeded to have one of the no-words-will-come days, but I sat there and laid down one tentative word after another until a corridor of story opened up, and by the time I got up I had done just a few words over 2,000. Probably 1200 of them are bad, but they can be fixed and will be fixed today. Of course, you can write your story. You just have to do it one word at a time.

    Hey, Glenn — your day sounds like mine. Just remember the most frequent piece of guidance in the I Ching: Perseverance furthers. I wrote a thing yesterday where Madison sees a photograph of herself in a T-shirt that says UNRELIABLE NARRATOR, and she remembers that her useless boy friend hadn’t understood what it meant. I’m going to have one made up, and while I’m at it, I’ll also do one that says PERSEVERANCE FURTHERS.

  7. EverettK Says:

    Tim said: I wrote a thing yesterday where Madison sees a photograph of herself in a T-shirt that says UNRELIABLE NARRATOR, and she remembers that her useless boy friend hadn’t understood what it meant. I’m going to have one made up, and while I’m at it, I’ll also do one that says PERSEVERANCE FURTHERS.

    I’m a T-shirt guy, and I love those. If you weren’t just joking and DO have a T-shirt made of those, have an extra set made for me (LARGE), and I’ll pay for the shirts and shipping. I like having things on my shirts that make people wrinkle their forehead for a while. And beyond that, I LIKE those!

  8. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I am really enjoying your writings on writing. I have felt for years I have an idea sitting in a room somewhere in my brain, so while I wait for the light to go on, I write letters, and non-fiction stuff. The trouble is that I read so much that every idea I have seems to have come from a book that I’ve read. Any cure for that?

  9. Gary Says:

    Oh I agree, Tim, that sitting down purely to revise is like sitting down to eat three-day-old bread. But I find I have to reread what went before just to launch myself into the next bit. And then I usually self-correct before starting the next bit.

    But in the full knowledge that something I’ve corrected and admired now (“Ah, Mario, Mario…”) is going to look like a turkey by next month.

  10. Bonnie Says:

    I’m game…Tim, you think you could get Maria to design something for the back side? 😉

  11. RJ Baliza Says:

    hi tim,

    since highschool, i have been collecting books on writing that now sit collecting dust, and i have, most times, forgotten to write. i would say that if you were to publish your writing essays in book format, i would buy it and keep it in my bag. you give quite practical advise.

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Everett — Will do, if I have them made. I’ve been thinking about those two, and also THIRD-ACT TROUBLE. But who knows? I don’t really do anything except write.

    Lil, there are only supposed to be six basic plots. Or maybe it’s twelve, but anyway, it’s a finite number. But you and I could sit down separately with a basic situation and maybe even a rough outline, and write completely different books. It’s all characters in the end (I think) and your characters would be completely different from my characters. Just write it. If it isn’t any good, write another one. No one’s first novel is really any good except for maybe one in ten thousand.

    Hi, Gary — that’s the way I do my first revisions, too — I back up about three days’ worth and fix things so I’m already writing when I get to the blank page. Then, reading the whole thing to my amazingly patient wife generally produces a number of revelations, most of which are not wholly positive. So those get fixed. Then I put the whole thing away for a month or two while I work on something else to let the fat rise, and go through it on paper, as opposed to onscreen, and that’s usually the last pass until my agent and/or editor get at it.

    Bonnie, that’s a GREAT resource. $19 for a personalized shirt? Might do something on the back, or maybe just the words, TO BE CONTINUED. That would be a cool thought to leave people with. Wouldn’t it? No? Okay, got a suggestion?

    Hi, RJ — I’ve been thinking seriously of doing just that — taking everything in the writing area and adding to it all the stuff I’ve written in individual blogs (including blogs on other sites, and putting it up as an e-book. Maybe I could work with Hitch to figure out how to do print-on-demand for those who want the physical object as opposed to the text. Glad to know you’d find it useful.

  13. Laren Bright Says:

    Whenever you talk about writing I get tons of value. Much appreciated.

    (And everyone knows that cholla is Jewish egg bread, you goy.)

  14. Sylvia Says:

    Thanks for the support. I feel better today and I will just keep telling myself that it is all progress of some sort.

    You are in one of my favourite places in the world, by the way. I’m jealous.

  15. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Laren — I LOVE cholla with mayo and ham.

    Sylvia — glad to know it. Hope you weren’t appalled by the excerpt from yesterday’s writing I put up. It may not be great, but it got me moving again, and that’s the point. I can make it better AND I’ve got more than 4000 new words, going in a direction I like.

  16. Larissa Says:

    I gotta love a bad pun…they’re just so cute and punny…and they are just all around en-cholla-ble….ahem. sorry.

    I hate writing crap…and while it’s true that the stuff that felt painful and word by word, letter by letter is not ever as bad as it seems at the time…it’s nearly impossible for me to stay interested during those parts…because I’m babbling. And I’m over describing and I’m not coming up with any real answers to the questions..mainly because my character is only a shadow right now…and I can’t catch her.

    Bah. (c:

    I’m going to leave all that writing shoved in the drawer for right now until it’s actually screaming at me to let it out. There are moments, aka right f’n now, that it literally makes me sick to think about having to go back to that piece of work. That’s probably a sign of something.

  17. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hey, Riss — back it up and write about the problems with the book Give yourself 30 minutes every morning to answer in writing questions like, “What’s the problem with the story?” “What’s the problem with my main character? Who do I want her to be?” “What’s the aspect of my story I like best/readers will like best, and am I presenting it?” More will occur to you as you write. You can discover a lot doing this. Another possibility is simply to look ahead 10,000 words and do an outline of scenes, almost arbitrary, that might get you there. Once you’ve got one that doesn’t actively make you want to scream, start to write it (remaining open to new ideas as they come to you) and see where you actually wind up.

    I don’t know how long you’ve been working on this project, but there can also come a time when it’s a good idea to put it in a drawer — but ONLY if you’re going to go immediately into writing something else.

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