This isn’t a pandemic story. I don’t have anything particularly interesting to say about people who are stuck communicating online-only. But I do want to begin this story with my narrator online. And the reason I want to do that is to contrast their life how it is to what it will become when they crash into the couple. Their current life is mostly online. Their new life, or at least what happens in this story, will be an analogue experience.
So let’s start with some video calls. What’s my narrator doing online?
I was standing in my room looking at live videos of other people standing in their rooms.
Okay, that’s not bad. It’s a little long.
I was standing in my room, on zoom, drinking wine.
Shorter, more obvious to the current reader. But, two things. FIrst, I wrote the word “zoom,” which makes tons of sense on 2020 but might not make sense in 2021, let alone 2120. So many writing advice books caution using brand names like this for posterity. I don’t really believe this. If I’m writing a story about the 60s and say, like, “I was typing on my portable Smith Corona,” I’m fairly confident readers today could put together that it’s a typewriter. We’re all actually pretty good at this. Second, drinking wine. That’s sort of boring. I want to punch that up.
I was on zoom in my room, drinking more wine than my mother.
That’s better. I think that’s pretty relatable, pithy.
I was standing in my room on a zoom, and I had been drinking since noon.
Okay now I’m just rhyming for fun.
I was drinking on zoom with my mother.
Who says mother? Psychopaths.
I was drinking on zoom with my parents. These little video chats had replaced our phone calls. They liked seeing me, and I liked justifying purchases of computer hardware.
There we go. Lots of telling fragments. But is it boring? Is it boring enough?
I was once again finishing a bottle of cab merlot blend while my parents seemed concerned about my mental health.
I’m feeling especially distracted and unfocused this morning. This little blog post took an hour to write.
I usually write books. Okay, that’s not true. I usually try to write books.
I’ve been trying to write books my whole life. I haven’t been trying to write stories. Maybe that’s my problem. I’m always picturing this end product, a 70,000 word thing with margins and backmatter. I’m a layout guy in my work. I think about the bleed. I typeset my first set of short stories before they were even done. That was definitely the wrong order to do things.
I’ve tried several approaches. I’ve written with no plan. I’ve written with too much plan. I’m not sure either is better by themselves. Maybe it’s a personality thing? A loose idea of where to go seems to suit me best. So that’s what I’m going to do here. I have a faint trail of where to go with this story, but I’m not going to set it in stone. I want this story to be a creative outlet.
I remember this Radiohead interview from the mid-2000s, where they insisted they hated making albums and would probably just do singles from then on. That was three albums ago. It’s tough to break out of your model. It’s tough to not think of stories as filling a certain container, especially if that’s how your business works. But even for someone like me who’s sold only hundreds of books, it’s tough to not realize things can be different.
This story I’m writing probably won’t be a novel, is what I’m trying to say. I’d like to write it until it’s done, but I don’t want that “done” tag to mean long. I’d like to see “done” in a month or two. I’d like a V1 before the end of this bent year. I’d like that for myself. That would feel like a win.
I had an awful day with video calls yesterday. Two work calls and a social podcast, right? Microsoft Teams, and Instagram Live. I’ve been doing this for months. But the audio is jittery on Teams, and it’s throwing up a “weak connection” alert even though I’m getting 50mbps. So, I try switching bands, from 5gz to 2.4. It helps, like, a little, but it’s still crappy enough I’m relegated to typing in the chat box instead of talking, like an animal. During the second meeting, I do the one hack I think most people know by this point: you can be in the same Teams meeting on your computer and your phone. Why can you do this? I don’t know, but I’m glad I can, because my phone’s audio latency is perfect (on the exact same wi-fi).
Later on in the day, I notice that my wi-fi is down to 20mbps. It’s 5:30pm, and the internet always dips a little at this hour. I live in a large condo. I’m guessing it’s just the most popular time for families to be online. So, I ask my podcast partner to use Skype instead of Instragram Live to record. Skype works even when there’s no internet, I don’t know, it’s magic from the old days. But when I initiate the call, I have no audio. The webcam and my trusted Blu microphone aren’t showing up as options, for the first time in like, ten years. Frustration emoji.
So I move out to the balcony, the one place where my wi-fi never fails, and call my bud on Instagram Live. We have a pretty good chat. What a day.
I’m guessing this kind of thing isn’t all that crazy for people working and hanging out at home, but I don’t hear too many stories like it. Maybe we’re all just keeping it to ourselves. Luckily, this post appeared in my RSS feed last night and it gave me comfort. It’s not that there’s a solution, but at least you’re not alone.
Here’s an example of the problem: I was on Google Meet with Ben Redford (of Mayku) this morning, and he wanted to show me something but the software was being wonky. So he started a Zoom call, and sent me a link in Google Meet chat. I tapped the link and jumped to Zoom to join him… but the sound didn’t work. The Meet app was hogging the sound, so I closed that, then switched back to Zoom and we continued.
Webb suggests several solutions that are great ideas. I have no idea if any of them will ever happen, but it certainly would be nice.
I’ve talked before (on not one but two podcast episodes) about the sorry state of messaging apps, and it’s all the same shit all over again with video. We’re all stuck using seven different silo’d apps (and we are all on all of them), and none of them seem to have any interest in working together.
We’re all separated by this virus. These apps are supposed to tether us together. Why do they suck so bad at it?
So I’ve got some mysterious smoking guy outside my narrator’s building. Something about him interests my narrator. What is it? But perhaps before I figure that out, why would anything interest my narrator? What makes something interesting or curious for them? My narrator can’t just be nobody. They can’t just actually be a camera. They have to have some perspective.
What do you look like, narrator? I think you’re probably smaller than both the smoking guy and his girlfriend. You can be invisible in a room. You wear unassuming stuff, and your disappear a bit behind your crossbody bag. You’re a viewer, and you feel a little guilty about it. You could be a voyeur if you put your back into it, but you know that’s probably not the most virtuous way to spend your time.
I think the narrator is non-binary. The reader will hear “I” more often than not in referring to the narrator. Most characters won’t really be talking about them, but when they do, it’ll be with him, her, and them. I hope that isn’t concerning, but I don’t think it will be. I try to pick my character genders carefully. I’ve been allergic to thinking that the “default” should be male, and that the “default” love interest should be female. I’ve explored gay characters, but I haven’t had a non-binary character in my work yet.
And, sure, this is partly because I’m seeing myself as more non-binary lately. I see the option as more viable to write about. But I also find being non-binary not terribly interesting in and of itself. It answered a question for me about categorization, but that’s about it. And because I want my narrator to be the least interesting character, lets give them some less interesting traits.
I also have a theory that a nonbinary narrator might be helpful for anyone reading to feel attached to that perspective. A strictly male or female perspective may temper things differently for different readers. But that’s not one I’ve explored too much, and I might be wrong.
Their hair is shaved. They wear loose clothes for their frame, usually in an earthy colour scheme. They wear boots with a small heel. They usually wear long skirts and tshirts one size too big. They wear a Fitbit. Fitbits are the boring choice, right? Everyone has one.
If they’re to be a window into this story, I want them mostly harmless. Perhaps curiosity is their vice. Maybe they’re a researcher. Maybe that’s their job. Maybe this isn’t the first time they’ve stuck their nose where it doesn’t belong. Let’s say they work for some politically-neutral think tank and spend most days paraphrasing and citing arguments. It’s maybe a bit colourless as a gig but there’s something to why the narrator would have “curiosity” as a primary character trait.
Let’s say they’ve moved away from home recently. Maybe a year. They haven’t met too many real friends in the new city. They’ve got friends online but their meatspace is mostly travelling to work and back, and sometimes attending the odd meetup. They have free time. I think that’s probably important for someone who’s about to get swept up in something. You can’t be too busy and still get distracted by strangers. They’re about to go on an adventure. Maybe they just got dumped and they’re open to something fresh?
Writing is a great privilege. I don’t have to fight anyone but me to do it. Writing is like bodyweight exercises. Sometimes the stuff with weights is easier. I’m heavy. Lifting me is hard. Day 5 of putting something together.
Last time, I had this little spark of an idea. I lived in a condo building. Lately, I’ve noticed this guy smoking downstairs, hanging out for a while. A girl who lives in my building comes down to meet him, and they drive off. That’s probably not very interesting by itself. It matters who he is. There’s a mystery box there, maybe, but only if what’s on the other side is compelling. It matters who she is. It should be important not just who she is in relation to him, but who she is by herself.
It matters a little bit less who I am. It could matter, but it could just as well be that the “I” in this story is just a cypher for the reader. I’m a fan of that character. It’s a good device, and not one I’ve used in my writing before. My main characters have been the focus of my stories. Maybe it’d be nice to be a little bit more of a camera to something more interesting.
I don’t know if I have a favourite novel, but the Great Gatsby is up there. Nick Carraway is used less as a full character and more as a lens to this world. The characters speak to him and acknowledge him, but his impact on the plot itself is not heavy. Did you know the Great Gatsby enters the public domain on January 1, 2021? That’s cool.
So what’s this guy look like? Heh. Of course. When it comes to do the actual writing, planning, whatever, I drop this text box and look at Instagram for fifteen minutes. Maybe I was looking for him? I think he’s big. He’s some kind of bodybuilder. Physically intimidating, but with a somewhat kind-looking face. He’s bleached his hair a lighter colour than his beard, which is sculptured and well cared-for. He’s handsome and he tries. At first, it’s difficult to tell if it’s boyish or manly confidence. His smile seems genuine and maybe a tad dorky.
Is it strange that a guy who cares about his health would smoke? Sure. Maybe it’s a vape pen? Maybe it’s weed instead of tobacco. He wears these bright shirts you see in magazines that seem obscenely expensive. Maybe that’s more my character speaking? Maybe he thinks it would be insane to spend $400 on a loud, flowery shirt you barely button.
Maybe this guy smiles when he sees me and it disarms me entirely for days. It seems to have less effect on her. Who am I, again? I should figure that out.
all week, I’ve been waking up at my usual time of around 7am. I zip up a hoodie, feed the cats, look out onto my balcony, and look at this little blank text file. Sometimes I scroll twitter for a few minutes because I’m a sad human who can’t stop, but I’m not sure you can hold that against anyone anymore. It’s a sort of habit I’m trying to rebuild in real time. Let’s talk about a story in the hopes of eventually writing that story. Is this a lame attempt to stave off depression going into the winter months while in the middle of a global pandemic? Duh. But hey, I’m supposed to be a writer. So let’s get to work.
Besides, my favorite show of 2020 is Keep Your Hands off Eizouken!, a comedy about the creative process. Three girls come together to make an anime. It’s wholesome as hell, and you’ll love it. Midori, Tsubame, and Sayaka all have different motivations and challenges for making an anime, and those challenges make up the drama of the show.
And when I think about how Eizouken creative process, you can’t help but try it yourself. Look around, man. There’s stuff to build on. Who’s that guy leaning against your building every other Thursday. What’s he smoking? What’s he waiting for? Your neighborhood isn’t cool, but he is. What’s happening there? He’s lanky and tall. You saw leave the parking lot. He’s got a car. What’s the make? Do cars still define people? They do, right? I don’t drive. That’s what it says about me.
He’s waiting for a girl who lives in my building. I put it together before I see the proof. Sure, of course he is. That adds up. But he waits a long time. Long enough to put the car in the guest parking, not just the entranceway where the delivery drivers park. He knows he’ll be down there a while. He smokes. He looks at his phone. The way he leans is just a little bit mysterious.
I shared the elevator with her once. She didn’t seem excited. Nervous, maybe. But also, sad? It didn’t seem like young love. Or rather, it didn’t seem like the young love I thought I had. I saw her walk up to him. They didn’t embrace. He just dropped his cigarette and stomped it out, and she followed him to the parking lot. What was this?
I fell asleep watching Japanese pro wrestling last night. The drama around wrestling is jagged and stressful, but wrestling matches themselves—especially New Japan’s long main event style—are balletic and methodical. You can really put a few on and get the same calm as custom white noise. I mean, turn the volume down. The enthusiasm from the commentary track may not deliver the desired sleepy time heart rate.
While I was watching this match, I had a singular thought: what’s the best thing that could happen here? I didn’t particularly have skin in this game. If one or the other performer “won,” would that mean anything to me? Not really. I was here for the choreography. A match can end in a lot of ways. What’s the best one? New Japan is a confident place, and nearly all their matches end with a decisive victor. But you know what I really love? A time limit draw.
If you don’t know wrestling, there are sometimes time limits. It depends on the company and the gimmick and what they’re trying to communicate. Time limit draws are usually about frustrations about working within the system. It’s a shenanigan under the rare guise of rule-keeping. One performer is a brick wall, the other a wrecking ball, and it’s about the wall falling in time. Can the wrecking ball get its job done? But that’s less interesting to me than a stellar performance not being marred by having to decide a “winner.” How do you pick a winner in pairs skating, between the two people in the pair? You don’t. They sit at the kiss and cry and you judge them together.
Perhaps my favorite finish in any match is from 2001. Stone Cold Steve Austin and HHH have this 45 minute epic in February of that year. They sort of do the Rocky II finish, where they hit one another at the same time. Only, they collapse. HHH falls slightly slower, and he ends up on top of Austin. He “wins” the match because that’s just coincidentally how pins in wrestling work (so, so many wrestlers have “won” matches after being dragged on top of their opponent by someone else), but it doesn’t matter. The whole point was the performance itself.
As I’m letting my mind wander about this new story, I’m trying to look at it from new angles. I rarely think about the “endings” of my stories. I make a few characters and try to follow them through an arc. But maybe I need to have something in mind, and that it should be worth the arc. My stories are usually love stories that don’t work out. There’s no real correlation to winning and losing in my stories. I don’t think those concepts are all that interesting. But I do like ties. It feels like the characters make it across together.
So maybe my story has to involve my characters competing for something that ends in a draw. Or maybe it’s something more emotional. They fight one another and get nowhere. Maybe they’re struggling too hard towards the wrong kind of ending, and they come to realize it was the wrong goal for them. Would that be the best ending? They realign their values. They’re together, focused. Is the best ending just a fresh, crisp beginning with renewed focus? Is it just circular like that. Is that too simple?
Denise’s hair is blue. Denise’s hair is auburn. Denise isn’t real. Denise is the only real thing that matters. Olive isn’t real. Lake isn’t real. Frank’s hair is auburn.
Something that snags me all the time is getting the names, genders, personal attributes, motivations, and even ways of speaking of the characters I’m writing. This is a first draft problem I’m sure lots of writers deal with. It’s a lot to keep in my head. It’s a problem for me because so much of my writing doesn’t get past the first draft. I’ve been writing first drafts for the last decade. I’m stuck. I’ve been a first draft writer for ten years. Frank’s hair is blue.
I’m writing about my writing in the hopes that I’ll kickstart a little bit of actual writing. I’ve got it in my head that maybe novels are too big for me right now. I was working on a novel—I Know Your Real Name Now—but the energy for that one ran out. Big unfinished projects weigh on me. It feels like I’m carrying it around, and “unfinished novel” becomes a guilt hammer while I’m doing anything else. If you are what you spend your time on, then I’m mostly someone who works and watches movies. Below that, I play video games, do chores, try to work out, and doomscroll like everyone else. Somewhere below “re-organize my closet” is fiction writing time. Denise isn’t real but sometimes wishes he was.
In the last two years I’ve gone from writing a good amount to none at all, from feeling very guilty about that to feeling okay. I’ve gone months without writing and it’s been fine. This is actually okay, really. It means I don’t need to write in order to be okay. Writing isn’t an integral part of the “being okay” process. I’ve been writing fiction since I was in grade school. I’ve only “stopped” in the last few years. And yeah, I’ve done no writing during the pandemic. It hasn’t sparked any creative outlets.
I’m hoping that I’ll kickstart a little bit of fiction writing because I still like it, man. I don’t think I was bad at it. Okay, I’m less than ace at keeping character details 100% straight, and Olive and his auburn hair isn’t going to keep her straight themselves. I’ve got that work to do. But that shouldn’t be the thing that stops me.