No One Writes Plays About People Brushing Their Teeth

My play writing teacher back in college used to regularly tell us, “No one writes plays about people brushing their teeth.” At the time, my first thought was, “Oh, yeah? Just wait.” Of course, she was right and no one gives a rat’s ass about people brushing their teeth. People turning into rhinoceroses or people standing around waiting for some mysterious thing or person to show up are still perfectly acceptable, even if they are so mired in dense allegory that most folks never get past the rhinos or just who the fuck Godot was.

Hint: Godot was all the stupid shit we spend our time waiting for. At least according to Samuel Beckett, but what does he know?

But here’s a funny thing: Everyone brushes their teeth. And, just like there’s no one right way to eat a peanut butter cup, everyone does it a little differently. For some people, it’s a ritual: Present the toothbrush, bow, and move to each tooth with military precision. Others, slap some toothpaste on the brush and go to town while humming Bliss N Eso songs and drooling toothpaste on themselves. I’ll leave it up to you to determine which one I am.

How we approach things tells people a lot about us. Are we the kind of people who want a neat, tidy meal where the burger wrapper is folded exactly so and there’s a distinct place on the wrapper for the burger, the fries, and the ketchup and they DO NOT TOUCH? Or are we the kind of people who can eat the whole meal straight out of the bag and toss it in the back seat for the next owner of our car to deal with?

Little things that seem trivial when we’re doing them can cast long shadows on our psyches. They’re the kinds of things that add richness and detail to characters, too. Little quirks like collecting Pop Swatches or having an affinity for Teen Beat magazine might not be important to the character’s arc, but they can help explain why a character is doing something without, you know, explicitly explaining it.

Think about this way. How interesting is reading about a character when the author comes straight out and says, “She was anal-retentive”? Boring. What about describing how she opened her burger, pushed it gently to the side of the wrapper, poured the fries neatly on the other side, and put the ketchup perfectly in the middle. Or a character that eats burritos with a knife and fork? Or describing a room so organized that the books on the bookshelf were all exactly the same height and organized in perfect alphabetical order? Those little keys add up to saying someone’s a neat freak without resorting to actually saying it.

While it’s doubtful anyone will write a play about someone brushing their teeth, it’s entirely likely that describing the way someone brushes their teeth can create a more complete picture of the character.

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When You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going

My first book was easy. That may or may not be the case for everyone and doubtless Henchmen could use some rework. Maybe at some point in the future I’ll go through the whole series and do some big ol’ honkin’ revisions. The bones of the books are good and some of the flesh is even tantalizing, but there are things that need work.

That said, I’ve learned a lot over the past five years or so; enough to make me realize I wasn’t the mad genius I thought I was. Five years from now, I’ll probably be saying the exact same thing along with words like “dumbass” “egotistical brat” and “no-talent ass-clown”. Such is the nature of the growth and change.

The more you work on something, the better you’re gonna get at it, especially if you pay attention to the feedback you’re getting. Yes, even the stuff that says you suck and should go back to giving handjobs for meth or the ones that say you should have your tongue cut out because you curse too much. Okay, I haven’t had anyone tell me the first one (yet), but the second definitely happened.

I tend to take valid criticism to heart. If there’s something actionable (get an editor) and enough people say it, it’s worth listening to. If there’s just that lone nut griping about something, it’s probably okay to pass it by. After all, you can’t please everyone.

Anyway, I stumbled across this image that I thought summed up the artistic pursuits nicely.

I-wish-I-was-born-with-Talent

All too often we assume we can’t do something just because someone else is already doing it better. When I first started Kenpo, the white belts stood in the back of the class and our instructor told us – first day – the only thing that separated us from him was time and practice. That’s the kind of thing that sticks with you and it’s the kind of life lesson that only sinks in after a while. What do you mean I’ve got to wait? I want it now.

Sorry. Can’t have it now.

Neil Gaiman has also said the first million words or so that come out of a writer are shit, but they’ve got to come out so you can to the good ones. It’s like a pipe stuffed full of bad ideas, anxious alliteration, and trite jokes. Push all that crap out and get to the good stuff. Hell, there’ll probably be some real gems floating around in the first million words or so, too, so polish them up and save them.

Now, I’m not saying your book sucks. I’m saying it’s not as good as it could have been if it was your fifth instead of your first. But guess what? You have to write the first through the fourth to get to the fifth.

Like anything else, writing takes time to come to grips with, time to find your voice, and time to get good at it. It can be a hellish journey, but that the end you’ll be able to experience the absolute terror of trying to explain to someone what your book is about without sounding like a babbling lunatic.

If you’re writing – keep writing.

If you’re feeling down about your writing – keep writing.

If your sales suck – keep writing.

Do it until your soul bleeds and you never want to see another word again. Then write some more.

But above all – keep writing.