Tag Archives: thanksgiving

How To Recycle Bottom-Drawer Stories

Thanksgiving was pretty amazing. It’s difficult to gather three generations in one house; but we managed it. The bourbon flowed freely, there was much wrestling, discussion of childhoods and future burials, and the revising of wills.

I had been editing a story on the flight there, and it was on my mind while I cleared out half of my belongings that my parents saved for me. Among these was a massive collection of trophies, medals and plaques. Of the three five-foot karate state championship trophies I tossed, I only regret the loss of one. It marked one moment of three big achievements for me: my first black belt competition, my first adult competition, and my first 1st place out of eleven, rather than four others. For weapons forms, no less… my true love.

Those items were a record of my achievements in music, in martial arts, and even (I had forgotten about this) science.

I once knew a brilliant sci-fi author who told me that if he doesn’t like his work, or fails to sell it, he deletes it.

Entire manuscripts — gone!

I couldn’t do that. I’m sure you can relate. Lots of writers have stories gathering dust in the depths of their desks and hard-drives. These are a mix of things we never finished, or failed to sell, or were too precious and fragile for anyone else’s eyes. I can give up trophies. The achievement matters more than the marble; but a story…?

Those physical and digital archives remind me of the stuff that piles up in warehouses and garages. You could chuck it to make room, certainly, but by eschewing materialism there’s also a great loss of one’s own history and context. The important thing is how we relate to that history and context, and how it informs who we become.

I had this story on my mind, remember. The reason it wasn’t working was because it was a literary meditation. Genre fiction hinges on stakes, conflict, and dynamic adventures. When I showed the draft to some other writers I know, I got lots of great thoughts on how to revise. Thing is, they’d all change the direction and crux of the story. It would lose its history and context. In essence, I’d be throwing it away. Or deleting it.

The other option is to pursue all options.

If you don’t want to throw anything away, then use the pieces at hand to build something new.

Think about an old story you have that isn’t working. Then see if you can find the notes and suggestions you got from others. Write all of those stories. Change the names. Change the climate. Before you throw something away, give it a good hard look. Don’t waste a chance to recycle.


“Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.”
— Jack London


“Look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else.”
— Tom Stoppard



The orange one.



How Editing is Like Hosting a Thanksgiving Dinner

I’m in the midst of preparing menus for two parties. First, an orphan thanksgiving for local friends, and then traveling to a family dinner.

Have you noticed that despite the fact you you celebrate Thanksgiving every year, it’s never the same as last time? Sometimes there’s a little change, like adding a new side dish to the turkey feast; but sometimes there are massive changes.  Maybe you can’t stand turkey anymore and went for Chinese.  The core ideas were the same — family, feasting, gratitude — but you went about it a totally different way.  It’s a lot like re-writing and revising. 

You know the basics of what’s going to happen.  Thanksgiving has traditions and a theme, and your story has traditions and a theme.  The more experience you have planning the party [or re-working the manuscript], the more your skills and confidence will improve.  Change is necessary, and it’s up to you to say what stays and what goes.

Start small.  Tweaking your dialogue is like tweaking a recipe.  Adding a scene is like inviting a new group of people over.  Then move on to the big stuff.  If your manuscript is too long, think of it like cutting your guest list.  You love your writing, like you love your friends and family—but if your friends and family don’t mesh, one of them can’t come to the party.  Don’t be afraid to hurt feelings, or cut things you’re really proud of.  They can always get their own party later.

You owe it to your guests [readers] to make it the most fun, the most touching, and the most memorable party [story] you can.  Now buckle down and do it.

The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is merely tenacity…
— Amelia Earhart


Personality Indicators

I flew away to visit my sister for Thanksgiving. We took the kids ice skating. I had a few minutes to myself where I skated alone — weaving through groups of strangers with no one’s hand to hold and no conversation to pay attention to. I had stripped off my jacket. The air was cold but the sun was warm. I thought, I love having a body. There’s so much I can do with it.

Babies are just starting to figure this out. I’m not used to babies. It took me a while to warm up to my new niece as a small person, rather than a fragile irreplaceable treasure that may shriek, shatter or cover me in vomit at any moment. She’s six months old and pretty chill. She smiles a lot. She’s interested in textures, and can tell when you’re nervous. She has a personality, opinions, problem-solving style and other reactions that came prepackaged. The only limitation she has on these responses is that she’s not quite used to driving her body yet.

Upon discussing the matter with my sister, we noticed the same about her son (six years). She was nine when I was born, and a lot of how I interact with the world hasn’t changed since then. We talked about how some people have a narrow range of passion, and some have a huge range (and will smash things, even if they’re overjoyed!) Some of these traits are prepackaged and clear from day one.

Her son sang songs about Minecraft for most of the weekend. He sings when he’s happy, my sister told me. The two times he came near tantrum were to do with too much advice crashing against his pride, and from wanting to participate but being exhausted. I felt for him. I’ve been there. So have a lot of adults I know. It reminded me of something brilliant my riding instructor once said, that’s helped a lot when working with personalities that get frustrated easily.

One of the first conversations I had with my now-verbal nephew went like this.

“I remember the first time I met you, you were only a little bigger than your sister. We were at a restaurant. You grabbed my elbow and tried to eat it. I couldn’t believe how strong you were! I had to pull and yank my arm away from you!” I said.

“Wanna try it again?” he grinned, as though to lunge at me.

My sister explained to him that I rough-house for real, and to be careful. Then she asked me to take it easy, and do my best to not wake up swinging when I get jumped the next morning.

8am rolled around, and I opened one eye when I heard little feet coming down the stairs. Rather than pouncing on me, as he does with all the other relatives, he leaned over the edge of my bed and said in a quiet voice, “would you like to see my basic Minecraft set up, or the full version?” After a short negotiation, we settled on the full version, once I’d fixed coffee and he’d fixed toast ‘n jam.

A personality is a tool like a flexible body is a tool. Having the tool is one thing, but perception and awareness of choices — is it more important to huff, or actually solve the problem — determine how we wield the tool.

This muddies the concepts of fate and destiny a great deal.

There are a number of arbitrary systems that have explained to me me my place in the world and how I should interact with others.

  • There’s Greek astrology, which tells me I should be a home-body.
  • Chinese Astrology, which tells me I am hard-working and persistent.
  • Phrenology, which tells me how strong my brain is and in what areas.
  • Physiognomy, which tells me I have an aggressive, dominating nature.
  • Palmistry, which tells me that my heart will split in two, and that I’ll have four children.
  • Mood rings, which tell me that when I’m cold I’m unhappy and when I’m warm I’m happy.

In addition to baby-meeting, Thanksgiving feasting, ice-skating and late-night catching up, we also pulled out our instruments and noodled our way through everything from carols and reels to Tori Amos and Rammstein (“Sonne for flute and two violins” didn’t go all that well). Personality traits again came to mind while trying to reconcile jamming between those who have lots of music theory and technical knowledge with those who can figure out any song they know after a try or two. Matching pitch was on my mind.

On the plane from St. Louis back to San Francisco, I thought of another arbitrary system. Imagine for a moment that your personality, disposition, and place in the universe could be determined by one precise and intimate occurrence:

The precise pitch,watcher

Of the buzzing in your head,

When you listen to silence.

Children are still people — willful small people with a full range of perception and a lack of experience.
– Anon

I’m basically here to entertain you while you figure it out for yourself.
Garyn Heidemann, my riding instructor.