ellen mcbee

She's always up to something…

Talentless Hack



See, I can do the writing part. It’s the editing part.

Which is why I feel like a talentless hack today.

I knew that the narrative line fell apart in the third act. But I didn’t realize that this started toward the end of the second act. In specific, my scenes are getting very short and…well, it reads like a first draft. When I’m probably on Draft #3,427.

I wish I wasn’t still getting the “outline” right.

Ah, well. I just need to keep pushing on. That’s what people do, right? Or at least the people who are wrestling a first draft and making it something else.

I still would just like to be finished with This. Damn. Project.


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A Poem Happened Today

So, those of you who know me in person know that I don’t write poetry. At all. I don’t even really like to read it. Have something to say? Well, say it so we know what you’re talking about! Let’s all move on with our lives!

Maybe it’s because the Polish Scouts project has taken a sudden turn for the literary. It’s turning into the kind of thing I might need an MFA for it to be taken seriously. I have a really good idea that I’m still not sure I’m skilled enough to pull off. And earlier today, I finally got my first fragment of this story: the ending scene popped into my head, and I wrote it down.

Tonight I took my son to Santa Fe for orchestra and waited for him at Joe’s Pizza (WHICH IS AMAZING. Shout-out to my new buds there, who seated me near the bar and surrounded me with beautiful artworks). I was doing research–“Nazi Women,” which includes a lot of personal profiles. And I was still thinking about the structure of the book and what I’m going to have to do to it to make it readable and meaningful. And while I was thinking about that, this poem started stalking me.

In the five minutes between leaving Joe’s and arriving at Santa Fe High School, this poem started talking to me. I really can’t describe it better than that. I don’t feel like I wrote it. When I stopped the car I wrote it down, and here at home I spent some time cleaning it up. And here it is.

Evil is never fully-formed

arriving in precise jackboot strides

banging on the door in the middle of the night while we wait, breathless, on the other side

shoving you down the alley, impatient, hot demands into the side of your neck

wearing the burka or the swastika or the turban or the diamond cufflinks

running in the streams of blood, in our veins or at Babi Yar or the ravines and shadows of places even further away

fired from the big gun in the hands of the little man

Evil doesn’t announce itself.

Evil comes in small pieces.

In the relief that the knock is for the neighbor and before that, the casual lie that the neighbor is to be feared. Not like us,

we’re normal.

Calling me a bitch for not being afraid of you, not subservient enough, not decorated enough.

Creeps in the window left open just a crack for the night air to cool you, to soothe you to sleep

(it won’t hurt if it’s just a little bit)

(and it isn’t really bad)

(and no one saw, no one knows I’m meeting you here)

But I did.

Evil in small doses, like a live vaccine

And we think we’re immune

When it’s already living in us.

I’m not afraid of evil that marches in sloppy formation and shoots to kill.

The worst evil shoots to wound, to hurt on purpose.

Wounds heal, and we are not who we were.

Evil floats in on a breeze of not caring, the night air carrying the screams

and we pretend it’s just crickets.

It sees the streams of blood and says “Not mine. So what?”

Starts with a dry academic idea debated by men with voices like dead leaves

Reduces Them to ashes and shadows on the sidewalk.

“So what? It’s just Them.”

An easy lie, smooth words that you think are the truth or you don’t care that they aren’t the truth. “They deserve it.”

And then you help.

And the face of evil becomes your own.



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About Opinions and Learning New Things

So, today I was so stressed by what was going on in my life that I posted something on Facebook. I hope that no one took it personally; I don’t do the passive-aggressive Facebook post. Although, if I did, I have collected some nice ones on Pinterest! I was having a lot of trouble expressing to myself why I was feeling so abraded. Why were so many things suddenly rubbing me the wrong way? And where did I go first? Well, to “people don’t get it.”

“There’s only one thing that I really wish more people understood about me. There are very few things in the whole world that I’m certain about. Otherwise, I am learning; I’m always open to real discussions and other people’s experiences but almost never to blanket statements. I don’t even make blanket statements.”

(A friend pointed out that it’s a blanket statement, to say that I don’t make them. And he’s right. I was trying to get to the way that whenever I express an opinion or ask a question, people seem to think I’m saying This Is The Truth. I didn’t want wimpy language and say “I try not to make blanket statements.” It’s more a statement of purpose.)

“An idea that sounded scary to me yesterday sounds like it could be a useful experience today. This is who I am, and who I’ve been my whole life.”

(And sometimes it’s still scary. A lot of the time, in fact. I still don’t like to confront people; I don’t like the idea of firing employees or telling people they’ve screwed up. My whole life I’ve been concentrating on fixing things, when maybe it would be better to throw them away. On the other hand, I went whitewater rafting for the first time two years ago. You’re never too old, etc.)

“This is why, whenever I am portrayed in a skit, character-me always starts with “I wonder….” or “What if?”, and everyone in the room knows who it’s supposed to be. (More times than I would like to admit, they are wondering something completely bizarre, like whether coyotes like celery. I don’t do that, probably.”

(Everyone knows coyotes don’t like celery! But in all seriousness, all my life I’ve had a reputation for non sequitur. I’ve sometimes wondered if I had ADHD or something. I don’t trust ideas I have that I haven’t tested myself.)

“Those of you who knew me when I was young might be surprised to hear that I’ve put away the anxiety I used to have about this truth; now I’m puzzled that others seem to put so much weight into my words when I’m still in the discussion phase, not the decision one.”

(I must sound very sure of myself when I speak, is all I can say.)

I think opinions are worthless without facts, and without your own truth to inform them. And sometimes you have to ask a lot of people to get to the facts, and it’s humbling but liberating to ask others for answers when you don’t know. And I think sticking to your guns even when you know you’re wrong is the biggest dishonesty you can commit against yourself.

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How to Edit a Whole, Entire Book

Mom life continues to win, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. School is going to be out next week, and the concerts and parties and more activities and recitals and everything else is going to be done. Well, I’ll still be uniforming the band (nearly finished) and getting the pool open (next weekend), but the constant running around should end. I hope.

I’m deep in the edits on What You Stand For; I have printed it out and have taken to carrying it around with me. I’m also using tape flags to track the different subplots and to mark the scenes. This is turning out to be so helpful that I thought I would share the method here.

  1. Mark all the scenes with numbered Post-it notes on top of the pages. When I did this, I discovered that I have about 100 scenes and that some of them are only a paragraph long, so I have identified chapters that need to be rewritten.
  2. List sub-plots. This has changed so many times in this book that I really did have to think about it. What I came up with was the Kyle story, the Sara story, the wedding/family, JP and Brooks, and anything involving the case against the sorority. I also have a couple of running jokes I want to make sure I’m including often enough (but not too often).
  3. Mark first sub-plot (in this case, the Kyle story line) with blue tape flags on the sides of the page. Use a marker to underline mentions of this character or plotline. When I did this I learned that Kyle’s story completely drops out for three chapters after the middle.
  4. Mark second sub-plot. In this case, I used the Sara and addiction plotline and light green flags and marker. I’m in the middle of this one right now and have learned that this is the main subplot, but it also illustrates the main story line and the conflict between caring for people and smothering them. This one is pretty well-developed but when I get toward the end I will be looking at it as an independent story. It does come to an end at the beginning of Act III, although it continues to reverberate; what I will be looking for is this sub-plot’s three act structure.
  5. Keep going on marking the sub-plots. Continue to look for cohesion, weaving into main plot, and whether characters cross into different plots.

Having done this on paper now, I’m ready to try it with Scrivener next time. I kind of like doing it this way though. I’m finding satisfaction in seeing it on paper, and I’m just grabbing a pen and knocking out rewrites as needed. It’s also helping me to keep track of my progress instead of starting every session at the beginning, which I find myself bogged down in sometimes. I’m also learning what I would want to tell Scrivener to do for me in Book 2.

Also, I get to use markers.

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Something Weird Happened Today

I did it! They did it! And more importantly, it works!

After a very long weekend (gymnastics meet, two hockey games, encountering an awful lot of unpleasant people both on-line and in person), I decided that today is the day. On Saturday I got through the rewrites I’ve been working on (I’ve been making Act II B tighter and more compelling), leading up to, you know, It.

Specifically the big Kit/Brooks sex scene that is the center of this section of the book.

I know, I know; old as I am this should be easy. But it isn’t easy, at all. I have of course written it before, but I faded to black before actually getting down to business. But this is New Adult. The book is still not really a romance, but that’s not uncommon in New Adult. New Adults are busy people, with more on their minds than having sex, serious people, blah blah blah. But I didn’t realize how unsatisfying the fadeout was until I read through Act II B a few weeks ago. I made a three-page outline of just this section; one list of scenes as they are now, and the other of how it should read. So I’m cutting and pasting but there’s also new material.

Today was the day for sex. Explicit, real sex between two real characters, young people who aren’t virgins but aren’t well-traveled, either. Because again, the center, the heart of the story, is that people make mistakes and you learn and move on. Kit’s going into this with her eyes open.

It snowed last night here but there was barely any on the ground when I got up at 5:30. I went through the whole morning, feed the animals, feed the children, pack the lunches, nag people about homework and toothbrushing. At 7:50 I walked the smallest one to the bus stop. Snow was sticking to the street more now, and there was no traffic coming past. At this time of the morning it was a bit eerie, but her bus arrived by ten past 8 and they were all gone.

(Yes, my husband was here. He slept until 6:45 and then took a shower. This is more helpful than you would think.)

I sat down at my desk, and opened the file, and read my outline. And started sweating.

Is this really so hard? What am I afraid of, that people will know I’ve had sex? I do have three kids and I’ve been married for 17 years.

So, I pulled out notes I had from a workshop I attended with Andrea Catalano at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers in the fall of 2014. I can do this.

From Andrea: “Just describe what goes where, and take it from there.” Use frank terms; they might even seem clinical at first. Don’t be afraid; people love this stuff.

Okay. I can do this. I check my e-mail and discover that the kids are going to be back soon, since school has now been closed.

Hell. I can do it. Only now, I have to do it fast.

And then, a miracle occurred. I had been planning to start from the scene I already had, and then add to it, but I realized that the scene I already had was all lead-up and no action. I cut the first two pages; I skipped through some description and the next thing I knew those two animals were taking off their clothes.

I did it–they did it. Somehow two characters took over the scene and I just wrote down what they did. I sat right here at my desk and wrote 2200 words and when I was done, these two characters had pretty good sex. More importantly, the scene did what it’s supposed to do; it expresses where these two are in their lives and their relationship. It shows that all those thoughts and feelings are normal, and so is making some jokes along the way. I typed the heading for the next chapter…

And then I slept for two hours.


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Writers and Painters

So, for those who’ve been following me, you’ll know that I just returned from Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference.  I’m still organizing my thoughts on the experience, and I’ll write about it sooner or later.  But I do have two recommendations if you go:  1) sign up for as many critiques as you can get; and 2) make sure to put your name on the list of people who want to read at the conference.  It was a very supportive environment and I feel like I learned quite a bit.  In fact, I don’t really know how people go to more than one of these a year!

All that aside, this week I was thinking about writing (since I was at the conference) and about writers and artists and so on.  One of the common themes from the conference was that it’s important to talk about writing and not be secretive about it, as most of us are.  And then I got to thinking about my friend Melissa.

I met Melissa when we were in college.  As long as I’ve known her, she has been a painter.  She posts about her work, she sells her work to our friends, she tries out different media from time to time.  And we’ve all always known she was a painter.  She puts up shows; sometimes she sells everything, and sometimes only a few pieces.  None of us ever stop calling her a painter.

And, to carry this image a little further, we have another friend who sometimes appears in Melissa’s paintings.  I don’t think Melissa has any weird obsession with this friend; she just likes to paint her.  And she’s not painting the real person.  She’s painting an appearance, a physical form.  Occasionally, maybe a particular gesture or expression.  She’s not holding this friend up for ridicule or to expose her to the world.

So, my point is that I think we need to embrace the idea that we’re writers because we write.  It shouldn’t matter if you’ve made sales, or even if someone has seen your work.  You’re a writer because it’s what you do.  And even if some of your characters share an appearance, or a gesture or characteristic, with someone you actually know, it doesn’t mean you’re writing about that person.  You’re writing about some aspect of that person that interests you.

Maybe it really is that simple.  Writers write.  It has less to do with the outside than you’d think.


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