J. D. Salinger and Me

So there I am half asleep, sprawled out in my bed with the covers pulled over me. I duck my head under the covers because I am not sure I am seeing what I am seeing. After all it is early morning and I am still in a fog. I am always this way before I’ve had my first five cups of coffee in the morning.

I stick my head back out from under my covers, and yep, he’s there. It’s none other than Jerome David. I am talking the world-famous J. D., author of “Catcher in the Rye”. I recognize him from the jacket pictures. He’s as young as he once was. Somehow he’s dropped all those years since he died and he’s back to his youthful genius of a self. He’s standing at the end of my bed and he’s puffing on a cigar. I’m thinking it’s a Cuban cause they’re not banned from importing them in the hereafter. He’s halfway through the stogie and he is frowning at me.

“So you didn’t care for Catcher in the Rye?” he asks, his foot propped up on the end of my bed.

“What? Who?” I ask from my prone position.

He sits his foot back down on the floor. “I asked you if you didn’t like my book. You responded with a what and a who. Who the hell do you think it is? It sure isn’t that son-of-a-bitch Hemingway. What an asshole. Papa indeed. I never much cared for him. Now Scott Fitzgerald, there was a writer who could write.”

“Go away.” I rub my eyes and turn over on my side, hoping that this is a nightmare and I will wake up soon.

“I will not go away. You’ve got a lot of gall not liking my book. I did some damned good writing with that book. Not as good as later but still it’s a great book, even if I say so myself, and you don’t like it. Who the hell are you?”

I turn over and face Salinger. “I am the fellow who is telling you to get out of here. That’s who.”

“It’s all about alienation, you know?”

“I. Know. That.”

“Oh, you do. Well, I guess you were never a teenager, suffering from all that teenage angst, were you?”

Now I am mad. How dare this s.o.b. come into my bedroom and tell me I was never a teenager suffering from teenage angst. I had more teenage angst in my little toe than his spoiled prep school kid had in his whole body. Holden Caulfield’s biggest problem was that he had one hell of a chip on his shoulder.

“That book is all bullshit. Pure All American bullshit.”

“Bullshit. What do you mean bullshit? I worked my butt off on that book for over ten years. Put my whole life into it and you say it is bullshit.”

“That’s what I say. I read it in high school and I just didn’t get it. I understand Hemingway’s Old Man. He was fighting for survival. I understand the Joads. They were fighting for survival. I understand Gatsby. He was fighting for romance. And, as far as angst, existential angst, goes, I understand Camus’ Stranger. He didn’t mourn his mother the way he was expected to. And he was condemned for it. But Holden Caulfield, all he was fighting for was to be an asshole. I kept wanting to say, ‘Get a life.'”

I can see Salinger clearly now. I’m awake and I can see the fake Buddhist with his hands in a fist. He crushes that cigar against the bottom of my foot.

“Oh. That hurt. Thought you were a Buddhist. You’re going to screw up your karma, you know.”

He ignores my Buddhist comment. Somehow I knew he would. “Critics. That’s why I gave up on a public life. Became a hermit. You’re all full of shit. A big bag of shit. Here I am, the world-famous J. D. Salinger, standing at the foot of your bed, trying to give you the benefit of the doubt. Trying to give you some insight into my brilliance. And all you can do is insult me. Why do I even care? But that’s my problem. I care too damned much. If you only knew how much blood I sweated into that book. Trying to make every word perfect.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” I say. “I didn’t say the writing wasn’t good. It was. Damned good. Some of your best. But it was so wasted over that Holden Caulfield. Thing is that I’ve known people who complained about their good fortune their whole lives. In my book that’s Holden Caulfield. I just don’t care one iota about those kind of people. Never did. Never will.”

“But that’s not the point,” Salinger goes on. “He brought out the best in me. I guess you just don’t get it. But a lot of other teenagers did. And still do. That’s why it’s so popular. Not that I wrote it to be popular. I didn’t. I wanted to call attention to what it felt like to be a teenager in fifties America. I hit the nail on the head. That’s why I went into seclusion. I got tired of all that hero worship. Like I had the answers to all of life’s questions. I was good, but I wasn’t that good. I had more questions than answers. Anyway I tired of it.”

Suddenly he had a martini in his hand. Where the martini came from I did not know.

He noticing me noticing his martini. “Shaken, not stirred. The way I like it. You know, Ian Fleming got that from me. We were at a party once. I had been invited down to Jamaica by some friends. I was thinking that the Glasses would be Jamaican. Who do you think shows up at this party? Ian Fleming. We were talking when I asked for a martini. When I said shaken not stirred, he said, ‘Oh, I can use that.'” He took a sip from his martini. “Mmmm. That’s good.”

“So you think,” I say, “Holden Caulfield was like every teenager in America at that time?”

“I don’t know about every teenager but it sure was the way I felt. I must say that all those people coming to me and telling me that I had saved them, that was a little too much. Like I am a Messiah or something. If you want stories about messiahs, read ‘Stranger in a Strange Land.'”

I am wide awake now. “Well, I am sorry I offended you with my comment. It’s just my opinion. You can take it for what it’s worth. Every writer has the write to create whatever character he wants. And every reader has the right to not like that character. Personally I liked your stories much more. Thought you had great insight into how children saw the adult world and how they communicated that. ”

Then I realize I am talking to myself. The mirage, or was it a mirage, a hallucination, well, it’s gone. Since I am awake already, I throw off the covers and jump out of bed. Oh, I cry out. My right foot hurts. I sit on the side of the bed and take a look at the bottom of my foot. There’s a burn mark there all right. It can’t be. It just can’t be.

The Writing Touch

To all you Nanowrimers out there, I raise my glass and sing this song:

It took me near
a half century.
I read all the books.
There were so many.

You’d think I’d have
the Writing Touch
but all my stories,
they’re not so much.

My Protagonist
is such a klutz,
he loses the girl
to a weasel of a wuss.

My Gatsby don’t
gat at all,
my tall-in-the-saddle
a wee bit small.

My Moby Dick
wasn’t a whale,
just a goldfish
all white and pale.

My Huck Finn
on a river raft
sank with a hole
in the craft.

My James Bond
He’s in reverse;
Mister Goldfinger
gave him a curse.

My Don Quixote
never left home,
My Emma died
an old maid alone.

I wrote about peace,
wrote about war,
but all my battles
were such a bore.

So don’t stop like me
when the draft ain’t fine.
Keep on at it,
make the sparkle shine.

Surviving Nanowrimo # 8: Write your story

WHAT SHOULD I WRITE

Take a look at the top 10 books on Google list of bestselling fiction for 2020  What do you see?

I am looking at the October 11th list. I see romance, literary, coming-of-age, historical, dystopian, suspense, horror, fantasy, and humor. If you go back and look at the lists for other years, you would probably find different categories. One thing is for sure. No category dominates over a period of years. Some are old pros at the bestseller lists; some newbies. And some of these were written by pantsers, some by plotters.

What is this telling you and me? That anything we want to write has the possibility of having a readership. The important thing is that the story has well-drawn-out characters who have a story to tell.

There is one thing I would say. Usually, but not always, the novels on the list are not the writer’s first novel. Some write ten, fifteen, twenty novels before they get lucky. Be prepared to be in for the long haul and even if you don’t make it to the bestseller list, there’ll be readers who can’t wait for your next one.

Once you’ve finished your first nanowrimo novel, edit it through three or four edits till you’ve dressed it up in its Sunday best. Have some other people read it and give you feedback. Then send it out to agents or publish it on Amazon’s kindle. Once that’s done, start on your next novel.

So write what you want to write. Fall in love with your characters. But not so much you won’t be able to send them through hell. And have a hell of a good time doing it.

WHEN THE NOVEL IS FINISHED

This is very important. When the novel is finished, I take some time off from the book. Maybe a month. Maybe two months. I go write another novel. After a while, I go back to your novel and read it straight through. The first thing I realize is that your novel is crap. But I don’t give up on it. All first drafts are.

So what do I do then? Now it’s time to outline the novel. I use a book like Save the Cat Writes a Novel. Why do I need a guide? Because I may have left out some essential things.

I am working on a noir novel called The Man Without a Tie. Using Jessica Brody’s book, I realized I had not introduced the antagonist early enough.

Once I have done the outline, I re-write the novel based on the outline. That’s the second draft. A third draft is to correct grammar, take out stuff and add stuff. A fourth draft is to spiff up the novel in its Sunday best. Then I turn it over to a Beta Reader for feedback.

But this is my process. If you have a process, use it. If not, try this one.

REMEMBER

One of the most important thing I have learned, writing this blog: My job is not to save the world. My job is to entertain the reader. If I am not entertaining the reader, I probably will not have readers. Advise is cheap. There is so much of it out there in the world you can get it at bargain basement prices. Or not pay for it at all.

If I can bring a little joy, laughter or tears to my audience, I’ve done my job as a creative artist. Don’t believe me about this. Look at the most popular writer in the English language, Shakespeare. It’s been over four hundred years since he died and he is still selling. His plays are performed all over the world.

FAVORITE WRITING BOOKS

I have read hundreds of books on writing. From this experience, I have learned a great deal. But after a while, they begin to repeat themselves. So I am going to suggest ten that I’ve found very useful:

1.Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury
2.This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley
3.Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody
4.The Weekend Novelist: Learn to Write a Novel in 52 Weeks by Robert Ray and Bret Norris
5.Mastery by Robert Greene
6.Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing
7.The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway
8.What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund
9.Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
10.On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

AND FIINALLY

This is my eighth post on the Nanowrimo experience. These insights have come from participating six times. Each time has taught me a little more about how to write a novel.

It’s my hope these insights have helped. If they didn’t, it’s okay. The important thing is to encourage you to get out there and write that novel in November. You never know. It might end up on the bestselller list.

Surviving Nanowrimo # 7: Round and Flat Characters

Years ago the novelist and critic E. M. Forster stated in his Aspects of the Novel that there were two kinds of characters. Round characters are those that were multi-dimensional and complex. The kind that lead a reader to believe a character is realistic. Round characters are usually the major characters of a novel, unless the novel is a comedy.

Flat characters are those that are one-dimensional and simple. The are usually the walk-on characters who have only a few scenes. Characters like the cop that gives out a ticket or the cook in a restaurant.

Anne Tyler proved that this didn’t necessary need to be. A walk-on character could be just as round as a major character. In The Accidental Tourist, she has a waitress serve Macon Leary, the protagonist. In just a paragraph, the waitress is as alive as any round character in the novel. The fact that I find her memorable years after reading the novel proves that.

When writing a novel, try to see the walk-ons as real people with real lives. The novel may be the protagonist’s movie. But the walk-on sees themselves in their own movie intersecting with the protagonist’s movie. Sometimes the walk-on becomes so memorable that the novelist feels they have to write a novel for that character.

So give your walk-ons a chance to shine. They won’t let you down.

Surviving Nanowrimo # 6: An ensemble of characters

Years ago I remember seeing Bob Newhart on the Tonight Show. At that time, Newhart had a very popular tv show called “The Bob Newhart Show.” Johnny Carson, the host, asked Newhart, “Why do all the supporting actors get the best jokes?” Newhart answered, “But I get the credit.”

Years later I read a story about Jason Alexander, the actor who played George on Seinfeld. He was told that he would not be needed for an episode of Seinfeld. At that, he went to Jerry and said, “If I am not going to be needed for all the episodes, I am going to leave the show.” Seinfeld agreed and Jason stayed with the show.

Those two stories made me come to a conclusion. All the successful-and lasting-situation comedies had one thing in common. They were ensemble pieces. In other words, these sitcoms had a regular group of characters supporting the star. But the star didn’t do all the jokes. The jokes were equally distributed among the group.

From the very beginning, this principal has held true: The Lucille Ball Show, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Show, Laverne and Shirley, Seinfeld, Friends. On and on it goes. Occasionally a show where the star gets all the jokes is put on. It doesn’t last.

How does this apply to a novel? A novel is an ensemble of characters, each with her own role. Just because the sidekick is playing second-fiddle doesn’t mean she should have second-fiddle dialogue.

Here’s some ways for the reader to remember the supporting characters. Neil Gaiman suggests that each character should have their own sound, their own dialogue. And maybe while writing that character, give them a theme song. They do this in the movies.

Neil Gaiman also suggests that the writer might want to give each character a funny hat. Now, he isn’t suggesting the writer be literal. It is a way to make characters memorable. Like she always wears purple because she thinks she’s a royal. He has tattoos up the bazooka. Her hair could literally be a bee’s nest. His nose is so long everybody calls him Schnoz. (For a private eye, that might be a great name.)

Another thing to keep in mind: don’t give several characters names that begin with the same letter. How memorable would my characters in “Chad and the Surfboard” be if I started their names with a c?
Chad, protagonist
Chris, ex
Carol, best friend
Conor, the man who saves her from the sea
Callan, the gang lord

Not very. And if they live in a town that begins with a c like Calgary, I’ll be in real trouble.