A Writer’s Horror Story

The writer sat back, lit himself a cigar and grinned. He had come to the end of his tome, Somehow, he worked through all the jokes, and all the times when he didn’t want to write the damned thing. It was done, and he was a happy man. He saved his work.

He went to the kitchen, took a grand puff on his cigar and poured a drink of the pinot he’d been saving for a celebration. Soon the glass was empty. He poured a second glass and walked back to his computer with a big smile on his face.

51,717 words. He was indeed proud of himself. Lady Whats-her-name had adventures up the wazoo and who knew? Maybe the next novel might bring more adventures. He had only one more thing to do. Upload his words to the online site. Before he did, there was just one itsy-bitsy change he wanted to make. Change THE END to FINALE.
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He sat down at the computer and looked at the page. He was stunned. The words, all 51,717 of them, had been erased. Where was his work, his month of staying up late and typing out nonsense into the word processor? Hours of trying to think up crap for a useless extravaganza of an exercise.

He stared at the monitor. Suddenly a big mouth appeared on his screen. It said in the crudest possible way, “I’m hungry and I want more words. More words, if you please.”

Left hand, right hand

They say that left handers are the creative ones. Which means that we right handers have a lot to overcome to make art. Slay some dragons. Rescue a few virgins. Play quidditch. As George W. Bush used to say, “It’s hard.” God knows I’ve been after that Holy Grail for most of my life. All I keep hearing from the unknown: “On you huskie. On.”

That “On” has taken me down the road not taken many a time. There’s some scary stuff down that path. Lions and tigers, oh my. I never know just who I’ll run into down the Road. It could be Abby Normal or his sister, Abby So Lutely. Mostly I have been trying to follow what Dorothy and Scarecrow’s advise, when they sing, “Ease on down the road.” But sometimes that is easier said than done. When I come to a fork in the road, I do follow Yogi Berra’s wisdom. “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Still I ask, “What’s a fork without a spoon?”

I do try to follow Jesus’ advice. I try to never let my right hand know what my left hand is doing. “Shhh, it’s a secret,” I tell him. Have to tell you that is a good way to get clobbered. That right hand don’t particularly like it when he gets told what to do. That’s why I’m not letting him know it’s a blog I’m-a doing. If I do, he might not play nice. Could very well take over. Then what would you get? All that rational stuff that just isn’t any fun.

The Writer’s Life

The novelist sat down at his computer desk and sipped his coffee. It was November 1. Time for his annual exercise with the National Novel Writing Month, better known  as nanowrimo. His past three excursions into nanowrimo-land had turned out successful. After much needed editing, each novel was published, sold well, and received quite a lot of positive criticism.

Usually he prepared for the exercise with several months of planning. Not this year. This year he had nary a clue of what story would go onto the blank page, staring back at him. This year he was going to wing it.

His cell rang. Instead of letting the caller leave a message, he answered. Twenty minutes later he hung up, then stared at the blank document before him. It stared back. What to write, what to write?

He reached over for his cup. It was empty. This was no way to start a novel. He needed more coffee. Off to the kitchen, he went and brewed himself a second cup. Looking over at the sink filled with dishes, he realized that he couldn’t write with dirty dishes in the sink.

Twenty minutes later, the dishes were washed and dried, and he was back at his desk with a fresh cup of coffee. Then it came to him. He did not have clothes for the meeting he was supposed to have with his publisher two days away. Can’t have that.

As he pushed a load of laundry into the washer, he realized he was not getting any writing done. The machine began its washing. He looked at his watch. Three hours had passed and he didn’t have a word on paper yet.

No wonder I can’t get anything started. I’m hungry.

Sitting at the kitchen table, he bit into the first of three toasted cheese sandwiches. He searched the newspaper before him for ideas. Nothing in here but murder, murder, murder. He took a sip from his soda. Gee, I’ve got to give up sugar. But it won’t be this month. That would be a distraction from the novel I have to write.

An hour later the laundry was finished and the sandwiches eaten and the dishes washed. Still no idea what his nanowrimo would be. He had heard of writer’s block before but this was ridiculous. He turned on the TV. There was a Tarzan movie on. It hit him. Finally an idea. Off went the TV.

He stared at the blank page on his computer. “The man,” he typed. No, that’s not right. Got to give him a name. What name? Oh, I’ve got it.

On the screen appeared the words, “Jack Peters raised his rifle and aimed at the charging rhino.

“Click. The gun misfired.

“The rhino closed in on him.”

“Hold on there,” Jack said to the writer. “What makes you think I am agreeing to this? Ain’t no way I want to be gored by a rhino.”

This had never happened before. A character talking to him. His characters always did what they were told.

“Shut up and do as you’re told,” the novelist said to his character.

“I am not going to be gored by a rhino. Just so you can get in some imaginary word count so’s you can brag to your girlfriend that you’re a big stud of a writer. Who do you think I am?”

“You’re a big game hunter. American, if I remember correctly. Yes, definitely American. Now get to work.”

“No. No. No. That is not how it works around here. You know, if that beast gores me in the right place, I could be dead. Or even worse, impotent. That may have been good enough for that Jake Barnes fellow but not for me. I’m having none of that.”

“You don’t have any choice.”

“And you want to know something else? If you don’t make your move with that woman of yours, I’ll take care of her for you. All she needs is a man. You ain’t him.”

“Leave her out of it.”

“Okay,” the character said. “But only if you do the right thing and let me take that rhino down. Otherwise she’s all mine.”

“Geez, I never had this kind of trouble with a character before.”

“That’s ’cause all your characters have sucked big time. I’m the first real character to appear in any of your novels. Since it’s my story, I get some input. And my input is that I am not gored by a rhino. You hear me?”

“Okay,” the novelist begrudgingly agreed.

“Well, let’s get to it.” The character returned to his place on the page.

The novelist typed. “Jack dropped to his knees. He threw his rifle aside. Grabbed the gun lying in the grass next to him. The rhino was three feet away and charging. Jack aimed and fired. The rhino dropped at his feet.”

The character stepped off the page again. “That’s better. Now keep it up.”

Five Rules for Lead Characters To Live By

1.Get to know your writer.

She won’t bite. She needs you just as much as you need her. Sure, she may put you through a beaucoup of manure. It’s okay. That is her job. Things will work out well in the end. Ask her questions about your role in the story. If you make her like you, you might get a return engagement. Series have been built around characters who have made nice to their author. Just look at Harry Potter. Seven books just because he said please and thank you and ma’am. Believe you me that boy knew exactly what he was doing. And guess what? His author may be bringing him back.

It wasn’t that James Bond and Tarzan were so popular. It was that they gave their creators a warm, fuzzy feeling. So ask your writer if they like wine? If they do, there’s no rule that your can’t give them a nice bourdeaux. Maybe she’s into clothes. Give her a new pair of shoes that fit comfortably and look great and she will be your friend for life. Just ask Scarlett O’Hara. Tomorrow may have been another day, but shoes got her the job. Jake Barnes knew his Hemingway. He gave Papa his first typewriter. It was Jay Gatsby that showed Fitzgerald how to get Zelda to marry him. And Huck Finn taught Mark Twain everything Sam Clemens knew about humor.

2.Let your writer get to know you.

You think Holden Caulfield was invented in a day. Absolutely not. Ol’ Hol was sharing his stories with J. D. for years. Originally Sal was only going to put Hol in a short story. Hol kept telling his creator more and more. Pretty darn soon Sal had a whole novel.

So tell your writer everything. How you wet the bed till you were seven. How Mary Lou Wizzama broke your heart when you were eight. How you almost died of the flu when you were nine.  Don’t forget the secrets either. How you almost got caught shoplifting when you were twelve. You just had to have that first number of The Flash comic book. How you were dumped by your first girlfriend because she didn’t like the shoes you were wearing to the prom.

Stuff like that. Believe me. Your creator will love that kind of stuff. And if you don’t have any interesting stuff, make something up. When he finds out that you did make it up, he will be impressed. It means you’re ready to work hard in your role as a character. He might even promote you from sidekick to protagonist. That was how Huck Finn got his lead.

3. Dress appropriately.

I can’t tell you how many characters have shown up on set in the wrong duds. Othello showed up in a kilt. Talk about mad. The Bard was livid. Tom Sawyer showed up in a suit. Mark Twain just about laughed him off the set. And that Nick Carroway of Gatsby fame. He thought Fitzgerald wanted him to be a cross dresser. F. Scott was drunk for a whole week over that one.

Do some research. Find out what time period your character is supposed to be in. Have a little looksee at your character’s resume. It will keep you out of all kinds of trouble. Dickens fired a character once because she thought she was doing Jane Austen. Jane Austen was very forgiving. Mr. Darcy thought he was playing Tom Jones’ daddy. Can you imagine?

4. Choose your friends wisely.

Loners don’t make it in the story business. Don’t forget how useful Doctor Watson was to Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock had a good eye for character and Watson was his man. Tom Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby” got his job because he coseyed up to Nick Carroway.

Remember this character can save your butt in a tight spot. Don’t forget that Gretel would never have been able to get that witch into the oven without Hansel. Dick Whittington would have been nowhere without his cat. Do you think Dorothy would have ever made it back home without Toto? Absolutely not. And Peter Pan could never have found his way to Never Never Land without Tink. She was his GPS Navigator. I’m telling you sidekicks matter.

5.Don’t forget to join the Character’s Union.

It will save you a lot of heart ache and pain. There are characters who absolutely refused to join. Look at them now. Take Hamlet. He could be a rich character. Every performance would be bring in a royalty. Hundreds of times a year, that is how many performances go on. For each of those performances he would bring in the big bucks. Could be living in a mansion. Instead he’s forced to live in a trailer park. He can barely pay the rent on that run-down trailer of his. Last I heard he was a neighbor of Honey Boo Boo’s. Can you imagine how humiliating that is for one of the best known characters in all of Western Civilization? Compare that to Ham’s ghostly dad. He’s only in three scenes. But he now owns an island. For each performance in the last four hundred years or so, he has gotten minimum. Makes you think, don’t it.

If you follow these five simple rules,

you can have a successful career as a character. It worked for Moby Dick, for David Copperfield, for Emma, and it can work for you.

The Itch I Just have to Scratch

To all of you who are doing the Nanowrimo challenge.

It’s a mystery to me how the miracle of a story, a humor piece or a poem was created. I am always amazed that I was allowed to participate in the labor, for it is such a labor of love. It is worth all the blood, sweat and tears that it took to breath it to life. And the frustration too.

Though the final creation is a mystery, I do have a process that seems to work for me. Here’s my process of invention, of creating something out of nothing.

1. The itch. It often begins with a picture or an idea or a dream or some scene or a phrase or a word that strikes me over the head. For instance, I was sitting in a restaurant several years ago and I observed a grandfather bouncing his granddaughter on his knee. I tucked this scene away in my subconscious. Then I saw a series on World War 1. It talked about how the men who had lost part of their faces in that war battle were called gargoyles. Tucked this away too. At a workshop a couple of years later, the prompt was to write about a scar or a wound. Immediately the old man and his granddaughter came to mind. I asked myself, “What if he had lost some of his face?” Bing! the idea began itching and it itched like crazy until I had completed a short story called “Rose and the Gargoyle”. In the case of poetry, the itch is often an opening line such as “Welcome to our town”. All this starts me asking the question, “What if?”

2. Start writing a scene or the next line of the poem and write it quickly. In my poem “Open your eyes”, I open with “Open your eyes, wipe the night away./Open your eyes. It is morning.” Those words came to me sitting on my back porch meditating. I immediately knew that I wanted to share the joy of morning as I was experiencing that joy and that moment. Mostly I am answering questions very quickly. Questions like: What is he doing in that car? What happens if she yells at him and he doesn’t yell back? Why is she taller than he is? Why would she wear a new pair of dress shoes on the beach?

3. Character and setting. Once I have a scene for a story that may or may not be an opening scene or an opening line to a poem, I have a sense of who may very well be the main character and what they really want. I have a pretty good sense of what the point of view may be. I let the story make that decision. And from that scene, I usually have a pretty good sense of the setting.

4. Where am I going? In the case of a poem, it may begin like “‘Be good to Sylvia. Always,’/Mrs. Plath said to son-in-law Ted”. This poem was inspired by the movie “Sylvia” about Sylvia Plath and is a direct quote from the mother in the movie. As soon as I had written those words, I knew where the poem would end up. It would end with Sylvia Plath’s death. The thing is that I wanted to use the journey of the poem to show that Ted Hughes was not to be blamed for his wife’s death. After reading years of criticism that blamed him in such a way that he was judged for his character, not his poetry, I wanted to defend Ted Hughes and how he must have suffered from the loss of his wife. In “Janos of the Mountain”, I was not sure where the story was going after the opening scene. I was almost at the end when I discovered that the protagonist was a teacher. I only knew this two paragraphs from the end when Janos says to the protagonist, “‘It is that our children will not ride the bulls on top of the mountain. How our bulls must miss the mountain.’ Then he said with a hint of a threat in his voice, ‘You must remember this when you teach our children.'”

5. Getting to the end. Now that I have a destination, do I know how I will get there or where it’s at? Hell, no. I do not. I only wish I did. And no amount of plotting will help me. I am like Hansel and Gretel slogging through the forest. I know there is a gingerbread house out there somewhere. I just don’t know where it is or how soon I will get there or what kind of winding road I am going to have to take. And I don’t always know what’s waiting for me there. I just keep asking what happens next, and what happens after that next. My story “Caffeine Blues” begins with a waitress sticking her head into her boss’ office, offering him a massage. He refuses. As I go along, I learn that he is not interested in a new relationship. He hasn’t gotten over being dumped by his fiancée. He sits in his office, doing paperwork and making a success of his restaurant. Until….well, let’s just say that something happens that completely changes his life.

6. Once I am there, I am there. As Buckaroo Bonzai says, “Wherever you are, there you are.” Once I have arrived at the end and I have done very little editing, it is time to go back and start anew. This time I know where I am going. So I can put together an outline and do bios of all the characters and the settings. I can analyze the scenes to see if they are up to the job of doing what they are supposed to be doing. If it’s a poem, do the lines work? Do they have the sounds I want? Is a line necessary? Many a time I’ve reread a prized line and go, “Oh, shit. That doesn’t work. Why oh why doesn’t it work? I love that line. Well, if it’s gotta go, it’s gotta go.”

7. Patience. Now that I know what I know about the story, now that I have made friends with the characters, it’s time to settle back and take a pause. Give the story some time to stew.

8. Stir the pot. The story has stewed in my brain for a while, could be days, could be months. And now I am back at it. I print out the completed story and start retyping it or rewriting it in a notebook. No copying and pasting. That would be cheating my creative process. Only this way can I discover things that may have been left out. Or things that were put in and don’t work. In the story “Rose and the Gargoyle”, this was how I learned that it needed a paragraph, and only a paragraph, about what his war had been like.

9. One last scrubbing. I have worked my way through the story several times. Added a this or a that and subtracted a character or two that just didn’t fit or replaced the saloon for the stable, ’cause the scene needed the smell of manure. I’ve added commas and I’ve subtracted those same damned commas. When I start doing that, I know the piece is finished. I’ve polished it till it shines as best as I could get it to shine. It’s dressed in its Sunday best and ready for the world.

10. The itch has been scratched until it itches no more. I’ve done my part and made the work the best it can be. I have put my work out for acceptance or rejection. I have no control over whether it will be or not, so I don’t worry. If it is accepted, I rejoice. If not, then I’ll be sad. All I know is that I have done my job the best I can. I have absolutely no control over the fate of the story. That is in other hands. I accept that and move on to the next thing. I rejoice that I am a writer. That is the best thing there is.

11. Suddenly there’s another itch, and I’m off again. God help me if the itching stops. Sometimes I wonder if that is why writers take to drink. The itching has stopped—for the moment. And they don’t trust that it will come back. It scares the hell out of them. The thing is, it always does come back. I’d stake my life on it.