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.”

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.

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.

Near 500 words: The What-if Principle

What if you are stuck starting a story? Or what if the dreaded writer’s block has attacked you in mid-sentence? You are siting in front of your computer and there’s that monster of a blank screen. As the Ghostbusters used to sing, “Who you gonna call?”

Well, I have a simple solution to those dilemmas. It’s worked for me hundreds of times. it’s called the What-if Principle.

When you can’t think of what to put on paper, write the words “What if.” Then think add a phrase to that. Like “What if the boat sank” or “What if Mr. Darcy told Elizabeth Bennet that he was gay” or “What if your character got hit by a bus” or “What if I wrote a funeral from the corpse’s point of view.”

Once you have written down that What-if phrase, then ask Why. And keep doing that for as long as it takes for you to start writing a scene. Here’s an example of the process:

1.What if my character, Joe, doesn’t get out of bed on Monday morning.
Why? His girlfriend DeeDee dumped him the night before.

2.What if DeeDee hears Joe didn’t show up for work and she calls him.
Why? She’s having second thoughts about dumping Joe.

3.What if Joe doesn’t answer the phone.
Why? He finally drags himself out of bed and takes a shower.

4.What if Joe’s sister, Marsha, shows up at Joe’s house.
Why? She is worried about Joe because he was dumped.

5.What if DeeDee drives to Joe’s house and leaves angry.
Why? DeeDee doesn’t know Joe has a sister. She see’s Marsha’s car and thinks he has a new girlfriend.

By the fifth or sixth What-if, there’s at least enough to provide momentum for the next few scenes.

Try it and see if it works for you. I know it does for me.

Nanowrimo time again

It’s November 1st. You know what that means. It’s time to write a novel or 50,000 words toward a novel for the National Novel Writing Month. That’s 1667 words a day. At five hundred words an hour, it’s a little over an hour and a half of writing per day. Some don’t write the complete 50,000 words. They do use it to start that novel they’ve been meaning to write. Or add words to that novel they are writing. If you are interested, just go to nanowrimo.org and sign up and join thousands of others.

I had been thinking of writing a spy novel for my fifth effort. It was to be the story of an ex-CIA agent who gets involved with an assassination of a Russian leader in the 1990s. Then last Thursday night, this wild crazy idea hit me. Since I am a wild and crazy guy, I go, “Why not?”

I muddled the idea over and by the end of the weekend I had decided I would do it. I would write my novel about me writing a novel in November. Call it “Don in November”. It would be autobiography or memoir but not autobiography or memoir. I will let my imagination run wild and see where it goes. Novelwise, that is. Perhaps Don will become a werewolf or a vampire or remain his old lonesome self. At this point, I am not sure whether it will be the entire month or just Don’s day on November 1.

I know, I know. You’re thinking just how boring that might be to read. The good news is that no one will ever read it. No matter what I write for the Nanowrimo it will be crap. It’s a first draft and most first drafts are garbage anyway. And no one ever reads them. If you are like me, no one would want to read it.

It will be a challenge. But it might just be fun. “Don in November” can be a great way to hone my descriptive skills and work on my weak areas. I plan on throwing everything, including the kitchen sink. And I will save the spy novel for another year.

So what does that mean for the blog here. No worries. I have taken care to schedule my November posts. And I will let you guys know how the experiment is going from time to time. Who knows. I may still do the Spy Novel.

If you do decide to sign up and join us, look me up on Nanowrimo.org. If you do join us, reach out to me, LBardie, and add me as a Buddy. Who knows? You might just write the rough draft of a few bestseller. A number of published writers have.