Archive for the ‘Process’ category

the man with the notes

September 25, 2017

In a past life, in a different city, someone much like me only younger, say 30-or-so years younger, would spend his lunch hours freed from the office at the nearby library. He would pull the book he was reading off the shelf (unless it was checked out since his last visit) and read away his hour of freedom, feeling both righteous and blissed out.

There were plenty of regulars at this library, including one man who clearly had mental health issues approaching schizophrenia. He would sit at a nearby table, murmuring to himself for long stretches. Often he would pull out scraps of paper with notes written on them. He would generally just read his notes, but on rare occasions he would add to what was written there (using the stubby pencils that every library seems mandated to have). Then he would stuff them in his shirt pocket, only to take them out soon after to trouble himself over them again.

That fellow much like me (though 30-or-so years younger) would always wonder what the notes contained. Then one day the man rose abruptly and left the library, leaving his small pile of notes on scraps behind. Well, what was that fellow much like me to do but amble over to that table and fluidly slip those notes on scraps into his own pocket. Then he would return to his office nearby and read the notes.

Not surprisingly, he found that the notes contained gibberish. Inchoate and without context, the words made no sense outside of the schizophrenic man’s mental universe. That man much like me still has those notes somewhere, 30-or-so years later.

Fast forward 20-or-so years and that man is in a different city and participated in a book discussion group that attracted all sorts of people (what is it about libraries?), including one woman who rarely spoke but did often lift her purse from the floor and rifle her fingers through it, pulling out — yes — scraps of paper with notes on them. She would examine them, refile them, pull them out again, re-sort them, then put her purse down and seem to pay attention. All the while the rest of the group continued with the discussion of whatever book was the subject for the evening.

And then to the present day. That man much like me (now 30-or-so years on) is keeping his own notes on scraps of paper. They are ways to capture the brilliant thoughts he has for his stories when he is not before his computer (usually when he is working for the man though also when he is at his little cabin in the Ozarks). They are captured until they can be transcribed, for such brilliant thoughts escape him too often, hence his need to write them down.

And sometimes during the day he will take these notes from his pocket to re-read them, sort them, and even add a few thoughts to them. They all make perfect sense within the context of the stories where they belong, but one supposes that to someone who happens to luck upon them left unattended somewhere, they must seem inchoate and without context. But at least that man much like me doesn’t murmur to himself. Much.


just, um, do it!*

December 26, 2016

I tell myself that I can make all of the notes I want about my stories and that I can muse about them incessantly as I’m pounding out the miles on the treadmill but that I cannot do the actual writing of them until I’m in the proper mental place (Call it inspiration if you want. Or a kind of essential quiet and solitude. Or maybe just too much iced tea — unsweetened, of course.) And so I often don’t stare at the blank screen, attempting to will the words to come, because I am just not in that proper mental place.

Today was different. I rose early to the quiet house (with five extra people in it including a one-year-old whose birthday it is today!) and sat myself in front of my laptop. I did the usual internet surfing, visiting all of the regular sites (including your blog). I finished reading a novel (Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett). And vigorously avoided opening Word to have a look at any of the four stories I currently have underway. So far, that much was not different at all. But some nattering in the back of my brain (perhaps in the rudimentary brain stem?) told me to just, um, do it. Just open any one of the four and read what was there.

The nattering was such that I couldn’t resist it with my usual rationalizations. I actually did open one: “Fire Sermon.” (I think I picked that one because I’m still in that whole story line, as I mumbled about in this post. But I could be mistaken. It’s happened before.) And I just starting putting down words. Completely outside of that mythical mental place. I’ve always known that it is easier to rein in an overwritten story than it is to pad out an underwritten one. So whatever words I put down wouldn’t necessarily be wasted, even if they were not any good.

The words came easily. I know these characters well. And I know what I want the story to do in terms of tone and plot. I have the theme worked out. I just didn’t have the transition from moment to moment within the story in my mind. And you can’t go forward if you don’t know the way. (I assured myself!) But I did anyway, and it turns out I did know the way. Or the way I chose was a good one that does advance the story.

So I more than doubled the word count on the story this morning (going from 300+ to 700+). And I got over the transition hump so I can get my (drunk) character to say the things that need saying to develop the plot a little more and bring in the theme.

Was a lesson learned this morning? Have I realized that I don’t have to be “inspired” to just put words down?

No, but that’s because, honestly, I’ve always know that to be true. I guess the real lesson I need to learn is how to overcome inertia. (It’s the same with lacing up for a run. It’s so easy to say I’d rather be writing than running and then end up doing neither.)

What works for you. Enlighten me. Please!

*modified corporate phrase to show I’m more than just a shill for a product.

mused, and amused

August 2, 2016

I am certainly not the first, nor the only, writer who has sometimes half-heartedly believed that the stories exist “out there” somewhere and are revealed to us if we are good and patient and still. And our job is to scribble them down as they are revealed to us. I can understand why the ancients believed in things like Muses, whispering in their ears, telling them the tales or the songs that were wondrous and so human.

I am busy writing the “last” Fathers and Sons* story, which is titled “A Tree Falls in the Forest,” as you know from my last post. It is zooming along. I am scribbling and trying to keep up as the story blossoms in my humble brain. As the words flow through my fingertips and onto the keyboard, I keep seeing implications across all of the twenty other stories in this cycle of mine. Echoes. Reverberations. Hints. Influences. Explanations. It’s all connected, and I’m more than a little surprised by this. I understand, of course, that this is merely the effect of knowing these characters and the general story line so well, but that’s the quantitative Paul thinking. The qualitative Paul is the one who must do the writing, and that fellow is naive and not worldly wise and is easily impressed by such things. Rube!

The story is coming together nicely. I should have it finished by the weekend, and then I’m going to rush it off to my two readers to incorporate in their gracious and perhaps vicious analysis. I know what must be done in the story to get it to the finish, and with nearly every word, I’m seeing how it is tied to the other stories. It will be integral; it will belong.

And this amazes me. I thought I was done, and perhaps I was, and yet I write one more and it fits like the piece of a puzzle. But I must, must, must declare an end. Right?



*And by this I mean the last One-Match Fire story, of course.

fever dreams

July 13, 2016

As you know, I can’t let go of my Fathers and Sons stories. I continue to think of little and big things to do to them to improve their development, their integrity, and their overall literary glory. The most recent idea I had was to move a big chunk of one of the early stories (in the chronology) into one of the later stories as a flashback. (Flashbacks are all over the place in these stories, and I attribute that to reading Go Down, Moses, in which important revelations about past events are provided in later stories almost casually, sometimes in just a single word in the right place, and can be easily overlooked by a cursory reading.)

The problem with this latest idea was that by removing that chunk from the earlier story, I was essentially gutting it, leaving far too little behind to be called a story. I tried thinking of ways to hint at what would be missing, to suggest there was more to the story than the trifle that would have been left, but that seemed more contrivance than story telling. Then I thought that maybe I should just leave it all alone. Then I didn’t know what to think.

And then, I caught a cold.

I am now home from work for the day (in sweats and in a semi-coherent state of mind). I had come home from work yesterday before noon, knowing I wasn’t going to be productive. I crawled into bed and slept for five hours only to rise and eat some popsicles (to soothe the burning throat) and then crawl back into bed again. I slept fitfully, tossing and turning enuf to make the dog decide the floor was a more comfortable place to sleep for the while.

But in those restless turnings I had a revelation about this latest fix I want to make to the story. The answer came to me in a fever dream. Basically, I don’t need to remove the whole chunk of the earlier story. I just need to make a revelation about it in the later story. This revelation perfectly fits the theme of the later story and resonates across all of the stories with its significance. (I don’t know where these epiphanies come from, but I’m grateful for them.)

So I need to tinker with that earlier story and make the insertion in the later story. And then . . . call it done?

what’s in a name?

July 11, 2016

My Fathers and Sons story “The Death of Superman” has been accepted for an upcoming anthology. I’d already blathered about this in an earlier post. And so it is in an odd place that I find myself because I want to change the title of the story.

True confession: I was never really in love with that title. The idea was that the narrator considered his father to be a superman. A giant. A hero. And that much is true. But in the evolution of the story, I had changed it from a first person narrator to third person. And no one actually dies in the story. And the pop culture reference might misdirect or confuse eventual readers. And, honestly, I’m not sure I can actually use the title: is it copyrighted?

So I’ve stumbled on a new title that is more fitting and in the public domain: “where late the sweet birds sang.” You will, of course, immediately recognize that as coming from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, where he speaks of the “bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” He’s speaking, literally of autumn in the forest with all of the singing birds gone and metaphorically of the passing of youth, the approach of death, and all of that. (The next story in the cycle, “Twice Blest,” takes its title from The Merchant of Venice, so there’s that.)

In my story the no-longer-young main character is at the family cabin in the forest, lamenting the fading of his father from the vigorous man he once was. His father is in the late autumn of his life, and the son is past the vigor of his own youth. Plus, completely coincidentally, birdsong has played an important part in many of the subsequent stories. They were written before I had this realization of the better title, but I saw the fit instantly.

I’ve written to the editor who is publishing the anthology, asking if it is too late to change the title. No response yet, and if it goes to press with the prior title, that will be fine. But going forward, I will use the new title. In the eventual (and inevitable) publication of the entire cycle, it will carry that new title as well. Most of the already-published F&S stories have been altered since publication, so there’s that, too.

Update 13SEP2016 – The editor wrote back saying he would use the new title, so there’s that, too.

running thoughts

June 22, 2016

I spent an hour on the treadmill in my basement last evening (because it’s 97 degrees outside on the first full day of summer!) and soon after hurried up to my humble writing room to pop open one of my Fathers and Sons stories to incorporate the wonderful insight I had about it whilst pounding away on the ever-moving belt below my feet.

I don’t run with music or podcasts, nor when I’m on my treadmill do I watch television. I will look about the portion of my basement before me and lament all of the “stuff” my children have left behind in my safekeeping, but after a while, that gets boring and I go deep inside my head. Often my thoughts turn to my stories — finished and unfinished — and occasionally some insight pops up that must be incorporated. This kind of thing also happens when I’m running outside, generally when I have five or more miles to go before I get home (or to the bagel shop). In those cases I must repeat whatever this insight is, almost as a mantra, so I won’t forget it before my fingers can do their own running across the keyboard. If I’m lucky I can chant it in a cadence that matches my pace (i.e., slowly).

I’m not sure if there is a technical term for how my creativity works. It aggregates. It synthesizes. I think of some random thing, and I suddenly realize how perfectly it illustrates or suits a story I’m working on. This kind of stuff is unbidden but certainly not unwelcome. I can sit down with a pencil and paper and work out a plot in outline form (which I don’t generally do), and I can begin writing a new story from that. But these insights that come from out of the blue are what enrich the stories. The insight I had on the treadmill last evening fit nicely into one of the early F&S stories (in their internal chronology) and yet influenced the understanding of the second-to-last story. That’s good stuff. It fit so naturally that I sometimes actually believe there is a Muse out there tampering with my fecund brain, nudging it in the right direction for developing the stories. (I don’t actually believe this.)

And so, a little more progress. I’m grateful.

rewrite of first F&S story

March 28, 2016

Well, I’ve gotten down a first draft of the first rewrite of my first F&S story, “The Death of Superman.” I’ve recast if from a first-person narrator to third person. This involved more than just changing “I said” to “He said” since it opened opportunities for the new narrator to have an influence (while closing at least partially the first-person narrator from being reflective). Obviously, it still needs work, and I’ll read through it plenty of times before I consider it finished.

And I learned that despite having read the first-person draft literally dozens of times over the years, I still missed some glaring errors. Somewhere through the course of the years this story has existed, I moved it in time from a springtime visit to the family cabin to a November visit. This was partly thematic since the thoughts and emotions of the main character are in large part dealing with his father who is in the late autumn of his own life. But I also needed the main character to slip into one of his father’s old flannel shirts (flannel shirts being the “uniform” of these men across the cycle) while visiting the cabin, so I needed it to be a cool day. So at some point I moved the story into November, yet during my rewrite I found two old references to him making a springtime visit. Oops!

There were some other updates as well. I didn’t even think to consider, until I did the rewrite, that phrases like “tree tops” and “wood smoke” are actually single words when used as nouns. (In general, shorter word count in a submission is a good thing, and always, the right word in the right place is the best thing.)

I’ve noted here before that I can often catch overlooked errors when I take my laptop to the library and read through my stuff. The change in setting actually helps me see it all differently, with a more objective eye. So too with rewriting with a different narrator it seems.

Anyway, the comprehensive rewrite is now underway, and that’s a good feeling.