Archive for the ‘Process’ category

whose story is it anyway?

February 3, 2016

So the other day I was pondering the (inevitable) movie that will be made of my Fathers and Sons story cycle, after it’s published, of course, and has collected numerous awards and accolades. I thought it would be difficult to tell the tales in visual form because so much involves the memories of the characters. So much is internal monologue. And I realized the movie version would need a narrator.

Then I wondered who could possibly be knowledgeable enuf about these characters’ lives to be able to tell their stories in sometimes quite intimate detail. And I had a revelation.

I have always asserted that a third-person narrator of any fiction should be as much a character (to the writer) as any character in the story. (I’ve babbled about it here on the humble blog even. Witness this old post. Nice Walden reference there too.) Even if this narrator is no more than the affectless voice that tells the tale, the writer should know him or her well. Know the narrator’s ambitions and frustrations and favorite foods and shoe size. What is the narrator’s motivation, agenda? Even if the reader never knows this, the telling of the tale will be better because the writer does.

And I realized who the narrator of the Fathers and Sons stories had to be. It was like a bolt out of the blue. Of course! It all made suddenly perfect sense. It made every single word I had written and would write fit the narrative precisely. Every thing spoken and unspoken, every nuance and sly reference, would be controlled and would serve a higher, deeper purpose. (Oxymorons are an important narrative device in the stories, by the way.)

I’ve struggled with some of the stories feeling too sentimental, but with this new narrator in mind, I think I can resolve that. Not necessarily by removing the sentimentality either. And as I go back to “finished” stories to polish and refine them, knowing exactly who the narrator is will guide me.

No, I won’t tell you who the narrator is. I’m not even sure I want to identify this person in the stories themselves. That may or may not feel like a cheat to the reader. I’ll have to see how it goes. But as a writer of the stories, it is a paramount matter and a profound understanding for me.

Can you tell this is a big deal for me?

progress, plodding progress

January 25, 2016

So over the weekend I tackled a new Fathers and Sons story, “Moving Day.” I was pleased when I managed to get down a whole 75 of the right words for the start. Getting a story started properly is a big deal for me. If I make a misstep at that point, I often have a hard time getting enuf story accumulated to reach critical mass. I suspect that I have abandoned some good stories simply because I started them wrong and gave up.

But not so with “Moving Day.”

Those 75 words transformed into nearly 600 before my first session was done. After my second session, I had more than 1,600 words down. Good words, at least as far as I can tell this early in the game. More importantly, the story has found its direction. When I was initially imagining the plot and purpose, it was unlike what the story has since become. The three usual characters are involved: grandfather, father, son. But so far, the father is absent as a physical presence in the story. He is off running errands while the grandfather and grandson are sorting through boxes, memories, and their emotions. (The title, of course, is supposed to carry more than just its literal meaning.) That had not been my original concept for the story. Instead of those two sitting quietly in the old house the grandfather will soon be leaving, I had first thought of having all three characters in the new apartment, squabbling because of the frustration of trying to get too much done in a weekend. So the setting has changed as has the cast of characters.

Even more importantly, a significant moment of character development has occurred in the story, as though on its own. This was something I did not see coming, but it makes perfect sense, works perfectly in the sequence of the stories, and springs naturally from the complex emotions between two of the characters. The grandson (who is a teenager) thinks he hates his father. But then he gets an offhand revelation about him from a photo he’d never seen before. The grandfather, whose memory is slipping, can’t give any more details about what the photo is apparently revealing. But that moment gives the grandson direction for the rest of his life, though he doesn’t know it at the time. This direction for the grandson’s life had always been there; I had always intended to develop the character in this way. But to have its causal moment in his life pop up unexpectedly and link so exactly to the flow and the dynamic between the characters is a delightful, much-welcomed development.

I’ve always said I never want to know too much about my creative process. I’m happy to have it bubble along, plodding as it sometimes is. But I fear that if I am too conscious of how it works, I’ll seize up, observing and questioning the process rather than the outcome. Nonetheless, I can see how this much-welcomed development has grown from my understanding of the characters and the various plots I’ve thrust them into. It makes perfect process sense in retrospect. I’m not sure it would have happened, though, if I had deliberately asked myself to cause the development based on my understanding of the characters and plots. It was revealed rather than crafted, if that makes sense. I love when that happens.

Later in the day: OMG! I just realized that a similar photograph exists of me. It is much like the photo the grandson comes across in the story. I had not remembered this at the time I was writing. More of my creative ferment, I guess.



riding a wave of momentum

January 11, 2016

Well, the grandson (#1) has completed his three-week visit and has gone home to New York. Granddaughter (#1) has made her appearance in Oregon but has not yet travelled to meet me. Grandson #2 has not yet arrived. Seriously cold weather has returned to my part of the country. With all of this social liberty, and the hostility of the outside world, I chose to hole up for the past weekend and try to get a comprehensive sense of my Fathers and Sons stories. This involved reading all of them in the order of their internal chronology to see what worked, what isn’t working, what holes still need to be filled, and how much farther this journey will go.

One thing I learned early in this effort is that I truly love sentence fragments.

Here’s what else I’ve learned.

  • I’ve written 16 of these stories (most still in draft mode). I hadn’t realized there were that many.
  • Of these, four have been published and one is accepted for publication.
  • Two unpublished stories were sent to magazines for consideration over the weekend. (Go me!)
  • Some of these are very, very good. Some need lots and lots of work.
  • These 16 stories currently comprise more than 46,000 words.
  • One, of more than 4,400 words, may not make the cut. (It’s one of those that needs lots and lots of work.)
  • I have three stories still to write in the cycle as I conceive it.
  • I expect the three remaining stories to contribute about 10,000 words.
  • The cycle has a specific starting date in real time: the spring of 1968. I need to give more effort to pinning down more precisely when the subsequent stories occur given that starting point, mostly to know the age of the characters.
  • The overall cycle is mostly about the middle character (both a son and a father), Davey. That was not my original intent, but I have no complaint. I understand this boy/man.
  • There is a lot of skinny-dipping in the stories. Also peeing in the forest. And talk of underpants. Trust me; it’s thematic.
  • Memory is important in the stories. Good memory. Lost memory. Faulty memory. Made-up memory.
  • Even people who deeply love each other will hide things from each other or find they cannot say some things.
  • Most of the stories I’ve written with a first-person narrator sound wrong and jarring. Gonna have to fix that. (I used first person in these cases to emphasize the self deception people can commit, but I can probably do it just as well with a third-person narrator.)

I don’t know if I’ll discover I need more stories or not. Given that the middle character gets most of the attention, I may conclude that the grandfather and/or the grandson needs more development.

Part of the point of the comprehensive read through was to spur cross pollination, and I think it is working. Though each story is intended to stand on its own (at least the ones that are published or that I’m trying to get published), they are interrelated. So an insight in one might serve a purpose in several other stories. Similarly, there are tropes that pop up in the stories to tie them together or at least give tangibility to the universe they are in. Cotton flannel shirts are an example of this. Repeated adjectives another (“green, green eyes”). My hope is that more things like this will occur to me in the coming days and weeks as a result of the read through, and I can go back to the stories with these fortifying elements.

I spent the entire weekend in sweats (except for an hour or so on the treadmill). I brushed and flossed twice and showered at least once.

I know it all sounds so very creative and glamorous, but I assure you it’s hard work. When it all comes together in the end (should I live that long), it will be a beautiful thing. (Just like you are!)


stranger to myself

February 23, 2015

Okay, skip this navel-gazing post if you want. I’m pretty much just letting my fingers tap out whatever words they want in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way.

For several months I have been unable to write. I can’t seem to concentrate. I can’t enter the creative space where I find my stories. I seem locked out of my own head. (Have you ever been locked out of your house? Like you come back from a long run in your skimpy running shorts, carrying nothing more than your phone and a couple of depleted packs of GU, and you find the house locked and your wife elsewhere and not answering her phone? That’s how my brain has been lately. Oh, add two barking dogs who make a lot of noise but can’t let you in. My brain has been making a lot of noise but won’t let me in.)

On Saturday morning, in a feat of will just to persuade myself that I might still have some motivation, I looked at two of my stories that I think are more or less finished. I edited them, fine tuned them, I guess. Then I sent them to a couple of journals that are developing issues with themes that seem to match what I am trying to do with my stories. This took a lot of effort. My desire to do this didn’t come from my creative drive but from somewhere else. Maybe worry that . . . I don’t know.

(I am going somewhere with this.)

When I was reading my two stories, I was struck by how foreign they seemed. I can remember writing them, of course, but I don’t know how I picked the words I did or how I managed to structure the sentences to carry their weight. And crazy stuff like that. It was as though I was reading someone else’s stories. (A halfway decent writer, I think, whoever he is.) I was editing someone else’s stories, and I guess improving them a little, but it was as though I was never a part of their creation. Does that make sense?

This is unpleasant. It’s unpleasant enuf just to feel like a stranger to myself. But more immediately, it’s unpleasant to think that I am no longer (or at least not currently) the same person as the guy who wrote those stories. The person I am now certainly can’t write like that. (And I still have four or five Fathers and Sons stories I have to get written to complete the cycle.)

I’m not even making the notes about my stories that I occasionally would and that I could persuade myself was a type of writing. (One little idea did come up during the last week, but it wasn’t new material. It was more of a connection between two stories that I could make — if I ever write the second story.)

I’ve been told several times that I think too much. (By people whose discernment I never had much regard for.) Am I paralyzing myself with all of this introspection? Or am I on the way to a better me?

I think I know what’s at the bottom of this (not writer’s block), but that bottom is pretty deep and getting there to deal with it ain’t no fun, folks. Writing has been a part of my entire adult life (and most of my childhood once I figured out how fiction can transport a person). I suspect I’ll get back to it, get back to that creative space in my noisy brain where I find my stories. I’m not asking for pity (and certainly not empathy). I’m just “introspecting” and writing this post to see if there is still something in me, biding its time and waiting to return.

Yeah, it sucks!

brilliant thought . . . forgotten

January 6, 2015

I nearly always write down the brilliant thoughts that come to me (for my stories — my other brilliant thoughts I just bestow on whoever is lucky enuf to be near me at the time). I have a written journal I’ve kept for more than thirty years, and I keep a pad of lined paper on my desk at work to scribble the brilliance down when it pops into my head there. For the most part this works, though I have yet to start re-reading my paper journal to glean all of the brilliance from it (and I suspect most of it will be cringe-worthy).

Sometimes, though, the brilliant thoughts come to me when I can’t write them down. When I’m driving, or running, or showering, or trying to feign attention in a meeting, or when I’d drifting off to sleep. For the most part I remember these long enuf to get myself to a piece of paper and a pencil (a mechanical pencil). Alas, sometimes they elude me. All I can conjure is the memory that I had some brilliant thought, but the harder I try to recall what it was, the farther it drifts away.

One thing I have learned about myself is that I am a context thinker. Many of my thoughts are tied to where I am or what I am doing at the time they occur to me. The context doesn’t generally influence the thought but merely tie to it. Thus I can be sitting at the office thinking to myself that when I get home, I must be sure to do such and such. Then I get home and all I can remember is that there was something I needed to do. The next day, when I get back to the familiar surroundings of the office the thought comes back to me. (I often think to write it down this time.)

So I don’t fret too much when I lose a brilliant thought. It nearly always comes back to me. This was the case recently with the story I’m currently musing that I’m calling “Icarus.” I remember having an insight about the story that I thought would really help with its development (since that’s where I’m struggling the most with it), but I couldn’t remember what that insight was. In fact, I couldn’t even remember what story I had the insight about, which doubled the frustration. But then, last night as I was drifting off to sleep, the idea returned to me. I didn’t immediately leap out of bed and grab a piece of paper and a (mechanical) pencil, but I did repeat the thought several times so my synapses could store it properly. It has to do with framing and flashbacks in the story, and I duly noted it this morning in the file where I’m keeping my notes.

Does this kind of thing every happen to you? How do you cope?


January 1, 2015

No, not some musings on the change from one year to the next. (By the way, is there some celestial reason why January 1 is considered the beginning of the new year in most of the world? Or is it just arbitrarily agreed upon? Seems like the first day of spring would make more sense, as many cultures do.)

Rather, I’m going to moan about what may be my biggest struggle with writing: transitions.

I’ve been picking at my latest Fathers and Sons story, “Boys are like puppies,” for a few weeks. And by “picking at” I mostly mean staring at the screen, waiting for the next words to come.

There are several things I want to do in this story. One is to contrast different fathering styles and attitudes toward parenting. This will involve casual nudity. (Ten-year-old Davey fears he has a tick on him and drops his pants before his buddy and the buddy’s father so that his dad can check his bottom.) Davey and his dad are comfortable with this — often they go skinny dipping together — but the other father is aghast and his son is embarrassed.

That scene, and another about the two boys peeing in the forest, are the crises that cause the other father to storm away from the campfire, dragging his son along. Davey doesn’t understand what happens and only knows that his new friend is gone. Davey’s dad tries to shield him from what went wrong, and it results in a more fulfilling weekend for the two of them.

I have these (and other) moments of the story clearly in my mind. The problem is stringing them together. The problem is in the transitions between these scenes. And my mistake for the past few weeks has been in trying to make the transitions rather than just getting more words down (those other moments of the story) and worrying about the transitions later.

It’s an old lesson that I seem to need to keep relearning. With past stories that bedeviled me I have just written the various scenes within them and then found a way to fit them all together. (“The Lonely Road” is a good example.) Usually, when I have most of the parts completed, the assembly becomes more evident. It all needs reworking after that, but writing is rewriting, as they say.

And so it has been with “Boys are like puppies.” I stared at the blank screen long enuf, wishing I could get to the funny scene of the naked boy before the campfire, and then decided I would just get that written and worry about the transition to it later.

The result was 600 new words. Satisfying words, and even an inkling of how to make the transition to them. My regret is that I didn’t do this weeks ago, but at least I’ve done it now and hope the momentum continues.

There are two other “big” scenes to complete in the story. And then the transition work. The incubation of it all. The reworking. Maybe even sending the draft to a couple of writer friends (and non-writer friends, who I’ve learned can give more visceral feedback). And on to the next story in the cycle. (I really want to write these stories in chronological sequence now, since each feeds into the subsequent stories, but a later story in the cycle, “Father’s Day,” has been hammering at my brain for a while now, so it may be the next project. Or at least I could write some of the scenes within it. Hmmmm.)

Or I might do something completely different. I have a couple of stories not in this cycle at all that are presenting themselves to me, and maybe it would be healthy to step away from the Fathers and Sons stories for a while to do something fresh. Whatever, it feels good to be getting some words down.

voices in my head

December 8, 2014

I read my story drafts aloud. (My wife at first thought I was having long telephone conversations with someone.) I sit at my desk in my little writing room and read the drafts over and over to hear how they sound. I listen mostly for the narrative voice, to see if it’s being consistent, or if, when I break out with a ramble or playfulness or such, it is effectively inconsistent. And I listen for repetitiveness. I hate when I find a repeated word in subsequent sentences after one of my stories is published. Repeated words seems to be one of my writing problems. (“Repeated words” in that preceding sentence I’m using as a singular subject, thus the singular verb, “seems,” but it did sound wrong when I read it aloud.)

I’d read somewhere (probably on your blog) about how nice it is to listen to an audiobook read by the author. In that way, you get to hear how the actual writer intended the words to be intoned and the sentences to roll merrily along. I can’t say that I share that sentiment. The few times I have tried author-read books, I’ve really not liked them. (Roger Zelazny about put me to sleep with one of his Amber novels.) I’d much rather have an actor, or at least a voice actor, read a story aloud. (For all their faults as stories, the Sue Grafton Alphabet novels as read by Judy Kaye are about as close to perfect in reading voice as humans can achieve I think. Judy Kay is an opera singer among other things.)

In any case, one thing I’ve learned from reading my own scribbles aloud is that I don’t always know how I intend my words to be intoned. Take this example from the end of my story “The Lonely Road.” Sad, sad Davey is having a realization that maybe his life isn’t so horrible.

“Maybe it was true, he thought, as a tear escaped his eye. Maybe she really did love him.”

I’ve read and re-read those two sentences out loud a hundred times, trying to figure out where to hit with emphasis, where to pause, what to do with them.

Here’s one version:

“Maybe it was *pause* true, he thought, as a tear escaped his eye. Maybe she really did *pause* love him.”

Here’s another:

“Maybe it was true, he thought, as a tear escaped his eye. Maybe she really did love him.”

I go back and forth on these two versions of those two sentences. (Intended word and structure repetition in the preceding sentence.) The former emphasizes the actuality of the love. The latter emphasizes the possibility of the love. I lean toward the former — the boy finds himself worthy of love — rather than the latter — the boy finds himself the recipient of love.

Regardless, I don’t want to be the reader when my fabulous collection of stories is published as an audio book.

Do you read your drafts out loud? Do you puzzle and struggle over this kind of thing?


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