My Writing Buddy

Every morning during the week, my wristband buzzes at 4:30 AM. It’s a subtle vibration that wakes me and (hopefully) doesn’t disturb my wife as much as an actual alarm clock wailing into the darkness. I slide out of bed and shuffle downstairs to my own personal altar, otherwise known as the spot where we keep the coffee maker. It is there that I pour myself a cup of the elixir of the gods to help me wake up fully and become alert  and coherent enough to actually type words onto a virtual page.

After half an hour spent eating breakfast and checking in on my day job to make sure the world isn’t ending, I settle in to my writing chair and focus on whatever it is I am working on at that time. The moment I sit in the chair it becomes like a cone of silence and focus and I usually do nothing else for the next hour. This has been my routine for almost six years now. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

A few months ago, we added a new member to our family, a beautiful Boston Terrier puppy named Luna. She joined our already well-established Boston Terrier named Pearl. Although she was an older puppy when we got her at seven months old, she still requires the requisite attention that puppies need to get trained and familiar with her new home, and given that I’m the first one up in my household every morning, it made sense for me to take care of her first thing to get her into her routine. Just as I have my morning regimen, she needed hers, but little did I realize that she’d become part of mine so quickly.

Luna’s indoctrination into our family added more steps to my routine in the quiet, early morning hours, but I didn’t mind. As is obvious, no one wants to be up at 4:30 AM in the morning, much less converse with or engage with me on any level approaching civility. I like the alone time personally, but in the end, it is lonely and having this little pup with me has brightened my mornings without disturbing my need to be productive.

For her part Luna has accepted the routine as her own as well. She knows she will go outside the moment we get downstairs. She eats her breakfast while I eat mine, and once she’s done she curls up in my writing chair to warm it up for me (after she spends a few minutes beating the hapless blanket into an acceptable position). When I’m ready to join her, we usually jockey for position in the chair, but since I weigh much more than she does, I win that battle until she wedges herself against my leg and takes the first of her many naps for the day (I’m definitely coming back as a pampered pooch in my next life).

So now I have a writing buddy. I’m positive this makes me a better writer, not because she’s particularly good at edits, word suggestions, or plot analysis, but because she keeps me company and makes my writing environment all the more enjoyable. Getting in the mood to write requires a certain level of relaxation (try writing effectively when you’re tense, stressed, or uncomfortable), and there’s nothing more relaxing for a dog lover than having your dog by your side. Sometimes, when I’m struggling to figure out what to write next, I stop and pet the soft fur on her back. Like magic, I find my momentum again. That’s what writing buddies do. They help you get past the mental blocks. That and coffee.20180110_104716894_iOS

Welcome to a New Year

I usually take the last couple of weeks of the year off from writing, primarily because I’m busy with other things and the year-end holidays disrupt my usual routine, but I also think it helps to take a creative break to refresh my senses. Although I’m on a break, I’m still thinking of ideas, but I’m not in my chair every morning clacking away on my laptop pounding ideas into coherent stories. Instead, I’m just relaxing or doing other things while I give my mind a break.

I think it helps because I usually feel much more excited about beginning or continuing work once I put myself back in my chair after New Year’s Day. Even something I enjoy can be a slog sometimes, especially when I’m stuck on a particular project or story line. The past year was no different. I spent the entirety of the year working on Into the Caldera as it morphed from one perspective to another. I’ve been working on the novel for a year and a half, and I’m on major revision number three. I think I’m on the right path now, and I hope to finish it in the first half of 2018.

As with every new year since I got serious about being a writer in 2012, I’ve set goals for this year. I like to keep my goals simple to stay focused, so this year, my goals are as follows:

  • Take one class or seminar to improve my writing
  • Finish Into the Caldera
  • Find an agent to take on my book

Finishing Caldera is a holdover from 2017 as it has taken much longer and had many more twists and turns than I had expected at this point last year. Despite the trials and tribulations with that novel, I’ve learned a lot in the process. My biggest accomplishment from 2017 was completing The Fifth Semester program, which taught me a lot about what it takes to write compelling fiction. I think it’s important to move forward every year, and 2017 certainly gave me that. Now, I hope the lessons learned last year provide a springboard for a successful 2018.

 

The Enchantress

The sun only rises,

When I see you.

The day only begins,

When your lips touch mine.

All that times takes away,

Matters little in your warm embrace.

Deep blue waters,

Jagged snow-capped mountains,

Soothing summer breezes,

The grandest of canyons,

Pale in the light of your smile.

The sweetest flower,

Glimmering in the sun.

The softest fabric,

Electric to the touch.

Winsome contours,

Of the most majestic places,

Whisper my name.

A siren of the seas,

A birdsong in the trees,

My dear love,

You enchant me.

Under the Milky Way

Back in 1988, a little-known Australian alternative rock band released its fifth studio album entitled Starfish, which included the hit single “Under the Milky Way.” As far as I know, the song was the band’s only hit in the U.S, and even then, it was a modest hit at best reaching number 24 on the Billboard charts before it slid into irrelevance as yet another one-hit wonder on the American music scene. While this song may have been a flash in the pan for many music fans, it remains one of my all-time favorites from the 1980s because of its deeply philosophical lyrics and the melancholy vocals of lead singer Steve Kilbey.

As with most of my favorite songs from my teenage years, I have a specific memory associated with it. In this case, I was walking on the beach at night under a tapestry of stars as this song played on my Walkman clone. The stars seemed brighter than normal, especially as I wandered further away from my hotel and out of the glow of its bright lights. I can still feel the damp sand between my toes, the slight sinking feeling that accompanied each step, and the slight, warm breeze that followed me.

 

Wish I knew what you were looking for, might have known what you would find.

 

I was 17 at the time. It was June 1988, and I was in Florida with a good friend of mine celebrating his high school graduation. I still had one more year left in school, but he had invited me along for his last hurrah before he headed off to college, and we, sadly enough, went our separate ways. It was my first trip on my own, my first trip to anywhere really.

I’ll never forget that trip. We met some strange and interesting characters along the way like the wannabe drug dealer who approached us on the street and asked if we wanted some coke, to whom I replied that I only drank Pepsi. I’m a smart ass, sometimes I’m a foolish smart ass. Luckily, the thug dismissed us as the naive teenagers that we were, and after the guy went on his merry way, my friend admonished me for making a joke in such a precarious situation. We laugh about it nowadays, albeit somewhat nervously.

After a day filled with sun and excitement, I’d walk on the beach at night, sometimes late into the night, listening to music.

 

And it’s something quite peculiar, something shimmering and white. Leads you here despite your destination, under the Milky Way tonight.

 

This song captured my fascination at that crossroads in time for me. I was on the cusp of becoming an adult experiencing my first adventure on my own away from my usual unremarkable existence. The haunting refrain from the song (“Wish I knew what you were looking for, might have known what you would find.”) suggests that whatever you’re looking for is itself unremarkable, uninspiring. Filled with the idealistic yearning of seemingly endless youth, I didn’t necessarily agree with the suggestion. I knew there was more to life than what I had experienced thus far. There had to be. Whatever it was, I was certain I’d find it. Eventually.

Why Baseball Matters (to Me)

I was never a good athlete. I was too small, too short, too whatever. Feats of strength were beyond me, but I had a great imagination, and in the unsettled years of my preteen existence, I used to imagine I played baseball for the Atlanta Braves when I stood in my backyard and hit rocks into the garden using a beat-up, old baseball bat. Each thump of the rock against the barrel of the bat excited my senses. I imagined a live baseball taking a wonderful arc over the fence at the woeful Fulton County Stadium bringing home the greats of that era – Murphy, Horner, Hubbard, etc.

I did play Little League one year, but I mostly kept the bench warm for more talented players. My lone memory of a great hit (for me) happened when I accidentally connected with the baseball and it sailed all the way to the base of the fence in the outfield. I was fast then, and I made it all the way to third before the opposing team returned it to the infield. I remember the electric excitement that shot through me when I watched that ball bound off the bat and take flight to the outfield. The din of the crowd rang in my ears. For a moment, I was Dale Murphy swatting another game winner, but of course, it was nothing like that. We lost that game and most of the others we played.

My lack of talent never doused my love for the game. Even today, the earthy smell of a baseball field – all dirt and perfectly cut grass – gets me excited and sentimental. I remember all of the great moments playing baseball in the backyard with friends and cousins and that one singular year playing Little League. I remember watching my beloved Braves on TV with my dad when I was young and sometimes, years later, when I was older. There were even some fleeting moments when three generations of us Elrod men sat and watched a game at my grandfather’s old house on the hill. None of us said much. We just sat and enjoyed the game. Those are moments that exist only in my memory today – something that can never be relived. It brought us all together as if nothing else mattered.

Now, many years later, my grandfather and my dad are no longer around. It’s just me and my son. I’ve taken him to games, but he doesn’t get as excited as I did when I was his age. He has too many other things vying for his attention these days – much more than I did back then. Nevertheless, he goes to games with me, and he seems to have a good time. I think he’s starting to recognize how important it is to me and how important it will be to him many, many years from now. Baseball is about more than the game. It always was. To me at least.

Begin with the Log Line

Stephen Covey, the renowned self-help guru, said that you should begin with the end in mind in his seminal book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Although he was talking about life in general, the same advice can apply to writing a novel because you have to know where you’re going with your story before you can begin the journey.

Writing a good novel is hard. No matter how much you love to write or how much you’ve written in your lifetime, creating a story that sustains a reader’s interest from the exciting beginning to the satisfying ending requires a lot of hard work. Most writers can bang out a thrilling opening and the climatic ending, but the dreaded middle has rung the death knell for many a novel. I see it all the time in books I’ve read. They start out great but lose their center as they meander toward the climax.

To keep a book centered, it helps to begin with the log line. One of the biggest takeaways that I’ve had from The Fifth Semester program is the importance of the log line. A log line is a succinct, one-to-two sentence summary of your novel. It’s meant to be something akin to an elevator pitch. Imagine you’re on an elevator with an agent or a publisher, and you only have a few seconds to pitch them the idea behind your novel. That’s your log line. It’s hard to boil down a 90-thousand word novel to two sentences, but it’s a must if you want to pitch your idea successfully. It’s also incredibly helpful to keep you focused as you write your novel, so developing it up front and keeping it in sight during the writing process can prevent that dreaded middle from becoming a disastrous muddle.

I usually develop something like a log line when an idea strikes. I’ll jot down a bunch of notes on an idea, which is usually just a few sentences. The difference between what I do and what I learned at The Fifth Semester is that the log line it much more carefully crafted. My notes were often just spilling ideas on a page. Now, I still dump the ideas out of my brain in a haphazard fashion, but I then take those ideas and spend a considerable amount of time to craft a log line.

Having a solid log line before I begin work keeps me centered on the essence of the idea. Of course, there are other tools I’ve learned about that help me craft the story and avoid a sagging middle, but the log line keeps me focused like a laser on the story, and if I start writing something that drifts off that line, I either stop or I revisit my log line. Most likely, if I’ve developed a solid log line, I re-direct my writing.

Here’s the log line to my current project, Into the Caldera:

A shy college student meets the girl of his dreams only to lose her to his charismatic, life-long best friend. When the three go on a camping trip near the mouth of a volcano, a terrible accident forces him to decide whether death is the price of betrayal.

As I’m re-writing that novel, I keep that log line in front of me. It helps keep me focused on what I’m trying to accomplish with the story.

Fatherhood

My father was old school, an anachronism from another era. He was born in 1942, technically not a baby boomer, but he married one. His view of the world formed in the 1950s, and his approach to fatherhood mirrored that wistful era when America prided itself on the sheen of progress that it projected despite disturbing realities that were locked in an attic somewhere rattling chains. He was a working man who came home and expected a meal on the table and left the care of his brood to the woman he married.

He didn’t have time to be philosophical or think too deeply about much other than the decision to switch from regular Salems to Salem Lights, which he smoked one after the other. He expected his three boys to behave enough so that it didn’t bother him. Children were best seen, not heard, and if we got out of line, the rise of his voice was enough to put us back in our place. He didn’t kowtow to whining and he didn’t care if we were bored. There was a great, big world outside the door to the small, old house we all shared, plenty enough to consume the attention of young boys.

If we were lucky, he’d feel like joining us outside on the weekends in between his naps and treks to the store to buy more cigarettes. We’d toss the baseball back and forth or shoot baskets at the tattered basketball goal that leaned at the end of our driveway. Those were great moments, however many there were. As we grew older, those moments stood out as the ones that defined our childhood in some idyllic way, probably more so than they actually did.

Many years later, in the waning moments of his life, when he lay in a hospital bed writhing in pain from the cancer that had slowly robbed him of his strength and dignity, he had a moment of clarity. He had grown more sentimental in the intervening years as our childhoods had faded into memory and grandchildren gave him a joy that seemed familiar. Maybe he felt something had been missing or that he had missed something. We never really discussed it because, like I said, he didn’t veer too much into the philosophical, but in that moment of clarity he uttered, “I did the best I could.” He didn’t say much more because he was drowning in pain and sedatives. It was a hell of a way to die and a haunting last few words to say to his oldest son.

His words felt like some sort of apology where none was needed like he had somehow come up short in his 45 years as a father. None of his sons would ever say that Dad had something to apologize for. Even when things were their most difficult, more times than we’d like to admit, we never doubted that he loved us. He didn’t have to say it or announce it to those passing by on the street. We knew it in our heart of hearts, an internal gravitational constant that guided us without fail. Our father loved us and that’s all we ever needed from him.

I never really understood it until I became a father myself. The love you feel for your children is unequivocal and incomprehensible to those who are childless. This visceral feeling manifests itself in many ways nowadays, often missing the mark. Too many parents set out to be the best, to win the parent of the year award for the sake of the trophy. They spend so much time obsessing over the perfection of parenthood to the point of self-inflicted misery that they forget the point, they miss the most important aspect of being a parent – love.

My dad  was not perfect. I doubt he ever changed diaper. He didn’t attend parent-teacher conferences and he infrequently went to the games I played. I remember seeing him at some baseball games when I was in Little League and a handful of basketball games, but he didn’t attend a single tennis match during my four years of high school. He did show up at my graduations, but he always had the look of someone who’d rather be somewhere else. While these events or milestones were important, they weren’t as important as knowing that I had a father who loved me. That’s all I really needed.

I keep this in mind with my own kids. If they know anything, it is that I love them without fail. I’m not the perfect father. I don’t always get it right, but I don’t beat myself up over it either. I’ll always love them, and that’s all that matters in fatherhood. That much I learned from my dad.