I See Stories

In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, the diminutive protagonist eerily proclaims that he “sees dead people” to a child psychologist played by Bruce Willis, which foreshadows the plot twist to come. While the memorable, oft-quoted line has persisted in pop culture both as a source of spookiness and parody, it captures the “sixth” sense the boy possesses. I, too, have a sixth sense, but it’s not one worthy of a movie starring Bruce Willis or anyone really (seriously, why waste the time?).

I see stories. Everywhere. I spent the past four days at The Fifth Semester writer’s program taught by Ann Garvin and Erin Celello where I roomed with eight other writers looking to take our writing (and our publishing hopes) to the next level, so I was in a great writing mood this weekend. Each morning, I got up at my usual time and trekked down to the nearest Starbucks to get that heavenly concoction that allows me to function on a daily basis. As I sat there, downing my Venti latte, I watched the comings and goings (or in some cases stayings) of those around me.

Despite being in the area for only a short period of time, I began to feel like a regular at that Starbucks (this is a common thing for me when it comes to Starbucks). On the first morning, I noticed an elderly lady sitting huddled near a window at the front of the shop. She had a cup of coffee on her table but I didn’t see her take a sip suggesting she had finished her drink a while ago. She remained frozen in place looking out the window anxiously as if she were waiting for someone whom she knew would never come. She wore large, smudged glasses, from her profile, I could see she bore the weathered look of someone who had lived a hard life.

At first, I thought she was homeless and had come into the coffeehouse to rest, but she was better dressed than the typical homeless person; although, she did wear a rumpled overcoat on a warm morning. As I sat there observing the world around me, my attention returned to the old woman again and again.

At one point, an older man, regal with a well-kept, silver beard, appeared in the door way and ambled over to the woman’s table. He sat across from her and folded his hands in front of him on the table as if he were contemplating what to say or listening carefully to what she said except she didn’t say anything as far as I could tell. She continued to stare out the window ignoring his presence, but the man didn’t seem to mind. His face remained expressionless, stoic. He sat there for a long while before he stood up again and walked out the door. I watched him walk around the outside of the shop toward a bus stop and disappear from my sight. The woman didn’t budge.

When I finished my coffee, I walked outside and turned toward the bus stop and there sat the old man leaning back on the bench inside the glass canopy on the corner of the street smoking a cigarette. He didn’t notice me as I walked by, but I could tell he wasn’t waiting for the bus; he was simply sitting there while he smoked his cigarette. Up close, I could see the ratty edges of his pants, the stains on his well-worn jacket, and the tears in his sagging, button-up shirt. A scent of sweat and pungent body odor filled my nostrils as I passed by him.

The next morning felt like deja vu. I walked to the Starbucks at about the same time, and there sat the old woman alone in the exact same spot and huddled in the same position against the window as if the shop were so crowded that she had been pushed against the glass. I wondered if she had even left the store, but the coffeehouse did close at some point the previous night, so she had to leave. I purchased my coffee and a muffin (the damn muffins are like crack) and sat down in the same seat as I had the day before – yes, I was mimicking the old woman in a way. After a while, the old man appeared in the door again and went to her table. He sat there in front of her and said nothing as far as I could tell. He leaned back in the chair and kept his eyes on her. Once again, the woman did not appear to respond to him.

By this point, I was beyond curious about the couple. I started to create a story around them to explain why they seemed so close yet so far away from each other. I wanted to explore why the woman persisted in an almost-catatonic state despite all of the activity around her. Why did she simply ignore the man? The ideas floated around in my head and as I went about my day at the writer’s program, I couldn’t help but wander off to the world I was creating about the elderly couple at the Starbucks. I see stories. You may see their story here soon. Stay tuned.

Five Years In

I took last week off from writing, one of several one-week sabbaticals I take during the course of the year. It helps clear my mind and gives me a creative reboot. Since writing is not my primary job and I’m not working on any contract at the moment, I can afford to be somewhat whimsical with my schedule. After all, it is summer, and I’d rather be outside than sitting in my familiar chair pounding away on my keyboard.

While I was outside enjoying the weather, a milestone quietly passed. On July 1, 2012, I began my quest to become a published author. It was then that I first sat down in my chair in the wee hours of a weekday morning and began my daily habit of spending an hour writing. After many years of randomly creating and then abandoning stories like candy wrappers in a post-Halloween binge, I had finally committed myself to some sort of plan – a plan to become a better writer and complete what I started. Here I am five years later, and I’m still going strong.

Over the course of those five years, I’ve written seven novels. While all but one sit in the proverbial desk drawer, each of them is finished in the sense that I have completed at least two drafts, sometimes more. Each has taught me something new about writing because the mistakes I made in them became glaringly obvious as I reviewed them and had others review them. Protagonist is too weak, point-of-view shifts too much, and too much backstory are some examples of the problems I uncovered in my storytelling as a result of writing these novels. The feedback has been invaluable, and with each critical assessment, I tackle the next novel with more knowledge than I had before. That growth is imperative if I ever hope to become a published author.

Many writers tell aspiring authors to “just write,” and that I have done, but I have also worked to hone my craft by reading novels and observing what established writers do. When you’re a writer, you read differently. You notice things that may go unheeded by those simply interested in a good book. For example, I’m currently reading The Reconstructionist by Nick Arvin. It’s a literary novel that slowly reveals an intriguing subplot as the novel progresses. Arvin’s use of the subplot is unique and has me thinking that I can use such a convention in one of the story ideas I have. Stephen King will tell you that you can’t write if you don’t read, and he’s right. Reading is studying your craft.

Reading isn’t the only thing I’ve done to improve. I’ve attended conferences to meet writers and agents and get their feedback on the work I’ve done. This, too, has been tremendously helpful. Steven James’ and Robert Dugoni’s Novel Writing Intensive was one of the best four-day weekends I’ve spent in learning mode. The Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association has also provided endless resources to help me get better. The only complaint I have is that I don’t have enough time to consume everything I’d like to learn. I spend my daily hour writing, and anything beyond that, including learning, is gravy.

Later this week, I will take the next step in the learning part of my journey. I’m attending the first session of The Fifth Semester in Chicago where I’ll spend time with Dr. Ann Garvin and Erin Celello, two experienced authors and teachers. They put on what amounts to a MFA (Master of Fine Arts) boot camp twice per year that starts in Chicago and finishes in New York six months later. This intensive study and feedback session helps authors get on the track to publication. Of course, there are no guarantees, but the learning experience, like the others I have undertaken, should help me take it up a notch, and that can only mean good things when it comes to writing. I’ll share more after the first session.

The Beauty of the Literary Genre

I’m currently reading The Reconstructionist by Nick Arvin. It’s a literary novel about a rather aimless engineer who falls into a job reconstructing car accidents for insurance companies and lawyers as they battle it out in court over fault and blame. The topic itself sounds rather dull, but the novel is really about the interaction between the main character and the other two primary characters in the story, not the job. Thankfully. The novel unfolds slowly with the main character, Ellis, working a new accident scene with his boss, Boggs. Later, Arvin amps up the intrigue by introducing Heather, Boggs wife, and the sad story of Ellis’ half brother. These elements all combine to create an interesting, if not typical, literary novel.

Unlike its brethren and better-selling genres such as romance and thrillers, literary novels are the slow boil of the writing world. They can seem particularly aimless at first blush because they take time to build to the plot, and they can often feel like a Seinfeld episode in the beginning because they appear to be about nothing, but to me, especially since I write in the genre myself, they are the most rewarding novels. That slow boil usually reveals a rich story full of interesting characters, some that become so real to me that I often feel like we’re old friends.

Most of my favorite novels are literary ones because I enjoy stepping into the lives of the characters and getting to know them at a higher level than I do when I read other genres. For thrillers, the plot usually drives the story, and it’s rare that I get to know the characters on the same level I would in a literary novel. There are some exceptions such as Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite series. Likewise, science fiction, another favorite of mine, typically focuses on the world building rather than the characters. Thrillers and science fiction novels are certainly enjoyable, but neither quenches my thirst for character development like the literary genre.

Despite my affinity for the genre, I realize that it’s not for everyone. Most readers prefer the fast pace of a thriller or other elements of a story that are prototypical of other genres. I don’t know the exact numbers, but literary lingers on the low end of the reader interest spectrum despite the fact that most classics are literary and most of us had to read them in school. It almost seems like a lost art, but I’d take a literary novel any day over any other genre because watching the characters develop in that slow boil is one of the most rewarding things for me as a reader. Now, excuse me while I go see what Ellis is up to.

Perspective Shifting

Karen Connelly wrote an interesting article in support of her latest novel, The Change Room, which in and of itself sounds compelling. In the article she talks about how she started the novel one way based on her own biases but completely shifted her perspective after she spent some time researching the subject of her novel, sex workers. She started with the idea that being a sex worker was a dour, depressing job fraught with emotional scars and mental instability. The result was a rather bleak novel.

After she spent some time researching her subject, she put the first draft in the proverbial drawer and simply wrote another more enlightening story that became The Change Room. The new novel depicted sex work in a very different light, one that many would refuse to accept or believe. I haven’t read any reviews on the the novel, but I bet it’s only a matter of time before someone accuses Ms. Connelly of glorifying sex work, and I doubt such criticism would be limited to one side of the ridiculous political spectrum because each end would see their devil in the details.

No doubt sex work has a dark underbelly that should concern us all, but that’s not the point of this post. What’s intriguing about Ms. Connelly’s experience is how her ingrained biases pushed her in one direction and her research pulled her in another. In the end, logic and creativity won out, and that’s the beauty of being a writer. Being able to explore different perspectives and present readers with said perspectives is one of the greatest joys of writing. Let’s face it, a novel that simply chronicles the mundane and plays out in a way that caters to everyone’s inherent biases makes for dull reading. Certainly, writers shouldn’t focus on changing everyone’s mind about a topic or issue, but they shouldn’t shy away from challenging social norms and group think either.

Everyone has biases. By virtue of having lived, biases form naturally. Some are simple such as a preference for a food. Others are more wide-ranging and potentially dangerous such as a dislike for another race or culture. The inclination for these biases cannot be denied, but awareness of them is essential to growing as a human being. Writers often play off these preferences by assigning similar attributes to their characters and putting them in the context of a story. It’s only through this experimentation that we can challenge social norms and, hopefully, shift perspectives.

As I’ve done more development work for my novel, Pine Mountain, I’ve realized that there are a lot of biases at play. Each of the characters is burdened with his or her own preconceived notions about the world around him or her. The protagonist, Eric, is at his core a good person, but he struggles with how he views his hometown despite all of the things that have changed since he left. On the other hand, Bobby, his brother-in-law and his primary foil in the novel, clings to a darker view of the world that seems at times out of place and harmful in many ways. I have yet to determine how (or if) these two characters will evolve in the novel, but there will certainly be moments where the readers will be faced with uncomfortable situations, which I hope will make them stop and consider another point of view.

That being said, any novel is a byproduct of the writer’s biases as well. Just like Ms. Connelly started her book in one way only to shelve it and go in a completely different direction, I hope I have the courage to do the same should it play out that way for this story. Shifting perspectives doesn’t just apply to readers. It applies to writers as well. That’s what makes it all fun and rewarding.

The Lull in the Storm

Sometimes, writing is like breathing – it just happens, but on occasion, it’s like pushing through the 23rd mile in marathon – laborious and painful. Every time I begin a project, I feel like a kid on Christmas morning opening presents, but soon after, when the dreadful middle rounds the bend, I feel like that same kid on Christmas evening, morose because all the fun is over.  The solitary nature of writing doesn’t help. No one wants to hear about your half-completed manuscript that’s stuck in the mud somewhere in the depths of your computer files. Such work is uninteresting since even you, the creator who adores it, found it unworthy of completing.

The good news is that I’ve completed more than I have not, but there are a couple of manuscripts that sit half finished in my files. Re-visiting them feels like walking through a ghost town of half-constructed houses. I keep telling myself that I will go back and finish them someday, but that day has yet to arrive. What happened to them? Why did I abandon them like one would abandon an overheated, inert car on the side of the freeway?

The answer lies in the creative storm that begat them. Oftentimes, an idea strikes and the concept of the story takes on a life of its own. The characters write the story themselves. I become the characters in many ways and feel my way through the story. I feel a connection with the character that builds on and keeps the momentum going, but if I suddenly lose that connection, the story begins to drag until I get to a point that it no longer makes sense to keep working on it. I need a break.

My very first novel, one that I began writing in 1997, fell victim to this aberration. That novel still sits in the cob-webbed corner of my files unfinished. I fell in love with the idea on a drive from Atlanta to Memphis one evening and began writing in earnest once I returned home. This went on for weeks until I suddenly hated my main character. I felt he was too harsh and cynical and all I had written reflected this degenerative attitude. It felt like too much work to re-write the pages I had written, so I saved it one last time and put it on the shelf. Over the years, it has gone mostly untouched, but occasionally, I take it off the shelf, blow off the layer of dust that has accumulated and re-read it in hopes that I will find a way to make it worthy of my time. I’ve dabbled with the story, but it remains much the same as it was two decades ago.

Most recently, I had another novel that got stuck in the mud. I haven’t decided if or when I will get back to it. The story bogged down in the middle, and I realized I was trying to do too much with it. I love the concept and hope I can figure out how to make it work, but I haven’t touched the story in a year. Once I finish Into the Caldera, I may go back to it. Or maybe not.

It’s easy to get enamored with the latest new idea and my mind can get distracted and off-task when it comes to my current work. I tend to go with the flow when it comes to writing – write whatever strikes my fancy. This approach leaves a lot to be desired when I’m trying to finish a novel. It’s even harder to deal with when I’m in the editing phase as I am now. When I should be hunkering down and editing, I’m often writing other things. Editing is boring and I certainly need to break the monotony with some other creative outlet, but editing requires focus, too.

I take solace in the fact that I still enjoy the process overall. I’ve been focused on my regular writing regimen for five years now. I’m still learning a lot and I’m still developing as a writer. Next month, I will attend the first residential writing workshop in a six-month program designed to help me improve my writing. I don’t expect it to rid me of these lulls in the creative process, but it may provide me with some ideas to help me get past them.

Lawmakers to End Driver Distractions

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle gathered at the capitol today as the governor signed a law that promised to end the surprising phenomenon of distracted drivers. The law, which goes into effect July 1st, explicitly prescribes how drivers should behave while behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Drivers will no longer be allowed to exercise common sense when the law goes into effect. Lawmakers promised strict enforcement and hefty fines and penalties for anyone caught violating the law.

Surrounded by insurance company executives and personal injury lawyers, two groups that helped write the new law and funded its research, the governor declared it a brand new day in the state where citizens didn’t have to worry about being maimed, killed, or inconvenienced by distracted drivers. He congratulated the insurance executives for reducing vehicle accident risks to zero and praised the lawyers for being the de facto law enforcers through their proactive lawsuit endeavors.

In perhaps a bit of irony, one of the lawyers who was scheduled to attend the news conference was stuck in traffic due to the recent bridge collapse and called into offer his thoughts during the press conference. Talking on the phone while in a motor vehicle is strictly prohibited under the new law when it goes into effect. When asked about the apparent violation of the impending law, the governor scoffed that the law had yet to go into effect and that it didn’t apply to those conducting official state business. He refused to elaborate on exactly which provision of the new law provided such an exclusion and became irritable when pressed further. Later, in a tweet after the event, he reignited partisan sniping when he claimed the offending lawyer was a member of the opposing party.

Lawmakers and lobbyists had worked tirelessly for two years on the new law. At one point, they spent a week at a retreat in Barbados to reflect and redesign the law so that it would completely eliminate risks and put the onus on everyday citizens to prove that they are abiding by the law. After an unusual, late afternoon session that forced lawmakers to work until 3 PM, they hammered out the final details and declared victory for the decent citizens of the state.

The governor said he was pleased with the collaboration and unity surrounding the new law. “I’ve never seen lawmakers from both sides of the aisle work in such a spirited manner as they have these past two years. I hope we can put the usual animus behind us and build on this cooperation going forward. I’d also like to thank my campaign contributors in the insurance industry for fulfilling their promises and aiding lawmakers in their quest to make our state the safest in the country.”

An insurance industry executive exclaimed in a moment of elation at the otherwise moribund news conference that “it was time to make insurance about more than just assuming risk for the unpredictable things in our lives.” When asked why customers needed insurance now that the risks were so low, he replied, “Insurance is mandatory. The new law requires higher levels of insurance to ensure we can fund campaigns such as this to save even more lives in the future.”

Not to be outdone, two personal injury lawyers spoke at length about how they will be on guard to help any accident victims extract the maximum penalty from any driver who violates the law. “I like to think of myself as a law enforcement officer,” one proclaimed. Financial penalties are not capped under the new law, but lawyer fees are limited to 75 percent of the net award.

Under the new law drivers must keep their hands on the wheel at all times in the preferred ten and three o’clock positions. Cell phones, navigation screens, radios, food, cosmetics, pets, and children are no longer allowed in the vehicle while it is being driven. Head turning is strictly prohibited except in instances where the vehicle is turning, changing lanes, or backing up. Minimum fines start at $500 for violations and escalate from there. Citizens can lose their license after two violations and face prison time if multiple violations are discovered in one traffic stop.

The governor claimed he had unanimous citizen support for the new law because everyone was tired of being behind a distracted driver in traffic, but a citizen’s action group that protested silently with large, highly-inappropriate signs claimed that the law overshot its target and infringed upon the freedoms they had heretofore enjoyed. They plan a march on the capitol next week to force lawmakers to hear their concerns for the first time. It’s unclear if their actions will have any impact on the law before it goes into effect.

Automakers have bemoaned the law saying that it will prevent them from selling over-priced entertainment and navigation systems in their vehicles, but one industry executive said that they would divert their sales efforts to other accessories like the pet-kid cabin, which resembles a U-haul trailer. The accessory helps frazzled parents comply with the law by removing distracting kids from the car and putting them in a semi-unstable trailer hitched to the vehicle. Another popular accessory that is just hitting the market is the “wheel-cuff,” a device that locks the driver’s hands to the wheel in the law-abiding position. The wheel-cuff also monitors usage so that a citizen can prove they were following the law. Automakers are excited about the potential profit from such accessories despite losing the cash flow from now-banned items.

In perhaps the most poignant quote of the day, the governor’s chief of staff proclaimed that lawmakers had achieved the impossible in crafting and passing the new law. “I don’t think I’ve such a thing in my lifetime.” Similar sentiments were shared by those attending the news conference, but the context was slightly different.

 

Hot and Cold

When an idea strikes, I usually fall deeply in love with it. Maybe I’m just happy that an idea wafted through the ether and landed in my brain, but the moment of inspiration often results in a flurry of typing as I capture the elements of the idea and flesh them out as much as possible before the details escape me. It helps to have my notebook always at the ready because ideas typically strike at the most inopportune times – on a run, in the shower, in a meeting at work, basically any time my mind is allowed to wander (Look! A squirrel!)

Once an idea becomes enshrined in my endless notebook (it is electronic after all), I like to let it gestate for a while. In some cases, I may not revisit it for weeks or months. It’s during that period that I learn if the idea will be worth promoting to the esteemed level of a draft chapter. If it survives, then I’ll write a first chapter or a concept chapter for the story to see if I like it or not. If the story has legs, then I’ll continue to work on it, but many ideas are left in the first (and only) chapter graveyard. Writing that first chapter really tells me if the story will work or not. It may just be my mood, or I may find another idea that I like better (Look! Another squirrel!).

Many ideas die on the vine. It’s a fact of life for a writer. Sometimes, two ideas collide and become one. On more than one occasion, I’ve had a new idea that I’ve simply integrated into an existing one to make (hopefully) a stronger and better story out of the original concept. This happened recently when I had a new idea about two people intimately drawn together by unseen and unexplained forces. Instead of making this a story in and of itself, I integrated the idea as a subplot into a draft novel I’ve been outlining called Someone Like You, a love story of sorts but please don’t call it that because it’s more akin to The Great Gatsby than any forlorn romance novel.

The sad reality remains that I have more ideas than time, but also, ideas seem to be a dime a dozen. So many start out promising only to lose their sizzle. This happens at any point along the way to a draft novel. I sometimes lose my enthusiasm for whatever reason, and when my enthusiasm fades, writing the story feels like trudging through a mud pit in heavy, steel-toed boots. It all boils down to the characters I create. I become them in many ways and as long as I can feel them on some ethereal level, I can keep writing, but the moment that feeling ebbs, the story slows to a crawl and may eventually peter out completely.

Writing a novel isn’t easy. Everything I’ve read from accomplished writers suggests this is true beyond me. The opening chapters are often like firework shows in that they are loud, generally flamboyant, and short, but then, the dreaded middle has to be written, and that’s where it becomes an uphill grind. The middle loses many a reader, but it also squashes the hopes of many a writer. Handling that transition well ultimately determines which ideas survive and thrive in novel land.

It doesn’t help that the creative juices can run hot and cold. Some mornings writing is like riding a bike. On others, it’s like taking a test for which I have not studied, a bang-my-head-on-my-desktop experience that leaves me wanting to go back to bed and start over. Maybe there are just too many distractions. Maybe I’m just too moody. Maybe…look a squirrel!