A Different Approach

In the last five years, I’ve written six novels, mostly in the literary genre except for my one venture into science fiction. I completed the first draft of my latest novel, a psychological thriller, last September, but I’ve been meandering through the editing process since then. Having spent some time learning more about the craft of writing, I’ve given less emphasis to the speed at which I finish a book and more to the aspects of crafting and re-crafting the story. Many an accomplished writer has acknowledged that writing is mostly re-writing, and nothing could be closer to the truth. As I’m relatively new to the world of novel writing, I’m still crafting my own approach.

I think it’s important to get the story out. Often, when I have a new story idea, I find myself in the throes of passion for the novel and want to get it on the page. I don’t hold back in this honeymoon phase because it’s more important to get the general idea in words than it is to worry about the structure or inconsistencies. These things can be honed later. Re-writing provides ample opportunity to perfect a story. Imagine making a piece of pottery: I want to get the general form in place and then I’ll carefully smooth out the rough parts repeatedly until I get the final, beautiful (hopefully) piece that I originally imagined. A novel is very much like pottery. In the end, no novel is perfect in the author’s view; the goal is to get it to a level approaching perfection that is cognitively acceptable to the writer.

At the base level, re-writing is no fun. It’s like having to write the same sentence repeatedly as a form of punishment (I can’t be the only one who had to do that in school). The process is very slow and often discouraging. Some things simply don’t work the second time around when I re-read my work. I find it helps to have other projects to work on while I’m going through this phase; otherwise, I’m likely to go crazy. During the re-write phase this time around, I’ve banged out my memoir and written countless concepts for potential novel ideas. Sometimes, I find myself working on other writing ideas simply to avoid re-writing.

Despite my internal reluctance, I have made progress on my current novel, and I’m starting to appreciate the approach. Once I finished the first draft, I re-read it a couple of times, and then, I deconstructed the story and realized that I had two parallel story lines in the novel, but one wasn’t fully fleshed out. I’ve spent much of the past few months writing that second story line. I’m almost done with it, and when I am, I’ll have to integrate it into the first draft and do another round of revisions since several inconsistencies have arisen in the story. I think this approach will work for me. I think this will help me set a good pace for the story and end up with a true first draft that has legs.

What hasn’t changed in my approach is the importance of the characters. I have a tendency to fall in love with my characters and become them in many ways. I love stepping into the mind of a character and letting myself wander around. At the end of the day, when my writing is done, the characters take me to where they want to take me. It’s almost surreal. Before I started down this road of writing novels, I didn’t quite understand it when writers said they let the characters decide where to go. I understand now, and it’s true. The characters own the story.

My goal is to finish the second “first” draft of Into the Caldera by the end of June just in time for my first residency at The Fifth Semester in Chicago. This is the story I plan to cultivate during the writing program. I’m excited about its potential. It’s an enthralling story with a strong main character that I hope captivates readers. Only time will tell.

Paris in Spring

Until I made the trek to Paris, I never understood its appeal above any other wonderful, historic European city. I’d been to a few but not Paris having only stood in the graces of its presence during layovers at Charles de Gaulle, and let’s face it, while the airport is nice, it’s about as much a representation of Paris as one of the many mementos hawked by the vendors that line its streets. The real Paris has to be experienced by all your senses to truly appreciate the beauty of it.

There’s no better time than spring to visit the City of Light. The winter doldrums and rain have moved on leaving behind gorgeous blue skies and an emerging warmth that engulfs you like a warm blanket on a chilly morning. The nights, while nippy, are crystal clear, which is perfect for sauntering around the city in search of the reasons why it is called the City of Light. The old street lamps, many likely used back in the day when they had to be lit, may have modern day lighting now, but they still provide that comforting golden hue that many Parisians likely experienced back in the 1800s.

Speaking of old, the buildings are absolutely amazing. Even pedestrian apartments and office buildings are gorgeous and ornate with French doors with tiny patios beneath them opening up onto the street. The curvy, wrought-iron railing circumvents the lower half of the doors above the street giving the buildings a gilded, royal look that can only be at home in Paris. I found myself snapping photos of many of these buildings, while I chuckled to myself that I’d rarely take a picture of an apartment building back in the States.

Of course, there is much more to see than plain, old buildings. The beauty of Paris encompasses a plethora of landmarks that are as famous as the city itself. The Eiffel Tower, the Arc of Triumph, Concorde Plaza with its view of the Obelisk and the Hotel of the Invalids, and the Louvre. Every angle and time of the day revealed a new face to these many landmarks. Set back in the stunning blue sky, these landmarks sparkle, but they also come alive at night as the famed street lights provide a golden aura that makes them all the more memorable.

I imagine that Paris is gorgeous any time of year, even in the dreary winter rain, but spring brings out the absolute best in the city. I ran the Paris Marathon during my stay there and had the opportunity to see the best the city has to offer over my 26-mile trek. It started on Champs-Elysees, the famed boulevard stretched between the Arc of Triumph and Concorde Plaza. In the beautiful morning sunrise in the shadow of the glowing Arc, I began my run straight down the avenue toward the giant Ferris Wheel in Concorde. The warm morning air enveloped me and 54 thousand other runners as we took a turn in the Plaza and circumnavigated the Obelisk. I felt elated to be running in such an iconic race in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Blooming trees and chirping birds competed with the spectators for my attention. The course took me by most major landmarks, and although I had been in the city for two days as of the day of the race, seeing it from the perspective of a runner was certainly unique on the “once in a lifetime” scale. Perhaps the most perfect part of the course came when we turned out of the park at the eastern end of the course and winded our way down to the Seine River. Running along the wide sidewalk with the river to my left and the city to my right gave me a burst of energy just when I needed it. River boats lazily glided along the river. Pedestrians leaned on the bridges over the river alternately cheering us on and taking pictures as if they weren’t too sure what to do first.

Most races have that seminal moment where some part of it just sticks in your mind forever. When I ran a marathon in South Africa, the moment where I had two adult giraffes running alongside me for a brief time has held my fascination for years, but in Paris, that moment occurred when I entered a tree-lined portion of the Seine boardwalk and ran in full view of the Eiffel Tower on my left and the Museum of Modern Art on my right. The shade of the blooming trees relieved me of the burden of the emerging heat, but their striking beauty in the shadow of such a historic landmark provided just enough push to keep me going toward the finish. With that view permanently etched in my mind, I kept putting one foot in front of the other until I crossed the finish line with a big smile on my face.

The only question I had when I finally left for the airport to return home was how soon could I get back. I had fallen in love with the City of Light, and I will most certainly return.

Concept: The Other Side

The flat screen TV hung in the waiting room in Dr. Travis Martin’s office, perfectly centered on the beige-colored wall. The Today show filled the screen brightening the matching, drab chairs that formed one end of a rectangle around the TV with the ambient light that flashed from the screen. A glass table sat in the center of the collection of chairs in the waiting room covered with a fan of magazines that had been carefully organized the day before after the office had closed. Janice, the meticulous owner of the reception and waiting area, sat patiently behind the counter pecking away at the computer before her. She glanced askew at the muted TV and sighed. Another long day awaited her.

At 7:10 AM the first patient of the day arrived. Charlie Peck, a dapper young professional who commuted into the city every day, bounded through the door like a man on a mission. He was late, as usual, but he commanded her attention like she had been the one who had disrespected his time. He didn’t apologize for being late, and Janice liked him less because of it. She judged the doctor’s patients not only by the condition of their teeth, this was a dentist’s office after all, but also by how well they kept to their appointments. She’d heard all manner of excuses in her two decades of working for Dr. Martin, and she’d learned who deserved her leniency and who did not. Charlie did not.

“Dr. Martin will be with you shortly,” she said as Charlie stood before her at the counter after he had checked in. “Please have a seat.”

She kept a professional demeanor, but she quietly seethed. She hesitated for a moment before telling Dr. Martin that his first appointment had arrived. His next appointment slot remained open, so the doctor had time to make Charlie wait. She glanced at Mr. Peck as he fidgeted in the waiting room obviously annoyed at having to wait. He likely had to get downtown soon, but he was always late and constantly rescheduling and moving his appointments like only his time mattered. Time was money for Dr. Martin, and by extension, it was for her too.

The hygienist, Richard, walked up to the reception area and peered into the waiting room. “Is Charlie checked in?” He pursed his lips and widened his eyes behind his wire-frame glasses. Richard was a burly man who almost busted through his tight-fitting lab coat. He looked like a linebacker who squeezed into a suit after a game.

“Yes,” Janice replied. The hygienist looked at her a moment and then to Charlie behind her.

“Mr. Peck, do you want to come on back?”

“Yes.” Charlie shot up from his chair and darted toward the door as Richard opened it. As he walked by Janice, Charlie gave her a wan smile, which she returned in the affectless way she did when she was annoyed.

She peered out into the empty waiting room for a brief moment before she returned to the computer in front of her. A game of solitaire awaited. Had she been paying attention to the parking lot, she would have noticed the black car pull into one of the spaces in front of the office.

Charlie Peck lay back in the dentist chair fully reclined as the amiable hygienist chatted away as he checked each bright white tooth in his patient’s mouth. He poked and prodded with the sharp metal tool and made small talk with his muffled patient. Charlie managed only a word or two as the hygienist switched tools or applied suction to the pooling water in his mouth. The one-sided conversation carried through the office just like any other early-morning start to the day.

Dr. Martin listened to chatter and footsteps through his office from a nook behind a wall at the top of the hall leading to his exam rooms as he reviewed his appointment schedule on a laptop. A dim light cast a shadow over his back, but he could see just fine. He had refrained from turning on the overhead fluorescent lights because he disliked the artificial blast of cold light and how it made his skin look. Florescent lights only made bright white teeth look better. Everything else looked sickly or dead. A vision of a cold, dead hand flashed before his eyes, but he shook it off.

His hygienist, Richard, continued his one-sided conversation with Charlie. Richard’s voice boomed and carried throughout the entire office. Sometimes, his laugh startled Dr. Martin as it rattled off the walls. His loquacious and amiable assistant softened his patients up before he waltzed into the room and had a more serious discussion with them about cavities and gum disease. He focused on the problems his patients faced, while Richard talked about his grandkids and his beloved Duke Blue Devils.

Richard laughed heartily disturbing the relative calm in Dr. Martin’s nook. The doctor shook it off as he heard the ding of his front door opening, but he ignored it because he knew Janice would take care of it. His next patient wasn’t due until 8:30. Tuesdays were always slow. He returned to his laptop briefly before Richard interrupted him.

“Hey Boss, you ready to take a look?” Richard asked.

Dr. Martin looked up and gave a restrained smile. “How’s he look?”

“Good. Nothing’s changed since his last visit. More plaque build-up though and some gum recession. Otherwise, looks good.”

“Okay. Let’s have a look.” Dr. Martin stood up and pulled a pair of latex gloves from box near his laptop and followed the bulky hygienist to the patient room down the hall.

“Good morning, Mr. Peck,” Dr. Martin said as he grabbed a rolling stool and had a seat next to his patient.

“Good morning.”

“Anything new with you?”

“Nothing–”

“Dr. Martin,” Janice said as she walked through the door. “There are two men here to see you.” She looked pale and frightened, but Dr. Martin felt more annoyed than concerned.

“Okay. What do they want?”

“They said it’s important.”

“Are they patients?”

“No. They need to talk to you.”

“Find out what they want, and tell them I’ll be done in about ten minutes.”

“They can’t wait.” Janice looked positively frightened.

Dr. Martin paused for a moment. This was his office and no one dictated what he did, but Janice’s persistence concerned him. Nevertheless, he replied, “Tell them to wait.”

“I don’t think we can do that, Dr. Martin,” said a deep voice that belonged to a man who appeared at the door to the exam room. The man, tall and sturdy with a crew cut, had a stern look on his face. Dr. Martin could see another similarly-sized man behind him. Neither had a friendly smile of any sort to suggest that their business was pleasant.

“I told you that you cannot come back here…” Janice protested.

Dr. Martin sized up his visitors and waved Janice off. “It’s okay, Janice,” he said to her as he turned toward the men. “How can I help you?” His felt his own voice tremble as if the solid foundation he stood on had begun to teeter.

“I’m Detective Lance Burgess with the Stamford Police Department, and this is Detective Reginald Featherstone. We’re going to need you to come with us,” the first man said as he flashed his badge. Both men nodded.

“Now?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

Charlie had sat up and wheeled around toward the two men. Janice shrunk into the corner as the blood drained from her face, and Richard stood behind the detectives with a grim look on his face.

“I’m in the middle of an appointment here. Can’t this wait?”

“No, you can either come with us willingly or we can arrest you right here.”

“What is he being arrested for?” Janice wailed.

“Ma’am, this doesn’t concern you,” Detective Featherstone said.

“What about my checkup?” Charlie asked out loud. He seemed dumbfounded and at a loss for words.

Dr. Martin looked at him and then said, “Richard, can you finish up with Charlie?”

“Yes, Boss,” he replied from the hallway.

The detectives looked tense. The stern looks on their faces remained chiseled in place as Dr. Martin stood up. He motioned for them to leave the room as he stood behind them, but they merely moved aside of the door way and kept their eyes on him. Janice looked at him in horror, but he ignored her. He nodded his thanks to Richard, but his affable hygienist looked just as frightened as his receptionist.

In the hallway, the detectives flanked him on either side while Detective Burgess spoke to him in a low, serious voice. He didn’t really listen to what the Detective was saying about his rights. Silence sounded good at that moment. A lawyer couldn’t help him right now. He followed them out into the parking lot and the second detective opened the rear door to their car for him. He sat down in the backseat and buried his head in his hands. He didn’t look up for fear that he’d see Janice standing at the door gaping out at him or his next patient walking into an office that he’d likely never see again. His hands trembled, but his resolve remained firm. He’d say nothing.