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.


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.

Something Totally Different

In two weeks, I’ll finish my residency for the Fifth Semester program in New York City with a final four-day weekend where we’ll spend time learning more about the craft of writing and the path to publication. I’m excited to meet up with the others in my cohort and hear how their work has progressed. Everyone was jazzed and inspired at the end of the Chicago residency in July. I wonder if it has carried them through the intervening months.

For my part it has been hot and cold. On the one hand, I’ve learned a lot about writing a novel, but on the other hand, I’m tired of my current project. I’ve had moments of furious writing where I’ve been excited about a new direction, and I’ve had other moments where I felt the project had met its end, a dead end to be exact. I’ve landed somewhere in the middle for now. The project has totally changed in terms of tenor and direction. What was once a story of a flawed heroine exacting revenge on two clueless men has now morphed into a more complicated story of two best friends, one beset by jealousy, whose life-long relationship comes apart at the seams when they both fall for the same woman.

The current story line sounds cliche, but it’s more complicated than that. The irony of this entire process is that I started out wanting to write a psychological thriller, and I did, but it has morphed into a literary novel studying the complex psychology of what motivates us to do the things we do. In the first draft, the male characters were essentially cardboard cut-outs, while the female protagonist had this intricate backstory that drove the whole novel. Now, things are reversed, in a sense. The two male characters are thoroughly fleshed out, while the female character has become a secondary one. It’s too early to tell if this works as I’m still piecing the story together from the many parts I have written. Needless to say, it will be a very different story when I’m done.

The residency program has helped me through this process. An exercise on actions-reactions helped me ensure that my plot stood up to logic. A chart on novel organization helped me put the necessary pieces in place for a solid story. My mentor’s unvarnished assessment of my work gave me some much-needed perspective on what was working and what was not. I think it helps to have someone challenge your work early in the process so that you can make it better. In the past, I’ve worked with editors who have fulfilled this function beautifully. I feel I have the same support from my mentor. She makes me think about what I’ve written, and ultimately, her feedback makes my work much better. I need that, and that alone has been worth the cost of the residency program.

While I don’t feel I’m close to publication at this point, I have progressed, and that’s all I wanted from this program – to take my work to the next level. The road to publication is long. It rarely happens in the whiz bang fashion often parlayed in the press. What’s often missing in those stories of literary success is the years-long slog of working to improve and perfect the art of the written word. Every author is different, but a truly dedicated writer will reach his or her point of perfection and add to the tapestry of literary achievement. Eventually. And so will I.

The Battle of the Bench

When you find the right partner in life, marriage can be a joyful union of best friends. It helps when you don’t take things too seriously and you can find the humor in the mundane and absurd. Sometimes, the most inane things can take on comical proportions when two people play off each other perfectly. Such is the case in the battle of the bench.

It all started over two years ago when my family moved to a new house. We had purposefully downsized to a smaller home because we had grown tired of the large yard and unused rooms in our old house and the infinite upkeep that it required. We found a delightfully right-sized townhouse that had no yard but sizable common areas that were maintained by the homeowners’ association. This change allowed us to spend our free time in more enjoyable ways (Yay! No more weekends of yard work!), but it also presented space challenges since the new house had less space.

Shoehorning our lives into the new house was less of an issue for us since we’re the opposite of pack rats, except for our son – he has inherited my mom’s penchant for keeping everything he lays his hands on. Nevertheless, we efficiently pruned our furniture and other belongings until we had the perfect balance in each room. The only room that looked even a little over-stuffed was the master bedroom because neither my wife nor I were willing to part with our suite of furniture, much less the glorious bed we called home for eight or so hours every night. We’d more likely give up one of the kids before we cast aside the siren call of that sweetly-plump, king-sized mattress.

We made the furniture fit in a room half the size of our former bedroom with enough space to move freely around the room without clipping our toes on the sharp, wooden edges our our bed posts. In fact, there was enough space to put a bench at the foot of bed so that I could sit down while putting on my shoes each morning. I suggested as much to my wife, but she deftly rebuffed my suggestion stating that there wasn’t enough room. I ignored her logic and pleaded my case, going as far to break out my measuring tape and miming how said bench would fit in said space. She couldn’t be convinced.

Failing at using the precision of measurement to persuade my wife to add a bench to our collection of bedroom furniture, I made a big deal of putting on my shoes each morning – from the floor. My histrionics reached epic proportions miming back pain or pretending that I was part of one of those Medi-Alert commercials where the protagonist had fallen and couldn’t get up. None of my bad acting swayed my wife. A bench was not in my future. As long as we stayed in that house, I’d be benchless in Seattle. I’d be lacing my shoes for eternity from our bedroom floor. Such conditions affronted my sense of self and condemned my manhood on some level I’m sure.

These antics went on for two years, and my wife would just smile each time I brought it up or politely ignore my inciting comments much like she’d ignore the kids when they were toddlers and had one of their implacable moments that thrived on attention. I felt defeated, deflated, but then we had to move again.

The circumstances of our cross-country move left me searching for our next home alone with only photographic or video reports back to my wife in Seattle. She had to rely on me to choose where we’d live, which meant I could chose a home with a master bedroom plenty big enough for a bench. I was unnaturally excited about the power I had. I’d get my bench. This much I knew. Each home I walked through required a long stop in the master bedroom to picture my new bench at the foot of our bed. I felt like the Grinch plotting my descent into Whoville except instead of taking things away, I was adding something.

I finally decided on a house, and after seeing the pictures and video, my wife agreed. I could feel the soft cushion of my bench already and we hadn’t moved in yet. As we moved our stuff into the house and settled each piece of furniture in its rightful place, I couldn’t help but smile when one of our sofas landed in the master bedroom. I finally had my bench – not only that, it was a significant upgrade to the original bench I had envisioned two years ago. As I settled into the sofa on that first morning in our new house to put on my shoes, I soaked in the victory. I felt like doing a lap around the bedroom with my arms raised in boastful pride. I had won the battle of the bench. I tried not to gloat, but I can’t help myself. It’s been a few months since we moved in, and I still bring it up. I’m lucky my wife has a great sense of humor (but I still won).

The Editing Struggle

There are many phases to writing a novel. There’s the moment when an idea strikes, often at inopportune times, where a surge of inspiration can stop you in your tracks and make you wish you could spend the day fleshing out your story. Then, there’s the joy of putting those first few words on the page when the momentum really starts to pick up like a heavy boulder rolling down a hill and the words just fly from your fingertips as if the story is writing itself. The first draft is particularly enjoyable since it’s about discovering the characters for the first time and really getting to know them. Yes, there are the occasional stops and starts as the story trundles through the middle, but overall, the first draft is exciting and thrilling like a close ballgame that isn’t decided until the last few seconds of play.

I wish I could say the same about editing. Unfortunately, editing is by far the longest and most important part of writing. It’s also the most tedious and least exciting part of writing a novel. Many a novel has died on the vine in the editing phase. The first draft is about getting your story on the page and telling it in the way you think makes it most enjoyable for readers. Editing is about taking that lump of half-formed clay and turning it into a beautiful piece of pottery worthy of display. Sometimes, after much spinning and forming, you just want to pound the clay into some malformed lump and toss it as far away as possible. Editing can make you hate your own story because you’re so sick of working on it.

There are not shortcuts in editing. It’s basically a grind-it-out task that, if done correctly, is worth the Herculean effort, but the payoff doesn’t make it any less exasperating. I’m on my third re-write of Into the Caldera. The first draft came easy; it only took three months to get the basic story down from foreboding beginning to the harrowing ending. The problem is the story didn’t really work in that first draft form. The characters were sharp-edged or too flimsy to be likable. The dramatic backdrop was the most memorable part of that first draft. While I wanted the scenes around Mt. St. Helens to capture the stark nature of that almost alien landscape, I also wanted the characters to be memorable as well. After all, the story was about jealousy and revenge, something the magnificent mountain could neither feel nor embody beyond the Indian legend that is shared in the book.

My first round of major edits sought to soften the sharp edges and fill in the gaps for the characters, but instead of turning my half-formed lump of clay into a pretty vase, I turned it into a bowl made by a third-grader in his first go-round on the pottery wheel. It was a little lop-sided, but if I turned my head sideways, it looked upright. Maybe. Sort of. Okay, maybe not.

Now, I’m on my second round of major edits, and it has been a struggle to keep my faith in the story. What had once been a surefire story of revenge and redemption has morphed into a story mostly about perils of jealousy. I don’t know if it still has the oomph that once ran through the story like a bright red line cuts through a page of black letters. The original story had that stark craziness to it that kept the reader thinking “WTF?,” but it required readers to ignore some important questions that I hadn’t really worked out in that first draft. As I worked out those questions, it changed the very nature of the story.

Into the Caldera is not in my wheelhouse in terms of genre. I had stepped away from the literary genre to try a psychological thriller thinking that it would expand my writing capabilities. To some extent it has, but the irony is that as I rewrite each part, it becomes more and more literary and much less thriller. This is not what I had in mind when I first conceived the story. I guess I’ll have to wait and see what the editing struggle begets.