When Ideas Strike Again

I admit that I’m a deliberate person. It’s both good and bad – good in the sense that I usually think things out and bad in the sense that I often over-think things. Whether or not something is a positive attribute is a matter of perspective, but nevertheless, it is likely a double-edge sword as are most things in life. I try to be self-aware, but habit is a comfortable chair with a nice warm blanket on a chilly day. It’s hard to resist.

Nowhere is my deliberateness more evident than in how I approach my story ideas. Oftentimes, an idea will strike and I’ll jot down the necessary details and walk away. I like for the idea to marinate a while to see if it has any merit. Occasionally, I’ll hastily write the first chapter just to see how the idea presents itself on paper (some ideas sound great in my head but flounder on the page), but for the most part, the idea sits in my notebook for a while, begging for attention like a pup that just wants a scratch on its head.

Besides the fact that it is my habit to be deliberate, I find this approach allows my mind to run around with the idea for a while. When it comes back to me, it often has new elements that make the idea even better. Sometimes, I let the idea sit so long that my mind will devise whole new concepts around the story while I’m not paying attention. Such is the case this past weekend.

A few years ago (yes, years), I came up with a story idea entitled My Father’s Daughter, which centers around a young woman who is estranged from her father because he left her mother for another woman years ago and subsequently had another daughter, her step-sister, whom she barely knows and dislikes from afar. Her father’s impending death as a result of a heart attack brings her back to him, if only for a few fleeting days, where she faces her inevitable loss and fiery resentment.

While this story has many intriguing elements, as do most family dramas, I hadn’t written anything more than a first chapter, which I posted here a couple of years ago. It simply died on the vine, or at least withered while it waited for me to consider it again. This weekend, while I was on a plane waiting to take off, the story suddenly came back to me, and it had changed. Whether the change is for the better, I don’t know, but it’s certainly interesting.

Now the story is about a young woman who discovers that her father has a daughter by another woman who is not her mother in the wake of her mother’s death. This discovery starts a whole chain of events that unfold dramatically over the course of the novel as the woman comes to grips with the realization that her father is not who she thought he was. The story, told from the first-person perspective of the daughter (same as the original idea) explores the depths of the daughter’s relationship with her father and the family that surrounds them.

I find these new elements add more nuance to the story and make it more gripping in the sense that the daughter doesn’t know what is true in the beginning of the story. The revelation sends her reeling as she seeks to find out the truth and what it means to her. I think this approach has more appeal and promise as a novel. Of course, only time will tell if this is the route I take or if this story ever makes it onto the page as a full-blown novel.

I like having a lot of ideas in the hopper, and I certainly have plenty. Most will likely never make it past the concept phase, but when ideas strike, I put them in my notebook, and when they strike again, I add more notes and story angles to see which ones will ultimately win out. It seems my mind is always working on story ideas even though I’m not fully aware of it. It just takes something to trigger it, like sitting on an airplane waiting to take off.

One More Time

Nothing prepares you for parenthood. No matter how many books you read or how many parents you talk to, nothing really preps you for what is to come. It’s like being thrown into Lake Michigan in the early spring. Once you get over the initial shock of the icy, cold water, you either sink or swim for your life. The good news is that a lot of what it takes to be a parent comes naturally once you adjust to the fact that you’re responsible for another person’s life, one you happened to create, and the inevitable ups and downs come and go as your child rolls through the phases of childhood.

After having been a father for over 13 years, I’m convinced that the hardest part of being a parent isn’t the long, sleepless, stressful nights of the baby phase or the teetering-on-the-edge of danger toddler years, but the simple act of letting go. I believe this to be true not because it’s one dramatic moment that occurs when you drop your young adult off at college, but because letting go happens much sooner than we all would like to admit, and it happens gradually like the slow drip-drip of Chinese water torture.

Once a child reaches nine or ten years old, your ability to inculcate them with your values and your own voice begins a rapid decline. It is then that they start to form their own view of themselves and start the proverbial search for who they are. By the time they reach the teenage years, they are seemingly in full revolt often trying things that are a direct conflict to your own ideals. This is a natural and necessary phase that often doesn’t go well. My wife and I often say we have to pick our battles with the kids. That’s especially true with teenagers. I just hope we can abide by that maxim.

After all the fretful years of coaxing your kids from utter helplessness to independence, it’s disappointing that they push away just when they become more interesting. Everyone who has been through this tells me that they’ll come back around. In their early 20s. That’s a long time to wander in the desert of parenthood, but time seems to accelerate once you become a parent. I look back over the years since my kids were born, and I wonder how so much time has passed so quickly. One moment I’m holding my newborn daughter, and in the next, she’s a full-grown young woman who is almost as tall as me. What the hell?

To a parent, time is like an avalanche that throttles you down the mountain at hyper-speed. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, but you can take your moments. Four years ago I took the kids on individual trips to somewhere they wanted to go. Just the two of us. My daughter wanted to go to California, so we went to L.A. and toured around. My son wanted to go to the desert to look for lizards, so I took him to Arizona. That one-on-one time and those moments together probably meant more to me than they did to them. They had fun for sure, but to spend that time with them, to appreciate them as individuals outside the spotlight of our broader family, that was something special.

Obviously, they are older now. They’d rather spend time texting their friends or playing games with them on Xbox or on their phones than spend any amount of forced time with their parents. Back when they were toddlers, I’d come home from work and they’d run to the door to greet me, hanging onto me like I was Gulliver on Lilliput. No matter how exhausted I was when I returned home from a long day of work, I’d immediately perk up when I saw those smiling faces at the door each night. Today is remarkably different. Forget smiles and giddy excitement. If they’re even around the door when I come home, I’m lucky to get a grunt of acknowledgement. Their noses are likely glued to the assortment of screens that they have. Most likely, they are ensconced in their rooms, doors shut, frittering away their time on homework or whatever strikes their fancy.

Despite the droll, mopey aura that has overtaken my once sweet, little kids, I’m not ready to let them sail off toward adulthood undisturbed. I accept the fact that I have to let go, and I will try to do it gracefully, but there are no promises. While they’d rather spend their summer vacation playing with their friends, I decided a while ago that I want to do the individual trips again. One more time.

In a few short years, they’ll be driving and will have summer jobs, and before that they’ll become so engaged with activities that any free time they have will be consumed by them. Then, there’s the matter of how uncool it is for teenagers to hang out with their parents (I was there once and I remember it well). Before that happens, I want another moment with them, so this summer we’ll head out to a destination of their own choosing. My daughter and I will head to Cedar Point because we discovered that we both love the thrill of roller coasters back on that California trip a few years ago. My son and I will head to New York City because he wants to see it for himself. It’ll be fun, one last hurrah before they scurry off and play with the cool kids.

All I Needed to Know

I learned all I needed to know about life when I was nine years old, important lessons like when things get difficult you find out who really cares about you (hint: fewer people than you may choose to believe). These were difficult lessons to absorb, but looking back, I realize that was the best time to learn, those critical formative years that lay the foundation for the adult I was to become. These lessons also help me create the characters I put in my stories because they are centered around universal flaws that drive human beings, so while those years weren’t necessarily kind, they produced an important perspective that informs all of my characters. So what were these lessons? Let’s take a look.

Ignorance is not an excuse. Everyone makes mistakes, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with mistakes. They’re good for you because I guarantee that you’ll remember your mistakes long after the dust has settled around your successes. The problem with mistakes is not the act of making them but the failure to learn from them. Such ignorance is inexcusable. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome is truly the definition of insanity and stupidity, too.

Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m generally a tolerant person, but my experience with Debbie Downers is a mixed record at best. What is it with people who see only the clouds in a beautiful, deep blue sky? Everyone I’ve ever known who is a pessimist has been a miserable fool, and their self-imposed misery has resulted in, guess what, more misery. Pessimism is a cancer that begets terrible results. Life is too short. I’ve since cut most pessimists out of my life. I don’t have the time for them.

Blame is a fool’s game. We are all the result of our own decisions. Let me repeat: We are all the result of our own decisions. We all make bad decisions sometimes. I’ve made plenty, but I own them and move on. Trying to blame someone or something for your failures is about as effective as chewing gum to solve an algebra problem (yes, that’s in a song from the 1990s – guess which one). I’ve never met anyone who’s been able to blame their way to success, and my guess is that’s true throughout the entirety of human history.

Focus on what you can control, which in the end is only you. Getting anxious about what someone else has done or will do is a recipe for a bad headache and a miserable time. Worrying about who has what and who doesn’t isn’t much more productive. Poorly adjusted people spend too much time worrying about things well beyond their control, and come to think of it, most things are beyond your control. This lesson really hit me hard back then, and I’ve taken it to heart throughout my adult life, which has made me so much happier than I would have been. In the end, the only thing I can control is myself, and that’s where my focus lies. Everyone else can do whatever they want.

Each and every one of these lessons informs my writing. Creating the imperfect characters (and all of them should be imperfect if they’re human) requires salting their personalities with flaws. The clueless dolt who refuses to learn from his mistakes and keeps hurting those who care about him and the woman who seeks to blame anything but herself for her own failures are examples of characters I’ve imbued with these lessons. Sometimes, life is stranger than fiction, and that’s certainly true when it comes to my characters. I’ll continue to put these lessons to good use. There’s nothing wrong with mining a deep well of experience or creating characters that are just a hint of this and that from people I’ve met over the years. It certainly makes it interesting and entertaining.

It’s Mental, My Dear

I ran a marathon yesterday, my 37th one. When someone finds out that I run marathons they often react in surprise that anyone would and could run 26 miles on purpose without the prospect of an Olympic medal being up for grabs. Fellow runners are a little more accepting of this especially if they run the distance themselves. There’s a kinship among marathon runners that makes us all feel relatively normal because to the outside world we appear insane. Nevertheless, if those on the outside have one thing right, it’s that the marathon is a mental case, but not in the way they would think, and not surprisingly, this idea extends to writing and life in general.

I would argue that most reasonably fit people can run ten to 15 miles without much of a problem. They may have to take walk breaks or even stop for a sandwich, but they could do it. Beyond 15 or so miles things get dicey because your mind enters into the fray. That little voice inside your head starts talking trash, and either you’re apt to listen or you’re not. Everyone has that annoying little voice in their heads, even long-time marathoners. The only difference between a marathoner and a non-marathoner is that we’ve learned how to put that voice in its place. Most likely, we’ve bound and gagged him and stuck him in a dark corner somewhere in our minds.

In order to do that, you have to really want to reach your goal. In this case, the goal is to reach the finish line. If you don’t really care about the goal, then that voice will overwhelm you and leave you in a heaping mess somewhere around mile 15. The same is true for writing. There are a lot of great success stories about writers. Just about everyone is familiar with J.K. Rowling’s story before she met great success with Harry Potter. Countless other successful writers have similar stories. If you read interviews with them, they all talk about those moments when they thought they should quit. That voice in their heads almost beat them.

Writers have to put that voice in their heads in its place much like marathon runners do if they want to be successful. It’s too easy to let it win. To add to the scrutiny, writers suffer no lack of criticism and negative feedback. That’s something that marathoners rarely, if ever, have to deal with unless there’s some band of roving running critics that I’ve yet to encounter. It’s easy for it all to become overwhelming and seem insurmountable.

I always tell myself to focus on a 10K (ten kilometers) at a time when I’m running a marathon (a marathon is 42K). This helps me avoid becoming mentally overwhelmed by thinking about the whole 26 miles. It serves as a distraction because I can blithely run past the crowds like I’m just running a 10K, except, of course, I’m doing it four times over. As a writer I use the same approach. Writing a novel is like a marathon in that if you think about completing 90 thousand words at once it can doom you from the start, but if you just focus on one chapter at a time, it seems less daunting.

Whether running a marathon or writing a novel, it all boils down to the mental aspects of the task. Both are endurance sports in a sense, and both involve tamping down that annoying little voice in your head. It helps to having coping mechanisms that work for you to keep you focused on your goal and help you ignore the doubts (for there will be plenty). Come to think of it, it’s not all that different from life itself.

A Familiar Journey

Although my kids do not believe me, I remember what it was like to be a teenager. It may have been a long time ago, but I have a pretty good memory (for now, at least). It’s easy to ridicule teenagers and their take on language, fashion, or just about any other pop culture topic, and it seems every adult likes to proclaim how ridiculous teenagers are today and how it wasn’t like that when they were that age. “Kids today,” they say shaking their heads forlornly.

I’m here to say, “Yes, it was.”

I’m no fan of conventional “wisdom” and question whether such an oxymoron can exist. Every kid beats the path to adulthood through the field of teenagedom. Being a teenager is about pushing the envelope and exploring the world in different ways. It’s certainly not about being like your parents and other adults. What fun is there in that? The truth is that we need this with each successive generation. By the time we all reach our thirties, we’ve grown stale and become set in our ways. The world wouldn’t move forward without those willing to shake up the place a bit, and that’s where teenagers come in.

But being a teenager is more than setting the world on fire; it’s also about finding yourself and discovering who you are that makes you happy. It’s a journey fraught with the whole range of emotions from sheer joy to disappointment. The reality that who we want to be and who we are can be different and incongruent slowly settles in until we reach our late 20s and we either settle or make changes to achieve a level of happiness that girds us for the rest of our lives. Not everyone makes it to that point. Many are lost along the way either physically or mentally.

It goes without saying that most people navigate this path through which we all must pass successfully, but that doesn’t make it any easier. The supporting cast of adults around teenagers make the world of difference even if they are spurned by the adult-in-the-making. This is where a good memory helps. We’ve all “been there done that,” but it’s important not to apply our “woulda-coulda-shoulda” thoughts to our kids. Yes, if you had it to do over again, you’d do it differently, but that doesn’t mean your kids will use your wisdom to make the perfect journey to adulthood. It’s not going to happen. We all make our our own mistakes. That’s how we earn it.

Of course, I can write these words and believe them. The rational side of me understands this well but the father in me struggles as my kids venture into this critical period of their lives. This stage of life brings back a lot of memories for me as it likely does for most adults. I know I cannot and should not try to eliminate pain and disappointment for my kids. They have to experience these things to grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults, but watching them suffer, no matter how small it may be, challenges my resolve. Parental instincts can be powerful and unflappable, but they can also be irrational and short-sighted. It’s a battle I hope I’m prepared for because the toughest years are yet to come.

Finding Perspective

I wrote the first draft of Into the Caldera in three months. I had just returned from a vacation to Yellowstone where the idea sprouted and blossomed in my mind. By the time I returned to writing after vacation, I had the entire story formed in my head. It was just a matter of putting the words on the pages. It turns out that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell, which put me on a meandering path of re-writes and re-imaginings of the story for much of the past 18 months.

That first draft was a punch-to-the-gut revenge fantasy. Although I still like that version of the story, I realized after a few people read the initial version that it wouldn’t work. It was rough-edged and too in-your-face, not to mention that the promiscuous sex and drugs were likely too much for many readers. Nevertheless, I loved the heroine of the story who took matters in her own hands to strike back against those who had wronged her even if she targeted the wrong people. She was deeply flawed but in control. I liked that.

Originally, the story was told from two points of view – the heroine and one of the guys she wanted to punish. This worked well because their perspectives were vastly different and intertwining the two left the reader wondering what was really true until the squishy truth was revealed at the climax. The twist, one of mistaken identity, was supposed to leave readers stunned, but instead, it left a bad taste in their mouths, so it was back to the drawing board for me.

The second writing of the story introduced more context to the plot and softened the edges around characters. I redrew the heroine, who was too unlikable in the first draft, as a more sympathetic character, but doing so extinguished her kick-ass nature, something akin to taking the weapons away from Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill. All during this re-write, I realized something was missing. I fell out of love with the story and felt like I had compromised it too much. I almost killed the whole novel. Almost.

The second draft earned some faint praise. It seemed pedestrian to me, predictable. The element  of surprise that had been buried in the climax had been dug up and cast aside. It didn’t have the punch that excited me as I wrote the first draft. I took a break and re-examined why I wanted to write this book.

During this introspection I returned to my characters and sought to understand who they were and what their motivations were. I felt like I knew my heroine and her primary antagonist pretty well. After all, I had told the story from their perspectives – twice. In the background, there was a third character, the best friend of the antagonist. He had lurked there the whole time, but the reader did not get to hear from him. He primarily served as an accomplice who was quiet and reserved – a wallflower. I had written some extensive background on the antagonist and his relationship with this secondary character. As I re-read it, I realized that this secondary character had an interesting perspective. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could re-write the entire novel from his perspective and have a very intriguing story.

After all the hand-wringing over whether to continue or not, I had finally found a path that excited me again. It keeps the element of shock that appealed to me in the first draft, but the climax is more nuanced and the sharp edges of the original concept have been sanded smooth to ease the reader into the dark nature of the story. The original theme of jealousy seeps from the seams of the story versus the in-your-face blast of the first draft. I’m happy with where the story is headed. The life-long friendship of the two guys in the story gives me plenty of material to fill in the substance of the plot and really amps up the tension at the climax. I can’t wait to finish this third version. I hope that it’s true that the third time is the charm.


Bumble Me

Being a parent makes you a sentimental sap. At least it makes me one. My oldest is now a teenager and my youngest is rapidly approaching the age of sulky dissatisfaction. I’ve watched as my kids have transformed from adorable, sweet toddlers to brooding, eye-rolling teenagers who’d rather spend time alone in their rooms than be stuck in a common living space with their parents. It’s enough to make me long for the days when they needed us every minute. Eh, maybe not.

Nevertheless, my wife and I do reminisce about when our kids were younger quite frequently nowadays. I guess that’s our way of dealing with our kids growing up. Each of our kids had memorable, cute moments and tendencies that have become part of our family lore like my son’s infectious and hilarious toddler laugh, his rendition of “Elephants Have Winkles” (not a misspelling; that’s how he said it as a toddler), my daughter’s refusal to accept an answer (“Let’s go look,” she’d say when we told her we didn’t have something like a snack in the refrigerator), and her hyper-excited reaction when she’d hear the Dora the Explorer theme come on the TV. When I think about these things, I get all warm inside and smile the biggest smile. These moments, they make me happy beyond belief.

I have so many beautiful things like this that make my life full, but perhaps one of my favorites comes from when my daughter was a toddler. I’ve always woken up early in the morning. I like to get up and relax and take my time in the mornings. When my daughter came along, she became a morning person with me. Suddenly, my quiet alone-time in the mornings included this excitable little girl with wild hair. We’d have breakfast together, and then, she’d want to watch Dora the Explorer. I’d turn on the TV for her and she’d want to be wrapped in a blanket as she watched the show. I’d gladly oblige telling her that I’d bundle her up so that she’d be comfortable. This became a regular thing, but because she couldn’t quite say “bundle” or her toddler mind heard something else, she’d ask me to “bumble” her. Every single morning she’d ask this and sometimes at other points during the day when she wanted to be wrapped up. I’d just smile at her request and make an animated effort to ensure she was tightly wrapped in her blanket. She’d laugh and smile and my heart would just burst. That little girl.

Had she been wise in the ways of the world and the weaknesses of dads, she would have asked for a pony and a nice car in those moments. She would have them without question for nothing weakens the resolve of a father like the sweet smile and happiness of his toddler daughter. Now, when she rolls her eyes at me or stomps off to her room mumbling something about how I’m just a stupid, old man, I think back to those sweet moments when she used to say “Bumble me, daddy!” She hates it when I tell this story or when I ask her (jokingly) if she wants to be “bumbled.” I do it because it’s my way of reliving a treasured moment from her childhood, but secretly, when no one’s in the room with me but the dogs, I bumble the dogs. They seem happy (or spoiled), but it’s just not the same.