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 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.

Excerpt: Into the Caldera

Here’s another excerpt from my current novel, Into the Caldera. It’s a work-in-progress that I’m currently revising.

Jenn startled awake in ink-black darkness. She raised her hand to rub her aching head, but she couldn’t see it until she held it a few inches from her face, and even then, it didn’t feel like her hand. Her head throbbed in the worst way, a hammer came down with each heart beat smashing any coherent thoughts she had.

She didn’t know where she was. Her shoulder sat against something hard on her right side – a door? The space smelled like sour laundry that had been festooned with sweat and left to mold in a confined space. The distinct scent of worn shoes surrounded her. She fanned out her left arm and felt multiple pairs of shoes next to her – a closet? She reached up but felt nothing. Then, she sat up levered against her outstretched arms and felt the bottoms of shirts and pants hanging above her. The darkness bewildered her.

She struggled to clear the cobwebs from her mind as she sat there in some closet in some room somewhere. She remembered Nicole leaving. Two faces, men, no boys, hung in her memory. Their names lingered on her tongue, but she couldn’t recall them. The rest of the memory blurred into the dim lights and loud music like when she had spun around in her mother’s yard as a kid. She sat shrouded in silence.

She reached for her phone in her pocket, and that’s when she realized she wasn’t wearing her pants. A blanket covered her legs and she pushed it down feeling around for her pants, but all she found were more shoes scattered around her. She panicked and sat up all the way bumping into the door next to her as she leaned forward to grasp for her pants. Nothing.

Feeling her hands along the door, she found the edge and slid it open to more darkness. A very faint light from outside a window in the room provided the only ambient light, but she still could not determine where she was. She tensed as she scanned the darkness to determine if anyone else was present. She couldn’t tell.

She pushed herself up scraping the bottom of the clothes with her back as she stepped out of the closet. Putting one hand on the wall, she glided along the grainy surface until she found a light switch. The tentative overhead light had only one bulb, and it pulsed before it brightened the room entirely. Nevertheless, any amount of light hurt her eyes and she squeezed them shut. She finally forced them open onto the empty room.

The messy, sparsely-furnished room smelled musky, an odor that drowned out the sweat-stained clothes and sour, earthy shoes in the closet. The small bed sat unmade with a twist of sheets and blankets that exposed the top of the mattress. A dinky desk sat next to the bed piled high with books and papers in no particular order. The stained, worn carpet scratched her bare feet. It took a moment to focus her eyes on the floor beneath her.

Her bra lay tangled on the floor next to the bed and her pants, likewise turned inside out, were strewn beside it. She felt her chest beneath her shirt and her bare nipples poked through. A flash of embarrassment consumed her. She couldn’t remember anything except those two boyish faces that had greeted her after Nicole had left. Did she have sex with them? She feared the answer but couldn’t conceive one.

After she put on her bra and slid into her pants, she pulled out her phone and checked the time, her hands trembling as if she were wracked by fear. It was just after 6 AM, and from what she could tell, she was still in the SAE house; although the room did not look familiar. She found her shoes on the other side of the bed and slipped them on before she tentatively opened the door and gaped at the empty hallway.

She didn’t see anyone until she reached the front room. A couple slept intertwined on one of the sofas. The guy snored loudly, but the woman next to him slept so deeply that the guttural sound didn’t seem to bother her. Jenn paused at the edge of the room and rubbed her throbbing forehead. She could hardly think, but she needed to get back to her apartment.

When she pulled out her phone again, she winced at the brightness of the screen as she scrolled to find her Uber app. A few taps of the screen told her she had six minutes before her car would arrive, so she shuffled toward the kitchen to get some water to soothe her scratchy throat. Every cabinet she opened revealed more or less random things – an opened bag of chips, disposable plastic containers, an apron – but no cups.

Dirty plastic cups littered the countertops, but she wanted a clean one. Finally, she gave up and took one of the cheap cups from the counter and cleaned it hurriedly under lukewarm water from the faucet. Satisfied that she had cleaned it thoroughly, she filled it with cold water and took big gulps until she had drained it. The water felt good to her throat. She drank another cup full before she put it back in its spot on the counter.

Her app told her that her driver was three minutes away. As she walked by the couple of the sofa, the woman let out a moan or a sigh and it startled her. She stopped in her tracks, but the woman remained asleep. Jenn didn’t know why she cared if she woke the woman or not, but she quietly opened and shut the door as she slid out into the cool morning air. Her phone buzzed indicating that the Uber was approaching.

She walked to the curb. Cars littered either side of the wide street parked in silence waiting for their owners to wake up, likely hungover, and claim them for the ride home. As her Uber pulled over in front of the SAE house, she greeted the driver and took a seat in the back. She found that talking made her head hurt worse, so she kept her conversation to a minimum. She had never been so thankful to have a quiet driver. She sat back and closed her eyes. Her whole body ached, but sitting down made her aware that her thighs hurt. She felt an intense pain between her legs as if she had been rubbed raw. She put her hand there and quickly pulled it away.

She couldn’t remember what had happened. Once again the images of the two boys popped in her head. What were their names? Scott and…Marc? A chill rappelled down her spine and a tightness squeezed her chest making her head throb even more. Something had gone terribly wrong. She felt like she had just walked into a dark alley with shadowy figures lurking around her. She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead as a panic consumed her.

Origins – Chapter 1

For my next project, I’m going to switch genres and dabble with science fiction. This isn’t hardcore science fiction as I will focus more on the characters in the story and much less on the science; although, it will be informed by some research. Think of this as a literary expression with a scientific bent. Here’s the first chapter, which is clearly a draft, but I like to share excerpts here as a way to get feedback and engage the audience in the creation process. As always, feedback is appreciated.

****

The angry, red light flashed in the semi-darkness of the cockpit. Jane, the captain of the crew of hardy astronauts, stared at it hopelessly without saying the obvious words that hung between her and her crew. Exhaustion seeped from their eyes. They had reached the point where all the other missions had failed – the same point where the crews had perished in a hail of fire and an obliterated spacecraft. They held their collective breaths waiting for the punch in the face that was sure to come.

The spaceship rumbled and vibrated as the ominous light flashed in a rhythm that mimicked a doomed countdown. Jane could hear it in her head – ten, nine, eight… She tensed up and her head pounded even harder. She had a headache, one that had settled in the back of her skull and had played havoc with her thoughts since they had broken away from earth’s atmosphere. At times, the dull ache lurked in the background, but at other moments, like the one she faced now, it roared in her brain like an angry beast. Every single thought she had funneled through the ache and lost bits of resolution as it appeared in her mind. She felt muddled and lethargic at best like a beast of burden saddled with too much cargo.

Sanjay, the least experienced of the crew who had volunteered for this last-gasp mission because the alternatives were just as awful as his impending fate, watched his captain for any signs of panic. She gave none. She retained her steely gaze and emotionless demeanor, a trait he found off-putting in a woman, but he cast his biases aside and sought comfort in her reaction to their dire situation. He knew the ship needed Jane’s leadership if they were going to survive the entry into Mars’ atmosphere and the hard landing to come. If they made it that far.

Jane had never led a mission to Mars, but she had led many missions into space including an ill-fated one to the moon that had narrowly averted complete disaster thanks to her quick thinking and impeccable calm in the face of certain death. She had been hailed a hero in the Western States of America. Little girls and boys had posters of her, adorned in her crisp astronaut garb, hanging in their bedrooms. She spoke at schools, graduations, and even conferences where hardened businesspeople were reduced to tears when she told the story of how she lost the only man she had ever loved on that doomed mission. She had received many medals and countless accolades for her heroics, and she continued to travel into space as if it were just another job. She could have retired a hero with her picture in the history books and endless articles written about her, but she wanted to push the frontiers of manned space travel.

“What’s going on?” a panicked voice broke into the silence. The four crew members pivoted toward the back of the cockpit and stared wordlessly at Ava Stuart. Jane scowled before she spoke as the ship rumbled and shook as if some giant had discovered it and was attempting to shake them out of it.

“Get back to your seat and strap in!” Jane yelled after a few seconds of blank stares.

“Are we going to make it?”

Sanjay started to express his doubts, but Jane cut him off, “We’ll be fine, but you cannot be out of your seat! It’s too dangerous! Go back now!” She whipped her arm back toward Ava and pointed to the passenger compartment for emphasis.

Ava flinched and stared Jane down for a brief moment. She thought about arguing but decided against it. She pushed herself back grasping the walls along the rattling spacecraft and disappearing from the crew’s sight. She muttered to herself, angry for letting Jane speak to her so harshly. “Bitch,” she thought.

Ava had fought hard to be part of this historic mission. Initially, she had been beaten out for the two civilian slots on the ship by her arrogant and insufferable colleague Mitchell Deerdorff, but Deerdorff couldn’t handle the training and preparation for the trip, so the slot fell the Ava. She knew she was a better linguist than Deerdorff, but she couldn’t help but feel like she had been slighted professionally. The situation cast her as an underdog and sharpened an edge in her that cut the wrong way with many of her shipmates.

For her part, Jane was dismayed that Ava would even consider questioning her authority or the crew’s competence. She had not liked the idea of including two civilians on this trip, but Ava and Wally were deemed necessary if this mission to Mars was to be successful, assuming they actually made it to the surface alive. Wally proved quiet and reserved, usually doing exactly as he was told out of fear of endangering the mission. Jane liked the control she had over him. Ava challenged her, pushed her, and Jane did not like it one bit.

“Maintain position!” Jane commanded.

“We should pull back, Jane! It’s too risky!” Olivia shouted through the din of the groaning ship.

“No! We can make it!” Jane replied forcefully. She glanced at her co-pilot for a moment before she returned her focus to the controls and the flashing red light. The light mesmerized her. She found an odd comfort in its rhythm despite the warning it conveyed. It was like the flicker of a lighthouse in a dense fog.

“Olivia’s right! It’s too dangerous!” Sanjay interjected. “What do you think Frederick?” Sanjay looked to his left at his always-somber colleague. Frederick blinked and stared back as if he had been awakened from a dream only to be plunged into a nightmare.

“We do as Jane says!” he yelled just as the ship throttled forward and shifted violently toward one side like the bottom had fallen out. Olivia yelped and grasped at the wall next to her even though she was securely strapped into her seat.

“Damn it, Jane, we’re not going to make it!” she yelled fueled by the anger of feeling helpless.

Jane turned to Olivia and sucked in air before she steadied herself. “Lieutenant Warner, calm down and focus! We can do this! Remember all the training we went through! Focus on your training! We can do this!”

The rattle and roar of the spaceship became louder and more pronounced as the ship hurtled toward Mars’ atmosphere. Sanjay glanced out the window of the craft and gulped. He had a sinking feeling that he had found his end either in the space above Mars or on its inhospitable surface. He had been prepared to die, but now that he was staring death in the face, he felt less sure. His resolve began to crumble, and he wanted to cry. He looked at Jane, her face placid yet pained. He wouldn’t cry in front of a woman.

“Frederick, give us some more thrust!” Jane commanded. Frederick looked at her as if he was translating her words into his own language, he was European, but English was his first of many languages. He blinked twice before he reached out to the controls and pushed a lever away from him. The ship shook and the entire crew could feel the momentum propel them forward with blunt force like a dull ax striking a firm young tree.

The darkness gave way to a glare outside the ship like a distant fire on the horizon. The colors both fascinated and horrified the astronauts as they looked on with great trepidation. Olivia’s hands shook noticeably as she monitored her bank of controls. Her voice began to waver when she spoke, so she kept her words clipped and efficient when she responded to Jane or the others as they prepared to cut through Mars’ atmosphere. She felt little hope that they would survive. The ship heaved under the stress like a hulking, beached whale taking its last few breaths. The warning light had been flashing since they reached the farthest edge of the red planet. Olivia felt her constricted heart beat in step with the pulse of the light. She feared she couldn’t breathe as panic rose from the darkness to pull her under.

Accepting her imminent death wasn’t something Olivia had thought much about when she had taken on this mission. She had wanted to be on one of Jane’s crews since the beginning of her career as an astronaut. Jane was her hero, someone she looked up to and admired, but she had only met the woman once in her entire time in the Western States space program. Her assignments were always small ones into the outer atmosphere of earth to collect samples and observe the tumultuous weather patterns that had erupted on the planet since the climate began shifting dramatically at the beginning of the century. She had only been to the moon once despite spending more than a decade in the space program. She had been a rookie astronaut when Jane led the doomed mission back from the moon. In Jane she saw the strong woman she wanted to be, and now she was the second in command on what was sure to be the last attempt at a manned mission to Mars.

Frederick looked out the window to his left. The glare from the atmosphere almost blinded him. He blinked repeatedly and thought of his wife and children left behind on earth. He had taken this assignment for them, to ensure his kids would have a future even if it was on a distant planet that seemed harsh and unkind. Earth had once been hospitable, but the changing climate had torn it apart in ways he could have never imagined when he himself was a child. Now his kids, like all other people on the planet, faced almost certain extinction as the havoc wrought by climate change had taken its toll on their home. He breathed in deeply and sighed to himself almost resigned to his fate. The spacecraft shook violently and he braced himself against his seat despite being strapped in tightly.

“Frederick, are the thrusters at full power?” Jane asked.

“Yes. They’re maxed out!” he yelled over the rising noise.

“Brace yourselves! We’re entering the atmosphere in ten, nine, eight…” Jane counted calmly.

The spacecraft shifted violently and for a brief moment Jane thought it had been broken in half. The glaring light that had been on the horizon engulfed the ship and blinded its occupants. The astronauts shielded their eyes with their arms in unison as if they were performing some morbid dance. Jane could hear Ava crying into the internal microphone that linked them all together.

“Hang on! We will make it!” Jane yelled in her bravest voice. She didn’t believe it herself, but she had trained herself to stay outwardly positive no matter the situation. Her demeanor had saved her and most of her crew on that ill-fated trip to the moon. She had been hailed a hero after that mission, but she counted it as one of her greatest failures despite the fact that five of the six people on that disabled craft had miraculously made it back to the surface of the earth safely. Of course, the one who didn’t make it, Lieutenant Bradley Bell, had mattered most to her. She had never forgiven herself for not bringing Brad home. The look on his daughter’s face when she saw her at the hospital afterward would forever be seared in her memory. She had failed the ones she loved most, and to her that was unforgivable.

The roar around the spacecraft increased and the shaking intensified. Besides Ava’s wailing, the others remained quiet – at least on the comm system. Jane turned away from the light to glance at her crew. Olivia tilted her head down with her eyes closed as if in prayer. Frederick blinked into the light before them mesmerized by the glare and the imminent fate that awaited them. Sanjay stared back at her in his foreboding way. She had never liked Sanjay, but her commanders insisted that he be on the mission. He had received very high marks from all that had worked with him. He was considered one of the best by all the men he worked with, but Jane felt he had an issue with women. She sensed it in the way he took orders from her and the way every single request was taken as an affront to his manhood.

Sanjay acknowledged her with a slight nod. Tears puddled in his eyes. Jane was shocked by his display of emotion, something he’d shown no signs of in the years that she’d known and worked with him. He could be charming and engaging, but he was also arrogant and chauvinistic. She felt a perplexing kindred connection with him at that moment in spite of the things she knew he had said about her.

Nothing he had said was really new to her. She’d always been accused of being like a man. “Plain Jane” was the moniker that others, especially men, used behind her back. She knew this because she heard it in the whispers back at the base. Throughout her career, even after the heroic moon mission, many of her colleagues referred to her as Plain Jane as if it were a phrase that completely defined her. None of her male colleagues had to deal with such a dismissive attitude.

When she had first heard this encapsulation of who she was, she became enraged, but there was nothing she could do to stop it. She was who she was. She felt as feminine as any other woman, but she refused to kowtow to outdated expectations for her gender. It was 2099 for goodness’ sake. Hadn’t enough time passed to toss out preconceived notions about women? Hadn’t her gender achieved the pinnacle of success without having to apologize for their differences, without being compared to men?

Despite all the progress, her life was still defined by how others’ perceived her. She resented the Plain Jane nickname. She really hated it, but she resigned herself to ignore it and go about her business in the best way she knew how. Her father had always told her that doing would quiet her detractors more quickly than talking, and she had taken that to heart. “Doing” pervaded her entire career. Her approach, thanks to her beloved father, had driven her success, but the detractors still encircled her like a pack of hungry wolves. All of these thoughts throttled the dull ache in her head and she grimaced.

Sanjay turned away from her as if he was fed up with the battle that raged in the subconscious space between them or maybe he thought she had grimaced because of him. She stared at him for a brief moment before she turned her attention back to the flashing red light. She tried to focus on it hoping that it would distract her from her headache. She braced herself in her seat. The ship jarred left and she heard Wally cry out. The moment of truth had arrived. Either they would perish in the volatile atmosphere above Mars or they would plummet to the surface in a last-gasp effort to preserve the human race. There was no middle ground. The ship rocked and the roar of entry consumed them. Everything went black in a violent whiplash. The angry beast had swallowed them whole.

To Write Is Human, To Edit, Divine

Recently, at the Seattle Writing Workshop, I met an agent during a pitch session and pitched a novel that I had written over a year ago. When I was finished with my pitch, which went okay but not as beautifully as I had imagined in my head, we still had some time left, so he asked me what else I was working on. I talked about the novel that I had finished after the one I had pitched, and he perked up. He seemed more interested in that one than my original pitch idea. He asked to see that one, too, and I readily agreed.

While both manuscripts were technically “done,” (no book is truly done until it hits bookstores) and had gone through a few revisions, I had wanted to read through the second one at least one more time before I sent any part of it out. Nevertheless, I was determined to get both manuscripts to the agent. Agents rarely request full manuscripts on the first meeting (at least that’s been my experience). They typically want a synopsis and the first ten or so pages. If they like what they see, then they request the full manuscript. I knew I had to deliver these manuscripts as soon as possible while my meeting was still fresh in the agent’s mind.

The day after the workshop, I began re-reading and editing the second manuscript in earnest – all 400 pages of it. It had been at least six months since I had read the book, and my eyes were fresh to the material despite living and breathing every word on the page for so long, I found things I didn’t like, small errors that drove me mad, and opportunities to clean up the dialogue. Fresh eyes really helped. I bet I could go through it again in six months and find more things. Maybe manuscripts are like wine; they get better with age because you have fresh eyes on the material. In the end, I was able to get the manuscripts out to the agent in a few days (huge sigh of relief).

Editing is not my favorite writing activity, but it’s a skill that is required. I typically write a first draft and do an immediate reading and editing session with the material before I hand it over to my beta readers. Then, I let the manuscript sit for a few months and work on something else. Working on something else takes my mind off of the material and refreshes my perspective on it. The more I edit my own material, the more I realize how I’d like to have a professional editor helping me. Such a person would have a cold-blooded instinct that would really make my work shine.

In my nonfiction work, I have had the opportunity to work with a wonderful editor who is sharp-eyed and very skillful. I love working with her when I submit articles to this trade magazine. She can take good work and make it great just through her suggestions and edits. I’ve compared my articles side-by-side, and her edits have clearly improved the material. I only wish she was available to edit my fiction work. I believe we’d make a great tandem because her editing skills are beyond reproach.

While I haven’t made it through the entire publishing process yet, I know the value of a good editor, but not just any editor will do. I need one who understands my style and approach and does not attempt to overwhelm that with over-editing. A bad match could change the whole tenor of the work and kill the project in its infancy, but a great match would take the project to a whole new level and increase the chances of success. That would be heaven indeed.

What I Learned From Ada

Yesterday, I posted the final episode of my ten-part serial called “Ada.” It’s a story about domestic abuse that has a twist. It didn’t begin that way. In fact, the whole idea of my story about Ada began as the scene from the very first episode that sees her taking her last breath on her kitchen floor. It started with the end and grew from there.

Any time my mind grows idle, story ideas fill the gaps. Most of these story ideas are throwaways – scenes that burst to life but fizzle once I start to flesh them out. The ones that survive this sporadic creative process (I get ideas at the weirdest moments) get an entry in my notebook and an outline that preserves the idea for future use. I have many of these recorded ideas in my notebook – more than enough to keep me writing for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, I’m slow when it comes to writing novels. I can only write about one or two a year (I’ve been writing seriously for almost three years, and by the time my third anniversary rolls around in July, I will have only completed five novels).

Some ideas get turned into short stories (I’m slowly building a library of those), but other ideas languish, their potential lost to the ether, which brings me back to Ada. The original scene that I envisioned excited me, not because of the gore of the moment, but because I wanted to know who killed her and why. Did the story have novel potential? Possibly, but I already have a queue of ideas waiting for my attention. The story of Ada was threatened with waiting in a long line to see the light of day.

But, there’s the matter of this blog, which I’ve treated as a true writer’s notebook, a place to share story concepts, scenes, and my thoughts on writing. My goal is to post here once per week using it as a test kitchen of sorts to see what works and what doesn’t. Despite that freewheeling nature, I want to put good content out here. I want to engage the audience and see what responses I get, and that’s what prompted the serial experiment.

There were really no rules when I started the serial. My plan was to write extemporaneously, so each Monday, the day I planned a release, I’d write an episode and publish it. I didn’t outline the story. I just wrote what I felt like at that moment. I wanted to see how the creativity would unfold in an unbridled way. Outlines are great for an organization freak like me, but they can also be limiting, which is why many writers refuse to use them.

As a result the story shifted many times over the ten weeks. I wanted to convey a social message about domestic violence and its impact on the victims and society at large. I wanted to peel back the layers on the often inscrutable decisions victims make (why go back to someone who hurts you???), but I also wanted the story to be interesting. From the first episode, everyone knew that Ada died, so how do you hold your readers’ interest when you’ve given away the punch line from the beginning?

This presented a challenge. Originally, I posted the first episode simply as a scene for a potential novel. I had no intention of continuing the story on this blog, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of bringing the story to readers in an episodic approach that peeled back the layers week-by-week and let them into the world that Ada inhabited. The only thing was that I didn’t even know what that world was like until I wrote the episode each week. It sounded like a fun challenge, and it was.

So what did I learn? Serials are a fun way to engage your audience. Unlike short stories and novels, the story unfolds quickly and unexpectedly. My approach didn’t allow for a lot of editing and rewrites, which was refreshing from my standard writing. The extemporaneous creative approach can reinvigorate other writing. In between episodes I continued to write my current novel and another short story. I found those stories flowed more easily after the vigorous exercise of writing Ada. I’m an outliner, but even for a steadfast process guy like me, letting it loose feels good. Just pounding out the words on the keyboard with reckless abandon like a child coloring a picture excitedly without any regard for the lines gave me a different sense of accomplishment, an edgy thrill.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I’m glad I did it. Is another serial in the offing? Most likely. I’m just waiting for the inspiration to strike again.

Turning Points

My current novel is progressing slowly, but I feel like the story is really coming together. I enjoy writing it because I love the determination of the main character who is forced to deal with incredible obstacles yet remains positive and undeterred. The scene below is one of the turning points later in the novel. I decided to share it here because I think it captures the essence of the main character and demonstrates how seemingly insignificant moments can actually be those seminal ones that set the direction we take in our lives. It also reminds me of the quote from Epictetus, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” In this case, Bobby, the main character decides to pursue a dream that he had otherwise given up despite the obvious challenges he faces.

The cool hands of the morning brushed across his face and startled him awake. Bobby opened his eyes and surveyed his room without moving his body as if he were frozen in place. Despite being covered by the comforter, he felt a chill in his body that started at his toes and ran up his legs. He sat up and rubbed his hands across his face and through his hair. It had been over a year since he had lost his legs and he still had these feelings that presumed his legs were still there. He looked down at the cold plastic prosthetics propped against his bed on the floor. He didn’t need to look under the covers to prove he couldn’t feel anything. He knew.

A muted light angled through the blinds in his bedroom. The clock by his bed said 7:30, but he felt no rush since he didn’t have his eight o’clock class on this day. He could take his time. He lay back down on the bed and pulled the comforter tighter around his chest. The instantaneous warmth relaxed him, but a nagging thought fluttered in his head.

He recalled the video of Oscar Pistorius running the 200-meter race in the Paralympics, and suddenly, he had an intense desire to run. He wanted to get some of those blade-like legs and see how fast he could run. He wanted to reclaim that feeling of running around the track where the crowd dissolved into nothingness and the sound disappeared like it was sucked into some black hole. He need to transcend this earth and forget about his newfound limitations. He wanted to prove to himself that he still had it in him to run.

These feelings confused him. He had no idea where to begin, how to get the legs, or how to prepare to run as a Paralympic athlete. He really didn’t understand why he felt this way, but he did know that he was as sure of himself as he had been when he decided to attend Harvard or when he enlisted in the Army. He had never been more sure in his life. He had to run and he had to get into the Paralympics. He may not be able to represent his country in the Olympic Games like he had once dreamed, but he could certainly represent it as a disabled athlete who had sacrificed for his country. He wasn’t going to let his story end any other way.

Adrenaline pumped in his veins. His mind raced around the possibilities. Suddenly, his goal became very clear. He imagined himself on that track in Athens poised over the start block next to Oscar. He could hear the start gun fire and feel his muscles tense as he propelled himself forward on the blades that stood in for his feet. He didn’t know what it would sound like to run on these blades, so he imagined the sound as if it were the same as when he had his real legs. The blades pounded the track in lockstep motion with his arms. His breathing burned and ached in his lungs. He thrust himself forward through the finish line and cut the air above his head with victorious fists. The visualization excited him, made his heart pound. He hadn’t felt this excited about running since he ran on the college track team.

The vision overwhelmed him and he squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his head into his pillow. He had to think about what to do to get to the point where he could run again. He opened his eyes and stared at his fake legs. It felt hopeless. He had barely mastered walking in the prosthetics. How could he possibly think he could run in them or anything like them. Doubt ridiculed him. He turned over in his bed and faced the window. He could see up through the slight cracks in the blinds and saw the crystal blue sky outside. A beautiful day beckoned him, and that’s when he understood the possibilities and doubt melted away. He would run again. He had to. There was no other option.

A fierce determination steeled him as he sat up in his bed and attached the prosthetics to his stunted thighs. He pushed himself up with a renewed sense of confidence and walked to the window next to his bed. He opened the blinds to morning outside and stared into the deep blue sky. A new day had dawned and once again Bobby was taking a new direction.