Category Archives: Shaking My Head

Post #18: Finish Lines

As I wrote my 50,000th word this month I was at a coffee shop alone.  I’d gone in a few thousand short of my goal, ordered coffee and a peanut butter cookie, then set to work, vowing not to leave until I’d finished.  I didn’t.  A thrill went through me as I checked the word count.  50,007.  I looked around.  No one looked back.  I smiled.  No one seemed to notice.  I looked back at my computer.  It gave no notice, no indication of what I’d accomplished, of what it had been a part of.   No secret hand emerged to high-five me or pat me on the back.  The scenery remained unchanged.  People coming, people going.

I was listening to Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast.

Part of me wanted to strut to the nearest table, interrupt whoever was sitting there, and say, “you don’t know me, but I just wrote 50,000 words in November.  Now, what do you think about that!”

But I didn’t.

Because the truth is that, well, it wasn’t exactly anti-climactic, really, but…OK, yes it was.  Only a little, but still.

Finish lines, I’m finding, come in all shapes and sizes.  Each school year finishes in a summer, with more time to write and more time with my kids, with longer days and extra sunshine.  As a parent of young children, each evening finishes with a quiet house and a cold beer and toys dotting the living room floor.  Each year finishes with champagne and resolutions.  I hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim in a single day once, and that finish line was dusty and sweaty and achingly satisfying.

But the finish line for NANOWRIMO?  Well, it looked kind of like the starting line.  A blank page.  Waiting to be filled.

No finish has ever looked quite so similar to the start to me.  And here my hat goes off to NASCAR drivers.  Jesus, those people must be haunted by the feeling that they’re driving and driving and never going anywhere!

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m damn proud of what I accomplished.  I’m not the sort who can’t put his feet up and tip his cap to himself.  I set my mind to something, got to work, tried not to complain or get distracted or make my wife too miserable, and did what I’d set out to do and I like to think I earned the small measure of pride I felt and still feel.  And much love here to the folks who created and maintain NANOWRIMO.  Initially skeptical, I’ve emerged a believer and would encourage anyone to try it for themselves.

But for me, finishing NANOWRIMO, well, I feel like the joke is on me a little bit because I finished, but I’m anything but done.

First off, Blue Dot isn’t even over yet.  I’ve still got, I’m thinking, 7,000-10,000 left before I can put a THE END on this very, very, very rough draft.  And then comes the real work of revision, which, honestly, I’m greatly looking forward to but which is its own kind of marathon, so different from the sprint I’ve just been engaged in.  That’s a trick that NANOWRIMO plays on you, by the way.  It looks like a marathon, but it’s actually a very long sprint.  A marathon is about pacing yourself, but NANOWRIMO felt more like I was always in a hurry, trying to get to the next turn.  It’s a writing high that way, and sometimes you’re flying along in disbelief of your own pace and stride and how goddamn great the wind feels in your hair.   The rest of the time, you’re just trying not to trip and send yourself flying into the grass.

Sure, I want to celebrate, to soak up the moment.  Put my 50,007 in lights, take it out to dinner, show it off a little bit and make the neighbors jealous.  But honestly, none of that feels quite right.  Because the truth is that I kind of just want to get back to work.  Is that okay?

Post #17: Crawling Through the Nearest Window

Doing National Novel Writing Month is exhilarating.  I think this is mostly because I’ve never written, outside of education, for a capital “D” Deadline and the need to complete X quantity by Y date is a utilitarian sort of enterprise that’s added a different timbre to this writing experience than others whose end point hinges on a self-imposed deadline.

I’ve decided that NANOWRIMO is more about stamina than it is about creativity.  Not to shit on creativity.  Not at all.  But the truth is that the writers who have the best chance of starting and finishing a task like NANOWRIMO are those not necessarily with the keenest imaginations, but with the deepest well of endurance.  Those who can follow that sage piece of writing advice that I sometimes think is the only truly useful one: ass in chair.

Writing on a deadline makes you solve problems quickly.  My analogy is that when your story runs into a wall, find and crawl through the nearest window. Can’t find a window?  Tough.  Invent one.  I’m writing a sci-fi/horror mash-up because it sounded like a novel (pun so very much intended) change to my usual subject matter (realistic literary fiction) that would breathe enough fresh wind into my sails to make it to the finish line.  What I failed to realize is that genre writing is a lot harder than I thought it was.

Of course, all kinds of writing are difficult in their own way, but what I’m talking about is closer to the necessity in genre to respect the beginning-middle-end story structure.  I’m not writing a book about an existential crisis that doesn’t need to have an ending to be considered successful.  The plot is front and center this time out and the plot needs to, perhaps above all things, make sense to the reader.  And not sense as in “real,” but sense as in “consistent” and “logical.”  There’s a difference.

Consider The Catcher in the Rye.  In Salinger’s classic, one need not believe that the things that Holden does are the only things that could have happened.  For instance, after Holden’s conversation with the nuns in the diner, we don’t feel the need to make the meet-up logical or the basis to judge what happens next.  It may affect the next action, but it doesn’t have to.  Nor does the book have to really go anywhere, to end up someplace in order to be a great book, which is, of course, why it doesn’t.  For Christ’s Sake, the book’s final image is a kid on a merry go round!  In many ways this is exactly what makes a book like Catcher so great and so lasting–it prizes emotion and character above action.  And, quite frankly, character is more interesting.

But it all depends on how you look at it.  Seen through certain eyes, too large an emphasis on character could be a liability.  Most people I know who don’t like Catcher don’t like it because they don’t like Holden, not because “nothing happens.”   And if they don’t like it because nothing happens, well, they should probably put down Salinger and read Blue Dot, my NANOWRIMO book.  Because, let me tell you, all kinds of things are “happening” in my book.

But, of course, making things happen is its own kind of problem.  One problem being that the “happenings” have different rules in a plot driven piece than in a character driven piece.  Not dramatically different, but different all the same.  In genre, the cause and effect sequence needs to be cleaner, leaner, and ultimately, more satisfying to the reader.  After all, that’s what you’re selling them.  No one wants to buy tickets to the circus only to find, after the lights have dimmed and the curtains have closed, that they’re actually at an antique show.  It’s false advertising.  In filmic parlance, you might compare the ending of Die Hard to the ending of the last season of The Sopranos.  If Die Hard had ended with a long, slow fade out on the bloodied face of John Mclaine before his final show down with Hans and his reunion with his wife, and we were given no closure, no sense that the good guy had prevailed or that the estranged couple had re-united, myself, and a lot of other late 80’s Bruce Willis fans, would have wanted their money back.  The Sopranos could get away with such an ambiguous ending because the show was always more about Tony than it was about what Tony was doing.  Die Hard is about a guy too, but for that story to make sense to us, that guy needs to always be doing things that lead places.

I guess what I’m saying is that I choose a genre piece for NANOWRIMO because I thought it would liberating, and perhaps easier, to write.  But I’m realizing now this was a false assumption.  Genre isn’t harder, but it sure as hell isn’t much easier.  Which leads back to the earlier point that all kinds of writing are hard.

A problem for me is that I’m not used to writing plots that need to add up so neatly and my characters keep trying to stop my story and let themselves come front and center.  Part of me feels like they’re stalling because they don’t know what to do next.  I’m on track to finish my book on time, or at least get to 50,000 words on time, but right now the ending keeps getting further away.  And the further away it gets, the more I’m getting the feeling that Blue Dot may just be the world’s first alien invasion story that ends with a kid on a merry go round.

Post #10: Not Sure How I Feel About This

My first literary love was Spenser.  No, not the English poet.  Robert B. Parker’s indefatigable Boston based P.I. who, since 1973’s The Godwulf Manuscript, has been wittily cleaning up Boston’s streets one asshole at a time.  Parker, as you may know, died on January 18th, 2010 at 77, and I knew it was just a matter of time until I saw a book with his name at the top and another writer’s name much, much smaller at the bottom.  It’s happened.

The book is Robert B. Parker’s Killing the Blues by Michael Brandman and will feature not Spenser, but small town police chief Jesse Stone, another of Parker’s, and in this fan’s estimation, lesser creations.  I’ve seen this happening more and more, best selling authors releasing books featuring their worlds, their characters, but written by other people.  I guess I just didn’t care as much because I didn’t like the writers to begin with.  Kind of like I didn’t care when A-Rod got busted juicing, but when they got Manny, it hurt.  This one hit home.  This is Robert B. Parker.

I guess the only distinction I would make between Parker and other authors who have perpetuated this odd little literary scheme, James Patterson and Tom Clancy come to mind, is that Parker, like Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum and Lawrence Sanders, is dead.  And so far as I know, despite maintaining three separate characters and writing upwards of three to four new novels a year, Parker never knowingly let someone else write his characters so that he could profit while he was still drawing breath (excluding, of course, television and films, mediums that Parker’s characters had mixed relationships with).  What breaks my heart a little bit, though, is that he must have known they were going to.  Parker’s estate was behind Michael Brandman taking over Jesse Stone and are also behind Ace Atkins taking over Spenser.  The first new Spenser will appear in the spring of 2012.

Robert B. Parker did more to change the face of the hard boiled detective novel than anyone since Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  He contributed 39 Spensser novels to the literary well.  Now, some were shit and it’s hard to argue Parker wasn’t phoning it in toward the end.  But some weren’t.  Some were righteously awesome.  Page turners in the most honorable sense of the cliche.  Books that made time non-existent.  Many of them I’ve read several times.  Let me go way out and just say this: at their best, Parker’s Spenser books were the most fun I’ve ever had reading.  They occupy a pure and, dare I say, sacrosanct place in my life.  They’ve gotten under my skin.  Shaped the way I think about manhood.  And I still think when I write dialogue it comes out sounding like Spenser and Hawk on a stake out.  I just wonder how necessary this all is.  39 novels!  And that’s just Spenser.  This guy wrote his ass off.  He’s dead.  We’ll miss him and read his books to remember how beautiful he was.  It’s over.  That’s the way it should be.

Or should it?

Further research reveals that Parker’s widow and lifelong parter, Joan, has given the continuations her blessings.  As has Parker’s agent of over forty years.  Now, these two people obviously loved Parker a great deal, knew him intimately, would never want to see his legacy tarnished or his characters mocked.  Would probably not move forward with this if they thought he was opposed.  And it’s just crude to think they’re only in it for the money.  Is there some nobility here that I’m just not seeing? What gives?

Why is this so complicated?

I look around the culture and feel like a hypocrite for caring so much.  I’ve been watching James Bond since I was a kid and never batted an eye at all the other pens involved that didn’t belong to Ian Fleming.  Why is it different with Spenser?

I guess it’s different because I idolized and loved Robert B. Parker, as much as you can love someone you’ve never met.  For a long time, I wanted to be him.  I tried to write a detective novel.  Have you ever tried that?  It’s so much harder than it looks.  And the emotions I’ve invested in him and his characters make it more personal, just as I’m sure it has for Fleming fans and Bond purists over the years.

In an earlier post, I cited David Foster Wallace’s brilliant 2005 graduation address from Kenyon.  In it, Wallace talks about our “default settings.”  One of them is the idea that we are all programmed to believe that WE are the center of the universe.  That the things we care about and look at and go through are the realest things happening anywhere on the planet.  That they’re more authentic because they’re what WE care about. Until we force ourselves to take a step back. Or, in my case while writing this post, do a little more research.  Damn, that guy was good.

I don’t know whether or not I’ll read a Spenser book written by Ace Atkins.  Maybe.  I wonder: Is new  Spenser by him better than no new Spenser at all?

Hell, I don’t know.

Post #7: National Novel Writing Month

I’m considering trying out National Novel Writing Month in November.  The goal is to produce 50,000 words in a month.  Only about 15% of those who try finish.  I’m excited about it, but for reasons I can’t quite articulate, though they’ve already had me called a snob once (and counting), I’m dubious as well.   Part of me loves the challenge, wants to see what would come out on such a tight deadline.  And to see if I could finish.  Yet,  I can’t shake the thought that there’s something kind of South Beach Diet about all this too.  Try writing and you won’t believe the results!

Maybe I am a snob.

But then I take a step back and ask myself: what can be wrong with anything whose sole purpose for being is to put people’s asses in chairs writing a lot?

Myself answers: nothing, you idiot.

I kind of like what this guy has to say about it:  http://vimeo.com/7564037

Learn more at National Novel Writing Month’s Homebase: http://www.nanowrimo.org/