Write Down to the Nitty Gritty

I was talking to a friend (I have those. Who knew, right?), and she had expressed some interest in my process for writing. I’ve declared before that I don’t do a lot of prep work to start a book, but going over my method, steps 1-5 of 8 are all prep work that I need to do before I get to the fun part (cracking open the notebook and letting the page dictate the story to me). My novels are mostly freeform, but I have a lot more control over them than I admit.  

tl;dr: I can write a novel in two months. This is how I do it. 

1) I want to make a novel about this particular hook. 

2) I need a main character. Default jumping-off point is a straight white guy. From here I some editing. First, the guy should be a woman. (I always do that. I like writing women. What can I say?) Next, does she have to be white? I consider the story possibilities—social, political, emotional—that can open up by writing about a black woman, or a Latina, or an Indian woman, and then I pick one. Next, does she have to be straight?* 

3) I do a little bit of research, if necessary, about the hook and how it relates to the main character’s race, gender, and sexuality. I don’t do this to make the research fit into the confines of the novel, but rather to let the research to take my idea and blossom it. There are ideas and directions I’d never considered that I find out about on Wikipedia.  

4) I look back on my life and I find moods, people, sensations, and events that fit into the world that is being created in my head. I pull details and emotions out of these memories and gift them to the new characters I’m creating.  

5) I stare off into space and think about all of this. If I have a cat, I pet the cat. 

6) I put pen to paper and write. The plot will magically reveal itself to me. 

7) I type what I wrote in my notebook and use the time to review my language or ideas. I catch a lot of mistakes this way. 

8) I wait a month or so after I finish my novel to go back over it. I consider themes and characters I introduced later in the book and see if I can introduce those earlier. I consider pacing. But mostly, I’m satisfied with what I’ve written.  

And that’s where a book comes from. Now, if I could figure out to do with them. 

* (Note that the two main characters in my last novel were white, which they had to be for the irony in the story to work properly. I had considered alternatives, but that’s what I figured would be best. One of them was a white guy, but at least he wasn’t heterosexual, so I give him a pass. The other was straight, but she was a woman. Ultimately, this was probably my most vanilla novel.) 

Smelling the Roses

I made a post on Facebook the day I started my current novel: November 23. I wrote the final word in it yesterday. That’s three days shy of two months. The novel I finished before that was finished in a few days over two months. To which I say: For crying out loud, Jeremiah, slow down! It’s not a race. Writing is your hobby, not something you need to do in less time than it takes to form a habit. Slow down. Savor it. 

Here’s the hardest part. I want to be spending more time with my novels because (this is where most of my friends will think, “Yup, he’s lost it—all those years of solitude have really taken their toll”; my writer friends will think, “Yeah, that’s about right”) I get really attached to these characters. I like hanging out with them, I like learning how they think, I like hearing them talk. They never fail to surprise me. They’re alive, and now that I’m writing one-offs as opposed to a series, once I’m done with them, I’m done with them. They’re gone. It’s like a summer friendship, but shorter, and without the pen-palling.  

It will be a few days before I start my next one. I’ve got the slightest glimmer of an idea, but nothing I can build on just yet. My hope is that I can pace myself this time. There’s no rush. 

A Delicate Snowflake

Let me see if I can frame this so it’s clear. 

I believe I am a really good writer. It’s the only part of myself I have any solid confidence in. I consider it my only real value. Without this belief, I’m just an unremarkable, middle-aged white guy in a country full of them. I’m not exaggerating, this is how I feel, and this is how I feel about only myself. I don’t hate that I’m unremarkable. I’m actually at peace with it. It took me years of therapy to reach that point. 

The last time I tried to get a book published, it was about six or seven years ago, and it was my first novel, The Long Trip. I’m proud of that novel. It was rejected sixty times. I know that other writers have seen more rejections, but I’m not other writers. I don’t have the stomach for it. Each email that I got from agents telling me they were going to pass on my masterpiece was another refutation of that belief in what made me special. 

I stopped writing after that. What was the point? I clearly wasn’t any good at it. It took me until 2017 to pick the pen back up, and I started looking at it differently. I thought, maybe I’m an objectively bad-to-mediocre writer, but in my eyes, I can entertain the hell out of myself. And so I resolved to write for myself and myself alone (though My Biggest Fan has been reading over my shoulder this whole time). 

Kate always asked me what I was planning to do with my novels when I cranked them out at a rate of about one every three-and-a-half months. My answer, to her disappointment (she was looking forward to retiring on my royalty checks), was, “Write more novels.” And I kept doing it, even through the divorce.  

And then a funny thing called Gary happened. I suddenly found in my words, which had previously been used to describe action-packed fantasy, a maturity and a soul that had been missing from my work for a long time. I wrote a book that wasn’t just a fun romp through witches and fairies and cryptids. I wrote a good book. And I’ve resolved for the New Year to give dozens of agents a chance to prove me wrong.  

For a lot of writers, rejection is just a necessary part of the process, nothing more. To some, they’re a source of pride that they put themselves out there. But to me, it’s someone telling me that I don’t have anything to contribute, that I’m not interesting enough. That I will always be at or below average, and that’s it. 

It isn’t a healthy way to think. In fact, it’s actually a little dramatic and whiny. I know that I’m a delicate, thin-skinned snowflake. But it’s how I think, it’s how I am, and I’m really sorry about that. I wish I could be stronger. 

I’m doing it, though, because, for now, I feel that my novel is worth it. I promised, for its sake, that I would try. I don’t know if that’s brave or just stubborn. Really, is there a difference? 

In Defense of the Empire

I’m thinking about the original Star Wars trilogy, and if we look at it only in terms of what we learned in the original trilogy, was the Empire that bad? Sure you hear about how bad the Empire is, with its ruthless something or other, but who do you hear that from? Princess Leia. A terrorist. You don’t see any of the ruthlessness they talk about in any of the planets they visit (although, to be fair, the only regular planet they visit is Tatooine). The symbols of oppression, the Storm Troopers, are checking vehicles for stolen droids that were used by the terrorists to smuggle classified data. That seems like a perfectly reasonable thing for a law-enforcement group to do. Basically, from what little we see of day-to-day life in the Empire, planets are self-sufficient and not really bothered too much. It’s a system of government that functions pretty well. Dissolving the Senate is not particularly democratic, but the Empire had been a dictatorship for twenty years, and spending all the tax dollars on a vestigial branch of government seems kind of wasteful. 

Am I forgetting something? Oh, yes. Alderaan. Grand Moff Tarkin ordered the destruction of planet Alderaan, ending billions of lives. Evil? Not so fast. Exploding countless innocent people because they might have some connection to terrorists is a pretty routine thing the United States does. And, yes, Obama did it too.  

Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, and Grand Moff Tarken are three very evil people, so they say. But they’re trying to run a galaxy here. They’re assholes, but maybe they’re just pragmatic.  

I guess I’m saying that the original Star Wars movies are pitched to us as a clash of good versus evil, but we have to take a terrorist’s word that the bad guys are really that bad. Imagine you were living in the Star Wars Galaxy, and you worked a nine-to-five job, and you were married and had kids, and your best friend was an alien who spoke to you in their alien language, and you spoke to them in English. Now imagine you turned on the news, and you hear that some teenagers in fighter jets are blowing up military bases and shooting a bunch of troops. The worst part is, it is absolutely killing your commute. It’s not clear from that point of view who’s good and who’s evil. 

And when you think about the Empire in the terms of a government that has to take care of billions of billions of people of all races and nationalities that is being attacked by guerilla warriors, what does that say about us? As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as plucky rebels overthrowing a ruthless, evil regime, but we’re really not, are we?  

A Very Bad Joke

One fine morning, Patricia Black set out for work. By the time she arrived at The People’s National Bank, she was ready for anything.  

Well, almost everything.  

At about ten o’clock, she was surprised by the appearance of a frog, who hopped right up to her desk and said, “Ribbit!” 

Not one to turn away a customer, she asked, “What can I help you with today?” 

The frog said, “Ribbit.” 

She didn’t know what ribbit meant, so she would have to make some guesses. “Would you like a loan?” 

“Ribbit!”  

There was something affirmative in that ribbit, so she replied, “You’ve come to the right place! The first thing I need to know is if you have some collateral.” 

The frog spit up something on the desktop.  

Delicately she picked it up and studied it. It was some sort of clay statue of a unicorn, about the size of a cell phone. But what was it? Knowing she wasn’t going to get a straight answer out of the frog, she turned to the man at the desk next to her, Joel Bey. “Joel, can you tell me what this is?” 

Joel frowned thoughtfully, but he shrugged. “No idea.” 

If there was anyone who would know, it was her boss, the bank manager, Walter O’Connor. She excused herself to the frog and headed to his office immediately.  

He waved her in as if he were glad to see her. He was always glad to see everybody. He was just that kind of boss. “What can I help you with, Patricia?” he asked. 

She explained her new client and held up the unicorn. “And this is what he would like to use as collateral, but I have no idea what it is.” 

Walter studied it, muttering, “I haven’t seen one of these in a long time.” 

“What is it?” 

“Why it’s a knick-knack, Patty Black, give the frog a loan!” 

I … I’ll see myself out. 

The Aristotle Code

I’ve decided that, when I finish the novel I’m working on, I want the next one to be a conspiracy thriller. I’ve done some thinking on it, and this is the plot: 

The hero is a middle-aged, square-jawed professor in the philosophical anthropology department of Yale named John Hawke. He has eight PhDs and speaks twelve languages, none of which will ever come up in this book. All of his straight male students want to be him, and his straight female students want him, but not in a creepy way. One day, during office hours, when he’s teaching a student a fresh, exciting way to see philosophical anthropology, a beautiful, alluring, stunning, mysterious woman appears.  

The woman, Vanessa Riviera, came to John because he’s the World’s foremost expert on Aristotle, and with his dying words, Aristotle revealed the location of The Holy Grail, but in code. Together, with a mysterious organization that doesn’t want The Holy Grail found dogging their trail, they travel the globe and find the location of The Holy Grail, only to discover that it had been moved. They do more globetrotting, and they are pursued again, until it is finally revealed to them: 

The Holy Grail is actually a wine goblet a suburban mom in Wisconsin named Karen picked up at a garage sale because she thought it would look so cute next to her Hummel figurines on her mantel, but the cat kept knocking it down so now it’s in a box in the storage shed that her husband, Harold, has been promising that he’ll clean, but he never does, instead he watches football and History Channel documentaries about World War 2. 

The climax of the book is fifty pages of Dr. Hawke, Vanessa, and representatives of the mysterious organization standing around Karen’s backyard as she goes through her boxes and talks about everything she pulls out. (“This is the bowling trophy Harold won in ’08 for bowling his first 200. He never got a 300, but he was always proud of this little thing. Here’s an ash tray little Mackenzie made me in school. We don’t smoke, but it was a sweet thought, and we had it on our coffee table for years. Here’s the monogrammed coasters we picked up in the Black Hills in South Dakota. Hunter was conceived there. Well, there’s no Holy Grail in this box. Maybe it got put in with the Halloween decorations.”) 

Eventually the mysterious organization gets bored and leaves, and Dr. Hawke gets The Grail. This turns out not to matter to the world in any way whatsoever.