Hope & Change

What if everything that’s going wrong with this country politically—the hatred, the distrust, the bad faith, the hundreds of thousands of deaths, could be traced back to a single event twenty-six years ago? Without that event, our country could become a more reasonable, equitable place? What if you could make that event go away? Would you do it?

But making that event goes away would change everything. It would smooth away some of the adversity that makes you who you are. You might not be friends with the same people, you probably wouldn’t live in the same place. Your economic situation could be different. You could even have a different partner. And almost certainly, every single person born in the last twenty-five years would cease to exist, replaced by other people, who I’m sure are lovely, but they wouldn’t be your sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and friends. Would you still do it?

That’s the question I’m asking in my current novel. I’ve identified an event in 1994 that has led directly to where we are now, with federal agents kidnapping innocent Americans off of the streets (but, ironically enough, not the Americans that stormed state capitals with AR-15s on their backs), and I’m asking if everything good that would be altered in history was worth it to change our decades-long slide into fascism. Do you have a duty to the hundreds of thousands of those who have lost their lives so far and the millions more living a nightmare life of poverty, or do you have a duty to the members of the Zoom Generation who have touched your life?

Would I do it? Would I change literally everything?

And the answer is, I don’t know. I really don’t know.

A Positive Spin

I think I’m making a huge mistake, narratively, in my novel, but I’m not sure I want to fix it. Basically, the law and order principal of my heroine’s high school asks her to trust her (the principal) with the kind of secret that could end the heroine’s life at that school if it gets out. This would be the perfect opportunity for betrayal and creating an impossible social situation and the kind of chaos that my stories thrive on.

But I don’t do that. The principal keeps her word. The secret is safe.

Right now, I severely distrust authority. From the top to the bottom, I don’t believe that authority, in general, has my best interests at heart. I saw my high school principals, in one way or another, betray the students they were supposed to protect. One went to prison for it. And yet I don’t want to teach my heroine the same lesson I learned. Her life is hard enough as it is. I want her to be able to trust someone in power.

As a weaver of plots, I chose the boring path, the overly optimistic one. This isn’t Game of Thrones—this is a YA novel about a teenage witch. Let me have a little light.

Cooped up and Crazy

Day 15 of quarantine, and I’ve snapped. I thought that, as a rabid introvert, this would be great, but I’m barely keeping it together.

Part of it is physical. It’s a seven-minute walk at top speed to get to the office from the Metro in the morning, and Order Processing is an active, demanding job, and over the course of two days, all of that is gone. Walks around the cemetery aren’t filling in the gap.

Mostly it’s time. What am I supposed to do with all of it? I thought I’d write more with tons of it, but I’m actually writing less. When I worked, I wrote for an hour first thing in the mornings, on the trains when I found a seat, and in the hour between jobs. I still write for an hour in the morning, but that’s it. The rest of my time I spend trying unsuccessfully to think of things to write and watching TV. When time isn’t precious, I tend to waste more of it.

This is going to go on for a while, so what I need is some way to apply the pressure that I’m used to, or just to use the time productively, or to accept and forgive myself if I’m not productive. These are strange times.

The Best Days of our Lives

My current novel is a Young Adult novel. That means I have to get into the head of a social outcast in high school, and that’s fun, I guess.

Here’s the problem: thirty years later, the stakes aren’t as high. If I woke up in high school tomorrow with forty-four years behind me, and some pretty girls in the hallway started whispering to each other while keeping their eyes on me, I’d just say whatever and keep walking. I wouldn’t even be able to work up the energy to make a jerk-off motion with my hand.

But back when I only had fourteen years behind me, the ground would tremble, fissures would open in the floor, and skeletal hands would grab me and drag me into eternal suffering. My life would be OVER.

And let’s not underestimate the amount of influence the contamination of going through puberty affects the point of view.

So, yeah, I’ve got a great story to tell, but I don’t know if I’m going to be able to properly communicate the URGENCY of the experience.

Entitlements

Sometimes, when looking for inspiration, for the answer to a creative question, it’s like a tug of war. You pull and pull, but not-having-the-answer is pulling back even harder. You think about it constantly, you turn over every angle of what you know about what you’re working on, and you’re still not seeing what it is you’re looking for. There’s a solution, and it’s so close, you can taste it.

And then not-having-the-answer lets go of the rope, and you fall on your ass. There it was, what you have been looking for this whole time. The answer couldn’t have been anything else, it’s so obvious now. The frustration dissolves, and the weight lifts off of your shoulders.

I’ve been looking for a title for my vampire novel for five weeks, and I just figured out what it is. It’s called The Bereaved, which should give you a pretty good idea what it’s really about.

A Plot To Take In

So, it turns out my vampire novel isn’t actually about vampires. It’s about the relationship between two young women and how one helps the other come to accept the sadness and anger she feels after a shocking, unimaginable loss and live her life one day at a time, and also there’s some vampires in it. This book will never get published.

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? 

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.