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.  

Resolution Number Nine Number Two

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that I’ve decided to tackle a New Year’s Resolution that is going to challenge me, but if it works out, will reward me immeasurably. This is a pretty big deal, and, I have to say, for a Resolution, it’s a good one.  

But yesterday, I had a thought. It flashed in my head and left an image there that I couldn’t shake, like when you look into a bright light and there’s that purple blob. And that purple blob is this: in addition to trying to find an agent for my novel, Gary, I’m going to come up with a pitch for a television show, and I’m going to pitch it to someone.  

I know even less about pitching a TV show than I know about finding an agent, which is to say I know nothing. But I know this: I have a really good idea, and I just need to communicate it in the language of entertainment execs (which is a strange, foreign language that even Google Translate won’t dare).  

The worst thing that will happen is that neither agents nor execs are interested, and I will be in the same position at the end of 2020 that I was in at the end of 2019, so there’s really no reason for me not to try. 

If you pray, pray for my success. If you do blessings, bless me. If you cast spells, I need one. If you do none of those things, at least cheer me along as I jog by, winded and aching. Between two jobs, I’m going to be super-busy in 2020, and your support will mean the world to me. 

Resolution Number Nine

The secret to my newfound contentment is that I don’t indulge in things that make me unhappy. This is why I don’t like to go to parties and why I avoid the news (while still staying informed). Some might consider this the coward’s way out. You’re supposed to face your fears, and allegedly only good will come of it. In my experience, this is not the case. Parties bore me and make me uncomfortable. The news fills me with rage. The only true happiness can be found on the path of denial. But the fact is, even this way, I have plenty of adventures and enriching experiences. I’ve never been down this street before? Let’s find out what’s there. A coffee shop I hadn’t noticed before? Let’s get a latte. I’ve never written a novel before (on purpose)? Let me give it a shot. A friend I’ve been estranged from for two years in a city I barely know where it’s impossible to find a job? I guess I’d better be her roommate.  

I don’t necessarily play it safe, but I’m not going to go endure something awful if there’s no reward behind it. 

That said, my New Year’s Resolution is to do a very specific thing that is going to make me miserable, and I’m reasonably certain I’m not going to get anything positive out of it. I’m doing it because I, in this case, deserve to be successful, even if it doesn’t work out that way. 

In 2020–I’m giving myself one year—I’m going to make every attempt to get an agent and traditionally publish my novel, Gary, which I finished writing at the end of November. If I do say so myself, my first drafts are like most people’s second drafts, so I need just a little polishing, some reinforcement of certain themes, until it’s done. I’ve already spoken to a friend who has a background in publishing about my query letter, so I worked on that over the Christmas holiday. I’m giving myself one year. If, by the end of the year, I’ve had nary a nibble, I give myself permission to quit (or continue, depending on how I’m feeling next December). 

I hate rejection. I shouldn’t take it personally. An agent isn’t rejecting me because they think I’m bad, they’re rejecting me because they can’t envision me being a bestseller. I don’t have the name recognition of J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or Stephen King’s son. This won’t be a good Netflix series. (Gary is written in such a way that it can only ever be a novel.) But I still do take it personally. I spent years trying to get someone to consider my first novel, The Long Trip, and no one would. After a while, I felt my soul start to shrivel up and my stomach twist in nasty ways. After sixty rejections, I had to quit. I have a thin skin, what can I say?  

I tell you all this so you know what a big deal this is for me. This is going to hurt, so, so bad. But if, by some slight glimmer of a snowball’s chance, it pays off …  

Pit Stop

I’ve been writing nonstop for the past two-and-a-half, almost three years, whenever I can, wherever I can. It’s been nothing particularly profound, mostly silly magical adventures, with a few romances and one epic sci-fi/fantasy thrown in, but it’s my art and my reason. I have no doubt whatsoever that if I hadn’t been structuring my new life around writing, I never would have made it through this divorce. Even as I’ve been working these endless strings of fifteen-hour days, I’ve managed to find a cumulative hour a day to put pen to paper.  

And with that in mind, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. I just finished a novel that I think is good enough to shop to agents after I give it a once-over and a polish, and for the first time since I started this marathon in 2017, I don’t have an idea for my next piece. I’m not calling it Writers’ Block, because that connotates an outside force keeping me from inspiration, when in fact, I just haven’t let my mind wander as much as I usually have (probably those aforementioned fifteen-hour days). I’m also not sweating it. If I take some time off from writing, I might actually do things like finishing unpacking my room or read a book. I’ve committed to doing some editing next month, which I wouldn’t be able to do if I was scribbling and typing furiously away every time I wasn’t working, sleeping, or doing laundry. 

But I can’t deny, it’s weird not to be stressing out about when I can find some time to sit down with my notebook or wondering where the characters are going to go next. It’s like writing was a job, and I just got laid off. I talked about free moments earlier, but when I’m in full writer mode, I don’t have free moments. I’m constantly occupied by my novel or short story. Well, now I have free moments. Who knows how long that’s going to last until inspiration gooses me, and I get back to work. 

What to do, what to do … 

Hack the Planet

The reason they won’t let me write suspenseful thrillers in Hollywood or TV Land is because all of my stories would end like this: 

*Our scene opens in the VILLAINS lair. The VILLAIN has been defeated, but he has left one dastardly trap for the heroes—a biological weapon that is primed to subject all of Los Angeles to an agonizing death. In a desperate attempt to stop it, the HERO and HEROINE confront the VILLAINS laptop.* 

HERO: The only way to stop it is to enter the password! 

HEROINE: We’ve only got two minutes left! Start guessing! 

HERO: There’s a catch! If you enter the wrong password three times, it automatically triggers the device! I know an algorithm that can bypass the security node and access the device! *HERO types furiously, but the screen flashes red, and he pounds the table* Dammit! There’s a firewall eating my code! I can’t get through! 

HEROINE: Two guesses left! 

HERO: There was only one thing that he loved in this life! One thing that made him human! His daughter! *HERO types the VILLAINS daughters name, but gets another red flash* Dammit! 

HEROINE: One guess left! 

HERO: There’s only one thing we can do, and it’s a long shot! Before the Villain murdered him and his family, my brother entrusted me with a worm he coded! If it works, it’s like an electronic skeleton key that can— 

HEROINE: *Slides the laptop over to herself and types P-A-S-S-W-O-R-D. With a dull hum, the device powers down* 

HERO. Goddammit.