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. 

Putting it to Rest

I realized I’m missing something: I have no ritual, no way of marking the occasion when I finish writing a novel. Since early 2018, I’ve completed six of them, and I’m a few pages away from I realized I’m missing something: I have no ritual, no way of marking the occasion when I finish writing a novel. Since early 2018, I’ve completed six of them, and I’m a few pages away from my seventh—which I will likely finish at work because it is so slow there—and the only thing I do when I’m finished writing one is flip the page and get started on the next one. I don’t go out partying with friends because I don’t have any friends to party with, I don’t treat myself to a nice dinner because I do that whenever I want (or never now that I’m broke), and I don’t pop open a bottle of champagne for obvious reasons. I don’t even give the book a once-over and prepare it for publication because a) I wait months before I reread something I’ve written, and b) it’s not getting published. (I love to write. I write not to be read, but for the act of writing itself.) I kind of wish I had something to do, though. I feel like writing an entire novel is something to be celebrated. 

Strong Female Protagonist

According to the Legend of Joss Whedon, during an interview he was asked why he creates so many strong female characters. He responded, “Because you asked that question.” 

I write a lot of female characters—the main character in my six-and-growing unpublished book series is a woman. The villain in my fan fiction is a woman. But I’m not doing it to be political. I’m doing it because, “Why not?”  

My fanfic villain was conceived to be a man, but as I sat down to write, I scribbled an “S” in front of “he,” and now she is menacing the sweet holy hell out of Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, but as a petite, frequently underestimated Native American woman as opposed to the imposing badass I’d first considered. Why did I add the “S” in the first place? Because part of the character’s origin is in their spouse getting murdered, and do we really need another dead wife? 

The thing is, it’s not that hard to write women. I don’t know why the entertainment world has such a problem with it. Yes, there are differences between the genders that, as a cis het-male I’ll never fully understand, but I can always ask. And even so, the real lesson here is that there are more similarities than differences between men and woman from a character-building standpoint. Men and women both want things, and as long as you understand that, for women, these wants don’t stop at pretty dresses and a man, you’re on the right track. 

So yeah, if somehow my books got out in the world and I was asked about my female protagonists, the first thing I’d say is, “You know who could write women better than me, even? A woman.” Then I’d say, “Women are people. Try writing people. I don’t see why this needs to be spelled out for you.” 

The “Why not” principal also works for races that aren’t yours, as well as sexualities. Just don’t make cartoons out of characters, and you’ll be fine. 

Fic Fic Hurray!

I’ve stated in the past that I would never write fan fiction before sitting down and writing fan fiction, but I want to clarify something. My own reticence about doing it doesn’t mean that I hate it. On the contrary, I think fan fiction is one of the best products of the Internet.  

In a time when pop culture looms large, fan fiction allows people to really dive into the characters who are such a big part of their lives. A lot of fan fiction is erotica or relationship porn because exploring that aspect of life with beloved characters is something that helps people understand that side of their own lives.  

It also teaches writers how to write—rather than making big, rookie mistakes on your own characters and plots, which you would be super invested in, you can use someone else’s and really learn. You get a lot of feedback for it too, and most of it is positive and constructive. It’s the educational aspect that is responsible for the quality complaints Internet denizens have, but honestly, Leonardo Da Vinci’s first drawings and sculptures probably looked like hammered shit. They’re getting better. 

And then there’s the political aspect of it. The main reasons trolls hate fan fiction so much is that it’s the domain of young women. Even though it’s the twenty-first century, girls don’t get a lot of encouragement to do what they want to do, and fan fiction boards are friendly places telling them that they can. Anything that helps young women and tells them that they’re good is healthy and important. 

I’m writing Highlander fan fiction because the Highlander was my favorite movie when I was a teenager. I love the characters, I love the world, and I love all the little rules, and I have questions that I feel like I should ask (even if I don’t answer them because part of the world-building of the franchise is that these questions have no answers). I wanted to write dialogue like this: “So you keep saying you can’t die, but that guy over there with his head missing is very dead. You, sir, are a big, fat liar.” 

Basically I’m a fan of fan fiction, and if you’re writing some, or you have kids who are writing some, you have me behind you, with pom-poms. 

Comments of the Damned

So in my current novel, a couple of college students catch the witch doing something extremely, visually magical on camera, and it gets posted on YouTube. The exposure of magic in a world where some very powerful, vindictive people want to keep magic all hush-hush was going to be a major plot point, until I thought about it.  

In real life, half of the comments on that post would be “FAKE!!!1!!” and other videos would pop up mocking or breaking down the special effects of the original video. And then there will be the memes. So basically, the reality of the Internet killed this storyline for me. 

Assembly Line of Inspiration

In February of 2017, I ended my two-year writer’s block by cranking out a story for publication (rejected). I then signed up for a writing contest, and that kept me busy for a while until I got voted out. And then, that spring, I made the conscious decision to write a novel (I add that distinction because I wrote my first novel by accident). When that was done, I wrote another one. And another. I never knew what I was going to write, just that I should sit down and do it. And so, I proceeded to work on short stories and novels constantly through the next two and a third years, rarely missing a day, until the wall I just hit. 

I can’t overstate how many times I’ve finished a chapter and informed a friend, “I have no ideas for the next one,” only to start work on it the next day. This is different. But this is an unfamiliar feeling, thinking about my novel and coming up with absolutely nothing. 

I’m not worried, I will write again. But I am a little unsettled.