A moment in the sunshine

A couple weeks ago, one of my pitches for a travel story was accepted. I’ve been blogging for a very long time, probably about 13 years, maybe longer, so I am no stranger to a first person narrative, but this felt a little bit different. This was no slap-dash rambling tale of something that happened, this was a STORY, this was something someone might actually pay me for! In some ways it felt like that hypothetical stone that smart asses with at least one college level philosophy course bring up. The one that God creates, and just might be so heavy He cannot lift it.

So, I started off with a draft and realized at about 1200 words that I could write a lot more than the 1000 word limit I was given, especially considering I hadn’t even hit the parts that I had said I was going to write about in the pitch. I took some inspiration from the 2018 Years Best in Travel Writing anthology, which were very much like the blogs I’ve been writing for many years. Incorporate the personal with the spectacular, thread them together and allow the setting to become a character in the story.

I pored over the story, writing out the narrative, filling it full of imagery and character and then ruthlessly killing my darlings, carving it down over 700 words until I hit my word count. Ish. I thought of the Hemingway documentary I had watched the week before, and how he urged writers to just begin by writing one perfect sentence. Then following that one with another perfect sentence. This meticulous attention to detail borders on the obsessive. It is a rock it’s Creator never judges the weight of properly in the beginning. That bitch is heavy.

After a few days of this, I submitted the story. I’m still waiting to hear back. I like what I turned in, but I did have my doubts. Part of writing is familiar to anyone who has been in an unhealthy relationship. You have to anticipate what your editor might want, without actually knowing. I guess the best approach to this is to submit your best writing, and if they don’t like it, you can submit it someplace else. Otherwise, it’s just mindreading (which is impossible) and dumb luck (which is more likley). Hard work, editing, and maybe just a modicum of belief in yourself will payoff if you keep at it. That’s what I’m going with anyway. Otherwise, you have about as much luck selling a story as you do hitting a winning scratch ticket.

My doubts stemmed from the fact that the anthology I was reading was extrapolated from magazines such as Esquire, New York Magazine, the Atlantic, and some others. Had I completely misread the room and put this personal narrative out there when really they might have wanted some kind of list of “Best places to eat dungeoness crab on the Oregon coast”? So, yes, of course there are doubts.

Just as a parent has doubts that first time they let their kid walk to school on their own. The doubts that you get when you set foot on an airplane that is about to fly close to the speed of sound halfway around the world. The doubt you get when you give that person you like your phone number. And with those doubts comes a feeling of exhiliration too. The possibilities that come, all of which are good, which are more likely to come true than any of the negative shit you’ve been cooking up in your head.

That kid will make it to school, and make the trip about a thousand more times. And they will learn to drive, and read train timetables, and take buses in other countries, and be self-reliant when the chips are down. That flight you were nervous about taking will open your eyes to new wonders and experiences that nothing can take away from you. The person you like calls you and you laugh and chat and enjoy each other’s company, gradually filling in the blanks of each other’s Mysteries until you chide yourself for ever being nervous about giving them your number in the first place. You wouldn’t know what to do without them.

And maybe that story gets published and it takes a bunch of readers along with you. Because that is the entire point. Like anything worth doing though, it takes time and work and overcoming some serious doubt.

After all, most Creatives are like this because we’d had our share of damage in life and use our talents to try to make sense of this universal brokeness, this imbalance of emotions and personalities and conflict we find ourselves examining every day. Otherwise, we would do something sane like working with numbers, which never lie. So of course we will have some doubts. We will have to overcome our own self-doubts, fight our own demons, and maybe get to some point where we can have that moment in the sunshine where we feel the warmth on our faces and say “I like this feeling.”

Just a little bit of that is truly addictive.

It’s no wonder we get so fearful of the next chance, which could be a total failure. But what if it isn’t? What if it’s another day with the sun on our face? And like Hemingway’s perfect sentence, we just follow up with another one.

Writing late

Today I wrote around 2,000 words on a small chapter. The biggest problem I am having lately is with my process. I’m wasting a lot of time throughout the day not writing. Then late at night, I sit down, put words to paper, write a decent amount of stuff and before I know it, the clock is telling me it is 2am and I am still wide awake.

Then I lie in bed, feeling my body shaking from exhaustion. I pull myself out of bed, my feet hitting the floor all wobbly like those of a newborn deer. I reach out for my phone and open the Notes app. There is where I sketch other scenes I want to work on later. Sometimes it is exchanges of dialog, sometimes it is just a note of something I remember that I want to get down before it is lost to exhaustion. This can go on for hours.

Tonight I got over 3,500 words down, excluding this blog post. I’m getting braver about what I write about, taking greater risks, cutting deeper and deeper to the marrow of the story. The solitude and quiet and cool night air help. Once I get the words down in the Scrivener document, anything left over gets jotted down in the notes and then the next day moved from my phone to the main document via Airdrop.

I’m not letting myself think about who is going to read this. It feels good to get the words down. The story is coming through, like big and small blogs of ink on a page, which expand outward, creating the mosaic of a story as I go. I’m beginning to feel a theme, and a plot of some kind come together too.

I’m going to try to rest now before the ideas come beating at the door of my brain, demanding to be heard.

The Writing Process

Recently, I used a foolscap method to plot the entirety of my book.  This was cribbed from Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art which isn’t only a guide on creativity and writing, but also getting out of your own way in life a lot of the time.  Though I didn’t use the Big Chief tablet itself, I did use an Excel spreadsheet, which is more akin to the method Heller used for Catch-22.

Here’s a copy I borrowed from the interwebs for reference.  As you can tell, it isn’t anything more than a spreadsheet with all the plot points listed in bite sized chunks.  Since my handwriting is awful, you’re probably a seasoned teacher if you can decipher any of this.  Believe me, I can hardly read some of it, which means that when I transfer it to electronic format, I get to be even more creative! (Because I have to make stuff up that I cannot decipher).

So, you can imagine if I did an entire foolscap of this, it would just look like one of those Magic Eye posters and instead of seeing the plot and connections, I would wind up seeing a sailboat or the spaceshuttle emerge from the collection of squiggles and lines.  This is what years of disuse and arthritis do to your penmanship, kids!

Onto my point, sometimes, regardless of all the motivation, inspiration, time on my hands, and black inky squiggles, sometimes I need a minute to just let the ideas percolate and collect, redistribute, marinate…and I must be getting hungry with all the food descriptors here.  So, lately, I have let the plot sit in its little boxes and I have been writing some flashback chapters.

When I wrote Song of the Cinder, I kinda danced with a formula, or really it’s what happened.  For most chapters something happened, there were chapters which mirrored them that were flashbacks.  It was a good way for me to keep the story fresh as well as delve into the history of the world and characters as I went along.  Sometimes a chapter would break and the juxtaposition of what had happened would be revealed in either a flashback, dream sequence, or a POV shift of the past.  I have steered clear from dream sequences lately though.  In literary devices, dreams are too literal and reliable.  Real dreams aren’t like that at all.

Dreams are usually crazy and non-sequitur.  That’s why people roll their eyes usually when you want to tell them about a really cool dream you’ve had.  By the time the accountant that is a giant squirrel shows up and demands you order him a pizza from Shakeys, you start to realize just how crazy it all sounds.  But in books, dreams might as well be video evidence and treated as Truth.

But sometimes you can just take a chapter and write it as something separate from the events that are contained in the main plot.  It’s a nice diversion and actually something I have always enjoyed as a reader.

So, I’ve been working on flashback chapters.  The story is progressing and if I decide to get rid of the flashbacks, at least the rest of the story is infused with a tincture of what those chapters contained to give it life and flavor.