Every Damn Day

From the third week in March I’ve been swamped with work. April was already looking busy when I was offered a proofread about the Attica prison uprising of 1971. I’m going to turn that down? No way. So what if the text was almost 600 pages long, with another 100 pages of notes.

No matter how you look at it, editing and proofreading are time-intensive. You’ve got to put in the hours, and you can’t add more hours to the day. If you’re anything like me, you can’t devote all your waking hours to reading as closely as a copyeditor or proofreader has to read. Nowhere close. The brain gets tired. The eyes glaze over. The body needs to get up and move.

As March gave way to April, I wasn’t sure I could meet all these deadlines, some of which were firm, others of which were flexible, none of which were “whenever.” So I decided to give over my writing time to editing.

Travvy looks for a squirrel in a tree.

Travvy looks for a squirrel in a tree.

I’m a morning person. I write best in the morning, usually from 7 or 7:30 to 9 or 9:30. Then Travvy, my malamute roommate, and I go for an hour-long walk. I do a fair amount of writing-related mulling on these walks. Ideas, insights, and solutions to plot snags pop into my head the way they usually don’t when I’m sitting at the keyboard.

So Monday morning I gave over my writing time to proofreading. After Travvy and I got back from our walk, I checked email, played a little on Facebook, then got back to work. I did the same on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, and on Thursday. While out walking with Trav, I noticed that when it wasn’t just enjoying the sunshine or whining about the rain, my mind was occupied with one or another of my various editing projects. A plot snag was approaching in Wolfie, the novel in progress, but my mind was not interested in mulling about that.

By Wednesday afternoon I knew I was in trouble. The plot snag was looming larger and larger, so large and so daunting that I couldn’t even imagine the short transition scene that leads into the one where the snag had to be resolved. I couldn’t even imagine imagining that short transition scene.

In short order I regressed from I can’t figure this out to I’ll never figure this out to I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew here and who needs this stupid novel anyway?

This was drowning out the little voice in my head repeating two of my main mantras: “The way out is through” and “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.”

What I was having, in other words, was yet another crisis of faith.

By Thursday it had gotten so bad that I was sure I’d have nothing to take to writers’ group on Sunday. This reminded me that what I’d taken to writers’ group last Sunday was really good. It was also the culmination of an extended sequence that had taken several weeks to finish and worn me out in the process.

Aha, I thought. Maybe the well is just temporarily dry.

Right. It does happen, but you don’t know if the well’s been replenished unless you drop your bucket into it. For me this means picking up a pen and moving my hand across sheets of paper, but I wasn’t doing this because I was editing or proofreading during my best writing time.

So this morning I took pen in hand, fully ready to start with “I can’t write this scene because . . . ,” but instead there was my protagonist, sitting on her front step in the twilight, accompanied by her two dogs, thinking about the momentous conversation she’d just had with her estranged sister.

Writing every damn day really is the answer. My faith wobbles if I don’t.

This is what came out of the pen this morning, and two and a half more just like it.

ms page 3

Writing as Discovery

I’ve got a new morning ritual. After I light a candle or two — currently it’s a Yankee Candle, because fat candles in glass jars last a lot longer than tapers in candlesticks — I open The Writer’s Chapbook at random and read a couple of passages.

The Writer’s Chapbook is, says its subtitle, is “A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers.” This is true. Organized into a couple dozen topics, the book consists of extracts from interviews conducted from The Paris Review from 1953 onward. Some extracts are aphoristic; others are full-blown anecdotes. It’s like listening in on an intense conversation among extremely accomplished and articulate writers, and because the writers in each chapter appear in alphabetical order, the likes of Anne Sexton, Georges Simenon, and James Thurber may show up on facing pages.

There are two editions out there. I borrowed the 1999 edition from the library and knew almost at once that I had to have it. Turns out it’s out of print and very hard to find: copies on BigBehemoth.com were going for $299 and up, and I dropped out of an auction on MegaMarketplace.com when the bidding sailed past $30 — that copy eventually went for $71. With a bit of persistence, I scored a used copy of the 1989 edition for less than $10, including shipping.

So this morning I opened to two pages in the “On Performance” chapter. On the verso (left-hand) page was this, from playwright Edward Albee:

Naturally, no writer who’s any good at all would sit down and put a sheet of paper in a typewriter and start typing a play unless he knew what he was writing about. But at the same time, writing has got to be an act of discovery. Finding out things about what one is writing about. To a certain extent I imagine a play is completely finished in my mind — in my case at any rate — without my knowing it, before I sit down to write. So in that sense, I suppose, writing a play is finding out what the play is.

And just opposite, on the recto (right-hand) page, novelist John Barth was saying this:

I have a pretty good sense of where the book is going to go. . . . But I have learned from experience that there are certain barriers that you cannot cross until you get to them; in a thing as long and complicated as a novel you may not even know the real shape of the obstacle until you heave in sight of it, much less how you’re going to get around it. I can see in my plans that there will be this enormous pothole to cross somewhere around the third chapter from the end; I’ll get out my little pocket calculator and estimate that the pothole will be reached about the second of July, 1986, let’s say, and then just trust to God and the muses that by the time I get there I’ll know how to get around it.

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based but who has his own stories to tell

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based but who has his own stories to tell

Wolfie, my novel in progress, is fast approaching its second birthday. All through the first draft and well into the second, I told anyone who asked “It’s about the rescue of a dog and the rescue of an eleven-year-old girl and how they rescue each other — oh yeah, and the dog is based on my Alaskan malamute, Travvy.”

Then one character told another the tale of how she’d failed to rescue her father, who had been devastated by the shooting death of his three-year-old grandchild. And my protagonist, who as a teenager fled a violently dysfunctional family, gets a phone call from the younger sister she couldn’t take with her. To make it more fun, no one is sure exactly what the girl needs to be rescued from, though it’s pretty clear to all that she needs rescuing.

So yes, Edward Albee: writing this novel is finding out what the novel is. And yes, John Barth, I suspected the obstacles were out there, but until I drew closer I couldn’t see what they were, never mind how I was going to get round them. If I’d thought too hard about it, I would never have started.

But I’m trusting the muses and my fountain pens, and the candle burning on the table to my right, to show me how it’s done.

Trust the pen, and the hand that holds it.

Trust the pen, and the hand that holds it.

Structured Revision: Keeping Your Novel on Track

I’ll almost certainly be starting draft 3 of Wolfie before I finish draft 2, so Alison McKenzie’s assurance that it really is OK to edit before you have a complete draft came at just the right time. Wrangling book-length works into shape is a challenge no matter what, but I’m intrigued by her “25K rule” and might try it with novel #3. If you’re working on a novel, novella, or book-length memoir, check it out.

Resolutions

I did make a New Year’s resolution once. When I was working on my first novel, The Mud of the Place, and desperately afraid that I’d never finish it, I resolved that I would work on it every day until it was done.

Note that I did not vow to write a thousand words or two thousand words or any number of words. Nor did I vow to write for an hour or two hours or for any set time.

Just every day.

mud cover2This turned out to be a brilliant move. There were days when I was so panicky, so sure that everything I’d done so far was crap, that I didn’t work up the nerve to open my Word file till ten minutes before midnight. And this was enough. Just opening the file and reading what I’d already written was enough to reassure me that this thing was good, this thing was worthwhile, I really needed to keep going till I finished this thing.

And that was enough to encourage me to add a few words, and sometimes to keep going till two in the morning.

Had I vowed to write so many words or for so many hours, there would have been no point to opening the file at ten minutes to midnight.

I haven’t made a New Year’s resolution since.

Sturgis’s Law #6

This past spring I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #6:

Your writing will teach you what you need to know.

Every aspiring writer has heard it: “Write what you know.” It’s a terrible cliché.

Well, no, it’s not so terrible, because there’s truth in it. There’s truth in most clichés. The trouble with clichés isn’t their lack of truth. It’s the way they become ossified into conventional wisdom and, gods forbid, rules.

Think about it. If you write what you don’t know, people are going to find you out — unless your skill is such that you can persuade them that you do know it, even if it contradicts what they know, or think they know. This means that you actually know quite a bit.

You probably didn’t start out with all the skills you needed to tell that story either. You developed them on the way.

travvy in field

This is Travvy. The fictional Wolfie looks like his twin brother, but they’ve got different stories to tell.

Knowing stuff is great. Some imagery and a major plot thread of Wolfie, my novel in progress, has grown from what I know about dogs, specifically Alaskan malamutes, particularly Travvy, the Alaskan malamute I live with, on whom the title character is based.

Both Wolfie and my first novel, The Mud of the Place, are set on Martha’s Vineyard, which is where I live. Any plot can take place anywhere, but the places where it unfolds will affect how it happens and who the characters are. People are influenced by our surroundings, both past and present. The better you know your settings — both those that exist in real time and those you make up, and those that are a combination of the two — the more you’ll know about your characters.

On the other hand, when you set out to write a history of X or a biography of Y, you rarely know everything there is to know about the subject. I’ll go out on a limb and say you never know everything there is to know about the subject — and when the book is in print and getting great reviews (let’s be optimistic for a moment here), there’s still more to be learned.

The same goes for memoirs and novels. Memoirs are about your own life, and in fiction you get to make stuff up, so maybe you don’t have to know so much? Ha ha ha. There’s nothing like writing to show you how much you don’t know, and how much of what you do know is incomplete or not quite right or even downright wrong. So memoirists and fiction writers do what historians and biographers do to correct the errors and fill in the gaps: research.

Memoirists may interview family members, reread old letters, or cross-check remembered facts and dates with written records. Mystery writers don’t generally start off knowing a hundred ways to commit murder, or what a body looks like when it’s been shot at close range, or what police officers do at a crime scene. And so on.

Think of writing as a journey of discovery. Don’t limit yourself to what you know. Write what you want to find out, what you’re curious about. If you’re a “planner” — you like to plot everything out in advance — choose a destination that intrigues you. With my first novel, The Mud of the Place, I thought I knew where I was going, but that’s not where I ended up.

Wolfie started with a fairly simple “what if?”: What if a dog like Travvy was running loose in my town, hassling and probably killing livestock? That was answered pretty quickly, but not before it had segued into a question I’ve long been obsessed with but haven’t dared think too hard about. It goes something like this: Hindsight is 20/20, but what do you do when you begin to suspect something bad has happened and maybe is still happening, there’s no way of finding out for sure, and the price of being wrong is very, very high?

Well, I, like my characters, am still somewhat in the dark, and I, like them, have been drawn into unsettling territory: the powerlessness of children, the trickiness of memory, the barriers we throw up against what we can’t afford to know. I’m having conversations with teachers, therapists, and others who’ve been confronted with comparable dilemmas. I’ve read and reread many accounts of adults who have managed to survive similar situations.

Perhaps the strangest thing that’s happened so far is that one supporting character is an animator: he works on animated films with computer-generated graphics. Where the hell did that come from? I’m not a big moviegoer, and apart from a book I worked on some years ago about Pixar Animation Studios, I knew zip about animation. But I knew, immediately and intuitively, that the fact that this guy was an animator could be significant. So I’ve been reading up on animated films, and particularly what animators do.

No way am I ever going to be an animation expert, though I certainly know more about the subject than I did two months ago. I don’t know everything there is to know about Martha’s Vineyard either, but I do know it well enough to know what I don’t know. And that’s enough.

P.S. Here’s an article I turned up while procrastinating researching this blog post. Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Don’t Write What You Know” from TheAtlantic.com. It’s very good.

Logjam

For the last week or so I’ve been writing around a logjam in the novel, nudging at it from time to time but not trying to break it up.

This is a log pile, not a logjam, but you get the idea.

This is a log pile, not a logjam, but you get the idea.

Imagine logs massing where the river widens, jostling each other to fit through a narrow gap and float on downstream. These logs aren’t wide around like tree trunks, or all that long either. They’re small enough to fit in your woodstove or fireplace, but that’s big enough to create a logjam.

Morning is my writing time, from whenever I get out of bed till 9 or so. The novel was jammed, but I kept writing. You may have noticed that my bloggish output has increased in the last week.

It's hard to take a selfie of me and Trav walking, so here are our shadows.

It’s hard to take a selfie of me and Trav walking, so here are our shadows.

Images and ideas, scenes and snatches of dialogue, often come to me when I’m out walking with Travvy. Forward motion is all the more important when the novel is stuck, so this is where I did most of my nudging.

But “nudging” isn’t really the right word. What I was doing was listening — listening to Shannon, one of my viewpoint characters, listen to what’s going in her head. It’s pretty cacophonous: much has happened in the last 24 hours, and her own childhood has been pounding on a long-locked door. I knew what she was going to do next, but I didn’t know how she was going to get there.

This morning when I sat down in my chair, Shannon was waiting. Pixel, her old dog, was curled up next to her on the sofa. Wolfie, her recently rescued younger dog, was stretched out on the rug. The November sun has long since set; the living room is dark except for the power lights on her computer monitors, the red “on” light on the coffeemaker in the kitchen — and the blinking red light on the answering machine. The message was playing when she walked in the door half an hour earlier. It’s her younger sister, with whom she’s had little contact in 30 years. She’s about to listen to the message and return the call.

That’s the log that jostled itself loose from the jam, slipped through the gap, and started on down the river. The rest of the logs will follow in good time.

When Trav and I headed out for our walk, this song was running through my head. Different kind of logjam, very different solution, but you get the idea. Slaid Cleaves singing his “Breakfast in Hell.” Now that’s a story.

 

Revision as Improv

I’m in deep revision mode on Wolfie, the novel in progress, so ‘ve been thinking a lot about how I know what needs to be added or subtracted or completely rewritten.  The truth is, I don’t know. In an early Write Through It post, I write that editing was “Like Driving.” Revision is like that too.

Early this year, I started a second draft before I’d finished the first. As I blogged in “On to Draft 2!” a couple of plot threads had emerged in the writing. Those threads were going to affect the novel’s climax and conclusion, but until I developed them more fully I wouldn’t know how.

A sound foundation

A sound foundation

The same thing happened with my first novel, The Mud of the Place. I thought I was writing a tragedy. Then around page 300 of the first draft, a minor character said something that took me by surprise. Suddenly I could see a way out for a main character who was digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole. I tried to keep going — “I’ll fix the first 300 pages in the next draft,” I told myself — but I couldn’t. It was like building a house on a crumbling foundation.

So I went back to the beginning and started again. The rewriting wasn’t as hard as I’d feared. I didn’t have to throw everything out. That minor character’s words revealed new possibilities in the story that was already unfolding; they’d always been there, but I hadn’t noticed.

Since I can’t tell you how to revise, I’ll start by telling you how not to revise: Don’t return to page one and immediately start fiddling with punctuation and word choice. Revision starts with the big picture: structure, organization, plot and character development, that sort of thing. The little stuff is frosting on the cake. Mix the batter and bake the cake first.

To see the big picture, you have to step back — to approach your own work as if you’ve never seen it before. Of course you have seen it before, but if you let it sit for a while — a couple of weeks, maybe even a couple of months — you may be amazed how different it looks when you come back to it.

While you’re letting it sit, start a new project or wake up one that’s gestating in a notebook or computer file somewhere. If nothing tempts you, use your usual writing time to scribble whatever pops into your head. Chances are it’ll lead somewhere interesting.

If the work is far enough long, you might even draft a colleague or two to read and comment on it at this point. We all have different ideas of when the best time is to do this. I generally wait till I’ve gone as far as I can on my own.

When you’re ready, save your current draft with a new filename. The old draft is your safety net. Then start reading. Read like a reader or a reviewer — and not the kind of reader who pounces on every typo! Notice where you get impatient, or confused, or curious.  I’m always on the alert for clues that something interesting is happening offstage. This is like walking by a closet and suddenly there’s loud pounding and thumping coming from behind the closed door. Something is demanding to be let out. See “Free the Scene!” for more about this.

Word's Comments feature is a handy way to make notes for revision. Here I'm looking forward to draft #3 while working on #2.

Word’s Comments feature is a handy way to make notes for revision. Here I’m looking forward to draft #3 while working on #2.

Make notes as you’re working about scenes that need trimming, or expanding, or moving to somewhere else. If you know what needs doing, go ahead and do it. Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature enables you to make tentative additions and deletions, then revisit them later.

Look for “soft ice” — the words, sentences, and whole paragraphs that don’t carry their own weight. Look for the pathways that led you into a scene but that become less important once you know where you are. They’re like ladders and scaffolding: crucial to the construction process, but dispensable when the job is done.

You’ve heard the standard advice “Kill your darlings,” right? It means different things to different people, and I’ve got mixed feelings about it. I’ve got mixed feelings about most “standard advice.” Most of it’s useful on occasion, but none of it is one-size-fits-all. Take what you like and leave the rest.

But sooner or later when you’re revising you will come to a stretch of drop-dead perfect dialogue or a scintillating anecdote and realize that it just doesn’t belong in the manuscript. Maybe it’s too much of a digression. Maybe it calls too much attention to itself. Maybe it duplicates something better said earlier. It’s hard to let these things go. Track Changes comes in especially handy here. You can zap it provisionally and gradually get used to the idea that it really does have to go.

When you’re slash-and-burning and filling in gaps, don’t worry too much about the transitions between paragraphs and scenes. If the right segue comes to you, by all means go with it, but if it doesn’t, move on. You can smooth it out later.

If you can’t solve a problem while you’re staring at it, stop staring, make a note, and move on. My thorniest problems tend to solve themselves when I’m out walking or kneading bread, falling asleep or just waking up. Solutions sometimes appear for problems you haven’t come to yet. Writing is weird.

When I started draft #2, I swore I’d get to the end before I started draft #3, but now, at page 238, I’m pretty sure I won’t. At present I’ve got  two viewpoint characters. To develop an important but currently underdeveloped plot thread, I need to add a third. He’s already a player, but adding his point of view is going to change the book’s balance a lot.

There’s also an incident I need to stage near the beginning of the book: my central character, Shannon, listens to an answering-machine message from her long-estranged younger sister. Shannon never picks up or returns these calls because her sister is always drunk or strung out. This time, however, her sister sounds sober and lucid. Shannon doesn’t pick up this time either, but the call ripples through the narrative. The ripples were already there; I just didn’t know what had prompted them.

So I’ve got a little farther to go in draft #2, then it’s back to the beginning to start on draft #3.

In Marilyn’s Kitchen

Word came last Friday that an old friend had passed. Years ago Marilyn had left Martha’s Vineyard, where I live, to return to her native Canada. She was a phone person; I’m not. I’m an email person; she wasn’t. Communication between us was sporadic, but we did manage to touch base at least once a year.

Marilyn was a retired teacher, and if anyone ever had a richer, more adventurous retirement I can hardly imagine it. She was a master of the fiber arts, spinning and weaving. She loathed Canadian winters and would usually spend the winter months in a warmer place, often in Central or South America, or in Goa, on the west coast of India. She’d come back with fabric ideas and stories about the people she met.

Marilyn was multi-talented. Along with spinning and weaving, she wrote wonderfully, sang in the same chorus I did, and made the world’s best chocolate chip cookies. She also had a genius for bringing together people who wouldn’t have connected otherwise. I was lucky enough to be one of them. She roped me into a group of women who gathered, usually in Marilyn’s kitchen but occasionally elsewhere, to write and share our writing.

Puppy Rhodry tangled up in Marilyn's weaving, ca. February 1995. That's me standing by.

Puppy Rhodry tangled up in Marilyn’s weaving, ca. February 1995. That’s me standing by.

A fire might be burning in the fireplace. Coffee was ready on the counter, a plate of chocolate cookies on the table, and not infrequently we’d have a nip of Black Bush on the side. My half-malamute dog Rhodry sometimes came along. Once when he was a puppy I forgot to keep an eye on him while we were writing. A thump from the living room brought us all out of our seats: little Rhodry had managed to get himself tangled up in one of Marilyn’s looms. I almost panicked, but Marilyn didn’t: she methodically disentangled the puppy from the precious weaving. Nothing was damaged. Then she insisted on recreating the scene so we could get a picture.

I’m an editor by trade and a writer by avocation, but I was hooked on computers by then. I typed on a keyboard and my words appeared on a screen. In Marilyn’s kitchen we wrote in longhand, in pen or pencil on yellow pads of paper. One of us would choose a word or a key phrase, set the timer for 10 or 15 or 20 minutes, and say “Go.” And we’d write write write till the timer went off.

Then we’d read what we’d written aloud to each other. No one had to read what she’d written, but we nearly always did. And what we wrote was amazing, sometimes startling, often beautiful or wry or laugh-out-loud funny, and sometimes all of it at once.

No one was more amazed than I. I’d fallen into the common writerly trap of thinking that writing was synonymous with suffering and angst, and especially that it was inevitably solitary. In Marilyn’s kitchen I learned otherwise. I learned that if I let myself go, I could cover two pages with words in 15 minutes or less, and that there would always be images and insights and whole anecdotes that I could then build on.

While working on my first novel somewhat later, I discovered that the surefire cure for writer’s block was to take pen and paper in hand and leave the computer behind. Later still, with first novel mostly done and me sinking into the writer’s equivalent of postpartum depression, I did Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way workbook from beginning to end. Morning pages reminded me of the power of writing in longhand, and I’ve been doing most of my first-drafting that way ever since.

But the revelation first came in Marilyn’s kitchen, and another one too: that writing doesn’t always have to be a solitary struggle. Writing together can be exhilarating, and a reminder of what richness can pour from the pens of those who don’t consider themselves writers.

Notes and More Notes

These days the how-to-write gurus like to divide writers into planners and pantsers. Planners, it’s said, outline everything in advance, then stick to the outline. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They don’t know how the story is going to end until they get there. They make it up as they go along.

Either/or doesn’t work for me. Meticulous outlines make sense for some, but for me they suck the point out of writing. Writing is a journey of discovery. If I know in advance what I’m going to discover, why make the trip? I’m just a sightseer gazing through the windows of a tour bus.

Nevertheless, a story needs forward motion. To maintain forward motion, some sort of structure is required; otherwise you’ve got waves breaking on the shoreline, getting no higher than the high-water mark before they fall back, momentum spent. Last year I set a project aside because it had a surfeit of subplots, characters galore — and no forward motion whatsoever. I kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing did. What it lacked was structure.

Think of structure as the frame of a building or a road through previously untracked wilderness. Either way, your job is to build it. My first novel, The Mud of the Place, started with a character and a problem. I wrote it scene by scene. But though I never made an outline, I scribbled notes here there and everywhere. Years after I finished the final draft, I was still finding yellow pads with notes on them: notes about characters, notes about plot, notes about how I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

I’m doing the same thing with Wolfie, the novel in progress. Ideas and insights and solutions to plot problems often come to me while I’m walking or kneading bread or falling asleep, but to really explore and develop them I have to keep my hand moving across the page. This time I’m keeping the notes in one place, and in chronological order. When I’m stuck or drifting or just need a jump start, I dip back into them. My old ideas keep giving me new ideas.

Here’s a sample of what they look like and what I use them for.

In early November I was trying to corral some emerging themes, subplots, and images. I was auditioning names for one character (Javier? Rafael? Rafe? Ralph?) and social media handles for another (for the moment she’s settled on Quinta Wolf). Note also the ink scribbles at the top and the liquid splotch (probably tea, maybe beer) at right. The red notes were added later.

20141107 notes

Here the author is trying to figure out what the hell happens next. She does this a lot.

20141121 notes 1

Toward the bottom of the same page, the pen offers an answer — and starts speculating about a possible plot development further down the road. I haven’t got there yet, so I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Note the scribbles. Note taking often involves scribbles.

20141121 notes 2

By late February, I had started draft 2, even though I hadn’t finished draft 1. My main plot threads were clear and becoming clearer. I had to build them a trellis to climb on. On March 24, I listed the characters driving each of the threads. “The Wall” is a mural that protagonist Shannon is painting on her living room wall. It has, as these supposedly inanimate objects sometimes do, taken on a life of its own. Amira wandered in from the set-aside novel, where she plays a major role. Her role in Wolfie isn’t settled yet, but it’s definitely important.

At the bottom of the page I’m brainstorming names for my villain. He started off as Bruce McManus, which didn’t feel right. “Bruce” has stuck, but “McManus” is gone. I didn’t want a name with obvious ethnic associations. I did want a name that suggested that what this guy does, though terrible, can be and often is done by ordinary, unexceptional men. His surname is now Smith.

20150324 notes

Here — not even three weeks ago! — I’m looking ahead to what follows a key scene (“selectmen’s meeting”). The scene itself is being lifted wholesale from draft 1, but when I first wrote it I hadn’t thought much about what its repercussions and aftershocks might look like. I’m also working out some character motivation: “Why is Shannon getting uneasy?” She is uneasy, and with good reason, but neither she nor I are quite sure why. The tricky thing is that it can’t be too obvious. One of the questions that’s driving this novel for me is “What do you do when you suspect something is very wrong, but you can’t be sure and the stakes are too high to allow for mistakes?” The jury’s still out on that one.

20150628 notes

And finally, here’s the sketch for a plot break-through scene. Bruce, an outwardly rational lawyer who weighs the consequences of (almost) everything he contemplates doing, has to make a move that isn’t all that well thought out. He has to be, in other words, on the brink of panic. What would do it? Well, if he realized that Shannon, whom his 11-year-old stepdaughter, Glory, idolizes, knows Amira, who counseled Glory four years earlier when she was in trouble at school, that would do it. How to bring that about? I mulled that over on several walks, then a possibility popped into my head. On July 8, I sketched it out and decided, Yeah, that’ll work. Let’s try it.

20150708 notes

Beyond the Written Word

Words flow through my fingers and onto the paper, onto the keyboard. I take them for granted, even when they’re lumpy or reluctant or stuck. They flow out of my mouth as reliably as tap water (I’m lucky that way). Sometimes I sing them. I’m not a real singer, but I sing regularly, in a pick-up group — all comers welcome — that gets together monthly to sing and also in the Spirituals Choir. The choir is part of the U.S. Slave Song Project. We sing the folk songs sung by African slaves in America between 1619 and 1865.

For more than a decade, between the mid-1980s and the very late 1990s, I was very involved in local theater, first as a reviewer for one of the local papers, then mainly as a stage manager and actor. I even wrote several one-act plays.

Mostly these days, though, my creative life is words on paper and words on screen, writing them and editing them.

A couple of weeks ago, Roberta Kirn, the leader of the pick-up group I sing with and also a dancer, drummer, and teacher, sent round an email to all the singers, drummers, and musically inclined people on her list. An upcoming production at The Yard was looking for singers to form a sort of flash mob in the audience during the performance. Contact information was provided.

Of course I was tempted — but I’m not a real singer: was I a good enough singer to do this, whatever it was? And The Yard is a summer dance colony in the next town over. Of all the creative arts, dance is the one I have the least affinity for. Dance is a language I don’t speak. It’s spoken mostly by skinny people who can contort their bodies in impossible ways. I’m not skinny now, and for a couple of decades I was downright fat. My contortions are all mental. I do them with words.

Poster for "The Queue" at The Yard

Poster for “The Queue” at The Yard

Still, it sounded fun, and a little risky, and an excuse to get out of my head. I signed up. I had to miss the rehearsal; the director said come anyway. Our song was a three-part arrangement of the chorus of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” Before Friday night’s performance, we did a run-through with the cast of The Queuedeveloped and performed by the Lucky Plush dance theater company from Chicago. The company began the song onstage, then the half dozen or so of us singers joined in from our scattered seats in the audience. I managed to pick up my note, hold my part, and remember the song even with no one around me to lean on — always a worry of mine.

The big reward was getting to see The Queue twice through. It’s set in an airport. At the beginning, apart from a gay couple setting out on their honeymoon, the seven players don’t know each other. Gradually connections develop and emerge among them. The piece is theater as well as dance. I do speak theater, and I totally forgot that I don’t speak dance. In theater, how the actors use space and their own bodies can be at least as important as what they do with their voices and the words of the script. The Queue draws on slapstick, vaudeville, and the great choral production numbers of yesteryear, among other things, and since the players are trained dancers who can do astonishing things with their bodies, I forgot that dance, music, and theater are supposed to be separate arts involving separate skills.

Well, OK, I already knew that. Thanks to my theater experience, writing often feels like directing or stage-managing to me. My characters are my actors. I watch them, coach them, and sometimes become them. Singing probably makes me even more attentive to sounds, rhythm, and silences than I would be otherwise. But lately I’ve been so exclusively engaged with the written word it’s like I’ve had blinkers on. Or as if I’ve been riding on an escalator focused entirely on the straight-ahead, screening out all the distractions to left and right.

And dance. I was totally ignoring dance. It’s not just for skinny people, and it’s not just a foreign language spoken in places I’ll never visit. I was just part of a dance production, even if all I did was stand up and sing.

Writers are scavengers. We’re the ultimate recyclers and repurposers. Our minds may seem crammed to capacity, but they aren’t. There’s always room for more.