Reflections on Slowing Down to Look at the Accident

I resolved to spend at least a few hours every night of my eight days of vacation time working on the rewrite of my novel-in-progress. I failed at that endeavor. I have no excuses other than I was not, in the words of Stephen King, "brave enough to start."

It is true, that starting is the hardest part. During the course of my vacation, I became cleverly adept at finding excuses to not write, such as building an entertainment center in my living room.

I believe King also once described an audience’s desire to read horror novels or watch horror movies as akin to "slowing down to look at the car accident." I would swear I read that in Danse Macabre many years ago, but I can’t seem to find the precise quote now. The closest I could find is King’s oft-quoted assertion that "we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones."

Regardless, slowing down to look at the car accident is an apt metaphor for horror readers. From personal experience, I believe there are typically four types of people involved in a car accident, even if the accident directly involves only two parties.

  1. victims, those directly involved, whether at fault, killed, injured, or suffering some kind of property damage
  2. aiders, those witnesses to the accident who are first to render aid by tending to the wounded; rescuers and heroes also fall into this category
  3. communicators, those who place the call to 911, who help to divert traffic until police arrive, who pray, or who otherwise relay information from the scene
  4. rubberneckers, those who stand by and watch or (assuming traffic is flowing past the accident) slow their vehicles to a crawl and crane their necks out their windows to get a better look at what’s going on

In the world of fictional horror entertainment, only two of the above four are real-life people: the communicator and the rubberneckers. The communicator produces the narrative and the rubberneckers purchase and read it. The victims, the aiders, and the accident itself are all products of the communicator’s imagination.

It might sound like a pejorative term, but there’s nothing about being a rubbernecker that isn’t also a part of being human. You need only confirm by looking to the millions of people who tune into reality television shows, who watch news stories about natural disasters, or who tune in to the murder trials of parents of deceased children. Humanity is fascinated by the tragic and the macabre, real or imagined, and we rarely turn away from it.

A Would-be Novelist Looks at Forty

Do not write to make a living; write to make living worthwhile. –Robert Fulghum (What on Earth Have I Done?)

With apologies to Jimmy Buffett for the title of this post, I turn 40 on Saturday.

Based on everything I’ve heard up to now, I should expect any or all of the following:

  • a mid-life crisis that forces me to buy a Corvette or some other masculinity affirming vehicle or device
  • body breakdowns that are not too dissimilar to the automotive breakdowns one experiences the day after the warranty of the aforementioned masculinity affirming vehicle expires
  • tears; lots of tears.
  • the sudden dawning of the realization that I no longer understand those doggone young’uns and their crazy music

In truth, I have exactly one regret about turning 40, and that’s the fact that I haven’t finished the second draft of my novel. I finished the first draft way back in October of 2009, when I was still a young man.

It’s not that I’m no longer interested in the story. Nor is it that I find the rewrite process difficult. The problem, as unfortunate as it is, is time.

The novel is a personal project, something I’m doing for my own pleasure. I also have a full-time job writing for a living, a family, a lawn to mow, and dozens of other things to do on a daily basis. So I put off the rewrite.

And put it off some more.

Partly in celebration of my 40th, I’m taking a week’s vacation next week. I have made a resolution to myself that I will spend every night that week working on the rewrite, as much time and energy as I can possibly muster will be devoted to it.

I’ve already started flexing my non-technical writing muscles in anticipation. For example, yesterday I wrote my wife a love poem for her own birthday.

The quote at the beginning of this post is from one of Robert Fulghum’s writing memoes to himself. He posted it at his desk to inspire him to write and to remind him why he does it. After I presented my wife with the love poem, I suddenly understood the post-semicolon portion of that quote.

And so, upon my 40th, I will not only write for a living, but also write to make living worthwhile. Onward.

A Leap for Pizza

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. –Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

I recently took my family out to dinner at a local pizza establishment that I hadn’t visited in many years. After we sat down, I drew in a breath and took a moment to familiarize myself with the environment.

On the front wall of the establishment, mounted high above the entrance, was the requisite widescreen television, just as requisitely tuned to what looked like ESPN. On the wall to my left were show posters from some entertainment establishment in New Orleans I’d never heard of. Along the rear wall were the cashier’s stand, the kitchen, and the restrooms.

Then there was the wall to my right.

I scanned it last, beginning with the corner connected to the entrance wall and ending…well, I never really ended that scan because I was stopped in my tracks by that vague sense of familiarity one sees sometimes in the faces of apparent strangers in a crowd. You know, those faces your eyes keep wandering back to despite your best efforts to steer them otherwise because there’s something familiar about them. You think you might know them from somewhere, or they remind you of someone you do know.

It wasn’t a face I saw that hit the pause button on my surroundings scanner. It was a font; letters on a framed newspaper masthead hanging on the wall. I couldn’t see for certain because of the distance, but it looked like a framed copy of an article from a newspaper I worked for way back in the mid-1990s.

I’m shy, so I sent my wife and step-daughter to investigate. "I think that might be my article on the wall over there," I whispered to them.

A couple of minutes later, my step-daughter ran excitedly back to me from the other side of the restaurant, the eyes of every other patron there on her, and loudly proclaimed that "it is your article!"

Fourteen years prior to that evening’s dinner, almost to the day, I had written a feature about this particular pizza establishment for the Business section of the local paper. It was simply a day in the life of a young reporter back then; a single story among dozens that I wrote in my time there. I hadn’t really thought about it since.

It warmed my heart, though, seeing that piece of my history so many years later, hanging on the wall of an establishment I hadn’t visited in ages. I felt like I’d found a small time portal, a wormhole, or some other means of traveling back to a time in my life that was filled with the day-to-day uncertainty of a news beat and the fast-food lifestyle of a man in his 20s.

At home later that night, I could not help but crack open the tomes and tomes of three-ring binders I used to store clips of my work from those days. I was reminded of the character of Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap, one of my all-time favorite television series.

In the show, Sam can leap into the lives of other people in other times, as long as the date and lives he leaps into existed within the frame of his own lifetime. Similarly, I found myself leaping into the lives of different people and places on a daily basis in the years that I wrote for that publication. And I was a little surprised after my dinner at the pizza establishment to find myself somewhat nostalgic for those days.

But I am a different person now, an older man with different ideas, opinions, energy, and a different lifestyle. In Quantum Leap, Dr. Beckett’s primary objective, his singular longing, is to find a way to stop traveling in time, to leap home.

I’ve already done that. These days I have a beautiful wife, a wonderful step-daughter, a cantankerous dog, and a vegetable garden outside a house on a hill.

I wouldn’t trade it.

Forward Momentum Is Great As Long As You Can See The Edge of the Cliff

The only way that I could figure they could improve upon Coca-Cola, one of life’s most delightful elixirs, which studies prove will heal the sick and occasionally raise the dead, is to put bourbon in it. –Lewis Grizzard

I’m not a man who is afraid of a little change.

  • PDCs and BDCs to Active Directory DCs? No problem.
  • Mac OS to Mac OS X? No biggie.
  • South Beach Bars to Nabisco SnackWell’s? Just the way the cookie crumbles.
  • Flavored toothpaste to unflavored toothpaste? Whatever. I just spit it out anyway.

You get the point.

However, there is one area of life where I always find change difficult, and that is change related to the tools that I use to write. My word processing platform of choice is something familiar to me, and it makes the process of sitting down to churn thoughts into creative meaning a lot like relaxing in a comfortable chair.

Yet the software isn’t the only conducer of the creative juice. I also have specific places and environments where it’s easier to create. My study at home, for instance. Or the kitchen table at my in-laws’ place at 2:30 in the morning, when the rest of the house is asleep.

Add to that the familiarity of the particular human input device I use (that’s keyboard to you), and you uncover a delicate balance, a nurturing ecosystem of contributors to my production of technical documents, poetry, short stories, and a novel (well, a partial novel).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not so wholly averse to upsetting that balance that I refuse to keep up with the times, as did the late great Lewis Grizzard; a man who reportedly insisted on writing his four-day-a-week humor column on a manual typewriter long after the dawn of the word processor. I’m all for making the process of getting the words on the page (screen) easier. And I much prefer the Backspace key to Wite-Out.

But there is one thing about modern technological advance that bothers me: touchscreen keyboards. I own an iPhone. I can truly see the benefit of a touchscreen keyboard for that particular device, although I am persistently frustrated when I tap the wrong key in my ham-fisted attempts at two-thumbed typing.

Microsoft Windows 8, due in a couple of years or so, also has an on-screen keyboard. I’m sure that’s because it’s intended to scale to phones and tablets. I’ll still be able to use a regular old keyboard on a regular old laptop or desktop with it, as before. However, I find even the availability of the touchscreen keyboard on my desktop workstation utterly terrifying.

"Hey," you might say. "An on-screen keyboard is nothing new. You can launch one right from your Accessibility menu in XP. And it’s kind of neat to be able to continue to work if your keyboard breaks." To which my answers are: you’re right, but clicking a letter at a time on an on-screen keyboard isn’t exactly my idea of "continuing" work as much as "impairing" it. Can you imagine trying to write a 100,000-word novel that way? A single mouse click (or thumb tap) at a time? Granted, when you use a regular keyboard you are still hitting single letters at a time, but at least you’re using all 10 digits. Therefore, the pace of the work is a bit more impressive.

In the main, anxiety over touchscreen typing isn’t going to keep me up nights, because I don’t really believe the physical keyboard is going anywhere. I just find it ironic that many times our technological attempts to make something "better," such as including the instrument of input inside the operating system rather than as a physical device connected to the hardware, seems to suck the convenience out of digital life rather than contribute to it.

If Time Were Sold in Bottles, I’d Be Sending Mine to the Recycling Center

I have no faith in human perfectability. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. Man is now only more active — not more happy — nor more wise, than he was 6000 years ago. –Edgar Allan Poe

Ever wish you could time travel like Hermonie Granger in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? For those who haven’t read the series, Hermonie comes into possession of a "Time-Turner," which she uses to overload her schedule of classes at Hogwarts. She schedules more than one class per period in the day and can thus attend them all because she can travel back in time to sit in on the conflicting schedules. Sounds like a wonderful plan, except for the flesh-and-blood aspect of it, which is to say that being able to time travel so that you can squeeze more into your schedule wouldn’t prevent you from exhausting yourself. Even wizards need sleep.

Time Chart

I recently spent 5 minutes that I found under the sofa somewhere creating a quick pie chart that represents an average of how my time is consumed on a weekly basis. The whole of the pie is a 168-hour week. I broke out the hours I typically spend working, driving, sleeping, eating, exercising, watching television, and doing chores (including shopping errands). Turns out that I spend nearly as much time working (50 hours between my full-time job and a very small amount of side work) as I do sleeping (56 hours). That’s 106 hours out of the full 168-hour week, or about four and a half 24-hour days.

I also spend about 25 hours doing chores and 20 hours behind the wheel. Throw in meals (5 hours) and exercise (5 hours), and that leaves me with exactly 7 hours in a week to do something for myself, like writing. Instead, I typically spend that hour a night in a kind of low-energy waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop haze in front of the television with my family or in front of my laptop.

Granted, the numbers above are averages, so not every week looks exactly the same.

Also, I’m not really complaining. How one spends one’s time, even in our fast-paced age, is mostly a matter of priorities. I could let some of the chores go for a while and give myself a little extra leisure time. Occasionally, I do just that.

Still, there are those times when I’d like to borrow Hermonie’s Time-Turner, just to be able to squeeze in a few more "want-to-do" items into the dimensional space between the items on my "have-to-do" list.

The Long Stall

You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.
–Mark Twain

Writers, according to tradition, are notorious procrastinators. We are especially adept at finding distractions to prevent ourselves from typing those first few new words on the screen, those words that inevitably lead to sentences, which lead to descriptive narrative, which leads to active narrative, which leads to a completed work of literature. We’ll daydream about publication. We’ll dream up possible book cover designs, even though we’re not graphic designers. We’ll consider catchy marketing copy. We’ll ponder how we can use social media to sell the work.

In the end, nothing about that process gets a manuscript from the first draft stage to completion.

Nearly two years ago, I finished the first draft of my novel. I planned on taking a six-week vacation from it before I began the rewrite process, hopeful that I would have a completed second draft within a span of three months. Seven months later, I hadn’t even reread the first draft, much less performed any editing or rewrites. Finally, I forced myself to begin the rewrite process, and I was overjoyed to discover that I once again became completely immersed in the world I had created in the first draft. After a month of work, I had rewritten and edited nearly one-third of the manuscript. The plot thickened and tightened as I wrote. I scrapped some elements of the story entirely. Others, I explored in more detail.

Then life happened, as it is prone to do, and the writing stopped again.

I am sorry to say that I have not returned to the novel rewrite process since, although I have taken time out to complete work on a few smaller projects. I do hope to circle back to it soon. Occassionally a voice calls out to me from that world I was writing about, and the urge hits me to revisit it, to carve on it a little more.

Someday.

I Just Wrote a Novel

After nearly two years of intermittent work on it, I have completed the first draft of my novel. It’s been a very long road, fraught with frustration over finding time to write, overflowing with joy over putting words on the screen, and replete with discovery as I learned more about the writing process, even at this stage in my experience.

In the end, I have a 405-page double-spaced manuscript with 1-inch margins all around, and typed in 12-point Courier. I chose Courier just because it’s the closest I could come to the way old-fashioned typed manuscripts were formatted, and it made the old-fashioned manuscript word count process (250 words per page) easier to track. I realize that style of word count isn’t as important in publishing as it once was, but it did make my math easier as I wrote and kept track of the size of my manuscript versus the length of the book when it’s eventually typeset.

All-in-all, I feel rewarded by having completed this process. And I will be rewarding myself by taking a few weeks off from the novel before I begin the rewrite process, which, as any would-be novelist learns, is the part of the process where the story really comes together and all the nuts and bolts are tightened. It is my hope that the time away from the manuscript will refresh my perspective on it, and help me polish it into the most perfect novel it can be when the process is complete.

I think it will ultimately be a couple of days before I can actually put the manuscript out of my mind completely for this break. I can’t seem to prevent these three words from cycling through my brain right now: "I did it!"

The Secret Love of Reading

From NPR, this may be one of the greatest "learning to love to read" stories I’ve ever read.

Olly Neal grew up in Arkansas during the 1950s. He didn’t care much for high school. One day during his senior year, he cut class — and wandered into the school library.

 

As he told his daughter, Karama, recently, he stumbled onto a book written by African-American author Frank Yerby. And the discovery changed the life of a teenage boy who was, in Neal’s memory, "a rather troubled high school senior."

There was just one problem: If Neal took the book to the checkout counter, he was sure that the girls who worked on the counter would tell his friends.
"Then my reputation would be down, because I was reading books," Neal said. "And I wanted them to know that all I could do was fight and cuss."

Finally, Neal decided that he ought to steal the book, in order to preserve his reputation. So he did.

A week or two later, Neal had finished the book — so he brought it back to the library, careful to replace it in the same spot he had found it.

"And when I put it back, there was another book by Frank Yerby," Neal said.

Click through to read the full article.

 

And Then All Hell Broke Loose

Last night, I passed the 92,000-word mark on the first draft of my novel. I have written eleven chapters so far. I have one final chapter to complete. Interestingly, the last two chapters have come along much more rapidly than the middle of the story. I’m not exactly sure why that is, except that I have developed a quirky new habit about my work while I’m plotting chapters and scenes.

Every night, when I’ve ended my final new sentence for the evening, I start a new paragraph and type the words "And then all hell broke loose."

When I begin writing again the next night, the first thing I see is that sentence: "And then all hell broke loose." It spurs me on to ratchet the story up a notch higher than I had the night before. As a result, my writing is more productive and I feel better about the work I’ve already completed.

I don’t know where I developed that habit, or even if it’s original to me. I suspect that it is not my invention. I will say, however, that it works when I’m worried about where the story is going and whether I’m keeping things moving at a good clip in terms of advancing the story.

Try it sometime in your own work.