I just had my ass kicked. My nose is broken. There is blood down my chin. I have a gash on my head, my vision is filled with red. I can't think straight. I'm lying on the ground looking up at the stars wondering what the hell just happened to me but the truth is I know the answer; I was attacked by a beast. An angry beast. Angry because it hasn't gotten what it needed from me. Angry because I haven't fed it. Angry because I haven't worked it. Angry because it needs to be doing what it needs to be doing and I am the thing its way.
It's been a busy week and a half. Work has taken over my life. For good, positive reasons, but a complete takeover nevertheless. I've had to put in a few 14-hour days and writing has been pushed to the side. Work hasn't just consumed all my available time, it has wiped out my brain capacity. Looking back at the week, I can say without regret that there were no hours that I wasted, that could have been used instead to sneak in some writing time.
I simply lost my writing momentum. I am behind on my plan to have the first pass through my new novel done by the end of January. And even though the project is over and I am free to blend some writing time back into my day, I am having trouble getting started. In fact, these are the first words I have written in a week. And the Beast has been chirping away at me.
Four months ago, for my birthday, my daughter bought me a gift certificate to her favorite tattoo parlor. I had the artist put a typewriter on my forearm with a page that reads A Writer Writes clearly above it. It is the first thing I see every morning when I wake up. It's a constant reminder of the idea I had at the time that I would allow myself the dream of writing fiction again.
Every day since I got it, I have appreciated the tattoo, especially while writing my first draft of the new novel. It was a reminder to get to work, a reminder that the work would not get done unless my butt was in a chair and my fingers were on the keyboard, that I could not call myself a writer unless I was actively writing.
Today, the tattoo mocks me. No longer is it a friendly and uplifting prod to get me started in the morning. Now, it's a sour note that clangs in my brain everytime I see it. You're not a writer, it says. You're not writing. You're not moving a story forward. You're not hitting your goal.
The Beast is right to be angry. I'm angry too. Which is why being beaten by the Beast so ferociously hurts beyond the physical pain.
What the Beast doesn't know is that I love him. I don't suppose you can imagine, when he sees my face after ripping me apart, after breaking my bones, drawing my blood, that I could feel this way, but I do love him. I need him. And he needs me.
Tomorrow, I'm going to feed the Beast and this tattoo is going to feel right again.
What do you to get back on track when life derails you from your writing?
I have mixed feelings about Sycamore Row by John Grisham. One one hand, I was invested in the outcome - I read it to the end and wanted to know how the story resolved - which is the joy of reading in a nutshell. On the other hand, I was disappointed many times with what felt like weak and convenient plotting and an overabundance of nostalgia for a previous novel that did nothing to move the story forward.
But let's start at the beginning. Wealthy but reclusive businessman Seth Hubbard hangs himself from a tree on a remote corner of his land after church one Sunday morning. A white man in the late stages of a rough cancer, Hubbard leaves specific instructions for local hotshot lawyer Jake Brigance (of A Time to Kill fame) to ferociously defend his last-minute handwritten will, a will that negates all earlier versions and cuts off everyone in his family to leave his fortune to his black caregiver. There is an immediate and vicious legal contest over the will. Was this handwritten document truly the 'will' of the dead man? Was Hubbard of sound mind? Was he under the influence of the therapies he was receiving to manage his pain and incapable of making rational choices about his estate? Did his caregiver manipulate the dying old man for personal gain?
Enter a cast of colorful local characters from A time to Kill, sprinkle in some nostalgic backstory, add a gaggle of out-of-town, big-city lawyers representing everyone who believes they should have a hand in Hubbard's fortune, a cantankerous judge who wants to control the process, a randomly-selected jury to add uncertainty in the outcome and you have the setting for an intriguing David and Goliath legal drama.
I am a fan of Grisham novels. He's on my list of go-to of authors, always a good read for an airplane ride, the kind of book I can get lost in. I especially liked the premise of Sycamore Row, the legal argument that need to be resolved. Grisham teases drama out of the legal process in a way that makes you feel like an insider to courtroom dynamics without crushing you in jargon and banal technicalities. He knows how to set up the tension of a trial (with its unknown outcome) and keep it so beautifully hidden you want to hang around and find out how things resolve. I was satisfied by the final resolution in this story. Very satisfied.
But, there were problems with the book.
I wish Grisham didn't violate the show-don't-tell rule so many times in this book. It was distracting. Part of the joy of reading mysteries is trying to figure them out as you go. Grisham wrote amazing scenes in Sycamore Row depicting action, showing us what's going on, letting us puzzle to work out what was happening, what the meaning of the scene was. But then he'd have scene after scene where he just spits the mystery of the moment out loud. Too many pages were used to tell us the implications of this characters actions or the possible scenarios spinning out of that action when he could have simply spent the time showing these things play out those consequences.
I also wish Grisham hadn't included characters and story lines that didn't move the story forward. For example, there were a dozen or antagonists early in the story (mostly lawyers in opposition of the main character) but most of them resolved themselves away half-way through without much fanfare or consequence. At the end, I found myself looking back at these characters and wondering why they had been there. The story would have been stronger with fewer antagonists and more time spent developing their depth or increasing the tension they introduce.
There was another example of a story line that could have been cut; in of A Time to Kill, Jake Briggance's house is burned down. In Sycamore Row, what happens to that house (a fight with his insurance company and an offer from a friend of a great deal on an equivalent home) is wrapped up too easily, too conveniently in a story line that didn't strengthen the main plot in any way. What happened to Jake's house could be have been a one-paragraph story note early in the book with no change in the new story's outcome.
Grisham also opens Sycamore Row with echoes of the threats Jake received from A Time to Kill (racially-charged threats, some fulfilled, of violence). But those threats never manifest. Nor does Grisham explain why not. Grisham also involves characters from A Time to Kill that don't add further the current story. My only conclusion of these plot challenges is that Girsham had mixed motives for writing this story. He had a compelling legal drama to write, set in a favored town and featuring a favored character. But he also was trying to write things into the story to make fans of A Time to kill happy. These two motivations pulled awkwardly at each other throughout the book. Strip them away and Sycamore Row is Grisham at his best.
I enjoyed the story and if you're a Grisham fan or a fan of the book A Time to Kill, I recommend you read Sycamore Row. But wish Grisham could have taken time to come back and revise it with a more dispassionate eye.
Sometimes, when I'm moving about my normal day, answering emails at the office, making proposals for customers, running errands with the family, there's a voice inside of me asking me when I am going to sit my butt back down in a chair and write again.
I call this voice Beast because he can be cantankerous, demanding, insistent, whiny, and downright violent if I don’t find a way to yield to his will. Beats is only quiet when I am writing.
Beast looks a lot like me. He is my height but more broadly shouldered. his hair is longer and shaggy most of the time. Beast shaves every once in a while. If he wants to. Never because he’s told to.
Beast drinks coffee; grinds the beans himself and cares what it taste like but he takes it black, from a drip coffee-maker (never an espresso machine, a french press, or god forbid, a Kurig).
Beast eats whatever the hell he wants, but it's usually high-quality, never junk, and good for you. But if Beast wants a doughnut, he will have a doughnut. It just better be well-made, fresh, and not priced like it's wrapped in gold foil.
Beast doesn't work out to stay in shape he is in shape because he works. Hard.
Beast doesn't smoke. But he could if he wanted to and you would have absolutely no say over when and where he did.
Beast doesn't swear because he has actual English words to use to get across what he's thinking and feeling but he sure the fuck could swear all he wants any fucking time he god-damned well pleases.
Beast doesn't watch television. Beast thinks television is the spawn of the devil, a vacuous waste of time, the creative opposite to the novel.
Beast thinks a well-made mechanical thing of beauty is not a fashion statement. Technology is great and useful but a thirty-year-old pick-up truck he can fix himself and a well-maintained motorcycle are preferred over the latest iAnything.
If you bump Beast in a public place, he will punch you in the face. But only if you're a dick about it when you realize what you've done. And he is smaller than you so getting punched in the face by him would be embarrassing.
Beast rarely drinks alcohol because he chooses not to waste his time and mental energy on it. And he doesn’t buy into the myth that you have to be a drunk to write. Writing is the act of sitting your ass in a chair and making words happen in front of you. You don;t need to be drunk to do that.
Beast writes and his biggest complaint is that I, with my day job and family obligations and errands and to do lists and projects, are in his way. Beast writes for Beast and no-one else and doesn't give a crap what anyone thinks about him. Although he would love to get nice reviews of his fiction.
I love Beast. Beast just wants to live his life and work on his writing, to finish the latest novel and get humping on the next one. All of which he can do when I let him take over. I need to let Beast take over more often.
I just finished reading Revival by Stephen King.
I'm a big fan of King's work. I've read and enjoyed most of his books during the course of my lifetime. Revival is a work produced by the hands of a master at his craft. King makes writing look effortless. He makes his genre, the horrifying, the dark and unexplained look fresh, even though this is the 50th or more book he has produced along a similar vein.
I understand King's novels are an easy read for everyone. He builds stories slowly - you have to be patient and invest time in getting through the first hundred fifty pages sometimes just to figure out where he's trying to take the story - but he always rewards the loyal reader with an amazing payoff at the end.
Revival is no different. The story takes a while to develop. It opens with our lead character through as a very young boy in Rural Maine. We see his interactions with a local preacher, a young man who loses his beautiful young wife and small child in a tragic accident has a crisis of faith, a preacher who experiments with electricity and invents an electrical appliance that cures our main characters younger brother of a crippling vocal injury.
We follow our main character as he learns to play guitar, grows into a man, struggles with heroin addiction, and lives what to most of us would seem like a full and productive life.
But this is a Stephen King novel so it can't all be sunshine and roses. King bring the pastor back into our character's life at key moments and we start to see that the story has a theme, and the theme is this pastor's obsession and experimentation with a form of electricity he calls secret electricity, an energy source that has the power to heal, an energy source he doesn't fully understand. That power to heal comes with a price and our main character seems to be the only person in the world who can see that the pastor's is messing with forces that could expose the world to dark consequences.
King builds the story slowly, but leads us without tipping his hand to a final moment that is not fully known until it happens. I love that about his work. He can take us on a 400 page journey that still surprises on the very last page.
I recommend Revival for anyone who is a fan of supernatural thrillers or appreciates any fully and masterfully executed fiction. I definitely recommend Revival for King fans; it is King at his best. I recommend Revival with the caveat that you don't expect it to be over in a flash. Buy the book then set aside some time to see it through. Stick with it as the story builds. I promise you will be satisfied when you turn the final page.
Have you read it? What did you think?
Writing first drafts is a freeing experience. A solid couple of hours in the free-wheeling flow state of creating an ever-expanding new story is addictive. Writing first draft pages is like lovemaking; it's fluid and all feeling and peppered with great emotional payoffs.
Since I finished my first draft on January 1st, I haven't had the opportunity to create new fiction. I've been revising instead. Revision feels like manual labor. The list-and-detail management required to process revisions is work that has to be handled, has to be wrestled with. I have to focus thought-energy at the story like Uri Geller trying to bend spoons with his mind. It's the mental equivalent of digging trenches - intense but necessary labor.
I spent a couple of hours today pulling out every time I mention one of the main elements in my book (without saying anything about the actual story - it's the main antagonists reason to exist, their back story, the presence in the action of the novel, their final disposition).
The intent of today's work was to go through that storyline, separate from the rest of the novel, and make sure it stands on it's own. Meaning, does this part of the story have it's own beginning, middle, and end? Does this part of the story move the story forward every time it appears? Does this part of the story carry a reader's interest? Is it worth their time to find out what happens at the end?
I started and stopped. I read and re-read. I tinkered with a thought here, outlined a new scene there, clarified a point here, double-checked a point made by a character against something written fifty pages early. Drive the shovel in, tip the shovel back, turn the shovel out, repeat. Even though it's harder work than writing first draft pages, I know this is the work that the reader deserves; revision is where the raw story gets turned into a novel hopefully worth their investment of time and money.
Writing first drafts has taught me that any task, no matter how daunting, can be seen through to the end if you just keep picking it up and moving it forward on a regular basis. My approach to revision has to be the same. Stay disciplined. Keep working. See it through to the end.
What do you tell yourself to get through work that needs to be done but doesn't measure up to the experience of the raw flow of creativity that writing can be?
Me? I'm saying that the Universe gave me a thinking, reasoning brain to accompany my gooey, creative brain for a reason - so one can keep the other in line so the body going when the work gets tough. And my guess is that while writing first drafts efficiently is a great skill to develop as a writer, the trench-digging of revision will make my the backbones of my stories stronger.
Back to the trenches.