Ernest Hemingway: Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.
And then there is advice on what you are writing.
Toni Morrison: Don’t record and editorialize on some event that you’ve already lived through.
Kurt Vonnegut: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Ian Fleming: Make sure that you don’t like your protagonist too much – or at all.
Finally, there is the broader advice, how to understand exactly what you are doing.
Joan Didion: Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.
Alice Munro: There should be a point where you say, the way you would with a child, this isn’t mine anymore.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I think honest feedback is very important. But it’s also hard to find. Other writers can be useful, also they can not, because they’re doing the same thing, and sometimes they want you to become like them.
A machine starts up and then stops. There is a long pause, and then it is there again, gaining power for a moment, stopping again. It continues over and over, unable to reach the critical point, like a fly dying on the window sill, buzzing to life, only to end up on its back, eventually dead. But this fly never stops. A technician checks on it. All seems in working order.
There is the air conditioner too, quietly rattling, surging, like waves coming into each other, briefly chaotic and then together, then spreading out. It is a normal sound, like the talk down the halls and laughter, wheels of a passing gurney, buckets opened, doors closed, indistinct clicks and things dropped.
And then there are the two notes of another machine, a higher note followed by another an octave below. More is to come. But it never does. There are just these two notes and then silence, the air conditioner, the dying machine, and everything else. Food service is on the way.
The notes again, higher and an octave below, but the concert never starts. The technician edges back into my room. “Lunch?” “Just not hungry. Thank you.”
Three years after going up into Northern Ontario with my school, I went on a family car trip to Prince Edward Island. It was 1974. I kept another chronicle, this one with post cards glued in. I threw that out long ago but still have a few notes.
Mom said, “One of you kids will have to come in the front seat.” So we were quiet the rest of the way.
Deadline: We are halfway to Montreal from Kingston and I just saw an old train station! End of Deadline.
Martha came out to where we were and picked up an Ajax bottle and a stick and started whamming the Ajax bottle with the stick. Soon me and Bobby went back and caught smelt. Of course we threw them back. Martha thought we ate them.
We were arriving in Charlottetown and we never got there because we never got the right course. Well, we were turning around and dad backed the car right into a ditch and there was a house right there. The man came out and told us about more accidents that have happened there. Soon the tow truck pulled us out of the ditch. It was probably easy.
It rained so-so-so-so hard that you could barely see through the windshield. It was raining so hard, some cars had to stop. But my dad kept going.
The next day, I woke up with the dog on my bed and the door was open! Well, I had breakfast.
I am deep into this blog now (eight years and 1,250 posts) and so this is as good a time as any to finally take a swing at that. What is this blog? Why am I doing this? My writing process! Let’s see if I can narrow that down to a few tips.
ONE: Your process is a personal thing. You can’t just do what people tell you to do. You have to figure out your own process. Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond Series, wrote every morning and then went for a swim. Woody Allen writes longhand. I text myself notes on the fire escape.
It can take forever because I am all thumbs (literally) and the typos and formatting are an issue, but I feels like it works. (That said, whatever you do, don’t email yourself notes from the same account as that confuses Gmail, which then labels all of your emails to yourself as junk.) You just have to figure out routine works best for you.
TWO: Maintain a work ethic. Like my father always said, “Life is work. If you don’t like work, then you’re going to have a tough time in this life.” Writing doesn’t happen by osmosis. You have to do the work. There is just no getting around that.
THREE: Watch what goes on around you in life. Look at the details – how people move their hands, how they walk and scroll, how they look back at you – and write it down. The best characters (read: biggest fuck-ups) are right in front of you.
The only problem is that people are all boring as hell in the end and you’ll have to clean that up – in other words, make it fiction.
FOUR: Move around. Do something. Get outside. A moving brain is a thinking brain. Go for a walk. Take a hike. Go jump in the lake. (More advice from my father.)
The more you move, the more your brain gets going. It’s called kinetic thinking. This is especially important when you’re stuck in the story. When you start to move around and think about that – the moving that is – the narrative solutions tend to pop into your head.
FIVE: Write what you know. Write the exact thing that is in your head. Write it. Name the names. Name the jerks you know. Describe them exactly as they are.
Don’t worry about what anyone might think. Not your partner, not your mother, not your kid, not even you. Nobody. That’s the prime stuff, the lunacy of people. Let yourself go nuts on that. That’s where everything is to be found.
SIX: Review and edit. And then edit it again. And when you’re done that, you guessed it. Edit again! Maybe then you might be ready for an editor.
SEVEN: Do the research, whatever is needed. Read up on the backgrounds of everything that you can. Visit the places. Do it for anything that comes up, the park that’s outside the building, the people walking past, the plane overhead. Read about whatever it is.
The most fulfilling reading will always be non-fiction – even if it is fiction. Biographies, the most fictitious of all, are the most revealing. Tales of exploration too. Those are the fullest.
EIGHT: Don’t listen to any of the experts. Screw them all. They are writing about it because they don’t know any better. Like me. Forget about the plot points. Disregard character arcs. There is no structure to any of this. Let your story unfold as it is. Let the characters live their lives.
Listen, I understood from the beginning that the pandemic was going to be a tough thing. I knew that I would have to stay indoors, wear a mask and carry on the good fight against depression and gloom.
What I didn’t know was that the rewards for The Aquarist Club (Level 793 of Fishdom) would be basically nothing.
Truth be told, I expected that I would have to grapple with the horrifying statistics of so many deaths, to talk with friends and colleagues suffering through their grief and, indeed, only be able to attend my mother’s funeral on-line.
But if The Aquarist Club is going to take 35 levels to achieve, including four timed rounds, five Hard Levels and three Super Hard, there would have to be more than a Bonus Hammer and Bonus Hand. Right? At least three times that, ten times!
And even if my knee replacements have been delayed another week and I have to do the Covid test again and a Cat Scan to find there is bullshit in my lungs, and then have to self-inject blood thinners into my gut twice a day, I can do that. I can.
But…but if you have to decorate an entire Aquarist Club with rugs and chairs and pictures and everything else, there absolutely has to be more than an fucking sailboat as the premium reward.
The ongoing racism of this conflicted country was inevitable too, as was the social upheaval, the protests and anger at least a hundred years overdue. I wasn’t even surprised that I lost my job, like so many other people did, even if the Values & Beliefs Chair went too far and called me discriminatory – not in the good way. And I can cope with all of this. I really can.
But, holy good god, there’s got to be more than 78 lousy gold coins for finishing the Aquarist Club. What does 78 gold coins even buy? A third of the cheapest decoration, if that. And that is simply too much. Too damn much.
Only three days into Phase One of the Great Re-Opening, and I am sentimental for the lock down. Remember when we couldn’t go outside? When the streets looked like a scene from Escape from New York and you could get a train car to yourself on the subway?
Or when the people took to the streets and everything got boarded up and our thoughtful mayor sent us daily notes on who was boss. (It didn’t turn out to be him.)
And, most importantly, how all of this justified my habit of hanging out on the fire escape with a Jamo and Bud. (Peanut butter and jam, we drinking folk call it.)
But that’s all over now. The jack hammers are back. (I actually missed them a bit.) And soon all of those faux New Yorkers will be giving up on their beach walks, soaking in the sublime shades of another perfect fucking sunset, and pretend they never left.
For those who follow my blog, you know that my focus tends to whirl about, citing random words, places and ideas, all in service of the “writing process”. Occasionally I get political, such as my blogs on the horrifying carnage at Sandy Hook and the election of Trump. I wandered into that realm last week with a fake magazine interview with Donald Trump. Swordsmen: Drawn & Quarterly.
The following day, my computer had been disconnected from our wifi service, and when I logged back on, I found the following options:
I was surprised that, first, the FBI were in the neighborhood; second, that they would actually name their wifi “FBI Surveillance Van”, and third that they were monitoring my blog. The third thought didn’t really coalesce until the next day when Facebook rejected my attempt to promote the post on their platform because it “violated their policy on promoting social issues.”
Promoting social issues? Isn’t that what writers are supposed to do? Or is it all code for them being pissed that the Russian hackers breached their sincerity? Whatever it may be, I have another Swordsmen Issue coming up, hopefully as much on point with my writing process as it is with our oxymoronic world, bitted up with bots and lies.