Writing Process: Conjuring a Scene

I am stuck on a scene in my book, Anori. There needs to be something there, but I don’t know what. It begins like this: Dee and Tommy are on the coast of Maine (with Dee’s exotic cat) where they talk about the end of their relationship. A park ranger arrives and tells Dee that exotic animals are not permitted in the state park. The exchange is cordial and the ranger leaves.

But then what? I have a tentative scene of three poachers appearing with a dead moose in the bed of their pickup. The ranger returns and says nothing. The contradiction is the aim. The ranger does nothing because he knows the poachers and will receive compensation. I like the premise of this but don’t know what should happen in the end. It seems that the stakes will have to be raised – Tommy proving himself with bravado or Dee challenging them – but I don’t want this scene to detract from the arc of the novel.

To put into context, the following scene is this: Dee and Tommy return to New York City the next day with Apollo. They spend another night together, and there are moments of hope. Dee begins to reconsider her perspective. But Tommy vanishes early the next morning. Dee is saddened and yet relieved. She returns to her work in Greenland.

Options include: a) Dee and Tommy see the poachers from a distance and leave. (Missed opportunity?) b) Tommy shoots one of them in the foot. And then…they race off to NYC? (Stakes too high?) c) Dee records their confrontation on her phone and threaten to expose the ranger’s corruption. (Convoluted and heavy handed?)

Presently, I am thinking a combination of b) & c). Tommy threatens the poachers and then he and Dee leave the park in a hurry. No one follows. I like the idea, but is it obtuse?

Dark Matter of the Writing Process

The thing about writing is that it draws from nebulous things that live in my head – memories, feelings, images and the words that put those together. But the real thing is they’re not actually things, but unthings, abstract nothing things swirled into a cloud of something, a story as it were, not building blocks but protons and ions, effervescence and frequencies, half like dark matter, a presence that can only be detected by its influence on other things.

My current project, Anori, has the following scene: Dee is driven by her ex-husband Tommy from Newfoundland back to NYC. The scene used to feature Dee’s Uncle Ralph; however the book needed less of Uncle Ralph and more of Tommy. The scene also requires a switch in scene, from California to Maine. The thematic elements will remain (distance from someone once loved) as well as key images, but the voice and setting need a 180 degree shift. And so the scene becomes a mangled corpse that has to be picked.

I could kill it all, wipe the slate clean, but I don’t want to do that. The dark matter of the old scene has an unthing I want to preserve. And scorched earth is stupid. Other things were hacked out. There is no more Dodgers game, no more sexy forest ranger, and no more porno shoot in the Hollywood Hills. (sigh)

I now have Dee and Tommy, still in love, but incompatible, stopping and starting in their conversation, exposing their history and feelings, afraid of saying anything to hurt the other but keen to let the other know what they still mean. There is much to mine from my own life here, long drives with things unsaid, guilt and pain and regret. This is the magic of the process, knowing the characters and direction and now searching out where it is they say what needs to be said.

Editing: Killing the Sexy Bits

You have to be in the right mindset to edit. A cruel focus is needed. No matter how great the scene, image or dialogue, if it’s not completely on point, it must go. They call it “killing the babies”, and I suppose it is something like that, even if that’s as self-centered as all hell.

Dee’s sexuality is key to her character, but it is a subtle thing in Anori, unlike My Bad Side, because it is more speculative fiction than psychological, and as much as sex might sell, her tryst with the Oregon Park Ranger is done, only to appear here.

The waves rolled up on the beach in a long rattling rush. She thought she could see someone in the distance and waited and then walked back along the path to the ranger’s cabin. There was a light. She went around the side and tried to look through the little window and then ducked through the underbrush, getting stuck for a minute and stood there stupidly like she had to go to the bathroom, and came around the corner.

The room was empty, just a brown fabric couch and a television left on. She waited. A truck came down the road and pulled up to the house. And then he was there, the Oregon Parks Ranger, his shirt undone. “You look lost. Can I get you a drink? I’ve got beer.

There was a bedroom at the end of the hall, strewn and cluttered, piles of books leaning against the walls, heaps of clothing in the middle. The bed had an old lacquered headboard and long faded wood down the sides. She took off his shirt and then his pants. She had a desperate burning inside, along her stomach and thighs and into her groin.

She wanted him to go faster but he pushed her hands back. He was naked, his penis at her breasts and held her shoulders. She looked up at his face and chest and the wooden beams and white ceiling above. She was rigid, arching her back, grabbing his legs. He moved in a long cycling motion, pushing up high, going too fast and then slow. She wanted that back and grabbed at him. He pressed down onto her stomach and held her neck. She pushed into him faster.

“Holy fuck.” It was more of a wheezing, not words, and she started laughing as she crawled over the books, and he pulled her back and there was only a tightness, her skin blood-rich, trying to make it more, keep it like that, harder, everything stretching out, her head tilting back, peering into the chasm, ready to fall, and then nothing.

Research: The Best of Writing

“What’s a Qivittoq?” Dee was getting unbearably cold now, the chill entering her body like it would never leave. “What’s that?” (Extract from Anori)

Choosing the most effective word can be painfully tedious. Is she really unbearably cold? What about terribly cold? Desperately cold? What word translates the feeling for how cold she is? One word works and the other. It goes back and forth in the edit, until the word works as it should. Whatever that means.

A much more immediately satisfying part of writing is the research. Anori is speculative novel set in Greenland and so futuristic elements as well as aspects of Greenlandic culture are needed to develop the setting.

Aeriel view of icebergs outside of Ilulissat, Greenland

A Qivittoq is a mythological, often evil creature – akin to the Ojibway’s Wendigo – is derived from the custom of banished a person who violates the sacred codes of society.

Thule Air Base also came up in my research, a United States military camp where a B-52G Stratofortress loaded with nuclear weapons crashed in 1968. This led me to think that nuclear weapons might have created a Qivittoq or two.

Disko Island glacier

Other research for Anori included Earth-out-of-view Syndrome (a psychological disorder when one can no longer see Earth), O’Neil Cylinder (mining asteroids in space), Cave Swallows (birds in the Yucatan), dry dock (lifting boats out of the water for repairs) and cantilevers.

The cantilevered architecture of Jenny Polak’s Offshore (Socrates Sculpture Park, Queens, New York)

The trick of effective research is not allowing it to completing distract the work at hand… unless a book on the trivia of research is to be launched. (Is there a market for that?)

Pandemic Accomplishments: Month Eight

It’s eight months since this pandemic got going, and it looks like another few months (eight?) to go? Yikes! Anyway, I am still accomplishing things, still doing the rehab, getting safely out, breathing and still blogging.

Fearless Girl is hanging in there too

I have applied for a few jobs and, although I did not get the job at The Julliard, I had a solid interview for a job in Paris. No final decisions on that, but I did go to the airport to renew my Global On-Line card.

No one wanting in the waiting room at the Global On-Line JFK Office

I’ve made significant progress on my latest edit of the first part of Anori: “A lot to take in? Huh.” She sipped the drink. “First of all, I’m supposed to believe that you’re an interstellar pilot? Is that it? I’m having imaginary drinks in a galactic orb with an interstellar pilot? Is that it?” It’s a mentally taxing affair, but it should be complete in a month when I can take it to another editor and get slaughtered again.

I finished Brian Greene’s exhaustive opus Until the End of Time: Survival rests upon amassing information that accurately describes the world. And progress, in the conventional sense of increased control over our surroundings, requires a clear grasp of how these facts integrate into nature’s workings. Such are the raw materials for fashioning practical ends. They are the basis for what we label objective truth and often associate with scientific understanding. I understood about a third of the book, which is good for me.

I just attended Kate Hudson’s interview of Matthew McConaughey which failed to meet my exceedingly low expectations until Ms. Hudson started to get into her wine.

Mr. McConaughey was under the false pretense that I had tuned in to hear him wax philosophical when all I wanted was ribald tales and a modern-day rendering of his definitive “All right, all right, all right!” from Dazed and Confused. (Truth to be told, the best part of the interview was interpreter, Joe Lucas, just hanging in there.)

I continue to slog through Fishdom, having made it to Level 1821 and avoiding my first purchase (of $4.99), even though the ghost squid and bonus lives were incredibly tempting. I will maintain the purist route, diligently feeding my fish and cleaning my aquariums.

Last but not least, I did not answer this spam.

Writing Sex: Divine Sexuality

Apparently there is nothing harder to write than a sex scene. (Wink, wink.) It’s either Henry Miller’s sweat (“she commenced rubbing her pussy affectionately”) or Pablo Neruda’s honey (“I want to eat you like skin like a whole almond”). Nothing in between. And that’s where I aim to come in. (Say no more.)

Dee Sinclair is not just a sex worker; she is a performer. She is featured in my last four books – My Bad Side, Anori, Aqaara and Mina – and embodies what sex in literature should be. In the words of Nancy Qualls-Corbett, she is “the bringer of sexual joy and the vessel by which the raw animal instincts are transformed…and made sacred.” (The Scared Prostitute, Nancy Qualls-Corbett.)

As Dee puts it: You know what I’m good at? I’m very good at balancing at the tip, my orgasm looming, you know, on those tender little nerve endings. And just when I might slide off sideways, before I reach that moment, letting that go and pushing harder, I stop, all taut and stupid, clinging to this moment like it might go on forever and keep it like that, everything at the tip, holding my hips high.

I try to make it a long leisurely thing, really thinking like that, and then slide into my mania again, and all I can see is the sex, just the flesh, naked and depraved, everything like I’m a kid again, and I’m holding it, holding it, staring ahead, lost, my hands digging in, snapping ahead, missing the steps as I come out of a dream and finally give in.

Kinetic Thinking: It’s Physical!

One of the greatest challenges during this pandemic, which I compounded by getting both knees replaced, has been the lack of movement. Being stuck in my apartment for such an interminably long period made me a dullard who spent too much time either staring out the window or at a screen of some kind.

Matthew McConaughey in Fool’s Gold (2008)

As I noted in previous posts, I need to move. If I don’t move, I don’t think. It’s that simple. Without motion, my brain barely moves. It’s like mush. It just doesn’t do much. According to Brian Greene (who despite my many references to his words of late is not my guru), thinking is an actual physical event. He uses Boltzmann Brains as well as an entity of his own called The Thinker to demonstrate that thinking demands the physical movement. Particles must dance about in our heads for our brains to function. And that makes it a physical act. There’s a lot more to it, but I don’t understand much – quantum tunneling you say?? – except what I wrote: thinking requires energy.

I know this because, four months after getting my knees replaced, I am back on the bike and my brain is back at it. I figured out a number of blog topics – sacred sex and more! – and narrative fixes in Anori as well as deciding to end a meaningless feud and that I hold no animosity toward the people who fired me (almost) as well as a bunch of other nonsense you don’t want to hear about – all in less than an hour.

I move therefore I think. That’s the thing. Which begs the question: Was Walter Payton the smartest of all?

Walter Payton, Chicago Bears running back

Reverence for Novelist Notes

Like most writers, I make a lot of notes.

Notes for science fiction aspects in Anori. (2009)

Most of my notes focus on the background of the story, derived from research, conjecture and reflection. They help me sort out my thoughts, especially in relation to the setting and tone of the book.

Notes for novel, All In (1998)

I write on anything I can find and then transcribe the relevant material to my computer when I get back home.

Notes for novel, The Sacred Whore (1987)

However I rarely, if ever, throw out my notes. I like them too much. My affinity is great as to be a misguided reverence, as if I believe they might be needed one day by researchers and archivists for the McPhedran Research Institute.

That or I’m just like my mother, who never threw anything out, including my letters home when I was nine years old at camp.

Letter home from Hurontario (1973)

Editing Mantra: Don’t Muddle with Drivel!

The story has to be simple. That’s all there is to it. Kill all extraneous characters. Kill all unnecessary settings. Kill all musings. All of them. Kill them all, Kurtz! Get to the point. What is the bloody message? Stick to that and only that. Don’t muddle with drivel! Nobody cares. That’s the only mantra of the edit. And so Uncle Ralph is gone. He does not exist anymore in this book. The Dakota Roadhouse has been trashed too.

The trip down the west coast has been dumped. No visit to the Devil’s Churn. No game at Dodger Stadium and no climactic scene at the porn house up in the Hollywood Hills, as good as I might have dreamed it was.

Onward to Greenland.

Killing Babies: The Hell of Editing

The thing that I love about this scene from Anori is the senseless of it. Dee takes Apollo out for a walk in Lower Manhattan three days after a hurricane has ground the city to a halt and is stopped by a lone police officer for not having her exotic animal license; she is arrested and Apollo impounded.

The problem with the scene is that not only does it not help develop Dee, but it doesn’t move the story forward. And at page 10, that is a major issue. And so her release from custody, another baby of mine, is dumped too.

It is almost painful to have to kill a scene. Actually it is painful. It’s a damn shame. I mean, to have made something that works so well, and then to kill it? What a complete waste. That’s how it seems. And the book is the thing.