Writing Process: Characters of the Covid Age

This Covid Pandemic is carving pieces of people away. In an attempt to maintain a semblance of normalcy through posting images, completing puzzles and asserting that all will be well, a feeling of identity loss dominates instead. Or thinking that anyway.

The need to belong somewhere – friends, family, a team or bar – has been eroded by life being moved onto the screen. This has created a sense of mutation, a half-shell of selves turned sideways into paper-thin abstractions with cartoon broken arms, modules and warts sloping out in disturbing and hopeless directions.

This isn’t a one-dimensional thing, but a sputtering prick into the bubble of self-awareness where one thinks of being half-asleep in a dream, shruggling (shrugging & struggling) with the accusations and denials of one’s most obvious flaws made obscene and dull. And it’s only getting louder.

Writing Organic Dialogue

One of my few strengths as a writer is dialogue. I rarely use an outline or definitive plan. Instead I focus on knowing the characters, watching them move and interact. Most important of all is knowing what their motivation is for the scene (why they there and what they want) as well as their background and relationship with the other(s).

I spend a great deal of time in thinking about how the scene starts, the exact lines and scene, and keep that moment in my head. It is almost like a moving snapshot – a gif as it were – that goes around and around, anxious to get out of the loop. And then I let them go and do what they want. At that point, it’s just a question of keeping up with what they say, basically transcribing as they go. They can get stuck, repeat themselves and run down blind alleys. It’s all a matter of trying to keep them on track.

The trick is to move ahead for as long as their voice stay strong. And when the momentum is gone, to step back a little and start again, like getting a car out of the muck, rock it back and forth until it’s back on track. Once the scene is done, it needs to be run through again a couple more times. Time is needed after that, a few days to do a proper edit, focusing on the structure and repetitions and that oh-so-impossible satisfying arc.

Writing Process: What If You Don’t Know What To Write?

A close friend recently texted me: Write what you know. It’s good advice, like Keep It Simple Stupid or Seize the Day. Then again, what if I stay in bed too long? Make it slightly complicated? And I just don’t know?

Army personnel at The Javits Center during the outbreak of Covid-19, New York, 2020

I’m writing a speculative trilogy about going to another planet, which is something that I know nothing about. But I do know about promise and failure. I know I think of my flaws as attributes. I know that there is a fine line between when to choose the sensible thing and the brave. I know that I am as self centered and mean spirited as the rest. And I know that I will be alone in the end.

Abandoned sign near Wall Street, New York, September 2020

And so it becomes jumbled. Yes, I know what I know. But I think I know too much of that. It might come clear in my dreams, but who wants to hear about that? I’ll tell you about my mother. Actually I think I already did.

So here’s the story: Guy writes a blog for eight years and then writes that one true thing that gets shared to every corner of the galaxy and becomes the soothsayer for all. Share that!

Writing Process: 3 Thoughts

#1 A story is not self about self. That is hubris.

#2 Do not describe what the reader can already see.

#3 In the end, the story is about the disgustingness of one another.

Buying Secrets from the Past: NHL Action Players

I spend a lot of time digging into my memories. I look at pictures of me as a boy – fishing on the dock, beside the Christmas Tree, with our dog Celeste – trying to access that momentous time. I have also tried to searched out childhood things like Checkerboard Ice Cream and Pantry cookies, both of which I cherished in those days and both of which have vanished.

Modern-Day Checkerboard Ice Cream but not my brand (Not the Gluten-free notation!)

It seems somehow possible that if I could just taste them again, I would rediscover a key note to my uncluttered mind, like the magic of holding the tin or the feeling of my bare legs against the kitchen linoleum. But I have not been able to find either.

Something I have found is the NHL Action Players Book from Loblaws grocery store.

Toronto Maple Leafs page of Loblaws NHL Action Players

I collected these stickers from the Loblaws grocery store, furiously opening strip after strip to fill the booklet, trading for missing stamps, finding out who had found the un-find-able ones. There were dozens of Larry Carriere and Walt McKechnie and so few of Guy Lambert and Don Awry. It was impossible to find those.

NHL Action Players available for purchase on Ebay.

And then Doug Crosby, a rich and somewhat simple boy in my class, bought the completed book from Edward Etchells for $50. The class bully Andy McAlpine mocked him. “You idiot! That’s not how it’s done!”

Class bully Andy McAlpine today.

I realize that the whole thing was about the experience of collecting things, but why not do it Doug Crosby’s way? Why go through all of the hassle of bartering for the rare stickers when you could just buy the whole thing in one shot? As much as Doug seemed to have missed the point, Andy totally misses it. It’s not about scamming the system but learning from the experiences of the thing, be that finding Don Awry or eating Checkerboard Ice Cream.

Writing Process: Virtual Junk to Myself

My family had many Christmas traditions. Presents were not put under the tree until Christmas Eve. The living room door was kept closed until after we had a proper breakfast. Christmas cards were used as decorations around the house. And after receiving our gifts, we had to write thank-you notes to everyone. It was an onerous, yet vital task.

Thank-you notes are a thing of the past; now children just call aunts and grandparents, or worse, send texts and posts. A quick word with an emoji or two, and they can go back to their games and chats. The same goes for notes and letters. Indeed when was the last time you received a postcard?

Postcards from camp to my parents in 1973

It’s not as if I’m pining for the days of writing thank-you notes but that, as these artifacts go, so do our memories. The Young Chronicles series detailing my 1983 Cross-Canada hitchhiking trip would not exist if not for my hand-written notes.

Original notes for Young Chronicles

While these sophomoric scribblings are not vital to living my life, they are key to reminding me of where I’ve been.

I wrote a piece twenty years ago on the poor state of sports journalism. I interviewed many sports people including Allen Iverson, Mark Messier, Cito Gaston and the sports editor for The New York Times. It was a solid bit of writing which The Globe and Mail considered publishing but ultimately rejected as being too controversial because I named names – including Stephen Brunt and Gary Mason, godawful writers still working today. The story is gone, lost because it and all of the notes were on a floppy disk that vanished in the years of transition. And so I only have this picture from Gary’s Instagram.

I rarely write on paper anymore. I text myself my notes. I do this so much that my Gmail account has flagged me (the same Gmail account) as junk, junk unto itself. Yes, even my computer is sending the message for me to get back to paper, maybe even print out these posts so that I can reflect and share on whatever platform is to come.

Notes on a Novel Only Just Begun

The general premise of the book is obvious: living through the pandemic and watching the routines of everyday life dissolve away. Our main character, Davis, considers the lack of achievement in his life and then approaching death.

Davis sits on his fire escape every night and listens to the sounds of the city. One specific sound emerges: the communal humming of the buildings. He realizes that his mind has been cluttered and starts to dig into the more essential question of the meaning of this sound. He listens to it intently.

The sound is constant, but Davis realizes that he is not, that the sound swells and fades as does his interest. His mind drifts to other things. He tries to devote himself to the sound. He begins to understand that the sound asks that we do nothing but listen to it. The only thing needed is to listen to the note. His confidence in his understanding of this grows and grows until he realizes that he is now thinking about that – his confidence – and not the sound.

He then understands that he doesn’t understand. He cannot understand. He understands that to listen to that sound, to understand that sound is an impossibility.

Anyway, that’s the general premise. The book needs more of an arc and a whole bunch of interesting characters. And the real trick is to keep the tale sharp and witty! Lots of existential jokes and sex bits too.

My Small Quest for Immortality

In Until the End of Time, Brian Greene states that our only possibility of eternal life is through The creative mind, able to roam freely through imagined worlds, exploring the immortal, meandering through eternity, and meditating on why we might seek or disdain or fear endless time. (380)

God knows that I have striven for immortality in my writing. (I might even settle on one published work!) I have rummaged through my head and flailed away with anything I could find. My family’s distant interest in me has been a source of bitter inspiration. My father’s certitude of always doing the right thing has been a touchstone and albatross. I have pissed off many a person with my righteous thoughts. My terror of the darkness and deep waters has held me back as has my reticence and distrust of people.

I have channeled much of this into Dee Sinclair, a 30-something former sex worker who owns an exotic pet and who appears in four of my books, including My Bad Side and The Cx Trilogy.

Her mother was dead. Her sister was dead. Nani was dead. Everyone was gone. And she was alone. That was how she was used to it being. Alone. She just wanted this corner, Apollo with her, just Apollo, a place she could pull her knees into her chest and be quiet. That’s all she wanted. (Anori)

I deeply admire Dee for her courage and singular focus, for her intense devotion and fury, for her willingness to carry on, knowing that life is only there to disappoint. I desperately need to get her out into the world, to have her thoughts published, so that an audience might understand and care. She must be heard. She is my one and true child.

Dee’s Back Story

When I look back on the jobs I’ve done, performance sex was the hardest. I don’t mean how I was judged, and even judged myself, because none of that means anything, or even the unpleasantness at times. Some people really do stink. It was more about making it real. It was rare when I could lose that control, not just have that half open mouth, and give what I knew was expected.

It was when I broke from that, that I got frantic, balancing at the tip, and felt like I might slide sideways, barely hanging on. I would push hard and then stop, do that again and again, all taut and stupid, clinging to this good side of the moment, and keep it like that.

And then I would right into like a mania, straight ahead, nothing else but plowing straight for that full-on orgasm, so much that it was almost I’m made me get mad and crazy, like I was a kid and wanted what I wanted, and would not let go, and skip ahead, my feet barely touching the ground, until I was in it and nothing else. It was really hard work, but there were those moments.

Marvel Letter: Archeology of the Quest

I was 14 when I saved a copy of Marvel Two-in-One #34 with my scathing “I hate this comic” letter in my desk drawer and looked at it every once in a while.

I lost of track of it some time later, through high school, college and work, vaguely sure that it was somewhere in my mess of drafts, articles and rejection letters.

The memory of it came to me years later, but the search was always detoured by distraction and ultimately, the lack of the required energy of such a futile quest. After all it was just an eight-word letter that didn’t even approximate my original message.

It is a funny tale and works for this site and so I blogged on it five years back, working solely from memory and thus erroneously cited the comic in question as Marvel Team #31 (featuring Spiderman and Iron Fist).

It was only recently, in these pandemic days, that I decided to find the damn thing. I knew that it was from one of three comic series (Team-Up, Two-in-One or Iron Fist) and scoured through various blogs and archives for it.

I knew the issue focused on saving kids from a burning orphanage and so keyed on images of orphans and fires. I thought I had found it in an issue of Marvel Team-Up which had a collapsing building and an orphan-looking kid.

I ordered the issue on-line and several others following to ensure that I got the one with my letter too. I knew it was wrong before I even opened the issue. It looked wrong and was. I returned to my on-line search and finally noticed the burning hospital (not orphanage) in the background of Marvel Two-in-One #34 that I knew that I had found it. It was then that I realized my letter was in Issue #40 by looking at the cover.

The memory of walking through the pinewood hallway to my bedroom at the cottage came to me at that moment – the cool, dark air, a distant screen door closing, the feeling of emptiness of seeing my letter in print, edited to nothing – and then the feeling of comics not being what they once had been – a place of wonder – it all came into me like that.

It’s funny how that feeling returned again now, when I had finally found the issue again, at the end of this farcical quest. I had found it last and so what indeed? What’s next?