Tag Archives: novel

Note to self: Live

It's Ryan, not Bryan.

“Note to self: Don’t die.” – Ryan Adams

I deserted my novel for a month; abandoned it like a half-baked casserole in the sun. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but it sure felt that way after days of beating myself in the brain trying to keep pushing forward. I left my WIP in the middle of a half-rewrite apocalypse, with pieces gutted and strung out like entrails after a hastily departed operation. Essentially, I had taken a big look at all the work that needed to be done, and the enormity of it swallowed up all the energy I had left.  Honestly, I lost track of how many days I left it, because I was afraid the more days it gathered dust, the harder it was going to be to return to it.

In the time I put my book away and hit the road, I did a lot of living. Sometimes, writers forget that some of our best material is actually gleaned from–who would’ve thought!–real life. I went to three and a half concerts in two different states and had a lot of adventures along the way, and then I took an extended vacation to California and saw a little bit of the West. It was a whirlwind of sleeplessness, hastily-scrawled journals, frequent interactions with new people, not to mention an adrenaline rush of different and fresh experiences. I got to see rare Mexican wolves with intense proximity, for instance, and fell in love with surfing. (Not that I learned the actual act of surfing. God, no. I can’t even stand up straight on dry land. I’m a born observer of more athletic individuals.) I finally finished the book I’d been reading, U2: At the End of the World, learned how to play pinball, and chowed down on some amazing fish tacos. And I saw Eddie Vedder live for the first time, in what was one of the best concerts I’d ever attended. All in all, the best month (or so) I’ve had all year.

During my concert-blitzed week, I kept a separate journal of all my experiences, something I will treasure later. I nearly finished writing about the shows before I left for California, but ultimately failed and will have to fill in the gaps later. This will be the material I will use for an idea I’ve been kicking around for my next book. It seems insane to become excited about a new project when I haven’t even finished the one I’m working on now, but it’s such an interesting idea to me, I can’t really tuck it away. For the time being, I will continue researching like a mofo, as I have been over the past few months, sucking up every detail I can about my topic that could give me layers of insight later when I may actually sit down and begin writing it.

I don't remember where in the heck this was.

When I came home, I was apprehensive about cracking open that now-cold and half-baked novel, afraid that I might’ve forgotten the important threads I meant to reconnect; afraid that same old fear I’d magically forgotten how to write at all during my month-long hiatus. But the opposite happened.

I’d been clueless on how to finish the second chapter of my book and had left it as one of the glaring holes to fill in later. It was a foundational chapter integral to the rest of the story, but I just couldn’t come up with a clever way to tie it up. But the first time I picked up my novel after my trip and sat down to begin writing, I finished that chapter. It was as if the blockage in my head had been released, and my ideas were flowing cleanly once again. I looked at the rest of those scattered entrails, and their rightful place no longer seemed so intimidating; some of them, I now knew, could be cut without sacrificing what I loved about my story, and others could be moved around to preserve my plot arc. It was all coming together anew, and just because I’d given myself the time to look away from it and see what was really important in life…

Bonnie and Clyde's last ride.

Living.

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The Journal of a Novel

I’ve been a very bad blogger the past two months, and for those two of you out there who actually read my blog, I do sincerely apologize. I don’t have great excuses for not blogging more regularly, except I had to put my life on hold for most of the month in April through the beginning of May when I was out of state, at a film festival, and saying good-bye to my grandfather. Also, I just didn’t have much I wanted to share with the public at that time.

Mine is neon yellow and green. Also, I write in it with purple ink.

But I won’t dwell on that. One of the the best things that’s come out of this blogging absence was my paper journal.

Frustrated with the snail-like progress of my novel, and constantly being paralyzed by my recurring case of writer’s block, I tried a new tool to wrench me out of my writer’s stupor. I invested in a paper notebook to record what I was going through while writing my current novel, and declared it a private journal to record my day-to-day headway. I’m happy to report I’ve begun writing nearly every day in this notebook as a result. I’ve given myself notebook rules to help me stay in a regiment (although I’ve already broken some of them). But even though I’ve strayed a little, generally, I’ve been very good with it, and that’s saying a lot for someone who has been trying to cope with a debilitating case of S.A.D. this past winter. What has developed is a record of my back-story during the writing of this novel, noting the bursts of inspiration and the day-to-day struggles I encounter along the way. My journal has also served as an outlet to express frustrations, while I literally figure out my quandaries in the pages; when they come, the victories burst forth with that much more exaltation. And the more I’ve stayed on with my journal, the more I’ve discovered about my story, and the more I’ve just plain written.

Obviously, I didn’t invent the idea of journaling while concurrently writing a novel. One of my very favorite authors, John Steinbeck, would keep a journal while writing his greatest epics, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. As a student at Columbia, we were encouraged to keep a daily writing journal, but I didn’t grasp how to really go about it in college. I didn’t see the full benefits, because I was just discovering myself as a fiction writer. Also, I was writing so much for assignments, I felt like I had no time to write journal entries outside of the mandatory assignments. What also kept me from being interested in journaling then was the pressure to write about specific topics, which is actually more like how people conduct their blogs to stay interesting or relevant. This is not what a “journal of a novel” is all about. All I care about is getting out my story.

My journal has helped jump-start the work on my novel all over again, and I would encourage anyone who is having a rough road while writing to keep one, as well. For those who may be interested, here are the rules I set up for my own (I’ve copied them exactly as stated in my journal, so please pardon the profanity, which often runs rampant and free in these pages):

Journal Manifesto!

1. Write something every day in this journal. It doesn’t have to be more than ONE SENTENCE. As long as it’s dated and it is relevant, it is still driving my thoughts forward in writing this story.

2. Lists count as “something.” (In fact, are great.)

3. From now on, all notes to self about this NIP will be entered here, so it’s easier to find and catalogue.

4. Anything is pretty much relevant, I guess. I’m not going to be a stickler. That just causes more writer’s block, after all. Basically, anything going on in my life is somehow influencing and affecting my writing process, even the music playing on my iPod (Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs), where I’m currently camped out to write (Cafe Kopi), and whether or not I actually wrote any fiction so far (not yet). Also, environmental details could be recorded, like, the fact some group of yuppy douchebags left an entire trash heap on the table across from me. (I counted 4 plates, 4 glasses, 3 cans of SODA, and several wads of napkin and empty chip bags. Fucking pigs. Didn’t their mothers teach them to clean up after themselves? No wonder the human race is so fucked.)

5. Anything interesting dug up in research should also be noted here. Because it’s cool to get excited about new discoveries, and I may one day want to know when I first heard the bootleg of the 10-23-1993 Nirvana show at the Aragon Ballroom. (Sometime last year I first found it as an mp3 placed to a photo montage on YouTube.)

That’s about it. Now go write for real!

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Spectrum Surfing

My 8th grade English class was legendary. I was in honors English, and it was a smaller class of relatively intelligent, eager minds for a bunch of kids still stuck in junior high school. But it wasn’t us that made the class memorable for all-time, it was our teacher, Mrs. Temples.

Mrs. Temples never accepted our phone-in efforts, and she somehow figured out a way to push us beyond what we thought we could do to develop our minds and tastes. She introduced some of us to our first Stephen King and Shirley Jackson stories (“Survival Type” and “The Lottery”), quizzed us on the Abbott and Costello skit “Who’s on First?”, let the girls and boys compete with who could perform a better rendition of Bing Crosby’s “Melekalikimaka,” and assigned us the most influential stories and books I would read as a young adult. We never knew what to expect from her every class, and that’s one reason she was such an exciting teacher. To our credit, I once went back to visit her after I graduated from high school, and she told me my class was the best she ever had, because we actually went along with and understood her challenges and her mantra of trying to push beyond our limits.

But one of the most indellible lessons for me may have only been an aside; truthfully, I can’t remember what author she was talking about at the time (It could very well have been Shirley Jackson), but I do remember the idea being posed to me as a sort of challenge in disguise. Mrs. Temples said the author we were about to read did something very rare, in that he or she wrote from either side of the spectrum. Most authors, she said, (And I’m doing a horrible job of paraphrasing, so I do apologize, Mrs. Temples…) have a sort of specialized niche they focus on, and it’s the rare writer that travels far outside of that comfort zone. I don’t think she was merely talking about genres; that was only part of it. It also had to do with themes, concepts, and values. Ever since I heard that statement, I’ve been looking for authors who do write at both ends of the spectrum, and now I am trying it in my own fiction.

After I finished my first novel, an epic fantasy, I wanted to cleanse myself of the world I’d fabricated. I was burned out, to tell the truth, after about the third complete rewrite, and I didn’t want to even think about constructing another fantasy, or writing a sequel to what I’d just finished. But I was quickly falling into post-novel depression, and had to start working on a new project before I felt like I could never write again. It was my new story that pulled me out of my blackest hole of misery, dusted me off, and gave me something fresh to look forward to.

What I begun was something completely different, something I’d never tried before: a non-genre Young Adult novel. My comfort zones are fantasy and horror, and this featured neither elements in it. I thought it would be a nice new plain to venture out on, a fresh start to a clouded mind. As it turns out, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. 

The research. Oh, the research! This is the single thing that has caused more road blocks than anything wtih my new story, as my WIP is set in the early 90s, before I really locked on to the current culture and arts. For someone who was used to just making up shit whenever something needed explanation or backstory, actually having to put the writing aside to fact-check and authenticate little details was torture. Is torture. I’m still in the middle of it, though most of my research is probably stretched to where I can pull off the story without needing to look more facts up at this point. Thank God.

The "Citizen Kane" of teen movies was directed by John Hughes.

I still feel remnants of that post-novel depression, and it is coupled with writer’s block when I can’t simply make something up to get my characters out of a jam. Now I know why most writers don’t write at both ends of the spectrum: it’s torture! It’s not natural; it goes against the instincts and knee-jerk reactions. My own imagination isn’t hardwired to think about how stuff would happen in the real world; I’m much more apt to throw in a magical or horrific element than simply try to figure out a realistic way for my characters to escape dire situations. (This is where I kick myself for being a hermit and rarely getting in trouble as a kid. I could’ve been researching life for future stories!) Since I didn’t experience a lot of hard times or major trouble in my teenhood, my novel is probably more on the light-hearted side; that’s why I’ve decided to keep it in the vein of all of those John Hughes movies that are so beloved by the world. I was a wacky kid, so I understand how to write that, at least.

I hope this exercise in writing outside of my comfort zone pays off through developing areas of my imagination I may not have otherwise tapped. I’m realistic enough to know I’ll never be a legendary writer like Shirley Jackson or Stephen King, those highest tips on the pyramid we all aspire to be, but at least I’m trying to broaden my writing so that I’m not pigeon-holed as an author who sticks to one area of the story spectrum. I don’t want to recycle the same stories and ideas over and over again, and if I should ever find myself doing that, I’ll hang it up. Because if I’m not challenging myself, and therefore not pushing the limits to be better than I believe I am, what point is there in writing at all?

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The Story Hijacker

We all have that character that crops up somewhere, like a bright dandelion in a pure green field, and steals the spotlight from our protagonist. Your poor, hapless protagonist is just wandering along, minding his or her own business, and along comes this story hijacker. This is the character you created to heighten the stakes, to add color to the story, or maybe tell us more about the protagonist; and then this character inevitably manages to steals the show. How did that happen? Where does he/she get off with that, anyway? Maybe it’s your subconscious telling you some element needs to be added in your story, or maybe you’ve just become bored with the characters you already have. Either way, this story hijacker can be a good thing, but you have to be careful how far the hijack goes. (After all, whose story is this?)

"C'mon, just one more line? Who's it gonna hurt?"

In my case, the character who has stolen my attention in my work-in-progress is my protagonist’s older brother. This may partially be due to the fact that I based him on Young Mickey Rourke. As I am a sort of cinephile, I have been dutifully watching both an array of teen films (my WIP is a Young Adult novel), and anything I can find with Young Mickey Rourke in it for research. I admit, I find Young Mickey Rourke to be nothing short of jaw-droppingly gorgeous with bowl-me-over charisma, so there is this side to the story hijacker that is more powerful than the usual story hijacker. I may spend a little more time than necessary, for instance, studying his facial gestures, the way he speaks his lines, and how he carries himself to fill into the character of my novel. Okay, way too much time. I find myself wanting to write more about this character than the story actually needs, and I give it to him, because of his “stage presence.” Because I have come to a sort of slump in my writing, due to the fact I’ve been on vacation and I’m in the middle of reworking a muddled storyline, I keep wanting to go back to this character because he’s so much fun.

One thing I did in my last book was assign a sort of look to my main characters based on actors or people I knew. I’m a visual person, and need a leaping-off point when it comes to appearances so that my descriptions comes naturally to the physical character. Some I had in mind from the first page they were introduced; others I couldn’t find a real physical match until after I was nearly finished with the book. What I found was that for the most part, even the characters who began as these actors, musicians, etc. eventually filled out into their own personalities and morphed  appearances so that they didn’t resemble these real-life people at all in the end.

I have “base models” for only two characters in my WIP at present, and I’m beginning to wonder if I should assign a look to my protagonist, as he currently has none. My thought behind this idea is that maybe I would gain a new interest in filling out some holes I’ve been procrastinating on with him. There’s something exciting about writing lines for an actor or other real-life person and picturing the words coming out of their mouth. I’m sure this could also be carried out in a more devious way, as well… remember the line by Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale, when he declares he shall write two men who humiliated him into his story and point out all their flaws? It’s sort of a mad game of puppetry, but I would rather look at it as starting with a lump of pre-formed clay and shaping it to fit your story.

My hope is that by turning this idea of the story hijacker into a new tool to jolt my protagonist back to life, I will discover new elements about him I didn’t notice before. He’s already a full character with a mess of personality and flaws, but he has some small detail missing that I just can’t put my finger on yet. Now I just have to find someone out there with some slight resemblance to Young Mickey Rourke who I can pin to my protag and pick apart for character dissection.

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