Tag Archives: novel writing

We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful

2014Morrissey_0306192014While Morrissey’s lyrics have never been what I would consider cheerful or optimistic, his songs about heartache and longing still resonate with the lost teenager inside of me. Judging by his song title “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, it appears that his more than 30-year career and loyal fan base has inspired resentment and jealousy among his fellows.* Yet I wonder how anyone could possibly begrudge a friend’s success, that is if he or she really cares about that friend.

Which begs the question: Are these people really your friends?

A very dear friend of mine—someone I have known since way back when I was still a lost teenager listening to Smiths cassette tapes on my Walkman—just published her third book, a graphic memoir about trying to connect with the Japanese half of her family. Last week, I attended her standing-room-only reading at a popular Haight Street bookstore before she headed out for her multi-city book tour.

I have never been published. I do not have an agent. I have spent the last three years writing a novel that may never make it into print. So, am I envious of my friend’s success?

Yes and no.

Sure, I would love to have my book published. I would love to have a second and third book published. I would be both thrilled and terrified to read from my work in front of an eager audience.

the-more-i-ignore-him

Couldn’t resist this one.

But I do not feel even a drop of resentment toward my friend for achieving these things. I witnessed first hand the many years that my friend has practiced her craft: her drawing, her writing, and her storytelling. I have watched her quick pencil sketches and stripped down text transform into this beautiful book that I can now pull off of the shelf and hold in my hands. I saw how hard she worked to get her first book deal, and know well that she worked just at hard to get her second and third.

In short, I have seen my friend work her ass off to achieve her success.

As I watched her read from her new book in front of the packed room, I felt a swell of pride and privilege to know such an amazing person. Congratulations on all of your success, Mari!


*Or perhaps he just got rich and bitchy.

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Readers vs. Writers

The Reader

The Reader by Dorothy F. Newland

I workshopped my novel through my writers’ group for over a year – revising as I went – before handing over a fresh draft to my first pool of beta readers. And with one exception, my beta readers were just that: readers, not writers.

When it comes to critiquing a story, writers can spot a “missed opportunity” a mile away, and can always point to at least three things they would do differently. If given the chance, a passionate writers’ group could tear the works of Hemingway, Dickens, Austen, even Shakespeare to pieces.

But readers – at least the ones I roped in for this round of reviews – appear to take more of a 30,000 foot approach to novel critiques, and I’ve found it both illuminating and entertaining how different the feedback has been from these two groups.*

For instance, my writers’ group expressed concerns about the believably of the relationship between two of the central characters. Pam and Keith are so different from one another, with completely different backgrounds. What drew them together? What kept them together?

However, when I asked my beta readers if Pam and Keith’s relationship felt genuine and believable, the answer was a unanimous yes. One reader said, “I’ve met too many seemingly mismatched couples to think this is unbelievable or uncommon.“

On the other hand, while my writers’ group praised my ability to create distinct voices and personalities for each of my four central characters, my beta readers were less sure about this accomplishment, and several commented that they could hear my voice coming through the characters. It is important to note that, with one exception, my beta readers are close friends and family. My writers’ group members are not. One friend summed it up this way: “I think I know you too well to be able to answer this question.” Fair enough.

Last week, I saved a copy of my novel, this one entitled Small Legends V4. And one of the first items on my list of revisions is a common comment among both the writers and the readers: “The ending was very satisfying, but it was all resolved a little too quickly.”

Clearly I have some work to do. Time to get back down to business.

 


*In fairness to my writers’ group, they did read the novel a few chapters at a time over the period of a year, so it does make sense that they would focus more on the nooks and crannies than the overall story.

 

 

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Breaking Up the Band

It happens all the time in rock bands: one member starts turning up late for shows, blackout drinking every night of the week, and/or just being a belligerent asshole. If this member is, say, the bassist or the drummer, the rest of the band will probably kick him out and release a statement wishing him a successful stint in rehab.

But what if the problem child is the band’s founder?

The founder of my writers’ group is getting on other members’ nerves, and one in particular – I will call him Gus – who emailed me last week to ask about my feelings on the matter. Have I noticed our founder’s shift in attitude of late? Have I noticed that his critiques are increasingly condescending and mean-spirited?

In truth, I have not. He can be blunt sometimes, but it hasn’t bothered me thus far. What I have noticed is that our founder – I’ll call him Eric – takes a heck of a lot of long vacations, which results in sporadic attendance on his part. This wouldn’t be a big deal if I was a short story writer, but when it comes to critiquing a novel, it’s difficult to provide valuable feedback on chapter 20 when you’ve missed everything after chapter 5.

breakup-heart.jpgGus sited a few recent examples of Eric’s bad behavior and negative critiques, one of which had bordered on accusing Gus of stealing story ideas from other writers. Gus said he had already spoken to a couple other members, and they were getting fed up too.

I took a diplomatic approach and suggested that Eric may not be aware of his behavior, and perhaps a calm and rationale conversation would set him right. But for Gus, it was too late for diplomatic measures. He had made up his mind. He would leave the group.

I am not one for indulging unnecessary drama, and I did wonder if Gus wasn’t being a little oversensitive. But then another member, Jake – who is as levelheaded as they come – said that he agreed with Gus and would leave with him. As he said, “Writing is hard enough without people routinely telling you your output sucks.”

During my time in the group, Jake and Gus have consistently attended meetings and have consistently delivered valuable feedback. I may not have any particular issue with Eric, but majority rules. If they go, I go with them.

So we’re breaking up the band. Tonight at the end of our meeting, Gus and Jake will take Eric aside and tell him they are leaving the group. And that other members plan to come with them.

I don’t particularly like the middle school “I don’t want to be your friend anymore” vibe to this approach, but Gus and Jake are convinced he will not leave on his own. So we will dissolve and reform as a kinder, gentler version of our group, one that doesn’t involve Eric.

But make no mistake, this sends a strong message to the other members: misbehave and we will shut you down.

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Even The Meanest Human Beings in the World Need Books

My middle school years were fraught with uncomfortable hormone changes and psychological torment from other girls. During the first week of sixth grade, a girl I’d never met before called me a slut. “What are you looking at, Slut?” she sneered.

I didn’t actually know what a slut was, but understood that it must be something very bad. When I got home from school, I looked the word up in the dictionary and was even more confused. I’d never kissed a boy. I’d never even held hands with one. Why was this girl calling me a slut?

rude-tweenFor weeks, I avoided the girl and yet she always seemed to find me. “What, are you scared of me, Slut?” she taunted. 

Eventually, she grew tired of me and presumably found someone new to torture. But this was just the first of many utterly perplexing and completely devastating incidents of girl-on-girl emotional violence. So I would have never predicted that, 30 years later, I’d write a book for ‘Tween girls, who are very possibly the meanest human beings in the world.

But even the meanest human beings in the world need books.

While I’m certain I tried my hand at the Mean Card more than once during this terrible age, mostly I read books and listened to music and wrote bad poetry about how mean everyone was. I’d outgrown Judy Blume but wasn’t yet ready for J.D. Salinger. At the time, what I enjoyed most of all was a good mystery with coming-of-age characters and enough of an “adult” theme to keep it interesting. And this is what I endeavor to achieve in my ‘Tween book.

My ‘Tween book started off as a National Novel Writing Month exercise two years ago, and has been collecting dust ever since.  Last week, I decided to pull it out and get down to work. I mean, I should do something productive while I wait for my beta readers’ feedback on my grown-up novel, right?

And to kick it off right, I’ve included below a short excerpt for all the ‘Tween novel lovers out there. Or perhaps just for those of you who are kind enough to indulge me.

 


 

The smoke was so thick that Molly pulled her shirt up over her nose and mouth. She looked over at Lauren to see that she had done the same. They squinted at one another, their eyes burning from the smoke, but they didn’t stop running, even when they heard the sirens coming up behind them. First the fire truck then the engine sped past them, and they ran even faster into the gray haze. By the time they’d covered the three additional blocks to Molly’s street, the firefighters were already directing thick streams of water at the burning house.

“It’s Mrs. O’Reilly’s house!” Molly called out, at once excited and relieved. Her own home was safe. For now.

“Do you think it’ll catch the other houses on fire too?” Lauren asked through her t-shirt.

Molly’s was four houses over from Mrs. O’Reilly’s, and it seemed unlikely that the flames would travel that far, but Molly still felt a pit of worry in her stomach. What if the firefighters weren’t able to contain the fire? What if it spread and ate up every house on the block? Everything that she had known her whole life would be gone, just like that.

It was the staggering figure of Mrs. O’Reilly herself that snapped Molly out of these thoughts. Mrs. O’Reilly was dressed in the same blue housecoat she’d worn as long as Molly could remember, but she looked madder than Molly had ever seen her before. Her hair was wild, and singed in places. Her face and neck were streaked with soot, and one of her bare feet was bleeding. Molly wondered if she’d barely made it out of the house alive.

Mrs. O’Reilly yelled something toward the house but her words were swallowed up by all of the commotion. Molly inched closer, cupping her ear and listening hard. Then she heard it.

“Burn! Let it burn!” Mrs. O’Reilly shouted, but the firefighters weren’t paying any attention to her. Until she rushed toward the burning building, and then one of the firefighters blocked her path, but she fought against him, still shouting. It took two firefighters to hold her back, and then two police officers took over, forcing her into the back of a patrol car. She fought them the whole way.

Lauren’s eyes were wide despite the smoke. “I think she’s lost her marbles.”

“I don’t think she had many left to begin with,” Molly said. Mrs. O’Reilly had always been odd and unfriendly, and without being told Molly knew it was best to keep clear of her. Of all the houses on their block, Mrs. O’Reilly’s was the only one Molly had never set foot in.

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So Now What?

Over the holiday break, I finished the third draft of my novel. And by “finished”, I mean forced myself to turn off the computer and walk away. This week, I will distribute the manuscript to my beta readers, who will then spend the next six to eight weeks reading it and preparing responses that I desperately hope will be lovely pairings of accolades and useful notes for improvement.

And in the meantime, I will spend my free time doing…what?

drumming-fingers

My nails have never looked this good.

Possible answers include: finish watching Game of Thrones, start watching Mad Men, crack open one of the unread novels piled up on my nightstand, put away the Christmas decorations, repaint the hallway, do more yoga, plan a vacation, and clean out my closets. And so many others.

I can also use this opportunity to…write something else. For instance, that essay about the all genders bathroom sign. Or about my hoarder former housemate. Or the really funny story about the time I saw the guy who  broke my 18-year-old heart (Spoiler Alert!) making balloon animals at Ghiradeli Square. Or I could begin to revise the forsaken first draft ‘tween novel I cranked out and set aside two years ago.

Or I can pick a few items from each list. Where to begin…

(As I have just now finished writing this blog post, I will reward myself with the new episode of Downton Abbey. Cheerio!)

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Little Victories

A few weeks back, I set off on a week-long creative retreat in the Sierra Foothills with four friends and four dogs. No phone, no Internet, no cable = no distractions, right? I dusted off the mostly complete draft of a young adult novel I wrote in thirty short days four long years ago, excited to take a break from my novel-in-progress and revisit what I remembered as a rough but fairly clever storyline and interesting, layered characters.

After the packing and the driving and the first night of food and drink and socializing, I got down to business. For about half an hour, anyway. Barely one chapter in, I was bored by my own story. In my defense, I was lounging on the deck with my feet up, surrounded by sunshine and dense woods, dogs and friends – of course, I was distracted! And anyway, it was just the first chapter.

How was I supposed focus on my laptop screen with this view?

Tucked away in the trees. How was I supposed to concentrate while surrounded by this view?

But as the days went on, I spent more time dozing on the deck or trying to rally my friends to go wine tasting than reviewing/editing my novel. Was it the quiet natural setting? The fact that I was overdue for a vacation? Or perhaps my novel and its characters simply weren’t interesting enough to keep even my own attention.

It was a rather depressing thought.

But then halfway through the novel and mere minutes away from setting aside the “creative” part of this retreat, I read the following chapter and felt—if not fully redeemed—at least encouraged that my novel wasn’t a total snoozefest. I’ll take the little victories where I can get them.

The setting: College dorm party the last night before everyone goes home for the Thanksgiving weekend. Sooni is our heroine, along with friends Anne and Gretchen, and boyfriend William. Gretchen is planning to visit her boyfriend Marc, who is studying in London, over the Christmas holidays.


Sooni Greene (Working Title)

Everyone was in good spirits, except perhaps for Anne, who wasn’t as excited as the others to be going home for the long weekend. Although her mother and younger sister had invited her to join them, Anne had declined in favor of a pre-cooked meal and football with her father.

“The last thing I need is to have the two of them stare at me all day,” she said.

Gretchen, on the other hand, was too busy counting off the days before she left for London to notice Anne’s mood. “I can’t believe it’s less than a month now,” she said, beaming.

Sooni thought she saw the expression on Anne’s face turn sour as she finished her third beer and went in for another. Shortly after that, Anne left the room without a word.

Gretchen and William were chatting animatedly about 1960s menswear, a topic that Sooni had nothing to contribute to. William was detailing for Gretchen the exact cuts and fabrics of the wardrobe he had inherited from his grandfather, who apparently was quite the dresser in his time. Sooni did not participate in this conversation, but was pleased that her boyfriend and her friend were getting along so well. She sat back in her chair and looked around the room. She recognized several of the attendees as Gretchen’s neighbors, but did not know most of them by name.   A short girl with what seemed to Sooni like a larger than normal chest caught her eye, and then meandered over to where Sooni was sitting.

“Hey Sooni, how’s it going?” she asked with a beer-soaked smile. “Are you going home for the weekend?”

Sooni nodded, sipping from her beer to try to buy herself time to remember the girl’s name. It was something like Katie or Cathy or- Katrina. It was Katrina and she was in her U.S. History class.

“I’m going home tomorrow,” Sooni said. “What about you?”

Katrina grabbed a nearby chair and sat down next to her. She talked happily about her family’s plans for the weekend, which seemed to involve a great deal of both pie and football.

“Because my brother’s at Berkeley, you know. On the football team,” she said. “By the way, do you know where Anne went?”

Sooni was a little thrown. She didn’t know that Katrina and Anne knew one another, had never seen them exchange a word. She glanced around the room for Anne, but couldn’t locate her among the crowd.

“I don’t know,” she said. “She was here just a little while ago.”

“Oh, okay,” Katrina said, half rising from her chair. “I’ll see if I can find her.”

That was odd, Sooni thought, watching her go. Sooni turned back to Gretchen and William, who were now talking about their favorite old time movie stars.

“Hey Gretchen,” Sooni interrupted. “Is Anne friends with that girl Katrina?”

Gretchen grinned slyly. “I wouldn’t call them friends, exactly,” she said. “Katrina has been following Anne around like a lovesick puppy ever since they hooked up after that art show a few weeks back.”

Sooni furrowed her brows, confused and also a little hurt. Why was this the first she had heard about it? Anne usually had no problem sharing the most intimate details of her sexual encounters, but she had said nothing.

Gretchen seemed to pick up on her thoughts, because she quickly added, “It was the night that you guys went to the planetarium, remember? Anne dragged me to this terrible art show because she didn’t want to go alone, and then ended up drinking a bunch of the free wine and making out with Katrina. To tell you the truth, it was sort of a nightmare.”

William, who had been quietly gazing out into the crowd, spoke up.

“Anne is quite the handful sometimes, isn’t she?” he said. Gretchen’s face fell slightly. “I mean, she’s witty and interesting and all,” he went on. “But she’s also a bit of wild card, no?”

Sooni knew that this was true. She’d had similar thoughts. But Anne was her friend, and she wasn’t going to trash talk her.

“Anne’s all right,” she said, a little louder than she had intended. She cleared her throat. “She has a big personality and all, but she’s…well, she’s an artist.”

William burst into laughter.

“I swear, Sooni,” he said, “you should major in International Relations.”

Gretchen laughed at this, and then Sooni couldn’t resist joining in with a smile of her own.

When Gretchen left to go to the bathroom, Sooni and William scootched closer to one another, holding hands and watching the party. They often did this, whether at the DC or on the lawn by the student union; they could sit in silence for twenty minutes at a time, watching people go by.

When Gretchen returned, she looked tense. When Sooni asked her what was wrong, she shrugged her shoulders.

“Anne,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“She’s drunk. And not in a good way.”

Sooni was about to ask what had happened, but then Anne appeared in the doorway and sauntered into the room. Her mouth was smiling, but her eyes were hard. She focused right in on Gretchen.

“Didn’t mean to run you off,” she said. Her voice was quite slurred now, and Sooni wondered how much she’d had to drink. Or if she’d had something else, in addition to the beer.

Gretchen did not respond, or even look at Anne. She kept her eyes resolutely focused on the two girls across the room that were trying on each other’s shoes.

“Oh, are we pretending that I’m not standing right in front of you?” Anne said, her smile spreading but her eyes growing colder.

“What the-“ Sooni started, but Anne talked over her.

“It must be hard for you,” she said, in a mock concerned voice. “I’m sure you get lonely with your loyal boyfriend thousands of miles away, but no one’s stopping you from having fun in the meantime. And I don’t hold people up to the same high standards as you do.”

Gretchen narrowed her eyes but still said nothing.

Sooni watched this interaction, completely perplexed. She couldn’t imagine why Anne was goading Gretchen on this way.

“Anne,” Sooni said sharply. “What kind of thing is that to say to someone?”

She felt William stir beside her, but did not look over at him. She fixed her stare on Anne, but Anne waved her away with one flailing hand.

“You’re not part of this, Sooni,” she said.

Before Sooni had a chance to react, Gretchen was up on her feet.

“I’m going to bed,” she said, looking only at Sooni and William. “I hope you both have nice Thanksgivings.”

And then she turned and walked out the door, completely ignoring Anne, who watched her leave.

Then Anne screwed up her face and clutched at her stomach, like she was in terrible pain. Sooni and William were on their feet in seconds, their arms around Anne, leading her out of the room.

“I think I’m gonna-“ she said, but she was too busy throwing up on the linoleum in the corridor to finish her sentence.

“Looks like she had the pasta for dinner,” William said as he and Sooni attempted to hoist Anne back up into a sitting position. Sooni ignored this comment and concentrated on getting Anne’s hair out of the line of fire.

Anne threw up twice more, and then looked up at the audience that had gathered.

“Oh fuck me,” she said, attempting to stand up on her own. She looked at Sooni with heavy eyes. “Get me out of here. Please,” she pleaded quietly.

“We will,” Sooni said, “but we’ve gotta clean up this-“

“I’ll do it,” William said. “You get her back to her room before the RA sees her and kicks her out of the dorms. I’ll clean this up.”

Sooni stared at him, feeling both gratitude and a little shock. “Are you serious?” she asked.

“Go on,” he said. “I’ll come by later.”

Sooni wrapped her arm around Anne’s waist and helped her onto her feet. It was sort of like being in a three-legged race with a one-legged partner, and it took Sooni several tries to get Anne to walk in sync with her. Finally, they made it down the elevator, out of the building, and into their own. Maria had already left for the long weekend, so Sooni dug the keys out of Anne’s pocket, used her shoulder to push the door open, and then dragged Anne to her bed.

Once she had Anne situated and placed a trashcan next to her head in case of further vomiting, Sooni closed the door and collapsed onto Maria’s bed.

“Why do you do these things, Anne?” she asked, exasperated. “I mean, why the hell were you trying to pick a fight with Gretchen? It’s just plain bitchy.”

Anne looked at her through half-closed eyes. “Yelling at me isn’t going to make me feel any better,” she said in an uncharacteristically small voice.

“Well, I’m sorry but your feelings are not exactly on the top of my list of concerns right now,” Sooni exclaimed. “Do you even appreciate the fact that William is back in Stanton Hall right now, cleaning your puke off of the floor? Just because he’s a nice guy?”

It was the first time Sooni had ever raised her voice in anger around Anne, and even in her inebriated state, Anne seemed to pick up on the significance.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I just…I just…”

And then she did something so unexpected, so completely out of character that Sooni’s annoyance instantly dissipated. Anne started to cry.

Sooni sat next to her on the bed, and put her hand on her shoulder. “Why are you crying?” she asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Anne asked through her sobs, covering her eyes with her hands.

Sooni thought for a moment. She knew Anne was less than thrilled about the holidays coming up and all the particular familial tension that came with them. But something else must have triggered this meltdown. Anne’s mood seemed to darken when Gretchen was talking about Christmas and going to London. And now that Sooni thought about it, she could remember other times when Anne had reacted similarly, getting bent out of shape whenever Gretchen talked about Marc. The look on Anne’s face would go from annoyance to resentment to- jealousy?

“Holy shit,” Sooni breathed. “How long have you been in love with Gretchen?”

Anne did not respond but crumpled into renewed sobs. But suddenly everything was making sense to Sooni: why Anne hadn’t wanted to be roommates with Gretchen, why she roundly abused the notion of long distance relationships, or relationships in general. Was this why she so often got drunk and picked up on random girls when they went out, to try to make Gretchen jealous? Or was it to distract herself from the fact that she was in love with a straight girl whom she could never have?

“Wow,” Sooni said aloud. “Does she know?”

“God, I hope not,” Anne said into her pillow, her voice muffled and slurred. Then she suddenly sat upright, and Sooni had to draw back not to get hit in the face by the side of her head. “And that asshole Marc,” Anne said, tears still streaming from her swollen, mascara-ringed eyes. “She talks about him like he’s a fucking saint and a poet, but he doesn’t love her. He treats her exactly as what she is to him, a cute girl to fuck when he comes home from college for a visit. Whenever she’s not around, he sticks his dick into anything that stands still long enough, and Gretchen has no fucking clue.”

“Are you sure? How do you know this?” Sooni asked, shocked.

“Because he tried to fuck me,” Anne replied. “And at least three other girls I know of. He is a complete and utter scumbag.”

“When did this happen? And why didn’t you tell her?”

Anne shook her head. “Don’t be naïve,” she said, although not unkindly. “No one wants to hear that shit. And I’m sure as hell not going to be the messenger.”

“Poor Gretchen,” Sooni sighed. “And she’s so excited to see him.”

At this statement, Anne lunged toward the trashcan and proceeded to throw up again. Sooni quickly reached over to pull her hair out of the way. After a moment, Anne rolled onto her back and looked up at Sooni imploringly. Her face was streaked with tears and eye makeup.

“I feel like shit,” she said. “Do me a favor and kill me now.”

Sooni had to stifle a laugh. The situation, although far from funny, struck her as so bizarre, she almost didn’t know what else to do.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Sooni said, stroking Anne’s hair gently, her fingers lingering over the purple streaks that never seemed to fade. “But I am going to get you some ibuprofen and a glass of water.”

After she had rinsed out the trashcan and watched as Anne dutifully swallowed the ibuprofen, Sooni took off Anne’s shoes and jacket, and pulled the covers over her.

“You know, I wasn’t so sure about you at first,” Anne mumbled. “When Gretchen brought you around. But you’re a good friend, Sooni.”

And with that, she passed out.

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Back on the Wagon

This year, I made the very rational decision to skip National Novel Writing Month, reasoning that I should focus on revising my current novel rather than writing a new one. So here’s how I spent the month of November:

  • Organized and attended photo shoots in both Los Angeles and San Francisco for work
  • Drove to Los Angeles to visit friends for Thanksgiving
  • Attended a cocktail party and celebrated a friend’s birthday
  • Visited the Academy of Sciences to check out the skulls exhibit
  • Recorded a new Perspective segment for my local public radio station
  • Slept in, walked the dog, went out for brunch, went out for dinner, etc.

You’ll notice one glaring omission: No writing. Not even a little bit. So in an effort to kick my butt back up onto the writing wagon, this week I’m posting a scene I’ve been working on from my novel-in-progress. Thanks for reading!

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Excerpt from Small Legends Part Two: Keith

Most Thursdays after work, I told Pam I was heading to the Phoenix for a beer with the guys. And most of the time I was. Except when I drove out to Alameda to Ol’ George’s Bar. My father’s old stomping grounds. I’d been thinking about the place ever since I’d found out Pam was pregnant.

The bar probably hadn’t changed a lick in 40 years, down to the torn-up vinyl covers on the bar stools and the sun-faded photos tacked up all along the back wall. It smelled like old liquor and ancient cigarette smoke. The regulars were mostly old time drunks who showed up every day at 5 o’clock and stumbled out every night around midnight, their faces and kidneys bloated and pocked with dark purple spots. They sat alone at the bar, one stool between them and the next guy, and stared up at whatever game was on the TV, the volume off, making a comment every now and again about a ref’s bad call or the team’s chance of making it to the playoffs. It wasn’t exactly social, but I suppose it was better than drinking alone.

I took the table by the jukebox.

“What can I get you?”

Ginny’d been tending bar at Ol’ George’s since my father’s day. Her teeth were crooked like a stray dog’s, and her skin was like dried meat but she smelled like flowers. She wore low-cut tops but her boobs hung down so far on her chest, it didn’t make much difference. She was old, sure, but more than that she was practically pickled by years of hard drinking and hard living. Just like my father would’ve looked, if he’d lived long enough to drink himself to death.

I’d picked him out in the old photos from the first. As much time as my father’d spent sitting on one of those bar stools, I’d never stepped foot inside of the place until I found out that I was going to be a father.

The kid hadn’t even come out yet and already I was finding ways to not go home. Just like my father, I supposed. The man had been dead for nearly 20 years but there he was up on the wall, whiskey in hand like I remembered him. Except he looked a damn sight happier than I’d ever seen him. Ginny’d caught me staring at a black and white photo of him and a light-haired woman in a nice dress. They were dancing some kind of waltz. I’d have thought they were in a ballroom instead of a bar except for the jukebox in the background and the cigarettes burning away in their hands.

“Good lord how the time does go,” Ginny said. She was smiling, the creases around her eyes and mouth digging in a little deeper, but she didn’t look too happy.

“That you?” I asked, nodding my head at the photo.

“I never turned down a dance with Harry,” she said. And then without missing a beat, “You look an awful lot like him.”

I started to ask how she knew who I was, but there was no point really. Looking at that photo was damn near like looking in a mirror.

So I said, “I didn’t know he danced.”

Turns out there were plenty of things I didn’t know about my father. Including the fact that he’d been sleeping with Ginny. Not that she said so, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out. As old as she was, her face still lit up when she talked about him.

“Your dad had a special way about picking horses,” she said, “nearly always placed out at the track and then he’d spend it all in one night buying drinks for the regulars. He wasn’t much interested in the money, just in the winning. Very generous man, he was. Such a shame to lose him so young. I won’t deny I cried for a good long time after I heard.” She glanced down at my hand. “You a married man, Keith?”

In my line of work, wearing a wedding ring is a downright safety hazard. I hadn’t worn a ring since my wedding day.

“No, Ma’am,” I said.

Right at that moment, I wanted it to be true. I wanted to walk away from all of it. The house, car payments, the responsibility. Pam. A baby coming along. I was 26 years old, a good fifteen years younger than my father’d been when he drove his car off the road. Was this how he’d felt?

“I’ll bet you’re a real heartbreaker,” Ginny said, winking at me. “Just like your dad.”

I finished my whiskey and said goodbye to Ginny. On my way out, I heard one of the old timers ask, “That Harry’s boy?”

Every Thursday, I’d head over to Ol’ George’s to drink with Ginny.

“Evening, Keith,” Ginny’d say, and bring me a whiskey. “What’ll it be tonight, a little Dean? A little Frank? You know your dad was always partial to the crooners.”

Some of the old timers remembered my father better than you’d expect after so many years and so many bottles of whiskey. They’d talk about the time Harry arm-wrestled a guy twice his size and won. The time Harry bet his whole paycheck on a pool game and won. I figured these stories were half true at best.

I told a few stories of my own. The time Harry slept out on the landing on our building because he was too drunk to find his keys. The time Harry took apart the blender to see how it worked, and then tried to put it back together when he was drunk, only to find half a dozen parts left over. The old timers had a good chuckle and bought me another whiskey.

“That sounds like Harry,” they’d say, grinning through their rotten teeth.

For a few hours, I was just a guy at the bar. Harry’s boy. Not exactly happy, but at ease. For a little while.

Every time I went to Ol’ George’s, I had a choice. I could take my father’s spot at the bar, like the liver-spotted old timers had, or finish my whiskey and go home.

I always went home. I went home and kissed my wife and rubbed her belly and pretended to be happy, so happy that there was a baby on the way.

But I always came back.

 

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Quid Pro Quo?

Of the many milestones in the life of every novel, short story, or poem, one of the most crucial is the first time a writer allows his or her infant yet already beloved work to be viewed by others. At this key juncture, it is crucial to select the right early readers: literate, compassionate, and totally honest. They must be willing and able to provide specific, constructive feedback in a way that inspires you to keep revising*. In short, your early readers should either be people you trust implicitly, or who you are paying well.

So imagine my surprise when barely an hour after meeting Bill, the newest member of my writers’ group, he sent me a somewhat desperate email entitled “You are well read and I need help!” It said:

I am in a quandary and without someone’s input may have to stop writing until I’m clear. this clarity may never come. I would appreciate it if you would do me the ultimate favor and read what I have … and help me see clearly and focus my direction.

HelpEarlier that evening, the group critiqued an excerpt from Bill’s novel-in-progress about a man obsessed with reading the private diaries of the recently deceased. While his writing style was erratic and difficult to follow – shifting from short, stunted sentences to stream-of-conscious meanderings, and then back again, all within the span of a few paragraphs – his premise was at least interesting.

I’d given Bill what I hoped to be the aforementioned honest yet compassionate feedback that would inspire him to move forward with his work. But now he was asking me, practically begging me, to read and critique the entirety of his novel.

I am frozen, he went on. I realize this is an unusual and off the wall request but I don’t know where else to turn. my friends can’t help. thanks for listening.

I contacted the rest of the group to ask if anyone else had received a similar request. They had not. I wasn’t sure if I should take this as a compliment or feel a little creeped out. Had Bill been so impressed by my critique that he now sought out my unique wisdom? Had I perhaps led him on in some way, been too kind with my comments? Or was he simply desperate for validation, and I seemed the least likely of the group to tell him off?

While the credo of most writers’ groups is for the members to learn from one another, Bill’s distressed email didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t help but feel a little used. It was like having a stranger at a party strike up a conversation with me only to then ask for an introduction to my best friend. It seemed that Bill was only interested in what I could do for him.

The following day, he sent another email. And then another, this time with his novel attached.

the tenses are all off and I haven’t had the time to do transitions but that’s what you get with a first draft. it’s only 137 pages a quick read. do I cut bait or fill in?

It was at this point that I wrote him back. I told him I was unable to help him, that my hands were full with my own projects at present. I encouraged him to set his novel aside for a little while, until he could come back to it with a fresh perspective. I did not hear from him again.

The other members of my writers’ group decided to rescind Bill’s invitation to join due to the quality – or lack thereof – of his writing and the fact that some thought he had been unnecessarily harsh in his critique of another member’s work. His emails to me, I was told, were the literary icing on the cake.

Although I was admittedly put off by his neediness, I still felt sad for him. We all get a little lost along the way, and can only hope that when we do, someone will be there to offer a helping hand.

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* The alternative to revision is, of course, crouching in a dark corner and drinking gin.

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Small Legends

To celebrate the completion of the Dreaded Second Draft* of my current novel-in-progress, I have decided to put my money where my mouth is and share an excerpt from said novel-in-progress. The working title is Small Legends, and it takes place in four parts, as narrated by four different members of the same family over a period of 40 years. I wrote the first draft during National Novel Writing Month 2012, and have been diligently (okay, well sometimes less than diligently) revising ever since.

Excerpt from Small Legends, Part 3, Chapter 2

It’s kinda like that scene from The Godfather III. Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in. Just when I thought I had escaped the Chapman family saga, guess who turned up on my doorstep. Literally.

Except I didn’t live there anymore. At the start of the fall semester, Julie’s roommate Terra announced she was moving into a studio apartment since she’d “never agreed to live with two other people”, and I moved in the next weekend. I got along with Pete okay but sharing a place with him and his drug habits was getting a little tired.

I hadn’t talked to Alice or my dad for at least a month, hadn’t gotten around to telling anyone back home that I’d moved. Because why did it matter, it’s not like anyone was going to show up at my front door. Or so I thought.

My phone starting ringing at 7:13 am. On a Sunday morning. I tried to ignore it but Julie started to whine.

“Who is calling you so early?” she moaned. “If it’s one of your other girlfriends, I’m going to kick her ass.”

I gave in and reached for the phone. Pete’s number. Fuck. He’d probably been up all night bending spoons and masterminding some crank-induced genius plan to end world hunger or build underground skyscrapers or some shit, and just HAD to share it with someone.

“Some people actually go to sleep at night,” I growled into the phone.

“Nate. Man,” Pete whispered. “I was totally asleep but someone was knocking on the door for so long that I had to get up and look outside.”

I sighed. “No one’s knocking on the door, Pete. Go to sleep.”

“Nate. Man, there was…is someone. A girl. She says she’s your sister? Man, I didn’t even know you had a sister.”

I sat up in bed, totally awake now. “My sister? Are you serious?”

“I don’t joke at 7:14 in the morning, Man.”

Julie stirred beside me and rolled over toward me, her eyes half opened now. “Where is she?” I asked.

“On the couch,” Pete whispered. “I didn’t know if I should tell her you don’t live here anymore. I mean, she looks kinda messed up. Still kinda hot though.”

“She’s also 15,” I said, “and I will pull your intestines out through your asshole if you so much as look at her sidewise.”

“Who the hell are you talking to?” Julie asked, her eyes wide open now.

“Look,” I said, ignoring her. “Put her on the phone. No wait. Did she say what the hell she’s doing here? Like, are my parents on their way over or something? I mean, what the fuck is she doing in L.A.?”

“Beats me,” Pete said. “But I don’t think the parentals are with her, judging by the fact that she smells a little like a Greyhound station, if you know what I mean.”

“What the hell does a Greyhound station smell like?”

Pete didn’t hesitate. “Mildewed socks and old flower water,” he said. “Of course.”

I sighed. “Okay, put her on the phone.”

“What’s going on?” Julie asked, sitting up now, the blankets sliding off of her to reveal her bare boobs. God, they were fantastic. But I had to focus on other things now. Like why the hell my 15-year-old sister was sitting on Pete’s couch. And what the hell I was going to do about it now.

“It’s Alice,” I whispered to Julie, my hand over the phone. “She’s over at Pete’s.”

Julie’s eyes widened even more. “Alice knows Pete?” But I waved her away.

Then I heard Alice’s voice, tired and scratchy, on the other end. She sounded beat. “Nate? Where are you?”

“Um, I think the more important question is why are you where you are?” I said. “What are you doing here? How did you get here? Does Mom know where you are?” I could hear the growing sense of panic in my own voice.

“Can we talk about this later?” Alice asked, her voice flat. “I slept for like an hour last night. Where are you? When are you coming home?”

“Alice, why didn’t you call first? I don’t even live there anymore,” I said, the volume of my voice rising along with my anxiety level. This was bad. Very very bad. Because Alice never came without baggage. Wherever she went, our mother was sure to follow. And sure to be really fucking pissed off about it.

“Oh, where do you live now?” Alice asked, sounding mildly interested now. “You’re still in L.A., right?”

I glanced at the clock. It was only 7:16 am. Probably no one had even noticed yet that Alice was gone. It was a Sunday morning after all. Maybe they thought she was still sleeping. If I could get her to call home and tell them where she was before they realized she was missing… “Listen, I’m coming to get you,” I said, reaching for my jeans. “But you have to call home like right away. Like in the next ten seconds. You have to tell them where you are before they freak the fuck out.”

“I am not calling home,” Alice said, determined. “Why the hell would I want to get yelled at? Anyway, I don’t even have my phone. Some skeevy old dude stole it out of my pocket when I crashed for like 10 minutes on the bus. At least I think it was the old dude. I totally saw him scope me out when I got on the bus, and then later when I woke up, he was gone and so was my phone. No way I was going to back to sleep after that shit.”

I stopped in my tracks. My 15-year-old sister had boarded an overnight bus to L.A., had been ripped off by some skeevy old dude, stayed awake all night in case someone else tried to steal something from her or worse, and then managed to find her way to what she thought was my front door. It was a minor miracle that she’d made it in one piece, this girl who wasn’t allowed to take the BART train from Berkeley into San Francisco by herself back home. I felt a little sick, and for a second actually felt a little sorry for my parents. But then it was gone.

“Stay where you are,” I said. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

“Nate,” Julie said urgently, “what in the hell is going on?” I pulled on my t-shirt from the day before and reached for my Converse.

“Well, you said you wanted to meet my sister,” I said.

Julie hopped right out of bed, glorious in her nakedness. But I couldn’t think about that and looked away. The shit was about to hit the fan on an apocalyptic scale. My stomach did another little turn.

“I’m coming with you,” Julie said, and started pulling on her own clothes without waiting for a response.

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* The Dreaded Second Draft is a direct result of the mad dash NaNoWriMo First Draft, in which you are freed from concerning yourself with plot or grammar or character development.

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Lost and Found

I strongly advise against smoking so close to all of that hair product.

I strongly advise against smoking so close to all of that hair product.

I was twenty-one years old, still wearing a lot of black and listening to angsty post-punk and industrial bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy when I made one of my first attempts at novel writing. The story took place primarily in a nightclub called the Crimson Dungeon, which was inhabited by a cast of velvet-clad, liquid eyeliner-wearing malfeasants who alternately screwed with each others minds and bodies. Two chapters into my masterpiece, I accidentally deleted the file. There was no getting it back. I tried to rewrite it and move on, but it just didn’t feel the same. I had lost my momentum. I had lost my story.

In this case, it was probably a good thing. My characters were shallow and cartoonish, and the plot was both thin and overdramatic. At the time, though, giving up on the story felt like a failure. I couldn’t fathom the notion of writing for practice, couldn’t comprehend that although I didn’t move forward with this particular story, the whole experience had not been in vain. Chalk it up to equal parts naïveté, a false sense of creative grandeur, and youthful impatience, but I believed that “real” writers could craft the perfect story or novel the first time around, and that revisions were generally limited to minor spelling or grammar errors. It was inconceivable that a “real” writer would fail to complete any story he or she began.

Now I understand that all writers experience false starts. Some stories are simply not meant to be, while others are just not yet ready to be told. For instance, I’ve had a certain character clanging around in the back of my mind for nearly six years now: a thirty-something undiagnosed narcoleptic trying to form meaningful relationships while coping with an affliction that promises some truly awkward social situations. I have attempted to tell her story twice now – my most recent effort made it to the 50,000-word mark in NaNoWriMo 2011 – but it’s never felt quite right. Both times, I walked away from it. The story is in there somewhere, and I have to believe it will reveal itself when the time is right.

What kid wouldn't want to play here?

What kid wouldn’t want to play here?

For NaNoWriMo 2013, I revisited another stalled storyline. Initially, I’d set out to write a grown-up story about an eleven-year-old girl, but struggled to find a balance between accurately portraying childlike behavior and keeping an adult reader’s interest. Nearly three years later, I realized why it hadn’t worked: this story about a latchkey kid exploring the burnt remains of a neighboring home was actually meant to be for kids, not adults. I’d tried to force the wrong story a la square peg and round hole. Then I found the right path.

As I write this post, I am oh-so-close to finishing the second draft of a story that plagued me for nearly a decade. I am happy to report that it has found its home at last.

Patience. Perseverance. Exploration. Be willing to walk away, but don’t throw anything away. You just might want it someday.

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