A Novel Approach

There are three rules for writing a novel.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are

                                                                                  W. Somerset Maugham

I’ve been working on writing a novel off and on for over a year now, more on than off in the past several months.    After several fitful starts and stops, I seemed to hit my stride about three months ago and things started taking shape.  Somewhere around January I decided to go in a significantly different direction and threw out much of what I had previously written, and then, as I started down this second path, I changed direction again and took off down a third path.  So far, I remain on this latest path, and have managed to retain my enthusiasm for it.  It helps that I think I’m writing better than I ever have (which admittedly isn’t saying much) and that I’m actually learning some craft and developing some new skills.  I’m hoping to finish the first draft by the end of summer – I’m about 80% there – at which point I’ll try to get some editing help.

Whether I’m going about the writing in the correct way is doubtful.  For example, I have rough outlines that I try to follow, but I frequently deviate from them when a whim hits me.  I still have major plot holes to fill, and some plot elements that still feel a little shaky.  I’ve written what I have so far wildly out of sequence.

On the plus side, I think I’ve created some really strong and interesting characters, and I’ve learned a great deal on how to keep the narrative moving.   Several themes, some planned, some not, are revealing themselves.

I think I have the foundation for what could be a good book, and my dream remains to find a publisher.  I recognize, though, that the odds of it ever being published are very slim.  There are many reasons for this, not the least is my status as an unskilled and anonymous amateur, in addition to some basic gaps I haven’t addressed:

–  I have no idea what genre my book would be categorized in..   I only know that it isn’t young adult, or romance, or suspense, or erotica, or science fiction, or whatever.  I don’t intend any disrespect to these genres or the people who write and read them – it’s just that the story I’m telling doesn’t fit into any of these categories.

–  I really haven’t given any thought to who the target audience would be, other than I think it’ll be a book that I might enjoy reading.

I’m probably coming across as one of those oversized egos who say “I write only for myself.”  My ego is healthy enough, thank you, but I’m not that naïve or pompous.  I don’t think anyone writes for themselves, I think anyone who puts words down on a page or a screen is doing so because they want to be read, they want to be noticed, they want other people to respond, they want to be validated on some level.

That I haven’t thought these marketing things through would seem to be cardinal sins for any writer who has, for as long as he can remember, secretly harbored dreams of one day writing and publishing a book

I am 53 years old, an advanced enough age for anyone to embark on a literary career.  Take into consideration that I am almost eight years into a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, and the realization that it is even later than it seems hits you pretty quick.  Time seems to be of the essence.  I can’t help but wonder how long my fingers will be able to work a keyboard.

That being that, here are some things I’ve learned about time and writing:

–  Having wasted too much time for too long, you can’t make up for it by short cutting through the learning process.  I know now that whatever skills or talent I may have been born with pale in comparison to what I need to learn.  In the past couple of years I’ve learned more than I could have ever imagined about writing, from my fellow members of the Kenosha Writers Guild but mainly by putting my head down and working.  And as much as I’ve learned, I recognize that there is so much more learning still to be done, and as much as I’d like to learn it all by tomorrow, I know I can’t and I won’t.

–  Much as I’d like to, I can’t rush the process.  I can work hard, but the book will be finished when it’s finished, and not when I want it to be.  I can curse the detours I’ve already taken, but really they were necessary – the first couple of paths I was taking were simply wrong, and it took some time for that to be revealed.   I’m sure there are more twists and turns and surprises in the road ahead; I’ll just have to navigate those as best I can.

– As for genres and audiences – maybe I’ll figure this out, maybe not, maybe the end product will never be published, maybe I’ll self publish, maybe I won’t – I can’t worry about those things now because I have to focus on finishing the damn thing first.  With time being what it is, I want to write the book I want to write, in case I don’t get another shot.

I could wax philosophical about how writing my novel has mirrored my life, how both have been filled with unexpected twists and turns, but it’s getting late, and I have work to do.

Father and Son

People often comment how much my 23 year old son is like me.  He (unfortunately for him) not only shares many of my physical traits, but also my sense of humor, just as I shared my Dad’s sense of humor.

Today, on the way home from a short family vacation, while discussing our political views of the world, it became obvious that we have another trait in common:  the ability to take facts and figures and logic and generalize and overstate and argue a conclusion that is 100% wrong.  Without getting into specifics, he turned my own rants and raves against me and took the finger I was pointing at various institutions and pointed it right back at me.  The criticism hurt, because:

1)       I recognized it was coming from my own overstating the impending disaster I see headed towards my children’s generation (most of which is caused by the colossal failures of my generation)

2)      There was an element of truth in the hypocrisy he was accusing me of.

3)      I recognized the same unshakeable self assurance in his flawed reasoning that I have been too guilty of over the years.

It’s the last one that hurt the most.  I immediately thought of counter arguments that would shoot down the holes in his logic, but, recognizing my own voice in his, I knew he would have none of it, and he’d only dig in and argue his views more vehemently, and there’d be no convincing him, even when there was no other conclusion, he would never admit that he was wrong.   I know this because I heard my voice in his, and I knew this is what I would do.

I’ve been told too many times by too many people that they’ve given up arguing with me, because I never lose.   I have a nasty habit of twisting facts and figures and opposing viewpoints around until they support whatever B.S.  I am selling.     

My wife and I always tried to teach our children to think for themselves, and I’m proud that each of my three children have minds of their own.  What frightened me today wasn’t that my that my son held an opinion different than my own, it’s that he was just as cock sure of his flawed logic and reasoning as I have been too many times over the years.

I could have pointed out the flaws in his logic.  I could have argued with him until we were both blue in our faces.  Instead, I just got quiet.  I did bring it up much later, and got in some gentle jabs, and I kind of regret doing that.   It really didn’t accomplish anything.

I want him to feel passionately about things.  I want him to be able to defend what he feels and believes.  It’s just that I don’t know how to teach him to hold on to these passions and when to stick to his guns and when to give it up, to let go, to admit defeat. 

I have to admit, I really don’t know.  I am 53 years old, and he is only 23.

That means he has another 30 years to admit he doesn’t know something.

Great Moments in Culinary History

Brought to you by the Dinnertime Dramatists

 Episode 37 – “Patriotic Pasta”

(The scene:  1776, a colonial tavern.  Sam Adams and Benedict Arnold are dining together)

BENEDICT ARNOLD:  (to the waitress) I’ll have a plate of spaghetti, with a broiled chicken breast on top.  (The waitress takes the order and leaves.)

SAM ADAMS:  As I was saying, we must round up those who are still loyal to the British throne.

ARNOLD.:   But those ruffians!   They are so crude – I might get hurt.

ADAMS:  Ben, don’t be a coward! Help us capture the opposition! 

ARNOLD.:  But such unpleasantness!  Why don’t you get Nathan Hale instead.  I hear that he has like seven lives to give to his country!   (The waitress arrives with Arnold’s order, placing the dish on the table in front of him)

ADAMS:   (disgusted) You chicken!  Catch a Tory!

ARNOLD:    Hey!  That’s a great name for this dish!   Chicken Catch-a-Tory!

(Tune in next week for episode 38, where the Dinnertime Dramatists present part one of “The Egg Salad Story”)

Time After Time

OK, I know it’s not very manly of me to admit this, and some may say it points to a certain lack of sophistication, but I am a Cyndi Lauper fan, especially the song “Time After Time.”   I think that it is simply one of the best songs written in the last 30 years, and even though it has been covered by a variety of other artists, I still like Lauper’s version the best.

The thing that has me thinking about “Time After Time” tonight is that today, my wife and I attended my daughter Hannah’s graduation from high school.  Hannah is the youngest of our three children, following her brothers, Jon and Nick, who graduated in 2004 and 2007.   So as emotionally charged such an event is anyways, when it’s your youngest, when it’s the last time, it’s even more bittersweet.

“Sometimes you’ll picture me …”

Hannah posted a photo of herself in her pre-school graduation gown on Facebook this morning.  It was perfect because it is such a good photo and sums up what a wonderful little girl she was (and is).   The thing is, that picture was taken in 1999, which the calendar says is thirteen years ago.  I know that in my mind, it was taken only yesterday, and it frightens me how fast time really moves.

I have so many images running around in my head tonight, like when I tucked her in on September 11, 2001, after the World Trade Centers fell, when she said to me, “Leave a light on tonight.  That way if something happens, they’ll know there was a little girl in here.”

Or, after learning about fire safety in kindergarten, her obsessive fear of things suddenly combusting into flames, resulting in my realization some five uneventful minutes after putting slices of bread in it that the toaster had been once again unplugged.  “Do you have any idea how many house fires start from toasters?” she’d lecture if I dared to complain.

There was the vacation to Kentucky when she was almost four years old, when we were on our way to see the house where Abraham Lincoln was born.  “How much longer,” she asked, “until we get to thinkin’ Lincoln?”

When she was little, she had more energy than anything my wife and I had ever seen.  “Hurricane Hannah” we called her.  From the moment she woke up in the morning, there’d be only one speed, overdrive, and she’d speed and collide and crash her way through the day.  And then, suddenly, like a switch had been turned off, she’d be asleep.  It always amazed Deb and I.  There were times when she’d be talking and she’d stop in mid sentence and not finish.  We’d turn around and look and, whether it was in her car seat in the back of the car or the sofa in the living room or a chair at the dinner table, she’d be out, sound asleep, and I’d carry her up to her bed and she wouldn’t wake up until the next morning when the hurricane would strike again.

There were the driving tests I took her for, and there was the first time she drove by herself, to the corner store, my eyes nervously fixed on the driveway until her return.

There were the nights she was out with friends, and the phone calls she always made to her mom and I, telling us where she was, asking if she could stay out an extra half hour and, surprisingly, not complaining if we said no.   If we told her she had to be home by ten o’clock, she was home by ten o’clock.

She was always headstrong and stubborn.  She was never afraid to argue with her parents, particularly her mother.  She could be manipulative and a master at melodramatically changing the point and shifting the blame if she was ever caught doing something wrong.  But even when she’d get right in our faces and tell us how wrong we were about whatever, she somehow always remained respectful.   She knew which buttons to push, but she also knew which lines not to cross.

Suitcase of memories”

There are so many moments of inspired nuttiness that we have shared over the years.  Like the time we were Christmas shopping in the Casio store at the old, original outlet Mall.  She couldn’t have been more than four years old.  Standing beside me, Hannah had discovered the electronic drum machine when she said, “Daddy, tell a joke.”

“I just flew in from California,” I said, “and boy, are my arms tired.”

No sooner had I delivered the punch line, Hannah produced a perfectly timed rim shot.

Then there was the time a couple of weeks ago.   I was home, working late in my office, when she wordlessly appeared in my doorway, her face white from a new moisturizing crème, and proceeded to do mime routines including being stuck in a glass cage and walking against the wind.    When she mimed casting a fishing line in my direction, I knew enough to mime getting hooked, and let her reel me in.

There are the bad puns she forwards to me all the time, the random text messages she sends, including vivid photos of whatever grisly animal they were dissecting in biology class.  Whatever, nothing ever consistently brightens my day as much as these isolated moments of silliness.   That we share the same sense of humor is a small part of it, that she was thinking of me if for only a moment in her busy day is the bigger part.

If you’re lost you can look and you will find me / time after time / if you fall I will catch you I’ll be waiting / time after time

When a father’s little girl grows up, and when he looks at his reflection in the mirror, or at that photograph of himself bald headed and potbellied standing beside her in her graduation gown, he can’t help but wonder if she needs him anymore.  Especially when she has turned into such a strong and smart and good person as my Hannah has.  But if she ever does, if she’s ever lost or if she ever falls, I will be there for her, and she’ll find me.  Time after time.