This is the first of a series of blogs that will follow along as I work on writing my next book. I’ll try to make the process more interesting than it is in reality for those of you interested in what goes on behind the scenes in creating a book the way I do it.
Most of you trying to write know how hard it is. Perhaps the shared experience will give both of us some motivation or insight into getting the job done. After all, we can’t all be like Nora Roberts who writes one book before lunch and two in the afternoon or James Patterson who just lets other people write books, sticks his name on the cover, and earns eight million dollars a year. (Please, neither of these statements is true. Or completely true, anyway. Don’t take me to task for either.)
Before I actually start writing about the writing of the projects I’m working on, I’ll share some background on why, how, and where I write.
Books. It all comes down to books. I don’t recall my parents encouraging me to read. Perhaps they did. I remember always enjoying reading. By first grade, I must have already been anxious to find good stories because I remember thinking that reading about Jack and Janet and Tip and Mitten was too simplistic and boring. They did, however, teach me to read. I learned more about reading from Spiderman, Superman, and Archie.I advanced to Mad Magazine and eventually to National Lampoon.
I felt the magic early on and wrote my first two novels at the age of nine. I have them around here somewhere. When I run across them I’ll post them here. Both books featured the same character, whose name escapes me. In one of them, he is in outer space. In the second he was out west in the 1800’s. Creative license.
Each of my first two novels consisted of three chapters and each was six pages long, with illustrations. I did show some flair by killing off my hero in the one that took place in the old west. He had a statue erected in his honor in chapter three. Perhaps I needed to kill him so he could be reincarnated in time to fly on a starship in outer space in the future.
We had books around the house and I always got to spend money when the Weekly Reader had one of its book sales. I can’t remember the title of any book I ordered back then, but I can remember the magical feel of their shiny bindings and pages. The first “thick” book I read, the book I credit with turning me into a reader, was The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink. In the book, the parents of Kirby and Bitsy inherit a pink motel in Florida. The family travels there thinking they’ll get it in shape to sell. There are quirky visitors, a mystery, gangsters, and an alligator. Come to think of it, that sounds like the latest book I just published, The Blues and Ballet.
The Pink Motel was copyrighted by Ms Brink in 1959 and first published by The Macmillan Company in 1960 for the Weekly Reader Book Club. It was 183 pages long. I know this because my favorite youngest daughter bought me a pristine first edition of the book and I just took it down from my shelf of special collectibles. Before she found that first edition, she bought me a paperback reprint. That means I have one to take care of and one to read. I probably first read The Pink Motel when I was nine or ten. I last read it last year. I read it several times in between.
The Pink Motel transported me to the coast of Florida. I made friends with Kirby and Bitsy and their friend, Big. I joined them on their adventures and met the quirky guests who stayed at the Pink Motel. Best of all, the book introduced a hunger to actually go other places and seek adventures out in the world.
The sense of adventure instilled by books did not limit me to adventures in my head.
Books made me want to go places, from dive bars to foreign countries, to the Eiffel Tower and to edges of the Grand Canyon. Books put me backstage at theaters of all kinds and created an interest in dance and theater and concerts of all kinds. I enjoy going to horse races and thanks to the author Dick Francis, I have a deeper appreciation of the people involved. I’ve met and partied with people who could be characters in his books. In Horse Heaven, Jane Smiley interpreted the spirit of horses that race. Her personal insight into the mind of a Jack Russell Terrier is spot on near as I can tell, based on being at the beck and call of Pip, my Jack Russell.
All of that broader appreciation of the world and its inhabitants started with The Pink Motel.
I want to create similar experiences in those who read my books. One of my favorite comments from a reader was about how he could see the places I described in The Crimson Grace and how he really felt like he was there. Another told me she recognized some of the places in my books and how she looked at maps to locate just where my characters were going through their trials and triumphs.
Hundreds of people visit Bahia Mar Marina in Florida looking for Slip 18 where John D MacDonald’s character Travis McGee kept his houseboat The Busted Flush. There is a plaque at the Marina dedicated to the fictional Slip 18 as a Literary Landmark. You can check it out here. I don’t expect a roadside marker, but I hope someday, somebody traveling down Galveston Island to cross the toll bridge over to Follet’s Island will look to the right and think right there is where Samuel Locke’s house should be.
I could go on and on. I’ve been reading for over half a century. But the common wisdom is to keep blogs reasonable short because the modern day attention span is one interested in MTV style quick cuts. So, I’ll just mention a couple of highlights on my journey to reading without near so much exposition.
–The day I left the aisle of youth books at the Big Spring Public Library and discovered a wealth of mainstream books and their introduction to more places than I could ever visit in a lifetime. (I had to remove the cover of one book about a man and two women shipwrecked on a Pacific island, in order to keep my choice of reading material private from my mom. The drawing of an island on the cover was actually a profile of a reclining, naked woman.)
– Reading for the first time a more literary, heavy novel, The Summer of the Red Wolf, by Morris West. I read it the year it came out. That means I was sixteen. Up until then, I’d been enamored of genre novels, primarily science fiction with a growing interest in mystery novels. The Summer of the Red Wolf is a character study of complex characters and the relationships between them. It is more of a mood and emotional book than what I’d read to that point. It expanded my awareness of what writing could be. Beyond the encapsulated worlds of genre fiction, a good writer can fascinate by exploring characters dealing with things of everyday emotional weight, things like loneliness and dissatisfaction with existing circumstances. At that age, the book was a revelation of literary possibilities.
So, this is kind of a hazy clue as to why I want to write. I have been transported, educated, and entertained by the worlds created by writers. I want to create such worlds.
In this continuing “Writing Journal” blog, I invite you along as I share my process and my struggles. The next blog of this Journal will be a description of how and where I get the job done. After that, I will describe where I get ideas. Then, I will get into the day by day process of writing my next manuscript. As I write about the process, I’ll explore many opinions and ideas about writing and publishing. At least as experienced by me.
Okay. Here I go, writing a blog. Over time, I will write about whatever comes to mind. I plan to eventually throw in some video. There will be lots about writing and publishing because that’s what I’m trying to do in this, my second childhood. I will not be offering expert advice because I’m no expert. I will be sharing the experience. Of interest to others sharing the experience of writing and those interested in a behind the scene look at the experience, I’m going to try to blog the process of writing my next book. I won’t be disclosing any plot, but I’ll try to describe what I’m doing at the moment and how.
General blogs, like this one, are going to end up being as meandering as the mind of someone who enjoys being blessed with what the rest of the world calls ADD. Having ADD is like trying to watch a show on television, not knowing where the remote is but your puppy has dragged it under the table and has a paw on it so that the channel is changing and you cannot figure out how to stop it but you are still giving equal attention to everything as it pops on to the screen and your brain works like that almost full time.
Speaking of puppies—my puppy, Pip, is trying to jump in my lap hoping it will inspire me to take him to the dog park, but it is twenty-nine degrees outside and we aren’t going. He just made it to my lap and is licking my ear. Now, he is sniffing the desktop in search of crumbs of anything remotely edible, pausing to watch Grace Vanderwaal on the other screen. Pip loves to watch television. More about that in a later blog. (Now, he’s watching Mozart In The Jungle. He really likes classical music.)
Speaking of Grace Vanderwaal—she is a phenomenon. She rose to fame by winning Americas Got Talent when she was twelve. She did so by bucking the common wisdom of performing rousing covers of popular songs. She sang all originals. Her songs had smart lyrics that belied her age. Maybe her melodies contained a few musical tropes, but she put them together is smart ways, creating melodies that can get stuck in your head.
Vanderwaal’s voice was, in the words of Simon Cowell, croaky and raw. She’s expanded her talent and, now, her voice smooths out when appropriate. She is one of those pop singers who play with the sounds of her vowels so that their unique sounds become a part of the music. She does not approach perfect pitch like Mariah Carey or Freddie Mercury, or the best of my high school generation, Karen Carpenter, but some of the most engaging singers are not the best at hitting perfect notes. That puts her in the class of Bob Dylan and Joe Cocker. The second best thing about dating girls from my high school’s choir was that they sang in tune with the radio.
An aside: Some singers depend on AutoTune. Another thing Simon Cowell said was that Vanderwall is the “next Taylor Swift.” No. The talent Grace is showing would not depend on AutoTune like Taylor Swift. Although she’s still exploring her musical options, Vanderwaal leans toward a more folksy pop sound than does Swift. Like her or not, Swift is a terrific songwriter and brilliant about her market. Vanderwaal, too, is brilliant and carving her own path as she explores several musical possibilities. I like what one reviewer said about Vanderwaal: She throws herself into the lyrics with the fearless enthusiasm of a thirteen-year-old. And she does so oblivious to the risks.
It’s been fun (As I typed fun and some other words up there it is becoming evident that the “f” on the keyboard is having issues. That can uck me up)…It’s been fun watching Grace move from the gutsy, nervous twelve years old auditioning on AGT to the more and more composed performer in charge of her future who is, so far, doing a great job.
That concert video is over and I’m going to go make breakfast, chili and eggs. One thing we will not do in this blog is debate whether or not chili should have beans. That controversy was created as a public relations ploy to hype the first chili cook-off between Wick Fowler and H. Allen Smith. Chili is meant to be eaten, not debated. Use them like me or don’t, but I don’t want to argue about it. I want to eat it.
Speaking of chili and eggs—chili and eggs was the first breakfast I had in my married life. My lovely bride Jan has often said, “That should have been a clue.” It was served in the hotel in Odessa we stayed on the first night of our married life on the way to Indian Lodge at the Fort Davis State Park. Yeah, I know, not a fancy honeymoon, but I was nineteen and paid for it myself. We were so determined to not ask parents for help. Or, I guess, to ask as little as possible. We did get lots of help. But, I did pay for that honeymoon. Other than that first night’s stay along with the champagne in the “honeymoon suite” of the hotel. Her parents paid for that. Oh, and we borrowed my mom’s car and it was full of gas.
About that champagne—we shared some in a bubble bath in the huge tub in the room and another glass after said relaxing bubble bath. I re-corked the bottle. Eventually, we went to sleep. At some point, I woke up suddenly. The first thought in my head was, “Dumb ass. You put the cork back in a half-empty bottle of champagne.” I lay there for two or three minutes and, sure enough, bam! the cork shot out of the bottle, bounced off the ceiling and a wall, ending up in a potted plant. I woke Jan up laughing. I should go back and see if the dent is still in the ceiling.
About borrowing my mom’s car—to those of you, whoever you were, who filled my car with weeds and dumped salad dressing all over the interior during our wedding reception at the country club: Jokes on you. I never saw it. My dad cleaned it all up before we got home. Sorry. He told me I had some not-so-nice friends. (I have an uncle who, as a very young boy, tried to help out another family member on his wedding day. My uncle filled the newlywed’s gas tank the morning of the wedding. He filled it with the water hose.)
About champagne corks—years after our first champagne cork experience as a married couple, at a time we lived in The Woodlands north of Houston, I took Jan out for a special birthday dinner. I’d made reservations at a fancy steak place we’d been wanting to try. My parents were in town and went with us. I’d actually put together a mini-surprise party and had friends waiting for us at the restaurant. We were running late for some reason I don’t remember, but I’m sure it was my fault. Trying to get there before cell phones had GPS (In fact, I might have not yet owned my first cell phone.) … trying to get to the steak place, I turned left off of FM 1960 in Houston instead of right. Jan was already … hmm … not really bitchy, but, let’s say, tired of running late. When I had trouble finding the place she started strongly suggesting we just go somewhere else. I couldn’t do that of course, others were waiting for us.
Finally, I got us to where we were going and my lovely bride’s running review of my performance stopped and turned joyful at finding friends, a birthday balloon, and champagne awaiting our arrival. The service person came to open the champagne. Perhaps she needed a tad more training in removing the cork from champagne. It popped off loudly, shot across to the table next to us and hit a lady’s water goblet square on. The goblet broke and water exploded across the table. That table got a free bottle of wine.
Speaking of cell phones—through our son’s Boy Scout Troop, we were friends with a family in which the father was the General Counsel of GTE Mobilnet, one of the first, if not the first, cell phone companies in Houston. The first cell phone I ever saw was one he brought to the Astrodome when our two families went to a game. The phone consisted of a headset connected to a pretty big box you had to lug around. At the game, we had two sets of four tickets. We, the parents, had four seats behind the third base line. The kids were in four seats behind the first base line. We had one clunky cell phone. The kids had another.
We called the kids. It was interesting. From across the field, we could see exactly where the kids were sitting. When they answered the ringing phone rang on the other side of the stadium, everybody around them leaned it to get a look at the phone. They were at a vortex of people on their row and on three or four rows in front and behind them. All those people leaned in. Those farther away stood up and leaned it to get a better look. From where we were, it looked a whirlpool of people centered on the kids. Kind of cool.
Now, on to breakfast. And coffee. In the future, there will undoubtedly be blogs about coffee. And whiskey. And coffee shops. And pencils. And grammar and language. And other things important to the process and image of being a writer. And some blogs about photography. And kids. And perfect grand kids. And Pip, the pup. Because: “Telle est la vie et la vie est tour ce que nous nous avons.” (Don’t you just love how the internet can make you sound all pompously erudite?)