Saturday, February 24, 2018

Two pages of Flopsie

This is page 1 in a two-part story, first page of The Way Chris Saw It.

40,000 words later, here's the first page of part two: How Peachy Saw It

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Unloved Author

I'm glad that other writers succeed.

On alternate Wednesdays, I entertain the notion of literary success with optimism that someday, somewhere, someone will buy a copy of one of my books. Hasn't happened yet, after 20 years of writing, but it might, I tell myself on alternate Wednesdays after a cheery journey to the general store, an hour or two around the wood stove to chat with neighbors -- farmers and ranchers who speak with a twang, tell stories about hauling hay in an overloaded trailer with no tail lights, getting stopped by the Highway Patrol for a sobriety check. In good weather we throw horseshoes, and there will be guitar and mandolin strumming in the bluegrass tradition, rain or shine. Almost all of them were born and raised in the Ozarks. I'm the new kid, an alien being from another planet, so to speak. It took two years for them to ask and remember my name, although they knew in great detail the genealogy of everyone who helped me clear a building site and construct a hilltop house.

I don't do a great deal at home except sleep. Each morning I dress and brush my teeth, put on something suitable for the weather, and lead the dog downhill to a tin barn, one room of which has been my writing office for three years. There's coffee in the morning and a blank page, another chapter to attack, unless the enormous task of writing a novel was completed, in which case I'm stunned and incapable of anything except to re-read it from page one. In the past three years, I've written seven or eight books, roughly half a million words, but only four had the power to make me weep involuntarily.

I hope that other novelists are free of tears, cheerfully distant from their characters and the fictional adventures that they plot and touchtype with pleasure. I fight for every moment of life on the page, each word a challenge, because I have rules for writing. Never use the same word twice. Never use the same idiomatic expression for two different characters. Eliminate as many commas and articles (a, an, the) as possible. Don't gild the lily. Thus handicapped, it takes me several months to write a novel, working full time 60 hours a week.

I speak of it to honor the creative work that all authors do, whether successfully or not. The business of selling books has no impact on writing as I understand it. The whole of my concentration is in the hearts of my characters, who are as real to me as I am to myself and a dog who lays patiently and listens to keycaps stutter and stop, then blaze at top speed. I look up, having fought my way through a scene that sings, to discover that the sun is setting and it's time to go home. It is my honest wish for all other authors that they, too, have a writing office, cloistered with a coffee pot, snacks, and a dog.

My writing office in Costa Rica was rather grand, an intercom to summon the maid, balmy Pacific breezes, guaranteed ink above the fold and a deadline each Tuesday that drove me insane, writing a serialized novel. My writing office in Hilversum was a garret, entirely bare of furniture, yet the scenario I penned on the floor with a ballpoint became a movie. It doesn't matter precisely what kind of writing temple that one possesses, so long as it's private, shut away from every other human being, as long as possible, to see the story, live the story, hands poised to describe each heartbeat, every blip of hesitation before someone speaks.

Well. Nice work if you can get it, writing. I've thrown myself at it like a criminal would. Sold my car. Went without dentistry or medical care. Haven't had a decent meal in years, living on cold cuts and tinned mackerel and coffee. That's how much writing means to me. I trust that other authors never have to sacrifice friends and family, that they win readers easily and happily and effortlessly, glad to be part of a vigorous tradition. Truth be told, I have a friend who encourages me. One reader, a truly fine author, whose work sparkles and amazes.

If my experience as a novelist matters -- a hellish 20 years of obscurity -- I certify that all it took to sustain me was one person who said Yes! Absolutely! Write more!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Monday, February 5, 2018

A confession

I'm an emotional novelist, with little notion of what will happen in advance of the stories I tell. All I know is characters and a little oomph of a situation, a few scenes, a place to begin. It came clear as glass by re-reading O. Henry, whose plots are worked out in reverse, a tidy ending in mind which all else must chug along to achieve as a chortle. Despicable John Irving and John Steinbeck did it too. I don't.

For example, in A Portrait of Valor all I knew was that Chris and Peachy must meet. His war buddies would stand by him. She would cleave to him and fight at his side. What began as passionate sexual chemistry would evolve into lasting love.

In The Tar Pit, all I knew was that Nick would be in the wrong place at the wrong time, falsely accused of killing a movie studio big wig. I didn't know who the real culprit was until the 5th or 6th chapter. My plots evolve by discovery, one clue at a time.

In Charity, I wanted to send them on an escapade, pay the price of charity, period.

My current project was a 2 cent idea, to show the same series of events from his POV and hers, without knowing anything about Finding Flopsie or who Flopsie was. Once begun, my stories tell themselves. One step into the unknown forces another, until the expanding edifice of necessity impels dramatic outcomes, because it must be so.

As an emotional author, every word matters, every moment of fictional life, even the bit players like taxi drivers and hotel clerks. My principal players grow into roles that they themselves shape and often regret. They make foolish mistakes. They gamble and they love life as voyagers who kick down obstacles and break their bones if necessary to win, lose, or draw. Most of life is a draw, nothing gained or lost. We always get what we pay for. So Chris remains Chris, and Peachy remains Peachy, bonded as they began many hundreds of thousands of words ago, a chemistry I honor with every hour and in every syllable. Spinning tales is fairly easy for me, it's the writing that vacuums my heart and all the literary skill I can muster, exhausts me, begs to be edited and tweaked and re-read many times to find and fix a single word. Every word matters.

By comparison to writing, the flow of life on the page, story is pff.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The experience of writing Flopsie

Aside from dietary hardship, dreaming nightly of a medium rare ribeye and a double Dewar's, subsisting instead on cheap cold cuts and canned mackerel, the work of Finding Flopsie proceeds apace.

Conceived as two stories told from two wildly different POVs (his and hers) there was macguffin hooey to keep them incommunicado, which is damn near impossible in modern life. I solved it by throwing Peachy's iPhone in a swimming pool, inability to remember her husband's mobile number after years of using an icon shortcut, and a network firewall that scrambles text messages sent from her sister's Android device. All completely silly, right? -- but if you get past the technofrauds for story's sake, it becomes a rather wonderful tale of two lovers separated and frantic with worry.

Of course, there must be action, people must be killed, all hope lost, saved more than once by impossibly good fortune, and in the end to risk life itself for love and honor, price no object, the same story told twice as a man would live it and then as a woman might. The project is nearing completion, maybe two more weeks.

Each day I try to write a chapter. Wednesday is a day off, although I like work days best. The most difficult part of beginning a new novel is beginning, thinking oneself obviously incompetent to do such a thing ever again. With the first line, there will be a second, and then (as of today) 59,000 words in highly polished form with about another 20 thousand to go, milking high drama and action as slowly as I can from a shrinking herd of characters. Stories force endings. The trick is to get there in loops and spirals of ever-increasing suspense and force. Wish me luck on that.

Monday, January 15, 2018

On women

I've known 75 women intimately and hundreds more in circumstances that allowed me to see into their hearts and minds as a film director, as an amateur sleuth and world traveler. I was always keenly interested in the bravest and brightest.

In previous writing, I quoted Mark Twain, "There is only one good sex, the female one." I argued that women should be exempt from the criminal law, granted a separate and equal share of government by constitutional amendment (the entire U.S. House of Representatives) and a monopoly of civilian law enforcement. It is my conviction that women have a separate moral purpose apart from men, one which a man learns to understand in marriage but never fully embraces because it would unman him.

Generally speaking, foolish to do so, women as a species are resolute, industrious, coy, secretive, curious and observant. When she gives birth, she is "settled" and her primary purpose sharpens to an absolute, amplifying her powers. Motherhood confers the will to kill, like a mama bear, blunt instrument of life and death if man or beast threatens her children.

No different than men in some respects, women can be self-destructive (drug addiction and alcoholism, prostitution, thievery, and irrational tantrums). The human condition applies to both sexes equally, but women have a deep silence and arbitrariness that men often see as disturbing and mysterious. She can smile come hither then sneer go to hell unpredictably.

In the work that I am about to attempt, it is imperative to depict women as individuals, some ideal, some ordinary, and one seriously deranged and murderous, none of which are typical. The purpose of fiction is to offer contrasts, danger, intrigue, combat, and the costly price of triumph. Only the most admirable of women will undertake a mission of steely commitment separate from the biological and utilitarian destiny that urges her to play along, suffer a load of shit without response. Men do it, too. They knuckle under to keep a job, obeying the laws and customs of polite society, shunning risk of a painful adventure with uncertain outcome. Warriors are few.

There have been numerous heroic female warriors -- Boadicea, Joan of Arc, Phoolan Devi, Emiline Pankhurst, and Margaret Thatcher spring to mind, but there were many thousands in world history. If I was a better student, I would remember more names, like the wildcat who disarmed and stood on the neck of an invader that she would come to admire and mate as his queen. Even the dumbest male student should know the steadfast dedication of Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale, the charismatic crusades of Aimee Semple McPherson, Mary Baker Eddy, Susan B. Anthony, Madame Blavatsky, Ayn Rand, Gloria Steinem, and Anne Coulter.

Women dominate popular literature for good reason, because women read.

They play second fiddle to movie heroes and villains, but without women on screen there is very little story to tell, merely men struggling to kill each other. One of the best classic films is The Inn of The Sixth Happiness starring Ingrid Bergman, the true story of a housemaid who decides that her mission in life is to go to China and preach the Gospel, traveling alone on the Trans Siberia Railway and ox cart, by force of character given official status to abolish the cruelty of foot binding and, amid the horror and destruction of a Japanese invasion, to rescue 150 orphan children by leading them hundreds of hours through the mountains. Women do these things because they are biologically impelled to save life and ameliorate suffering. In American colonial history and medieval Europe, women were the healers and heretics that men feared and persecuted, then banished or killed and slandered in bitter calumny.

I owe a great deal to Ayn Rand in particular, a woman who stood alone, did whatever she had to, and fought for the right to be heard. In the beginning, she was awkward and inarticulate. Her ideas of good and evil, true and false and necessary took decades to refine and express in English, concepts that were forged by experiencing Soviet Russia as a young adult. I could not have learned to think clearly without Rand's compelling achievement. She paid an incredibly high price, shunned and betrayed and villified.

That said, my style of storytelling has nothing to do with Ayn Rand's example, although her novels mesmerized me and taught me about passion, notably absent from male authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. It's amusing and revealing that Rand liked Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer and Ian Fleming's James Bond, hard men of action. Her own fictional male heroes were intelligent, upright, unbending, creative, courageous, and virile.

I'm a little different. My hero is sufficiently valiant but slightly stupid, as most men are. His principal virtue is a sort of plodding endurance, instilled by Marine Corps discipline, always faithful and inured to hardship and danger. The woman he meets and marries is in a class by herself, spectacularly alert, bisexual, a polymath with a Ph.D. -- genius level brilliant -- the elder daughter of a billionaire inventor, a father she despises. Her younger sister is a spoiled brat, twisted by fear and seething monstrosity, as ugly and vicious as a woman could be.

To inhabit their femininity, their female physiology and biorhythms, is a daunting task as a male novelist. Like my hero Chris Cable, I'm slightly stupid, attempting the clumsy heresy of writing a female point of view told in first person. Sigh. Life on life's terms, old chum.

A woman's life is enormous. Think of it exactly so, as massive as an egg, with millions of tiny aggressive sperm vying to penetrate and spawn new life, only one of which can succeed, a primeval right to choose under assault, the result of reflexive or involuntary union. What will happen next will forever transform her, unless she elects to remain childless by employing a foolproof method of birth control like having her tubes tied, a decision to live for her own sake as a high priestess, independent of biological destiny. More than ever before in history, fertile young women are drawn to a career and a personal crusade, the hunt for an equal to love and honor, uncomplicated by the duty of children. Others want very much to breed and nurture, gift themselves in service to the future, hoping that men will protect them.

Men are untrustworthy in that regard, however much they enjoy the warmth and wonder of innocence. That's why an exceptional class of female warrior must step into the fray and kick with the strength of her kind, indifferent and hardened to men and women alike, unless they share an equal dedication to justice, the armed defense of cherished liberty, bulwark of our nation's commerce, energy production, farms and factories to feed and clothe children.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Favorite lines

Two make a fire, and the embers never die.   
('Mars Shall Thunder')

The hottest word you can hear a woman say is Oh! repeatedly.
('A Portrait of Valor')

War is fought best as calmly and impersonally as possible.  
('The Tar Pit')

Spiritual push-ups get harder if you live in a sewer.  
('First Feature')

The air was cleansed and scented by shifting breezes that herald a storm, and a new infant moon howled that might makes love. ('The Good Walk Alone')

The sun was hollow and decorative, not much of a threat.