Reading books allows you to live life through another’s eyes. So does writing books. As a result I’ll never write a story about social injustice, or hopelessness. It would make me too depressed. There are plenty of things in this world that inspire outrage, or anger, or pity, or disgust. If you read a book that centers on any of those themes, you’ll be done with it in a few hours, perhaps unsatisfied, but relatively unscathed. If you write that same book you’ll have to live with those characters and situations for months or years, and that can be very unsettling. My novel With Artistic License is a story about Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. In it the main character is going through a divorce. To write fictional characters you have to put yourself in their place and see the world through their eyes. By the time I’d finished writing the novel I felt like I’d gone through a divorce myself, though I’ve been happily married for 40 years. The characters in my current work-in-progress have their problems, but no one’s situation is hopeless, and there are amusing moments, which keeps this writer happy.
I was hoping to finish by the end of the year, which now seems doubtful, but at least I’ll be spending that time with characters whose company I genuinely enjoy, whose problems are nothing too dire. As usual, I’m covering new ground. To be very successful as a writer (defined by the number of readers one has) it helps to stick to one genre. That way you can build a base of supporters. So far I haven’t covered the same ground twice. With Artistic License is a literary novel leaning toward dark romantic comedy. Time Management, a novel, is part fantasy, part historical adventure. Evelyn Marsh is a novel of psychological suspense. The one thing that ties them together is a wry sense of humor and uplifting endings.
Speaking of Evelyn Marsh, an audible edition will be coming out very soon. More on that in the next post.
In this era of unconstrained publishing, many authors give away their work for free. In principal I’m against the practice. I know of no other profession where the creator is expected to work for free. The average cost of my books runs to less than a penny a page, which I consider a bargain. Nonetheless, when you’re an unknown quantity it’s hard to get anyone to pay attention to creative work; there’s just too much available to winnow out the wheat from the chaff. Brand awareness has become more important than ever.
So in an effort to alert potential readers to my work, in the month of September I’m giving away four copies of Time Management, a novel, and five signed copies of Evelyn Marsh on Goodreads. You can find them here:
The usual question a stranger will ask after finding out I write fiction is, “Where do you get your stories?” There is no singular answer. Each story has its own genesis. I always see the beginning and the ending clearly. The middle part is always nebulous and takes a while to flesh out.
I wrote a failed novel called Fog Beach several years ago. The kernel of the story was planted fifteen years before that, when my brother was auditing a small oil company and found evidence of a scam involving government subsidies. There were a few good scenes in that book, but it was dense and too complicated to follow.
The bare bones concept of With Artistic License came to me in a dream, scene by scene over the course of a night. I dreamed of a six-year-old boy drawing on a wall and woke up laughing (I often laugh out loud in my sleep, which drives my wife crazy). I kept waking up laughing and jotting down notes before falling asleep and dreaming the next scene. By the morning I had the bones of a screenplay, but decided to explore the characters in more depth by telling it as a novel. The actual writing took three and a half years.
The concept of Time Management, a novel had been with me since I was a kid. I began writing it in my forties, abandoned it, picked it up again in my fifties, and finished it in my sixties. It took me a long time to figure out what the internal and external conflicts were, and once I had those in place it again took three and a half years to write.
Determined to work faster, I decided to write a novella next and kicked around a few ideas with my wife. I was just finishing up Time Management and we were driving through an affluent neighborhood of Santa Barbara looking at stately homes with their well-tended gardens, and imagining the occupants I wondered, “What would drive a normal, mild-mannered, well-educated woman to commit murder?” I put that idea on the back burner in May of 2015 and didn’t think of it again until I sat down on January first 2016 and began making notes. Evelyn was a short, sweet affair. I started the actual writing on April first and was finished on September first, a total of nine months from start to finish. There was a little editing and tweaking after that, but for all intents and purposes it was done.
For this new book (working title Rum Beach) I want to write an ensemble piece with several characters whose lives intersect in the small town of Rum Beach. I can’t tell you how or why a character springs to mind. They seem to lurk in the background and then step forward and say, “What about me? Tell my story.” I had several characters in mind and left them to simmer for seven or eight months, letting the story coalesce around them. The goal is to have the first draft written by the end of the year. It’s an ambitious goal, but something to shoot for.
This is my 17th blog entry, and as far as I can tell none of previous 16 have been read by anyone. So I’m going to assume this is a place for my private musings. I’ll imagine a reader coming across these posts after I’m dead, so if you’re that person you’ll be privy to a lot of blather and perhaps an epiphany or two. As of tomorrow EVELYN MARSH will have been out four months. In that time it has sold somewhere around 375 copies. The reviews have been good, which is of course gratifying.
I’m trying to concoct a new story. I want to write an ensemble piece about people in Moss Beach, although I’m calling it Rum Beach and moving the lighthouse to a more scenic location. I’ve come up with a few characters. There’s Emily Abbot, a closet novelist whose greatest strength (loyalty) is also her greatest weakness (as she’s taken for granted). There’s Steve Wexler, the erstwhile bassist for a long defunct band, who is still trying to ride on the crest of a fading celebrity. There is Gary Myron, a simple fisherman. And there is Tom Blankenship, a wine importer who unexpectedly meets Fate. I know how it starts. I know how it ends. But as usual the middle section eludes me. And setting the hook early alludes me. I really don’t know what the unifying concept is. How do all the characters tie together? I’m planning for a 230 page book. My only goal is to make it interesting enough for readers to continue to turn the pages to the end. I don’t know exactly how to pull it off. I’ve been trying to come up with an outline. It’s partly done, but I’m stymied on other parts. I believe in the efficacy of an outline, but I think an outline can be effective even if it’s not detailed. You really only need to know the purpose of a particular scene. I’ll explore the usefulness of an outline tomorrow. I’m tired tonight and want to get to bed.
Taped to the top of my computer monitor are the words: “Storytelling and writing are actually two entirely different skill sets.” I think that quote is attributable to K.M. Weiland. It’s what makes writing a novel so difficult for me, and so seemingly easy for James Patterson. He comes up with so many plots so fast that he has to rely on co-writers to help write all the stories that pour out of his head. Patterson is a storyteller first and a writer second. I wish I had his facility for coming up with compelling “what if” situations and following them through to a finished novel that readers can’t put down. Alas, I’m a writer first and a storyteller second. Some lucky bums are equally good at both (Stephen King comes immediately to mind). So for me storytelling is the hard part.
Hemingway wrote, “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over.” I respectfully disagree. Had he said “My prose is architecture…” I’d agree wholeheartedly. For me, on the other hand, storytelling is architecture, style is interior design, and prose interior decoration. The first two come before the latter. Story and style are the skeleton, the actual writing adds flesh. And if the writing is to be more than a paint-by-the-numbers knockoff, the process must allow for serendipity, unforeseen juxtapositions and tangents.
I’m currently working on a story set on the San Mateo coast, where I’ve lived for the past 42 years. I’m getting to know the characters, their backstories, their motivations, their voices. I’m not yet quite sure how they all fit together, where their lives intersect, and what tone I want to adopt. Other than notes there isn’t much actual writing being done, and I’m getting antsy to start. But I still need to find that moment when all of the characters find themselves in the same place at the same time, and possibly even in the same pursuit. It’s a puzzle. Being an ensemble piece, I’ll require the assistance of more than one muse working in concert. I hope they’re able to get along.