On Writing Well

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.”

“Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

–Ira Glass

Rip Current

Woman on Beach

Courtesy of Mgrogan.com

Part 3 (Read part 1 and part 2) (Spoilers ahead!)

The night Penny died Nols wasn’t there.

She had worked a double shift earlier, and they’d headed to a party at the house of one of Moises’s friends around two a.m.  Nols remembered she wanted to visit the boardwalk in the morning.  “We’ll rent bikes and ride the whole thing.  Twice,” Penny said, popping the cap from a beer bottle.  “If you can wake up that is—riding ends at 10:30.”

Nols groaned.  “I’ll try.”

Then they sat on the couch together, talking with two guys from Rehoboth.  The four toasted each other, then toasted England, then American involvement in World War II.  “Yanks drink horrible tea, but other than that you’re all right,” Penny concluded.  Moises had a beer sitting next to him on the coffee table and, without looking up, worked a pen over paper, drawing.

He and Nols didn’t recall when Penny left the party.  Nols remembered the slow way the room moved, how this hippie bartender brought along his bow-legged pit bull.  When he woke at ten in the morning, Nols found her coat and clothes, but her shoes were missing.

*

Nols learned the basic facts about Penny’s death from the police, and all night, while he and Jorge drove, he had pulled apart those facts.  Listed details.  Replayed his memories of her, searching, hoping to fill what was missing from that night. The way he would later tell it over and again, the only sequence that felt true was this: Before dawn Penny walked down to the sand, right along the ocean.  He imagined the mole crabs dug holes under her feet.  She probably felt serene when she stepped into the water, sensing the waves’ chill, the sea foam that tumbled up then slid back.  She wasn’t thinking about tides when she swam out to see the city lights from beyond the breakers, wasn’t thinking about rip currents, narrow rushes of water that surge offshore.  He imagined Penny looked back to the boardwalk, the electric light shimmering in broken zigzags across the black ocean.  Then she felt weakness in her thighs and arms and started back to shore.  Pulling at the water, she looked up only to find the boardwalk was further away, her fatigue worse.  Aching.  Her lungs burned.  Nols wondered if Penny realized then she was helpless, that she wasn’t going to make it back.  He imagined the salt water eclipsing her vision, hinting at the inky darkness below, and when she stopped treading water then slipped underneath the surface, weighed down by her own body.

*

When they were three blocks from Penny’s apartment Nols asked if they could drive a while longer.  “I feel sick,” he said.  “The rum, maybe.”  He could see that Moises knew he was lying, asking for time.  But soon they would be standing in that compressed living room with her four roommates.  Soon they would admit to everyone Penny’s body was found on a barrier island.

“Sure, I still have a quarter tank,” Moises said. “Just don’t throw up in my car.”

They neared the inlet and headed west, over the bridge and along the beginning of Route 50, leaving Ocean City.  Dawn spilled over the bay, and Nols felt the sun through the window.

They drove through a tangle of houses, along streets and canals.  Light flickered through spindly trees.  They stopped at an elementary school where no children were playing; swings hung empty.

He could see Penny again, as the police had revealed her at the station.  A dribble of foam clung to the edge of her mouth, a slice of seaweed to her hair.  Penny’s eyes were glistening and half-open as if she were only nodding off.

Then he couldn’t bear sitting in the car any longer: the seat felt hot on his back; the belt squeezed his chest.  Nols stumbled from the Camaro and gasped in humidity.  Shaking, he knelt in the grass and looked out at the field—the patches of soil and clumps of dandelions.

As he stood and ran, eyes closed, feeling rushing air on his face and popping dandelion stems against his sneaker tops, he dreamed a thousand things.  Behind Nols seeds caught breeze and painted the lonely morning with wishes.

End

Rip Current

Photo of Ocean City's Board Walk

Courtesy of Menupix.com

Published in Think Journal in 2010; Finalist in the Delaware Beach Life Writing Contest 2007

Part 1

Penny’s four roommates were waiting back at the apartment so Nols and Moises drove north on Coastal Highway instead. Neither mentioned they had passed the clumps of buildings where Penny lived, even when they had gone sixty streets beyond the hotels at the end of the boardwalk.

Nols slumped in the seat of Moises’s Camaro. Street light sliced across the peeling dashboard. Grunge guitar crackled from blown-out speakers. They drove faster, past 100th Street, where crowds and cops thinned. That’s when Moises reached under the seat and pulled out a fifth of rum. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, he drank then passed the bottle.

“I was saving this for a special occasion,” he said, flipping shaggy, brown hair from his eyes. “Tonight’s as good as any, I guess.” Moises was twenty-five, from San Juan, and had yellowed teeth from drinking a pot of coffee every morning.

“I’m not sure I can do this,” Nols whispered, holding the rum against his thigh. “What do I tell them?” He watched tourists playing a cheap miniature golf course: pink with sunburn, they still wore fuchsia swimsuits and flip-flops from the beach. Mosquitoes tumbled in the fluorescent lights above the parking lot.

“You should start with that rum,” Moises said. “Some things nobody should do sober.”

*

Ocean City, Maryland, and its boardwalk puts on a grand show for tourists. On the stage they find clean entertainment: smart aleck tee shirts, picture key chains, incense, hermit crabs, caramel popcorn, salt water taffy—everything costs a mint, payment in cash.

Behind that façade, where smorgasbord eaters can’t see, live the stiffs who work at crab shacks or wrap threadlocks in your kids’ hair. Girls from Europe and former soviet countries; boys on work permits from England, Scotland or Ireland. They slum in efficiency apartments by the half dozen drinking Rolling Rock beer. They smoke pot on balconies, blaring Alice in Chains three blocks from the minivans in the inlet.

That’s how Nols met Penny: they both waited tables at a seafood restaurant on the bay. Moises cooked in the kitchen. All day the fishing boats and jet skis motored across the water, cutting wake. Nobody called him Allen that summer—plain, boring Allen. Penny, who came from London, started calling him Nols because his last name is Nolan. Everyone else did, too.

On slow days, the waitstaff pretended they came from different countries. Nols faked being from Dublin but sounded Scottish; Penny played American. “Welcome! I’m Lisa, a college student from Indiana,” Penny told a table of four guys on a golf vacation. “Customers tip better when they think you’re poor, young and American,” she told him later and put her finger to her lips in a silent Shh.

Nols was a local, living with his parents before going back to Frostburg State in the fall: he knew she was right.

*

In his wallet, Nols kept his two favorite pictures of Penny, half a column of those four black-and-white shots that only come from photo booths. The kind that go in sequence. The kind that couples buy on the boardwalk to mark their romance’s giddy beginning.

That July evening Nols had spun the stool to the right height, crammed in the tiny booth with Penny on his lap, then pulled the powder blue curtain closed. The light was hot, like he imagined a movie set would be, and there they were together: his hands pressed against her ribs, feeling her breath; Penny grinning, her crooked eyeteeth turned out. Then the camera flash, sharp, unexpected.

They held the photographs, still wet with chemicals, and agreed Penny would keep the first two snapshots, and Nols the others. He had memorized the entire progression. In the first two, Penny and he were smiling, her temple on his cheek; the third, they wagged their tongues. The fourth picture captured them kissing, like kids’ faces pressed on a window, their teeth clicking against each other. Nols and Penny laughed afterward, surprised and embarrassed by what just happened: their first kiss.

Be sure to check back September 22 for Part 2.

Jim Carrey’s Video to Emma Stone Teaches Writers Why Desperation is the World’s Worst Cologne

After seeing Jim Carrey’s video love note to Emma Stone, either he’s channeling Charlie Sheen or he’s really, and I mean, really bad at asking a girl out.

Photo of Jim Carrey

Writers: Jim Carrey shows you how not to get published. (From TruLife)

It’s an eerie combination of overly earnest, creepy, and only vaguely funny. Sure, what 22-year-old woman doesn’t want to hear a guy who’s nearly 50 talk about their future of chubby, freckle-faced babies and how the ravages of time affect his bodily functions?

The answer: all of them.

Many younger writers, so full of the need to express themselves (they’re so deep!), pull a Jim Carrey. They pour out every emotion, every bit of angst. They’re frustrated and railing against something. They’re begging and screaming for attention, not caring that it’s attention for all the wrong reasons. It’s like Jerry MacGuire: “Sooth me. Save me! Love me!”

Editors and readers will be more than happy to ignore this self-centered, whining story. And if that doesn’t drive the message home then the stack of rejection letters will.  Because what Jim Carrey dashed off was a terrible, clumsy attempt at courting — the equivalent to a horrible first draft.

Hey, we’ve all been there. I’ve deleted or tossed hundreds of stories. Thousands of pages. It’s the fawnlike steps toward becoming a confidant writer, one who can write about what he or she cares about while making it interesting to an audience. Simply put: Forget your ego. Realize you that it’s about them — their wants and needs.

But write your heart out. That’s what first drafts are for. Just make sure that you revise and edit until the story has that same effect on your audience, not just you.

If that seems like an alien concept, then watch this video and pretend you’re Emma Stone. That’s probably how your readers feel — they’re just too nice to tell you.

Become an Overnight Success (in Fifteen Years)

Shirley Jackson wrote her best-known story “The Lottery” in one draft after a long walk. It was featured in the New Yorker and anthologized countless times.

Stephanie Meyer says the idea for Twilight came to her in a dream and took just three months to write, according to a blog by Literary Agent Nathan Bransford. An editor read the draft on an airplane and as soon as it touched down she frantically called Meyer’s agent to buy the manuscript before someone else could. Meyer had never written before attempting Twilight.

Photo of Lightning

(Courtesy of National Geographic.)

“It’s tempting to think all it takes is

an idea and a wisp of effort. Very tempting indeed,” Bransford writes. “The truth is a lot more banal: It takes a lot of work.”

More often the path to any real success comes only after late nights and early mornings, failed stories and novels, and fizzled attempts to connect with readers. Good writing, likewise, just seems effortless. Most writers refine their scenes moment by moment, like needlework, to capture the story exactly.

I’m not at all surprised that Sara Gruen, someone I had assumed was an overnight success, is not one at all.

She was a laid off technical writer when she turned to writing fiction. Water for Elephants, her breakthrough novel, was her third and her previous publisher rejected it. I’m sure there were nights when she thought about giving up writing, moments of frustration that interviewers usually don’t ask about.

When I read …Elephants, I assumed it was just a lucky break. I should have known the old cliche is still true: luck is just hard work meeting opportunity.

Anything worth doing isn’t easy. If you want to be a writer or any kind of artist, take the time to hone your craft in a class or in a group. Work on your own. Meet people and learn how others have become successful. Most of all, practice to discover what your vision will add and what will make you distinctive.

I leave you with Branson’s final thought:

Each journey is our own, and we’re all the better for it. Rather than wishing for lightning to strike quickly, it’s better to enjoy seeing it flash in the distance and know that our time will come.

I Finished My Novel! (Which is Only the Beginning of the Story…)

“You don’t learn to be a good carpenter by building several bad houses – you learn by building a good one.”
–Sara J. Henry

I just finished a draft of my novel-in-progress for the third time. I’ll repeat that last part for emphasis: the third time.

To make a long story about a long story shorter, I started working on the novel in a workshop back in 2006. Since then it has made almost every shift possible, including points-of-view, tense, and focus. It surged forward on optimism and spun out of control more times than I can count. The process both revealed my weaknesses as a writer and challenged me to discover ways to overcome them.

Most writers are told the first novel is junk and should be put away in a drawer. The second one is your first real book, since you’ll have cleared out all of the bad habits and unoriginal ideas in the initial attempt. Yet I didn’t put this away.

Every time I read the story, I felt like I had hit on something, and though there wasn’t a glut of this kind of literary fiction on the market the concept had possibilities. Trying to puzzle out this story resulted in about twenty fragments of short fiction, almost like B-sides from a band or Batman’s untold adventures.

This last attempt truly feels like a last attempt. I worked from an outline and better defined the premise, tossing out more than 100 pages of material that just didn’t fit. Through the process, characters were combined, cut, story lines shifted, and the idea better defined. Like the quote that opened this explained, I kept working and reworking, taking paths more and less traveled, all in an attempt to build a better book.

Now I’m going back to revise, edit, and polish the work. I feel like the craft of writing has largely been completed, and this is where the artistry begins.

If you are working on a project, please comment and let me know how it is going. Have you learned about yourself as an artist along the way? What were your challenges and how did you overcome them?

Five Writers Answer: “What is Voice in Fiction?”

Woman Listening

Voice in prose: "Can you hear me now?"

“Take care of the sounds, and the sense will take care of itself.”
Lewis Carroll

“For me, a page of good prose is where one hears the rain.”
John Cheever

“Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye.”
C. S. Lewis

“No one knows what ‘voice’ is; only when it is absent: when one hears nothing.” – Joyce Carol Oates

“Style results more from what a person is than from what he knows.”
E. B. White

From Shoptalk: Learning to Write With Writers