Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Minor Character

I'm struggling to find the voice of a minor character so I decided to work on his backstory some more in the hope that it will emerge through discovery. Where did he grow up? Who are his parents? Who were his childhood friends? Who is his favorite athlete, favorite actor?

The vast majority of this information will never appear in the actual story, but these answers should inform the decisions he makes, the way he speaks, etc. And I might end up with new characters that can be used elsewhere if needed. For example, his mother intrigues me. She may or may not even get a passing mention here, but I wouldn't mind exploring her in a different context. I already have an idea to put her together with a character from another failed novel and see what they do together.

When I say “I have an idea” that's probably overstating matters. It's more like, hey wouldn't it be cool if they met? I have no clue what the context might be or what might come from it, but they both seem like interesting characters that could mesh.

Will I ever write something involving those two characters? I can't think that far ahead, I've got plenty on my proverbial plate as is. But it might be fun, so you know, I'll keep it stashed in the back of my mind somewhere and see what happens.

One thing I'm finding about novel writing is that there's always room to do more digging. That's true of other types of writing, but another minor character wasn't popping, so I asked more questions about her and came up with someone more well rounded and memorable. So many parts of that first draft can be launch points for deeper dives. Choosing which points is the challenge.

Monday, July 4, 2016

At Least One Other Person

I watch the sea, it helps to anchor me.
—Geddy Lee

I've been doing a lot of podcasts lately, which is terrifying for me but also fun. As a writer I'm used to the comfort of working on my own and having the luxury of manipulating words, sentences, and paragraphs into the precise message I wish to deliver.

I don't subscribe to Jack Kerouac's alleged school of revision. I'm more with James Scott Bell's dictum that “the first draft exists to be rewritten.” Or as Justice Louis Brandeis put it, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.” First thoughts are often best thoughts, but they're also often expressed badly or incompletely.

I like to revise. The inability to do so is a bug (or feature) of podcasting. You just let fly and hope for the best. I'll admit it's a bit of an adrenaline rush to know that I could fall flat on my face at any moment and turn the show into a complete train wreck. I'll also admit I'm not much of an adrenaline junkie and prefer to operate in controlled or controllable environments.

That being said, I've enjoyed doing more podcasts this year. And this is due almost entirely to my host and cohosts, who have all been knowledgeable, articulate, and just plain fun to hang out with. They feel like conversations with an audience that is there but not quite there.

It's like writing in that regard. I'm always pleasantly surprised when people have read my work. Similarly I get a kick out of learning that someone heard me on a podcast. “Oh, hey, that thing I did... people liked it.” It's gratifying to know that I'm not speaking in a vacuum, that these words somehow connected with at least one other person in the world.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Our Final Breath

It's devastating how quickly time passes. Four years was an entire college career, and here you are wading into the ocean that long ago. I could swear we were just there.

And what has happened since? Life, mostly, as it does.

Shots of the horizon rarely fail to capture my imagination. Where do the earth and sky meet? What is out there? How do I get there?

* * *

One of my POV characters is confronted with the reality that time passes too quickly. He is dead, but in his notebooks he expresses disbelief at his son's having recently turned seven despite it seeming like yesterday they were all coming home from the hospital.

This is hardly a novel thought. It's one I'm sure most of us have at some point. It can be haunting and daunting if we focus on it too much, which is why most of us don't. We jump back into the river and keep moving with life.

Our busyness, of course, doesn't slow the process. And the next time we come up for air we are again surprised by how much time has elapsed. This progression repeats itself until we are done here. It's a beautiful thing that is also tinged with sadness, or at least a longing for more.

* * *

Our finiteness is what defines us. Well, it's one of the things that defines us. Or describes us. We can't know where the earth and sky meet, what's out there, or how to get there. Beautiful and sad. Like life.

So we just keep moving, holding on and letting go at the same time. We pay attention to what we think is important and hope we are right.

Someday we'll all look back on this and laugh. And breathe our final breath.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Distinct Voices

I'm struggling to find the voices of three characters. Lois is a reference librarian in her mid-40s who likes tequila and poker. Rich is a furniture salesman in his mid-20s who talks tough but is a good guy. Alicia is a former track star who is now a mother and wife, but who shouldn't be defined solely as such. They don't meet in the actual story, but what if they did?

* * *

The three of them stood on the beach, looking out onto the ocean. Why were they all here? What had brought them together?

“You guys surf?” asked Rich.

Alicia smiled and shook her head. “I'm not much for water.”

“A little,” said Lois. “You know, back in the day.”

“Back in the day?” said Rich, a twinkle in his eye. “You can't be a day over 30.”

“Shut up,” said Lois, waving her hand like she was swatting flies.

Alicia took a good long look at her. She was trim, and her legs had definition, but there was something. She was definitely over 30, probably by a lot.

She must be about my age.

Rich turned to Alicia. “You just look like a surfer.”

“Thanks, I think, but I'm a sprinter.”


“Well, I was. These days I don't do much running. More lifting and chasing kids.”


Lois wrinkled her forehead in thought.

Alicia noticed. “What's on your mind?”

“Everything about this feels strange, doesn't it?”

“What do you mean?” said Alicia.

“She means,” interjected Rich, “that our interactions are forced. We don't belong here.”

“At the beach?”

“Together, like this. We aren't even part of the same storylines.”

“Worse, we don't have distinct voices.”


Thursday, June 30, 2016

There Could Be a Story in Anything

The crows are out in full force this morning as I think about plot.

“How do you come up with story ideas?”

“I read a lot, and steal from others.”

“You don't just come up with them on your own?”

“Life is not lived in a vacuum. What I do is more remixing than creating. It's like hip hop.”

“How so?”

“Well, you're borrowing from other traditions. So you've got jazz, blues, maybe some Latin music, or stuff from West Africa or India. Take the bits that you like and make them into something different and hopefully exciting. It's the same thing with plot. I just finished reading a book that felt like someone combining elements of Kurt Vonnegut, Monty Python, and Voltaire... probably others as well.”

“And did it work?”

“Very much so. There's a certain school of thought that all the great stories have already been written. Even if you believe that, presenting them in a unique way can bring new life to them.”

“But you wouldn't know what to steal if you weren't constantly reading.”

“Exactly, that's the art. It's like a recipe. Maybe something calls for two parts Shakespeare, one part Hemingway, one part Toni Morrison. Well, you can't find Hemingway, so maybe you swap that out for Fitzgerald and make something new.”

“It might not taste like what you intended.”

“It could be worse, or it could be better. But you'll never know until you try.”

“That's an interesting outlook.”

“My job is to have an interesting outlook. Without that I'm nothing.”

“You were saying something about crows at the beginning?”

“They're very loud.”

“Could there be a story in that?”

“There could be a story in anything.”

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Full of Surprises

She pedaled southward along the coast, from Orange County, through Camp Pendleton, and on through toward her final destination of San Diego. It was warm out but not too warm, with a light breeze blowing in off the water helping to cool the air. Seagulls soared overhead as the tide rolled in.

Somewhere south of Carlsbad she passed two women walking. One of them looked vaguely familiar so she hit the breaks and called after her.

“Laura, is that you?”

The woman paused in her tracks and turned around. She was in her fifties, much older now, but still with the same youthful face.


“Oh my God.” Amanda scooted her bicycle off to the side of the road and threw out the kickstand. “How long has it been?”

“At least 20 years, probably more.”

Laura's companion made a soft coughing sound.

“Oh, I'm so sorry. Amanda, this is my friend Barbara.”

They shook hands. “Nice to meet you.”

“So,” said Amanda, “what have you been up to for the past couple decades?”

Laura laughed. “Let's see... I guess you could say a lot. The kids are all grown and out of the house.”

“Whoa, you have kids?”


“Seems we have some catching up to do.”

“Seems like it.”

Barbara jumped in. “I don't mean to be a wet blanket here, but this dialog is terrible. There's no drama whatsoever, no sense that something might come of it.”

“Good point,” agreed Laura.

“Our voices all sound the same, we're pretty much interchangeable.”

“Yeah, that's a problem.”

“Shouldn't you have something interesting to say after having not seen each other for 20 years?”

“You'd think.”

“Life is full of surprises.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Once in a While

I've been thinking a lot about yeast lately, which is something I never thought I'd think about a lot. Different strains used to create different effects in beer. The amount of variation is staggering.

This is true not only of yeast but of all life. Even confining ourselves to this planet, as we necessarily must at this moment, there is tremendous diversity. Factoring in whatever else might be out there... well, it makes my head hurt.

* * *

The photo was taken from a train. The Pacific Surfliner, from Solana Beach to Anaheim. This is somewhere between Encinitas and Oceanside, can't say exactly where. Something about watching strangers live their lives while I pass by at high speed always gets me. It's the same when I'm in a car, particularly on a long road trip.

Every one of those people is a characters with their own story. Someone should tell that story. And if I can't know them, then I can at least concoct something believable in my own mind. Who is that bicyclist traveling south? What is her destination, and why? And who are the people walking in the opposite direction?

The photo captures a shared moment in these three lives that none are likely aware even existed. The bicyclist almost certainly has no memory of the walkers, and vice versa. Yet here they are, frozen in time for as long as the photo survives and there is someone to view it.

* * *

In an actual story, maybe they meet. The bicyclist stops to watch waves rolling in from the ocean. She says hello to the walkers and they have a brief chat. Maybe they never speak again, or maybe they become fast friends who get together once in a while. The amount of variation is staggering.