First Finished Book of the Year, and a Giveaway

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For a month or so, I’ve been plugging away at Stephen King’s On Writing in the tub. I read this book years ago when it first came out, and wanted to revisit it from a more mature perspective – another decade of experience. The first time I read this book, it was inspirational and wonderful; like having a private audience with Stephen King himself. His writing voice is so intimate, so cozy, one I enjoy immensely – even when he’s trying to scare the pants off me (which he has done exceptionally well a few times over the years.) While reading King, I tend to assume aspects of his voice, as I aspire to create that sort of warm bubble of intimacy between myself and a reader. Naturally, I fall well short of my goal, but it’s where I often aim.

Writing is my preferred medium of creativity, of expression – I like words. Written words. I’m not so good with the verbal ones.

Sewing, quilting and other forms of craftiness are interesting diversions, and I enjoy them, too – I want to be good at them. But when I think of how I want to present myself to the world, what I would like to leave behind, if I ever wanted to be known for a skill… it always comes back to writing, and it always has.

So I write, and I often drag you few readers through it – although I suspect a good many of you get bored before the end and wander off. That’s ok – I do the same thing.

Stephen King and I share certain preferences, and I suspect this is true of many writers. When I am in the process of crafting something new, be it an email, a blog post or something More, I cannot stand it when someone reads over my shoulder. Mike’s bumped into this a few times inadvertently, and I remind him – trying to be gentle, but wanting to growl protectively. It’s not his fault – the door to my office is open, we wander in and out all the time – but I don’t read what’s on his computer screens for this very reason. He’s getting better at remembering, though.

King recommends writing with the door closed at first – making sure the first draft, as tender and vulnerable as it is, as insecure about it as we are, will be protected. Everything is private. Naked. Only after we are able to dress it up a bit does he recommend opening that door and letting anyone come in to have a look. First draft – door closed. Second draft – door open.

One night, about halfway through the book, I got An Idea. For a story. It might even be a good idea, if I let it explain to me what it wants. I sloshed out of the tub, sat down at my computer for about a half hour and drilled out about 2500 words. The first part always comes easily for me – the initial Idea, the rush of getting everything down on paper. For me, the trouble comes when I reach the point of making plot decisions – figuring out where the story wants to go. I try to impose my will upon the story by trying to conjure interesting plotlines, rather than simply letting the story tell itself.

This is how I end up in one of two places: With a pretty good first 10 – 20 pages, or with a terrible first 100 pages. In either case, they fester and rot and are neglected because I am too frustrated to go back and try to finish them.

When I first set out to Write A Novel, I was twenty and very much into Anne Rice and the whole vampire thing, Anais Nin and Henry Miller and darkness and angst and OH, the ennui. I was also pretty obsessed with sex and industrial music, and had made a brief, tentative foray into marijuana. My writing reflected all of this (especially the Anne Rice,) and, reading back over it now, it is enormously embarrassing. Still, I was twenty years old – just a baby, particularly when it comes to writing. I was trying out my wings.

I think that one got to about sixty typed pages. It started out as a hand-written scribble on about 10 pages, then migrated to 3.5″ floppy discs on a Mac. I printed it out some time in 1992 or 1993, made a few brief attempts at copy-editing, realized I had absolutely no idea where it was going and scrapped it in despair. It’s been sitting in its little three-ring binder in a Rubbermaid container ever since. I may sit down and reread it soon, but there is likely no salvaging it.

The basic premises were sound, and if I were willing to tear them all down to their most basic parts and start over, something could come of it. But I’m no longer into that crazy world of sensual, bisexual gothy vampires, and if the passion isn’t there, well – why bother?

The next serious attempt came when I was twenty-eight, just a lifetime’s worth of experience as far as I was concerned at that point, and in truth, at that point it was. The difference between me at twenty and me at twenty-eight was gaping, barely a bridge able to connect the two points in time. I was reading Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series then, and related so well to the casual, spunky voice. “I can do this!” I cheerfully decided, and set off to inflict my own idiom onto the genre.

That one was truer to a writing voice I could call my own, though – it felt less stilted and contrived… until I got to the part where I felt it needed to get interesting with an unexpected twist. Trouble was, I was trying to expect it, force it out of the shadows. I chased down a few ideas, tried them out, tried to weave ridiculously disparate ideas into one strand, failed miserably, gave up in a huff and haven’t gone back.

That one may be able to be salvaged, if I can find where I put it. I’ve no idea where it is currently, which pains me a bit. It had its silly bits, ludicrous descriptions of the toys I had in my fantasy life (because all of my characters ultimately are an idealized me,) described down to stupid levels of detail, because I wanted everyone to know I knew whereof I spoke. I uncreatively envisioned the story taking place in the house where I then lived, and in places I frequented.

Write what you know, but come on – it needs to be interesting. Nothing worth writing a book about has ever happened to me, sadly, and this is where I fall down. Of course Stephen King hasn’t ever survived the onslaught of a creepy, creature-filled Mist, and he hasn’t ever been trapped in a car by a rabid Saint Bernard – but he could conjure these things out of thin air.

There is a part of _On Writing_ I am going to share with you now that exposes my biggest shortcoming in writing, and one of my biggest fears in life.

I do hope Stephen King won’t mind me sharing this copyrighted tidbit – indeed, I hope it inspires you to go and buy the book itself.

On page 104, King begins talking about the magic of creating that place where the writer and the reader are intertwined in space and time.

“So let’s assume that you’re in your favorite receiving place just as I am in the place where I do my best transmitting. We’ll have to perform our mentalist routine not just over distance but over time as well, yet that presents no real problem; if we can still read Dickens, Shakespeare, and (with the help of a footnote or two) Herodotus, I think we can manage the gap between 1997 and 2000 [when the book was published.] And here we go – actual telepathy in action. You’ll notice I have nothing up my sleeves and that my lips never move. Neither, most likely, do yours.

“Look – here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.”

Here, I’m breaking into King’s words with my own. Before we go on, take a moment to really envision that scene, if you would, before we sully it with suggestions. Reread the scenario a couple of times to cement the details. Ready? Back we go:

“Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shades. (To color-blind receivers, the red tablecloth is the dark gray of cigar ashes.) Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones. Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome – my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out.

“Likewise, the matter of the cage leaves quite a lot of room for individual interpretation. For one thing, it is described in terms of rough comparison, which is useful only if you and I see the world and measure the things in it with similar eyes. It’s easy to become careless when making rough comparisons, but the alternative is prissy attention to detail that takes all the fun out of writing. What am I going to say, “on the table is a cage three feet, six inches in length, two feet in width, and fourteen inches high?” That’s not prose, that’s an instruction manual. The paragraph also doesn’t tell us what sort of material the cage is made of – wire mesh? steel rods? glass? – but does it really matter? We all understand the cage is a see-through medium; beyond that, we don’t care. The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room… except we are together. We’re close.

“We’re having a meeting of the minds.

“I sent you a table with a red cloth on it, a cage, a rabbit, and the number eight in blue ink. you got them all, especially that blue eight. We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy. ”

Ok – are you ready for my big, giant secret?

I am terrible at imagining this scene. My picture lacks any distinguishing details. The table is utterly plain. The cloth? Bare minimum, totally nondescript. The room this all happens in is white, with a window in the background. Some light wood trim. But the table fills most of the lens, and and it is plain. There are no creative embellishments whatsoever – I might have done better with the instruction manual.

My obsession? Why is the rabbit in the cage? What is going to happen to it? Is the number eight an indicator it is expendable? Is someone taking good care of it? What is going to happen to the rabbit?!

Now perhaps if King hadn’t brought a caged animal into the picture, which triggers too many sensitive points for me to count, I would have better luck with this exercise… but…

What if I am just an unimaginative person?

There it is, folks. That’s my biggest fear – well, next to fear of abandonment by people I love, anyhow.

If I am unimaginative, uncreative, then I am going to have a hell of a time with This Whole Fiction Thing and I’d better just stick to mediocre blog posts that have no real function in life other than to blather on about myself and my precious little world. Damn it, I want to shine.

In order to shine, I have to get the hell out of my own way. That is hard.

Some of this extends, as too many things in my life do, back to my mother’s frequent lack of enthusiasm once I was no longer a toddler. I remember being on a long car trip and writing a story out in a notebook. I was probably late grade-school, maybe middle school-aged at the time. and the short story was about a sinking ship. Large sinking ships have always fascinated me – I am morbidly drawn to the idea, fascinated with it and terrified by it. James Cameron’s “Titanic” was the ultimate vicarious shipwreck experience – but I digress.

So I wrote this little story, and at the end, the captain of the ship tries at the last moment to save his life by jumping off the deck and swimming away… but he is caught by what I assumed would be the giant vortex created by the ship’s sinking, and he is dragged down with it, with appropriately cliche last words, something like, “I guess I’m going down with you after all, Shipname, but going down a coward.” (Dude, I was like ten. Give me a break.)

I read the story aloud to Mom, who was sitting in the front seat, and she scoffed derisively. “A sinking ship wouldn’t pull anything down with it, ” she snorted, implying the story was silly and pointless. It may have been at that point I got shy about sharing my writing with anyone else – I must wonder. Sure, it sucked – but a little encouragement there, lady? I kept writing, but I haven’t often shared it.

While I no longer harbor any delusions about getting a book published, I would like to finish one, just for my own peace of mind. I’ve had stories published in books, of which I am proud of precisely none, and I’ve been in various magazines for a few hobbies. Again, not my finest work. Far more talented people than I have gone unnoticed, and far more deserving people will go their lives unpublished, so I have been fortunate.

One thing King drives home repeatedly, which I remembered on my own just prior to picking this book up – to be a good writer, one must be an avid reader. I got too far away from books for too many years, and I have deprived myself of too many words, too many styles.

There is solid advice in _On Writing_ – I really can’t recommend it enough to the aspiring writer.

As I said earlier, reading this book the first time was just a wonderful, thrilling, enticing experience. Reading it a second time was less exhilarating, but still wonderful – more like a conversation with an old friend. Still inspiring, less awe-inspiring. Less heady.

In all likelihood, I won’t ever read it a third time, and so – I want to pass it along to you.

But I want something in return.

I want you to give me writing advice. Or, I want you to tell me what you like to write. Or, I want you to tell me how you work with writing blocks. Or, I want you to tell me a story.

Entries will be open until Wednesday evening, 5pm Eastern, at which point, I’ll pick a winner.

Whoever you are, take care of my friend, Stephen, and I hope you enjoy him as much as I have.

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7 responses to First Finished Book of the Year, and a Giveaway

  1. Advice: use version control. Seriously. I write in txt files, and use git. If I get a crazy idea partway through, I’m able to create a new branch and play with it. If it works out, I can incorporate it back to master – if not, no harm, and I got whatever that was out of my system (I suppose it could turn into something else, but I’ve yet to see that happen).

    Story: I totally sympathize with an inability to plot some ways in. I have about 20 pages of a good zombie novel that now has people wandering all over the place, with no end in sight. I expect it will remain unfinished. But there is some really fine stuff in those first pages.

    My current work in progress is a poem about a robot invasion written in rhyming couplets. About partway through I realized that this is one of the most plot-driven things I’ve ever written. (My poems generally aren’t plot-tastic.) Depending on how it turns out I may end up using it as an outline for a prose fiction piece. Although with my poetry I eschew word processing entirely – so far this is written in a Moleskine Cahair notebook. (Printed, of course, my cursive accrues wretchedness daily.)

    P.S. Extra Advice: write more than you obsess about your toolchain. 🙂

  2. Remember the novel we were writing together called, “The Kiss of Death” I believe? I haven’t looked at it in SO long, but I think it was about a set of killer teeth… somehow the man they used to belong to was a murderer and I think maybe he died, so the teeth continued on without him?

    I can’t really recall….. do you? I still have it, tho! Out in the rubbermaid bin garden in the storage room. 🙂

  3. I do my best thinking in the tub, that’s for certain. And words have always been and will always be my first soul mate over all others, so I understand your affection for them. May you write the novel of your wildest imaginations and may it please you greatly!

  4. I guess my advice is the cheesy write something everyday. Put it on your schedule. Don’t worry about an amount, but do something!
    Also, don ‘t worry about the imagination thing. I tried the exercise and my table was in some sort of nebulous no-space rather than in a concrete room. I immediately started obsessing about what the 8 was for and didn’t think about the rest of the details.

  5. Erin

    Thanks for the advice, you four! Winner announcement shortly.

    Phawk – I usually keep a separate “notes/ideas” file, but version control is interesting. hm. Maybe I need to learn git with your mom. 😀 If you ever want to share anything, I’d love to read stuff anytime. I also understand you if you don’t want to. 😉

    Lisa – I DO remember that, holy cow! I have specific passages pretty clear in memory, but the overall picture is eluding me. Wow, you should definitely get that out and transcribe it. 😀

    Marie-Jolie – the tub surely has been productive of late. I think I’m going to head there shortly. I wish I weren’t all cramped up in it!

    NPH – Yah, I totally hear you about obsessing with one aspect of the scene. For me it was the bunny, for you (and King) it’s the “8.” Funny how the mind works. I probably should schedule time every day, but then I start wanting to rebel against it. THERE IS NO PLEASING ME!!! 😉

  6. Sam

    Erin, I’ve only known you for an hour or three, but … I know you. Stephen King’s On Writing is so excellent — you too have an intimate we’re in this together thinking the same thing at the same time quality. I could go on for three chapters responding to your conversation to the netherlands, i.e. your mother, your new happy family, learning to quilt, gifting, the chickens,…. What I want to know is do you read Annie Lamott?

    In the Stephen King space-time (i can’t seem to spell continuim) telepathy thing (8) I thought you said exactly what I thought King said and exactly that is what makes good writing great — the magic of expressing an original opinion and having people nod and ponder, sometimes for years, how did she know that? You work a story line, like making that canvas skirt, like a master jazz musician. And the bit about the back of that quilt had me choking and threw me into a full where’s my inhaler asthma attack.

    So here’s my unsolicited advice: You already have an uncanny ability to tell the truth, SO WHO NEEDS FICTION? Tell your story.

    and call me I’ll send you Annie Lamont or go to the library and read Bird by Bird. — Sam

    • Erin

      Thanks so much for the kind words, Sam – it is really nice to read your thoughts. If Annie Lamott wrote Bird by Bird, then indeed, I am a HUGE fan! I haven’t read that book since the first time I read King’s On Writing, but I remember being very moved by it. Thanks for the advice – I do have an urge to write fiction, but perhaps some other stuff needs to be written first.

      I’d love to hear more from you, thanks so much for writing.

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