I Dare You to Finish Rewriting Me, Said the Novel

It’s important for writers to be busy. It’s more important for writers to find balance. A long time ago, I read somewhere that Thomas Mann did not attend his son’s funeral because he was writing. Whether this is true or not, this would be an example of bad balance. Another writer whose name escapes me once said: “Always be working.” I agree with that, but I have to remind myself that it’s important to participate in life.

In a weird way, it’s life that is keeping me from completing a section of a new novel or, more to the point, the pending death of a character in this tale. I’ve rewritten this section countless times since 2011. It’s a particularly hard scene because of the nature of this particular character’s lot in life and the ultimate end I have created. I wish that this character didn’t have to die, but it is an integral part of the story; likewise, the grotesque situation he’s forced into and the manner in which he’s dispatched.

Lately, in light of my current predicament, I have done my best to participate in life. This summer I am teaching at a community college. I am not loving the hot weather (though my wife seems to gain a perverse pleasure in my suffering even if she denies it). It’s the season of graduation and of course, in my big family, birthdays which means parties and get-togethers. In the midst of all this life, I just completed a short story rough draft. In between all of this, and other aspects of my life, I am rewriting my character’s death scene in the new novel ever so slowly. In fact, I haven’t quite rewritten (yet again) the moment of my character’s death. Everything…well, almost everything that leads up to this point is complete. Yet, I have slowed down the rate at which I am working the rewrite of this scene; so much so that just the other night I only wrote 250 words (this post, if you must know, is more than twice as long).

Despite that paltry word count from the other night, I understand how important it is to render this particular section as best I can. Hemingway was quoted as saying something to the effect that writers should not think about their work when they are not working. I don’t know any writer who isn’t guilty of breaking Hemingway’s rule to some degree or another, including, I suspect, Hemingway himself. I know I broke that rule the other day. I was standing in the middle of my class, discussing systems of control within our society, when it hit me: I don’t want this character in my novel to die because I am the character as much as the character is me. In effect, when (the operative word here: when) he gets killed it’s as if I am getting killed or, if not, at least some small part of me ceases to exist.

Right now, as I sit and write this, the most recent hardcopy draft of the new novel is sitting on my desk. There are notes, both in pencil and in ink, up and down the margins. The black Times New Roman font against the white page facing up taunts me; as if to say “Go ahead. I dare you to finish rewriting me.” Not to worry. I am going to see through this character’s murder soon. Then I am going set aside this manuscript for a few weeks and go live some more.


The Mad Man of Blank Hall: Dreams As A Writer’s Source Material

Writers by nature are cerebral creatures. We get wrapped up in what’s going on inside our heads and often forget the world around us until our lives crash and burn.

Sometimes our stories come from the strangest places. In this age of electronic gadgets and social media dependency, it’s no small wonder that many writers no longer look to dreams for inspiration. Instead, some writers would remain bogged down in following the latest trend or news story. This is not to say that there is no merit in such pursuits. But storytelling is art. All too often many writers are unwilling to stretch the boundaries. As a result, that unwillingness shows in their writing. And if they are willing to take true chances with their craft, they are met at every crossroads with publishing industry types who are, at least some of them, more jaded than a double-crossing mercenary.

Nearly two years ago I  had attended a panel discussion at a college that shall remain nameless. Among the panel members were two literary agents. Both of them offered sound advice when it came to how a writer should approach an agency. When pressed with the question from an audience member concerning what has been overplayed in the world of fiction, one of the lit agents answered, “Well, if I never see another novel about vampires or werewolves again it won’t be soon enough. Try witches, maybe.”

The discussion panel was not set up that night to entertain pitches from up and coming writers. It said as much on the program flyer; only in language more kind than mine. In this type of environment there rises almost always the lone genius who does not think some rules apply to him. Case in point: a rather grizzled outsider with a duffle bag beneath his chair. When it came time for the the Q&A portion of the discussion that night, the lone writer raised his hand. “Would you be kind enough to take a look at my story?” he addressed the panel that included the two aforementioned literary agents, a professor of writing, an editor at a Philadelphia publishing house (non-fiction works, mostly), and the gem of the college who had recently graduated and taken a job with a New York publishing house.

There followed a moment of silence among the panel members. The literary agents pointed at themselves with confused looks on their faces; as if to say “Do you mean me?” In that instant the grizzled author pulled from his duffle bag a manuscript of considerable thickness. “It’s actually a trilogy,” he said. “This is the first book. No vampires, no werewolves. I assure you.” He went on to describe the trilogy he had written as a science fantasy story influenced by his experiences growing up homeless…or maybe he had been to war. I can no longer remember. The situation was quickly sorted out, and the manuscript-toting writer fumed after he put his manuscript back into his duffle bag.

I make light of this scene I had witnessed for one reason: too often we pass judgment on the works of others. My impression of the writer with manuscript-laden duffle bag was no more kind that night than most of the others at the panel discussion. Of this, I am not proud. For all the audience knew, and the panel knew as well as they sipped white wine from clear plastic cups, we may have been in the presence of genius or, if not, at least a tale worth consideration. Here was a guy unwilling, at least that night, to play by the rules. I walked away from that experience thinking not about how out of place the writer’s request seemed, but what it must have been like to live inside his head.

Writers by nature are cerebral creatures. We get wrapped up in what’s going on inside our heads and often forget the world around us until our lives crash and burn. But not all the time. As cerebral creatures we tend to think about not only what we are currently working on but what’s next. In all of this it is important to remember dreams; both as a source of inspiration, no matter how dark or, and how I hate this word, surreal they may be, and as a pool of subject material.

Too often I meet realist writers who have no time for fantastical tales. Or I meet fantasy writers who are easily bored writing New Yorker style stories in which flawed people do flawed things and suffer a flawed outcome. I would encourage both ends of the writerly spectrum to remember the guy I mentioned earlier, the guy with the duffle bag crammed with three manuscripts, and I would encourage both realists and fantasists to look  to their dreams for source material.

For instance, a week ago I dreamed that people starting glowing at night and floated into the air like sky lanterns. There was no rhyme or reason to the dream. Just me and an open field where hundreds of people had gathered. So I took that image and ran with it. Sure, I am still working out some kinks in the story. And while I do I’ll be on the lookout for any other source to exploit.

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