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Not a Blahg

I didn't want to pollute the Web with another Blahg, so my Blog is kind of short and focused. I wanted to share key moments in the novel creating process, ones either enlightening or instructive. Or at the least funny. Or about love.

It's also upside-down as far as Blogs go, hit the link to skip to the latest if you've already read through the rest.

>> Skip to the Most Recent Post 

 

Writing the Novel

Pre-History

I can’t remember just when I got the idea that I’d write a book. I can’t stretch my memory back to any incident or clap of realization during childhood. Although I’m at least sure the impetus does go back that far. Kids and their whacked ideas—it’s amazing just how often these lazy, cotton candy daydreams return to us when we’re older. But I did know—must write book.

Getting More Serious about Writing (1998-1999)

I got more serious about writing during Graduate School (I got an MA in Conservation Biology), during which a nightmare inspired me to write a Spec teleplay for the X-files. The first one I wrote wasn’t very good. The second was much better, although, having recently given it another eye, it isn’t the poop either. I finished the second while living in a tiny room on a steep hill that hugged one side of a Hawaiian Valley. I could see beautiful rainbows out of my little window nearly every day. I had to put my computer under a TV-sized cardboard box within which forever burned a naked light bulb—saving my machine from the damp valley air.

My script did get as far as the story department, which is really good considering I was without agent. But I happened to come knocking when the show was near its confusing end, so I doubt it ever even got read.

The Writing Assignment that never happened—the tale of Bigfoot (2000)

My next planned writing venture never happened. Having caught a nasty case of island fever, I migrated back to Cali with the plan of riding used Police motorcycles with my best friend up to Canada. To help pay the way and add to the adventure I arranged interviews and outings with the world’s most respected Bigfoot aficionados. I figured I’d sell travel articles to the Sunday Travel Sections of newspapers, hooking it as a kind of extreme family vacation. We bought the bikes at an auction near Napa, California (I paid $800 for my Kawasaki), but, dismally, something important and uncontrollable came up with my friend so he had to bow out. And I didn’t want to go alone. So…

Researching the Book—the road to Accidental Discovery  

From my History of My Book Section (says it all):

Dreaming Underwater was a novel born of our collective hunger for God. It grew up underground, mostly, nurtured within the 18 libraries scattered around the University of Berkeley. The book isn't at all the one I thought I would write when I started researching. The answers I anticipated weren't the ones I found. The story is as much a surprise to me as to anyone else. Its threads emerged like findings of an archeological dig, one by one, each a window to another place, delicate long hours to unearth them. Only much later could you piece together their connections, at the cost of all expectation.  

The Novel that didn’t come and the ebay Scandal (April 2000)

I fell in love with the story I finally created for my novel. But when I went to write it, no words came out. I diligently spent about three months working hours a day—I was only able to write two pages. So I quit. It wouldn't be until five years later in a different country that in 15 minutes I would solve my writing problem.

At the time I was paying my bills by buying and selling oil paintings on ebay. Normally an up and down, one month to another, kind of existence, it took a hook for the worst after the Diebenkorn scandal on ebay (remember—the million dollar painting the guy had supposedly bought at a garage sale).

There’s a great book about it, by the way, scheduled to come out soon. It’s titled Fake: Forgery, Lies and Ebay, and is written by Ken Walton, the lawyer around which the scandal swirled. Check it out. Amazon.com

Anyhow, business was fizzling, but I wasn’t too broken up—I was getting sick of boxing and taping paintings. And I was hungry to once again reenter a peopled universe—the ebay seller's life can be a lonely proposition.

I decided to get a job.

The strange road to writing experience and virtual China (September 2000)

Now although my great novel may seem as if it died a sputtering end, that’s not  the case at all. Oddly enough, I wasn’t really the slightest bit perturbed at the lack of words offered up by my fingertips. I just shut my laptop off, and waited for something to change. 

I believed (still do) that the most normal people can accomplish the most extraordinary things (like writing great books). I’m a perfectly normal guy. So...

...it would come...eventually. With my urging, of course—books don’t write themselves. I just needed a different angle.

In the meantime (who knew when the angle would pop up) I’d get myself more gainful employment. I set my sights on a writing job…somewhere I could work on my chops.

Now getting the job I lobbed myself at could  have been a problem because I’d never written professionally before. I had no dusty portfolio of works to pull out of my closet. 

I would have to get tricky.

The Trick that worked Twice

I eventually landed a job working as a writer for a Chinese Telecom Company. I wrote web pages, patents, white papers, contracts, copyright applications, all that kind of stuff. 

This wasn’t, incidentally, the job I’d applied for. I was referred by strangers, and had won out above a stack of applications three inches high. They showed them to me. I certainly didn’t get hired on my experience, as you know. It pays to be tricky. The strangers were friends of the CFO of the Telecom. They'd been looking for a writer and, as a writing sample, I’d submitted a rewritten version of their own web site.

People just love it when you rebuild their own mousetrap. As I said, this trick worked twice—years later in Austria I'd rewrite Red Bull's web page as a writing sample for their company. I ended up writing them extreme sports pieces about Big Wall Speed Climbing and Big Wave Surfing and so on. 

 

The Chinese Telecom was a strange opportunity. I was alone in about 3000 square feet of office. Just me, my computer and a few copy machines. I communicated with my colleagues in China over high definition Video Phone. All that space was supposedly for them whenever they would find a bit of time to drop by. They only did so only once during the two years I worked there. 

 

The man I worked for was a genius. A real one. He'd taken 13 classes a semester when he went to University. Back in China he'd scrapped together a brand new kind of telephone switch and from there started a billion dollar company. Good guy. I miss him.

Falling in Love—unexpected sojourn to Austria (2001)

I’m realizing this section of my Blog has only the faintest connection to me writing my novel. But I’m going to keep it in here anyways. It’s about love, something far more important than writing.

I found love in the most unexpected of places—the auditorium of the Veteran’s Hall in Santa Cruz. One of those places where there are lots of pictures of friends lost in Vietnam and organized picnics for the once troops. They also do lots of community stuff in those places…including Salsa Dancing. That’s why I went.

Salsa Dancing at the old Veterans Hall isn't for the meek. Cowboys have left crying. It’s a huge class—maybe between 50 and 70 people on any given Thursday. First you all stand in lines shoulder to shoulder down on the auditorium floor. The instructor, a nice woman from Poland (the heartland of Salsa) stands upon the stage and walks you through the basic step with the help of a portable microphone.

After the basic step the two instructors—the nice Polish woman in married to a slightly feminine American man (great dancer)—give a performance of whatever complicated routine they’ve been working on lately. For anyone who loves Salsa or wants to learn, they put out a great computer program that teaches you the steps—it’s called ‘Salsa Now’. You can see them for yourself, but you won’t find love unless you go in person.

After the performance we students get in our lines again and then learn the moves of the day. Usually some moves bleed back to the previous class if you happened to have come.

     Here’s where love enters…

Next everybody arranges themselves in two concentric circles—leaders (usually men…not always) on the outside circle, followers inside. As a leader you rotate every several minutes or sometimes song, skipping from one follower to the next as the whole class practices the new move. 

This is the part where you have to be brave, for on any given night you'll dance not only with the menace of ill coordinated high heals but also with woman in their early fifties who whisper to you in various tones of gin and rum. There's also a cross dresser who's a regular, also mid fifties. Thick black hair, lots of makeup and huge hands. Also speaks in rum. Reasonably good dancer.

     Actually, here's where love enters...

In amid drunk middle aged woman and Ms. big hands was a stunning and utterly charming girl from the small European country of Austria. I still can't believe I found her in the Veteran's Hall. You just never know where love will get you.

Fender Benders and Geisha Shoes—Getting Married (July, 2002)

We were married in July of 2002 in a grove of trees on the wild outskirts of Vienna, a grassy pine needle cathedral where my wife celebrated her birthdays as a little girl. We also had a very beautiful, very funny civil ceremony in an old stone civil building in a bordering village. One would-be Maid of Honor got caught up in a fender bender on the way and arrived only afterward for champagne and euro-tappas. She was replaced by another close friend of my wife's, a German girl with a flange of red hair and Hawaiian print geisha shoes. Put on the spot, her job was to translate the ancient delicately woven words of the ceremony into respectable English for me and the other uni-lingual guests. But her English was a tad rusty. And how many times did regular people in everyday conversation use words like groom and....marriage. 

The poor girl, geisha shoes shuffling nervously, struggled in front of the masses, and in the end had to be prompted by members of the gathered. The woman presiding over the ceremony would spout on and on in the droll tones of civility, then look meaningfully toward Stephanie to translate. All that would come out of her would be a short sentence cutting all the blathering straight down to the shiny white bone, albeit sometimes missing a few perhaps important words.. 

I never imagined I could laugh so much at my own wedding ceremony. Sometimes you can't imagine what perfect is until it comes.  

Utter Happiness & a little story development (August, 2002-2005)

The next few years passed with utter happiness and a few surprises. The first surprise was my son, who decided to come to us before we had scheduled him. He was born in August, 2003, so we were pregnant by the end of 2002. At the time we were planning to move to Brazil for a good while, practice our samba dancing and teach English on the beach. Instead we chose to go the Austria and have our children (our second just came in August, 2005). 

We plan to have three. So I'm still here. 

But through all the happiness the story that I'd unearthed in the fluorescent basements of UC Berkeley never left me. It was always in the back of my head, sometimes way back there, other times buzzing just under the hood. And from time to time I'd get out my spiral notebooks and laptop and look at my story outline and monkey with it here and there. 

I ended up changing it quite a bit, but was really too busy to imagine opening the "book" file to page one to try to write something again. I knew it wouldn't work any better than it had when I'd been unmarried with no children and had all the time in the world. I needed some kind of novel writing breakthrough. It would finally come.

 

 

The Big Breakthrough—4 years later in 15 minutes (March 1st, 2005)

 

From my The Writing It Part Section 

I loved the story that I hadn't been able to write. And I knew that millions of other people had been able to write books. So I could too. I just had to approach it somehow differently. One day I had a simple idea. I wondered how many words I could write if I were completely unlocked from whatever I was writing. And what would it sound like?   

 

So I gave myself 15 minutes to sit down at my laptop and grind out as much rubbish as all ten fingers and a wee bit of my brain would allow. 

Guess what...   Where before I had been able to write only maybe 1100 words in 3 friggin' months, in fifteen minutes I wrote  527. What did it sound like? Well, it wasn't brilliant. Very rambling, as you can imagine. But also...it wasn't bad.

Here's the beginning:

I’m really curious how long it really takes for a writer to write a page, approximately 500 words. Do they simply let their minds wander from one word to another, sifting through the vivid landscape of their unconscious, the words flowing out and down through the fingers, etched in living color, or black and white actually, on the page. Or do they slowly knock the words out, painfully, one by one by one...

Want to read the rest?  Download it

So in a quarter of an hour my own worst hurtle was overcome. Would it work in actually writing? I'd have to wait months to find out. 

Editing films—no time for Novels (March through July, 2005)Movie Release Poster

After I'd lived years with that story inside, how on the blessed Earth could I possibly wait for months to find out if I could finally write it?

Well, it was the result of a terribly bright idea. Terribly bright. I thought it would be cool to teach Independent Filmmaking at my school. I ended up teaching two classes of it and convinced the kids and myself that we really could make a movie. 

I was right. We made Crush, a silent black and white film with a Hawaiian/Hip Hop soundtrack. It's a story about a love starved boy, the evil bullies that haunted him, chemistry (the lab type), explosions, a mouse and a muscle man. This is its World Release poster.

It ran about 20 minutes. Huge success (in this sliver of the world). But, my novel writing time evaporated amid my growing understanding of why they use entire crews to make movies. Making one film would have been blunder enough. 

I made two.

The second, called Searching for Skyler Walker, around 30 minutes long, will have its World Premiere this October. It's a talkie. 

Birth of a Novel—School finished, the words finally came (August 2005)

My only memories of June and July are of the computer and the film editing screens. But I did finally made it to summer vacation. If you just keep eating and drinking and sleeping a bit you can manage to survive just about anything. 

Now...would the magic of my 15 minutes of writing exercise transfer to writing my novel?

In August I took out my outline, pulled up my brief notes for the first chapter, imagined I was the main character, and this is what came out...

Chapter 1

September 1961

A deep yearning spread across the woman, soaked her through, she could feel it pull her blood away, so that she unconsciously swayed from side to side on the pew, moving to the rhythm of her own deep want. If those on either side of her were paying less attention to the mass, they might have chalked up her movement as a reflection of her connection to the service, or more specifically to her connection to God that the service rarified. Only her eyes weren’t watching the priest as he began the Apostles’ Creed...

 >> Read More

50 Pages, 28 Days of Writing—the idea for this Web Site  (September 2005)

By the time September rolled around I’d easily reached 76 pages. It just kept coming and coming. I finally overcame my fear (to a point) that someone would close the tap or turn off the machine.

In my endless web crawling research I came across some great Author sites. Now I wasn’t a published author yet, but I believed in my story and my ability to craft it and, in spite of the daunting competition, I was pretty sure that in the not too distant future I would be. All I had to do was look at my graph—you just couldn’t stop the words. And they read well.

It occurred to me that I might be able to really help my fellow struggling writers by showing them both the long road toward a novel I’d walked down myself and also the tiny little tricks that for me had made all the difference. I know—a Web Site!

But what Kind of Web Site? (September 2005)

I, like you, was interested in writing a novel. To learn how to do it I read lots of books and, like you, dredged the Internet for its endless useful information. Searching the Web I did find shiny pebbles here and there, but mostly swamp mud and old tires. So the Internet goes.

I created this site by imagining what the site—the one I was truly searching for, would look like. It would be simple, including just the information I really found useful for actually writing a novel. Not the endless series of steps or the advice that for me didn’t make any sense. Just the clean shiny core. And the site would have great examples—ones immediate, illuminating and real.

I’d also definitely include ties into the deep psychology behind our need for stories—not too much…just enough to provide people a more intuitive grasp of the novel writing process and in doing so make it much simpler and less frightening.

The Web Site is finished (October 5th, 2005)

Having finished the site, and now looking at it…it is the one I was always looking for. I finally found it!

I hope it is for you as well.

76 Pages, 39 days (October 5th, 2007)

It just keeps coming...

>> Check out some raw excerpts of the emerging novel 

Most Recent Post 

20/20 hindsight - First Novel thoughts (October 7th, 2007)

I recently compared notes with a friend of mine who himself just finished a book. We had the exact same bumpy beginning of the book experience. It took both of us several chapters to really find a clean steady narrative. Looking back both of our books' beginnings started out bloody awful. 

But then something happened...

You figure out how to fit the words to the story, how to balance story elements and raise the pace. After slogging out some ugliness, both my friend and I found our way. 

This isn't just a tale of funny coincidence. The lesson other first time novelists might siphon off is that you probably need to plant down several chapters of uncomfortably bad writing before you yourself find your way. 

At first, don't look back. You'll know when it starts getting good. Perhaps write 30 or 40 pages before glancing behind you. You may, like my friend and I, find you will eventually need to nearly rewrite the first few chapters, but you may also find that the rest is pretty damn good.

But if you don't bravely wade through the swamp, you'll never find land. 

Good luck.

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