When I was a youngster, I fell in love with White Fang and The Call of the Wild. This was a flashlight-under-the-covers-after-lights-were-supposed-to-be-off type of love. It wasn’t a love of literature, but one of high adventure, intense suffering, mislaid justice, and victory by sheer grit. It was the ice and the snow, and honor, dignity, resolve, and inner strength, all in a place that I had never imagined. And it had dogs.
Jack London brought me a world I repeatedly fell headlong into, and I read both books several times.
Later, it was the Hardy Boys mysteries. Even when I knew the clues and the solutions to the mysteries, I read the books again and again.
In high school and early college, it was Tolkein. Such words! Such imagery! The scale of the Dwarf halls of the Lonely Mountain and the size of Minas Tirith were mind-boggling. I read the trilogy at least once a year for several years.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), The Old Man and the Boy (Robert Ruark) The Green Hills of Africa (Hemingway), Lonesome Dove (McMurtry), Treasure Island (Stevenson, illustrated by N. C. Wyeth), A Separate Peace (John Knowles), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle), and others. I read these books multiple times and they never grew old.
There are also movies that I watch on a regular basis, or at least every time they’re on TV – To Kill a Mockingbird (Gregory Peck), You’ve Got Mail (Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan), One Dark Thirty (Jessica Chastain), Forest Gump (Tom Hanks), Alone in the Wilderness (Dick Proenneke), and others.
What is it that makes some stories, books, and movies so repeatedly enjoyable? Characters? Plot? Adventure, Mystery, Danger? Or is it the change in the characters, the sense of victory, the defeat of evil, or a change in the reader, perhaps? Perhaps they’re all echoes of the life I wish I had led.
I don’t know. I’m sure it’s a combination of things, including those classical story structures like the hero model and the character arc. Could it be poignancy? Could it just be the way that the words are put together?
Again, I don’t know.
I’m asking my blog readers: what is it about some stories, books, or movies that keep pulling you back in? Why are there favorite books versus books that are read once and then forgotten?
Feel free to respond; I’m interested in what people think.
I could say that, whatever it is, it’s what I strive to do in my books, but it wouldn’t be true. I’m working hard just to get my books read once.
On a personal note, this week included the death of the father of an intimate friend. It was not unexpected, but it was still a reminder of how fragile life is and how short a time we have each other. Be careful out there.
Sometimes, a story doesn’t work out.
Maybe I told it wrong or made the wrong choice for the overall structure. Maybe I chose the wrong character to tell the story, or had too many characters, or had scenes where I presented too much information and too little action.
It could be that I became too interested in the technical details and too little interested in the main character. Maybe I forgot about drama. Or, maybe there just wasn’t enough of a story to begin with: I thought there was, but there wasn’t.
I’m finishing the first draft of a novel. I’ve been working on it for some time, focused on getting the story down. It’s been a struggle in some ways, but I’ve enjoyed it. It was supposed to be a thriller but, truthfully, there’s not much that’s thrilling about it. I thought I could make it a suspense novel. Unfortunately, there’s no suspense in it. I wish it was a mystery, but it’s not.
Well, shoot. All I can really say is that the novel is really interesting.
I describe something that doesn’t exist, but you will think that it does. I involve you in a global problem that’s extremely important. I address an immediate crisis in American society. I then weave them together into a climax that has a clever resolution.
In other words, it’s boring.
You’re probably saying “Oh, don’t worry. It’s only the first draft and, now that you see the problems, you can rearrange things, add stuff here and there, and it will be okay.” You are probably also thinking that this is my punishment for starting a novel without a clear plan on how the story goes. “Now you know the value of outlining,” you will want to tell me, wagging your finger at my foolishness.
I am guilty.
I will work on a second draft and my second drafts are always much, much better than the firsts. There is hope. Setting it aside for a while, I may return to it with a new approach and rejuvenated hope for turning my work into something that people will passionately enjoy reading. It may take on the glow of a bestseller and I will be contrite, surprised that I had underappreciated its potential.
Or, it may be one for the bottom drawer.
That’s my euphemism for where I put manuscripts that will never again see the light of day. Everything that goes into the bottom drawer is thereafter referred to as “practice”.
I discussed this with a friend who is a very accomplished writer, as in more than one hundred published books and novels in fiction and nonfiction, all written to international acclaim. Even his blog is translated into different languages (I didn’t know people in Mongolia even read blogs.)
He also has a bottom drawer.
“If you are a writer,” he said, “then you face the reality that sometimes you will produce boring work. Or even bad work. Some real duds. It’s the nature of creativity.”
“But this story is really interesting,” I protested. “Surely there’s a place in the world for really interesting work.”
“In fiction, interesting means boring,” he said, looking at me over his glasses. “If they ever declare a new book genre named “Boring”, you can jump right in. However, it will be crowded. Every writer pays the price of mathematics. If you risk yourself to write great works, your risk will also produce duds. Finish it, learn from it, put it in the drawer, and start something else.”
Click the photos below to see an expanded view.
Click the photos below to see an expanded view.
I had a dream where I was walking on an island of trash.
Have you read or seen pictures of the huge accumulations of trash floating on the world’s oceans? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an area in the Pacific Ocean between the west coast of the United States and the Pacific Rim where currents have brought together a hundred million tons of floating trash, mainly plastic. The trash typically comes from landfills that have been washed out by rain, floods, tsunamis, or typhoons, or ships throwing trash overboard, or oil rigs, or commercial fishing boats, or from countries dumping trash into rivers that then run into the ocean. The Pacific Patch has parts where trash floating from horizon to horizon is thick enough that you can’t see open water.
Unbelievably, the most concentrated areas of trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch are twice the size of Texas. No kidding. Go to YouTube and type in “ocean trash” and watch some of the remarkable videos. Imagine emptying your kitchen trashcan into your aquarium for a week. Lots of things don’t sink, so don’t imagine that happens. The situation is devastating to the ocean wildlife: besides getting trapped in plastic containers and discarded fishing nets, the birds and fish actually eat the tinier stuff. It affects fish and whales and birds and the tuna that ends up in your tuna salad. There are similar garbage patches in the South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, two in the Indian Ocean, and they just found a new strip of trash in the Caribbean a couple of weeks ago.
In my dream, someone had surrounded enough trash with a gargantuan net to create their own floating island. Not a small island either – they had built a runway on it to land small jets. There was some kind of industrial plant on the island, with big upright tanks, lots of pipes, metal walkways, and monitoring stations. It reminded me of the Phillips Petroleum refinery near the town where I grew up. There were several engineer-type people walking around with hardhats and clipboards, looking at various gauges and meters on large outside panels.
As I watched them, I was given a revelation: it was all fake. The engineers were actors, the control panels were dummy panels, and the whole industrial plant was just a prop. Nothing was as it seemed.
That’s when I woke up.
The dream was as vivid as any dream I’ve ever had. I felt the sponginess of the surface of the confined trash, I smelled the ocean air as well as the stink of the trash, I heard the engineers talking to each other, I even saw the marks on the papers in the clipboards. It was unreal and engrossing, and I was left with these thoughts: why was it all fake? what was being hidden? what was going on that needed such an elaborate façade to cover it up?
That was five years ago. I used Wikipedia to learn the fundamentals of ocean pollution, and then went to YouTube to actually believe it. I also began reading the articles on ocean pollution that appeared in online news. Ocean trash (as well as river trash, beach trash, harbor trash…) has received a lot of attention within the last two years, and it’s slowly being recognized as the global disaster that it actually is.
From that information, I used the vividness and the conflicts of my dream to develop new plots for novels. So far, I’ve written three stories centered around an ocean facility far from land that is cleaning up the trash: one is a thriller where a good guy barely escapes from a bad guy while on the facility, one where two guys battle terrorists intent on using the facility to cause an earthquake big enough to sink California, and the most current is a story about a really bad guy who uses the facility to dispose of not-so-dead bodies.
Nothing like having an unhinged imagination.
People ask me where I get my ideas for stories. Having dreams is one of them, but it’s typically just paying attention to life and identifying what makes it interesting. We are a fascinating species, in a fascinating place, doing weird, wonderful, and awful things, and it’s not surprising to find stories that are worth repeating, even if I do have to change the names to protect the innocent.
My dad loved to dance, and he must have been pretty good at it. He died long before he should have and my mother would always tell me how much she missed dancing with him. She and he square danced regularly with a group in town for many years. When I was too young to leave at home, I’d go with them to the local dance hall and play outside while they had a good time inside. When I was older, I disrespected square dancing and did not follow in their footsteps.
I, in fact, don’t dance at all, if I can avoid it. I have danced, and have taken lessons, and enjoyed it when I did, but proved I am not a natural. It isn’t lack of ability – once I had gotten the Texas Two-Step down, I did well. That is, until they said that I should turn my partner and do it backwards. Dance backwards? Was I then to count backwards?
Ah – that was the real problem. With regard to music, I had been trained as a musician. Not having a natural talent for that, either, I was able to play because it was based on math. I just had to count to maintain control. And I did, kind of, in most circumstances, sufficiently, I guess. I mean, I was a tuba player - it’s not like I had to learn any melody.
Okay, back to the point. I equivalenced dancing with playing music, and therefore, with counting.
Ask the people that I’ve danced with. Instead of expressions of joy and pleasure, my face was mildly panicked because I was silently counting – 1,2,2,1,2,2 or 1,2,3,1,2,3 or 1,2,1,2. And dancing backwards? How do you know where you’re going? Aren’t you going to run into somebody doing that?
Okay, well, how about dancing to music that has you relatively uncoupled from a partner, like, you know, those people in videos? Yup, I’ve been on a dance floor when that music was playing and it looked like I was having a spasm.
The problem is that my brain is chained to counting – the beat of the music, at some given interval, determines the moves that I make, and I count along until some periodicity makes me change. Some of you might say that I just need to practice more and I would not disagree. Some of you might say that I should take up clogging and I would not disagree. Some of you might say I should stay seated and I would say that you must have seen me dance.
I think my problem is that I learned things backwards. I should have learned to dance on the inside before I tried it on the outside. I needed to embrace the music, let go of my inhibitions, my clumsiness, my shyness, and my embarrassment, and just dance on the inside while I was sitting in a chair, or driving downtown, or hiking. I needed to forge some sort of internal clock that kept a beat so that I didn’t need to count. I needed to forget doing anything with my feet until the musical energy, rhythm, motion, drive, and closed-eye focus spilled out of me, that my body just had to shake and move and jump and shout and lose control.
It should be that way with writing. Practicing to make yourself better will come later. The first thing you have to do is hear the words on the inside, feel the passion of the idea, the richness of the idea, the conviction that words need to be written, and let it all build until all those words burst onto the paper.
Then dance like nobody’s reading.
I have, in times past, written technical articles on project management. Simply stated, having identified something you want, project management provides you with the “tools” to manage all the activities and resources to get what you want, ideally with efficiency and effectiveness.
Let me illustrate using adjustable archery.
You have a target in the distance, a bullseye in the center. What you want is to shoot an arrow that hits that bullseye. In adjustable archery, you are allowed to adjust the arrow as it travels to the target. That is, after leaving the bow, the arrow is going slow enough that you can run along next to it and use your finger to nudge it up, or nudge it down, or nudge it faster or slower, or tilt it up or down - whatever it takes to change the flight of the arrow so that it hits the bullseye. You can make these adjustments for the whole distance to the target. In that way, you compensate for unexpected gusts of wind that blow the arrow off course, or rain that slows the arrow down, or, heaven forbid, the situation where the target falls off the holder and you have to stop the arrow in midflight while you set the target back up.
Well, there’s another way.
You have a target in the distance, a bullseye in the center. What you want is to shoot an arrow that hits that bullseye. Suppose, however, that you don’t adjust the arrow, you adjust the target. That is, after leaving the bow, the arrow is going slow enough that you can run down the field, grab the target and move it around until, as the arrow comes closer and closer, the bullseye is exactly matched to the path of the arrow. If, for whatever reason, the arrow goes a little left or a little up or a little in a direction that you didn’t expect, you move the target as needed. And, in fact, if the arrow has performance issues (it wobbles, for instance, so the tip of the arrow varies uncontrollably), you can make the bullseye bigger.
Try not to get hit by the arrow, by the way.
Let me jump from this analogy to the act of writing a novel.
Some writers are very good at knowing the beginning, the middle, and the end of the novel they are about to write. “Outlining” is an established and respected first step to developing any story. I read of an author and her friend going to a deserted cabin in the woods and spending every minute of every hour over the next few days wrestling while defining a new novel. Chapter by chapter, scene by scene, action by action, dialogue by dialogue, developing backgrounds to the characters as they go, working forward and backward, tweaking the plot or the drama or the emotion or the character arcs, they will work out every detail of the story until they have a full outline that covers every aspect, from beginning to end. They will not leave until they know they have a gripping, captivating, terrific, blockbuster of a novel.
Exhausted, the author goes back home and writes it up. Her focus will be entirely on putting words on paper that match the outline exactly.
I should point out that this lady has produced many incredibly popular novels and she’s rich, rich, and rich.
Then there’s me. I would note that I’m poor, poor, and poor, but let’s not get distracted.
I don’t create detailed outlines because I expect that the arrow (the plot, characters, etc.) will end up going in ways that I didn’t expect. In that case, instead of spending the effort and time to adjust the arrow to get it back on track, I just watch it. As it nears the end of its flight, I may see that it’s going to entirely miss the target (the climax, the ending). I will have to either move the target (change the climax or ending to match the flight), or throw away what I’ve done and shoot another arrow.
If missing an expected ending seems to be a regular event with my novel writing (and it is), I’ll not worry about the ending. I’ll develop a promising beginning and start writing. Along the way, if something goes differently than I thought, or becomes more complex and difficult, or begins to look more interesting than what I expected, I’ll let it roll; maybe it will work out, maybe not. Maybe a character does something that I didn’t expect or begins playing a larger part than I intended. I’ll write it that way and see what happens. I’m making up all the words, anyway; I’ll just make up different ones. I won’t sweat the end of the story because a different ending may be a better ending.
If my arrow does end up in a better place than my target, I typically assume that I had the target in the wrong place to begin with.
The important thing is that the story be honest, truthful, and authentic, and be a story that the reader will believe in.
It’s not only me (I’m not that original). I’ve read of other (famous and well-respected) authors who work with an unconfined attitude, with no worries about changing a story, with the courage not to be frightened if a plot seems better going in a different direction than expected, or if a character suddenly feels more authentic if, when encountering a closed door, will break it down rather than stopping to pick the lock.
I rarely begin a novel where I have no idea where I’m starting, where I’m going or how I’m going to get there, but I’ll listen along the way and move the target if I need to.
I was at a book association meeting last week and, having introduced myself as the author of several middle grade mystery and adventure stories, the lady next to me leaned over and asked how I developed the discipline to write all those books.
In my past life, I had the kind of job that demanded I be disciplined, energetic, dedicated to my products, focused, on time and awake, and always aware of managing the time and resources to accomplish what was expected of me. I made lists like you wouldn’t believe.
I don’t have that kind of job anymore.
The following comments about myself and the way I write do not apply to those people who work for someone else, who have deadlines and objectives, or job descriptions, or multiple jobs, or bosses who measure them against some nebulous criteria of quality, efficiency, or effectiveness. If you have a deadline, or a timetable, or a plan, or need a paycheck from your writing, then obey the writing teachers who quote whoever it was that first said that you have to plant your butt in your writing chair and not leave it until you have words down on paper. Those teachers are right.
That being said, it’s not right for me.
I look undisciplined; I look lazy; I look distracted and arbitrary and shiftless. I act much of the time like an old dog laying in the sunshine, slobbering over a bone. I putter, stroll around the house, make yet another cup of tea, or will suddenly go on a walk in the afternoon. I might even take a nap. Sometimes, I just sit in my recliner and stare into space.
I bounce back and forth between working on my new book, reading other books, or how-to-write books, or magazines, or blogs, or paying bills, or checking Twitter or Instagram or news websites, or working on my blog posts, or looking at my bookshelves at all those books I could be reading, or putting in the laundry. I could clean the bathroom, I guess.
But, in the background, I’m thinking about what I’m working on, of my choice to be a writer, of why it’s important to me to write well, of my characters and plot and descriptions and emotion and tension and whether all those things are working or not. I’m thinking about what I’ve written so far, whether it’s going in the right direction or not, what the next step is, and encouraging myself to be patient and to push on to finish what I have. I can fix things later, but I have to finish now. I’m thinking about whether it’s a good story, and whether people will want to read it, or whether it’s really just plain dull.
I look undisciplined and undirected and capricious, but it takes these motions to settle myself down to be honest when I put words down on paper. Honesty is a fundamental requirement for me to be an effective writer because I have not in times past been particularly honest in my words or my personal life, so it does not come easy.
Focusing on honesty gets and keeps me fully ready to write. If I am honest, I will be able to tell if the story I am writing is the story I intended to write; I will be able to tell if it’s working or if I’m just pretending; if I am authentic, my characters will say what real people say; if I am grounded, my readers will see themselves in my words; if I am simple, my creativity will add dimension to my stories, not fluff.
When these things happen, my seeming lack of discipline proves right for me.
Someone asked me on Friday why I write books and I, as I have to others, lied with my answer.
It’s easy to say “because it’s fun,” or “it keeps me off the streets,” or “because I want my grandkids see their granddad doing something useful in his old age.” It’s also because most questioners want a short answer.
To be truthful would take more time and explanation: writing helps satisfy my need to solve problems. I love to solve problems. I’ll write a whole book just to feature a nice problem for which I’ve made up an elegant solution.
You might be acquainted with Smoke Dreams, a novel I wrote that features the remodeling of an 1870s mansion. I loved writing that book because I got caught up in the details of how the house was originally built and the details of how the remodeling would be done. When you’re dealing with a hundred and fifty year-old house, every change spawns problems.
I spent endless joyful hours imagining authentic solutions – the foundation, the windows, the kitchen, the wiring, the insulation, the sheetrock, the porch, the roof, installing those cute little plastic pipes for hot and cold water, replacing the cistern, etcetera. I was a DIY junkie high on This Old House reruns! I even read two books about the evolution of toilets in the last half of the 1800s so I could understand what the bathroom might have looked like. We have no appreciation of the technological leaps that got us from outhouses to flushable porcelain bowls.
I must have written five or six pages of background on going to the potty before I admitted that nobody but me cared; the old toilet is not even mentioned in the final version of the book.
I love solving problems and that’s the nature of remodeling and rebuilding. If I ever win the lottery, I may build a house identical to the one in the book just to see if my solutions work.
My problem solving sometimes waits until the end of the book. I proofread a manuscript last night of Outlaw, a new Mogi Franklin mystery being published on May 1st. I had started the book with my history prelude (about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), written about half of the story establishing the characters and plot, and then had this great idea for an ending where Mogi gets himself into this terrible, horrible, awful situation from which there is absolutely no escape. He’s a goner! Without question, the boy is going to die!
Let me be truthful. When I thought of putting him in it, I had no idea of how I was going to get him out of his terrible, horrible, awful situation. No clue. I just knew that him being in that situation was going to grip the reader and have them sweating in their chairs thinking that this might be it – hasta la vista, baby, out of time, end of series, goodbye America, too bad, Jennifer.
I kept writing believing that I’d think of something. Close to the end of the book, I had Mogi imprisoned in a stolen homemade mini-submarine, in two hundred feet of water at the bottom of Lake Powell, running out of power, its front end caught in a mess of wires tied to a small mountain of explosives with only a minute left before they were timed to explode.
I was getting a little nervous.
It took a couple of days and a Tom Hanks movie, but it finally came to me. I made a small change in the beginning of the story and then watched him make his escape – a little damaged, but recovering nicely – and you will never – never – be able to guess how he’s going to escape until you read the book.
Even after all the times I had been through it, I read the proof up to that point and was raising my hands and pumping my fists when he did what he does.
Another problem solved!
When I was eight or nine, my parents bought me a Polaroid Swinger camera for Christmas. I hope I’m remembering the name correctly; it was a handful of black and white plastic that was generally shaped like an old Land camera with the bellows extended in front. After you loaded the film, you looked through the viewfinder, found your target and pressed the button. After a few clicks and whirs, a small (2 by 3?) photo would slide out the back. It was wet, the instructions cautioned, so hold it only by the edges.
The impressive thing was that the film showed nothing when first ejected. I would lay the film flat on something, weigh down the edges to keep it from curling up, and then the family would crowd around as we watched the picture slowly reveal itself. It might take thirty seconds or a minute, but the image which I had seen in the viewfinder soon materialized like a ghost out of the void. Afterwards, waiting the official time, I’d smear special gunk over it to stabilize the picture.
Other than my parents discovering that they had bought a financial liability (a youngster will take a picture of anything and everything, soon requiring more film), the camera was a true gift. Seeing the image appear turned out to be more fun than taking the picture.
People are the same way. If every person wore a checklist on their chests – vain, supportive, kind, angry, friendly, depressed, happy, smart, dumb as rocks, will let you down, will pump you up, conservative, progressive, talks too fast, doesn’t talk at all, loving, hating, great companion, snippy, perpetually critical, hates cats, loves snakes, genuine, false, simple, complex, shallow, etc. – with their true attributes checked, people would be a lot less interesting. We like interesting; we like finding out something we didn’t know; we like being surprised. We like someone being revealed to us rather than knowing everything when we first meet them.
As for ourselves, we like being interesting, and we like surprising people. We even like surprising ourselves. We also hope there are parts of us that people are either slow to figure out or never find out at all. And we like to change.
The next book you read, pay attention to the characters. See if the ones who are slowly revealed aren’t the ones you remember most.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.