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The Great Blow-Off-Your-Deadline Award
**awarded with bitter grimaces and squeezed buttocks to those writers who fail to read the fine print and fulfill their commitments**
For the past few weeks, I’ve been working toward a May 30 deadline in an attempt to finish a 70,000 word novelization. My publishers are trying to coordinate the on-shelf date with the film’s in-theaters date. With four weeks left to go and 26K words under my belt, I thought I was doing swimmingly–which, I guess, means I was keeping my head above water.
Then, this morning, I received an e-mail from my editor. Let me first say that my editor has been fantastic. She’s professional when necessary, encouraging at all times, and someone I consider a friend. In her usual gracious manner, she asked how my manuscript was coming along since she hadn’t heard from me yet.
It was due yesterday, the first of May, she informed me.
In my 41 years, I’ve enjoyed great health, but I thought I was going to have a heart attack. And if that didn’t do me in, I’d put an end to things myself. How could I have been so stupid? I checked my calendars, my web site, my day planner…In all of them, I’d put May 30 as the deadline. I went through my old e-mails with my editor, pulled out my contract from the heavy box on the top shelf in my closet…They all showed May 1.
I guess it’s part of life. We all make mistakes. We get wrong ideas stuck in our heads that we can’t shake. The consequences of such things can vary from minor to drastic.
After a few panicky e-mails to my editor, involving self-loathing and bent-knee apologies, I worked out a compromise with her that should keep us close to our intended release date. Will I sleep much? Probably not. Will the quality of the story suffer? I can’t help but think it will, though I’m hoping for the best. Will I show a little more grace the next time my daughters tell me they thought their homework was due next week not tomorrow? I will certainly try.
And now, in the spirit of the moment, I’d like to give my award acceptance speech:
I hate to brag, I really do
Since the award I’ve been given
Is nothing new
I’ve received it before
Without even trying
Deadlines are due
And I’m the one dying.
It’s late at night. I have a manuscript to work on, an endorsement to finish, a blog to write, an editor to contact, my agent to hassle, a new proposal to tighten, and cover art to respond to. Oh, but I need a few minutes of diversion. Or, even better, a tidbit of artistic validation. With the tap of a key, I’m online.
Caught in the web of online services, we writers face new conveniences and never-before-dreamed-of distractions. It’s a wonderful world out there, but I wonder sometimes whether this thing serves us or whether we are, in fact, serving it.
When I speak of the Web, I think of spiders. I love ‘em. Or maybe it’s the tingle of fear they produce, particularly when discovered, oh, say, in the shower after I’ve already stepped in with nothing on. You’d think I hated the little suckers, judging by my foot-hopping and shampoo-bottle bludgeoning, but the truth is I’ve always found them fascinating–their range of sizes, shapes, colors, and poisons.
In the world of the Internet, we writers–if you’ll pardon the metaphor–find ourselves in the middle of a vast web. We have our little spidey-feet touched lightly to the strands, hoping, praying, for any slight tremble that indicates sustenance. We are lonely creatures. We wait. We have no ill-intentions, and we may be misunderstood, but all we’re after is something to keep us going for another day.
The easiest place to find this: social networking. From Facebook and MySpace, to chat rooms and blogs, we have multiple strands spun through the cyber air, stretched from homes and laptops to readers and late-night surfers. Along these strands, we can pick up all sorts of vibrations that indicate we have sustenance coming our way. Sometimes those vibes are the real deal–a word of encouragement, or a pat on the back. Other times we are teased or even tortured by the lack thereof.
I have a friend, a fellow author, whose latest title was slated for release on Halloween of last year. This friend has given me a number of reasons for the tardy manuscript. Meanwhile, Amazon has removed the title from its “preorder” status. My friend bemoans that fact, and yet every time I get online I see that my friend is logged on to a social networking site–all day, every day, commenting, posting, commenting, posting. Oh, yes, writing is being done. But not on the manuscript.
I’m trying to learn from this. I remember the days when my world as a writer was much lonelier, when I did not have the only-an-arm’s-length-away temptation of the internet. Now, I catch myself going online when I want some validation. A morsel. A scrap. Anything. One of my books mentioned in a review, or by a blogger. A write up on Amazon. An email. A “friend” on MySpace. Something to convince me it’s worth all the hard work.
Or, and here’s the most painful truth, something to keep me from doing all that hard work.
I can’t be the only lonely spider…uh, writer. I’m watching fellow artists and dreamers get caught up in the web while abandoning their discipline. I’m trying to find that balance, that precarious tightrope walk along these strands of solitude and hunger for expression. Online, there are phantom vibrations and cyber winds that tell me immediate gratification is on its way, but I’m having to train myself all over again to be still, to let patience and solitude work in me the kind of art and stories that can come no other way. I’m learning that I need to…that I…
That I gotta go. Sorry. Hate to run, but I see another “friend” just logged on.
Like most of you, I write from my home. There’s no ivory tower, or white-padded room, or tobacco-scented study full of shelves and dark wood. Nope, for me it’s a desk within touching distance of my bed and the master bathroom.The bed–well, it’s uses are numerous and mostly pleasant. The other–not so much. And caught in between is my work place.
This physical tension matches the mental and creative tension of the site. I mean, in corporate America you don’t get to work while bouncing your daughter on your knee, typing with one hand, blasting old U2 through the speakers, and popping M&Ms with the other hand. Probably, this atmosphere would restrict productivity in most environments, yet we as writers and artists do not live in a vacuum of free-thinking. We explore. We wrestle with every day life and try to go beyond the realms of the average, while capturing the essence of that which unites us all as human beings.
A year ago, about the time I joined this blog, I was nearing–I thought–the end of my fiction-writing career. Things were slowing on the sales end, my publisher was not returning my calls, and the checks were shrinking. Hey, what better time then to funnel my energy into a writers’ blog, trying to keep the fires stoked, so to speak.
A year later, I’ve finished three more complete novels under contract, with two more already slated for this year. My fingernails are chewed down to nubs (a habit of mine while writing), my hair’s grown shaggy, and the yard looks like…Well, I’ve been letting some things go.
My apologies, then, to all of you. I have not been the faithful contributor I hoped to be. I’ve read bits of wisdom and humor and endless creativity here, and yet I’ve been a crumbling brick in the foundation. I ask your forgiveness.
I’m still learning how to balance that tension between the bed and the bathroom. I’m still growing in my craft, feeling less gifted each day, finding that most of the time it’s just a lot of hard work that eventually churns up an uncut diamond or two. I’m also discovering that writers are some of the most amazing people to have as friends.
I go into this new year with hopes of creating more, playing more, laughing more, and still sticking to my commitments on all sides. I want to avoid the pitfalls of social networks online, while reaping the benefits and blessing others.
Somedays, I suspect, I’ll curl up in my bed of imagination and dream up scary, wonderful things. Other days, I’m sure will be more earthy, more mundane, and just as necessary in this tension between creativity and hard work.
Addendum: Yesterday, Elizabeth brought to our attention the creative vacuum that seems to exist in today’s educational system. I have two teen daughters, and their accounts of high school activity seems to confirm this.
I struggle for balance between creativity and discipline, and I think modern youth do as well. My oldest joined me on a walk today and pointed to an upcoming hill. “When I walked here with my boyfriend,” she said, “he had to stop to take a break.” “What?” I joked. “He just dropped a notch in my ratings.” Truthfully, though, I wonder how many kids have the basic discipline to tough it out on a hill, to finish homework when American Idol is on, to complete a novel when the Internet calls.
Creativity and discipline…The tension continues. As a father, I can only hope to model something different for my children; as an author, I hope to do the same for my readers.
Once again, I take my seat between the bed and the bathroom.
Boy, my apologies. I worked an eleven hour shift at FedEx Kinko’s today (my other job), and I have two more books due before December 15. Yeah, I know–excuses, excuses. Bottom line: in the midst of my writing fog, I forget today was my day to post. Here goes, a little late:
The Blank Look. Do all artists get it, or only novelists? If you don’t know what I mean, then you haven’t come by my house on one of my writing days. I welcome you inside, offer you a drink, and then gaze three miles past your eyes as you speak. You wonder if I’m retaining anything you’re saying. I’m not.
The Blank Look. My wife tells me dinner’s ready, then sees that look in my eyes–or, that lack of a look. Honestly, speaking for writers and other artistic types, it’s not a lack of empathy, care, feeling, or familial love. It’s a look that says, I’ve been delving into deep forests of imagination, diving into frigid pools that take your breath away; I’ve been in the head of a character who is in many ways so different from me, and yet I had to find a connection, a way to express reality through that unkindred spirit.
The Blank Look. It’s what most of you blog-readers got when you saw the lack of a post today. It’s what I got when gracious Elizabeth Massie reminded me that I’d forgotten to post.
As artists, writers, creators–oh, and as functional humans with relationships and families–it’s important for us to carve out times alone, away, and unhindered. I’m so thankful, though, for friends who know how to gently remind me that I do live another life, one that’s independent from my characters and my craft, that revolves instead around love, faithfulness, and commitments. I hope I’ve redeemed myself for today. Tomorrow will have to worry about itself.
Why do we love to be frightened? It’s a question I’ve mulled over throughout my forty short years. I’m now working on my Jerusalem’s Undead Trilogy, hoping that it will raise a few neck hairs, and yet my most recent work in the stores is a novelization of an inspirational sports film. Yes, in a sense, I am “switching horses” as our most recent poster advised.
Fear comes in all shapes and sizes, and we seem to find pleasure–sometimes perversely–in some of them. Three quick examples. Then a paradoxical form of fear (can anyone spell…r-e-l-i-g-i-o-n?). No easy answers. Just some late-night thoughts.
#1: My daughters, even while infants unable to talk, loved a good game of peekaboo. They cooed and giggled with the anticipation of a good scare. A little kiddie adrenaline rush was the goal, and they were all for that. The only times it didn’t work were those when the “monster,” usually a well-meaning relative, forgot to let the girls know that the game had begun. With the rules of engagement not yet established, tears were sure to flow. In general, my children loved the thrills and chills, the little jolts of surprise, and the relieving bouts of laughter. We didn’t intellectualize the process for them; they knew and appreciated it instinctively.
#2: My oldest daughter, now a teenager, asked me to accompany her and her boyfriend to Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” last Friday night. I was their ticket into the R-rated film, and–no really, you have to take my word on this–my daughter wanted me there. She likes watching scary movies with good ol’ Dad. Twisted as it may sound, she introduced me to “Saw.” She enjoys jumping out of her seat, screaming, covering her eyes, all the while facing real fears in a “safe” way. The rules are in place. She begs for more of that heart-pumping excitement. Ahhh, my little adrenaline junkie’s growing up.
#3: I have this thing about heights. They scare me. Scare the living piss outta me, if you wanna know the truth. (Probably the dead piss too.) And yet, I can’t help but peer over the edge of those soaring bridges in the Rockies, or peek down into the depths of the Grand Canyon. My heart pounds, my palms sweat, and I still embrace that rush of I’m-about-to-freak-out fear.
So is it all about fear in safe parameters? Is it all about facing on surface levels those things that deeply haunt us?
The paradoxical fear I’ve known is that of religion. There’s the obvious one: “If you do this or that, Johnny Boy, you’ll be headed for the fires of hell.” Yawn. We’ve all heard it. The way I see it, if God’s got nothing better than that to win us over, than maybe we really are lost. I did grow up on the fringes of that church environment. Even when love was the theme, fear was lurking on the edges. Fear of the abortionists, the Democrats, Kissinger, Gorbachev, the New World Order, and Hussein. Always something to keep us attending, tithing, praying, whatever. For heaven’s sake, why do Christians have to be so afraid of everything? I do believe in a living, loving Jesus–and I didn’t make that choice based on fear–but I seriously wonder about some of the stuff I see! Lord have mercy.
So where does fear fit in? We’re small, finite creatures. We’re also intelligent enough to do all sorts of damage. We’re aware of basic social and moral codes necessary for survival. And we’re aware of our own propensities to violate many of those codes–or at least I am. As a writer, I try to explore my own questions through my characters. I explore anomalies I see around me. At times, I feel like I catch a glimmer of truth. If I’m lucky, I manage to convey it through words to others.
Most of the time, though, I’m just stumbling along, pretending like I know what I’m doing, and wondering if I’m the only one. It scares me, actually, this state of perpetual surrender to the “big surprise.” But maybe that’s right where I should be.
I wonder: What if there is a link, after all, between fear and faith?
Inspiration. It comes from all sorts of persons, places, things. It takes on life in ways unexpected, and sometimes dies in places we thought it would thrive. Jack Higgins was known for going to extremes to research his WWII thrillers, while Edgar Rice Burroughs never travelled in Africa, and yet brought us vivid images of Tarzan the Ape Man.
Last week, I returned from a trip to Israel where I was doing research for my Jerusalem’s Undead Trilogy. Yes, the land and the people inspired me. I’ll never forget a soldier I met on the bus to Jerusalem, the friends I made near the D ead Sea, or the tragic tale of Masada and her breathtaking views.
True inspiration didn’t spring to life, though, until my last day in the Holy Land. I was driving–yes, weaving and honking like a seasoned local–through the traffic near Damascus Gate, when I glanced back and saw the entry to the Rockefeller Museum. I’d heard they might have relics related to my book. On a whim, I U-turned and pulled up to the gate.
“Sorry,” the guard told me. “We closed at three.”
It was 3:05 p.m.
Then I spotted the sign that read: “Israel Antiquities Authority.” I knew as a fact that over a decade ago the IAA had done the excavation on the Akeldama Tombs, the precise location in which I was interested, a central point in my novel. If the IAA was housed here at this museum, surely they would have some printed materials available.
“Do you have a bookstore I could run into?” I asked. “Or a gift shop still open?”
The guard wore a surly look, but he made a phone call, huffed, then told me to follow him. In his shadow, I was taken through the empty museum, down winding staircases, along tunnels, past chain-link cages holding objects “over three-thousand-years old.” This was amazing.
At last, I was deposited in a shy woman’s office beside towering rows of archives. The guard left. “So,” the lady said, “you are interested in the Akeldama. Why?”
“I’m doing research. For a novel.”
“I hope it’s scary,” she told me.
My heart leapt. Okay, this was sounding promising. “Why?” I ventured.
“Because it’s a very scary place. I know, because I’m the one who diagrammed all the caves and inscriptions on the tombs. I had to crawl through the opening on my belly.”
“Oh my gosh!”
I could tell you more–of the lead archeologist who just happened to be studying in the IAA library that afternoon, of the fantastic charts and pictures I was given–but the bottom line is: I left there INSPIRED. I knew I was on the right path, with a great idea, and some sense of providence guiding my steps.
Don’t tell me you’ve never felt it. We all crave those moments. Oh, do they keep us going when things get dark.
Bottom line, though, is that I now have to transfer that high, that puppy love of inspiration, into the long-term commitment of a literary marriage. Me and my keyboard. Fingers and words. Pages and readers (one can only hope). Sometimes that commitment means other things take a backseat–such as my blog last month, which I failed to deliver…my apologies. Other times, I have to turn away from my literary lover long enough to connect with my real-life bride, my sweetheart of seventeen years.
Inspiration. It may come today as I plug away at my desk. It may not. It might visit me in a dream, in the car, or while watching cheesy eighties re-runs. But it will come. It always does.
Until then, I’m commited to this relationship. We’re together for the long-haul.
My fingers wrapped around the weeds’ tiny necks, while my knees dug into the dirt. The humidity sucked sweat from my forehead, and spiders darted through the grass. This is what they call “the dirty work.”
Weeding. Editing. I see little difference. And somebody’s gotta do it.
The words were spread across the pages, cultivated, mowed, landscaped for an effect. Inevitably, pesky little weeds had cropped up. I knelt there in the rich soil of my imagination and glared at the buggers. I didn’t want to deal with them. Not again. I thought I had learned to tone down the adverbs. Thought I had tightened the dialogue.
“Doesn’t add to the story.” “Needs more conflict.” “Try a different simile.”
What? Didn’t these editors get it? Didn’t they see the edged lawn and pruned shrubs of this prickly little tale? No wonder they edited. They couldn’t write. They couldn’t hack it as real authors.
“Hack.” Hmm, interesting word.
Maybe a hack is all I really am, a man armed with twenty-six letters and a will to tell stories. Maybe hacking at the weeds is what it takes to cultivate a healthy garden. Perhaps, in this tedious process, I am learning what it takes to become a better writer, a better husband, a better man.
With five books completed, I feel I have a lot more to discover. As I stare at editor’s suggestions and contemplate future projects, I ask myself: “Can you hack it?”
My right pinkie moves toward the “delete” button–and I pull another weed.
We’ve all heard that expression, right? Some days we feel it deep in our bones. Other days it rings false. There’s gotta be more than just surviving, doesn’t there?
So I’m reading Anne Lamott’s latest book, called “Grace (Eventually),” and she has this quote. She says, “We really aren’t all that special. That’s the good and the bad news.” I thought about that. I nodded my head. Yes, I understood what she meant. I’ve lived under the burden of trying to be “something special” for too long. It’s a good thing to be reminded that the world does not revolve around us and our dreams.
Of course, it’s also bad news–if we take it to mean that we have no purpose, no goals, no real love. Indeed, we are each uniquely special, but none of us is more special than his neighbor. Loosely paraphrased, Jesus told us that if you want “to get a life, you first have to lose your life.” That same concept exists in most world religions. We see it most clearly in fiction through the idea of self-sacrifice. We admire characters who are able to give themselves up, or die to a dream, for the sake of others.
Of course, most of us don’t want to die to ourselves and our own dreams. We think–and we are taught in this culture–that we get a life by looking out for numero uno.
I think it’s a lie. A trap. A big, fat hairy mess. Don’t fall for it.
I’m trying to die to myself daily, so that I can “get a life” the way it’s supposed to be lived. It’s no easy task. I’m not very good at it. But I am trying to incorporate the concept into some of my characters, and myself as well.
As I work on my Jerusalem’s Undead Trilogy (a vampire story), I can’t help but think about that line: “Life Sucks!” And it seems to me to have some parallels. In my search to understand love and grace and meaning, I’ve come to believe that “the answer dies within.”
Here’s where I confess: I used to swear that I’d write everything long-hand. It made storytelling more visceral, my style and voice more tangible. If any concessions were to be made, they would involve–reluctantly, belligerently–an old Underwood typewriter and a bottle of white-out.
Ah, but “when I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man I did away with childish things.”
I decided one day to join the modern world. I plugged in. I entered the cyber-jungle, wary, but pumped full of excitement. After a few short forays, I gave over completely. The stories were still there, despite the “plugged-in” apparatus. Creativity was unleashed. I not only increased my daily word counts, I became a lurker, an online sniper. I showed up on blogs, forums, and e-chats, firing off a few shots before melting back into the cyber foliage. Gotta keep ‘em guessing, right?
Now, as part of this group (thanks to the gracious invitation of Mr. Nassise), I have another literary landscape to explore. Already, I’ve bellied my way beneath some thick diatribes, splashed through invigorating streams of thought, and found myself challenged by the fellow keyboard warriors on this blog. Each of us is aware, maybe painfully so, of the solitude of writing. Yet we’re never alone. We have others nearby, keeping an eye on the terrain, signaling encouragement, imagining new methods for foraging through the cultural underbrush.
Am I romanticizing the experience? I hope not.
When I agreed to be a part of Storytellers Unplugged, I found myself contemplating our name. “Unplugged” has obvious meaning in the musical realm, but is it an accurate description for fiction writers? Or merely a “sexy” one, as they like to say nowadays? Our collective online activity implies an acceptance of technology, as it pertains to our craft. Does this mean art has been compromised?
For the last month, I’ve stretched out with my ear to the ground and listened. I’ve picked up tremors of new things on the way. Through these blogs, I’ve heard ideas creeping closer. I detect creatures afoot, heroes on the rise.
We may be computer junkies and e-mail addicts, but we are–in all the right ways–unplugged. We are storytellers. And I’m honored to be a part.