Category Archives: Giving Birth to a Book (That’s Why I’m Screaming)

What I’m writing at the current time and how it’s going.

The Invisible Wall Between Worlds

old couch

Just put it on the front porch

One day this week I was working on an article (if you have been sadly deprived of reading this blog until now, I’m a copy editor for a medical journal in rheumatology), so anyhow, there I was looking for acronyms, and you know some of those articles are like alphabet soup. That’s not a perfect metaphor, since you might actually want alphabet soup, whereas a piece of writing full of HAQ and PsA and WOMAC and SF-36 and . . . you get the idea, it ain’t no day at the beach. Or even a day at one of those weird indoor fake beaches.

So anyhow, there I was looking for acronyms, which I have to hunt down and clarify (as much as they get clarified in this kind of writing), wondering what HCQ means, when it suddenly occurred to me to walk over to the cafe for a cup of coffee. I stood up from my desk, and the very moment I walked out of my office, it was like a switch had flipped. Almost instantly my thoughts turned to the scene I was writing in Moonapple Pie.

The ten minutes it took to get a cup of coffee were like this:

From my office I headed down our stark grim stairwell, because our building is like most modern buildings. If you want to waddle over to the elevator, it’s in plain view in the middle of the building, but if you want to walk because it’s healthier, you have to search for the stairs, and when you find them they have the ambience and charm of a hallway in a prison. Nevertheless, as I walked down the stairs, I was seeing my character Oleander, who was fifteen years old, riding with her father up to the north Georgia mountains to see his parents. I wondered if she should say more in the car with him. I also decided she should be looking forward to going, because her grandmother makes biscuits.

Leaving my building, I went out to the park between us and the ATT building, where the cafe is. I think the park is pretty fabulous, and at the bottom of a long grassy hill is a small lake with a fountain that shoots up rather high in the middle. As I turned from the park to walk up the long flight of outdoor steps to a second garden, I was thinking of the scene that follows Oleander in the mountains. This would be her brother Eston, an artist, in a flashback when he was in college. He goes to a party with his friend Karl, and it occurred to me that since they’re at a college party, someone might drag the living room couch out onto the front porch. So Eston and Karl could sit there later in the evening.

I went into the ATT building, to stand in line at the cafe. I always order a medium coffee, and by now the guy who works there just hands me the cup, and since I know it costs $2.09, sometimes I hand him exact change, without either of us saying anything. We do talk on occasion, however, and I know he’s an artist. As I was waiting in line this time, I was thinking about my own artist, Eston, and his friend Karl talking about art, having a disagreement over what the purpose of art is.

The barista gave me my cup, I added milk and filled it up with coffee, then left the cafe. When I walked over the weather had been wanting to mist us with rain, so I decided to take the covered route back, through the parking garage. I walked down the stairs, which are far more hidden in the ATT building than in my own. It took me more than a year to find them. Walking down the stairs, I decided that Eston and Karl will have their conversation late at night, after being at the party for hours, and they will be drunk on the front porch couch.

In the parking garage, I passed a woman who might have had dreadlocks, and who might have been wearing a dress that had flowers on it, but I wasn’t paying much attention to her. Instead I was thinking about Eston and Karl, about their conversation on art. It occurred to me that it would also be interesting, and would fit the college scenario, if they were to just fall asleep on the porch and wake up there in the morning.

Then I came back to my office, sat down at my computer, and in a minute I found that the acronym HCQ stands for hydroxychloroquine. I was back in the medical editing world.

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Layers, Like a Cake

chocolate cake

Naturally, I would put up a picture of chocolate cake

Let’s have an extreme example. Picture a man dressed in a nice gray suit walking into his boss’s office, where he suddenly shoves everything off her desk. Then he calmly sits down and tells her he’d like a raise, and he goes through reasons he thinks he’s a good worker and deserves it.

Does this sound like a real person?

And a less dramatic example. A person is waiting at a bus stop, gets on the bus and rides for a while, looking out the window, and finally gets off.

Does that one sound like a real person? Compared to the weird first example, which does not fit normal psychology, the second case sounds like something a person might actually do, but what do you know about the person on the bus? It’s almost like an empty space that we can fill however we want:

  • an old man in a military uniform, looking very tired, got on the bus
  • a young woman with pink-tinged hair, carrying a bag of fruit, got on the bus
  • a girl in her Catholic school uniform, talking nonstop on her cell phone, got on the bus

When I think of a character in fiction as being “real” I suppose two basic things are involved for me. First, the character must behave the way a person might be expected to. Of course people are varied and unpredictable, but if we get someone like the lunatic in the first paragraph above, we need a very good explanation. For me, this is extremely important, and my interest in psychological realism also concerns what kind of character the writer has created. A quiet, shy character, for instance, leads us to expect a certain kind of behavior. I’ve put a book down because the characters seemed unreal and it felt like psychological incompetence on the writer’s part.

The second thing I need for a character to seem “real” is enough detail for them to start to seem distinctive, with their personal habits and tastes and quirky bits. Like a real person. I think this is really hard to do, but when you get into working on it, it’s fun as hell. You can give that old man in a military uniform a white mustache, or he’s carrying a bouquet of white roses, or he’s reading a book of Persian poetry, or he’s humming a Willie Nelson song, or more than one of those at the same time.

This week I’ve been writing on the new novel, and I’ve been focused on getting the story down, just working out the plotline. So I was basically trying to figure out how to move from incident to incident, trying to say “this happened, then this happened, and then this”. Merely doing all of that takes quite a bit of energy, but when you get it worked out, you still don’t have very good writing. Maybe for some types of writing it’s good enough, but not for what I do.

My main character this week is an artist, and I had him mostly in two situations: at an arts center (Quinlan, if you happen to know Gainesville) teaching a class, and then he went home and helped his neighbor catch a goat.

So I worked all that out, but even as I was writing, I kept thinking that my character didn’t seem to have much depth. He was moving and speaking only because I needed him to, so that I could move the plot. He wasn’t moving or speaking because he wanted to, and he didn’t seem very real.

The way I write—and it just happens this way, I’m not planning this—is that I struggle to get some plot down, and then I go back and work on the characters, trying to do things that add some depth to them. One of the tricks for me, especially if they’re minor characters, is to have them speak, so that they aren’t just robots who move across the stage. For every character, I try to think a little about distinctive appearance and habits, so someone has a dangling silver earring, someone else has a baggy old corduroy coat, someone keeps brushing her hair out of her eyes, someone keeps looking out the window while he’s talking, and so on.

I think of this as writing in “layers”. The plot is one layer, adding depth to the characters is another layer, and eventually polishing the style is still another layer.

So I think my artist needs to go home, eat a piece of goat cheese, and think about goats.

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The People Who Came From the Sky

Australian dreamtime pictureLast weekend I saw a photograph of a small statue from about 30,000 years ago showing a human figure with the head of a lion. It was not a particularly sophisticated sculpture, but it clearly was a human-looking figure with an animal head.

The important thing about this small sculpture is what it says about human beings. No doubt 30,000 years ago seems like an awfully long time, yet even that far back, people were similar enough to modern humans to be able to imagine something that did not exist. Whatever else we might think about people from that time, they had the ability to mentally picture something far beyond the physical reality they lived in.

I was visiting friends in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week where I borrowed a book I’m reading now, called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. The book so far has been filled with ideas I’ve never considered, which makes it compelling to read. One point the author makes is that if we start with the physical world and the biology of a human being, much of our modern world consists of fiction, of things that exist only as ideas in our heads.

For example, money is fictional. Ten dollars can be a piece of gold in the shape of a coin, or ten pieces of printed paper, or the movement of electrons in a computer. Nowadays, in fact, money is most often abstracted down to nothing but an idea, such as when we make a purchase with a debit card and “money” is taken from the bank. In reality, money is only an idea that exists because we all agree to it.

The book Sapiens also argues that the “fiction” idea applies to organizations and countries, which also exist only because we agree they do. If tomorrow everyone agreed that Texas was at long last a separate cranky country, it would be, just because we all said so. Contrast this with the physical world, which does not depend on what we think. No matter how many people agree that an oak tree is a butterfly, you just have to look at them to see the difference.

Whether you can easily accept these arguments or not, you can probably see, at least with the money example, that many things do depend on the human imagination. We seem to be inherently wired for imagination. Being human means to have a capacity for fiction, for mentally picturing what does not exist.

As a writer of fiction, I’m struck by the idea that fiction itself is one of the things that makes us human, as well as by the idea that using fiction has helped us to create the civilization and cultures we live in. Of course this creation has both its positive and negative sides. We’ve created an awful lot of hideously stupid and harmful things, like racism, and we’re not done yet with our appalling sprawl of misery.

On the positive side, our imagination has allowed us to create not only good things, like the idea of justice—which doesn’t really exist, but it’s a nice idea—as well as myths and stories that we use to try to make sense of the kaleidoscopic chaos reality requires us to live in. And with the fairly recent invention of writing (about 4,000 years ago) we’ve been able to develop our imagination into amazing things, like Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and the Star Wars movies.

So most evenings, I’m sitting at my desk, doing something quintessentially human, imagining what doesn’t exist, like characters in a book.

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Waking Up Slowly

Slavery memorial from Savannah, GeorgiaDown in Savannah, Georgia, a very popular riverwalk runs along the wide Savannah River, where you can to stroll along looking at the water or stop to gaze up at the huge paddlewheel boats preparing to take tourists on their adventure. Facing the water are restaurants, pubs, candy stores, and souvenir shops, and on the railing that lines the walk are plaques commemorating various aspects of Savannah’s history, while in among the trees and flower beds are a few sculptures. The most surprising find among the sculptures is a memorial to people freed from slavery.

A statue of a father, mother, and two children, all dressed in 20th century clothing, stands on a stone pedestal. Around their feet is a chain, and on the pedestal is a quote from Maya Angelou. Last weekend I was in Savannah for a night of vacation, and since I knew beforehand that this memorial was there, we made a point of finding it. As I’ve read about the memorial on multiple websites, I see that it appears to be officially called the African-American monument.

The Savannah slavery memorial interests me because the book I’m working on now, Moonapple Pie, which will take place in Gainesville, Georgia, involves two brothers who decide that instead of building a memorial to one of their ancestors who fought in the Civil War, they want to create a monument celebrating the emancipation of people from slavery.

Because racism is still an ocean we swim in, even if most white people do not see it, I can imagine someone asking why two white men would build a memorial to freedom from slavery. The fact that such a question even theoretically makes sense indicates how deeply racism runs in our society. How many people, in fact, will perceive commemorating freedom from slavery as a “black” memorial? I make note, for instance, that the name I found for the Savannah memorial (“African-American monument”) refers to race, not to slavery or to freedom.

I’m asking the question differently. Why wouldn’t two human beings create a memorial to celebrate the fact that fellow human beings were freed from the horror of slavery?

In doing research for Moonapple Pie, I looked for memorials that celebrate freedom from bondage (I was looking specifically in southern states). You can find some things that show our history, such as saving old slave cabins. In Charleston, South Carolina, for instance, there is a small, not very unimpressive museum in the Old Slave Mart; or in 2016, a new memorial for African American history was dedicated in Austin, Texas; or in Wallace, Louisiana, the Whitney Plantation is effectively a museum devoted to slavery.

We certainly need to recognize our true history—for a change—but acknowledging the facts of history is not the same as commemorating the profound and joyful change from enslavement to freedom. How many memorials of that type are there? It depends on how you define such a memorial, but in the historical states of the south, I count perhaps two (yes, 2). Besides the statue in Savannah, there is a large well-done Freedmen’s Memorial Arch in Dallas, Texas.

Of the very few celebratory memorials that I’ve found (of any type), almost none of these things existed until the 21st century, and even now, it isn’t much. Just from curiosity, I also investigated how many Confederate memorials of any type exist. The estimate I’ve seen is around seven hundred (yes, 700). I mention this number only for comparison, as my subject here does not concern Confederate memorials. I’m writing here about putting up memorials.

As you read this blog, I would like your opinion on two questions:

1) What memorials celebrating freedom from slavery are you aware of, and do you know of any in the south?

2) For future memorials that will eventually exist, what do you think they should include?

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Even Without Beer and Cake

French spaniels

French spaniels

Here in the exciting world of a writer’s life…

But that statement doesn’t fully capture what it’s like. Maybe I need another adverb, such as “here in the very exciting world of a writer’s life…” Although that still doesn’t get it. I could say “a world bordering on a nonstop heroin high of creativity leading to a constant state of sugar magic”.

Or is that too much?

It is a bit much, because even at its best, even when the writing process is working well and flowing, I’m still sitting here and at some level thinking “it would be nice to have a beer right now”. Or if a big slice of moist chocolate cake were somehow possible, then it would be “Writing? What writing?”

For the record, let me just say I am never going to turn down chocolate cake—or for that matter beer—because I’m caught up in what I’m working on. Those adverbs will wait.

And that’s when the writing process is at its best, when the words just rush to your fingertips to throw themselves forward to fill the white space, pulling phrases of depth and cleverness along behind them, when the characters suddenly look up at you and wink and say, “Why yes, I am real,” when the plot turns down a road you didn’t even know was there and you realize, “My God, this is better than I expected”.

Of course, as we all know, or at least those of us what have done it, the writing process is rarely at its best. Much of the time, it is more like staring at a screen (or paper, if you have a fondness for antique forms of labor), you stare, you sigh, you look around as if the wall on the other side of the room will somehow help you, you turn back, sigh again, and write something, though fewer words than you had hoped. Then you look at it and think “Oh, that is so dull AND stupid AND clichéd.”

Maybe there’s something good on TV instead.

Maybe the mall is still open instead.

Maybe the ice cream stand is open late instead.

Anyway, here in the exciting world of a writer’s life, as I was saying, I am officially writing the novel Moonapple Pie, and I mean “writing” in the sense of using words to make up stuff. Not just doing research, not making notes, not thinking about what to write, but actually creating sentences, most of which have subjects, and all of which surely have verbs.

Here’s an example, from the middle of the first chapter, when the character Elliott first appears. Months ago, while making notes on the characters, I decided that he would have dogs, so I used them to open his section.

“Three French spaniels ran across a grassy meadow, tongues out, long ears flopping, happy dashers across the grass. “Hoochie!” Elliott yelled at the dog that had slowed and stopped as it found something interesting in the field. The other two dogs, Stormy and Rider, ran to him and sat. “Hoochie!” he yelled again, so that the dog looked up and flew across the field toward him. When the dogs were in front of him, Elliott said, “Gentlemen, stand!” and all three dogs rose up momentarily on their hind legs. As they dropped into natural doggery again, Elliott laughed and gave each of them a treat from his pocket. The dogs were named for songs by Elliott’s favorite band, the Allman Brothers, with names taken from Midnight Rider, Stormy Monday, and Hoochie Coochie Man.”

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Start Climbing

stone wallWe’ve had this quiz before, but let’s do it again. What are people called who “help” writers get published? They are literary agents, the word “literary” in many cases being more of a job description than an indication of the type of writing. A literary agent could, for instance, only handle books by sports stars who didn’t actually write their own autobiographies. And OK, such books do use the alphabet, so maybe that is a kind of literature.

How does a person obtain a literary agent? I just wrote that question there as if I were going to follow it with an answer, but a better answer would come from someone who actually knows how to obtain an agent. I apparently do not know, though I think I can say with some confidence that if you want to ease your path in this regard, do not write literary novels.

I write literary novels. I don’t choose to do that, it’s just what I write. I also did not make up that phrase “literary novels”—that’s official publishing terminology that comes closest to describing my writing, given that I don’t write thrillers or children’s books or romance novels. Etcetera.

For a couple of years I’ve been trying to market a novel called The Invention of Colors. When I use the verb “market” I mean I’ve been contacting literary agents to see if one of them will take the book, and thus become my agent, then try to sell the book to a publisher. If you aren’t familiar with the publishing industry—and industry is probably the right word at this point—you might reasonably ask why I don’t simply talk to publishers myself. Why not, Davy? Huh? The problem is that quite a few publishers have decided that even though they depend on writers for their very existence, they absolutely will not talk to writers, but only to literary agents.

Did I mention that the publishing industry is run by Satan? If I did, I was only spreading gossip, because I don’t know that for an actual fact. Evidence is not definite proof, as we learned back in logic class.

So I’ve been marketing a novel, a process that has involved going to a writers conference several times to talk to agents who were attending, and it has involved sending query letters and writing samples to agents by email. Years ago I made up a list of possible agents, with just over 200 names on the list.

The information is far out of date, however. Before I send query letters out, I research every name, and such research really is critical. You find that a person has moved to another agency, a particular agency has shut down, another agency has changed the way they want submissions done, and so on. In doing the research, I discovered that almost half of my list is no use to me, for various reasons, including people who died and others who only handle Christian writers.

don’t rush with bright eyes and a gleeful cry into this agent-hunting process, not because I’m sober and careful, but because I hate it so incredibly. Nevertheless, after many months of slowly working through the list, I have finally made it to the end, sending a letter to every possibility. Afterward, I counted how many agents I had talked to, and between the email submissions and people who I talked to in person at the conferences, I seem to have contacted just shy of 120 agents.

At which point, I ask myself how much more I am willing to do with trying to market this book. Someday, The Invention of Colors will be published, after I figure out how to get past the wall of agents who are determined to stop me. It will be published. But for now, I’ll let it sit. I will wait a while, maybe six months or so, and then I’ll start marketing again, but with a different novel, as I have another ready to go. And if the wall of agents continues to block that one, I’m beginning to write another.

Someday, that wall will come down.

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Mule Camp Springs

Downtown Gainesville

Downtown Gainesville

Last Saturday I was sitting in a bar ordering a beer, because I was doing research. And as long as I needed to do the research, I had a nice little IPA, the kind of beer I really like these days. The bar was called Mule Camp Tavern, and my research went on for a while, so I had a second beer.

This research took place in Gainesville, Georgia, about an hour from where I live. In the early days of the town, it was named Mule Camp Springs, and thus the name of the bar. I was passing through the town with my brother, who is always up for glass or two of research, so he offered to drink a couple while I made notes and walked around the bar to see what it looked like. To the left of the bar was a room with green walls and three pool tables, which had red felt surfaces.

I was thinking about whether to use this bar in the new novel I’m working on, so I had to visit to decide whether it would work for me, and if so, I needed to make notes. I believe I will indeed use that bar, so if it can stay in business until this book is published 80 or 90 years from now, this should boost their sales.

For the last few months as I’ve worked on the novel Moonapple Pie, I’ve mostly been expanding the outline, adding details, trying to see that the plot will flow smoothly from beginning to end, and thinking about whether dramatic tension is maintained. I’m trying to do that. I would not confidently declare that I am achieving that goal, but I’ve put months into thinking about it before seriously beginning to write.

Gainesville is my home town, where I was born, got baptized, joined the Boy Scouts, and graduated high school. I also did some other things that were waaay more fun, but which a baptized Boy Scout does not talk about. When I was very young, however, we didn’t live there, but moved back to the town when I was ten, and after high school graduation I left (like a bat out of hell, I have to admit). So I lived there about eight years.

No matter how profound those youthful years were, I only had eight years of my long life in Gainesville. Since then, the town has become 40% Hispanic, gained some very good restaurants, and has its own local brewery. Not at all the same town where I helped my grandfather deliver a pickup truck full of corn to the farmer’s market. When I write Moonapple Pie, I want to give a sense of the town as it is in 2018 (when the novel will take place).

For every book I write, trying to capture a feeling for the setting is extremely important for me. The place is always a part of the book, not just background. Our Boy Scout cabin in the woods is long gone, and the church where I was baptized now has a sign out front in Spanish. On the lively square downtown, you can sit at tables outside, look at the trees that surround the space, and drink very good beer.

After working so much on my outline, I feel like I’ve done all I can with it, and the pondering has to move into scribbling. Of course some research will continue. I still need to visit Gainesville to check some things out, like deciding where one of my characters will have her farm, or I want to visit the arts center to see how how they offer classes, and I’m thinking about whether to attend part of a herbal medicine conference that will happen in the mountains in October.

Still, I am more than ready to write, I can feel the words in my blood, wanting to get out. So soon I’ll be in that zone of watching reality appear on the page. In the meantime, next week I’m going with my girlfriend on vacation to Miami, where I’ve never been, and where I hear they have pink and turquoise buildings and plenty of Cuban food. I’ve also found an interesting looking Peruvian restaurant down there, selling Peruvian beer. One of those beers looks quite good, and I think I have to go try it. That will not be research.

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