Archive for March, 2012

WRITING PARTNER—YES OR NO?

Posted: March 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

Not so long ago I’d have met that question with the clarity and conviction of a long rehearsed answer: NO!

The very idea of writing fiction with a partner was antithetical to everything I ever knew, learned or enjoyed about the concept of writing. Some of the happiest moments of my childhood were spent all alone in my room or the school cafeteria filling reams of spiral notebooks with fiction created by me, for me, without anyone but me. With nary a thought of even showing it to anyone else. I still treasure the memory of those days, writing for the pure joy of it without the hassle and ego-deflating strum and drang of agents, editors, publishers, et al. But now I tend to regard that time without the strawberry glasses of nostalgia, and the naiveté of my youthful ideas about creativity.

In 2000, after some twenty odd (very odd) years in the screenwriting vineyards of Hollywood, I moved back to the Midwest to dedicate myself full time to writing the novel. Anyone who’s ever worked the vineyards “out there” knows exactly why I did this: for the rest of you it can be summed up in that word ‘antithetical’ again. If novels mean (supposedly) total artistic freedom for the writer, the screenplay is its polar opposite. Everyone works with a partner in LaLa Land, even if they complete the first draft all alone in a closet. And most of these ‘partners’–from the studio heads right on down (the writer being the bottom)–are more than glad to remove your name from the project and take complete credit for most of what you wrote. But would-be screenwriters, take heart: considering the way most movies turn out, this can actually be a blessing. Also let’s not forget the soothing balm of money the industry usually provides. There’s gold in them Hollywood hills.

Anyway, that same year I moved away and back to my roots, Stephen (he’s the) King published On Writing and I picked it up (yes, published authors still do that—writers are never secure). The book discusses many things, perhaps the most salient being King’s work mode: find a room, shut and lock the door, turn off the TV, turn your computer from the window, park your butt in a chair and write. Also, never stop to rewrite until you’ve gone straight through to The End, and never show it to anyone in between. Given King’s ginormous and grindingly enviable success, I read this section with a small smile: that was the way I’d worked since grade school! Writing was, by God–along with music and painting and sculpture—a true art form! And art can only be achieved, even pursued, with a singular author’s singular vision, not with someone else getting in there and mucking things up with his own ideas! This is what art is. This is what I was taught art is in college. This is why the third floor of Strong Hall on the KU campus was divided in half:  Commercial Art on side, Fine Art on the other. And never the twain should meet. I, of course, pursued a degree in the latter and was damn proud of it…along with all those other poor, deluded freshman iconoclasts.

One thing I began to notice, though, around the time of my junior year, was the tendency for the commercial side to talk about money and marketing—talk about it a lot; whereas the very mention of money on the Fine Art side was tantamount to heresy. Now, I could tell you that I chose the Fine Art side originally because I was already a full-fledged elitist wrapped in a fine art banner, but the truth is, the curriculum on the Fine Art side didn’t require my taking another agonizing year of math. And what the hell, I could already draw, right? It should be a cinch.

Still, my mamma didn’t raise no stupid kids; I knew the realities of the work-a-day world around me way back in high school. A Fine Arts diploma might look great on my wall but it wasn’t going to get me job one in the real world. Which is why I headed straight for New York after school, to become a commercial illustrator, as opposed to becoming the next Jackson Pollack. Few Pollack, I knew, enjoyed wealth in their lifetime. Ah, New York! The legendary seat of publishing and magazine illustration! Never mind that magazine illustration had been moribund for years, supplanted almost exclusively by photography, and that just about the only steady work as an aspiring artist I could find was in comic books. Yet married, broke and determined to life creating something beyond kids, I hit the comic book houses. A few years of that and the next thing I learned was that writing comic books pays a hell of a lot better than drawing them. So I wrote too. It helped pay the bills. In between I sold a couple of novels to small publishers, which earned me an overall pittance compared to what the comic book companies paid a writer. But never mind, I was realizing my dream: I was a full time, working professional! I got paid to create! I was an artiste!  Maybe not with capital A, but I was creating, and I was doing it alone. By myself. No more shoe store clerk jobs for this kid!

Then I met the girl…

This is already getting long so here’s the short form: I hired this radiant beauty as a model for a photography book I was doing. And we hit it off almost immediately—in more ways than one. Did I mention we were both married to other people? You should probably know that.

We worked together all day, me and this girl April, and at the end of those hard work days found we still somehow wanted to be together, still had so much to talk about. Naturally both our marriages went to hell, but even before that and after the photo book was finished I realized that if we wanted to be together, this girl and I, we were also going to have to continue working together in some fashion, because the photo books weren’t selling.

So, for the first time I went dead against everything I’d ever believed in about writing and began plotting a few comic book stories with April. I did this under a mountain of guilt. First, I couldn’t afford to pay her much, second, I feared I was betraying all my artistic “singular vision” mantras, and third, I was terrified that the work itself couldn’t possibly be as good as before when it was just me at the helm because really, folks, who’s as good as me?—but mainly because I was simply having too much fun with the work. The great thing about plotting—just verbalizing, or ‘spit balling’, really—is that you can do it walking around a lake or over hamburgers or even at the local mall. To my surprise (and probably chagrin), my readers never seemed to notice. In fact, my comic book sales improved! And it soon began to dawn on me (horror of horrors!) not only was I a complete sell-out to my artistic instincts, but some of those stories  were better because I plotted them with a partner! Can you spell ‘confusion’? ‘Depression’?

Only it’s hard to stay depressed when you’re having such a good time. Sure, falling in love was part of it, but the ideas and plots fairly flew between us, some brimming to the surface almost magically! Also, my spelling improved noticeably. Life was good. So long as I kept the serious work (novel writing) to myself, door shut and locked in solitude, TV off, butt parked.

But the thing is, April was reading my books as soon as I finished them anyway, correcting my spelling and throwing in some editing here and there. What the hell, King used his wife, didn’t he?—so did a lot of pros—and my partner had already read and liked all my published books; it’s not like I was torturing her. Exactly. And more and more (after I’d completed the book) April’s input increased. I actually began listening when she dared suggest chapter 10 or perhaps the entire ending of the novel might be improved by doing things an alternate way. Silly girl.  I tolerated her whimsies. Reminding her constantly that this was, after all, still an art.

Then this thing called digital publishing came along.

And at the same time, because I was getting paid fairly well but hardly getting rich, April suggested maybe I should slow down with the dark, depressing stand-alones and try a breezier, lighter toned style. Duh.

Only I couldn’t think of anything breezy I wanted to write about. My books were about loner guys up against the wall, running through my latest literary idea of film noir hell. But April (bless her) persisted. “EBooks are the future,” she assured me, “also you don’t have to wait years for a company’s publishing schedule and press arrangements. Also, despite what the indicia in books published by the Big 6 says, you really can hang onto most of the rights.  Also, Kindle sales are waaaay up.”

She was driving me nuts. Because she was right. “All right,” I finally shouted to the gods, “here’s the title of my new series:  ‘Mitzi Magee: Vampire Poodle!’” Fortunately she laughed. But in a good way. Unfortunately I couldn’t come up with plot one for the first book. I was completely at sea. Actually blocked for the first time. It stank. Then one day, driving up to Borders Books and encountering a “closed” sign, I got this totally brilliant idea–this just colossal, stupendous idea I was so glad I had thought of all by myself. This really terrific, Artistic idea: ah, the hell with it, let April come up with the damn plot. Or at least plot with me the way we’d been doing with the comics. What’s the big deal about plots anyway? As they say, there’s only seven original jokes. Did Hemmingway sit around and worry about plots? He did not! So! That’s what we did, adopting the same methods we used with comic writing to the new series. I mean, I’d certainly learned the old axiom “two heads are better than one” was true, at least for me, so why not?

Turns out, there’s a LOT of reasons ‘why not.’

Heads up now, before you consider working with a partner in the writing biz:

First—and I can promise you this—there will be fights.

Actually, there should be fights. If there aren’t, you’re completely abandoning the “singular vision” ethic, and I don’t advocate anyone doing that. Every novel (unless you’re Faulkner and I don’t think we need worry about that here, right?) needs a strong narrative thread, a clearly accessible vision, a “voice,” if you will. But with a partner, you must constantly fight the dilemma of anything that sounds even vaguely homogenized (unless that’s somehow inherent to the plot—and I can think of few instances).  The challenge then, to me, of writing with a partner was even greater than writing in total singularity. A partner must trust you the same way you trust yourself, and vice versa. I’m not sure you need to be in love to enjoy the mysteries of a writing partnership, but you must, absolutely must, trust and—even more importantly—respect the person you’re partnering with. Because sooner or later, just like any marriage, you’re going to have to compromise.  My then-girlfriend and now-wife, April Campbell Jones, and I share that kind of symbiosis. She can fake my “style” (whatever that is) almost without faking it. I still do the majority of the Word Smithing–setting the story or novel down in type–after April and I, working in tandem, sort out the plot. When the actual writing is finished, I do a polish or two and give it to April. She does the editing and her own rewrite or two. We think the results read pretty seamlessly, but you may have your own particular modus operandi, it doesn’t matter. The point is to embrace the other guy’s ideas instead of shunning them immediately out of guilt or ego–and to create a terrific and, hopefully, more balanced end product. If it helps you to think that what you’re doing is pure, lowbrow commercial craft, go with it. Whatever works. The trick is learning that compromise can be a good thing, that your way is not always THE way. And really, at the end of the day (a phrase clearly over-used which I’m still guilty of), if you line up twelve different people to read your book, at least one or two of them are going detest it, no matter how many people did or didn’t labor over it. Which is why some writers employ the method of multiple private submissions to friends or family before sending their child out into the world. But that’s another topic.

Okay. I know what you’re thinking: yes-yes, but what about this Art you keep prattling about?

I’ve thought about that too…thought a lot about it. And most of my original ideas about the “singular vision” still hold true. Yes, writing can be an art—perhaps one of the very few things we have that actually qualifies, so perhaps, for you, it should remain a singular principled pursuit. But consider this: what is Art? What is it really? So-called “singular vision” aside, artists begin the same way we all begin life, by collecting (stealing?) the sights and sounds of the world and others around us. Copying is a natural progression toward learning to go your own way. My question is: do any of us really ever go completely our own way? Those of us in the arts don’t suddenly reach a point in life where we turn off the filters and stop absorbing the world out there. Ray Bradbury has advocated that it’s better to read not at all than read bad writing. Others believe, with the right attitude, you can learn something from anything. But does anyone really write alone? Is it even possible? You didn’t, after all, invent the alphabet, but as a writer you’re lost without it. Mere mechanics?  Maybe. Certainly what we do with that alphabet is the important thing. Still, for me at least, more and more the line between Art and Craft has become increasingly blurred over the years. What was taught with sober confidence yesterday can seem laughably naïve today. And though the glow of nostalgia may persist for personal pleasure, I’ll never be that ten-year-old kid with the reams of spiral notebooks again. A dead shadow from a life that will someday die altogether.

To my mind, experimenting on the page is the only way to grow as a writer. Perhaps experimenting, within reason, with our work habits can be another form of growth. One warning: I’ve suggested that having a writing partner can be fun. It can. I’ve always said that it can even improve the work. It can. Now here’s what it won’t do: it won’t make the art/craft of writing any easier. Nor should it. In fact, a partnership, for some, will make writing so much more a trial it becomes counterproductive, and that’s always a mistake. Partnering is not right for every project. Somethings must come from our own hearts alone, even if born crippled. An art professor of mine once said something I’ve never forgotten: we had a late night class together and I was filled with malaise one particular evening. He looked over my shoulder at my sketch but didn’t offer the usual support or advice. He said, “You’ve worked that thing to death, but you don’t look like you’re enjoying yourself.” I confessed I wasn’t. He said, “Then go home. Try again tomorrow.” I was astounded. “Why?” I asked incredulous. “Because,” he said, “art should–above all–always be fun.”

With that I’ll leave you with a few real quotes that help explain why I love words so much and why I consider them one of the most important creations of mankind. Have fun.

“I never said actors are cattle…I said actors should be treated like cattle.”

                                                               Alfred Hitchcock, 1958 on the set of Vertigo

“I never said you should learn politics…I said you should learn parlor tricks.”

                                                               Harvey Kurtzman, 1954, Mad parody of Pogo

“I never said I was a libertarian…I said I was a libertine.”

                                                              Me. But only once. I think.

 

 

 

TEN PAGES A DAY

Posted: March 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

Mom died this week.

It had taken awhile. And taken its toll on both her and the entire family. 

Yet it also seemed to happen very suddenly, catching me looking completely the other way. I can’t explain it better than that. When someone you’ve loved all your life is dying, time makes its own rules.

I hadn’t written anything worthwhile in weeks, maybe months. And I knew it. But I kept at it, mostly, I’m sure, for the solace of escape fiction can provide. But never really fooling myself. I have never been “blocked.” As far back as grade school where Mom dropped me off every morning, I’d learned that the fastest way to beat the blank page was to get out of my own way, let myself fall into it: stop being the reality me and be another me. Now all I could think of was that Mom had stopped being the reality Mom. Permanently.

I wasn’t dealing well with “permanently.”

But I hacked away at the keys like always—“hack” being the operant word–convinced it was what she would have wanted. Isn’t that what they always say?

I had worked my way to Chapter 29 over the months, getting toward the end of the book. I was in the middle of this line: ‘The last thing she said to me was, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going

–and the phone rang beside me. And my sister-in-law said, “She just passed.”

I don’t remember what I said to Lynne, my sobbing sister-in-law; don’t remember anything but sitting there staring at that unfinished last line. This  ”unfinished” sensation  remained and became my general state of mind for the next few days. I moved through life like a shadow—the usual rooms, usual places—feeling always just slightly outside myself looking in. For the first time in my life I got absolutely nothing written, not a single word. I couldn’t even go near the computer. But I suppose that’s perfectly normal under the circumstances. Right?

Maybe not. I was aware of a slowly growing panic, which I thought was the realization I’d never see Mom again but which–knowing the size of my ego–was also the fear of finally experiencing that dreaded thing I’d always laughed at: writer’s block. 

But give yourself some time, I thought. Time wounds all heels, or something like that…you’ll be fine.

But I wasn’t fine. Only more and more scared and depressed. 

I told no one, not even my wife. Just kept convincing myself this would surely pass–that  ‘Mom would have wanted it that way’—want me to go on doing the one thing that made me happiest: writing. So, why didn’t I believe it? Why did I think something had been broken that could not be put together again. Also this: why was I not grieving? Not even crying! Hadn’t shed a tear. Telling myself that would come too when it was ready—even though my heart wasn’t buying it. 

I even tried staging grieving. A kind of forced sobbing that came out like a pig with hiccups. Tried my best to work up a real honest-to-God bawler. 

Nothing.

Every few hours for the next several days I’d wander into my study and look down at my computer and stare at that unfinished line: “The last thing she said to me was, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going

–sentence incomplete. Original thought and intent lost.

Chapter lost. Maybe the whole damn book lost.  I had no memory at all of what I’d been trying to write or what came next. It all seemed immensely trivial and pointless now, along with a lot of other things –like my own mortality. 

After a time I couldn’t look at the computer screen anymore: the unfinished words became more than just ironic, they seemed unfair, even cruel. “But you did go, Mom! And you took the best part of me with you! And I never even got the chance to say good-bye.”

Still, I didn’t cry.

Wasn’t allowing myself the relief of letting go. Something was holding everything in. Was I punishing myself? Was there a Freudian phrase for this? What was the last thing Mom said to me? I couldn’t remember. Nor my last words to her. And it seemed terribly important that I did remember…that neither the book nor anything else would be complete until I did. The panic grew, but nothing would come. Just a blank, and Lynne’s voice on the phone, “She just passed,” and that damn unfinished sentence staring back at me every day.

 If only I hadn’t stopped writing, if only my sister-in- law hadn’t called at that precise moment—maybe I could remember what I’d been thinking at the time, finish the sentence and–if not finish the book–at least get on with things again. But my mind remained on hold.

The panic eventually ebbed, replaced by a hollowness that was maybe worse. I felt lost. A stranger in my home. Everything looked exactly the same, but everything was different.

Then one morning I got up, had my coffee, stared at my handful of published books on the shelf like they were strangers, and wandered around the house again.

I ended up in my study before the computer screen. “Enough,” I thought, “enough of this!”  I reached for the delete key; but I hadn’t bothered putting on my glasses and hit the wrong one– the backspace key–which only separated that unfinished last line from the rest of the paragraph, making it stand out even more.

In disgust I stuck on my glasses, sat down and put the unfinished sentence back where it belonged, at the end of the unfinished paragraph. I started to get up. That’s when Mom came to say good-bye. Or someone did. Someone reached out and completed that annoying last sentence and it didn’t feel quite like me. I typed just for letters, a single word: “anywhere” and put a period after it. “I’m not going ANYWHERE.” 

I sagged with relief. Sentence complete. Chapter closed.

Then I wandered back to the bedroom, lay down beside my sleeping wife and had myself the most wonderful cry.