Well, 2007 is come and gone and I have to say that I couldn’t be any happier about it.  The year was not a fruitful one for me, but some good did arise from the last 12 months of turmoil.  First, I completed my second novel manuscript and have it about ready to start making the rounds among literary agents.  I have started a new novel that, while still in it infancy, promises to be my best yet.  I have thought up several more good ideas that I think will make great stories, ideas that I have locked away either in my head or on little index cards for future reference.  With all that in mind, I’d like to set a few goals for myself for the coming year–not resolutions, which are made to be broken–but goals that I can work toward everyday and not worry about taking a day off here or there.

First, I want to be represented by a legitimate literary agent by the end of 2008.  I certainly hope that the completed manuscript currently waiting on my hard drive will net me that goal fairly early in the year, but if not, I will still have the year to write a newer, better one that may be more likely to succeed.  Second, I want to have at least one short story published in a magazine or on a literary site.  This seems like a minor task compared to finding an agent, but I am not, by nature, a short story writer.  I don’t generally read many shorts, so I don’t think of story ideas in terms of that media.  I have dug around in my brain for a few ideas that, if properly executed, will at least offer me a fighting chance of seeing publication, but it will be somewhat like writing in a foreign language.  Short stories demand different things of the author–more vivid description, more poetic language, and the knack of knowing just where to enter and exit the story.  The short story must be more impactful over a shorter period of time.  Still, I am learning every day and look forward to the challenge.  I also want to write more regularly than I have this year.  Circumstances with family and the day job often leave me tired and I admit to slacking a great deal when I should have been writing.  Toward the end of the year, however, I found myself growing more irritable and restless, both traits that I now associate with too little writing.  Fiction is my oasis, my release, and my drug.  I should take that drug more regularly.

On a personal note, today also marks my eighth wedding anniversary.  Amy and I spent the Eve at her church (I say “her” because she attends far more regularly than I do) amidst a very small crowd of people with nothing better to do.  During a closing speech by the pastor, my writing was mentioned out of nowhere, offered as a prayer request.  Amy insists she had nothing to do with it, and I believe her, but that did not make it any easier when everyone in attendance turned to look at me, wonder in their eyes.  Everyone I’ve met who has learned of my desire to become a published author has expressed a great deal of interest.  Everyone wants to know the famous author/athlete/movie star before they become famous.  Also, there is a certain element about writing–everyone wants to do it, thinks they can do it, but no one actually does it.  To find someone who is doing it, makes that person a curiosity.  It was a bit odd telling a little old church-going lady, in a church, no less, that my novel is about vampires, but I figure God must like a good vampire tale as much as anyone.  Otherwise, how could there be so many?

The pastor concluded the get-together in prayer and mentioned my book and my ambitions of publications.  Everyone agrees that it would be a great thing for me and my family, struggling as we are, if I could find my way into those loft ranks.  I just hope that God agrees and was listening.

Since I made the fateful decision to start my less-than-regular LJ, I have worried over what I should call it.  I’ve seen other blogs out there with highly creative names and I have to admit some jealousy on my part.  Titles, whether for blogs or for my writing, have never been my strong suit and I confess limited creativity in my previous “Life of Smiley” effort.  Since the beginning, I have searched for some other name to call it and I believe I have finally found it.

I tend to use some of my pre-writing down time traversing the blogosphere for entries that will either inspire my fiction or provide me with more information on how to do it better.  This evening, I came across a piece by Elmore Leonard, an author I particularly enjoy reading and who often fills me with a great sense of hopelessness that I will never write as well as he.  This piece in question–Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing–is much like Leonard’s fiction, concise and brilliant, and can be found here.  While I would guess that any aspiring writer would have found this gem waaay before this blog, I would recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it.  For those that have, I recommend having it tattooed on your stomach, upside down, so you can refer to it as you write.  This would require writing topless and may not be suitable for particularly lean writers, neither of which are problems for me.

In lifting Leonard’s brilliance to head my own lack thereof, I must say that the term “hooptedoodle” is itself lifted from John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday” and Leonard offers full acknowledgment of this fact.  Loosely defined, hooptedoodle is writing that, while perhaps pretty and eloquent, offers no true benefit to the story in which it is found.  Writing that, by its mere inclusion, takes away from the narrative.  Really, isn’t that what an author blog is?  Writing that takes away from writing that we should be doing?

So, with many thanks to Elmore Leonard and John Steinbeck, I hereby rename this thing “Perpetrating Hooptedoodle” and hope that multitudes may one day look upon these words and be inspired as I have by so many people on the internet sharing their secrets, their dreams, and, most importantly, their own hooptedoodle.

It’s been over two months since my last post, but I assure you the delay is not a result of laziness.  Okay, not just laziness.  In truth, I have been working quite a bit on various projects and now that I have a few moments in the early morning, when all around me is quiet, I’ll scribble a little bit about them.

The Dead and the Dying–The manuscript for my recently completely horror novel is about ready to begin the long road of submissions.  After my previous attempt at writing a novel, I submitted a query to a total of one (1) agent, promptly earning myself a form rejection letter.  Two years out from that, I can see why it was rejected.  Before, during, and now after the process of writing TDATD, I came to realize how amateur I sounded in that letter and hope to avoid the same mistakes with my new book.  Also, I think I did a much better job of writing this time, which always helps the chances of a book catching the eye of an agent.

The publishing industry typically shuts down over the two weeks or so surrounding Christmas, but I am not one of those many, many authors who start watching the clock as soon as they hit send on their email or close the door to their mailbox as though they are waiting for some dish being heated in the microwave.  More than acceptance (although that certainly does help), I think authors want closure more than anything.  It’s the waiting that kills.  A yes is joy beyond the world, but a no is at least an end to the nail-biting.  As for my novel, I am perfectly willing to take things slowly to avoid looking like a neurotic writer.  I want to be someone an agent will enjoy working with, not the freaks and weirdos I have read so much about on various agent websites and blogs.

I have a spreadsheet made with all my target agents, and have been working on my query letter for a few weeks, looking for just the right mix of hook and professionalism that will get me a hearing that lasts at least to a partial manuscript submission.  I’m not expecting miracles, but I do think the book has merit and is as good as some of the published books I have read over the past few years.

New, As-Yet-Untitled Project–Last week, I began work on my third novel manuscript.  I will keep the details secret for now (on the off chance that I can actually sell the damn thing), but I’ve been looking forward to working on this piece since I first came up with it.  It sat on the back burner for a while, waiting for that one connection to really bring the whole thing into focus.  One day near the end of TDATD, the connection hit me–fully formed and so obvious that I rolled it over in my head for days looking for what was wrong with it.  After five days of writing, I am at 6000 words, which is a pretty good start.  I’m really hoping to get some momentum going on this one to keep my mind off my submissions.

Harry Potter and the Golden Sepulcher–My guilty pleasure.  I started this fan fiction on Mugglenet.com with the idea of using it as a change of scenery after working so hard on TDATD.  What has happened instead is that I’ve put together a story that I really like and hope to continue, but right now it’s dying on the vine.  With nine chapters posted, I’ve had a lackluster chapter 10 saved for some time, waiting for a second opinion before I decided to go back and rewrite it.  My few loyal readers on Mugglenet are clamoring for an update and I hope to provide it soon.  The only problem is that I’m losing that lovin’ feeling where this story is concerned, so I am combatting that by going back through Rowling’s books, hoping to be reinspired.  My tentative plan is to spend five days a week working on the new novel, one day on Harry, and one day completely off from writing.  If I have any spare time aside from my regular writing times, though, I hope to spend those on rebuilding chapter 10 into something both entertaining, but also something that leads the story in the direction I want it to go.

For anyone not familiar with any of this who would like to read the fanfic piece, you can find it here

Horror Novella–In between all the other things I’m working on, I’m hoping to pump out a horror novella that I’ve been itching to write for some time.  The story is actually inspired by an event in my life, twisted to meet my own macabre needs.  I still need to do a bit of research regarding 911 call centers, so if anyone knows a good resource online where I can pick up some information, feel free to drop me a note.

And, of course, all my writing must come after the “day job” which, being retail management, is insane this time of year.  By the time I get home, often after midnight, it’s sheer force of will that sits me down at the keyboard to peck out my 1000+ words a night.  Still, I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t get something out of it and what I get is a chance to decompress, to leave behind my dark thoughts about customers, my employees, and inventory levels.  I don’t know what I would do without my escape hatch in writing, and I need it more this time of year than any other.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to post a few more times over the coming week.  I have a couple of books to review on here, plus some general observations about starting a new novel, the scary submission process, and other things related and unrelated to writing.

Stay tuned.

Today, I’ll touch a bit on the day job, the one that almost pays the bills so I can come home and write until three or four in the morning.  I am a manager for a national pharmacy chain that will remain nameless (although a lot of our checks are mistakenly made out to Wal-Mart).  There are several things about said position that I don’t enjoy, but one of the few perks is the six feet of books directly across from the toilet paper.  Don’t ask me about why this sort of adjacency makes sense–I don’t know.

Instead of taking the smoke breaks enjoyed by other members of management, I use my few moments of idle time to browse the selection of paperbacks.  Almost exclusively, we carry bestsellers by the biggest names, usually long after the buzz over the novel has passed.  I enjoy going through the new arrivals every Friday, but my frequent browsings have left me with one question.

Does anyone write about a protagonist that is not a:
–former/current agent of the FBI/CIA/NSA or some other government agency
–other form of law enforcement officer
–former Navy SEAL/Special Ops
–erudite professor ala The DaVinci Code?

Of the fifty or so titles we carry at any one time, over half (yes, I counted) revolved around protagonists of this sort.  Are we so enamored with Dirty Harry and Clarice Starling that we must have a million novels about them?  I understand the thriller/suspense story is hot right now, but I want a change from these cookie-cutter characters.  Give me the same stories as told by Elmore Leonard, whose characters represent more shades of gray, usually dark gray.  Give me Harry Dresden from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, combining magic with the noir.  For that matter, give me Encyclopedia Brown–at least he never had to overcome some tragic failure in his past to solve mysteries.

Give me original characters, or give me death.

I’m sure some of the books are great reads.  I also can’t deny the marketability of such works occupying the top of the bestseller lists.  Still, this process of browsing books in my store has caused a fundamental change in the way I look at my own writing.  Instead of developing an idea and just plopping any (pick one of the above characters) into it, one of the first things I look at is how the story might be different, or better, with an unlikely protagonist.  I’m not looking for some POV character the reader won’t relate to, only to expand the reader’s scope.  One of the reasons Agatha Christie was so successful with Miss Marple is because, at the time, the archetype detective was more like Sherlock Holmes, not an elderly lady as concerned with her garden as solving murders.  Tolkien could have focused his Rings trilogy on the warrior-king Aragorn, but instead he focused on the docile, diminutive hobbits, making the story more interesting by giving us characters more like ourselves, but in extraordinary circumstances.

Perhaps this bias of mine will decrease my chances of publication.  So be it.  I could write a story fitting this mold, but what can I write that hasn’t already been published in the last five years in some form or another.  Instead, I would rather focus on the unexpected–both in what I read and what I write.

 

 Now that the manuscript for my second novel is finished and waiting for me to dress it up, I have time to think about writing from the forest standpoint before I venture back into the trees. I already know of several changes I want to make–scenes I want to add, description that I need to tighten up, a character that I need to introduce earlier in the story–and I look forward to rediscovering my own book. After a well-deserved break, jumping back into my story will be an often exhilarating, sometimes embarrassing, experience. I am certain there will be be parts that make me groan with disbelief over my own ineptitude, but I hope there will be more passages that strike me as more poetic than they did when I first set them down.

Over my past few days of idleness, I’ve reflected on the process that I take in composing a novel. I come from a background in retail management where I am always looking for new, more efficient ways of making a profit for my store while controlling expenses. That same exercise holds true for my writing–I continuously look for new ways to produce a cleaner manuscript, avoid repetition, and provide myself with less work during the rewrite. Now, I look back over the past few months I’ve spent on my first draft and try to pick out all the things I could have done differently. Thankfully, I see few areas of opportunity than I did after finishing my first novel, an abandoned (for now) fantasy novel that will rest quietly on my hard drive until I am famous enough to get it published.

One thing I have learned about myself as a writer is that my ideas tend to come in the same general pattern. With both my finished novels, my ideas arrived in two parts–the beginning and the end. I could see how each story would begin, imagining the first scene down to the dialogue, and how each would end. The hard part, I have found, is building the middle to link the ends together. It’s like walking along a rope bridge suspended over a raging river–full of uncertainty and only safe on either shore. When I reached the final scene in my recently completed manuscript, the words poured out of me like the waters of that river, so thankful was I to be at the end. That scene, conceived at the very genesis of the story, waited in limbo while I tread one step at a time across the bridge, not looking down.

Now that I am on a semi-hiatus (I am piddling around with a piece of fan fiction just to satisfy my own needs), I have begun thinking of what story I want to tell next. I have several candidates–a science/historical fiction piece, a thriller, and a magical realism novel are leading the pack–and in each case I have the beginning and the end already figured out. I look forward to telling each one and the many more I’ve thought about over the years, but I know when I’m beyond my stretch of shore and over the rushing water, navigating along that precarious bridge, that the real work begins.

However, that’s also when the magic begins. While writing the first and last scenes gives me a certain level of satisfaction, mostly from the act of just getting them down on disk instead of floating around in my head, that joy pales in comparison to the act of writing something that surprises even me while I’m creating it. Even finishing the work does not match the perfectly worded phrase, the particularly poignant dialogue, or the resonant simile as it springs from nothingness, flows out through my hands, and arrives neat and whole on my computer screen. Of all the feelings I have experience as a writer so far, this is the best.

Three nights ago, I finished the first draft of my second novel. Writing “The End” beneath the last paragraph brought an end to approximately four months of almost-nightly labor. At around 65k words, it is almost half the size of my first attempt at writing a novel, but I also think it is much better than my first. A big story in a small package.

Now, the hard part begins.

When I finished my first novel, I did as I was instructed by many experts in the publishing industry and let it sit for a few weeks before I dove back in to start the editing process. Halfway through editing, my computer died and, in my foolishness, I had not made a backup of the revised work. The rough draft rests peacefully on my new computer, likely to never see the light of day. Like a summer romance, my first novel was a great relationship while it lasted, but there was never anything permanent, nothing to stick with for the long haul. I’ve fallen out of love with it and in love with my new project.

When editing begins on the new story, I already have several things I want to change. My writing process consists of getting everything down in the first draft, then closing any gaps during the rewrite. There were times, fewer with this novel than the last, when I knew as I was writing that I would have to revisit the passages, even as they appeared on my computer screen, would have to go back and clarify what I was trying to say or find a better way to describe what was happening. There were also times, more with this work, that I looked at what I had written with the kind of pride that only comes when you surpass what you believed to be your limits. These lines, whether for their poetry or their wit, make the process of writing seem less like work and more like what it is–an act of passion.

Now, the job turns from basic construction to making every line feel special. All the awkward transition, the phony-sounding dialogue, the ham-handed descriptions, have to go in order to achieve a manuscript that I will be proud to submit to agents and publishers. In On Writing, Stephen King describes himself as a “putter-inner,” someone who adds more detail than is needed to story, then must cut it out to achieve the resonance he is looking for. I, on the other hand, am a “leaver-outter.” There are several scenes that I need to go back and add to better explain what is going on, including one that bears directly on the climax where I added a critical character I had neglected to place earlier in the story.

However, editing is a dangerous thing. The temptation comes from wanting to add too much, from not knowing when you have done enough and not giving in to the urge to over explain. When I write, I tend to be a bit “alpha-omega” in my basic design. I know how to start and how to finish the story, but getting from the former to the latter is a difficult road that often comes out half-formed on the page. In these cases, I realize even during the act of composition that I will have to go back and add scenes. I suppose that I could go back and make the changes as soon as I realize they are needed, but I’m scared of interrupting the narrative flow I’m counting on to get me to the end of the story.

In the meantime, you must also part with as much of the story as necessary, an act of addition by subtraction. This process is similar to a game of Jenga. In this popular game, the object is to remove wooden blocks from a tower constructed of them without knocking over the whole. The first draft is building the tower, stacking the blocks as quickly and as efficiently as possible in order to play the game. Editing is removing the blocks. Like in Jenga, you want to take out as much as possible without toppling the tower. Every word takes up valuable space in your manuscript and every last adjective, adverb, and prepositional phrase must pay for itself in the balance sheet of your story. Nothing extraneous must be allowed to remain.

That is the advantage of the first draft. When you finish, you can look back and see all the holes in your story, all the mistakes in the design, all the places that do not shine.

I’m looking forward to editing my book. As happy as I am with the rough draft, I do accept that it is just that–rough. There are elements that I want to add, places where I need to add, places I need to subtract. There are true groaners that, under closer scrutiny, will seem like pure ineptitude. Still, I accept the challenges these present. I accept the chance to shine.

 Have you taken my advice from Part One and done as you were told? Gone off to write the next great novel or short story or personal narrative or radio jingle? Have you left my post with great intentions but no idea where to start? I thought you might be back. Well, dear reader, I have a suggestion.

Fan fiction.

To someone with Pulitzer ambitions, who has already been practicing their interview for when their novel becomes an Oprah Book Club selection, fan fic seems like becoming a literary whore, but I say there are benefits, particularly for someone new to the writing process, from whoring yourself out.

First, the essence of fan fiction is that the authors write about something they like–a favorite book, a great movie, or even a cheesy television series. The stories can be true to what they know or can vary widely from existing canon, coupling characters that would never, under any circumstances, get together; or exploring beyond what we know about the inspiring work. One of the benefits, aside from the sheer act of creation, of writing fan fic is that you are often writing about something you have a passion for. Right now, for example, in between work on the final couple of chapters of my novel, I am working on a Harry Potter fan fiction that picks up where J. K. Rowling left off after the Battle of Hogwarts in the last book. (For anyone who would complain about the vague spoiler here, I would say that if you haven’t read the book yet, you’re not a true fan anyway.) I am an avid fan of Rowling’s work and can’t stand to see Harry, Ron, and Hermione age nineteen years in the time it takes me to flip a page. Damn it, I want to know what happened in those nineteen years and if she won’t tell me, then I’ll figure it out on my own. That passion, the overriding need to know what happened or what could happen under the right circumstances, is what creates good writing. No author ever became successful by being indifferent to his or her subject. Every novel you see is an act of passion and if you learn to harness the passion you already have for something else, it will be easier to do when you have an original idea. When you physically, mentally, and emotionally need to know what happens in your own story, you can drive yourself through all self-doubt and cast aside all excuses until the work is complete.

The second benefit to writing fan fiction is that, on most online sites, readers are allowed to review your work, allowing you continuous, and sometimes immediate, feedback on the quality of your writing. However, you should brace yourself for this fact–not all feedback will tell you how great you are. Some people who review your work will offer constructive criticism meant to improve your writing while some will, for reasons still unknown to me, trash you simply for the sake of tearing you down. Once you weed out the trash talkers, use the constructive comments to improve your writing. If one person sees a flaw in your story, your style, or even your grammar, more will probably see the same thing, particularly editors and agents who do such things for a living. As you write and read what people think of your work, you become more aware of the blind spots you have and are quicker to seek and destroy them. The editorial process, something which many authors have trouble with, becomes easier as you learn to look for your mistakes rather than to look over them. Another benefit of reader reviews is that when they are good, they boost your confidence. Anyone who has ever poured their heart and soul into a piece of writing, only to ship it off to some publishing entity, wait for six months, and receive a form rejection letter can tell you of the importance of keeping your confidence up during and after the writing process.

One more positive that I’ll touch on regarding fan fiction is the sense of community you find on many fan fiction sites. When a group of people get together and apply their imagination toward a single thing, regardless of the form their creativity takes, it allows people of similar interests to share ideas and, in many cases, help each other build confidence in their work. Fan fiction communities, in this sense, offer the same benefit as conventional writing groups, that sense of camaraderie that comes from common interests, common labors, and common dreams.

I was skeptical at first about writing fan fiction. I thought that adding my own two-bits to Rowling’s series would be a waste of time, a distraction from the works that I thought might be commercially viable. Then, I realized that, by thinking along those lines, I was missing the point of writing entirely. We don’t write to make money, to make friends, or to make it sound like we’re trying to get out of our miserable jobs. We write because we are driven to write. We write because we have passion and that passion needs to be expressed when and where we can find an outlet. For your writing to be worth reading, it has to fill a need, not a want. I want to make money. I want that Pulitzer. I want to be on Oprah. I NEED to write.

And that makes all the difference.

P.S. If you would like to read my contribution to the Potter universe, go to Mugglenet.com’s fan fiction site and find “Harry Potter and the Golden Sepulcher” by leesmiley (my less-than-imaginative pen name). Feel free to leave me a review and read some of the other works on there. Very creative, we Potterphiles.

 At some point in my career, hopefully when I’m an internationally-known author, I would like to look back on the early blog posts, laugh, and think with nostalgia how much of a struggle life was. Hardship, when viewed from the far side, is like a near-miss car crash. You look in your mirror and think of how close things were and, with a few more inches of misfortune, how much worse they could have been.

In the meantime, all I can do is hold onto the wheel and hope I don’t get hit.

After taking some time off to think about what I want to write about here, I have decided that I will focus on writing more than the other aspects of my life. I may still discuss the odd facet of retail management or make a general observation about something in our culture that I feel passionate about, but from here on, I hope to use this blog as a place to compile my thoughts on writing–my approach to it, my feelings about it, and, hopefully, my successes with it.

Right now, I am an unpublished author, newly 31 years of age. I have completed one novel–a fantasy of 120,000 words–and am nearing completion on my second. My current project is a horror novel that will probably top out at 70-75k. Obviously, it is much shorter than my first, but it is also, in my opinion, much better.

The writing process is best learned on the job. You can read all the books about writing, take all the courses you like, attend all the workshops you can find, but the only way to improve is to do it. My first novel, while a pretty good story, has some serious problems that I could recognize even during the course of composition. That is why, good story that it is, it will likely never see the light of day. You, dear reader, might ask why I would spend three months writing a novel that I don’t plan to publish. The answer, the short answer, anyway, is that I have received more from my unpublished first novel than I could from my second novel, even if it achieves publication. By starting a long piece of fiction and, more importantly, finishing it, I have convinced myself that it is possible for me to become a writer. It is the foundation on which all my later writing will stand, the cornerstone for my life as a successful author or as a life-long struggling writer.

As I said in an earlier entry, I was inspired to pick up the pen again by Stephen King’s On Writing, using it to brainwash myself into believing I was a writer. From there, it was only a matter of finding the discipline to say what I wanted and to say it damn near every night until I finished. If you are a new writer, a fan of King’s fiction, or someone just looking for a bit of general inspiration, you could do worse than to buy the audio version of On Writing and listen to it about a hundred times.

Another book I would recommend to new writers is Your First Novel by Laura Whitcomb and Ann Rittenberg. The former is a published author who, in the first half of the book, offers sound and practical advice for writers looking for direction in their craft. The latter is a literary agent who picks up the publishing process with the manuscript submission and takes it all the way through to publication day and beyond. Their explanations of publishing protocol and the plain-spoken descriptions of the printing process demystify the daunting and sometimes-bewildering world.

So, quit reading this and go write something. Anything. Even the works that will never come close to publication teach us something about the writing process, and about ourselves.

I’m convinced that everyone has a muse. Every person has that spark, that divine inspiration that allows us to seek creative release in whatever form suits us–painting, music, gardening, or, in my case, writing. Most of us, however, have starved our muse, have neglected it like an unwanted mongrel dog, chained and penned and forgotten in the backyards of our minds. The hectic modern lives we lead leave us no time to enjoy the simplest pleasures of engaging in the act of creation or the therapy we could find from them.

I believe most of us imprison our muses at about the same time. Thanks to our educational system, we are taught that some forms of creation are good, others are bad, and that we must all follow certain rules to be accepted by the grade-giving gods of the English department. Throughout high school and college, we are conditioned to speak a certain way, write a certain way, and think a certain way, yet a study of the true geniuses of the literary world tells us that these iron-clad rules are negotiable. Hemingway’s sentences are structured barely beyond what my seven-year old reads for her first grade class. Faulkner, on the other hand, could not end some sentences, letting them run and ramble like hyper-caffeinated toddlers. More recently, Cormac McCarthy, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for The Road, apparently cannot find the apostrophe or quotation marks on his keyboard. While these authors are literary giants, and rightfully so, any student or unknown wishing to emulate their various rule-breaking styles would be pounced upon by most English teachers who so rarely see true talent in their lives that, should it arrive, they might not be able to see it amidst their desire for ordered sentences and clean punctuation. Any originality we wish to show gets bent, changed, disguised to produce work we think we’ll please our “wardens of words” instead of coming forth proudly in our own original style.

I fell victim to this as well. For years, I was told to study Hemingway and Faulkner and so many others who bent the rules as they saw fit to enhance their storytelling, while being told to structure my own writing so tightly that a quarter would bounce off it without regard to what I was writing. To put it another way, the way I wrote became more important that what I wrote. To me, this was a tragedy and, by the end of my college days, I was burned out on writing. For several years, after being somewhat prodigious throughout my school years and gaining much praise from my teachers and peers for the quality of my writing, I left the art behind. I took my muse to an abandoned corner of the yard and chained it there with no food, no water, and no hope.

The years passed. I got married, had kids, got divorced, got remarried, had more kids. I worked my way up in retail management with various companies, but never truly loved what I was doing. Some element was missing, regardless of how much money I put to the bottom line or how much my staff enjoyed working for me, or how high an opinion my bosses had of me. I felt incomplete. Then, one day in 2000, that all changed.

I was working with an office supply chain and had volunteered to go to St. Louis to help out a store there with some much needed inventory management. I spent two days there, working third shift to revamp the store, and on my way home I stopped at a bookstore in Fairview Heights just on the Illinois side of the river. While browsing the shelves, I came across a new work by Stephen King–On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft–and was immediately intrigued. I had been a casual fan of King’s work, had followed the news of his near-fatal automobile incident in the papers and online, and knew I needed this book. I purchased the audio version and listened to it on the long ride home to Kentucky, hearing how King developed into the writer he became and his general advice on the writing life. When I returned home, I listened to On Writing over and over–while cleaning house, while mowing the lawn, during my hour commute to work–until I could nearly recite every line and my wife grew very weary of King’s odd voice. All the while, I was preparing myself for a recovery mission, a quest to retrieve that part of me that was lost amidst the term papers and writing portfolios required to complete my education. Finally, in the summer of 2005, I had enough King-driven confidence and the sudden flash of insight I needed.

I was discussing with a coworker, who also bore an interest in writing, various story ideas that we had both thought of over the years and this discussion led to talk of imaginary friends. That’s when the lightning of inspiration struck. It was there all at once, like a mountain appearing from nowhere, and I knew that my muse was breaking free of the bonds I had set upon it. What if, I said to myself, a person received a letter from their imaginary friend? When I got home late that evening, I sat down at the computer and wrote a few hundred words. It was a taxing three hours that produced very little for my effort. I went to bed exhausted, but happy, because I, despite my difficulty, was creating.

The next night, I repeated the ritual. In his book, King urges the new writer to set a goal and suggests that 1000 words a day is a good place to start and so I adopted this goal. He suggests writing every day so the story does not go cold in the author’s mind, but I disregarded his advice. I wrote every day, for it seemed that my muse-unchained had no desire to return to its isolated corner. There were times, due to other requirements of my time, that I was forced to put off my 1000 words, though very little would interfere with my output. Some nights, after working my full time jobs as manager, parent, and husband, I would simply collapse without setting down the next installment of my story, those these days were thankfully few. At first the going was slow and painful, much like a runner starting from their couch to train for a marathon, but as the nights passed, the story came easier and easier. My three hours shrank to an hour on many nights, some nights less, and I would often get down 2000 or more words before stopping. I developed an instinct for knowing when to leave off so as to not risk my fatigue negatively influencing the story. After three months, I had 120, 000 words and, in my opinion, a pretty good fantasy novel. A FINISHED fantasy novel.

In the two years since I began writing again, I am happy to say that the art has filled that missing piece of my identity that plagued me before I found my way back to the blank page. I still stick to my 1000 word a night rule, though I’ve had extended periods recently where that was not possible. During these droughts, I do not sleep well and feel disoriented, which only serves to strengthen my commitment to my muse. In addition to the first novel, I have written several short stories, have completed about half of another fantasy novel, and have begun what I believe will be my best work yet–a semi-horror novel that I am eager to complete. When I write, I use no notes, no outlines, no diagrams. I sit down and write what I see and that seeing has grown easier the more I have done it. Just like King said it would.

I owe a great deal to Stephen King. Besides setting the standard to which every would-be popular novelist aspires, his memoir gave me the push I needed to realize that I CAN write–no, that I SHOULD write–and the simple, but direct, vote of confidence that I needed to understand that the stories I have to tell are good and worth telling. Kings says that writing a novel “is like crossing the Atlantic in a bathtub–there’s plenty of room for doubt.” That is true, but there’s always less doubt with someone else–in my case, Stephen King–to help you row the tub along.