Novelist

Archive for April, 2011

Insatiable

Last night on Facebook, I asked my friends to suggest a single word — any word. Thirty-nine responses (as of this writing) produced some dandies. This morning, I ran a random-number generator to zero in on a winner: insatiable (thanks, Laura!). This word is the basis of what I hope will become an every-Friday writing exercise: Where I use the inspiration of a single word to write a scene or full story at least two pages long, one that includes the word in question.

Full disclosure: I came across this exercise on Janet Fitch’s blog and have adapted it to my own use.

Now, the story …

More and more, as she watched him slide away from her in increments, she thought of that first summer together. How his searching hands would find her, any time of day, and pull her in for closer examination. How his eyes, his mouth, his tongue would set out in insatiable discovery, like an explorer unleashed on terra nova. In the middle of the day, as the house sweltered, he would traverse the ridgelines of her hips, the switchbacks in the nape her neck, the deep canyons that hadn’t been breached in so long. Utterly exposed, utterly safe. Lately, those days, once the sweetest of memories, had turned to taunting her.

And now, her hair in tight curls, wearing clothes that would be loosened only by her own hand at the end of the day, she cried in the darkness of the pantry, clutching a can of black beans.

*****

She thought of their home now as a series of zones, diced up and labeled like a board game. Her knitting room, where solitude was a limitless resource. His office, stacked in prospectuses and Covey texts. Her armoire. His leather recliner. Her kitchen. His backyard putting green. The bedroom remained theirs, but battle lines hashed across that space, too, creating a score of demilitarized zones that only they knew.

Over a series of months, all-out war had ceded to détente, a kind of purgatory, and while she did not miss the fights, she yearned for the passion behind them.

She dabbed at her eyes with the kitchen towel and then punctured the beans with the can opener.

*****

The sound of his feet on the stairs, bounding up them two at a time, gave her insides a twist, and she pivoted from the center island to the oven, putting her back to the basement door.

“What’s for dinner?”

“Enchiladas.”

“Again?”

“Again. If you want something else, there’s a refrigerator full of food right there. Help yourself.” She waved her hand to her right, not turning.

“Relax.”

She bristled. He settled in at the table, letting loose with that series of grunts that she loathed. “Ohohohohohoh.”

“So, hon, looks like I’m going to San Diego next week,” he said.

“Oh?” She plunged the spatula into the dinner, carving it into servings.

“Yeah, meeting a new vendor. Could be interesting.”

“How long?”

“Four or five days.”

She brought over his plate, setting it in front of him and handing him a fork. “I could get some time off,” she said.

“Why?” He shoveled an oversized bite into his mouth, then spat it out. “Hot!”

“Go with you,” she said, sitting down across from him. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been there. Could be fun.”

He stabbed at the food on his plate, opening steam vents in it. “You know, Glen and I had pretty much planned to get in a few rounds of golf. Maybe next time, huh?”

She stood and then walked back to the oven, where she served up her own meal.

“You know, hon, I think I’ve figured out what I don’t like about these enchiladas,” he said. “They’re just a little bland. What do you think? Maybe some jalapenos on top? It might spice them up a bit.”

She sat down again, pressing the apron against her thighs. Her fork sliced clean through the soft corn torilla, whittling off a bite just so. She put it in her mouth and savored the taste, chewing it gently into pulp before swallowing.

“You know what, hon?” she said. “You’re a fucking asshole.”


Here’s the thing about addition: It really adds up

Earlier this week, I was chatting with a friend about — here comes an awful-sounding phrase — my rate of production.

His observation: “You really crank it out.”

He meant it admiringly, and I didn’t take offense, but I’m not particularly fond of the word “crank.” Something about it suggests automation rather than craftsmanship, and I can assure you that while I may be a quick writer (sometimes), I’m never on autopilot.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think of it as cranking. I think of it as doing the work in small but consistent increments.* In other words, I show up every day at this desk and move something along, whether it’s a short story, a novel in progress, a book I’m publishing, a speech, whatever.

A piece of writing builds up the same way a bank account does, through a series of deposits. While I’ve never been particularly gifted at the latter, I can testify to the former. Let’s say you commit yourself to writing five days a week, twenty-six fifty-two weeks a year. Consider a bit of math:

  • 250 words a day, on average, will bring you 32,500 65,000 words a year, a good chunk of a novel.
  • 500 words a day will bring 65,000 130,000 words.
  • 750 words a day will bring 97,500 195,000 words.
  • 1,000 words a day will bring 130,000 260,000 words.

Now, these are just words, and words are worth little in the abstract. They have to be good words, and the good news is that consistently applying one’s self to the work leads to better work, just the same as practicing makes a better ballplayer.

It really is that simple. If you want to write, sit down and write. Otherwise, you’re just a dreamer.

* — 600 Hours of Edward being the obvious exception. There’s nothing small and incremental about writing a first draft in less than a month.


To Dillon and back: an incomplete travelogue

If you followed the old blog, you might remember my Missoula travelogue from a week ago, when I proved that I’m a rather lacking photojournalist. Not content to prove it once, I’ve reiterated it with a trip to Dillon this week for a reading at the University of Montana Western.

Take my hand and away we go …

When I left Billings at about 9 a.m. Monday, this was the view of the sky through the moon roof of my car. Nice, eh?

In a post preceding the trip, one of the things I asked for was a clear view of the mountains. Wish granted.

I love Bozeman so much, I can’t even tell you. I get a little shot of energy every time I drive into downtown.

Maybe it’s the awesome sugar-free latte that awaits me at Leaf and Bean

… or perhaps it’s that I’ll be visiting the Country Bookshelf, one of my favorite bookstores. This time, I had to pick up the current issue of Montana Quarterly. I made a snap decision on the way out to read my short story “Cruelty to Animals,” which appears in this issue.

About 35 miles outside Bozeman, I stopped at the Town Pump to load up on snacks. My haul: a frozen huckleberry drink (44 ounces), a loaded hot dog (tucked away in a pizza sleeve), and Tic-Tacs to blunt the effects of the hot dog.

Downtown Dillon, August 1942, from the "Captured: America in Color" collection. Check out this picture and others at http://tinyurl.com/4xzvcpg

 

OK, do you remember this photo from downtown Dillon? Well, the building is still there …

I think I speak for everyone when I say “Bring back the turret!”

This is what was directly behind me when I took the picture of the now turret-less building. After reading this, I’m now sorry I didn’t go in. Next time!

I made it to Dillon just after 2 p.m. and my host for the evening, Alan Weltzien, was not going to be ready for me for a few hours. So I did the only sensible thing: I headed for the Beaverhead Golf Course.

 

And like the hack I am, I put up a craptastic score. Here’s the thing, though: My form is picture-perfect. Clearly, my tools are inferior.

Now then …

At this juncture, the picture-taking ends for a while. Among the things that happened as I kept my cell phone in my pocket: dinner with Alan and his lovely wife, Lynn; a stroll on campus; a reading to a very nice crowd at The Cup, the UM Western campus coffee shop; a few rounds of drinks with Alan and some of his friends. Because, hey, who wants to see that when you can look at a golf cart, right?

Tuesday morning at 10 a.m., I headed home:

The day before, on the way to Dillon, I’d noticed a closed-down campus of some sort in Twin Bridges. It’s the old Montana State Orphanage, which has been closed since 1985. I vowed to take a closer look on the way back. Here’s the sign out front, festooned with for-sale messages.

You can’t see it very well in this picture, but there’s a Victorian house on the grounds that is just haunting — and badly in need of repair.

Over the fence, here’s a view of some of the buildings on the campus. This Seattle Times story from 1995 tells what life was like at the orphanage for a couple of its former residents.

More orphanage buildings. A Bozeman Daily Chronicle story of more recent vintage tells what the owner of the property hopes to do with it.

Back on the road. The route between Dillon and Interstate 90, where I’d turn east toward home, basically runs in a long river valley between mountain ranges. Here was the view outside my passenger window.

Still more scenery. One of the things I love about driving in the mountains is that there’s such a difference between what you see on the way in and what you see as you retrace your path.

Trenchant political commentary in a restroom at the Whitehall Town Pump.

As I made my way home after lunch in Bozeman, I watched the coming weather with trepidation.

As it turned out, I just had to withstand a little rain. No problem.

Everyone should get to come home to a dachshund.


Going west, again

The list of things that I love, if I were to be completely honest and cast out the most casual uses of the verb, would not be very long. (I do not, for example, really love red velvet cake, although I am amenable to heavy petting.) But right up there — somewhere below my wife and dogs but above my shirt-tail relatives — would be road trips. All things being equal, and the cost of gas not being a factor, I can think of few things I’d rather do with a day off than point the nose of my SUV toward some destination. Often, the more remote, the better.

Where I’m headed today fills the bill nicely: I’m going to Dillon, Mont., 257 miles southwest of Billings, to read from my work at Dances With Words, a program hosted by the English department at the University of Montana Western. You can read the press release here.

Downtown Dillon, August 1942, from the "Captured: America in Color" collection. Check out this picture and others at http://tinyurl.com/4xzvcpg

From http://maps.google.com/

I’m really looking forward to this trip, even coming on the heels of a longer one — to Missoula and back — last week. A natural-born road tripper should never complain about the frequency of his journeys, lest the road gods conspire and keep him caged in one place for a protracted time.

One of the great things about this relatively new career as an author is that I get invitations to visit places that aren’t necessarily on the road to anywhere else, and when I’m beckoned here in the state that I’ve made my home, I get to fill in some more of my knowledge of this vast, history-filled place.

My hope for today: clear roads, a good view of the mountains and new friends at the other end of the asphalt.


Talking it out

If you live long enough and stridently enough — I’m working on the former and a master of the latter — life will eventually demonstrate to you that all of your grand pronouncements are, in a word, bullroar.

Luckily, I’ve been kicked in the teeth enough times to have a decent example of this at the ready.

In another life, I was one of the sports editors at the San Jose Mercury News. At the time, we had a columnist who is a rather well-known fellow these days (it would be indiscreet to tell you that his name is Skip Bayless). When this columnist was scheduled to write — three or four times a week — he would generally call in, get hooked up with the editor on duty (sometimes me) and engage in a long, mostly one-sided discussion about the ins and outs of the column. A few hours later, the column would arrive, and damned if it didn’t contain many of the words this writer had expended on the phone.

Back then, when these half-hour-or-longer phone conversations represented a significant expenditure of my overall workday, I considered this exercise a conceit by a big-timer that I had to swallow for the good of the team.

Then I started writing fiction — and started doing almost the exactly the same thing to someone else, my friend Jim Thomsen, whom I jokingly refer to as my literary wingman. Only it’s no joke.

A few weeks ago, as a story idea I’d been turning over in my head for months started to percolate and demand to be written, Jim and I spent upward of two hours breaking down my idea via text message. We talked about the basic heft of the idea, possible directions the story could go, point of view, secondary and tertiary characters, conflicts, setting. Everything. And while I don’t think I was a bother to Jim, the truth of the matter is, I wouldn’t have noticed if I were. I needed that skull session in order to move ahead with the marathon chore of actually writing the story. It’s not as if we intricately plotted things out; I still don’t know exactly where it’s going to end up, and some of the aspects that I thought were dead-solid certain have shifted even in these early days of drafting it.

Beyond that, I realize now that Skip’s seemingly incurable need to talk before he wrote was, perhaps, wholly legitimate in the context of his process. I get it now: If you’re a writer, you want to know that your good idea really is worthwhile, at least in the eyes of someone you trust. You want feedback on how you’re going to approach it, where it’s going to go, how you’re going to get it there. I feel a little sheepish now for any umbrage I took at Skip’s phone calls back then. (The sheer outrageousness of some of his contentions allow me to stop short of actual regret.)

Still, it must be said:

I was wrong.


Welcome to my new home on the Web

It’s not that I have disdain for the old one; it’s simply that I outgrew it.

As time has gone on, it’s become increasingly difficult to deal with a blog and a website that were in separate places and required separate content management systems (a 21st-century phrase if there ever were one).

By moving here, I have everything in one handy spot.

The new place is habitable, but not all the furniture and knickknacks have completed the move. Please exercise patience as I get things spiffed up.