Life, in a can of paint (changes for 2013)

I spent part of the holiday break painting a couple of “accent” walls in my house. I wavered between two color choices: a grey-blue, or dark red. I went with red, preferring the sense of fire and passion and emotion it brings up for me.

photo (1)I find painting tedious and routinized. The advantage, though, is that you can spend the time thinking about other things. Since it’s the start of a new year, my thoughts wandered into resolutions, the idea of beginning anew, and “character” development.

To be very charitable, 2012 held a “rough patch” for me. I’ve since been working to paint a new (or renewed) self. Among other changes, I want to (re)discover a feeling of fearless love, toward life and toward myself and toward the passion and willingness to be vulnerable and caring that have led to the best things in my life. Somewhere along the line, life snuck in, snatched that away, and sabotaged the good. I want it back.

paint canHere’s where I’m taking direction, as absurd as it sounds, from a paint can. Redecorating requires that you follow a few rules. First, there’s prep work. Painting, both walls and the self, is a messy process. If you don’t take time to set up your work area, you’re likely to do as much harm as good. Set your drop cloth down, tape off the area that you want the new paint to cover, and don’t forget to clean the work surface. No matter how it got there, you’re responsible for the gunk and grime on the walls you live in. Simply covering up what’s currently showing doesn’t work. For the paint to stick, you’ve got to clean up the old and repair cracks and scars.

Second, you need to give the paint time to dry. Often you’ll need several coats. Rushing the process doesn’t work and can actually be counter-productive, muddying the finish you want. Patience and a willingness to sit calmly in the midst of mess are required.

I’ve realized that my writing often turns to a similar interplay between surface and what is covered. As a writer, I’m fascinated with what lurks beneath. I talk in Chapter One of Ghost Music about how we live on top of a palimpsest, with hidden layers under our feet. I mention elsewhere the idea of running atop a cracked surface, trying to stay one step ahead of the crumbling ground. Characters try to escape the past, only to find that they never leave anything truly behind. Words create a veneer that says one thing but vibrates with the weight of unspoken emotions. For me, it always comes back to emotion, which some characters push down in a (doomed) effort to contain it.

Ghost Music is a murder mystery. Of course, murder will out. But the same is true of emotion and history. Emotion will out, while history is in fact always present. I can’t undo 2012. I also can’t just cover it up. Painting—whether it’s a scene for readers to envision, a new self, or even something as ordinary as a wall—involves a great deal more than just slapping on some color. Done properly, it’s not as much covering up as it is repairing, adding to, and building upon what’s underneath.

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Tattoos, pain, and writing

I have a few tattoos already. I have plans for a few others: when I qualify for the Boston Marathon, I’ll get a tattoo that captures that moment on my calf; when Ghost Music is published, I’ll get a tattoo celebrating that dream. Those of you with tattoos are probably familiar with this question—people often ask me if getting a tattoo hurts. My answer isn’t exactly what they’re looking for. For me, there’s a powerful connection between my writing, my tattoos, and that question about pain.

I’m not talking about physical pain from getting a tattoo (though I will say that getting a tattoo on the side of your torso isn’t the most fun). Rather, my tattoos have me simultaneously celebrating and second-guessing how I’d like to live my life. Both tattoos are related to my writing. I mentioned before that I am an emotional writer. When I’m at my best, I’m ready to burn with emotion, explode with the passion and pain of feeling, and willing to grab hold of the live wire of emotional existence with bare hands. The tattoo on my torso is meant to capture this: Icarus is flying into the sun, wings melting and feathers falling. Though the original story isn’t intended this way, I take Icarus not as a cautionary tale but as a promise to myself: I’m willing to scorch myself and push to the point of no return in pursuit of emotional intensity.

My other tattoo has a literary bent as well: on my upper left arm, a stone gargoyle sits hunched over, sadness in his eyes, eating his own heart. A response to Stephen Crane’s “In the Desert,” this tattoo reminds me of how I feast on emotion and have a love-hate relationship with feelings of sadness. “Love:” the intensity of the pain often shakes lose new creative directions for me. Hate: feeling the pain is overwhelming at times.

A few caveats to this creative process. First, let’s not romanticize the method. I don’t like feeling lousy. It’s not a mystical muse that I want to court or think is special. Yes, “pain is real,” but when you’re in pain feeling “real” isn’t so cool. Second, you have to take that emotional energy and compress it, hammer it out into a cohesive plan. I’m a planner when I write. I know the general framework of where I want to go and how I want to get there. I use the emotional upheaval as a planning block: how does emotion X fit into plot Y and advance character Z?

For me, this becomes the best of all possible worlds: it makes the writing less mechanical, it balances pure emotion within a broader perspective/plan, and it makes room for an important tweaking of that platitude to “write what you know.” More on the last point in a later post…

Writing and eating–food for thought

Today I’m thinking about how writing is like eating. There are lots of ways to take this simile.

We can go the modernist route and suggest that art is the very bread of life, that words provide an almost spiritual sustenance to us. Personally I think that’s a bit over the top and puts a wee bit too much pressure on writing. But the writing as nourishment angle is interesting.

We could argue that some authors have almost compulsive styles of writing, so that Hemingway or Raymond Carver are anorexic in the sparseness of their prose and refuse to add any morsel that isn’t absolutely necessary to the life of their work. Other writers gorge themselves (and their readers) on a literary style that refuses to hold anything in, creating incredibly long, convoluted sentences that would make Hemingway or Carver nauseous.

And there are of course the great majority of us, who enjoy good meals and good writing and aspire to create both but, generally, seem to be missing the secret ingredient. This all came from my sense that I am, I here confess, an emotional writer. I don’t emotionally eat, I emotionally write. What does that mean? Simply that writing often helps smooth away the rough spots of the day for me and often gives me the space to step back and gain a little perspective. I need that. It’s a productive, therapeutic synergy for me: writing helps me process the emotions; the emotions become fuel for the writing.

This can be a dangerous game, though. No one wants to read regurgitated, stream-of-conscious wailing at the universe. Good writing, like good cooking, necessitates preparation. The menu needs to be thought about in advance and you can’t forget to clean-up after the cooking is finished. If you’re lucky, people will want to come back for more.

–Patrick

Shopping for concrete shoes with Faulkner

I’m thinking of murder again. Fictional, of course. There’s no mystery to the deaths I’m contemplating, though. They have to go.

So whose eminent demise am I talking about? It’s time for select phrases, sentences, and even sections of my novel Ghost Music to sleep with the fishes. I’m fitting them with concrete shoes, courtesy of the delete key.

I’ve of course revised and edited and cut a great deal from my novel already. It’s in a spot where I even think of it as “final.” Writing is rarely final, though. What I have, I think, is good. But it’s still too long. It’s bloated in spots and needs to be made leaner and more efficient.

All of which returns me to murder. I’ve made the easy cuts to my novel. It’s time to “kill my darlings.” The advice comes from Faulkner (though I’ve also seen it ascribed to others, including Stephen King). As a writer, there are probably sections or phrases that you particularly love. Words that you’ve hammered together that feel especially well constructed and resonate with exactly the right type of emotion. I have several spots like that. They need to go.

Why do I need to cut them if I like them so much? In part, it’s smart to kill your darlings because you are simply much too close to them. You love them. You can’t see them as objectively as you need to. And because of that, they can actually be disrupting the flow of your novel.

That’s what’s happening in my book. My darlings are sabotaging a few chapters. So should you immediately and always murder your favorite parts? Of course not. Sometimes your favorite parts are your favorite precisely because they do such a good job. But equally, you shouldn’t refuse to cut them just because they are your favorites. Divorce your ego from the writing. Look at the work as objectively as you can. Have others read those sections and don’t let your feelings be bruised if they don’t think as highly of the work as you do.

It’s not easy. It hurts to kill them. I feel guilty. But I know they need to die. To continue this strange pairing of Faulkner and the mafia, I need to murder some of those that are closest to me but have put the rest of the work in jeopardy. So here I am, shopping with Faulkner in Yoknapatawpha County for a pair of concrete shoes to put on my darlings. Murder, for a better manuscript.

–Patrick

Black Friday and murder

It’s Black Friday. If you’re out shopping, I wish you luck. You are a braver soul than I.

As a mystery writer, the phrase “Black Friday” twists another direction for me: it sounds like the title of a murder mystery. For fun, I’ve taken that idea and cobbled together what it might look like from a few different genres of mystery. Happy Thanksgiving/Black Friday everyone.

Suspense thriller: Thanksgiving was even more tense than usual. The entire town was nervous. Prayers of thanks had been more fervent this year and quickly shifted into prayers asking for protection. It had started on New Year’s Day. Then Valentine’s. Then Easter, the Fourth of July, even Veteran’s Day. The town paper already had the headline ready for tomorrow: “Black Friday — Holiday Homicides continue.”

Legal mystery: John knew his client was innocent. Maybe “knew” was too strong. He thought he was innocent. It didn’t really matter, legally speaking. And it shouldn’t have mattered from a personal standpoint. But for John it did.
John had spent Thanksgiving nodding politely at the dinner conversation and not really hearing anything. His client hadn’t spoken since his arrest last Friday. With no ID and no hits after his fingerprints were taken, the police referred to him as “Black Friday,” blending their racism with the upcoming holiday to create a moniker for the anonymous man they’d arrested.
The evidence continued to gnaw at John. Something was missing. He’d need to put the puzzle pieces together, showing the jury a different picture. But to do that, John needed to first find the missing pieces.

Cozy: Uncle Bertrand sat in his favorite armchair, reading the paper and occasionally clearing the phlegm from his throat. The leather squeaked with every slight movement Uncle Bertrand made. Thanksgiving had gone surprisingly well. No one liked Uncle Bertrand. Holiday squabbling, however, had been strangely muted this year. Uncle Bertrand slouched to the side of his chair, apparently falling into a post-meal slumber.
[but wait, it’s not tryptophan, it’s poison! And all family members are now suspects. Uncle Bertrand’s niece, Constance, must unravel  family secrets to find the Black Friday murderer.]

Hard-boiled: The mall was a zoo. Bodies crowded and crashed into one another as they grabbed for the best of post-Thanksgiving deals. Lonnie needed to find one guy in this mess of body odor and consumer excitement. And he needed to find him quick. The proverbial needle in the haystack. Cyrus was nasty. He snapped necks like kids snapped wishbones after Thanksgiving meals, with a smile and excitement.
Shots rang out from The Cheesecake Factory. Lots of shots. Lots of screams.
Lonnie dashed to the door. Too late. Cyrus was gone. He left eight bodies. Blood covered the floor. Brain matter slid down the wall. A clump of hair stuck to the board advertising the daily specials.
“Welcome to Black Friday,” thought Lonnie.

Literary mystery: Friday was black. The ionized air lifted the hair on my arms as the storm rolled in. Clouds twisted upon themselves as they raced across the purple sky. Though midday, sunlight struggled to find its way through the roiling mess.

The darkness crept over everything. Or maybe the darkness was instead crawling out of my heart, changing how I saw everything around me. Since Sara’s murder, I felt as though I’d collapsed in a house of mirrors. I couldn’t find reality. There were fractures everywhere I looked.
Today, though, I was ready to crawl out. I owed that to Sara. She’d whispered one word to me as she died. One word. I was ready to unlock it, no matter where it led me. One word: giblets.

Waiting for the publisher

Writing a novel, I’ve discovered, is not an ideal undertaking for those who are impatient. I’m not good at waiting. I hate going to the bank, or the post office, where lines seem to take forever. I’d rather take surface roads and drive the long way home than sit on the freeway in rush hour traffic and move slowly. You get the idea.

Beyond the hours and months and years invested in taking an initial idea to completion as a novel, though, there is an unbelievable amount of time where you can’t do anything but wait. What looked like the finish line–completing the novel–is actually only about the midway point. Then it’s time to find an agent or look for a publisher directly. That means a query letter. Then waiting, weeks or even months, to hear back. If they like what they read, maybe you’ll be asked to submit a longer sample, or even the full manuscript. If not, welcome to form letter rejection hell.

I’ve experienced both, several times. I’m never quite prepared for either outcome. Logging in to find an email from an agent or publisher still gives me a shot of adrenaline. Opening the message is like getting a gift from a secret Santa at work: you have no idea whether it’s something you’d like to display on your desk or bury in a drawer, but you’re pretty sure that whoever is doing the gifting would do a much better job if they just knew you a little bit better.

Assuming the gift is a good one and you’ve been asked to submit a full manuscript for review, the process feels like it’s jumped forward dramatically, only to come to a standstill almost immediately afterward. Publishers and agents are ridiculously busy. And though your novel should, obviously, be their top priority and you know it will grab their attention once they start reading it, there is evidently some unusual wormhole in the publishing world that slows time to a crawl. Four to six months seems to be pretty standard for a manuscript review. In an age filled with texts that jump back and forth with ease and messaging that has become “instant,” waiting months for something that is so important to you feels interminable.

I’m in that interminable, difficult, wormhole-like spot right now. The good folks at Oak Tree Press have asked to review my manuscript. They are exactly the type of press I’m looking for: a company that has helped other new writers get a start and forms a partnership with authors. Sunny has been especially helpful already, quick with replies and suggestions. Check out their books when you get a chance. Here’s hoping that this time my gift is an offer for publication–that’s a gift I would definitely enjoy seeing on my desk.

–Patrick