On planning a short story.

Now that I’ve finished a 21-day creativity challenge (courtesy of Grammarly), it’s time to keep the confidence and creativity going! I thought it’d be a good idea to walk you through how I write a short story step-by-step.

Step 1: Get inspired

For me, inspiration comes from my surroundings. I feel lucky that I’m able to pull from my daily environment and my day-to-day doings. For the past three weeks, I’ve been quarantining in Cape Coral, Florida with my sister, her husband, and FOUR kids (all under the age of 12). It’s been entertaining as hell and while I may be short on sleep, I am definitely not short on inspiration or love or laughter. Surrounded by palm trees, heat and humidity, and unpredictable and fast-moving storms, I had an idea to set a story in the Sunshine State. There’s been an idea I’ve been kicking around for a long time about a guy murdering his wife and getting rid of the body at an alligator farm, the kind where they give tourists airboat rides, and the local sheriff works with a beautiful but broken bartender from a honky tonk bar to solve the case. That feels like more of a novel, because it would absolutely take time and space unavailable in the short story format to explain everything concerning the plot, so I hunted for another idea.

My nephew Jonathan LOVES scary movies. It’s all he ever wants to watch and I know I’m mostly responsible. I’ve been forcing them on him since he was about four years old. The other night, he joined me in watching old episodes of “Ghost Adventures.” The episodes in question featured Mark and Debby Constantino, paranormal investigators and EVP experts who died tragically. After several incidents of domestic violence, Mark killed Debby and himself after a standoff with police. You can read more about the tragedy here.

Paranormal investigating, coupled with personal tragedy, makes for engrossing material. It’s been storming a lot here too, so an atmosphere formed in my mind before an actual story did, but everything I needed was there.

Step 2: Create a bare bones outline

Scenes don’t formulate for me until there’s a tangible kind of plan. I love making lists and outlines for this very purpose.

  • Two paranormal investigators meet online during a televised, live investigation
  • They bond over corny, melodramatic personality and technology used (looking at you, Zak Bagans … sorry)
  • They plan to meet in real life for a real ghost hunt
    • Stanley Hotel (and use my real life experience)?
    • Research abandoned lunatic asylums?
  • During the investigation: he kills her? she kills him? they find real ghosts? SO MANY POSSIBILITIES!

Step 3: Character sketches

I honestly believe the best stories are character-driven rather than plot-driven. It could be the most exciting series of events in the history of literature, but if the characters are flat and do not elicit some kind of visceral response, none of it matters.

My character sketches aren’t too detailed, which is frowned upon, but it works for me. My main character is named Madeleine. Madeleine chewed on the end of her lip ring on the inside of her bottom lip, an anxious habit —> heavily painted lips, a dark crimson; thick, black eyeliner; pitch black hair (dye from the box, drugstore); listening to Screamo(?), heavy metal(?); studio apartment, light beet can beside her at desktop computer?

The above sketch is very visual; I believe imagery is ESSENTIAL to storytelling. The reader NEEDS to have a picture painted in their minds in order to connect to the characters and the story. So as a picture forms, there are more questions to answer: should I set the story ten years earlier? twenty years? And as the picture becomes clearer, it brings me to step 4.

Step 4: Specific scenes

Again with my list-making: I make lists of specific scenes I want to include. So far, I have a scene with walkie talkies and EVPs (a demonic voice coming through, something neither investigator is prepared for), a scene referencing ITC and “white noise” (to build mood and atmosphere), and a Van der Graaff generator (featured on an episode of “Ghost Hunters,” but to be believable and specific, I need to do more research).

Step 5: Research

I’m going to be looking up any technical details I’m not familiar with to give my voice authenticity (an element emphasized in Chuck Palahniuk’s latest book, a brilliant memoir on writing). After that, I’ll write a rough draft and post it here.

On an unrelated note… in the past six or seventh months, I’ve become a better woman. I’ve been moving ever closer to the woman I always dreamed I’d be, and that is thanks in part to two very special women. I promised I’d write an entire blog post about them, but they’d be embarrassed and truth be told, I don’t think I’d ever be able to put into words how amazing these women are, at least not to my own satisfaction. So the short story will be dedicated to Casey and Kathleen.

On ending a 21-day challenge and maybe calling it a 21-day fix

I’m really glad I stumbled on this 21-day creativity challenge when I did, because life has been very weird for longer than anticipated. For me, it’s not so much a lack of inspiration as there is P L E N T Y to pull from if one only observes the world for a moment. For me, the trouble is sticking to a writing schedule, to get those plentiful ideas down on paper. The awesome thing about attempting this 21-day creativity challenge is that it has forced me to carve out time each and every day to be creative. It has forced me to create and stick to a schedule where I am writing (or developing inspiration for writing) everyday, and that in and of itself, has been i n v a l u a b l e.

So let’s review my third – and final 😦 – week of my 21-day creativity challenge.

Day 15: Perform a mundane task.

The idea behind this “challenge” reminds me of the “Eureka theory.” The “Eureka theory” proposes that formerly impossible becomes solvable when one “thinks outside the box,” which happens when the mind is allowed to wander from the problem and, in some instances, think about something else entirely. This (apparently) comes from ancient Greece when Archimedes was asked by a local king to prove the king’s crown was pure gold. Archimedes had no idea how to do that, and puzzled over the problem. The solution suddenly came to him when he was doing something entirely different and unrelated; taking a bath. When at the public bath, Archimedes “noted that water was displaced when his body sank into the bath, and particularly that the volume of water displaced equaled the volume of his body immersed in the water” (Wikipedia). Thus, Archimedes discovered how to find the volume of an irregular object, which solved his problem concerning the king’s crown, and legend has it that Archimedes was so excited that he jumped from the bath, yelled “Eureka (meaning “I have found it!”)!” and ran naked all the way home.

This method has definitely worked for me many, many times. When I let my mind wander and do its own thing, nine times out of ten it brings me to where I need to be. I even recommend this to my students; if they’re stuck, leave whatever it is behind and go do something they love for half-an-hour. The mind is more relaxed, more open to possibility, and the solution often appears.

I tell the students to do something they love instead of a mundane task because it offers more of a buy-in, or an incentive. For the older (and sometimes wiser), mundane works because there’s always something that needs to be done but can simultaneously prove fruitful for the creative life. Just the other day, I was folding what appeared to be a never ending pile of laundry and BAM! The plot hole I’d been puzzling over resolved itself! If only dealing with fitted sheets were so easy.

Day 16: Knit or crochet.

When I saw this challenge, every muscle in my body tensed. For years – literally years – I’ve been teasing a colleague who knits and crochets. It’s gentle teasing and truly comes from a place of love, but really? Seriously?

I had to stop judging and climb down off my high horse and give it a whirl. After all, I realized this “challenge” wasn’t so far off from doing something mundane. Knitting or crocheting could be like painting or coloring; the repetitive muscle movements and hyperfocus on the tactile challenge could indeed open up a world of possibilities. BUT – I also knew I couldn’t do this without my poor colleague I’d teased mercilessly. So I’m going to set up a time with her where she can show me the ropes (of yarn! … get it?) and I’ll post the finished product here.

Day 17: Make a list.

OMG, ALL I DO IS MAKE LISTS! In my daily planner, in my journal, on Post-it notes stuck all over my desk and monitor, there are lists and lists and lists! Again, the idea here is that considering a wealth of possibilities to whatever creative endeavor is challenging you, you open up your mind and find the right one.

Day 18: Have a conversation.

OMG, ALL I DO IS CONVERSATE! But really, direct quotes from conversations I have had with friends in real life end up in my writing A L L T H E T I M E. According to the late, great Professor Dumbledore, “Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” For example, I can remember all the details of when my second grade teacher told me years and years later that she remembered my handwriting and what a wonderful writer I was. And with equal clarity, I can remember when someone pointed out all the flawed editing in my first novel. I recorded the exchanges and have filed them away because 1) writing through real-life situations is an effective coping mechanism for me and 2) inspiration could be hiding within.

My hero Stephen King wrote:

Writers remember everything… especially the hurts. … A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is the ability to remember the story of every scar. Art consists of the persistence of memory.”

So having conversations, good and bad, and remembering them is important to helping stimulate creativity.

Day 19: Keep an idea file.

Done and done; been doing this for years. In my Google Drive, there are two folders: Novels and Short Stories. Inside each of those folders is another folder, simply labeled “Ideas.” And the best thing about those folders is that I’m constantly adding to them.

Day 20: Try a topic generator.

Topics/ideas aren’t really my issue, but these are fun to play with anyway. And the point of this 21-day “challenge” is to try new things and think outside the box.

Having trouble starting a deep, interesting conversation sure to be filled with nuggets of creative gold? Try this random conversation starter generator.

Having trouble thinking of something to write about? Try this topic generator specifically for blogs.

Or try this fun one!

Day 21: Light a vanilla cinnamon candle.

In life, it really is the little things. Sitting at my desk in my front room with the window open on a nice day, watching the sheer curtains ripple from the gentle breeze blowing through with a vanilla cinnamon candle flickering is a perfect way to start my writing day. Specifically, the vanilla cinnamon candle is good because in the aromatherapy realm, those two scents really seem to boost creativity.

So how did your 21 days go? Comment and let me know!

On week #2 of my 21-day creativity challenge.

I won’t repeat myself unnecessarily, so all I’ll do to open up this post is reiterate how difficult it can be to be creative during a pandemic. Life is not as it was, and information about returning to the way things were changes every day, and the amount of information is overwhelming and varied. The only real consensus is that there is no real consensus, and all of those circumstances can make it quite difficult to keep to a writing schedule and all of those circumstances can make it near impossible to start and stick to a *new* creative schedule. But at times like these, the best we can do is try. So please, join me on my second week of Grammarly’s 21-Day Creativity Challenge (featured here).

Day 8: Carry an idea notebook.

One of my favorite aspects of this challenge is that most of the tips are tips I already implement daily, let alone weekly. One of those tips is to carry an idea notebook. I’ve actually been teased for always having a journal and a pen in my purse or bag. Here’s photographic evidence of my idea journal:

Mostly, I write down things my friends say and dreams I remember. Occasionally, I’ll be especially inspired and able to write a scene, or a couple of scenes, or even a whole chapter! I write down the homily during mass too, and daily schedules, and let it all flow together. My writing life should and will forever be entwined with my general life.

Day 9: Freewrite.

A former co-worker RAVED about freewriting. We would have our students participate in that activity to help deepen their understanding of a concept, or help them begin to develop analysis. There’s excellent and extensive information about freewriting at this link. And other teachers, writing for Psychology Today, agree with our premise as its benefits go beyond the realm of creativity, as explained here.

So how does one freewrite? Luckily, The Book Designer walks you through it:

Here are some freewriting guidelines, although in the spirit of freewriting freedom, feel free to not follow any that don’t feel right.

1. Use a prompt.
2. Set a timer.
3. Keep your pen moving.
4. Write quickly.
5. Use the first word.
6. Write crap.
7. Go for it.

Find more information here.

Day 10: Join a social writing site.

I began to explore this last week when the tip was to join a group of creatives. Physically doing this is not a current option, but joining an online group through a social writing site is entirely plausible. According to Grammarly, the goal is to do more than just connect, however. Grammarly says, “If your muse gets lonely, online social sites for writers, such as Wattpad or Amazon Kindle’s Write On, may help. (Just be aware that getting noticed and earning feedback on these sites can require a significant time commitment.)” The goal should always be inspiration first, but there is the opportunity for developing a readership. I haven’t truly tackled this step yet, but I will and I will report back.

Day 11: Go somewhere busy.

This particular tip was difficult to try during this pandemic, so to talk about this tip, I have to rely on past experience. The benefits are almost endless. You can overhear real dialogue to make your own more authentic.I remember sitting at a crowded bar and watching two guys across the way rehash the fight one of them had with his girlfriend. I made note not only of the dialogue, but of the way they moved. Going to crowded places can also inspire settings which can develop plot.

Day 12: Go someplace quiet.

This tip, conversely, was extremely easy to accomplish. It seems like everywhere is someplace quiet. I’ve done my best writing alone in my room. What works best for me is gathering and generating ideas in busy places and then developing them into prose in quiet places. Quiet places help with concentration and can be relaxing and soothing. Also, the perfect blend of someplace busy and someplace quiet is one of my favorite places to write: a bookstore or coffee shop.

Day 13: Do something brave.

This one confused me when I first read it. Grammarly explains, “Shy? Join an improv group. Clumsy? Take a beginner’s dance class. Do something that pushes your limits and then use your experiences for inspiration.” Again, this becomes an issue when most places are closed and new experiences are severely limited. However, I did something brave as best as I could; I traveled to Florida during this quarantine to see my sister and her beautiful, precious family. I was worried about checkpoints at state lines, about rest areas and service stations being closed, and taking the trip in these scary times.

Day 14: Attend a creative event.

This is not possible currently, but I cannot stress enough how much attending writing conferences has helped me. I know I talked about this in last week’s post, but I’ll happily repeat myself if it convinces even just one person to put him or herself out there and attend a conference. The benefits vary depending on the conference, but no matter the conference, there are always undeniable benefits. I got into more details in the following posts:

Tune in next week for my third and final week of the 21-Day Creativity Challenge!

On a 21-day Creativity Challenge!

Last week, I happily posted about how I had a breakthrough while writing. I was pleasantly surprised by that burst of creative inspiration as it seemingly came from absolutely nowhere, seeing as how we’re STILL in the midst of a pandemic, which means we’re still social distancing and quarantining. As random as it appeared, I was afraid that after that initial spark, there’d be n o t h i n g. For once in my writing life, I decided to be proactive and challenge myself to be creative no matter the circumstance! I did some research and stumbled upon a Grammarly post about 21 Ways to Inspire Creativity When You’re Out of Ideas.

I saw the number 21 and figured it was a sign from the universe; if you do something consistently for 21 days, it becomes a habit. The 21 ways could easily become 21 days as long as I vowed to try a way a day (oh, how I love rhyme!). For the next three blog posts, including this one, I’ll be writing all about my 21-day creativity challenge! I’ll share what worked, what didn’t work, and what I learned!

Day 1: Listen to music.

I listen to music C O N S T A N T L Y. Hell, I even listen to music when I sleep! Naturally, I listen to music when I write. On my Instagram, I post a #tuesdaytune , which is a song that’s been especially inspiring that week. For a song to inspire me, it has to inspire great emotion, which for me, usually comes from the lyrics. If lyrics are especially poignant, I’ll stop in the middle of my writing and jot them down. I’ve been doing this since college:

This is one of my notebooks from college.
I spy lyrics from My Chemical Romance, Boxcar Racer, and Snow Patrol.
I spy lyrics from MGMT, Bayside, and Billy Joel.

For day one, I set myself up in my bedroom. I’d recently watched “Twilight,” inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s announcement she’s finally going to release Midnight Sun, Call me a snob, but I really didn’t care for the books. The writing was too juvenile to really pique my interest, but I will gladly admit I LOVED the movies. It’s always a treat to watch Robert Pattinson do anything, and those movies were delightfully hollow. I didn’t have to think or analyze, I could just imagine laying in a meadow with an immortal Robert Pattinson who was so in love with me, he’d get us both caught up in adventures riddled with poor character development and gaping plot holes.

But I digress. I wrote about 750 words in one hour, even with pausing to copy lyrics I loved. I think that’s sufficient evidence to prove listening to music really does inspire creativity.

Day 2: Journal every day.

Again, this is another way to inspire creativity that I’ve been using for years. I’ve been journaling every day since middle school. Here’s photographic evidence:

That middle shelf is all the journals I’ve filled over the years.
This is the journal I’m currently using.
And here’s proof I’m using it for this 21-day challenge!

Day 3: Join a group of creatives.

Considering the current global state, this one proved especially difficult. There are TONS of online writing groups, but that’s actually a challenge for a later date. Though I can’t join a new group, I can absolutely attest to the power of joining a group of creatives. I’ve been blessed to attend three writer’s conferences in just as many years: the Algonkian Writer’s Conference, the Writer’s Hotel, and the Frank McCourt Summer School for Creative Writing. In each setting, I was awed and inspired by the creativity and tenacity of other writers. I still keep in touch with the groups I was in from each conference and I still seek their advice. I am honored to still be a part of their writing lives.

Day 4: Take a walk.

This is another activity I do regularly. I don’t always take my journal as I tend to focus on the walk for its exercise benefits, but when I adopt a more leisurely pace and allow myself the opportunity to stop and write, I’m never disappointed. If the inherent beauty of nature doesn’t inspire me (and I’m fortunate enough to live near the water), then being out and about among others definitely will. Even during this pandemic, I’ve found opportunities to “people watch,” to steal glimpses into the lives of others and formulate a plot with my imagination. I’ve copied overheard conversations into my journal to help me make my created dialogue more authentic and because, sometimes, people say wonderfully interesting things that I want to remember forever.

Day 5: Turn off (or cover) your monitor.

According to Grammarly, the point of this way to inspire creativity is to prevent focusing on what’s already been written:

Interesting things happen when you can’t edit—you have to move ahead rather than worry about what’s behind you. Sure, you’ll make tons of typos, but you can fix those. Later.

Written by Karen Hertzberg for Grammarly.

I thought it was an interesting concept. I’ve been using a typewriter now and again, and it’s a similar concept. The typewriter I use is old school; manual. And I didn’t buy any correcting ribbon. But, to do the thing properly, I will now try to write a part of my short story without looking at the monitor. Here we go:

The office was loud and overcrowded, as it usually was. Bernadette couldn’t work in that kind of environment and actually did her best work in the late afternoon when everyone else started to fdrift home. On nice days, she’d take her laptop up to the roof and work in the rays of the setting sun and letting the sounds of the evening commute serve as relaxing white noise. It was a good thing that Greg, her boss/editor, kept a similar schedule. It would end up being just the two of them in the office and he always seemed more prone to greenlighting her story ideas. The mini-fridge kept fully stocked with beer under his desk may have helped greatly, but Bernadette also liked to believe her talent and charm played an equally important role.

I’m impressed I didn’t make more mistakes. I mean, this is still rough – very rough – but thank you, Mavis Beacon (haha).

I like the idea behind this challenge, but in the end, it’d probably be more frustrating than inspiring. I’d keep this in the “Break in Case of Emergency” file, when I’m completely stuck and desperate for any kind of inspiration.

Day 6: Reward yourself for writing with a kitten.

If you go to this website, it allows you to choose between a kitten, puppy or bunny to pop up on the screen after so many words (you’re allowed to select that as well). I left the defaults chosen, so for every 100 words, a fresh kitten popped up. I recorded the experience for your viewing pleasure:

Adorable! But a message does pop up suggesting that users copy and paste the writing because the website could lose it. It’s not very practical, so I rank it with covering the monitor: only use in desperation.

Day 7: Mind Map.

I am NOT artistic at all. You don’t really need to be for a Mind Map, though. The idea is to creatively think about your big ideas and present them in a way so you can see your ideas in ways you never did before. To make sure I was doing it right, I looked up tutorials on YouTube (since the class linked from the Grammarly blog cost $47) and found this helpful (and quick!) clip.

I totally traced the big rig in the center. I’m really not artistic.

I really liked Mind Mapping, and I definitely will do it again in the future. It forced me to think about my short story idea in a different way, and the coloring aspect was soothing. It combined the best parts of being creative.

So tune in next week for another week of creative challenges! Let me know if you tried any of these in the comments! Let’s start our own group of creatives ❤ 🙂

On breaking through while staying in.

The pandemic continues. And so does the quarantine, the social distancing, and this overwhelming desire to return to normal. NJ public schools are closed for the remainder of the academic year, but state parks are open, though I think they’re limited to operating at ha;f their capacity and can be immediately shut down if people are not maintaining a social distance. I had a panic attack yesterday because I think it f i n a l l y hit me that I don’t recognize this world I’m now living in, and that is a terrifying realization.

So I escape; I escape into reading and into writing. Right now, I’m reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I realize this is long overdue; the novel was originally published in 1940 and became a sensation. It was McCullers first novel, and she was only twenty-three years old, so I thought it was high time I finally read it. I remember reading an excerpt or two in middle school and writing down the title so I could read the whole thing later. It’s much later now, and I’m wondering why this title isn’t as referenced as often as others from the time period, especially when Amazon.com reports the novel is “Wonderfully attuned to the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition.” And according to Wikipedia (a dubious source at best), “The Modern Library ranked the novel seventeenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time included it in ‘TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005’. In 2004 the novel was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.” So I guess it’s time for me to see what all the fuss is about.

As for my writing, I am S T I L L revising my manuscript for my second novel, Moody Blue. But I am THRILLED to report I’ve had something of a breakthrough! Without going into too much detail, I’ve been grappling with components of my plot that were too extreme. I couldn’t close those plot holes or justify character decisions in regards to them. But I think I’ve thought my way through and the writing’s been coming easier now. I remember when I was writing Her Beautiful Monster, I saw every single scene like a movie in my head. I always knew exactly where the plot and characters were headed. Moody Blue is a different animal altogether; I could only ever see parts. There were scenes I definitely wanted to include, but I never saw just how each piece fit. Happily, I really believe I’m on to something now.

So please, share with me: what are you reading during this quarantine? Is there a book you’ve always wanted to read but never got around to? Are there any projects you’ve started or accomplished? Let’s talk creativity 🙂

On Chuck Palahniuk, with love.

This blog post is going to serve as nothing more than a thinly veiled love letter to Chuck Palahniuk.

This week, I devoured his book on writing titled Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different. Simply put, this book was amazing. You know I’m always looking for signs from the universe, and I firmly believe that the cosmos put this book into my hands at the right time for the right reasons. One of my favorite passages reads:

Was it Kierkegaard? Was it Heidegger? Some egghead pointed out how people decide the nature of their world at a very young age. And they craft a way of behaving that will lead to success. You’re praised for being a strong little kid so you invest in your strength. Or you become the smart girl. Or the funny boy. Or the pretty girl. And this works until you’re about thirty years old.

(64).

Damn, Chuck. Just @ me next time. I think a lot of the uncertainty in my writing life comes from uncertainty in life in general. Last year was tumultuous; I lost friends I thought I’d have forever and essentially had to find my new identity. It was never a good idea to allow myself to be defined by other people, but I did it and here I am, reconstructing myself one piece at a time. I’ve finally come to accept that people will enter and exit my life at various times for all different reasons, and every entrance and exit does not necessarily have anything to do with me. “Through our lives, our relationships are based on proximity. We attend the same school. We work at the same company or live in the same neighborhood. And when those circumstances change, our friendships dissolve” (146).  Those changes and dissolutions do not have to be earth-shattering. They do not have to be moments after which everything is different. But when they are, I think it’s more than important to stop and take note. Losing my friends and thereby upending the woman I thought I was led me to the dream of Ireland.

I want Ireland to be a part of my rebuilding, maybe even the foundation upon which I can build my writing life, and though that journey has been delayed, the desire is there and it is as strong as it ever was. Palahniuk writes, “Perhaps this is why people dream of traveling a lot at retirement. Seeing the world and recognizing one’s own insignificance makes it okay to come home and to die” (117). That’s depressing as hell, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. To be comfortable with myself, and that includes being comfortable with my mortality, I think I have to be uncomfortable first. I’m happy to admit I’ve been uncomfortable as hell for nearly four years. So something’s gotta give soon, and I think this book by Chuck Palahniuk has prepared me for the moment I’ve been waiting for: the moment after which everything is different.

So much more than some bestselling author pontificating about craft, Palahniuk’s book is entertaining as hell. He includes entertaining anecdotes from his writing life that validate a writer’s many insecurities and intuitions, balancing humiliations with small victories. For example, Palahniuk recalls when he was a participant in Tom Spanbauer’s writing workshop and Tom gave him a book to read after his “…work had been rejected by some magazine or ten magazines or yet another agent had written to say he only represented ‘likeable’ fiction” (57). Tom chose the book and told Palahniuk it would help his work “enormously” (57). Palahniuk writes:

The following week I read and reread it. An easy job because it hardly topped a hundred pages, but a tough read because the characters were hard-pressed and put-upon cornpone hound-dog types just scraping by in the burnt-over backwoods hills of wherever. They lived on a farm, eating the same grits for breakfast every morning. They did nothing exceptional, and nothing happened to them. Each time I finished it I felt angry about wasting more time for so little return. I hated the author for wasting my time. But mostly I hated myself for being too backward to appreciate this work of art documenting the lives of folks interchangeable with the folks I’d been raised next door to

(58).

So when Palahniuk brings the book back, he’s hesitant to admit he hated it because he’s afraid that makes him dumb, too stupid to appreciate a book praised by anyone and everyone who knows anything about literature. Palahniuk lies “to fit in with the smart people” (59), which is a pressure I completely understand and have barely survived. I usually do the same thing Palahniuk did. “If all else fails among the literati, always claim the language is beautiful” (59). Throughout the course of the evening, however, Palahniuk finally cracks and admits he hated the book and that he’s probably stupid. But Tom smiles and reveals his true intentions. “This book is awful…. I wanted you to see how terrible a book could be and still get published” (59-60). I give Palahniuk credit for not naming the book and shaming anyone (“If you don’t have anything nice to say…” and all that) and for being honest. He’s acknowledging that being published and successful can have very little to do with talent. And I think it’s important to note that Palahniuk found his writing tribe, a suggestion stressed by all different kinds of authors time and time again. Writing is a lonely job, so it is crucial to find people who share your writing philosophy and tastes and work ethic. It’s crucial to have a community, and I think Palahniuk is starting one with the publication of this book. In a cosmic coincidence, I am in desperate need of a tribe, so let this book be my calling card/open invitation.

I wrote a somewhat scathing review of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction because it wasn’t accessible. It was condescending. It didn’t inspire me. Palahniuk echoes these sentiments and goes on to explain, “I’ve found that most writers fall into one of two camps. The first rise from academia and write gorgeous stuff with very little plot momentum or drive. The second camp of writers emerge from journalism and use simple, clear language to tell stories rich in action and tension” (192). I think, organically, I come from the first camp. I was an English major, am now an English teacher, and will earn either my Master’s or MFA in the near future. But I’m drawn to the second camp. A perfect paragraph or scintillating sentence is great, but I’m afraid that’s not what sells. Readers want stories rich in action and tension that are also accessible because they use simple, clear language. That’s why Her Beautiful Monster was a joy to write and earned positive reviews, I think – because I enjoyed writing it. I think I need to get back to basics and not overthink my creative process.

Palahniuk does not spend valuable space romanticizing the writing life or going on and on about some abstract, academic approach. He gives real, practical advice. For example, he writes, “Once you’re published and trying to scratch out a living you’ll find these regional bookseller associations are a great ally” (1). First paragraph of the first page, and I’m learning something new. I was so disappointed when my first novel didn’t go flying off the shelves, but in hindsight, I realize I was doing nothing to help. To be fair, I didn’t know where to start. Thanks to Palahniuk, now I do.

He does discuss the act of writing itself and gives great tips and tricks without singing his own praises. For example, he suggests that “Instead of writing about a character, write from within the character” (47). He recommends avoiding common units of measurement and instead, using units of measurement unique to a character, like “a man too tall to kiss” or “a man her dad’s size when he’s kneeling in church” (47). This idea may not seem revolutionary, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. This is a wonderful and unique way to give a story texture and to really develop my writer’s voice.

Palahniuk attributes some of his most followed advice to other writers, and it lends him a great deal of authenticity. That was my favorite aspect of the book, how real Palahniuk is. It reminds me of a sentiment expressed by Stephen King, that all writers come to drink from the same pool, so it’s only natural that all writers beg and borrow and steal from one another. Hence why I salivated over this book from one of my most favorite writers.

Palahniuk writes, “If you’re dedicated to becoming an author, nothing I can say here will stop you. But if you’re not, nothing I can say will make you one” (xv). Palahniuk shares advice he received from Bob Maull, founder of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Maull told him, “If you want to make a career out of this you’ll need to bring out a new book every year. Never go longer than sixteen months without something new because after sixteen months people quit coming in that door and asking me if you have another book yet.” Fuck. Shit. Balls. My book came out nine years ago. Is it too late for me? Do I not have enough time to write because I’m a full-time teacher? Palahniuk doesn’t think so. He describes, in detail, how one writing approach solves the struggle for time. For all the dark human truths he exposes or touches upon, he is not a fatalist. He writes, “But if you hold a full-time job, have a family, and have to juggle every other duty in life, this scene-by-scene experimentation will keep you sane” (135).

So where do I go from here? I become a fucking writer. I carve out time for writing. I truly and fully believe I am one. I get to work.

On mediocrity … especially in thinking of titles.

So I’ve neglected this blog for two weeks. I wish, I really, really wish I could tell you it was because I’ve been furiously working on a new novel or that it was because I’ve been off having all sorts of romantic adventures that I will fill you in on. Sadly, neither one of those excuses presented as valid, interesting reasons is true. We started a new semester at school on Wednesday, February 6th and ever since then, I’ve been pretty much consumed by work. That coincided with a last-minute visit from my sister and her four kids, so I was swamped with family and work obligations. I haven’t written anything, haven’t been taking care of myself or my house. I’ve barely been reading. To be honest, I haven’t been doing anything to inspire my writing life or my Bohemian endeavors. I’ve been mediocre, limping through the daily rat race.

It sounds overdramatic, but that’s the only way I know to make things interesting.

Anyway, here’s a short story I wrote based on the following prompt:

 

“Mom, you’ve got to stop dragging me into the middle of things.”

The glass of chilled white wine was sweating in front of me. I hadn’t had a sip. I wanted to walk outside and have a cigarette, but I couldn’t leave Mom alone at the table. And she’s a smoker too, so I couldn’t go without her. She’d be pissed. I had to just sit there in nearly unbearable silence and take it.

“You’re not going to say anything?”

I blinked. “About what? About being a child of divorce at 31?”

Mom rolled her eyes. “Don’t be dramatic.”

I laughed even though nothing was funny. “I think taking me for lunch to tell me you and Dad are splitting up is dramatic.”

“What? You wanted me to tell you over the phone? Should I have texted you?” Mom rolled her eyes again and shifted away from me in her seat. She took a long swallow from her chilled glass.

I rubbed my eyes. “What do you want? For me to go to pieces? For me to ask why when I don’t want to know why?”

Mom still wouldn’t look at me. She wrapped her arms around herself and just sat there, breathing. I finally started drinking my wine. I took a long, slow, deliberate swallow so I wouldn’t have to say anything. I couldn’t think of anything to say anyway.

“I want you to talk to your sisters for me.”

I choked on my pinot grigio.  “What?”

“Please. I can’t -”

“Mom, you’ve really gotta stop dragging me into the middle of things.”

“I’m not-”

“Yes, yes you are! That’s exactly what you’re doing! That’s what you’ve been doing my whole life!”

Mom looked like I’d slapped her. I was disappointed when she didn’t grab her face and turn away. She didn’t say anything, so I kept going. “When Cora was sleeping with Mr. Slattery, you told me to tell her that you knew and that she needed to stop because it was shameful to have a slut in the family.”

“I never said that,” she lied. Mom started blinking rapidly.

“Okay. When Timmy was hiding the empty vodka bottles in his closet and the maid found them, you sent her to me. I found the rehab, I packed his bags, but you dropped him off at the airport.”

Mom shook her head. “When I left my therapist’s office and I couldn’t breathe because I was crying so hard, I called you. I didn’t want to drive because I couldn’t see the road for all the tears in my eyes and I wanted to talk to you, to hear your voice, so I called you.” I crossed my arms over my chest and leaned back in the chair, away from her. “What did you do?” She looked away, shook her head once, quickly. I asked my question again. “What did you do?”

The complete silence that followed let me know I had been talking too loud. The complete silence meant that conversation had stopped, forks had stopped moving, and that everyone was listening. I leaned closer to Mom and lowered my voice. “You didn’t answer. You never called me back.” I was speaking through a clenched jaw. I was gripping the edge of the table so hard my fingertips were white. “You need to call your daughters and you need to tell them. Your divorce from Dad has nothing to do with me.”

Mom cleared her throat. She reached up and delicately brushed the single strand of pearls hanging around her neck. “I just thought-”

“What if they ask me why, Mom? What if they have questions?”

Mom paled. She looked away from me. Her face turned red.  “I guess I didn’t think at all.” She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.”

It was the first time my mother had apologized to me for anything. Naturally, I felt inexplicably and incredibly guilty. “I’m sorry, Mom. I should-”

“No, no, you’re right,” she said.

I wasn’t sure what it meant that we rarely let each other finish our sentences.

Sheepishly, I stabbed at my salad with a fork. When I looked back up at my mother, she was crying silently.

It was the first time I had ever seen my mother cry. I watched the tears roll down her delicately powdered cheeks, leaving sparse but unmistakable inky black trails from the mascara she always applied in generous layers. Her hair was moussed, blow dried and then sprayed so it wouldn’t move, not even in a hurricane. She was wearing a smart looking pantsuit with a ribbed turtleneck, all in safe, neutral colors. And she was crying.

I didn’t say anything.