The North Davis Ditch

Ditch Thoughts

The North Davis Ditch

The North Davis Ditch

For some number of years now, I have made the local Peet’s my go-to place for writing. At points along the way, I have progressively (regressively?) changed my mode of transportation going to and fro from driving, to riding my bike, and now, to walking. I walk there most days through every weather short of driving rain. The walk is about a mile, takes about twenty minutes, and is generally a nice little break in my day.

A month or so ago, I added a wrinkle. I decided to give the intermittent fast a try. That is, only to eat within a ten-hour window each day. The window starts at 10am. In practical terms, that means I’ve had most of a cup of coffee before I eat. That has translated into a huge bump in my daily productive output, at least with regard to writing.

It also, somehow, makes my walks as my most creative period of the day. A little over half of my walk is on a dirt path along a drainage canal fondly known locally as “The Ditch.” The Ditch is by no means gorgeous, but it is quiet and car free. And somehow the combination of walking and eating less and pre-loading my system with caffeine leads me to think up the best sentences and phrases while I’m walking in it. I often stop now to text myself snippets of thoughts.

At some point, this stage will no doubt give way to another. But for now, it is a wonderfully productive experience.

San-Gabriel-River

Voice

San-Gabriel-River

Before . . .

Last April, after sending out around fifty queries for two novels, and probably twice that many short story submissions over the past three years, with no success, I decided to take a break from writing and try to figure out what I was doing wrong. Or at least, what I needed to be doing better.

After reading a number of “successful” current authors, I found some patterns. Some which suit me personally more than others. The one thing that stuck out most is the hardest to describe. And that’s voice.

Reviewing my own work, I found that as I developed my stories over successive drafts, they became less and less idiosyncratic. The language more formal, more structured. Less alive, and much less interesting to read. Not coincidentally, this coincided with the number of people I submitted each story to for critique. In other words, I fell into the trap every writer knows they should avoid: letting critiquers’ comments overly influence their style.

I knew this was an issue. I experienced it twenty-five years ago, when I first studied writing at UCLA Extension. But goddamn if I didn’t fall for it again.

Once I realized this, I formed an image of a river. Specifically, the San Gabriel River in Southern California. It’s a great analogy to the process of writing and refining fiction with the help of others.

When you start out, your creativity is like the river picture at the top of this page. It’s wild, it creates its own channel, and it works its way out of the wilderness to find the Sea of Publication.

But along the way, your river of creativity hits the San Gabriel Valley: that is, a settled area it must pass through safely. The valley is settled by critiquers. People, like you, who write and love to read. But they know the Rules better than you do. And as outside observers, they see things in your story you never could. So they comment on things like point of view, punctuation, usage, tightening your prose, making things clearer.

San-Gabriel-Wash

. . . After

Which raises a dilemma. If you ignore them, you run the risk of  megalomania (“They just don’t understand me”). If you go too far in the other direction, you end up with, well, the picture to the right: the San Gabriel Wash—a style that constrains your creativity and makes a sterilized, walled-in beeline to the Sea of Oblivion.

Just to be clear, this is not the critiquers’ fault. They are doing exactly what you asked, and what every writer needs. The fault is all mine and what I did with that advice and opinion.

Yep, I am afraid I became the Wash. Happily, I see that now. Which is not say that I have found the key to great writing and publication. Just that I think I’ve found a good place to spend a lot of energy trying to correct.

 

The Light in L.A.

The New Yorker recently posted a video online (embedded above) taken from its show, which airs on Amazon. The video is based on one of my favorite pieces in the magazine: an article called “L.A. Glows,” written by Lawrence Weschler, and published in the February 23, 1998 issue of the magazine. (The issue theme was “California,” and it’s the only one of that theme I recall.) The article is here (requires a subscription).

It captures the wonder of light in Southern California (with a capitalized “S” because it is such a distinct region—as Carey McWilliams titled his book, “An Island on the Land”), and is really a wonderful read, both for the subject and the quality of the writing. For instance, it includes passages like this (from Coy Howard, and architect):

. . . when you have the kind of veiled light we get here more regularly you become aware of a sort of multiplicity—not illumination so much as luminosity. Southern California glows, not just all day but at night as well, and the opacity melts away into translucency, and even transparency.”

Ever since I read that passage I have wanted to be able to write like that. In my current work in progress, California Incline, I often talk about the sky. A lot of bloggers who give writing advice warn against overusing weather as a metaphor for a character’s mood. But when a story is set in L.A., the sky is a character. Describing it doesn’t so much reflect on the human characters, as give the reader a description of the ethereal character that hovers over the human actors.

So at different points I include short passages like these:

High clouds had drifted onshore, covering downtown; a veiled sun in a nacre sky softened the edges of the city with pearlescent light.”

Uphill, toward Hope Street, lay a fountain watched over by a bronze nude against an amber-blue sky streaked with Van Gogh clouds, wisps whipped to shreds at the ends.”

Even the sky looked washed out, threadbare blue with bleachmark clouds.”

Not quite the level of poetry found throughout the Weschler article, but I hope enough to give some character to the light.

Of course, for a cross-cultural perspective on L.A. light, you have Miami Ray Bones (Dennis Farina) in Get Shorty:

 They say the fucking smog is the fucking reason you have such beautiful fucking sunsets.”

In  any case, I strongly recommend the Weschler article if you can get a chance to read it.

My seat at Peets

I’ve Become One of Those People

My seat at Peets

My seat at Peets

Sadly, I have become one of those people who have to have their seat at the local coffeehouse. It’s embarrassing. Everyone I know in Davis knows they can find me at the local Peets. And if I’m not in my seat – the seat all the way to the left, closest to the bar, at the counter facing the plate glass window with the million dollar view of the parking lot– they ask me what happened. I tell them that the usurper obviously didn’t get the memo. It’s surprising how few people have received that memo.

In fact, the person in my seat probably didn’t get the memo about my parking spot either. It used to be directly across from the windows in one of the two unmarked (but not red-curbed) spots by the mail box. When I first started parking there, no one did. (Maybe they were being polite and leaving the spaces for the people who wanted to use mailboxes?) Once I started, everyone else in Davis must have realized it’s okay because now the spot is never open. My backup parking spot, the one the person who took my seat inside Peets parked in, is the 10-minute (green curb) parking spot on the corner in front of Jamba Juice.

I  come here most weekdays. In between impromptu meetings with bike club members and fellow parents, I actually get a lot done. I like to come to this particular Peets because it’s close (walking and bike riding distance, you know, on fair days) and usually not too crowded. I need to leave the house to write because I cannot write in the house on these dark winter days. And I need to go to Peets because they have a loose-leaf Sencha that gives me a buzz that meshes perfectly with my writing mojo.

Over and above all of that, I need my seat because it is perfect. It gives me just enough elbow room to be able to set everything around me (iPhone, headphones, tea pot, strainer, tea cup). It also allows a physical buffer, giving me the peripheral-vision space I need to avoid feeling like I’m being barraged on both sides.  And it is the only seat at the bar that has access to a power outlet. I don’t necessarily need that. But it allows me to have all the programs I want booted up (Safari, Scrivener, Mail, Messages, iTunes) without compromising the roughly two hours I can manage to sit and write.

There is an alternate seat at the other end of the counter I can make work if I carve out a nice writing nook by swinging the end stool sideways and piling the piles of free weeklies on it. But it’s by the door, and on these cold days, the constant comings and goings of customers creates a steady blast of cold air the chills my hands, which is no fun when typing, let me tell you. In times of desperation, there is also a small table that works; but it’s cramped, and it sits right by the oven at Noah’s, which frequently emits an ear-piercing beep that is painful.

It’s absurd, I know, this fixation I have on making everything just so. Pathetic, really. I realize I am obsessing over these ridiculous details. At the same time, I am totally obsessed by them. And as long as I am able to crank work out at Peets, I’ll probably attribute my success to getting the private space I’ve improbably claimed in the midst of this common public area.

Fortunately, there is no problem most days: I get my seat. I plow through the words, sip my tea, and generally have a great couple of hours being with my characters. So long as I get my spot and assuage my neuroses, we all have a pretty good time.

book gift

The Promise of the Book

book giftThe more I read first passages in books, the more I see this first part as “The Promise of the Book.” It’s really where the author needs to say, “Here’s is what you will get if you read the book,” rather than, “Here’s where the story starts.” I think the  honesty of the opening is only realized after you’ve finished the book. But you need to want to read the book first to see if the author follows through on the promise.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I cannot seem to get the start of my novel right. And it’s pissing me off. Over the three-plus years I’ve been working on this book, the beginning has gone through three basic iterations with dozens of minor variations on each.

The first iteration was a scene I pictured clearly in my head when I first started the book. I loved that scene. I hung onto it until just a few months ago. People who have been kind enough to critique my book have had lots of good things to say about everything except for the beginning. So I tweaked it to hell. Nothing really worked, but I refused to believe that. Finally, once I started getting feedback from professional readers and editors, I realized it was all wrong. So I ditched it. Which was kind of liberating, but that’s another story.

The second iteration followed the prevailing dictum: Start the story at the beginning. So, I thought, that was the problem! I reworked the novel to start the story at the beginning and thought I had it nailed. Then I started querying agents. I received form rejections, which meant my writing wasn’t even good enough to warrant a comment. More than anything, that told me my novel lacked “voice,” that indefinable something that makes an agent, and any reader, want more. The novel has plenty of voice further on. I just couldn’t figure out how to work it into the start of the story.

To make matters worse, I recently read this passage in “The Short Fuse Guide to Plotting Your Novel” by Connor Goldsmith, literary agent at Fuse Literary:

There is a particular opening sentence format that I personally detest, and that I would like to never, ever see again. It goes like this: [PROFESSION] [CHARACTER NAME] [VERB] [PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE]. Here are three examples:

1. Fashion designer Cordelia Perkins walked toward the stage where her models were preparing.

2. Detective Hank Molloy crushed a cigarette under his boot as he peered into the dark alley.

3. Starship captain Marisol Ruiz frowned at the strange readings on her radiation scanner.”

My first reaction was, “Fuck you, Connor Goldsmith,” because my then-current latest greatest freshest first line was “John Laughlin rode his bike through the early morning fog, a stream of water whispering off his tires.” That is exactly where the fucking story begins. John is the main character; the story revolves around cycling (no pun); the fog is integral to the inciting incident. It’s a perfect fucking first sentence because it is exactly where the story begins.

After I calmed down, I thought more seriously about Mr. Goldsmith’s rant. I realize that he and probably every agent sees that identical opening sentence structure multiple times a day, every day, by every author who is trying to start the story at the beginning. I am certain the quotidian structure of my first sentence wasn’t the sole reason for my form rejections. But it was obvious I wasn’t doing myself any favors.

I decided to canvas the books here in our house. I spent hours reading first sentences, first paragraphs, first passages, trying to find a common thread, the thing these authors got right. What I realized is that openings to books I like have a quintessential element, in the sense of a fifth element that exists separate from the basic elements.

After reading all of those passages, it struck me that the real problem with the sentence structure cited above, despite being technically perfect, is that it lacks soul. Anyone can tell a story. It is a lot more work to tell one well. A hell of a lot more work. So, while my opening sentence starts the story, it does not start it well. It is functional, declarative, straightforward. But it doesn’t promise anything. It just states, “I’m going to tell you a story.” That’s not enough.

It strikes me further that this is one reason so many agents tell writers not to use a prologue. Agents state different reasons, but underlying all the reasoning, I think, is that a prologue is an easy way out of the hard work of actually crafting the start of the novel. A way out of putting in the work in to tell the story really well. It’s a shortcut.

So what I am doing these days is figuring out how to combine these two critical elements, voice and the start of the story, in less than a hundred or so words. I am trying to figure out how to tell my readers that this is what’s happening, what’s going to happen, and how it will happen, all without saying so directly, and in such a way that they feel they are being promised a gift they want and that they will feel they’ve received by the end of the book.

 

 

Free Gratis: Al Swarengen and John Gardner

Recently, I came across some awkward language I had written. It wasn’t Latin, per se, but it was stilted. It reminded me of John Gardner’s dictum not to use Latinate forms when plain Anglo-Saxon would do. (Wondering, do new writers even read John Gardner anymore?)

The use of Latin can be deliberate (like that totally appropriate use of Latin I just slipped into the last paragraph). It always adds an air of formality, which may or not be intentional on the writer’s part. Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur: That which is said in Latin sounds profound.  The TV Tropes website has a page dedicated to this trope.

Thinking about using English instead of Latin reminded me of a scene in Deadwood. If you recognize the phrase “free gratis,” you already know what I’m talking about. If not, below is a clip (actually two clips spliced together). Swearengen’s observation at the end of the clip pretty much sums up the issue. (I also like the scene for its portrayal of the group editing process. I imagine that anyone who has had to create by committee can relate to Merrick’s frustration.)

Trouble at Rindo's Station

Thoughts on “Will Kill for Food”

Why I Wrote the Story

Trouble at Rindo's Station

1953 magazine in which “Trouble at Rindo’s Station” was first published

For some time, I have been planning to write a novel about the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots (also known as the Rodney King Riots, the South Central Riots, the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Disturbance, and the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest, and, in the Korean American community as  Sa-I-Gu). In fact, I got about a third of the way through writing it before I abandoned the project back in the mid-90s.

A couple of years ago I decided to restart the novel. In preparation, I thought I would write a few stories, one for each of the main characters. The purpose of each story was to focus on some aspect of the character’s personality that is key to their role in the novel, and further, show some event that helps form that aspect of their character.

In Dean’s case, the aspect of character I wanted to show was how he became more active politically. Because Dean is the main character, the story should probably be titled “Young Man Blues.” But “Will Kill for Food” is so much more interesting, at least to me. I think it also expresses a certain desperation that most of the characters in the story experience, which is an undercurrent of the story.

I finished writing this story in May 2011. The original was in eight sections. I edited the story in places to meet the word-length requirements for JukePop, and to suit the serial format better. I think the changes improved the story.

 

How I Wrote the Story

Once I knew the basic experience Dean would have in the story (defending Uncle Jun’s store), I needed a plot. The  plot I settled on came from two sources.

First, I knew we had to meet Dean before the verdict in the Rodney King case was announced (Wednesday), and that we had to stay with him until he decides to join the Koreatown peace march (which takes place Saturday, the day after the story ends). I also knew I needed quiet time in the series of events to get some background in on Dean, Jun, and Ron. Dean’s friend John appears in the beginning and end of the story as a constant by which to measure Dean’s emotional change.

Second, the more I thought about and researched the setting of the L.A. Riots, the more it resembled a Western. In a Western, the threat of violence is present in a far more natural way than in any other genre (except maybe prison or war stories). I mean, every man on the street in a Western is openly armed for one thing. And the idea of taking care of yourself – through violence if necessary – rather than relying on the law, is taken for granted.

I intentionally threw in some references to Westerns (“Holding down the fort,” “Calvary is on their way”) to make the point clearer.

I borrowed the structure from an Elmore Leonard Western short story. In that sense, “Will Kill for Food” can be read as an updated version of Leonard’s “Trouble at Rindo’s Station.” (It’s a great story, and is reprinted in a couple of his anthologies if you care to read it.) In the original, a renegade warrior takes over control of a tribe from a peaceful chief, arguing that strength, not tradition, determines leaders. The renegade warrior gathers a group of others and jumps the reservation to attack Rindo’s Station. In the end, a reservation agent trapped inside the station (who’s actually a good guy for a change) subdues the renegade in a fist fight.

In my remake, one gang that takes over another’s turf by moving beyond their neighborhood (“jumping the reservation”) and subduing the leader of the gang by force. Also, while Leonard’s protagonist was a normal Western hero, in the sense that he’s brave and accustomed to violence, Dean has to overcome his fear in order to fight off the threat of Willy Dobson and his gang.

 

Limitations of My Approach

An interesting aspect of looking at this story as an updated Western is that it freed me from feeling a need to get into the reality of the L.A. Riots from different points of view. In “Rindo’s Station,” there is no discussion of the morality or fairness of having Native Americans confined to reservations. They simply are, and when they leave the reservation, it often means trouble for the white population nearby. Similarly, in my story, there is no discussion of the causes of the civil unrest. I did not want to create a historical novella. The aspects of the riots Dean saw on TV were representative of what the media chose to show and what he chose to focus on. As a non-political individual, I think that makes sense in the context of the story. A better piece of work (a truer Historical or Literary fiction) might go into greater depth on how wrenching an experience the riots were to different communities, even without the threat of a gang at your front door. That just wasn’t my aim here.

Another interesting thing about the story is that by accomplishing what I set out to do, I had something of a failure on my hands. After months of research, writing, and editing, I came to the end only to find that I didn’t think this was viable as a publishable story exactly because I did what I set out to do; that is, create a character study based on a Western. Also, by focusing on including what I thought I needed to make the story complete, it ran well beyond short story length (of which there are many places to publish) and into novella length (which has few outlets). By chance, I stumbled on the publisher (Black Hill Press), the contest (Summer Reading Project), and the serial-form website (JukePop). Otherwise, this story would probably never been read by anyone.

Finally, there is a fair amount of information I intentionally left out of the story. Some people commented on them: How did John and Dean meet? What happened to Tanya’s mom (Jun’s wife)? All of this information and more besides actually resides in other stories I’ve written or intend to write. Rather than repeat the information in every piece, I thought I would only repeat it as necessary. It may be a bad decision, but that’s where things stand now.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Rick Wakeman on how to write a synopsis

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

A few months ago, I completed what I think is a version of my novel March Bicycle Madness worth circulating. Since then, I have been settling down to the far more tedious process of writing the ancillary materials necessary to get it published: the hook, the query, and three different-lengthed synopses (500-, 1000-, and 1500- words, respectively, as different agents ask for different lengths).

The internet is rife with commentary about this part of writing: attacks on and defenses of it; advice, suggestions, and opportunities for feedback; offers to write or critique for so much per draft . . . You name it. But the bottom line is that if you want to interest an agent or a publisher in your work, and even if you decide to self-publish, you need to reduce your 100k-word novel into everything from a one-sentence hook to a 1,500-word synopsis.

For all of the sources of help, examples, and advice out there on how to write a synopsis, no one seems to mention Rick Wakeman, prog-rock keyboardist with Yes (as if you had to be told) and solo artist of a number of similarly classical (and classic) prog works. In 1974, Rick Wakeman set Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” to music, complete with rock band, orchestra, choir, and a wicker-chair ensconced narrator. Whatever else it may be, I think it’s a masterpiece of synopsis writing.

By one source, Verne’s novel is around 74k words. Wakeman’s version, including narration and song lyrics, weighs in at about 1,600 words. (You can see a full transcription here and another with a couple of pics here.)

The album starts with music. But the inside cover (yes, I still have the album) has the following, which acts as a prelude:

“The story begin on the 24th May 1863 in Hamburg when Professor Lindbrook and his nephew Alex discover an old parchment in a 12th century book called ‘Heims Kringla,’ a chronicle of the Norwegian princess who rule over Iceland. This parchment when decoded into Latin and translated by Alex proved to be written by an alchemist of the 16th century and read as follows: 
 
‘Descend into the crater of Sneffels Yokul,
over which the shadow of Scattaris falls
before the Kalends of July, bold traveller,
and you will reach the centre of the earth.
I have done this
.’ – Arne Saknussemm

Sneffels is a 5,000′ high mountain in Iceland,  an extinct volcano, its last eruption having being in 1229.
And so the journey from Hamburg to Iceland begin.”

That’s 127 words. This liner note covers the first seven chapters of the novel. Hell, it took professor Lindenbrook and Axel five chapters (Ch 2-6) just to decipher Saknussemm’s Icelandic runes and translate them.

The distillation of the novel into a synopsis continues. The first line of the first song in the album (“By horse, by rail, by land, by sea our journey starts”) covers Chapter 8. And by the time the narration starts:

“Admiring shades of lava which imperceptibly passed from reddish brown to bright yellow, their way lit by crystals appearing as lighted globes, they continued through the lava gallery, which gently sloped until they reached the inter section of two roads.”

we’re into Chapter 19 of the book.

What Wakeman has done, of course, is to cut away all the back story, the side story, the internal dialogue of the narrator (Axel, who keeps referring to his fiancé with the annoying phrase, “my Virland girl”), the wonderful, but less important details (such as the three-day journey from Reykjavik to the base of Snaeffels), and just went straight to the action. The first thing that happens is that Axel gets separated from the Professor and their guide.

It makes for a compelling story. And with rock band, orchestra, choir, and narrator, it’s quite a production. Now, if I could just find the hook and query equivalents.

http://youtu.be/P0u7luCFMlg

 

Tropes and Clichés

As I stated earlier, I decided to make the protagonist of my first novel an amateur sleuth. As all other decisions in getting started on a novel, I worried about this quite a lot because it’s a sure groaner. As in, sure to make people groan when they hear that. But after some consideration, I decided to stick with it.

The amateur sleuth I have in mind is based, loosely, on my situation: a married, middle-aged man, late-term dad with an eight-year son old to watch, and most tellingly, a work at home dad. As opposed to a stay at home dad. The distinction becomes important because a character who gets killed in the first chapter is a stay at home dad. As opposed to a work at home dad.

So, two issues: (1) how to make the protagonist a lot more interesting than I am, and (2) how to deal with my own embarrassment when I tell people that yes, really, it’s yet an amateur sleuth story.

As to the character, I started by searching for any other novels with amateur sleuth stay or work at home dad. And sure as hell, I found one: The Aaron Tucker series, a trilogy written by Jeffery Cohen. So I bought the books and read them.

I have to say, I wasn’t all that impressed with the main character. (If you’re reading this Jeffrey, sorry. You probably won’t like my stuff all that much either. I’ll buy you a beer if you’re ever in California and we can talk about it.) What I found lacking was that the protagonist and his at-home situation seemed too close to what I could easily imagine was the author’s real life (happily married with two children, including an autistic son whose behavior often takes center stage). What I took away from the trilogy was that to the extent I base any character on a real person, I should make sure to untether the character from the person. Maybe exaggerate a trait, say, or invent entirely new ones. Start with the template of a real person maybe, but make sure that character isn’t bound by that person’s personality, at least as I see it.

Is that how it works? I don’t know, but it’s working so far.

As to the whole amateur sleuth thing, I found a fantastic resource online that has allowed me to think about an amateur sleuth not as a cliché, but as a trope. The difference is everything. The site is called TV Tropes. The website is actually a wiki dedicated to identifying tropes in TV and other media.

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means “stereotyped and trite.” In other words, dull and uninteresting. We are not looking for dull and uninteresting entries. We are here to recognize tropes and play with them, not to make fun of them.

The editors further define trope as “a conceptual figure of speech, a storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.”

The wiki, “a buttload more informal than Wikipedia,” has a lot of fun identifying and explicating tropes. It’s really worth perusing the site, if nothing else just to look at the article titles (e.g., “Little Old Lady Investigates,” “Reverse Whodunit,” “Alone With the Psycho,” “Asshole Victim”).

Anyway, so now when I think of my amateur sleuth, I think of him as an Amateur Sleuth, a type which any reader will load with baggage from past amateur sleuths like Miss Marple, the Hardy Boys, Jessica Fletcher (Murder, She Wrote), The Harts (Hart to Hart) and others. And knowing something about what expectations readers have, I can rely on those to streamline aspects of the plot, or of the main character. I can play around inside the conventions (by creating a variation on the Busman’s Holiday, another trope) or think about playing with the genre by subverting expectations. The important thing is to remember to use the trope as framework, and to avoid slipping into cliché.

Can I really do any of that? I don’t know. But it’s fun to think about. And at least I’m not so embarrassed about what I’m writing that I’m frozen at square one.

Thoughts on Writing a First Novel

My friend Rick, who has been designing and building custom bikes for over 30 years, says that building a bike for someone is like walking naked down the middle of the street: Putting all of your knowledge and skill and sense of design out there for everyone to judge. I’m thinking writing a novel feels pretty much the same.

Sometime around the end of this past January, I started writing a novel. I have written pages and pages of summaries, outlines, character profiles, and scene sketches. Not a word of the novel yet; all background prep so far. I wanted to document the process for myself and for anyone who cares to follow because more than anything, writing a novel is all about process. At least for me. At least so far.

To begin with, there is the process I allude to above: all the background work it takes to make a reasonably long-term project cohere as it progresses. At the same time, I view the process of writing a novel as a step in learning how to write novels. That is, this first effort is not so much an end in itself – a quest to produce a marketable work of fiction – as it is a way of learning how the process works so I can write a better novel next time, and a better one after that. It may not turn out that way. Maybe this will be the best, or the only, novel I write. But I have to believe that writing long fiction is a lot like most creative endeavors, and that you get better with practice.

Another part of the process I have been struggling with is admitting that, yes, I’m working on a novel. Because what’s the first thing everyone says when you tell them that? What was the first thought you had? “You’re writing the great American novel, huh?”  There is so much baggage accompanying that phrase. It’s much easier not to say anything and tell people work is slow and I spend a lot of time taking over childcare duties. Which is all true; it’s just not the whole truth.

But in case you’re wondering, No, I am purposely not writing the great American novel. I am aiming to write a good summer book. The kind you read at the beach, enjoy, and forget about moments after. Why? For a few reasons.

First, it takes a lot of pressure off. Second, I think at this stage of my writing ability it is as much, and probably more, than I can hope for. And third . . . because it’s fun. Every aspect of it. Researching facts, evolving characters, working out holes in the plot, reading other writers’ blogs, following writers’ tweets . . . All of it. Just fun.

For this first book, I am going with the most common novelistic trope there is: The Amateur Sleuth. I am basing characters on people I know and the plot on situations I’m familiar with because I think that is easier than dreaming up an entire world. And for this first time out, I think it’s reasonable to use a few crutches to help me hobble along.

Because let’s face it, writing a novel is a shitload of work. We’re talking 70k-100k words, which at 250 words per double-spaced page, is somewhere between 280 and 400 pages. And even in a simple novel you have to create believable characters readers will care about, sustain that believability through a series of occurrences in the plot and sub-plot(s), write in a style that sustains the “vivid and continuous dream,” in John Gardener’s words, and in the end, make it look like it was easy.

All of which leads to a more subtle part of the process of writing a novel. And that is my insecurity. What if no one really cares about the things I write about? What if the things I find moving others find sentimental? The things I try to make funny fall flat? What if I offend everybody? What, ultimately, will people who read this novel think about me?

If I could be Stoic, it wouldn’t matter what people thought about me (“If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?”). Hell, if I thought I knew what I was doing it wouldn’t matter. But neither is the case. Which is why the hardest part of writing a novel, so far, is being willing to tell anyone that I am writing a novel.