Working Daze #9

“The time goes on and the manuscript crawls on.  And after a long time it will be done.  I am not sad.  In fact, I am pretty glad now.”


John Steinbeck, “Working Days,” Entry #62, September 2, 1938


I am glad, too.  In fact, I’m as close to rocking as I have been for quite a long while. 


No, the novel’s not done.  Not even close.  But I’m working it again; stretching and pulling and beating and tearing and then trying to sew it back up. 


I had gotten in a funk about it and some personal goofs and my schoolwork and whatever, and I left poor Jace with a knife to her throat in a darkened, abandoned holding cell for way too long.  But now we’re moving again, she and I.


The book has a ton of problems, no doubt, but my novels always have a ton of problems in the middle passages.  By that time, I’ve always thought of a hundred thousand new colors that will absolutely improve the painting and so I just start splattering cobalt blue and flake white and viridian green and a touch of cadmium red all over the place.


In other words, on page 358, suddenly there will appear a new character or a new situation with references linking backward.  I have to keep lots of notes as to what new thing happened when so I can remember to go back and set it all up.


As confused as it sounds, it actually feels like I’ve come home again ‘cuz it’s always this fouled up.  Hah, this is normal for me so that’s sadly reassuring.


On the other hand, this is where the painfully solitary act of writing starts to get giddily fun.


What I did, when I realized I had lately lost my writing discipline, was to ease back with a new short story (and by selling an older one to a market I’ve been trying to break in to…  The new story was an idea I had before Bouchercon, but hadn’t touched because I wasn’t sure what was up.  But at Bouchercon, because of the booze or barbeque or inspiring writers or rage inspiring hack writers, the thing took shape.


See…it’s all dialogue.


That’s right, baby.  Nothing but dialogue.  No description.  No narrative.  Nothing literary or literate like that.  Nothing but quotes.  Nothing but two guys talking and…eventually…shooting.  It’s odd and experimental and structurally goofy and I love it.


Getting the thing done over the course of two days – I’d planned two weeks for it – quite wonderfully charged the writing batteries.  Now I’m all atwitter, much like a two-bit tweaker, to crank up the stereo (jazz or instrumental world beat when I’m composing new words, brutally loud rock or blues or metal when I’m editing), toss a twelve pack of cheap beer in the fridge, snatch up a few big bags of Skittles and some Oreos, and get the fuck back to work.


Plus, I finished my second Master’s class (out of twelve…oy, vey….) so there is nothing in front of me except wide open roadway.


I know who’s dying next, I know who’s discovering the nugget next, I know where the beer is and how best to suck the filling outta the Oreos.


Hah…this is what it’s supposed to be like and I’m glad I found it again.


So don’t call me, don’t email me, don’t send me a text message that’ll cost me ten cents, don’t send up smoke signals.  Leave me alone and when it’s done, assuming I’m not dead, I’ll come up for air.

Working Daze #8

“Now I have lost a great deal of time.  I have been remiss and lazy, my concentration  have permitted to go under the line of effort.  The point is that I am over half through with this book.”

John Steinbeck, “Working Days,” Entry #59, August 29, 1938

I’m with ya, Johnny.

I have been bad lately.  Yes, work has been busy.  Yes, I went to Bouchercon and conventions always mean I lose a few days.  Yes, I’ve been behind in my homework for my current class.

But I’ve not put a single new word down on the novel in probably a week and a half.  The book has been stuck at the illegal rave (happening in the forgotten bowels of the jail) for something like three weeks now.  It took a while to get the right feel down for the scene, but since I got that done…putt-putt-putt.

Like Mr. Magoo putting down the street, completely unsure of where he’s going.  Actually, I’d love to be Magoo.  At least he was moving.

It’s not like I don’t know – in at least a general way – where the book is going.  I know who’s up next on the death parade, I know what the next investigatory step is, I know what the next characterization step is.  I just can’t find the time to get going again.  And, of course, now that I’ve been stopped for so long, it’ll take me two days just to get back up to speed.

When I was in a writers’ group with Ed Bryant, I used to silently – and sometimes with full throat – tell the other writers they were idiots.  I know, hard to believe.  But every month the group would hear excuses from a vast majority of the group that they just “didn’t have time to write.”

I considered that bullshit.  If you want to write, then you fucking find time for it.  If you don’t want to write, then sit your ass down and watch reruns of The Bob Newhart Show.

I still consider that bullshit, even upon myself.  I want to write, I want to get this book done and look at some other projects, and I’ve been blowing it off.  I have become, God save me, one of those I yelled at.  I have let apathy and laziness step in and become my current best friend.

There are a million reasons why.  I could fill up every megabite of the Internet with reasons why this is so but they’re all bullshit.  It comes down to do you want to write or not?  If so, then do it.  If not, piss off.

Andy DuFrense has a great line in Shawshank Redemption.  It comes down to a choice, he says, get busy living or get busy dying.

Okay, writing a novel that might well never get published isn’t quite so dire as all that, but you get what I’m saying.

The act of writing has always been a joy to me.  I’ve never had a problem with sitting in the chair for an hour or two and banging out new words.  Put on some bombastic classical music or some angular bebop jazz and get the hell to it.  Or slam on some Metallica or jangly blues and edit the crap outta something (no lyrics when I’m writing new…it just distracts me).

But lately, I just can’t bring myself to sit down.  Actually, that’s not true.  Lately, when I’m sitting down, I just can’t stay focused.  There are a lot of dead fish swimming around in my head and I can’t see through their corpses to get Jace moving on to her next thing.

Steinbeck talks, in his quote above, about being lazy and remiss.  I’m not sure I’m lazy, I’m getting lots of homework done, and I wrote a brand new short story when I got back from Bouchercon.  But everything I’ve been doing is in short bursts.  I believe that right now, my long-term concentration is as dead as McCain’s campaign, just as Steinbeck says in the second half of the quote.

But knowing and understanding the problems – even if I don’t expose them here – hasn’t done anything for my ability to deal with the problems, solve them, and move the fuck on.

I need to be more like ol’ Andy, I guess.  “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Actually, Red has the better part of that line.  “That’s goddamned right.”

Tee it up, Red, let’s get this fucking book done.

Working Daze, #7.5

And if it doesn’t work, this changing of the earth from gray to red…fuck it. Get rid of the earth altogether.

Hah! Now we’re getting somewhere.

Working Daze, #7

“Got her done.  And I’m afraid she’s a little dull.”

John Steinbeck, “Working Days,” Entry #22, June 22, 1938

I’ve been plugging away on the book and it’s coming along.  The mystery works fine.  The characters work fine.  The setting works fine.  I’m interested to see where everything is going and how we’re going to get there.  All of that is fine, no complaints.

Well…one complaint.

The book hasn’t quite caught fire yet.

“Got her done…she’s a little dull.”

Once upon a time, I had a conversation with one of today’s great writers.  He said he had gotten to a point with his writing, after twenty some odd years of doing it, that it was always good, but every once in a while it was great.  Every so often, he said, he hit on a detail or a description or some thing that made the work ascendant.  He had no idea why it would or wouldn’t happen, or when it would or wouldn’t and I don’t, either.  The creative process is that nebulous.

But that is where the second Jace Salome novel is right now.  It’s competent, it’s a decent read.  It doesn’t have much bad writing (this isn’t as conceited as it sounds.  I’ve been writing so long in so many contexts that while I don’t always write brilliant sentences, I always recognize shitty ones), but it is – for me, a little dull.

I need that indefinable thing that will fling me into the white hot energy that can pervade an author’s work like a jetstream at 30,000 feet.  I’ve had my head in that jetstream before but haven’t quite found it this time.

Then I read this:

“Make earth red, not gray.”

From Steinbeck’s ‘Working Days.’  Entry #20 from June 20, 1938.

Could it be that simple?  Have I not yet made the earth red rather than gray?  Steinbeck began the Joads’ quest in Oklahoma.  I have relatives there and the dirt is indeed red.  I believe, with absolutely no evidence for it, that Steinbeck wanted gray as a commentary on the world in general and the colorless, hopeless situation of the Joads.  But when he blasts a bit of color into that book – red soil versus gray – did that give him a bit of that fire?

Originally, my time line was in and around Halloween.  That didn’t work at all so I moved it out a bit and now we’re sitting in and around Christmas.  The main murder happens on Christmas morning and the chase happens on New Year’s Eve.

But I don’t have the Christmas details. There are no decorations, no Christmas music being hummed by guards or inmates, no plans for an office Christmas party. Perhaps those details, small as they are – and, honestly, as inconsequential to the plot and pacing as they are – are the spark I need to set the book ablaze.

Yeah, yeah, writing is about the details.  I understand that.  But ask any writer and I’d bet a year’s salary that all of them will tell you there are details and there are details.  As Bob Seger sang, “What to leave in, what to leave out.”  Maybe I simply haven’t yet found what to leave in that will allow me to climb deep into the head of the book, not the characters, but the book.

“Make the earth red, not gray.”

Or, in this case, make the jail Christmas.

Working Daze, #6

“But I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability.”

John Steinbeck, “Working Days,” Entry #18, June 18, 1938

“Must get no fatal feelings about it.”

John Steinbeck, “Working Days,” Entry #20, June 20, 1938

I was about eight and a half chapters in when it all fell apart.

Okay, not all.  The first thirty words or so of the first chapter were decent.  And there were ten or fifteen good words in chapter five.  Beyond that….

Honestly, it’s not that bad, but I did have some long hard sessions the last few days where I began to realize the new novel wasn’t working.  Not in a mechanical, “Fix this here strut and that back brake and maybe the headlight and ever’thang’ll be good” kind of way, but in a “I’m not sure this thang’s got a engine” kind of way.

Chapter eight felt forced, is the best I can describe it.  It felt hollow and forced and entirely superficial.  What I came to realize, after much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair (metaphoric hair, for those of you who know me) was that one character was shouting at me to cut his stage time.

Once I realized that, that chapter came clear.  So I set about writing it, happily tapping away until I realized that to do the chapter the new way meant restaging the players quite a bit upstream.  That realization forced me to rethink the time line in its entirety.

I had been fixated on this book happening about two months after the first book in the series.  Fixated on that because I had a great scene in mind that would happen during a Halloween party in some forgotten tunnels near the jail.  Lots of funky lighting – lurid and angled and shadowed and all the things I loved to do when I was doing theatrical lighting – and people in costumes and a hardcore chase of a murder suspect right through the middle.

I got that in my head and couldn’t get it out, which meant I was writing to that scene rather than to the overall story arc.  Once I found the balls to toss that scene, then I understood what was wrong with the entire book.

So I restaged it, restructured it, and that was a good thing.  Once I get things rewritten upstream, I’ll be able to keep moving downstream and should finish the final two-thirds in a couple months.

And chances are I’ll find a way to use that chase scene anyway, if not in this book, then the next.

It is a lesson Ed Bryant taught me long ago and that I had simply forgotten: don’t be scared to toss it all out.  Don’t be scared to toss an idea or a chapter or some bit of brilliant writing.  If it’s not working, then it’s not working, regardless of how well it’s written.

So I tossed and now we’re cooking with Crisco, as my third grade music teacher used to say.  We’ll see if there’s enough Crisco to get through the entire book.

Actually, given my heart history, perhaps I should shy away from Crisco and use extra virgin olive oil or some shit.

Working Daze, #5

"Not an early start today but it doesn’t matter at all because the unity feeling is back.  That is the fine thing.  That makes it easy and fun to work."

John Steinbeck, ‘Working Days,’ Entry #14, June 14, 1938

Well, not necessarily easy to work, but certainly fun again.

Chapter six is done and chapter seven is begun and after lots of preliminary stuff, the book is off and running.  Or, if not running, limping along like a Special Olympics athlete with a knee brace and crutches.

Chapter six was the novel’s engine, that souped up HEMI that gives us the forward motion.  In this case, it was a murder and seeing that dead body will now lead us the machinery of an investigation and a carnival of suspects.  (hehehehe, right now, there are – literally – 300+ suspects)

But then, as so often happens and which I love so much, the ecstasy of discovery also came along with chapter six.  I had forced Jace into a situation where she was getting pummeled verbally and emotionally by one of her own detectives (because of things that happened in the the first book) and as she stood up for herself, as she decided this was the moment when she’d taken enough bullshit, I discovered just how badly things had gone for her during the eight weeks between the end of the first book and the beginning of the second.

I love those discoveries.  This one was small in actuality but huge emotionally.  Just a bit of paper, really, that I realized was defining Jace for this entire book.  The outcome of the definition was there already, but I hadn’t understood exactly where it had come from. 

I know, it sounds smooshy and ostentatious and overly-writerly, but that’s pretty much how it is.  And let me tell you, those kinds of discoveries, where the writer’s subconscious is allowed to stretch out and get some good steam up, do not happen with outlines.

As a writer, I never had much use for outlines and plans and all the rest.  Christie Golden, a fantasy writer friend of mine, and I once had a conversation about outlines.  She writes Big Fat Fantasy with thousands of characters and all kinds of spells and brews and potions and all the things that readers of BFF love and demand.  To keep it all straight, she works from outlines.

But her outlines run 100 pages.

To me, just write the damned thing.  If the outline is that long, that involved, it’s really nothing more than a short version of the book.  Outlines worked for her and she didn’t really give a shit that I thought them a waste of time.

Well, I still don’t use full book outlines but I do find myself outlining chapters.  I have a few paragraphs, a few sentences.  Just enough to get in the important points that I have to get in.  Anything extra I discover I consider the literary equivalent of found money.  I see it, get excited and gleeful, and move on.

So while I don’t yet have a complete picture of what is what in this book, I do now have strands and threads slipping out and away from me like all the roads out of Rome.  But it is in that very mess and entanglement that I find my control over the book building.  It is in the chaos building on the page that I find some of the unity about which Steinbeck wrote.  

I really do think this is going to be fun now.  Not that the set up hasn’t been fun, but hell, now we’ve got blood and vendettas. 

I don’t care who you are, blood and vendettas ain’t nothing but fun.

Working Daze, #4

"Last night the itching, burning jitters and no sleep until 3:00 a.m.  Hope my nerves aren’t weak because they have a long haul ahead."

John Steinbeck, ‘Working Days,’ Entry #17, June 17, 1938, Friday


Well, my nerves aren’t shot at all, but are frazzled a bit.  Got some news last week that there might – MIGHT – be an offer looming in the next week or so.  Yeah, thanks Agent Bob, for letting me know that ’cause I haven’t slept at all since getting the email.  Damn him with his faint note of hope and possibility coupled with a giant "HAFTA WAIT AND SEE."


So I’m not sleeping and instead spend my time juggling all my little cockroach plans and schemes into some semblence of order just in case there is an offer.  I’ll do this and do that and go here and go there and blah blah blah.  None of it means anything until there is – or isn’t – an offer.

But it’s fun to think about.

Working Daze, #3

"I am very happy in this work, I do know that.  It satisfies me so far.  But I wish I could have the music.  I really need the music.  Have to make the sound of the tractors and the dust of the tractors.  I’ll have to have music before that…."

John Steinbeck, "Working Days," Entry #7, June 6, 1938


Coltrane.  Baker.  Davis.  Horn and Horne.  McDuff.  That’s the music of this novel.  Not quite all jazz all the time, but close.

Except, while Steinbeck wrote literally about music (actually, he writes about not being able to hear his music over the washing machine, which is as pedestrian as it gets), he is also talking metaphorically about music.

In other words, does the work – the words on the page – sing?

I’ve begun chapter five and the lady ain’t singing yet.  She’s warming up, maybe, but not quite yet stepped up to the mike and belted out whatever tune is in her head.  That is because, as much as I preach get in and get going immediately if not sooner, I’m trying to slow down in this series.  Much of what I’ve done so far has been warm up.  There is a touch of back story, a bit of set up to minor incidents, and two or three bits of major set up.

Yet now, as of 11:30 last night, we have a body.

At least, the rough draft of  body.  Right now, it’s in the hallway, a shank sticking outta its chest.

So we’re not really singing yet…just sort of moaning.  Hopefully, it will eventually sing.  Hopefully,  the language on the page will match the language in my head and it will all match the music of the death.  We have to hear the shrieking alarm beyond me simply saying, "That alarm was noisy, dude."  We have to hear the last few moments of life beyond me simply saying, "Then the dude was dead…oh, wow, man."  And we have to hear, in the music of the language o the page, the slow spill of blood.

That’s the music Steinbeck was really talking about.  It’s much harder to hear and – hopefully – nearly impossible to compose to the standards of the composer.

Up next?  The machinery of investigation.  Oh, by the way, we are starting with more than 300 suspects.

Hehehehehe…this is where it gets fun. 

Working Daze, #2

“Today the argument against sin and the means of losing it – the quest for the true spirit. This should be a good sharp section.”
– John Steinbeck, “Working Days,” Entry #4, June 2, 1938, Thursday

No giant moral arguments for me, at least not yet. Today’s work – tonight actually – is chapter 3. Jace at home after a long shift wherein an inmate has a problem in medical and we get foreshadowings of the underpinning of the book.

Chapter 3, then. Short, sharply delineated (I hope). She’s scared to sleep, scared of the dreams; leftovers from the psychological aftermath of Book One. Though the books are desert-set, this section should have the oppressive feel of the hot and humid, almost like being able to see the humidity hanging in the air. Should feel as oppressive as the Louisiana bayou. Hell, maybe I’ll just ask James Lee Burke to write it for me. Should have long sentences and long paragraphs, almost painful to read because of her fear of sleeping.

No Gramma and none of The Coots. This is all Jace. But short because I’ve already strung out the initiating murder too long. Too much navel-gazing already. But then, pacing never works for me until deep near the end. That’s the only time I can look back and see what’s what.

But like what became the middle part of “Grapes” chapter 4, this should be good and sharp. We’ll see.

And the quest for the true spirit? It may be corny, but there are no other quests. Everything dances to that particular rhumba.

Working Daze, #1

“It seems to be necessary to write things down. Can’t stop it.”

John Steinbeck, “Working Days,” Entry #1, February 7, 1938, Monday.

It is a marvelous book, Steinbeck’s “Working Days.” It is not one of the novels – the short, kiss-in-the-dark sweetness of “Of Mice and Men,” nor the sprawling “East of Eden.” Neither is it one of the volume of letters like “Steinbeck: A Life in Letters,” or “Journal of a Novel, the East of Eden Letters.”

It is Steinbeck’s attempt to “map the actual working days and hours of this novel.”

It is a diary of his time spent writing “The Grapes of Wrath.”

And it is, quite simply, an amazing book.

I am very much into discovering and exploring the creative process. I want to see your painting, yes, but I also want to know why precisely that color in precisely that place. I want to see what you did with the lighting scheme for “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern,” but I also want to know why that green at that moment.

“Working Days,” is an almost daily account of the writing of Grapes. The struggles as to tone and pace, the battles as to timbre and situation. But also, it allows the reader to see how in hell he got the book done given everything else that was going on in his life at that time.

I am not so bold.

But I am just cheeky enough to believe I could do something similar. My Working Daze, however, won’t be as disciplined or as regular. He wrote his as a daily warm up to writing. I, because of my work schedule, no longer write every day. Instead, I write every day I’m off. And my writing time is so limited that if I tried to keep Working Daze constantly up to date, I’d never work on the novel.

So my scope is much more limited than his.

I will try, as best I can, to put down what it’s like to write a novel. I will explore the artistic struggles of tone and timbre, pace and plot. In short, I will navel gaze with the intensity of someone who is self-involved to the nth degree when it comes to his writing.

I already know, to a degree, what’s coming. I’ve written books before and there will be days where I am nothing short of the single best writer what ever walked the planet. And there will be days where I want to throw the computer out the window and take up knitting.

Maybe it’ll fun and maybe it’ll suck, but I’m gonna give it a whirl and see what happens. The trick, of course, is to explore the writing of the book without giving the book away. Hell, if I put it all down in the journal, there would never be any reason for you to go plunk down $25 for it, would there?

The book, by the by, is the second in a brand new series centering on a female sheriff’s deputy. In book one, we see her at the beginning of her career. I mean the very beginning – day one – and we go from there. The first book is called “Slow Bleed” and you haven’t seen or heard of it yet because I only finished it a few months ago and am waiting for my agent to read it. After him, hopefully, publishers. After that, hopefully, enough sales to fund a two-month trip to St. Thomas.

Steinbeck said something else in that initial entry back in ’38. He wrote, “I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now. That is the greatest fear of all. I am working at it but I can’t tell.”

It is the greatest fear of us all. So we’ll see what happens. And do, please, post your comments. I’d love to know how you do things, how you explore your creativity.

And what your favorite Steinbeck book is.