Anatomy of an (Incomplete) Story Idea (Or, The Adventures of Ferdinand)

Imagine this scene . . .

A man is driving along a lonely country road as midnight approaches.  I don’t know how old the man is–perhaps 40, maybe 45.  For the time being, it’s not important.  Nor do I know his name.  Jeff?  Fred?  Ferdinand?  Pick a name, any name.  Just as with his age, it is irrelevant right now.

 

The man (okay, we’ll settle on Ferdinand!) glances in his rearview mirror.  A dark stretch of asphalt merges into the background, swallowed by the night.  He can’t help but inhale deeply, taking in the warm summer air through the open window of his car.  Above, in an oily canvas of night sky, hundreds of stars sparkle like diamonds.  He used to study astronomy as a kid, and, momentarily, he looks up, through the windshield, seeing if maybe, just maybe, he can identify some of those stars.  No such luck.  Like eighth-grade algebra, the knowledge is gone, captured by the wide gulf of years, of time and distance.

 

He hasn’t driven through a town of significant size for miles.  He’s “smack-dab in the middle of Nothingville,” as his mom used to say about the house and town he grew up in.  Where is he headed?  I’m not sure, and neither is he.  Doesn’t matter.  What matters is the drive, the stars, the gentle night breeze wafting in through the window, the fields and trees that come and go, come and go, as he drives on.  There are few houses.  But occasionally, there is a porch light in the distance, a beacon in the dark.  It makes him reminisce.  He grew up on a farm.  He couldn’t wait to get away, escape to the city.  Now he wonders if perhaps that had been a mistake.  His life isn’t what he thought it would be.  Maybe that’s why he’s on this long drive.  Maybe he’s running away, fleeing something from a long-ago, irretrievable past.

 

Ferdinand sighs, turns on the car’s radio.  He scans through the stations–not getting much, this far away from populated areas.  He comes across a sports-talk station with a caller screaming in a heavy Brooklyn accent about why the New York Jets need to move in a new direction.  The host cautions restraint, the caller yells again.  Ferdinand presses a button, and the angry Jets fan is gone.  For a moment, Ferdinand imagines the owner of that voice, that frustrated fan.  He’s shut him out, erased him from the confines of the car, but surely the man is still raging from somewhere in Brooklyn.  An apartment, perhaps?  Maybe the guy lives above a bakery or a pizza parlor, or a pawnshop.  Maybe he owns a brownstone on a busy corner, with cars honking and people talking on the streets and sidewalks outside.  Miles away from Ferdinand.  Worlds away.

 

He continues to drive, cruising along at 55.  Not a single car passes him. The road is his, and his alone.  He imagines driving through a vortex, through an intersection of space and time, plunging into a parallel world, as if a character in an old Twilight Zone episode. And all the while, he continues to scan through the radio dial.

 

There’s one station playing ’80s pop.  He pauses on this one.  Some of the songs he remembers well from his youth.  This makes him feel at once nostalgic, and old.  Could that really have been thirty years ago?  He glances in the rearview again, not to look out for traffic–he knows there isn’t any–but to check his thinning hair and the worry lines on his forehead.  Where has the time gone?

 

Muttering, Ferdinand fiddles with the dial again.  The scanner skips over stations and plays back static with others, interspersed with a few more songs that he doesn’t care for–there’s a heavy metal piece, a country song.  A grunge number from the ’90s.  Just as he’s about to switch the radio off entirely, he hears something odd.  A voice, talking to him.  But not just any voice.

 

His voice.

“Don’t do it,” the voice on the radio–his voice–says.  “Think twice, champ.  Don’t.  It will be the biggest mistake of your life–and that’s saying something, considering your track record.  Don’t go there.”

Ferdinand shakes his head, hits his forehead with the palm of one hand.  Don’t do what?  Don’t go where? And how can he be hearing himself on the radio?

“I need some sleep,” he says.  The next sign of life, the next town–he’ll pull over, get a room for the night.  Maybe order some takeout, watch a movie.  Relax.

 

He reaches to turn off the radio.

“Not that easy, you don’t,” his voice says back to him, tinny and crackling, as if losing reception.  “You’re not going to shut me out . . . or up.  Listen, for a change.  Don’t do it.  Don’t you dare.”

He takes a long, deep breath, looks out the window at the stars, at the empty, open vastness of the night.

 

Is he losing his mind?

And if he’s not . . . what does it mean?  How can it be?

Maybe he has driven into the Twilight Zone, after all.

 

**************************

This is an idea that hit me with the force of a hammer last week.  The scene unfolded in my mind as described above, formulated within seconds upon waking from an overnight sleep.  As I always do when an idea that energizes me comes, I immediately jotted down the gist of it, the essentials–so I wouldn’t forget anything important.  I did the same thing with the scene that came to me in a dream back when I was in high school–the dream that morphed into Mitchell Brant‘s dream in the opening chapter of The Eye-Dancers.  For two decades, I couldn’t seem to fit that episode into a story–until, at last, The Eye-Dancers was born.

 

Will this new idea, this new situation, also take weeks or months or years to grow and expand and flesh out into a story, or even a novel?  I hope not.  But I don’t have much control over it, either.  This is how ideas work for me, most of the time.  Every now and then, an idea arrives fully formed, beginning to end, a complete story that only needs to be written.  But that is the exception, not the rule.

 

The rule is both riveting and frustrating.  Exhilarating and tantalizing.  Because what normally happens is–I am given a piece, a small slice of the whole.  Just enough to hook me, pull me in, grasp onto to me like a feisty dog taking a firm hold and not letting go.  I am forced in, unable to discard, feeling the need to explore the path and see where it leads.  See what discoveries await on the other side.  Sometimes that process is sudden and immediate.  Other times it is slow and full of pitfalls, as I await the pleasure of a capricious and all too often stingy muse.

 

So, for right now, I reluctantly set Ferdinand aside.  Oh, I’ll think about him.  I’ll turn his predicament over in my mind a thousand times before Sunday.  But I know the full story cannot be forced.  Just as Ferdinand’s voice spoke to him from the radio, so it will to me–in its own way, at a time and place of its choosing.  I can coax and goad and ponder and cajole, but I cannot dictate.  The creative process must be allowed to work its magic in its own inscrutable way.

 

Then again, maybe tonight I will dream of this again, and, maybe, upon waking, the riddle will be solved, and the story will be written.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Capricious Muse Comes to Call (Or, A Walk Through the Neighborhood)

There are times when, antsy and frustrated at the lack of creative direction, I sit down and try to force the issue.  I’ll hold a brainstorming session . . . with myself.  It’s not like I don’t have any ideas.  On any given day, I generally have a handful of what I like to think of as decent possibilities.  None of them are fully formed, and all of them are as amorphous as a literary amoeba.  But they’re something.  They represent a start.

 

The thing is, these ideas have been lying around for a while, uninspired, limp and about as riveting as day-old baked potatoes.  Sure, they’re workable.  But only in the barest sense.  I don’t get excited about them.  I don’t really care.  The very thought of crafting a story around them feels like a chore.  And one thing I have learned the hard way from experience, after repeated sessions of banging my head against a granite wall, is that if I don’t feel revved up about a story idea, no motivational pep talk is going to imbue it with the necessary vigor.  Whenever I’ve attempted to begin a story in such a halfhearted manner, the result is a flat, anemic piece that never goes anywhere.  It is doomed to fail before the first word is written.

 

So what do I do, then, between stories, when I don’t have any new, inspired ideas to build upon?  Granted, in the days directly after completing a long writing project, this dilemma takes care of itself.  For a while, maybe a few weeks or even a few months, I may not want to undertake a new story.  Kind of a post-novel sabbatical, if you will.  But the literary malaise doesn’t last forever.  Eventually, as surely as fall follows summer, the need to write, to plot, to form, to create, returns, with the force of a pile driver.  And this is when the lack of a ready-made story can cause a sense of unease.  I need to write something!  But I don’t have any ideas worth writing about.

 

After a few weeks of this stalemate, this nowhere zone of literary quicksand, I begin to feel genuine panic.  Is that it?  Has the well run dry?  I can’t make ideas happen.  They either come, or they don’t.  And if they don’t, what will I do?  The questions continue in rapid-fire, machine-gun succession, taunting, accusing, pleading.  The creative path, far too often, is one laced with insecurity, and when searching for an idea to write about, the insecurity rises to a crescendo.

 

So, in response, all I can do is live my life.  If I had a magic formula, an “ideas button” I could press, I would.  Any writer would.  If I had a surefire way to send an SOS signal to the muse, the signal would be sent!  Alas.  The muse cannot be paged or prodded.  It comes when it comes, and the job of any writer is to remain open, watchful, observant, vigilant not to miss the cues.

 

Because the cues can arrive at any moment, and often when we least expect them.

****************

For my “day job,” I work as a technical writer for a small-town New England software company.  The office sits at the edge of town, and there is a neighborhood directly behind it.  It’s an old neighborhood, with houses dating back to the 19th century, many of which are large colonials with covered front porches and crisp, black shutters that frame the windows.  Mature maple trees and sturdy oaks dot the lawns, in summer creating a green canopy filled with the chirping of songbirds.

 

I frequently take walks through this neighborhood.  On my lunch break, I’ll head out and weave through the side streets for the better part of an hour.  When I walk, my mind usually wanders, perhaps calculating my options for the fantasy football draft, reliving old memories, thinking about my WIP, if I’m in the middle of one.  Or, just as often, I simply observe my surroundings, taking it all in, enjoying the New England summer, which is all too fleeting.

 

And sometimes, every now and then, something will hit me.  It happened just last week.

As I neared an abandoned cape, at the back end of a dead-end street, I paused on my way.  Something about the place struck me–which was strange.  After all, I’d walked by here hundreds of times on previous lunchtime excursions.  What was so different on this day?  And yet, I was transfixed.  If a neighbor from across the way had been peering out the window just then, they may have wondered why I was just standing there, stock-still, in the middle of the road.

 

The house had seen better days.  The beige siding was peeling in places, the roof had a few shingles missing.  The lawn was uncut, the weeds spreading like a contagion, overtaking the porch.  In the driveway, parked in front of a dilapidated garage, there was a rusted-out car, its tires punctured and flattened, the out-of-control shrubbery from the side yard enveloping the vehicle in a greedy, green embrace.

 

The place looked easily a hundred years old, likely more.  Though abandoned now, no doubt much life had been lived within its walls in previous decades–children playing, laughing, people talking, planning, scheming.  Crying.  Especially that last one.  Maybe it was the angle of the sun that day, the quality of the light.  Maybe it was the cawing of a crow that flew overhead.  Or perhaps it was the silence on the street.  Not a soul stirred.  No one was outside.  The breeze picked up, and in it there were echoes.  Whisperings.  Secrets of past hauntings, past tragedies.

 

Of course, I don’t know if there were any tragedies in the old house.  Perhaps its history is as nondescript as a November Wednesday.  But something was calling out to me.  Something was resonating.  And that’s when I realized.  After a months-long hiatus, the muse was speaking to me . . .

Since finishing The Singularity Wheel. and publishing it in January, no new idea had energized me.  But now, at the back of this quiet dead-end street, gazing upon this decrepit, empty house, here it was.  Out of the ether, unplanned for, unscripted, completely of its own accord, it came.  It wasn’t complete–not even close.  The idea would need fleshing out, muscle and sinew attaching to bone; veins and arteries would require a still-absent heartbeat to manifest, to pump the blood that would drive and propel the story.  But that would come later–with hope.  At the moment, I was just riding the high that an “a-ha” creative moment always brings.  Where, seconds ago, there was nothing, now there was a firm foundation, a foothold upon which to build a literary structure.

 

I continued to look at the house.  A squirrel leaped onto a low tree branch and climbed to the top, shaking leaves as it went.  I wondered if the rodent was vying for a better view to peer in to the house, through an upper window.  Perhaps it, too, had caught wind of the muse.  And the secrets that upstairs room held . . .

 

In the story idea that had materialized, a boy, perhaps eleven or twelve years of age, with a bent toward science and inventiveness, a self-professed “nerd,” is arguing with his best friend.  Because, though they are best friends, there is jealousy, too, rivalry.  Anger.  And this boy, this nerd, has conspired with a handful of classmates–all present–to gang up on his friend, scare him . . . just a little.  Push him toward the window, make him worry that he might fall.

 

And then something goes terribly wrong.  A trip, falling backwards, toward the window, out the window, down.  He didn’t kill his friend, did he?  No–he’s not dead.  But somehow, in its own way, the result is even more horrific, even worse . . .

The nerd and his co-conspirators must live with what they’ve done.  We follow this nerd through high school and college into adulthood, as he wrestles with this catastrophic accident.  How can he erase the past, or even change it?  Is there a way?  And as he seeks and quests and pursues, how does his guilt and his obsession affect his relationships with his wife and kids, his family and friends?  And, even if he can alter the past, or twist reality itself, what would the ramifications be?  Would something unintended happen?  Is he risking too much?

 

I took one last look at the abandoned house at the back of the dead-end road.  The squirrel chattered from above.  Then I walked back to the office.

I didn’t have the answers to the story’s questions and possibilities–yet.  And I couldn’t even be sure the story would be written, or finished.  But it was good to be fired up, to have a story to start.

To have a literary path to follow.

I’ll just need to see where it leads.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“It’s Time to Watch ‘Forrest Gump'” (Or, The Art of Not Forcing the Issue)

We’ve all been there.  You’re working on something–a story, perhaps, or a song, a poem.  A painting.  Something creative, something you believe in and aim to finish.  You’ve managed to juggle your schedule today, delegate chores and to-dos, plan ahead.  It’s the first time all week you have a chance to dig in and proceed with your masterpiece.  You have a glass of water or tea at the ready, maybe even a snack.  You plan on being here for a while.

 

“Let’s go,” you say, psyching yourself up.  “Let’s get this party started.”

And then . . . nothing happens.

The words don’t come.  The characters don’t cooperate.  The brushstrokes feel heavy and blunt, messy, as if you’re trying to paint underwater. The image you’re creating, the story you’re weaving, the art you’re making is stuck, dead on the page.  Your tea gets cold, the snacks sit there, uneaten.  And your cursor blinks at you, in and out, in and out, like a silent, mocking accusation.

 

But you aren’t ready to admit defeat.  You’re not sure when the next block of hours will present itself.  You’ve arranged your entire day around this!  Why are the words playing hard to get?

 

Certainly, I have experienced this phenomenon more times than I care to remember.  While writing The Singularity Wheel, there were days when it felt as though my head was in a blender, the words and phrases and paragraphs jumbled into a miasma of incoherence.  And since time was at a premium, and I was already so far behind my publication schedule for the book, I would resist, push back against the reluctant and ever-capricious muse.

 

The odd thing was–I might be struggling like this after a successful literary sojourn the last time I sat down to write.  In The Singularity Wheel, for example, Chapter 10 went smoothly–I sat down and wrote that chapter in two hours flat, and it required only minimal revisions.  But Chapter 11 was a brier patch, a wasteland of pitfalls and quicksand and hidden, poisonous vipers lying in wait to strike.  The first run-through took multiple sessions, and even then, the chapter later went through various revisions.  I even started thinking of it as “the nightmare chapter,” or, when I was feeling especially dramatic, “the chapter where my novel goes to die.”

 

Out of frustration, when I encounter a rupture in the creative process, a session where I just can’t produce, I too often try to force it.  I’ll write a sentence, then another, and another, and after several minutes, they may bleed to two or three paragraphs.  It is like attempting to find water in an abandoned and dry well.  Every word is an effort, every sentence a marathon.  What’s worse, nothing sounds right.  After a half hour or an hour of this, I will pause and read what I’ve got.  Almost without fail, what I’ve got is junk.

 

But the streak of stubbornness dies hard.  During one particularly unproductive session, I pulled my chair away from the desk, stood up, did a dozen push-ups, two dozen sit-ups, jogged in place, took a walk around the house, upstairs, downstairs, in the basement, and then back again.  I just need to get the old juices flowing, I told myself.  Work out the kinks.  When I returned to the manuscript, however, the kinks were still there, binding me with their inflexible, industrial-strength straps.

 

It’s times like this when I truly appreciate the flip side–those sessions when the words flow like lava, pouring out, my fingers barely able to keep up with my thoughts, swept away in a creative tsunami.  It is a high like no other.  But it cannot be forced.  It comes when it comes, as mercurial as the weather in the hill country of central Vermont.

 

Ultimately, this is a truth we have to accept.  Even the best-laid plans of writers and artists must sometimes be altered to fit the mood of the muse.  We fight against a barren spell.  We might rant and rave and swear, and try to will the words to come.  But that rarely works–at least not for me.

 

Once I know I’ve given it all I have, once I’ve stared at the screen long enough with no results to show for my efforts, however well intentioned; once I’ve taken a long walk along the country road where I live and still cannot produce even a single decent sentence, I grudgingly acknowledge the truth.  Today just isn’t my day.

 

Temporarily defeated (but only temporarily, I remind myself!), I endeavor to get away from the work and the frustration and perhaps watch a favorite movie or TV show.  Who knows?  If I’m lucky, something in whatever I decide to watch may serve as an artistic catalyst of sorts and get me out of my funk.

 

But which movie?  Which TV show?  I sort through my collection of old-school DVDs.  (What, me download?)  I settle on Forrest Gump.

It’s better than banging my head against the creative wall.

We’ll get ’em next time.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

********************

P.S.  Speaking of old school, the paperback copy of The Singularity Wheel is now available on Amazon!

A Land of Long Shadows

The hill country of east-central Vermont, where I have lived for over a dozen years now, is famous for its fall colors.  Tourists flock to the Green Mountain State from across the nation, and the world, to catch a glimpse of the reds, oranges, and golds that light up the hillsides every October.  The blazing foliage of autumn is as synonymous with Vermont as its ski slopes, dairy farms, and Rockwellesque small towns.

 

For me, though, October in Vermont is about much more than multicolored tree leaves.  Don’t get me wrong.  I marvel at the beauty of the season as much as anyone.  There is nothing quite like a stroll along a country lane in Vermont in the fall.  But it is the subtler, less showy aspects of the season that leave the most indelible mark.  The musky scent of woodsmoke on the air.  Fallen leaves crunching underfoot.  Warm, sunny days, the humidity of high summer over and gone.  Crisp, starry nights, quiet, the chorus of crickets silenced by frost and the encroaching winter.

 

And shadows.

Just the other day, I took a walk out back, in the meadow behind the house.  The land slopes down, gently in places, steeply in others, to the meadow, which is here and there interspersed with maple trees and elm trees and birches, their bark white and clean against the copper-yellow of the autumn leaves.

 

It was late afternoon, the sun was sinking to the west, and a recent end-of-summer heat wave was in the process of retreating, moving south like a migrating bird, leaving New England to the rightful, cooler temperatures of the season.  I looked at the maple trees at the top end of the meadow, standing, side by side, like deciduous twins, their leaves mostly green still, with the occasional flash of gold.  The sun was hitting them just so, and their shadows reached out across the expanse like dark, giant fingers.  My own shadow was long, too, as I stood in the path of the westering sun.  It spread across the grass, comically elongated, as if I were a colossus, a wanderer come down from Brobdingnag.  I walked south, changed direction to the east.  My shadow followed, sometimes merging with the shadows of the maples or the birches, or the woods, which ringed the meadow on all sides.  No matter where I walked, it came with me, always there.  Always present.

 

There was no escape.

********************

There have been times when I was told that I am not always present–not fully, anyway.  “Sometimes, even when you’re here, you’re not here,” a friend told me once.  And I don’t deny it.  Ever since I was a boy, my mind has had a tendency to wander, to daydream, to roam over hills and valleys in search of the unknown and the unexplored.  Sometimes it’s playacting.  I spent more time than I like to admit growing up visualizing, in vivid detail, myself winning Wimbledon or batting in the bottom of the ninth inning in the World Series, the game on the line.  I’d pretend to hold an interview with the press afterwards, going through an elaborate question-and-answer session.  I’d think of new games to invent, new theories to drum up, new ways of looking at the tried-and-true.  Often, at night, I’d look up at the sky, count the stars, realizing that, as numerous as the visible stars were, they represented but a tiny fraction of the whole–just a slice of the firmament, a drop in a cosmic sea without end.

 

Truth be told, I still do all of these things from time to time.  Not as much as I used to, but I still do them.  On one level, it’s embarrassing.  I’m not a kid anymore, after all.  On another level, I hang onto these wonderings, these musings left over from childhood.  Without them, something essential, something life-affirming and good, would be lost.

 

More than anything, though, I get lost in my stories.  That’s to be expected while I’m hunkered down at my PC, of course, frantically pecking away at the keyboard.  (I’m old school.  I don’t have a laptop.  I still prefer the bulky old desktop.)  But it’s not only when I’m physically writing.  My stories are with me always–especially the novels.  I can be seated at my desk at work, out taking a walk along the shoulder of the road or through the woods, showering in the bathroom, even visiting friends or family–and suddenly, out of the blue, an idea will hit me.  So that’s how chapter 27 should be resolved!  Oh, so Ryan shouldn’t do that, he should do this.  I’m not sure if Joe handled that the way he really might have.  How about this . . .?  And on and on it goes.

 

Beginning with The Eye-Dancers, which I started in 2009, and continuing on through its sequel, The Singularity Wheel, still on schedule to be released in November, I have lived and breathed with the protagonists in these tales for almost a decade.  They are never far from my thoughts, always ready to intervene or interrupt, as if to say, “Hey, remember me?  You got that last scene all wrong, partner.  I would never do that!  You better go back and fix it.”  Or the story itself, like a living, breathing entity, a sentient thing, will communicate with me, vying for my attention.  If I’m not sure what to do in an upcoming chapter, it does not stay silent, tucked away in the background.  It speaks, shouts, demands to be solved.

 

So forgive me if, while we talk, I occasionally have a distant, faraway look in my eye.  The story never sleeps.  The characters can never be put to bed.  The questions and musings and machinations of the creative process are as stubbornly and persistently present as shadows.

 

And while there are times when this is taxing, draining, even downright annoying, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

***********************

Ready to come inside, I walked back up the slope, leaving the meadow behind me.  As I crested the hill, I paused to take another look at the trees and the grass and the deep, forever blue of the sky.  I stood there like that, taking in the scene, pondering its beauty and its vastness, and its truth.  Then I turned around, and headed for the house.

 

My shadow followed me every step of the way.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Most Bittersweet of Words

On the surface of it, the accomplishment should elicit nothing but joy.  So much work has been put in, so many hours spent, so many unexpected hurdles and twists and roundabouts have been navigated.  It should be a celebration on par with a holiday parade.

 

And yet . . .

***************

Recently, after three-and-a-half years of working on the manuscript, I finally completed the first draft of The Singularity Wheel.  The Singularity Wheel (which didn’t name itself until I was three-quarters of the way through the story) is the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  It wasn’t necessarily planned.  When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I expected it to be a one-off, not the start of a protracted story arc that would need to span multiple books.

 

But one day, while taking a walk, an image popped into my head–just like that.  Snap-your-fingers fast.  I hadn’t been thinking of The Eye-Dancers on that walk.  I hadn’t been thinking about any of the characters, or anything related to the novel.  But there it was, and it was strong enough that I had to stop moving.  I just stood there, seeing it.  I blinked, shook my head.  The mental painting did not recede or fade away.  If anything, it clarified, coalesced, the blurred edges straightening and sharpening, the smaller details coming in to focus, as if caught under a magnifying glass.

 

There they were in my mind’s eye–Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–the main characters of The Eye-Dancers.  Only, in this image, they were devoid of color.  Everything was.  The road they were standing on, the field behind them, rich with tall grasses swaying in the breeze–all was a monochrome, a black-and-white world drained of greens and oranges and yellows.  There was only gray.

 

They stood before a monstrous structure, easily the width of a dozen football fields and as tall as a skyscraper.  Each floor of the building had an exterior walkway and countless doors, all closed.  And somewhere, several stories up, they saw a gray, colorless man frantically roaming from door to door, trying to open them, desperate, as if in search of something lifesaving.

 

High above them, above the structure and everything else, the sky was gunmetal gray.  But then it changed.  Two eyes formed in the clouds.  They expanded until they blotted out the sky, became the sky–a deep, penetrating blue.  The image shifted, the picture moved, and the eyes slanted and darkened.  They were angry.  The boys shrank back, but there was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.  They knew, as well as I, that those weren’t just anyone’s eyes.  They belonged to Monica Tisdale, the “ghost girl” from The Eye-Dancers.  After five years, she had come back for them.

 

Nothing else came to me that day, but it didn’t matter.  Something within me was urging me forward, letting me know there was a new story that needed to be told.  In the days that followed, gaps filled in, motives crystallized, story lines emerged.  A fortnight later, I sat down in front of my PC, opened an empty Word file, and keyed in the first sentence.

 

At the time, I couldn’t have known how difficult, or how long, the journey would be.  If The Eye-Dancers was “out there,” The Singularity Wheel was a million light-years away, spinning its threads from some far-off corner of the universe, regularly making me pause, rub my eyes, and ask, “Is there any way I can pull all of this together?”  The characters’ problems this time around were more nuanced, more complex.  Five years had passed since the conclusion of The Eye-Dancers.  They were about to enter their senior year in high school.  They were saddled with girl problems, family issues, worries about their future.  Some of them felt as though a continent had fallen on their shoulders.

 

But perhaps the character who had changed the most in five years was the “ghost girl” herself.  Unlike in The Eye-Dancers, in The Singularity Wheel, Monica is now a point-of-view character.  In fact, the sequel begins with her, in her bedroom, about to undertake a (quite literally) infinity-spanning trip across the layers and undulations of time and space.  And it will be a trip that puts her life–along with those of Mitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc–in peril.

Throughout the creative process–through the surges of “aha” moments, the flourishes of frenzied writing sessions on the dark side of midnight, the inevitable blocks that at times seemed to render the entire project null and void, and the incessant, nagging self-criticisms–the ending often felt far away, a high meadow lying beyond a range of towering mountain peaks.  But I forced myself to persist.

 

The only way I could, I discovered, was to focus on the now.  Sure, I needed to have an overall goal in mind, a general direction I was working toward.  But if I thought too far ahead, I would become bogged down, overwhelmed with the vast distances I still needed to traverse to reach the destination.  “One chapter at a time,” I said to myself, over and over.  “One scene at a time.  One paragraph at a time.”  I felt like a walking, living cliche, the coach who spouts off “coach-speak” to overeager reporters desperate for a scoop they wouldn’t get.  But it was the only way I could keep moving forward.

 

And when I got there, when, just the other night, I keyed in the bold, decisive words “The End,” I felt elated–for perhaps a minute.  And then I realized–I had been living with these characters, thinking with and through them, struggling along with them and cheering them on for over three years (almost eight, in fact, if you go all the way back to the start of writing The Eye-Dancers).  And while I still need to flip back to page 1 and undertake a full-book edit, and while I will blog about the characters and the sequel quite a bit in the weeks and months to come, the actual process of writing the story itself is over.

 

Writing a novel, particularly when there are stops and starts to the writing process, and when you can’t devote uninterrupted time to writing the book, is a marathon, a grueling exercise that tests an author’s will just as much, and probably more, than it does his or her imagination and storytelling abilities.  To finally arrive at “The End” is a tremendous relief, an event to celebrate.  And celebrate I did.  I popped some popcorn, fired up a DVD of a favorite movie (I am old school with digital entertainment!), kicked back, and enjoyed.  (I know, I’m a wild one, aren’t I, with the way I celebrate?)

 

But, mixed with the relief and feeling of accomplishment, there is also a profound loss.  Writing about the characters that populate your novel is not the same as writing through and with and for them.  When you are in the middle of writing a novel, you not only are writing it when you’re sitting at your desk pecking away at the keyboard.  You are “writing” it 24/7.  At any point of the day–in the shower, half-asleep in bed, at work, driving down the interstate–an idea might arise, a new direction might become clear, a new approach to a scene or a chapter might manifest itself.  Those moments, once you have typed “The End,” are gone.  They cannot return–the book is finished, the race is over and run.

 

There will be future books, of course, future projects.  I will get back in the game.  But for now, it is on to editing, to blogging more (which I look forward to doing!), to transforming an imperfect first draft into a (hopefully) polished and presentable product.

 

So am I glad?  Happy?  Satisfied?  You bet.  A literary-sized albatross–the work-in-progress–has been lifted from my neck.  The sense of relief is tangible.

 

But will I miss it?  Will I miss the process, the Everest-like highs of inspiration, when the muse is generous?  I will.  I’ll even miss the struggles, the walls, the worries of what I’ll do ten chapters hence.  It’s exhausting, confounding, and at times all-consuming.  But I love it.  And its absence leaves an undeniable void.

 

Then again, maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow with a new idea, a new seed that demands to be planted and allowed to grow.

 

Can it be, then, that “The End” is only just the beginning?

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Into the Abyss

The other night, I had a dream.  It wasn’t just any old dream, though.  It was extraordinary in several respects.

For one, I rarely even remember my dreams.  On average, I recall maybe one or two dreams per month, and even then, they are often fleeting, swift seabirds flying undetected, beyond the radar screen of my consciousness.  I might remember them for a few minutes, perhaps an hour at the outside.  The dream I had the other night, though, remains fresh and vibrant in my mind, holding on and unwilling to let go.

seabirdinflight

 

It started innocuously enough.  I was driving along a dirt road, somewhere in the wooded hills of rural Vermont, where I’ve lived for the past dozen years.  It was evening, the light of day fading, slowly, into dusk.  The road was isolated, off the beaten path–not another car in sight.  I had my window rolled down, and the sounds of the encroaching night were all around me:  the distant call of a hoot owl, returned moments later by a friend; the high-pitched, almost electronic song of the spring peepers as they stirred from their winter-long slumber; the whisper of the wind, rustling the dried-out fallen leaves from the previous autumn.  Early springtime in Vermont.

springpeeper

 

The thing was–I had a sense of being lost.  I didn’t know quite where I was–not exactly–or where I was going.  I was just . . . driving.  But that was when a sudden realization dawned on me.  I was going the wrong way.  Why or how I knew this, I wasn’t sure.  No new landmark had cropped up; I still felt lost, uncertain where I was headed.  It was just a strong, forceful conviction:  I needed to turn around.

lostonroadhavetoturnaround

 

That would be easier said than done.  Back roads in Vermont are notorious for their lack of turnabouts.  It might take miles to find one.  The stretch I was on contained no houses, no driveways, no intersections with other roads, and the road itself was too narrow to turn the car around.  I was forced to keep driving, in the wrong direction (or so I told myself), my heart rate increasing, an undefinable tension rising within me.

vermontbackroadnoplacetoturn

 

Suddenly, I spotted it–a slight widening of the road just ahead.  It was apparently a man-made section designed specifically for turning your car around.  (Who would have gone to the trouble of putting that in, way out here?)  I didn’t bother signaling.  Who would see me?  The owls?  I doubted they’d mind the oversight.

hootowlswontmind

 

I veered to the left, toward the turnabout.  I just needed to pull in, then back out and head in the direction from where I had come.  But I didn’t step on the brake.  I just turned the wheel to the left, confident I wasn’t going too fast.

I was.  Immediately the car began to skid, tires sliding along gravel and dirt.  I slammed on the brakes–too late.  There was no way to stop in time.

skidcantstop

 

Just beyond the turnabout, the road gave way to a small, narrow depression, perhaps a foot or two deep, cut through by the trickling of a shallow stream and flanked by a thick copse of trees and shrubs, their still bare limbs reaching out as if attempting to catch the car and prevent a potential disaster.  If only they could . . .

tricklingstream

 

As the car’s front wheels left the security of the road, suspended momentarily in midair, I felt a sick sense of inevitability.  I was about to crash into the depression.  The car might even tip or roll over.  Would I be trapped?  As if in response, another hoot owl cried out in the rapidly darkening twilight.

darkeningtwilight

 

The car careened over the edge, and I braced myself.  The force of the impact would be significant.  The stream appeared to be only a few inches deep, so at least I wouldn’t be submerged.

Or so I thought.

There was no sudden, crashing jolt of fender and metal against hard, rocky New England earth.  There was only a sudden splash, and a complete and overwhelming darkness.

rockynewenglandearth

 

The stream had somehow been something more, something it hadn’t appeared to be.  The car sank, deeper, impossibly fast, into what had become a bottomless pool of dark, still water.

bottomlesspool

 

I’m sinking, I thought, looking for something, anything, to see, to grab hold of.  That’s when I realized.  My driver’s-side window was closed–no water was pouring in.  How had that happened?  I hadn’t remembered closing it.  But what good would it do me now?  It served as nothing but a death trap.  At the rate I was falling, I had probably sunk several hundred feet already.  There was no way to force open the door–the pressure of the water pushing against it would be far too great.  I took a breath, tried to open the window, knowing I had to make a break for it before I sank deeper still.  It wouldn’t budge.  I scrambled, looking for something to break it with, but the car continued to sink at an alarming rate.  Was I a thousand feet from the surface now?  Two thousand?  There was no way to tell.

twothousandfeetunder

 

I felt a rising tide of panic.  I could see nothing–it was black, the most complete blackness I had ever experienced.  There was only absence–of light, of sound, of anything life-giving and life-sustaining.  And the air supply wouldn’t last long.

absenceoflightandeverything

 

No longer thinking clearly, I tried breaking the window with my elbow, tried to pry open the door.  Nothing worked.  I gasped, the air already dwindling, and the car continued to sink . . .

That’s when I woke up, sat bolt upright, breathing in short, choppy gasps.  It took a moment to register that the darkness around me was nothing more than the soft curtain of night, and not the impenetrable black hole of a bottomless pool on the side of some preternatural back road in the hill country of Vermont.

softcurtainofnight

 

I got out of bed, walked around the house for a while, as if attempting to assure myself that I was still here, still alive.  I didn’t sleep well the remainder of the night.

****************

Later, once the sun came up and the songbirds greeted the day with a springtime chorus, I began to think of the dream in a new, less sinister, light.  The way it had unfolded was like a story.  It might have been the beginning of a novel (or the end!).  And where had it come from?  What had caused me to dream of such a scenario to begin with?  (Oddly, it resembled a dream from my childhood.  Perhaps my subconscious is telling me something about my feelings for water!)

feelingsforwater

 

Where does any dream come from?  Are our dreams and nightmares merely chance occurrences, the whims and megrims of our slumbering mind?  Or do they originate from a more personal place, perhaps symbolizing deep-rooted fears, too long denied, or elaborate metaphors stemming from life experiences or long-held aspirations?  Maybe they are even offering us brief glimpses of alternate selves, parallel worlds, or previous lives.  Science may never truly know the answers.

parallellives

 

Or maybe, just maybe, they serve as reminders, teachers of a sort, guiding us along on the right path.  And perhaps, specifically, my dream was trying to tell me something about the storytelling process, a truth I sometimes forget.

The creative life, to a large degree, is much like falling into an abyss.  I learned early on that, try as I might, I cannot take the reins of the creative process.  I cannot force ideas that aren’t there or force characters to behave in ways they are unwilling or unable to.  Ideas come when they come, out of the ether–out of the depths.  Sometimes they resonate, sometimes they don’t.  But they are always capricious, even shy, revealing themselves only when they’re ready.

theether

 

I first took the plunge into creative writing years ago, when I was a student in the second grade.  Anytime I have tried to force the issue, to grab the wheel and direct the flow, to steer the car along that country back road of the mind rather than let the road take me where it will, I have hit the proverbial brick wall, mired in a tangle of undersea snarls and weeds.  It is only when I can swim with the current, fall gently into the deep flumes of my imagination that the story flows and the characters speak in truth and with sincerity.

underseaweeds

 

The abyss of the writing life isn’t a scary thing.  It may seem like a nightmare at times, but in actuality it’s not something to fight and resist and fear.  We just need to take that jump, go over the edge, and fall . . .

edgeend

 

. . . right into the waiting arms of our muse.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“Outstanding”? (Or, The Delicate Act of Writing a Sequel)

It’s true.  For years, it’s been my dream to be a full-time creative writer, earning a living solely through the art of storytelling.  I guess every writer wishes for this.  But for most of us, we have day jobs that help us to pay our bills, forcing us to pursue our true literary passions in the early-morning hours, late at night, or on weekends–or simply whenever a moment arises where we can spare an hour or two and just write.

writewhencanstart

 

My day job is as a technical writer for a computer software company.  The material I produce in this capacity is, admittedly, drier than day-old toast, but it’s a comfortable environment, and the act of writing technical documents doesn’t drain any of my creativity, leaving me fresh and ready to explore the imaginary byways of my mind after hours.

toast

 

I got started in the technical writing field just as the specter of Y2K hung over the IT world like a giant, ominous shadow.  I was fresh out of college, unsure and uncertain what to expect, when I was hired by a large company in my hometown of Rochester, NY, into a department called Documentation & Publications, or Doc & Pubs for short–which consisted of approximately fifteen technical writers and eight publishers.  I was one of the publishers.  I hoped to graduate into the role of technical writer eventually, and I did, but for a different company and in a different state.

y2k

 

Being a part of the publisher group was good, solid experience.  The publishers, as the department manager told us more than once, represented “the last line of defense.”  Our chief responsibilities were to fact-check and proofread the material sent to us by the technical writers, ensuring grammatical correctness and subject accuracy.

lastlineofdefense

 

One member of the publishing team stood out to me.  John was two years my senior, with a flattop haircut, a mustache, and thick, retro 1970s-style Elvis sideburns.  And whenever anyone asked him how he was, or how his day was going, he would invariably say, “Outstanding!”  (The exclamation point was always audible.)  It didn’t matter if it was Monday, if the morning commute had been marred with blizzard-like conditions or traffic jams, or if he’d just had a run-in with one of the more particular or dour technical writers.  He was always “outstanding.”

elvissideburns

 

I asked him once about that.  “You’re not really ‘outstanding’ all the time, are you?” I wanted to know.

“Actually I am,” he said.  “It’s a choice I make.  I don’t want to be just ‘okay’ or ‘not bad’ or ‘fine.’  I want to be outstanding.  And so, I am.”

He made it sound so simple.

The documents came in fast and furious, every day.  A few were new, created from scratch as it were, detailing some new system or product.  But most of the documents we had to proofread were preexisting ones–voluminous, intimidating manuals in which the writers would add a section here or there, or, in many cases, simply add a sentence or a paragraph to the text.  Many of the changes to systems they documented were, in fact, minor tweaks, building upon the vast amount of material that had already been in place.

preexistingmanuals

 

“The trick,” one of the writers explained to me once, “is to be able to add to what we already have without being redundant.”

Little did I recognize at the time the parallels that existed between tweaking company manuals and the art of writing a sequel . . .

************

When I published The Eye-Dancers, I did not intend to follow it up with a sequel. It had been a rewarding project, and writing about four protagonists all inspired by friends I knew growing up was fun.  But I had no ongoing story line in mind.  I figured I would move on to something else, perhaps something vastly different.

That’s when an image struck me.  It came, as these things so often do, out of the ether, unasked for, unplanned.  I saw Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski standing at the base of a gigantic stone building, looking up at a sky the color of ash.  And then the sky changed.  The clouds dispersed, as if by magic, replaced by a pair of unblinking blue eyes that glared down at the boys with unmistakable ill-will.

eyeinsky

 

I resisted at first.  Did I really want to undertake a sequel?  But the image remained, beckoning, a window to a new story demanding to be told.  Before long, a fully fleshed adventure came into view, and the conviction to write it grew stronger by the day.

And so I began–attempting to write my first-ever sequel.  I immediately encountered issues I’d never considered or dealt with before.  How much information from the first book needed to be touched upon or referenced in the second?  Granted, a sequel should be able to stand alone, on its own merit.  But at the same time, to ignore pertinent bits of information from the first book seemed like a blatant omission.  The question was–how much was too much?  Or too little?  I remembered the discussion I’d had with that technical writer a decade and a half earlier–about building on a preexisting foundation without being redundant.  Somewhere in all this, there had to be a happy medium.

happymediumgoldenmean

 

Months elapsed, and the story progressed.  Then life would get in the way, inspiration would dwindle, and the pace would slow.  Every now and then, Mitchell or Joe, Ryan or Marc, or even Monica Tisdale, the “ghost girl,” would trip me up, forcing me to look at something in a way I hadn’t planned.  And sometimes the plot would take a sudden turn, away from the paved road I had mapped out, forging instead over unpredictable marshy swampland, through thick, canopied forests, or barbed-wired ravines.  Through it all, though, I have felt a burning drive to carry the story to its conclusion, to travel with the characters as they battle and discover and scratch and stumble their way on the path of self-growth and accomplishment.  It’s been a long, sometimes turbulent, but always interesting ride.

canopiedforest

 

The current status of the project remains–in progress, but with an eye toward the finish line.  Twenty-one chapters have been written, complete with numerous, laborious revisions.  Nine chapters are left to write.

nineleft

 

The goal is to have the sequel ready right around the time the ball is dropped in Times Square on that cold, dark winter night.  The characters, as they always do, are leading the way, and they are urging me on, eager to finish the race.  But it won’t be easy.  They are being tested more than ever this time around.

timessquareball

 

As I’ve examined and picked through what I have so far, I’ve been critical, doubtful, unsure.  Is the story any good?  Will readers of The Eye-Dancers enjoy this continuation?  Or will it flop, crashing and burning like a doomed meteor breaking through the earth’s atmosphere, reduced to smoking fragments of dust and debris?

meteor

 

I wish I knew.  Time will tell.  But as I round the bend and endeavor to complete the journey, overcoming the delays and potholes and moments when the sheer scope of the project and story line makes me want to pull out my hair at its roots, I will try, as best I can, to harness my inner John.

How’s the sequel going?

“Outstanding!”

outstanding

 

Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

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