“You Can’t Get There from Here” (But You Can . . . with Some Delay)

It was one of those lazy, hazy midsummer days in the Northeast, when the humidity hangs thick and wet over the land.  I was driving through the back roads of central Vermont, looking for a particular house–an address tucked away on a dirt lane far from the beaten path.  These were the years before I had settled in this area and called it home.  I didn’t know my way around.

 

Sure enough, as I came to an unmarked intersection, I took a wrong turn.  I didn’t know it at first.  It took a couple of minutes.  But when I drove several more miles and didn’t have a clue where I was, I decided to stop in the gravel parking lot of a country store.  It was the only place I saw, aside from isolated farmhouses and old, weathered barns, that might offer the hope of someone providing directions to steer me back along the right route.

 

I parked in front of the store, a clapboarded single-story structure with white peeling paint and two ancient gas pumps out back.  They looked like something out of the 1950s.  I had no idea if they were operational, and had no intention of finding out.

 

The door was open, without a screen, and I walked in.  The interior was small and cramped, complete with wooden shelves, a pot-bellied stove in the corner, and thick bark-covered beams overhead.  Beside the unlit stove, four men sat at a round table.  Each eyed me suspiciously.

 

I approached the table.  The men, three of whom were seniors, and the fourth perhaps in his thirties, continued to eye me.  There were poker chips gathered in the middle of the table, and the men were holding playing cards in their hands.  Already uncomfortable at the intrusion, now I felt worse.  I was interrupting their game.

 

“Excuse me,” I said.  My voice sounded too loud in the close, warm space.  “Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you might be able to help me find an address.  I thought I had everything mapped out, but I guess I was wrong.”

The men just sat there, motionless, looking me over as if I were a specimen to be driven over to the town taxidermist.  One of them cleared his throat.  A second placed his cards, facedown, onto the table.  The other two just stared.

 

I gave it a few seconds, and when no one said a word, I took a step back and turned toward the door.  I guessed I’d go knock on a farmhouse door and hope for a more cordial response.

 

That was when someone finally spoke up.

“Where ya headin’?” the younger guy said.

I turned back around, told them the address.  This brought on another round of silence.

Then, the oldest-looking guy seated at the table, a gaunt fellow with wire-rimmed glasses, said, “Thing is–if you was a bird, it’d be easy to get where you’re wantin’ to go.  But if you have to take the roads–it’s a field.  Fact is, you can’t get there from here.”

 

One of the other men smirked.  Another one coughed.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  I realized I was the amusement for the day.  There was no reason to hang around.  I’d just have to go back the way I had come and re-map the journey.

 

But then the younger guy held up his hand, and proceeded to give me the directions I needed.  He used short, staccato phrases, offering only the barest of minimums.  But I thought I had it when he was through.

I thanked him for his help.

“Would be easier if you was a bird,” the older man said again.

When I walked back through the doorway, I was sure I could hear them laughing.

As I got behind the wheel of my car and pulled away, I wondered if they had given me the wrong directions–just to further the joke.  But they hadn’t.  Twenty minutes later, I found the place I was looking for.  The directions were accurate.

 

“Though roundabout,” I was told later by someone in the know.  “He led you out of your way.”

But at least I’d made it–delay or no delay.

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

And that also accurately sums up the writing and editing process I have undertaken on The Singularity Wheel–the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  It was a surprise project from the get-go.  I hadn’t even envisioned there would be a sequel–but then, out of the ether, an idea struck that wouldn’t let up and wouldn’t let go, and I had to write it.

 

When I began the book, over four years ago (!), I had no way of knowing how winding, circuitous, and bumpy the road would be.  I first announced the sequel’s existence in a blog post in the spring of 2014.  “It’ll take another year to write, no sweat,” I thought at the time.  But then 2014 bled into 2015, which morphed into 2016–and still, the book wasn’t finished!  There were character crises, plot points that needed wholesale makeovers, and twists and turns in the story line that needed alterations.  It was, and has been, the most challenging writing project I have ever undertaken.

 

Even so, as 2017 dawned, I was almost finished!  And in April, the first draft was finally complete.  I was at last able to key in the words, “The End.”  I even posted about it at the time.  So okay–I would release The Singularity Wheel at the end of summer!  Piece of cake!

 

During the editing process, however, I found that more changes still needed to be made than I’d realized.  Time slipped past, summer came and went.  Then again, The Eye-Dancers was originally published in November 2012.  I liked the symmetry.  Why not release The Singularity Wheel in November 2017?  It would be perfect.  Five years of real time had passed–and, in the story itself, five years of fictional time had also passed from the conclusion of the first book to the start of the second.  Everything was coming full circle.

 

But now–here we are, in November, and just like my journey through the back roads of Vermont that summer day years ago, I have discovered that “as the bird flies” isn’t always the way a story will proceed.  I am right now in the final edit/proofreading/copy editing stage.  The endgame.  But even here, I have found a few last wrinkles that need to be ironed out, a few tweaks that need to be inserted, a last assortment of fixes that need to be made.  Grudgingly, I have come to realize that the November release is too ambitious.  The project has been “a field” as the old-timer at the country store said to me once.  A field, indeed.

 

That said, the eleventh-hour adjustments are minor in nature.  Ninety-nine percent of the work has been put in.  It’s just a matter of trying to finish strong and present the best possible product I can upon publication.  As much as I wanted to meet my own self-imposed November deadline, I didn’t want to rush it now, at the end, after such a long journey getting here.

The delay will be one month.  And this time, there won’t be any further postponements!  The Singularity Wheel will be released prior to January 1, 2018.  I don’t have a single, specific date in mind–but it will be in December.  This time, I promise.

 

In this season of Thanksgiving, I want to thank all of you who have read and still read this blog and who have supported The Eye-Dancers these past five years.

 

Writing a sequel has been a long, long process, often beset with speed bumps and deep, tire-puncturing potholes, but, to paraphrase my old country-store friend, I have, at long last, “gotten here from there.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Going Forward . . . by Going Back

When I was growing up, there were a few nights each summer when I would host a sleepover–not all that different from the sleepover that occurs in chapter six of The Eye-Dancers.  Of course in my case, my friends and I were not haunted by a swirling-eyed “ghost girl” who whisked us off to a faraway and alien dimension.  But the adventures we shared, the things we talked about, the “what-ifs” we brought up were the inspiration behind the novel.

diffdimension

 

As were my friends themselves.  Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski, along with several supporting characters in The Eye-Dancers, were inspired by the friends I knew growing up, indeed the same friends who would sleep over on those warm July and August nights, when thoughts of school and homework, of college majors and impending adulthood, seemed galaxies away.

summernight

 

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, it often felt as if I were returning back to those days.  And that, I suppose, is one of the many joys and wonders of creative writing.  You can be sitting at a desk in an office, in a studio apartment, anywhere, decades removed from the childhood you’re writing about, and yet, with a flourish of keystrokes and finger taps you can be transported back through the years, as if by some whimsical magician waving a white-tipped and wonder-filled wand.

magicwand

 

It’s a cliche, I suppose, but in my case it’s the truth.  I write because I love to write, need to write.  And now I am in the midst of writing the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  At first I was reluctant.  Did I really want to write a sequel?  But the idea, which arrived unasked for–not at all a preplanned project–demanded attention.  So I began writing, not convinced it would go anywhere, but scratching the itch, as it were, allowing the process to take me where it will.

writingprocess

 

I wrote the prologue, and chapter one, which grew into chapter two and three and four . . . and by that time, the scope of the novel began to take shape in my mind.  I don’t outline my novels, but I do formulate a general plan–or, perhaps more accurate–the plan forms on its own, a result of the characters’ decisions.  And now, nine chapters and 40,000 words into this still-untitled WIP, I have an overwhelming urge to continue, to keep the story going . . . to find out where Mitchell and Joe and Ryan and Marc and the “ghost girl” will take me.  I am along for the ride, and I can’t wait to round the next bend.

bendinroad

 

At this point, I would like to devote more time to the sequel than I have so far.  In fact, Joe Marma himself told me just the other day, “C’mon, bud, get with the program.  You gotta start working on this novel more, or else . . .”  And as readers of The Eye-Dancers know, you don’t want to frustrate Joe! As a result, I will be posting on The Eye-Dancers site every two weeks for the foreseeable future, down from the once-weekly schedule I have maintained for over a year now.  This is definitely not a blogging break or blogging sabbatical–just a slight scaling back.  I enjoy the WordPress community far too much to take any extended leaves.

wordpress

 

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

On those summer sleepovers from yesteryear, sometimes I would read aloud stories I had written.  Back then, they were pencil-written plays, starring myself and my friends–no fictional names used!  Looking back, they were very poorly done–highly imaginative but sloppy and far too often over the top.  But one thing they were for sure was fun.  I used to laugh out loud when I read them, and my friends would join in.  Even today, if I need a pick-me-up, or a creative boost, I will pull out one of the old stories and remember . . .

It is with that spirit of adventure, fun, and love that I will turn to the sequel of The Eye-Dancers this summer.  And, with hope, that same spirit will manifest itself on every page.

nostalgia

 

So even though I’ll be posting less, I hope you’ll all continue to read and follow this blog.  You are the reason blogging is so much fun for me.

glaxiesend

 

Thank you so much for reading!

–Mike

Finishing with a Flourish (Or, When Not to Make an Error)

On October 25, 1986, the Boston Red Sox played the New York Mets in the old Shea Stadium in New York for Game 6 of the World Series.  The Red Sox, without a championship since 1918, and trying to overcome years of “almost-but-not-quite” futility, along with the legendary “Curse of the Bambino” (referring to their trading away of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees after the 1919 season), were on the brink of winning it all.  They were up, 3 games to 2, in the series.  An upset was in the making.  The Red Sox were a good team in 1986, but the Mets had just completed their best regular season in franchise history, winning 108 games.  But that didn’t matter now.  If they lost either of the next two games, they would finish in second place, and the Boston Red Sox would be world champions for 1986.

I remember Game 6 of that Series very well.  It was a crisp, autumnal Saturday night, and I had already finished my homework for the weekend.  I didn’t want anything to get in the way of the big game.  Fourteen years old and a freshman in high school that fall of 1986, I was a die-hard Mets fan.  I watched most of their games, from spring training on, and knew the team inside out.  That night, I wanted to watch the game alone, out in the family room of the home I grew up in, the home where, to this day, my parents still live.  I popped some popcorn, extra butter, of course, and settled in.  Shea Stadium was rocking–the atmosphere was electric.

Adding to the madhouse of the stadium that night, a parachutist swooped down into the field of play in the top of the first inning.

parachute

 

When security escorted him off the field, he led the crowd in a chant of “Let’s go, Mets, let’s go, Mets!”  Watching on television, I could feel the energy streaming through the set, as if by magic.

parachute2

 

The Red Sox forged a 2–0 lead in the early innings, and for a while, that looked like all the runs they would need.  Twenty-four-year-old fireballer Roger Clemens was on the mound, the best pitcher in the league in 1986.  Through four innings, the Mets could not generate a single base hit off him.

But in the fifth inning, they scratched and clawed, tying the game at 2 apiece.  In the 7th, the Sox took a 3–2 lead, but the Mets tied the game at 3 an inning later.  Ultimately, the game would go into extra innings.

In the top of the 10th, it looked as if the Red Sox would finally get over the hump and win their first World Series since World War I.  They scored two runs, taking a 5–3 lead into the bottom half of the inning.  The Mets needed to score two runs to tie, three to win, or else their season would be over.

Their first two batters failed to deliver.  Two quick outs, and nobody on base.  The Red Sox were now one out, one out, away from the championship.  In the Sox dugout, players yelled out to the field, taunting the Mets and their fans.  The champagne was ready in the clubhouse, the celebration about to begin, sixty-eight long years of frustration about to be overcome and victory realized.

But then a funny thing happened.  Gary Carter, the Mets catcher, singled to left field.  Then pinch-hitter Kevin Mitchell singled to center.  And then Ray Knight, the third baseman, singled to center, too, driving in Carter.  Suddenly, it was 5–4, with runners on first and third.  The Sox still needed just that last out, but now it was getting tight, the tension filtering throughout Shea Stadium like a living, breathing, tentacled thing.  The taunting ceased.  The champagne remained uncorked backstage.

Red Sox manager John McNamara changed pitchers, hoping that would douse the fire.  And Mookie Wilson, a Shea Stadium fan favorite, stepped up to the plate.

mookie

 

Vin Scully, the masterful play-by-play announcer, rightfully described that tenth inning for the ages as “delirious.”  But the craziness had, remarkably, only just begun.

Wilson fell behind in the count, and the Red Sox were one strike away from the championship.  But Mookie battled, fouling off several tough pitches.  Finally, pitcher Bob Stanley delivered a wild pitch that got past the catcher, allowing the tying run from third base to score.  Now it was 5–5.  But the Mets weren’t finished.

Three pitches later, Wilson hit a ground ball to first base.  Watching the game, in Rochester, three hundred and fifty miles to the west of Shea Stadium that night, I was sure the inning was about to end, and it would be 5–5 to start the 11th.  That’s not how it happened.

The ball took a tricky hop and skipped underneath Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s glove.

bucknererror

 

Ray Knight, who had delivered the clutch single just a few minutes ago, scored on the play, and the Mets, miraculously, had come through.  From two runs down, two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the 10th inning, they had found a way to win.

metswin

 

They would come back to win Game 7 as well, taking the series.  Sox fans would need to wait another eighteen years for The Curse of the Bambino to finally end.

But even as a Mets fan that Saturday night, twenty-seven Octobers ago, I felt bad for Bill Buckner.

buckneraftermath

 

Then thirty-six years old, Buckner had enjoyed a long and distinguished career.  And he was a key player for the 1986 Red Sox, driving in more than 100 runs that year.  But almost overnight, he became Public Enemy Number One in Boston.  Unfairly singled out as the scapegoat for the Series loss, he even received death threats from disgruntled fans.  When the 1987 season opened, he was booed mercilessly by the home crowd.  The Red Sox released him halfway through the  season.

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

No piece of writing is perfect.  The greatest short stories and essays and novels all have mistakes in them, somewhere–a paragraph here that perhaps could have been sharper, more emotionally engaging, a scene there that doesn’t quite hold up to the brilliance that surrounds it.  There is no such thing as literary perfection.  But if the story as a whole captivates us; if the writing, in its entirety, enthralls us; if the overall excellence of the piece fills us with a kind of wonder, then we are quick to overlook any small errors or less-than-inspired sentences that seep through every now and again.  After all, what’s the big deal if the writer fails to wow us on page 107, if he or she takes our breath away for the remainder of the story?

But if an otherwise great story ends poorly?  If you enjoy the first 350 pages, but then, as you read the last chapter, you shake your head and feel an urge to toss the book straight into the hearth fire?

badending

 

This will leave its mark.  It may even negate the richness and excellence of the first 99% of the story.  While readers can easily overlook a mediocre chapter 6, we are not so ready, or able, to forgive an ending that shatters the very foundation the author has spent so many pages to construct.  Or, to put it another way, if Bill Buckner had made his error on a nondescript Monday night in late May, in front of a half-empty stadium somewhere in the Midwest, nobody would have remembered for long.   But allow the winning run to score in extra innings of the World Series, ruining your team’s chance to win its first championship in seventy years?  That will be remembered . . .

Before I even began writing The Eye-Dancers, I had an ending in mind.  But as I delved in deeper, finishing chapter after chapter, the nature of the ending shifted, taking on different colors, different nuances.  I worried about it.  I stressed over it.  I rewrote the Epilogue, or portions of it, truly, dozens of times.  I had spent so much effort, so much time, writing the novel as a whole.  I didn’t want to toss it all away in the end.  I hope I didn’t.

theend

 

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

As a footnote, it should be pointed out that when Bill Buckner was re-signed by the Red Sox in 1990, he received a standing ovation from the Boston fans upon his return.  And in 2008, after the Sox had since twice won that elusive World Series title, he threw out the first pitch for the home opener at Boston’s Fenway Park.

buckerfirstpitch

 

He received a four-minute standing ovation from the sellout crowd.

buckerovation

 

So, when it was all said and done, Bill Buckner’s Red Sox story had a pretty good ending, after all.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The World at Your Doorstep

It often happens this way . . .

An idea strikes.  How it strikes, why it strikes, you do not know.  It just does–a gift from the universe, the birth of a new story you feel meant to write.  You want to celebrate.  There is nothing like the euphoria of a new idea that grabs you, demands to be written, kicks and yells and screams to be let loose onto the page.

idea!

 

But then . . . you realize the idea is layered, rich, complex.  It’s not a short story.  It’s a novel.  Uh-oh.  A novel needs a plot, and a subplot, and, maybe, a sub-sub-plot!  It needs direction, organization, planning.  Suddenly the inspired idea doesn’t seem so inspired anymore.  How can such a gigantic project be tackled?  Where to begin?

toomanychoices

 

At this point, you may be tempted to borrow from Stephen King, who, in his memoir On Writing, explained that when he begins a novel, he often does not know where he’s heading.  He gets an idea, an image, a scene–and that’s all he needs.  From that kernel, he begins to write, hoping, trusting, that said kernel will sprout and duplicate, creating a garden of seeds, which will then flower and bloom.  So, perhaps, you do indeed begin your story, not knowing where it will lead . . .

wingit

 

As author William Saroyan once said, “I don’t have a name and I don’t have a plot.  I have the typewriter and I have white paper and I have me, and that should add up to a novel.”

Or, perhaps you’re a dedicated planner and outliner, and you set out to craft detailed chapter-by-chapter outlines.  You think of the main characters, the supporting characters, the bit characters.  You form a clear picture of the setting, down to the last, intricate detail.  Is the post office on Main Street, Elm Street, or Walnut Way?  You map it out.  “Writing a novel is like traveling the universe on foot,” writer Dennis R. Miller has said.  You want to be prepared for anything.   There are always some surprises, of course, anytime you write creatively.  But with this intense level of planning, you try to minimize these surprises.  You want to know exactly where you are going.

map

 

Or maybe you fall somewhere in between–you plan a general strategy, with a few major plot points as guideposts.  And you may even have a broad idea how the story will end.  But many of the details are left out–you want the comfort of a firm foundation but the freedom to create during the process.  This tends to be my approach.  I cannot seem to begin a novel without some sense of direction in my mind.  Even if I don’t yet know all the twists and turns along the back roads, I at least want to know what state I’m traveling through.

When I started The Eye-Dancers, I knew the first scene would be Mitchell Brant seeing the “ghost girl” again, for the third consecutive night.  I knew the next several chapters would introduce the other main characters of the book and move the plot along at the same time.  I knew the setting where the bulk of the story would take place, and thought I had a reasonable sense of how it would all end (though the ending I initially envisioned turned out a little differently when I actually wrote it).

The thing is, this approach still brings with it a great deal of uncertainty.  Much like the Stephen King method, this requires an abundance of faith.  If you don’t have every detail planned out ahead of time, then the possibility exists that you will get stuck at some point.  In The Eye-Dancers, it was certainly possible that I would have brought Mitchell and Joe and Ryan and Marc through the void and into the variant town of Colbyville, but then, devoid of any further ideas, I would leave them stranded there like astronauts that have crash-landed onto some dim, lifeless asteroid, with no means of repairing their ship and getting back home.  The story may have ground to a complete halt.

asteroids

 

Indeed, what happens, for instance, if you write 207 riveting pages, full of tight narrative description, crackling dialogue, and a well-paced and interesting plot, but then, suddenly, on page 208, you just stare, wide-eyed and horrified, at the blinking cursor on your screen?  You’ve created a top-notch first half–but now what?  The middle section of a novel is often the most daunting aspect to get through.  The lines of the story reach out in all directions, a maze of tangled branches and labyrinths needing, somehow, to be navigated.  You have a good idea how you want the story to end.  But how do you get there from here?

divergingroads

 

Your mind may lock up, holding your creativity hostage.  You may feel panic, regret, frustration.  It took months to write those first 207 pages!  How can it all dry up now?  All that work (and good work, too) going to waste?  You might feel like deleting the file and tossing any printed-out pages into the fireplace.   You might curse the day you ever thought you had a complete story idea.  You might be tempted to give up writing altogether.

But then, then!  An idea comes.  Ah–yes.  That’s how it should go . . . and you begin to peck away again, the clinky, rhythmic noise of your keyboard the sweetest music you’ve heard in days.  You get the flow back, and the crisis is averted.  Of course, the same trouble may arise again two chapters hence, but you dare to take the risk, your dark, bitter musings only minutes ago now awash in your own personal River of Lethe.

worldsbeforeyou

 

You realize that, despite the inherent insecurities, there is nothing that can compare to the art of creating, of letting the words and sentences pour through you, of feeling the sense of accomplishment as the bones of your story take on flesh and cartilage and sinew.  A wide chasm still separates you from story’s end–but you don’t look down into the dark, bottomless abyss.  You choose to look ahead, thinking of the possibilities, the wonders, the discoveries yet to be made.

The world is out there, just beyond your doorstep.

strange95

 

You just need to make the leap.

jump

 

“Jump,” Ray Bradbury once said, “and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall.”

wings

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

At the Crossroads of Infinity . . .

Pick a point, any point.  It can, literally, be anything, anywhere, anytime.  From this point, look out in all directions.  Imagine an invisible line, tiny, microscopically thin, shooting through time and space.  If you were to imagine this line replicated again and again and again–would there be any end to it?  A million lines, a billion, a billion-billion . . . they would shoot out, imperceptibly, everywhere, never ending, always seeking and probing and searching for something more.

lines

 

This is the kind of feeling I always get when I sit down to write a new story.  A story can begin anywhere.  For instance, take the following situation . . .

Sharon is a thirty-year-old woman who works for a computer software company as a technical writer.  She is the only liberal-arts sort of person amid a sea of logically thinking programmers.  She enjoys her job, mostly enjoys her coworkers, but sometimes feels out of place.  On one particular afternoon, she neglects to save a document she has been working on for several hours.  Her mind is elsewhere–on her parents’ divorce, her daughter Lauren’s struggles adjusting to the first grade, her creepy new neighbor who too often studies her with something in his eyes she doesn’t like.  And when the prompt pops up to save her changes, she doesn’t do it.   Only after closing out of the document does she realize what she’s done.  Hours of work gone to waste.  She will need to start all over, work late–it’s a time-sensitive document, and needs to be finished by tomorrow.  How could she have been so stupid?  She calls her sister, asks if she can babysit Lauren until she gets home.  “I’m so sorry,” she says.  Her sister tells her it’s no problem.

Hours later, nearing evening now, she arrives home, exhausted, frustrated.  Alarm bells immediately ring in her head when she pulls into the drive.  Her sister’s car is nowhere to be found.  “It’s okay,” she tells herself.  She must have picked Lauren up and taken her to her own house.  She pulls out her cell, calls her sister.  While the phone on the other end rings, she notices her neighbor sitting out in a lawn chair.  He salutes her with a beer bottle and smiles.  Something inside her crawls.  Of all people, why did he have to buy the house next door?

She gets her sister’s voice mail, leaves a message.  She tries to convince herself that everything is all right, but a bad feeling nags her, takes hold of something deep within, and locks on tight.

***********

Where should this story begin?  What would the first scene look like?  The first paragraph?  The first sentence?  You could start it anywhere.  Maybe at the office, just when Sharon fails to save her changes and realizes she needs to start over.  Maybe earlier that day, in the lunch room, when she has an upsetting conversation with a coworker.  Maybe when she calls her sister, asking her to babysit.  Maybe when she arrives home, sees her ogling neighbor, and gets a bad feeling.  Any one of these starting points would work, along with so many others.  The options beckon, tantalize, mock, jockey for position.  And it doesn’t end when an opening sequence is selected.  Whichever way you begin a story has reverberations that filter through the rest of it, like ripples in a pond.  One sentence leads to the next, one scene shapes and influences the next.  At every stage, there are decisions, choices, and consequences.

linesinspace

 

When I began writing The Eye-Dancers, I had a premise–three boys each sharing the same dream, three nights in a row.  Each one thinks he is the only one having the dream, not realizing–yet–that it’s a shared experience.  Given this, I could have started the novel anywhere.  I decided to begin with Mitchell Brant in the midst of this recurring nightmare–dreaming of the “ghost girl”–again.  How would the novel read, though, if I had opened with Joe Marma or Ryan Swinton instead?  Or even Marc Kuslanski, the one protagonist who does not experience this dream?  The idea, the overall concept of the plot, might have remained the same, but the end result, with each scene leading in to the next, would have looked quite different.

And of course with writing, with art–there are no airtight equations, no 1 + 2 = 3 comfort zones.

equations2

 

Whatever choice you make on page 7 will influence what happens on page 8, and page 88 and page 308.  It is natural to ask, throughout the process, “Did I make the right choice?”  But the thing is, in a story, in a movie, in a painting, in a song–there is no “right” and “wrong.”  There is only art.  Hopefully, a story will interest and captivate the reader, a movie enthrall the viewer, a painting mesmerize the onlooker, and a song move and engage the listener.  Even then, every reader is different, every viewer unique.  In the end, all we can do is tell our story the best way we know how, tell it with feeling and passion, with heart–tell it because, if we don’t let it out, it will scratch and kick and punch, demanding to be let loose onto the page.

At one juncture in The Eye-Dancers, the intuitive, imaginative Mitchell Brant tells the logical, rational Marc Kuslanski, “Haven’t you ever just felt something to be true?”  When it comes to art–that may well be our best guide as we travel through the myriad choices at our disposal.  You can write the greatest scene in the world (it would pass the technical 1 +2 = 3 test with flying colors)–but if it seems out of place, if it doesn’t feel right to you, then it doesn’t belong in your story.  The detail-oriented work of revisions and line editing await–but the creative first-draft stage is all about endless possibilities and wide, expansive vistas that spread out before us like green, lush valleys full of promise and potential.

valley

 

All those choices can be daunting.  You can take your story anywhere.  But isn’t life like that, too?  Each moment presents its own limitless set of possibilities, and whichever course you take directly influences the next moment, and the next, and the next . . .

Daunting?  Yes.  But liberating, too.

Because every day, every minute, every second, we stand . . .

infinity

 

. . . at the crossroads of infinity.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Ghost at My Shoulder

Do you believe in ghosts?  I do.

Allow me to elaborate . . .

One aspect of the writing life, at some point or another, is insecurity.  If you keep at it, and write for any length of time at all, insecurity is inevitable, unavoidable.  You worry that the novel you’re working on isn’t any good, and if it is, then you worry you’ll get stuck halfway through, and won’t know how to end the story.  You worry that you peaked ten years ago, and anything you write from this moment forward will signal a steady and depressing descent.  You worry that the ideas will just dry up, evaporating like steam rising from a woodland pond on a crisp October morning.  You fret that, maybe, you’ll become burned out and lose the passion that has fueled your writing for years.

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You worry, in short, that every lyrical sentence is fleeting, every well-written short story a momentary triumph soon to be replaced by a long line of duds.  You worry that writing itself, the birth of ideas, the sculpting of sentences and paragraphs, the creation of well-rounded characters, is transitory.  There seems to be an impermanence to the thing, as if, at any moment, the light will dim, the flow of creativity dammed up like a lost and forgotten river.

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And for me, that’s when I need to trust my ghost.  It’s not a ghost that creeps in the shadows of the night and haunts my dreams–though I believe in those, too.

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This ghost, this lifetime companion, if you will, views me from afar and plays hard-to-get.  But just when I feel frustration building to red-line levels, when the urge to give up on a story is disturbingly close, the ghost returns.

Some people call the ghost a muse.  That’s a fine term, muse.

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But for me, he is my ghost.  He’s a ghost because I can never anticipate his arrival–I can only hope for it when needed.  I can’t force him to come.  He visits and leaves when he will, capricious, like the New England weather.  And when I’m stuck, when the dreaded writer’s block has me in its grip, my ghost is the only way out, the only pathway to creative freedom.  I can try to force ideas all day long, I can craft a meticulous, detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, but those methods have never worked for me.  I have always needed to keep the faith in my ghost.

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, there were portions of the novel that flowed smoothly and easily, like a cool and welcome summer breeze after a torrid hot spell.  These sections were a joy, when the words poured out of me and the story completely took on a life of its own.  I felt like a vessel, a conduit, tapping into a current of energy that poured through me and onto the page.

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This is a beautiful and heady feeling,  the apogee of the creative process. Perhaps in these “in-the-zone” moments, my ghost is standing right there beside me, at my shoulder, though I am unaware of his presence.  I think the ghost works best that way–when I’m aware of his nearness, the subconscious loses its hold, and the conscious self threatens to short-circuit the process.  My ghost works best in the background.

But then there are moments when I distinctly feel his absence, when the words and thoughts seem to be spiked with barbed wire, slicing and cutting and going nowhere.  These are the times when I know I’m alone, when my ghostly ally is nowhere to be found.  Some chapters in The Eye-Dancers were like this–daunting Himalayan peaks that needed to be scaled.  I would write the chapter, but I knew it wasn’t close to what it needed to be.  I would rewrite it, reread it, still shaking my head.  I would start to doubt myself, doubt the story, and when no answers came, I felt an urge to fling the keyboard across the room.  I would struggle and wrestle, but nothing seemed right.  I needed my spectral friend in the worst way.

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And then, when I felt completely unraveled, after taking a dozen long walks trying to work out the tangles of the plot, the ghost would finally come, tiptoeing along as if daring me to miss his arrival.  “Sssh,” he seemed to whisper.  “Stop trying so hard.  It will come when it will come.”  And it did.

He comes with a feather-light step, my ghost does.  He comes when he’s needed, and he always has–a lifelong helper, a friend of the writer.  He is a constant reminder to allow the story to be the story, to let it unfold as it will, at its own pace and in its own time.  When I worry over the direction of the plot, when I doubt that I have a single worthwhile word left in me to write, he reassures, softly, and he leads me along the path I need to travel.

So, you see, when I am asked if I believe in ghosts, I answer, without hesitation, “Yes.”

Because if I doubted, if I didn’t believe, my creative well would have gone dry long, long ago . . .

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Rose (or a Jack) by Any Other Name . . .

What makes a story great?  What makes a movie, or a novel, unforgettable?  Nonstop action?  A fantastic and imaginative plot?  A surprise, twist ending?  Romance?  Incredible special effects, or descriptions of those effects, if in book form?  Certainly these elements can lend themselves to a great story.  And–especially for a short story or a short television episode–sometimes a clever plot or a shock ending is enough.  A short work such as “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, for example, is memorable in large part because of its theme, its plot, and its impact as a story that tackles the issue of blind adherence to tradition, to doing things just because “that’s the way it’s always been done.”

But for a novel, an ongoing television series, or a movie–the one thing that is essential is character.  Without at least one highly developed character we can learn to love (or hate), any long story will fall a little flat.  It can still be entertaining, fun, a wonderful adventure.  But it won’t resonate the same way a story with effective characters will.  All the great films and novels have characters who reach us, touch us, and leave a lasting impression.

James Cameron understood this when he created Titanic.  Love it or hate it, Titanic was the highest grossing film of all-time before Avatar broke the record.  It won 11 Academy Awards.  Why?  What made it such a hit with audiences around the world?

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Certainly the subject matter was a winner.  Who isn’t fascinated and moved by the tragedy of the Titanic?  The real-life tale seems almost too contrived to be true.  “The unsinkable” ship sinking on its maiden voyage?  In a purely fictional context, audiences might not buy such a far-fetched idea.  But the Titanic has mesmerized people for a hundred years.  How did it happen?  What went wrong?  Why did the captain not change course when he knew there were icebergs in the great ship’s path?  The questions abound, and historians have puzzled over them and tried to solve them for decades.

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There have been many movies made on the RMS Titanic over the years.  With material like this, you can’t go wrong.  Right?  Not really.  While some of the films did fairly well–particularly the 1958 British adaptation, A Night to Remember (generally regarded by historians as the most accurate portrayal of the real-life disaster to date), based on the book of the same name by Walter Lord–none of them were major hits.   And some were forgettable from the moment they hit the screen.

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So–what was missing?  Cameron decided, correctly as it turned out–character.  A film like A Night to Remember was gripping, accurate, well acted.  But it didn’t give the audience any individual passenger they could truly get to know and care about.  The star of the movie, in effect, was the ship itself.  Cameron turned that around and created fictional characters to go along with the real-life personalities who were also on his ship.

He centers the movie around Rose and Jack, two fictional characters whose love story and torrid romance take center stage.

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Cameron realized that, as remarkable and captivating as the real story of the RMS Titanic is–a landmark film needs to bring things down to the level of an individual, or two individuals, who viewers can relate to, care about, root for, and invest in.  If we can see the grand disaster of the Titanic through these characters’ eyes, we can be transported more effectively onto the ship ourselves.  We can experience more profoundly what the passengers felt, their panic, their desperation, their all-too-frequent futile attempts to cling to life.  We can be, in essence, a virtual passenger in our own right.  By focusing so much on just two individuals, entering into their lives, their hopes, their fears and dreams, we are, ultimately if counter-intuitively, better able to see and feel the enormity of the disaster as a whole.

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It is my hope that The Eye-Dancers accomplishes something similar.  While the story is a sci-fi/fantasy adventure of parallel worlds and ghost girls and journeys through endless blue voids, it is, at its heart, also a story about four boys who must learn to confront and deal with their own insecurities and hang-ups while in the midst of extreme adversity.  And I hope readers will cheer them on, become frustrated with them at times, perhaps, but in the end care for them and root for them, and become more invested in the story and the fantasy because of them.

Call her Rose, or Sharon, or Rapunzel.  Call him Jack, or Steve, or Hezekiah.  The names don’t matter.

But the characters do.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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