“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

The Value of the Junk Pile (Or, Discovering the Right Service Stance)

I was riveted, glued to the television set, watching a sport I had never paid any attention to, and realizing, even though I was just a kid, that sports history was being made.

To put it mildly, it was a surprise I was watching the 1985 Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final. Though I was a big sports fan, at the time my tastes were limited to football, baseball, basketball, and a little bit of ice hockey sprinkled in.  Tennis?  I didn’t know a break point from a deuce point; a baseline from a service line.  But when my older brother John came into the family room on that hot July morning, he turned on “Breakfast at Wimbledon.”

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“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I heard this guy has a huge serve,” he said.  “I wanna watch it.”  This was a surprise, too.  John had recently graduated from high school, and I’d always looked up to him.  Nearly a decade my senior, he was patient with me and rarely told me to get lost when I’d hang around with him and his friends.  He’d been a star athlete in school, but, like me, had never really been a fan of the game of tennis.

Even so, he followed the world of sports enough to know that a significant story was being written on the lawns of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.  Kevin Curren, a veteran of the professional tennis circuit, was making major waves, beating John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in succession to reach his first Grand Slam final.  Curren wasn’t regarded as a top player–but he had one of the game’s strongest serves.  This my brother wanted to see.

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Curren’s opponent that day was a seventeen-year-old prodigy named Boris Becker.  Few people knew who he was at that time, apart from tennis aficionados.  I certainly had never heard of him.  But that was about to change.  He shocked the tennis world, instantly becoming a worldwide star, by defeating Curren to become the youngest Wimbledon champion in history.

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I was struck by Becker immediately.  With his daring, net-rushing, athletic style, his charisma and hustle, he was a joy to watch.  And, as it turned out, it was Becker, not Curren, who had the truly dominating serve.

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I was hooked.  I loved the one-on-one aspect of the sport, the geometry of the court, the strategy and tactics, the way the crowd would grow whisper-quiet between points and then erupt when a brilliant stroke was made.

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The very next day, I went to the local public courts, borrowed one of my parents’ old wooden rackets (!), and worked on my serve.  I hadn’t ever served a tennis ball before, so it took some getting used to.  But, first and foremost, I adjusted my service stance to mimic Boris Becker’s.  It was natural enough–he was a right-hander, and so was I, after all.  So, I opened up my stance, just as Boris did, facing the corner of the court where I aimed to hit the ball.

Try as I might, it just didn’t feel right.  I attributed it to my being a beginner.  But as the days moved forward, as summer break rushed toward the inevitable and unwelcome start of another school year, I realized I wasn’t making much progress.  My serve was still not working.

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That’s when I understood.  It wasn’t my serve I was practicing.  It was Boris Becker’s.  The stance that worked so well for him felt awkward and uncomfortable for me.  It just took me some time to figure it out.

So I changed my stance, closing it up, with my front foot now to the right of my back one.  I felt the difference right away.  This position felt easy, natural, and fluid.  My serve improved literally overnight.  And to this day, I still serve with a closed stance.

At first, I bemoaned the fact that it took me so long to make the switch.  Couldn’t I have become a better player, a better server, if I had just started in a closed stance to begin with?  But then I saw the truth.  I had to go through the awkwardness in order to pave the way for the finished product.

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By learning what didn’t work for me, it made it easier and clearer to see what did.

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

Have you ever written a scene, or even an entire chapter, only to discover, after the fact, that it’s all wrong?  It doesn’t need a little tweaking, or a few minor edits.  It is just . . . wrong.  Awful.  A complete and unequivocal flop.

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I’ve certainly written such chapters.  In The Eye-Dancers, for example, I remember vividly the quagmire that was chapter eighteen.  It was one of the longer chapters in the novel, and, after writing the first draft of it–all twenty or so pages–I reread it, and said, “What was I thinking?  Seriously?  This is horrible!”  I was shocked that I hadn’t noticed this earlier, when I was in the process of writing the chapter.  Admittedly, during the writing of the chapter, I was aware that the words were not flowing, the dialogue not coming smoothly.  But I had no idea just how bad it was until I went back and read the entire thing.

My first reaction was predictable.  I bemoaned the fact that I had just wasted so much time writing such drivel.  I took a breath, shut off the PC, and resolved to keep away from the manuscript for at least a day.  I needed a break.

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When I returned to it two days later, I reread the chapter, this time with more patient and much fresher eyes.  While I still thought the output was atrocious, I was able to focus more clearly and spot where it was I’d gone wrong.  The germ of the idea was fine.  It was the execution that was lacking.  The chapter needed more energy, more gusto, more forward momentum.  By rereading the first draft, the second draft came clear.  The fog lifted, and I felt invigorated.

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I rewrote the entire chapter, and this time the words came more easily, the dialogue popped, and the POV character (a tip of the cap to you, Marc Kuslanski!) came into sharper focus.  When I read through it upon completion, I knew it was right–not perfect maybe–no chapter ever is.  But right.  I scrolled to the bottom of the screen, inserted a page break, and keyed the words, “Chapter Nineteen,” into the yawning mouth of the white space.  I was ready to press on.

No doubt, it had been a frustrating and time-consuming experience, but I was thankful for the first draft of chapter eighteen.  It was a necessary part of the process, a sharpening of the pen, so to speak, a way to clear the creative cobwebs and allow the real story, the true story, to come through.

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I have no doubt I’ll have more “chapter-eighteen experiences” in the future.  I’ve had a few already while writing the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  And, while I may never fully embrace these authorial detours, these mazes through the junk pile to sift out the trash and unearth the jewels, I will always appreciate and acknowledge, however grudgingly, their value.

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Because, when it comes right down to it, sometimes you just have to serve a few double faults with the wrong stance before you can hit those perfectly struck aces with the right one.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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