Okay total bummer, obviously, if your life-long dream of cruising down California Highway #1, warm wind in your hair, etc., were to end this way. But …
When I met my wife she was younger than I was (and I suppose she always will be). Not a disturbing, creepy age difference like that other writer-couple you are thinking about right now – but I was twenty-eight and she only was twenty-two and had, for example, never tasted curry. (People from Winnipeg will understand this when I say that she had spent her whole life in St. James, where she still lived. With her parents.) So Brenda didn’t seem young so much as younger if you understand me, and I tried, not always successfully, not to be a jerk about that. And because I was that much older, and was published years before she was, for a long time I was the Writer and she was the young one who Was Going to Write.
It has been five years since my last book came out; Brenda has had two books come out this year. She blogs about them, like you’re supposed to now, and you should not only buy and read her books, but look at her blog sometimes too.
Today she wrote about yearning in her blog, about how the young people in her novel Your Constant Star, and a number of the characters in her short story collection, Boy Lost in Wild, yearn for things they maybe can’t name; and maybe that’s one of the things writers do, try to name things like that.
And I thought about the great, yearning I felt when I was a boy about the age of our kids (8 and 10): a hungry yearning, a tooth-ache sort of yearning; I didn’t quite know what kind and that was part of what was awful. “I really want something,” I said to my mother, “but I don’t know what it is.”
It was a long time before I could name it, but I see it in our children now – now, as they are leaving childhood, or at least small childhood, behind. Now and then it comes on them that they have a sudden urgent need to be held, to curl up beside us, as if they understand that very soon it won’t be so natural, it will be something that they can yearn for but may not find for a long while.
Brenda and I both had a terrible yearning to be a writer, and we had a yearning for children, and like our kids we yearn for the time we have now that is not gone yet, but it is going – and we can feel it going – going.
And then it will be just us, and we’ll both be older, but we will have one another to hold, to curl up beside, for a long time and I suppose we will yearn for that even while we still have it too.
My wife had the launch for her new book last weekend at McNally-Robinson Booksellers here in Winnipeg*. This was almost certainly more fun for me than it was for her, because she had to do the reading and the signing and things while I didn’t have to do anything but listen and eat and drink by the light of her stellafication, but it was the first launch either of us has had for a few years and — partly because our kids were there — it reminded me of one of the first questions I ever got asked when I did a school reading, which was, what does it feel like to publish a book?
And we didn’t have any yet, but I said it must be something like having a child**. Then when the kids began to arrive, among all the very big things to be happy about, a little small one was realizing that — once again! — I had been clever and right. And maybe I can make that clearer with a literary reference, in this case to Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire***
I don’t have all the details exactly right here because I only read IWTV once, and that was thirty years ago and I had only borrowed the book****, but there’s this bit where one of the Vampires is telling another, more innocent one what making love had been like back the days when she had, you know, still had her own warm blood, and the older vampire explains (and I’m pretty sure this is exactly right; you can look it up though I can’t):
It was like the pale shadow of killing
Italics mine, not that AR would be embarassed to hit Command-I hard. But let’s admit it, the pale shadow of killing isn’t bad whether you want to praise Anne Rice for the power she preserved or damn her for the cheese she enmoulded.
But if you haven’t produced a book but have had a baby, or vice versa, I’d explain the other by saying a book launch is like the pale shadow of childbirth. And if you’ve had books and children I’d say aren’t you lucky, because we sure are, especially me when my next book isn’t quite done but I don’t have to wait for my wife’s and it’s pretty good, you should take a look:
* you can read her post about it here ** I may not have been the first person to make this comparison, but still *** which was not a bad book and which was historically important since IWAV stands as the very corner before which Vampires held mythic power and terrible religious significance or at least could be PRETTY DAMNED SCARTY and around which was the big Vampireland theme park opening up inside AdventureWorld — right between Pirate’s Coveland and Wild Wild Westland. Also Tom Cruise. **** which I hate doing because of moments like this where I know just how far along and just where on the page this was but I still don’t have the book so IT’S LIKE ONE OF MY BRAIN CELLS HAS GONE MISSING
Found inside Drum Beat – Berlin, a list of thrillers by Stephen Marlowe starring international private-eye, or something, Chester Drum:
1. The Second Longest Night
Right away we wonder if we have found the right artist to take as an exemplar of title-giving. For wouldn’t the actually longest night be a more promising subject for a murder mystery? But no, because that would be Winter Solstice. A time not for murder but for druids singing ‘Hymn to Her’ or men just beginning their Christmas shopping. But it is not fair to quibble; as we shall see, TSLN was merely one of Marlowe’s apprentice efforts. It was with the next Chester Drum title that Marlowe began to find his voice:
2. Mecca for Murder.
Here Marlowe has used alliteration to suggest that Chester Drum uncovers some figurative capital for murder. Except that as Drum is an international PI it may be that this title has a triple meaning and this murder was actually in Mecca! But we get our first clue to the creative process underlying the Chester Drum titles with the next:
3. Trouble is My Name
No alliteration, but not bad. And when we recall the author’s name is Stephen Marlowe, we can only guess that he was subconsciously influenced in his title choice by Trouble Is My Business, Raymond Chandler’s classic collection of mystery stories starring Philip Marlowe. An artist might perform a life-time of ‘practice’ just to be ready to respond to hearing the chords of serendipity like this. We see that Marlowe (Stephen) has indeed found his ‘groove’ with his next title:
4. Murder Is My Dish
Marlowe (Stephen) has now use ‘Murder’ twice in four titles, but repetition too is practice. And if that’s the price to be paid for an artist finding his voice, it’s an investment that soon pays off with:
5. Killers Are My Meat.
Note how Marlowe (Stephen) is actually incorporating a second theme, this one food-based. It may be no coincidence that his protagonist has such a jazz-inspired name: ‘Drum (Chester)’. Then:
6. Violence is My Business
No food this time, but surely a conscious homage to Chandler and Marlowe (Philip). Marlowe (Stephen) can’t go so close to Chandler (Raymond) again (without resorting to Business is my Trouble), but he tacks near enough with a string of titles each better than the last — the glory years for the titles of Drum (Chester), starting with:
7. Terror is my Trade
Marlowe (Stephen) has been working like the magician who invites his audience to look closely and defies them to follow his craft, but with Terror is my trade listed right beneath Violence is my Business, we begin to see a hint to the formal beauty underlying his long music. HERE IS THE PATTERN:
[Ominous noun/s] + [“Is/Are My”] + [ordinary noun now rendered ominous].
Inspired by Marlowe (Philip), obviously, but the alliteration is entirely Marlowe (Stephen)’s — and we see how he takes care not to devalue it through overuse with the next title,
8. Homicide is my Game.
On the face of it ‘Homicide’ is the same as ‘Murder’, and ‘Game’ is another pursuit like ‘Business’, but game is also a knowing clue: Marlowe (Stephen) is not repeating himself; he is playing a game of jazz with these stories of Drum (Chester).
After reaching that almost post-modern ‘pivot’, Marlowe (Stephen) makes a pause. Reinforced by collaborator Richard S. Prather, he reaches for a new form that temporarily steps away from the — Is My — pattern that has served so well. No longer reaching back for ancient Anglo-Saxon alliteration, but still determined to avoid the modernist cliches of free verse and sound poetry, Marlowe (Stephen) and Prather (Richard) revivify the very act of rhyme with:
9. Double in Trouble
A stunt, perhaps, but one that demonstrates range. Then, refreshed, and keen to show that his allegiance to Marlowe (Philip) was never really threatened, Marlowe (Stephen) returns to the pattern that he has given so much life with work that taunts with this near-plagiarism:
10. Danger is my Line
Copying is his Forte! the reader exclaims — but that is wonder, not mockery; no more than ‘Danger is my Line’ itself. Soon after we read:
11. Death is my Comrade
A minor effort, perhaps, but surely a cold war fable, and one that looks ahead to Drum Beat — Berlin, where we began our journey. Then:
12. Peril is My Pay
And we must pause for a moment. We see the great blank — “Is My” — blank pattern — again, and in another near-reflection of Marlowe (Philip), one as good as Violence is my Business, perhaps, but now paired with Marlowe (Stephen)’s other great gift, alliteration. And beyond that, criticism must fall silent, except to invite the audience to look, and look again. ‘PIMP’ (as we will call it to not make stale what is so fresh) is so good — perhaps the real peak of the Drum (Chester) titling oeuvre — that when we come to his next effort
13. Manhunt is my Mission
We wonder if the flower of the inspiration Marlowe (Stephen) found in the coincidence of Marlowe (Philip)’s name has begun to fade at last. When we see what follows:
14. Jeopardy is my Job
We feel that Marlowe (Stephen) has moved beyond homage and into sad pastiche. It is a relief to find the next title, almost certainly the last before the volume we hold, is simply, perfectly,
Subsequent to the sublime Francesca and (and DBB!), the dark, body-scented duvet of history seems have been drawn over the repose of Drum (Chester), and we wonder if this really was the end. But again we must pay attention to the muse of serendipity: for after typing “Chester Drum Marlowe” — purely by chance! — into an internet search bar, we find that Marlowe (Stephen)’s titling had a entire 2nd act, one that, fittingly, seems to have been inspired by the title of the very book we hold:
16. Drum beat: Berlin.
17. Drum beat: Dominique
18. Drum beat: Madrid
19. Drum beat: Erica
Not the immortal work of blank-is-my-blank, still we detect an insistent rhythm: a beating drum of ‘Drum Beat’ titles about the different ‘beats’ of our detective Drum.
At this distance we can only speculate that the overall meaning (mean-ing) of these titles is a reference to the protagonist — Drum (Chester) — and either the cities where his adventures take place or the names of women with whom he becomes involved.
So when, at last, we find:
20. Drum beat: Marianne
We recall that in Drum beat – Berlin we meet a former ‘lover’ of Drum (Chester)’s named — Marianne. Perhaps it is the same Marianne! Join me for one moment in setting down the prop-quality replica phaser-and-tricorder set of criticism and indulge instead in the homely game of ‘pretend’, and hope that it is so.
It would be a proper end for Chester (Drum) and a fitting reward for the gifts given us by Marlowe (Stephen).
The last few posts have been about entering the International 3-Day Novel Contest last spring. But it would be embarrassing to spend more than, say, 72 hours writing about the contest, so it’s time to finish:
Monday (Day 3)
No walk, no cinnamon bun, just coffee, old pizza, dark chocolate, and work.
In Act II I had managed to get through most of the problems Act I had set up, and by the end of it I had engineered enough new ones to manage the turn that Chandler said was needed to get past the middle of a novel without the energy slacking — the turn towards some problem unanticipated at the beginning. In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example, the initial mystery of the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde is solved by the end of the 2nd act, but that leaves the third-act’s new, if retrospective, problem — Jekyll’s struggle to control Hyde.
For Undine, as near as I recall, that happened when my hero took an unplanned boat journey and was dropped off on an island in Lake Winnipeg where he met two elderly women — one white, one native. They were unexpected, but I recognized them. Because you can be weird and new age-y about it, or just accept that’s how stories work, but I think every writer has their own personal set of archetypes. Dickens, for example, had those insipid innocent women, and that wise rich uncle figure who fixes things up; Stephen King has the protagonist frequent readers call the “King stand-in,” and that innocent-mentally retarded-psychic-blind-black-girl sort-of character (you know the one I mean).
It’s not necessarily a simple thing: in a Christmas Carol Scrooge changes from villain to wise rich uncle. In the Little Dorrit (somehow great and boring) the insipid innocent girl is the protagonist and she solves the older rich man’s problems (and then marries him). In It, the King stand-in role is split among two or three characters; in The Dead Zone the protagonist is the innocent crippled psychic, &c.
And it’s not that writers can’t think of other characters; just that those types reflect things inside who, like Mr. Hyde, keep wanting out. So Undine was the 7th or 8th novel I’d written, and I’d started to recognize a few of the company: The cocky newfound maybe-friend (a figure like, say, Alan Breck in Kidnapped). The feral young boy (Peter Pan with a hangover, or maybe my cousin Dan). And the cranky maybe-wise grandmother (certainly not like either of my actual grandmothers; maybe Maggie Smith in one of her crotchety roles).
Now, without my intending it, I had come to an obviously Mysterious and Significant Place and found not one but two cranky grandmothers. When someone from the cast shows up just because they’re needed you pay attention, and these two pointed out … issues …. that were maybe larger than my hero’s missing girlfriend. Then it was Act III and at last that happy sense the story was slipping along by itself — and I just had to hang on to the toboggan.
I had planned to spend the last few hours doing a quick re-write. Deal with sentences I had left unfinished, characters who changed names, traps that were set but never sprung, or mines that exploded without having first been laid. And maybe if I hadn’t started late I would have. But as the time ticked down towards midnight, even as the story-toboggan began to slide faster and faster towards doom (3), I also began to get that Zeno’s paradox feeling that comes towards the end of a project. I got stupider and slower; I found more little things that had to be fixed; I wrote more pages so confused they needed to be rejigged before I moved on….
So I was still writing almost to the very end. I don’t think I even understood how the Lovecraft character with my name (one of the inspirations behind Undine) came into it until that last half-hour. In the end I had about 10 minutes to re-format things, and then it was midnight.
I sent Undine off, emailed home to say I was done, went to the washroom without being eaten by a bear, and slept.
Tuesday morning I breakfasted at White’s, went to the shower house at last, closed up the cabin, and had a long wait for the bus to take me home. A long bus ride too, and I had the time to reflect on all the things that were supposed to be in Undine but had never showed up: the scene between the lovers on the beach; the sound of the water running through the karst beneath their feet; seeing how odd the girlfriend’s family was (1). Will those bits remain forever in the limbo of unwritten stories? Or if I try to make Undine again, as a longer, slower book, maybe I’ll find them there.
After all that I can’t really say if Undine was any good — except for the bit from the beginning I clipped out for one of these blog entries (2), I haven’t even read it yet — but probably not really. But maybe I will turn it into a longer, slower, better book later; and even if I don’t, it was a great experience:
It was the whole process of writing a novel, just in a little box —
slow and doubtful at the beginning (I wasn’t even sure until I was 5 pages in that it was Undine that I’d be writing); settling into the voice; hitting dead spots. The moments half-way through when you think it will never come together and must be abandoned. The surprise bits of inspiration. The final rapid unfolding of understanding.
I understand how people get addicted to running marathons; if my kids were older I’d have a shot at the 3-Day Novel every year.
– – –(1) Which of these three elements came from the author’s own experience? (2) Here. (3) Just like in Ethan Frome, ha-ha
My last few posts have talked about entering the 3-Day Novel contest, my plan to write Undine (an HP Lovecraft-goes to the Interlake gothic), how I managed to start late, and how I wrote Act I.
Sunday (Day 2):
I woke up, walked out for coffee and a cinnamon bun, and then it was day 2. The writing is going to be slow on Day 1, when you’re warming up, and by the 3rd day you should have enough momentum built up to roll you out the door, but the 2nd day is when the real work happens.
I had to write 3 nearly finished pages an hour; you can type faster than that but it’s hard to write much more (1). So while you might have roughly figured on something sort of happening at a certain point, you don’t really have time to worry about your outline, only about what has to happen next. And if there isn’t enough narrative push to tell you, it’s best not to worry about the plot. Just do like Raymond Chandler: have a man come through the door holding a gun (2) and write your way out of it.
So that 2nd day, unplanned and expected settings and secondary characters appeared and involved themselves and revealed things I hadn’t known about the central mystery of Undine (the narrator’s missing girlfriend). I had an unplanned journey by road and water. The RCMP came back. My protagonist had the dreams of a troubled man alone in a cabin in the woods.
I moved my writing spot between tables and chairs, I went for brief walks (no indoor toilet). I had coffee. I could have drunk a lot of coffee to keep going, obviously, or I could have used Ritalin or Allertec or something. And it’s not that I didn’t think about it — but it’s a 3-day contest and I’m not Hunter S. Thompson, and you know, I wasn’t trying to stay awake because I had to fix Apollo 13: it was just a writing challenge for me and my normal brain.
Taking a hint from the 3DN website, I bought dark chocolate and ordered a pizza (no indoor toilet at our cabin, but we do have delivery pizza). That was the best advice they had and probably the best advice I can give too: if you think of the 3DN as an exploration of your underworld, then pizza and dark chocolate are your iron rations(3). Don’t worry about fibre; there’ll be plenty of time to poop after you level up, when the book is done.
By the end of the 2nd day I was not quite done the 2nd Act, but I had a good sense of how it would end. And I went to bed and dreamt the dreams of a troubled man alone in a cabin in the woods.
– – –
- Italo Calvino famously played with this idea in his collection of linked opening chapters, If On a Winter Night a Traveller and, look, I know that was the point, but still, reading it is a matter of feeling repeatedly cheated that the promise of the openings will not be fulfilled.
- Well, John Creasey did maybe. He wrote hundreds of novels: westerns, mysteries, science fiction, and they were surprisingly … not bad … even good, sometimes, though you might say they were the sort of quickly novels that were best read quickly. Last week, after many years, I re-read one of his best-regarded novels, The Famine. The Famine is one of a long series about Z5, an international agency that was always fighting off mysterious global threats, usually perpetrated by megalomaniacs bent on drastically thinning the Earth’s population.
In this case the global threat was a famine caused by a race of hungry mutant midgets that bread faster than rabbits. One solution after another is tried until Z5 realizes the only way to save the human race is to keep the useful people in well-guarded cities, while tricking everyone else into going into the countryside to either die of starvation or be eaten by midgets — drastically thinning the earth’s population.
If you read it quickly enough maybe you won’t pause to wonder, what was it like for Dr. Palfrey, leader of Z5, to ponder that irony? Or for all the people doomed by their leaders? Or for all the Useful People when they emerged to find the ruined world full of the skeletons of everyone they had sent off to find their slow or violent deaths? I think John Creasey could either worry about little details like those or keep to his daily 6,000 words, but not both.
- Figuratively. Could be any forcing action. But I think I did use a gun once.
- Iron rations, nothing; a large pizza will pretty much do one man for two days. That’s lembas-good!)
In the last two posts I wrote about why I entered the 3-Day Novel contest; the origin of Undine, the Lovecraft-goes-to-the-Interlake novel I wrote; and how going out to our cabin meant I started 6 hours behind.
A NOVEL IN 3 DAYS ISN’T SO MUCH, necessarily. What counts as a novel? Traditionally, that’s ‘A story not meant to be read in one sitting.’ So let’s say 90 or 100 pages. A moderate-good reader could read that in one sitting, but probably not — and that’s also nearly the length of most of the winners of the 3DN*. People sometimes don’t regard books that short as ‘real’ novels, but even at that length a story is almost certain to be structured around multiple incidents that provide natural breaks for a reader to leave and rejoin the story. At that point, whether your novel is 100 or 1000 pages, it’s still a different kind of thing from a short story, and there are plenty of well-known novels around that length — The Turn of the Screw; The Red Pony; Black Water; Heart of Darkness; Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde**. Teachers like to assign them because they have some hope*** that even their less motivated students will manage to finish them.
Since most of the winners of the 3-Day Novel have been about 100 pages, let’s be generous with extra space for chapter breaks and call it 20-25,000 words. Then we’ll say over 3 hard days that’s about 40 working hours. Leave 4 hours for tidying and re-write and call it 36. Then (I bet you can do the math yourself, but just in case) that’s 550-700 words — or 2-3 pages — an hour.
That’s not so much! L. Ron Hubbard wrote faster than that; so fast that he used a roll of paper so he wouldn’t lose time putting new sheets into his typewriter — possibly to leave himself the time to start a religion that solved all the deepest questions of life and creation, he said. Heck, Lawrence Block (best known for his crime novels — The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons is the most recent, I think) says he wrote some of his, well, less respectable novels in less than 3 days. So it’s certainly doable. As long as, you know, don’t sweat making sentence pretty. And as long as you don’t need to waste much time working out what should happen next.
I had a 1-page outline (there aren’t strict rules about it, but the idea is to see what happens when you compress the creative process into 3 days, not to do most of the work ahead of time), and I had it briefly broken up into 3 acts. I wrote the whole first act (about 20 pages), more or less, on that shortened first day, pausing only for one walk into town to buy a few provisions. It was slow work, because it had been such a short night, and because I was just warming up, but in a way the first act was the easiest bit, because it was largely about establishing the setting, the main characters, the basic problem, and I already knew those things. Here’s how I started:
This was the story left to me by Michael Leskanich,
the sort of old friend you can’t say no to, especially when
you think they are dead.
Not the most original thing in the world, but not bad, I think. I ended the foreword with:
I’m not going to pretend I didn’t tidy it up a bit for
him; I’m a writer and he was an old friend who was working fast.
Punctuation, sentence structure. That sort of thing.
I only left out a few things, and I think you’ll see why.
So, an old-fashioned framing device for what was supposed to be a story that someone else left for me, or for some writer almost exactly like me. But here’s another reason I wanted to do it this way: I re-read a lot of Lovecraft in the months before the 3DN contest, and notice that in “The Rats in the Walls,” Lovecraft had a minor character named Thornton — a failed psychic researcher who faints, goes mad, and ends up in an insane asylum. And if THAT’s not an invitation to write yourself into a Lovecraftian tale of horror and suspense, I don’t know what it.
Not much more to say about the first day and first act, except that getting myself to do even that much work wound me up enough I had some trouble getting to sleep. And that we don’t yet have indoor plumbing. And if, after spending the day writing a supernatural-suspense novel, you find you are woken by your bladder, and facing a walk through the black and lonely bush to get to the toilet, then even though almost no one ever gets eaten by bears in Riding Mountain National Park, you might, as I did, declare all nature your outhouse, take a whizz off the deck and go back to bed.
NEXT TIME: Days 2-3. Act II! Act III! Practicalities. Also I still didn’t mention what life-changing wisdom I may or may not have brought back from the Jungian underworld at the heart of the Writer’s Journey™.
– – – – – –
*For pages, by the way, read “250 words”, since in the olden times (before word-processors) that was what a typed, double-spaced page amounted to. In print, most books for adults average more than that, but not all. The late Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” detective novels, for example, had a (hardback) word-count of about 250 words/page. Much less than that and it starts to seem like someone just doesn’t care about the trees.
**In fact RL Stevenson is supposed to have written Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 3 days, shown it to his wife, burned it, then written it again in another 3 days. But then he was sick and febrile and, um, medicated. I think. Look, just because I’m too lazy to double-check this on Wikipedia doesn’t mean you have to be. Or Philip K Dick.
***Hope, that is. When I taught first-year English at Red River College I had a (white, middle-class) student for whom even the 110 pages of Heart of Darkness was too much, so for his essay he just wrote that he was so offended by Conrad’s use of the N-word in a story about the colonial exploitation of Africa that he couldn’t bring himself to read more than the first five pages. I wrote “nice try” and gave him an “F”.
So, as I said last time, having the motive, the means, and the opportunity, I entered the International 3-Day Novel Contest.
The sign-up process is simple (all the information is easily found on the website: www.3daynovel.com) and it’s only $50. If you win you get the book published with Anvil Press, and the sort of fame and fortune that Canadian regional-press authors can expect, which is to say the real reward is the process.
(Then, some might wonder, why not just write your book in 3 days without registering and save yourself the fifty bucks? Well it’s like not registering for a marathon: because then you wouldn’t do it, that’s why not.)
So the Friday night before Labour Day I told my family when I’d be home and went to the bus depot. The bus was scheduled to get to Wasagaming (where our cabin is, in Riding Mountain National Park) about 11:15 PM, so I figured I’d have a good night’s sleep and then get to work.
FIRST PROBLEM (for my daughter’s sake I will begin this bit by saying, no one at this time gets mauled by a bear)
It was the last long weekend of the summer, remember. Everybody who had any sort of seniority in any operation in the country had booked the day off and left some pimply junior to do the work instead.
Everything ran late: the bus got into Winnipeg two hours late, it waited at the depot for two more hours and arrived in Brandon 4 hours late. The bus driver was so new he had to use Google Maps on his iPhone to find his way through Brandon and Minnedosa; by the time we got to Wasagaming (I had to tell him which turn-off to take) we were already 6 hours late, so I said to just let me off on the side of the highway. Then I walked around the edge of town and up the hill and through the trees to the little streets where the cabins are.
Not really a big deal – about 20 minutes through the dark night, but you know, it’s our cabin. But see my plan was to write an eerie story about someone in an isolated cabin, and (interesting factlet!) Riding Mountain has the highest concentration of black bears of any park in the world, and for all I could tell I was the only person awake in the whole postal code.
It was one of those times when Duncan* would have been happy to slink away and let Professor Thornton ** handle things for a while (because even he knew the odds were in favour of Not Being Eaten), except you know, it was Duncan’s trip, so just try to get the other guy to take some responsibility for that.
Still no one got eaten, everything was fine and both of those guys were asleep in my cabin-bed by five in the morning easily.
That morning I walked into town and had breakfast at White’s Bakery in Wasagaming where they make the best cinnamon buns I’ve had (I live in Manitoba; to give you a sense of proportion, that’s like hearing someone in England talk about a place that serves the best mushy peas) and, restored, considered what to do now that it was five hours less likely I would finish even a bad 36-hour novel.
Well I didn’t want to be out fifty bucks for nothing. So I accepted that Undine would likely be the worst 36-hour novel I would ever write, and remembered the long-ago college time when I had done that much work and more in one long weekend and made a plan: write for 4 hours, nap for an hour, repeat.
Was even the cabin safe from bears? How did the WRITING go? What life-changing wisdom did I bring back from the Jungian underworld at the heart of the Writer’s Journey™?
– – – – – –
* You know: warm, associative, always a twinkling eye, a ready rapier, and new-made haiku, that guy.
** You know: cold sneering rationalist, claims he doesn’t remember his astrological sign, likes to fly not drive because it’s safer, duh, lectures his nine-year-old son on statistical noise and why not to get excited just because the home team wins two in a row and also it’s the Jets, him.
I thought I’d begin by writing about the 3-Day Novel contest.
I’d had an idea, years ago, for an eerie, HP Lovecraft-goes to the Interlake sort of story — the initial image being, if I can recall, a man whose girlfriend had disappeared in the water (and he’s pretty sure she didn’t drown).
I never pursued it because, first, I always had other things to write, and second, the form seemed so limited. Because the patterns of a Lovecraft-type story, or a story using his “Cthulhu Mythos,” is always pretty much the same: after a lot of exposition, the hero gradually comes face to face with irrefutable evidence of the awful, COSMIC HORROR of the universe — the realization that human beings are irrelevant, that everything is doomed, or even that the hero or narrator may himself be transforming INTO THE VERY SORT OF NON-HUMAN BEING HE IS HORRIFIED BY. That sort of thing.
It’s worth pointing out that not only do we kind of know where it is going from the moment we see Lovecraft’s name, or just recognise the form, but that the hero himself (always HIMself for Lovecraft) usually isn’t even a very active protagonist; he is more of a horrified witness. Because that sort of story, as Lovecraft pointed out, is more of a gradual entry into a bad dream than an actual conflict.
And that is how the nightmares I remember seem to me — not like my regular random-action dreams (like old episodes of Mannix) — but an accretion of unsettling details until the final revelation, so awful that one has to wake up. For example: everyone has left and you are all alone on the Earth, or you aren’t all alone because your girlfriend is there, except, it turns out, SHE’S A VAMPIRE — don’t laugh unless you’ve been there — etc. Always followed by a QUICK CUT to being awake and slightly confused about why you feel scared and lonely, and quite concerned to establish the actual existence of your spouse in bed beside you (unless your spouse used to be that girlfriend, in which case, hard luck).
Anyway. It’s not that there’s nothing to a Mythos story, it’s just that, as Fritz Leiber observed — he was one of the many young writers who owed a lot to encouragement and advice from Lovecraft — it seems like a kind of aesthetic dead-end.
(But Lovecraft is unsettling — he had caught some magic, or something, in a bottle, and there are scenes that have remained in my dreams for, literally, decades — although he is also almost never actually scary. You’d think this might be a complete disqualification for a “horror” writer, but in fact, a disappointingly small number of horror writers are actually scary, ever. Still it’s strange, considering his enormous influence and reputation, that Lovecraft is no Stephen King, no Shirley Jackson.)
So… I had this idea for a longish horror story that would belong most of all to this very narrow and limited genre. Who would ever want to read it, or publish it? But that image, of the girlfriend in the water, and drowning is not what the hero is scared of, that stuck with me.
And then I thought of the 3-Day Novel competition. A good venue for a short novel, a good place to try an exercise in genre-writing. I don’t know if everyone who’s tried it agrees, but I thought if I was going to write a whole freaking novel in three days, I wanted the scaffolding of a well-established form for support. And the judges have to read your story.
So, I had a method, and I had an opportunity, and I had a motive, too: because I had just taken two years to write what should have been a fairly simple novel, probably because I worried about it too much (and I had had trouble with the one before that, too). So I wanted to just, please, START and FINISH a book without worrying about it too much.
Anyway, why have a cabin if you don’t use it to hide out and get smelly while you pursue some secret project?