Before You Write–Finding and Organizing Your Story Ideas


So, you’ve got a story idea, or a thousand of them flying around in your brain. Maybe one hit you in the head while you were pouring your lychee juice or perhaps you have been collecting them for months. Whether you are a pantser or an outline-it-to-the-deather, there are organizational tricks and tools to make your journey across the page easier. Managing information is something I struggle with, having been born with what I can only assume is a genetic anomaly that has left me with the organizational capacity of a very drunk chipmunk.

Thus, I have never had a fondness for organizing my materials before writing, or, to be transparent, for organization of any kind. It has been my tendency to sit down and let the ideas flow, feeling that somehow organization and regimentation will chase creativity away. I don’t know why I should hold so fast to these ideas, though. The opposite has certainly not shown to be the case, as evidenced by a drawer full of unfinished (I prefer the term partially completed) manuscripts, stopped dead by my particular talent for writing myself into corners.

I decided that rather than clinging to my methods, I would do some research and actually try to devise a cure for my continued writer’s obstacles. I wholeheartedly embrace the notion that all of the blocks that I have ever faced have been created by my lack of a clear path. I don’t claim this to be the case for everyone, but we are talking about someone who found a fork in her purse yesterday–not a difficult conclusion to draw.

What are the Best Ways to Collect Information for Your Novel?

How do you come up with ideas for your stories? There are so many sources of story ideas:

  • Newspaper headlines
  • Traveling
  • Everyday encounters
  • Reading books
  • Reading magazine articles
  • Reading pretty much everything
  • Eavesdropping
  • People watching

You get the idea. Newspaper headlines are a personal favorite of mine. People are disgusting and weird and without even taxing your idea generator (I’m sure that’s an anatomic thing), you can just browse through the newspaper and find horrifically delightful story ideas. I once read an article about a family in China who thought their house was haunted because of a ghostly screaming. Turns out it was just an old lady who had somehow become trapped within a shared wall. (You know how that happens.) My point is that ideas are everywhere. But what is the best way to collect them and actually retain them without them dissipating into the ether before you have time to brainstorm?

Well, there are things like journals where you can jot down your ideas as you go, if you are the type of person who is capable of keeping up with a journal and have somewhere to put it. There are, also, the highly questionable index cards of lore, which are about as useful to an an-organizite as a spreadsheet.There is also Evernote.

What are the Benefits of using Evernote?

Evernote is like an idea catcher. It’s a notes app that integrates seamlessly across all your devices. I am using the free version, and I only ever use two devices. Evernote is good if you do a lot of research on your phone, for instance, while sitting at airports, restaurants, or your dentist’s office, and you don’t want to dweeb out and pull a notebook out like the secret nerd you are and start writing your ideas down.

Here’s How it Works

You get the app and create an account. There are things called notebooks which are where you are going to store your ideas and research items. You can start with one or as many as you like. I have two–one for fiction stuff and one for blog stuff. Pretty easy, right? Then, say you are riding your unicycle to work and are suddenly struck by an idea for a story. You can record an audio note and send it off to Evernote. You don’t even have to tell it where to go. Of course, that’s just one example. It does a lot more than just audio notes.

Now say you have an idea–that unicycle ride really paid off–and it’s time to research. Evernote is super helpful for storing all your research items. For me, this is where it offers the biggest benefit. When I research, I read everything there is to read and write notes in a spiral, because I’m old. I take screen shots on my phone, too. But, then I delete them on accident or forget where I read something, and I leave my notebook somewhere or spill something on it or turn it into a grocery list. Then I spend more time trying to find all the information again, because I am lazy about bookmarking, etc. Evernote is great for amassing data when you suck at being organized. Which, I do.

Here are the things you can send to Evernote

  • Photos
  • Websites
  • Web Clipper
    • functions kind of like Pinterest
    • able to mark-up the pages with a weird pen thing
  • Screenshots
  • Scanned items
  • Audio files
  • Typed notes
  • Written Notes
  • Probably more, but this is not an advertisement. You get the idea

Then, if you are some kind of organizational weirdy-head, you can add tags and organize further. I haven’t done any of that nonsense. It’s enough that I am attempting to keep ideas, at all. So, the gist is that you can have a parent notebook, notebooks within it called a stack. You can share these, which I’m sure is helpful to some people. I am doubtful anyone wants to peruse my “idea” list of weird and creepy news stories or my corresponding “research” (moo-ha-ha), but knock ’em dead, people.

So, you are getting the idea. Evernote is a digital way to collect ideas and research.

How Do You Organize Your Ideas on the Page?

Well, now you have an idea and you have amassed a ridiculous amount of research, because it’s addicting and it’s super fun to tell people you are “conducting research for your novel” while enjoying some  poutine and reading about how best to make a DIY shrunken head. We’ve all been there. What is the next logical step? For me it used to be–“Wait, what? I’m already three chapters in. I was supposed to research first?”

I like writing. It’s the best part of being a writer, in my estimation, so I am always impatient to get started. The problem is that rushing to the page without at least the most basic of plans is likely to lead to obstacles. Why? Because writing a novel is hard AF, people. The plot rarely ever just runs along ahead of you showing you the way with literary breadcrumbs. You have to wrestle that a-hole into submission and it’s hard.

Even if all you do is draw the shape of your story, and label your inciting moment, crisis, climax and resolution, at least you have something. I’ll use the example of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where -” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

I think it’s like that with your story. If you don’t know where you’re headed, how will you ever get there? All the boring, tedious, hard pre-work allows you to make it through the maze of writing with a bird’s eye view of the maze rather than that of the worm.

How to be the Bird

So, all we have to do now is take all the information we have collected and arrange into the story we want to tell. Easy-peasy. Well, not exactly, but at least we have options, some more palatable than others, to go about this somewhat odious task. The basic types of organizational tools are

  • Outlines
  • Story Shapes
  • Spreadsheets
  • Worksheets
  • Snowflake Method
  • Software

Outlines

If you’re an outliner, you probably stopped reading around line two of the first page. Outlines are a hotly debated topic among writers, for some reason. A lot of writers hate them, me included, but it is for the exact same reason that I run into obstacles–planning shit is hard. If you can just hitch your mindset over a little, and try to think of it as clearing the way for your writing, it becomes a tad more palatable. Kind of. There are different types of outlines and different levels of detail. I will never be John Grisham. Well, for many reasons including the impossibility of mind-body transfer, but I will never be able to stomach outlining every detail. Gross.

I am also not of a mind that you HAVE to have an outline. It is one effective tool to help clear the path and give you the bird’s eye, but it isn’t the only tool. Let’s take a look at a few different types of outlines.

  • Your Basic Outline
    • I’m not teaching a course on outlining but this type breaks your story into three or four acts and hits the major points of action. You can check out some templates here and here.
    • This can be as skeletal or as detailed as you please
    • The more detailed it is, the less you have to figure out while writing
  • Your Key Scene Outline
    • You know how it begins and how it ends and a few main milestones on the way which are roughly sketched out with most of the story coming during composition.
  • The Index Card Outline or Moveable Outline (aka my worst nightmare)
    • Major scenes written on index cards which can be arranged and rearranged
    • Did you know that you can lose index cards if you’re not careful?
    • Highly variable and easy to add and subtract

Story Shapes

I am mostly including this because I love it. I don’t know how helpful it is  for other people, but drawing a story, for whatever reason, has really helped me solidify the bird’s eye perspective. Story shapes are based on Vonnegut’s research. And who doesn’t love Vonnegut? No, seriously. I’m asking. There is even an entertaining video about it here.

The basic concept is that there are six basic story shapes based on graphing the misfortune on the y axis across the timeline of the story. It is helpful to recognize which shape your story has.

  • Rags to Riches (Rise)
  • Riches to Rags (Fall )
  • Man in the Hole (Fall then rise)
  • Icarus (Rise then fall)
  • Cinderella (Rise then fall then rise)
  • Oedipus (Fall then rise then fall)

Spreadsheets

If you hated outlining, you will probably hate spreadsheets. For me, it’s a matter of having to learn technology to do something I already hate–organizing stuff. I won’t go into too much detail here, except to say that the level of detail that can be attained with spreadsheets is incredible. The Snowflake method (more on that in a bit) relies on spreadsheets later in the process.

A spreadsheet is . . . who am I kidding. I will refer you here for tips on spreadsheets.

Worksheets

There are tons of worksheets and templates to choose from. These are great tools for people who really don’t want to outline, because they still force you to think about the arc of your story, your goals and the premise without all the tediousness of roman numerals. They are pretty fun to fill out and you don’t feel so very much like you are conducting inventory on articles of your story. I included an example of one I like here, but they are easy to find and even to design yourself.   You want to, at a minimum, include such things as

  • POV
  • Protagonist
    • What she wants
    • What she fears
  • Obstacles
  • Conflict
  • Antagonist
    • What she wants
    • What she fears
  • Inciting Incident
  • Stakes
  • Point of No return
  • Rising stakes
  • Internal conflict
  • Climax
    • win or lose
  • Denouement
    • How has she changed

These are general enough to not bog you down with every detail but to force you to think about what you want to accomplish. You may include themes, etc on these worksheets.

Snowflake Method

The Snowflake method, based on fractals or some such, and developed by Randy Ingermanson, is a lot of pre-work. A ten step system, it accomplishes a lot of the hard work of the novel by starting with a simple premise and expanding. Then you expand on your expansion and so on and so on until your book is laid out before you in snowflake form. Here’s a very basic breakdown:

  • Step I: Write a one sentence summary (think elevator pitch)
    • shorter than 15 words
    • no names
    • big picture
  • Step II: Overview (Takes about an hour)
    • expand the sentence to a full paragraph describing story set up, major disasters, ending
    • 5 sentence summary
  • Step III: Overview for storyline and each character. For each character:
    • name
    • one sentence summary of character’s storyline
    • motivation
    • goal
    • conflict
    • epiphany
    • one paragraph of storyline per character
    • we are only on step three
  • Step IV: Work on large scale structure (could be on day 3)
    • expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into its own paragraph
    • each new paragraph should end with more problems except the final one
  • Step V: Write one page description of each major character
    • also half page on minor characters
    • seriously, this is a lot of work
  • Step VI: Expand the one page plot synopsis to 4 pages
    • expand each paragraph from Step IV into a page
  • Step VII: Expand character descriptions into full fledged charts
    • develop character arcs
    • I have already started a new book
  • Step VIII: Take 4 page synopsis and make a scene list
    • use spreadsheets
  • Step IX: Optional
    • Begin writing narrative descriptions of the story line. Expand.
  • Step X: Write your first draft. Really? I’m so tired.
    • All the hard stuff is done
    • All you have to do is write and polish
    • This is probably worth the work
    • I will probably never do this

Software

Okay, I have saved software for last, because I write on my mac in pages. I started with pen and paper in high school and wrote on a brother typewriter through college. I went back to pen and paper until ten years ago when I stared writing on a laptop. I have never used writing software.  So, because I am a scientific sort,  I decided to try both. You can get a 30 day free trial of Scrivener here and Ulysses offers a free demo.

First let’s take a look at the basics.

Scrivener

Scrivener allows you to fully manipulate your story. It uses rich text formatting and allows you to keep your research (that you collected in Evernote or in scrivener) right there at your fingertips. This self-proclaimed project management tool is a powerful aid to get you through your novel. Here are some features:

  • Ability to edit multiple docs
  • Cork board  with virtual (un-loseable) index cards
    • storyboard
    • free form
  • Outlining
    • pre or during
  • Collections
    • lists
    • documents
  • Full screen editing
  • Script writing mode
  • Snapshots
    • can restore to an earlier revision
  • Quick reference panes
    • load research into floating panes
      • character into etc
  • Synchronize with drop box
  • Export for printing
    • export to web or e-book
  • Mac or PC

Scrivener can house PDF’s, movies, websites, sound files, etc. and keep it within a click. It also has templates to pull from.

Ulysses

Ulysses calls itself a writing environment. Unlike Scrivener, it is plain text and can be easily converted to HTML, which, apparently is cool for nerds. It allows you to create PDF’s, word docs and eBooks which are properly formatted. You can publish right to WordPress from the app. It syncs with iCloud, which is one of the bigger differences between the two. It is probably a personality preference. Some writers will really enjoy the sparse out of the way nature of Ulysses and some will favor the more writerly feel of Scrivener. Some features of Ulysses:

  • Distraction free
  • Markup-based editor (Nerd boner)
  • Plain text enhanced
  • Themeable editor (not sure what that means, took it from site)
  • Keyboard nav
  • Typewriter mode
  • Single library for all text
  • Groups
  • Attachments
  • Filters
  • Auto save and back up
  • Writing goals
  • Full iCloud sync
  • Mac and iOS

I have downloaded the free trial of Scrivener and the Ulysses demo for comparison. Happy gathering and ordering. I think I’m going to dump a box of marbles out. All this organization is making me itch.

Freelancing for Beginners and Old People

In the midst of being semi-employed, I decided I should take action. Why should I have to rely on boring old convention when it comes to earning income? After all, I have heard of freelancing. I am aware of its existence, although I have always imagined it to be something of a unicorn. Can people really make a living doing that sort of thing? I mean, obviously some people do, but can normal people? People who don’t like futons or Top Ramen? How does a person of a certain age and financial expectation even begin to approach such a thing? I began to research.

First of all, Freelance writing is a broad field. For the purpose of this post, I will break it down into the simplest of parts: online and print. The first thing I learned is that no matter which way you go, you need to brush up on your pitch. (Look here and here). If you have a niche, now is your time to refine it. If you don’t, think about developing one. Here is a great blog about it.

Online

Decide to whom you want to pitch. If your goal is to build a little experience and confidence first, online freelancing is probably the quickest route. There are numerous freelancing sites. I looked at three of them that don’t charge a fee to join–I don’t want to pay to get shot-down until I know I can fly.I looked at UpworkFreelance Writing Gigs, and Freelancer. On Upwork and Freelancer, you can set up your profile and skills, browse the jobs list and submit proposals.  I was able to land  a blog writing trial on Upwork on my first proposal at $20/hour. I have no idea if I will be hired for future work, yet, but the process was quick and simple and I can officially call myself a freelancer. You can find a more comprehensive list of sites here. The pay for the unexperienced freelancer is not high. In fact, it’s disappointingly low, but the pay goes up as your experience grows and I have a lot of time on my hands. And another job.

Learn your terminology. I saw many posts seeking someone to write their blog posts. Well, I already do that and don’t get paid, I thought. Everyone will want me. Spoiler: I’m old. The job I landed was for a dental blogger. I told them I was a dentist and a blogger and that I would be a perfect match. They said, “Not so fast, Oldy. We’ll be the judge of that.” Then they gave me an assignment (paid) that said I needed to blog on Google docs and use SEO writing and other blog best practices. My post took me fifteen minutes to write, as it was a fluffy topic. Figuring out how to get and use Google docs took about 15 minutes, too. Researching what the hell SEO content and blog best practices were accounted for the majority of my billable time, and I still have a lot to learn, although it is really just marketing strategies with new names.

Print

Look to the niche market. There are a ton of trade magazines out there. Who knew, honestly? Unfortunately, they can be hard to break into. Fortunately, once you do, there is less competition and it’s a great opportunity to make a name for  yourself and build your clips. Here is a great article on freelancing for trade magazines. As many of them don’t publish their submission guidelines, here is a link to the Standard rate and data for all the trade magazines.

Build your clips. It is hard to sell without a portfolio. There are oftentimes online counterparts to the print magazine. These are also good options. Make sure you read the masthead and address your queries to the right person. Here is a list of magazines that pay freelancers.

 

If Queries Could Win Pulitzers, Mine Still Wouldn’t

Alas, my tenure as an unemployed person has come to a tragic and screeching halt. In a bitter-sweet twist, I was snatched up by some lucky employer who was desperately seeking my somewhat unique skill-set of sitting around being licensed. Sadly, though, it also means my days pretending to be a full-time writer are nearly behind me.

Some good did come of my time off, though. I learned how to query a travel article. I did so by reading a million and seven articles on how to do it, which practically makes me an expert. In celebration of my mastery, I decided to send two out (technically a simultaneous submission). My goal was to rack up some experience and start amassing my rejections pile, but instead, in a development I can only describe as incredibly well deserved, the smaller of the two magazines e-mailed me back and said I was going to be famous. Or at least, that’s what I understood. What they actually said was that they were interested in the piece.

In my defense, it is hard to read while screaming and do them both well. Alton, who was doing laundry in the man-cave, thought a water pipe had burst, and was further dismayed to see it was just me emoting. The e-mail was a two sentence affair from the travel editor. While guaranteeing nothing, she said she thought it would be a great piece for the online magazine and that she was copying it to two of her team members to help make it happen. It may sound noncommittal, at first sight, but to those of us with the kind of vicarious query experience I have, it is practically a nudge toward a Pulitzer nomination. I just know these things–it’s one of my gifts. The other is blowing things out of proportion.

The fact that the other magazine sent back a form letter won’t get me down. I’ll hardly remember it as I’m collecting my Prize.

 

An Argument in Favor of Benevolent Benefactors

The business of writing has certainly let itself go. It used to be glamorous, romantic–even tragic. When did it devolve to schlepping around looking for a way to get your name out into the world all the while trying to find different angles from which to realize revenue?  I don’t recall Hemingway, Faulkner, or O’Connor removing the pencil from behind their ears, tossing back the remnants of their writing-scotch then checking to see how many hits their blog post got. They would have punched someone who asked them about their tweets.

Most writers, I assume because I suffer from cognitive bias, want to write full time so that they can write full time, not so that they can run around inventing things like digital products (whatever those are) and finding affiliates to torture themselves with. The chore of being an entrepreneur is daunting. Who wants to be forever worrying about where the money is coming from? Whatever happened to benevolent benefactors? When did they stop making those? If writing is missing something these days, it’s benevolent benefactors, ear pencils, and writing-scotch.

Entrepreneurship is difficult. I know this because I resentfully owned a small business for thirteen years before deciding I hated it enough to finally sell it. Although I haven’t yet quit being a dentist, I gave up the worst part of it–the business. Freed from the shackles of managerial duties, I imagined I would flit about unfettered sneezing out prose and clacking away at the keyboard unleashing novel-form truths that would be immediately snatched up by publishers with good-novel sensing organs.

As I have belatedly done my research, I have found the same chores that vexed me in dentistry lurk in the field of writing–namely, promotion, revenue building, and having to interact with other humans. For some people, growing a business is enjoyable and offers pimple-popping satisfaction, but those people are weird. For people like me, whose main draw to writing is the creative aspect, the platform building and stream-creating carries the same appeal as pulling on a nice pair of wet socks. Alas, the chore remains. The best way to tackle it is to make a plan. Making that plan is on my to do list right below wet sock application.

Today is my birthday, so I decided to give myself the gift of a reality check, which I quickly returned and erased from my brain archives. For today, I will not think of income streams or affiliate links or e-books or online courses. Today, I am going to edit my ms then pretend that the query for an article I want to write will be picked up by a magazine who loves giving old people with no publishing experience a chunk of their precious page space. Hand me the writing-scotch, I’m old.

I Don’t Know Much, but I Have a Hunch

I have taken to unemployment much the way a tossed rock takes to the ground. I had no idea what I was missing all these years, toiling away wrist deep in the mouths of others. I knew I didn’t love being a dentist–it’s quite hard and really spitty, at times, not to mention the fact that everyone hates you–but I didn’t realize how much I disliked it until I woke up for a few weeks and didn’t have to do it. It was like the scales fell from my eyes without me ever realizing I had come down with a disgusting eye-scale condition.

Time acts differently when you are not doing a job that you despise. It contracts. Einstein describes such a thing in his Theory of Special Relativity and I’m inclined to take his word because I’m bad at math. If I were still in the office, the day would be dragging on second by excruciating second as time was stretched to the breaking point, while, out here in free-time, it has contracted and I can barely sense its passing. Rather a cruel irony. I rush out of bed and dump the spawn at school, race back home and begin the day’s work. I can research, edit, rewrite, research some more. Today, I downloaded submission guidelines for a few magazines, and came up with ideas for several queries.

I also edited, wrote this blob-post and stumbled upon enlightenment: I don’t have to stay in dentistry forever (Cue some sort of horns). Hence, I am devising an escape plan for no more than two years. It’s odd that it took sixteen years for me to suddenly notice the stress and dread that had crept up like a slow-growing back hump, and now all I can see are the hump-tears in the backs of my shirts. So, I am still job-hunting, but I can see the light seeping from the exit. I am reading everything there is to read about building your platform, effective queries, and pyramid schemes. It’s very freeing to let yourself out of the jail you put yourself in.

Author Platform: An Exercise in Agony


The author platform. The name sounds innocuous enough, so, why does its mere mention send me scuttling back into the depths of my hermitage cringing in despair? I have avoided the thought of it much as the forty-year-old pushes off thoughts of the colonoscopy–it lurks just enough in the future to dim the dread.

I certainly appreciate the theoretical benefits of a platform– I mean, who wouldn’t love a mighty tool from which to launch your works onto an already existant fan base? But building it brick  by metaphorical brick is an onerous task for someone with the social drive of a deep-dwelling mollusk.

Alas, as distasteful as it seems, everything I’ve read on the topic insists that if you write, you must also build a platform–even fiction writers. To make the drudgery even worse, there is no blue-print to this horror. It varies. It varies from what kind of writer one may be to the strengths of the particular writer erecting the platform. What sham is this?

Still, there are many possible components–kind of like all those weird bits of hardware in an IKEA box. If you look at the deluxe kit, say, for the platform of a cardiologist who has written a book on lifestyle choices, the main components of their platform may be their expertise and  high profile contacts whereas a first time author of a DIY home repair book may rely more heavily on social media and past articles or blog posts (and maybe finding a coven of like minded nerd-balls to befriend.)

My platform, at the moment, as an unpublished writer of southern fiction, consists almost entirely of insomniacs, captive audiences, and liquor store clerks. I have made myself get a Twitter account, started a blob (if you are one of the three people reading, this is redundant information), and  I have tried to force myself to participate in online groups. It becomes quickly evident, though, that if you are dealing with other writers, they are too busy struggling with their own platforms to pay yours any mind. If you are shy, it is daunting to compete with people who are talented at self-promotion, and who is ever any good at things they hate? I make myself small goals, like replying to three tweets without sounding like the weird guy everyone wants to get away from or posting blob posts that I share beyond my brother. Baby steps to platform building.

I have learned a few things from seeing successful platforms, like those of C.J. Lyons and Joanna Penn. They have developed platforms over time and have sold books, all without spamming people. Content is king. I read that the time to start working on your platform is three years before you have a book to release.

There are some great resources for author platforms. From The Write Life: http://thewritelife.com/build-author-platform-7-manageable-ways-start-scratch/

And also from The Write Life: http://thewritelife.com/author-platform/

From The Creative Penn:

http://www.thecreativepenn.com/author-platform-consulting/

My Editor. I Have One of Those.

I did something new a few months back and actually submitted something I had written to see if I could find an editor. I hear that some writers do this after writing. Odd. I usually just flush and move onto my future landfill fodder. I had heard about NYBE in a writing blog I follow, The Creative Penn, so I decided to check them out. Fortunately, they had an easy to explore website and submitting a sample is a breeze. Unfortunately, I underestimated their efficiency and submitted while my manuscript was merely nearing completion, but not quite complete. To be fair, they got back to me in 24 hours. No one expects that sort of efficiency. I blame them, really, for having to wait on me for a couple of weeks to deliver the manuscript I asked them to edit. Some people.

They paired me with a very lucky senior editor who, I am sure, was delighted to wait on what promised to be the unparalleled genius of an unheard of debut author. Next came the sample edit, which mostly consisted of  me saying okay since he is an editor who has done something with his life and I am me. Then it came time to decide whether to move ahead with an edit. They  help this process along by doing a manuscript assessment then presenting you with something called a proposal, which is not dissimilar to being poked in the eye by numbers.

Being on the cusp of unemployment, I knew it was too large a risk to take on the cost of an edit at the time, so I did it anyway because I am bad at money. I am now languishing in piles of ramen and reliving my college days. Also, I’m feeding my kid jelly sandwiches and buying things with labels that just name ingredients, like White Egg and Oil Product, instead of mayonnaise, for example.

I received my edited manuscript exactly on the deadline, which annoyed me because I had really enjoyed being able to say the phrase, “my editor” for the six weeks he had it–as in, “I really wish my editor would hurry up and finish my manuscript,” or “You know editors,” (I’d give a knowing shake of my head here). I was, however, delighted with the edit. I am sure this manuscript will make him famous, which is what I kept telling him because I am positive it’s the kind of thing editors love debut authors to tell them. I think I read that somewhere. (I also like calling myself a debut author, even though no one has made any promise to debut me.)

I am still working on my end of the edit that my editor gave me, a debut author. All in all a delightful experience that I highly recommend.

 

 

How to Live the Good Life: Get Fired.

I’ve recently become time wealthy–or unemployed, as some depressing people insist on labelling it. I can tell you it’s not quite as much fun as I had hoped, but almost exclusively because in all my imaginings, I had money in the bank and a plan before becoming jobless. I imagined I’d be blasting off pistols like Yosemite Sam every time I remembered I didn’t have to go to work. Aside from the financial stress and the city ordinance,  though, it’s not that far from the truth. It’s kind of my dream life. My insomnia is gone for the first time in a few decades, and I attribute that to less job-stress and getting back to my body’s natural rhythm. Alton attributes it to staying up all night and the extra scotch. What would he know, though. He’s sleeping in preparation for work like a sucker.

My days are absolutely delightful, as long as I don’t look at select e-mails or answer any 888 phone calls. After taking Jack to school, I mosey home pondering the decision of which chair to sit in first. Then I check my inbox for job offers. By this time, it’s almost 8:45 and time for a snack. I spend the rest of the day reading, writing, and editing and pretending I made the kind of life choices early on that allowed me to do this for real. Sometimes I pretend I’m exhausted by it all. I crumble up a figurative ball of paper and toss into a virtual wastebasket, sighing in poetic exasperation.

I am going to have to invent some sort of device, perhaps after my afternoon nap, that will force me from my house at least three times a week. I’ve taken to this new existence so much so, that my transformation to full blown hermit is almost complete. I am still lacking in the beard department (just barely), but I’ve almost got my hermit stick carved. Who needs daily showers when your only interactions are with a duck, a hen and the dogs? And Alton and Jack, but they like my beard.

I have made quite a bit of progress on my manuscript, too. What I thought would be a two month edit, looks like it will be wrapped up in a total of 14 days. Then, despite my foray in to the horrors/delights of unemployment, I will have a giant goal scratched off my to-do list. Also, I am learning all sorts of things about platform building, social media, queries, and shortcuts to basic hygiene. Funny to think of all the time I’ve wasted.

In my morning searches, I have developed a firm handle on the dental job market. I know every job that is available in each area of the state. It’s puzzling, then, that with my extensive experience and skill, my ever-widening search is about to take me out of Texas. A huge part of me doesn’t actually even want a job–at least not the job I had. The one truth in all this is how much happier I am without it, finances aside. Sadly, I have to work and dentistry is the most practical solution, but the bar has been raised. I suppose I could sell everything and downsize and live this life in perpetuity, but what about the duck? For now, I will think about what to sell next. Then, I get another day of the good life.

 

 

 

 

Eudora and Me (A weak biography)

I have been reading, lately, about Eudora Welty and had intended to do a biography on her, but decided it’s already been done well enough before I came along and there’s not a whole lot left to discover. The first time I ever heard about her, I was probably ten years old. I didn’t hear about the flavor of her writing or her remarkable knack for observation (I was ten and bored already.) Instead, I heard what an ugly woman she was and that she was as stuck up as a show-horse, on top. Of course, I didn’t hear that in a classroom. I heard it from Granny who went to school with Welty at Mississippi State College for Women in the mid 1920’s. Welty transferred off to Wisconsin after two years, then to New York and her eventual fame and fortune. I don’t know why my grandmother didn’t care for Welty, but despite her distaste, she certainly enjoyed bringing her up.

As a matter of fact, I heard about Welty almost every time I saw my grandparents, which was every summer when we made the trek to Mississippi or when they came to us at Thanksgivings. I think I was the only one in my high school English class who had heard of Eudora Welty and by college, I considered her to be practically an old friend that I didn’t like very much, by virtue of my grandmother’s tenuous acquaintance with her. In the thirteen seconds allotted to her by the University English Department, I would casually announce that my grandmother had gone to school with her, leaving out the part where she said she had a face like an old shoe. I can’t remember my grandmother documenting a single conversation with her, and wonder now, if she had ever spoken to her. No matter!

When I visit the Hotel Monteleone  in New Orleans, a literary landmark and virtual writer’s mecca to authors such as Faulkner, Hemingway, Welty, and Capote, I never fail to mention to whoever may be listening at the glass case in the foyer, that I am practically related to Welty. I’ve known her my whole life, after all. That I never met her is a detail for the pedants to worry about.

This year, I decided to actually research Welty for myself, beyond the pronouncements of my grandmother. I wish I hadn’t waited quite so long.  I couldn’t imagine that my grandmother, who valued education and travel and who was a paragon of well roundedness, wouldn’t be enamored of her near miss of a friend, Ms. Welty. Maybe, after all, she was a smidgey-bit jealy. And why hadn’t I really heard about her sooner in school? I mean, other than the the old shoe thing, I had never heard much about her at all. I didn’t know about her taking off to work for the Works Progress Administration as a junior publicity agent. I didn’t know her first love was photography or that she was so damn funny. At a time when most women didn’t pursue their passions–she did.

I knew all about Faulkner and Hemingway, after all. Why not the ever single Welty? I read The Optimist’s daughter, her 1972 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, first. I think I will tackle A Curtain of Green, at some point. At any rate, I got a taste of Welty’s work, and I’m grateful to have had it. I prefer her to Faulkner. Perhaps one day, when I am boring some nephling or grandkid to death, I will mention how I almost knew her and pass the torch on to a new generation. Everyone should have a little Welty in their life.

 

 

Writing New Orleans

I just recently returned from a “research” trip to New Orleans. I was there to research my character’s neighborhood and collect some details (and cocktails and calories). I did that, but I spent most of my time there trying to put my finger on what makes New Orleans so writable. Williams, Faulkner, Capote, Hemingway, And Welty all wrote at the Monteleone Hotel and I never miss a chance to sit in the Carousel bar and imagine I’m breathing in their used up air molecules. Rice, Toole,  and countless others have written in and about it, too. What is the draw?

Maybe it’s in its age. Stories emerge from the layers of humanity that left bits of itself behind. The thousands of Irish immigrants who died where they stood digging the New Basin canal, the Creoles of the Vieux Carré, the Louisiana Voodoo that superimposes the old Haitain and West African religions upon Catholicism all lend to a singular flavor of the city that can only come from such a fusion of histories and cultures. 

For some reason, I find the best way to research the culture of a place is to eat it. I am an excellent research-eater, as it turns out. We headed to Café du Monde after a stroll through the French Market and  peeked into the back window to watch the bakers make the beignets. It’s how I always feel when I’m in that city–like I’m peering through back windows looking for the magic. 

 Waitstaff on break at Café du Monde

We also ate gumbo, a roux-based delight whose name is a West African word for okra. Gumbo is the New Orleans of food. It accurately represents the complex and  seemingly perfect melange of the varied cultures and influences of The city. The roux is based in French cuisine, the name, African, the filé (ground dried sassafras) a Native American component and the method widely varied. Sometimes, history is delicious, which brings us to the less historical but still culturally relevant Lucky Dog and sno-ball stands.

The Lucky Dog stands, whose red and yellow umbrellas are a beacon for starved revelers in the French Quarter, are the inspiration for John Kennedy Toole’s Paradise Vendors, Inc. in A Confederacy of Dunces. And inspiring, they are.  They inspired me several times, in fact.


The modern day New Orleans sno-balls were born in the 1930’s when two geniuses akin to the ilk of Tesla and Edison, independently came up with the miraculous ice shaving machines responsible for the angelic dust of perfection that is a sno-ball. You can thank them in your prayers–they are George Ortolano and Ernest Hansen. 

We tried to hit all the iconic places, this trip along with some new places. My character works, for a short while,  in a Voodoo botanical store. She learns all about the famed St. Expedite at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Rampart Street. St. Expedite is the patron Saint of problems that need immediate attention. In the Voodoo religion, he equates with Baron Samedi, who stands at the crossroads of life and death. It is interesting to note that once he grants your wish, after you have lit a candle at his altar, you must publically thank him and bring him an offering. He prefers pound cake, in case you were wondering, and if it’s not supplied in time, he will take back his work. 
St. Expedite

Our Lady of Guadalupe was built in 1826 as a mortuary church and during the Yellow Fever housed the dead day and night. St. Louis Cemetery #1 right next door was so full, they began burying the victims in the walls of the cemetery. The entire city came together to care for the dying. The smell was so horrific, they threw layers of lime over the dead and lit tar pits in hopes of disinfecting the air. Disgusting fact of the day. You are welcome. 

Sometimes, hearing depressing facts about the Yellow Fever makes you hungry. We were forced to go to Camellia Grill. It felt pretty literary so I saved my receipt, but we stopped there as a matter of nostalgia. Open since 1946, it’s counter seating with a time machine at the door that takes you back to before you knew that eating 4000 calories in a single sitting was bad for you. 

I got most of the information I was after, but never could catalogue the nature of the city. I can tell you I understand that the magic exists, but not why. It was a short trip and I am horrified to announce I will have to return for a little more research. Creole tomatoes are in season and it’s paramount I partake. For research.