22 September 2011

Who Was That Guy? A Drunken Writing Adventure

The alcohol was necessary. Under no circumstances would I have been singing in public without it. Although this particular karaoke establishment provided private rooms where you only have to perform in front of your friends, I still required quite a bit of liquid courage, which was why the drinks were forced down my throat on the ride there. The high heels, on the other hand, were a poor choice.

It was my friend Kim’s 21st birthday, and neither of us had ever been drunk before. But once Kim figured out that she wasn’t quite ready for massive amounts of alcohol, she made sure that my cup was always full. So by the end of the night, she was helping me down the stairs because I had never been so intoxicated and was wearing five-inch heels.

As we reached the bottom of the stairs, I said: “Is it weird that I want to go home and write?”

I had been fighting off a surge of creativity all night, my fingers just itching for a notebook or keyboard. Maybe it was fueled by the alcohol or the music, but either way, I couldn’t escape that feeling inside of me, that restlessness of a new idea. On the ride home I was fighting sleep and drunkenness, but I couldn’t help myself—I was writing a paragraph in my head. I repeated each sentence over and over until I had it memorized, convinced of its perfection.

When I got home around two in the morning, first I fell on my bed, then got up, grabbed a notebook, and scribbled down the paragraph. Then I fell back into bed, not caring what sort of plot dilemma I had just created. That could wait until the morning.

To sum things up, in my book, it’s kind of necessary to the plot that the characters don’t have sex until the very end. But the paragraph I had just written threw a wrench into the whole story. In a rather uncharacteristic but powerful and emotionally vulnerable moment, my protagonist decides that he does want to take the next step with his would-be lover. I couldn’t help myself, really—I was sort of moved by the raw emotion involved with the scene. The only problem was that I had no idea how to end the scene. What could possibly change his mind besides the standard “oh no, we can’t” that occurs ten million other times in the novel? Ho hum, as Jordan would say. But I was too tired and too intoxicated to figure it out. So I went to sleep.

I still cannot fully explain what happened next. Maybe I was half asleep, half drunk, and thinking about what I had just written. Maybe I was dreaming and being led somewhere by my subconscious. I could see the setting of my book perfectly—one of the character’s apartments. My two main characters were there, too. But then there was this third guy, who wasn’t a character in anything I had written, or even someone I had seen in real life. He was just there. And then the dream was over.

I had to get up at eight that morning to head off to work, and let me just say, I don’t recommend being hung over during liquidation. I didn’t even think I was hung over, just tired and dehydrated, until someone’s small child started screaming. I couldn’t think much about the dream until later that night, when I tried expanding on the scene. I just kept thinking, who the hell was that guy?

I don’t think there was an “a-ha” moment. I just eventually came to the realization that there was a reason that I thought of this random person. How could I end this unendable scene? Well, what if this mystery man was real? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate betrayal, if you were prepared to give yourself to someone entirely, only to find that he was with someone else? That was it. Not only had I figured out how to end the scene, but I had stumbled onto one hell of a plot twist.

I don’t think this idea would have been possible without the particular combination of creativity, alcohol, and sleepiness. I would love to try it again, but I don’t think it would be possible. I guess every epiphany has its own little way of popping into my brain.

01 September 2011

What's in a Last Name?

Finding a name for a character can sometimes be agonizing. I can spend hours pouring over books of baby names or websites that will give meanings and etymology, trying to find that one perfect gem of a name that will sum up the entire character. I feel clever for having found something so perfect, hoping my readers will research the name as well and acknowledge just how spectacular my choice was.

Every once in a while, though, I don’t have to do research or make a list of names to choose from. Something special and almost mystical happens that lets me know I’ve stumbled upon a life partner of a story—one that infuses itself into the very core of my being. How do I know this? I don’t think about the characters’ names, not even for a second. They instantly pop into my head, as if that person was standing next to me and whispered his or her name into my ear. I never question it.

This has only happened to me twice and always for the two main characters of the story. I always write fiction in first person, and at a certain point I try to carve out an identity that makes the character seem more real—birthday, zodiac sign, hobbies, and yes, a last name. It’s never as easy as the first. I can spend hours, days, even weeks mulling the name over until it feels right. But in the case of two of my darlings, once I had made the decision, there was no turning back.

My brainchild since I was fourteen has been a young adult fantasy novel called Bleeding Life, which I’ve written three (yes, three) times. This story was the first time that I didn’t have to think about character names. The decision was so immediate that I couldn’t really call it a decision at all. But that wasn’t the freaky part. Eventually I was deciding upon every single detail of these characters’ lives, and had given them middle and last names. But something didn’t sit right with me about my narrator, Amber’s last name—Johnson. It was too boring, too generic. I decided to change it. 

Back in those days, I decided on last names by flipping blindly through a phone book. If the name sounded reasonable, I went with it. So, the only logical next move was to pick a new last name for Amber. I grabbed the phone book and closed my eyes, thumbed through the pages and opened the book in lap. My finger scanned the page and stopped. I opened my eyes. I was pointing directly at “Johnson.” After a few seconds of shock, I slammed the phone book closed and put it away. There was obviously no fighting this. I had given Amber a specific identity, and to change it now would mean changing who she was as a character. And she had other plans in mind.

More recently my obsessions have shifted onto a new story, one that started with just an idea to write about a teacher-student relationship. Something provocative and out of my usual comfort zone. What I didn’t realize was how much this story would end up consuming me. Things happened so rapidly that I couldn’t really question or control it. For this story, choosing the gender of my characters took longer than choosing their names. After the approximate four hours that I wasn’t sure, once the decision was made (both characters are male) the names came to me like two light bulbs turning on inside my brain at the same time.

My narrator/muse/literary soul mate—is a fifteen-year-old, bisexual, fledgling sociopath named Jordan. I had it floating in the back of my head that his last name would be Palmer. I wasn’t quite committed to it, but it was the only name that had stuck. I figured I could keep searching, maybe find something better.

But recently my boyfriend was driving me home after taking a walk down by the beach. I was sort of idly looking at street signs on the left side of the road when we came across a street named Jordan Dr. “Oh, haha,” I mused to myself, “I want to live there!” As we drove on, I was already forgetting about it when we came across the next street sign: Palmer St. I did a sort of double take as we zoomed past. It was like a moment of clarity. You see? the universe was saying. You were right all along! Don’t go around messing things up!

Were both of these instances a coincidence? I don’t like to believe that. The circumstances were just too strange, that I just happened to be looking at street signs that day, that my finger just happened to land on that particular spot in the phone book. So yes, on some level I believe that these characters have taken control of their own existences. If I try to change them, the universe will find some way to show me that I’m wrong. And ultimately, it’s all about trusting my first instincts, even if it’s only for a name.

06 July 2011

Chapter Three Syndrome

Writing Chapter One was like a whirlwind. Once I had decided that I was going to commit to it, once the momentum got going, it couldn’t be stopped. I stayed up until 3 a.m. until it was finished because I wanted that sense of completion before I went to sleep. I didn’t want to leave it unfinished.

Chapter Two had a similar momentum. I wrote the entire thing over the course of one day. It was all very exhilarating, the fact that I, a rather sporadic writer, was actually writing a novel in order. I just wanted to keep that motivation alive, to get as much done as possible.

The first chapter was like the teaser—establish the characters and just hint at an eventual plot. The second chapter was almost like an extension of Chapter One, diving a bit deeper into the plot with a little more backstory thrown in. Now I was faced with Chapter Three, and all I could keep asking myself was, “Now what?” This was my bridge chapter, what was going to take me from the beginning of the story to the real heart of the plot. I knew exactly how the next two chapters would go, but I had no idea how to get there. Besides a few great anecdotes that I was able to piece together for the first page, I had absolutely nothing. I was staring at the blank page.

I came up with every excuse in the world as to why I couldn’t write. Maybe I was just too stressed out about things in my life. Maybe I had overworked my creativity and just needed a break. Maybe my muse was sick of me. Or maybe I was sick of him. I even blamed it on the music I was listening to. Eventually I had to face the facts. For the first time in over four months, I had writer’s block. It felt like I was accepting a death sentence.

What was really bothering me was that this didn’t feel like regular writer’s block. It felt like I just couldn’t figure things out anymore. I started thinking that Chapter Three was such a throwaway chapter, that I didn’t need it at all and really just needed to dive into the story, not string the reader along and leave them bored for too long.

I didn’t know what to do, but every time I even thought about it, I would cringe and turn my thoughts onto something else. I just wanted to avoid it altogether.

So I went back to my usual way of writing things, furiously typing out ideas as they came to me, not even knowing whether or not they would end up in the book. But even that wasn’t working. Besides one hiccup of a great scene, I spent about a month with absolutely nothing worthwhile.

It might be easy for other writers to set down their work and put it aside for a while, but for me, that’s impossible. My narrator feels more like some sort of parasite that has attached himself onto my brain. Even when I can’t write, I’m thinking about writing. So I can’t escape it, which just makes the inability to write more frustrating.

Finally it dawned on me. It wasn’t that I needed a break from writing, or even from the universe of this particular story. I needed a break from the narrator. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? I needed to write in someone else’s voice, even if it only amounted to a simple writing exercise.
This was a perfect opportunity to dive into the backstories of some of the other characters. I chose one and just started writing, not worrying about making the sentences perfect or even if it made sense. I could always go back and change it and most of the details wouldn’t even be important for the actual novel. It was important for me to be able to understand these characters so that they would seem real and their actions would have reasons and motivations.

So I dove in head first, writing page after page spanning years across one character’s life. My fingers were typing faster than they ever had been just to keep up with my brain. I realized that this was easy because there was no pressure. I didn’t have to get it right. I just had to get it down. The sentences could be awful, the voice could be inconsistent, but the ideas were still there. There was this overwhelming sense of freedom, and I loved it.

At this point, I’m still not even done. I’ve written almost eight pages and still have to get this character through twelve more years of his life before the novel itself even begins. And then I’ve got another character to dissect. So even if the momentum returns and I can finally tackle Chapter Three, at least I know when I get writer’s block again (which I will), there’s always something to fall back on.

31 May 2011

Grammar Nazi

I really, really hate giving presentations. I get horrible anxiety, blush until my cheeks nearly light on fire, and have serious problems looking anywhere except my feet. But this time was an exception.

When the signup sheet had gone around my copyediting class two weeks before, I nearly slammed my fist down on the paper from being so excited. Each person in the class needed to choose one idiom that is usually used incorrectly and research the history and etymology of the phrase, determining how it is supposed to be used. And my number one pet peeve, grammatical or otherwise, was staring up at me on the page.

I took my place at the front of the classroom, all eyes on me. I picked up the black dry erase marker and carefully wrote two sentences across the board, one on top of the other:

            Could care less

            Couldn’t care less

I pointed to the first sentence. “Who thinks this is correct?” Not a single person raised a hand. I breathed a sigh of appreciation. These were my people. When I pointed to the second sentence, every hand went up. I went on to explain how exactly the idiom had been skewed over the years, and how the first phrasing was now used so frequently that it could be considered correct just because people accept it.

My words were met with horrified eyes and open mouths. How could such an obvious mistake really be deemed correct? And just because people usually say it that way? It’s still wrong, right?

My boyfriend, a stand-up comic, has a joke about me. It starts with, “I love my girlfriend, but…she’s kind of a grammar nazi.” He stole the term from me. I’m self-proclaimed. I don’t hold back if he makes a grammar mistake or pronounces a word wrong. He’s probably the only person I feel comfortable doing this to, because I know he won’t get angry about it. He’ll just put me into his act if I correct the spelling in his text messages or keep saying “What?” until he stops pronouncing “escape” like it has an x in it.

My first reading selection for 2011 was The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson. I spied it in the writing reference section at work (my most frequented browsing spot), and it seemed right up my alley. It’s a nonfiction book about two friends who go across the country armed with markers and white-out, correcting typos. It seemed somewhat fantastical—imagine being able to fix those errors that we see every day—on signs, billboards, flyers, everywhere—those errors that so often go unnoticed. I’m far too introverted to do the sort of things that these typo eradicators were able to do, but I started noticing these everyday errors more and more. I even fixed a few handwritten notes that I found at work—most noticeably drawing a thick blue line through a misplaced letter e in the word “recycling” on the cardboard box where we threw plastic bottles left by customers.

I take my grammar knowledge seriously. I was actually offended when my professor for Early British Novel told the class, “Don’t use semicolons. You don’t know how to use them. So just don’t do it.” I was so offended that I put one in the first paragraph of my first paper. Of course she had no problem with it—it was used correctly. The semicolon and I have had a rough relationship. I hated it in the beginning. A comma and a period—how pretentious is that? But as time went by, I came to realize the beauty of it. Two complete sentences, able to stand on their own, are linked together. They aren’t really separate at all. Semicolons bond sentences together; they bring the love into writing, like a matchmaker for sentences.

I also have an intense love affair with ellipses. Particularly in dialogue. Why say “he paused” when you can have a perfectly crafted, real pause within the quotation marks? Dot. Dot. Dot. Your eyes slow down as you follow the line; you pause with the speaker. And then the words pick up again; your eyes lift up and see the dialogue. Three perfect dots.

My tragic flaw, however, must be fragments. I love them. I believe that a well-placed fragment can make you think. One or two words have the ability to convey so much more emotion than a full sentence. I sometimes follow the belief that writing should reflect the way we think and speak. And every sentence uttered isn’t a perfect one. Sometimes we only say a few words. Sometimes we start a sentence with a conjunction or end it with a preposition. But it has to make sense; it has to feel natural.

So maybe I’m not as strict about grammar as I always thought. I’ll make exceptions if it fits in with the voice of whatever I’m writing. That doesn’t stop me from noticing errors. Just the other day I found myself staring at the menu at a seafood restaurant whose appetizer list boasted their onion rings—a whole “basket full.” I cringed but resisted pulling out a pen from my purse.

The onion rings were delicious.

26 May 2011

Full Circle

May 25, 2011 3:45 PM

It’s seventy degrees out. Sunny. A brilliant blue sky with no clouds in sight. My cat Gizmo is sitting in the open window, his tail twitching feverishly at the prospect of the outside world. I’m on top of my bed, legs outstretched amidst a pile of ripped out notebook pages, pens, pencils, a book on antisocial personality disorder, and one marked up and highlighted manuscript. My laptop is overheating on my thighs.

This is not how any normal person should be spending such a gorgeous day. But I’m not normal. I’m a writer. And because I have no job and have literally just graduated from college, this is the only way I can feel productive.

My newly acquired degree, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College, is lying on the floor across the room. I’m contemplating the literary journey that accompanied it. I started college in the clich├ęd fashion—bright eyed, excited for the creative writing courses that would surely launch my long and successful literary career. I defined myself as a fiction writer—since age seven, in fact. I had dabbled in poetry a bit in high school—real awful stuff fueled by a bad breakup, but I never took it all that seriously.

After two semesters of fiction courses, I became sort of jaded. I was awful at writing short stories, identifying more as a novelist, and couldn’t see any way of salvaging the four pieces I had created over the course of that year. I started taking poetry, and continued to do so up until my final semester. I learned about line breaks and alliteration, and what exactly a villanelle was. My poetry started off adequate, I suppose, but as I wrote more and more I got better at it. I found my voice, even—a strong, characteristically feminine one, with abundant sarcasm. There was no doubt in my mind that my Senior Thesis Project would be a portfolio of my own poetry, and that’s exactly what I did. My poetry put the “Fine” in “Fine Arts” on my degree.

So then why am I sitting here outlining the first chapter of a novel? Never mind the fact that I can’t stand outlining. You see, I decided to take one last fiction course at Emerson, not thinking much would come of it, until I was bitch slapped by an idea and thrown back into the crippling obsession that is fiction writing. I am right back where I started, plus a degree and minus a source of income, the bookstore I worked at for four and a half years having closed the day before my graduation.

I have four Microsoft Word pages open at the moment, as well as Facebook. I keep going back and forth, debating whether or not to update my status. Something like, “outlining chapter one, this sucks!” or “thinking of starting a blog, but I’m not really all that interesting.” I’m resisting. I feel that I am constantly seeking attention and approval for my writing. I vowed to myself not to update until I had something concrete to report, Chapter One in its entirety, perhaps. At some point, probably within the next hour, I’ll make some appeal for ideas for my blog title. I probably won’t get any responses, but thanks to my iPhone, I’ll be checking in every ten minutes just to be sure. My social awkwardness and tendency to be an attention whore really do not mix well.

I have a notepad lying next to me with a faux fountain pen on top. It’s a disposable pen, a Pilot Varsity whose tip is the only thing that gives it away as a fountain pen. I refuse to write on this particular paper with any other pen—I love the scratching noise it makes when I’m frantically scribbling down ideas. The top of the page screams, “Chapter One Breakdown!!!” and I have split the notes into two sections: “What actually happens,” and “What needs to be established.” The first list has exactly five bullet points—five precise moments of action. The second list has ten. I am drowning in exposition—things that need to be known about characters, relationships, location before the story can move forward. I try to think of things I can push into the second chapter, but nothing seems to work. Every tiny detail seems necessary.

I thought the outlining would help me figure things out, but maybe I’m trying to be the sort of organized writer that I just inherently am not. Maybe it’s better just to storm through whatever idea pops into my head, worry about organizing and editing later. Because that’s what I love about writing. That’s what defines me as a writer—that sort of tornado of passionate insanity that sweeps through your brain. Once it’s gone you’re left with a page of words and you’re not quite sure how even it came to be.

Outlining isn’t really for me.

I update my Facebook: “taking the plunge into blog writing…the hardest part is coming up with a title.” Gizmo jumps down from the window and onto the bed, walks across my papers and lies directly on top of my manuscript. Didn’t somebody once say that animals are wise? Or maybe I made that up.