Alligator Wrestling

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Helmut Newton’s photo of Lauren Hutton’s fearlessness.

There are many ways to go about crafting a book–or screenplay–and there are many teachers/authors/experts whose wont is to force the “right” method onto aspiring writers. Many will champion outlining (I’d rather eat glass). Some will tell you to spend time writing character biographies (I’d rather sit jury duty). Others say write a crap draft of the whole thing, then chuck it and start over with a brand new re-write (I’d rather get licensed in real estate).

There is no “right” way to write, just as there is no wrong. What a writer has to do is find their own method and then–this is the hard part–trust it.

I suppose my modus operandi may be different, or perhaps those of us who write like this are a bit less vocal about it. You see, it’s all in my head. That’s where the story gestates until it’s ready to be put onto the page. No outline. No character bios, at least none that are written down. The story and its people live in a corner of my brain, percolating. They stew when I’m talking to you, while out having dinner, at my day job slaying dragons, while I’m cooking, buying groceries, binge-watching Netflix, lying in Savasana, walking to my car or writing this post.

The story never stops churning and growing and developing…if you leave it alone and let it. That’s where the trust part comes in.

By the time I sit down to write, the story’s been clamoring for weeks (months?) to be let out onto the page. It’s usually a great rush getting it out. There’s nothing like that flow when the story is flooding the page, your fingers barely able to keep up. Fighting sleep to get one more paragraph done. Waking early to do more. Tapping into that creative vein is bliss. It’s why writer’s write.

This time, with Novel Three, I’ve been wrestling with Chapters 1 and 2 longer than I have with any of my other books. They’ve become alligators, antagonizing me and threatening the progress I hoped to be making. I expect the first three chapters to be tricky. They have to be because they must be right. They are the foundation of the book and you want them to be solid. Three chapters are about as far as any reader will give you before losing faith if your story hasn’t delivered by then (and the readers who’ll give you that long are truly generous souls). Those first chapters are where the seedlings of secrets are sown, where the payoffs begin and the world takes shape. When you do those chapters right, the rest of the book comes to life with relative ease.

Recently, I stopped alligator wrestling and trashed those two chapters. Sometimes, that’s the best way to move forward, even if it is painful. Taking a few steps back may lead to progress, but it still feels like defeat. (As you may know, I never really throw anything away. I keep the draft or have a doc set aside for cuts and edits. That’s the one thing I will recommend to all writers: keep your cuts. You’ll be able to make hard choices easier if you know they aren’t gone for good.)

Since I made that purge, I’m feeling more connected to the story. But dumping those chapters wasn’t so much my decision as that of the characters. Yes, I know that sounds nutty, but writers will understand. At a certain point, the people you create take over and start steering the ship. A good writer will step aside let them. And maybe that’s what I was failing to do.

The characters have been growing stronger, their storylines taking root, subplots blossomed and all of that shifted the tale a little, giving it new and unexpected depth. That’s another exciting thing these made-up people will do: they will surprise you. Maybe they’re able to do that because they aren’t reigned-in by an outline. Their lives aren’t carved out before the story starts. They get to have a say in what unfolds because they aren’t bound by my expectations of who they are and what they will do.

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That’s not to say the story isn’t mapped out. It is, quite clearly. The ending is even set in stone. You can’t sit down to write without having that knowledge or you will be constructing chaos. But there is a dance between the creator and the created in which you have to let them lead from time to time. They know the rules and the boundaries of their world, and you have to trust them with that. It’s not easy but it is part of becoming the writer you desire to be: one who trusts themselves and their process.

Good writing happens when you stop alligator wrestling and give up control. I finally got out of the way and let the characters have their say. I’ve come to learn how wise they can be, and how easy life is when you loosen your grip. I’m back in love with the story and the people telling it. And it’s a nice place to be.

 

Third Time’s A Charm

I’m currently writing my third novel. So far, that’s been comprised of repeatedly rewriting the first two chapters and watching a shit-ton of Netflix. I think I’ve watched every British crime series available and have found myself in awe of how, in all this time, the English are forever without an umbrella during a rainstorm, never seek shelter from it and talk on their bloody cell phones whilst standing in a downpour. Of course, these are fictional Brits, but still, it seems to be almost a fetish and it’s slightly galling.

Friends have noted how much I’ve talked about the watching (I have a long “recommend” list) but not so much about the writing. I get it. It sounds like a whole bunch of procrastination. Sometimes, it feels that way, too. But, while I’m making the most of my Netflix subscription, there’s another kind of work going on. The internal development is happening. Characters are taking shape, coming into their voices, scenes are evolving, dialogue exchanges noted. While I might appear slothlike, curled up on the sofa, I’m actually getting things done. A good portion of writing doesn’t look anything like writing at all.

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of being at a book club where TEMPORARY served as this month’s novel. A few attendees asked me about my process and smiled, eyes wide with curiosity about how something like bookwriting is done. I gave them the Sorkin line: “Sometimes, writing looks a whole lot like lying on the sofa watching TV.” The smiles remained but I did see their enthusiasm deflate. “Really?” one asked. “Really,” I answered.

I went on to explain that the more I write, the more I find it to be like a pregnancy — from what I know about that in theory. In the early months, you are exhausted and slightly nauseated. You know there’s a long road ahead of you and you have to take care of yourself as well as this creature you’re creating. You can feel the quickening and know there are parts growing, developing into what you have envisioned and becoming something of its own.

Then, there’s the phase when you are full of energy. You cannot wait to do all the things you want to do…and there’s so much you want to do! That’s when the nesting starts; you don’t want to leave your home because you have to focus on this creation, spiffy things up and fortify its world. It’s a glorious time. However, unlike expectant mothers, writers don’t have shiny hair and glowing skin. This is where we get a bit pasty from lack of sunshine and couldn’t be bothered with hair and makeup and all that jazz because we are creating.

Finally, in those last few months, you simply want it over. Be done with it. You want to push, push, push to get it out get it out get it out because you are puffy with it, exhausted by it and you really want to get back to your real life. You sleep less, make hard choices faster and are sort of unpleasant to be around because, if you are around others, you tend to resent them because how dare they take you away from the push.

When these kind ladies asked how long it took me to write it, the eight months made even more sense and I was slightly chuffed at the anaolgy I just delivered. (They were all mothers and I can’t tell you how much I appeciated those ladies embracing a book about an unmarried woman with zero desire for kids.) Yet, I’ve come to find that when asking a writer about their process, those inquiring expect something other than how much “Broadchurch” you’ve viewed while tinkering with a page. What I think they expect, and sort of deep down want to hear, is, “Well, there is a bit of human sacrifice involved.” No one wants to hear how boring and isolating it is in between the elation and accomplishment.

What’s making this a bit different for me is that it’s the first time in a long time (twelve years) that I’ve written a book not based on something else I wrote. TEMPORARY started out as an idea for a telelvision series with three episodes written; so, basically, a fair chunk of that had been sorted. I’d done plenty of original screenplays in that time, but those have a lot more white on the page than a novel’s manuscript, a set page limit and strict structure. Screenplays are easy. Novels are a bit more of a pain in the arse. It should be comforting that I’ve had the story for Book Three in my head for nearly three years — I know where it’s starting, how it ends and key plot points to hit — but there are over twenty characters, three cities and a five-year time span, and it’s going to get complicated. Really complicated. See why I’d rather watch “Marcella”? But no one sits down to write a book because they want to do it. Writers write because we have to.

In some ways, this book feels charmed by those challenges. While I’ve been digesting “River” and “The Five” and “Paranoia”, the characters are coming to life, making some of their own choices (sounds weird, but it’s a writer thing) and the world is taking shape.  But now it’s time to get down to business and start crafting the chapters, put those words and worlds and people on the page. I’m rather excited to see where it takes me.

There are threads that weave through each novel to connect them, and not just their ZIP code, but this is likely the last in the Venice series. The first novel was about success, the second was about failure and the third is about compassion. Keep an eye out for EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE AT THE VENTURA COUNTY LINE early next year.

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Finding My Tribe

I’m the kind who will look for signs. A huge fan of omens, I’m always looking for a burst of neon to flash, “Yes! You are on the right path!” Sometimes, you just need that little cosmic hint. It could be something as simple as a Rhode Island license plate (a long story I’ll spare you here) or Journey shouting, “Don’t Stop! Be-lee-ee-vin’!” randomly while having a conversation.

There are times when it comes in the form of a dinner with a friend you’ve had for what seems forever, though you only met once a decade before, finally seeing each other for an overdue dinner that plants the seedlings of a collaboration. Or a stranger who sends an Instagram DM and a few days later you aren’t strangers anymore. A last-minute movie viewing ends up introducing you to two kindreds. All of these things, these signs, those omens, the little twists of fate that curve the road carefully so you can meet up with members of what is, and will be, your tribe. It’s rather a beautiful thing.

Tribes are important to have. They go beyond just your circle of friends to include colleagues, compadres and brutally honest mentors. These are your ride-or-dies and then some.

The month of June, so far, has been generous — despite its horrible losses. In the first ten days, I met nearly twenty new friends, three of whom are authors of the smart, funny, generous and open variety. All, but one, of these friends are women. My dance card has been full and I am wonderfully exhausted.

This came at a moment when I was somewhat frustrated in my attempts to get too many projects off the ground and feeling little support. (Trust me, I know I’m not alone in that.) They say writing is a lonely and isolating endeavor, but the times when writers tend to feel most lonely and isolated is when we are promoting our work. Not all of us enjoy that. Pushing your project and, in essence, yourself on other people isn’t fun. It’s Sisyphean at best. Friends are fantastically supportive, but even they can fall victim to battle fatigue when you are the kind who’s constantly writing a book while promoting another with a side project to piece together and plans for a podcast, and maybe — just maybe — starting a writers’ group or retreat. These good friends, who make up the heart of your tribe, try to figure out which part to champion because they can’t do it all, either. (Writers will wear you out.)

This is why it’s important to have a diverse tribe that includes creative natives who get the endless push, the mental lethargy and emotional exhaustion that comes with filling up a blank page.  You need those who are also paddling upstream while juggling grenades to help assure you that you are not alone, not even close. And that maybe — just maybe — you can get it (all) done.

“It’s nice to meet another writer who’s happy for other writers. So rare,” one new friend wrote.

That made me smile, but it also made me sad. There are still too many creative types who see it as competition. And that’s bullshit. (Allow me to point out that the two more successful writing genres are Romance and Mystery; those authors embrace each other in big ways.) Collaboration is much more fruitful than competition. There is room for everyone, so I say pry open the door, get your foot in and don’t be afraid to let someone enter before you. But, once you get in, reach back and grab someone else to lift up and through. That’s the best recipe for success. There is an unlimited supply of opportunity as long as we are willing to create more of it. Too often, though, folks close the door behind them. They don’t bother looking back, even to give a nod of thanks. They are greedy souls and no amount of success will fulfill them. While they might fight the urge to glance over their shoulders to see where their competition lies, they should really keep an eye out for karma instead. (And I know this behavior is not limited to writing/creative industries.)

“We have to stick together and support each other,” I told her.

“Totally agree with you!!!” she replied, followed by a series of empowered emojis. Yep. She’s in my tribe.

She has written an amazing memoir and is in the midst of getting a television series off the ground. I couldn’t be happier for her. That is an incredibly hard feat and an emotionally arduous process. It’s like winning the lottery, but having to actually build everything you want — house, car, plane — all by yourself while other people stand around and watch, wondering why you aren’t enjoying it more. It’s not something you can simply celebrate until it’s actually on the air because, like playing Jenga on a fault line, without doing anything at all, it can simply fall apart (shout out to the writers of “House of Cards” for having to deal with that last minute jolt, and those hoping to revamp the reboot of “Roseanne”). I want this deal to come together for her, pray that the pilot is picked up and it goes for at least five seasons on a premium network. I want her to succeed and do so epically. Not only is she a nice person who has gone through a lot and deserves good things, her to success is a success for all female authors and every writer in that writers’ room. Any time a woman gets a TV series made, it’s a big fucking deal, people. Score one for the tribe, baby!

As the “likes” and follows, DMs and texts rolled in with these new friends/collaborators/colleagues/sisters, I felt more centered. It was nice to hear them extend their support for my projects. There was a sincerity in the, “Let’s get together soon!” exchanges rather than the breeze of polite blow-offs known to happen in L.A. Believe me, I’m not putting down my hometown, which I love more than I can express. Sometimes the best of intentions fall flat — it’s called traffic, something that doesn’t blend well with overpacked schedules. (You know I love you if I get on the 10 for you. Even more so if I hit the 101.) We are short on time, spread thin on effort. We are doing everything we can to get our own stuff done. We need some forgiveness if it takes a little longer to set a playdate…or we haven’t finished your book just yet. We are working on it. We are working on a lot.

I am fortunate in the tribe that I have, the OGs who have been there through the ups and downs of the Sisyphean hustle I’ve been dancing for so long. I am grateful for their support, which is instant and unquestioning. But few are writers and, by their own admissions, they don’t understand the process or the never-ending aspect of it.

“I don’t know how you do it,” one bestie said. “But you keep doing it and I’m so impressed by that.” This was said while I was sitting in her backyard sobbing over how everything was so fucking hard and I just needed one thing to be easy.

And then, that evening, one thing was. Like some weird magic. And it was all because of my wonderful and ever-growing tribe.

June is only half over and I have lots to get done before it goes. There are dinners to schedule, world domination to plan, side projects of friends to champion and potential collaborations to plot. Next month, my second novel will be in its first book club. That came about by another twist of fate — a Little Lending Library and an Instagram DM. The readers aren’t my typical demographic, which makes it even more fun. The door opens wider and the sisterhood of the tribe swells again.

Real work needs to be accomplished as summer begins, though. I’m only on chapter two of Novel Three, and I’m feeling the weight of not getting more done there. The rock is about to roll down the hill again and another big push is set to start. But those little omens keep dropping hints, lighting my path as I step through it. I see there are a few more members of the tribe to roll with me, others are there to cheer us on, more to give advice and warnings, some to provide opportunities. We all take turns playing the roles, giving support when it’s needed, taking it when we must. The best part is that we all want the best for each other — in it to win it, pushing the door open as far as we can and pulling others through it. The more the merrier. This is the tribe I have been wanting, the one I have been creating, and now the one I have. I’m so glad to have found them, and for them to have found me.