When The Words Write You

I’m sick. It’s 2:16 in the morning and I absolutely can’t sleep. The decongestant I took earlier in the day is refusing to play nice with the mouthful of hopefully not rancid NyQuil I downed a good four hours ago. At any rate the dark room is pulsating with that awful clarity of dilated eyes and the thing I can’t stop thinking about is how a single simple idea can explode with unpredictable and uncontrollable complexity into a full-blown novel.

My first essays were political and angsty. You couldn’t be blamed for calling them superior. Condescending. Piss and vinegar atheism and a probably unhealthy obsession with old-school skepticism (the find-the-logical-fallacy kind, not the 9-11-jet-fuel / we-never-went-to-the-moon kind). But hey I was writing. It tumbled out of me sometimes two or three times a day. Short stories came next. I would pick out novels at random from libraries (something I’m woefully too far away from these days) and consume them whole in an afternoon between semesters at the toughest college in the state. The Hungry Moon by Ramsey Campbell, Ghost Story by Peter Straub, Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. The finally it was The Secret History by the towering Donna Tartt that knocked me out of my chair and into the deep end of well I’m just going to do this and see how it goes.

I self-published a collection of these short stories some three years later, and they’re, looking back, a little embarrassing. But, like my wincey political rants of the very late W. Bush years and wailings against pseudoscience of all possible flavors, they were a start. And there’s nothing like just being terrible at something for a good number of years to get you on your way.

One of the short stories that didn’t make it into the collection was a germ of an idea that refused to sprout into anything workable short story wise. There were two forces at work: the strangest inspiration that all Peanuts characters could be mapped to Christ and his disciples (pretty sure this came from just thinking about Charlie Brown as the Christ figure of the bunch), and the sense that pareidolia can extend to beyond just visual phenomenon like faces in toast. This second part about the pareidolia is itself the result of two other forces, the fact that I even knew the word from a podcast called Skeptic’s Guide To The Universe, and the fact that I kept feeling it while struggling through an applied linear algebra class that I loved and hated in equal measure—I kept seeing patterns that later proved to be imaginary. I decided I had math pareidolia, which believe me doesn’t sound one bit less awful than it really is.

So the germ of the idea was this: a guy was concerned because his friend was suffering from a kind of religious pareidolia, that he was seeing signs of the Second Coming in the morning comics. For whatever reason he dragged his friend to see a psychic for relief (I’m honestly not sure how I ever thought this would help).

That’s it. That’s literally all I had to go on when, one day in early 2013, I decided that I was going to write a full-length book. How hard could it be?

So it turns out that years of writing political and sciency essays and even enough short stories to justify a meager self-published collection isn’t quite enough to make it all the way through. By the time I wrote the last word of the last sentence I had convinced myself that it was, as much as anything else, an exercise. It was a very long lesson in how to write a novel. (Thank Christ I also read a few so-you-want-to books along the way.)

The first wall I smashed into was legibility and context. Attending a small local writers’ workshop threw so much cold water on the thing, and the lesson of meeting the reader halfway was learned. Sort of. I’d never heard of terms like “show don’t tell” or “active not passive” before. I didn’t understand the feedback. It came to me after a few rounds of this that the group wasn’t happy unless I’d put them in a well-described room with straight ahead characters doing and saying things that made sense and grew tension. I was going for avant-garde, which has rooms, but, you know, not usually well-described ones.

“Being tough on your characters is taking it easy on your readers.” Fine. I gave my characters the worst day in their lives. Fucker jolted to life. I read somewhere that the whole point of literature is to “reveal the character”. I read an extremely helpful book on how to do this (Immediate Fiction). Fortunately somewhere along the line I’d heard and remembered that no one will care what your characters are doing unless their motivation is sharp and visible. That was the gist. Conflict and character-revealing is the heart of motivation. Didn’t know that.

What absolutely turned me inside out was what happened once I got the first half written and an outline for the remainder pretty well banged out: the bus just started driving itself. Minor course corrections along the way turned into galloping horses carrying me along on ropes through the dust. (Fine. OK, we’re going over here now. Nope, OK now we’re… Hang on, what?) I kept having to revise my characters’ timeline, which pissed off my German side more than anything else. I’d sit down to write a scene—a single, simple motherfucking scene—and I’d come out the other end with one of the characters unexpectedly shot in the stomach and everyone else running for their lives and now maybe someone’s been following them this whole time.

But these surprises—and I swear to Christ I still don’t know where they came from—were the absolute best things to happen to my story. I had no idea they were coming. I read about it in yet another one of those so-you-want-to books after the fact and I was like yes! Holy god yes. It’s absolutely true that the passages I’m the happiest with were written at five hundred miles an hour.

I don’t know if I want to self-publish this beast. It’s like 130k 73k words* and refuses to shrink in spite of extensive editing. At its heart it’s about why people believe weird things, but it’s also just about the best things that novels can be about—a group of people thrown into an impossible situation with high stakes. Plenty of pet obsessions snuck in there as well because I couldn’t control myself—cults, those UFO conspiracy theory shows you used to see on cable in the ‘90s, New Age bookstores, and the way the twin towers of math and physics are the realest things you can ever point to that in turn will point to the most unreal things we’ll ever see. Also dime store philosophy and lots of weed.

And so here it comes. Early chapters will be published here, probably. Maybe I’ll drag it to a writers’ workshop and get some advice from real agents. The likelihood of universal rejection is, statistically speaking, huge. No matter. I’ll have written my first novel, and will be moving on to the second. I’ll have walked through the fire of what is this I’m even doing anyway. How can I stay true to what I think my own voice must sound like without leaving the reader stuck in the literary equivalent of a Wendy’s in a bad neighborhood at six in the morning. I still don’t know the answer to this, but I’m getting less worse at it. I didn’t become a better writer by fighting my way through my first novel; my first novel took me to school in all kinds of ways I had no idea novels had any business doing.

* Nothing like hacking off the first 60k words of your novel. Jesus. I thought I was going to faint. But it was necessary to cut away all the boring, mechanical backstory, yet one more thing I didn’t know was the “hallmark of amateurism”.

2 thoughts on “When The Words Write You

  1. Dude you write beautifully. I’m glad I stumbled upon your blog bc I look forward to reading a lot more of what you write. Also, Donna Tartt has a sneaky way of transforming you from lifeless, starving writer with no desire to write to mad genius overnight; you feel charged and energized and ready to tackle writing because you read something so beautiful and sweet and wonderful it makes you want to write the same. I picked up The Goldfinch and didn’t put it down for weeks; keep writing. You have a gift and another follower, fellow writer.


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