A World Of Distractions

Enough of this and this is how you DON’T finish a manuscript. My wife had to be in central London early Friday. So we drove from Wiltshire to Enfield (the M4 again, but no Sara Bareilles this time) on Thursday night to sleep over at my in-laws.

London, Thursday evening. Temperature in centigrade. It's not Buffalo.
London, Thursday evening. Temperature in centigrade. It’s not Buffalo.

I was to spend the day at their house. I had brought along my Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (as well as all other required electronics). I thought I’d have a few hours to do some writing quietly.

What on earth was I thinking?

Continue reading

I Was Having An Argument….

….with myself.

Specifically, yesterday I was working on a scene that sees two characters disagreeing strongly and moving towards an “explosion,” while a third witnesses the rising tension. This morning, I thought on yesterday’s post. I suppose I could now reply to this question:

6. When did you last talk to yourself? When did you last berate yourself to the point of tears?

It wasn’t merely “talk.” As I was writing yesterday, I was often having a real go. It got pretty heated.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of the Louvre Pyramid
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of the Louvre Pyramid

I do write occasionally while talking out loud – particularly when it comes to stretches of extended dialogue, and especially when there are multiple participants. I find it helps me to listen to how it reads to “the ear” as realistic chatter. Good thing I was alone in this case, as the “last third” of me tried several times to step in and calm the increasingly nasty and confrontational other “two-thirds”:

SneekNumber1_2015

Ah, our loving families. That’s only part of the exchange – which is also the first “sneak peek” I will share into the rough draft for the third (as yet unnamed) novel in the series.

By the way, none of the, uh, “three” of me got teary or berated myself.

Have a good Thursday, wherever you are in the world. ;-)

“Oh, God, not my mother?”

I’ve you’ve ever written about romance and relationships, you know it’s a minefield. We are all full of foibles. For those of us who pen fiction, trying to capture humans in print in order to bring characters of both sexes realistically to life is never simple.

Then there’s caricature. And humo(u)r. Recently, courtesy of Twitter, I came across this:

DameMag

Those questions come from a woman. Therefore, as a man, I tread here lightly. I will say this, though: they are mostly hilarious. A few choice examples:

13. Tell me in which ways I remind you of your mother.

Yep, that’ll frighten off most guys for sure. That’s a keeper. If in need, try that on any man.

14. If you had to murder one of your closest friends in cold blood, which one would you choose?

On the surface, that also seems a winner. But be careful. Before trying to answer, quite a few men might also be thinking, ‘Wow, that clearly deranged mind of hers makes me fancy her even more.’ (Not me, of course. I wouldn’t have thought that.)

15. Who on Earth wears Crocs to a dinner date? In the winter, no less?

This couldn’t be directed at me. I’ve never owned a pair. I thought they were for five year olds?

30. Imagine you slept with my best friend. How was it?

Now, for a man, here’s where marital status matters greatly. Coming at you from a girlfriend, well, that question’s one thing. But if comes at you from your wife…. it has now become MUCH scarier.

32. Share the last time you faked a British accent to sound smarter.

This has to be from an American web site. For has the author actually been to certain, uh, intellectual locales here in the United Kingdom? Or ever even watched EastEnders?

Have a good day, wherever you are in the world. That’s enough now. Everyone off the internet. Back to work! :-)

No Hugging, Please, We’re French

It has become the hug cringed at around the world. The Lebanese news site Naharnet has a nice summation of what went, uh, wrong:

….The towering John Kerry was meters from Hollande, striding fast, when he first opened his arms.

In turn, the French leader stretched out his, clasping Kerry’s hands. Kerry pulled him into a brief hug to his right, at which time Hollande appeared to go back in for “la bise”. [The kisses to cheeks.]

Kerry caught up, accepted the kiss on his right cheek, before they clasped hands again, awkwardly placing their arms around each other as they walked side by side up the stairs into the Elysee Palace.

Half-hug, half-bise, it was a moving clash of cultures….

It’s a surprise Kerry didn’t realize Hollande would be baffled. But the Secretary of State had signaled beforehand that he was going to go all “American” in terms of sympathy and give Paris “a hug.” Yet the French president obviously didn’t get what Kerry meant, or didn’t think it would be demonstrated, umm, “literally,” and so was clearly unprepared for an American-style, “Come here, pal.”

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My feeling is former president (2007-2012) Nicolas Sarkozy, who reputedly has a solid sense of “Americanisms,” might have handled it better.

One can imagine the fun media and bloggers around the world might be having now had Ségolène Royal been standing there as president instead. Then again I don’t believe that had she been that Kerry would have tried to hug her that way. Kerry was doing an “American guy thing” with Hollande – and Hollande didn’t understand it.

Younger French of both sexes – especially those who’ve been to the U.S. for any substantive length of time beyond a vacation – are more attuned to Americans’ “curious” behaviors. But middle-aged and older French men on meeting even in emotional circumstances, such as offering condolences, as a rule don’t open by hugging each other like that. French men don’t do American-style “bromance.”

Compared to Americans, the French on the whole are simply far less into demonstrative displays of physical closeness between acquaintances, even friends. But they are not alone in that. Other Europeans, including the British (of course), are similar.

Still, it was a lighthearted moment after a week and a half of at times incredible ugliness and sadness. We all needed it. It provided a badly needed chuckle.

A Danish close friend of ours, and her English husband of two years, are coming for a stay-over visit with us tonight.

We’ve known her for ages. I get kisses to both cheeks, and she lets me hug her. She even hugs me back.

However, if I ever moved to hug him, he’d probably think I’d lost my mind. Or I was going all “American” on him. A firm handshake between us men is all that’s needed. ;-)

Have a good weekend, wherever you are in the world. :-)

“Ok, friends, so what are we going to do today?”

Ah, you came back. Thank you.

I apologize for having gone somewhat “professorial” yesterday after I’d stumbled over some in U.S. media’s indifference as to why most European countries have anti-hate speech laws in the first place. That tweet wasn’t the only example. Too many seem to expect everyone to understand us – our history, our heritage, what makes us tick – but appear utterly unable to make the modest effort to try to understand anyone else.

Anyway, after I got that out of my system, I forced myself to get down to more writing. I employed my tried and true method. “Ok, friends,” I looked at the screen and asked myself, “so what are we going to do today?”

I’m learning that no matter how much you write, it never gets easier. The creative process each day is much the same. And regardless of all you’d written before, you still feel only as good as your last paragraph.

The only consolation is after two novels with most of the same characters, by the start of the third one you know pretty well who they all are. You could practically have them write their own dialogue. And if you asked them about something currently happening in the real world, you suspect, uh, they’d have an opinion or two:

“What is this show?” she questioned, raising her eyebrows, incredulous.

James sat on the sofa next to her. She handed him the remote. “It looks like a repeat from a few years ago,” he said. “It’s on live late on, uh, Saturday nights.”

“I cannot believe this, the way they are making fun of Arabs,” she observed, appalled at what she was seeing.

James’s grandmother appeared. They wished her good morning as she took a seat.

Revisiting the television program, James continued. “Oh, they blast everything. Some of it is in bad taste for sure. A lot of it isn’t funny also.”

“You would not see that in France,” Isabelle noted seriously. “We must be careful. We have bombs in France for years. Now you here see the World Trade Center.”

By the end, I think I had some good bits fall onto the “page.” (Technically, into Word on the Microsoft Surface Pro 3.) I’m still in the early, “skeleton” phase. With Frontiers, last year, I learned you should never, ever, consider “the long road” ahead.

However, I made a terrible mistake mentally in briefly doing precisely that. I’d sat back at one point and considered the finished books – which are sitting on my desk an arm’s reach away. For extra inspiration, I also have a group photo propped up of a bunch of us, and it includes our late friend Kam – in the last photo of her we took together.

The picture was suddenly the opposite of inspirational: it depressed me.

The books themselves were, in their ways, worse. Nearly 200,000 words and over 2 years work were staring back at me.

For a moment, I had a chill.

I put on my Sara Bareilles CD.

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See, I was telling the truth. I wasn’t kidding. I have that CD.

Briefly, I also really wanted to pour myself a drink – which I immediately discounted doing, while alone, before noon!

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A Sprite had to suffice.

I’d also considered taking a nap. (Obscure – or not so obscure, if you watch the program – Mad Men reference.)

I know I wrote something similar on here last year. Another volume to complete. Doing it AGAIN is a daunting task.

While you may have the book outlined, that’s far different than having the full tale completed. What gets you through is never imagining the “entire” project. Instead, it’s a series of tightly focused, small steps.

Slowly, a day at a time, that frightening void you had been staring at begins to fill itself up.

At least, early on, that’s what you must keep telling yourself.

Have a good Friday, wherever you are in world. :-)

Email To A Younger Self

Dear Rob,

How are things back in 1995? Heh, heh, who am I kidding? I know….

It’s January 2015 now. I’m the older you. I thought I’d write to you and give you a heads up as to how things will go over the next couple of decades.

That girl from France? Nuh, uh. No, you won’t be marrying her. I know she says she loves you, but she also has submerged “worries” you don’t know about yet, but believe me you soon will.

In the longer run, it’ll be fine. Yes, for a while you’ll be sure the world has come to an end, but most everyone thinks that at a time like that. You’ll pick yourself up and brush yourself off. You’ll do college teaching for a few years too, but will fall out of love with that; but, once again, don’t worry.

In a couple of years, you’ll meet another – better – woman, and you’ll end up married and living in England with her. As hard as that is for you to believe. Oh, and she’ll be on at you now and then good-humo(u)redly about that long ago “babe” from across the Channel.

Now, this is very serious, and maybe I shouldn’t mention it, but I feel I have to. Something horrific will happen to the World Trade Center in September 2001. You’ll be in London at the time, in your office at the university where you will then work. Your father will be retired by then, safe at home, and no longer working in lower Manhattan. I won’t discuss the terrible details here. Let’s just move along and stick with you personally.

In years to come, you’ll meet masses of great people you have no clue about in 1995. Several you will come to adore. Sadly you will lose one far before her time, but the idea you might have gone through life without ever having known her…. well, after you meet her you’ll soon find yourself unable to imagine never having known her.

Inevitably, you’ll get a bit grayer, but, hey, you will still have most of your hair. Not bad. You haven’t fallen apart just yet.

Eventually – as tough as this is also to believe – you’ll end up writing novels. Yes, I know you scoff at fiction and love history, but you’ll meld the two. You’ll even base characters on some of the very people you know now (including, of course, Uncle _____, as well as, uh, Mademoiselle…. oh, you know her name), and several who will leave us forever by 2015 (including that woman friend you will make in a few years).

You’ll sort of immortalize them. That’s writing “history” in a way too, isn’t it? Sure it is.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a computer surrounded by question marks
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a computer surrounded by question marks

Oh, and you love that Compaq Presario. You’re probably wondering on what PC I’m writing you this from twenty years down the road? Well, things have moved on a bit technologically.

America Online? Don’t ask. And I’m not writing this on a PC anyway. It’s called an iPad. And it uses wifi. Oh, and your future novels will be read on a Kindle, as well as printed by Amazon.

Sorry, sorry, I forgot. You have no idea what I’m talking about with those. Never mind. You’ll find out.

By the way, when you leave your final university job a bit over a decade from now, your boss in England will tell you that she’s sure you’re going to do something “really big” eventually.

Well, currently, you’re still working on that. ;-)

All The Best,
The Much Older You. :-)

A House In Ukraine

I was wrong in my post the other day. “Melvin” didn’t go to Ukraine. I’d thought he had, but his ex-wife rang Mrs. Nello late Saturday and said he hadn’t gone after all.

And it looks like he won’t be going there again. After about 8 years of involvement and visiting for only short periods, it seems “Oksana” is suddenly not keen on him moving there for a semi-permanent stay.

The end of another routine, long distance romance? We hope it’s just that. But it looks much worse.

He had indeed just paid for a house there – and the house is evidently in her name ONLY. I won’t say how much money went towards it, but according to his ex-wife it was A HELLUVA LOT. One never knows, but right now it’s hard to believe he’ll see any of that money again.

Why in only her name? My initial reaction was to shake my head in disbelief. I said to Mrs. Nello that this “Oksana” is probably a “pro”: she knows how to “handle” foreign “suitors.”

If what has happened has indeed happened, it makes sense. Naturally she didn’t want “Melvin” moving there. It would have hampered her “business” if other men were also handing her money and visiting her occasionally.

Free Stock Photo: Female hands typing on a laptop keyboard
Free Stock Photo: Female hands typing on a laptop keyboard

You usually read about stuff like this in the Daily Mail, but never would imagine it could happen to someone you know. He did all of this with his eyes open. If it has gone as it seems to, he’s probably pretty embarrassed about it too.

It’s sad. I can’t comprehend what on earth he was thinking? He’s not a “stupid” man.

You may wonder why his ex-wife cares? That many another woman would revel in an ex-husband’s romantic misfortunes? Especially something like this?

Not in this case. They aren’t on bad terms. Yes, their marriage ended (he ended it), but she has since re-married happily. “Melvin” and her new husband even get along well.

It sounds a bit like a sitcom, I know.

In any case, we hope we just misunderstand. Yet I’m trying to think of another plausible explanation, and I can’t. One wonders how many men actually fall for this sort of thing?

Time for another cup of coffee. Hope you’re having a good Monday, wherever you are in the world. :-)

Author As “Key Figure”

A novelist can create death at any moment. If you take what you do seriously, that’s actually an awesome literary responsibility. It’s not something that should be done – in my view – lightly.

You can also write long-term illness into a story. Suicide too. But naturally there are no ramifications to any such plotlines beyond what appears on your pages.

For novels are fiction, of course. When it comes to the issue of suicide in real life, I often think of what West German chancellor, Willy Brandt, surprisingly wrote in his autobiography. While a young man on the run from the Nazis during the Second World War – including in Nazi-occupied Norway – he said he had never considered taking his own life were he about to be caught by the Gestapo. He wrote that, unlike other resistants who had said they were prepared to kill themselves, he wouldn’t have because one never knew if a way out might appear unexpectedly at the last moment.

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Unless we die suddenly, most of us will experience ourselves becoming terminally ill. Should we be able to ask someone to “assist” us in hurrying along to death? That issue has been debated fiercely for years, and the debate will likely continue. It also increasingly appears many to most of us do believe we should be able to ask for such “assistance.”

What does that have to do with novelists?

Some of them, such as former law enforcement people who now pen crime novels, have a professional knowledge of their subject. For example, my uncle. He may reasonably discuss “policing issues” on, say, Today; in his area of expertise he perhaps warrants being taken more seriously “policy-wise.”

However, once he’s on set with Savannah Guthrie (which he hasn’t been, to be clear) that doesn’t mean if he blurts out his take on U.S. policy over Ukraine, or the aerial campaign against so-called ISIS in Syria and Iraq, or on U.S. immigration reform, that his views on those matters ought to be granted extra credence. Or, indeed, that they will even make sense.

For given what I’ve sometimes heard from him privately about the likes of those, in my opinion, trust me, they may not. ;-) Much the same could be said for his view on legalizing “assisted suicide.” (Which I don’t know.) Outside of his “knowledge base,” he’s fundamentally no more insightful than the rest of us and is just another someone offering an opinion.

Yet for some media it appears being an author marks one out as somebody worth hearing spout on a variety of complex questions of the day. I suppose all of us who have written books should be pleased to discover how wide-rangingly brilliant we are about the totality of the human condition. But based on my own “knowledge base,” I suspect most walking egos novelists had probably best confine their public policy pontificating to storylines they’ve fashioned in their novels.

Have a good day, wherever you are reading this. :-)

Boxing Day

Happy Boxing Day morning. Or, as they say in the U.S., uh, nothing.

“You don’t have Boxing Day in the U.S.?” my niece asked me a little while ago as we watched TV.

“No,” I confirmed. “Back to work. The holiday is only Christmas.”

As we discussed that, an ad for the new season of Revenge came on.

“Oh, Revenge is starting here soon,” I observed.

“What’s that?”

I tried to summarize it for her. “It’s an American TV show about disgustingly rich people on Long Island who are involved in all sorts of illegal and nonsense stuff, and a girl is out to get revenge against their family. It’s so over the top it’s ridiculous. But you have to watch it from the very beginning.”

“Ooh, sounds like I’d like that!”

We’ve spent Christmas here in Essex (not far from Stansted Airport) with my brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and our two nephews and niece. The kids are now ages 20, 12, and 17, respectively – not really “kids” any longer. (My niece now even has a boyfriend!) It has been great fun.

Yesterday, shortly after midday, Red River with John Wayne happened to be on some TV channel. As a huge Duke fan, upon stumbling on it my brother-in-law left it on. Lightheartedly he also declared standing the middle of the lounge that we had reached midday and not even opened alcohol: “It’s noon Christmas Day and I’m not drunk yet?”

After he walked out, Red River on, my sister-in-law appeared.

“We must be getting older,” I joked to her. “We’ve forgotten to drink anything so far.”

“I know,” she replied. “I’d love a cup of tea. Sad, isn’t it?”

She noticed Red River. “Oh, don’t tell me….”

“I guess he thinks it’s a Christmas film,” I smiled.

“Change the station, Rob. Don’t let him sit here and watch it,” she laughed. “He’ll get nothing else done today.”

He never did get back to Red River, and we got through Christmas dinner just fine. Afterwards, we FaceTimed my parents in America. “The best invention ever!” my mother exclaimed. Everyone on this side of the Atlantic was happy to see my Dad looking so well.

No one drank too much either. We were indeed all mature and restrained. Later last night, though, after the youngest two had gone to bed, we did have some – not all of the bottle! – Sambuca:

Post-dinner drinks. [Photo by me, 2014.]
Post-dinner drinks. [Photo by me, 2014.]
I feel fine this morning. We had just a bit. We didn’t overdo it. ;-)

My mind as I type this is drifting to 2015. The third book needs to be attacked: when it’s all on you, nothing gets done unless you do it. Yet I’m also finding that taking a few weeks’ writing pause has been necessary – like a vacation.

A year ago in January, I was able to jump into what eventually became Frontiers with far more zest than I’m currently able to summon up for the – as of yet unnamed – third book. That funk won’t last I’m sure. I suspect most of the reason is tiredness: I’ve been at this now mostly non-stop for over two years in producing the two novels so far. I think I’ve earned a few weeks’ writing respite.

Have a good Boxing Day. :-)

Marriage And Writing

The other day, Kate Colby shared another great post – this one on how being married has assisted and improved her writing:

Before marrying Daniel, I was a “writer” with big dreams and little action. Now, I am a writer (no quotation marks necessary) with big dreams, big actions, and big plans. Can I give him 100% credit for my success? No. I think I deserve I good chunk of it. However, I can say, having him in my life has been a huge help and momentum builder.

Naturally, everyone has different experiences in that regard. I have certainly been much encouraged in my novel-writing by my wife. She reads what I write closely, critiques it, and keeps me generally grounded.

* * *

Yet my chosen subject matter has also proven at times problematic precisely because I’m married. An example from a June post:

….the iPad packed away, the two of us reclining in the shade (good grief, the sun here is hot!) on loungers [next to] …. the pool, my wife asked me, “Did you get a lot [of writing] done today?”

Lowering a paperback I was reading, I replied, “I did. I woke up this morning thinking, ‘God, how could I have forgotten to include that!?’ I definitely wouldn’t have been happy if I didn’t.”

From behind her sunglasses, deadpan “Englishly” my [English] wife smiled and needled me, “Okay, so, what was her name?”

She’s convinced I’m writing a version of a mid-late 20s autobiography (long before I ever knew her) re-packaged as fiction, names changed, and carefully altered here and there in time and place. I admit there is a degree of truth in her charge. I’ve never pretended to assert the tales and characters are conjured up out of thin air.

Yes, there is a great deal of me in “James.” Yes, there is lots of reality in the women and their families. (Unsurprisingly an especial point of amusing interest to Mrs. Nello now.) And “James’s” family – including “Uncle Bill” – and his friends, and the fictionalized Long Island university he attends, all came from somewhere.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a couple on a date.
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a couple on a date.

As my wife has read the novels, she has relished playing “detective” – looking to “unmask” characters and life references she thinks she recognizes. However, I’ve also cautioned Mrs. Nello repeatedly that doing that is not nearly as straightforward as she may think. The books are not a journal or a diary.

* * *

That said, we know novelists do rummage through their own lives and experiences to some extent. We know Scott Fitzgerald did. Certainly Hemingway. Jane Austen wrote about what she knew. Alan Paton admitted one of his main characters was outright based on himself decades earlier – and he didn’t like the character! My real-life novelist uncle has sourced much from his own life.

A novel utterly detached from the real world is simply fantasy. But utilizing memories for source material doesn’t necessarily mean it happened precisely as written either of course. Well, okay, not much of the time anyway. ;-)

All kidding aside, reality gives fiction, well, reality. For example, in my own personal code, I have fictionally woven into the books a couple of sharp “slaps” at people I despise. Yes, that’s a bit nasty of me, I know; but only I know who they are.

Free Stock Photo:	3D illustration of a person being crushed in a vice.
Free Stock Photo: 3D illustration of a person being crushed in a vice.

More importantly, like Paton, I’ll admit as well that there are times I don’t like my “James” all that much. I suspect I’ll feel the same about him as I write the third book too. But I’ll leave it to others to attempt to probe what it might mean regarding the psyche when an author writes critically about a fictional “oneself”:

Now Mark blasted him. “You what? You told her you wanted to kiss her? What are you, twelve? ‘Gee, now it’s my turn! Yeh, I get to kiss Valérie!’ This isn’t goddamn ‘Spin the Bottle.’”

“I had too much to drink,” James stressed. “A brandy too much at dinner. My mouth got out ahead of my brain.”

“Oh, that’s so f-ing original,” Mark replied scathingly.

Composing these tales has led me much better to appreciate that what we see in most novels is probably indeed just the tip of the iceberg. Much more has likely gone on beneath those words we devour than we as readers ever fully realize. When it comes to my books, that is certainly the case.

It’s all so layered and complicated. Maybe I should’ve written about elves. Or space princesses. ;-)

Hope you’re having a good Sunday, wherever you are in the world. :-)