If my students were to watch me write, they would think I was one big hypocrite. If they could get into my head, they would think I was an even bigger hypocrite. I preach the importance of revision. Go over it and over it and over it, I say. Then, stick it in a drawer for a while, take it out, read it, and go over it some more. Do not decide where your story is going before you write it, I also say. Start with something simple – an image or an action – and let it flow naturally from there.

Sometimes I do these things. More often, I don’t.

Here is what I actually do (or, at least, what it looks like I do): I sit at my computer when I can find a spare minute or ten and I type up a paragraph or a page. Sometimes, through the miracle of sleeping children or playdates at the zoo, I find myself with a decent stretch and I may write an entire story. And then I might not do much of anything to it.

Oh sure, I go back and fix my language. Make it tonally consistent. Tweak some metaphors. It technically classifies as revision, I guess, but I rarely ever do what you hear so many other writers brag about. I don’t delete half of what I write. In a good story, I might not mess with ten percent of it.

But I used to.

Oh, I’ve never been a big deleter, but I’d go over and over and over stuff. I can’t do that now. If I did that now, I’d never get anything done. If you were to listen to what I say in class, you would think this means that everything I write stinks. But I don’t think it does. Cate is a trustworthy reader and she tells me when I write a bad story and when a story needs a lot of work (and sometimes they do, don’t get me wrong), but she also tells me when something is good pretty much as is.

That happens because I try to be ready to write all the time. I once read about this same concept in and interview Paul Harding gave after he won the Pulitzer for Tinkers. He talked about how, once he had a kid, he found himself writing in spare moments and cobbling things together as he could. He called it guerrilla writing. This is not my ideal process, but it’s the process I have. I am always writing. I am preparing a story in my head with every spare moment. Often this means I sit down to write knowing exactly where things are going.

But getting that stuff out, the stuff I consider art, the stuff I would like to be judged by, is only part of guerrilla writing. because we live in the Twenty First Century! The future is now and it is on the internet!

I read a little article by Anna Quindlen recently where she talked about her writing process, and I wish I could be her. She believes that writers only have so many words and should refrain from things like blogs and email whenever possible. She writes every day from 9 to 3.

Of course, she is Anna Quindlen. Her job is to write. She doesn’t have to find an agent. She doesn’t hear from agents about how they really look for an online presence from an aspiring writer because they want a built-in audience.

I’m trying, lately, to wear my big-boy writing pants. That means I’m sending stuff out whenever I can in the hopes that someone will publish Lonely Human Atoms (which I believe in more than any creative thing I’ve ever done) or perhaps some magazines will publish a few stories and this will help me get the book published. It is an unpleasant process.

That is part of guerrilla writing, though. As is my presence all over the freaking internet. I write for four different websites. Sure, I like writing about the things I write about, but a lot of that is about exposure. The more exposure I can get, the more likely an agent or publisher is to say, “Hey, this guy might be able to sell a few hundred copies of a book.”

At least, that is the hope.

Note: You are totally welcome to read this post, you may even find it marginally interesting, but I am writing it primarily to hold myself accountable over the summer.

This summer is going to be a new experience for Cate and I. We are not getting married or having a child or buying a house. We might take a small vacation, but that’s it. In short, for the first time, the summer sits out in front of us like a vast plain of freedom. We are both looking forward to it. That said, I don’t want to just sit on my ass, so here are my summer goals:

1. Finish Lonely Human Atoms and send it out into the world. This novel should have been finished at least a year ago, but life is very good at intervening (and I can be lazy, especially when it comes to editing). I have one light edit remaining and then it should be actually, finally finished. We’ll see, I guess, but my intent is to spend a few hours on it everyday until it’s done. I’m guessing it will take about a month.

2. Read three very long books. I do love long books and I’ve had several sitting on my shelf for a while that I simply haven’t tackled because those 350 page books just look so much easier. No more of that. Correspondingly, I’m going to read one behemoth a month. This brings us to my long awaited summer book queue (to be completed by the start of school-ish):

  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
  • The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

3. Really get the yard in shape. When we moved in, the yard was basically a disaster. All the previous owners had ever done was mow the lawn. We’ve been working, and it’s getting there, but there is still a ways to go. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, though.

4. Get prepared for my advanced writing class. I am very excited for this class, but I need to work to get myself up to date with playwriting and especially poetry. I currently have a stack of ten library books to this end. Mercifully, plays and volumes of poetry tend to be short and will nicely counter-balance the longer selections I’ll be reading

5. Write about baseball and music. Assuming everything turns out, I’ll be writing a series of articles on the Reds for RedlegNation this summer. I also intend to write various music-related posts for this blog simply because I like music, and don’t write about it enough.

6. Spend time with Cate and Simone. I’m listing this one last, but it’s the most important. The end of the school year is always a strain on my relationship with Cate, and the summer comes as a welcome reprieve. We need to stay up late and reconnect while we have the chance. Next year will come faster than we realize. I also want to make it a point to play with Simone a lot. I try to always give her my best, but it can be hard after a bad work day.

Lonely Human Atoms

May 13, 2009

Something is about to happen that has happened only once before in my life. I have finally reached the point at which I will send my new book forth into the world. I have six readers whom I trust and who have agreed to read the book and provide criticism before I do the final edit.

Of course, I “finished” the book a while ago, and that was very nice, but all it really meant was that it was time to go through it and find all the parts that sucked and change them so that they sucked less. I hate that part of writing and laziness plus my job plus getting sick about 8,000 times since Christmas really conspired to make this process take much longer than I wanted it to. Still, preparing to pass a book out to people is one of my favorite parts. Books aren’t like short stories. You don’t just slap a title at the top of the first page and email it to whoever. There’s a title page and then a page with a couple of quotes from other books (Winesburg, Ohio and All the King’s Men) that I feel capture the essence of what the book is really about. (Yes, I know how pretentious that sounds.) In this book there are even three parts that are themselves divided into chapters. I don’t know why, but it’s really enjoyable to go through and put all of that stuff in. Even though the book isn’t finished. In an important way, this is the most finished it will ever feel. Undoubtedly, there will be changes. Some of them may be pretty significant. This book is almost twice as long as my last one, and I’m fairly certain there are things I didn’t pull off and things that I repeated too often and things that just don’t need to be there. That’s why I’m handing it out. But, in a few days when I print it off, I will be able to hand it to someone and it will feel like handing them a book and not just a stack of chapters which is sort of what it feels like to finish the first time. So, if I haven’t done this before, I’d like to give a little history of the book:

The central character is Charles Burden. He first appeared in a story my junior year of college (that’s 2000-2001 is you’re scoring at home). I wrote the story (“Windows”) for a class. The assignment was to mimic a story from an author we liked. I chose to mimic “Hands” from Winesburg, Ohio. I took Charles’ surname from Jack Burden, the narrator in All the King’s Men. The events of this story became the basis for part one of the book. A few years later, I got it published by a local independent paper.

I have not, it should be noted, been working on this book for that long. In fact, not much happened with Charles for years. I wrote another book, played a lot of guitar, and spent four years at a dead end job. The other book is important because when it was finished, I took a few months off and started looking for something else to write about. I hit upon “Windows” while looking through an old writing folder. I read through it and realized that though I had not named him, I had written a character very like Charles in several other stories. I looked at these other stories and a narrative came together. It was kind of magical, actually. This was the first time I ever wrote something knowing what would happen at the end. In fact, the last chapter was one of the first things I wrote.

When I did start writing sometime early in 2007, Charles became a physicist (he had been a PhD in history, but this wouldn’t work in the story. Also, I wanted to learn about physics). Interestingly, Cate was in a creative writing class I taught that semester, and had it not been for this book (I showed the class one chapter and she asked to read more. She was a talented writer, so I agreed), we likely would not have gotten together.

I wrote the largest chunk of the book (probably about 50,000 words or so) during that summer as, for the first time in years, I had time to sit down and just write. I also broke up with a girlfriend and periodically emailed a chapter to Cate who was in DC for the summer. I thought I was going to make quick work of the first draft, but I started teaching full time and that took a lot of time, and Cate and I started dating not long after she came back from DC (and then got engaged and then got married), and that took a lot of time (I’m not complaining), and then there were some terrible things that happened that I’m not going to go into, but it’s safe to say that I haven’t written as much as I would have liked over the last few years. It’s been a battle at times, but over the last year and a half I worked on it in snatches of time and finally got to this point.

The title came very late in the game. For a long time is was just “The Charles Burden Book”, then it was “The Approximate Life of Charles Burden.” Finally, a few weeks ago, I was lying in bed and thought of Lonely Human Atoms, which fits just right and is actually the result of my misremembering the following Sherwood Anderson quote from Winesburg, Ohio.

In that high place in the darkness the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly. In the mind of each was the same thought. “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,” was the substance of the thing that was felt.

Now here I am, sitting at my computer, and I do not have a book to work on. I can write about whatever I want. I could have done this before, of course, but that’s not really how I work. I have some ideas. I am going to write a short story that stems from the little flash fiction nugget I had published recently. There are a couple of books. One that I know I’ll start soon and one I’ll likely put off for a bit as it will be a very ambitious project and I’m not ready for another one of those just yet. There are other short stories hopping around in my head, also, and I want to write those.

It’s an exciting time. I have a lot of creative freedom right now. I also have a child coming, and aside from all the normal excitement, I’m interested to see if the change in perspective I expect to take place will affect my writing style. This summer is going to be an adventure, but I think it will be fun. In any case, I’m ready for a little adventure.