Showing posts with label Woody Guthrie. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Woody Guthrie. Show all posts

14 October 2019

Writers Blocks Build Stories


Dennis Lehane is one of many successful crime writers who doesn't outline. He writes his novels on a legal pad (as did John Steinbeck) and types what he's produced into a computer at the end of the day (not like John Steinbeck). He says that when he gets stuck, rather than considering himself blocked, he knows he's made a wrong choice earlier in the manuscript and goes back through it to find what he did that shut down the action later on. When he finds the problem, he fixes it and surges ahead.

Many writers--lots of them practicing or formal journalists--point to the value of a regular deadline as motivation. The don't have time for writer's block and will produce on demand. I have written most of my life, but didn't sell my first story until I was 60. By then, I had several rejected novels and stories I could return to and play with if I couldn't find a "new" idea. Now that I've recycled most of those ideas that merited a second look, I find that I do get stuck sometimes.

Writer's Block actually comes in two versions. The one most non-writers mean is the lack of ideas to write about. Most of the writers I know agree that the people don't really lack ideas; they fail to recognize useful ones or set their sights too high. They have the seed of a good short story or poem, but they're looking for a blockbuster novel. Unfortunately, nobody, including publishers, can see these coming. Dan Brown wrote several mid-list novels before The Da Vinci Code caught his publisher and bookstores around the world by surprise.

The second version is the idea that doesn't work with your other ideas. Years ago, I interviewed several people to get the details right for what I thought would become the third Woody Guthrie novel...even though I hadn't sold the first one yet. Those notes sat on a floppy disc (remember those?) for several years until I thought the time was right. By then, the story had moved from Detroit to Connecticut and become a Zach Barnes story. Then it changed into a police procedural featuring Trash and Byrne. Six or seven years and several title changes later, I finally sat down to write.

Normally, when I write a first draft, I produce a scene or two daily, going faster as I get deeper into the book and know my way around better. My average scene is about 1600 words. Four weeks into this story, I only had about 50 pages, a quarter of my usual output, and none of it felt right. I put it away and tweaked a few other stories. When I came back, I saw something akin to Lehane's experience.

The story had two crucial premises that contradicted each other. Writer's Block, version 2.0.

The good news is that the time away also gave me a way to handle the problem. I recycled several of the characters, and the book turned into The Kids Are All Right, which was nominated for the Shamus Award for Best Indie Novel.

A few months later, I faced a similar situation. I was revising an early unsold Woody & Meg story from about 2004. A dozen years later, I understood why that premise didn't work and the book never sold, but I thought I'd learned enough to fix it.

After three days of pushing The Great Pyramid up a vertical slope, I finished page 4.

The notes, outline, character list, and pages went into seclusion on a flash drive. But, again, something else with a vaguely similar idea bubbled underneath. A week later, I recognized that bubble. I finished the first draft of a novella, 16,000 words in eight days. It became "Look What They've Done to My Song, Mom," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award.

Now I'm struggling with yet another idea that seems to be circling the drain.

I'm going to put it away for a few weeks...and hope history will repeat itself.

13 May 2019

The Ones That Went Away


by Steve Liskow

A few months ago, I got a new computer and did what all writers do before getting rid of the old one. I scoured it for files worth keeping, mostly on flash drives or another external hard drive. I remembered some of those files originally being on floppy discs (Why do I still have them?), possibly from Windows 97.

When I retired from the classroom in 2003, I had five deservedly unpublished books to my credit, but I thought one of them merited another rewrite. I spent the next couple of years reading dozens of books on craft, attending workshops, making new mistakes with new writing, and figuring out most of what I'd done wrong. I went back to that book, my sixth-year project at Wesleyan in (gasp) 1980, and tried to revise it into a marketable product.
My bound project, in Wesleyan's library as "Patchwork Guilt." We've used it as a theatrical prop in productions of Faust and Bell, Book & Candle, hence the pentagram (note the open corner, just in case)

After 60 rejections, I self-published it in 2014 as Postcards of the Hanging, my seventh published novel . Many of the books I released earlier grew from that same work, though, until I learned more about what I was doing. Most of those Ur-books and Ur-characters appear on the flash drives and floppies, and I had forgotten about some of them.

Originally, Woody Guthrie was Robbie Daniels from Postcards, and he met Megan Traine at their high school reunion, a sequel to that book 25 years later. I met a classmate who inspired Meg's character at my own reunion, but by the time the book received its 115th rejection, I bagged that premise because it sounded like Lifetime TV. The story became much darker, too, which may have scared away the agents who thought they were reading a cozy. In my original draft, Robbie Daniels was a journalist, not a private detective, but that changed early in the process.

Characters changed names, and they came and went like professional athletes during free-agency. I found versions of the book under three different titles, and the story moved from 1991 to 2008.

I saw Robbie/Eric Morley/Some other name I don't even have in my notes anymore/Woody Guthrie as a series character and wrote two more books while that first sequel met increasing apathy. Most of the things that changed will never work again, but maybe they prove I actually learned something.

When I looked at old stories to respond to Barb Goffman's post about openings last week, I found a story with Marina Santini, who was Rob's girlfriend in the first version of the reunion novel. He dumped her for Megan Traine. I felt I'd treated her badly so I gave her a starring role in a short story. That ended happily, and she's never come back.

Megan lives in a duplex, the other half inhabited by Blue Song Riley, the chiropractor daughter of an African American soldier and a Vietnamese mother. Blue played a much larger role in two or three planned novels in the series. She even met a boyfriend through her brother Miles Davis Riley, who was in the service with the guy.

That boyfriend and Miles have never appeared, and Blue has never moved beyond cameo appearances, but one novel involved both men--and Blue--helping Meg find the sniper who shot Woody. I have a rough draft of a scene in which Meg shoots the man who is trying to kill her, too. I found notes for a sequel to that book, about 20 scenes, in which Woody kicks the addiction to painkillers that he developed after being shot. Both those fragments are dated 2005, and his name is still Eric Morley. My great aunt's married name was Morley, and I liked the suggestion of "morally."

Rasheena Maldonado was in the shooting book, too, originally a Detroit cop with Max and Lowe. The second Guthrie book was about teen prostitution, and I wrote a novel in which the first half was an inchoate mess and the second half worked well. When the Barnes series took off, I moved the story east and let Barnes investigate along the Berlin Turnpike, a notorious trafficking area. That book became Cherry Bomb. The new setting made everything else work, including Sheena as a juvenile officer.

Sheena  got traded to the East for Shoobie Dube, originally Robbie/Eric's secretary in Hartford until he met Megan at the reunion. I have scenes of Shoobie and Megan meeting in Connecticut, but no longer remember where they might have gone, probably in early drafts of the reunion novel that eventually became a non-reunion novel, Blood on the Tracks.
Both Shoobie and Sheena were too much fun to leave behind, and Shoobie now has a major role in the Guthrie WIP. In Connecticut, Sheena and her lover are house-hunting.

Before You Accuse Me, which appeared in 2018, shows up with that title in notes dated 2004. Chris Offutt and I discussed it at the Wesleyan Writer's Conference that spring, when he critiqued my current version of the reunion novel. I told him the title and he replied, "Take a good look at yourself," which told me I was on the right track. I already knew it would be the fourth in Woody's series, but I no longer remember why. Most of the major ideas are intact, but I didn't write the new second and third (one replaced Cherry Bomb when it moved east) for several years.

Valerie Karpelinska, AKA Karr, was a bit-part bimbo in an early version of that reunion novel, but I augmented her part in revisions. She has appeared in all four Guthrie books and shares major face time with Shoobie in the current WIP. Her IQ and bust size have traded numbers, and she now has a boyfriend and a job with a more stringent dress code than when she first showed up as a stripper.

Detroit homicide cops Jack "Max" Maxwell, who is perpetually trying to quit smoking, and Everett Lowe, the best-dressed detective on the force, appeared in early versions of three short stories that didn't sell until I revised them out of them. I thought Jack would have a daughter who got involved in a story along the way, but I no longer have any notes about it. Max and Lowe still show up in the Guthrie stories, but not as much as I thought they would because Shoobie became more important.

Sometimes, I can get away with recycling. A Detroit novel about a mass murderer didn't work, so I moved it to Connecticut, from Woody Guthrie to Zach Barnes, then to Trash and Byrne. It didn't work there, either, but I managed to use several of the characters with only minor changes in The Kids Are All Right, which became a finalist for the Shamus Award.

Someday, maybe I'll figure out how to do the rest of this stuff. I still have a full version of the Reunion novel and a revision (two different titles, two different major plots) on flash drives. I don't see them ever appearing unless someone does their doctoral thesis on my work.

There's probably a better chance of my winning the Powerball.

What are the first draft skeletons in your closet?