The Beardly Writer

Some write from the heart. I write from the beard.

Month: August, 2013

A Selection from Chapter 4…

What follows is, as usual, an unedited selection from the book I am currently writing. This comes from the first half of chapter 4. If you want to read chapter 3, you’ll have to buy the book when it’s finished. Chapter 4 picks up where chapter 2 left off.

 

Chapter 4 (a selection)

Richard reached across the seat and opened the passenger door. Brady practically flew out of the Jeep, excited to be free from the confines of the moving metal cage. It had been a long drive and Richard was proud of how well he had behaved. He watched for a moment as Brady took in the thousands of new scents in the air and struggled to decide which one to investigate. He opened his own door and took the first few steps around the Jeep toward the cabin he’d be sleeping in for the next seven days. Nature. Solitude. Peace and quiet. He felt ready, and took a deep breath of mountain air. He slapped his hands to his chest, re-enacting something he’d seen actors do innumerable times in the movies. Even on his own, miles away from prying eyes, he was putting on a show. His performance was brought up short when he heard Brady growl.

The dog was hunched over, his hind-quarters raised and his snout near the ground. Brady made a low, guttural noise; a sound Richard had never heard him make. Brady’s growl grew in volume and intensity and Richard looked to see what might be spooking him.

“What is it Brady?”

A chill ran down Richard’s spine, carrying with it a realization – at first just a feeling, but coalescing soon into a thought. He was alone in unfamiliar territory. Who else might be out here? What else? He felt suddenly claustrophobic, as if the trees were closing in on him. He had never liked horror movies, but the few he’d seen came racing back. Flashes of masked killers and severed limbs. He turned around to look into the woods. The trees were old and tall. Little grew on the forest floor. Despite the sun, it was dark in there. Richard shut his eyes. He was being irrational and he knew it. He cleared his throat loudly, and the ghouls retreated. When he opened his eyes again he was back in a warm forest retreat.

Except for Brady, who continued to growl. At what? Richard followed the dog’s line of sight but couldn’t see anything the matter. Perhaps he smelled something he didn’t like. Richard knew there were bears in these woods. Was there a bear nearby? Kevin said no one had visited this cabin in a decade. No one in the family, anyway. That is to say, no one he knew of. Could a perfectly livable shelter really sit empty for so long and not be an invitation to occupy? These mountains may not hold a large population, but there were plenty enough hunters, naturists and hillbillies that, chances were, this cabin had been happened upon, especially given its age. How could he be sure he wasn’t walking into a cabin full of squatters, hell-bent on preserving their home?

Richard back-stepped to the open passenger door of the Jeep. He reached in behind him, his hand fumbling blindly for a moment before finding and pulling out a brand-new green, soft gun case. Without taking his eyes off the cabin, he unzipped the case and dropped it to the ground, holding the just-as-new Winchester Model 70 in his hands. Richard had never owned a gun in his life until three weeks ago. The idea of gun ownership had only crossed his mind once before that. When he and Kristine first married, all sorts of new worries and fears manifested, and protecting his new wife and home was very near the top of the list. At the very top was his performance in the bedroom. He was twenty-two, and had been with only two women before, and even then his experiences could be counted by removing only one glove. Kristine was an old-fashioned girl and wanted to wait until they were married to enjoy, and these were her words, amorous congress. Richard didn’t mind most of Kristine’s old-fashioned ways; in fact many of them he found very endearing. But on this one matter he tried again and again, without success, to change her mind. It wasn’t even religious conviction as neither was particularly spiritual, least of all Kristine, who viewed organized religion as a dangerous vestige of humanity’s superstitious past. All she would ever say on the subject was a lady does not open her bed to any but her husband. Where was she from, Victorian England? When he found the courage to ask her that very question, he learned first-hand that no, she was not, as no one from Victorian England could speak with the vitriol that proceeded from her thin-lipped mouth. So the matter was dropped from conversation, but not his mind. Despite this contention, he still loved her and wanted to protect her and their new life together. A few of his acquaintances suggested owning a gun would grant him the peace of mind he was after. He mulled the notion briefly before dismissing it, opting instead for a quality home alarm and surveillance system. And a sturdy, wooden bat within arm’s reach of the bed (as a show of machismo to try and impress his wife. It didn’t work).

His transition to gun owner was part of his master design for his week at the cabin. It served a practical purpose to ward off any predators he might encounter, as well as being a measure of security and comfort during the lonelier moments he knew he would suffer. It is one thing to be alone in your alarmed and surveilled home at the center of a gated community, and quite another to be alone in a shack in the mountains. But Richard had further plans for the weapon. The man had never fired a shot in his life, not even from a BB gun or a sling shot. He had even turned down the offer to test his new rifle at the shop’s firing range.

“Are you sure?”

The portly man behind the counter looked quizzically at Richard. He knew his type the second he walked into the shop. That was a man who never held a gun in his life. You could tell by the way he stood just inside the doorway, slightly befuddled by the sight of all the weapons on the walls and in the glass cases. Were there really so many different kinds of guns? The man laughed to himself. Here we go again. Same routine with all these clowns. He’ll wonder around the floor a bit, trying to make it seem like he was looking for something in particular. Eventually he’d tap on the glass and ask to see something from the case, nine times out of ten it was a revolver. A lot of ‘em went right for the Colt Single Action Army, also known as the Peacemaker, due to its familiarity: it looked like every revolver from those westerns movies they’d seen as kids. And it wasn’t a bad gun, just not the most practical for home protection, and that’s usually what they were after. Eventually he’d get their attention away from the six-shooters and onto something a little more in-line with the twenty-first century, like a reliable Glock 17 Gen4. This guy, though, surprised him. He did wonder around the shop for a few minutes, but instead of ending up in handguns he stopped over by the rifles. The salesman sauntered over and asked, in his most polite voice, if he could be of any help. The guy said simply

“Winchester 70.”

The man turned around and lifted the rifle off the rack and handed it to the customer.

“The rifleman’s rifle. You going hunting?”

And there was Richard’s ulterior reason. He wasn’t so daft as to expect to hit anything, but he was sure as hell going to try. He was pitting himself against nature, after all. What better testament to his dominion over nature than killing his own food? And that’s as far as Richard took the idea. What he would with the carcass in the off-chance that he managed to shoot and kill an animal hadn’t occurred to him. He had no earthly idea how to skin and clean game. This was a man who bought frozen, pre-cooked meat. But Richard was too concerned with the first part of the equation; hitting his target. He planned to use empty cans of soup and hash for target practice. He’d brought 5 boxes of 30.06 rounds, 100 in all. Plenty enough for practice, and then, the real thing. He had day dreams of being startled by a bear in the woods and killing it with one expertly place shot. He’d hang the bear’s head in his home and regale party guests with the tale.

All of that went right out the window now that he held the gun in his hands with the very real prospect of using it. The closest he’d been to firing it was reading about firing it, and that’s quite a gap, even for non-life threatening situations. Richard hoisted the gun up to his shoulder. It felt cumbersome and uncomfortable. He took one step toward the cabin and then realized the gun wasn’t loaded. He looked around in embarrassment, and then quickly walked around to the other side of the Jeep.

“Stupid.”

He opened the rear door and searched through his pack of supplies, glancing up nervously at the cabin. Finally he found a box of rounds and snatched it from the pack. He pulled the bolt back and loaded the rifle. Six rounds, and he only dropped two while loading. He pushed the bolt back in place and rose up. His hands shook while training the rifle on the front door, and his feet hesitated to carry him forward. He told himself he was being paranoid, that the cabin was empty and he’d feel like an idiot once he got inside. But the gun didn’t lower an inch. Finally his brain won control over his feet and he crept towards the cabin. Slowly he said to himself. If anyone was inside, they had to know he was out here. But there’s no one in there he argued. Still he approached the cabin, cautiously. His stomach burned. His muscles ached. He tasted bitterness at the back of his throat. I could leave. Get a hotel. Drive back down the mountain and stop at the first hotel I see. This far out, it would still be roughing it. I could pit myself against the army of roaches that no doubt infested the room. He stepped forward. I could hold up in the bathtub, fight them off with the plunger and a rolled up towel. Richard’s last stand. Another step toward the cabin. The hotel manager will write a book about it and put copies in each room next to the Gideon’s Bibles. If I die, they’ll display my corpse outside, propped up in a coffin, and charge a nickel-a-person to see Richard, the Cascades Cockroach Killer. His left foot reached out and kicked the cabin’s front porch. He snapped back to reality, and his heart tried its best to jump out of his chest, or at least beat fast and hard enough to make him drop the gun. He took a breath to steady himself. Then another, exhaling slower. What was his plan? What did they do in the movies? Kick the door down and shout expletives. He looked at the door: padlocked. The cabin was old enough; the door frame might just give way. Or he could use the key Kevin gave him. It was in an envelope in his pocket. He stepped up onto the porch. The wood creaked and groaned in protest. He froze and listened for any movement inside. He looked again at the lock. If there was anyone inside, they hadn’t gone in through the door. The door looked suddenly to him so much like any other door that before he realized what he was doing, he reached out and knocked. Three solid raps against the door with his knuckles. Adrenaline surged through his body at the sound. He gripped the rifle with renewed fervor and readied his body for anything.

 

Thanks for reading!

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Cream of the Crop

I avoided starting a blog for years. Sure, I kept a blog in college, but that’s because all the kids were doing it. Everyone had a Myspace, or a Live Journal, or a Xanga. Almost all of them were self-indulgent and worthless. But at that age, we felt the need to express ourselves. We felt that our opinions mattered, that we had a voice and a right to be heard. It didn’t matter that all most of us had to say was I hate my teachers, I hate my school, I hate my parents, blah, blah, blah. Occasionally something vaguely interesting or insightful was said but soon lost because the cream can hardly rise to the top when senseless arguments and complaining keep stirring the pot. My foray into blogging lasted a year or two before I was entirely over it and swore it off. Over the next 9 years I threw out the occasional article or short story, read the odd blog post from a friend, and left well enough alone. My opinion of blogging mellowed over the years, from mostly negative to mostly indifferent.

So what convinced me strike the keyboard again and join the blogosphere? The very thing I once judged blogging for: self-indulgence.

For the last two years, I’ve been relatively successful at keeping a regular writing schedule. The four years before that, not so much. To be fair, I hadn’t really tried. I gave myself wholly unto my job, convincing myself it was the right thing to do, and that my writing could wait. I’m not going to judge that decision, it was the best one I could make at the time, and for all I know it was the right one. But eventually the need to write came bursting forth and I could no longer smother it. And so I negotiated with my employer for one additional day-off a week, and I have since used that day as my writing day. I write throughout the week as I am able, but Mondays are a given. At first it was easy – the words poured out like a reservoir from a broken dam. But when the pressure evened out, it became more like work. I finally reached the point that I needed more motivation. And so a blog was born.

If you look at the top of this page, beneath the title, it says new posts every Monday. I made a promise to the world that I will write something and put it here every week. And even if I had no subscribers, no followers, that promise is very real to me. Why should the expectations and opinions of strangers in internet land mean so much to me? I’m a writer. Everything I do is meant to be read and hopefully enjoyed by strangers. If I miss a week, I’ve told my readers I can’t be trusted. And I’m not going to go on a journey with a guide I don’t trust.

So I started this blog for selfish reasons, I admit it. As selfish reasons go, self-improvement is pardonable. But I still have these misgivings about blogging from my past. If every week I posted a new short story, or a new chapter from a book, that’s one thing. But this is my fifth non-story post. This is the fifth post, out of seven, in which I’m just rambling on about myself. Why should anyone want to read it? I have this probably misguided notion that other writers will stumble upon this blog and take some encouragement that someone else feels the same way they do, is suffering from the same fears and obstacles they are. But how helpful is it really? Time will tell, I suppose. But is that really the blogging legacy I want to create?

My opinion of blogging is changing. I have joined their ranks. I can’t both identify myself as one of them and curse them from the sidelines. I don’t want to use them for my own gain and give nothing back. If I’m going to do this, I want to contribute. It can take time to find the right footing. A blog, like anything else, grows and develops over time. This blog, like me, is in process. I want it to be more than a hollow motivation for me to write. I want to show you how I see the world, and maybe change the way you see it for the better. I want you to show me how you see the world, and change the way I see it for the better. That sounds lofty, doesn’t it? Well, why shouldn’t it?

Changes Come

“Changes come, turn my world around,” – Over The Rhine

Over the Rhine 8_13
(Yes, my phone’s camera is terrible)

Last night I saw Over The Rhine in concert for the eighth time, a band so special to me, it was the subject of the second tattoo I received. They delivered one of the best shows I’ve ever seen them give. A comparison I know they’d appreciate: like a fine wine, they’ve only gotten better with age.

Changes certainly do come, and they are coming for me. I opened this blog with the promise that my life was soon to experience change, and while those changes are still approaching, I think it’s time I finally write about them, unsure as they may be.

I am moving. I’ve been chewing those words over for several months now, and I like the taste. It’s not the loose granola taste of small talk, or the white rice taste of work speak, or even the Halloween candy grab-bag taste of puppy love gobbledygook. It is a round, satisfying umami flavor, like a great steak or fine cheese: two of my favorite things. Add a nice glass of red and it’s shaping up to be a good night.

Of course, a diet of only meat and cheese leads to constipation, And since so much of my mind and attention have been on the upcoming move, my creative expelatory* faculties are, well, backed up. I’m disappointed in myself for failing so soon after beginning a project, but I must remember that I knew about the move before I started the book, so I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. Allowances must be made. I guess I shouldn’t expect to meet my writing goals every single week, just like I expect I will exceed them during others. But I thought I would make it more than three weeks. Oh well.

It would be easier if I knew exactly when and to where I was moving. I know where I would like to move: it is currently the only place in which I am looking for jobs. I have been out of the job seeking market for over six years, since before the economic crisis of 2008. I hadn’t experienced the difficulties of finding employment first-hand. And I still haven’t, really, I’m not going to complain, I’ve only been looking for two weeks. But if I knew I had a job and a house waiting for me in a new city, the pressures of it would be off my mind and my writing might flow a little more freely.

My internal coach/critic is telling me to put the stress into the writing. Like a method actor pulling on real emotions to perform a scene, I should channel my current emotional state into the story. And I’ve tried, to less-than pleasing results. The writing comes off wooden, stilted, insincere. But, I can’t expect to only write when I’m feeling at my best, so I plug ahead and write anyway. Nowhere near the volume or quality I want, but we can’t always get what we want.

I’m back to my old standby, though, when it comes to writer’s block. This week I picked up a collection of forty-nine Ernest Hemingway short stories, a volume that’s been waiting patiently on my shelf for several years. It’s been encouraging. I haven’t read Hemingway in a long spell, and I’m finding similarities in voice and narrative tone to my own writing. In no way am I saying I am on par with Hemingway, I am just looking for encouragement wherever I can find it, even if it’s in my own imagination.

My book is coming along. I’m writing chapter four and exploring more of the plot. I’d like to post another excerpt of the book on here soon, probably within the next few weeks. In the meantime, I invite you to pick up a book from your own to-read list and have at it. A good book cures many ills.

Check out Over The Rhine here, and pick up a copy of their new CD.

*I can make up words if I want to.

Research

I love research. I LOVE IT. Too much, at times. This last week has been one of those times.

Writers are great ones for entertaining distractions. Author Bonnie Friedman, in her book Writing Past Dark (a fantastic read that I suggest you pick up if you don’t already know it), wrote humorously and honestly about distraction. I should write, but the kitchen could use a good cleaning. I should write, but that house fly needs tracking down and killing. And so on. I’m sure most writers can relate, myself included. But my favorite distraction of all is research.

While I don’t consider myself an amateur or a novice at writing, I do recognize that I am still trying to create my own unique narrative voice. I want to be as organic as possible, letting the ideas and words drip from my fingertips to the keyboard as easily as water down a pane of glass. My last two posts, the first 2 chapters of a book, are first drafts. I will of course edit them eventually. But what exists is unedited, unfiltered me. These sentences, these phrases, these stories are examples of how my mind works. I have in the past tried to write in certain styles, emulating particular authors, with varying successes. After reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road for the second time (my favorite novel, which I have now read five times), I wrote a short story in the same style. I published a few paragraphs of it online maybe six years ago and received positive feedback on it. But it wasn’t me. Toward the end, the story floundered and died, ultimately leading nowhere. Because it wasn’t honest. I don’t want to write a dishonest word on this blog, or anywhere else for that matter.

In an attempt to be honest and write as naturally as possible, I am following my gut instincts, one of which is to write as factually as possible. As a man, I like facts. Deborah Tannen, in her book You Just Don’t Understand Me, labels the different ways in which men and women speak as “Report Talk (men)” and “Rapport Talk (women).” Men speak in reports, trading facts, because that is what we value. As Joe Friday said, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” Conversely, women seek to build rapport when they speak, desiring most of all to relate with others. Which is why women don’t necessarily want men to fix their problems as much as they just want a man to listen to them. In fiction, though, there is a point at which facts become not only boring, but inhibit the story itself. If I wanted to read facts alone, I’d read instruction manuals (and we all know men don’t need instruction manuals). As much as I love and desire facts, that can’t be all there is. And there lies my problem.

How much research is too much? I’ve heard many authors ignore research during the first pass of their book or screenplay. I can’t imagine it. I agree that the story must supersede facts. Facts should never get in the way of a good yarn. But for me, knowing the facts going into a story gives me mortar with which to build the story. After all, a lie is more believable when surrounded by truth. But facts make terrible bricks, and story is too thin when pulverized into mortar. I just spent an hour researching early twentieth century U.S.  immigration laws  to decide a single detail of the great-grandfather of a character who is only mentioned in passing in my book. I like following rabbit trails. But an hour is a long time and I could have been writing instead. Or was it time well-spent? I suppose the finished work will give the answer.

I’m not going to publish the third chapter here. At least not yet. The main problem that concerns me is the way the research affects my writing. Maybe it’s a vestige from my college days, writing hundreds of academic essays. My most heavily researched writing always needs the most editing. Invariably, as I clamber down rabbit trail after trail, my writing becomes choc-a-bloc with facts. And this quickly becomes distracting. I throw dates and names and times and locations and references at the page, leaving little room for the narrative itself. And while this is a lot of fun for me, it’s considerably less so for the average reader. The story becomes chunky, the natural flow is interrupted, and the reader loses interest because the characters become lost behind characterization. Ay, there’s the rub. The classic struggle between writing compelling characters and writing abundant characterization. It is always easier to give your protagonist (or their friend’s wife’s great-grandfather) a list of characteristics than to give him or her true character. Character is the spine of the story, the arc. Character is revealed when choices are made. Characterization isn’t bad; it’s necessary to flesh out something so long as a novel. But it must serve the character, not replace it.

In the end, I suppose this post is a reminder to myself, that while I enjoy research and reserve the right to indulge myself occasionally, the story must always come first. Do the research if I must, but then put it aside and write the story. I read somewhere, and I wish I could remember where so I could give credit, that research should be like an iceberg – only ten percent visible (if you know who said this, please leave it in the comments). I can do all the research I want, but every detail needn’t appear in the text. If it helps the character become real to me, in my mind before he reaches the page, then that should suffice.

Now that I’ve written this week’s blog post, I think I’ll reward myself with a little more research. There’s a matter about the great-grandfather’s great-great-grandfather I still need to settle.