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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Done at last: Escaping the tyranny with sherry and Raisinets

By Hugh Gilmore

            January 14, 2008. Last Wednesday I finished the novel I've been working on for the past year and felt like I had opened a door and stepped through into space. I'd started at 8 a.m., worked hard, and in a strong, final burst finished my book at three o'clock. Post-partum depression immediately set in. Awful. I'd just staggered out of the world of creativity, which I controlled completely, and into the passive world of being judged.  
            I didn't know what to do. Without really intending to, I went upstairs and put on a scarf and ski cap and went out walking in the sleet for an hour until I was thoroughly chilled and chapped and soaked. And grumpy.
            I lay on the sofa for an hour, using every mental trick in my repertoire to calm down and not get wimpy.
            At 6:30, I decided to go to the Met Opera simulcast by myself. Renee Fleming was singing the title role in Thais.
            Great. I brought along a little airline drink sample bottle I'd filled with Amontillado sherry. I bought a box of Raisinets. And I sat in the back row and let myself cry twice. The second was in sympathy for my first girlfriend, who died about twenty years ago---her name was Carolyn...she played the violin and introduced me to the "Meditation from Thais" when I was 17.
            It's fun to sit alone in the balcony and have tears flow down your cheeks while you're eating Raisinets and drinking from a sneaked-in sherry bottle after finishing your novel while listening to Renee Fleming sing a beautiful aria — in French yet!
            The empty parking lot at 11 p.m. when I came out only added to the wonderful sadness of it all and stirred me once again to keep my life free from crap so I can be open to these edifying experiences that tell me life is indeed worth living.
            So, that helped a lot. Then it was back to work the following morning. When I say I "finished" the novel I only meant that I had written all the way up to the final words of the final scene. I had to rewrite that last section. I also decided to add a "coda," a summary of what happened to all the characters after that final scene. You know, "John and Mary decided to be stunt pilots after that day, and they'd hire themselves out to buzz county fairs." Things like that. The coda was fun to write, because, for example, you can have anything you want done with the villain's ashes after he has been cremated. That only took three days and 3,300 words and didn't need much tweaking.
            Everything that preceded that section, however, had taken a lot of time and mental effort. I mentioned when I began this project that I was inspired by Walter Mosley's very helpful book, This Year You Write You Novel (2007). I followed most of the simple guidelines he advocates, especially the injunction that you have to write every day for an hour and a half at least. I have to be honest though and say there were a few times when I played hooky.
             It felt really good to wrench myself from that relentless routine. I know I'm lucky in being able to get up and write first thing in the morning, but my commitment to it had become a form of tyranny: Get up, dress sloppy, wash sleepies out of eyes, brush hair, go down, stop at thermostat, turn up heat, open living room blinds, make coffee and toast, take them downstairs, resume writing.
            I'd start by rereading what I wrote the day before, in order to remember the plot line, and the tone and rhythm of what I wanted to do. Then, I'd read the story outline I had written to see what today's scene had to accomplish. I'd usually write for three to four hours. Then I'd be emotionally spent. Actually, it was more like mentally spent. It's like high-speed driving on a narrow road, where the effort of concentrating tired me after a while.
            I had begun on January 1, 2008, and dashed through the entire book by the end of last March, over 100,000 words. I've been rewriting since. A major problem I ran into involved Point of View. I wrote the book originally in first person, switched to third person, switched back to first, and finally settled again (in August) on third — primarily because third person allows the writer more access to what the characters know. It was a lot of work, but I must say I got to know my characters quite well by then.
            In creating characters I found I liked some of them, even if they were criminals, more than others. They developed habits of speech or exposed vulnerabilities that made me feel a great sympathy for them. Some of the female characters I even found quite attractive personally. I know that sounds weird, but try it sometime and you'll see. Just don't talk to them out loud on the R8.
            What happens now? Gathering the various sections together. Doing an edit. A few sections need punching up. Then I'll print it out and make a few copies. The most important thing is to write a dynamic cover letter meant to help me find an agent who will sell my book to a publisher. By the end of this month, I expect to have started sending those query letters.
             Once that process is under control, I'll start another book. Getting this one done has been a grind. But now, one year later, I have accomplished something I wouldn't have if I hadn't happened on Walter Mosley's book. So, I'm passing on my experience to you. Maybe you'll try to write yours this year.


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