Some Habits of A Sleepless Writer
Table of Contents
for this Site
One of the most fascinating things about a piece of writing is how it was
created. We readers see it as the final stage, everything having finally come
together in its best presentation. But how did it get there? How did J.K.
Rowling set about to unhinge the world with her mood-altering characters?
How did Ernest Hemingway cut his words down to a lean but elegant frame
of reference? Each writer has a working style, complete with preoccupations,
unusual circumstances, perhaps fetishes. I’ve learned a lot about writing
through the half-hidden life of the writer. And I do say half-hidden.
Because most of the time there is a portion of her secretive world she’s
willing to share.
Over the next few Chapter's I’ll tell you some of my hidden stuff. It’s been a
long time since I put Quick Fall of Light together, so some of what I mention
might have more to do with how things turned out than how they started.
But I can tell you this. I’m going through it all over again currently with
another book project in front of me. I’m blogging now to tell you how it
goes together as it goes together. I can’t do any more than encourage you to
write your own way through a novel (or book of nonfiction). But, perhaps,
somewhere in these secret passages that I’ve never written before you’ll learn
something that may help. . . maybe even enough to close your own book
deal. That makes it worth it for both of us.
Last update: 12-05-2013
Gray Dog Press/2010
Contact me at: email@example.com
Chapters 15 & 16
There’s an old saying in my family: “We grow too soon old and too late
smart.” I thought about this recently, when considering my trip to the Grand
Canyon country of Arizona, mostly to see the newest release of condors there.
At 63, I’d never seen Grand Canyon and, in fact, had barely seen Arizona.
Maybe it was meant to be this way. As it turned out, by only hours, my sister
and I completed our quick tour of both rims of the Canyon, never realizing
we were among the last to visit its secrets before the great federal shutdown of
national parks on October 1, 2013. The close call makes this special time even
sweeter. And it probably defines what I remember most.
It started with three young condors about to be released at the Vermilion
Cliffs on September 28. At precisely 11 a.m. the cage door was opened, while
over 300 people below awaited their flight from the cliff edge. Of course,
nothing happened. But hearts weren’t broken. Everyone knew these birds of
survival would pick their time. My guess is they’re now flying the Vermilions,
and maybe the Canyon itself. That is the wonder of where they are. . . nothing
When I saw the Canyon for the first time, when I walked its ledges and lost
my sense of depth and direction, I realized there are few, if any, guard rails.
It’s as though the image of those vast extremes can’t be tainted. There is little
safety, in the classic sense. One could be burned, bit, water deprived, suffer a
sprain, concussion, or severe tumble at any time. And this is on the most
traveled trails. I heard much heavy breathing from short, but high ascents,
and people calling to children just out of sight.
The Grand Canyon is still the American dream, of finding your own space
and doing it despite gut-wrenching odds. You can lose your life here, and
folks do. . . but, the reality is, the life you lose is mostly metaphoric. It’s the
shoes of convention you walk away from, the daily harangue of technology
trying to protect us from ourselves. This place of grandeur is also a place of
infinite gestalt. There are places between the places we see, imagine, and
explore. Any one of them can lure you back, and perhaps some have silently,
perhaps deliberately, stolen a human life every now and then. It is this sense
of freedom, this mysterious, ancient pull that intrigued me. . . as if the canyon
itself is a mighty lodestone. And it is now my dream to go back.
Since returning home, I’ve read an article in a 1984 issue of Arizona Highways
that recalled the extent of world interest in the Canyon. Even then, there was
compelling evidence that as many as half the folks that visited the Canyon
every year were foreign. One man said they have three goals in visiting the
United States: New York City, the Mississippi River, and the Grand Canyon.
My sister and I talked about that on the flight home. . . how the closure of
that park affected hundreds of visitors, many of them foreign, all of them
having planned their stay with the assurance that the mighty canyon would be
as accessible as a mighty American city or river. But, for a while, that most
precious of natural freedoms was off limits. Perhaps the Canyon will be a
higher priority next year. Perhaps tourism will reach record numbers in a
place I never saw until I was 63. Whatever the outcome, I know this land of
extremes will surmount any manmade obstacle, that some corner of it will
prevail into the next epoch of earth. Thankfully, the Grand Canyon is that
extreme and that enduring.
Note: I’d like to thank Charles Bowden, author of “Grand Canyon Trek: A Personal Journey
Through a Vertical World,” Arizona Highways, September 1984, as a reference in this posting.
Today, as I wrote from one character’s point of view, I
wondered if I was somehow falling in love with him. He’s not
possible, this character. He’s a construction of my furthest
imagination—a man tightly wound, lost in his ambition. He’s
not likely to jump overboard from a boat he’s suddenly decided
to take along the shore of Loch Ness, but he might. And that’s
what makes him suddenly desirable.
I call these characters “frogmen.” It’s a term largely forgotten
and, for me, conjures up an image of Lloyd Bridges (Sea Hunt)
falling backward off the side of a sleek outboard into water
frothing with danger. We can’t hear him when he’s down there,
his thoughts bleeped out by music, somehow both aquatic and
menacing. He could stay that way for the rest of the program,
and Lloyd often did. But somewhere along the way he mostly
surfaced with the problem solved. And then he pulled off that
wetsuit. . . and I instantly wanted to see him again the
It seems there is only one “frogman” per novel. The last one was
Martin Pritchard, a corporate bounty hunter in Quick Fall of
Light. His job as the bearer of an anti-virus against the most
devastating flu the world has ever seen is compromised by his
fading devotion to military-esque structure and his own tepid
relationship with a Big-Pharma employer. His daughter’s life is
on the line for another disease altogether, and he hungers for a
woman he lost track of a long time ago. Pritchard is Gary Busey
with no apologies, not for too much excess or too little
restraint. He pillages through the flu’s victims, sometimes
without remorse. But at other times, he’s sewing the seeds of his
own conscience, and that’s when he becomes vulnerable. . . and
exactly when I fell in love with him.
Frogmen, it seems are invisible, hidden in the mists of mind,
cordoned off in the realm of possibility, until the story requires
the jolt of their experience. Always, they know more than the
writer, and sometimes more than the reader. They have, without
a doubt, the heart of darkness, mostly turned inward. Some
would say they’re like moons that can never quite pull away
from planets of their own destruction. They’re self-possessed
and can be mysteriously missing until it’s all over but the
Would I want to be a “frogman” in another life? Why would I
want to try, when there’s at least two more I plan on conjuring
up in this one. Martin Pritchard, and now Sean Bailey. . .
they’re showing me the way.