Chapter One

In observance of National Novel Writing Month (no, I’m not attempting to write a novel in 30 days), I’ve decided to share the draft first chapter of my novel-in-process. Notes follow. 

We were busy since before dawn, with the furniture and last of the boxes and luggage. We said our goodbyes with a great deal of hugging and “I love you,” and “we’ll see you very soon, for Thanksgiving,” and “it’s all for the best, you’ll see. It’s God’s will, I believe that.” Dad took pictures of us beside the car, and it was only when he asked one of the guys from the moving company to take a shot of the three of us in front of the house that Mama began to softly cry. Now I can still feel the press of my teeth in my lower lip, which allowed me to save my tears for after they were gone.
      Walking back through the farm to my house, I become aware of many sounds besides the wind. I can hear my shoes scuffing on the packed dirt and gravel. A few birds twitter in the bushes and fall silent as I pass. A small plane is heading north — a tiny white cross in the western sky — and I am whispering a prayer. I don’t remember deciding I should pray but there it is, again and again. Something about Jesus and mercy, and how great a sinner I am. It might be true. You might be called upon to judge. Just keep in mind, maybe it was all my fault but it was never my idea.
      I love these trees, every one of them. They are all the family that I have left in this place. Trees make a good life for people with simple dreams, and my family has made a decent living here. I am alone now and from now on, left behind in this great expanse of trees. Being left behind feels like death, or like I imagine death will be. No matter how clearly or how long you see it coming, it happens suddenly and it’s a shock, no consolation to be found. I remain in the orchard where I have always been but now it feels like I’ve been buried here. No doubt that’s coming soon enough.
      My workshop is a hulking reddish-brown barn. It is fading in the sun and rain, from what was once a deep and rusty red. We always called it the old barn. I believe that I might paint it blue to match my house. The old house and barn sit side by side on a flat half acre surrounded by roughly forty more of mature and healthy California fruit. Apples, almonds, and prunes mostly, no citrus, a few persimmon trees. This is my inheritance. No, my devise and birthright; my quarter share of the liquidated hopes and dreams of three generations on this place. Behind me, half a mile to the north, stand the newer — and now freshly empty — house and barn that belonged to my parents. Those buildings and their eighty acres of orchards and vineyards, and forty that belonged to my brother, have been sold to a San Francisco company. I’ll have new neighbors now, I guess.
      Behind my barn is an oak tree, and hanging from a low branch on a length of chain is an old lunchbox. It’s the kind men carried to blue collar jobs fifty years ago, made of steel with a dome-shaped lid. Our grandpa would have called it a dinner bucket or a lunch pail, remembering when men on farms and in factories carried their meal in a simple lidless pail, covered with a towel or cloth to keep the food warm.
      I know it’s just a sad piece of scrap to you, hanging from its chain above the weeds, moving just a little in the breeze. And I’m just a middle-aged guy in work clothes, alone in the world and standing out here studying old truck tires and useless lengths of pipe. So maybe I’m a piece of scrap myself, leaning into that same wind. But I want that old lunchbox. I’m the only one left who still remembers what it meant, so I have to reclaim it, see it again as it was when the paint was fresh. It doesn’t need to hang there anymore, so I unhook it, carry it into the shop and set it on the bench. Tomorrow I will clean it and paint it, and maybe I’ll take it into the house.

I had bad dreams when I was small. Good ones too, of course; at six or seven years old everyone has vivid, beautiful dreams. After a nightmare I would go to my parents’ bedroom door and call out for Mama until they woke. Then my mother would come and sit on the edge of my bed. She would hug me and straighten the covers, kiss my cheek and say my imagination stayed awake after I went to sleep, and that sometimes my imagination was afraid for no good reason. She said I was safe and well, tucked into my own bed in our own good and solid house. Mama and Dad were just down the hall and would not let anything hurt me. There was my little brother in his bed and he wasn’t worried by dreams. Papa James was right upstairs and God himself was in His heaven, never sleeping. And we had dogs in the house to guard us all, besides.
      Mama said that dreams were just ideas, made of nothing. I believed her then as I’ve believed my mother all my life. Dreams are only dreams, except for one. There was one nightmare that she never knew about because it might be the one to prove her wrong. Maybe there are ideas that render parents powerless, that have no pity on families and are not impressed by courage and love. I never shared it with anyone because I feared that someday it could come true. It would step through the screen between mind and world and become my truth. It would come from wherever prescient fate is born and stand here on our land despite all our love for each other or maybe because of it, regardless even of God because maybe this dream came down from Him.
      I dreamed I was standing in front of the Blue House on a gray and windy afternoon. I was arriving home from school, and the school bus let me off in front of the house. Which is strange, not just because there is no public road in front of the house, but because that’s not where we lived. Uncle Charlie lived in the blue house by himself. 
      I look up at the house and it’s wrong. Everything in my dream is gray and charcoal gray running into black. All the beautiful bushes and trees are bare brown sticks, just stumps, and the windows of the house are dark. The glass and the curtains are gone. It’s just a shell, lifeless and abandoned. I run forward, calling their names, calling and crying but I cannot run all the way to the house, or up the steps to the front door. Something makes me turn and go around the side, by the driveway. I can see into the windows where there are no windows in life, and there is nothing inside. It’s just an empty shell, a box, without even interior walls, and certainly no people there to welcome me.
      Now I run down the driveway, through the gate, and see the back yard is also gone. Nothing but barren desert ground, tattered papers fluttering and clinging to the twigs. The great mulberry is a stump with a thin murder of crows. From the back, the windows are void sockets again, glassless and dark. Inside it’s like the cavern of a barn, nothing at all. So I turn and run, West and away from the house, down the back yard and turn and look again and stand in this place exactly where I’m standing now. So that from the back of the house I see the spirits of my family rise – one by one – like forms of smoke. They rise from the windows and float like balloons in slow motion: Dad and Mama, Papa James and Uncle Charlie, and my little brother last of all. They rise and disappear.

From my house I walk along another farm road east through an acre of almonds, to where a spur of railroad tracks cuts though our land. The farm road rises up to cross the tracks with rust-brown spikes and crossties running on the mounded ground, and stems of oat grass volunteering at the verge. Two white crosses, chest high, stand beside the right-of-way. Except for the railroad and the gap in the orchards it creates, there is nothing around me but those crosses and one hundred sixty acres of trees. Tomorrow I will have just forty left and that will have to be enough. 
        I have faith that I will have enough, that my life will always be enough. There is always work to do, so I get up every day and do my share. But I’m just Marty, and you might as well know it from the start. I am not godly, rich, or talented and James Martin Geister is the brightest light of no one’s life. I love, I have loved, I am loved, and one summer at this crossing I saw something strange, terrible, and haunting. It changed my life, then I went on. I kept the land with my father and grandfather, and carried within me a faded knot of grief and hope and amazement, as I was swept along by time.
      I believe that all of my life has been the ripples spreading out from that moment; ripples that spread without a stone or any wind at all, but flow from sorrow and absence, from what could have been if not for too much love. There was a gift too easily given at too high a price. So I think about that summer every day. I listen in solitude and it comes – vaguely, softly – like a trumpet on a radio, playing in another room.
      The years have appeared like these tracks out of nowhere but out of the orchards that have always been our birthright and identity, and lead on to a point too often lost in the tule fog. So time is the matter before us, or memory and what it makes of a man and leaves of him as it gathers up the chips of wood and broken glass that time will always make of life. The story of me and my little brother Bo, our parents and family, and all the cloudy shards of memory still left for me to find and sift and puzzle out, is the story of this land as well. You need to know about the land, and what we built and lost, and what remains.
      I remember I stood here with my little brother – we held hands – and watched men raise these markers up. They painted a name on each cross and then the year: 1972. We planted flowers all around the base of them, but those are gone. I have walked past these crosses, ridden and driven and run past them, thousands of times. But it never seemed so true until today that in all this world, for what they represent, I will not be forgiven. 

© 2013 by J. Kyle Kimberlin / Novel Work in Process

I have questions and misgivings about this work and I would be grateful for feedback from other writers and readers.

  • Is it me, or does it feel cobbled together, choppy, lacking flow?
  • Is there enough action to draw you in, or does it seem like I’m telling too much and not showing enough?
  • Do things make sense – especially the dream?
  • Do you have sympathy for the character by the time you reach the end, or does he seem like a crybaby who makes you want to put this down and go walk your cat or something?
  • Are you intrigued by his promise to tell you about the terrible event in his past, or is it basically … meh?
  • Is there anything else you’d like to share about your reaction?

Thank you for taking the time to read this and leave comments!

Throw Me A Line

Somebody throw me a line, I say!

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right …
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.

No, no, not lines from T.S. Eliot. I mean like a rope, a ring, a by god floatie or something. I am drifting too far from the shore, and will soon find myself in The Horse Latitudes again.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. …

the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.

Now stop that! I’m saying it’s hard to keep focus in these long warm days. Summer is the season of doldrums and earnest urge to nap. I’ve not succumbed, but how long has it been since my last blog post? And since engagement brought me up and out from between the lost and arid pages screens? Well I just haven’t been in the mood, is the thing. And that’s not good. I should be blogging at least a few times per week.

The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,   
Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life.

Tonight I found myself at sunset looking out from my balcony at an amazing sky over the pacific ocean and thinking we who were born have little hope of further pilgrimage, already come as far west as possible, or so it seems. We have reached the edge of exploration.

And between each word on this page, I have hit The Final Frontier. Get it? Obscure jokes for nerds, I got ‘em.

For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: “Flee, all is discovered.” It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and see the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.

– Robert Penn Warren

In the spirit of making it all the way to the edge and finding some way to prosper, and of pulling myself with your help from the indehiscent carapace of summer sleep, here’s some writing to share.

In my novel in process, the family has a grandfather who sits in a nursing home, slipping into senile dementia. He’s unstuck in time, and doesn’t know if it’s 2000 or 1948, or sometime between. Here he tells the story of bringing his family to California in the wake of the Depression.

Feedback is earnestly welcomed. Does it work for you? What do you think of Papa’s voice? Please leave a comment here or use the contact link/s on this page to send me an email. Thanks!


Chapter 3, Part 1: Coming to California

I brought my family out in 1942. We dragged up and rolled out of Joplin following a trail of postcards sent by a cousin on my wife’s side, a witless unwashed little bastard who had come ahead in search of work. I tried to talk her out of it, said we had friends and kin and possibilities and the Lord seemed pleased to see us grow where we were planted, but she would not be diverted. Those postcards were full of promises and hope. California was a land of unlimited harvest, he said, where for practically nothing a man could claim a piece of land as wide and rich as his dreams, and have no one to argue with but the bees.

I remember how that long damn road across New Mexico went on and on like the devil himself had laid it with a taut line leading west out of Texas into hell. We had a Chevrolet pickup truck with no air in it and not much air outside either. We dragged a little two wheel trailer behind us for our possibles, making six wheels in all and between there and here every tire blew out or ran flat more than once. My wife up front with me and the baby between us. John rode in the back where we made a place for him and both dogs. For shade I made a frame of old pipe and stretched a tarp. He called it a covered wagon. He was just a little thing, six or eight. I worried for two thousand miles about hitting the brakes or steering hard. I pictured that trailer jumping up to mash them all flat. We carried two jugs of water, one up front one in back, filled them every chance we got, and hardly ever had to stop and wet. It soaked right through into our clothes and dried with a salty haze of sweat that made our shirts and britches stiff.

I had friends in Missouri, some since my childhood days in school, more from farming, and a few from back in 1932 when I found short time work at the road department, bustin rock. It was a bad time and nobody thought hard about you for not havin a job, or havin one that would blister your hands and dirty your clothes. The man who fed his family had respect regardless and everybody shared. Nobody wanted to see a passing pilgrim starve to death. What would be the recompense for that, with Jesus watching us all to see if we loved each other like himself? If I had a pot of hard beans, maybe you had salt pork – don’t need much – God is with us. Between us, we got supper, see? So I never thought I’d see it, bad times or not. Never in my life would have imagined, when I set the jugs down next to a waterhose west of Gallup, what the Lord would show me, standin there upright and talking like a man, outside the fillin station.

I set them jugs down under a tree that was nothing but an erection of twigs about twenty feet high. Not a leaf on it. No breeze, and the sun was for some reason pissed off at all of us. Felt like I stood in a skillet. I would have wiped my face with my handkerchief but it would not have helped. Under the tree was a hose, fed from the tap in the wall.

Here he came, thick and heavy, his face the color of meat going bad. Just as I finished, dropped that hose back in the dirt, I heard him yell Hey you, just a damn minute. I charge for that water, it ain’t free. I stood up and looked at him and at my wife looking at us from the truck with that Charlie baby on her lap, and my boy John watching with his nose pokin over the pickup’s bed. And he yells at me again, Yeah you there, rube. I’s tired of you damn Okies ridin through here slick as you please an that water is mine. It costs, he said.

Well I averred as how I was a paying customer, my truck at his pump waiting for him to fill it and what was he waiting for. So he started moving toward me – all the great, greasy dark red sunburned mass of him heaving in oiled bib-alls – still loud, saying I could have water for free after payment for gas but not instead. Which I said was no longer very damn likely, how much for the water you sonofabitch. That hurried him up, hollerin a dollar a dollar you dirt suckin Okie bastard. I thought he might try to kill me but I heard the clank of the tailgate goin down, the panting of them both comin at a run, silent otherwise. And it was Duke that took him down, teeth in the man’s left arm, but Lady had his right hand too, before he hit the ground.

That devil laid there on the ground squealing and cussin while I dragged the dogs off him, and there came John to help with the water and tote it without being called. I told the man if he got up and came at me again I would set the dogs back on him, then I dropped a dollar on his nose. Said thems Missouri dogs, Hoss. Good for hunting wild pig. A man from Oklahoma might have wasted bullets on your ass, not me. And we moved out. My wife was upset, but I was damned proud of my boy and my dogs.

Her halfwit cousin was gone – vanished forever up into Oregon or down into hell – by the time we found Fresno. We’d had our distractions and detours and his fate wouldn’t keep. But we didn’t need him anymore. He had played his part, lured us out of Missouri into Paradise, by means of his exaggerations and damnable lies. But I came ready. Had my contacts in the Democrats. They had written letters for me to the local Grange . I had written ahead myself. It turned out my friends had friends where we were going. We spent the first week in the Pull On In Motel south of Fresno, then I was ready to go. Early one morning we loaded up children and dogs, suitcases, hitched up the trailer, pulled out over the dusty, weedy macadam and onto Highway 99. I said to Lillian I hope we’ve left nothing behind in that place, for we are not comin back this way.

The Matter Before Us

Here’s a bit of what I’ve been working on lately. I’m writing – mostly editing – a novel. I have 91,500 words, more or less, in various stages of staggering genius and shitty rough draft.

The book tells the story of two brothers on a farm in the early 1970s, their family, a summer of crisis, and the men they grow up to be. This is the prologue.

I would appreciate comments. Do you feel drawn in, invited to read more?

The Mailbox

That rusty old mailbox means something. You see a sad piece of scrap, nailed to a post among the weeds, leaning into the wind. But thirty years ago it was special to me. And maybe I’m scrap myself. I’m standing in the same weeds, leaning into the same wind, out behind the hulking pale gray building we always called the shop. A middle-aged guy in work clothes, alone in the world and staring at cast-off tires and the useless lengths of pipe. But I want that old mailbox, where our uncle would leave gifts for us. I want to remember it as it was when the paint was fresh. Tomorrow I will come with my pickup and claim it. It needs painting. And that much, at least, will not be gone with this land.

There is nothing special about me, and you should know it from the start. I am not rich or talented. James Martin Geister is the brightest light of no one’s life. I love, I have loved, I believe I am loved. And one summer in this orchard I saw something strange, terrible, haunting and perfectly normal. It changed my life. I went on, kept the land with my father and grandfather, and carried within me a faded knot of grief and joy and amazement, as I simply let the time go by.

Time just rolls on down the line, so time is the matter before us, or memory and what it makes of a man and leaves of him as it gathers up the chips of wood and broken glass that time will always make of life.

I turn and walk to the front of the shop, stand and look for a while at the back of my parents’ farmhouse, a hundred feet away on a slight rise, shaded by thick trees. It’s empty and I can imagine seeing their ghosts rising from it toward the first cloud on the road to Paradise. Except that my parents are alive, both fine and I hope to God they’re happy. They drove out from from here an hour ago, following a moving van down the road to their retirement. My heart is just heavy, deep in memory and on the verge of weeping.

I have never been this much alone in my life. I wish that someone was with me, to hear the sound of my shoes scuffing on the packed dirt and gravel, and in my breathing the thin and urgent whisper of my prayer. It’s something about Jesus and mercy but nothing explain my loneliness in this still expanse of space. More will surely be revealed. It all depends on three months I lived through thirty years ago. I was eleven and my brother Bo was eight and the summer was just beginning. Time stretched out ahead of us as long and deep as the Friant-Kern Canal. We had so much summer that it almost seemed too much; too much world in every direction, and countless days stretched through dry haze into September.

I believe all of my life has been the ripples spreading out from that time and I think about that summer every day. I listen in solitude and it comes – vaguely, softly – like a trumpet on the radio, playing in another room. But in all my forty years, there was always family with me here, a dog or more than one to run from tree to tree elated, as though she had not sniffed each trunk a thousand times before. Ranging out, she would keep her people in sight. And if we whistled, she would quickly come along.

I remember that Grandpa’s closet smelled of mothballs and shoe polish. I hid there, waiting for my brother to find me. I tried to keep my breathing shallow in the airless space with its heavy grandfather smells, and strained to hear if Bo might holler Marty! Olly olly oxen free! down in the back yard. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore. I tumbled out onto the bedroom floor, and lay panting on grandma’s brown and gray hooked rug.

I was bored, but that’s how summer always started. It took days to find something to do, and the cadence of our freedom. How could two kids in the country know what to do with so much sudden liberty? I just kept still a little while and listened to life beating down on the house and land. There had to be something we could do for fun.

Now I cross a plank bridge over the irrigation ditch and turn to face the lowering sun, toward another house where I expect to live a long, long time. The land has been divided, parts sold off, one part left to me on which to live. So I can still call part of this orchard my own, and this hard dirt trail still takes me home. All the land behind me — the shop, my parents’ house, all all the orchard east of this ditch — on that, the escrow will close in two days. The sun is nearly down on everything and everyone I love have packed their things and gone.

And soon I come to the crossing, with rust-brown spikes and crossties running on the mounded ground, and stems of oat grass volunteering at the verge. Two white crosses stand by the right-of-way. Except for the railroad and the gap in the orchards it creates, there is nothing around me but those crosses and acre after acre of fruit trees.

Trees make a good life for people with simple dreams, and my family has made a living here. There is always work to do, and I get up every day and do my share and take care of the trees and the fruit. Once I stood with my little brother – we held hands – and watched men set these two large crosses here. I have walked past these crosses, ridden and driven and run past them, thousands of times in all the intervening years.


Download the PDF.

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The Mailbox, a draft scene from a novel in process by Kyle Kimberlin, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Progress Not Perfection

I finished Draft 7 of the novel and started Draft 8. There was no party, no press release. Poets & Writers Magazine sent no one for an interview. Maybe I was expecting too much, too soon?

That was a few days ago, and now I’ve finished the rewrite of Chapter 1. It’s better. You’ll have to take my word. 

Some big decisions were needful in tackling another pass. (Oh look, a glaring non sequitur!)

Draft 8 will be an actual rewrite, not yet, still, again, another pass through the computer files pecking at them like a chicken. In other words, I’m writing the whole thing over, using what I’ve already written for reference, but creating – typing – new files. There’s just no other way to tap into fresh creativity, leave out the crap, and make it better than it is.

The emphasis will be on scenes, not plot. I need to be relieved of the mechanics of plot. It’s making my writing dry. Life is not continuous or perpetual, it’s fragmentary. Which is not to say there isn’t a story behind it, an arc. It’s just not the point, when it comes down to story. Thankfully, I have help for the plotting, a co-conspirator, so to speak. (Isn’t the term co-conspirator redundant?)

I can report, with surprise, that so far re-writing from scratch is quicker – more facile – than trying to schmooze mounds of existing text around. I know writing is rewriting, but sometimes it’s like trying to sculpt a suspension bridge out of marbles and dry sand.

Onward and inward!

Hope you’re enjoying the full moon tonight!

the mood I’m in

On Saturday, I posted that I’d learned about an interesting technique for visualizing a creative design project, called a mood board.

Wikipedia says, “A mood board is a type of poster design that may consist of images, text, and samples of objects in a composition of the choice of the mood board creator. Designers and others use mood boards to develop their design concepts and to communicate to other members of the design team.

As promised, I gave one a try for my novel in process. I had some images that I’d collected in a folder. They were meant to help inspire my writing, but had never been brought together to help each other jiggle. Other images I found pretty quickly online.

It was kind of fun, but challenging. I had to find photos taken by other people, in some cases before I was born, which actually look like what I’ve been picturing as fiction in my imagination. The dogs were may have been the hardest photos to find, because I’ve been not only imagining their appearance but their personality.

I think it turned out well, for a first attempt.

You can view and download my mood board by clicking here.

portrait of an art

The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.
— William Faulkner

I want to share some thoughts on the process of literary writing, and how long it’s supposed to take to get a book written and published.

Writing is like so many human endeavors, which can be practiced as commercial pursuit, craft, or work of art. It’s good to be good at writing for business, which I like to do. I got an A in business writing in college, and an A in rhetoric too. If you’re writing a cookbook or a travel book, or a romance novel, that’s cool. But the topic today is the literary novel, and asking how long it’s supposed to take is like asking, “How long long does it take to make a rug?”

It depends. A rug factory can knock a good one out in minutes. Here, you can watch a video of that. But we’ve all heard that a fine handmade carpet, in which each thread is tied by human fingers, takes many years to make. Some craftsmen make just a few in their lifetime, but they are more delicate and beautiful.

So my purpose in this essay is to provide a tool for those who also write literary fiction, poetry, etc. So that next time somebody walks by and says, “is it done yet?” you’ll know how to respond.


As a technical writer, I’ve written many “books.” Actually, they are documents, of a hundred to several hundred illustrated pages, and they take weeks or months to write. But that ain’t art.

In the world of fiction, there are many genres, and the approach to creating them is different. The first basic distinction is popular vs. literary fiction. I like to read both, but I’m writing literary fiction. It takes a lot longer. Don’t believe me? Think it’s just making excuses for not getting the damn thing done?

Magdalena Ball wrote this about literary fiction:

Rewrite.  This may be the single most important distinction between literary and other types of fiction.  Work that is timeless takes time. There’s no other way to achieve literary fiction besides rewriting, dozens, and maybe many more, times. It isn’t glamorous, nor is rewriting dependent on a muse or inspiration like the first draft is. It is just going over and over a work until every word is relevant and integral to the story. This process cannot occur solely in the fingers of the author. Almost every writer of literary fiction requires an ideal reader, a critique group, a mentor, or someone who can provide the kind of objective advice that will transform your inspiration into a stunning creation.

…. Writing a novel is about as hard as writing gets. Writing literary fiction can take years, often with little reward, at least until the book is completed (and in many instances, thankless even after publication, assuming you are published). But if you can’t stop yourself; if the desire for producing something truly beautiful outweighs utilitarianism, then you are really and truly a literary writer and your work will have transcendency. [Link]

Sure, the process of rewriting is exasperating, tiring, but it’s easier than trying to explain – or defend – yourself and the great rafts of time you’re spending off by yourself, tacking away at the computer. Because here in the western world, nobody respects the process of creation. We only respect results. That weaver of carpets is acknowledged for throughput, not art. As a technical writer, I understand throughput. You get the data in, you put the document out. We’re shipping products here.  

Let’s face it, if Hemingway were still alive and writing, and decided to start a new book, it wouldn’t make the news. Being wise and experienced, he probably wouldn’t mention it to many people until he was finished, and sitting across from John Stewart, who was holding it up for the cameras.

The difference between Hemingway and me is that he knew what he was doing. I have to believe what they told us in college, that if you’re aiming for art, it takes years. The writers who are getting the advance contracts and doing their books in one year are generally not writing literary fiction. They’re writing nonfiction or popular fiction, which I also appreciate and admire. It’s just not where my stupid muse led me.  

This is so obvious, it’s just sitting there anonymously on Yahoo Answers:

What is the average time it takes a writer to write a book?

There is no average time.

There are many different genres and any of them can be quite short in length or very, very long. You will read stories of how a writer completed a particular work in a month. Marcel Proust began (what came to be titled) "Remembrance of Things Past" in 1909 and did not finish it by the time he died in 1922. He is hailed as the greatest writer since Shakespeare.

Most books require research, many rough drafts, countless edits and revisions and rewrites. The process takes a lot of time. It is also exhausting. Few writers have the luxury of writing all day without distraction.

Some formula writers are able to crank out a book every six months. Some fiction writers take 10 years after one book to produce another. …Generally speaking, the more literary merit a book has, the longer it takes to write. There is however no "average time." [Link]

My own book …

It started out as a novella about two kids and a dog. The first working title was The Dogcatcher. Then I met a family, discovered a landscape that wanted to spread out, themes to be explored, plot lines to thread and intertwine. A literary novel is not a story, it is life contemplated. And life is many threads of story woven together, steeped in memory and dreams, hope and fear.

It is currently in its 6th Draft – 6th major rewrite. It’s nearly a hundred thousand words and almost 40 chapters. To get that, I’ve had to write probably over 100 chapters, and over a million words. Nothing that I wrote in the first 3 or 4 drafts is still in the manuscript anymore, because more than once I’ve had to yell “Pasta!” (Stands for piece a shit, try again.)

I’m still writing new material as needed to improve the story. And my notes, ideas, to-do lists for the current draft are a separate 30 page document in MS Word. 

Each word is a thread in my carpet. With the help of a friend who is an excellent plotting coach, I have raised the sheep, collected the wool, dried it in a harsh valley sun, dyed it, and hand-tied every knot over and over. I also trimmed it, throwing out countless yards of material. And it’s not done yet because it ain’t art yet.

It will be finished when it is.

Literary prose has to sing.

Tone and cadence are vital. It wants to evoke, foreshadow, and console.

In the opening scene, the narrator, Marty, says this:

One summer in these trees I saw something strange, terrible, haunting and perfectly normal. It changed my life. So I have kept the land with my father, as my grandfather did, and carried within me a tight and faded knot of joy and grief and amazement, as I sit here watching so much time go by. And time is the matter before us, or memory and what it makes of a man and leaves of him as it gathers up the chips of wood and broken glass that time will always make of life.

Sets itself some goals there, doesn’t it? Here’s another little thought he tosses off somewhere near the end of the current manuscript:

I would rather have had them see me waiving down from on high, bearing an enigmatic smile born in the lessons taught outside of time and space, of how perfect life is and how much better than life is death. So people die, but they keep watch on what we do and how we spend our fading days, but most don’t choose to stay too close. Everything looks purer in its blues and greens—even the dull brown between the trees and the ruddy drying tack of our blood on the land—from an infinite distance like heaven.

Here’s some random Marty thoughts as he tries to wake up and get in the shower, before visiting his grandpa in the hospital.

I laid in my bed and saw that almost thirty years had stood, been glimpsed, and died away since I was eleven years old. I laid there in my lumpy old bed and tried to believe in Papa moving on, maybe soon, in Dad following, and in the whole world going on without me. Can the world really go on spinning when all of us are gone? It seems to have that intention precisely. I thought the world should have something wise to say about all this, maybe some bland apology to make. But it only rained more ardently, as though it would not stop for days.

The whole damn book is insisting on being like that: Not so much a story of events as an episodic meditation on existence. Sure, I could have written a story with just things happening and things happening next – throw in a car chase and some sex – and had the book done in six months.

That would have been wonderful, because the fun part is writing a fresh new thing. Rewriting is a pain in the butt. But does anybody out there think that my kind of writing – even if you think it’s useless and it sucks – is easy? That it happens quickly and comes out whole in one draft, or two, or three? No, that’s how I wrote this long blog post, which we can all agree isn’t great. So basta.

The problem is that some of us – right or wrong or blindly deluded – like to think of ourselves as artists. If you’re laughing at us, please do so quietly. We’re trying to concentrate.


It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: He made the books and he died.
— William Faulkner

So how’s the book going?

Well. I’m very something that you asked.

word count 20100508

That doesn’t really tell you much, does it? There’s a lot of writing there, and some of it isn’t bad. A little is pretty good. But it’s lumpy in spots and thin and threadbare in others and it needs a lot of smoothing out and filing in. I think what it needs is a good road maintenance crew, as much as it needs a writer.

Yes, cracks and potholes and places where the pavement’s too thin. And some of the more interesting gaps are in places where the narrative stretches out over jagged rocks and rushing creeks. Don’t look down.

I might share a fresh-baked morsel with you, gentle readers, but when I’ve done that before … well, let’s just say the crickets were coming through loud in here. So let’s not.

Those who have followed my scintillating adventures with software and file management will note note with indifference that I’m still writing with Microsoft Word 2003.  Oh I paddled back and forth between Word and OpenOffice writer for a while, finding arcane and subtle differences between features and processes, customization, etc. And now I’m treading water. I like them both.

Writer has compelling advantages, including the fact that it’s new and free. Word has the advantage that I already own it, which makes the free-ness of Writer irrelevant to me.

Here’s a Web site with lots more comparison info. But the bottom line for today is, Word’s a little better if you’ve got it. Writer’s a lot better than spending money, if you need it.

At the present, I’m working with the manuscript in 38 separate numbered Word files, kickin’ it old school. This is because Word choked a couple of nights ago and crashed and scared me. That’s when it was all one 239 page file, and I was moving chunks of text around. So I’ll let it work on smaller servings for a while. 

draft 5 is in the box

Draft 5 Completed

Today I finished Draft 5 of the epic novel that will not die. All 34 existing chapters are up to draft specs, tidied up and nicely formatted. And yes, that matters. There is art in them details. So … whew.

Here are the current statistics on the manuscript.

Of course, none of that means a bloody thing unless Draft 6 is better than Draft 5, and unless the whole process moves forward toward a finished book. So I have the outline and notes for the next draft all set to go.

Technical Decisions

In the process, I’ve made a couple of decisions. First, I’m staying with MS Word as my word-processing software. And it’s going to be Word 2003. The new Beta of Word 2010 is cool, sure, but I like the old application better. No accounting for taste.

I’m going to continue experimenting with Skydrive and Live Workspace for backup and work-in-process storage, but not relying on them. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the Internet isn’t ready for working in the cloud yet. It’s too hard to maintain consistent connectivity when I’m away from my hermitage.

Finally, I’m sticking with iTunes with harman/kardon speakers, and an iPod, to provide vital distraction from the miserable hoopleheads who can’t get in and out of their cars with honking their stupid horns. Assclowns.

you okay?

OK, so you’re an 8 year old boy, playing near a pond with your brother in the summertime. Climbing into a treehouse, you fall 7 or 8 feet onto dirt and leaves, landing on your back. You’re not seriously injured, just a few bruises and scratches, but you get the wind knocked out of you pretty good.

As you lie there, held by your uncle, he asks you how you’re doing.

Now, what I’m looking for is not a direct answer to the question, like “I’m alright,” or “I’m hurt,” but more of an exclamation. Here’s what I have in the draft:

        “Here, set up a little better,” Uncle Charlie said, and helped Bo sit so that Charlie’s right hand was supporting his back. “How you doing, little guy?”

        Bo said, “Son of a bitch.”

Any thoughts? Is this believable? What do you think the kid would say, assuming that he’s heard it all and the stress of the experience overcomes his inhibitions.

Leave suggestions in comments, please!


I’m trying to write a scene in which a boy runs down a dock and jumps into a pond. Rather, I’m writing a scene in which the middle-aged narrator tries to remember what that feels like. I can’t think of a good way to do first hand research – which would otherwise be the best thing – so I’m really trying to remember what that’s like. I don’t really want to write a scene in which said narrator tries to recall said experience and fails miserably.

What in the world is that feeling, exactly?

a conversation

I was just sitting here, thinking about my big project, and wondering what it might be like to talk to a ghost. I don’t mean the way they do it in movies and those ghost hunting TV shows. I mean, what if you could have a normal conversation – no howling medium, ectoplasmic interference or spooky ethereal music – with someone who is dead.

I guess it depends on whether you believe in ghosts. My Dad and I were checking out his TV, which is acting up, and Ghost Hunters happened to be on. He asked me if they ever catch any ghosts. I said it depends on whether you accept their premises. He said no, it’s a yes or no question. I said baloney, it’s totally subjective; if you don’t believe that ghosts exist, it’s logically impossible to catch evidence of one. If you do … well, I guess you’ll need to ask someone who does, and who has watched the show.

I have watched the show, many times, but remain a profound skeptic. Sure, they present evidence of paranormal phenomena, and it’s fun. Makes for an hour of TV distinguishable from Law & Order and House. But even if we concede that their evidence is real and empirically sound, we’re still stuck.

Let’s say I believe in paranormal phenomena. ESP, telekinesis, etc. Which is more likely, that a camera or recorder caught an event in which the physical world was manipulated by a dead person’s spirit, or that those instruments were manipulated by the unconscious – maybe deliberate – psychic abilities of the “investigators?” I mean it seems reasonable to suppose that living people have greater paranormal powers than dead ones, at least in this world.

In my novel, my character Marty claims he and his house are haunted, but that he does not believe in ghosts. He says that he is haunted by memories, and that memories have life and reality and power beyond the limitations of his recollection. Memories abide, he says, a priori, apart from direct human experience and remembering. Thus it’s possible to be haunted by someone you never met, an event outside your own life. It is a twist on the old adage that someone doesn’t die so long as he is remembered. Marty says memory lives on, even if it is forgotten. The world remembers, love remembers, in spite of us who still live. And in that way, we don’t die.

Now, if I could just get Marty’s memories to sit down with him for a cup of joe and a chat about orchard-keeping, we’ve got ourselves a story.