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Cooperative Effort is Fun! (Debra Black)

I find author collaboration an interesting topic. I’ll provide my opinion on what constitutes a collaborative novel verses a collaborative anthology, and examples for each. Feel free to agree, add, or disagree below!

My understanding of a collaborative novel involves cooperation between two or three writers to produce a work. All parties strive to contribute equally during the idea, writing, and editing phases. Three contributors is by no means a hard limit, but more participants increase the odds of disagreement, which can hinder productive output. Collaboration is meant to result in a final product with one ongoing theme, and a continuous story involving intermingled settings, characters, and plotline. The authors are typically responsible for finding a publisher and getting the book edited, printed, publicized, and distributed, or a combination of some or all steps themselves.

One example of collaboration is the Dragonriders of Pern books, where Anne McCaffrey brought her son Todd McCaffrey into the franchise as co-writer. Sadly, Anne McCaffrey is no longer with us, but she has deftly passed the flame of that world to Todd. Pern continues to ignite our imaginations as he carries on her literary legacy. He may later choose to collaborate with his sister Gigi McCaffrey or other guest writers.

A collaborative anthology might involve multiple authors, or even a single author combining stories which may include a coordinated theme, timeframe, subject, or other overarching connection. These stories can be part of a whole or entirely separate from other author works in the same collection. No one story in an anthology needs to be connected by character, plot, or location to another story, unless that is the theme of the anthology. The authors can save money by writing, reviewing, editing, publishing, promoting, and distributing the anthology themselves, or hire a company to perform one or more of those tasks.

The Final Twist Writers Society periodically produces works based on the anthology framework. We offer an assortment of publications by our authors, usually set with an agreed-upon theme. One of our popular works from the past is titled A Box of Texas Chocolates, which offers tasty, and sometimes deadly, chocolates in Texas. What more could you ask for? Denizens of the Dark is one of our newer collections with sundown suspense involving creatures of the night and is available for purchase on Amazon.

Out group offers mentoring, informative lectures, peer-review sessions, and group activities that all aim to encourage upcoming writers to produce their best work. After our previous publisher closed, we decided to organize most of the process for producing a published work ourselves. A modest yearly membership fee covers most of our expenses, allows us to pursue our passion for mystery writing, and lets us share those stories with everyone interested. We permit guests to attend meetings for free for a limited time so that prospective writers can determine if our group fits their writing goals.

I have seen several websites offering previously “unpublished” authors the chance to be “included” in a collaborative anthology or novel, “for a small fee.” These fees can range anywhere from $100 to $5000 USD. Now you might ask, “What would be the point?” I personally don’t approve of paying just to be published. However, there are costs involved in preparing and circulating any publication and a fee isn’t as preposterous a suggestion as it might sound. Some of these avenues also offer the opportunity of inclusion in a collection with more “well known” authors, and a chance at coaching or having your name listed on the cover. The items offered for each vary and can come with a steep price tag, though.

Although some offers proclaim you will get to call yourself a “published author,” I suggest taking this claim with a grain of salt. The gap between what you assert, and what a reputable publishing company counts can be wide. As it is, a self-published author with a book on Amazon or other web-publishing outlet can still count. This depends on the effort you exert and how well your book is received. If you produce a good read and you can sell (yes, for actual money) your offering to a wide audience, even a self-published e-book can count.

The bottom line is, collaborative writing can be an effective way to get included in a book that might allow you to launch your writing with less effort and struggle than doing everything by yourself. That doesn’t mean it’s the only way to become a successful writer. Write what you want, for the reasons you want, on your own or with someone else. While collaborative writing can be interesting, ultimately, writing the way you feel most comfortable is what will allow you to accomplish your goals.

Debra Black

 

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Writers… Unite! (Mark H. Phillips)

Writers of the World, Unite!

by

Mark H. Phillips

Picture the professional writer, isolated and lonely in his cold garret, hunched over his typewriter late at night laboriously transferring to the blank paper the story that consumes his tortured, monomaniacal imagination. He ignores the landlady pounding on the door and her shrill carping about rent unpaid until she goes away. He takes a slug from the bottle of whiskey ready at hand, perhaps coughs consumptively, all too aware that he will probably not live long enough for the world to appreciate his wholly unique but twisted genius.

Well, good news! You do not have to be that type of writer. You can take your wonderful, sunny gregariousness and sociability and become a productive member of a happy, profitable writing team. Lots of writers are already doing it and have been for quite a while. Join the fun and take advantage of the opportunities provided by a whole range of collective, collaborative paradigms.

Let’s start small. You could write with a partner. The famous detective fiction writer Ellery Queen was originally the pair of collaborators Frederic Dannay and Manfred Barrington Lee, and then later the nom de plume was used by other authors as a house name for the Ellery Queen magazine.

Collaborations could range from relatively equal partnerships to that of a young, inexperienced writer teaming with a famous mentor, to a famous money-making author providing little more than an outline and his name to the works of others. The science fiction writer, Larry Niven, has written over twenty novels with at least seven collaborators. He has told the story several times of how he got tired of leaving failed manuscripts in a desk drawer and decided to farm them out to ambitious young up-and-comers he would meet at conventions to see if they could write the story around the roadblock he had created. If they could, and the finished product met with his approval, then he would share the credit and money with them when the work was published. In 2014 James Patterson published 16 books. How did he do it? He farmed outlines out to at least four collaborators. (See Ben Blatt’s marvelous Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve for how computer word analysis can reveal the relative contributions of writer and collaborator.)

Some writers like to share creative duties by writing chain novels in which one author writes a chapter and then passes it to another author to continue, who then passes it along, etc. Dorothy L. Sayers, Sue Grafton, Carl Hiaasen, and H. P. Lovecraft have all participated in chain novels.

Closely related to chain novels are mosaic novels. A shared universe is devised with a detailed world and characters along with a general story arc and then individual writers contribute parts of the whole, either as chapters in a multi-perspective book or as complete novels in a series. The most famous mosaic shared-world series, the Wild Cards series edited by George R. R. Martin, has been going strong for thirty-two years. Forty some authors have contributed to this universe of mutated superheroes and villains. Other famous shared-world series include the Thieves World series, Heroes in Hell, Liavek, Merovingen Nights, and the Man-Kzin Wars.

Most of the fiction you watch on TV is just a variation on these mosaic/shared world series. A showrunner often creates characters and writes the overall continuing story arc of a series but hires other writers to create individual episodes, editing their scripts and making sure a consistent tone, character development, and thematic unity is maintained. Season 3 of Jessica Jones on Netflix was a continuous narrative in 13 episodes written by 9 screenwriters overseen by showrunner Melissa Rosenberg. Comic books and the pulps invented this paradigm long ago, with an editor ensuring that individual writers didn’t screw up or change cash cow characters like Batman, Superman, Doc Savage, or the Shadow. In the pulps the illusion of a lone writer was sold to the public by the use of house names for the individual writers. Kenneth Robeson was a house name for the authors of Doc Savage and the Avenger, but at least eleven writers wrote the actual stories.

There are many advantages to this kind of collaborative writing. It’s damned hard to perfect a fictional character and story that so resonates with its audience that it becomes part of the collective mythology. Doctor Who, Jean-Luc Picard, and the team of Muldar and Scully are all cultural icons and copyright-protected corporate properties. Some great writers have gladly foregone ownership of the material they produce to get a chance to write about these characters. Alistair Reynolds, Douglas Adams, and Michael Moorcock have all written about Dr. Who. Peter S. Beagle wrote an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Stephen King and William Gibson each wrote episodes of X-Files. Many TV and movie series support shared-world novels where new writers can capitalize on already well-formed characters, plot patterns, and detailed settings.

Some iconic characters are now part of the public domain and you may appropriate them into your own work without anyone’s permission or oversight. Want to write a new Sherlock Holmes novel or a Cthulhu Mythos tale? Feel free to do so. Feel free to mix and match. I just received my copy of Gresh’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Innsmouth Mutations.

The joys of collaborative writing are many. A powerful and manic joy can be found among a group of friends bouncing ideas off one another, each writing a little, discussing and arguing a lot, and pulling all-nighters while forming a story into a novel, play, or screenplay. The contribution of many and diverse viewpoints can make the finished project richer than any one author could produce alone. 

Or this collaborative process could produce an incoherent mess, leading someone to throw up their hands in disgust, retreat to a lonely garret, and pound out their idiosyncratic masterpiece in blessed isolation and complete artistic control.

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Cheesman Park (Jack Strandburg)

CHEESMAN PARK

THE TALE

“I’m glad you finally agreed to go out with me, Tom said to Mary, still amazed, yet thankful she finally accepted his invitation to a date. “But why a picnic? I mean sure, the fried chicken, baked beans, and coleslaw looks appetizing, but we could be sitting in a movie theater eating popcorn, looking forward to a romantic dinner. And picnics generally are better on a sunny Saturday afternoon.” He cinched his windbreaker, and then gazed at the sky as dusk settled.

Mary looked at Tom and smiled, although Tom sensed her eyes were looking through him instead of at him. Her mind and focus seemed a million miles away, anywhere but on Denver’s Cheesman Park.

She raised her finger, as though she fancied herself a professor preparing to argue a point.

“Can’t you feel them, Tom?” she asked. “They’re all around us.”

Creases formed on Tom’s forehead and his mouth slackened. “Don’t tell me you believe that crap about ghosts and spirits?

Now it was Mary’s turn to frown. “I thought you were an educated man, Tom. Don’t you know the history behind the park?”

“Educated, yes, but I’m also skeptical. If I don’t see it, or see proof, I’m not buying what they’re selling.”

“But, all those bodies . . .”

“Yes, I know all about it,” Tom interrupted. “They converted a cemetery into a park but didn’t remove all the bodies.”

Without answering, Mary slid her palms on the moist grass next to the blanket, and then looked around the park as though examining the treetops. “We might be sitting on the grave of Abraham Kay.”

“Who the hell is Abraham Kay?”

“He’s the first one buried on these grounds in 1859, after dying from a lung infection. Oh, sure, they’ll tell you the first body was a man hanged for murder, but Abraham, he was the first. Most of the bodies were outlaws and paupers. Imagine, directly under us might be the restless ghost of a murderer.”

Tom shook his head. “And to think, I asked you out six times before you accepted. If I’d known you were so obsessed with the supernatural . . .

Mary sat back and folded her arms across her chest, narrowing her eyes to slits. “Tom Evans, wasn’t it you who said you like living on the edge, taking risks? Where’s your sense of adventure? You come across as macho, yet the presence of spirits scares you?”

“Hey,” Tom said, putting a hand to his chest, “I’m not scared. I just don’t believe in that stuff. No matter how you slice it, dead is dead. And yes, I know, I probably read the same things you read. There are still two thousand bodies buried here. People report spirits knocking at their doors at night, and moans coming from the park. People walking around the park at night and suddenly feel as though someone is watching, and feelings of sadness come over them for no reason; strange shadows floating among the trees. He waved his hand. “So then, tell me, given your bizarre choice and time for a date, why don’t I see any shadows? Why don’t I feel a hand on my shoulder? Why don’t I feel sad or hear moaning, or strange voices beckoning me to enter another world? I’ll tell you why, Mary, because it’s all hogwash.”

He expected a number of possible reactions, none good, but she simply widened her eyes and smiled.

“You’re forgetting about the singing woman.”

“Singing woman?”

“Yes, people reported seeing a woman singing to herself while walking through the park. When they approach, she disappears. Do you know she is the daughter of John Astor?”

“Okay, I’ll bite. Who’s John Astor?”

“He was a gravedigger. In 1893, he was stealing from the open graves when he felt a ghost land upon his shoulders. He took off and never returned.”

Tom’s mouth curled into a smile. “Astor, huh? That’s your last name. Any relation?”

Mary straightened her back and beamed. “He’s my father.”

Tom burst into laughter and turned away. “Yeah, right, of course, your father. That would make you, what . . .,” he counted on his fingers, “about one-hundred twenty years old.” He turned back and said, “I must say, Mary Astor, you’ve taken care of yourself. You don’t look over . . .”

He stopped when she started rocking back and forth, softly singing a tune with words he didn’t recognize. With every note, her form grew dimmer, until eventually she vanished from sight.

Tom put his hands on the blanket and inched back, sliding on the ground onto the moist grass, soiling his pants. He looked around the park and swallowed, unable to move for several moments.

Finally, he scrambled to his feet and dashed away from the park, without stopping to gather up the blanket or leftover food. He never returned to Cheesman Park.  

 

CHEESMAN PARK

THE FACTS

Cheesman Park in Denver, Colorado, was once Prospect Hill Cemetery, converted to a park in 1907, named such in 1908 for Walter Cheesman, a Denver pioneer.

The cemetery opened in 1858, with the first “customer” the following year. In 1872, the U.S. Government determined the property was federal land, deeded in 1860 by a treaty with the Arapaho.

The cemetery was split into various areas to represent different religions, ethnic groups, and fraternal organizations. Eventually the cemetery fell into a state of disrepair, rarely used by the late 1880’s, becoming more of an eyesore.

To prepare for the park, families had 90 days to remove the bodies of their loved one. The Roman Catholic area was sold to the Archdiocese and named Mount Calvary Cemetery, although the Catholic Church eventually sold the land back to the city in 1950. The Chinese section was handed to the large population of Chinese living in a Denver district known as “Hop Alley.” Eventually, most of the bodies were shipped to their homeland China.

The majority of the bodies were vagrants, criminals, and paupers, the main reason why more than 5,000 bodies remained unclaimed. In 1893, the City of Denver paid undertaker E.P. McGovern $1.90 per body to remove the remains, provide a new coffin, and then transfer to theRiverside Cemetery. McGovern, an unscrupulous sort, saw an opportunity to increase his profits by using child-sized caskets one foot by 3 ½ feet long for the adults. Naturally, due to “space constraints,” McGovern needed to hack up the bodies, often using as many as three caskets for one body. Sloppy and hurried work resulted in body parts and bones strewn in a disorganized mess, enticing souvenir hunters to steal items from the caskets.

Once the city learned of McGovern’s travesties, they canceled the contract and launched an investigation, although a new contract to finish the removal was never awarded.

In 1894, work started to prepare for the park, completed in 2007, although a number of bodies remained. In November, 2008, while building a parking structure to serve the Denver Botanic Gardens, human bones and coffins were unearthed and moved to another cemetery.

Today, Cheesman Park is considered a gathering spot for Denver’s gay community.

 

By Jack Strandburg

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JOHNNY CASH AND SHOWING UP

JOHNNY CASH AND SHOWING UP

Johnny Cash! Coming to our town!
I couldn’t believe it. There was nothing in the papers advertising his upcoming show. We only heard about his appearance by word of mouth from our musician friends. Even better, Johnny would perform in Torrance, California, only a few beach towns from where we lived in Redondo Beach in 1962. Husband Mark and I had all his recordings.

I was afraid we would be late. I didn’t want to miss even one number. We arrived around nine that night at the venue, a small, hole-in-the-wall club, already packed, standing room only. In fact, I don’t remember there being any chairs. There wasn’t room. A bar was set up at one end, and Mark stood in line and bought us drinks. Canned music streamed from speakers.

No other band played that night.

An hour passed. Then another. A few couples danced to the canned music. Midnight came and went. Someone announced that his plane hadn’t arrived yet. Anxious whispers and rumors fluttered around the room. We heard his plane was delayed at takeoff. Then we heard that his plane was unable to land because of the fog. But I knew my Johnny would honor his commitment and show up. Nobody gave up and left.

Finally, at close to 2:30 in the morning, from the back room up to the small stage appeared Johnny Cash, along with his musicians, Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins. He apologized and said they had barely managed to land in the fog. But he was happy to be there. Nothing could have stopped him from fulfilling his commitment to his fans. Everybody immediately forgave them for being late. We were all just so happy to see and hear him. They were troupers.

We all crowded close to the stage. I stood within arm’s length of my hero. There was just the stage with Johnny Cash, his fellow musicians, and the dance floor where the audience sang along, danced and clapped with such songs as “Cotton Fields” and “Rock Island Line.”

Now, so many years later, looking back at that night, the same excitement fills me when a favorite author is appearing at the local bookstore. I am packed in with other readers eager to hear about the new book. As writers we all have an obligation to our readers to put forth our very best effort possible. Whether we are beginners or seasoned authors makes no difference to our readers if our written words deliver and meet their expectations

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Don’t Overkill Your Character (Profile)

By Jack Strandburg

As writers seeking the one magical piece of advice making our names synonymous with Stephen King, John Grisham, Sue Grafton and a host of other best-selling authors, we’ve read it a hundred times –

If you don’t have interesting characters, you have no story.

Forget interesting! Readers absolutely must love (or hate) your characters and feel what they feel, as if they themselves were in the middle of each character’s world.

Writing pundits advise spending time developing characters; come to know them as if you were playing each one’s part.

This is called character profiling.

I’ve been at the writing game for longer than I care to admit. Through articles, blogs, how-to books, on-line courses, my own research, and a love affair with Google, I’ve produced an extensive character profile in Excel, my writing companion I would be absolutely lost without. Like most writing templates, it’s an ever-changing and ever-growing work-in-progress.

My character profile is broken down into 36 categories, among them Name, Physical Description, Background, Education, Psychological, Sociological, Relationships . . . you get the idea.

The categories themselves are subdivided into 475 rows of detail. For instance, a character’s physical description includes height, weight, hair color, eye color, physique.

How much of a character profile to fill is directly related to the role the character plays in the story. A typical story will usually contain three main characters – protagonist, antagonist, and love interest. These are the only characters requiring a complete character profile. Usually, with some exceptions, not much more than a physical description is required for the majority of the characters in the story.

The complete in the above paragraph bogged me down in my early days of writing, when I was naïve and took every piece of advice to heart. I wanted to be complete in developing my main characters, making sure I knew how they ate, talked, walked, spoke, and slept, which often required extensive thought and decision. We can’t have every character born in California and eating pasta every night for dinner.

The more I read and the more I practiced my craft, the less naïve I became. I started to take each piece of advice with a grain of salt, particularly when the advice, some from best-selling authors, often was contradictory. You know what I’m talking about . . . you’ve been there, haven’t you?

The time I spent developing the character profile consistently accomplished one thing – it kept me from writing the actual story.

Yes, interesting characters are an absolute mustfor a good story, but if nothing happens to the most interesting character in the world, you have no story.

Now when I sit down to develop a story, I work my character profile and story structure in concert. By story structure I mean plotsobstacles, and conflict. In short, events, all of which need to be worked around the goals and motivations of the main characters.

I create the bare minimum of my extensive character profile, followed by at least an idea of what events will drive the actions of the characters. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a skeleton of scenes and chapters outlined, even if a particular scene/chapter description is simply “Detective Finds Body.”

The more extensive the character profile, the more you pigeonhole that character, in essence, limiting him or her to acting and reacting according to the profile, rather than to the events in the story. Most fiction writers, whether plotters or pantsers, know a story is likely to change as each scene and chapter develops, so it’s logical to limit your character profile. You can always fill it in as the story develops.

Another reason to resist spending too much time on character profiles is only a limited amount of information is relevant to the story. For example, the fact my main character attended elementary school in Kansas only matters if something significant happened during that time and contributed to the makeup of the character. Likewise, a character’s food preference, and even how he or she eats, only becomes important if a scene requires the reader’s awareness of that character’s culinary habits.

Perhaps more importantly, since the writer’s goal is to maximize show, and minimize tell, there might be a tendency to provide nothing more than a laundry list of a character’s traits without considering the list’s importance. I fell into this trap early on, and many times threw something together just to fill in the blanks.

In my experience, the biggest benefit to limiting time spent on a character profile is it keeps me from getting bogged down in administrative details and hastens writing the actual story.

My approach is to develop the characters organically, allowing them to be shaped by eventsconflictdialogue, and other interaction with characters. Put another way, rather than develop my character, I get to know my character as the story unfolds.

If you find yourself similarly dismayed by issues related to character profiling, do consider changing your approach.

 

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New Year’s Resolution (Caden St. Claire)

CADEN’S CORRIDOR

January 2019   

jane

As writers, we find inspiration in the strangest places. Mine came in the form of a reality show called The Great British Baking Show (PBS).

The summer of 2018 proved to be a cornucopia of disasters, one after another spilling over into my life. AT&T workers destroyed my back yard to lay their fiber optic cable in April. My toilet exploded in May. Coverage was denied. I refinanced in June, and dealt with predatory contractors through July. Meanwhile, I lived out of boxes. I gained new respect for any and all disaster victims—one such victim assured me that my loss of four rooms to sewage was literally a drop in the bucket. A kidney stone in August surely meant the worst was over. Wrong. When AT&T busted my sewer pipe, they also nicked the electrical cable. I lost half my electrical power in September. Icing on the cake took the form of two back-to-back rejections from literary agents for a manuscript I’d submitted.

I was too traumatized to write. My mind and body had morphed into survival mode. Even doubling my meds to keep my nose above the sewer line didn’t help. Then, on PBS, I found something called The Great British Baking Show. One of the contestants nearly blew up a microwave, and I laughed for the first time in months. Another failed to cool her mousse completely. I watched as it sloughed off the cake plate onto the counter in a huge puddle, and farted. I guffawed. The clincher came during bread week when a woman took her buns out of the oven and proudly slid them off the baking sheet onto the counter. With yeasted breath, I followed their journey as they glided straight across the polished butcher block onto the floor!

By now, I’m sure you’re asking (1) is there a point to this, (2) will I ever make my point, and (3) how could I possibly find a modicum of hope in a baking show when I’ve never been even a halfway decent cook?

The first thing I took away from The Great British Baking Show was the attitude of these people who live to bake. It’s what they do, what they love to do, what they were born to do. And every time they failed in some way, they resolved to crack on. To keep going, no matter what.

The second serving of reality came from the words they used. I’m not talking about their British take on how to pronounce oregano or banana. I noticed that every single one of them took ownership of their craft. When I follow a recipe and read the directions out loud to myself, it goes something like this: add the yeast, let the dough rise, fold in the strawberries, and line the pans. But when they related the same information, it was: I’m going to add MY yeast, let MY dough rise, fold in MY strawberries, and line MY pans. Boom. It hit me. They owned it.

So look out, 2019, I am resolved to crack on and write, no matter what disasters befall me! And I will own my craft and take pride in my product.

Even with my buns on the floor.

 

Caden St. Claire

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Productive Procrastination (Mark H. Phillips)

Here’s my formula for writing fiction:

1) Establish a hard deadline.
2) Productively procrastinate until that deadline is imminent.
3) Open yourself to serendipitous inspiration.
4) Crank out a masterpiece.

I love deadlines. Without them, I’m not sure I would ever produce anything. I’m perfectly able to self-impose and stick to them. Over the years I’ve discovered how much time I need to stagger deadlines appropriately: first draft deadline, second draft deadline, peer-editing deadline, final submission deadline. Douglas Adams said he liked deadlines, especially the whooshing noise they made as they flew by. Not me. Failing to meet a deadline is a mortal sin. I would overwork myself into the hospital to avoid missing a deadline.

Once I’ve established a hard deadline, the next step is to procrastinate vigorously. I let weeks go by where I deliberately refuse to think consciously about what I’ll be writing. My story is on the back burner, deep in my subconscious, simmering. While it is simmering, I fill the time by immersing myself in narrative structure. You may have read the quote, “For every page you write, read a thousand.” Being retired, I can live by this maxim. I’m a junkie for narrative fiction. I spend nearly every moment of the day immersed in a novel or watching Netflix. I have a standing desk over my treadmill so I can read my Kindle while I sweat. Except when dining out, I’m not sure that I can eat unless I’m watching TV. My procrastination is targeted. I mostly write genre fiction, so I immerse myself in whatever genre I’m currently aiming at.

Some writers are afraid they’ll internalize the style or content of what they read, that their fiction will become a pastiche of whatever author they are currently enjoying. I love to read Sue Grafton, but I would cringe if my readers thought my lead character was a Kinsey Millhone clone. My solution is to wash out particular influences by reading so many stylistically diverse authors that no single author unduly influences me. Accumulating experience as a professional writer, you will gain more confidence and security in your unique authorial voice, immunizing yourself from contamination.

As I’m reading or watching TV, my story is simmering along in its subconscious mental crock pot. The approach of the deadline is what brings it to a full boil. The heat source is full grown panic. I have to wait until I am terrified that I will miss the deadline. I have to feel as if this will be the time when I will miserably fail. Surely this time I will let down my family, friends, colleagues, publisher, and fans. As I sit down at my keyboard and stare at the blank page and feel the crushing horror and desperation of writer’s block wash over me, I know I’m ready.

Now I open myself to the spark of serendipitous inspiration. The groundwork of productive procrastination sets up the fecund chemical solution. What’s needed is a single crystal around which the story will grow, seemingly full blown. Example: I needed to produce a detective short story. I had done all the prep work mentioned above, including reading some of Nevada Barr’s fiction about park ranger Anna Pigeon as well as watching a nice little film noir from 1954 called Dangerous Mission set in Glacier National Park. I’m listening to NPR in my car when I hear a snippet about a rare and spectacular eruption of Ear Geyser in Yellowstone National Park. The supervolcano below Yellowstone has been issuing ominous warnings of a catastrophic eruption for a while now, and this geyser eruption is just one more portent of the apocalypse. Of particular interest to me was that the eruption shot out debris that had become lodged at the bottom of the geyser, including such artifacts as a cement block and a 1930s era baby pacifier. Perhaps, for the purposes of my story, an heirloom watch from the same era engraved with the message, “to B. H. from his Loving Father,” is also ejected? I knew from previous readings that the toxic waters and boiling temperature of these geysers would disintegrate all human remains in short order.

Driving for the next ten minutes, the story simply fell into place, seemingly without conscious effort. In the late 1930’s Brian Holcombe was one of the thousands of able-bodied, jobless victims of the Depression who gratefully joined FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, earning enough to live on by repairing trails in our National Parks, and providing enough extra cash to send home to his young wife and son to keep them from starving. Imagine our strapping young not-yet-villain working amidst natural splendor all day beneath a broiling sun, lonely, and very, very horny. Perhaps inevitable was his affair with the pretty blond waitress from the lodge who provided him with lemonade and a sympathetic ear, and then, also inevitable, the love child that waitress produces nine months later. What’s a young man supposed to do when he really, really loves his wife and child and he really, really doesn’t want to support two families? Well, he would naturally go for a romantic moonlit walk with said waitress and newborn daughter out to view Ear Geyser. Quick bop on the waitress’s head with a rock. Wrap her and the baby in rope, attach rope to cement block, and toss them in the boiling geyser. Fast forward to the late 1950’s. (I think I’ll have this evidence-revealing eruption of Ear Geyser happen sixty years earlier so that my villain isn’t nearing a hundred years old. More suspense if he is a forty-some year old in 1958, trying to put a lid on his decades-old crime rather than a wheezing geezer stalking our hero using a walker and an oxygen bottle.)

Yellowstone Park Ranger Patrice Wade is a bit of an amateur archaeologist and public relations woman always looking for a freelance news story that would boost park attendance. Wouldn’t it be cool to get a picture reuniting B. H. with the watch he lost down Ear Geyser back before the War? Well, after some cunning detective work,Patrice finally locates successful Boston businessman and pillar of his community Brian Holcombe, and Brian doesn’t think it’s cool at all. Indeed, he insists that Patrice not tell anyone about the watch until he has made it out to Yellowstone to tell her the fascinating background that will give her a really special story. On the long drive to Yellowstone, Brian asks himself how many times do I have to dunk someone down a geyser before this will all go away, and how large of a cement block will I need to keep Ranger Patrice submerged forever? The suspenseful denouement practically writes itself. I try to make sure that my account of the heroic fight at the edge of Ear Geyser, and the poetic justice boiling of Brian Holcombe in the same toxic pool where he disposed of his lover and infant daughter, gets typed up mere minutes before my self-imposed deadline. Masterpiece cranked out. Set out a new deadline for my next work and return to arduous task of productive procrastination. A writer’s life is a good life.

 

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