Worth the weight: On slowing down and dropping deadlines

Two things about me, one that I don’t like to admit, and one that I love pulling from my hat whenever I need to feel superior to others:

1. I am highly superstitious about some things, and typically in the opposite way as other people.

2. I used to be a journalist.

Now that you know these two things, you’ll understand when I say that I’ve always considered Friday the 13th to be a lucky day to accomplish things, such as ask a boy to prom (he said yes) or send a novel manuscript to an agent (he, too, said yes). And as a former magazine editor and reporter, I also function best with deadlines. If I miss them, I spend a debatably healthy amount of time berating myself for being forgetful, dysfunctional or just plain lazy.

In April I told my agent I’d have a full manuscript of Nobody’s Hero to him by Friday, Sept. 13. By the time I finished extracting marrow from my bones and putting it on a page — how else can you describe writing the first draft of anything? — I had less than a month to edit it, send it to my beta readers, incorporate their suggestions, copy edit, and ship it off to Ross via the Gmail Express.

In other words, to make my deadline I’d have to go on a leave of absence during a high-stress time at my day job, stop sleeping, cut ties with all my friends, and retreat to my apartment like Johnny Depp in Secret Window. And if you’ve seen that movie, you know that it’s best for everyone that I don’t become Johnny Depp in Secret Window.

So a couple weeks ago I looked at the 2019 calendar again and saw with relief that Dec. 13 is also a Friday. The year has given me one more lucky day, and it means that I can make Nobody’s Hero exactly as I want it to be before sending it off. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Mom keeps asking me if I’m enjoying the writing. Not if I’m doing it, or if I’m almost done with it.* She wants to know I’m having fun, and now that I’m allowing myself the pleasure of time, I am.

*Lesson to friends of writers: Don’t ask how close they are to finishing a project. Ask if they’re enjoying it. My mother is a wise woman who has dealt with the many Creative Moods of Kate.

I’ll admit that the editing process started painfully. That’s what happens when you write a book over 18 months — and may be why Stephen King insists that he writes a book each “season” rather than a year and a half. When you take that long to write a story, the tone changes, and although the characters morph into what you want them to be, they don’t always do it the way they should. Case in point, Pru Mornay is absolutely heartless in Chapters One through Four, and while having a flawed main character is interesting, having an irredeemable one is off-putting. The structure was all off, with the perspective shifting between characters from paragraph to paragraph instead of section to section, and innumerable details were flat-out wrong.

In the end, I had to rewrite those chapters, and in the process, kill multiple darlings. Farewell, Foster’s glib and uncharacteristically cold remark about Pru’s dating life. Au revoir, Opal’s penthouse apartment. You were once a gorgeous description and massive plot hole.

But the revisions are becoming easier, or at least more fun, to make, and as I read through what’s already on the page, I find more opportunities to organically world-build and bring in snippets of commentary that I wanted to make clear but never had time to develop when working off plot alone. I’ve had a couple revelations and added some minor characters that help deepen the personalities of my supporting cast. There’s a notebook on my beside table that I use to write down words in the books I’ve been reading (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Robert “JK it’s Rowling” Galbraith’s Lethal White) that I want to incorporate into my own work. “Gawping,” for one. “Indefatigable,” for another. Anything to liven up the writing.

And I’m sticking to editing a chapter a night, maybe more on the weekends, fueled by scotch, whiskey or limoncello. Sure, Hemingway said “write drunk, edit sober.” These nights it feels like I’m doing more rewriting, so as far as I’m concerned, he can put that in his Cuba libre and sip it.

Because dammit, I’m having fun!

A coda: Jidenna released a new album, 85 to Africa, the week after I finished the rough draft, and the first track was called “Worth the Weight” featuring Seun Kuti. While the song focuses on the experience of displaced and emigrant Africans around the world, particularly in America, a line really spoke to me as I came to terms with having to let go of my personal deadline in favor of drawing even more marrow from my bones to bolster Nobody’s Hero to its full strength:

“And I pray that I’m the brightest sound that you ever felt / I’ma take a million flights around, ’til that shit is felt / That’s that lead the way, ayy / That’s no piece of cake, ayy…”

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Excerpt from Nobody’s Hero: Niku the Nuke

I saw a tweet today asking writers “If your novel were made into a movie, which scene would you hope readers should demand to see on the big screen?” I’m a third done with Nobody’s Hero, and so far this is my answer:

Niku the Nuke blasted through the rooftop door off its hinges, armed with his usual set of knives and grenades. But Nightfire had deterrents that didn’t need to be thrown to work. One tap of her wrists together, and a blinding shock of light made him stagger backward and almost tumble down the stairs he had just ascended.

Nightfire grabbed him by the front of his white button-down shirt — Niku was known for donning a bullet- and fireproof suit lined with his weapons — and dragged him through the gap in the copper chloride line she had drawn. At the center of the roof was an air conditioning unit that she leaned his groaning body against. Aiming her knuckles at his throat, she squeezed her fist, and a collar sprung from her gauntlet and snapped around his neck, fusing to the metal unit.

“Are you going to kill me?” he coughed, yanking at the collar. 

“Nah,” she said. “Not my style.” She started to walk away, stepping over the thick stripe of copper chloride grains. 

“Not from what I heard,” he yelled after her. 

Pru shrugged — these high-stakes villains were always trying to get in a good last line. If it wasn’t Quartz telling her she’d regret this, it was Flashbang telling her they needed to talk. He hadn’t contacted her again, but she kept using that as the thread along which to string Foster’s curiosity. 

Anyway, she didn’t need to speak to have the last word tonight. One scrape of her heel along the roof’s rough concrete, and sparks landed among the copper chloride. She watched gleefully as blue flames sprung up, coiling themselves around one of the most wanted criminals in Centropolis now strapped helplessly to an A/C unit. 

Kurt Warren had been flying helicopters for the Centropolis Broadcast Network’s news team for almost twenty years, starting when he got back on his feet after a decade in the Air Force. He didn’t know how else to use his best skill, and according to his doctor, he needed to find an outlet. Truthfully, his pension and his wife’s family’s money were enough for them to live on comfortably, but he needed something to do with his time. Volunteering at the American Legion was no longer an option after he had belted that protestor who came in trying to get people to come help him fight “a real battle” against the murderous Planned Parenthood facility across the street. So he signed on to fly the pretty redheaded traffic reporter from Channel 5 above the major highways.  

He saw plenty of car crashes, jack-knifed semis and tire fires in the morning, but nothing like what he saw flying over mountainous deserts in the middle of Operation Desert Storm. Which made the job a perfect fit — skill-oriented, but relatively peaceful. 

Until tonight, that was.  

The night-shift chopper pilot, Sameer, was in an operating room with his wife at that moment while their fourth child was being born. So Kurt was behind the controls, bobbing above Centropolis City College’s campus while a reporter he had never met angled her own smartphone camera out the window. He tried to remind her that they had a real camera loaded onto the chopper and that it was probably getting better footage for the broadcast station’s internet and TV feeds. 

“Yeah, but this is for my ’gram,” she said. “Four thousand people are watching my personal feed right now. That’s more than all of my last month’s work combined.” 

Kurt shook his head, flying around to give her a better angle. All these young reporters were the same, trying to prove that they personally were there when something like this happened. Though to be fair, this was truly an eight-in-six-billion chance to see what was below with your own eyes instead of on some screen.  

The whole world would have to rely on Kurt’s helicopter or one of the other three circling the top of the Chemistry Building to see the beautiful blue flames burning like neon in a 500-square-foot outline of Nightfire’s symbol. 


Character sketch: The Debutante

It felt like yesterday despite being almost 15 years ago when Billie Jean Carusoe walked down the country club’s grand staircase — left standing just for this purpose — in a white satin gown with matching gloves. Head-to-toe in status symbols, from a great-grandmother’s add-a-pearl necklace to her very own diamond tennis bracelet, Billie Jean floated along with ten other girls her age, all competing to outdo each other with the perfect blend of Mommy and Daddy’s dream and teenage rebellion.

Thanks to the full white skirt, no one could see Wendy Jackson’s black lace thong, shoplifted not because she couldn’t afford it but because she couldn’t risk her mother finding the receipt. The white satin bodice hid the diamond stud in Trina Sawyer’s navel (though her mother didn’t mind that, as she had been the one to take her to Spencers for that little 16th birthday gift). Sniff close enough and you might detect the weed Loretta Debs had smoked the night before, if you didn’t suffocate from the smell of Ed Hardy perfume she had bathed in before slipping on her bespoke gown.

And as for Billie Jean? The white gloves hid her knuckles, bruised and swollen from the week’s boxing matches at Arturo’s. Her slight black eye had healed in time, and with an extra coat of makeup expertly applied by her sister, no one was the wiser as to what the tallest of Poppleton Fields Country Club’s debutantes did after school every day.

Now Billie Jean silently guarded an event filled with the same kind of tycoons, socialites and ladder-climbers who politely applauded her ability to be 17 and walk in a glorified Disney princess costume. Her gloves were no longer white satin, but indestructible teflon-coated fibers that firmed up when she made a fist so that every punch landed twice the blow. While the gown decayed in her mother’s closet, her cowled coat fluttered in the night air. But despite leaving that traditional Southern lifestyle behind, Billie Jean refused to forget the feeling of satisfaction she had when her parents beamed all summer after her debut.

Her enemies knew her by the beatings she delivered in dark alleys and on slum rooftops, but she prefered another monicker: The Debutante.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 30: An ending for ‘Nobody’s Hero’

The next morning, they packed up the lab and called a local charity that was willing to take the furniture for their resale shop. Foster picked up the U-Haul and drove it into the bay where the Corvette used to be parked, and together they loaded all of the papers, armor, weapons and hard drives.

They drove to the field where Foster and his buddies had experimented with flame color via fireworks and stolen chemicals from the industrial park surrounding their subdivision. Someone had left a Very Best of Cat Stevens CD in the truck’s disc player, so they listened in comfortable silence. Pru had heard it before —Yusuf Islam was a fixture in her childhood as her parents revisited their hippie days whenever the bohemian style came back en vogue — but she had never really heard it. But now “Wild World” patched the silent gap between her and Foster in the passenger seat, and she found herself moved by it. 

“Ooh baby baby, it’s a wild world,” Stevens sang. “It’s hard to get by on just a smile.” 

And yet that’s all she had anymore. She had alienated her parents, destroyed her career and almost burned down half of Centropolis in her pursuit of saving it. The FVA didn’t want her back as Nightfire, and she couldn’t think of who to call about a job now that she had wrecked her parents’ reputation (not that they didn’t deserve it in the end, of course). No PR firm was going to hire a whistleblower who had ratted out her own parents’ unethical practices.  

What irked her the most was that she wasn’t even sure what she wanted for herself next. There was enough money in her account to sustain her for a year, but what she needed sustenance for was the question. She didn’t mind driving this truck while listening to Cat Stevens, who had now gone on to sing “Where Do the Children Play?” Maybe she could get a job driving a rig for a while. Get out of town, see the country. Listen to all the Cat Stevens, Stevie Nicks, Nick Cave she wanted. Wear denim jackets and T-shirts under flannel. Find herself under all the makeup and nail polish that she’d layered on throughout the years. 

This is an excerpt from the ending of my NaNoWriMo project this year, though the book isn’t nearly finished yet. Stay tuned for a post-mortem on the month and lessons learned. For now, I’ve got 2,000 words more to write by midnight!

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 27: Amorous Congress

Having been a bartender for ten years, Nick Matthews could tell when a date was going well, and when the dude should just put down his card and call it a night. It usually had to do with how long either person took to look through the ten to twelve cocktail cards and pick their drink. If only one of them picked it right away, it meant they wanted to get the hell out and on with their separate life. If both were antsy to order, it meant they wanted to knock it back and leave to the next thing (depending on the hour, dinner or bed). And if both mulled over the menu because they were too busy talking about other things, it meant that this was a long-term relationship in the making.

The couple that had come in tonight — Lou, the owner, had told the hostess to move them up the list for a coveted spot at the bar because he recognized them from TV — were so busy talking that Nick wasn’t sure if they’d ever order. Finally they decided on something and put the order in. Two cocktails with egg whites. Nick would have to strangle whoever decided the menu tonight should have three different shaken egg white cocktails on it. His arms were killing him. 

“An Amorous Congress and a Screaming Mimi,” he said, pushing the drinks across the bar at the couple. They hardly noticed him, but the man flipped a card out of his wallet.  

“Tab?” Nick asked. 

“Sure, why not?” the man said with a smile.  

The name of the cocktails were also a sign of where things were going. If the woman wasn’t interested in her date, no way would she have ordered a drink called Amorous Congress. There were others on the menu sometimes — Or Gee, It’s Punch!; the Boot Knocker; and the Bondage Night Special — that could be used to subliminally tell a drinking partner (or partners) what you might be up for, but there were others like Not Tonight, Satan, and We’ll Never Have Paris that hinted the other direction.  

Two Amorous Congresses, one Screaming Mimi and a draught of Whistle Pig scotch later, Nick was hoping they’d either get another round or get the fuck out. His girlfriend had texted to say she and a friend wanted to stop by, and he could use the two seats. 

That wasn’t to say he wasn’t thoroughly entertained by the couple. They had turned out to be all right folks: well-versed in their brown liquors and convivial toward him. Unlike some of the more stomach-churning dates he had seen, there was never a dull silence or barbed comment. He didn’t know where some of these guys got the idea that insulting a woman was the best way to gain her favor. 

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 10: Meet Foster Updike

Foster Updike was a tall man, had been a tall teenager and a short kid. The summer between freshman and sophomore year in high school, he had shot up six inches. The pain in his legs had been agony, but the way the girls and some of the boys looked at him that September was worth the sleepless nights, throbbing shins and, perhaps most excruciating of all, endless department store shopping to with his mom to buy new pants and shoes.

Perhaps it was his height that made him impervious to the 27-year scotch Pru had put in the monogrammed silver flask she had given him last Christmas. Not liking the taste of it — it made his mouth dry and smokey, like he had French-kissed a peat brick — he had left it in the bottom drawer of his desk. Tonight, however, had called for a celebration, and he gladly offered it up to his triumphant boss.

“You know what I like about you, Foster Up-Updike?” Pru hiccuped as she examined the flask now back in her hand.

He took it back from her but didn’t drink.

“Your name starts with an F and a U,” she said, drawing out the last vowel sound. “It’s like your parents knew you’d be too polite to tell people to fuck off, so they wanted your initials to do it for you.”

Excerpt: On the business of hiring henchmen (from “Nobody’s Hero”)

This is an excerpt from my work-in-progress, inspired by the Man Who Wears Time on His Arm when he asked me what I thought the life of a henchman would be like. We were watching The Equalizer at the time.

“As I’ve learned, there are two kinds of people looking for a job as a super villain’s henchman,” Wilcox said, tenting his fingers like he did during his lectures. “There’s people with nothing to lose, and people with everything to lose. Both have their pros and cons, of course. People with everything to lose will do anything to protect it, and people with nothing to lose have fewer inhibitions — you’re smart enough to surmise that. But they all have one thing in common: They’re dangerous but necessary liabilities.

“Sometimes they think they can double-cross you. Sometimes they decide they have a thread of moral fiber in them and go to the authorities. I had one guy try to use his brief time studying psychology to psycho-analyze me, which I must admit was entertaining. But as annoying as they can get — and I hope Todd can forgive me for this —” Wilcox turned, and for the first time Pru noticed that the burly man who had dragged her into the room was still standing by the door, silent as a suit of armor and twice as stiff. “They’re protection.”

Todd gave a thumbs up, as if the statement was praise for the job he was doing. Wilcox returned the gesture and leaned in to seek another pastry from the plate. Really, it was so Pru could hear him speak softer now:

“Ever notice how it’s always the henchmen who die first? The main villain is always the last to go. So you see, I have to staff my operation with as many desperate and-or delusional people as I can as a means of survival. Smart people need not apply — the more useless intellectually, the more useful they are physically.”

“So Todd there?” Pru asked, leaning in to survey the snacks herself.

“Linebacker for my high school football team,” Wilcox said. “Went through senior year twice, and not because he was challenged in his learning but because he was challenged in his motivation to do anything but body slam other teenagers. Our 20-year class reunion hit at just the right time for both of us. He had just gotten let go from his park district coaching job, and his wife had left him in debt up to his eyeballs. And I had just started this research, so I gave him a job.”

“Do you pay benefits?” Pru asked half in jest as she lifted her teacup to her lips, relieved that the handle had cooled down. He was right — the raspberry flavor was much better when added as syrup after the brewing process.

“Of course,” Wilcox said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “With life insurance to be paid out to his two kids, Bianca and Trevor. They’re only 10 and 12 now, but it’ll be waiting for them when they’re 18.”