How did you get started on your writing journey, and how long did it take until you were published?
A: We all stand on the shoulders of giants. As a writer, I have to acknowledge that some pretty good guys ran a lot of ink onto paper before I came along. Poetry was my entry into the writing world. Without knowing anything about how hard it was I decided early on—about 17 or so—to be a poet. I tried all kinds of poetry—romantic gushing, Greek dactyls in heroic form, free verse, all imitative until I met Thom Gunn who was teaching poetry at UC Berkeley. Mr Gunn, himself a terrific poet and friend of Ted Hughes, told me, after reading some of my derivative gunk that if I inhabited another man’s universe it would always be smaller than the one I could create for myself. That little push launched me into a new world and a few months after that lecture I wrote a piece called To Kepler . That poem was my first published piece. I thought—okay, that was easy. But it took about fifteen years before I had another poem in print. Jack Moodey, a huge influence on my writing told me to take my time, don’t rush into print. Learn the basics before you try to play with the big boys. That was and still is good advice. Too many beginning writers feel the need for validation long before their technique is high quality. This need produces monumental problems. A few years later I got interested in fiction. Again, success came fast—a story called Frogs come out in The Carolina Quarterly and again I thought well if it’s that easy, no sweat. But the Muses had other ideas and it took eight years for any of my work to find a home. After the initial learning ordeal, I’ve had some successes—novels, short story collections, screen plays and a couple of anthologies, one, The Seattle Five Plus One that I’m very proud of because in that poetry collection I worked with some inspired and inspiring poets who taught me a lot about craft, form, technique, drive, image, metaphor—all the good stuff you need to know to be not just a poet but a writer in this hard hard world.
Do you have an agent? (you can explain why or why not, or how you found your agent)
I am fortunate to have a very good and capable agent by the name of M. Anne Sweet. She’s a poet, graphic artist, magazine editor and, now, agent who helps me shape my writing. She asks the oblique questions that make me ask other questions that in the end answer problems of narrative, dialog, object and, what I call “plot tracks.”
You use a process called “timed writing”. Can you give us an idea what that is, and how it helps you?
Timed writing is a gift from the gods. The process is simple—set a timer (I use a standard kitchen timer), put pen to paper and write until the timer dings. Timed writing in my world comes straight out of Natalie Goldberg’s brain. She calls it “writing practice.” I wrote in Taos with her a couple of times. My writing partner, Robert J. Ray introduced me to the process after he had written with Natalie three times. He was already an important mystery writer having created the Matt Murdock series, but he said he needed something else to get him to the next level. Wow. Already working in the stratosphere and he wants to go to the next level. Natalie told him, “Bob, make your writing a practice.”Through Bob’s writing practice I adapted the technique to poetry, novel, short story, memoir, screen play. Using writing practice, Bob and I together wrote The Weekend Novelist Writes A Mystery.
I can’t say enough about timed writing as a discipline. The way I see it, writers have three problems—getting started, keeping going, finishing. Using timed writing, you train yourself to finish what you start—set your timer for five minutes, finish it. Set it for half an hour, finish it. Natalie Goldberg writes about the “marathon” by which she means write for five minutes, then ten, then fifteen, on up to an hour. When Bob and I first began working together, we developed the idea of a “90 Minute Short Story”. Using timed writing, we worked from opening to climax in 90 minutes. At one point we wanted to sell that process to Bantam Doubleday, but the editors there said no one was interested in a book about short stories, why didn’t we write one on mysteries. So our 90 Minute Story system turned into the process you can find in The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery.
How do you structure your timed writing to produce finished work?
Getting Started: Timed writing gets you going. Set the timer, write. Then we do another extraordinary thing—we read what we’ve just written aloud. If we’re working in a group, we go around the table, each person reads the piece. There’s a reason for this—get it out. Put it on the table. Speak it. Let someone else hear it and the fear of exposure disappears. Sure you’re nervous the first time but you get over it.
Keeping the juice flowing: One big addition that Bob Ray and I made to Natalie’s Writing Practice was the idea of structure. We saw that the writing marathon carried in it an inherent notion of structure. For example—what if you wanted to write a dramatic scene and you decided to devote a five minute writing to the stage set up, another five minute writing to character and description, a five minute writing for action and dialogue, a five minute writing developing complication, five minutes to bring on the intruder and to resolve the problem and the last part, a three minute writing hooking the scene you just wrote to the next one. You’d have a structure that looks like this:
Action and Dialogue
Complication and problem,
Climax and Resolution
In Twenty-eight minutes you have a complete dramatic scene. You’d know the time and place (Setting); you’d have a couple of characters onstage working; you’d know the action—what the characters do, and you’d have dialogue—what they talk about. Bring on a third character –the Intruder—to complicate the situation—the two on-stage characters have to determine the fate of the intruder; you’re one beat away from the climax and resolution.
You’ve used the timer and the timed writing to push out a complex but complete dramatic scene built on a number of parts. This is the idea of structure relating to time, and it is the key to the second problem—how to keep going.
Finishing what you start: At this point, you can see that you don’t have a problem finishing if you use the timed writing/structural technique on the front end.
Okay, you have a way to get a scene written, but how do you use timed writing to put it all together into a book? Novel? Screen play?
We’ve developed a number of techniques for stringing scenes together into an organic piece. We use a technique called “writing about the writing” to develop a “through line” for the story. You can see some of this on Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog where we work out points in the linear structure of a couple of novels. Then, we adopted a technique from screen writing that we call the “Cut-to” technique. This is a dynamic way to use writing practice to push your way through a story. Set your timer for half an hour. Go. Write “my story opens in a scene called Backlash. The objects in the scene are…” Cut to…well, here’s an example of the Cut to technique that I used when I was working out my new novel Blood which is available on Amazon.com or directly from the publisher Coffeetown Press:
1. The story starts in a Laundromat on Third Avenue in a City that might be San Francisco, but it’s not important, where Mitch gets arrested when he steals a tubful of white women’s underwear.
2. Cut to: Mitch’s apartment. The objects are the underwear as varied as a Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogue, but all white. The action is the tossing of Mitch’s apartment by the police. The hook is to the courtroom scene.
3. Cut to: The courtroom where the Judge sentences Mitch to five years because, he says, every woman has a right to the privacy of her undies. Mitch doesn’t fight the sentence. The object is the handcuffs (opens the manacle plot track) on Mitch’s wrists as the guard hauls him away. The hook is to the prison cell.
4. Cut to: Mitch’s prison cell where he sees René Grosjean for the first time. The objects are René’s hair, his arms, and the metal objects in the cell—bunk, sink, head. The hook is to the measuring scene.
5. Cut to: Mitch recounting how he’s measured the cell. It is 15 by 9. The objects are the bunk, the head, the nail scratches and smears on the walls. The hook is to René’s possessing Mitch.
6. Cut to: The cell at night. René seduces Mitch who lets him because René is the first man who ever made Mitch feel little. The hook is to Mitch’s discovery of the Camus novel. Hook is to killing René.
As you can see this technique forces you to push through the reticence you have as a writer to commit to the unknown. Once you get over that, you can write a pretty thorough story line. Once you have the Cut-to sequence down, you have something resembling a “scene list.” Once the scene list is in place, you work it—always and always using the clock to guide your hand. Here is the first Cut-to of Blood developed into scene material:
It’s hot in the laundromat. Hot and moist as the inside of a woman’s mouth. Sitting on the hard-backed metal chair beside the door, I wait for the red-headed woman to return. The magazine, an old issue of Car and Driver lays open on my lap to an article on the Audi R8, a street version of the racing machine that re-wrote the history of auto racing at Le Mans making it the perfect vehicle of the upward bound young man with two hundred thousand dollars to burn on new wheels. But I’m not interested in the R8 or the Audi record book or anything to do with wheels. I am interested in the contents of the red-headed woman’s dryer. The huge dryer spins to a stop.
I check the wall clock: 11:30 PM. Maybe she fell asleep at the TV. Maybe her lover called. Maybe they are having phone sex, their words burning up the cell towers. Maybe he paid her a surprise visit and their moans are scorching the walls of her apartment.
Notice that I’ve followed my own structure for a scene:
Setting-time, place, characters on stage, objects, character with a problem. As the scene develops there are intruders, an arrest, conflict, resolution…It’s all there, all growing out of timed writing working the parts to produce the novel. On our blog, Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog, we lay out all of this for writers to take as they will.
Do you write every day? Have a weekly word count?
I work every day. I do timed writing two days a week with a group of other writers down at Louisa’s Bakery Café on Eastlake in Seattle. If you’re in Seattle, give me call and we can write together. It’s an open group so everyone is welcome. We usually write for thirty minutes. In addition to the active timed writing on Tuesdays and Fridays, I work scenes or pages three days a week with another group of writers so I get a lot done. If I’m not engaged with the clock and the fountain pen and a pad of paper, I’m working text, rewriting. We have developed an entire book of techniques for the rewrite, most of which Bob has gotten into his wonderful book The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Manuscript.
What methods help you combat or avoid writer’s block?
As you can see from everything up to this point, writer’s block isn’t a problem. Using these techniques to develop stories, I’ve managed to produce The California Quartet four novels that Coffetown Press will publish in 2012. The first volume, The Deification is already in print and available either from the publisher or from Amazon.com. In addition to the Quartet, Coffeetown will bring out Gabriela and the Widow in 2012. I wrote Gabriela is less than a year using these techniques. Gabriela is the story of a 20 year old Mexican girl who comes to the Valley of Bones to take care of a 92 year old Widow. It’s pretty mythic.
What’s next for you, writing-wise?
Right now I’m doing some serious reworking of Valley Boy the second volume of The California Quartet. Once Valley Boy is in the can, I have a novel called Maxine just aching for a rewrite. I have a single rule for my writing—leave no book unfinished.
If you or your readers are interested in looking at some of my work, you can follow any of these links: