DOCUMENTING THE JOURNEY

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

So, I’m about a week away from delivering my second novel to the copyeditor and it feels…I think it feels great, despite the fact that my whole being feels bludgeoned from the process.  Is it really almost done?  I can’t believe it.  They say the second book is the hardest and I’m here to say that, yes, they’re goddamn right.

Coming to the end of this journey made me think about the beginning of this journey.  What I went through to get the first book done.  It brought memories of the days when I was writing BOULEVARD on my own, without a book deal.  Before I had an agent.  When the idea of becoming a published author existed solely in my head.

I went back and found my journal, the journal I started when I was in the middle of the process, and pulled the first couple entries.  I thought it might be an interesting thing to share, now that I’m on the other side of it.  One thing that’s interesting is my relationship with San Francisco and how the city ultimately evolved into the setting for my second novel.  I can see the seeds of that decision in the journal entries themselves.

I hope this isn’t boring.  I hope it’s not the literary equivalent of showing pictures of my family vacations.  I’m sure many of you have gone through a lot of this stuff yourselves….

December 13, 2006

I’m starting this late in the game.  I’m 225 pages into the writing of Boulevard.  I’ve written and re-written the first forty pages many times. 

I wrote most of it straight from the heart without outline or thought of plot.  Which was liberating.  I’m used to making outline after outline after treatment after draft.  It felt good to just put pen to paper (fingertip to keyboard) and write.  The momentum and poetry came from that process – that “spontaneous prose”. 

And finally, when I’m closing in on the final fifth of the book, I’ve outlined it to the end.  I’m just a month or two away from completing the first draft.  And then there will be everything left to do.  A huge rewrite is in order.  I’ve left subplots dangling.  I’ve left characters hanging on ledges.  I’ve introduced motifs only to split and scatter them over a long bumpy pot-holed road.  All of the detail work has yet to be done. 

I’ve been at this story for about two years now.  I don’t have the time to put into it, not the way I did on all the screenplays I wrote before I had a wife and kids and a mortgage and a real job I cannot quit.

Today I’m mired in a scene of recollection as Darren (whose name I will change) drives back from The Slough of Despond after viewing the killer’s artwork and meeting a prostitute who cuts herself.  The Slough scene reads pretty well now, after spending numerous evenings reworking it.  But a simple scene where Darren considers the value of his partnership with ex-partner Rich is taking me all of two nights to formulate.  And I won’t finish it tonight.

I’m having trouble writing tonight.  Which is pathetic because I’m in my favorite writing spot in the world – San Francisco!  Actually the best spot is The Novel Café in Santa Monica.  But nothing beats San Francisco for ambiance, energy and inspiration.  I got here yesterday, working for the day job.  When I’m not out selling lights, I’m spending my time in the book stores, cafes, restaurants.  I discovered the Beat Generation Museum here and I’m considering taking another trip up here in a couple weeks to see Carolyn Cassady speak.  I purchased “Windblown World”, Jack Kerouac’s journals from when he wrote “Town and the City” and “On the Road”.   It is this journal, as well as the journals of John Steinbeck (written as he wrote “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden”) that has inspired me to finally keep a journal.  I must write a little something every time I sit to work on my novel. 

It’s been a struggle tonight.  I don’t feel like a very good writer at the moment.  The story is beginning to feel formulaic.  I’m not trying to write a stock crime novel.  I don’t know what genre this will fall into.  I expect a lot of trouble when I try to publish it, because no one will know how to market it. 

Sometimes I wonder if I have anything to say in the piece.   Or have I already said everything in the first hundred pages.  I feel like I’m just connecting the dots from here to the end.  The unique spark of creativity is eluding me. 

It’s such a process.  I torture myself with it.  I chew six pieces of gum at once.  I tap my foot incessantly.  I drink cappuccino and espresso and hot tea (caffeinated).  I spend my days nibbling at sunflower seeds like a rodent.  I’m anxious at writing, I’m anxious in stasis. 

This is maddening.

December 14, 2006

I’m surprised how little writing I managed to do while in San Francisco.  I was only in for two days and I wallowed in the sights sounds smells tastes of the City.  I love San Francisco more than any other place I’ve been.  I remember one set of days long ago when I was nineteen I sat in a café in the City reading Dante’s Inferno from beginning to end.  It’s such a literary city. 

I spent my two days walking in the mist and fog and rain in North Beach and eating and drinking and journeying to the Haight District and eating and drinking and bookstore hopping where I found old Doc Savage paperbacks the likes of which I read when I was thirteen and in camp in the Ojai mountains.  And I’ve been looking for them ever since, in used bookstores, and of course I should find them in San Francisco.  And I picked up Kerouac’s journals.  And the DVD “What Happened To Kerouac?”, the documentary that introduced me to the Beat Generation.  And a CD of Kerouac reading “On the Road”.  I spent time at City Lights Bookstore where I again saw Lawrence Ferlinghetti pass beside me.  Last visit I asked him to sign one of his books for me, which he did and I will treasure.

December 20, 2006

Thought I’d try a little warm-up writing on the journal before burying myself in doubt and struggle.  I’m at the Novel Café, early enough in the evening to get a little decent writing done.  I worked in the field with our L.A. rep today and ended early enough to land at the Novel by 4:30 pm.  I bought my two hours of parking and I begin the nervous clock-watching from now until 8:00 pm when I will put my last quarters into the meter. 

I sat down and read ten pages of Kerouac’s journal to get me into the mood, to slow me down a bit, to settle me and prepare me for a night of writing.  I spent a few minutes with Ralph, who told me that his screenplay, “Stronger than Steel”, will be represented by CAA.  I haven’t seen the other cast of characters yet – Paul, who was a reader for me when I worked for Wolfgang Petersen; Diana, Paul’s mother, a union reader who, along with Paul, spends her days and nights at the Novel reading scripts and writing coverage; Joe, long-time writer-buddy who is finishing his heist script, who lives on a boat in the Marina; Rob, a successful writer/director who has two films coming out simultaneously in January.  There are other regulars, like the “log guy”, a homeless wanderer who carries a lacquered, well-loved log wherever he goes.  The “veggie guy” who carries a sign on Venice Beach denouncing MacDonald’s and the full-scale slaughter of animals.  All the little gems that make the Novel such a wonderful place to write.  Such a creative pond of collective karma.

Spent some time this weekend learning about Tourette’s Syndrome, in an effort to understand more of what my son is going through.  He has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, Tourette’s and OCD.  A lot on his plate.  The Tourette’s and OCD have really taken over.  As I learn more about it I realize that I have or had Tourette’s myself, that all my strange, hyperactive tic behavior from my grade school days were the result of Tourette’s.  I still have a lot of tic behavior – biting my knuckle, clearing my throat constantly, always touching my face, obsessively eating sunflower seeds, etc.

Okay, I’m warmed up a bit, but not writing to my potential.  Still, I have so little time to write that I must get started.

I struggled through a few hundred words this evening.  I tightened and finessed the scene at the Slough of Despond.  And I deleted the three pages of transition scene after the Slough, with Darren driving home.  I’ve been trying to break through a wall for two weeks now.  This was most of the material I wrote in San Francisco, which read as dull, uninspired narrative.  I pushed through a bit on it, managed a few paragraphs to move the story forward.  But nowhere near the output I expect from myself.  My writing has been clunky lately, complicated further by the epileptic spasms of my computer as it coughs and putters in a complicated electronic death throe.  It’s been having meltdowns since yesterday when I downloaded updates to my software, and when I tried to set up my new wireless printer.  I re-booted the system tonight and when it re-upped it had cryptically reformatted my margins and font style so that the 223 pages I was so proud to have produced was reduced to 193.  I remember my excitement at having crossed the 200 page mark a few weeks back, and now I’m back under 200.  This is nuts.  I’m afraid of losing my work.  I need to get my laptop serviced before all is lost.

God, I’m tired.  I’m writing poorly.  I can’t think, can’t formulate words.  I’m writing in molasses.  I can’t focus.  Maybe it’s physical, maybe I’m sick.  Lots of people have been getting sick around me, so maybe I’m coming down with something.  My motor skills are off – I keep miss-typing; typing dyslexia, which is not me.  Usually typing is my forte.  I love typing and I rarely fumble.  But tonight I’m all over the place.  It’s a real struggle getting the words out.  Still, I managed to improve the beginning of the transition scene between the Slough and Darren returning home.  I’m going to have to pack up and leave the Novel soon.  It’s getting late and I have to be up at 5:00 am tomorrow to work the day job. 

I had a great conversation with Joe tonight about writer’s block.  He told me what I already know – if you can’t write, type.  Just keep it going.  You’ll work through the block.  Good old Joe.  He’s a real ally.  Uber comrade.  We discussed Frank Darabont, Paddy Chayefsky, Scorcese and Kerouac.  He gave me an interesting new perspective about the lionization of great writers.  He said he left that behind a while ago.  He does not hold any writer in awe.  He feels it gets in the way of developing his own sense of import as a writer – by putting some writers above him he is in effect lowering himself below them.  It allows him to focus on his writing without the constant comparison of him to other writers.  I argued that the great writers are my best mentors, my guides, the muses who help me monitor myself so that I can learn how to do the very best work I’m capable of.  I wouldn’t give up my Steinbeck, Kerouac, Hemmingway, Dickens, Updike, Augusten Burroughs, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Katherine Ann Porter, Flannery O’connor, James Baldwin, etc.  They ground me.  They center me. 

But God am I scattered tonight.  I don’t know what’s going on in my mind.  I must be getting sick.  I can’t keep a thought.  Time to pack it up and get my few hours of sleep before the long workday tomorrow.

                                                        *   *   *

 ….and on and on the journal goes.  I think it ended up being around a hundred pages, covering the next year or so, with stops and starts along the way.  It continues through the search for an agent and the sale of the book.  I love reading the journals of authors and filmmakers—it gives me insight to their process and humanizes them.  It makes what they do seem attainable.  Observing their struggles on the page gave me the courage to keep at it, year after year, until the day I could ultimately say, “this book is done.”

So, what about the Murderati gang?  Do you keep a journal when you write?  Anyone want to share an excerpt?

On my next blog I’ll be interviewing novelist Rebecca Cantrell as she looks forward to the paperback release of her fantastic, period thriller, “A Trace of Smoke.”

 

17 thoughts on “DOCUMENTING THE JOURNEY

  1. Bryon Quertermous

    Man does this hit home. Especially the part about how you’d been with the story for two years because of the wife and the kids and the day job. This has really been the first year I’ve faced that. With two little kids and a wife and a day job it’s finally starting to affect the speed of my out put. I don’t have the time or mental energy to plow three hours a night into writing like I used to. It’s damn frustrating sitting down on the couch knowing what I need to rework but being metally distracted by everything going on around me and wondering whether I’ll have to stop as I just start getting on a roll because of something with the kids. This has been weighing very heavily on my mind lately and I appreciate the insight into how you handled it.

    My blog is my journal. I tried keeping one just for myself and it never worked, but once I opened it up for public consumption I got excited about keeping it.

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I keep a journal but it’s not much about writing, usually, except elliptically. Dreams, daily gratitude, planning out my day, and lately a Tarot card experiment which I guess does have to do with writing as the main character in my Nocturne book is a Tarot reader and I wanted to get more familiar with the cards.

    I could really relate to your San Francisco entries! There’s so much life going on in that city I rarely do any writing while I’m there. In fact as I toy with the idea of moving back to Berkeley I can’t help but wonder – if did, would I ever write again?

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  3. tess gerritsen

    If I were to keep a journal, every other entry would probably read: "Can’t write worth beans today. Why did I ever think I could make a career out of this?"

    And I guess that’s the value of journal-keeping. Whenever you have problems writing the next book, you can look back at those old journal entries and see that, no, nothing is new. Every book is a struggle.

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  4. billie

    I kept extensive journals for many years, but by the time I got around to seriously working on the first novel, I had two children under the age of 3 and had to physically leave the house to write. If I tried to write at home, they wanted to color the pages, or draw pictures on them. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Blogging has taken the place of journaling for me – not that I’m blogging the same material I would journal, but just the act of writing whatever I feel like writing about, and knowing I can go back and read things from the past few years on the blog, serves a similar purpose.

    Loved your excerpt – it’s interesting b/c years ago I read the diaries of Virginia Woolf, and any diaries/journals for any writers I could find. It’s remarkable how much doubt there is when writers are writing, and yet they manage to keep at it, and produce in many cases brilliant work. It almost defies logic that we would keep going while feeling the doubt. Glad you did!!

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  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Dusty – I haven’t been able to keep a journal for over a year now. Just too much going on.

    Bryon – I suppose you’re right, the blog does become the journal. I never blogged before I was asked to join Team Murderati. As I look over my journal, however, I notice that I allow myself to be a lot more vulnerable than I do in a blog. There’s something about a blog’s instant "publication" that seems to warrant a different approach. By the way, that’s my greatest struggle at the moment–balancing the day job and family with a very tight writing schedule and deadline. It’s the hardest part of the process for me.

    Alex – man, I love the way you work. I love the way you open your mind daily to the possibilities of life. I love what you’re doing with dreams and the way you’re getting into your head with the Tarot cards. And I think Berkeley would inspire a huge output of writing from you.

    Tess – yep, that’s exactly what I saw in Steinbeck’s diaries — a lot of self-doubt. I saw it all over my journal, too. While I’ve had less self-doubt writing Book Two, I still often wonder if I have anything more to say.

    Billie – it is definitely really cool to go back and read the journal entries, with 20/20 hindsight. It reminds me that whatever I’m going through will have its end, whether it’s the good stuff or the bad stuff, and life will continue on. When I was eighteen I began a tape-recorded journal that I did every now and again for about two years. Now that’s cool stuff. I usually did it when I went on a road trip. I did it so that my future kids would see what their eighteen year old daddy was thinking, and maybe our thoughts wouldn’t be so different.

    Reply
  6. Louise Ure

    I have lots of friends who swear by journal keeping as a route to sanity, but I’ve only been able to sustain the effort for a week or so at a time. Even self-doubt gets repetitious after a while.

    But I loved your recounting of The Boulevard days.

    And yes, the second book is the hardest. Until you write the third.

    Reply
  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Ah, thanks for that little thought of comfort, Louise! I was kinda hoping to write Book Three in a coma (which is where Book Two has left me).

    Reply
  8. toni mcgee causey

    I kept journals for a little while, but they were mostly my way of thinking about the book and the characters. I’d write out problems with the stories, brainstorming. I think better via the writing process–actively seeing the words hit the page in longhand would help me process the issues, the stakes, the character conflicts.

    Occasionally, I’d include bits and pieces of my personal life–if something was upsetting me and overwhelming me, causing me doubts or just sucking away the energy. Sometimes the journal helped me put those things down into perspective. If I felt like I had given those concerns room to breathe, a place to be heard, they would quit looping in my head looking for expression and then I could go back to work. These journals will never see the light of day.

    Reply
  9. JT Ellison

    I hate to journal. Hate it. I think I don’t like to see the vulnerabilities in myself, that I want to trick my mind into thinking I’m 100% every day. I once had an English class where we had to journal – and the night before the journal was due, I was up until 4 am writing an entire semester’s worth of journals. My hand was sore for a week.

    But I see the blogging as a journal of sorts too. I’ve well-documented my road to publication, my writing angst and triumphs. So maybe keeping a writing journal wouldn’t be as abhorrent an idea as a personal one.

    All I can say is Stephen, you’re a hell of a guy. One hell of a writer, and one hell of a daddy. Thanks for the glimpse into your head.

    Reply
  10. Zoรซ Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    Very interesting post, and what a time to remember – however many books you write, you will never write another first novel.

    But I’m not a journal writer, never really kept a diary, don’t take holiday photos, never had a home-movie camera. (I can, however, distinctly remember being in my pram as a baby, being pushed down the street by my grandmother and one of her neighbours leaning in to look at me. Does that count?)

    I don’t know why I don’t do these things. I think if I tried to write down that I’ve been having a terrible day and can’t write anything, it would make things worse not better. And if I’m having a great day … I just keep writing into the night.

    I make a lot of notes on a book before I start a book, which I shove into a file, but they are plot points and bits of conversations and scenes. And I feel my way into a difficult new scene with scribbled notes on scrap paper, but nothing so organised as a journal.

    I keep a progress log as the book goes on, but that’s purely a spreadsheet of word totals, and I write a summary of each chapter as I go along so I can a) hopefully spot the plotholes forming, and b) have an easier time intertwining story edits afterwards, and that seems to do it for me in terms of keeping me on track.

    As Louise so eloquently points out – you never reach the point where writing a book becomes easy. And if it does, that’s probably the time to worry … ;-]

    Reply
  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Toni – someday a research historian is going to be digging through your attic looking for your journals. You know it’s gonna happen.

    JT – thanks for the sweet, sweet comments. Means a lot to me. I can’t believe you did your year’s worth of journaling in one night. I’d think your teacher would have recommended you to a local health counselor after reading your last dozen entries.

    Pari – writing the journal really helped loosen the brain muscle each night before I wrote. I wish I had time to keep it up.

    Zoe – it’s funny, but most of what people seem to write about in this type of journal is the negative stuff. And sometimes I wonder if that negativity spills out into the process, making the writing more difficult to do. However, the benefits tend to outway the negatives for me.

    Reply
  12. Bryon Quertermous

    Vulnerability. There are plenty of people in this comments section that can attest to me showing my vulnerability on my blog (sometimes more than is probably proper). As opposed to JT I like wallowing in my vulnerability. It’s the only thing that keeps me from being a truly grade A asshole.

    Reply
  13. BCB

    Thank you for posting this, Stephen. One of the things I love about this blog is the wealth of accumulated experience and knowledge and "street cred" for lack of a better term. Is that more than one thing? Whatever. But those things are often a bit overwhelming and leave me feeling gauche and daunted and left with nothing to say, nothing valuable to contribute.

    It feels good in a way I can’t even describe to get this little glimpse of uncertainty and vulnerability. To realize that you were once where I am now. Makes me think I might just get through it too.

    I kept a journal/diary in middle school. I stumbled across it a few years ago and read through some of the entries. It was so overly dramatic and morbid, I remember feeling surprised and grateful that I survived adolescence without one of my parents pinching my head off. I suspect I’m still capable of that kind of thing, so probably the public visibility of a blog — where my regular readers would happily pinch my head off if necessary — is a better forum for me than a journal.

    [Having trouble posting a comment. If this posts twice, or thrice, or god help me four or five times, my apologies.]

    Reply
  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    BCB – thanks for your wonderful comment. I was flying back from Dallas today, so I wasn’t able to reply in a timely manner. My early journals are definitely embarrassing and overly dramatic. Those I will hide or burn someday. I guess I just REALLY wanted attention.
    And, yes, I was where you are now just a couple years ago. And I still can’t believe I’m doing the things I’m doing now. It’s unbearably exciting and I’m very anxious to do it full-time, one of these days. Maybe if I get a TV deal…that would probably be the thing that does it. We always have to push ourselves to get to that next step, very few of us were born with a trust fund.
    I’m glad you jumped into the fray today!

    Reply

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