The Piedra River trail

Hiking the San Juans

piedra river 3The nights are getting crisp and the first brushstrokes of yellow are dotting the mountains across from the cabin. I’m coming to the end of my time in Colorado. Some time next week I’ll pack up the Kia and head back to Austin, where I’ll start re-writing the novel.

When I finished the edits on the draft last week, I realized that I haven’t played much this summer. Haven’t gone to the hot springs, haven’t gone fishing or hiking (beyond daily walks near the cabin) or tubing on the river. Haven’t done much beyond reading, editing, blogging, and haunting local coffee shops and restaurants — the epic weekend in Fort Collins was the one exception. I’ve been to Pagosa Springs plenty of times over the years and I’ve done all that stuff, so I haven’t exactly felt like the kid practicing scales on the piano while his friends play ball in the sun. I’ve been doing what I came here to do and I’ve been happy doing it.

But after I turned over that last page and counted up the cuts – I chopped 59,000 words/202 pages, bringing the draft down to 88,000 words/340 pages — I felt like I deserved a little fun. So I packed up my new camera and went hiking.

Four Mile Falls
Four Mile Falls

I’ve got this map showing all the hiking trails around here, and I picked a couple that I haven’t explored before. The first one was Four Mile Falls (discovered by Spanish explorers who originally dubbed it “6.45 kilometer falls”). The map said the hike was “moderately” difficult, which means every so often you’ll hit a massive hill studded with loose rocks that will make you wish you’d brought your mule (mine’s in the shop, unfortunately). But in the stretches where you’re not staring at your feet to avoid breaking an ankle, the scenery is breathtaking. The trail winds through deep evergreen forest, broad meadows, blankets of grapevine turning red with autumn, and little mountain streams sliding over smooth stones. And through every break in the trees, there’s another stunning mountain view.

After all that serene beauty, the falls injects some dramatic beauty: a little stream jumping off a big cliff in a halo of spray. I climbed around the boulders at the base for a good hour, taking photos and getting drenched every time the wind shifted. There’s something elemental and soothing about water flowing over rock that makes you want to lay on the moss and take a nap (which explains white noise machines and all those “mountain waterfall” recordings). I was very tempted. I was also hungry after hiking four miles, so I headed back, chatting along the way with other folks on the trail, including half a dozen Kansans, a Great Dane lugging saddlebags (apparently the Kansans’ mule was in the shop too) and a couple of deerless bow hunters who cheerfully told me that another hunter had seen a mountain lion on that very trail earlier in the day.

Thanks for that little detail, guys. Mind if I walk back with you?

The next day my calves were barking at me, but the weather was so beautiful again that I picked an easier trail and went out again. The Piedra River trail is about 15 miles north of Pagosa and follows the river for miles and miles (one of the great things about the trails in Colorado is how they’ve placed beautiful rivers and creeks next to most of them). I hiked about three miles through some stunning rock canyons and formations – the photos do a better job than I can in words – with the trickling of the river as background music before I turned around.

I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday.

(Final bear update (I hope): After the last bear encounter, I moved the hammock closer to the cabin, next to the walking path. Yesterday I was settled in with a book when one of the neighborhood bears came loping from behind me onto the path. He stopped about six feet from the hammock, took a step in my direction, then saw me tumbling out of the hammock and skittered away. I probably would have been more alarmed, except this one wasn’t much bigger than a cub. But I have pretty clear evidence now that bears are attracted by hammocks.)

demo

How to gut a novel for its own good

Those of you who tuned in at the start of this blog will remember that I drove to Colorado in July lugging a lot of words. My draft was 147,720 words, to be precise. And I loved each and every one of them. How I toiled over that dependent clause at the bottom of chapter 38, until it sang to me in this perfect, tinkling dependent clause voice.

Still, I knew that many of them would have to be selectively culled from the herd in the interest of not making agents and publishers choke. Being a newbie to fiction, I wasn’t aware until recently that 147,000 words is a lot for a novel, unless you’re Tom Wolfe or you’re writing the Unabridged History of Western Civilization.

When I printed out the draft at the Pagosa Springs UPS store, it didn’t look mastodon-like. It was 312 pages. Hey, it’s not that bad, I thought. Then I realized that it was single-spaced, in 11-point type, with margins so skinny that the words filled nearly every inch of the page. Which left very little space to scribble my edits on the hard copy. My notes look like tiny hieroglyphics from an ancient scroll written with a hummingbird feather. Three hundred pages of that.

For days, I’ve been squinting at those notes and making all those changes in the computer file. I’ve also got pages and pages of other notes, re-written dialogue, and scraps of new material scattered among legal pads and computer files. All of those are going into the soup too.

I’m on page 274 of the hard copy – about 40 pages from the end. So far, I’ve cut more than 53,000 words from the draft. In other words, more than a third of it is getting flushed.

And it feels pretty good.

I think 10 years of working behind an editor’s desk at the newspaper (not to mention years of grading college journalism students’ work) has made me a little ruthless, even with my own stuff. I also think that letting the draft sit in a drawer for a year helped. I’m so removed from the writing that it’s like reading someone else’s work — someone else’s bloated, unfocused work. All of a sudden, that dependent clause at the bottom of chapter 38 seems so … dependent.

So I’m going all Zorro on it with the red pen and trying not to flinch too much in the process.

Between the slashing X’s, I can see little glimmers in there where the dialogue or a plot twist still gives me a little jolt of pleasure, sections that even my squinty-eyed inner editor can read and say, Okay, it’s not all crap.

I’m hoping to finish this phase (which we will call the Drastic Amputation Phase) in a few days. I’m guessing I’ll end up with less than 87,000 words when the carnage is over. That’s still a lot, but no longer in the holy-shit-that’s-long category.

At that point, the book’s going to resemble an office building hit by a good-sized tornado, with big sections sheared away and scattered by the wind. Enough of the supporting structure will be left to keep it standing, some of the furniture and decorations inside will be oddly untouched, and the characters will be shuffling around in a daze wondering what the hell just happened. (In that metaphor, I get to be both the architect and the tornado.)

Oh yeah, and I have no idea how it’s going to end anymore. I’ve messed around with the first 250 pages so much that my current ending makes absolutely no sense anymore. I guess I could have a good-sized tornado drop down from an angry sky and wipe everybody out (except for the unredeemable minor character whose sudden epiphany in the face of senseless destruction gives the story a sense of profound closure). I think an F3 would about do it. Would that be cheap?

I think I mentioned a while back that I’d probably be re-writing big sections of the novel. I was correct.

Which seems daunting. It is daunting. It’s a lot of work. I just need to take what’s still there, weave it together with some new stuff, make my characters deeper and more compelling, and turn this mess into something people might actually want to read.

In less than 100,000 words.

Solitude and the art of losing your mind

solitude

“All true artists, whether they know it or not, create from a place of no-mind, from inner stillness. The mind then gives form to the creative impulse or insight.” – Eckhart Tolle

I’ve been alone in this cabin in the San Juan Mountains for seven weeks now. Seems like an appropriate time to talk about solitude, loneliness and living without cable TV, a cell phone and Internet for days at a time. And about finding the “off” switch for my brain.

Just to be clear: I’m not cloistered, I still get my grid fix every few days when I drive into town. Some days I head into town just to hang out in a restaurant or coffee shop with other human beings, to get online and connect to my support system (I ended my Facebook abstinence in a hurry up here).

But I do have a lot of alone time. I’m not married, no kids, so being alone isn’t a big change. The big change is being alone without all the usual electronic binkies, and being hundreds of miles from my family and my friends. And I miss them. Family and friends the most. But the other stuff too. In the cabin, I can’t flop on the couch and channel surf, can’t watch college football this weekend (unless I park myself in a bar), can’t pick up the phone and text or call somebody when I get the urge, can’t fill the empty hours with email and web surfing and Facebook. Which was the idea. I’m here to work on my novel without distractions.

(A quick novel update: Sunday I finished my first read-through of the draft – the first really thorough edit, on a hard copy. Yesterday I started making those changes in the computer and cut 10,000 words/44 pages on the first day. It won’t be a 147,000-word beast when I’m done.)

It’s an interesting shift. A cell phone signal and wifi is now something I look forward to instead of something that’s just there, like oxygen and bad Austin traffic. When I come into town, I try to keep my grid time to about two or three hours so I can do my other errands and head back up the mountain. Some days I end up lingering for hours longer, not wanting to be cut off.

Being off the grid has also meant a lot of time alone with my thoughts – and a lot of time to feel very lonely if I let that seed sprout in my brain. Which it will if I’m not diligent. If it wasn’t for regular visits from the bear, I don’t know what I’d do. (A quick bear update: he/she jolted me awake the other night by using the cabin as a scratching post, and yesterday I startled him/her into a full run during a walk on the path. So I guess we’re even.)

my friends the Kolvoords
my friends the Kolvoords

Thank God for the Kolvoords. Larry and Terrie are the only people I know up here. Larry used to be a photographer at the American-Statesman before he and Terrie retired and bought a place in Pagosa. They’ve had me over for dinner. They’ve come up to the cabin for a visit. They’ve met me at coffee shops and restaurants. They’re good people.

I also have a big stack of DVDs I can play on the laptop. And I have my ipod, which is always on. Somehow it picks up NPR at 8,500 feet, one of only two stations I can catch (along with KWUF, less talk and more of the music you love). Since I don’t have a TV, it’s my only way to pipe in the outside world. But there’s still hours and hours of just me and my busy little brain, which will spout mostly useless thoughts all day long if I let it.

It’s my third radio station: KAOS (more talk, less of the music you love), a stream-of-consciousness station that likes to play in my head during every waking hour, featuring a heavy rotation of hits from yesterday (dredging up memories of the past), today (angst about my novel, my general life direction), and tomorrow (angst about my novel, my general life direction). Between the big hits, it likes to throw in a million little trivial thoughts that swirl around like caffeinated gnats.

Maybe you don’t have that kind of brain. If so, god bless you.

After a couple of previous extended stays in the cabin, I’ve learned that it’s best to lose my mind soon after arriving. Or rather, to turn it off when it’s not in use, like a radio. I just finished reading “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle for probably the third or fourth time. It’s an amazing book. As the title suggests, it’s about living in the present moment (rather than the past or future) and getting your chirpy little brain to STFU. Very simple concept, very hard to do in real life.

I read the book pretty much every time I’m up here because the cabin is a perfect controlled laboratory for that sort of thing (in other words, a mostly stress-free environment that’s nothing like real life). If I really concentrate and work at it, I can turn off the noise at will. It’s a peaceful, Zen-like experience, like leaving a noisy bar and walking onto a silent street.

And because if I don’t practice that particular skill, I’ll probably go a little crazy up here.

chainsaw2

Chainsaws and scalpels

The weather in the San Juans was just about perfect over the weekend: low 70s in the daytime, big fluffy clouds drifting over the aspens and dragging their shadows up the mountainsides. I would have enjoyed it a little more if I wasn’t trying to decide who to kill.

I’m 240 pages into editing the draft of my novel and sometime late last week, I decided someone else needed to die (and die sooner in the story). Writer’s bloodlust, I guess. If I have to lop off big chunks of the story to shorten this beast (147,000 words, if you’re keeping track at home), then someone’s going down with those parts of the ship. It just took a while to decide who would draw the proverbial black bean. It was a little creepy, mentally lining up my characters like the criminals in The Usual Suspects and saying to one of them: sorry, I know you survived in the draft, but…

Why kill someone else? Why increase the body count? Because these characters are making a perilous journey and I realized that the perilous part doesn’t really hit home until the climax, near the end of the novel. That made me think about something in Anne Lamott’s book (the wonderfully-written Bird by Bird), about letting bad things happen to your characters, and I’m realizing that I was a bit of an overprotective parent the first time through this story. So in the re-write, they’re getting knocked around more.

And one in particular gets knocked dead. A minor character. They have much higher mortality rates than main characters (did you know that the average life expectancy for a minor character today is only eight chapters? True fact). It was actually pretty easy once I convinced myself that she needed to go and plotted out how I’d do it. It was, I suppose, like a lot of pre-meditated murders: the planning took a lot longer than the actual deed. About 10 minutes of typing, and it was finished.

I haven’t even started the real re-write yet, by the way. I’m reading through the draft for the first time in about a year, getting familiar with the story again and alternately reaching for the scalpel and the chainsaw. The scalpel is all the little stuff that I can’t let pass without marking: tweaking descriptions and dialogue, minor trims to sentences and paragraphs, fixing punctuation. I’ve made, oh, about 5,000 of those so far.

I’ve also killed off entire chapters – probably more than ten so far. That’s the chainsaw work. Most were just little scenes that I liked, but in the cold light of editing, they don’t serve the greater story so they get the big “X” through them. One of them featured a rookie Border Patrol agent trying to interview a suspected undocumented immigrant near the river and botching the Spanish, while the man patiently answers the questions even though he can tell the agent means to ask something else. Then he starts speaking English because he’s not undocumented after all, he’s a local having some fun with this rookie. “I got the amnesty back in the ’80s,” he tells the agent. “God bless Ronald Reagan.” Hilarity ensues.

It’s gone. Chainsaw victim.

This is slow work, slower than I’d expected. I still had that newspaper mentality when I started this stage of the process, thinking I could burn my way through 50 pages a day (which is what I did the first time I “edited” the draft. Turns out I just tickled it a bit). Now I’m marking up every page, making notes about how I want to alter sections or whole chapters. When sudden inspiration has struck, I’ve re-written an entire chapter or significant parts of chapters. If I get through 25 pages in eight or nine hours, that’s a good day. Some days it’s more like 10 or 12.

Yesterday I “finished” 20 pages. This particular section was part of the buildup to the climax, and I’m seeing what a tangled mess I made. Dead-end plot tangents. Multiple twists that should be straight lines because they’re more confusing than intriguing. Little cameo characters who, like a tepid lover, arrive on the scene and quickly depart without making much of an impression or impact on anyone. Whack, whack, whack.

It feels good knowing that the story will be shorter, tighter – and hopefully a lot better. But I gotta admit, drawing big X’s through entire pages of prose that I remember agonizing over is … not so fun.

And when I’m done making all of my thousands of little marks on the hard copy, I’ll scoop them all up, along with all the new bits and pieces I’ve been writing on the laptop, and all the notes I’ve made in two legal pads, then take a deep breath … and start re-writing the whole thing from the beginning.

Then the real fun begins…

ψ

scardeer

Meet the neighbors: demon-bunny, scar-deer and thug cows

The other day I was working at my card table-desk up here in the beautiful San Juan Mountains when a peeping tom glanced in the window at me.

My desk is situated in the front corner of the cabin, between two windows. The window to my left offers a reliably breathtaking mountain view. If I ever wonder, “What the hell am I doing up here in the middle of nowhere?” I just turn my head to the left and go, “Oh yeah. That’s why.”

The window to my right looks out onto a grassy area shaded by a big spruce tree. Anyway, I was typing away when I looked up and saw a big round eye and a red wattle. It was a big male turkey, running the point for several hens. He actually was peering into my window, because as soon as I got up to fetch my camera, Tom and the ladies turned around and quickly waddled back the way they came.

These are my neighbors. There are no other humans in the immediate vicinity (just a lot of empty summer cabins), so my only consistent company are critters. After a month or so of watching through the windows, I’ve started recognizing some of them. Like scar-deer.

Scar-deer likes to graze around the cabin, and I’ve startled her (and vice versa) several times while I was out walking around. I know it’s the same deer because she has these long parallel scars down her side. It looks like a mountain lion took a swipe at her. It’s probably from something more mundane like barbed wire, but it sets her apart from the other deer – she’s got that mysterious deer-with-a-past thing going.

Another regular is the little chipmunk that sits on the wood pile and does this high-pitched chattering that seems to go on forever and bores into my temples like rusty screws until I grab a piece of kindling and fling it at him. He scampers to another log and starts up again until I chunk something else at his tiny head. It’s a little game we play. I haven’t named him, because he’s a dead chipmunk once my aim improves.

Many of my neighbors here are nocturnal, and bumping into them in the dark is always its own little adventure. My first week in the cabin, I went outside to take a leak, flashlight in hand, when the beam found a pair of huge, glowing, blood-red eyes just ahead of me. I was sure it was a rabid coyote or a mountain lion about to pounce.

demon bunnyThen it went hop-hop-hop (nose-wiggle).

Oh, a bunny. Eat hot death, bunny, you literally scared the piss out of me.

And I can’t discuss the wild kingdom up here without giving a nod to the loudest neighbors on the block: the cows. There’s a herd of them down the hill from me in a big fenced-in meadow. I guess I haven’t spent much time listening to cows, but they make some primal, disturbing sounds, much like the huge plant-eating dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park movies. Someone apparently told them what happens to cows when the cushy free-range gig ends.

Every now and then a few cows end up on the wrong side of the fence and hang out next to the dirt road like bovine hitchhikers. Which is no big deal when I’m in the car, I just slow down and wait for them to clear the way (although a few of them have eyed the Kia rather aggressively, probably thinking “I can take that thing.”)

But the other night I was taking my evening stroll and walked right into a bunch of them. I was checking out the mountains, not really paying attention to the road, then …

They look docile. Until they get you alone.
They look docile. Until they get you alone.

Oh. Hi guys, what’s up? They were watching me, motionless, silent. A bunch of cows, staring me down. Creepy.

I thought about backing away and returning to the cabin, since I was outnumbered ten-to-one and they were all bigger than me. Then I remembered the food chain and got my swagger back. I kept walking like the cows weren’t there. Then a couple of them started walking toward me, very slowly.

I kept walking, avoiding eye contact, but I could hear them behind me: clop, clop, clop. Then I whirled around to face them, and … they stopped. It was exactly like the climactic standoff in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I was glancing from one cow to the other, wondering which one of us was Clint Eastwood in this scenario, when one of them dropped a big, wet cow patty right in the middle of the road.

That broke the tension. We all had a good laugh and I continued my walk.

But I’ve learned, you gotta watch your step in this neighborhood.

hammock

About that bear, part 2: Encounter in the aspen grove

It was only a matter of time before the bear and I crossed paths. These woods are only so big. (If you missed the earlier posts about the bear, you can catch up here and here.)

Yesterday afternoon, I hung the hammock I’d hauled up to the cabin from Austin. The weather was perfect, it had that crisp Indian Summer quality – blue sky, slanting golden sunlight, with the faintest hint of autumn in the breeze. A good day, I decided, to hang the hammock and stare at the aspens for a couple of hours. (I’ve discovered that the perfect antidote for feeling stressed about not making better progress on your novel is to lie in a hammock for a chunk of the afternoon. It’s like magic).

I found the perfect spot at the back of the property: two aspens the desired distance apart, dappled shade, a good breeze, and a view of nothing but aspens and pines. I proceeded to stare at the trees with my ipod playing something instrumentally mellow. Tree-gazing music.

I was on about track 4 of my Tree Gazing playlist (“Bascar Azad” by Bliss, if you care) when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Big, black, furry movement. A big-ass bear had crept to within 25 feet of me (I paced it off later for journalistic accuracy) and was moving in my direction, apparently oblivious to my presence.

You might be thinking, “Dave, weren’t you scared shitless?” Which is a valid question. One thing I’ve learned from living in bear country is that bears are keenly aware of two smells: human garbage and human fear. (A University of Idaho study on bear olfactory systems found that to a bear, human fear smells almost exactly like a medium rare ribeye with a side of twice baked potatoes.) To be honest, I was too surprised to be afraid.

I was, however, acutely aware of the precariousness of my situation, dangling there between two trees like an overstuffed enchilada.

Your mind works really fast when a bear is, um, bearing down on you. First thought: what’ll happen if I just sit here quietly and the bear bumps into the hammock and gets startled? (I don’t think you want to find out).

Second thought: I’m armed with only a pillow and a hardware store fly swatter, can I MacGyver them into a lethal, bear-killing weapon? (doubtful, you’re not even doing much damage to the flies).

Third thought: Can I get out of this hammock without flipping myself off it with a big crash that will sound like a delicious slab of meat hitting the ground? (probably a 50-50 chance).

While I was sorting through those thoughts, the bear was moving closer. I’m guessing here, but it seemed about 15 inches away. So I decided to announce my presence in what I hoped would be a non-startling way for the bear. I cleared my throat. Kind of like you’d do when the barista at Starbucks is chatting with his co-worker and ignoring you even though you’ve been standing there, tragically under-caffeinated, for like 30 seconds.

Huhmmm-mmhh!

The bear stopped. Rotated her (or his) head around, looking for the source of the sound (I’m thinking, I’m right here! Open your eyes!). Lifted her nose into the air and bobbed her head, a little like James Brown listening to the groove and waiting to drop that first lyric (Got to get ready…for the big payback. Heyyyyy!).

I’m swaying slightly in the hammock, waiting to see what she’ll do, mind still racing: Should I clear my throat more assertively? Give a big yell? Throw the pillow? Do any bear prey items make a sound like someone clearing their throat? Probably too late to worry about that.

Then she caught my scent, or something. She sort of leaned to one side, like Bugs Bunny winding up for one of those sneaky-quick escapes, and went bounding into the forest with lots of bear-crashing-through-the-woods sounds.

Crisis over. And I can always wash the hammock.

Of course the minute it was over I was kicking myself for not having my camera with me. Then I was kicking myself for not having anything with me that could deter an ill-tempered bear. (I know, I know, black bear attacks on humans are extremely rare. That just means that they only kill and eat people now and then).

I’m not going to get caught defenseless like that again. Next time I hit the hammock, I’m taking an extra pillow.

ψ

Oh Captain: a short tribute to Robin Williams

People call them imperfections. But they’re not. Aw, that’s the good stuff.”dead poet's society

– Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting

Robin Williams died Monday. Suicide, apparently. And just like that, 40 years of rollicking genius on film and stage goes silent. Very sad.

His death hit me deeper than most celebrity deaths; Dead Poet’s Society is my favorite film. It was the movie I watched when I started teaching journalism at the University of Texas. Robin Williams’ poetry-loving prep school teacher was my model for teaching with passion (apparently, it was obvious: a couple of my students wrote ‘Oh captain my captain’ on my Facebook page at the end of one semester. I about fell out of my chair). It was the movie I watched when I was working up the courage to leave a perfectly good journalism career and make this leap of faith into writing fiction.

Great comedy and great acting (or for that matter, great fiction) is infused with anger or suffering or some other deep existential angst from which performers draw such powerfully true performances. They go down into those dark places most of us are afraid to go and come back to show us what they’ve found – dressing it in humor or the skin of an unforgettable character. And we love them for it. I loved Robin Williams for it. He was a sublime Mad Hatter.

I heard the above quote from Good Will Hunting on one of the radio tributes after Williams’ death. I wrote it down, because once again, one of Williams’ characters is going to help me. I’m slogging through the draft of my novel, slashing through big sections with a red pen and trying to fish out the little nuggets of inspired writing.

I’m also re-imagining the main characters, which is proving to be the most difficult part of re-writing. Once you start changing the characters, you change everything. And my characters need more depth, more truth. They need more imperfections. That’s what’s missing. That’s the good stuff. Robin Williams knew that better than anyone.

Oh Captain, we weren’t ready to let you go.

ψ

 

Beer heaven: New Belgium's cask room.

Road trip: Fort Collins

hibachi group
Bonding at my birthday dinner in Fort Collins

Last month, I was on the phone with Eric (who owns the cabin I’m staying in), talking about driving up to Fort Collins to visit him and his fiancée Sarah. When I told him my birthday was Aug. 10, he said “Hell yeah, you gotta come up here for your birthday. We’ll take care of you.”

I did, and they did.

For all the time I’ve spent in Colorado, I haven’t seen much of the state outside of the Pagosa Springs-Durango corner. So last Thursday I packed the car and headed north to see what I’ve been missing.

A lot, it turns out.

The drive across Colorado was its own reward. I spent hours winding along highway 285, a two-lane strip of pavement that threads through the Rockies, past soaring rock cliffs and rock-strewn mountain streams and vast valleys lush from summer rains. Every twist in the road brings a new wonder. It’s the kind of drive where you stay below the speed limit to stretch out the scenery just a little longer.

My first stop was Longmont, just north of Denver, to pay a visit to Eric’s parents (who own the condo I’ve used for occasional showers and to ride out bad thunderstorms). They took me to eat at Oskar Blues, the craft brewery based in Longmont that also features a restaurant (the food is as good as the beer). Larry and Sandy are wonderful people, they’ve basically adopted me – in the same way my parents adopted Eric when he was going to college with my brother Chris at Texas A&M-Galveston in the early ’90s. I couldn’t pass by Longmont without stopping in. And of course, they fed me.

Forty-five minutes later I was pulling into the driveway of Eric and Sarah’s new house on the edge of Fort Collins. I couldn’t believe this place, it’s three times the size of my house in Austin. On a lake. With mountain views. Eric’s doing quite well, it seems. They gave me the tour of this beautiful house – the rooms never seemed to end – then we settled on the big back balcony to have a drink and gaze at the lake.

It was just a bit surreal – and not just for me. Eric’s had a breakthrough year. He sold his company to a major corporation and got engaged to Sarah, who he’s known for 20 years (and they’re a great match. She’s a keeper). He said they still walk around this big house thinking someone’s going to knock on the big oak door and kick them out. You’ve had your fun, now back where you belong.

I’ve known Eric since he was a 19-year-old with floppy blonde surfer hair (which drew plenty of attention when he and Chris spent a weekend with me in McAllen and I gave them their first taste of a Mexican border town). Eric’s always been the struggling mad scientist. He’s an engineer, works with carbon fiber. He invents stuff, most of which goes way over my head. He’s spent the past 20 years overworking himself with this frantic, relentless energy that would put me in a coma in about a week. He’s the kind of guy you see on YouTube with a jet pack strapped to his back, hovering over the surface of a lake, then plunging into the water like a flying dolphin. Work hard, play hard. That’s Eric.

After all those tough years of sleeping in his shop and teetering on the edge of financial collapse, he’s gotten his reward. Nobody I know has worked harder for it.

And of course, he and Sarah were going to share their bounty while I was in town. They gave me the king’s treatment: a big dinner at Fort Collins’ best seafood restaurant, long rides on his new speedboat (“a floating Ferrari” is how he describes it. After a few runs behind it on a tube, I can vouch for that. Picture a dead fish being dragged behind a cigarette boat). And a private tour of the New Belgium brewery.

Beer heaven: New Belgium's cask room.
Beer heaven: New Belgium’s cask room.

Eric is friends with Matt Furlong, New Belgium’s sales project manager, who met us on his afternoon off and graciously showed me around the place that brews some of my favorite beers (thanks Matt, you’re a hell of an ambassador).

I also got to wander around downtown Fort Collins for an afternoon. Loved the town. It’s like a miniature Portland: neat-as-a-pin, tree-lined downtown streets lined with historic buildings that house all sorts of little shops and restaurants and brewpubs. Oh, and a thriving little independent bookstore, where I picked up a few books as a birthday present to myself (Hemingway, Vonnegut, T.C. Boyle). It has the energy of a college town (Colorado State) and the relaxed vibe of a small town. I was thoroughly impressed. I could live there.

The climax of the weekend was Sunday. Eric and Sarah took me and their friend Aaron to one of those Benihana-type places where a knife-twirling chef cooks your meal in front of you. Eric proceeded to order rounds of drinks and shots (three of them were sake bombs, which involves plopping a sake shot into a beer and downing it in one gulp), and we proceeded to start mixing it up with party of six seated with us around the big cooktop. It was a local family celebrating their daughter’s 17th birthday. She had a couple of high school friends along. The mom was a bit of a smartass, we liked her immediately.

Long story short, over the next four hours we drank too much, ate too much, became best friends with the party of six and most of the restaurant staff (Eric bought them shots too), took a big group photo to commemorate the evening, then staggered into a taxi and fell asleep by 10. I drove 350 miles back to Pagosa on Monday nursing a birthday hangover.

And it was worth every mile.

twinpeaks

Mountain Living (Twin Peaks edition)

 

I’ve been in Pagosa Springs for a few weeks now and had a chance to sample the local restaurants, coffee shops and brew pubs (thumbs up to Higher Grounds coffee, Riff Raff Brewery and The BackRoom wine bar). I’ve also had the pleasure of chatting with the locals, and at times I feel like I’m in a lost episode of Twin Peaks (if you were born after 1980, Netflix or Hulu it. You won’t be disappointed). It’s hard to ignore the parallels: small mountain town, dark brooding woods, big logging trucks, and strange goings-on that can’t be explained by logic or science.

(Cue the eerily beautiful Twin Peaks theme)

Consider:

  • The cabin, July 13: Shortly after arriving, I’m caught in a fierce hail storm. According to Ute legend, hail is actually hurled by the spirits of the dead, angered whenever someone drives a Kia into their tribal lands (I think I read that somewhere). Then I hear a pack of coyotes howling nearby. This is actually (again, according to the Utes) an omen that some weird shit is about to happen. The unusual concentration and ferocity of the electrical storms later makes the front page of the local paper.
  • The Laundromat, July 22: I do my laundry under the watchful eye of a cowboy in full hat-boots-spurs regalia, who finishes his own laundry, folds and stacks it, then carries it to his truck without a laundry basket. What I didn’t mention in my earlier post is that two nights before, I had a bizarre dream in which a dancing midget spoke cryptically of this exact occurrence: The cowboy will bring in the Tide.
  • The bar at Riff Raff, July 24: A curly-haired high school teacher with a white beard (a dead ringer for Dr. Jacoby, he just needed those crazy red-and-blue tinted glasses) launches into an extended riff about his frequent jaunts to Peru. “No reason… I just go! You have to see (unpronounceable place in Peru), it will blow your mind!”
  • The Back Room, July 28: I sit at the bar to order an artisan pizza with smoked lamb, goat cheese, red onion and cilantro and discover the bartender/server’s name is Lima. Yes, as in the capital of Peru. She has a single long braid that swings nearly to her thighs and she tells me about her other job at the new sushi place in town and how her daughter loves sushi. Then, randomly: “We were fishing and my daughter caught a fish and said ‘Can I eat the eye? I will, you know,’ and then she popped out the fish’s eye and ate it!”
  • At that exact moment, I remembered that when I went to buy groceries a few days earlier, I was looking at their locally-caught mountain trout (at $3.25 each, a real bargain) and noticed that one of the fish was missing an eye…

Yeah, I know. It’s too eerie to be coincidence. And other than the dream and a possible mangling of Native American mythology, all of it really happened. I’m now convinced that David Lynch came up with the idea for Twin Peaks after spending a week in a town like Pagosa Springs and saying to himself: All we need to do is turn the weird knob up a few notches… TV gold!

And TV gold it was. I’ve been re-watching the whole series in the evenings (my friend Jerry loaned me his Definitive Gold Box Collection). Which has nothing to do with all of these unexplainable-but-somehow-connected events that have occurred since my arrival in Pagosa Springs.

I checked the local phone book. Forty-three Palmers. At least one or two must be related to Laura, right? (again for those born after 1980: the series begins with the discovery of the plastic-wrapped body of local Miss Popularity Laura Palmer, whose murder brings a quirky FBI agent, who slowly unravels the town’s deep, weird secrets while narrating everything to “Diane” back at headquarters via a tape recorder).

I went back to the store to look for the mysterious one-eyed trout. It was gone.

So I went ahead and got another trout because at $3.25 each you really can’t go wrong.

I cooked it on the grill that night. I must tell you, it was pret-ty fishy.

ψ

Why my novel is absolute crap (right now)

...and this is just the carnage on one page
…and this is just the carnage on one page

I remember how excited I was when a real, honest-to-god literary agent agreed to take a look at my novel last year. I had just finished what I thought was a thorough edit of the manuscript, cleaning up the rough spots, correcting little errors, re-writing bits of dialogue and description, and I felt pretty good about it. The agent said he was glad I was doing revisions because many authors don’t bother (he’d apparently seen a lot of ugly manuscripts).

Yeah, I can just imagine, I wrote back, feeling a bit smug. But I’m a professional writer, 20-plus years as a reporter and editor. I got this.

I emailed it to him. Waited a couple of months. Then he wrote back and said “this isn’t my style, sorry.” I asked for more specific feedback. I think my exact words were “I have thick skin, let it fly.” And he did: cut big chunks of this draft; stop trying so hard to be “writerly”; and read some books on how to write fiction (he provided a helpful list).

I was disappointed. But I tried to keep perspective. I’m a beginner, and landing an agent on the first try was probably wishful thinking.

Now that I’ve read the books he suggested and I’m looking at my novel for the first time in nearly a year, I see what he was talking about. It’s a mess.

Which is not easy to say. I thought it was pretty good before I sent it to him. People I trust read it and liked it too.

I sometimes switch to the handy ottoman desk
I sometimes switch to the handy ottoman desk

Last week I went into town and printed out a fresh copy of the manuscript, planning to sit down and read the whole thing in one sitting (that was the advice from one of the books). That didn’t happen. I’ve read through about 10 chapters so far, highlighting parts I want to keep, crossing through big sections that should be cut and making pages of notes on a legal pad as I go. I keep jumping to the laptop and writing down bits of new dialogue and thoughts on how certain chapters should be re-written.

The thing is shot through with flaws. Chapters with no clear point of view or multiple points of view when there should be just one. Long sections of description that are all style and no story.

Like this paragraph:

“How did things go at the factory today?” the father asked, his eyes on the panorama framed through the windshield. The flat valley fell away from the road on all sides. A small boy herded sheep on the grassy fringes. A man on horseback bounced into a trot, black cowboy hat dusted gray. The starved land blurred past the window, whitewashed fenceposts like rib bones poking through skin stretched too thin.

Ouch.

I loved that paragraph when I wrote it, because I’d seen that panorama from a bus during a trip to central Mexico, and like a good journalist I wrote it down. Now I read it and roll my eyes. Three separate images and an overworked simile. And nothing’s happening other than a guy looking through a windshield asking a question that doesn’t provoke a very revealing answer.

I have entire chapters with Border Patrol agents hiking through the brush doing Border Patrol stuff. Which I think is fascinating, but now that I read it again, those chapters don’t go anywhere, they don’t really move the story forward. I need to weave the Border Patrol technique into the main action: there’s a coyote (people smuggler) out there who’s been abandoning people to die in the brush and the agents need to catch him fast. They can’t be walking around for three chapters holding a seminar on how to track people through the badlands of South Texas.

And I haven’t even talked about the one-dimensional characters…

It’s discouraging. Sitting in my little cabin with just my evil little brain for company, I’m hearing the vinegary voices of self-doubt and fear of failure: This? You quit your job for this?

Um, yeah. I did.

I have to keep reminding myself that I wrote this novel with no background in fiction writing, mainly just to see if I could do it. I went at it like a newspaper reporter – I banged out the draft in about three months, then gave it a quick clean-up of an edit, as if it were a really long newspaper story and I was on deadline.

Now I have to tear the whole thing apart and basically start over, using the draft for parts. And trying to see it with the eyes of a fiction writer.

I scribbled out a couple of quotes from Anne Lamott and from the writing conference I attended in June, and taped them to the wall above the folding card table where I work:

Every good novel starts with a shitty first draft

Great novels aren’t written, they’re re-written

So this is apparently normal in the fiction-writing world. Good to know.

But I still need a beer now.

 

A middle aged guy quits his job to finish his first novel. Will he get published or see his dream crushed like a bug?