Tag Archives: writing

cowboy laundry

Reading about writing at the cowboy laundromat

cowboy laundry

It’s probably about time I start writing about … writing. Which is the whole point of living in a plumbing-challenged log cabin in the San Juan Mountains for the summer. I have a draft of a novel that I need to turn into something that doesn’t read like a draft of a novel.

I haven’t touched it yet, the novel. It’s sitting there, a yawning 365-page abyss waiting for me to fall in and start flailing around. Before I take that plunge, I decided to get myself some education in the craft I’ve committed to. Since I didn’t get into the writing program I hoped would provide that education, I’m reading books on fiction writing instead – starting with Stein on Writing.

Sol Stein is a legend in the business, a novelist-editor-teacher whose book was recommended to me – along with several others – by the Dallas literary agent who read my draft and basically told me it was bloated and overwritten (he said it much nicer than that). I went on Amazon and bought every book he mentioned and now I’m slowly plowing my way through them.

I’ve finished two of them in my first 10 days in Colorado. Which is slow. I’m taking my sweet time because Stein’s book is so dense with concepts and tips – most of them new to an amateur like me – that I didn’t try to read more than two or three chapters a day. I’d highlight things as I read, then type notes into the laptop to use as a cheat sheet once I start my revisions.

I’m starting to see what that agent saw. I have a lot of work to do to make this novel publishable. It has too much static description (I do like to paint a pretty picture), characters that aren’t rounded enough – or rather, jagged enough. They’re too normal and likable, they need some secrets, some rough edges. I need to pare down pages and pages of dialogue that don’t have enough tension or conflict and chop out some scenes that slow things down.

This line from Stein jumped out at me: “Journalists know that short sentences step up pace. They also know that frequent paragraphing accelerates the pace … those are simple observations that come to fiction writers only belatedly. And when nonfiction writers turn to fiction, they often forget these simple rules.”

Ouch.

I finished the second book, Self-editing for Fiction Writers (by Renni Browne and Dave King, if it matters to you) yesterday at the Laundromat. This where the cowboy comes in.

First, a little scene setting: like a lot of newer buildings in Pagosa Springs, the local Laundromat is going for that Old West storefront look – complete with a covered front porch. Inside, of course, it looked like a standard-issue American laudromat: cheap tile floor, fluorescent lights, rows of chrome front-loaders sloshing people’s clothes around, and those rolling wire carts that kids like to turn into bumper cars while their parents pretend those aren’t their kids.

I rolled up to this frontier-wannabe laundry house (they didn’t have Maytags in the Old West, did they?), and outside leaning against one of the porch posts was this cowboy. Built like a shot-putter, thick everywhere. A black mop of a beard. Huge hands. He wore a flat-brimmed brown hat that had lost its original shape long ago, a rumpled red plaid shirt and jeans with rips in places that no trendy distressed-jeans designer would ever put them.

And to bottom it all off, a pair of scuffed boots with spurs. And yes, they jingle-jangled when he walked across the wood porch planks.

This man was not going for the cowboy look. The cowboy look was going for him.

We had the following conversation as I walked past him in my cargo shorts, sandals and short-sleeved button-up shirt.

Cowboy: “Evenin’ ”

Me: “Evenin’ ”

I imagined he smelled like old leather and trail dust and cow sweat. I didn’t get close enough to find out, because everyone knows cowboys don’t like people smelling them in public.

This is ranch country by the way. On my way to town, I sometimes pass ranchfolk herding cattle with horses and dogs. So I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was just the whole cowboy-doing-laundry-with-his-spurs-on thing that struck me.

I wish there was an actual story here, but there’s not. He folded up his laundry, carried it to his truck (no laundry basket, because cowboys don’t own laundry baskets) and drove off.

By the way, he was a Tide man.

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The teacher becomes the student

There are no second chances in life, except to feel remorse.” – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Day four in the mountains. Another big thunderstorm last night. I was in town grabbing dinner (I found a brewpub in Pagosa that makes great beer and a killer lamb burger. Score!) and didn’t want to risk heading to the cabin over wet dirt roads in the dark. With the Hedgehog’s city tires, it’s like driving on grape jelly. The friends who let me use the cabin also have a condo in town. It’s got all the creature comforts (hot shower! A flush toilet!) and it’s a good backup in bad weather, but I prefer the cabin for working (see previous photo of the mountain view).

I’ve been sleeping a lot since I got here; exhaustion comes on fast at 8,500 feet for a sea-level person. Typically I need three days to adjust to the altitude. The long afternoon naps needs to stop soon; I have a lot of work to do.

Work, for now, means a lot of reading and studying. I’m a beginner again. I’ve been writing all my life, but 20-plus years in journalism isn’t necessarily a good springboard for fiction writing. I’m like a lifelong sprinter who suddenly decided to run marathons. I need to work on technique. And endurance. Or I’ll blow a quad.

I don’t have any formal training to fall back on. I applied to a graduate fiction writing program earlier this year but didn’t get accepted. I haven’t done any workshops or seminars. I just sort of dove in, and now I’m having to learn as I go.

living room
The living room/office in the cabin

What I do have is a 147,000-word draft of a novel that I wrote mostly at the cabin over two summers. I haven’t looked at it in months. This summer, I want to chop it down by about 25,000 words (ouch) and do a lot of re-writing to deepen the characters and speed up the plot. Then it’ll be time to send it to agents and start praying.

Before I touch the book again, I’m planning to read several books on fiction writing. I’m starting with Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein – one of several books recommended by a Dallas literary agent who read most of my novel and basically said, You’ve got a lot of work to do. I bought every book on writing he suggested: one on novel editing, another on character development, another on common fiction writing mistakes (wonder how many I’ve made?). And I brought two that I’ve read before and loved: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing.

loft
The half loft

I’m about halfway through Stein’s book (taking copious notes as I go), and already I see what the agent was talking about. Too much static description that doesn’t move the plot forward (“You’re a storyteller, not an interior decorator,” Stein writes. Yeah, guilty as charged). My characters need to be more distinctive, more layered. And that’s just for starters. It’s a little intimidating, feeling so out of my depth after having a job (newspaper reporter) where I felt like I was ready for anything and a side job (teaching feature writing at the University of Texas) where college students looked to me as the old hand who could teach them how to tell a story.

So for the first week or two, I’m trying to just be a student of writing again. Truth is, I don’t really know what I’m doing up here. But I’m doing it, rather than thinking about doing it “someday” – which is what I did for too many years. Someday is here. Finally.

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