Getting to Z Street

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unspash

My younger daughter Annalisa during her third year of life started talking about “Z Street.” We had no idea what she was talking about, but it was nonetheless interesting. There were apparently all sorts of things and many different stores on Z Street. Most of her sentences began with “On Z Street, there is…” or “On Z Street, they have…”. I asked her late on one afternoon if she knew where Z Steet was. She answered, “Sure!” I said, “Okay. Show me.” We jumped in the car and a couple of minutes later we were on the road while Annalisa eerily prefigured a talking GPS unit, telling me, with steadily decreasing confidence, to turn right at the next light, then left at the next corner and so on and so forth. We ultimately arrived behind a shopping center where we found ourselves parked by a couple of dumpsters and several stacks of palettes behind a Kroger. “So this is it?” I asked. Annalisa told me yes, with some hesitation. It was all good. Z Street had a Jersey Mike’s nearby, and the Hartlaub family had a fine meal to top off the journey. Annalisa, for her part, never mentioned Z Street again, opting instead to talk about her “owl friend.” 

More on the owl friend in a bit. Annalisa’s directions to Z Street were a terrific example of the writing process known as “pantsing.” She had a concept in her head which told her what Z Street was but really no idea of how to get there.  She comes by this honestly. I am horrible at outlining, which in part is why in my longer work I more often than not found myself…well, sitting at the rump end of someplace and looking at the mental equivalence of pallets and dumpsters. This isn’t the case with every author, of course. James Lee Burke reportedly has no idea about what his next book is going to be about until he starts writing, yet he arguably writes better than anyone. I don’t think that Cormac McCarthy outlines either. Jeffery Deaver, however, outlines obsessively, spending as much time outlining as he does writing the novel, year in and year out. It certainly has held him in wonderful stead.

I had an epiphany a few weeks ago about all of this when I suddenly realized how to get over a roadblock in a novel I’ve been working on for a bit now. Part of the epiphany included the unfortunate realization that the roadblock didn’t just suddenly appear in the story. I had, at some earlier point in the narrative, snuck ahead and built it without realizing it and without building a reasonable detour around it. I could have solved all of that by outlining, but let’s not forget…(cue up the chorus)… “I am horrible at outlining.”

What I want to report — to share with you — is that I worked my way around it. I thought about Z Street, and how I travel. I drive everywhere, and don’t like getting lost, so I map out my journey. I check hotel prices and distances and gas stations and how far it is between Cracker Barrels and Sonics and how long it’s going to take me to get where I’m going. Oh, and speed traps. I check for speed traps. Some folks use AAA, but I do it myself. The realization hit me: what is outlining, if it isn’t a self-made Triptik, or map, for writers?

I’m outlining now. What I do more resembles a map than an outline like you might use, but it’s getting me there. And if I want to pull away from what I have outlined and take a scenic diversion, why, that’s okay too. It’s my trip. I hope to tell you about it sooner rather than later.

I have one more thing, in case some of you are wondering about “the owl friend.” It became a constant source of reference for Annalisa. Accordingly, while on a family vacation in New Orleans a few months later, we were in the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and walked into the aviary. “Look, Annalisa,” I said, point up toward the top of a sloping rock wall, at a wise old bird sitting quietly on a ledge. “Is that your owl friend?” Annalisa immediately detached herself from me and started scampering up the wall on all fours. She almost got away from me on that one. The owl reacted by peering imperiously down at us, as if to say, “Whaddya want from me?” I of course had no answer, nor did Annalisa when I asked her, “So. What would you have done with him when you got him?”

Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. Are you outlining your story/Great American Novel? How are you doing it? In the traditional manner, like Jim Bell learned (and I didn’t) in Catholic school? With post it notes on a giant bulletin board (Yo! P.J. Parrish!) As if it is a map? Or some other way? Please share.



A Little Birdy Told Me


Inspiration, as has been often discussed on this spot, comes from strange places. Anyone who has put cursor to screen for more than a few sentences also knows that inspiration is but the very important start of any story, long or short. One needs interesting characters doing interesting things, or characters who have interesting things happen to them. Sometimes, when dealing with the latter situation, authors find themselves with a character who is not only painted into a corner but also glued to the wall. There are times when that happens where one must give up, go back a couple of pages, and do a re-write. Another alternative, however, is to step back, look at what is around you, and see if the world around you provides a solution. That alternative was given to me on Wednesday by happenstance.

My wife loves wild birds. We have feeders in the back, front, and side yards, and birdhouses in the front yard tree. We have so many feeders that the Franciscan monks send money to US pay for seed (just kidding). We do get a lot of birds around the house, though,which means we don’t leave doors open. Birds don’t like to fly into buildings, but they sure wind up in a lot of them. Go into any big box store, particularly one of those giant supermarket operations, and look up. You’ll probably see a bird or two flying by. When I was a wee lad attending Catholic grade school nothing would crack the eighth grade girls’ choir up faster than a starling dive bombing the loft. Yeah, birds are like cats in that way: they try really hard to get in somewhere, and then decide they would rather be somewhere else, like outside. This is of course selectively true across the biological kingdom — and no more so than among the males of any species — but today we’re just talking about birds, and the noise in my house.

I was working on a tale a couple of days ago, a story which begins with a guy waking up in the middle of a desert and having no recollection of how he got there. He realizes after a few moments that he is surrounded by something really unpleasant and potentially dangerous. He gets out of that problem and jumps from one problem to the next. My unfortunate fictitious friend possesses neither firearms nor adaptive skillsets so he can’t fight his way out of predicaments, and they’re not really the type of situations that he can think his way out of, either. That doesn’t leave many alternatives, but his creator (that would be me) did a little of this here and a little of that there and before you know it my character was leap-frogging pans and straddling fires like no one’s business. I then reached a point where I painted him into that corner I mentioned earlier, and couldn’t figure out a way to get him out of it that would be consistent and, more importantly, believable when one considered what had happened before. I really liked the pages leading up to the dilemma, too, and was loathe to rewrite them. Benign neglect of a few minutes’ duration seemed to be in order. Then I heard THE noise. It was coming from right above my basement office, which is beneath our attached garage. I went upstairs, opened the door leading from the garage to the house, and got dive-bombed by a cardinal. I’m not referring to the kind that lives in a cathedral but takes a vow of poverty; I’m talking about the feathered type. It had gotten trapped in the garage and couldn’t find a way out. I managed to get the door to the house closed behind me before it flew deeper into the residence (that would have been really interesting). It seemed that a little common sense was in order so I opened the garage door. I was worried the bird was going to damage the garage and I would have to call someone like to come out and repair it! I’ve had a few issues with my garage door before and I was hoping I wouldn’t have to pay out for a repair again. Repairs can be really expensive! Luckily the bird didn’t damage anything so it saved me some money, but I know a few great garage door companies who I would’ve called if I needed to.

Cardinals, it seems, will never be employed at Oak Ridge doing atomic research. This bird, like my protagonist, couldn’t find its way out, despite the wide open garage door that was present just a couple of feet behind it as a careened posterior over elbow all over the garage. It was too frightened to see the way out. It struck me, after watching my new bird friend for a few minutes, that my story needed a similar exit strategy, one that would have been obvious to an observer who was not panicked but that my hapless protagonist was overlooking in his fright and haste. I started thinking creatively along those lines while I watched the bird and as it finally realized that 1) the door was open and 2) it was open to OUTSIDE — worms, seed, sunlight, and all it could want — it flew out. I put the garage door back down and spied it a few moments later as it sat on the bird feed outside the front window, pecking contentedly at seed. I was content, too, as I had solved my creative dilemma.

I doubt that the cardinal learned anything, but the lesson for me was that you can learn a lot, and even occasionally solve a problem, by watching what is going on around you, even when at first it doesn’t seem to be relevant. Does anyone have similar stories? What do you do when you’re writing and get stuck on a problem? Do you back up and take another path, or do you bulldoze your way through it?