How do you come up with such fabulous stories?
Ideas are everywhere. How often have you sat around with your friends, saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if [this or that] happened?” The seeds of a terrific story are right there. But instead of letting those seeds scatter into the air, I write them down.
I have an idea for a story. How do I start?
In high school I learned a technique for creating essays that still helps me today. It’s called Outlining. Instead of slogging through a story from start to finish, I create an outline that allows me to hop wherever my imagination takes me. For example, if I get an idea for the climax, I don’t worry about how my hero reaches the climax. I jump right there and start pecking at my keyboard. If I wake up at 3:00 AM with a perfect line of dialogue, I scribble it down and go back to sleep. The next morning I plug that dialogue into my outline. Any research I do also gets inserted into the outline, including bibliographic footnotes that enable me to relocate the source of the information.
Eventually my outline falls naturally into chapters. At this point I can move whole sections around, pacing my story so it builds to a satisfying climax. I recognize places where I must seed clues for later events. This is not a time to hurry. Many, many months go into an outline’s construction. By the time I start “writing,” most of the hard work is already done.
My initial pass through a book focuses little on perfection. I want to capture images and emotions. First drafts of stories I never show to anyone; they’re too raw. In my second pass I start polishing. The real work of composition happens not in the writing, but in the rewriting. I’ll edit a manuscript fifty or sixty times before I consider it finished, and even then I still find stuff I want to change.
What's the hardest part of writing?
Whether we’re facing homework, yardwork, housework, or even getting up in the morning, our challenge is the same. Goading ourselves into action is our toughest task.
Anyone who’s ever pushed an automobile knows that the hardest part of the chore is getting the car moving from a standstill. Once the car’s rolling, the job’s much easier. Some days I’m eager to dive into a manuscript. Other days, I must force myself to face the computer, even though writing is something I love.
After overcoming my inertia and immersing myself in composition, I get engrossed. In my study is an antique mantel clock that chimes every half-hour. When I’m absorbed in a manuscript, I never hear that clock—for hours. Even for meals I’m reluctant to pause from my pursuit.
Which brings me to the second hardest thing about writing: STOPPING.
Ideas come at all hours. I keep a notebook handy to capture them. Often they bubble up in the wee hours. To avoid disturbing my bride, I crawl under the bed sheets with my notepad and a book light. Should she awaken, she sees beside her a mound of luminous covers.
“What are you doing?” she asks me.
“I just thought of something.”
After four decades of marriage, you’d expect her to acclimate to my eccentricities, but no.
She thinks I’m weird.
You must lead a very full life.
Rarely do we hear anyone say at the end of life, “I wish I’d won that promotion,” or “Another trophy would’ve been nice.” Rather do they say, “I should have spent more time with my family. I should have savored the sunshine and the spring flowers and the autumn breezes.”
Every moment of life contains something to be savored. Whether we’re skiing down an Alpine slope or washing dishes at the kitchen sink, we are living and growing and stretching our capacity to bless others. In that light, even shoveling snow is enriching.
Do you really build ships-in- bottles? Did you make the one in your picture?
That library book taught me to construct a simple, two-masted schooner and get it through a narrow neck of glass. I was so proud of my achievement. But the more I studied my model, the more dissatisfied I became with it. The masts were too fat, the hull too narrow, the putty forming the sea too sloppy. I made a second try, and a third and a fourth. I wondered if I could construct a square-rigger, with yardarms hanging perpendicular to the masts. Soon I was adding gun ports, ornate bows and sterns, crows nests, stun-sails, flags, pennants and even figureheads. Instead of painting gun ports I cut holes for them. The tools I use for working inside the bottle are bent coat hangers.
My latest efforts are bottled-ship Christmas tree ornaments. They’re very tiny, but super cool.
Have you ever dropped one?
Is that a Betsy Ross Flag you're sewing in your bio slideshow? How big is it?
The flag is 8’x12’, and July 4 is our favorite day to display it. For your viewing pleasure I added another photo to the slideshow. I made the flag to complement a similar 50-star flag that I acquired in a previous business life.
Once upon a time I served as IT Operations Manager for a large business conglomerate. My many duties included maintaining the company’s digital communications with its many distribution facilities around the country. At one point our Chicago facility moved to a new complex, and I traveled to the Windy City to install the IT infrastructure at the new warehouse.
On my many visits to the old facility, I noticed a large American flag hanging from the ceiling trusses, with no one making any move to retrieve it. Finally I asked the warehouse manager, “Whose flag is that?”
“Ours,” he said. “The landlord gave it to us when we moved in.”
“What are you planning to do with it?”
“Leave it there.”
“Can I have it?”
With the manager’s blessing I commandeered a forklift and rode it into the rafters to retrieve the flag. The thing was filthy. Ten years of warehouse grit blackened my hands and clothing as I rescued the banner. No way I could pack it in my luggage for the trip home.
I took it to a local dry cleaner, who declared that they clean the American flag for free. So I left it with them, retrieved it on my way to the airport, and triumphantly carried it home.
My bride was amazed.