Category Archives: Writing

All I Want for Christmas is a Chainsaw to Cut My Novel in Half

Guilt is for children with sticky fingers and mysterious stains.

I declare this to be true in defiance of all religious and sociological thought, because I don’t want to mess with guilt today. I haven’t posted for a month, and I don’t even need a reason, never mind a good reason, because I state that I do not.

Ignorance, however, is for everybody.

I am not as clever as God, nor am I even as clever as J.R.R. Tolkien. A couple of years ago I took on a fantasy novel project. After three months of obsessive writing, during which my wife suspected I was no more real than Bigfoot, I produced an 180,000 word story that I adored. To provide a sense of scale, 180,000 words are roughly the length of the New Testament, or The Fellowship of the Ring. What joy to stand among such giants.

God probably didn’t have to impress literary agents. Perhaps Tolkien didn’t either. I do, and agents let me know in a snapping hurry that 180,000 words is an unacceptable count for a novel, no matter how much I love it. If I can’t bring them something about 100,000 words or less, I should just go back to sitting around Starbucks and talking about the book I plan to start writing someday.

I had created a waddling beast of a manuscript.

I’ve met writers who spend years trying to fix their novel, ending up with a book that forever needs one more month of polish. So, I put the manuscript on the shelf like a third grade science medal, and I moved on to more disciplined projects.

This fall, with some of my newer projects floating out to agents, my Godzilla project arose from the shelf and dared me to cut it in half without killing it. I don’t want to get too detailed, but my process involved staring at an Escher print for about a month. Then I irradiated the manuscript for two months like I was a mad Japanese scientist, and I finished with a 103,000 word story. Today I celebrate.

Tightening language and eliminating redundancy got me part of the way there. Advice from Roz Morris of Nail Your Novel on ways to cut a novel was invaluable. But my secret weapon was to:

Find everything I love most in the story and kill it. Well, perhaps not everything, but a lot of things. The more I loved it, the less likely it was to really help the story. I silenced clever dialogue, I obliterated characters from the storyline, and I blasted subplots out of the space-time continuum.

With as much objectivity as I can manage, I believe that this version is a far better story than the original. Final editing can wait for my brain to quit vibrating, and anyway, I need to sit and stare at my Escher print for a while to think about the next project.

That’s what I hid in my office and did with my holiday season. I hope yours was just as much fun and just as terrifying.

BillMcCurryWriterEditingNovelLengthHumorFantasyBooks
Artist’s conception of an agent mesmerized by my newly-trimmed manuscript.

Artist: William-Adolphe_Bouguereau
Museum: Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Mary D. Keeler Bequest

 

 

Etiquette for the Wretched Unemployed

I’ve learned how to derive an extraordinary amount of self-esteem from washing dishes and scooping cat litter. That’s because we unemployed people have to seize our ego-boosts wherever we find them. Folding laundry may not seem like something to celebrate, but after a certain number of fruitless job applications your self-image is dragging behind you like toilet paper on your shoe.

Like every good 21st Century American, I wrap a lot of my identity up in my occupation. Everybody does to some degree. You’re a teacher, he’s a bricklayer, she owns a frozen yogurt store. That’s who you are. Even a crack dealer can say to himself, “Hey, I sell crack. I sell people something they want until they die sprawled in the gutter with antifreeze and rat shit.” He has an identity.

It may take me some time to find work, because my skills are rather eclectic. I don’t want to get specific, but by way of analogy it’s as if I were a great fry cook, a fine goat farmer, and a pretty good loan shark. I’d need to find a bookie operating out of a greasy diner that serves gourmet goat steaks, raised on the premises because you can’t trust a commercially produced goat. Only in that environment could my full range of skills be employed.

During this jobless time I’m leaning a bit on my identity as a writer, but that’s been battered by a recent salvo of rejection notices, leaving my writer image structurally unsound at the moment. Some of the rejections said nice things about my work, but they all ended with the familiar phrase, “not for me.”

However, I’m tempted to write an etiquette guide for the unemployed. There’s a real need. For example, when you go to a party or funeral or something, people will ask, “What do you do?” Kicking that person in the knee is bad manners, especially if the dearly departed is nearby. What’s the proper response?

You could say, “I’m looking for a job.” It’s direct and truthful. But there are only two responses. Your questioner could raise his eyebrows before saying something sympathetic that fails to conceal his searing contempt. Or he might ask what kind of job you’re looking for. That leads to an awkward conversation about goats and loan sharking that goes nowhere good or even tolerable. Forget that.

You could lie. You might say, “I’m a hedge-fund manager.” That’s perfect because no one knows what it is, but it sounds good and people know you make lots of money while screwing everyone on the planet, including orphans and kittens. Or you could say, “I create computer icons. Every time you start up Internet Explorer, I get a penny.” These lies are pretty satisfying, but two minutes on Google will reveal your prevarication, and then you’ll look like a bigger loser than ever.

The appropriate response to the, “What do you do?” question is a combination of the truth and a lie. You first say, “I’m looking for a job.” Then, as your interrogator raises his eyebrows in snide sympathy, you show a smile that implies someone’s given you a puppy that drools 30 year-old whiskey. You add, “I have enough savings to go two or three years before I have to get a job, so I’m taking my time and being selective.” Just watch as envy devours every bit of his face. That is how to handle that question.

We unemployed folk face a lot of similarly awkward social encounters. How to get people to take you to restaurants you can’t afford and not look like a deadbeat. Creating believable and marginally truthful business cards even though you don’t work for a business. Managing social media statuses so that you don’t appear to be a hobo. Yes, writing a book about unemployment etiquette is just what I need to pump up my self-esteem. I only need a title:

Jobless but Genteel: You may lose your job, but you can keep your dignity.

Yak
Because when you talk about etiquette, the first thing you think of is “yak.”

This photo is by travelwayoflife, and is a Featured Picture on Wikimedia Commons.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Happy Birthday, and Go Beg Someplace Else, You Mewling Rat-Pill

This blog turned two years old yesterday. No party, no cake, no balloon animals. I had in fact forgotten the event until WordPress sent me a cheery note of congratulations.

Once I was reminded, the milestone did make me think. I thought hard about this blog, enabling me to ignore several more pressing topics that would have required greater effort and focus. The automated reminders at WordPress saved me when I needed them, and I’d extend my thanks if they cared.

After two years this blog has published a couple of hundred posts, has collected a couple of hundred followers, and draws a modest readership on the days I post something. That generates a few comments and a few “likes.” All of which is fine.

However, my last post has led me to wonder whether perhaps I don’t understand my audience. I cross-posted that item to the Humor section of a public blog forum. I figured that my audience consists of people wanting to laugh. I was unprepared for the volume of hits on my post. It exceeded my normal volume by a factor of 50. It shocked me.

My post’s ratings on the forum were a bit more positive than negative, but one fact really astounded me. Out of the thousands of people who came to my blog from that forum, not one signed up to follow the blog. Maybe the post was poor, and I’m not denying that possibility. But maybe I’m kidding myself when I think the “Humor” folks are my audience.

I’ve decided to ask you, the people who spend time reading these posts, to please help me out here. I am in the most emphatic manner possible not asking for an ego boost. But I would appreciate suggestions and ideas about who my audience really should be and where I might go to find them. Who would like this stuff, and where are they?

Thanks to everyone who has read and supported this blog. I’ll try to remember the party next year. No clowns and balloon animals, though. Hookers and vodka—maybe.

I may have clowns at the party if this guy can make it.
I may have clowns at the party if this guy can make it.

Photo by Vnon via Wikimedia Commons.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

 

Yes, My Blog Was Uglier Than a Goat’s Armpit

I know, goats technically don’t have armpits. I’m not sure they even have legpits, and I didn’t want to name any of those locations where a goat’s limbs might intersect. Armpit, then.

I have been working on a new website for about a year. More precisely, I have been thinking about a new website for 50 weeks and working on it for 2 weeks. The Grand Strategy involves bringing my entire online presence into one location so that I get higher search engine rankings and bored teenagers in Prague can find me more easily. That means bringing my blog into my website, and that’s why my blog no longer looks like a moist caprine body part.

The new website design pleases me pretty well. I suffered to get the dates the way I wanted them and to figure out the right shade of blue for the text. My wife is responsible for the lavender box around the name of whatever page you’re looking at. (I was going to make it silver. All right, I was going to make it gray and call it silver.) I strategically employed my resources to find the photo for the header, which means I skimmed through my photos and grabbed the first one that had colors I liked.

The photo shows the Inverness skyline at sunset. I took it in 1998 with my Pentax K-1000 using real film and no Photoshop. If at all possible, you should rush right out and visit Inverness. It’s a lovely town in August. You can tell it’s a town rather than a city because the church has no spires, so the residents told me. It’s only six miles from Loch Ness, and it had a rocking Ghost Tour in 1998.

I plan to add more content to the non-blog part of the website. I know what a lot of that content will be, I just need to find time to put it up. If you have any feedback about the site, by all means let me know!

Oh, if by some chance the old url (whimsoffairness.wordpress.com) erroneously takes you to the Home page rather than the Blog page, try clearing out your browser history and temporary files. It took me about five hours to figure that one out.

Here are some other photos I considered for the header:

Miscellaneous Scottish boats

 

A seagull watching two guys in a boat in New Hampshire

 

Feline brain-massage

Bullshit Threatens My Artistic Sensibilities

I pitched my new book to agents at the writer’s conference today. Two of them want to see chapters, and one wants to see the full manuscript. I hope the words on paper will live up to the words that came out of my mouth. I’ve only been writing like a maniac for a few years. I’ve improvised, cajoled, and spouted bullshit on a professional level for a lot longer than that.

Even though agents have asked me for chapters before, this makes me nervous. Yeah, I should be ecstatic, and a sliver of my consciousness is partying like Keith Richards on the day they legalize smack. But most of me is fixating on the gulf between the writer I am now and the writer I want to be. I refer to writing skill. I refer not to the glamorous lifestyle of a professional writer.

My sister is an artist of fabulous skill and determination. She once traveled to another city in which a gallery was showing her work. She said it was like being a rock star. People drove her around town, took her to eat, effused about her work, and generally worshipped her. It was an amazing week. The day she returned home she had to scrape dried peanut butter off the kitchen floor.

It puts things in perspective.

I wonder if I waited too late to get aggressive about writing. It takes time to get good at things. I’m a better actor now than I was 20 years ago. It’s not like I’m John Barrymore or anything now, but it’s relative. The universe of things I don’t know about writing stuns me when I can stand to think about it. Actually, I think about it a lot. My brain won’t stop thinking about writing.

Bad brain. Off the couch.

It’s almost time for tonight’s party here at the conference. I’m certain most of the writers, agents and editors will be there. How do I know this?

Open bar.

Free gin and tonics. That’s the glamorous lifestyle of a writer for you.

Definitely not John Barrymore
Definitely not John Barrymore

Photo by Ariana Berdy

I Will Take My Beating in Cowed Embarrassment

Writing brings out the mental illness in me. My wife can testify to this.

I’m in control of my behavior almost all the time. As Mark Twain said, “For business reasons, I must preserve the outward signs of sanity.” If I wake up to find my brain mired like a mammoth in tar, I can trick my brain into sucking itself free and stomping onwards across the plains. I rarely buy extravagant, useless things, because I have a rule. If I want to buy something that costs more than a couple of hundred dollars, I can’t buy it until I think about it for at least six months. I almost always follow that rule. Almost.

Judiciously applied chemicals are my friends. Free range chemicals and alcohol are not welcome in the home of my brain, apart from the occasional tequila shot or pomegranate martini. Come on, I’m not a nun or anything. But my best friend is me acting the way I want to feel, no matter how my brain tells me I feel, or at least doing my best to create the outward signs of sanity.

It works pretty well at this point in my life.

My wife refrains from trying to convince, trick, or bribe me into not behaving like a crazy person. It’s my job to take care of all this. She’s happy to help if I ask, and she demonstrates philosophical acceptance when I suddenly fill up the office closet with 30 gallons of bottled water, or when without warning I decide we need some more cats. Not only is she tolerant, she’s smart. If she tried to manage all this for me, I’d probably explode like a hand grenade.

Writing screws all this up. Well, not all writing causes problems. I can write a thousand words, declare success, and smile as I move on to something else. It’s the big projects that make me crazy. I’ve written three novels in the past three years, and the insanity they create goes like this.

I get an idea for something I want to write. It’s the best idea for a book that anyone’s had in the past 100 years, or maybe ever. I’m so excited that I talk to my wife about it almost every minute we’re together. I lay awake thinking about it and even consider waking my wife up in the middle of the night to talk about the greatness that is my idea. This goes on for about three days.

I begin the planning and research required to bridge the chasm between having an idea and writing words. I realize that my idea is rubbish. It’s less creative than a bucket of vanilla pudding. If brought to reality, it would be less popular than asphalt-flavored baby food. I feel shame. The only reason I keep working is that I talked it up so much to my wife I’d be embarrassed to never write a word of the thing. This goes on for about a month.

I start writing the first draft, expecting that after one chapter I can honorably surrender to the fact that my idea was horrible. After the first thousand words I find that I’m amusing myself, and I start to feel better about the project. I read the first chapter to my wife. She doesn’t say anything bad about it, which confirms my growing suspicion that it’s a work of magnificence. I begin laughing and hooting like a fool as I write, and I find I’d rather write than eat or sleep. This goes on until I finish the first draft, or about two to three months.

I put the manuscript aside to cool, planning to begin editing in about six weeks. Within 24 hours I realize that I was engulfed by irrational euphoria this whole time, and in fact my manuscript isn’t fit to wipe the ass of a sweaty heroin addict living in a ditch in Bangkok. I try to put this debacle behind me and concentrate on ideas for my next project, but I can only generate enough motivation to watch Saving Private Ryan and eat pie. This goes on for about two months.

Some grisly sense of obligation forces me to open the manuscript and pretend I’ll edit it before I trash it and funnel my creative urge into learning the ukulele. After reading three pages I can’t believe I’ve forgotten how brilliant it is. I perform several rounds of edits like one of those yipping dogs that never stop to sleep. I’m afraid that if I take a day off then the magical spell will be broken and I’ll once again see that the manuscript is just a snap-toothed yokel with mismatched shoes. This goes on for about six weeks.

The manuscript is finally as good as it’s going to get without an editor. I begin writing query letters, synopses, overviews, biographies, and the other artifacts that agents and publishers want to see. I become profoundly convinced that any agent would be more impressed if I just sent her an envelope full of fish guts. I grit my teeth and push on. I’ve come too far now. I’ll just send out the queries and then take my beating in cowed embarrassment.

Then it’s time to start a new project. And even though it means starting the cycle of crazy all over again, I don’t mind all that much. Not everybody get to experience three days of knowing that their book idea is absolutely the most perfect and radiant idea of the last century. It feels great. It’s entirely worth the subsequent months of the despair when you understand just how appalling your idea in fact was.

Really. I’m not joking.

Outward signs of sanity, dude.

Little yipping dogs - my spirit animal when editing.
Little yipping dogs – my spirit animal when editing.

Photo courtesy of cutedogs.com via wakpaper.com.

I’m Ignoring You Because of My Brain

It’s not really that I don’t love you. I have reasons for ignoring you and this blog over the past couple of weeks. They are bad reasons, but then people often have bad reasons for not doing things. Bad reasons for not exercising, bad reasons for not saving money, bad reasons for not walking away from the computer before posting that rabid Facebook flame. I’m claiming solidarity with the world’s self-deluded procrastinators.

In the interest of whining about how busy and hard my life is, I’ll point out that I have a job—for now—and a family life that require me to devote blocks of time if I want to continue having jobs and a family. For example, I’ve been helping my father refinance his house. I love the optimism inherent in securing a loan that won’t be paid off until you’re 105 years old, but it does require time to arrange. Also, I’m happy to spend bonding time with my wife by sitting on the couch watching hour-long crime-solving comedies that always seem to show graphic autopsies and melting flesh just when I’m eating my dinner.

However, I’ve spent time on a few other things in recent weeks, and I can use them as whimpering excuses for my absence from this blog space. Let’s look at my creative endeavors.

For the past few weeks I’ve been in rehearsals for an eight-week show that opens this weekend. I love performing, but it eats time the way my cats eat yogurt, which is to say, voraciously. This is an ideal commitment for me to cite as a bad excuse for ignoring my other commitments. People assume that actors are kind of artistic, irresponsible, flaky types anyway, so that works in my favor.

I also have the opportunity to pitch a book project to agents a month from now, so I’ve been editing and polishing the thing like it was a ’58 T-Bird. I’m obsessing over everything from typos to profound thematic problems, such as, “If the bad guy ambushes the hero and traps him in a church, why doesn’t the hero just slip out the back door and run away instead of standing there to get pummeled? Is he stupid?” I’ve been surprised at how many stupid things my characters do just because I want to get them into a certain situation.

I’ve been using a book called Nail Your Novel to guide me through editing. It’s been terribly helpful, but all this still takes time. In fact, I have a plan for writing so that it doesn’t suck away too much family time. I write as much as I want four weeknights each week, and the fifth weeknight is for my wife and me (and whatever melted-flesh TV programs we’re watching). I don’t write at all on the weekends. If I can average 1,500 words per night, in 14 weeks I have an 80,000 word first draft. I squeeze in other writing (like this blog) at other times, such as early morning or lunch.

It’s structured, and it works. It avoids those situations in which my wife doesn’t see me for three months because I’d rather write than do anything else, including eating, sleeping, and showering. It also serves as another bullshit excuse for not updating this blog in the past couple of weeks.

Yesterday afternoon I found myself off work early. That would have been an ideal time to blog, before evening when I would start editing my book. But instead of blogging with this free time, I chose to replace a florescent light fixture under our kitchen cabinet. A few weeks before, my wife had bought a new fixture to replace the current 40 year-old cracked and sagging fixture, and she laid it on the bench in the kitchen. She told me it was there, I said I’d put it up, and then she didn’t mention it for a week or so. At that point she said she should probably replace the fixture herself sometime. I might have mumbled that I’d get to it soon. Thereafter she ignored the fixture and didn’t mention the fact that it lay on our kitchen bench, and that I stacked stuff on and around it almost every day.

So, yesterday afternoon I resolved to replace the fixture, knowing that I could blog afterwards. I’ve done this sort of repair pretty often in my life, so the old fixture came down, and the new one pretty much flung itself up onto the underside of the cabinet. At that point I was reminded of a fundamental principle of home repair. When attaching something to the bottom of something else, you will have screws that point up.

My hands like to tell me to go to hell sometimes, for technical reasons beyond the scope of the current discussion. When I focus on doing something they will shake. When I really concentrate, they shake even more. When I get frustrated, that’s like permission for them to do The Harlem Shake (you young folks check the link). When I leaned over the counter, under the cabinet, backward and upside down to thread these screws, that’s when the fun began.

About an hour later I passed my wife, who was sitting in the den, and she asked what I’d been laughing about. I told her I’d just taken an hour to do something I used to be able to do in about 30 seconds, and she expressed her sympathy. I didn’t touch on the hour’s worth of events that took place before I laughed. Here’s an excerpt:

I try to thread a screw and drop it.

I try to thread it with the other hand and drop it.

I put it on the end of a screwdriver and drop it, where it falls behind the toaster.

I think bad words and consider smashing the olive oil bottle on the inconceivably hard tile floor.

I drop the screw five more times in a row.

I actually pick up the olive oil bottle but take a deep breath and put it back down.

I drop the screw four more times.

I start to ask my wife for help, but I think ‘What if I was here by myself?’

I drop the screw three more times, until it falls on the floor where it rolls under the refrigerator.

I walk around the kitchen a couple of times thinking that I could take the olive oil bottle out back and down the alley to smash it, where no one would ever need to know.

I move the refrigerator and get the screw.

I fold masking tape on my fingertip and stick the screw to it, then I try to thread it and drop it inside the toaster.

I shake the toaster upside down for the screw, and I clean toast crumbs off the counter, wondering why we haven’t died in a fire.

I drop the screw ten more times in a row.

I wring the dish cloth full of toast crumb really hard. I think some of the molecular bonds may have broken.

I drop the screw another ten times in a row.

[Imagine that this goes on for about another 45 minutes]

All the gods from every religion in history guide my hand, and I thread the screw.

I laugh because nothing is broken and everyone is still alive.

Now that I have, in the manner of a neurologically-challenged Prometheus, restored light to our kitchen, I’m pretty much out of bad reasons for not updating this blog. I can’t think of any good ones either, so here we are. All I need are a title and a photo before I post this. What photo should I use? The light fixture conquered and gloriously mounted on my cabinet? Or the cat eating yogurt?

Cats eating yogurt. It never really wa a contest, was it?
Cats eating yogurt. It never really was a contest, was it?

 

“Why Your Cat Hates You” Goes on Tour

One of my favorite posts from the past, Why Your Cat Hates You, is visiting the blog of author Larry Merris today. My cat Snowball, who dictated the post, celebrated by wallowing on my lap to have her belly scratched and then biting me on the thumb. So, a banner day all around! Larry said that some of his readers are cat people, so I hope they’ll drop by here each week for our celebrations of the human spirit and character assassinations.

Please go check out the post on Larry’s blog. Spelling errors might have crept in during the move to his blog, or even foreign words. He writes about foreign countries, so it’s not as outlandish as you might think. Keep both of us honest.

Larry is the author of The Red Serpent, a historical thriller that you should look into if you enjoy nail-biting rides through danger and ancient knowledge. That wasn’t the absolute the best description. For the absolute best description you should check out the book on Larry’s website. It contains a cool book trailer, and if nothing else catches your attention, this cover should:

The Red Serpent by Larry Merris
The Red Serpent by Larry Merris

You can expect the sequel, The Parable Effect, later in 2013.

Larry, thank you for allowing me to visit your blog and your readers!

If I Start Looking Too Happy, Shoot My Cow

I’m thinking about murdering some flying cows. It wouldn’t be hard, at least on the technical side. They’re cows, so they’d just stand there and take it, or maybe they’d chew their cuds and hover a little. But I’d struggle on the emotional side, because they have huge brown eyes, and they’re goofy looking, and they make me giggle.

These are fictional cows. I’ve written them into a story I’m working on, which I guess says a lot about the maturity of the story and my maturity as a person. I just love them. The story isn’t about them, and they don’t show up that much, but when I get to write about them I feel giddy. If you’ve never written about flying cows, I suggest you run right out and try it. It’s better than playing golf while you’re high.

And yet, my friend Dan has a great rule about acting. If something makes you giggle for more than 15 seconds, don’t do it. I believe that applies to writing too. If it entertains me that much, it’s almost certain to aggravate and insult a lot of other people who don’t share my sense of humor. A large proportion of the relatively small number of people likely to read my story would despise my flying cows. My cows might be sad. So instead I should shoot them between the eyes with the Delete key.

I’m now trying to talk myself out of writing a eulogy for my cows, since I have a couple of thousand more words to write before I go to bed tonight. Maybe I can just say that like many things in this life, too much good is bad. A slice of cake is good. A barrel of cake frosting is a heart attack. Flowers from an admirer are good, but a gift-wrapped leather sofa containing a hidden webcam is a restraining order. It’s about perspective and proportion.

“Perspective” is not my middle name. My middle name is “It probably won’t kill us, so let’s pour the green stuff into the pink stuff and see what happens.” I sometimes get into trouble because of that, causing me to tell people things that make them never talk to me again, get locked up in remote places, and have parts of my body mashed off. I was walking out of my psychiatrist’s office once (which sounds like the evil twin of a bad joke), and he shocked me by saying, “Let me know if you start feeling too happy. That’s a bad sign.” That was a hell of a note. But it made sense when I thought about it, because being too happy is bad for me, just like too much sex would be. I can’t think of exactly how it would be bad, but I’m sure it would be.

So, I know what I have to do. The road to mental health and literary excellence seems to be paved with the bodies of flying cows, and it’s slaughtering time. I’ll do it after this next chapter. It contains a flying cow chase scene, and they’re just so cute when their ears stand out like wings and their udders flap in the wind.

Cyclone the Flying Cow - She's like Chuck Yeager, if Chuck Yeager were a cow. And a girl.
Cyclone the Flying Cow – She’s like Chuck Yeager, if Chuck Yeager were a cow. And a girl.

Photo from http://www.cumanagement.org/article/view/id/Purple-Skies-and-Flying-Cows

 

 

I Couldn’t Tell He Was Real Until He Stopped Making Sense

When my grandfather went out to eat he always put sugar in his coffee, even though he didn’t like sugar in his coffee. He did it because the sugar was free.

I’ve heard that little story dozens of times since I was a boy. It comes up all the time when my family talks about my grandfather. It sums him up in two sentences. If you know that story, you know a lot about him.

Lately I’ve been working to make characters come to life in a story I’m writing. I struggle. I create backgrounds for them so I know how they think, how they talk, what foods they hate, and what they shout when having sex. I make them do and say significant things that will show who they are. But I often fail to build the thing I’m looking for—that fundamental, defining image as stark as being caught in a lightning flash.

I think I’ve overlooked the Free Sugar Factor.

The Free Sugar Factor involves a person doing something that’s habitual, probably trivial, and always unusual. It’s the kind of thing his family would bring up when they talk about him. They might say, “Oh yeah, whenever Aunt Jane got mad she’d drive to the grocery store and sit in the parking lot for an hour or two. What a character.”

The Free Sugar Factor isn’t some pathological behavior, unless the person really is a maniac. It’s doing something everyone else thinks is peculiar, but it makes perfect sense to the person doing it. We all do these things. It’s part of what makes us real people. I’m not sure, but I think mine may have something to do with turkey sandwiches.

To illuminate this whole concept, here are a couple of Free Sugar Factor examples from real people.

My father’s Aunt Delphi, who he swears was the best cook in the world, made a gigantic pan of biscuits in her wood burning stove every morning, far more than the household could eat. The family would eat about a fourth of the biscuits, and then she’d feed the rest to her husband’s coon dogs.

When I was a boy, my father kept a perfectly tuned diesel engine on blocks in the backyard, as I’m sure everyone else’s father did too. It drew diesel fuel from the gas can sitting next to it. Every day when he came home from work he started up the engine and stood there letting it run for a while.

The Free Sugar Factor usually involves a habitual act, but not always. Some isolated acts are definitive in themselves and forever after show what that person was about. For example, when my mother was three years old, her six-year-old brother took her to the nearby store to see Santa Claus. They joined a long line, and they stood just behind an overweight woman. My uncle kicked the woman right in the middle of her ass and said, “Get the hell out of my way, fat lady, I’ve got to go see Santa Claus!”

I’ll bet that gave you an image of who he is.

I think the cigarettes were free too.