Since I’ve started writing for publication the question I get asked most often is: Have you had that mole on your face checked? Occasionally people also want to know where I get the ideas for my stories. The answer is simple, I steal them. Take my first novel In The Sticks, if you think of Lyle as Santiago, the murderer as the marlin and Cheryl as Manolin, you will see it’s identical to the classic Hemmingway mystery The Old Man and the Sea. (We won’t get into what represents the sardines.) The short story The Sacrifice, which I just posted on this blog, is a cheap rip off of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men without George, Lennie, Slim, Candy, Crooks, Curley and his wife, the puppy or the stories of the rabbits.
Okay, before estate attorneys start filing legal briefs, I’m kidding. I really don’t know where the ideas come from. They just suddenly appear in my head like a cold sore or a stray cat. I think it’s the way some people can wiggle their ears or burp The Star Spangle Banner; they just do it and can’t explain how. I’ve always assumed everyone had stories in their heads. Mine is the only head I’ve ever been in, but I’ve been in it quite often over the years, and the stories have always been there. Right now I have the rough outlines of three other novels on my computer along with a few short stories. Countless others have come and gone before I could write them down. Others were just plain stupid and I deleted them after I wrote them down. I never know what will spur the idea. My novel In The Sticks came from a documentary I saw on Dennis Rader, the BTK killer. The short story The Sacrifice came from an article I read on Hollywood actors involved in Scientology and Buddhism. The ideas just popped into my head and I wrote them down.
I usually don’t consider myself the smartest person in the room—sometimes even when I’m the only person in the room. I have had friends say they have stories in their heads but can’t get them onto the paper. I have an advantage since there is not much in my head to block them from getting out. Getting the story down on paper is definitely the hardest part of the process and getting it on the paper right the hardest part of the hardest part. I think writers are good listeners and observers. Picking out the way people talk, the little things they do and seeing comparisons is a big part of it. I’ve always been a better listener than a talker. Sometimes I listen so hard I fall asleep.
Joseph Wambaugh, author of The Blue Knight, The New Centurions and also a former cop, once said, “You can teach everything about writing except how to tell a good story. Either you know how to do it or you don’t.” Maybe that is it. I wouldn’t say it is talent, because those who know me best know I have no discernible talent, but I can tell if a story will work or not as soon as I write the basic premise.
The second most frequent question I’m asked is, how do you write without a degree in English. I thought about getting an English degree when I was younger, but I didn’t want to teach. A degree in English without a teaching certificate would leave me torturing myself for the rest of my life, asking the same question: “The meal or just the sandwich?” It does make it harder to write when you don’t have a degree in English. When I finish anything I have to go back through it and check the grammar line by line, and even then I miss things and hope the editor finds them. You will find numerous mistakes on this blog. I write it quickly and nobody pays money to read it–it is well worth the price—so I don’t spend much time on the grammar. I suppose if I had a degree in English I would make fewer mistakes. By the way, the two authors I mentioned at the beginning, Hemmingway and Steinbeck, didn’t have English degrees either, or a degree of any kind, and they seemed to have done alright. Not that I am comparing myself to either of them–we do have the same number of ears and that should count for something.
I know people who majored in English and some who minored in English. Some of them make a career out of saving the world from poor grammar by correcting anyone who ends a sentence with a preposition, dangles a participle or, God forbid, uses who instead of whom. I would like to take this opportunity to say–and I mean this from the bottom of my heart–everybody hates you.
So I’ll struggle on, with stories in my head and no degree in English hanging on my wall. Now I have to get back to working on my novel. I’m just getting to the exciting part where the white whale sinks the ship.