Thursday, June 18, 2009

Guest in Progress: Russell Atwood

I met Russell Atwood way back when, when I was in graduate school at American University and he was an undergraduate. We accepted one of his stories for our first edition of Folio, the literary journal I co-founded (with W.T. Pfefferle, still being published thank you very much). Of course being all brazen and overly impressed with myself—hey, I had just started a literary journal!—I had editorial suggestions for Russell…who took them in good spirit.

I loved his first novel, East of A, with its nourish underbelly views of the East Village and Lower East Side of New York City, and so I’m pleased to see the follow-up, Losers Live Longer due out in August.

Here’s what Ann Beattie said of East of A: “East of A presents quirky characters in an amusingly noriish, nouveau city mode. It’s New York—the essentiall Alphabet City of any good cynic’s lexicon—and the entanglements and entrapments are sometimes as surreal as they are suspenseful. I had a wonderful time reading Russell Atwood’s novel.”

And of Losers Live Longer, here’s some praise from Gayle Lynds, New York Times bestselling author of The Book of Spies and The Last Spymaster: "In Losers Live Longer, Russell Atwood has created a riveting story so evocative you can smell the scent of New York City’s hot concrete, feel a pickpocket’s hand dip into your pocket. From his unforgettable characters to his lyrical use of language, Atwood proves he’s the new Master of Detective Noir."

Hello? Hollywood, what the heck are you waiting for?

How to Write in 5 Easy* Steps
By Russell Atwood

* (the definition of "Easy" expressed in the following article is the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the opinions or views of this blogsite. Any adverse effects resulting from the lexiconal interpretation expressed in this article is solely the responsibility of you the reader, cit. Court Ruling in Federal Case of Shit V. Fan: You're on your own).

I wrote this checklist back in the early eighties and kept it and it has helped me ever since. I couldn't find the original and it's just as well since the forces of Evil have refined their attack since then anyway and there's a need to adapt for survival.

But let me explain about Evil, if I may. Huh, how best to without scaring you, but here goes: there are forces trying to stop you from writing. Call it what you want, Irony, Bad Karma, Coincidence, Bad Luck, Inner Demons, Outer Demons--however your particular belief system categories this negative force out to negate you, fill in that blank. But whatever you call It, when you sit down to write, you get Its attention.

You are about to do something wonderful and beautiful and spectacular that will be printed on paper in ink and survive the centuries, maybe even be hoarded or kept in secret protected against a society which would see it destroyed. Whatever, It doesn't like that.

The battle really being waged in the Universe--again whatever your belief systems, fill in the blank--doesn't make itself visible to us until we set out to make a difference, it only manifests itself in order to stop us. But anyway, skip the C. S. Lewis explanation and only take away this:
Some THING is trying to stop you from writing. You must fight it as if it were a war and martial law has been enacted. So grow some!

Step #1. Unplug the phone. You may never ever get phone calls, but the moment you set out to write, it'll happen. One of the goals of this is to keep the voice in your mind the loudest voice you hear, so don't speak, and avoid listening to any other voice but that voice you're going to write in, it needs to predominate.

This used to be a very simple step to enact when I first wrote it. All I had to do back in the 1980s was unplug a phone cord from the wall and I was unreachable by the outside world. I reduced the battlefield against this FORCE trying to reach out from Its pit and stop me, to my apartment, my room, my space--unless they knocked on my door or rang my doorbell, it couldn't get in. But SEE! It adjusted--you no longer can just "unplug the phone." There are other phones now, and maybe even most insidious of all, the tool which we now set out to write upon, is itself a PHONE, the enemy within.

Now people, do I really need to offer more proof that you as a writer are under attack by a FORCE trying to stop you from creating ART. So attack it. Take drastic measures to insulate yourself from intrusion, distraction, delights and dissatisfaction. You need to reduce your threats of interruption down to neutral.

Step #2. Unplug the TV. Unplug the radio.
Again, hard to do now that people's writing tools are our computers and now also our TVs and radios (it is diabolical). The most direct, drastic measure is to STOP WRITING ON YOUR COMPUTER. Unplug the computer. Don't just turn it off. UNPLUG it from the wall.

REMOVE your laptop's battery and place it someplace apart from the computer (sock drawer if you gotta 'em). Write on a pad of paper with a pen.

Okay, and if you don't want to go that drastic in your approach, a simpler, but still direct step is buy a pair of SOFT FOAM EAR PLUGS, with a noise-reduction rate of at least 30 dB. So this way you aren't reduced to crawling around ripping appliances out of the wall (though I nonetheless highly recommended that exercise in exorcism, but it's up to you).

Step #3. Remove your shoes.
I can't stress this enough, people. Take your shoes off. YOU AREN'T GOING ANYWHERE, for the next three hours. And also you aren't taking a test in school, relax, you make yourself as comfortable as you possibly can without falling asleep. You aren't going anywhere.

Step #4. Make a pot of tea. Pour it in a big cup, bring it back to where you are going to write and sit.

Fill in the blank for your own favorite light beverage. Stay hydrated I guess is the rule here, so whatever you want to drink drink it.

Step #5. Sit for three hours and think of a sentence. Don't get up. Stare at a blank page with a good pen in your hand, or typewriter keys below your fingers. Think of a sentence and write it down. Write a sentence that comes after that sentence. Don't get up. Stare at those two sentences. Rinse and repeat.

If you can't think of a sentence, just stare at the page. You'll get bored. You'll get bored out of your skull. You aren't going anywhere. You've got three hours of this and the TV's unplugged and the phone is unplugged and you uninstalled Solitaire yesterday, so there's nothing else to do, but stare at the blank page, or that blank screen, that flashing, intermittent vertical cursor like a disappearing/reappearing wall I have to penetrate in some never-ending rudimentary PONG-like video game. Chase the cursor, penetrate the defenses.

Why three hours? I find that's as productive as I ever get, so maybe it's just a case specific demarkation. In my case, I get up early. Six is great. Seven will do, as long as I'm in position long before eight, I can work productively through eleven o'clock and then I peter out around noontime or one o'clock on a good day, and if I try to force it it all sucks anyway, so why bother? And it's always good to end on a cliffhanger, or the first few sentences of a new thing that your subconscious can sort of kick around until you get up then next morning and start steps 1-5 again. And again. And again. And again. But take weekends off---or just the opposite if you have a real job. In this case, you have to condense this down to your Saturday and Sunday, and then have one or two shorter sessions during the week before you go to work.

I can't offer all the permutations here. You'll have to fill in the blank. If you are surrounded by a family which starts its day at 7 A.M. and doesn't stop the rest of the day, you'll have to start getting up at 4:30 A.M. and getting your three hours in until 7:30 A.M.

Again, why three hours? I like this because it is longer than it would take to watch a movie, so sitting still for that long feels different. You must train yourself to sit still for that long, and to concentrate until your bladder is ready to burst from all that tea, and then still write on because you just want to get in one more sentence, so you hold it.

It is hard to sit for three hours, even without interruptions from the outside forces trying to stop you. You have to train. Practice by reading a very quick book in one sitting, from beginning to end without budging from your seat. Hemingway is good for this. SUN ALSO RISES. OLD MAN IN THE SEA. Or F. Scott Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY. Hammett's RED HARVEST. Chandler's LITTLE SISTER. Ross Thomas' CAST A YELLOW SHADOW. J. D. Salinger's FRANNY AND ZOOEY. anything early by Agatha Christie, OF MICE AND MEN. Sit down and read these in a single sitting, to synchronize your body and mind with motionless concentration.

Somehow you need to carve out three hours from your life in at least a three day succession to tackle something big. It's a challenge, it's a battle, you're fighting it, and It is fighting you. Never forget that. Whether its inside you or outside you, something is going to try and stop you from writing. And it'll happen so subtly and innocently--I just want to check my e-mail, or I need to see if...(fill in the blank)--and will be cloaked in good deeds done, but no writing done. This will happen to you if you really try, and when it does don't despair, instead marvel at it, and say wow, something is really trying to stop me. What I'm doing must be real important if something is trying to stop me from succeeding. And the battle begun, never ending.

About: Russell Atwood submitted his first short story for publication when he was 14. In college, he co-founded and edited his campus literary magazine at American University in Washington, D.C. After graduation, he moved to New York City and went to work for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as an assistant editor. After leaving as its managing editor in 1996 to concentrate on his own writing, the magazine published his first story to feature private eye Payton Sherwood in 1997. His first novel-length mystery, EAST OF A, was published in hardcover by Ballantine Books in 1999. His new novel is LOSERS LIVE LONGER (Hard Case Crime, publication date August 25, 2009). For more details, including purchasing info: Russell Atwood’s website and publisher Hard Case Crime website.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.