Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Across the Sound

I’ve already told you once before that I used to live in this magnificent building:

It’s bigger on the inside

This is Caumsett, once the estate of millionaire-philanthropist-playboy, Tony Stark – err, Marshall Field, III (for the record, I do not know if ‘playboy’ applied to Field, but I just saw The Avengers this week, so it seemed appropriate). Situated on some 1600 acres of land, the grounds included a working dairy, massive stables, pens for raising pheasants for hunting, guest ‘cottages’ of 20+ rooms, tennis courts and swimming pools. It sat on top of a hill overlooking Long Island Sound. The Connecticut coast was visible; the city of Stamford was a mere six miles due north.

We had a guy who worked for us as a sort of every man. In exchange for room and board — and welfare-scale wages, Paul cooked, cleaned, painted, fixed things, and did probably half a dozen other jobs as needed. He grew up in the same town I did, though he sounded like an extra from Goodfellas or The Sopranos (I was already deep under the influence of Canadian ex-hockey players-turned-game-analysts, so my speech had already lost some of its ‘Lawn GUYland’ in favor of ‘no doat aboat it’ and ‘eh’, so we didn’t sound much alike). He was also a very live-in-the-moment kind of guy. One fine afternoon, one of his friends drive him down to the beach. He took a kayak with him, set the kayak in the water, and started paddling. For Stamford. Armed with nothing but his paddle and his pack of cigarettes.

I don’t know how long the idea of a cross-Sound trip rattled around in Paul’s brain before he took it.  Knowing him the way I do, I suspect it had been there for while, probably from the first time he saw the kayak sitting in the garage bay. For whatever reason, he woke up that afternoon and just said, “I’m doing it.” I don’t remember the time he left, but he did not arrive back home until 2 AM the following morning. He told us the next night how it went:

 “It was going great. I’m paddling and paddling and Connecticut is getting closer and closer, and Long Island is getting further and further away.

“And then I’m in the middle, and I’m paddling and paddling and it feels like everything stayed exactly the same. Nothing moved. It felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.”

There he was, somewhere in the middle of Long Island Sound, paddling like a madman. Likely hungry, likely thirsty, and he’s not getting anywhere.

Haven’t we all been there?

As a writer, I’m very much like Paul. I get an idea in my head and I think about it for a while. I thought about Parallel Lives for about a month before I was ready to start writing (though to be fair, I was in the middle of a NaNoWriMo, so I couldn’t really start something else at the same time). With my new book, the current WiP, I started thinking about it in September, and didn’t begin actually writing it until January. And yet, I approached the beginning of both books much like Paulie. I woke up and knew it was the day to start, even though, in the case of one book I had nothing more than a character in mind, and in the other, I had the very beginning of a situation. Paul put his kayak in the water and started paddling. I put my fingers on the keyboard and started typing.

In fact, Paul probably had a bigger advantage: he knew where he wanted to go and, as it was a clear day, he could actually see his destination. Me? I am one of those Discovery Writers. I don’t really know where I’m going. I can’t see the end. I can’t see beyond what I’ve already thought while doing the dishes or taking a shower. Once I get to the end of the scene that’s in my head, the next one (if I’m lucky) just sort of unrolls as I reach it. It’s sort of like walking through the fog, where you can always see ten feet in front of you. You move into the space you can see and, as you go, oyu see more ahead of you. So while I’m typing words for a scene I’ve already ‘seen’ in my head, there’s more being revealed.

But now I’m like Paul in the middle of the Sound. I’m close to 75,000 words into the new, still-untitled WiP. I should be in its wind-down phase now. I should be able to see far enough ahead of me to know where the end is, to get a sense of the shape of it, but I’m paddling like mad and Connecticut isn’t getting any closer, and when I look behind, Long Island is not getting any further away. It’s the dreaded middle, and it’s probably the most horrid part of writing for a Discovery Writer.

I do have options, though. Paul was stuck out there. Even if he decided he’d never make it all the way across, turning around would likely still leave him with that sense of non-movement. All he could do was rest his arms and smoke another cigarette and hope for a good tailwind to push him to his desired destination. Me? I can step back. I can take my story and outline it in the hope that really looking at where I’ve been will lead me logically to where I need to go. It’s funny, Peggy Eddleman wrote a piece earlier this week talking about how she plots the beginning and end, but ‘pants’ the middle, and Cynthia Chapman Willis wrote about the middle taking off and running away Me? I think I have to plot the middle. Or, to be more accurate, I have to plot something like the last third of the middle.

There is no one way to do this writing thing. I love that feeling when something happens that I wasn’t expecting; it’s almost like I’m a reader of my own book. But I do have to impose discipline. I need to see that final destination to get there. Right now I’m like Paul. Because he didn’t plan his trip, he left for Connecticut in the afternoon. When he finally got to Stamford, he pulled up at a dock, found a deli, bought himself a sandwich, a beer, and another pack of cigarettes, and was back in the water. Most of his return journey was made in the dark, and he didn’t get ‘home’ until around 2 AM. I don’t know how he even saw us to aim his kayak at the Park. Right now, I need to see the dock. If I do that, I’ll be able to go back to happily discovering how I’m going to get there. It’s going to take a lot of paddling, but I’ll get there eventually.
On Another Note: Last month I shared with you my short story, “The Prophet” with you. This month, the Smithy’s April newsletter features a nice piece by writer’s circle buddy, Kristin Walker. I know she’s got a couple of pieces going out on submission to some journals. I hope we’ll see her in print somewhere soon. Enjoy.  

And finally, since I’m ‘Stuck in the Middle’, here’s a blast from the past. Anyone who’s seen Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs will undoubtedly have an automatic image of Mr. White dancing around with a straight razor in hand. Personally, I find the original video just about as disturbing. What do you think?

9 Responses

  1. I read Peggy's post too, and I basically do the same thing. I know the very end, and I have an idea of how it will start, and sometimes I know a few things that happen along the way, but for the most part I "pants" the middle. It's wonderful at times (when the scenes flow naturally) and excruciating at times (when I can't figure out what the heck is supposed to happen next). I love the analogy of paddling in the water but getting nowhere. You're so close to the end, though! Good luck getting unstuck–I hope that tailwind comes soon!

  2. Love the story, I've been there a few times myself. When I start, I usually have no idea where I'm going. Somewhere along the way I'll get an idea of the shape of the story, so I have a vague idea of the ending. Like I know what the central conflict is, so I know I have to resolve it and whether I think it will end well for the MC or not. But the rest is winged. And sometimes it gets daunting. But so far I've found my way to the end three times, so I think I'm getting better at it.

    Anyway, best of luck finding the shore. Just think of the deli at the end. 🙂

  3. I love this post. I love the way you weave your writing habits into this story of Paul's kayak trip to Connecticut. I hate that feeling of non-movement. I wish I had some good advice but I don't. It's different for everyone and you never know what the thing that is going to start you moving again will be. Good luck! I'm excited that you have so many words already. Can't wait to see what you've come up with when you're all done!

  4. Thanks for reading and commenting, PJ. Yes, I'll get to the end and treat myself to a nice, cold beer. And then I'll get back in and start paddling somewhere else.

  5. Thanks, Lisa. For me, I think it's just keep paddling, just keep thinking. At some point, it will suddenly become clear where this needs to go.

    At least there's one thing that happened to Paul that I don't have to worry about. On his return journey, in the dark, he crossed paths with a cargo ship of some sort. There he is in a kayak, with nothing to show anyone he's there but a cigarette and a lighter, with a big ship that can't see or hear him. I don't know how close it really was, but he thought he was going to get run over for a little bit there.

  6. Wow, you live near Long Island? Dude, we need to talk!

    That poor guy. How scary would that be?

    I attended at a writing conference class recently based upon Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat". You might want to check out his webpage and see if there's anything that to help you. Good luck!

  7. Great story to draw the parallel…on the much earlier side of the middle, that was my feeling with my current WIP for awhile. I knew I could start with a bang, and then I sort of drifted and realized I didn't have enough dots to connect yet to keep moving forwards. Good luck working your way out!

  8. Thanks, Robin. Did you get out of that drifty middle yet? The good news is, I think I managed, yesterday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for Updates

For announcements, alerts and special offers, subscribe to our emails.  Please note, you will have to confirm your subscription through an email to the address you provide.

Follow Jeff O'Handley

Jeff O'Handley ©2024 - All Rights Reserved.