Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Inside a Wingman’s Brain

When it comes to writing, I am a wingman. My completed novels were started on the basis of simple ideas and written without the benefit of any outlines. I started one with a character in mind, and the other based on a situation. While I thought about both stories in advance, when I sat down to write I had no real clue as to what would happen, how either would end, or even who was in it. There’s just some opening image (which doesn’t necessarily turn out to be page 1 in the completed work), and the story is revealed as I go.

Once a week I get together with a group of folks for a writer’s group. We use a prompt and do about forty-five minutes of freewriting, which we share at the end. Commentary is pretty light, we aim for encouragement, and I’m fine with that. It’s fun, it’s good practice, and I’ve come up with some usable material for short stories. Parts of both novels were written there (Barton’s Women, in fact was actually started there).

Two weeks ago we read “La Recoleta,” a poem by Jorge Luis Borges, as our prompt. It was a funny day; I was ‘in charge’ that day and was distracted by the unexpected arrival of three teens and a young adult from a different writing group who showed up wanting to ‘sit in’ (though the leader said, “We’ll just watch.” Huh? Why would you go to a writer’s group and just watch? But I digress.). I also had the pressure of trying to end on time (for once), so I had to watch the clock. The prompt didn’t quite grab me, and I stared out the window, trying to find something to write. A curtain of icicles hung outside the window, and as I watched the drip drip drip of droplets off the end of one of the icicles, and it started. What I’m going to do is mix what I wrote that day with commentary on what I was thinking (when I was thinking at all, that is). This piece is not edited beyond what I did at the time. Maybe because I was so distracted, I was able to remember the shifts and turns in my thinking. Anyway, here it is.

‘Water drops bulged at the end of the icicle, fell with the same steady rhythm of the a saline drip pumped into Frank’s arm. He watched it—the ice, not the saline drip, he got faint light-headed every time he thought about stuff getting pumped into his arm—and decided he’d officially bottomed out.’

Three things. First, I noticed how steady the drip off the end of an icicle is, and that put me in mind of IVs, so I worked that in. Also, less conscious, those were pretty damn sharp icicles hanging off the roof, which perhaps put me in mind of needles in veins. Frank is a definite reference to a a character in a lengthy piece one of my writer’s group colleagues has been working on. And, in hindsight, I’d say that ‘bottomed out’ may be a reference to how I was feeling at the moment. When I resort to writing about things I see and hear at the writer’s group, it’s a sure sign things aren’t working too well that day. Though writing about icicles isn’t as bad as writing about pens, though. When I write about pens, that’s bottoming out.

I still had no idea where this was going, by the way, but I kept up with the idea of bottoming out in the next paragraph.

‘This is what my life has come to, he thought, as a drop grew fat at the end of the razor needle*-sharp ice. I’m watching water fall off an icicle and it’s the most interesting thing that’s happened all day.’

*I initially used razor, but razor is the wrong word for icicles, isn’t it? Icicles are needles, not razors, and the hospital setting and the IV meant ‘needle’ was the right word. This was a conscious cross-out made before I went any further.

Now, at this point, questions came up. Who is Frank? What’s he doing in the hospital? I didn’t know. What’s more, Frank didn’t know. I suddenly had an idea that Frank in this place with no idea why, and no memory of anything, really. I was writing myself into something. It’s great fun when it happens. On I went.

‘And it was, too, that was the sad thing. He couldn’t remember how long he’d been here. He couldn’t remember why he was here. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a familiar face, besides the dark-eyed nurse stern-faced nurses and orderlies who took his pulse, checked his temperature, and asked him how he was feeling, that is. Once today the they switched the bag of saline had hung from its hook like a deflated balloon. Frank had seen caught sight of it and nearlythe room had gone gotten grey and spinny. Later, the curly-haired nurse in the Snoopy smock had entered with a full bag. Frank looked away and discovered the icicles out the window, and that had occupied his mind for some time.’

So, at this point I tried to tap into the hospital experience a bit. I’ve never been a long-term patient myself, but have seen enough of hospitals in the last ten years for a lifetime. In this and the next paragraph, indeed, in all of Frank’s interactions with the nurse, I tried to bring in the feeling of being in a hospital, so any potential reader might nod their heads and think, “yeah, that’s it.”

I’m not 100% sure why I opted out of ‘dark-eyed nurse’ in favor of a more generic person. In hindsight, it works better. The bag of saline was something where I started to write a simple “they switched it” but thought I could use more description, so I went for the deflated balloon thing. I was going to write ‘had nearly passed out’ but went for the slightly more showy ‘grey and spinny.’ That whole section needs more cleanup, but I was on a roll. No time for revising!

Something began to work into my head about this story, and I started to see both a possibly sinister reason for Frank’s hospitalization and a way to end the story. I saw a man who knows something, or almost remembers something (I still didn’t know what), but can’t quite get to it, and I wanted the IV to be why he couldn’t remember, and tie it all to the imagery of the dripping icicles. There was a little more interaction between Frank and the nurse that I’ll skip.

‘Cold fingers pressed against the inside of his wrist. His pulse beat hard against them. There was something he was supposed to ask. It dangled there in his mind, not quite seen.The idea of it grew bigger and bigger, but he didn’t know.

The thermometer beeped. The nurse pulled it out of his mouth and ejected the plastic sheath. Another note on his chart.

“I’ll be back in a little while,” she said. “If you need anything, just hit that button.”

She was halfway out the door when Frank called her. “Nurse.” His voice was rusty in his ears.

She stopped and regarded watched him, her eyebrows up.

The idea, the question, grew in his mind, bigger and bigger, but he couldn’t form the right words. Then it fell away. He looked out the window as if the words would be there, floating in the air, but there was nothing but a curtain of icicles and blue sky beyond. As he watched, a drop of water glistened and fell.

Frank looked back at the nurse.

“Nothing,” he said, and went back to watch the icicle.’

In the end, it didn’t quite work the way I wanted. Like Frank, I couldn’t quite grab the right words, the right ideas, to wrap it up quite right, and I didn’t have time to go back and craft it. Still, I wasn’t unhappy with it then, and I’m not unhappy with it now. This is one of those pieces I can see myself polishing. So that’s a glimpse into the brain of a wingman. Writing on the fly like I do for my writer’s group is different than what I do with novels, and I’ll probably do another post somewhere along the line talking about that (no promises on when, though; I know better than to do that). How does this compare to your process?

12 Responses

  1. I hate writing on the fly and know the feeling about writing about your pen!! Ha ha! Yet, I don't outline, either. When I start a novel, I have a feeling for the characters and an idea about the ending (which I find is critical for me), but all that takes time before I write the first word. Certainly more than the 15 minutes one of those word-prompt thingies take!

  2. That's the way I operate now too. I don't deal much with outlines anymore. I like to see where my characters take me (though I always know where they must end up).

    Keep going with the scene. It's already got a good bit of tension in it, with him not able to bring up those thoughts just under the surface.

  3. I always thought of myself as a plotter, and I am in some ways. The difference, I think, is in what I call my first draft. I'm learning that my handwritten notes are really a short first draft, and since I write them by the seat of my pants, I guess that makes me a wingman, too. What I really love, though, is when I read over those notes and one handwritten page turns into 8 or 10 with setting and dialogue. So I guess I am an expander, too!

    Great piece, by the way. I am ever envious of your abilities!

  4. I love this post! It was so interesting to see the play-by-play of your work through your eyes.

    Many of my stories have started this way. Not with an icicle, of course, but with a single notion. Everything sort of snowballs from there! 🙂

  5. I was impressed by how your mind worked from just the image of those icicles. Wingman is a good way of putting it – along for the ride. When my characters don't know what they're going to do next, I'm right there with them!

  6. There's nothing wrong with your process JeffO. If anything, winging it allows you to escape the boundaries that writers who plan set for themselves. I loved the excerpt and I'm itching to know why Frank was in hospital. The reference to the icicles was cool, too, and I love the connection you draw between them and the hospital experience.

    I find myself to be both a planner and a wingman(wingwoman?) at this point. I planned my first and current WIP, but wrote my second WIP without a real plan to complete idea of where it would end up.

    P.S – I send you a message using the blogger messenger service, about the guest post. Let me know if you got it 🙂 If you still want to do it anyway.

  7. Thanks, LG.

    I usually find myself figuring out where it's going some time after starting.

    As for this piece, I definitely want to polish it. We'll see if it turns into something bigger or remains small.

  8. Thanks, Bonnee, glad you liked it. I may never know why he was there. Even if I find out, you may never know why he was there. I think if I keep this as a small, standalone piece, the reader may never need to know.

    I think we (plotters and wingpeople) exist much more on a continuum than posts like this would lead us to believe. I do a lot of 'internal writing' that might be sort of like outlining, and many plotters break out of outlines or flesh out scenes pretty spontaneously. We just like to pretend we're really different from each other. It gives us something to argue about.

    Hmm, I've been poking around the blogger dashboard and my e-mail and I see no messages. My e-mail is in my profile, you can send me a message that way.

  9. Wow. This is fascinating to see how you've worked through this and provided us with your thoughts behind the editing. I'm not sure I could to that. Of course, I haven't met a sentence I've written that I don't want to edit, so it seems to be a neverending process for me.

  10. Wow! I love that in-depth glimpse into your process. Mine is kind of like this. I usually start with an image or a piece of dialogue and just see where it goes. Let the writing do what it will. Or I go over and over it in my head long before it ever gets on the page so when it comes out it's more formed.

  11. You know I wish I was like you. When I write I just let everything come out. I dont go back and analyze the crap I spewed until much later. However, if I actually thought about my word choice before the words hit the page I might actually write something worth reading…oh well I guess everyone has their own way of doing things. Great post!

  12. By and large I do let it all come out, Cestlavie. I do some adjusting as I go, but definitely not with the attention I use when truly revising. I think because of the distractions on this day, I was much more in tune with my thought processes, so I was really able to say, "I changed this because." I can't do that most of the time. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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