The Writing Process and Jake Kerr

Former Nebula nominee, literary leaning, and all around nice guy Jake Kerr talks about his writing process.

Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book. Can you describe it to us generally, or at least for one project?

Jake: It varies. I’ve started from a structural idea (“Requiem in the Key of Prose”) and then moved onto actually creating a story around it, and I’ve started with a single image (A boy creating graffiti that could only be seen in whole from one perspective in “Perspective”) and then wrote the story around how that could mean something to someone, and I’ve plotted a story out from beginning to end (“The Old Equations”).

Generally speaking, I do start with an idea and then I work out all the details in my head. I don’t necessarily write the story in my head, but I ponder the actual story as a narrative–the central conflict, how the characters interact, and the overall theme. When I finally sit down to write, I have a very good idea where I’m going.

Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?

Jake: This is a tough question, because I enjoy the entire journey but for different reasons for each. I like the experience of first writing something because, without fail, I’ll think of something new that will delight me in some way, whether it is a new twist that adds to the story or even a symbol that pops up at the end that ties the whole narrative in a bow. I also like the process of receiving critiques, because–also without fail–I’ll be informed of something stupid I did that is due entirely to my own blind spots. This can be anything from the overuse of a word to something that I think is clear being actually quite confusing. And, finally, I absolutely love to revise. I spend a great deal of time on practically every sentence, and shining and polishing the words for maximum effect is a wonderful experience.

Tamago: In general, how many drafts does it take before you are satisfied with a story or novel?

Jake: Probably around four or five minimum, but it can go significantly higher. I should note that if I receive five critiques I’ll go through the document five times, taking notes and making changes each time as I go through the critique. However, I consider the sum total one draft–the critique draft. I generally do a first draft, a structural second draft where I look for ways to put the story together more effectively, then a prose polishing draft. Then it is off to critique partners, and then I do the critique draft. After that it’s generally one or two more drafts, and I’m done.

Tamago: How do you know when something you’re writing isn’t working?

Jake: Sometimes after the very first draft. I’ll immediately recognize some obvious flaw that didn’t hit me until i wrote the piece. This is not uncommon. Usually, however, it’s after I get a piece of feedback that points out a major flaw that I missed. Sometimes the feedback is very frustrating in that I had a very specific intent in writing the story a certain way, and the effect doesn’t work. I recently wrote a story where the two characters share a consciousness, but the shared pov technique I used went right over the head of the editors. Another time I had a final draft of a novella, and some female readers told me that the very positive theme of the story was completely overwhelmed by the fact that one of the main characters was a young woman who was biologically engineered to be a sex slave. The misogyny in the piece, which was created by design and meant to deliver a positive message in the end, just came across as misogyny. So I trunked the piece, and it was the right thing to do. Sometimes a writer can’t ignore that a piece does not exist in a vacuum.

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You May Be a Novelist If…

Thanks to Steve Buchheit for pointing me to Dr. Doyle’s Identity Crisis article. BTW, you should read Dr. Doyle if you’re not. It’s great writing stuff.

Steve says he now knows he’s a novelist. There are some people in my general acquaintance who fit this bill naturally. (I’m looking at you, Chris East!)

I know that there are people who can do both. I’m one of them, but I have a very hard time staying within the constraints of one episode. When I wrote, oh, lessee, “O-Taga-San” I could tell you how the mother and father met, why the grandfather ran away. Who cares? It’s not essential in the narrative, but I know it. Anyway, I really worked hard at staying on one track in that story.

When I wrote the werewolf novella, I have a whole huge back history for three of the main characters, where they come from and what they want. Who cares in the context of the novella? I didn’t work so hard, and things leaked in.

Well, it turns out that people read these things, and they say, hunh. What about this? Or this? I think we need more information. And suddenly I’m into a novel.

As I look over Dr. Doyle’s points, I see a lot that’s familiar. Subplots, digressions, lots of characters, consequences, expanse. Let’s just call this thing a spade. I’m a novelist.

Which I like. I admire all the short story writers of the world. But yeah. I’m cut from a different cloth.

And next writing session, I’m going to go back to plotting my 5 book, 4 generation, 90 year family saga. Book one. And I mean it. I really don’t care what happened to Carlo’s father. Book one! Only about the Klarions. Not the Borgias!

Oh, damn. I do care. 😀

Expensive and Annoying

Well, it hadn’t happened since 2007, so I suppose it was about time.

Yesterday, I stumbled into the wrong hummus. I’ve been working on my clean eating, and I had a glorious food week lined up. Fish. Strawberries. Hummus. More veggies than you can shake a stick at. Red wine. Yeah, it was gonna be good.

Yesterday, I ate the hummus and some celery. The hummus comes from a local restaurant, Oasis, and it was kind of spicy, but I eat hummus. I didn’t give it a second thought.

Almost immediately I had the kind of reflux attack that makes you think you’re having a heart attack. Jabbing chest pains, shortness of breath, tingling around your mouth and nose. I told myself I could manage, but it became clear that I could not manage. So I thought urgent care. They could give me what the docs call a gi cocktail (phenobarbitol, belladona, maalox, and a secret ingredient). Then I realized no urgent care would see me with any chest pains. They had to make sure I wasn’t having a, you know, heart attack. And while I was pretty sure I wasn’t, I didn’t want to bet the bank on it.

I picked up Bryon and off we went on our little 4 hour adventure to St. Luke’s emergency room. And yes, my heart is fine. Blood work, EKG, chest x-ray, all fine. But man, that was awful some awful reflux. The burn still lingers.

I’m giving the rest of that hummus away. Also, no more Blue Zone wine. They think that was in part responsible. I’m inclined to agree. I am going to blow the diet a bit until I’m healed up. While I’m trying to eat nutritiously, my esophagus is burned, and I have to eat what goes down. You know, bland stuff. Bread is really good. Soaks that acid right up. Oatmeal. Pudding. Ice cream. Veggies, happily, are pretty inert.

Not the ideal way to blow an evening and a lot of money, but you know, worth it from certain angles. Not many people get to say they’ve drunk belladonna.

The Raptor Center

I was expecting people when I arrived at the raptor center on Wednesday. But there was no one there. I let myself in, and discovered a few hawks and a turkey buzzard hanging out in cages in the infirmary, delicious dead mice waiting for a mid morning snack nearby. I wandered over to the door where a chart on the different types of raptors was kept.

A cartoon caught my eye. It was the silhouette of a turkey buzzard, head and beak, and the picture was printed twelve times. The sequence of text?

Hi! I’m a turkey buzzard!


To keep cool, I defecate all over my lower legs.


When I’m upset, I projectile vomit.


Aren’t I special?

That’s when I knew that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. People eventually arrived, and I was treated to a two-hour raptor lecture.

***

Those of you who have known me for any length of time know I like to research, well, everything. It might explain the PhD thing. It is also awesome when I get to do it in conjunction with writing. Since I’ve gotten serious, I’ve looked into the world of pro-wrestling, Hammer horror, large and small animal veterinary, Norway, Decorah, and…this time around…raptors.

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Checking In

It’s been since Monday, hasn’t it? We had a snowstorm, and that threw everything off in terms of work, writing, home maintenance…well, here we are anyway.

This weekend was the local gaming convention, Gamicon, and Bryon and I were game auction lackeys, which basically meant we were the Vanna Whites who handed games off to the auctioneer in high hopes of selling some rare and some not so desirable items. Bryon also had a little art work done, and during our down times, I worked on plotting out the new novel. Bryon has given me a few very…Roman ideas.

***

This week looks much to be the same. I hope that we don’t have any school delays tomorrow, because I feel way behind at work. I have to get a few things done regarding some conversation parties and meeting the Viet Nam students I’ll be traveling with, I have to observe a couple of teachers, and I just plain need to get some things written up. All this time away from the office isn’t helping the cause.

The new novel is really capturing the imagination. I’ve been plotting, because I want to get a summary of the thing sent off to the nice folks who are already looking at my first chapter. I really love the gift of plotting. Thank you, Walter.

Coming up soon…I’ll have some interviews. I’ll finish the Blue Zones thing. Isis is coming up next on the research front. I want to do a couple of Vintage articles. Some movie reviews and book reviews. You know, the usual stuff. It seems to take a bit longer these days.

But the thing I really want to report on next is my visit to the Raptor Center at Kirkwood. You know one of the things I like best about writing? I get to learn so much new stuff for each project. I want to thank Jodean, Luke, and Jennifer for teaching me so much. And, I have to say, the most fascinating information I picked up was about the turkey buzzard. Yup, a teaser of coming attractions.

Stay safe, dry, and warm out there.

Blue Zones Project: Booze Up and Socialize

Today, I’m going to handle three of the power nine, bringing us up to five. To recap, we’ve already talked about knowing your purpose, and down shifting, numbers two and three respectively. The next three:

Number Six: Wine at Five
Number Seven: Right Tribe
Number Nine: Love Ones First

seem a bit interrelated.

Wine at Five? Research shows that having a glass of wine a day (2 for men) is good for you. I’ve been giving this a try, and I’ve been enjoying it. Mind you, I’m not much of a connosieur. I’ve been enjoying the wine from a local vineyard, Fireside, and I mostly go for sweet whites, but I know red packs more of a health punch, so I’m working on acquiring a taste. This is nice. It mellows me out without the xanax, which may be the point, and it’s a chance to sit back at the end of the day and relax. If you don’t like wine, the same benefit can be had by drinking a nice sparkling grape juice, in terms of antioxidants, which is what Bryon does.

Right Tribe. Are you hanging with your friends? Bryon and I recently realized we spend a lot of time by ourselves, so we are making an effort to have at least one social event a weekend with the people we care about, with allowances that sometimes we need time for ourselves. So far, we’ve been successful in setting something up five out of six weekends. This means I’m away from the computer more, and you’ve probably noticed. However, it does seem to be enjoyable to have human contact. For us, given our lack of family ties, this also ties into Loved Ones First, as our friends are kind of our family.

***

This means a couple of things about my writing life. I am going to be a bit more rigid in scheduling and sticking to particular times for writing (I’m great with scheduling, but sometimes I substitute times if I don’t feel like it and know I have time later in the week) and I also have to seek out that work/art/life balance that makes me a complete person (you know, see people? Eat right? Exercise? Write?).

I believe you can have it all. I was much busier than this when I was getting my PhD, and I did have it all. I just have to pay attention to how the puzzle fits together.

Another piece is the online piece. I’ll be here as much as I like, but I find that there seems to be a direct proportion to how involved I am with other projects, and how much I am here. Work seems to take care of itself. The wellspring of creativity that makes an interesting blog contrasts with the coolness of the novel I’m working on (personal coolness. For me, the writer.) In short, what am I obsessing on today? But this could be a good thing, because I’m producing more fiction, and moving toward publication.

Unless you like my blog, which makes it a less good thing.

So, after work, in which I’m going to finish this conversation partner thing and contact some students about Viet Nam, I’m going to go home, scoop my driveway yet again (oh! Florida, how I count the days until retirement!), and buckle down for another exciting writing session of Sweet (3) Poison as I move toward getting that first chapter ready for Glenwood Springs. Until about nine o’clock, when I’m cracking open a beautiful bottle of Blu.

Toodle and loo (lieu?), Internet.