THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
June 28, 2016
Sometime during the late 1990s I wrote a novel called Hot Springs Eternal. I had been encouraged to do so by an agent who had tried to find a publisher for my short story collection Generous Helpings. The agent was unable to find a home for my story collection, but she asked me when I was going to write a novel, implying (I imagined) that a novel would be easier to place. That encouragement was all it took to get me started on a book that had been coming to a boil in my mind ever since the early 1980s, when I worked for a hot springs hotel and health sanctuary in north central California, a gig that changed my life. I already had a title for the novel of my dreams: Hot Springs Eternal.
The title was all I started out with. I resolved to make the plot, the place, and all the characters entirely fictional, and I resolved not to outline the novel in advance. I set the story in the Matilija Mountains in southern California, and I used as a central character a piano player named Casey, who had made an appearance in each of the Generous Helpings stories and had been the amateur sleuth in my first published book, a murder mystery named Play Melancholy Baby. As for the plot, I had no idea. The only way to find out what would happen was to start writing.
Which I did. I started on a Sunday afternoon, and once I started I couldn’t stop. I became obsessed with finding out what would happen, and my day job as a publisher was beginning to play second fiddle. That wouldn’t do, so I started getting up early every morning to get lost in my novel, early enough to bang out a complete scene every time. This meant getting out of bed at (and sometimes before) 4:30 each morning, seven days a week, to write and write.
Turns out I didn’t need to think ahead. Characters showed up on the screen before me, they introduced themselves, and they took charge. And what a strange bunch of people! Some lovable, others detestable, all of them revealing their nature by how they interacted with one another. There were two eccentric entomologists, both named Livingston Pomeroy; Karen and Nellie Hope, a pair of squabbling twin sisters; their bully of a brother, Joley; a mute clown named Harpo, whose main role in the novel was to seduce every woman he met; a flapper-era movie star named Clara; a hermit named Nqong, who's a transplanted Australian aborigine; a lovely virgin massage therapist named Pandora; and a peacock named Clyde. For starters. Not to mention a yearly swarm of yellow beetles, whom I regarded as a character too.
The point of view moved from character to character, and each character had a personal agenda different from those of the others, which gave the novel multiple intertwined plots. The farther I got into the book the more I wondered what would sort out this Gordian knot, but still I forged ahead into the unknown—by which time I didn’t know what I was doing, and cared even less, because I was having so much fun along the way. I was in the Zone, that magical state where writing becomes passionate and ecstatic and tinged with magic. I’d written in the zone before, but never so deeply and never so lost.
What was I writing, anyway? A new-agey wooo-wooo morality lesson? An out-there paranormal fantasy? A social commentary? An old-fashioned love story? A contentious family saga? A murder mystery? A musical comedy? A bedroom farce? A what?
All of the above. And somehow, as if by magic, every one of those separate but intertwined plots got resolved more or less simultaneously. And at long last I could emerge from the Zone and take a look at what I had watched sprout, grow, and bloom before my eyes for lo these many months.
And, as Ray Bradbury was fond of saying about his own work, “By God, it was good!” Or so I thought at the time.
So I bundled it up and sent it off to the agent, with a note telling her it was like Tom Robbins meets Armistead Maupin. She sent it right back saying she didn’t like either Robbins or Maupin, and she wasn’t going to take my novel on. I tried to interest other agents, and got turned down by a dozen or so.
So I put the Hot Springs Eternal manuscript on the shelf, where it remained for almost 20 years. Then I dared to take it down and read it, and found it to be an over-written mess. It was, to quote Anne Lamott, a “shitty first draft.” I had gotten lost in the Zone, so much so that I lacked restraint and self-control and art. That’s when and how I learned that the Zone is a beautiful experience for a writer, but we shouldn’t let it rob us of our job, which is to write clearly, with our brains as well as our hearts.
To cut this over-long story short, I still found something salvageable in the novel, so I rewrote the book. I simplified the plot and I killed a number of my darlings, as Faulkner advised. It’s much better now. So I made an ebook out of it, and you can buy it from Kindle and other ebook vendors. To read more about Hot Springs Eternal (the rewritten and much improved version), see the promotion below.
Calling all published authors—
I feature a guest author the third Saturday (and week following) of each month. If you’re interested in posting an essay on my blog—it’s also a chance to promote a published book—email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Call for submissions: Your 99-Word Stories
The deadline for June’s 99-word story submissions is June first. The stories will appear on my blog post for June 11 and remain there for one week.
note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.
Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:
1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: email@example.com
THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY: Write a story containing or inspired by this sentence: “I came home to a place I’d never been before.”
And now a word from our sponsor:
Hope Hot Springs, high on a forested mountainside in Southern California’s coastal Matilija Range, was once the home of millionaire Joel Hope and his silent-picture-star wife Clara Bianca. They threw wild weekend parties back in the 1920s for the libertine Hollywood royalty, who cavorted naked in the hot mineral waters and in the hotel where the bedroom doors were never locked.
Now, 60 years later, Hope Springs is the home of Karen and Nellie Hope, Joel’s constantly squabbling twin daughters. They share the former resort with a commune of hippies, and they plan to reopen Hope Springs as a weekend hotel, for a new generation of Hollywood stars. They’ve hired a piano player named Casey to direct the staff and be the hotel manager, as well as the host and entertainment for the guests, once the hotel is open for business. They have an excellent vegetarian chef named Diana.
This all promises to be a successful venture, but the powers that be want it to fail: SoCal Development, in collaboration with Anacapa County and Pacific Power, is scheming to claim the entire mountainside under the doctrine of eminent domain. SoCal’s plan is to displace the Hope sisters and their community, clear-cut their forest, and build California’s first geothermal bedroom community. All Karen and Nellie have going for them is good intentions, a loyal staff, and Nqong, an Australian aborigine sage who has lived like a hermit in the Matilija mountains most of his life, tending to the healing waters and caring for a yearly swarm of exotic yellow beetles, who might just save the day.
This ebook is available on Kindle and other ebook retailers.
Before I say goodbye for this week, let me add one more observation about getting lost in the Zone. Maybe I didn’t come up with a great piece of writing in my first try, but I have never had such downright fun writing, before or since, as I did while I was absorbed in that first draft. I'll never regret spending the time that way, and I'm also proud of the revision. I think you'll like it.
Goodbye for this week.
|photo by Clark Lohr|