When the heat is a sulter?

Or: On Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and the English Language

There’s an old joke that goes something like this:

Why did the broke writer pay $5 for a latte at Starbucks?

How else would everyone get to see him writing his novel?

Sitting in a Starbucks before the mountain of pulp totaling some 350 pages, I’m slogging through the task of entering line edits on Anything But Ordinary, my third novel, which will enter its second edition printing sometime in July. I’m making good progress and am on page 55 when I stumble upon the sentence you see in the image to the left.  And that’s when my ego deflates. I forget in that moment three key facts:

1.) This book was a finalist for a major literary award and that manuscript included the word “sulter”

2.) This book was published and people liked it well enough to read it.

3.) I wrote this sentence in 2002, when I was the ripe ol’ age of 25.

I’m not exaggerating, either, that “..in spite of the sulter, the draw of the sun proves too strong,….” brought me to a hard stop. I know this isn’t a word. I don’t need Microsoft Office’s snarky squiggle to tell me that. And I don’t need my patient, serenely skilled editor’s gentle blue pen to confirm it. Sulter is not a word. Even WordPress’s rudimentary spell check and Apple’s overzealous autocorrect rebel at writing that word. (I’ve changed it back six times in this paragraph. Yet, there it sat, on the next-to-last line of page 54.

Given that I scored well on the vocabulary portion of every standardized test I ever took, that I have an above-average vocabulary, and that I work with words, I began a trek down memory lane. How did I come to write this sentence? I remember where I was when I wrote it: sitting at my writing desk that faced out the front window of 1107 D North Second Street, the apartment I was sharing with my friend, Brandi. I remember what was going on in my head: I wanted to confer to the reader the entirety that is a hot, New Orleans summer, the particular kind of heat that bears down oppressively on the city. And I wanted to do so with a flourish.

Sitting on that desk would have been a ragged copy of Roget’s Thesaurus and a decent Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Surely if I searched for the word, I would have looked for it in the thesaurus or the dictionary? Maybe, I give myself too much credit, I intended to create a new word, since none of the others seemed to fit. Yet, today, at 37 and a dozen years removed, without thought or reference, I immediately replaced “sulter” with “swelter”–which I know is an archaic noun used to describe an oppressive heat.

The word replaced, I cannot kill that embarrassment. Then I begin to wonder if Messrs. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner all felt the same way anytime a typo or poor word choice or grammatical error found their way into print. (And I assure you, a cursory search of the first editions of In Our TimeThe Great Gatsby, and The Sound and the Fury will reveal numerous typos…before even the end of the first chapter in the case of Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby.”) Those guys are of the kind of talent that makes writers stop writing–or to write harder, longer, and better until they reach the level of quality and literary integrity that puts them into that class.

Please for the love of all things holy do not misunderstand me. I’m not comparing myself to those literary titans. Even my titanic ego knows bounds. I’m simply wondering how they reacted to what amounts to little more than poor copy editing.

And then again, here we are, at page 54 and the sulter of a summer sun on a patio in New Orleans. I review the passage again, try to jog my memory. Did I labor over the words of this sentence when I wrote it, or did I just set the paragraph in my mind and toss the words down onto the page, only to glance over them once or twice in galleys? I try not to blush too much at this small embarrassment. Again, I can always blame it on youth and inexperience. Or I can blame it on rushing through a particularly swift patch of writing. At the end, I finally arrive at a realization: what does it matter? It’s there, in print, and will be for as long as the paper of that first edition survives.

–he said, just as he clicked “Publish” on a medium that, if the Internet Archive and/or NSA is to be believed, will live forever in the vast, digital wasteland of the Internet.

Note: There is a single, hardbound copy of the first edition of Anything But Ordinary still listed on Amazon.com. (link). You should buy it and save it as a collector’s item, in case one day I’m famous and it becomes valuable to possess the physical evidence of the time I attempted to create the word “sulter.” If you do, I’ll even sign it for you and initial “sulter” in the margin. – md

Finding inspiration and will power

One of the most frequent questions writers are asked is about their “writing space,” that special place to which they retreat to spend hours upon hours with a keyboard and a stack of blank paper. The question is a tried and true staple of interviewers seeking to get inside the heads of their writer-subjects.

Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up in what was little more than a tree house. Dorothy Parker (and several others for that matter), wrote in bed. I’m told from a reliable source that Anne Rice‘s writing space is a room comprising four walls, a floor and the ceiling, all painted primer white. She has her desk and a cup of Sharpies she uses to write on the walls, floor, wherever she can find a blank spot. It’s kind of John Nash, if you ask me, but who am I to judge?

I have my own writing space at home. It’s nothing fancy. A computer monitor, a great IBM Model M keyboard, a trackball, and about a gazillion items that I find either inspirational or distracting. I’ve written some about the setup before, about the pictures overlooking the desk and about my Joe DiMaggio autograph on the wall.

What I haven’t told you much about is the framed picture on the far corner.

The photo resides in a simple black frame that is a little oversized for the print. I’m standing in a room of people with my arm around an older woman. We’re both wearing badges and it’s obvious we’re at a conference of some sort. What isn’t obvious is why she’s on my desk.

She’s not a recognizable face. And, unless you’re an avid reader of things other than James Patterson, she may not be a recognized name. More often than not, I’m asked, “Is this your mother?” (Sorry, Julia.)

She’s not my mother. She’s National Book Award Winner Julia Glass. And she said some of the nicest things about one of my books. (You can read some of what she had to say on the back cover of The Patriot Joe Morton. It was quite lovely, I promise.)

I keep her photo on my desk, though, not for what she said about my book but instead for what she wrote to me when she signed her book.


It’s inspiration advice, to be sure. And it’s the only way writers of any calibre or quality are ever going to find success and recognition. But right now, as I stare at this screen and sit in this room, completely unable to write the first coherent word of the next book, it’s about the only thing keeping me strapped in this chair.

Maybe I’ll watch the Olympics or something and try to find some inspiration.

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33 Days

Or: I’m going to kill myself getting this done in time.

I do this to myself every year.

March is a month I should spend celebrating my birthday. (I turn thirty-four at the end of the month.) I should be recovering from the onslaught of allergies that happens every year in late February. I could be preparing for a summer vacation of some sort. But none of those things happen.

Instead, I dump all of my energy into completing whatever book project in which I find myself embroiled, in order to submit it to an annual literary contest. This contest – and the month of March – has made me Ahab. And winning it is my White Whale.

Many of you have never written a book. So it’s kind of a hard process to describe. Instead of trying to find a new way, I’ll let the guys who made a real go at it share their thoughts:

There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. – Ernest Hemingway

Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwardsRobert Heinlein.

A person who publishes a book appears willfully in public eye with his pants down. – Edna St. Vincent Milay

And perhaps my favorite quote, from arguably my least favorite writer –

To be a writer, one must be able to spend long periods of time alone in a room with a stack of blank paper.Stephen King

The long and short of it? Writing is not easy. We do not become writers because we want to sit in a chair and “do nothing” all day. We write because, as Sol Stein puts it, “A writer is someone who cannot not write.”

Consider this, from a friend of mine, Jason Byron Nelson. He’s a painter, a graphic artist — in the truest sense of the title — and an auteur of mixed media presentations. Jason suggests on his Web site, “It is the creative who are closest to God. For only they share the burden of creation.”

Alone. In  a room. With a blank page…and the burden of filling it with words. Not just words, though. Any trained monkey could produce enough words to fill a page. No, these words must invade their reader’s mind, dig into the darkest corners and, from half-remembered snippets of a family trip to the lake long forgotten, build a world inside their mind, a world so real, so complete and so compelling that the reader cannot not return to that world again and again.

So, for the month of March — 33 days, in fact — I’ll be doing just that. And I’ll pop in from time to time to entertain you.

Catch you on the flip-flop.

Thanks, everyone!

Just wanted to say a quick word of thanks to all of the wonderful people who came out to Author! Author! Shreveport and especially to those who hung around for the late reading.

I had a wonderful time and will be blogging more later, including uploading some pictures and what not from the event. As it stands, I have a deadline on The Patriot Joe Morton.

Thanks again for the support!

And a New Chapter Begins

Or two of them, to be exact.

First, Anything But Ordinary is on its way to the Publisher this week after a month and a half of delays. (Sorry, fans, for not taking quicker care with this thing but that’s where the second chapter comes in.)

The second new chapter is what has made the first pushed back. Many of you may know this already, but I’ve started a new job that is taking me into exciting new directions. I’ll write more about this over the next few weeks, but…

I’m in television.

Like literally. For those of you playing the Monroe version of the Michael DeVault game, tune into KNOE 8 News at 6 and you’ll see me there more days than not. I’m the investigative reporter there — and having a blast.

At any rate, expect some fun observations from the wonderful world of Television in the near future.

Until then, back to the millstone for me!