Monday, April 25, 2016

On Snowflakes and Blizzards

“This is how desperate I’ve gotten: I’m seriously considering paying 60 bucks for an app that will help me write my novel. So I downloaded the free trial, and it has all these bells and whistles: it counts your words and formats according to what the book agents want, and gives you a page to detail each of your characters. So I screwed around with that, and then decided I had to get official. Google! And now, having searched “how to write a novel,” I can tell you all about the snowflake method….”

“The snowflake method?” said Lady. “What’s that all about?”

“Well, the first thing is that I have to take an hour and write—in 15 words or less—a one-sentence blurb about what the novel is about. Oh, and if I can’t, then I have to read the New York Times Bestsellers list to learn how. So I took five minutes and wrote a thirty-word description. Then that wasn’t enough, so I wrote a five-page synopsis of the novel, which was fine. Except that the ending absolutely stinks, which means I may have to get all operatic or melodramatic or dime-novelish and kill everybody in a fire. Or maybe a blizzard. Anyway, something definitive.”

“Well, you could put everybody on a wooden canoe in the Amazon, and then tip them over into a school of piranhas….”

“Lovely. Of course, I’m actually coming up short on the disasters, or so it seems. Because the author of the Snowflake Method is himself a best-selling author, in addition to being the Delphic Oracle of writing. Oh, and a Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist. Which explains the less-than-15 word blurb for his first novel: “astrophysicist travels back in time and kills the apostle Paul.” Ten words—count ‘em—which is how good he is.”

“Marc? You’re taking advice on writing from a guy who wrote a novel like that?”

“True, it does sound a little weak,” I told her. “But I’m sure his formula is the last Coke in the desert. How can you grow wrong with three disasters and an ending? Wow—even J. S. Bach couldn’t have beaten that formula!”

“Three disasters and an ending?”

“Yup—The three disasters allow you to end each one of the first three quarters of the book. Then, of course, the ending finishes off that last quarter? See? Oh, and then the first disaster can—if you absolutely must—be natural. But the subsequent disasters and the ending have to be the protagonist’s misguided attempts to salvage the wreckage of the first disaster.”

“What if he fixes the problem on the first try?”

“Presumably you then have a novella, or perhaps a short story. Anyway, you can see that this guy is totally organized, and since he wrote the book—namely, How to Write a Novel for Dummies—well, he should know.”

“OK—so what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that every time I try to do something like this, I suffer a boredom that makes a French existential crisis seem like a day at Disneyland. And besides, something tends to happen to my characters—which means that I send them out for a loaf of bread, and the next minute they’re mining cooper in Peru. They’re worse than Naïa…”

“Hey, Naïa is a great kid!”

“She absolutely is,” I told her, “and she’s also 14. By the way, you seem to be doing very well off the Puerto Rican fiscal crisis….”

So she asks about that and I tell her: I have seen the same groups of glib lawyers come into the café for the last several days. And how do I know they’re lawyers? Well, the suits kind of give them away….

“Well, I’d be willing to read about somebody who trades bread-going for copper mining,” said Lady.

“Impossible, because the snowflake man knows exactly where all that leads to, which is a 400-page mess. Whereas if I just sit down and do the work, plan it all out, write the one sentence blurb, and then the detailed character analysis of the protagonist and antagonist, and then the structure of each section or even each chapter—in short, if I plan it all out, I’ll save myself 30% of the writing time. No re-writes, no deletions, no….”

“Somehow, this doesn’t sound like any book I’d like to read,” said Lady. “After all, does anyone’s life work like that?”

In fact, neither one of us has a working life, since she has been avoiding going to the doctor as much as I have been avoiding sending my characters off to mine copper in Peru.

“I’m damaged goods,” she says, and tears up a little. “Ever since the operation, my whole life has been different. I can’t do the things I used to do, or go to the places I used to go. And people are treating me different….”

“I totally get that,” I tell her, “since it’s happened to me. I know that after four hours, my back will start to hurt, and that I’ll spend the next two hours in bed, either reading or playing Patience. And do you know how much Patience I’ve played? I only win one game in twenty, and all-time number of wins is now over 500. Which means my characters could have mined their way to the inner core, harnessed all that energy as free, alternative fuels for any government that agrees to disarm completely and provide free education and health care to all. Oh, and then they could have discovered the cure for cancer….anyway, I’m wasting prodigious amounts of time, as well as spinning my wheels.”

“Did I tell you I’m going to France the last day in May?” asked Lady. “Remember the last time I went, and you threatened to put a chain around the front gate, so that I couldn’t get out?”

“It may come to that, again,” I told her.

So all of my characters are mining copper in Peru, which is terrible since there’s no bread so how can they make me a sandwich in the café where they’re not working? Am I to starve just because Mary Ann van Hoof stopped seeing the virgin, and decided to van Hoof it down to Peru? Where, by the way, she uncovered in the copper-laced rock the face of Jesus Christ one idle morning? Instantly, she got the entire population of South and Central America to flock to the shrine that she set up, that day after she had bought the full commercial rights to the mine!

Well, I hope you’re happy down there, Mary Ann van Hoof, on your coffee plantation with your hot Latin lover, whose mustache twitches as he tells you, “te quiero,” as you count the bags of money to be sent down to the bank you bought. Yes, yes—you left me with nothing but Necedah, Wisconsin, and a dusty old shrine, and thirteen old geezers who still believe. Oh, and a back that I now have to put to bed.

Enjoy Peru, Mary Ann van Hoof, ‘cause guess what?

You’re dying in a blizzard!