The Steps

With nothing but respect for AA, no. Those are not the steps I’m talking about. Nor am I referring to any of the many sets of simply ridiculous steps that seemed so popular in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. In Syracuse there are a few examples of these, although it was an even earlier construction that was my greatest steps challenge. That would be the Pyramid of the Sun, which I climbed with other members of my high school Spanish class. And those were 1978 steps, we’re talking, not those wimpy steps they put on pyramids these days.

Both the scene of my greatest stair climbing adventure, but also where I met the greatest entrepreneur ever, a kid selling icy sodas out of a cooler at the top.

Alright, I’m being silly. The Pyramid of the Sun, most scholars believe, was constructed somewhere around 200 A.C.E. which means, when you consider it’s age, the stairs are probably not appreciably easier to climb now, even with the additional forty-two years of wear.

And, as usual none of this has anything to do with my topic.

Today I’m talking about the steps in my writing process on any given day. The actual steps from saying “It’s time to start writing,” to the moment when the first word is added.

I jotted this down the other day. The unedited version was less family friendly.

To the left you see a page from the spiral-bound notebook I keep on the desk for when something pops into my head while typing. The other day right before that first word got added I thought back. What had I actually done since sitting down at the office desk (which will be featured on an upcoming episode of Hoarders if I don’t get it cleared off soon), and the instant of actual commencement.

When I wrote this note, I realized this was basically the way it always goes for me, and I’ll explain each of them, starting with…

Pregame

I learned the art of the pregame at Fordham University. It didn’t take me a long time to figure out that I would spend a lot less money in the bars of the Bronx neighborhood outside the gates of the school if I bought a bottle of vodka, (you could get one so big it came with it’s own forklift for the cost of one screwdriver in the bars), and got started before we headed out.

The gorgeous campus of Fordham University plunked square in the middle of the Bronx. I learned how to drink here, but not how to be a good human being. That lesson is ongoing

There are a few things I need to say before I get to the relevance of pregaming to writing. 1) Fordham is a great school and just because most of my stories involve freshman excess, my friends who stayed when I left are still some of my closest. 2) Please don’t think I’m glorifying my behavior. I was in the first car of a roller coaster that went down for a long time before it pitched back up again. I’m much more impressed by someone who achieves great things because they avoided alcohol, not in spite of it.

Pregaming now, in the context of writing, is all of the stuff I do online prior to getting to work. I check all the sosh meed. I say hi to my closest confidants, amazing people all. I open my email program. Notice I didn’t say “I read my email.” Excuse the rabbit hole, but how much of your email do you read and how much to you delete unread? For me it is literally 90% gone as quick as I can get rid of it. Okay back out of the rabbit hole.

Eventually however, I run out of every legitimate task to complete. So after another ten minutes or so of completely illegitimate tasks, I move onto the next step.

Music

I listen to music when I write. I know many writers who don’t. They need as close to silence as they can get. Others will listen to instrumental music but they can’t have anyone singing, hearing those words mixing with the ones in their heads.

If I had my way I would listen to music every minute I was awake. This is not practical. But as far as my stand on music and writing, music is indispensable.

Earlier in my career I used to have the fear that listening to singers would make writing more difficult, and so the Cerah of Quadar series was written mostly listening to jazz.

But when I started writing thrillers, some more aggressive music started making the playlist. When I know I’m going to be writing a scene with violence, or if there is going to be a significant verbal confrontation, I have been known to call on Lou Reed, and when I need to really write mad, it’s this album, Rock and Roll Animal.

Other moods, over time, have called for other music, but there’s always the right sound for whatever job is at hand. On those monster days when I manage 4500 or so words, the mood can change several times.

But once that music is playing and the notes begin to enter my ears and make their way into my brain, and I can literally feel its chemistry alter and enhance the thoughts about what I wanted accomplish that I’ve already started developing, then it’s time for…

A Deep Breath

There’s probably some sort of psychological or even physiological reason why doing this is important. At the very least, breathing will keep you alive, and that, as far as I can tell, is absolutely mandatory for just about any endeavor.

But for me it stretches back, oddly, to sports, specifically baseball. It took me through all of Little League, and into my first year of J.V. ball before I recognized that I was too tight at the plate. In my desire to put all of my not-too-impressive strength into my swing, I was like a tightly coiled spring as I waited for the pitch. More often than not I did not enjoy a ton of success.

Then there was a game in which we gave up an embarrassing amount of runs early in the game, and by the time I got up to bat for the first time I’d already written us off. With no pressure to succeed on this day, I stood at the plate not caring about the game at all, and promptly hit a double.

In my next at bat we were still no where near being in contention, and I blooped a ball to right field for a single.

And as Sheryl Crow so eloquently says, “I’ve got a feeling, I’m not the only one.”

After that, even when we had a chance to win, I forced myself to move into that state of carefree relaxation by taking a deep breath before stepping into the box.

It works for writing too. Because the same mistake I made as a teenager playing ball can throw a writing session into a tailspin.

You can’t write tight.

S.J. Varengo

So I take the breath and then it’s time to…

Dive the eff in

Full disclosure, the original note contained the unedited word. While I haven’t always written like an angel here, I’ve come to feel there’s no harm in remembering that anyone can read a blog post. That’s all I’m sayin’ bout dat.

Point is the time comes when every single excuse for not writing has been exhausted, and there’s nothing to do but dive in.

I suppose this all makes it sound like writing is actually my least favorite part of the process. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Truth…

…is that the writing is the best part. Hell, it’s the only part. I do all the other stuff, and for the life of me I’m not quite sure why I waste so much time before I get to it.

But it seems to be vital to the process. There maybe some variations from day to day, but they’re minor. Anything more than minor and the whole session has been known to tank. So I diddle around.

Until it’s time to get to work.

You are about to see something very rare. I’m going to give some straight up advice to writers. If you call yourself one of these, or, if despite all you do, other people call you a writer, I would recommend the following:

Find your routine.

When I was a young boy, the Mattel toy company decided that helping kids tell fortunes would be a nice line to get into. They sold them everywhere. I got this one at Kmart, may its flashing blue light rest in peace. I decided that I would learn to read palms. I don’t remember what parameter of the human hand revealed this, but according to the book something meant the you “rebelled at routine.” You can probably tell from the cover that this… this toy? tool? portal to the pits of hell? Whatever it was, clearly it was a product of the 1960s when every color in the world routinely appeared on products, especially those aimed at kids.

So because it was the sixties, the notion of rebelling against the routine and mundane seemed right to me. Yeah! Be a rebel! Wooo!

But what I eventually realized, long after the summer of 1969 and my career as a palm reader came and went, was that you could be a rebel and still find value in a routine.

And my career as a writer, which has lasted much longer than as a fortune teller. is the place where routine works the best.

Now, having said all that… don’t be afraid to shake it up. I have a writer friend who fully endorses getting away from the desk and out of the office, taking the pen and a journal and getting out in the fresh air and sunshine. I couldn’t agree more.

Whatever you need to do to get writing, do it!

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