Monday, June 30, 2008

Living the Dream: An Update on Patrick Robbins

Back in April I told you about my friend from college, Patrick Robbins, who had just completed his MFA and was going off into the wilderness to live in an Airstream trailer and write his first novel. I was a little concerned for his sanity, but as it turns out, the experiment has been a tremendous success. Not only has he been tremendously disciplined, he’s managed to write the complete first draft of his novel in just 54 days!

Periodically, I’ll be checking in with Patrick to follow his process from creation to publication. I have no doubt his work will find an audience; Patrick is funny, sharp, and has a unique point of view. I caught up with him last week to see how things were going.

How's life in isolation? Are you cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs yet?

No more so than before. Truth be told, it's not as Waldenesque as you may be picturing it - we couldn't get the Airstream into the woods, what with the ground being too soft and the maneuverability issues, so instead it's parked out behind the family barn. I come up to the house for lunch, dinner, bathroom stuff, and Internet usage (on a glacial dial-up connection). So I get to interact with humans on a fairly consistent basis.

One of my friends sent me an email where he asked me, "Do you get lonely?" I gave him the above assurances, then added, "Frankly, I don't have the time to get lonely." I'm too involved with the book I'm writing, and with the people in it. Maybe when it's finished...

What's your daily routine like?

I arise sometime between 6 and 7, depending on how cloudy it is (my window faces the east), and have two granola bars, a yogurt, and a multivitamin (I've got one of those Playmate coolers to keep things cold in). Up to the house to clean my teeth and everything outside of them. My mom and I then go on a three to five-mile walk - I live on a dirt road, so it's a nice and natural way to get my brain from second gear into fourth. Back at the house, I fill a 64-ounce mug with water, topped off with just a little something sweet for flavor (cider's good, ginger ale's not). By now it's between 9 and 10, and I start to writing.

Come noon, I knock off for an hour for lunch and a look at email and postage mail. Then it's back to it at one, with another giant mug of water. (Yes, that's a gallon of water a day, for those keeping track at home.) During the school year, my nephew, who's twelve, would get dropped off here at 2:30 to wait for his mom to come pick him up; he often came down to the trailer, which usually spelled an end to my writing day. If he didn't, I could go right through to dinnertime. After that, I generally read until there's insufficient daylight (no electricity in the trailer), usually around 8:30, and then go to bed. It can take a long time to get back down into first gear, but I'd say I'm usually asleep by ten.

Have you been productive?

Some days more than others, but overall, absolutely yes. I made a habit of starting every day by writing down the date, right next to whatever the last word was I wrote the day before; that way, by the time I put the pen down, I could see exactly how much writing I'd done that day. Three pages a day was good. My record was six. One day I only got two lines. But I put an awful lot of thought into what was going to be happening to the characters, so I consider that a productive day too. There's a great story about Truman Capote: the writer Robert Ruark said to him, "I wrote five thousand words today, Truman, and I bet you sat there at that desk with your quill pen and wrote one word." Truman said, "Yes, Robert, but it was the right word."

Are you writing it all out by hand or using a computer?

The first draft is done entirely by hand. I find that I can't be creative through a machine; it's got to flow from my mind straight to the page. To Make Others Happy was written out in a beautiful six by eight blank book my older sister got for me one Christmas many years ago; I've been waiting for a worthwhile project to use it for, and this was it. I should note here that my penmanship is quite small; I was able to get an average of 35 lines of writing on a page, maybe 600 words. So to rephrase what I said above, 1800 words a day was good, and my record was 3600. That's all guesswork; I'll know the exact figures once I type it.

And speaking of typing, that's where the second draft comes in. While I can't create so well through a machine, I can do the mechanical and analytical work that's so necessary. So I'll type it out on my laptop, making edits and plugging holes as I go.

Did you outline the story first or wing it?

I wrote an outline on about fifty three by five cards. It took a week and a half to do that. The funny thing was, I didn't know what the ending would be, or where - I just kept writing what happened next. And then one day I realized I only needed three or four more cards and I'd be done. It reminded me of the riddle asking how far you could run into the woods. The answer: halfway; after that you're running out. I had thought I was going deeper and deeper, when in fact I was well on my way to emerging.

I kept the outline very loose, mostly plot points - like, one card said "Chase and Bethany go on a date." Sometimes as I wrote the book, I'd think of something that should be said or done somewhere down the line, and I'd write it on the appropriate card. Nothing on the cards was sacred, either - Bethany's name was changed to Nadine, for instance. And with some cards, especially the later ones, I'd look at what I'd written and say, "No, he wouldn't do that." Once you've lived with your characters for a while, you know them a lot better than you did starting out. But overall, those cards were immeasurably helpful for me; they helped me balance out my characters' onstage time, they gave me a place to write sudden inspirations, and they assured me that I knew where I was going.

Funnily enough, I never use cards when writing short stories; there, I'll take a premise and follow it wherever it goes. But for a novel, I had to have that pathway in front of me.

What was the jumping off point that got the story rolling for you?

TO MAKE OTHERS HAPPY has its origins in a series of Peanuts comic strips that has intrigued me for decades. Lucy asks Charlie Brown why we're put here on Earth, and without hesitation he says "To make others happy." It's an answer that stays with her for several days. (I won't give away the rest, but you can find the originals in The Complete Peanuts 1961-1962; they're in mid-August of '61, I think.)

One day I was thinking about the strip and what someone who makes others happy could be called, and the phrase "joy facilitator" came to mind. The contrast of such a strong emotion with such a clinical word really stayed with me, wouldn't leave me alone. I thought of someone passing out business cards with the phrase "joy facilitator" on them, on how his business would work, on what might endanger it - a novel's got to have conflict, right? The more I thought about it, the more pieces of the puzzle I had, until I had so many that I had to start fitting them into place.

Now that you have the first draft done in record time, what's the next step?

Now it's time to type it, making all the revisions I can see it needs. Then I'll have a few people read it and tell me what they think works and what doesn't, and then I'll revise some more. It's fun to know that I can write a novel in fifty-four days, but the more important question is, how long does it take me to write a good novel?

How much longer do you plan to live in the trailer?

I think my brother in law will want it back around October. I wouldn't want to stay in it much longer than that anyway; back in May I had to wear a wool hat to bed on account of those 40-degree nights. It'll be interesting to see what happens after that.

Do you have an agent lined up?

No. I want to have something tangible and complete to pass along. If I write a good query letter, get a response of interest, and then send out something that's not my best work... I don't even want to think about it. So I'll only go agent-hunting when I think what I have is agent-worthy. My hope is that that won't be too long from now.

I can't wait to read your novel.

I can't wait for you to buy a copy! (Just kidding, Steph - for you, the first one's free.)

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