Tales from the Ice(pack)…continued

Where we last left Luke Murphy, he’d been seriously injured playing hockey, did not know if he’d ever return to the sport, and began to explore his alternatives. One of those involved taking up the pen…

Dead Man's HandFrom Professional Hockey Player to Published Novelist, Part Two

I really enjoyed the process: coming up with a plot, developing characters and organizing a setting, problem and conclusion. It only lasted a couple of weeks, and once we were done, I kind of missed inventing, creating my own little world and characters.

I remember walking to my bedroom one morning and seeing my roommate’s laptop sitting on the desk, and I thought…why not?

I sat down at the desk, took the characters my girlfriend and I had created, and wrote an extension to the story we had written together.

I didn’t write with the intention of being published. I wrote for the love of writing, as a hobby, a way to pass the time. Even after my eye healed up, and I returned to hockey, I continued to hobby write through the years, honing my craft, making time between work and family obligations.

Then I made a decision to take my interest one step further. I’ve never been one to take things lightly or jump in half way. I took a full year off from writing to study the craft.

I constantly read, from novels in my favorite genres to books written by experts in the writing field. My first two purchases were “Stein on Writing”, a book written by successful editor Sol Stein, and “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” by Renni Browne and Dave King.

I read through these novels and highlighted important answers to my questions. My major breakthrough from Stein’s book was to “Show don’t Tell”. I had to trust my readers. I even wrote that phrase on a sticky note and put it on my computer monitor.

The Self-Editing book helped me learn how to cut the FAT off my manuscript, eliminating unnecessary details, making it more lean and crisp, with a better flow. I learned to cut repetition and remain consistent throughout the novel.

I continually researched the internet, reading up on the industry and process “What is selling?” and “Who is buying?” were my two major questions.

I attended the “Bloody Words” writing conference in Ottawa, Canada, rubbing elbows with other writers, editors, agents and publishers. I made friends (published and unpublished authors), bombarding them with questions, learning what it took to become successful.

Feeling that I was finally prepared, in the winter of 2007, with an idea in mind and an outline on paper, I started to write DEAD MAN`S HAND. It took me two years (working around full time jobs) to complete the first draft of my novel.

The first person to read my completed manuscript was my former high school English teacher. With her experience and wisdom, she gave me some very helpful advice. I then hired McCarthy Creative Services to help edit DEAD MAN’S HAND, to make it the best possible novel.

I joined a critique group, teaming up with published authors Nadine Doolittle and Kathy Leveille, and exchanging manuscripts and information. Working with an editor and other authors was very rewarding and not only made my novel better, but made me a better writer.

When I was ready, I researched agents who fit my criteria (successful, worked with my genres, etc.) and sent out query letters. After six months of rejections, I pulled my manuscript back and worked on it again. Then in my next round of proposals, I was offered representation by the Jennifer Lyons Literary Agency.

After months of editing with Jennifer, and more rejections from publishers, my dream was finally realized in April, 2012, when I signed a publishing contract with Imajin Books (Edmonton, Alberta).

Even today, a year after publishing my first book, I’m stall amazed at the direction my life has taken. Never in my wildest dreams would I have believed I would someday get paid to write books. Sometimes life can be impossible to predict.

_________________________

For more information on Luke and his work, go to: www.authorlukemurphy.com, or check him out on Facebook www.facebook.com/#!/AuthorLukeMurphy or Twitter www.twitter.com/#!/AuthorLMurphy

 

Tales from the Ice(pack)

Luke MurphyThis post brings a little something different to splattworks: a guest post by novelist Luke Murphy (right). He tells a good story: that of a writer discovering the craft a little later than many of us (who began producing chapbooks in crayon); and he set his goal, stuck to it, followed the recommended steps…and it paid off. Imajin Books published his novel Dead Man’s Hand in 2012.

 I felt Luke’s story fit well with one of splattwork’s missions—to serve authors and to discuss the trade—as it to serves as kind of a tonic for the many writers, slogging along, who wonder if the work will ever pay off. And it’s also kind of hair-raiser, dealing with one of those low points in life where the clouds look pretty dark. But Luke tells it better than I do; so I need to hand him the wheel.. I’m publishing Luke’s piece in two parts, to give him room to lay it out. Thanks, Luke, for the kind offer to step in and for putting up with me as an editor. 

The good Mr. Murphy lives in Shawville, Quebec, with his wife, three daughters, and a pug. He played six years of professional hockey before retiring in 2006. Since then, he’s worked a range of communications jobs, from sports columnist to radio journalist, before earning his Bachelor of Education degree (Magna Cum Laude).

 For more information on Luke and his work, go to: www.authorlukemurphy.com, or check him out on Facebook www.facebook.com/#!/AuthorLukeMurphy or Twitter www.twitter.com/#!/AuthorLMurphy

From Professional Hockey Player to Published Novelist, Part I

It can almost be said with certainty that I didn’t follow the path of the average writer. As a child, I never dreamed of writing a best-seller, never aspired to write the next classic novel, I wanted to be an NHL superstar…period. In fact, the only time I ever thought about writing was when my teachers at school made me.

 In 2000, my second year of pro hockey, after a decent training camp with the Louisville Panthers of the American Hockey League, I was sent to play in Oklahoma City. I know, hockey in Oklahoma, who would have thought, right?

 I was having a very good preseason when in the third exhibition game, disaster struck.

 I was forechecking on a Tulsa Oiler defensemen, a seemingly innocent play. As he shot the puck out of his end, the blade of his stick came up from the follow-through and struck me in the left eye. I went down immediately from the contact. I don’t know how long I was out for, but when I came to, I was on all fours, staring down at a massive puddle of blood. There was no pain, but the shock of seeing the blood with my right eye, and unable to see out of my left, drew me close to panic. I was terrified.

 I later found out that the results of the injuries were: a broken nose, slit eyelid, scratched cornea and deeply bruise cheekbone. I went through surgery and was sent home with a patch on my eye.

 I was unable to practice or workout with my team, uncertain of my future, but all I could think about was, “will I ever be able to see out of my left eye again?” The doctors had no way of knowing until the swelling went down and the outside of my eye healed up. I was devastated, my dreams shattered, and I was at one of the lowest point in my life.

 The team sent me to live with a longtime season-ticket holder and friend. So as I was sitting at home, feeling sorry for myself, I decided that I would need an alternate plan. What if my eye never healed properly? I would certainly never play pro hockey again, that’s for sure. I needed to think of what to do next with my life, in case the worst scenario transpired.

 It sucked!! I hated the uncertainty. I hated not knowing if I’d ever see again, or ever play hockey again.

 So what to do? Because I was working with only one eye, it gave me headaches to watch TV or read books for extended periods of time.

 I had just started seeing a girl from back home that summer. She was attending French College in Montreal while I was in Oklahoma, so we communicated by phone and email. My girlfriend knew that I was an avid reader and loved books, so she asked me if I was interested in helping her write a short story for her English class. Since I had nothing else to do and a lot of time on my hands, I agreed.

 I really enjoyed the process: coming up with a plot, developing characters and organizing a setting, problem and conclusion. It only lasted a couple of weeks, and once we were done, I kind of missed inventing, creating my own little world and characters.

 I remember walking to my bedroom one morning and seeing my roommate’s laptop sitting on the desk, and I thought…why not?

To be continued….

Season of the Bitch

You got to crank up every pitch
You got to crank up every pitch
This is the Season of the Bitch

Ah, writing. At last count, I’ve been doing it seriously for…(pause for math)…36 years. (Not counting the short story I spontaneously wrote, unbiddened, at age six, and then demanded my mother type up. Which she did. That’s a mom.) In general, the first four or five years of writing turned out crap. Then, for the next ten years, it turned out more ambitious, somewhat better-crafted crap.

After about 15 years, I started writing for the stage, found my form, and put my apprenticeship behind me. I’d achieved what I’d more or less decided to do when I was, uh…six. I became a writer. Which essentially meant I’d found my way out of one maze and entered another.

In the process, I’ve experienced some incredible highs, weathered some dark stretches (when I seriously wondered if it was worth it) and some bleak streaks (when I had no ideas or just didn’t feel like picking up a pen), and received more rejections–I prefer the word “bounces”–than I can count. Seriously.

I used to decorate the walls of my office–whatever space I’d set aside for writing–with rejection slips. It seemed like a defiant gestures–something a Writer would do. After awhile, the decor lost its charm, took on the stench of self-pity, and felt slightly masochistic. Now, production posters and cast photos cover the office walls. And, you know, there are a bunch of them. They’re a lot easier on the eyes and psyche because they say: you’ve done it before, you’ll do it again. That comes in handy when one enters the Season of the Bitch.

Which is to say, over the last month or so, I’ve submitted a shitload (to use the writer’s technical term) of work after a long stretch of basically non-stop writing (you have to grab the work when it’s hot and coming in, else it’ll spurn you, and you’ll lose it), and the little letters and e-mails have started trickling in. One picks up an envelope armed with a letter opener (I prefer a antique Mexican switchblade, compadres) and a bag full of rationalizations: these are tough times; everybody’s having a hard time getting produced; there are a ton of good playwrights out there and a limited number of slots; getting bounced means you’re in the game; and, as the posters attest, getting produced is not impossible.

These help to push away the darker thoughts, which still have a way of sneaking in when you’re tired, bummed, or overwhelmed. The game’s rigged. Your work’s too weird (non-commercial, non-linear, dark, unconventionally structured, and about 100 other choices you’ve deliberately made). You don’t live in New York City. You’re not paying off a more or less useless MFA in theatre. And the killer: You suck and you’re kidding yourself.

If that last one kicks in, it can paralyze you as quick as a curare dart to the neck. Then you have to: distract yourself (in my case, do something creative just for pleasure, but there are plenty of other options available…some of which won’t kill you); get back to work with a big, neon FUCK YOU sign flashing over your head; or crank up some fast, furious rock’n’roll and crawl back into the submission machine. If you can do all three without getting lost, the process can actually feel somewhat manageable.

Lightning eventually strikes, but, the longer between flashes, the more tempted one is to wise up and get the hell out of the rain. You can, or course. Sometimes you must to dry out. But, if you want to see the process through, inevitably you’re going to have to bundle up and head back into the storm.

As for the don’ts….

Don’t take it out on whoever responds to you. They’re doing a job, may have limited clout, and are prey to circumstances you can only guess at. If they’re taking time to read scripts, they love theatre and new work just as much as you do, and they may well be another writer dreading the mail/e-mail when they get home. And, brass tacks, they may not like the kind of plays you write…which means you don’t want to be produced there anyway.

Don’t take it out on other playwrights, sucessful or otherwise. They have worn the very same impossible shoes hurting your feet, and, though they might be having a hot year, they might be lacing up the torture shoes 12 months later.

Don’t take it out on family or friends. They really can’t understand how you feel, and, whatever they say, they probably think they’re being helpful. That’s called love, and should be accepted as such. Also don’t avoid them because you think you’ll bum them out. Honestly, they’re just as eager to tell you all the stuff that’s pissing them off; it’s a symbiotic relationship.

Don’t take it out on the job you have to work to pay the bills. They haven’t a clue, could care less, and you’re lucky to have a gig these days.

Society. Yeah, you can take it out on them. But it won’t do a damned bit of good, they don’t care what you say or do, and it can lead you back into “lost cause” wilderness.

And…don’t blame yourself. At the moment, you have enough problems. Just try to write as well as you can, and keep going.

So. For writers beginning and otherwise (and, I suppose, any artist–and anyone looking for a job). Do you ever get used to those oh-so-polite kicks to the nuts? Nope. Are they avoidable? Not if you want to play. Should you take it personally? No. Will you? A little, even if you won’t own up to it.

This is the Season of the Bitch.

Commencing Bombardment

Back in the early Nineties, we had ourselves a perfect little pocket war, known as Operation Desert Shield, the only U.S. war, so far, to sound like a feminine hygiene product. It was a swift, unforgettable thing, with CNN broadcasting live footage of Scud missiles falling on Tel Aviv, our wealthy friends, the Kuwaitis, getting looted by another one of our wealthy friends, one Saddam Hussein. Back during the Cold War, we weren’t always too choosy about who we took up with, and, as often happens, some of our relationships ended badly.

Seriously, it was a terrible war, with real bombs, blood, and bodies, and there was nothing amusing about it. I keenly remember feeling an awful sense of despair, as it became readily apparent the violence was inevitable, with no true certainty how it would turn out. Just as with its sequel, Operation Desert Storm (like most sequels, even more of a bummer), there were legitimate fears the war would set the entirely Middle East ablaze and completely destabilize the world economy. We’d have to wait another decade for that to happen.

History felt like an irresistible wave, a tsunami that rolled over everyone, no matter where they lived and how much money they did or didn’t have. The sense of fear and helplessness haunted me long after we’d tucked everyone back in their boxes, and I dealt with it the way writers do: I picked up the pen. In this case, I wrote a two-act drama called Bombardment.

At that time, I’d become friends with some wickedly clever artists running a new Portland Theatre Company, Stark Raving Theatre, and I asked them if they’d take a look at it. You know, just to see what they thought. They said, sure. And the next thing I knew, we were building a set. That’s the way theatre ought to be done–by the seat of your pants, with absolutely no idea what you’re getting yourself into.

The four-actor play–two men, two women–was directed by the very talented Kyle Evans, and ran for six weeks. It took a typical trajectory for a new play by a then-unknown playwright: a great opening (when everybody’s friends and family showed up), struggling weeknights, but stronger weekends. Reviewers were puzzled, dismissive, or both, but word got around that the play was a wild little beast, and really different from anything else running in town. Weekend audiences began to grow, and we closed strongly.

A year later, I tried to hide myself in a plush theatre seat at the Oregon Book Awards ceremony (Oregon’s top literary prize), absolutely terrified that Bombardment, one of three Finalists, might actually win, and I’d have to say something in front of a bunch of writers much more distinguished than myself.

It didn’t win (it’d be almost 20 years before I’d finally bring the OBA home for Lost Wavelengths), but the Bombardment experience really set the hook: I wanted to keep writing plays. For good or ill (depending on who you ask), I’ve been doing it ever since.

So I’ve always had kind of a soft spot for Bombardment, even though it totally screwed up my life. The play was just so . . . out there. I was so new to playwriting, I didn’t even know how many rules I’d blithely shattered. Bombardment was like letting the horse loose, holding on, and just marveling at its power while trying not to worry about getting killed.

Over the years, as I’ve honed my craft (supposedly), I’d dig the play out of the files, work on it a bit, maybe shop it around to a few theatres, maybe put it back in the folder. I came to accept it just wasn’t the kind of play for bigger theatres–the kind afraid of possibly alienating their subscription base. It was just too jagged, non-linear, brutal, and, frankly, weird. It’s a play for theatrical buccaneers.

And that’s why we’re here.

[To be continued]

A Taste of "Immaterial Matters"


From the new play….

REILLY thrusts the paper at CRANE.

REILLY
Read!

CRANE warily takes the paper.

CRANE
“Three fires of incendiary origin–“

REILLY
The other column.

CRANE
“Clifford Beekly has been diagnosed with acute insanity–“

REILLY
Further down.

CRANE
“An unknown man found hanging in Mr. Wilson Crowley’s barn–“

REILLY
Below the fold, Crane.

CRANE
There’s nothing below the fold but obituaries.

REILLY
Wrong. There’s nothing below the fold but customers.

The New Thing


I’ve been away from the blog for awhile for (I think) a reasonable reason: I’ve been writing. Seriously.

I took the morning off from writing and spent some time reading my friend Jack Boulware’s very sharp and funny book Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day. You should check it out: it’ll make you want to immediately dye your hair green and stick a safety pin through your cheek.

I felt like I had the carte blanche to blow off the muse for the morning because yesterday I finished typing up Immaterial Matters, a new, full-length drama with which I am very, very pleased. I’m never a very good judge of my own work. First off, you’re always in love with a play when you’re writing it, even if it’s putting you through fits. Second, others often really like the stuff I end up a little indifferent to, and the work I become besotted with tends to be the stuff that generates an “eh” from others. I have no explanation for this, other than I have perverse taste. Sometimes, it ends up being vindicated; sometimes it just stays perverse.

But this one feels a little different. Writing’s generally hard, hard work, even when it goes well, but this thing was just a breeze from beginning to end. In fact, it was coming so easily that it began to freak me out—like I’d inevitably sit down with the notebook one day and be suddenly dry, dry, dry. Never happened. It was always there for me when I called upon it, which is a joy. It continually surprised me—another good sign—and, when I was typing it up (I write all my drafts in longhand, then type them, revising as I go), I’d slightly change a line, then pause and change it back to the original. This almost never happens.

So I don’t know. But I’m guardedly optimistic. As to the play itself: it’s set in 1880s, and it’s about a photographer, death, and a ghost.

And that’s about all I’m saying for now.

Taking Stock


So…it was 19 years ago, in September 1990, when my first play–Controlled Burn–opened. And, with year 20 coming up, I thought I’d sort of look at what’s gone down with the playwriting. Frankly, the stats kind of knocked me over: I’ve written around 53 plays, 25 of which have been full-lengths and 33 of which have been produced (several have been produced multiple times, so my total production rate is slightly higher than that). That means around a 62% of the plays I’ve written have been produced–not too bad for a goofy kid from Selma, Oregon. In other words, I write about 2.7 plays per year, even though I work full-time, and I’m a semi-professional photographer, serious gardener, and, of late, guitar player.

Now, I’m not saying all those plays were good. But still….

Makes tired just thinking about it, much the less doing it. Maybe I’m getting the hang of this writing thing.

The Writing Life

Long stretches of your work involve doing nothing. This is hard to explain to others, who think you’re goofing off. Sometimes you are, but goofing off is part of the job. It may look like you’re just sipping coffee, listening to music, and staring into the middle distance, but, in actuality, scenes play in your head. Characters speak, laugh, argue, die. Whole worlds appear and disappear. A pen moves across paper. The paper gets crumpled and thrown into a wastebasket. All this in your head. Your family worries about you. You’ve just been sitting there for hours….

A routine helps. You carve out this little chunk of life dedicated to sitting quietly and appearing to do nothing. Often, that’s what gets done. Failure makes up a large component of what you do, but you have to keep trying and keep failing to make anything happen. When things are dead and nothing comes, it’s blindingly frustrating, painfully boring. Your words are colorless, inert. Repulsive. You want to get up, walk away, do anything else. When it’s completely hopeless, that’s about all you can do, but you keep at it anyway. You hate what you’re doing. You curse that you ever got into this thing. You’re never going to have another idea, never going to write a decent word.

Then something happens, a glimmer…and suddenly it’s four hours later, your hand’s cramping, and you feel like you’ve been tripping your brains out as you flip through a dozen pages and wonder where they’ve come from.

The mail carrier is not your friend. Most of the time, he or she brings you envelopes you’ve typed and stamped yourself, and, though their contents may vary in form, language, and tone, they usually more or less say: no. You teach yourself not to care, but you do, and any writer who says they don’t care about rejections is lying to you or themselves. You do learn to keep going; there’s no choice, really. But once in a while, you’ll let your guard down and let yourself hope–really hope. This movie begins to play about how this’ll happen, and then that, and then another thing. How the doors are about to burst open and welcome you in.

Then the rejection comes, and it hurts the hell out of you. You have go sit by yourself, unable to be with people. Sometimes, frankly, you just fucking cry. A tiny part of you wants to die and be done with it all. Sometimes it takes a couple days to get over, sometimes a couple of weeks (occasionally, never…though the intensity lessens with time); and, all the while, you have to deal with the voices that tell you: you’re wasting your time, you suck, it’s pointless, nothing’s ever going to be produced or published again. This is not a condition solely of beginners; your favorite author faces the same thing because there’s always another level to rise to and, usuallly, fall short of.

Other times, the bounce comes, you shrug, move on. There’s no telling how you’ll feel. Sometimes, the big ones have no effect. Sometimes, the little ones snap your bones.

Perversely, you have to hope. When you drop an envelope in the mail or click “send” on an e-mail, there’s one part of you urging “yes, yes, yes…this time” and another going “forget it, no way, never happen.” The “yes” keeps you going; the “no” keeps you armored. The only thing that stops the strobing between poles is more writing, more submissions. Like planting a perennial, submitting a manuscript is an affirmation that there will be a tomorrow. And, like a perennial, those manuscripts have a way of coming back year after year. Submission means you’re in the game; being in the game means, most of the time, you lose.

When it gets really bad, you’ll go the files and take out old reviews, thumb through production photos, wonder if you’re ever going to sit in the audience and see your work again or walk into a bookstore or library and see your name on a book’s spine. When it gets really, really bad, it’s time to take a break, pull weeds, play the guitar, do some art you don’t have to be good at, see a movie, get together with friends and listen to problems refreshingly different from yours…if they are, because artists have a way of flocking together in solidarity. And, yeah, sometimes we pour a glass or flick a lighter or swallow a pill because, for a little while, it turns you into someone else–someone with a window between themselves and their self-inflicted suffering.

You learn humility, and not for show, at the same time you have to carry an ego sufficiently outsized to believe what you’re doing matters and will somehow pay off. That people will actually come to see your play or buy your book, and that, incredibly, they’ll like it…or at least remember it.

When success comes, it’s surreal. You disconnect, not quite believing it’s happening. And, in a strange way, you don’t because you still have to protect yourself, and, when it’s over, you realize you’ve missed part of the experience due to your wariness.

Truth? It’s gets incredibly dark sometimes. Grim. Your own personal cloud follows you, and rains continually while the rest of the world basks in sun. On the other hand, you’re one of the luckiest people in the world, and you can’t imagine what it’s like for everyone else.

In other words, you’re a complete lunatic: a writer.

The Sky is What Color?

So, it’s like this with writing. You can’t find your way through to a new piece unless you work at it. But you can’t make it work until it’s ready. Which means that you spend a lot of time wandering around glassy-eyed, stumbling into posts, getting honked at by cars, or unnerving people on the bus who think you’re staring at them, while all the time, the editor in your head runs images, snippets of dialogue, soundtracks, in an unending, meaningless collage. And you generally are kind of a dick to be around because you only care about this chaotic state you’re in, and you assume everyone else is as crazy as you are.

Then suddenly, usually without warning, you lay your limp, weary pen once more against your rumpled, exhausted notebook, and–BAM!–you’re off. And you’re like, uh…what the hell is going on? What’s going on is you’re writing, and suddenly life seems simpler. And more sunny.

Which is to say that I’ve been living with the pre-writing bends for almost a year on a particular project, and this weekend it jumped up and danced for me and got all weird. And now I’m hanging on and going…wherever we go. Which is a lot better than drifting through life with “No Surprises” playing on an endless, interior loop and generally feeling just a little more miserable than Thom Yorke.

The really perverse part? Every single, goddamn time, you have to get to a point where you forget this is how it works; so that when you actually pass into the writing state, you kick yourself for forgetting, knowing full well that, when it’s over, you’ll just go and forget again.

Want to be a writer? Nothing says glamour like a 1,000-yard stare.

No surprises. Heh.