Geoffrey Mehl Tells How He Wrote Stray Cats
In a memorable Finding Forrester movie scene, William Forrester sits down at a manual typewriter opposite teen prodigy Jamal Wallace, rolls in a sheet of paper and begins to write.
Wallace is supposed to do the same, but confesses that he doesn't know where to begin.
Forrester mentors him: begin with a sentence, any sentence, and write. "No thinking - that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is... to write, not to think!"
Rule #4 in Pixar's famous 22 Rules of Storytelling is (fill in the blanks): "Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___."
Put these two powerful concepts together and your imagination can turn a simple idea into an all-consuming tale. In my case, it was escape from the boredom of an hour-long commute. The radio had grown stale, the recorded music old, the traffic relatively light and I was free to let my imagination play with ideas.
What would happen if an over-the-hill, discarded spy hiding out in obscurity got drawn into some sort of a crazy scheme...that was a trap? Maybe he begins to unravel a conspiracy that starts with a slip of the tongue. Maybe he joins up with a couple of others, also in the same boat, and maybe they don't use high tech, super-human capabilities, or all the clichés that make an action movie. Maybe it's a dirty little dangerous world with some really simple ground rules. Maybe they know some really interesting people, the kind of people we'd like to know when we really need a favor.
That twice-a-day hour of solitude evolved into the story line for Stray Cats. Possibilities came and went, but eventually a beginning and an end point and the journey in between took shape.
Like Forrester, scenes, characterization and chunks of dialogue pour out in confidence. Like Rule #4, a plot evolved, and, disguised as a disorganized mound of paper, a draft took form.
If writing is the ecstasy, then editing and rewrite is the agony. Furrows of doubt fill a field of frustration. The journey that began in a cheery meadow of optimism becomes mired in the muck of despair. The smooth trail of organized research becomes a thicket of facts that just won't work.
Perfectionism has joined the journey and whispers, "it's not just bad...it's awful."
Marathon runners say the beginning and the end of the race are easy compared to a point about three quarters of the way through when they hit a wall of emotional distress. Of all the forms of writing, this same challenge is what makes book-length fiction, at least for me, a test of will. This is the easiest point to quit, to walk away, to write it off as harmless amusement.
It is also at this point that perseverance discovers patience and dignity reinforces desire. Characters become familiar friends and evolve from caricature. Implausible situations settle into reasonable suspension of belief. The amusement of playing with words becomes the discipline of telling a story.
Drafts ooze from an exhausted printer, countless times in the frightening hunt for mistakes that lurk in dark corners of carelessness. Again, again, too many times again.
Yet along the way, details seem to slip neatly into place, chaos is paved with continuity and plot points line up like soldiers on parade. There are grand moments to celebrate a fine turn of phrase, a sly allegory, a richness of character, the intimacy with creation.
The reward for pressing on is the growing shift from "nobody is ever going to read this" to "everyone should read this."
Finally, there comes a moment for that one last impulsive tweak, that finishing touch, that little adjustment. The finish line has been passed. It's time to stop, let it go and bid the enterprise farewell.
And then it's time to roll a fresh sheet of paper into our imagination, conjure a sentence, and begin again.
Geoffrey Mehl is a life-long writer who has worked in journalism and public relations and lives in northeastern Pennsylvania. His short stories and sketches appear at www.geoffmehl.com. Stray Cats is his first novel. He has escaped from that long commute and is an ardent gardener, an environmental activist and has written two books on landscaping with native plants.
Thank you, Geoff, for visiting me today!
Marilyn aka F. M. Meredith