(More notes from the Rosemary Beach Conference for Writers. Please note that the students had very little time on the writing exercises, so none of the stories are complete and all of them are first drafts.)
JD: "Writing is not difficult. Writing well is."
Assignment: He gives us a character to start with: She's an exterminator for a pest control firm; single mom; two kids; dating a community college teacher; and something happened last night that's bothering her.
Give her a name. What does she want? Why? What's stopping her.
I name her Maggie. She's 32.
He set Gillian on his knee.
Maggie couldn't get the image out of her head. She tried to clear her thoughts — needed to focus on the task at hand, mixing chemicals and water in polished steel tanks. She wore goggles and gloves and a breathing mask, all of which made it more difficult to read the measurements and handle the equipment, but without which she would be exposed to toxins.
Was she seeing things clearly? Was she protecting herself and her children well enough? What sort of guy was Jeremy, really?
The motto of her company, Marine Pest Control, was "Kill'em all. Let God sort'em out."
Jeremy seemed like a good guy. Community college professor. Psychologist. But what was it she always heard about psyche majors — they were all crazy? She wondered what a psyche major really thought of a single mom who killed bugs and rodents for a living.
She'd been dating Jeremy for a few weeks. Dinner, a concert, a movie. He had met her kids twice. Last night, her 6-year-old, Gillian, was still awake when Jeremy had brought Maggie home. The babysitter left, and Jeremy sat to talk to Gillian.He lifted her and set her on his knee —
And Maggie felt her skin crawl, like the first time she'd cracked open a termite infestation.
JD: All characters have jobs (even those who don't) and the job they do informs how they see the world.
Assignment: Explore a person at work. How dull life has become. How can you change it? He or she loves their spouse and kids, but is dying inside. Had such potential once. Never will get another chance. Must do something now.
I write (and you'll just have to forgive me if it's too autobiographical):
I don't smoke. Any more, at least, though I never really did much of it. But I still go out to the picnic table at the back corner of the office building where the smokers take their breaks. If I didn't visit the table a couple of times a week, I wouldn't take many breaks at all. The work would just go on.
It does anyway. If I don't do it, maybe things wouldn't get done for a while, but somebody else would eventually step in, fill that hole, turn that gear, and the machine would keep rolling along. No one stops the presses.
But I sit out there and look at the trees, listen to the traffic, watch a homeless guy walking with his life in a ratty backpack. And I wonder if I couldn't just walk away too? Who would miss me?
Don't get me wrong. My life isn't so terrible. I don't dig ditches. I don't eat at the Rescue Mission or sleep under a trolley bench. I have a great wife and kids. They love me and I love them. We have a decent home. A new car. Health insurance.
And sometimes it feels like I'm losing my damn mind. I'm 47 years old, or nearly 48, and where am I going? What have I done? What difference have I made?
I talked to a friend last week who I only ever "see" on Facebook. My first friend. Grew up together. First guy I ever got drunk with. His dad just died. He was devastated. And I'm not feeling that great myself, all of a sudden.
Assignment: JD asks us to pick a number between 1 and 26; we do this three times and write them down. Then he hands out a piece of paper that has three columns: A list of 26 jobs, 26 things a character wants, and 26 opening scenes. Each of your numbers match one of the columns, in that order. My numbers were 23, 17, and 11. That means I will be writing about a TV Anchorperson who wants to talk about his or her child's death, and the opening scene is digging a shallow grave.
(I find this completely random choice interesting in light of what I wrote on the first day about my greatest fear.)
"This is a good spot," she said.
The drive into the country was pleasant. The woods were thick here and would be due for a prescribed burn soon, which would further cover her tracks and destroy any evidence she might leave behind. She traveled a mile in, down a sandy road maintained by the forestry service, then got the basket out of the back of the SUV and walked along a narrow fire break into the rows of pines.
"You'll like it here," she said.
The sun was low when she turned off the break and into the line of trees marching off in unnaturally even spaces. She found a spot in the open, where scrub ferns and sticker vines had grown thick, and she put down the basket.
"Don't be afraid," she said.
She took a garden trowel out of her jacket pocket and uprooted the brush. She set it aside, root and all, and continued digging in the sandy earth.
"It's not your fault," she said. "I want you to understand that."
The ground was soft. She was surprised by how soft it was., how it surrendered to her tool. Even so, she would need to have her nails done again before tomorrow's 5 p.m. show.
That's as far as I got. I believe the last image would have been her placing the basket into the hole she dug and saying, "This just in." Either that, or getting back to work, reading the teleprompter and describing the abandoned corpse of a baby discovered by a hunter and his dogs out on a forestry lease. "This just in," she said.
Next: How to write a novel in six months.