A Novel is What Happens When
You're Busy Making Other Plans
What does your writing process look like? Where do you get your ideas? When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? So many questions about an author’s life seem to revolve around things that are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify or qualify. Each time I respond to these questions in an interview I find myself tweaking or hedging my answers and I feel a little bit like a fraud.
Essentially, I believe writing is organic. An author's process can’t or shouldn’t be dictated. True, many authors say they need a computer or a favorite pen and a cup of coffee before they can work. That’s not really a process though, is it? When I think of process, I think of how we approach a project overall. Do we come up with an outline, or do we write by the seat of our pants? Do we discover our characters first, or our plot?
Before I wrote my m/m coming-of-age novel No Apologies (out April, 2011 from Loose Id) I thought I would develop my process and solidify it over time. What I learned was that if I try to write a story via a template dictated by a previous project or another author’s process, it’s going to be a lesson in frustration.
Having outlined my first novel, Sheet Music, (August 2010, from Ellora's Cave) I figured if I sat down, plotted No Apologies, and stuck to my game plan, I’d have a completed novel in about six weeks. This worked really well until about half way through the novel when my so-called process came to a screeching halt. The characters seemed wooden on the page. The conflict contrived. I wailed at my critique partner for close to two weeks until she said, “Why don’t you explore what happened between your two male protagonists in high school? What came before now to make them who they are? Well heck, I thought, what did I have to lose? The story was going nowhere and I didn’t have anything better to do.
Thinking I was doing character research, I wrote the words, “Your roommate’s a freak,” and put them in the mouth of an imagined enemy. The words gave me chills, and right then I knew I had an entirely different story on my hands than the one I’d been writing. I had found Greg and Aaron's real story.
When I re-read the 25,000 words I deleted from the page that day, I realize now what I’d been doing until then was character research. As a result, No Apologies is an incredibly character-driven story. Plot is necessary in any story, yes, but as I wrote the new draft, it became secondary to the experiences my young protagonists went through on their journey into first love.
Because my critique partner had the insight to see what I could not about where the story needed to go, and because I was willing to forego process and let the story take me there, what started as a generic erotic romance became a story of my heart. I let the characters and their situation sweep me away. Believe me when I say I’m as profoundly affected by the emotions on the pages of No Apologies as some readers have told me they have been.
It took a leap of faith to let the book take me where it needed to go, rather than the other way around. As a result, I imagine I’ll never manage to give a satisfactory answer to the question, “What is your process?” My answer from now on will likely be, “Whatever the story dictates.” The rest I’ll just have to figure out as I go along.
by Tibby Armstrong
Cheerful and friendly, Aaron Blake has never met a puzzle that intrigues him more than brooding Greg Falkner. He wants to get to know his roommate, but it seems the only way past his shell is through it. When a reluctant friendship turns into a budding romance, can the two keep their feelings secret from their classmates? Or will their newfound love destroy them both?
Or so goes the story screenwriter Greg Falkner spins for audiences and his longtime partner, Aaron Blake, in No Apologies. Loosely based on their lives together, the film rocks Hollywood with its blatant portrayal of two teenagers falling in love and coming of age in a world that struggles to accept them, while they in turn struggle to accept themselves.
At the end of the evening, will Greg’s risky venture break a relationship that’s already foundering? Or will the real-life Greg and Aaron also find their happily ever after with No Apologies?
Surfing Greg Falkner’s temper felt like trying to survive the Banzai Pipeline ahead of a North Pacific storm. Toe the board steadily -- twist your hips, adopt the right crouch -- and you might come out the other side without getting worked by a wave.
Say the wrong thing and you’d get tumbled faster than a sock in a spin cycle and end up shredded on the reef. Fortunately for Greg, Aaron Blake had always risked everything for the perfect wave.
“What do you mean you want to take separate limos?” Aaron stared out over Pacific blue waters. Maybe if he focused on his favorite view, he’d keep his own temper in check.
“The press will be there.” Greg spoke as if he addressed a five-year-old. “They’d get photos. Ask questions.”
The whole relationship struck Aaron like a wave gone wrong -- one he’d approached even though he knew he’d end up falling over the lip and breaking his board. He glared at the speakerphone.
“When are you back in LA?”
“Morning of the premiere.”
Shoulder-length strands snagged on Aaron’s promise ring, and he winced. Extricating his hand from his hair, he glanced at the day planner on his laptop.
“Can you stop by?”
He worried the platinum ring, twisting it around his finger.
“Well, for one, I’d think you’d want to see me, but if that’s not enough of a reason, then I suppose because we need to talk.”
A long pause preceded Greg’s reply. “Talk about what?”
“Us.” There. He’d said it.
“What about us?” It was amazing how you could hear someone swallow from over a thousand miles away.
“Greg, let’s not do this now.”
“It really means that much to you that we arrive in the same car?”
It did, actually, but that was just the tip of the iceberg freezing Aaron out of this relationship. Against his better judgment, he found himself saying so.
“I’m through being your dirty little secret.”
Probably it wasn’t very enlightened of him to feel a deep sense of satisfaction at the stunned question, but he did. “You heard me.”
“You’re not a…a dirty little secret.”
“What am I, then?” He stood and pressed his forehead against the window, wondering if all the salt water in the world could fill the cavernous hole in his middle. “Because nobody outside your professional life even knows I existed. That we existed.” His use of the past tense wouldn’t go unnoticed. Not with Greg.
“You need to give me a little more time.”
“How much time do you want? Another decade? Maybe two?”
“Until the premiere.”
Stunned, Aaron pushed away from the window and stared at the phone. “You’re promising me you’ll move in after the premiere?”
“That’s what I thought.”
“I -- shit. Look, Aaron, you have to trust me.”
“I don’t get you.” Aaron thought about all the times he’d fooled himself into believing he had Greg under his control and expelled a bitter laugh. “I really and truly don’t.”
“Can you do it? Trust me until the premiere?”
“As far as I’m concerned, there is no premiere.”
“You can’t mean that.” Aaron felt Greg clutching at him, as sure as if he’d been in the same room, trying to bridge the growing emotional distance. “I just didn’t want us to arrive together because I was afraid they’d…”
“The rumors -- about the script being autobiographical. If we arrive together, there’ll be conjecture about you and Alan, the character. Are you sure you’re okay with that?”
“Is there a connection?”
“You saw the treatment.”
“I saw the first two paragraphs before you tore it out of my hands!” Aaron took a deep breath and vowed not to raise his voice again. “I know what the public knows. No Apologies is about two guys discovering their sexuality in military school. You and I never went to military school.”
“You’ll be my official date.” Greg’s conciliatory tone surprised him. “We’ll arrive together.”
Aaron watched the sun glittering on the whitecaps and attempted to let his anger move through him like water. Greg’s offer was unprecedented…for him.
“You’re coming out?”
“After the film, how can I not?”
“I’m not saying we’re staying together.”
“Aaron…” Greg’s voice went low and sexy. “We’ll fuck in the moonlight…on the beach…after the premiere.”
“Like hell we will.”
“What?” Greg sounded a little desperate. A little crazy. “You can’t mean to say it’s not still your favorite fantasy. You’ve wanted to do it for years.”
It was the wrong thing to say.
“Not with you.” Aaron winced at the deluge of painful memories. “Not anymore.”
“You’re out of chances, Greg.” Aaron looked at the ring once more. “No more empty promises.”
“It’s not empty.”
“It is for me.”
“Aaron --” Greg choked on his name.
Hope rekindled in the recesses of Aaron’s mind. Was Greg going to say he was sorry? “What? What could you possibly have to say to me that I haven’t heard before?”
Silence stretched heavy between them.
“I’ll see you the day after tomorrow,” Greg said finally.
Aaron swallowed his disappointment, cataloged each shard as it slid down his throat to his gullet. “Yeah. I -- I’ll see you later.” He bit off his customary I love you -- an inappropriate sentiment, given the circumstances. Besides, Greg never responded in kind.
“See you Friday, then.”
Finger hovering over the Off button, Aaron opened his mouth to say he regretted the end of the relationship, but after a pause, he hung up. He’d already said too much. The premiere would give him a chance to tie up loose ends, and they could both move on, like they should have years ago. There’d be time enough for good-byes and regrets the day after tomorrow.
* * * * *
A dial tone echoed in the stillness of Greg’s Park Plaza hotel room. He stared at the phone, trying to conjure Aaron back. What if he called him now? What if he said the words he wanted to hear?
The dial tone turned into a staccato beeping sound.
No. It wouldn’t be that simple. Not this time. This required he pull out all the stops. Go all the way. Even then, it might be too little too late.
He hung up the phone and paced to the window, desperate to impose order on his thoughts.
Why had he written No Apologies? Why hadn’t he simply said he was sorry to Aaron? Told him how he felt about him? Why did he have to do everything the hard way?
Ten stories below, yellow taxi cabs inched past blinkered horses waiting to take tourists on Central Park carriage tours. It all looked so simple. Until you got up close.
On the street, where people had faces and names, voices and fists, there was plenty to fear. He remembered with clarity, almost ten years later, the taunting words -- hurtful, hateful things classmates had said and done. He’d vowed never to expose himself or Aaron to ridicule again.
Except he’d written a screenplay virtually guaranteed to expose them both. Why?
He wanted to sink to his knees and pray. If he’d had a whip, he would have applied it to his own back.
“Think of something,” he said into his hands, then dropped them to renew his pacing.
A life without Aaron loomed before him. The vision made his stomach heave. He’d give anything to stop the earth -- make it cease spinning so time wouldn’t carry them farther and farther apart. If time flowed backward, he’d erase every fucked-up, misguided thing he’d said and done over the years.
Aaron owns me.
He closed the drapes and stripped off his clothes.
Aaron could break me.
He crawled under the covers.
Aaron is leaving me.
He shut his eyes and begged Morpheus for a dreamless sleep.
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