Southern Gothic Fiction and children’s books author Becket joins BookEnds agent Naomi Davis!
When I began writing years ago, both fiction and nonfiction, I wrote by the seat of my pants—a “pantster,” as some say. Nothing could get me to write a plot. If I had an idea for a story, I would start writing, and I would write until it “felt” like the story was finished. This also meant that I would write and rewrite (and rewrite ad nauseam) until I felt a passage was fully completed, or a paragraph had reached its zenith, or even a simple sentence had achieved a goal that I had not yet defined consciously, but that some part of me, deep down, would accept as the perfect sentence, or as Virginia Woolf enigmatically put it: “No dead sentence.” I would spend hours just trying to find Hemingway’s mot juste for every circumstance. Such extremes may or may not be the case with every pantster, but it certainly was with me. And I would define that era of my writing life as a very romantic period, when I mistook self-expression as a career. There are only so many ways a soul (or at least my soul) can express itself in every word, sentence, paragraph, and book before it becomes repetitive and uninteresting.
The first book I wrote by the pantster method was about 70,000 words and took nearly two years (way, way, way too long). The next book I wrote by the pantster method was 180,000 words and also took about two years (still way too long). By the time of my next book, I was starting to use the pantster method less, and starting to plot more, and I was starting to see a connection between efficiency and happiness. That is, when I spent so long writing a book, when it took a day to write a simple sentence, when it took a week to express myself in a passage, I was ultimately unhappy. Of course, I would feel happy once I felt I had written a “living sentence” or had found a “perfect word.” But then the unhappiness would start all over again with the next passage or next word. It was as if I was assembling a jigsaw puzzle by crafting each piece according to what the previous piece looked like while having no clear idea of what the picture might look like in the end. And I was miserable!
As I wrote more stories, I began to clearly see that I was happier when I finished a book than when I finished a sentence. I was happier being productive than being perfect. Or at least “perfect” by my definition of perfection. And that was the key that unlocked for me a means of happiness in writing. Before then, I didn’t understand that one person’s mot juste is another person’s excess.
After spending years tumbling through grammatical gymnastics and plodding through the pantster method, I began to craft outlines in my writing, taking small steps with short stories, until I eventually built up enough literary brawn to tackle the brobdingnagian effort of a full-fledged novel.
Today, my plots are very organized into exciting sections of plot development and daily achievable word-count goals.
At the same time, I have also found that, while outlining is the discipline of broadening an idea, writing a synopsis is the invaluable discipline of condensing a novel back down to the heart of its inspiration. If an author can distill his or her novel into a few lines, even into a single sentence, then the original spark that commenced the great wildfire of words still remains at the soul of the book—because each book starts with a single idea, and each book is finished by the single motivating factor of seeing that idea become a reality.
While I am more thoughtful about writing these days, I find listening to music while writing is a great way to push through a difficult passage, especially instrumental music. It gets me thinking less and feeling more. Although writing dialogue requires long spells of silence for concentration, writing prose is often inspired by a playlist of Bach fugues on the piano, which are some of the most intelligent works of music ever composed. I also listen to the musical scores of Bryan Tyler, Danny Elfman, and John Williams. Lastly, a great go-to is Audiomachine, an organization that creates succinct musical ideas for movie trailers—short and sweet bursts of inspiration, like gumdrops (a reoccurring theme for me). But music isn’t the only source of literary motivation.
Working for Anne Rice for so many years, she taught me how she uses images of actors and actresses as the basis for characters, and not limiting a character to be inspired by only one person. Lestat, for instance, was inspired by many sources, such as her late husband, Stan Rice, Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner), and Jim Morrison for Lestat’s rockstar stage presence. Anne also used images of places for settings. For example, before she wrote Prince Lestat (2013), we traveled to France and took many images of the Auvergne for the setting of Lestat’s home, Château de Lioncourt. So, whenever I write a book, following my teacher’s example, I have used the image of an actor or actress as the basis for a character, as well as images of actual places as the basis for settings. However, after the book begins, I use visuals less as characters and settings become more independent in my mind.
Whereas the mind gets fueled by images and the heart fueled by sounds, the body is fueled by ungodly amounts of coffee—at least, in the morning. After going to bed not long before midnight, I rise around 4am. My wife and I say our morning prayers and then I begin my writing jaunt for the next few hours with a carafe of hot coffee by my side. Because lukewarm coffee is anathema, the secret to keeping the coffee nice and hot is another trick I learned from Anne. She drinks from a china demitasse and only fills it partly up from her carafe so that the coffee never gets cold. Today, I do the same with an espresso cup of my webcomic character, Pythagoras the Cat. The coffee stays hot and the writing stays fresh.
After writing for as long as I can into the afternoon, I start to wind down for the evening by playing a video game or creating artwork or composing music, some activity that takes my mind away from writing; and by my side is a hot cup of herbal tea, especially as I slip between the sheets and begin reading.
My favorite genres are memoirs, biographies, histories, and lectures in non-fiction, and science fiction, fantasy, and young reader’s books in fiction. But I also love comic strips, which falls between the cracks of categories between art and fiction.
One of my favorite memoirs is little known—Peanuts, Pogo, and Hobbes: A Newspaper Editor’s Journey Through the World of Comics (2003) by George Lockwood. My favorite part of the newspaper has always been the comics section, which contributes to my appreciation for children’s literature. Comics strips like Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Mutts, The Far Side, and countless more, are also gumdrops of marvelous meditations on life, love, laughter, and delightfully undiluted lunacy.
However, as much as I wish comic strips alone could fuel my passion for writing, reading the histories of ancient civilizations and contemporary business also play a major contribution to the craft of my writing. Some of the more recent histories I’ve enjoyed are Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons (2015) by Michael Witwer; Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (2013) by Sean Howe; and Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (2012) by Bishop Robert Barron.
Similarly, biographies also inspire how I write. The more recent ones I’ve enjoyed are Mother Angelica (2005) by Raymond Arroyo; Witness to Hope (1999) by George Weigel; The Porter of Saint Bonaventure’s (1968) by James Patrick Derum; and Jim Henson: The Biography (2013) by Brian Jay Jones.
When I’m not reading, I’m usually listening to a lecture by the Great Courses series on Audible. Most of my favorites are by Prof. Luke Timothy Johnson on a number of courses concerning theological history, though my favorite is Books That Matter: The City of God by Prof. Charles Mathewes, an analysis of St. Augustine’s magnificent tome. I’ve also enjoyed listening to a wide variety of courses, such as Particle Physics for Non-Physicists by Prof. Steven Pollock; The Early Middle Ages by Prof. Philip Daileader; and Bach and the High Baroque by Prof. Robert Greenberg.
But no matter how much non-fiction the brain digests, returning to fiction is always a necessity, not simply to escape into another world or to scrutinize methods of storytelling, but also to float in the melody of prose.
I always enjoy reading books for young readers. Some of my favorites include A House Called Awful End (2002) by Philip Ardagh; The Borrowers (1952) by Mary Norton; and James and the Giant Peach (1961) by Roald Dahl.
Other fiction that I return to most often are two pillars of science fiction and fantasy: The Dune series by Frank Herbert and The Lord of the Ring series by J.R.R. Tolkien, one looking to a feasible future, the other to a plausible past. Although, I also very much enjoy reading the pulp fiction of the 1920’s and 30’s, specifically the Conan the Barbarian books by Robert E. Howard and the horror works of H. P. Lovecraft.
Lastly, I also have reoccurring (almost daily) readings in my life, namely the spiritual writings of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (Story of a Soul, 1898), Saint Teresa of Ávila (The Interior Castle, 1577), and Thomas a Kempis (The Imitation of Christ, 1427), Brother Lawrence (The Practice of the Presence of God, 1691), and many more, all of which serve as an unshakable underpinning to my writing, another device I learned from working with Anne Rice for so many years. I figure: If her writing can be laced with so much spiritual depth, then I believe mine might be able to taste a gumdrop of my belief in something greater than myself. Precedence makes perfect.
Yet, if I could meet any author, living or dead, it would have to be Kurt Vonnegut. I have a few friends who live in or near Manhattan and they would occasionally see him sitting on a bench or walking by (before he went the way of all flesh) and, oh, the jealousy I suffered! Vonnegut had the gift for distilling the vastness of his ideas into a gumdrop of inspiring contemplation. His best example is also his most underrated novel: Slapstick (1976). Although in Palm Sunday (1981) he grades his underdog a D, I think it’s one of his best. (Mind now, he paradoxically grades Palm Sunday in Palm Sunday a C, so his grading is suspect.) While he never satirizes war (e.g. Cat’s Cradle, 1963) or waxes humorously on our planet’s self-destructive doom (e.g. Breakfast of Champions, 1973), Slapstick’s eponymous content targets love—family love, brotherly love, romantic love. Greater than the mystery of humanity’s habit to war or our trust in temporary governments, Vonnegut distills the mystery of love into gumdrops of humor in the shape of basic, independent paragraphs of a few, simple, declarative sentences. Barring the cynicism and occasional profanity, reading Vonnegut at his best is tantamount to reading the poetry of W. S. Merwin and Mary Oliver. I have often wished to write like him.
In the end, all my reading, all my plotting, all my ideas and hopes, all my coffee and tea drinking, get funneled into my writing, which, if I could cram into the shoebox of a single category, would be Southern Gothic Fiction. I love spooky stories almost as much as I love grits.
Becket can be found on