On Writing – An Excerpt from South

Been thinking about this project recently, South, a manuscript I finished a little over a year ago. South is a book I’m incredibly proud of and I’m aggressively looking to publish (self or regular) as soon as I can. This conversation (from Chapter 6) between the main character, Elliott, and his agent, Clay, both describes the plot of the book and explores my feelings on writing. – e


It’s Flogging Molly on the way to meet Clay for coffee.

“Well, she took me by the hand.  I could see she was a fiery one.  Her legs ran all the way up to Heaven and past Avalon.  Tell me somethin’ girl, what is it you have in store?  She said come with me now on the Devil’s dance floor.”

Elliott writes against the back of the seat in front of him.  He jots down notes in the margins.  He looks out the window for a moment at nothing in particular.  Streets signs.  Anonymous concrete buildings.  An old woman with an umbrella standing still.  His head fills with words and he writes them down.

The bus stops downtown and Elliott hurriedly shuffles all of his pages into a notebook and tucks it under his jacket.  He steps out into the rain and goes downhill, closer to the waterfront.  He sees Clay standing beneath an awning impatiently.

“Sorry,” Elliott says.  “I’m…” he looks at his phone.  “Twenty minutes late.”

“Yep,” Clay says.  “I got a coffee.” He holds up the cup.  “It’s raining.”

“It’s supposed to rain,” Elliott says.  “Where do you think you are?”

“Where are all the fucking Starbucks?”  Clay asks.

“What are you talking about?”

“Are you fuckers hiding the Starbucks now?  This is Seattle.” 

“There are plenty of Starbucks,” Elliott says, joining Clay under the awning.

“There are like three downtown.”

“There are just as many as there always were.”

“Hmm,” Clay says.  He takes a drink from his coffee and motions to the Starbucks half a block away.

“Case in point.”

“Doesn’t count.”

“Sure,” Elliott says.

Clay is small or his clothes always look too big.  He’s looked like a little boy playing dress-up for almost twenty years.  His hair is thin and exceptionally well gelled.  “You can’t go a block without a Starbucks in Manhattan,” Clay says.

“You like reminding me that you live in Manhattan,” Elliott says.

Clay smiles.  He opens the door to the Starbucks.  “How are you, E?”

“Good,” Elliott says.  “I started something new.  Last night.  I think it’s good.  I don’t know.  I never know.”

“Hold that thought,” Clay says and gets in line to order coffee.  He finishes his current cup and hands it to the barista.  “Venti Americano,” he says and turns to get Elliott’s order.

“Grande Latte,” Elliott says.

“What do you mean something new?”  Clay asks as they step out of line and wait for their coffees.  “I thought you were going to get me a second on something.”

“I tried,” Elliott says.

“It’s just self sabotage,” Clay says.

“There’s nothing new in revisions,” Elliott tells Clay.  “It’s just the same stuff with fewer typos or it’s a complete rewrite.”

“Fine,” Clay says and takes his coffee.  “I’ll take a first draft without the typos and I’ll get a fucking copy editor from Craigslist.”

“Whatever,” Elliott says and takes his latte.  “I’m not talking about a second draft.”

“Even though you should be,” Clay says. He pours sugar into his coffee.  “You know what it is that you and I do for a living, right?  Do you need my business card?”

Elliott ignores Clay’s goading and walks over to a small table.  “So how was the flight, Clay?”

“I hate flying.”

“How’s Amy?”

“Pregnant,” Clay says.  “Really fucking pregnant.  She has ankles bigger around than my head.”

“You’re a real charmer,” Elliott tells him.  “I’m surprised she lets you travel this late.”

“Let’s me?  She begged.”  Clay takes a drink from his coffee and looks Elliott over.  “You look like shit.”


“That’s usually a good sign,” Clay says.  “The more haggard a writer looks, the better the work, right?”

“Or all your clients are self-destructive burn outs,” Elliott suggests.

“Or that,” Clay says.  “Obviously that.”

“I was up late,” Elliott says.  “I was working.”

“Opus du jour.”


“Come on,” Clay says.  “Tell me about it.  Give me something.”

“I don’t know,” Elliott says.

“Business card?”

“I mean, I don’t know all of the parts yet,” Elliott says.  “It’s evolving.”

“Okay,” Clay says.  “Novel?  Short?  Dirty limerick”?

“I’m just thinking about the freeway and the map,” Elliott says.  He takes out the notebook from his jacket.  He opens the pages and shows Clay the drawings.

“Alright, so this is madness,” Clay says.

“You don’t want to see how the sausage is made, don’t come to the slaughterhouse.”

“Let me see,” Clay says and takes the notebook.  He scans some notes and reads a few lines.  “I’d like to tell you about a new invention they call a computer, Elliott.”

Elliott gives Clay the middle finger.  “It’s my process, Clay.”

“As long as your process ends with a manuscript in my hand that I can do something with, I don’t care what it is.”  Clay flips pages.  “Philosophy of tits?”

“It’s a note.”

“I like tits,” Clay says.  “Tits remain generally popular.”  He turns the pages.  “Half of this is just song lyrics and dates.  I need more than tits and Bruce Springsteen songs.”

“It’s something about my life,” Elliott says.  “Something about semi trucks and the beach.  My dad.  The kid.”

“Mel?”  Clay asks.  He shows Elliott a note.

“Mel,” Elliott says.

“Well, she’s fucking nuts,” Clay says.  He hands Elliott the pages back.  “So we’re talking memoir or something?”

“Fictional non-fiction,” Elliott says.

“So basically whatever you want?”

“Basically,” Elliott says. “I’m borrowing a car.  I’m going to drive down to California.  Stop places.  Write.  Maybe take Duncan.  I haven’t been to the beach in years.”

“You live on the coast.”

“The real beach,” Elliott says.  “The Pacific Ocean.”

“Okay,” Clay says.  “Okay,” he repeats.

“Can you do something with it?”

“The Pacific Ocean, semis, fictional non-fiction,” Clay repeats. “What do you want me to say?”

“If I write it, can you do something with it?”

“Versus the nothing I can do with the nothing I have?”  Clay asks.  “I can probably do more with something, Elliott.”

“I just need to know that I’m going somewhere with this.”

“You want my blessing?”  Clay asks.  “Do it.  Write down any thing you can think of.  Rewrite the phonebook, Elliott.  Just finish it and give it to me.  Otherwise, what’s the point?”

“Don’t be a dick,” Elliott says.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Clay says.  “People read things I don’t understand.  They want glitter vampires and biographies of dead presidents.  People want to read good writing.  They want to be entertained or provoked.  Just write it, Elliott.  I can’t tell you anything else.  Quit it with the local newspaper shit and write something.  Preferably novel length but I’ll take what I can get as long as it’s finished.  Then we can talk the finer points of marketing and publishing and how we’re both basically dinosaurs waiting for these kids with iPhones to round us up and send us to the camps. I think you can give me something I can do something with.  Or else why would I waste my time with this?  I have a pregnant wife in Manhattan.”

“That local newspaper shit pays my rent,” Elliott says.

“Okay,” Clay says and takes a drink of coffee.

“I haven’t written anything new since I stopped drinking,” Elliott says.

“What are you talking about?  I’ve seen hundreds of pages.  Mostly written in Elliott scratch but still.  I’ve seen pages.”

“Nothing completed.”

“So complete it,” Clay says.  He shrugs. “I can’t tell you it’s terrible and you should fall off the wagon until I’ve read it.”

“This feels like something is close,” Elliott says.  “I can almost touch it.”

“Molest the motherfucker,” Clay says.  “I give you my blessing.  Take a road trip.  Write about it.  Figure out how it all fits together with trucks and whatever afterwards.  Melville so did not have a fucking plan when he started writing about the whale.  He made it all up as he was going.”

“I don’t know if that’s true or not,” Elliott admits.

“Neither do I,” Clay says.  “Does it matter?”

“I guess not.”

“So go forth and propagate nouns and verbs,” Clay tells him.  “Cavort with adverbs and similes.  Finish it and send me a manuscript, E.  Adult typed.”

Elliott takes out his phone and enters a quick text message to CJ.  “Okay,” he says.  He looks up from the phone at Clay.  “Have you been to Philadelphia?”  He asks him.

“God, no,” Clay says.  He shudders.  “Why would you even ask me that?”

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