I never plan a book. While I’m finishing up or editing one project, I’m thinking of what the next one might be, and I usually get one or two ideas that stand out. In a month or two, one of them seems to win out, though I don’t know how. I don’t consider the whole thing rationally. Ideas come and go unexpectedly, and some of them seem to carry more weight than others. In the end, one takes hold and I start getting excited about it. I can’t wait to begin.
When I do actually start, how much of the book have I envisioned? Very little. If it’s a novel, I have the main character and the problem the character faces in mind. Sometimes that’s all. The way I get rolling is to write a prologue—I usually call it the Prelude. All of the novels described so far in this blog were started this way. The longest prologue opens Three Days at Albemarle, it consisting of a 3-page (fictional) Editor’s Introduction and nearly 14-page Prelude. All the novels after that have a Prelude of just one page. Why? Maybe it was because Three Days was the first novel I’d written in nine years (with non-fiction and plays written in the interim), and the subject was so large—what would a “good society” look like?—that I needed more time to ease into it, define (for myself) who the protagonist was and what he was looking for. Once I hit my stride with that, the next four books needed less groundwork because Three Days pretty much clarified the path I was on and all the later books followed along a similar trail.
Okay, so having a character in mind and knowing the problem faced, I use the Prelude to set the stage for the story to come—as much for me as for the reader, as I don’t really know until this point how the thing’s going to go. The Prelude is like a car battery jump-start. When I finish it—even just one page—it’s like the car starts and I begin to see the character driving. (The last three of the five novels I’ve talked about here have female protagonists. I find that very interesting, and I’d like to talk about that more at a later date.)
My next novel, Refugees From Albemarle, was easy to start because I already had two characters in mind from Three Days, and I had a location because I thought for sure Stef (with Ben in tow) would go to Santa Fe to (former girlfriend) Sue’s place, as he liked her a lot and he had nowhere else to go. In The Pearl Necklace, however, I knew my protagonist Jennifer Knox would be a lawyer because I had already imagined her taking on Homeland Security and the Patriot Act, but I had no idea where she would be living or what her family situation would be. After the Prelude, which established that she had an enormous fight of some sort on her hands, I simply started the first chapter by having her drive to work in a new Mercedes and arrive at a posh office—and I figured that characters would greet her at that office and she’d get pulled into the story (along with me). And that’s just what happened. That’s how I do it.
This goes on for about ten or twenty pages, me getting pulled along and often throwing in some considered things that I feel might add to the story or reappear later. But after that, I can say with all honesty that it pretty much writes itself (though not without massive effort). I hold the pen—I write in a notebook—and I put on paper what comes to mind. During this process, which lasts 3-5 hours a day, I exercise little or no conscious control. I suppose you could say that my subconscious mind is doing most of the writing. (If you think that sounds easy, try it sometime.)
To understand this better, imagine the driver of a car on a long trip spending a lot of time within his own thoughts, daydreaming of things past, of who will meet him on arrival and what they’ll do and so on; suddenly he jerks to attention with the thought, “Hey, I’d better pay attention to the road!” So the question is—who was driving the car during that time?! (I’ve done this enough times to know what I’m talking about.) The subconscious is capable of great feats when turned loose (hopefully with long years of discipline behind it). So it’s not so farfetched to say that I didn’t write those novels—my subconscious did most of the work. I think this is a more likely scenario than the one where the writer (or any creative person) says, “I really didn’t do it—I was just the vehicle.” This suggests an obvious question: who or what was this person the vehicle for?
Now we’re entering the realm of the mystical and I don’t really want to spend much time on it here, other than to say that in spite of much research, we don’t know all that much about the subconscious mind—I took a certificate in clinical hypnotherapy many years ago for just such study—and it’s possible that the deeper mind is somehow connected to the mystical. Spiritual traditions worldwide embracing ecstatic states point in this direction. Thus it’s feasible that some people are (and all are capable of being) divinely inspired. My rational mind shudders when I say that but I’m open-minded about it because I often get the feeling when reading my writing that whoever wrote it is a much better person than I am, and certainly smarter. That’s a funny feeling, I can tell you. It makes you feel that maybe you really are (or could be) a conduit for a power or intelligence greater than yourself. Are we talking about Jung’s collective unconscious here, or something from without? Or are they one and the same?
All right, so now I’m in the thick of the novel and the characters are really alive as far as I’m concerned because they seem to be dictating what happens next. I try to write a chapter or part of one at a sitting, and when I finish I’m exhausted. I’m too tired to think about it until the next day, though sometimes later in the day when I’m doing something else—listening to the radio or talking to someone—an idea will pop into my head and I write it down. Usually it’s not for tomorrow’s writing because I don’t even know what tomorrow’s about, but somehow it’s an idea or image important to the story. I figure I’ll blend it in when I can—if and when the characters call for it.
The next day I sit down, pick up the notebook, scan the previous 2-3 pages, and begin writing. The chapter just starts unfolding. This process is repeated for a year or more, and one day it just feels like the story is finished. Now is the time I compromise and say to myself—have I given the reader a satisfying climax and conclusion? I think this consciously, though I really don’t like to. I would prefer that the reader would have the same connection to the characters that I do and be moved by the ideas of the book as I have— without needing that emotional kick from “a well-constructed climax.” But that being unrealistic, I temper the last forty or so pages of my usual “subconscious writing” (as it seems to be) with a conscious effort to build on previous emotional points and take everything to a crescendo—and finish off with a fitting denouement. It’s here where I feel I relinquish the paramount position of the artist and turn at least part craftsman for the benefit of the reader.
Now the story is finished—but the book isn’t. Far from it. I go back to the beginning and start editing. Because of the free-flowing nature of the writing (though it’s not at all “stream-of-consciousness”-type writing in the Joycean sense), I find a lot to change or delete. Usually a few words or a sentence here and there, but sometimes a whole page is absolutely useless, and once I cut an entire chapter. (You have no idea how that hurts or how I might agonize for days before making such a decision.) This first read-through with corrections takes about two weeks or so. Because it’s not as mentally exhausting as the actual writing, I can do it for 5-6 hours a day before I start seeing double and throw in the towel. When the run-through is completely finished, I wait a day or two and start again. I do this about five times, or until I find I’m hardly changing a thing. Then it’s time to put it on the laptop.
Seeing it in print on a screen gives it an entirely different feel than reading it in longhand, and many new things emerge that I think need changing. I do another four or five run-throughs. Hopefully by this time, I’ve already got a good idea for the next book and put this one aside for a week or two in order to start on that. Then I go back to the previous book with fresher eyes and correct it once or twice more. Finally it’s finished and ready to be queried to literary agents. I can, however, pick it up four or five months or even a year later and new corrections emerge—minor ones, like changing a word or adding a sentence.
Well, that’s about how it goes. The actual writing part, anyway. The fact is that I’ve spent the greater part of my waking life either writing or thinking about writing. Even when I’m watching a movie or talking to people in a restaurant, I seem to be processing everything, seeing how it fits in to “the big picture” or my understanding of it. Like I said in an earlier post, I’m not interested in telling stories as such. My brief is to apply all of my talents to the work at hand—to envision a future we can live with. I try to do that through a story. I feel so lucky—privileged, really—to know my purpose in life, and to have known since high school. And such fascinating work!
Khayyam’s poem comes to mind here:
“Ah Love! could you and I with him conspire
To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,
Would we not shatter it to bits—and then
Remold it nearer to the heart’s desire!”
That’s what I’ve been all about—shattering and remolding. You could say I’m in the demolition/construction business.