Category Archives: Writers and Ideas

Thinking About Thinking

I’ve had a chance to do a lot of thinking lately. Okay, technically we think all of the time. I mean creative thinking. After being a bad master for a number of years, I’ve started to walk the dog for a half an hour or so on most days, and having nothing to clutter my thoughts, I’ve been mentally making, um, mental notes on a future novel project.

The thing is, these notes haven’t been for 8000 Days, which is the next book I plan to finish writing. But I haven’t been thinking about that one. And I haven’t been thinking about the UFO Novel, which is the big project that will follow.

No, I’ve been thinking about a whim I’ve had for a number of years, and it has been taking shape rather nicely on these walks.

But why haven’t I been thinking about the book – one that I’ve got about 1/3 written – that I’m about to start work on? I suppose because it’s such a slight thing. I know where it’s going, I have one-sentence descriptions of what is to happen in each of the remaining chapters, and each of those chapters is pretty much set in my head. There’s not much left in the way of mental gymnastics to perform.

So why haven’t these mental gymnastics covered the UFO novel, which may be my biggest novel yet, and certainly has a lot of blanks to be filled in? It could be that I’m not ready to write it yet. But I doubt it. I’ve got tons of notes, handwritten, typed, odd .doc files here and there, most of which have been incorporated into the book’s Scrivener file. Maybe because the idea has reached critical mass and I’m at the stage where I need to begin actually writing in order for the blanks to be property filled in.

But this notion of working in a genre that I’d never had much interest in, never wanted to work in, and that would involve far more up-front research than I usually perform?1 I don’t know. I thought I was over that whole crazy writer thing.

Maybe it’s because it’s been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to engage in unbridled, uninterrupted thought.2 See, if I were to list out the times/places where I tend to engage in the most independent creative thought outside of sitting at the keyboard, it would probably look something like this:

  • Driving/Commuting
  • Shower
  • Repetitive/mundane physical tasks (e.g. mowing the lawn)

Unfortunately, most of these have become compromised over the years. The price of gas has seen me carpooling with my wife, so conversation fills the car there. Even so, my car thought was waning because of my heavy use of the iPod. When I listen to music, I do it rather intensely, and it occupies my mind rather completely.3 Having a spouse and two children long ago put an end to the extended creative sessions in the shower, and allergies put a premature end to the lawn mowing.

To make up for this I developed a method of enforced creative thought where I consciously pick a topic and send my imagination down the resulting alleyway. It’s serviceable enough – so much so that I sometimes teach this method to groups – but it lacks the joy one gets from just letting loose with imaginative thought.

And perhaps that’s why my mind has wandered in the direction it has gone… simply because it can.

Whatever the case, it has taught me this: that it is good for creatives to be able to make such flights of fancy. They’re an important part of the process, and I’ve missed them.

But why… oh, why… that idea?

  1. I prefer to do what I call “on-going research”, wherein I simply read about things that interest me, and, well, if the shoe fits…
  2. Except for that close call with the skunk.
  3. While I can listen to music while I write, I cannot listen to complete albums by the likes of XTC and Elvis Costello. Their superb use of wordplay is just too good – and too distracting.

Curious Affectation

Okay, somebody explain why in the heck I do this.

It’s something I’ve been conscious of for years, and it never seemed to bother me until a week or so ago. That’s when I got an email that inspired this recent post. At one point, the correspondent said,

I go out and buy notebooks and pens and write short spurts here and there.

To which I replied, “Yeah, I do that, too.”

And I do. Especially if I’m not working on a novel. An old idea bubbles up, or a couple of notions collide with each other to become an idea, and all of a sudden my brain is saying, This is it… workable novel idea.

What happens next is that I wander into the nearest grocery store, drug store or office supply outlet and buy a notebook or a notepad or a ream of blank paper. And if I don’t have a Pilot G-2 handy, I buy at least one of those, too.

Then I sit down and start writing the book, by hand, because dang it, I really can’t help myself.

I’ve started a great many books this way. Some of them have even been finished – The Mushroom Shift, for example. I’ve got about 20 handwritten pages of the UFO novel that I hope to pick up and start Officially Writing soon. I’ve got almost 200 pages of another novel spread over three or four notebooks that I need to pick up and finish at some point in the future. And I’ve got a ton of one, two, three, four, five page starts laying here and there, ideas begging to be fleshed out with another 500 pages of text.

Since getting the email the other day, I was amused to find out that I wasn’t the only one who did that kind of thing, reading into his words the fact that he indeed underwent the same tortured process I went through.

But I started to become unhappy about it. Because I still don’t know why I do this.

No, it’s not a passing thing. After lunch with my wife and mother-in-law this afternoon, I found myself in a Walgreen’s in that aisle because two notions collided – one of which was a bit I had written one paragraph of on another sheet of paper – and it wanted to come out.

So I weighed my options. I’ve been writing on a pastel green printer paper of late – it’s easy on the eyes. But Walgreen’s only has white. I pass over the spiral bounds – got too many of them at home. Ditto the yellow pads. Never was much for off-size stuff, either, although I used to draw in Steno notebooks.

Ah, there it was! A 120 sheet pack of looseleaf paper, college ruled, on sale for 97 cents. And I have plenty of three-ring binders at home! Huzzah! The planets have aligned!

But why do I do this? Not just sometimes. A lot. It’s like part of my personality or something. A behavior pattern.

I’ve tried to do some quick self-psychoanalysis since this started bugging me and have come up with a handful of maybes on why I behave this way:

Continue reading

Almost White

Life has been happening, as usual. This getting to write one or two days a week just isn’t going to cut it. I need to hurry up and become a bestselling author so I have time to write.

Is that a Catch-22 or what?

I have been busy on the creative front. I’ve been working on an essay about plot pacing that was inspired when I saw the premiere episode of Skin, but it hasn’t quite jelled yet. It may become another two-part entry – we’ll see what happens.

I also had something major pop into my head on the commute to work this morning. And this one was almost a White Moment. Not quite – I didn’t go “Wow!” and nearly hit a city bus in my distraction, but I see it as a major concept.

(This is one reason I refuse to have a cell phone – the car is the last refuge from the world I have, and that half-hour in the morning can be very productive.* That’s one reason why I want to build a writer’s shed – one where the only phone line is connected to the computer. You have to be alone and undisturbed to be able to think these things out.)

So this brainstorm isn’t really a notion or an idea. It has more to do with voice. For years I have admired books like Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker for the way they pushed language (and readers) to the outer limits of the form. The Burgess novel, of course, has Nadsat, the Russian based teen slang, which was both an interesting literary device and a wry comment on the times. Hoban’s book takes place generations after a holocaust, ostensibly written by a person who is barely literate enough to express his thoughts and describe events in his world. For decades I’ve told myself that someday I was going to write a book that pushed the frontiers of language like they did.

I was pondering something totally unrelated to anything when the idea hit me for the voice to use in an unspecified book. I don’t want to go into it too much, but as I started mentally composing sentences with it, the rules of usage began to pop into my head. It’s a language where, out of necessity, much is contextual, and you can’t really decipher the meaning of some words without seeing the words that surround it. There were some other side rules that popped up, too, such as modifying a word without without physically adding another word to the sentence (!!!).

The sample paragraphs I composed on the way in to work might or might not be the plot (well, there really wasn’t one – yet). I had a couple of character names that I liked and an opening sentence, but nothing beyond that. I’ll have to see what clings to the idea in time to come.

The only other things I know are that it, like A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker, should be a fairly short novel, probably 50 to no more than 70k words. Any more than that would probably cause brain hemorrhaging in readers.

I also know that I’d probably have to be really established in order to publish this one. As in the publisher thinking, “Well, we do publish Joe Clifford Faust, so we’ll put this one out as a courtesy to him.”

This makes at least two books like this that I plan to write. The other will probably come at or near the end of my career (and might possibly end it) – but I think it would make a fine capstone novel. Unless I write it sooner.


*The evening drive is rarely productive – I’m usually tired, brain-dead or both, and I usually listen to a CD or Sean Hannity just to escape.

The Process, Part II

Before going on to chronicle the editing process, I want to mention that, to someone who reads this blog, it would appear that like Mark Twain, I write in spurts. This is not quite the case. Twain would abandon manuscripts for months before coming back to them. I might leave something for days or weeks, but it’s out of necessity. After all, I’m working a full time job and raising a family. I don’t want my kids to grow up and write spiteful biographies saying that I was talented but had no time for them.

Besides, when I’ve had the chance to write full time, I charged through projects in record time. The Boddekker’s Demons half of Ferman’s Devils was written in five months. So was Trust, but I was working full time then – my agent lit a fire under me to get the manuscript out because we thought it would be great marketing to have an election year thriller out in time for an actual election year (my wife was truly a Novel Widow during that period).

Once the first draft is done, I try to let it sit for a month without looking at it. During this time I do nothing, or I might actually start the next novel, writing a first chapter that might sit for weeks or sometimes years before I decided to write the rest. As a further inducement to leave the book alone, I sometimes find First Readers to take a look at it, hopefully to offer brutally frank opinions on what I’ve done.

When the month is over, it’s time to edit the manuscript for a second time.

That’s right. I said second. Over the years, I’ve developed a process that I call “pre-editing.” I’ve learned to identify things in my outline or in my head that can be deleted simply by not writing them. It might be something I might need to know, but the reader doesn’t.* It could be something that would slow down the flow of the book, something that no longer fits given the book’s current direction, or something that merely seemed like a good idea at the time, but no longer is.

“Pre-editing” also entails going back and making changes to the manuscript when a later plot point requires it. In Deadline I keep changing the age of Jill’s daughter to facilitate a paternal relationship with Max, the protagonist. So I go back in the manuscript and insert/delete where necessary (or, in Deadline’s case, get a red pen and scribble around what I’ve already written).

Last night’s work on And/News is a textbook case of pre-editing. I mentioned in yesterday’s scorecard entry that I went back and filled in some details throughout the chapter that I realized it needed. But that’s not the entire story.

I was working on a section where Richard and K confront a reluctant witness. Part of my notes – a good two paragraphs worth – called for a revelation about the relationship the witness had with his live-in girlfriend. The Weasel Effect was supposed to come into play as we found out that the witness successfully courted and bedded the girl under false circumstances, and by the time she realized he wasn’t all he claimed to be, it was too late for her to get out. She had no support system in place and could not easily leave him.

The notes on this could have easily taken a day’s worth of writing to get down. Fortunately, as I neared that part of the chapter, I saw that 1) this little bit of exposition wasn’t necessary for a character who was only going to appear in the book for one chapter, and 2) the direction I was writing in skewed away from that kind of a relationship with his live-in; it was more important that he be attached to her (albeit with a wandering eye). So I ignored my earlier directive and as a result, And/News is eight pages shorter.

(Again, Ferman’s Devils provides an interesting counterpoint to this process. One of the things I had put into the outline was the chapter where Bainbridge insinuates herself into Boddekker’s life and follows him to the Nursing Home where his 1960’s burnout grandmother lives. In the early writing stages, I was trying to keep the length down because my agent has a chronic phobia of manuscripts over 100,000 words in length. So I decided that, while the chapter was fun, I wasn’t going to write it. I made the transition that the chapter provided in a different way. When Bantam bought the book and split it in half, my editor encouraged me to add the chapter. It worked out well – readers got something really close to a director’s cut of the book, and the addition of the chapter made both books approximately the same length.)

Once the manuscript has sat for a month, it is time for a physical edit. I sit in my big La-Z-Boy recliner (dubbed “The Editing Chair”) with the binder in my lap and a red pen in my hand, and I proceed to go through the manuscript and bloody it up.

Since my first drafts are nothing more than a race to get everything onto paper before I forget it, there’s a lot of sloppiness present. And I also have comments from my wife in the manuscript. She’s got great editorial instincts, and she reads the book chapter-by-chapter as I finish each one and print it out. She’s my first First Reader, and it must be agonizing to her to wait months to get to the end of a book (she’s one of these three or four books a week types).

I look for clunky writing. I whack out things that don’t 1) move the story ahead or 2) develop someone’s character, or 3) – something new I’ve added to And/News – provide insight into one of the book’s themes.

One thing I do – in fact, I usually do this on the computer – is go on a hunt for the word “just.” It’s a rotten little rodent of a word that slips in when I’m not looking, and it can just ruin a sentence by qualifying it (that is, taking the air out of a turn of words by distancing the reader from the action).** This is a search and destroy mission, and very few survive. A few others are transformed into another word.

Once the book is carved up, I enter the changes into the manuscript document. These can range from deleting or changing one word on a page to reworking entire sections (which I have either handwritten, or else put down notes on what to do). I know it would be easier to edit onscreen, but I learned to edit physically, and it serves me well. Besides, there’s a “half-edit” when I put the changes into the computer. This is where I notice things I missed in the physical edit, or else I second-guess myself and either edit the edit or change it back to the way it was.

Then I print the new version of the book out, the Intermediate Draft, let my wife have a whack at it (all at once this time), and then I read it. By this point most of the large changes and alterations have already been made, so I’m checking to make sure everything flows. I still make changes and occasionally second- (or third-) guess myself at this stage. Then it’s back to the computer with this set of changes.

When it rolls out of the printer, it’s the Final Draft. The manuscript is ready to go.

I felt guilty about this process for a long time, especially after hearing how some authors produce draft after draft after draft until they have a perfect manuscript. I quit feeling that way once I had a revelation: I can’t do that because to me, the manuscript will never be perfect. Every time I pick up one of my published novels – even if it’s the first time I’m looking into an author’s copy – I see mistakes or things on every page that I would change if I could. So I have to force myself to a point where I let it go. If I didn’t, I would revise the thing forever and never send it out (I also have problems with my blog entries, which, while they’re more spontaneous, are also quite sloppy by my standards – it’s a real temptation to go in and use that REVISIONIST HISTORY button that most blog hosts feature). There comes a time when I must, as Sir Winston says, kill the monster and fling him before the public.

So that’s the process. I don’t know if it works for anyone outside of me, but work for me it does. I remember being at a Science Fiction convention with the lovely and gracious Lois McMaster Bujold. We were talking about how we wrote, and when I described how I did it (in much less detail than these last two days), poor Lois looked at me, aghast. “I could never work that way,” she said. I got the impression that she was the type who worked on a sentence or paragraph until it was perfect and then moved on. But I could be wrong.

Everyone is different. The best way to find out how you write novels is to start writing them. Pretty soon you’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t. Then you can spout of ad infinitum about how you work in your blog.

After all, getting there is half the fun.

(Hope this answered your questions.)

*For example, in The Company Man, I knew but never revealed that Howard Kessler and Jack Lime were once partners, starting their career in Astradyne together. And Kessler sold Lime out to advance in the company. Cool detail, but it would have slowed things down to tell it; the book, after all, was about Andy Birch.

**Yes, I know I used the word “just” in that sentence. Pun intended.

The Process, Part I

I have received a request to describe in detail the process I use to write one of my novels. While that’s supposed to be the function of this blog, I now realize that, while I’ve discussed different aspects of it here and on other parts of this site, I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and written a comprehensive-yet-concise account of “how I do it” from beginning to end.

So I’m going to take a crack at it here.

To start off, I’m not sure where the decision to start writing a specific novel comes from. I started Desperate Measures after reading some really bad SF and deciding that yes, even I could write something that bad and get it published. The only thought I had in my head (besides the $2000 advance, which seemed like a fortune to a college student in 1978) was that I could do better than what I’d just read and thrown across the room. Most of my other novels were things that I had been thinking about on and off for quite some time.

I’ve just started blogging about the idea process with Choices. When someone asks me where I get my ideas, the first thing I say is everywhere. The evening news, a chance comment by a colleague, a plot point in someone else’s work that I particularly admired, my own feelings on a myriad of subjects – wherever. Then I say that an idea is usually something that grows, as opposed to popping into your head. Notions are what pop into your head, and it takes a number of notions to equal an idea. As to what number of notions it takes to equal an idea, I cannot say. It seems different every time.

There are also two kinds of ideas. The first are the “Gosh! Wow!” kind that, when you read them on the book cover, make you pick up the book. In Hollywood, they call these “High Concept” ideas:

• A young, idealistic lawyer discovers his practice is a front for the mob.

• A starship crewed by dolphins makes a discovery that could change the way the universe looks at intelligent life.

• Humans genetically engineered for a specific task learn they have become obsolete.

• A headstrong woman will stop at nothing to save the family plantation.

• A real street gang is featured in a television commercial and become more popular than the Beatles.

These ideas, which usually come to authors in a literal flash (those who study creativity call these breakthroughs “white moments”), are not enough to support the novel alone. You need the other kind of ideas to form the structure of the plot. These are the more mundane ones that nobody thinks twice about. It helps to view the white moment idea as the skeleton – all the others are muscle, skin and viscera, the unglamorous stuff that provides locomotion and nourishment.

So the formula so far looks like this. Where a notion is the basic molecular unit of a novel, X notions = 1 idea, and X ideas = The Concept, where The Concept = what makes up a novel (what outsiders call “the idea”).

After pondering different concepts for a time, it becomes evident to me that there’s one ion particular begging for attention. This is a critical part of the creative process, knowing when the idea is ready. In 1994 I had the notion what if a woman from a tabloid magazine got the goods on a Presidential candidate and nobody believed her because she worked for a tabloid? My agent got fired up about it, and at his behest, I dropped everything to write Trust. I even had to send my agent ten copies of the finished manuscript so he could do that multiple submission thing that only agents seem to do successfully.

Only he wasn’t successful. To a person, all of the rejecting editors said that Trust lacked a certain je ne sais quois that kept them from wanting to publish it.

What was it missing? Nobody ever said. I now suspect it was because I wrote Trust before it was fully developed. Instead of X ideas in the structure, it only had W or V or even S ideas.

So a novel tells me it is ready to write. What do I do next?

I sit down and start writing. Not an outline. Not conceptual notes. I start writing with chapter one.

At this point in the project, I have three things, and perhaps a fourth:

1) I know what the book is going to be about.

2) I know what the opening scene is.

3) I know what the closing scene of the book will be.

4) I might have a title.

That’s right, folks. That 500 pages in the middle of the manuscript is this great, uncharted void.

I’ve heard that many writers call their first pass through a novel their exploratory or discovery draft. It’s where they try to get a handle on their characters and the situation they’re in, find the voice for the project, and see if things are generally headed in the direction they wanted to go in.

One of my gifts as a writer is that it doesn’t take me an entire draft to do this. I manage to do it within the 200 pages or so. I would say that all the time I spent pondering the idea meant it was already worked out by a collaboration between my conscious and subconscious, but it’s not entirely the case. I do a lot of experimenting, especially in the first chapter, and as a result, it’s the most rewritten chapter in the book. Not only does it get worked over during the editing process – I do a lot of editing on the fly, going back into what was already written to insert characters, details, clues, etc., that I will need later (thank you, word processing – I don’t know how I’d do it if I was still on a typewriter – yet, I did two-and-a-half novels that way).

(An interesting exception to this rule is the first chapter of Ferman’s Devils. When I sat down to write it, I knew I wanted the book to start with Boddekker meeting the street gang, but I realized there was a lot of information that I needed before I could write that chapter. Remember when I said that the 500 pages in the middle was a great void? So I sat down and started writing the book at the chronological beginning of the story, where Boddekker finds his dream house in Princeton. Four chapters later, the meeting with the Devils was next. Since I now had it all together in my head, I went back to the beginning of the manuscript, made some space, and wrote chapter five as chapter one. In essence, what I had written before became a four chapter flashback.)

As I move from the first chapter into unknown territory, the creative gears kick in and start filling in the considerable blanks. For a while I keep the notes in my head, but at some point I break down and start writing down what’s supposed to happen next. To start with, I type everything in as random notes, but after a while, I put them into some kind of chronological order, then break it into chapters. This is the closest I come to outlining. I’ll deliberately scrimp a little on the details of this part of the story because I’ve already taken a detailed look at the stages my novel go through.

The one thing I should mention is that while I’m writing the novel at one end, another part of me is working out the rest of the book. There are peaks and ebbs in the ongoing outline process, but it’s something I continue to do right up until the day I write the climax and denouement of the novel. Thus, I actually spend almost as much time outlining the book as I do writing it – but instead of doing one and then the other, they run in parallel. You can see by skimming previous blog entries that there are some days when I spend more time on the outline than I do on the page count of the novel itself. I think if you were to ask my wife, she would tell you that I seem especially distracted during the writing of a novel. It’s because I’m mentally working out both the next day’s writing plus where the rest will end up going.

Finally, there comes a day when I write the words “The End” (actually, I prefer “-30-“), meaning that the rough draft is at last completed. It also means that the editing process is soon to begin…

…and I will discuss this tomorrow.

Carousel Revisited

I realized on the commute to work today that I have an opportunity to start something that was one of the intents of this journal – namely, to track an idea from its origin to the finished product.

Since starting the Foundry a year ago, I have documented the comings and goings of ideas – but as far as I recall, they were all ideas that have been with me since before the blog, riding in coach, unnoticed, while I deal with current projects.

One of these old passengers is The Mark of Cain, a dark thriller set after a domestic terrorist event a la the Oklahoma City bombing (it was, in fact, inspired by a comment made by a person who lost a loved one in the blast). I’ve been delaying doing anything with the idea because the plot requires that I explain in detail how a terrorist brought down an airliner in a new and frightening way, and I didn’t want anything that someone with a cause and a handful of household chemicals could do.

Well, during my shower yesterday, Cain showed up and brought a friend with it. This friend was just what I needed for the book; something plausible, frightening, but out of reach for someone wanting to try such a thing in real life.

So now Cain goes back to being a passenger – although its status has been upgraded. It’s probably in business class now.

Taking Cain’s place in coach is the rawest of notions – something I started to think about while watching the production of Carousel on Saturday.

My wife, always one to use a good object lesson when it presents itself, was talking to my daughter about the two girls in the play. One was flighty and giggly, but fell in love with a down-to-earth man who, while not handsome, would prove to be a good provider for a family. The more down-to-earth girl, Julie, falls in love with Billy, a handsome but staggeringly irresponsible man who propels Julie and their unborn child toward tragedy.

So my wife asked my daughter, “Which of the girls do you think made a better choice?” That got me to thinking about the idea of choice as a defining moment in someone’s life. That led me to another thought: wouldn’t it be interesting to write a novel about two friends, and how at a some point each makes a different choice – perhaps one that is seemingly minor – and how it changes their lives from that point on?

All I know about this notion is that I don’t want it to be like the old Lorne Greene song Ringo, where two friends part company, one becomes a sheriff and the other an outlaw, and they face off in a showdown.

But now this Choice is a notion. And I’ve logged it here, and will document whenever it returns to introduce me to a friend. It may be next week, or it may be years before something happens. Hopefully sooner than later, but you can’t really rush these things, can you?

Anyway, welcome to coach, Choice. Enjoy your trip.

The Mystery of the Note On My Palm

On my Palm I have a utility called Bug Me. It acts as a virtual sticky note to which I can attach alarms to remind me of short-term things that don’t need to be put on the main calendar.

I also use Bug Me as a note pad in odd moments when I need to jot something and don’t want to go into the Notepad and mess with Grafitti (Bug Me lets you write directly on the screen).

The reason I bring this up is because I recently found a note to myself that had gotten buried in Bug Me with all the other notes I wrote myself. It says:

Men are predators
10 – 20 more

I seem to remember jotting the first part of it to remind myself of something to use in And/News, but it’s that “10 – 20 more” that baffles me. I must have thought it important at the time, but now this note is a huge mystery. I can’t recall how I was going to work the predatory men in, let alone what the “more” were, or what they were doing.

Looks like what I have long said is true. If the idea is worth remembering, it will come back – and many times it will bring a friend. If not, it will disappear like mist.

Even if you write it down.

Interface news, item one: another blog makes an appearance in the WriterBlog section: Rob’s Writing Pains. I have deduced that Rob is writing a mystery (judging from his many Lawrence Block references), and his entries about what he is going through are short and to the point (unlike a certain SF writer turned thriller writer cum blogger I could name).

Interface news, item two: I found out that the Google search installed on my core site also functions nicely with this blog. So I have added a link to the search page in case return visitors need to find something.

366 days until I’m supposed to be on a beach in the Bahamas with an easily ignored Powerbook at my side…