The human subconscious is an amazing thing. It can work on things for you while you’re sleeping or watching Gilligan’s Island1, it can plot solutions for you… studies have even shown that thinking about a physical activity has the same effect as actually practicing whatever it is you’re working on, physical conditioning notwithstanding.
For a writer, this can reap amazing benefits. As you’re working on a project, your subconscious can be thinking ahead for you. While you’re busy with that spicy love scene in chapter 13, it’s way ahead of you, making a list of bullet points for the shocking revelation in chapter 19. You may have even heard writers talk about this. When they do, they say things like, “It was so amazing! This character just sprang to life as if he had a life of his own! It was like I wasn’t controlling him at all!“
Well , of course they were. It was just a different part of the brain doing the heavy lifting at that particular moment. Or, more to the point, another part of the brain had already done the heavy lifting, and by the time the conscious part of you that controls your fingers on the keyboard caught up with it, it already knew what to do.
[spoilers: A Death of Honor]
Seriously. The first time it happened to me, I was flabbergasted. I was deep into writing A Death of Honor. It was a scene where Payne confronts the man who is running the drug racket in the night club that is the focal point of his investigation. Payne explains in no uncertain terms just what the man’s activities have loosed on the world, and he walks out of the room, leaving the man to stew in his own juices. I wrote his exit and my fingers paused above the keys of my Smith Corona2.
Then it happened. A little voice in the back of my head said, and then Payne hears a gunshot and he runs back into the room and this guy has put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
I said aloud, “No,” because according to the outline on my desk, this character was supposed to live for another 200 pages, tying up some very loose threads as he did.
But the story will be so much better if you do it this way, the voice said. You’re supposed to make it tough on your protagonist, and this will certainly do it. Don’t worry about your outline. Just pull the trigger. You can fix things later.
I thought about what the voice was saying, and by golly, it was right. So I pulled the metaphorical trigger, and the rest was history. I finished the scene, and the next day’s writing session was spent reworking the outline to plug the holes that the character’s death left. I had to kill off a character who was supposed to be alive at the book’s end on order to do it, but yeah, the book was certainly better for it. All because my subconscious blazed the trail for me.
Having worked with such an interesting creative partner for many more years, I have come to the conclusion that the subconscious operates not just on a plotting level, but on one that can effect the mechanics of the book itself.
I remember writing A Death of Honor and looking at the manuscript pages thinking, Hmmm, is it my imagination, or is this moving slowly? I thought about it a bit more and decided yes, the plot was where it needed to be. I began to picture the plot of Honor as a long tail in reverse, where the action was slow to build, and then suddenly reaches an exponential rate until things were happening so fast the reader wouldn’t have the time to catch breath until it was over. That was pretty much the way the book turned out, and it’s why I don’t get upset if that book gets a review saying that the book starts off slow and plodding. It’s supposed to be that way.
What is interesting is that I’ve realized this whole act of conceptualizing the structural parts of the book can be internalized, a kind of set-it-and-forget-it thing. After I had the chat with myself about the plot progression, I didn’t worry about it, and the book turned out just the way I wanted in that respect.
I also did this with the Pembroke Hall novels. I originally saw (and who am I kidding, I still do) the project as one long novel that would be a rise and fall story, and that it would take a dark turn at the halfway point of the plot. This is just how the book turned out, and it’s why I was hesitant when Bantam requested that it be split into two books. It meant one would be funny and satirical, and the other would be funny, satirical and unremittingly dark. A lot of the reviews of the second book, by readers of the first, bore this out, commenting on the shift in tone between the two. But hey, at the time I needed money more than I needed artistic integrity.
Currently, I have done set-and-forget on my latest project, the UFO Novel. As I was putting together the plot elements, I saw it playing out in four acts, and I knew it would take a lot of time to get the pieces in order. After much thought, I visualized the book as coming in between 250 – 300,000 words. The first part, which opens with a mysterious event and proceeds to introduce all of the main players, plays out over 45,000 words – the length of a novel3. The next two parts will be novels in themselves, 100k each, with the last act coming in at 10,000 or less. Yup, the book seems to be right on track. Nope, I’m not splitting it into two. Or three. (Self-publishing can give you the luxury of artistic integrity).
These are the kind of things that gave rise to tales of Muses in the days before reason, and it’s fascinating to me that so much of the process can be analyzed and then internalized, turned over to another part of the brain that is operating in silent mode until it’s time for it to pop up and take control of the fingers.
The big mystery is that I don’t know how I cultivated any of this, so I can’t tell you how to do it for yourself. But I know other writers do it, because I’ve heard them talk about the process. It’s just another reason why aspiring writers need to apply posteriors to chairs and commence with the writing. And continue writing. And writing and writing and writing…
Because if you start building, it will surely come.
And when it does, it will bring amazing surprises with it.
1 Not much difference there.
2 The brand name of an archaic device once used for speedily putting text down on paper.
3 For perspective, NaNoWriMo asks that your finished product be 50,000 words.
Okay, that might be off-putting. Perhaps a better title would be recycling. Repurposing. Reusing. Renewing. Resuscitating.
But I like the word cannibalism because it brings to mind a survivalist mindset – They cannibalized the wrecked vehicles for parts and were able to get one working. Kind of that whole Flight of the Phoenix sort of thing.
I’m talking here of course about literary cannibalism. Not the kind where you ingest, say, something by Stephen King, and the parts that don’t stay down are used for something of your own creation. No, I’m talking about where you take parts out of something you’ve already created and recycle, repurpose, resuscitate it for use in a new project. Yeah, self-cannibalism. Ewww.1
Part of this comes from the admonishment for writers that I make from time to time, namely never throw anything you write away. True, that novel you started and got 140 pages on before you realized it was, alas, misbegotten2 may never get finished and see the light of day, but there may be something in it – a character, a scene, technology, some bit of great writing – that would have a great life in a future project. You just never know what it might be until you get there.
For example, when I was writing The Company Man, I came to a scene where Andy Birch walked into a greasy spoon and started to chat up the waitress there. I stopped with my fingers on the keys, staring at the screen, and had an epiphany: I’ve already written this scene. And with that I dug out an old, dead pre-Desperate Measures3 unfinished manuscript provisionally titled Book of Dreams and there, 25 manuscript pages in, was the scene I needed. So I put the pages next to my computer and typed them in (the manuscript being from my typewriter days), changing the names on the fly, and there it was.
There are riskier forms of cannibalism. I once came to a point when writing the Pembroke Hall novels where I started to strip The Mushroom Shift for parts. It was an easy decision to make – at that point in the mid-1990s, Mushroom had exhausted the possibilities of where it could go. Editors were shaking their heads over what they could do with it, and my then-agent wasn’t as enamored of the book as I was. It looked at the time like it was one of those novels that would forever remain in the closet under the bowling shoes, so I put it up on blocks and started taking out parts.
Fortunately, I didn’t strip it completely. One of the conceits in Mushroom was two characters with the first name of Steve, both on the same shift. In the we-band-of-brothers mentality of law enforcement, they became one unit, the Steve Brothers. I pulled this out and translated it into Pembroke Hall-ese to show something similar – not the bonds of camaraderie, but how a bunch of creatives treat their own when left to their own devices. In a company where everyone is known only by their last name (and, occasionally, the department in which they work), two employees, Upchurch and Churchill, get branded as… ah, but you’re already of me. This didn’t cause a problem because nobody had read Mushroom, and at the time I thought nobody would. But now I’ve published it myself and run the risk. It’s okay, though, because I’m confessing now… and because not that many people read the Pembroke Hall books.4 And speaking of that…
There is such a thing as cannibalizing yourself a bit too much. I’m thinking of John Irving, whom I discovered as a college student via that made-for-college-student novel, The World According to Garp. I loved the book at the time, and sought to familiarize myself with Irving’s earlier work. I was disappointed to find that each one was the same combination of writers, wrestling, bears, unicycles, and motorcycles, all pillaged from Irving’s personal life5, all of which made Garp so much fun, all of which now seemed so… derivative. It was like this for novel after novel, even into his first post-Garp book, The Hotel New Hampshire, and it felt to me like Irving had just recycled the same elements over and over and over until he hit the lottery.
Now I have to come clean and admit that I have done this myself. And I actually got caught at it. See, the Pembroke Hall novels rolled over and played dead on their release, so badly so that Ferman’s Devils was taken out of print the same month that Boddekker’s Demons was released. In the ensuing years when I was working on Drawing Down the Moon, it occurred to me that I needed to throw readers a curve about a character’s sexual orientation. I knew I had done the same exact thing in the PH books, but I figured – hey, nobody has read them… I can get away with it.
Except I didn’t. See, one of my first readers of Moon had gotten her hands on the PH novels and read them, and so it wasn’t long before I got an email back from her on the former saying, “Do you have a ‘thing’ for lesbians? Just asking since one has featured in both novels (wink, wink)“6
Mousetrap, meet fingers.
All said, there’s a fine line to tread when pillaging your literary past for parts. If you use them enough times they can become a trope, and then a cliche within your writing, like Irving’s writer wrestler bears (although I think he has since left these behind), Dean Koontz’s noble dogs, and Janet Evanovich’s wrecked cars. And while some people might find these recurrences comforting signposts, I personally think it’s lazy writing. But then, I’m not a bestselling writer. Take from that what you will.
Meantime, no more similarly named co-workers or surprise lesbians from me. At least, not until I hit the charts.
1 Now you know why I chose Stephen King as an example.
2 In my case, a little thing called Bellvue Seven, which withered and died between A Death of Honor and The Company Man.
3 Desperate Measures being the novel I wrote before A Death of Honor. The order of publication was, of course, different.
4 Outside of Russia, that is.
5 But we all do that, which is fodder for another essay.
6 Paraphrased to make more funny.
What to say about the passing of Tom Clancy?
Well, first, he was no Elmore Leonard, whose passing a few weeks ago was a huge loss. Leonard was a great stylist, a keen observer, and a master plotter. His stories were lean and mean until the end, and he had a knack for throwing unexpected events into his novels that you never saw coming, but made perfect sense when you looked at it in context of the story.
(I’m saying this now because I was in the throes of blogging apathy when Leonard died, and never gave him a proper sendoff in this forum.)Clancy’s work probably outsold Leonard’s, but then he practically invented the genre of the technothriller. And if he didn’t, one of my Facebook friends commented earlier, then he certainly made it a popular genre and refined it to the n-th degree.
Unlike Leonard, Clancy got a little lazy in his later years. His success enabled him to purchase part ownership of the Baltimore Orioles, and I’m sure that took up much of his time. At one point he went seven years between releasing a novel, and when he did, astute readers noticed that it had been written as a collaboration with another author. All of the novels he has released since then have been in collaboration with one of three other writers. One of those, a title called Search and Destroy, was cancelled by Clancy’s publisher prior to release. I always meant to put on what’s left of my Journalist’s Hat and try to find out why, but never did.
(I picked up on this before the book’s release, and my original post about it, along with the ensuing series on Ghostwriting it inspired, has proven to be one of the top draws to this site.)
Chock the ghostwriters up to “old author’s syndrome”, wherein an aging author reaches the point that ideas are more plentiful than the time to write them, and so they get farmed out to a competent lesser-known writer who can match the spirit and style. This isn’t a new thing – Arthur C. Clarke, Anne McCafferey, and Clive Cussler count among those who have done this, and if you look carefully at the new releases, you’ll see others – even younger successful authors – doing this now.
Like all popular authors, Clancy also succumbed to King’s Bloat – a publisher-inflicted disorder in which editors are too busy and/or scared to edit the work of an author who has become an 800 pound gorilla, and subsequent manuscripts suffer in quality as a result. I loved Executive Orders, but it could have lost some wordage and been even better. The last Clancy novel I tried to read was The Bear and the Dragon, and I felt it was such a mess that I never finished reading it (I can’t say if Clancy’s three ghostwriting collaborators put him into a Word Watchers program to take off some of that weight – I might have to pick up one of the newer ones to see). For me, the best of the pre-bloat Clancy came in The Cardinal of the Kremlin, in which Clancy proved that he could shuck aside a lot of the tech stuff and write what was basically a darn good spy novel.
So the industry that was Tom Clancy has left us, and there’s nobody that I can see on the horizon that could take his place. Perhaps that’s a good thing. And no, I’m not even going to try. I’m still struggling to become the first Joe Clifford Faust.
Wow, it’s been ten months since I did something other than post a book review on these virtual pages.
I know this because I’ve been going through deleting them.
See, I’ve been thinking about firing up the blogging muscles again, just because they’ve been neglected. And in looking the old place over, I saw that it needed a coat of paint and some spackling over the holes in the drywall. And there are boxes of stuff that haven’t been touched in ages that need taken out to the trash.
The book reviews are one of those things, little things that were threatening to take over. Now if you were a fan of those, don’t worry. There’s now a link in the right column showing the last few books I’ve read, and there’s also a link to my Goodreads author page on the list o’ self-aggrandizing links. So they haven’t been eliminated, just relocated… although for a long time the appearance of the reviews here has been a duplication of what I’d put first into Goodreads.
So yes, I’m cleaning up a bit and that will include catching you up on what I’ve been up to (for example, I’m 11 chapters into a new novel that hasn’t even been mentioned here; all my SF novels are now available for listening on Audible.com, which I never mentioned after the fact; and shame on me for not doing a long obituary post for Elmore Leonard, a great writer and American treasure who passed away not too long ago… and I have had some interesting changes to my personal life, but meh…).
So now the warning part: As I was tracking down and zapping the book reviews here, I stumbled on something perfectly annoying – I had somehow missed tagging and categorizing 145 of these posts when I converted the site from Blogger to WordPress. So I need to go though and do that, preferably soon. The bad news is that if you have subscribed to this site through e-mail or RSS, this means that the system, which is inherently stupid, will notify you every time I hit the Update button. So once you start getting notices that make it look like I’ve suddenly become prolific, that’s not the case. Unless someone at WP had improved the notification algorithm. I’m letting you know now because I don’t want to be a pain, but this updating is something I really need to do. You have been warned.
So, that’s it for now. More fun and frolic to follow, I think.
Everybody else is doing it – why not me? The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog and sent it to me with the option of making it public. So I might as well. I suspect this will be the easiest blog entry I will ever have to make.
PS: Happy 2013!
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 6,700 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 11 years to get that many views.
Okay, time to make an announcement. Well, it’s not much of an announcement… if you’re connected to my Facebook Fan Page you’ve known about this for a couple of months. I just never said anything in this venue because I have no idea what the timetable is for what is going to happen.
That is, my entire back catalog of Del Rey and Bantam era books is going to be released in audio book form by Audible.com.
This is exciting news for me because audio books was the last frontier I hadn’t yet conquered. Unless you count TV and the movies, and I came close there. But never mind that. With the advent of ebooks, I’ve been too-slowly getting the back catalog out there for the Kindle, and was wondering what to do about the other e-reader book formats in the world (and more about that in a couple more graf). But one of the things on the back of my mind was how to get the catalog into audio form. I’d done a little research, but nothing earthshaking. Until October.
That’s when I received an unexpected email from my former agent offering to pitch my backlist to Audible to see which titles, if any would stick. As it turns out, all of them did.
So the paperwork is signed, and I’m waiting. I’ve gotten one email from Audible about some issues with A Death of Honor, and suspect there may be others as the time draws nigh to produce.
At present, I don’t have any more information about release schedules or anything like that. Rest assured as I find out, you’ll be hearing from me on this screen and in the aforementioned Facebook page.
And what about non-Kindle format ebooks? Those will be coming, too, slowly as I turn them out. But the current three, A Death of Honor, The Mushroom Shift, and The Company Man are all in the process of being converted, as it turns out that one of my former agent’s new missions is to open up client backlists to the ebook world as well. So I’m glad he still considers me – or my backlist, at least – a client.
So. Back to work now on the new stuff.
Now that we’re mired in the Season of Christmas, I have a confession to make. Of late, I’ve become something of a Scrooge over Christmas music.
I haven’t always been this way. Since I’ve been married, my wife and I have made a tradition of buying one Christmas album a year, and we’ve amassed quite a collection during our marriage. And it’s quite eclectic – I tend to like the quirky stuff like Captain Sensible’s One Christmas Catalog, and my wife is more a traditionalist. Starting on Thanksgiving, I’d slowly start to incorporate Christmas songs into my iTunes playlists, until by the final week it was 100%.
Then a few years ago somebody at Clear Channel got the idea to stunt a Cleveland radio station by going 100% Christmas music starting a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. It was kind of cool… but then the next year, everybody was hopping on the bandwagon, the stuff was everywhere and the Halloween costumes were barely moved to the clearance rack. That’s when I began the arcane practice of banging my head on the steering wheel during trips across the FM dial.
I became more and more enscrooged about it until this year. Maybe it’s because I’m no longer working in advertising, and therefore have not been writing about Christmas since July. Or maybe it’s because I no longer have to wake up to the stuff. But I’m back in the mood of voluntarily listening to Christmas music.
Now there are a couple of songs I don’t care for that will have me reaching for the iPod and dialing up my Jandek playlist. The 12 Days of Christmas is the worst holiday song ever, in my opinion, being tedious, repetitious, boring and… I don’t care. Not far behind it is The Little Drummer Boy.
But there’s a big difference between the two. That is, while I have yet to hear a version of 12 Days I like, there are some Drummer Boys out there I have become friends with. Thanks to my unscroogeness this year, and to a friend who apparently adores this song and has been posting versions of it daily on his Facebook page, I decided to come clean and do a countdown of my favorite versions of The Little Drummer Boy.
So here they are. And be warned: These are the only ones!
5. Mannheim Steamroller
Because they made it sound like prog. And I loves me some prog.
4. Dandy Warhols
To paraphrase something from another friend of mine, the Dandy Warhols are my favorite band whenever I’m listening to them. And you know that even though they’re singing this one, they don’t mean it.
3. Michael Franti and The Blind Boys of Alabama
Makes the story what it should be: a narrative. And the Boys bring it with gospel.
2. Bing Crosby and David Bowie
Who would’ve thunk it? This odd couple really works. And ever a sucker for multiple vocal parts, I like the intertwining of the two songs.
1. Miracle Legion
I love the stripped down arrangement and the odd harmonies. Who were these guys? And were their originals as good as this cover?
Happy holidays, and may all of your Scrooges be slight!
Update 12/20/2012: So today I am reminded of my sins. I was wrong. There is one version of The Twelve Days of Christmas that I like. But ONLY this one: