Category Archives: Writing Process

The Inside Thing

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.

[/spoilers]

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.

JCF TV #4 – Manuscripts

Our Novels, Our Children

Like most writers, one of the most commonly asked questions I get from folks who hear I’ve written more than one novel is, “Which one is your favorite?” When I got that question, I used to say, “Whichever one I’m working on at the moment.”

The problem was, people didn’t get that answer. Most of the askers weren’t writers themselves, and the concept of liking something that was incomplete was incomprehensible to them. So I switched answers. I began to say, “Picking a favorite novel would be like having to pick a favorite child.” That tended to satisfy the asker.

But now I’ve hit something that demonstrates to me that maybe – just maybe – the books we write are more like our children than we want to admit.

I’m currently working on programming The Company Man to be read on the Kindle. It’s double duty, as the cleaned-up file will also be the source of text for the trade paperback version. And as with A Death of Honor, I’m doing a little minor restoration on the file as I go, including undoing some minor editorial changes that I disagreed with – but as a professional, went along with.

Now this should be an easy thing, right? Except when it’s not. The file I’m using as the source for TCM is one that I downloaded from a file sharing system. The scan to OCR stripped out all of the formatting: italics and small caps, which I use in my manuscripts without mercy, shrunk em dashes to en dashes, and blew up accented letters in words like cafe and most of the ones used in the book’s “pidgin Spanish” slanguage. It made hash of line and paragraph breaks.

And the last time I read this novel was when it was in galley form – I don’t read my novels after they are published. This would have been in the summer of 1988… nearly twenty-four years ago. As a result, a battered paperback copy of the novel is not too far from me and my Chromebook at any one moment.

Now this should be a pretty tough thing, right? Except when it’s not. And it’s not. I still need to pick up that paperback every now and then, but I’m not having to refer to it as much as I thought. I did a lot more in the beginning, but it’s like the voice of the book, the pacing and the rhythm have all come back to me, and I’m sailing through it effortlessly.

Okay, that might be me picking up cues from things like surviving punctuation and paragraph breaks, but it goes beyond that even. Yes, I italicized titles of things and anything in pidgin Spanish, but I italicize lots of other words for emphasis. I get to a sentence where such a word was, and I think – that word right there I had put in italics. Twenty four years later during which I haven’t done much more than move a copy of the book from one shelf to another, and here I am, remembering specifics on how things were written.

It’s like I know this book as if it were one of my own children.

When I was a kid, I saw a John Wayne movie on TV that was called Without Reservations. It featured Duke as a GI returning home from the war (the film was made in 1946) who has to share a train seat with a woman (Claudette Colbert) on the way to Hollywood because her megablockbuster novel (think Gone With The Wind) is being made into a movie. She’s travelling incognito, so Duke doesn’t know she’s the author… and there’s no love lost between him and her book. They discuss it on a trip, he speaks his mind about why he hates the novel, there’s comedy and romance, and if I recall, she ends up changing the script to reflect her new beau’s preferences.

I only saw this movie once, but here’s one scene that has stuck with me all these years. Our author goes into a liquor store to get some hootch, but it’s in short supply. The storekeeper is reading her book, and she appeals to him to give her some booze because she wrote the book he’s reading and enjoying. “Prove it,” he says. She asks him what page he’s on. He tells her. And Colbert proceeds to recite, word for word, what follows from the point the storekeeper leaves off. Upshot? She leaves with some booze.

The impression I got from that scene as a kid was enormous. Wow, do authors really have to memorize their own books? As time went on and I grew up, I realized it was just a made-up scene, and no, authors didn’t have to memorize their own books.

Only now I’m rethinking that. We might not memorize them, true. But each novel we write is a journey we make, and the only company we have on the trip is… the novel itself, as it grows.

No, we don’t memorize our novels. That’s silly.

But we know these books. They’re with us as they change our lives just by the very act of being written.

So yes, oh yes, most definitely indeed yes. They are our children. Our beautiful, flawed, singularly unique children.

JCF TV #2: The Most Important Muscle in a Writer’s Body

Unwritten Sequels

I don’t know where you come down on the idea of sequels. Cinematically, I’m really tired of them… it’s like proof once again that Hollywood is officially out of ideas.

Not that I haven’t been tempted. With every novel I’ve published (or, as in the case of The Mushroom Shift, am about to publish), I have had a notion to do a sequel at some point in the future. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s because I liked living in that world while I wrote the book and need an excuse to return. Or maybe it’s for another reason. I don’t know.

Just to give an idea of how the process works, here’s a look at the unwritten sequels that have crossed my mind that you won’t see for reasons of time, apathy, or considerations more practical…

Caution… Spoilers abound!

A Death of Honor. Payne and Trinina’s story was pretty much told at the end of the book. But for a while I entertained the notion of an untitled sequel that would show what the rest of the U.S. looked like in that universe. The story would follow Bailey as he escaped from the raid on Payne’s apartment building, hooked up with Karol, and then set off on a cross-country odyssey in a search for a new place to call home.

The Company Man. Two different ideas. First, I wanted to play more with dogbrain technology and PATER. I had done that some with a story called Pins that was picked up by Amazing Stories, but I thought there was still more potential there. And I thought Andy Birch was just the guy to do the exploring. The novel The Inside Man would have been the playground for that. And no, Jade would not have returned. But Lucy would be around.

Also, writing The Company Man was the period when I was learning that not everything in my head about the universe had to go in the book. For example, Howard Kessler and Jack Lime were once partners until the former did the latter dirty, as happened to Birch in his novel. The Company Men would have told that backstory.

The Angel’s Luck Trilogy. The trilogy? The one I famously had to step away from during the writing of the third book and take a month off because I was getting sick and tired of the characters and wanted to kill them off a la Stephen King in The Stand? Yup. I had an idea for a fourth book that reunited the characters twenty years later, when May was about to retire and Duke had become a hotshot pilot in is own right, thanks to Reckless Eric Dickson. Never got any farther than that.

Trust. An unpublished political thriller that I intend to release before the Pembroke Hall reissue. This might have been spun into a whole series of novels about tabloid reporter Annie Graham. The second would have been called Truth, in which Ms. Graham had to match wits with a rather unusual serial kidnapper. Hmm, but when the first book doesn’t find a publisher? Perhaps just as well. The world is only so full of five-letter words that start with “T”, which is what all the titles would have been.

The Pembroke Hall Novels. Was almost a trilogy. Toward the end of writing the second book, it occurred to me that there was one more thing to cover – the aftermath of the reign of the Devals. Hollywood, Arizona would find Boddekker happily working for a non-profit when he was approached by Pembroke Hall to oversee the movie being made about the life of Ferman’s Devils. Life, meet the distorting effects of art. Each chapter would have been preceded by pages from the screenplay that was being produced. Shelved when it became apparent that the published books were a bust.

The Mushroom Shift. You’ll get to read this quite soon. Mushroom was to be the first book in the Badlands County Trilogy, with each title following Monmouth during a different shift. Mushroom was the midnight shift; The Horizontal Tango followed him onto swings; and the final volume, The Sierra Hotel found him on the day shift. Those plans went into the bin when the book didn’t find a publisher. And I don’t think I could write them now.

However, I never throw anything away. The theme of Tango was to write about sexual attraction between two characters in an adult manner while conspiring to keep them apart at every opportunity. That’s now part of Drawing Down the Moon. And Monmouth ages in real time – 25 years – to become older, wiser and the central character of the UFO Novel I’m now working on. Incidentally, Annie Graham is a central character also. As is Robert Grinwald, a refugee from Rachel’s Children, a cycle of novels about an alien invasion that I proposed to Del Rey right before I was dropped.

Part of the allure of my writing the UFO Novel was that it was going to be a place where characters from all of my unpublished novels would get to see the light of day. But now, with these books being published by yours truly, it is going to make for a very interesting collision of universes. Are all these books tied together? I’m not saying. Or maybe I just haven’t figured it out myself.

(Incidentally, I have in my files an unpublished short story called Miss February that features a prominent technology from the Pembroke Hall novels, along with a police lieutenant named Monmouth. Got a migraine yet?)

And what about Drawing Down the Moon? It seems to be the noteworthy exception. I have had it done for a while now, but I have no desire to go and play in Ricky and Kada’s world again. Personally, I think that has to do with the quality of this particular project – along with my actually managing to say everything I wanted to say on the subject during the course of the novel. Well, maybe someday soon you’ll get to read it and see what your opinion is. Meantime, perhaps these unwritten sequels will find a little new life in your imaginations – as they once had in mine.

To Thine Own Writing Be True

It’s been an interesting experience getting The Mushroom Shift ready for publication.

I mean, here is a novel I wrote almost 25 years ago, and as I’m reading it, and as I’m having my Kindle read it to me as part of the proofreading process, I’m discovering something about it that I hadn’t expected.

It’s a really good book.

Yeah, authors are supposed to say that sort of thing. But I don’t say that about many of my others – not A Death of Honor or The Company Man, or the three books of the Angel’s Luck trilogy. While I can chat them up to interested readers, I don’t think they’re particularly good, largely because I hadn’t yet hit that mystical One Million Words mark.1 Of my published novels, Ferman’s Devils/Boddekker’s Demons is the first one I can page through without cringing, largely because (I believe) by that point I’d actually Gotten Good.

Yet here is a novel that was my third (written after Desperate Measures and Honor2), before I had Gotten Good – but I can mostly read/listen to it without wincing. Plus there are moments in the book that make me marvel at how good it really is.

Granted, there’s one scene in The Mushroom Shift that I have long considered one of my best pieces of writing ever – but one scene does not a great book make. Mushroom I think is a great book, in spite of the fact that my writing style hadn’t completely evolved. Why?

Well, I’ve been thinking it over, and I believe I might have the answer.

The Mushroom Shift was written for love. It was written for the sheer joy if sitting down and telling a story. It was written because the story was coming out of me, and not for any sort of commercial consideration.

The others from that period were, well, written to try and make money.

Ditto the story about Ferman and Boddekker, which was something I wanted to write for a long time, and had a great time doing so when I finally did it.

Ditto again for Drawing Down the Moon, in which I defied my then-agent’s advice and sat down and wrote it because it was a story I wanted to tell. Well, DDtM is also a great book because I think I have officially Gotten Good now, but you see the pattern forming.

There’s something to be said for tossing commercial considerations out the window and writing for the love of the process.

Need more proof?

Open up your web browser, point it at Amazon dot com, and look up the Stephanie Plum series of novels by Janet Evanovich. Check out the reviews of the early series; One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly

People love ’em.

Now check out the reviews of books Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen. Evanovich’s readers are turning on her, accusing the writer of making her books dull, boring and repetitive – basically phoning it in for the score.3 One reviewer even accuses her of milking the series after allegedly reading an interview in which Evanovich advocated doing exactly that.

I’m guessing that the one thing on the minds of all of Evanovich’s disgruntled readers right now is, “Where is the love?”

Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad about writing for money. But there seems to be a strange phenomenon that occurs when you do that. You start keeping commercial considerations in mind, and perhaps you start getting a little shy about letting loose for fear of offputting your readers. And pretty soon you’re doing that thing of stamping the novels out using a cookie cutter formula.

I suppose it’s nice work if you can get it.

But so much more satisfying… and a much richer legacy you will leave… if you be truthful with yourself as a writer, if you push yourself out of the box, and simply write for the sheer joy of creating, of telling a story you want to tell rather than shooting for the lowest common denominator.

Who knows? Your fans might even like it, too.

  1. Or that new iteration of skill honing, the Ten Thousand Hour mark.
  2. That’s right – those early novels weren’t published in the order in which they were written.
  3. And actually, in the interest of full self-disclosure, I found her books dull, boring and repetitive after just two. Along with highly irritating. But she makes more money writing than I do, so you can’t argue with success.

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.