As I have noted elsewhere, writing a novel is like renting part of my brain to a theater troupe for a year or more. While everyone else around me is going about the daily business of living, my thoughts are crowded and sometimes interrupted by sudden images, questions, inspirations, plot notes, and bits of dialogue—as if the actors were working out the script and rehearsing their parts. During the actual writing of the novel, it is as if the actors were giving their opening-night performance. And during the review and editing process, they are sharpening their lines, resolving dramatic issues, and preparing to take the show on the road.
Maybe other writers have a different system, but for me the whole process of creation is mostly driven by my subconscious. That is, I cannot sit down and invent a character, devise a situation in which he or she can operate, create other characters for him or her to work with or against, and then structure a neat and complete little three-act outline that captures the essence of the book. It’s not that this is hard for me; it’s just inconceivable. Maybe other writers can do this, but for me the characters are not puppets or windup toys, and the plot is not an Erector® set of prefabricated incidents and contrivances.
It takes me almost as long, if not longer, to figure out who the characters are, what they’re doing, what motivates them, and what obstacles they might encounter—all just to arrive at a plot outline with some kind coherence—as it does for me to write the production draft. This is a time of scribbling down odd thoughts, writing out sample dialogue, asking lots of questions about what might happen, getting stuck in one unsatisfactory plot shape, searching for the plot twist that will get me unstuck, and generally building a folder full of notes and ideas. I can’t just think of a new book, but I can—like Michelangelo releasing the figure from the marble—ask my brain about the shape and texture of the book which exists out there in the ether, or deep in the recesses of my subconscious.
Since this method of writing is all-consuming, I have learned that I cannot work on two books at once: there’s only room for one troupe in my brain at any one time. So, even after I put the final edits to the book, I need to keep it “hot” in my mind so that I can deal with any problems that might surface during the editing, HTML coding, and page-layout stages. Only when the story is locked up can I let the whispers die down, dismiss the cast, shelve the script, and burn the old scenery. And then I have to let my mind return to an empty space before I can start filling it up with the next book.
Some book ideas have been with me for years, even decades. But none of them is complete and ready to write. They exist as a sentence or two, a question, a character name, and the vaguest notion of what the person is like and how to shape the story around him or her. For example, the next book I’ll be writing, The House at the Crossroads, has been in this nugatory gestation ever since I completed the novel to which it is a sequel, The Children of Possibility. But other books have come first in my writing queue, such as the one I just finished, ME, Too: Loose in the Network, which was itself a sequel to a much earlier novel. Really, life is good when you have novel projects stacked up like jetliners circling the airport.
This clearing away of the subconscious—burning the scenery, dismissing the actors, quieting the voices, and stopping the questions—always leaves me with an empty feeling. It’s like the postpartum depression a mother must feel after the birth of a child. It’s as if the purpose has gone out of my life. My head is suddenly too quiet. My brain has an abscess where a book used to be. The next novel is still just a couple of sentences, a notion, a vague shape in the mist, with a thousand possible outcomes all hanging in the air and a thousand questions still to be asked before it starts making coherent sense.
That is what the art of writing a novel really is: taking an imagined possibility and simultaneously building up the roots and branches of what it ought to become while testing and pruning away the shoots and stems of what it should not be. This is how an idea takes shape—at least in my subconscious. It’s a process of slow realization, of groping forward, of finding the edges and surfaces of the figure stuck in the marble.
But it’s an uncomfortable process, mildly painful and unsettling, like healing a broken bone or a burn. It would be really nice if I could take this span of time between writing one book and another to declare a holiday for myself, but my brain doesn’t work that way. If I am amusing myself with a trip or even a day’s outing, the business of going and doing, seeing and enjoying, meeting and remembering, crowds out that space in my head reserved for the next theater troupe. Growing a book is a process of invitation. So I need to proceed quietly, read good books, practice my karate and music, ride my motorcycle, and give the empty place time to spawn new ideas and their follow-up questions.
For me, that’s the only way to write a book.