Sunday, November 26, 2006

Stick a fork in it

From Charles:

Ask a dozen authors how they go about writing their books and you’ll get 20 different answers. Some are strict outliners, some go at it by the seat of their pants, some race through the manuscript in weeks, spending months on rewrites, others go along at a snail’s pace, getting it right (or a version of right) the first time.

I started writing Relative Danger for something to do and honestly never thought it would get finished. Rose and I were living in Kuwait and despite all the great times we enjoyed there, I still had oodles of time every night for reading. Back then Kuwait did not have many bookstores and the couple they did, specialized in books from England, priced as if each book flew in on its own, first class. There was a used book exchange rack in the teachers’ lounge (wonder if it’s still there?) and it was loaded with massive tomes from Clive Cussler, all staring über-manyly man, Dirk Pitt. Now a little bit of Dirk Pitt goes a long way for me and after, oh, three thousand pages or so, I was longing for a hero that was a bit less perfect. Not finding one on the shelves, I set out to create my own. That’s how Doug Pierce was born. Based in part on my life-long pal Rick Roth and on Todd Haines, a teacher I met in Kuwait who became a dear friend, Doug is my answer to Dirk Pitt – an average guy who is a heck of a lot smarter than folks give him credit for. When I set out to write the story, all I had was a premise and what I thought was a neat ending and over the next five years I stumbled my way through until one day I realized it was done. The rest, as they say, is publishing history.

With my next book I tried a different approach. I started with detailed character bios, I plotted out every single scene on 3X5 cards, color-coded for easy reshuffling, and I set myself up with a writing schedule, which I kept posted above my desk. This is what all the writing books said I should do, so I did it. I finished the book right on time and…it was flat. The premise was good, some of the characters were memorable and a few of the scenes were, I must admit, excellent. But overall the book just didn’t come together. Time to start over.

I knew I wanted to set a book in India so I hauled out the biggest map I could find. Sitting with that map I planned a trip that I thought would be interesting. Any trip would have to start in Delhi since that’s the Indian city I knew best (or thought I knew best). Since I love the hectic mess that is Jaipur, I knew it would have to go through there, and since I wanted a Bollywood connection I had to get to Mumbai. I knew early on that it would be a story about modern India and that would have to include the high-tech world and that meant Bangalore. Tying it all together was, of course, India Rail, my favorite way to travel, bar none. Using a red marker and this map, I plotted out the story – the main ideas, anyway – and that’s what I used to write the rest of the book. (Although I was finished the manuscript before I read his book, I owe a great debt of thanks to Peter Turchi, author of Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. He changed the way I view writing and I cannot recommend his book strongly enough.) The finished product of this map-first approach is Out of Order and if it’s not on your shelves, it should be on your holiday wish list.

Over a year ago I brought home a 10-foot long piece of butcher paper and hung it on the wall. I drew a line down the length of paper, breaking that line into 3 equal sections, the 3 acts of my next book. Using pictures I cut from magazines, I illustrated the backbone of a story that had been in my head since I watched the footage of the tsunami devastating the Thai beaches I had come to love. Over the next month I rearranged these pictures until the story felt right. Stepping back, I could see the entire book – the different characters, the action sequences, the reflective moments, the conflict and the resolution – all in pictures without a single word. To me the book was already done, all I needed to do was write it.

Yesterday, I wrote the last sentence of that book.

I’m not big on revising. I sweat every frickin’ phrase and word choice the first time through (which may be why I average a whopping 200 words a day). Sure, there’ll be some revision – I’m human, it’s in our genes – and I’m sure my editor will have lots to say, but in a many ways, Noble Lies, the tentative title of this Thai adventure, is done.

This afternoon I hung up a new sheet of butcher paper.

You think a blank computer screen is intimidating…


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed that. You are much more organized that I am. Perhaps one day I'll write about my throw it all up in the air and see where it lands style.


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