Sunday, November 02, 2008

Writing from Intuition

In the slim space on my calendar between coming home from Bouchercon to a pile of unsorted mail and pages of to-do list and welcoming houseguests for a reunion of my junior high school class 51 years later, I finally found the time to write a short story that’s been kicking around in my brain for some time. It’s a departure for me, because it’s not a straight whodunit, my series characters don’t appear, and neither of the main characters is the least bit endearing. Oh, and it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Let’s see, what can I tell you without any spoilers, just in case it ever gets published? To start with the germ of it, I envisioned a woman who is definitely not a role model or an expression of part of the author’s character, good or bad. And it’s a bit of an urban fantasy, which I’m told is the correct term even though it takes place on a beach. I started out knowing the ending. And that’s all I had when I sat down at the computer and typed in the title.

I started with the woman on the beach, using third person—which changes my voice and my vocabulary considerably from the series I’ve been writing—setting the scene. And all of a sudden there was this guy lying on a chaise longue. Where did he come from? In the 19th century they called it “the Muse.” In New Age terms, I channeled him. I grew up hearing—so I guess it’s the 20th century version—“Creativity is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent persperation.” So this must be inspiration. Since I’m a shrink, I could reframe it (another shrink concept) as coming from the unconscious—my own or, if I were a Jungian, which I’m not, the collective unconscious. I like the word “intuition.”

I know some writers who construct their characters deliberately. They’ll say, “Let’s see, I want to hit the ‘hen lit’ market, so I’ll make my protagonist a divorcĂ©e. She’s got to have a quirk, so I’ll have her walk with a limp—no, a broken leg, she’ll have the challenge of sleuthing while she’s in a cast and on crutches. And I need a hook, so I’ll make her an innkeeper. A sculptor. A carnival clown.” I don’t write that way.

So all of a sudden, there’s this guy. His name is Harry—no, Harvey. Harvey Gladstone. Not too ethnic, not too vanilla. If I’d tried to call him anything but Harvey, it would have bugged me every time I used the name until I changed it. He’s recently divorced, not too successful at his job, worried about money (as who isn’t these days). In other words, he’s a perfect mark for my dangerous woman.

Writing from intuition is like hang gliding. You never know what current will swoop you up, and you have no choice but to go with it. And you land—well, if you’re lucky, you land somewhere in the vicinity of where you meant to. You can expect to be surprised. And I was surprised—very surprised indeed—when without conscious volition I found myself writing sexy. I had planned to have my woman seduce someone, and when Harvey appeared, he was fated to be seduced. But I hadn’t meant to write an erotic short story. I don’t do erotic. I don’t even much like reading other authors’ sexually explicit scenes. What I wrote or channeled or intuited is minimally explicit. But—how can I put this? my body told me I was writing erotic.

So now the problem is this: where on earth will I find a market for a suspenseful, mildly sexually explicit urban fantasy short story? Answers welcome!

Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist whose debut mystery from St. Martin’s, Death Will Get You Sober, begins a series that will continue with Death Will Help You Leave Him. A related short story, “Death Will Clean Your Closet,” won an Agatha nomination for Best Short Story. Liz’s website is She blogs on Poe’s Deadly Daughters.


Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh--how wonderful! I can't wait to read it..and what a lovely post. Your enthusiasm and excitement leap from the page!

You'll let us know what happens, of course...

Donis Casey said...

I'm convinced that when you're in the zone, something pretty spooky happens to your writing. Is it channeling? Is is automatic writing? Is it a species of hypnosis that puts you in touch with your deepest id? I often come up with things that I can't explain. What would Dr. Freud say?