Water-borne inspiration

As I may have said once or twice before, I don’t write to an outline. When I begin a book, I have some ideas, a few interesting scene possibilities, a social dynamic I want to explore—basically, all sorts of bits and pieces that in no way resemble a book. I set off into the stygian dark with a candle, guided by my faith that this is simply the way I work, and it’s happened eighteen times before, it’ll happen this time.

So, my conscious awareness wants nothing to do with the whole outline business. The back of my mind, however, is another matter. Slowly, inexorably, the Organizing Principle that inhabits the nether corners of my skull chooses just which of a billion bits and pieces it will feed to the front. A phrase here, an attitude there, the character and plot assume a form, until even the slow and stupid writer ostensibly in charge can see where things are going.

Sometimes it’s a gradual revelation, arguing all the way (“But that person wouldn’t do that.” “Okay, so make the person like this instead.”) Other times, a floodlight suddenly goes on, blasting illumination into the darkest reaches of my brain with a shout of, “Aha, I see!”

I’ve been in Hawaii for two weeks, first a conference (Left Coast Crime) followed by ten days with the family. Unfortunately, it’s a working holiday, since I have a deadline staring over my shoulder. So I’ve been writing steadily, roughly from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon, every day except those spent traveling (and sometimes parts of those.) A minimum of 2000 words, several days 3000, adds up to something over 100 pages in the past two weeks.

Because I don’t start with an outline, I often find myself confused and frustrated with the ill-lit labyrinth I’ve built around myself. This is especially true because I’m not only working with quite a few of the characters from the last book (The Language of Bees) but introducing a couple new ones as well. These people get underfoot, they insist on taking up my time, they don’t tell me what the hell they’re doing there or what I’m supposed to do with them, but the back of my mind feeds them to me and I duly put them down, knowing that if I have to I can highlight their passages and hit the delete button, and they’re reduced to ashes, to ghosts of ashes that haunt no one but their creator, who should have been able to make something of them.

And then, every so often, the door to the back of the mind yawns open wide and allows the dunderheaded writer to see what’s going on. All those small and frustrating tweaks this one character seemed to require, a character who was both central and peripheral, who might have been interesting but wasn’t, yet, a character whom I could sense needed to be…something more.

To this state of mind add water and sun. As I said, I work mornings, and in the afternoons I do other things. Friday, what I did involved a large catamaran and a great deal of wind and sun. And water—water always seems to help the thinking process. And while a bunch of people were donning flippers and sliding into the water and the cook dude was flipping burgers and the captain dude was pointing out the sea turtles and whales, the brain’s struggling mechanism shifted and the gears meshed and the machinery of the plot began to turn smoothly, and I could see what this character was, I could feel where he needed to go, what he needed to say. I knew him, and I could see where those first timid attempts at putting him onto the page went wrong, and I could see where he was going next, and best of all—oh, frabjous day!—I could see precisely how his personality intersects with the plot and the demands this made on the conclusion and…

His deceptively ordinary name—one of his names—is Robert Goodman. You met him here first.


  1. strawberry curls on March 22, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Wow, it is always amazing when you share your writing process with us, but this was a mini story that had me on the edge of my seat. How exciting that the book is really taking shape and that you have had time to enjoy Hawaii and your family…now that is multi-tasking at its best. –Alice

  2. vickivanv on March 22, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    *Leans head toward computer screen, hoping to absorb stray sparks of writerly mojo*

  3. classics_fiend on March 22, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    Living near the ocean (not too far from you actually, Seaside/Monterey)I know exactly what you mean. Thanks for sharing your writing process with us, it’s really neat to see!

  4. alina on March 22, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Ooh…I can hardly wait to see where he pops up! I think we’ll all be waiting impatiently for that one!

    And I understand your love of the ocean; I find myself humming to the northern Atlantic’s tune, but while I was in London the Thames suited me just fine!

  5. Heather J. on March 23, 2009 at 6:03 am

    Ooh, how exciting! I’m sure when I eventually read that book, the name will pop up and I’ll say “hmm, now WHERE have I heard of this guy before?” 🙂

  6. Leanne on March 23, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    Your description of the labyrinth of writing is very inspiring to this writer with similar organizational tendencies (or lack thereof). And now I’m yearning for THIS book instead of just The Language of Bees.

  7. Canzonett on March 24, 2009 at 4:17 am

    I hope “The Language of Bees” will be very sunny and full of summer as well – since, when looking out of the window, I see that it has just started snowing again. Very depressing …

  8. Bett Norris on March 25, 2009 at 4:52 am

    How odd. I just posted something about this phenomenon yesterday.

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