I can tell you up front that this will probably be one of the stranger blogs I’ve written. Strange because the thing I’m going to attempt to describe may be indescribable. But not strange because it isn’t real.
I’ve tried my best to pay careful attention to the various stages, sensations, and habits of the process of writing a book. For me, at least. As always, that’s the most important caveat to offer in my introduction to this topic: all this shit I’m telling you is how it is for me. How I perceive it for me, at least. Any other benefit or value this text offers is basically coincidental. So here goes.
The first thing to say is I’ve noticed that I feel differently when I’m not actively writing a book. How different is hard to explain, but it generally involves a feeling of spinning my wheels, or fucking up in a general sense. I tend to feel unproductive, on shaky ground. It’s this very subtle but still perceptible sense that I’m not doing something I’m supposed to.
Even during the first part of November, once I had started what I was then thinking of as the first draft of the next book, I still had that unconstructive, wasteful feeling. There’s also, to put a finer point on it, a sense of being lost. Like I’m not really sure what I should be doing when I sit down to write. What to write about? Who are these characters? How come I can’t see them in my head? Maybe you should just watch another YouTube video?
When I’m not working on a book, I’m super susceptible to distractions of all sorts. I end up having these kind of frantic, unproductive days where I do a little bit of everything and end up with nothing. Do you know what I mean?
But something started to change in late November. A new sense of clarity started to form in my mind. Pieces started to come together, like the vague outline of a picture.
Before I go further to describe what I mean, I probably should go back a bit. See, I had made a very specific plan for the schedule I was going to keep during the writing of the first draft, which was to be completed during the month of November (to coincide with National Novel Writing Month, for what it’s worth—not that the annual campaign is something I pay much attention to). I think I actually posted the document I drafted with my plan/schedule; you can find it, I’m sure, in a previous entry.
Anyway, even though I only stayed on schedule for maybe the first five days (I made a big calendar for November, which I posted to the outside of my office door, and my 10 year old was very diligent about reminding me to put either a check or an X for each day of the month—I ended up with five Xs for the month . . . though some of my checkmark days were barely warranted at two or three hundred words). But even while I was falling behind on my schedule, I was still trying to ask myself questions about who my characters were, and I was trying to keep my eyes open for signs of where the story wanted to go.
And in late November, as I mentioned, I started to see some themes for my story appear. The interesting thing is, those clues didn’t really come from the page . . . they came from other elements of my life, when I wasn’t sitting at the keyboard. In the paragraphs below I’m going to give you just enough details so you can understand what I’m trying to get at, but I can’t get too specific because all these elements are still raw and—basically—I don’t want to fuck up the creative process by blabbing about it too early. I hope you understand.
Some years ago, my mom gave me a big stack of old letters my favorite uncle had written when he was in the Army during the Korean war. Recently, my wife returned from a visit with her mother with a stack of about 50 pages of hand written notes—a biography of her younger days, essentially—written in Mandarin Chinese. Meanwhile, I was exchanging emails with a young man in his twenties who is experiencing all the typical emotions that someone in his position—being far away from his childhood home and doing a hard job—feels when he does such things. I know about those kinds of things because I was in the Peace Corps (in Mongolia) and, later, in the U.S. Air Force.
All these disparate elements, plus a handful of other tidbits—memories, stories I’ve heard, and snippets of family lore—started hanging together in my head. Once the connections started to form, I made notes in my journal to help nurture them. I also had a discussion with my oldest friend in life, an artistic soul mate who I can talk to about these things in a very easy way (much easier than writing this blog!).
I still haven’t made total sense out of all these themes, but when the connections started to form in my head—what I think of as a “convergence”—I recognized the feeling. See, I had a similar feeling somewhere early on in the process of writing All Saints’ Day of the Dead. With that most recent book, once I understood that I wanted to write a story that explored themes of religion and music, it became pretty natural to follow the characters through an experience with that frame around it. And maybe that’s the right word: frame, or lens.
For me, I’m realizing now that I like to view my stories through a certain kind of lens. Call it a theme. And once I stumble on that framework, I feel not only comfortable, but inspired to start working with the characters to see where the story will go. And that’s the stage I’m at with The Asian Cajun (the title of the book I’m working on). I now have my frame . . . I’m into it now. The writing process has really begun.
I can tell because I feel, generally, more creative and focused. The distractions are far less tempting. Perhaps more importantly, all the really fun, analog stuff about life is suddenly so attractive and rich to me. I’ve been taking little photos, making notes, reading some great books, listening to CDs through a proper stereo pair of speakers—the way music was made to be heard. My thinking about the characters has gotten a little bit deeper. I still don’t know exactly who they are, but I can tell they are coming into focus.
So, all that to say that I’m now, definitely, into the writing of my third book. That feels good just in its own right, but it feels even better to know that, perhaps I have discovered a useful pattern in how the creative process works for me.
I have put aside the November draft, declaring it a “pre-draft” and declaring victory on it. Not because I got to any kind of conclusion, but because I wrote enough to conjure up—or to reveal the bones of, to carry on the Stephen King metaphor from last week—the basic theme of my story. So in my mind, the pre-draft work is done. I have a loose, but useful 10-episode framework for my story now (the simple fact that I was able to quickly put this rough outline together is all the proof I need that I’m ready to write) . . . and I am already a few pages into the real first draft. I am on my way.