In The Beginning…No Words Yet

A lot of people have asked me what it’s like to write a book. They especially want to know about the creative process. So this blog will be my answer. As I write my next novel, I will share my quiet insanity. I’ll share the blocks and brainstorms (without giving the story away, of course), the conflict and the discipline, the agony and the ecstasy. I’ll also share the unhealthy effects of a solitary, sedentary job on an otherwise sociable person.

Where do I begin? (The first page is always the hardest. But you knew that).

Human beings are born with instincts and compulsions they sometimes can’t escape. Most people feel the biological need to procreate, and some just need to create. But creating a work of art, especially a novel, can be likened to the long and sometimes painful process of giving birth. In the beginning there’s a spark. (The idea or message). The spark ignites love. (The writer becomes obsessed with the idea). The love needs to be expressed and brought to life. (The writer is ready to forfeit everything to bring that idea into the world). I don’t know why.

By the time the story is born, the writer is usually in physical distress.

I’ve been under the power of this compulsion since the age of eleven. And I didn’t start out wanting to write short stories or poems. I wanted to write hundreds of pages, creating stories for the characters in my pretend world. As a child, I created characters for myself and my friends when we played. Maybe as I got too old to “play house,” I didn’t want those characters to disappear. So I wrote them down and gave them a story. On a toy typewriter. That’s no lie. That’s how it all started.

Throughout high school I was more into music, and songwriting was my main creative outlet. But even as I loved singing and playing my instruments, I began to notice that my love of music had an added dimension that didn’t seem to plague my friends and family members. When I heard a song I liked, I couldn’t just sit back and be transported by its entertainment value. I always felt, “God, I wish I wrote that.” Talk about compulsion.

I did a lot of performing—high school glee club, church groups, a rock band—but I was never as comfortable in the spotlight as I was being a writer or composer.

As a young adult working in Manhattan, my leap into the oblivion of serious writing was not a conscious decision. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was bored at work one day, and I put a blank piece of paper into the typewriter. (Yes, I’m that old—it was a Selectric II typewriter). Two years later, I had a 900-page novel about a Norwegian immigrant who became a lumber baron in the late 19th Century. You can’t make this stuff up. (Wait a minute…yes, I can make this stuff up. Maybe I should say truth is stranger than fiction).

Now, almost 28 years after that first piece of paper went into the typewriter, I have honed my craft. I know my platform. I try to be disciplined. And I implement all the tools I’ve acquired along the way.

But the story still begins with a spark.

There is a message inside of me that wants to be heard. It’s at the root of all my stories. The power of human connection. So this is how it happens: An idea comes to me while I am watching the news one night. Almost immediately, two figures emerge from the recesses of my mind as though they had always existed there. They are my new characters, and they are waiting to be given names, attributes and physical traits.

I want you to love them, so I will be very particular about every detail I create for them. A lot of thought will shape them. A lot of notes will be taken. When I see them very clearly…when I know them by name and sense they are real…I will write biographies for them.

In my next post, I’ll try to explain how this happens. For now, I will simply savor their conception like a satisfied lover. If I still smoked cigarettes, I’d be lighting one up right now.