The Mystery at Your Fingertips

flowers growing from booksI am now, really truly, honestly, no kidding, almost ready to publish a long-awaited novel (of course it’s me that’s been long awaiting). I have the formatted book, ready to put it into publication, and I’m just waiting for the final cover, which I’ve approved. In fact, it’s the back cover that’s being worked on, something you won’t even see if you buy the ebook version.

So inspired by this, I thought I’d discuss the way to write a novel. Actually, the phrase “the way to write a novel” is complete nonsense, as there is no way, and there certainly is no the way. Every writer must find their own way to do it, and anyone who tells you otherwise, to put it softly and gently, is full of shit. Writing is hard enough without trying to follow someone else’s rules.

Since I have now written—and I mean finished—five novels, that makes me an expert. Apparently I’m not an expert at publishing them, but anyhow… I want to show from my own experience how different each one was, so I’ll briefly look at the different ways each one was written.

The first book (actually the second one I started) was inspired by a fat two-volume travelogue about a trip across Siberia in the 1870s. From that inspiration, it seemed obvious to write a book about a trip to Mars, including what I considered a very sympathetic portrayal of a lesbian couple. I moved away a good bit from my original source of inspiration. As I recall, the way I wrote that book was moving straight from beginning to end, entirely out of my head. As far as I know, I threw that book away.

The next book was a vast omnibus of ambition, a story of Vladimir Lenin escaping from Siberian exhile and traveling extensively in the United States in 1898. Since that wasn’t complicated enough, based on a motif from Russian fairy tales, I conceived of the United States as divided into three “kingdoms”—copper, silver, and gold, and in each of the sections appeared mythological characters based on Indian, European, and African folklore. I never had a prayer of making that book work. As to the process, I spent three years doing background research before I started writing. I remember reading books standing in subway trains in New York, and I used to go to the New York Public Library on 42nd Street on my lunch hour to do research. The final book was over 600 pages. I hope I threw this book away as well. I’m sure the writing was mediocre.

But let’s forget chronological order. The book I’m about to publish, The Illusion of Being Here, also involved research, about a year. In particular I was looking for a good strong plot, as I felt a bit traumatized from the novel before it, that I had no real plot. I admit I’m a horrible natural story teller, and when I make it work, it’s because I worked like a faceless factory drone to finally piece it all together. So for about a year I did the research and worked on plot, then I sat down and wrote the entire novel in two months. Since then, I’ve revised it a few times over the course of 10 years.

The book that left me traumatized for lack of plot began as six separate stories, about six different characters, very tangentially related in some cases, more closely in others, but truly with no real plot connecting them. With that book I found a literary agent (the only one I’ve ever had) and at her advice, I revised the book to tie the sections together. I rather liked the result, but we never sold the book, and eventually we partly ways in a friendly fashion. Years later, I revised the book again, completely removing two of the six characters (a 101-year-old monk and a six-year-old boy), drastically changing what was still there, and increasing the depth of the story. That’s where it stands, though now I’m thinking I want to rework it again, and add the monk back in. We’ll see. I think I started writing that book 16 years ago.

The last book I’ve finished writing will be the next one I publish (but not for another year). Regarding the process of writing this one, at some point I felt compelled to be writing something, anything, so I literally sat down and started a paragraph, just nonsense to be moving my fingers on the keyboard. That paragraph led to another, then to a full page, and a second page. It was some foolishness about a guy who opens the door to his apartment and finds that he has stepped into the past. I came back to it a couple more times, and since I had nothing else to work on, I kept pecking away at it, until I thought it might turn into a short story. But then I stopped what I had, called it a chapter (maybe because I didn’t know where to go with it), and started another chapter. That implied a novel, and I kept going, with absolutely no idea where it was going. It was a very difficult book to write, but in the end I’m really happy with it, even if the last agent I talked to didn’t like it. He was wrong.

I could also talk about the book I’m currently working on (or another one that’s a third done and put away now for many years). But I’m struggling with the current book, and I don’t know how I’m going to make it work, so I can’t talk about it. I’ve written 100 pages and now it all needs reworking.


Filed under How We Create Magic, Writing While Living

10 responses to “The Mystery at Your Fingertips

  1. Congratulations, David. I like how you’ve written clearly about what, at the best of times, is a messy process. If more of us would trust the mystery and worry less about results, more of us would write with your commitment toward discovery.

  2. DFS

    HOW do you have this much time on your hands?

  3. DFS

    well, that explains a lot . . .
    I’m sure about the girlfriend, but I can highly recommend TV.

  4. DFS

    I meant to say I’m NOT sure about the girlfriend, but highly recommend TV.

  5. Or I understood you, you sparkling dandy, you. As to the TV, are you SURE it’s gooder than writing novels? Cause that’s hard to believe.

  6. Lori

    Can’t wait to buy your novel and read it. By the way, I was going through old photos and came across a typed story called Lenin’s Dream – I believe this is yours, right? Funny, because there’s no name on it but I’m pretty sure it’s yours. Do you have a copy of this?

  7. Lori

    Oh, and I had dinner with Drake McFeely, my former boss at Norton – he’s now the President of WWNorton. He was in Phoenix for a conference so I drove up to see him. Hadn’t seen him since about 1994.

  8. I do not have a copy, and I completely don’t remember it. Of course, these days, not remembering something probably means I did it.

  9. Lori

    Would you like me to send it to you? I’m sure it is yours. It’s about 70 pages or so. Send me your mailing address and I’ll drop it in the mail. You can email me your address –

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