Beginning a book is like taking a wrong turn on the way home from the airport. You may end up in a bad neighborhood, and run out of gas before you find your way out, or you may decide this is the place for you and settle in to get your work done. In that case, everything you need is right there… a church or temple as the case may be, a bodega or bordello depending on your mood, and enough shady characters to balance the host of heroes mandated by the current vogue in publishing.
Your family will miss you, but they’re used to it. Whether you check into a flea-bitten SRO or a gilded mansion on the edge of town is entirely up to you. But do not fail to write yourself a note saying something like: My surroundings are entirely illusory and I can return to reality at any time. Post it on the fridge, just in case.
As for the actual writing, for me it is a process of unlearning, each and every time. Like a kitten refusing to move when attached to a leash, whatever has worked for me in the past declines to take the first step on the new journey. I’m on my own and the sooner I accept this the better. I wrote Ask the Dead in the first person, present tense, a technique that shot the story forward at bullet speed. I tried the same thing with The Last Matryoshka (aka Code of Thieves) and ended up tossing the first 30,000 words and switching to past tense. My new book, co-written with Indian journalist Arindam Roy, is set in India, the US and Canada, and is a saga told from multiple points of view.
The company of an independent-minded cat can also be a great help.
I write both literary fiction and mysteries and have found them remarkably similar in structure. Why not, since life is the ultimate mystery. As long as my protagonist has something at stake, something to believe in, something challenging her belief in herself and a compelling reason to put herself at risk, the story will move forward. When I feel blocked, I seek out the noisiest coffee house, park bench, or subway car I can find, and use the white noise to focus my mind.
A few consistent rules that work for me are:
- Outline only when events begin to contradict each other and continuity is in danger.
- Develop your characters fully and they will reward you by revealing your plot and bringing life to every moment on the page
- When a story is not climbing toward a peak of some kind there had better be a deep ravine up ahead.
- Never write in a vacuum. Even the most insular love story takes place somewhere. Rub the lantern fervently and often, and with the help of your imagination the world you create will reveal and challenge your characters and enchant your readers. My own genie has whisked me off to Russia and India on life-changing, so called ‘book research’ trips for which I will be ever grateful.
Above all, trust your instincts and don’t think too much.