(Detail from Theo Ellsworth’s contribution to the expanded edition of my Wonderbook, out in July)
I just completed my ninth novel, the first volume in the Adventures of Jonathan Lambshead series, working title “I am Squishy” (that will change, I’m sure). I’m also working on the tenth novel of my career, Hummingbird Salamander. This doesn’t include a number of unfinished or crappy novels written in my teens—or hundreds of short stories.
If nothing else, being a novelist for decades gives you some hopefully useful ideas about process. I’m loathe to ever suggest that there is only one way to do something—it’s different for every writer. But I do think that examining someone else’s process can be of use for your own, even if it’s just to reject everything another writer does!
So, with that caveat, here’s what I’ve learned over time. If some of it seems basic, that’s important, too. Because at the end of the day, there is no magic solution, no short-cut, to writing something that hopefully will last. No matter how we search for one. I also believe strongly in letting the things about writing that should be organic remain organic, but also working in targeted ways on those things that can be improved mechanically.
(These ideas should work for writers who have a day job as well as full-time writers, as I do not stress needing to write every day. In fact, points 1 and 2 should offer relief for writers who beat themselves up about not writing as much as they want to. It’s important to be generous to yourself if you’re in circumstances where sustained writing is not possible, because pushing yourself to write in those circumstances may short-circuit your creativity.)
1—The amount of time you spend writing isn’t necessarily as important as the time spent thinking about what you are going to write.
I often feel it is easier to spoil a novel by beginning to write too soon than by beginning to write too late. Perhaps this is because I need to know certain things before I can even contemplate writing a novel.
For example, I need to know the main characters very well, the initial situation, and the ending (even if the ending changes by the time I write it). I also have to have some kind of ecstatic vision about a scene or character, some moment that transcends, and I have to have what I call charged images associated with the characters. These aren’t images that are symbolic in the Freudian sense (humbly, I submit that Freud just gets you to the same banal place, as a novelist, every time), but they are definitely more than just images. They have a kind of life to them, and exploring their meaning creates theme and subtext. For example, the biologist encountering the starfish in Annihilation or Rachel in Borne reaching out to pluck Borne from the fur of the giant bear. (Both of which also have their origin in transformed autobiographical moments, and thus an added layer of resonance.)
Once I know these things, it may still be six months to a year before I begin to write a novel. The process at that point is to just record every inspiration I have and relax into inhabiting the world of the novel. To not have a day go by when I’m not thinking about the characters, the world they inhabit, and the situations. If I lose the thread of a novel, it’s not because I take a week off from writing, but because I take a week off from living with the characters, in my head. But, hopefully, the novel takes on such a life that everything in the world around me becomes fodder for it, even transformed.