By Stephen Jay Schwartz


It’s a story about guilt, about a powerful man’s sense of entitlement and how his assumptions cause an innocent man to cross the line.

No, it’s a story about a man’s desperate need to succeed, his last chance, and the line he is willing cross in order to get what he wants.

Or, maybe, it’s a story about a man who has gone way over the edge, and a boy who gets caught up in the man’s delusions.

How about a guy who wakes up from a six-week black-out and is coaxed into a crime plot by a bunch of grifters who convince him he’s someone he’s not?

My God, I haven’t been at the beginning for at least five years.  That’s approximately when I started writing BOULEVARD.  And, though I’ve just completed BEAT, my second novel, it wasn’t exactly like starting from the beginning, since it was a sequel.

But now I face a standalone.  I’m marveling at the realization that…anything is possible.  Sky’s the limit.  Providing, as my agent is quick to remind me, I stay in the genre in which I’ve been published.  Which is fine, I could write dark crime thrillers for the next thirty years. 

And you know what?  Maybe I can mix things up a bit, futz around with style.  I wrote those first two books in third person close, which is a bitch of a POV.  It’s like almost first person, but not.  It’s enough like first person to keep you from knowing what the other characters are thinking.  I like it, but I’m sick of it, you know what I mean?  It would be nice to explore different character points of view for a change.  It would be nice to really know what that other character thinks, instead of only knowing what my protagonist thinks that other character thinks.  Never knowing for sure until that character says, “Yes, I was exactly thinking what you thought I was thinking when you thought that in third…person…close.”  Aaaargh!

So, maybe omniscient third.  And yet I want something a little edgy, and so I’m thinking of writing in present tense.  Timothy Hallinan writes in present tense and he brings an immediacy to the story that makes it feel like you’re watching a movie.  Which is apropos, since screenplays are also written in present tense.  And I’m thinking of setting my standalone against the backdrop of Hollywood, so the present tense would also play up the blurred line between reality and illusion, which is a theme I want to explore.

Oh, God, it can be anything.  I could write in omniscient third, present tense, with alternating chapters in first person for each character. 

I almost don’t want to settle on a story, because once my mind is set the structure must be built, like a house.  Whereas now I’m letting EVERYTHING in.  I’m sponging the world around me.  It’s the most exciting part of the process, yet the most frightening as well. 

There’s been a magical serendipity around me lately, with the Murderati authors blogging about first ideas and how to start that next book.  JT’s blog that began with the photograph of the girl really made me think about process.  And Alexandra’s last blog hit home in a big way.  I printed it out and highlighted every other sentence.  Then I wrote a list of all the films and books I love, all the books or scripts I wish I had written.  And then I wrote out the major themes, just as Professor Sokoloff instructed.  

I discovered that I want to write something that combines the elements of Heart of Darkness, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Chinatown and The Player.  Can I just write that on a piece of paper and call it my book proposal?

Who wouldn’t want to read that book?  Forget about the fact that no writer can weave all those themes together in a believable thriller.  Let’s sell the proposal first and worry about the rest later.

Slowly, comfortably, a story is emerging.  A scene here, a bit of dialogue there.  I worry if the inciting incident is too over the top.  I worry that I won’t be able to capture the nuances of power and manipulation that exist in Hollywood, that I’ll make it a satire instead of a documentary.  These are things that keep me from putting pen to paper.  I’ll get over them, once I fully commit to the story.  Once I decide that the story I want to tell is the story I’d want to read.

One thing I’ve been doing is re-reading books that have a really strong voice.  Like Chuck Palahnuik’s “Fight Club” and Jim Thompson’s “The Killer Inside Me” and “Pop 1280.”  Those books are tight as hell and unique in tone and style. 

I find it strange that, although I came from the film industry, I have a very hard time visualizing my characters and settings.  I’m reluctant to focus on photographs, the way JT does, even though I know it will probably help in the long run.  I seem to want my characters to remain physically elusive, and I suspect this is a holdover from writing screenplays, where the writer is encouraged to keep his character descriptions slight.  You don’t want to describe your protagonist as Mel Gibson when the producer who buys the script has a relationship with Matt Damon.

I’m holding myself back.  Because, when I commit, I don’t want anything to get in the way.  And right now I’m focusing on getting through the copyedit of BEAT.  But what I really want to do is drop everything and bury myself in words and images and stories and ideas.  And dreams.  I want to disappear for a few weeks and dive into the recesses of my mind.  I used to do this sort of thing, back when I was eighteen, nineteen years old.  I’d catch a bus and disappear into the countryside with a couple Steinbeck novels and a notepad, and I’d be gone for days.  Gone.  I’m desperate to do that now, but life is in the way.  I envy Alexandra’s freedom to wallow in her dreams, to let the collective unconscious guide her every day. 

Last Sunday I spent the day at Venice Beach.  It was hard to pull myself away from the family, but I felt it was necessary.  Watching the insane circus of humanity was a jump-start for my creative process.  I wrote everything I saw, just as an exercise.  It got the juices going.  Quietly observing human nature is my favorite way to find my voice, my story.  It’s like meditation for me.  I found it hard not to buy a cheap sleeping bag and pitch camp in the sand with all the other vagabonds. 

Oh, my mind’s a mess.  I’m all over the place.  But maybe that’s my process.  Maybe I’m exactly where I need to be.  As long as I’m not on a deadline, I can afford to be a flibbertigibbet. 





26 thoughts on “RAMBLIN’ ON…

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Alafair, Alafair. The Sound of Music? Surely you know "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria"? (Try singing "A flibbertigibbet, a will-o-the-wisp, a clown.." when you’re drunk. In a nun’s costume.)

    Sometimes I think my background is a little too eclectic. In a really specific way.

    You don’t need to be envying my wallow, Steve, I think I’ve wallowed myself so far out there by now I’ll never get back to anything tangible.

    I am having this next book dilemma myself, in spades. Have thoroughly freaked myself out about it.

    Keep us posted on your process/progress – it really helps.

  2. Robert Gregory Browne

    Ahh, the lost in the wilderness feeling. I think we all understand that one. So many paths to take, but which one winds up getting us lost for months and which one takes us home?

    Or maybe it’s the riding the bicycle feeling. You jump on and…

    Oh, never mind. I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

  3. James Scott Bell

    Oh, my mind’s a mess. I’m all over the place.

    Steve, I’d be worried if this didn’t describe you. This is the feeling all writers ought to have at the beginning. The initial chaos is where all the good stuff happens. Now all you have to do is put it in a pleasing shape. Yeah, simple, huh?

  4. Cornelia Read

    If it’s any help narrowing it down, I think present tense doesn’t lend immediacy.

    But other than that… wildnerness. Yeah. I’ve been there since July I think, even though I nominally know what the WIP is about. Feh!

    To paraphrase the actors’ wish for luck without jinxing things, "Break a finger!"

  5. JD Rhoades

    Try singing "A flibbertigibbet, a will-o-the-wisp, a clown.." when you’re drunk. In a nun’s costume.)

    Well, it’s not usually my kink, but if you pick up a bottle of Bacardi on the way over…

    Seriously, Alex, I have faith that you’ll find the way home. I’ll put a candle in the window.

    Stephen, I went through exactly the same thing when I broke from the Keller books to write BREAKING COVER. It’s a great feeling, but scary as hell at the same time.

  6. Brett Battles

    You stand at the All-Things-Are-Possible junction…in front of you are countless doors waiting for you to step through. You will choose one, and you will take that first step. But not just yet. Now is a time for lingering, with each possibility bathing you in its glows…

    God, I love that place.

  7. Dana King

    I hate looking at the blank first page. Hate it hate it hate it hate it. It used ti scare me, until I remembered an Igor Stravinsky quote from my days as a musician, how intimidated he was by the blank page, and how the hardest note to write was the first. At that point, anything is possible, and the number of options is staggering. Once the first note is written, the options diminish, and more with each subsequent note, until, by the end, what must come is just a matter of how to voice it, not what to write.

    That helps me in two ways. First, I’m not along. If Stravinsky struggled with beginnings, there’s nothign wrong with me doing it. Second, take the leap and start. It gets easier.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    The start of a new book is both the most exciting and the scariest phase. You know, before you’ve put a word on the page, that what you’re about to write has endless possibilities. But the more you write, the fewer possibilities it has. The millions of tau lines you had at the beginning, all representing a different theme, a different direction, start to converge until, at last, what you have as you type The End, is one single strand of fate.

    The book is finished, and it is what it is.

    And one of my favourite present-tense authors is Don Winslow. I’ve mentioned him here before, but his CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE not only has urgency through the prose, it has a distinct rhythm to it that makes you almost click your fingers as you read.

    I’m also at the stage where, as I near the end of one book, I’m already planning the next.

    So, good luck, and – as Alex says – keep us posted with progress.

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Geez, great advice everyone! Great stories! I love the Stravinsky reference. And the counterpoint of feedback regarding present tense.
    Keep it coming!

  10. Louise Ure

    Stephen, I’m with Zoe. The start of a book, especially a stand alone, is both the scariest and most exciting phase. Play around with those points of view. I’ll bet one of them just sings to you when you hit it.

  11. alli

    I liken this phase to being in a hand-made chocolate shop. Sure, you can sample the delicacies in there, but you are allowed to only pick one – and you can’t change your mind later. Such a dilemma… but a good one!

    And here’s flibbertigibbiting!

  12. anonymous

    I wanna read this one……..

    "How about a guy who wakes up from a six-week black-out and is coaxed into a crime plot by a bunch of grifters who convince him he’s someone he’s not?"

    But not grifters…………something creepier……..straight laced executive-type men and women ….board of directors of a seemingly legit mega corporation……….staring at him……..waiting for his operations report on …………and he has no clue

  13. anonymous

    It’s projection. My personal nightmare is that I will wake up from ‘the black-out/coma whatever’ and look around a room with strangers staring at me and I don’t remember one fucking thing….not even who I am……….and everyone is looking at me with plastered smiles and those furtive glances at one another ……………..

    Manchurian Candidate

    an old theme ….. the waking up from a black-out and finding a dead body thing……. did *I* kill him? I can’t trust anyone …..how will I solve the mystery…….don’t know who my friends are…… is someone setting me up?…. everyone is suspect……am I actually capable of murdering someone? ……….maybe………..how well do I really know myself………..
    I would like the twist to be that the amnesiac actually DID kill the guy…….everyone who seems suspect is innocent…….our hero just doesn’t remember how really evil he is…….wasn’t that an old Twilight Zone?

    I think it comes from an incident I had in high school…..sneaking into the back row of class totally UNPREPARED and being the first person the teacher called on………….the blank mind, the scrutiny, the flop sweat, scrambling to fake it or come up with a completely unique excuse that no teacher down through the history of education had ever heard before……………..I came up with one…………..but that would be a spoiler.

    Sorry………went off there.

    I actually think all of the ideas you listed are great……keep wallowing around in it until your mother tells you it is time to come in………then you gotta start the homework, Laddy. But after dinner …..and the news….and the Olympics….and that classic movie you need to watch for ‘research’…….and after you put the kids to bed…..and .spend quality time with your wife…..and pay the bills……and answer those emails………and what was I saying about disappearing and diving into recesses?

    ; – }

  14. Allison Davis

    Blank pages, clean slate, empty canvas, all a mystery, full of potential — the next big thing. One of the reasons I like to write poetry is that the pieces are short and I can experience that newness in small bits.

    It’s once you start to run with the idea, then you have to fight the urge to go back to the clean, white nothing, you have to keep putting in…I think that’s the hard part. Then you have that first draft, so satisfying, yet unformed. Attacking that, well, I would love to see someone help us through that editing thing. It’s just so intimidating sometimes. How can I possibly get this all formed into a book someone will want to read? Sigh.

    I love the contemplation of the new — and it’s getting on springtime, so a good time to do this. I’m pretty excited for you — and for us, who will get to read this third book. (Now, back to the day job, then the slogging later….)

  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Alisson – great words, wisely put. And thanks for being excited for me for book three. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about BEAT, since it takes place in your city.
    Brackelfrats? Seems Merriam-Webster has never heard of it. Sounds like something your mother used to cook, and you wouldn’t eat.

  16. BCB

    Probably I’m too tired to be coherent, but I just want to say that I love listening to you all talk about writing.

    I’ve never before heard anyone mention the narrowing/diminishing possibilities scenario that Zoë and Dana both described. Fascinating. Seems to imply endings are inevitable and predictable. That the amassing of what has come before can lead to only one outcome. Not sure I agree. Not sure I disagree. Going to have to think about it.

    Great post, Stephen. I’ll be waiting to hear how you wrestled your mess into submission [pun intended].

    Still wondering why Cornelia was salting her toast a few days ago. And whether it’s anything like salting a well.

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi BCB

    Not trying to imply that the endings are either predictable or inevitable, it’s just that, as a writer, you eventually have to chose just one. And then the book is done, with that ending, it is a complete entity as it stands.

  18. BCB

    Thanks, Zoë, for the clarification. That does make sense and I like the visual of making choices and following strings until you’ve woven a single strong strand. (I really was too tired to be trying to think last night.)


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