By Stephen Jay Schwartz

Left Coast Crime was a blissful chaos.  I threw myself into the experience with the fervor of the newbie that I am.  I attended just about EVERYTHING.  Every panel, every walking tour.  I even extended the conference by participating in the Forensics Day at the LA Crime Lab. 

This was only my second conference.  My first was Bouchercon in Indianapolis, and I barely knew anyone.  This time I knew most everyone, and the folks I didn’t know I met through introductions.  I cannot say this enough – the mystery/thriller community is the greatest, most enthusiastic support group I’ve ever encountered.

I haven’t been myself since the conference ended.  Or maybe, I have.  Maybe I’ve been exactly myself.  The self I choose to be as I contemplate my next book.

See, I’ve been staring blankly into space a lot and walking into walls.  This, believe it or not, is my process.

My brain is on mush-mode.  I’m letting everything enter and nothing escape. 

At the same time, I’m narrowing the field.  I’ve found my setting, the physical environment where I’ll be placing the action for my novel.  That’s a big step for me, because the locale influences the tone and the tone influences the story.  The next big issue I’m grappling with is “theme.”  Motif.  It’s hard to distill the central theme from the bedlam of action and plot swirling around in my mind.  I’ve got flashes of scenes in my head, moments of emotional conflict, visions of deep-seated relationships unraveling.  And cool themes, like betrayal and abandonment and greed.  There’s no real structure to it at the moment.  I’m avoiding structure, just going with the feelings first.  I’m trying to find the emotion that will remain with the reader after the story is over.  If I can capture that emotion and sustain it for 375 pages, I will have done what I’ve set out to do.

I think of music, of symphonies, where there is a central motif and numerous leitmotifs.  The central motif leaves its mark on every scene, every character.  It doesn’t need to be obvious or heavy-handed, but it influences everything, it drives the narrative, escalating to a climax that comes to a satisfying, organic resolution.  Counterpoint, dissonance, pizzicato, rondo.  And there’s an emotional state of being one is left with after hearing a satisfying symphony.  It resonates, for a time.  I want my stories to resonate.

I forgot that this is how I get at the beginning of a project.  My mind goes somewhere else.  The only time I’ve ever really taken advantage of this was when I wrote my first screenplay, at age nineteen.  I had just arrived in Santa Cruz, didn’t have a job, my mom was paying my rent for a few months.  I had nothing to do but write.  My mind went to this place, this place of emptiness, and I would wake up at four o’clock in the morning and write frantically for eight hours, then pass out and sleep for four more hours, then wake up and write for fifteen minutes, then wander in the woods or at the beach, then end up at a café on the pier during a rainstorm but warm and comfortable among wood furniture and classical music and hot tea and croissants and honey.  It was a blissful time for writing.  I didn’t have a care in the world.  It was all about the writing.

I haven’t had that opportunity for many years.  Now I carve out time where I can.  And so I let the mind-mush continuum play out in my daily life, my life at the day job or while I’m doing my taxes and paying my bills.  I find it hard to do these monotonous tasks, this necessary shit, because nothing really seems quite as important as just letting things go, letting my mind find its way.  I feel like I’m only fifty percent here one hundred percent of the time.

I’ve noticed that I stopped reading fiction.  I’m tapping into a different source.  I’m reading “Columbine,” by Dave Cullen, and it’s giving me a sense of reality, of real human suffering in a real world.  And I’m reading the writings of inmates from the California prison system.  Letting it all filter in. 

I’m also setting up interviews with the people who people the world where my story exists.  Adding their experiences to the mix.  I don’t know what story I’ll eventually tell, but I know it will come from the combination of everything I’m doing, all the stories I’m gathering, after I’ve taken an egg-beater to the assembled ingredients. 

I can feel it settling.  This process.  It feels good.  It’s my very favorite part of being a writer.  Easier than facing that evil white page, trying to capture an emotional scene or a complicated bit of action.  I practically buried myself in this phase on my second novel, losing about six months to the research I did with the San Francisco Police Department.  I ended up with a hundred pages of typed, single space notes from interviews and observations.  I used about two percent of it, but the work I had done became the invisible backbone of the book.  It kept each vertebrae in place.

I’m going through some challenging things in my life right now, too.  Everything’s competing for a place in my head.  I could easily spend all my time doing the things required to remain a solvent member of American society.  But I don’t think I’d end up with a decent book if I did.

I’m protecting that place in my head where the stories come to life.  If that means I’ll be walking into walls for a while, so be it.  I’ll be walking into walls.

Does this sound familiar?  How do the other writers here tap into that core of creative thought?  And how do you balance that with your daily, real-life responsibilities?  For Christ’s Sake, how does Allison Brennan do it all?


26 thoughts on “WALKING INTO WALLS

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    Great post. I’m in a similar state myself at the moment, only without the walking into walls thing. I’m just letting the ideas go in and ferment and who knows? At the end of it, the end result may even be palatable ;-]

    Oh, and I think both Allison and JT have secretly cloned themselves. There’s no other explanation for the amount they both manage to get done with only two arms and one head each!

  2. Nancy Laughlin

    What an interesting post, Stephen. I too do the staring into space and imagining thing, but not for long enough. I love first drafts, so I’m always eager to jump right in. Then I end up writing multiple drafts adding in the details I expect you figure out to begin with. I’ll have to give your process a try, minus the walking into walls. I’m enough of a clutz to begin with. <g>

  3. Chris Ransom

    Another great post, Steve. I used to think it was of paramount importance to write every single day. Now I am finding value in "down time" between larger projects. I’ve also found that too much down time allows the gears to rust, and sometimes cranking the machine back up to full production capacity requires a lot of grease and fire. Once I have wound down for a few weeks after finishing a novel, I look forward to the blood-freezing panic and hair-whitening terror that inevitably follows this delicious sponge phase. It’s the death grip fear that whispers, "You better start writing again, Mr. Man. You have another book due in 8 months."

    Ha ha.

    Also, Dave Cullen’s COLUMBINE is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read. It’s construction and breadth of research are superb, and it gave me nightmares for weeks. Incredible work he did there.

  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Yeah, "Columbine" is probably the reason I’ve been so melancholy these past couple weeks. Very intense stuff. Thanks for chiming in, Chris – good to see you here.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I third the praise for COLUMBINE – fantastic, heartbreaking, provocative book.

    I guess I stay inside the creative core by dropping off the planet and driving everyone I know insane with my protracted silences. I’ve had way more than usual worldly distractions to deal with, but I don’t know how much longer people will cut me slack for that.


    How does Allison do it? Now THAT’S the ten million dollar question.

  6. Dave Cullen

    Stephen, very interesting stuff. I’m going to have to get myself to one of those conferences. I’ve done several book festivals over the past year–which was new to me–and not the same thing, but also revved me up. Meeting other writers was really cool. I also got a chance to connect with readers, which is great, but I’d gotten that on my book tour. The festivals added other writers. I didn’t realize until then how starved I was to learn what it was like for other people in my position. I’m way out here in Denver, not quite a publishing hotbed.

    Thanks for the shoutout on my book, Columbine, too. And to the really nice comments from Chris and Alexandria. That means a lot.

    (My little following of detractors should be arriving shortly. Their google alerts must have been delayed. Have fun with that.)

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Wow, Dave…I am so honored that you stopped by. I was just at lunch, at the local Starbucks, still reading "Columbine." Still shocked. Brilliant piece of journalism, my friend. Thank you so much for setting things straight. I lived under all the mythology you mentioned – thinking Eric and Dylan were Goths or angry nerds going after the jocks…I fell for all of it. The thing that shocks me the most is the cover-up – the fact that the authorities had a search warrant and didn’t execute it.
    Good work, Dave, really.

  8. Allison Davis

    Stephen, just wear pillows.

    Seriously, we all do that, walk into walls, fresk, bounce around. I do it my daily life, two days in LA, juggling 10 cases, instructing associates, calming clients, meeting the appraiser so I can refi and get the ex off the loan, go to the friggin’ dmv and have the woman ask me, "now try it with your glasses." Happy B’day eh?

    Yet, when we’re driven we find the time, the space, we crawl into that place with the smell of coffee and a patch of sun, and get that writing done, some how some way.

    And going to the conferences and joining in blogs like these gives you the hold me up support that this community is well known for — isn’t this writing community the most amazingly wonderful thing? We were talking about this at the last MWA lunch…and hang in there. If you need some assistance with the outside b.s. let me know.

  9. Alafair Burke

    We gave away a copy of COLUMBINE at our recent MWA-NY dinner about school shootings (great dinner party conversation, eh?)

    I’m also constantly struggling to juggle. It’s so hard to know when walking away is what you need to get the ideas flowing again, and when it’s just an excuse to procrastinate. If I know what I’m supposed to write and am just putting it off, I stay at it and make myself do it. If I’m truly stuck, I walk away to give myself space.

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    The process is different for me, Alafair. I actually hold myself back from starting, until I’m overflowing from research. There will be a point when I’m itching to get started, I just want to write, write, write….but I hold back. One thing I can’t stand is when I begin writing and suddenly I’m writing stuff I’m not sure about, because I haven’t done the research. Then I pull back, do some research, and start again, after having lost that initial spark. And sometimes I start writing and have to rewrite when I learn that the real world doesn’t work the way I imagined it did. I avoid a lot of those problems by holding back until the world of my story is concrete. I wrote a project for the Discovery Channel a few years back, about the International Space Station, and I found that I couldn’t even have a conversation with anyone (astronauts, program managers, etc) until I learned their world. I sure as hell couldn’t write about it until I felt comfortable wearing their shoes.
    I think my process is a little like sex…hold off, hold off, then I’m off to the races.

    Allison – and I thought "fresk" was an expression for the ultra-literary. I was planning on using it in my next book. Thanks for setting me straight. I may in fact want to discuss some things with you, by the way, especially considering your profession. I can find you on Facebook?

  11. tess gerritsen

    Stephen, full of admiration for you that you consider theme before you start your novel. I don’t think I’ve ever planned that ahead of time — heck, I’m not always sure there’s a theme by the time I finish the book. Instead of walking into walls, I tend to lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling. It looks like I’m being a goof-off, but really, I’m working hard. Honestly.

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I get a lot of good work done on that couch, Tess. And then the alarm goes off and I forget everything.

  13. Mike Dennis

    Great post, Stephen. What do you do if your characters suggest a different direction than the one you’ve plotted, especially if it veers you away from your well-considered theme?

  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Mike – maybe that’s why I take so much time in my head before putting it down on paper. I let the character move around a bit, I listen to what he has to say about things. But if he’s pulling in a different direction as I’m writing the piece, then I go back and re-outline things, see if it’s working, then go back into the writing again, with the changes. I’m a big out-liner, so I’d rather work the story out beforehand in an outline than go through that process while I’m writing the book. I can usually see where the characters REALLY want to go while I’m writing the outline. But there’s always room for freedom and surprise as I write the scene, even when the scene has been outlined. This allows me to have fun, to let the characters roam, while knowing where they need to be, mentally and physically, by the scene’s end. It gives me a sense of security.
    The central theme usually doesn’t change. Once I’ve found the theme it becomes the glue that holds everything together. Sometimes the theme grows, or little mini-themes emerge like leaves off a branch. I just have to keep track of those, explore them, and allow them to compliment the central theme.

  15. Allison Brennan

    Aw, Stephen, I’m late to the party. How do I do it? Hmm. I have no life. I write, I play with kids. I write, I drive kids. I write, I watch kids sports. That is my life. Hectic, non-stop, and totally satisfying 🙂

    I don’t sweat the small stuff. I don’t clean (unless forced to), I don’t over-volunteer for things (okay, sometimes I do, but I’m trying to get out of that bad habit), and I DO try to make the most of my writing time.

    I also don’t stress about things like theme. If I have a theme in my books, great! I certainly didn’t plan it.

    But we do have some things in common! I lived in Santa Cruz for two years. (I’m a UCSC drop-out.) I have COLUMBINE in my TBR pile, but haven’t started it yet. I also have a bedlam of ideas and emotions and action scenes in my head before I start writing. And most of my research doesn’t end up in my books, though it certainly provides the foundation for everything I write.

    The difference I think is I don’t plot or structure–I just start writing when the opening scene comes to me. No one is more surprised than I am when everything comes together at the end of the book. Maybe I have elves writing for me when I sleep.

  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Allison – as Timothy Halinan says, we writers fall into one of two groups – the plotters and the pansters. The plotters, well, that’s obvious, they outline the whole thing to the end before getting started. The pansters write by the "seat of their pants." Most authors I’ve met are pansters. I’m a plotter, and I believe it comes from my time in the film industry. All the screenwriters I know write outlines and treatments before writing their screenplays. It’s the way we were taught to do it. And it seems necessary for writing screenplays, which amount to 110 pages of pure plot.
    I’d be lost without my map. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t do a considerable amount of pantsing in the process. I think we all do a combination of both.
    Thanks for sneaking in at the end, here. Good to see you. Ain’t it cool that Dave Cullen stopped by? His book is amazing, by the way. We should compare notes as you read it.

  17. Chris Ransom

    I’m definitely a "pantster", Steve. Sometimes a potential theme will occur to me while I am still in the process of conceiving a book, but I never reach for it too eagerly. I prefer to let it emerge over the course of the first draft, and I usually don’t recognize it until about 3/4 of the way through. I might consciously bring it into focus during revisions, but I am very wary of planting a stake in the ground for fear of wielding it like a club (mixed metas, I know). I guess it depends on the book.

    For The Birthing House, several themes began to suggest themselves during the first draft–birth (duh), parenthood, the cycle of life and death (how closely birth and death are related), renewel, fresh starts in life, the sex drive (lust) and its links with reproduction and love, etc.–but those were blurry even in my first complete draft. I didn’t even have the title until I was more than halfway through the first draft.

    Beginning my third novel now, I can see some possible themes (health, hunger, appetite, the American drive for MORE of everything and its toll on our lives and family), but even these may not be what comes out in the final wash. I am wary of reaching for theme because I subscribe to the school that says the story–its plot, characters, images, etc.–need to work first and foremost on their own, story as story, writing as clear writing, and agenda or message-driven novels tend to fail as works of art.

    I think it was Hemingway who said (and I am paraphrasing here) that The Old Man and The Sea was just a story about an old man and the sea. It wasn’t a metaphor for anything. Before the story can resonate in other ways or on multiple levels, it must first just be about an old man, the fish, the boy, etc.

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Unless of course it’s a Bolen’s python in my first novel, in which case it’s a stand-in for Lust and Satan in the Garden of Eden and man’s fall from grace, ha ha ha…

    OK, theme SCARES me. I don’t feel I can control it or know it in advance. I can only hope it emerges.

  18. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Chris – I tend to feel just the opposite. Theme is the rudder that keeps me on course. I don’t refer to it all the time, but I know it’s there, in the background, keeping me from drifting. Maybe it’s because I have so little time to write and I don’t want to keep re-writing entire drafts of my novel. I hope to include everything I want into the novel beforehand, at least the major themes and beats. But, again, there’s always room for growth and change as I’m writing. I really balanced the panster/plotter when I wrote Boulevard, but I had to hunker down and go for all-out plotting on Beat, mainly due to the fact that I only had two months to write it after six months of research and four months of pantsing. The plotting saved the day, in the time-frame I had.


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