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?