What Is This Thing They Call Book Writing?

JT Ellison

The word counts are creeping up. Creeping, not blazing a trail through the white space, but plodding, slowly, as if they are weighed down. This isn’t writer’s block. This isn’t lack of enthusiasm.

It’s starting a new book. As my favorite warrior philosopher, Lao Tzu, said:

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Now what’s funny, I needed to look this quote up, because I’m still suffering from tour brain, AKA book release malaise, and I couldn’t get it right in my head – I kept saying a thousand steps, not miles, and knew that wasn’t right. When I looked up the quote, I saw a caveat I’d never noticed before.

Although this is the popular form of this quotation, a more correct translation from the original Chinese would be “The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.” Rather than emphasizing the first step, Lau Tzu regarded action as something that arises naturally from stillness.

“…Something that arises naturally from stillness.”

Isn’t that the perfect allegory for the beginning of a new book? Heck, any new venture, creative or otherwise, starts from that moment of stillness. If you want to get all weighty, we can get into the chicken or the egg argument. This is a cause and effect concept in a writer’s life… At what moment have you set out on your journey of a thousand steps?

Now that I’m a bit more self-aware as a writer, these thoughts enter my consciousness often. What is the exact moment when I have an idea, a spark, that will grow into a story, and thus into a book? And at what point does the beginning really begin? At what point do you shatter the stillness and take the first step? Is it a mental journey first, or purely physical?

To be honest, the writer’s entire journey is fraught with peril, but the most dangerous moment is writing those opening few pages, when you’ve got an idea, one that you think you can sustain for another 399, characters who are living, breathing entities in your head, plot points that race toward the page like a wave through your mind, notebooks filling with chicken scratch, character names, dates, places, ideas. And you have those moments of sheer fright, when you realize you can’t remember how to start a book.

So can you say you’ve started writing a book when the idea is formed, or must you wait until those first few words go down on the page?

“Try not. Do.” ~ Master Yoda

There is an offshoot of Hinduism and Buddhism known as Taoism. I fancied myself a Taoist back in college. I was very into the philosophical then, a full-circle I’m enjoying now. And while I studied the Tao-te Ching, the Taoist handbook, if you will, I didn’t truly understand the words. How could any nineteen-year-old who hadn’t experienced suffering understand? Truly, in order to appreciate what you have, you must have experienced the loss of what you desire. That tenant has its roots all over the canon – it’s better to climb the mountain than start at the top, etc. – because it’s the truth. You always appreciate something you work for more than something you’re simply handed, and suffering, at all levels, makes us who we are.

Now, though I’m hardly a scholar, more an enthusiast, I am experiencing bits of enlightenment, especially when it comes to appreciating life and the creative process.

They say the more you talk about Taoism, the less you know. I reveled in that phrase when I was nineteen, feeling so mysterious and noble. It’s true, though. One poem in the Tao-te Ching describes the Tao like this:

The Tao is like a bellows:
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
The more you talk of it, the less you understand.

The Tao, to me, is writing. It is looking into that empty space in the bellows—the empty, yet infinitely capable space—and seeing the sparkly mist of words that will build the house that will shelter your story.

All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small. ~ Lao Tzu

For once, I can pinpoint the exact moment the bellows filled with air and this new book began. It was January 27, 2011, at about 9:45 AM central time. I was on a marketing call with my agent and editor. We came out of it with an idea, one that morphed into an emailed paragraph by 10:09 AM, and another call with a full-fledged endorsement from said agent and a hearty “write the proposal” by 10:20. I found a title and perfect epigraph, wrote the proposal, which was submitted February 8th, which the agent loved, sent it to my editor, who helped tighten a few points down, and it was thus accepted the 18th.  We changed the title to the what I know is the final one on February 24th, I turned in the Art Fact Sheet March 10th, and by the end of the day March 14th, I had 1602 words.

Boom goes the dynamite.

It took 45 days from concept to words. And when I say concept, I mean it—when the phone rang on January 27, I had no idea what this story was. None.

I look at those 45 days with some chagrin and teeth gnashing, because I wanted to get started sooner, but had to do all the promotion and touring for the release of So Close, copyedits and AAs for WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE, write a short story, and continue plotting world domination. There was work being done on the new book though. Research being collected, books being read, thoughts coalescing, Scrivener files filling up with light bulbs.

Ambition has one heel nailed in well, though she stretch her fingers to touch the heavens. ~ Lao Tzu

In other words, the journey has begun.

But I’m feeling rather Taoist about the content of this book. I’m just not ready to talk about it. A few people know what I’m about right now, but I want to wait to get into the gritty.

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. ~ Lao Tzu

I want to be a good traveler with this book. I’m feeling very protective of it. There are good reasons for that, reasons time will reveal. But for now, I want to enjoy my secrets.

For my fellow writers – when do you feel the journey begins?

For my fellow readers – which came first – the chicken or the egg?

And for all – what’s your favorite philosophical quote?

Wine of the Week: Now, don’t everyone pass out all at once – this is only the second time in 5 years I’ve done this varietal: Red Tree Pinot Noir. It’s light, fruity, and perfect for getting back on the wine badwagon after food poisoning. : )

24 thoughts on “What Is This Thing They Call Book Writing?

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    Ah, I love philosophical thoughts! Especially on a Friday.
    Here's a corollary question: which came first the writer or the story idea?
    Writers, have you ever had a story idea that won't leave you alone but you don't feel up to the task? How did you tackle it?
    Thanks, JT, for a wonderful post when I needed the boost this morning.

  2. Chuck

    Thanks JT!!! I needed to read those words today. I love the way you consistently study instances I constantly take for granted. And (maybe because I have yet to find an editor!) the way you scrutinized the first moments of a new story. You're dead on target. Those first words are like the initial DNA of a new person. It all grows from there.

    I can't say that I have a favorite philosophical quotation. I enjoy so many. So instead, I will relay one from a crusty old sergeant I once served under. And I'm not sure truer words have ever been spoken.

    Don't let your mouth out-talk your ass.

    In my favorite books, during my favorite movies, and occasionally in real life, whenever I see the bully get his, I always remember that wizened old sergeant's words. It always make me smile.

    (Nothing like Chuck to come and dumb-down what I know will be an impressive list of replies!) 😉

  3. billie

    The last quote you shared is one that has been my email signature for many years. It has become my mantra for life in general.

    I love the first quote too, which is new to me – the part about action arising naturally from stillness. That rings true for so many things.

    A new book for me always happens in steps. I get the general idea, which is very raw. Then suddenly a scene, usually the ending, comes into my head. That part is very fast, and has often necessitated me pulling over to write, as it often happens when I'm driving.

    And at some point the whole thing comes fully formed into my head. Which is hard to explain b/c how can an entire novel appear inside someone's head? I don't know, but it does. And the next how many months/years are all about getting it from head to paper.

    That last piece is not about dictation – it's much like the thing about a big piece of stone having the finished sculpture inside. I can "see" the entire novel but the writing of it is still very much a discovery process. Almost like what I "see" is in my unconscious and it has to come up through the levels to the surface as I write.

    Fascinating process for me, which is why I never talk about hating the work or suffering through it. If I get tired or need a break, I take it. Because, like that Lao quote… I am being the Good Traveler. 🙂

  4. Grace

    There are so many inspirational quotes it's hard to choose one. I think my favourite one when I'm feeling overwhelmed by my WIP is "I'm in the hospital, I had an accident. I was speed reading and collided with a book mark) not exactly as written but the best I can remember. Maybe someone else knows how it goes word for word. Anyway, it works for me, reminds me not to take myself too seriously. Thanks for the great post!

  5. Sandy

    "…and seeing the sparkly mist of words that will build the house that will shelter your story" — wonderfully worded!

    When I was teaching, a favorite quotation was this by Henri Nouwen: "My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly being interrupted, until I discovered the interruptions were my work."

  6. debbie haupt

    JT, wow, way to end the week with some transcendental thoughts and sayings. As a reader I love seeing these posts by the writers it shows just how human they are and makes us as their audience appreciate them that much more.


  7. Allison Davis

    I have a few quotes I keep around not just about writing but life, to keep me going. One on the frig: "It's never too late to be who you might have been." (George Elliot) and Albert Einstein's (although I always attributed it to Rita Mae Brown because it's in Rubyfruit Jungle): Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

    Loved the Tao-te Ching at 19 as well and get that. Good luck on your new adventure.

    And don't forget: Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very"; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. Mark Twain

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    I love this kind of depth on a Friday morning. Thank you for sharing this with us. It's hard to say what starts a book for me, but I occasionally have this feeling of inching my way into mist that occasionally clears to let me see a glimpse of the way ahead.

    Good luck with the new one!

  9. Debbie

    PK, I like that question. Got a story idea right now that wasn't my idea but was suggested to me by a friend. Intrigued, I began to write. Every time I get stuck, I ask questions. What I'm saying, is that I turn it over to others for ideas, for guidance. I'm stalled right now because I've asked the questions and it seems too profound for me to handle. I'm in over my head in terns of the content and the emotional impact I wish to achieve. The aim is to be thought provoking or controversial, and to that end, I have turned the writing over to my unconscious mind, which has an uncanny knack of working things out and letting me know when it's ready for me to begin writing again!

  10. JT Ellison

    PK, excellent question. Since the first spate of stories were all oral, I'm voting for the story first. And yes, I have had a story that I felt was just too big to tackle – it was the original premise for 14. I ended up having to spread it over four books, and it still is a bit smaller than the original concept. But knowing when to back away from a story is what being a writer is all about – when you force it, it can tear.

    Oh Chuck – that's actually a brilliant quote. Mind if I use it?
    Here's another favorite – which I will leave to you to translate…Ne pètez plus haut que votre cul…
    But in all seriousness, I never thought about these things either – it's an organic thing that comes from navel gazing. : )

  11. JT Ellison

    Billie, I have that kind of "vision" about the whole novel as well, so I don't think that's strange at all. That's usually when I know it's time to start writing. I think this might be the first book that came out of writing something down first rather than thinking it out. One difference though, I don't usually know my ending until late in the book – over halfway. It's all a mystery to me : )

    Grace, I think not taking ourselves too seriously is vital to being a fun person. I've never seen that quote, but I love it!

    Sandy, another one new to me, but I love it. It's a bit reminiscent of a much plainer concept – get out of your own way.

  12. JT Ellison

    Debbie, this is what happens in JT land when she has time to get away from Facebook and Twitter. ; )
    Thank you for the kind words, and thank you for being such a great support. It means the world! I'm so looking forward to September.

    Thanks, Louise. Honestly, it's a perfect description of what you do every time you touch a keyboard – you shatter my stillness all the time.

    Allison, the Einstein is one of my favorites, and one I pull out and remind myself of anytime I find myself surfing websites I've already been to int he past hour. As if something earth shattering might happen on People.com!

    Zoë, that moment of clarity is always so exciting to me. Muddling through the fog until it finally clears is a time honored tradition in the Ellison house. See you next week!

  13. Jason Ancona

    For me, the journey begins once I decide on which idea to write. A former UCLA screenwriting student, "concept" has been hammered into my head with a superhero-sized mallet. I'm down to three ideas: a romance novel–which my librarian sister is pushing for, an action/thriller with a unique hook, or book 3 of my Covert Youth Agency series.

    I like this philosophical quote by Steve Jobs: “Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma–which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

    I was trying to find this quote I love that's in the Bhagavad Gita that said something similar to what Steve said above.

    For a thrifty wine buy, there's a bottle at Trader Joe's called Well Red. And the label has a drawing of a book and fireplace. Tastes good to me. But I'm pretty easy to please. Think it costs about five bucks.

  14. JD Rhoades

    "when do you feel the journey begins?"

    When the story that's been nagging at me finally drags me into the chair and screams WRITE ME DAMN IT! into my ear.

  15. JT Ellison

    Jason, what largess! Three concepts to pull from! That's awesome. I'd assume Job's pulled that quote from the Gita – he seems influenced by Zen in a big way. And that wine? I've had it – it's not bad. Kind of light and easy drinking, that's for sure.

    Dusty – is the King from last week screaming at you yet?

  16. Laura Benedict

    A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. ~ Lao Tzu

    That's my favorite. It's so hard to find that balance between being simply intentional and over-determined.

    Excellent thoughts. Happy Friday!

  17. judy wirzberger

    Wow! What an excellent adventure you are on. I adore how you are savoring it. That's life; that's living.

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