Dec. 31, 2010

In Between Days

Productive novelists hurry from one project to the next. Lee Child has said that the moment he types the last sentence of a book, he immediately writes the first few sentences of the next one. That manic pace is partly a function of the book-a-year schedule that top-sellers like Lee have to maintain. As a practical matter, if you intend to deliver a book every twelve months, there just isn’t time to slow down between projects.

But there is something else, too. The doldrums between books is a dangerous, depressing time for a writer. In an interview I posted here a long time ago, Philip Roth said, “Without a novel I’m empty. I’m empty and not very happy.” I have that bereft feeling now.

I sent off my last book to my editor a few weeks ago. Since then, I have been trying to assemble the first stirrings of the next book, all the notes, clippings and research, all the vague notions that I have been collecting for the project over the years. These scraps don’t mean much. When I look them over now, they don’t cohere. Whatever glimmer of inspiration I saw in them is long gone. But I keep organizing my old notes, studying them, rereading them, because they are the only clues I have about what this dim intuition in my head is leading to. Also, honestly, I don’t know what else to do. How, exactly, do I go about finding the story in all this mess?

How to start a new book is an especially fraught subject for me. I have had long gaps after each of my novels, which has hurt me commercially. My first English publisher, Transworld, dropped me because I was not “writing regularly.” But the problem has not been slow writing. The problem has been projects that were badly chosen, badly planned, or simply abandoned too soon — healthy babes smothered to death in the crib. I have learned the hard way how crucial this inception stage really is. Choose the wrong story or build the right story the wrong way, and you may wind up writing yourself into a corner or (every writer’s nightmare) abandoning a half-finished manuscript. The time-penalty for a mistake like that is measured in months, even years.

So I want to move quickly this time, but I do not want to make a mistake. Hesitation is fatal, but lack of hesitation can be, too. The trick, as John Wooden put it, is to “move quickly but don’t rush.”

In the meantime, tonight is New Years Eve. The clock will be ticking especially loudly for me.

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