The creative cycle in a nutshell

This is a slide from designer/illustrator Christoph Niemann’s charming recent talk at Creative Mornings. Substitute “Sending Manuscript to Editor” for “Writing Invoice,” and you pretty much have the writing life. Watch the whole talk if you have a few minutes. (Via Brain Pickings.) For the record, I am currently mired in the agony of the concept stage … still.

Categories: Creativity    Tags: ·

“And then I saw her…”

When I’m stuck — as I have been for some time now, trying to crack the plot of my next book, to “break” the story, as screenwriters say — I always look for older stories to use as templates. The writer David Lodge has a great term for this sort of literary model: “precursor texts” (which I’ve mentioned here before). Books, movies, whatever — the form of the story doesn’t matter, only the quality of the storytelling. In fact, movies often make the best precursor texts, since their plots are compressed, highly structured, and easy to see. Screenwriting is storytelling stripped bare. Maybe that is why movies, if they’re the right movies, often get my imagination unstuck.

In this case I have been analyzing stories that touch on my book’s premise: a man vanishes into thin air, leaving his wife to cope with daily life in his absence and to solve the mystery of his disappearance. How have other, better storytellers handled that scenario?

So the other day I found myself watching “Out of the Past,” the classic 1947 noir directed by Jacques Tourneur, with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and Jane Greer as the woman who’s gone missing. The movie is one of my absolute favorites. So much has been written about “Out of the Past,” I will refrain from gushing about it here. Suffice it to say: if you haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it in a while, go watch it this weekend. You won’t be sorry.

Here is a taste, with Greer and a 30-year-old Mitchum, in his first leading role. They’re both great, but Mitchum just jumps off the screen. If they remade “Out of the Past” today, Greer’s black widow role could be played capably by Angelina Jolie, say. But what young actor today could fill Mitchum’s shoes?


Categories: Movies · My Books · Writing    Tags: · · · ·

Good News, Bad News, Great News

Over the last few weeks, the manuscript for Defending Jacob has begun making the rounds and the initial response has been, well, ecstatic. Inside Random House, the editors, publicists, sales reps and all the rest have been very enthusiastic. So have buyers representing all the major sales channels: Amazon, B&N, Borders, Costco and Sam’s Club, the wholesalers who place books in supermarkets and airports. We even have our first couple of blurbs, glowing endorsements from Lisa Gardner and — brace yourself — Nicholas Sparks. Yes, that Nicholas Sparks. I am so excited to have Sparks’s endorsement. He very, very rarely blurbs, and as a “crime writer” looking to broaden my audience, I can’t imagine a better key to the Promised Land. (I don’t think I’m free to share these blurbs yet because they’re still in draft form. When I have the final text, I’ll post them here. Hell, I’ll plaster them everywhere.)

As for scheduling, the book is technically a spring 2012 title, but is currently scheduled for release in December 2011. There is still some debate about whether December is the best timing, so the publication date is likely to be pushed back a bit.

But Defending Jacob is off to a roaring start. That’s the good news.

Continue reading →

Categories: My Books    Tags: · ·

Fast Fish and Loose Fish

Barry Moser, "Head of the Sperm Whale"

In a famous chapter of Moby Dick, Melville explains the law governing ownership of whales at sea.

It frequently happens that when several ships are cruising in company, a whale may be struck by one vessel, then escape, and be finally killed and captured by another vessel; and herein are indirectly comprised many minor contingencies, all partaking of this one grand feature. For example,— after a weary and perilous chase and capture of a whale, the body may get loose from the ship by reason of a violent storm; and drifting far away to leeward, be retaken by a second whaler, who, in a calm, snugly tows it alongside, without risk of life or line. Thus the most vexatious and violent disputes would often arise between the fishermen, were there not some written or unwritten, universal, undisputed law applicable to all cases.…

I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.

II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.

…What is a Fast-Fish? Alive or dead a fish is technically fast, when it is connected with an occupied ship or boat, by any medium at all controllable by the occupant or occupants,— a mast, an oar, a nine-inch cable, a telegraph wire, or a strand of cobweb, it is all the same. Likewise a fish is technically fast when it bears a waif [ed. note: a pole stuck into the floating body of a dead whale as a marker], or any other recognized symbol of possession; so long as the party wailing it plainly evince their ability at any time to take it alongside, as well as their intention so to do.

Continue reading →

Categories: Writing    Tags: · · ·

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.

Categories: Writing    Tags: · ·

Starting Over

Tuesday I got the very good news from my editor, Kate, that my manuscript is finally finished — “nailed,” in her word. For those of you who have been following the stuttering process of bringing this book to completion, you will recall that I have reached the finish line several times before, only to have the manuscript returned to me for more changes. For the last month or so, I have been making a last round of corrections. The ending was particularly troublesome. I completely rewrote it several times, not to change the story but to fine-tune the storytelling. This time it really is done.

There remains just one nut to crack: the book still does not have a title. In my desperation, a couple weeks ago I took a very unscientific poll of my friends and family to pick among the likeliest candidates. The winner in a landslide was “Line of Descent,” a title my editor has already judged insufficiently attention-grabbing. At this point I admit I have lost interest in the whole subject. My publishers can call the damn thing whatever they want. I’m sick of thinking about it. In my own mind I have already moved on to the next project.

So what is the next project? That is not entirely clear to me yet. Here is what I do know.

I want to write about the Combat Zone, Boston’s notorious old red-light district, in the bicentennial year of 1976, an epochal moment in Boston. I have wanted to set a story there for a long time. I have written about the Zone before. A few years ago, I even tried to sell Kate on a novel set there. She did not buy it, and I wound up scavenging the proposed novel for the bones of a story that ultimately became my just-completed novel. (Lord, it would be easier to talk about that book if it had a name.)

Why the Combat Zone? There are a few signature Boston crime stories: the Strangler, the Combat Zone, the rise and fall of Whitey Bulger, the pedophile priests scandal. To me, it always seemed like bullshit that local writers kept churning out generic hard-boiled detective stories that had nothing to do with the real Boston when these true, epic stories were hanging there, ripe for the taking. Imagine the audacity of the Combat Zone experiment: in order to contain an intractable, spreading trade in prostitution and adult entertainment, Boston created a lawless zone — a sort of mini Tombstone or Dodge City — right in the heart of downtown. What writer could resist that?

Continue reading →

Photographs of the Combat Zone

John Goodman, "The Schlitz Boys," 1978

I stopped by the new exhibit today at the Howard Yezerski Gallery on Harrison Avenue, “Boston Combat Zone: 1969-1978.” The gallery and the show both are small but well worth a visit, even on a raw, rainy day like today.

The exhibit gathers together black-and-white photographs by Roswell Angier, Jerry Berndt, and John Goodman. The photographs all show the people of the Combat Zone — hookers, strippers, pimps, lonelyhearts. Some are posed portraits, some are candid, journalistic shots. There are no empty compositions, no unpeopled streets. It is all real faces, real bodies. The subject is what in the Zone was called The Life.

I have been fascinated by the Combat Zone for a long time and always wanted to write about it. (I did write a short story about it once. More info here.) When my third book is finished — I hope to send the manuscript off to my publisher next week — I intend to pitch my editor on a novel set in the Combat Zone for book four. Maybe this exhibit is a good omen.

In the meantime, if you’re in the area I recommend the show. I have done quite a bit of research on life in the Combat Zone and I have never seen so many images, especially such evocative and beautiful ones, in one place.

Photo: John Goodman, “The Schlitz Boys,” 1978 (gelatin silver print, 16″ x 20″). Click image to view larger.

Categories: Boston · Photography    Tags: ·