I’ve said before that the novelist’s job is to create a universe no wider than two palms, fabricated entirely out of words, in which almost anyone can wander, meet new and interesting people, and believe that one or more of those lives is actually passing in real time. That world becomes a reflection of the author’s character and intentions, vision and imagination, reading and study, and intellectual curiosity. These are the preconditions of writing a good book.1
Now I want to convey what that effort requires of the author, both spiritually and emotionally. These are the costs of a good book.
The first requirement is belief. The author must believe in the world he or she2 is creating. I’m not talking here about the externals. The science fiction writer does not have to believe in the literal existence of time travel, wormholes, or humanoid aliens, because such things are not the core of the story but merely conventional and convenient artifacts and motifs that support it.3 What the author must believe in is the emotional truth of what the characters are experiencing and the reality of their situation or problem. And do that the author must put not only his imagination into the story but also his own emotional vulnerability. If at the climactic moment of love or loss, the author is not typing with tears of joy or despair running down his face, the story will probably not ring quite true.
Consider how hard that can be. The author is in fact a god to the world he creates, controlling space and time, placing and removing obstacles in the character’s path, remaining omniscient in terms of knowledge about the world and omnipotent in relation to the actions within it. Yet the author must also identify with the character. In order to project the character’s own fear, anger, frustration, fascination, love, or other dominant emotion, the author must share in it to some extent. So the author must exist in two places at once: inside the story, reacting with the characters; and outside the story, planning the next plot twist and its ultimate resolution.
Or at least that’s my experience. There may be authors who can fake it, who know just the right words to use that simulate emotion, and who have a mask stored away that they can whip out and use to cover their faces. But I’ve never been so facile, or perhaps not so professional, in my own writing. One part of me has to walk through the story, shadowing the character and feeling his or her joys and pains, and closing my mental ears to the Olympian voice from above—my voice from another part of my brain—that is directing the plot and what comes next.
Writing a novel can be emotionally exhausting. When I have a book in hand, occupying my mind, I tend to live quietly. I can’t go out and play or party and then come back, sit down, and write the day’s quota of story. I need to protect my exterior emotional states, avoiding extremes, so that my mind can be ready to react on a fictional level. So even though my actual practice of writing—the sitting at a keyboard and advancing the story line—might consume only three or four hours of my day, I remain in a guarded state for much longer than that. I can sit and read a book from a completely different universe. I can exercise or go for a ride on my motorcycle. But I can’t interact much with new people or engage in wholly new and demanding experiences. When I travel or take a vacation, the book shuts down completely, and I have to prepare for that emotionally.4
The second requirement is commitment. The novelist has to stake out a large fraction of his or her brain and consign it to the work in hand. Perhaps a writer with a short story in mind can conceive of it one day and then sit down the next and write it out, beginning to end, full and complete, discharging the memory banks entirely. But books take more involvement. Not only is the conscious mind occupied with the process—where the author asks questions and invents answers about the story and characters, often writing them down in plot notes and sources—but the unconscious or subconscious mind must also engage with the work as well.5
I tend to imagine my subconscious as a deep pool of some dark liquid, like oil or sludge, somewhere in the subbasement of my mind. Mysterious processes are at work under the surface. It reflects a whole other self—part monster, part angel, part dragon, part child, unseen and unknown—that occasionally rises up and spits out a notion, a word, a sensation, a thought. I can toss things into the pool, like a question about what comes next in the plot or how to resolve a problem with the story. And some things just fall into the pool by themselves, like a fragment of the music I’ve been listening to, a bit of art that I’ve seen, or some random experience. When I am healthy and in good spirits, the answer, the musical refrain, or the image will come back, on average, within three days. It will sometimes come back as a simple echo of what went in, or more often it will come back changed and twisted or interpreted. And if I’m very lucky, the answer to the plot question or resolution to the problem will surface as an Aha! thought that is perfectly obvious and perfectly in synch with the story.
Until my subconscious starts kicking out bits of plot and dialogue, I know that my mind is not fully engaged with the story. The story remains on the outside, a thing, a what-if, an undigested occurrence, something that could belong to any writer. But when my subconscious engages, the story becomes mine to tell.
I’ve said elsewhere that writing a novel is like renting half of your brain to troupe of traveling actors, and they can keep you up at night trying out lines of dialogue and bits of action.6 This is a reflection of subconscious engagement. A part of me that I don’t see and cannot command or control is at work on the story. And part of the story must come from this mysterious and unknown place, not just from thoughts that I can think at will.7
Because the subconscious works on its own timetable, I need to keep a notebook and pen with me at all times, a pad and pencil on the bedside table, and a writing tablet—for more complete ideas and fragments of scenes as they occur to me—as well as a block of Post-Its or pad of note-sized paper—for image fragments and simple reminders—along with a pen handy on the desk. I’ve found that, once the subconscious sends me a surprise package, I don’t necessarily have to work it through and turn it into the full prose of production writing right away. I can summarize it in a word or two, or a single thought, and put it aside for processing at a more convenient time. But if I don’t capture that notion in some written form, it disappears forever. And nothing is more frustrating than having to say, “I had an idea for the book this morning, but now it’s gone.”
Writing a novel is not actually an act of discipline but one of surrender. You don’t force yourself to do it. Instead, you shape your mind and your life through habit, preference, desire, and careful listening into a mental machine that can take thoughts and emotions and translate them into imaginary experiences. You become the book, the world, the characters, and their stories. And they must control part of you to make themselves real.
This submission to the book can be very strong. I wrote my first novel while still in high school. It was a complete manuscript, more than 400 double-spaced pages, about an interstellar empire and the man who leads a rebellion against it. It was derivative and childish, of course, but it dug so deep into my subconscious that I believed for a long while that it was the only story I had inside me. Finishing the book, having no more to say about it, having to let the story go fixed and cold inside my head, was a kind of trauma. It was like having half my brain removed. For a year or two after that, I could not think of another story. I was still dealing with the crater that first one had left in my head.
I think this is the way with many first books. The new author does not know how to celebrate the birth and then let go of the experience.8 The resulting trauma can lead many authors to become “one book wonders” and experience a lifetime thereafter of “literary constipation.” But eventually new stories will come, new notions for plot and character, and the healing brain goes to work on another book.
I wish it were easier. I wish it were possible for me to make up words according to formulaic plots and archetypal characters. But they wouldn’t be “real” for me and inhabit a credible universe. Instead, they would be wind-up toys moving around a painted set. The only way—for me, at least—to create that world between the palms is to let the story go deep, take control of my subconscious, and bit by bit build up the machinery that invents the plots and characters. It’s a painful process and represents a loss of personal control. But in the long run, it’s the only way I can work.
1. See A World Between Two Palms from September 8, 2013.
2. Hereafter and throughout this article, please consider “he” to include “she” as well. Given the equal or greater number of female authors these days, perhaps I should write “she” exclusively. But I don’t belong to that gender, and I identify more strongly with the male side of my nature than the female side.
3. As a case in point, although I’ve used them in my own stories or enjoyed them in the works of other writers, I don’t actually believe in time travel, wormholes, or humanoid aliens. They have no place in my conceptions of physics and biology, and I consider them elements of fantasy akin to magic and ghosts. Still, they are as much a commonplace of science fiction as the hansom cab and telegraph are to the Victorian England of Sherlock Holmes or the telephone to the 1950s play Dial M for Murder, and I treat them as such.
4. Curiously, I could write books back when I was working—but not as regularly nor as intensely as I have since leaving the corporate world. And there were evenings, especially after an emotionally trying or mentally challenging day in the office, filled with either excitement or anguish, when sitting down and focusing on book production was simply not possible. When I was in school, I used to get up early, well before dawn, and write for an hour before eating and showering for the day. But with a long commute through Bay Area traffic, this just wasn’t possible. At some point, rising much before four o’clock in the morning eats up too much of the night before. I can go a night or two on four or five hour’s sleep, but not long enough to produce a book.
5. See Working With the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.
6. See Some Thoughts on the Writing Craft on my author’s website.
7. Curiously, I can advance the mental process by taking a hot shower. Something about having hot water beating on my neck stimulates the imagination, probably by relaxing muscles and increasing blood flow to the brain. If I don’t know exactly how to write the next scene of the book or how to start an article, taking a shower makes the ideas come tumbling out. Maybe, also, it’s because standing there naked and wet is the one time I cannot pick up a pen and paper to capture those thoughts immediately but must mull and develop them on the spot.
8. And, after more than a dozen novels, it still takes me a month or two to let the echoes from one book die down before the thoughts about a new book can begin swirling up. It’s an invisible, unmanageable process for which I just have to sit quietly and let it happen. But if I have any faith at all, it is that my brain still works and the character voices will start whispering again.