I’ve mentioned that generating ideas is quite different from generating words. Obviously, before you write, you need to have an idea to write about. My habit for writing is of the simplest; it is fueled by glucose and chocolate. The ideation phase is more subtle.
To think of What Happens Next, I need to go through a specific routine. Firstly, I can’t drink too much coffee. One cup, early in the day, is all I can do. Because the next step is sleep. Fairly late to bed and not much coffee means that I can sleep deeply and well. All the other rituals of sleep — the right pillow, the right temperature, the proper feline to hand — all these things must be observed.
And then I sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream. If the work is sufficiently pressing, if there’s enough narrative steam built up, I will dream useful dreams. Sometimes I simply dream about lying awake in bed thinking about the book, a particularly unrestful way to spend the night. On the day after I finished writing Speak to Our Desires, I went to bed congratulating myself that I had put paid to my pushy hero for ever, by having his girlfriend shoot him dead on a beach in St. Thomas. I woke after dreaming a totally new and different ending to the work, a far better one that I had to immediately sit down and write into the ms. My subconscious knew, far better than I myself, that nobody wants to read a work in which the hero perishes in futility.
Sometimes the press of the work within is so great that I wake up early, at four or five a.m., but in an ideal universe I sleep myself out. In any case, the next vital step is to simply lie there, in the nice warm bed, with the covers drawn up to my chin. At this point I can direct the liminality to some extent. I can ask, should my hero marry the heroine? or, should there be a battle now, or should they argue some more? or, how should the final conflict be laid out to maximize agony and orchestrate all the themes? And, whatever the issue of the day is, the Muse will oblige. She is sitting right beside my pillow, tapping her sandaled toe and anxious to get cracking. The entire day’s plotting will pour into my head while I just lie there.
If I am not quite so focused, the Muse does not put up with my lackadaisical slugabed snooziness. She will arbitrarily supply an exciting scene for three chapters on, or hop ahead to the end of the work and pony up with a touching farewell and some rattling machine guns to off the villains. This is confusing for me, because I am a linear writer, writing the book straight through from beginning to end. Having a piece from three chapters on means I have to write up to it and assimilate it. If too many future pieces arrive, then you get the doughnut hole effect — a narrative with a large gap in the center. This can be challenging to fill in my opinion, although the Muse just sneers. These minor issues do not faze her.
After a while in the morning it is important to get up and write it down. This is different from actual writing; what I do is scribble down notes to remind me what I actually have to write later, after stoking up with coffee and sugar and chocolate. The careful adjustment of these stimulants then allows me to write down into the ms everything that was laid on my pillow at 7 a.m. Often this takes all day. When this is done, I can feel it. The well is empty, the cup has been drunk, there’s no more gas in the tank. Time to, yes, go to sleep and refill the reservoir. At this point I will sometimes write down the questions that need to be resolved overnight: how to get the nuclear weapon to explode at the right time? Should the heroine be held hostage? Why doesn’t the hero shoot first, and ask questions later? This gets them into a handy form to pass to the Muse in the morning. Lather, rinse, and repeat — this is my writing life!
My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out exclusively from Book View Café.