Thursday, January 30, 2014

Starting A New Book

Well here we are again, at the beginning of a new manuscript. So many options, so little time. These two constraints are both, of course, self-imposed. Idea and story options – I'm never short on those. And time frame is important; a quick, but well told, story shows in the writing. If I lose interest so will my reader. Two little secrets: write fast and furiously on something you are interested in. If you become bored so will the reader. Your reader will forgive much – except boredom.

I have to my immediate right (as I pound away) more than thirty books on writing (not including six dictionaries – some abridged - some not, three thesauruses, an aged atlas, two books on quotations, one with "last words of the great" on its spine, and a few on grammar and punctuation. They expound on style, the art, the pain, the loneliness, and the failures of writing. Don’t do this, don’t do that. Follow the leaden prose and thick orders of John Gardner in The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist and you will soon turn to drink. Structure your stories like they were ancient prophesies and you will have to swallow every word of James Frey and his The Key. Hell, there are no "keys," only good stories. I get testy over all this. And to muddle the waters I'm reading Elizabeth George's Write Away, a well-crafted book on one novelist's approach to fiction. I keep them near. As in: Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

They are all troubling, vexing, and confusing.

I start with an idea, and put it all in one sentence. Then rework it until it sounds interesting; maybe twice the length of a tweet. This new book will be the second in a series (first is in post production) so I have at least the setting, the protagonist, his "Dr. Watson," and an idea. I've found that a thriller/detective story needs to be economical – especially in time frame, too long and the threads become strained, so be quick from start to finish. Maybe a few weeks, maybe a month, longer gets tougher: too many days to fill.

Then a quick outline begins, today on a large sheet of butcher paper – I actually have a role of white paper 24" wide and 300 feet long, I mercifully don’t use the whole thing, just three or four feet; one roll will last a lifetime. Thirty days (thirty columns in black marker) control the pacing. This story will have its denouement around a specific date in time – everything must be done by October 26, 1933, I post it on the right then push left across the paper to the start. I drop in ideas along the timeline (some will be used, others discarded), make notes, change colors of pens, never scratch out an idea – maybe put a one line through it but leave it legible. I note wants and needs – characters, information, places, threats, and especially highs and lows of the story. It is chaos but a good kind of chaos.

After this exercise (which I may do again and again) I, like a supreme being, create my characters that will populate this story. I look for cool things that can be used, such as the name of the antagonist in this pre-WWII thriller set in Chicago; it's Jager which is German for hunter – cool?

Other characters are formed, given histories, back-story, they become real so when they die I will feel a loss – really and truly.

I don't do a lot of detail outlining, the day-to-day, hour-to-hour stuff as Dan Brown must surly do. But I do write from beginning to end (with occasional notes about the future). My research continues as I write the manuscript from histories, photo books, and the Internet (which is getting better and better for this sort of data mining). I keep notes in OneNote and in Word. I print out what I need or copy out the text from a book; they all go into a binder.

By this time my mind is whirling Dervish – actually more like a blender on meth. I begin.

Here are the first 400 words of Chicago Jazz:
The limestone steps and porch supported the front door’s frame and by way of the door the whole faded street façade of the narrow wooden edifice of the near Westside Chicago speakeasy. Every window had its shades pulled. Grotesque shadows of men and women danced across the thin covering fabric, yet from the street their sex indistinguishable. Their ghostlike forms flickered and jerked, alit within from old cranberry glass oil lamps, on the thin translucent paper. A measured reedy tenor saxophone moaned through a second floor window cracked an inch to let in damp spring air, all that escaped was a jazz laden thick, sweet, cigarette and opiate fog.
The yellow taxi slid to a stop in the rain filled gutter at the foot of the steps to the grey tenement washed with the pale light from a cracked streetlight. The first to leave the cab was a tall angular man, formally dressed in a long black cashmere coat and black patent leather shoes; his black fedora, with a wide black satin band, was pulled low and hid his eyes in a shadow. His complexion had faded to a winter white and his dark hair was cut tight behind his ears. His crisp and pencil thin mustache was, like his nose, clipped sharp. His look favored a poor relation of the actor William Powell. He reached, with a black kid gloved hand, through the open car door and helped a lanky young woman exit who could have, under other circumstances such as a cotillion, been mistaken for his daughter. Her long silk stocking covered legs, the color of translucent alabaster, probed tentatively toward the wet sidewalk. Extracted, she pulled the borrowed mink fur close to her chin; her faux diamond earrings and fitted jeweled cap sparkled in the broken streetlight as the man helped her to the sidewalk. Only the briefest black wisps of her stylishly cut black hair escaped. He paid the driver through the window, took the girl firmly by the arm and escorted her up the limestone steps to the paneled oak front door framed by two gas fired red glass sconces. She nervously looked back at the street and the escaping taxi and then turned and watched as he pushed a black button. A series of buzzes could be heard through the open transom high over the door. More billows of the sweet smog spilled from the tilted window like fog escaping over a mountain.
“You will love it my dear,” the gentleman offered as he whispered in the girl's ear. “This is where the good times are, all the jazz folks and finer people come here. You’ll see.”

More later . . . . . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment