The Now Book

Not a ‘new’ book . . . yet. Just a book I’m writing right now. May never even finish it, who knows. As for when I started—tab, tab, tab—it looks like:

d o b

And, not really keeping this as journal of this book or anything. I have done that once, with “Where the Camopede Roam,” but that was just a seventy-two hour commitment. This has already taken longer than that.

Why I’m doing this, it’s . . . you know how when you teach fiction writing, you’re up there in front of the chalkboard saying this or that like it’s gospel, such that, when you come home to write, you kind of hear yourself saying ‘always do this,’ ‘never do that,’ and you feel kind of compelled to maybe consider following those rules, or at least giving them a test-drive? In the same way, in interviews I get asked a lot about how I write. Meaning, now, writing, I kind of find myself watching myself in a way I haven’t before. And, yeah, XJ Kennedy tells us that the goose that laid the golden egg died looking up its own arse (“if you would lay well, don’t watch”), but so far this isn’t slowing me down any. Got eighty of what feel like keeper pages so far. And, not like I have choice in the matter anyway. I can’t stop watching myself.

So, here’s what I’ve figured out so far:

RESEARCH: Which I don’t always do. But, for Mongrels, say (which’ll hopefully be on a shelf someday), I was prepping to teach a werewolf course so I went a full month inhaling every single thing I could, werewolf-wise. Books, films, articles, whatever. And then my head finally got full enough with it all that I wrote Mongrels in sixteen days or whatever (was in a crunch / had to finish before the semester started; I’m under no such crunch now, am on sabbatical). So, about a month ago, I got a suspicion that I wanted to write a cop-novel. Well, no: I’ve had this slasher in mind for a while, but it only works in a police station. So I started thinking about it more. And I realized I don’t know cop shops as well as I should. Or crime stuff. And there’s always more to learn about the thriller. So I reread The Ruins. I read Sharp Objects. I read Tell No One. I read Officer Down. I read whatever of Brian Azzarello I could lay my hands on. I watched The Departed and Narc and Dark Blue and Rush and every other of those-type movies I could rent, stream, or had (seriously, like, three or four day). And when they got to swirling around in my head enough, I just sat down, let it all start spilling back out. To me, that’s what research is. I didn’t write anything down. I don’t need a checklist.

PREWORK: I’ve never been even a halfway believer in outlining your novel before you write it. Publishers have made me, dangled checks in front of me to make me, but given the choice, I’ll figure it out as I go along. However. This summer I worked with a producer on a treatment for like eight thousand drafts, each hardly similar to the last at all. It was grueling, but, at the end of it, I was really pleased with the product. I mean, it showed me that this way of doing things, the way screenwriters do it, it can work. Treatments are a good diagnostic tool. So I did it halfway for this novel. Kind of a bulletpoint list of what was going to happen, where each bulletpoint is a paragraph with snatches of dialogue and the seeds of lines, all that stuff you can’t help doing. But, and this is maybe an important ‘but,’ I got about twenty bulletpoints in and got too excited, so just started in writing. I haven’t caught up with the bulletpoints yet, either. Maybe when I do, then I’ll beat out the rest of the story? It’s in my head, of course, but there’s something different and good about getting it down on paper, too. And no, not even once, so far, have I consulted this ‘treatment’ thing. I know it’s there, though, a tab away, and if I ever hit a wall I can go there, find the light again.

TITLE: I don’t know what the final title of this thing will finally be, but I do know I can’t write a novel with NO title. Also, stupidly, I can’t seem to write a novel without spending like thirty minutes playing with fonts and sizes and whatever Pages will let me manipulate. I mean, if the title isn’t fancy, isn’t this ridiculous umbrella over everything that comes next? Then why am I even writing. I don’t even let myself start messing with this until I’m twenty or so pages in, though; I need to be sure the novel’s going to stick before I take time to fake a pretty font. For this one, now, here’s what I see when I sit down every day (I always try to leave the file paged up to the front):

title shot

Also, yes, I did the obligatory, terrifying searches to make sure this one wasn’t already claimed. I feel confident it’s a line from a Springsteen song—okay, a corruption of a line the Boss did—but I’m going to have to stumble back onto that. Haven’t found it again yet. Also, talking frontmatter:

EPIGRAPH: I give these too much importance, I think. Still, whenever I’m writing a novel that DOESN’T have one yet, I find myself in this awkward ‘receptive’ state of being, where everything I hear has to get immediately vetted, to see if it both perfectly fits and preps the reader for my novel, and if it’s from some place or person I want associated with my novel. Something that sets the tone, like. So far I’ve got one (Theresa Schwegel’s Officer Down) that I’m liking, as it gets ‘officer down’ into the proceedings immediately:

We're all supposed to be on the same side. But we're not. Not really.

But of course, as with the title, we’ll see. I could luck onto something even more perfect. Right now I’m reading The House that Dripped Gore and one of the Surrogate volumes (comic book), I mean; every other line in those is beautiful and bulletproof and timeless.

MOVIES: Whenever I’m writing a novel—this is nothing I didn’t know before this book—I inhale movies. Right now, because it’s October, it’s all horror, and mostly slashers (of course). I watched two yesterday, I mean, plus the Tell No One adaptation. And wrote, I don’t know, ten, fifteen pages? Speaking of:

DAILY GRIND: I’d never realized this before, but the way I write a novel, it’s I get a chapter or two down then come back to it the next day and completely rewrite them. Then I move ahead, usually a chapter or two at a time. But the new chapter(s), they’re always these placeholders. They’re just the scaffolding. Just me getting down on the page what I know needs to happen in this scene. And I always leave feeling like a failure, as there’s no grace at the end, there’s no wit in the middle. But when I come back the next day, I see places where there could be grace, where the could be wit, and, fleshing that chapter out, deleting a good half of it and rebuilding it better, the chapter starts to work. So, any day I say I’ve written ten pages, that means I’ve deleted at least five.

MUSIC: For me, what fiction really is, it’s transmuting calories and playlists into words on a page. I prefer to write right after breakfast and right after lunch. And lately I eat these biker-gel energy pack things. The energy there (honey, caffeine) seems to be a bit more reliable than Sixlets and pecans. But I still go back to them some days as well. Anyway, with the music, I have the playlist for the novel, one I just made. In this case, it’s a playlist (starts with Pharrell, ends with Lita Ford, gets there via Don Williams) I made for this screenplay I wanted to write, Selfie, which I got all beat out and scened together. Except then, with it all figured out . . . I don’t know. I didn’t want to write it quite so badly. And, I mean, I wasn’t going to get paid for it either, and that makes a big, big difference. I don’t get paid for every novel I write either, of course. But, more often than not, I do. Novels are a more sure thing for me, anyway. That playlist I stole for this now novel, though, I find I only cue it up when writing new stuff. When burning through the previous day’s work, fixing it up, I have this fallback playlist just called “easy.” Like, elevator music kind of stuff; I built that playlist around Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good,” I mean, in the days after I heard it playing at a diner in Bandslam. It’s a ten hour, seventeen-minute playlist now, as I really dig that laid back mellow stuff. And it’s perfect for revising. But not for making new stuff. For making new stuff, I need volume and emotion and screaming. Kind of like a birth, I guess.

____________

Only thing I skipped here that I can think of now is texting a friend about a novel of his that just came out, asking how many words it was (I read it digital, meaning I couldn’t like weigh it in my hands, and I never can guesstimate word-count through a device), just to gauge what this one I’m writing might be. My suspicion is it’ll take me about 80K to get it done right. Which, I mean, I’m a quarter there already, and I suspect I’m only to the third of my incomplete list of bullets. So I could be wrong, definitely. However, I have committed to go ahead and let this book breathe as it needs to. Most novels, I hit 40K and I start looking hard for the end, usually find it right around 55K (seriously, so many of my books are 55K exactly). But I’m also starting to wonder if I’ve been forcing that. If I’ve been looking too hard in the first draft for those dramatic throughlines you’re really only supposed to find in revision and tightening. So, this novel, it’ll be however big it is. Not worried. Not afraid of going over 100k, either. I’ve only done it a couple of times, but it’s no big deal.

Too, with this one, I completely planned to do what most of the mysteries and thrillers do: mulitple third-person stuff. Not quite Tolstoyian objectivity—God-vision is pretty thoroughly out-of-bounds for contemporary writers writing in somewhat realist mode—but ‘wide,’ you know? I wanted some slashercam, I mean, I wanted to look through the killer’s eyes. Except, much as I might dig Dan Brown, those slashercam chapters always feel like cheats. He’s saying everybody else’s name, why can’t he also say the name here, right? Right. I can’t allow myself to play that game anyway. Maybe just because I don’t play it well, I don’t know. So, so far? It’s all tight over the shoulder of my main detective, who’s kind of spooklily similar in make-up to my Nick Bruiseman for Not for Nothing. Could be I only know one type of dude, finally. At least in grown-up land.

And . . . it’s now twelve minutes before lunch. I only had thirty-five minutes before lunch when I started this, which wasn’t enough time to get involved with a chapter, quite. Not without missing food. And my box of Pineapple Chicken takes 4:22 to warm. My plan? Warm it, pour up some tea, watch the third act of Halloween 5 (first two acts were last night, way after midnight, which made Michael much more surprising, as he kept waking me), then sit back down here for about three hours, hammer down some words again. Then repeat for as many days or weeks or months as it takes. Hopefully at the end of it I’ll have something to show.

 

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It’s December 24th, 2014 now, trying to sneak in a few words before the rest of everything. Sitting at 128K words now, with 11 or 12K in the scratch file (scenes/chapters I write then decide need to die)—but I mine that scratch file on and off, too. Anyway, only two chapters to go; when I’m this close to the end, I can map it out pretty tightly. Whether it’ll work or not, who knows. But I just did the one chapter that I knew was going to make or break many things, and it worked out better than I’d planned, so all’s looking well. Title changed for a while, to The Fourth Widow, and now it’s a different title. The final and real title. Which I’ll have to ask my agent about saying out loud here (but I’ll still have to finish/polish/live with/pass this one around to friends before she sees it, so it’ll be a month or two at least, maybe more). It’s one I can’t believe nobody’s used yet, though.

Anyway, biggest problem so far? It’s Cambria font. There’s a place I want to say “HQ” in a jokey kind of way, but each time I do, this disfortunate (as Francis Dalimpere might call it) thing happens:

HQ Cambria

But, if that’s the worst thing, then I guess I shouldn’t be worried.

And, what’s also happened while writing this novel is that I read Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which has completely changed the way I think about writing. For the better, I think. I don’t know if things’ll look any different on the page finally. But I hope so. I always hope so.

Also, as this novels grows and writhes, I realize it’s the most ATBS novel I’ve written since, you know, ATBS. Feels good to be back in that territory again. On the surface, though, it moves more like Not for Nothing. And, also, this is the first time in many-many bo0ks that it’s taken me three solid months to get to the end. What I discovered doing that is that no playlist is good for three months of daily listening. So I’ve had to go back and forth between two playlists—and, the last part of this novel? It’s mostly been written to the second playlist. Here they both are:

selfie

That “Crazy” is Gnarls Barkley, not Patsy Cline. Anyway, tried to make a playlist of (mostly) my kids’ music. Which lasted for a few tracks, anyway. But, I mean, how do you even MAKE a playlist without Don Williams in it? That doesn’t make sense. And, that AWOLnation song, I love it of course, but that three-minute dramatic pause towards the end drives me insane. As I’m sure it’s supposed to. I’ve tried editing my file of that song (zero point zero luck there, no matter what I do—evidently I don’t know anything about clipping a song short), I’ve looked to buy a non-annoying version . . . nothing. So now whenever that pause cues up, I have to tab over to my iTunes, next-track it. I didn’t mean to buy the clean version of “Hurricane,” either. I went back and bought the not-clean after buying this one, I think. But this one seems to always be the one that finds its way into playlists. No clue the why or how of that.

And, the playlist I’ve been defaulting to lately makes a lot happier, finally. It’s one I built for happiness, I mean, not for writing. But it turns out being completely happy while you write is actually kind of good:

seger

My initial goal there had been to top-20 my Bob Seger. But that’s a foolish, foolish effort. So it’s twenty-two songs long, now—1:35 (the initial playlist is 1:38; I’ve found that about 90mins is the perfect length for me to write for).

And, I’ve been just inhaling movies, to come down from writing. The good ones from the last couple of weeks have been: The Babadook, The Canal, Houseguest, Space Station 76, Coherence. Up soon: Wolf Cop. And Taken 2 surprised me by being pretty cool; excited for Tak3n. And I always like to start the new year with another run-through of Scream. This year I might add You’re Next and Cabin in the Woods if I can.

And, the novel I’m reading, that I’m about to go to the gym and finish? Grossman’s The Magician’s Land. Took me a bit to get into it—a new mode—but once I realized that that new mode was necessary as the character kind of WAS ‘the land,’ it got a lot better. Completely digging it now. And, though the mode is different a bit, the voice is still the same, and that’s why we go to that series anyway. Next up: Volumes 3 & 4 of Mind Mgmt. And Revival, I think. Bird Box if I can sneak it in. Horrorstor finally (it’s under the tree for me). And another burn-through of Redshirts. And I need to read Egan’s Best American Short Stories 2014 as well. Probably have that one done by the end of this year. And I just bought a book I didn’t know existed: Blackfoot Redemption. I think it’s fiction-ish? I don’t know. Looks cool. If I’d read it fifteen years ago (instead of Buffalo Child Long Lance, my touchstone), I’d probably be a completely different writer now.

Anyway, more later, maybe. Guess this is turning into a journal of sorts, though it’s kind of ragged and make-do, what with using the comments also. Still, too late to start over now. Or, I would, but I got a novel to be writing . . .

 

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And . . .. done:

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 3.00.28 PM

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 3.02.00 PM

Time to go watch some heroic string of Magnum PI‘s or Rockford Files, now. Also, was completely surprised how perfect watching Maleficent on Redbox was last night. It came at the right time. Had I seen it at the theater six months ago, I’m fairly certain this would have become a completely different novel. Finally catching it last night, though, it was like thrusters. So, thank you, Maleficent. Which hopefully I remember to say in the acknowledgements. Also hope to remember Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland. Had I not read an early of it in September, no way would I have had the fire lit under me to write this book.

  • Stephen Graham Jones

    forgot make this a category of writing: for this novel I’ve taken to chewing on these gear ties from REI. completely addicted. they have these soft little nubbly ends that you always think are going to fall off, but then they never do. and you can shape them into a mustache, pooch your lips out, be all formal. I’ve yet to discover every possibility. but I’m still chewing.

  • Stephen Graham Jones

    it’s later this same day. three hours later. just hit a hundred pages. it’s always a milestone. like that’s any more of a special number than any of the rest. so, off to ye olde gym, now, to NOT use my head. that’s a very important part of the whole novel-writing process.

  • JesseLawrence

    that title. man. it all sounds way cool. was almost afraid to read the whole post, learn too much, like a spoiler or something. but crime stuff, definitely there, and slasher stuff, even more so. now I’m thinking BLUE STEEL mixed with DEMON THEORY.

    • Stephen Graham Jones

      some BLUE STEEL, definitely.

  • Stephen Graham Jones

    man, back from a week and a half of travel, and I usually get a lot of writing done on the road. this time, though—think the longest time I had to myself before the last flight home was forty minutes. the day before had been thirteen. however, lot done on the the plane, and back cooking now. and it turned out to be research-traveling, too: I initially had this just set in “City X,” pretty much. now it’s set in one of the towns I was at: Midland, Texas. my hometown. I mean, really, everything I write’s set in West Texas, I just dress it up in different ways. but now this one’s saying it out loud. and, Midland’s changed enough that I want to explore it on the page, now. back to it.

  • JesseLawrence

    that really is a sweet title, even if it doesn’t end up being the final one. it’s got a sort of BLOOD SIMPLE quality to it.

    • Stephen Graham Jones

      yeah, it’s kind of growing on me. the question now is just will it become organic to the story. wish I could force it, but that always comes out obvious. I’ll just wait and see . . .

  • oh man. love ALL of this.

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