The Darkness comes from within

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg discusses the Artist’s desire to create: “…though she [the artist] expresses vitality, must behind it touch down on quiet peace.”

In On Writing, Stephen King describes how he writes to Metallica. Most recently I read an interview with him and Neil Gaiman, and King discussed how he writes in his Florida home with his desk facing the wall, away from the distracting windows.

Goldberg and King are both touching on the importance of the process and how we keep it from managing us. Ever since Tap Out hit readers’ hands, I’ve had questions about my process and the environment in which I write. Most assume because of the pervasive darkness in my novel that I will lean toward King’s image: sitting alone in a dark room, cranking heavy tunes and hammering away on the keyboard.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

But first, let me explain how my office came to be.

We bought our home while my wife was pregnant with our first daughter and we had no cash; of course during the real estate bubble. Therefore, we grabbed up a two-bedroom ranch with a large enough yard for a future addition. The “spare” room became the nursery, and my wife did not want a traditional theme. She wanted something unisex and something that would last for our second child (we didn’t know the gender of either child until delivery). Also, since my wife is 100% Irish, she wanted the room to reflect that, and so why not paint the room like the hills of Ireland with cute little sheep and a rainbow, etc? And while at it, why not make it panoramic, painting the popcorn ceiling with a multi-toned sky and puffy white clouds?


Of course I said yes, because that’s what you do for your wife in your new home with your first baby on the way. Fortunately, our friend’s sister is a talented artist. She came and sketched and then painted, and within a week the nursery was complete. And it was perfect once our daughter was snuggled inside.

Fast forward three years, the addition has been built, and we now have four bedrooms, two daughters and I get an office. The new “bedroom” in the addition was perfect. Spartan like King’s, painted a peaceful blue, ala Goldberg. Only there was one problem: the windows in the nursery had become excessively drafty. We didn’t have the money to replace both, so a decision was made–paint the office pink, add a cutsie theme and convert it into the new nursery. As for the old? It became my office, complete with a space heater to combat the cold, with the hills of Ireland over my head.

So when I write, I guess I implore both the wisdom of Goldberg and King. The room is incredibly peaceful. When I look up while writing a scene, lost with where I want to go or what I want a character to say, I’m faced with serenity, not insanity. And I believe that is what keeps me from getting pulled too far into the darkness within. Because I crank away at my work with a fevered pitch as if Metallica–or more likely Slipknot–is roaring in my ears, but I am surrounded by peace. That balance keeps me sane and maintains the humanity within my work. It is impossible not to. I sit and write in the room in which my firstborn dreamed.

3, 2, 1…Write!

In CrossFit, a fair amount of our training is completed “under the gun” of a running clock. Workouts are performed at high intensity with the aim of completing the work under a certain time, or seeing how much work you can complete for a specified duration. I have used this methodology in my training for the past six years, and, unknowingly, have structured my writing schedule similarly.

I write in the morning, starting at five and continuing until I need to pull myself away from the computer to go to work, usually around seven. I do this every day of the week, and only on occasion write on the weekends. Therefore, in a year (260 days without weekends) I average 520 hours writing. That’s not a significant amount by most standards.

It was only recently that I began to understand how I can still produce a novel a year (90-100,000 words) in such a limited amount of time. That metaphorical gun to the head of the clock in my workouts applies to my writing.

I waste no time in the morning, usually eating my breakfast as I check email and wake up. The it’s immediately to the writing. I often start with longhand in my journal, clearing out the debris from the day before so I may concentrate. This doesn’t last more than 10-15 minutes. I immediately turn to the notes on the project I’m writing, make a mental list of what needs to be addressed, check my outline for the scene I’m creating and go.

At this point I usually have an hour and a half to crank. And I do. There’s little to no rest (coffee drinking and refills are allowed) and I try not to over think what I’m doing. Much like in training, the “paralysis of analysis” is crippling, and the running clock keeps me motivated to keep it simple and to avoid the unnecessary.

Therefore, when finished, I have crisp, active writing and have produced a fair volume of work.

Now, the paramount question: Is it any good? Yes and no.

Most often my first drafts are skeletal. The plot is hung, but the characters need fleshing out, the themes refined, the foreshadowing placed appropriately, and on and on. It is reasonable to say that my method is ridiculous since I have so much to do the second and third and fourth times around. I’d agree, if I had more time each day.

But I don’t. I can’t pause and reflect. I get those “first thoughts“–ala Natalie Goldberg–out. I try to get the entirety of the story complete within a season–ala Stephen King. Then I wait. Like with exercise, I recover. I mull over my weak spots–plotting or characterization–and I work on those in smaller stories, mere exercises for my “sucks” (those elements of craft I need to work on).

Then I attack the second draft with the same energy drive and determination as the first, now with different aims, but with the same running clock.

I repeat this process as many times as needed. It’s not pretty. It’s often a bit stressful at the start, but once I’m moving, like with any demanding workout, I’m fine. Because I know at the end I will be satisfied that I’ve written. Perfection comes in the revision. These sessions are about production. And under the clock, the 3,2,1…go! I’m on fire.

One Dead Computer and One Open Journal

I had every writer’s nightmare come true yesterday morning: my computer wouldn’t start. At 5 am I hit the power button and noting happened. I held it in. Still nothing. I cursed, got on my hands and knees and unplugged everything. After waiting the obligatory ten seconds I tried again. Nothing. Happy Monday.

I struggle with technology as is, but without a cup of coffee I knew I was useless and any additional attempts were to be futile. I pulled the plug on the computer (only three years old) and sat down in front of my black screen. What to do?

I still keep a journal and use it to prime my thoughts before typing, to take notes in during revision, to outline new stories, to create character sketches and any to jot down intriguing overheard dialogue. So I snagged my notebook and figured I’d get a solid 15-20 minutes of rambling and call it a day.

An hour later, I looked up and didn’t know where the time had gone. Apparently I had a lot to get off my chest, and the unconscious practice of just moving my hand across the page was extremely cathartic. I’ve read and taught Writing Down the Bones countless times, but haven’t used Goldberg’s methods in quite a while. It was refreshing.

I haven’t gone back and read what is there, but I’m sure it’s not the seed bed for my next novel. It’s me venting about my two sick daughters, my injured elbows, decisions I need to make about editing my current manuscript, what to do with my previous novel–to Kindle Direct Select or no. Essentially, there’s a lot of me just trying to figure out my life.

It is a worthwhile practice, and for me, how I began writing. I never said, “I will write stories.” Rather, I decided to write what came to mind and to see where it took me, no agenda. I have all my old journals, stacks and stacks that take up a large section of my office closet and another spot in the attic. From them, came my way into narrative, taking my own musings and giving them voice via fictional people. They are the stepping stones, and I won’t part with them. Nor should I.

I’m not saying I’ll journal more, now. But possibly I’ll allow myself the time to sit and let my mind wander and to allow my hand to sketch out the problems and possible solutions. Because that’s what happens. Light bulbs went on for me. I had clarity about issues I needed to decipher, but hadn’t taken the time, nor figured out a way.

My computer did that for me. It forced me back to my old school methods. And the best part? There’s nothing wrong with the machine. The tech guy told me to change the outlet I use and didn’t charge me for the service. He was right. I’m writing this entry on my trusty Dell. But that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten the pen and paper, always available at my side. In fact, they are more evident than ever before.