I believe I need to reassess how I write.

I wrote my first book back in 1996-97 before I knew what I was doing, and only that I needed to finish what I started. After everyone went to bed for the night, I spent an hour or two sitting at the computer, writing in a QuarkXPress document formatted to letter size.  I jotted notes into a text document about what should happen in the coming scenes and chapters — and I had the television on and set to a low volume, treating the news and late-night talk  shows as a sort of Muzak that let me tune out the rest of the world. Sometimes the Muzak informed some twisted part of the tale. Which was a horror novel, of course, since King and Straub’s early works, Burton’s 1001 Arabian Nights, and Wells’ time machine and Martian leviathans watered my literary roots.

My oldest daughter was eight, my youngest barely more than one, and my wife neither a morning person or a night person, so I was left to my own devices to figure out what I’d spent my whole life before trying and failing to accomplish. While that book did see completion, other works weren’t as fortunate. And habits die hard. As I’ve tried and failed and tried and succeeded to start and finish other novels, I’ve followed some variation of this original work ethic, and it is only this morning, as I partially unplug from the video streaming available in this 2013 world of Facebook, Hulu, YouTube, and whatnot, that I’m able to sit down and again hear the quiet sounds that inhabit my imagined worlds.

Which is sort of appropriate as I’m working on a quiet story about life along an unusual river, blending a little bit of horror and a little bit of SFnal content.

The lesson is an old one, which I’ve heard described in various ways by other writers. Most notably, Gene Wolfe, who according to Neil Gaiman, said something along the lines that “you never learn how to write a novel, you merely learn how to write the novel you’re on.” I know I’ve cited that before, but it’s a lesson that bears repeating — probably each time I start a new book.


About stephenwnagy

writer, father, husband. not necessarily in that order.
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One Response to Methods

  1. Silver Price says:

    Lehane’s previous novel about the Coughlin family, “The Given Day,” was his most richly imagined book since “Mystic River.” “Live By Night,” featuring the youngest Coughlin son, Joe, as a rum-runner during Prohibition, floats along on cliche after cliche, and while it doesn’t quite sink, it never takes off. There are simply too many familiar generic tropes- the handy wiseguy quips; the binary view of women (bruised and cynical vs. bruised and nurturing); the crime boss with the fatal weakness for his loser son; and worst of all, too many passages when the plot stops dead so that Lehane can sententiously explain the complexities of his main character, who can’t decide whether he’s a romantic softie (the “outlaw”) or a ruthless pragmatist (the “gangster”). Lehane is terrific at settings (his Tampa location is beautifully filled out) and his set-pieces of violence are as hair-raising as ever. But he’s taken too many easy turns in this one. Next time, I hope he takes a little more time (and I don’t need to hear any more about the Coughlins) and gives us some genuine surprises along the way.

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