It is no secret to anyone who knows me that I love coffee. Americanos, to be precise.
This ritual is multi-layered for me. First of all, the Starbucks counter is my equivalent of an office water cooler. I know all the staff. If the lineup is short, we chat for a brief minute, and then I head home.
There is nothing I love better than sitting down at my desk with an Americano by my elbow. It signals to my subconscious the beginning of my work day. The added benefit, of course, is the caffeine to help kick start my brain in gear.
So is it any wonder that with my obvious love of morning java that I am a big believer in the power of percolation? By that I mean the ongoing filtering of thoughts, ideas, dreams, images, facts, fantasies and knowledge to create a story. It is an important process. Rush the percolation and the final product loses its depth and nuance.
Over the course of writing three thrillers, I have become familiar with the general flow of my writing process. Despite my love of structure, it is difficult for me to produce the exact same page count from Day One to Day One Hundred. My brain requires a slow build, where I saturate myself with research until I know more than my story requires. Then I make decisions about how I use that research to develop storylines and create conflict. Percolation is essential for me. I am in this stage of the writing process at present, and I am allowing myself to absorb, reflect, and play with ideas as I delve into the various subject areas of my work in progress.
I need time to let the elements that I draw into my writing to percolate and stream into a cohesive flow onto the page. Time, as most published authors know, is in short supply. I have written my series under tight deadlines. But I am not a pantser. I need to begin a new book feeling in command of my research, my characters, my plot lines, and my approach. Rushing this step of the process can be counter-productive for me. And yet, with no measurable page count produced at this stage, it can be panic-inducing.That is where having a few books under my belt and knowing my process helps. I know that I need this time. That forcing myself to put words on the page before I am ready merely leads to me staring at a blank page and retreating back to Step One.
Not only does percolation help the story development process, but it takes it one step further. It allows me to figure out my angle, how I want to cast my lens on the story. That, to me, is where a book can grab a reader or make them put it down. For example, in my third thriller TATTOOED, one of the antagonists is a tattoo artist. For years, I had been intrigued by the mainstreaming of tattooing in our society. I have long been a lover of Japanese woodblock art. I decided to create a character who is celebrated for her skill at Japanese tattoos, whose own tattoo of a koi fish is a metaphor for her journey. As the antagonist in my book, the question is whether her tattoos are a symbol of redemption – or whether they camouflage a killer’s heart. The creation of her character was the result of filtering long-held interests, and took months of research to develop. Yet the result was very satisfying: she was one of the most fascinating characters for me to write — and, judging from the feedback from my readers, one of the most intriguing.
Percolation can be powerful beyond the story-formation stage. It can produce epiphanies, giving a work in progress a jolt that can elevate a book to a new level. I have had that experience more than once. Doing mundane tasks can often allow the subconscious to break through. I was slogging it out on the treadmill a few weeks ago, counting down the minutes, when several ideas floating around in my head suddenly gelled to create one of the storylines for my current work in progress. I was so excited, I burned rubber on that treadmill!
Deadlines can steamroll percolation as a writer races to produce a book. But I’m learning to respect the need for it, to let it be the silent partner to my daily java ritual.
Do you have a ritual that anchors your writing process? Do you find percolation helpful when you work? If not, what works for you?
You may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to?
- Once in a Lifetime, The Talking Heads
As a novelist, I am always impressed by the potency of good song lyrics, ones that can convey the universality of human experience in pithy yet eloquent phrases. Although I don’t listen to music when I write, I am often inspired by a specific song or lyric that speaks to some element of my work in progress. The bleak, gruff exhortation of Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah underscored all of my scenes of wrongfully accused lawyer Randall Barrett in INDEFENSIBLE. And the haunting lyrics of Tears for Fears’ Mad World (the dreams in which I’m dying/ are the best I ever had) set the tone for the love-obsessed ex-con in TATTOOED.
But this post is not about the theme songs for my works. It is about the personal playlist of my life as a published author. I’ve thought long and hard about sharing it, because I come from a corporate culture of keeping my professional life very separate from the personal. One was perceived as weak and below-par if life interfered with work. But life doesn’t always grant you the power to declare, “and never the twain shall meet.”
Mine collided two years ago, when I…
Woke up, fell out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup
And looking up, I noticed I was late…
This lyric from the Beatles’ Day in the Life summed up my life pretty neatly: I was in react mode, dealing with family circumstances beyond my control, and recovering from a serious bout of H1N1 — while writing and releasing the first two books of my thriller series. I’ll spare you all the details, but it was one of the most challenging (or to quote my husband, “awful”) periods of my life.
I haven’t spoken about it much in a public way, but then I heard Lee Child being interviewed at Thrillerfest this past year. He was asked about whether he was, in fact, his iconic character Jack Reacher. I expected him to deny it, to talk about how Jack was just a character with abilities he admired. But no, he related the character to an incident in his childhood, and admitted that Jack Reacher was pretty similar to Lee Child. This fascinated me, as I have been asked many times if I am Kate Lange, the struggling lawyer in my thriller series. My response was that Kate shared some of my experiences, but I wasn’t “her.” This was a truthful response, but it was also a careful response. I hadn’t wanted to blur the professional boundaries with my personal life.
I had no choice when things went south over the past two years. Fortunately, those events have stabilized. I view that period as a transition to a “new normal”, where things have been shaken up and now have settled into a new pattern. But I’ve been shaken up along the way. The old patterns that sustained me for the past ten years when I first began this journey towards author-dom aren’t what they used to be. Which leads me to The Talking Heads’ lyric from Once in a Lifetime:
You may ask yourself, where does that highway lead to?
You may ask yourself, am I right, am I wrong?
You may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?
As writers, we ask that of our characters all the time. But in the throes of daily life – ensuring children are fed, watered and transported on time, emails are answered, pages are drafted, interviews are conducted, et cetera, et ecetera – the et ceteras and deadlines lead to a panicked reviewing of the to-do list in the middle of the night. I’m sure I’m not alone in the experience of wondering — with a sense of dread that does nothing to help you get back to sleep – what haven’t I done?
Realizing my oldest will be ready to embark on her own life in three years, that question resounds with considerable import. Like many of my peers, I’m now marking the passage of time, knowing how quickly it will pass. The question has refused to be appeased with the checking off of my to-do list.
What haven’t I done?
And rather than being a panicked knee-jerk reaction to my to-do list, it has become a very freeing thought.
What haven’t I done yet with my life?
What haven’t I done yet with my work?
Carpe diem, my friends, carpe diem. Another pithy phrase (although not a lyric) that has resonated with me for a long time. But now, more than ever.
How about you? Do you have a lyric or motto that has inspired you?