Trapped by Details: an Epiphany

One of the side effects of a medication I’ve been taking for a couple of months is insomnia — serious lack of sleep. There are moments when I think this could be a good thing because the hazy state between sleeping and waking is often the source of ideas and insights — and there has been a lot of hazy state . Alas, those ideas and insights seldom carry over into the daylight hours. If I could just lie there in the dark and dictate into a recorder, who knows what marvels of novelistic fiction I could create. Well, that’s never going to happen, but once in a while, something worth pursuing does survive until morning and daylight.

A recent night was one of those frustrating on/off sleep/wake stretches that had me wanting to just get up, wander around the apartment, find something to do, and forget about sleep altogether. But I stuck it out and let my mind do the wandering. And what happened was that I had a sort of vision. I haven’t been able to write at all for the last two or three months, so part of the night’s mental meandering is often about trying to select the ongoing WIP most likely to have a chance of sucking me in and getting my fingers back on the keyboard. Gift of the Ancien is always one of those being considering — and discarded.

But last night, I saw that novel in an entirely new way. It was as if I was standing off from an actual, physical construct, and seeing it as an object independent of details like voice or characterization, and stripped of my personal interest in and attachment to it. I can’t regain much of the feelings I had about this new view, but the image itself is still fairly clear in my mind — and its meaning. Although I can’t reconstruct or explain how I came to it, the meaning of the image is that this particular novel (and several others), has been a challenging puzzle to work out, and that challenge is completely independent of the novel’s importance to me. In other words, I’ve been sucked into an ongoing attempt to solve a puzzle (or a handful of puzzles), fascinated by the challenge just as certainly as any game player. It’s the intricacies of that particular story that I’m attempting to work out, without any consideration of whether it has enough value to me to justify the time and energy I’m putting into it.

I also had brief glimpses of a couple of the other WIPs being bounced around as possible ways out of the black hole of wordlessness. Most of the insights are gone, damn it, but there was the sense, however vaguely I can see or express it now, that those WIPs had value apart from the details. Their value — their meaning — to me, personally, was more important than the puzzles they represent, or the working out of the puzzles. Ancien, on the other hand, even though it would have value as a published novel, and possibly of more value than the others, has no other value to me.

On a superficial level, this all boils down to the question of why I write: for money, or for myself. But now I can see it isn’t that at all. The real question is: is this a story I really care about, for its own sake, or is it just a container for intriguing puzzles? I turns out that anything I write for myself has a boundary far beyond me. It’s an idea or collection of ideas, that I hope will draw readers looking for more than entertainment. Of course, every novel is a series of puzzles to work out; maybe that’s a big part of the appeal for writers, especially writers who aren’t particularly successful in the fame and fortune arena.

I still haven’t settled on a WIP to drag me out of the creativity black hole, but at least I have a better basis for making that selection. Ancien, as strongly as its puzzles fascinate me, needs to be put aside where it can’t tempt and distract me. The same is true of several other WIPs in various stages of development. Maybe if I can get them shoved under the carpet and use the imagery from my vision, I’ll find the piece that will inspire me to get back to writing.



Turning Dry into Drama – Bentham’s Dream

This is an unplanned followup to yesterday’s post. It may be somewhat disorganized, even a little incoherent, since I’m thinking with my fingers. Bentham’s Dream was originally intended to be part of a short story collection about prisons, from about the early 19th century to the 2060s or thereabout. Somehow, Bentham’s Dream took over and shoved the other stories out of sight. Credit the last few years of research about the death penalty, solitary confinement, and other aspects of criminal justice. The story has grown, from some 8,000 words to 26,000 words and is still a long way from being finished.

I think it was at about 25,000 words that I realized I had a problem and needed to do some very deep thinking about where the story was going. More important, and I think yesterday’s question about why anyone would want to read it was a trigger, the problems coalesced into one question: how do I turn a somewhat dry subject and two talking heads into a story that will fascinate rather than send readers off into slumberland.

This might serve as a metaphor for any subject that might grab a writer, but seems to have little potential for attracting readers. Fortunately, science fiction allows a lot of latitude in topics, and any serious sf reader probably has fond memories of books dealing with subjects that they never would have considered worth their time. This is worth thinking about in this age of formula writing. How many Hunger Games clones can you bear to read? How many zombie novels or post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world reruns?

There are thousands of possible topics waiting for the science fiction writer with some imagination, someone who’s willing to take some risks and walk away from the clones and clichés. But it won’t be easy. It’s probably been well over a year since I started writing Bentham’s Dream. My original concept was fairly limited, but turned out to be nothing more than the skeleton from which to hang something much more complex and, I hope, more dramatic. Something I discovered about my writing is that I tend to place my characters in very restricted circumstances. Well, there’s nothing more restrictive than a prison where there is zero chance of prisoners causing any problems for the staff. So, no riots, no murders. None of the clichés that we associate with prison stories. Just two people wandering around the prison, observing the prisoners, and talking about it. How in the world can I introduce action and drama into such a setting?

Originally, the main protag, an inspector for the region’s penal system, does his job and then leaves, trying to decide how he wants to slant his report. He and the warden have had an interesting and enlightening discussion, but never touched base with each other as human beings. Dull, dull, dull. After much backing and forthing about POV, I’m writing the story in first person, from the point of view of Jerry Stanton, the inspector. This puts us closer to him than third person would be, but also limits what we can know about Chandler, the prison warden. Since Chandler starts off as an efficient bureaucrat, Jerry’s point of view is important if we want to see him as a human being, possibly with doubts about his job.

As the story evolved, Chandler turned out to be the key to the drama, and to a very different ending than I had planned, one that will be, if I do it right, a shocker.

The Solution is… Second Person Point of View

How many times have I been amazed when the solution to a longstanding problem appears suddenly, all by itself? I suppose I’ll continue to be amazed, and continue to wonder why the solution is so obvious once it arrives that I wonder why it took so long to arrive.

My nonfiction death penalty WIP has been stalled for over a year in spite of my having a ton of research material, and knowing what topics I want to include. New insights keep coming, about what I want to say, but exactly how I need to say it has escaped me. I’ve made a certain amount of progress, eliminating completely any hint of scholarly objectivity, and giving more weight to what the condemned themselves have had to say than most books do. Death penalty literature runs mostly to fact-heavy arguments for or against, or collections of death row prisoner writing, with commentary by the editors. Neither is what I’m aiming for.

What I want to do is break the mold of writing about the death penalty, to reach into the emotional core of readers and move them in a way that hasn’t ever been done. I want it be the kind of book that makes readers tell their friends, “Here, you have to read this book.” That’s a pretty tall order, I know, and probably far beyond my ability to achieve. But I keep thinking that if I can find the right structure and tone, I can come close.

I have a pretty good grip on the structure, but it’s the tone that will make the difference, and that’s what has been escaping me. Until yesterday morning, when I woke up thinking about the book, and writing scenes in my head, all of which were in second person. I was addressing someone in the place of a prisoner, experiencing what it would be like to live for the rest of your life, however long that might be, in a tiny room made of cement and steel. “You are pacing this space for the first of thousands of times, becoming familiar with every inch of it, trying to imagine yourself never seeing the sky again, or being touched by another human being, except accidentally, as you’re put into restraints for the short trips — to the showers, to the cubicle in which you’ll look through bullet-proof glass at your visitors — if you have visitors — those trips that are the only part of the world you’ll experience outside your cell.”

I usually forget all those wonderful little bits by the time I’ve washed, dressed and fixed my first cup of tea. And usually, I don’t worry about it because there’s always more where that came from. But sometimes I forego all the getting-up rituals because what has been drifting through my sleep-fogged mind is too important to forget. Well, I did forget what I was addressing that person about, but not that I was addressing them, personally, as if I were talking to them. And that was it. That was the tone I was looking for. Not for the entire book, which could become wearisome, but interspersed with the quotes and my own commentary.

Second person isn’t used very much in fiction, and when I Googled it, I found that its most usual use is in instruction-type writing, or self-help books. When it is used in fiction, it’s meant to provoke an emotional response. “… second-person breaks the fourth wall on your work and results in your prose directly addressing and commanding the reader. This can have the problematic effect of popping your reader out of their suspended disbelief because it’s actively calling attention to them as a reader. It implies that the reader himself is the acting character of the prose.” “…at its most simple level, the second-person point of view serves as an invitation for the reader to come fully into a piece with all of their baggage, all of their expectations, and, for a moment, to become fully immersed as a character in the work.”

I was sure, as soon as I was aware of what I was doing, that it was the tone I needed. But it was good to learn more about second person POV and confirm that my instinct was right. And now that I know it, I wonder — why did it take so long?


The “Why isn’t My Series Selling?” Lament

Every time I see someone asking forum members for help for a poorly selling book or series, I’m tempted to stick my rude two cents in and say “Maybe it just isn’t very good.” I never do, but it’s pretty darn tempting. The beleaguered author lists all the things they’ve done right that should suck readers in and keep them coming back for books two, three and four. Is it really necessary to say that they usually haven’t done everything right? And even if they have, that’s no guarantee of success.

Every so often, I take a look at the book that is supposedly perfect and can see plenty of reasons why readers might not even finish reading it, much less go on to the next one. In this case, the cover was okay, the blurb was too brief for my liking, and wasn’t entirely clear, but we’re trying to find out why people do buy the book, but don’t finish it or enjoy it enough to buy the sequel. I’m well aware that most readers aren’t turned off by poor grammar or typos unless they’re bad enough or frequent enough to be distracting. I was skimming the sample pretty quickly, so I might have missed a few boo boos, but the only thing that really struck me was that invisible bugbear, the repeated word — (“that that”).

So what was the problem? Even a slow start might not be enough to turn readers right off, if it’s a genre they like, and the blurb has led them to expect an interesting story. But this was supposed to be an action novel, with a tough heroine, and it dragged, and the heroine immediately sounded like an idiot. If that wasn’t bad enough, the author was apparently trying for a literary touch, and sprinkled in irrelevant and awkward metaphors when he should have been concentrating on the action. Continuity problems? Oh yes. Like the villain saying he was going to take his time about killing our heroine so she could appreciate it, and then, just a few paragraphs later, saying he was in a hurry to make an appointment and could only take two minutes to finish up this little job.

All of that might not turn the average reader off right away, but it’s a safe bet that the flaws of the first dozen or so paragraphs are going to show up again and again. After a while, a little bell is likely to go off in the reader’s head, and she’s going to notice that something’s rotten in Denmark. All the lame metaphors, and the details that don’t work, will have a cumulative effect just below the conscious level. It’s when they reach consciousness that the reader is likely to sign off.

I read some of the Amazon reviews, noting that only 47% of readers gave the first book five stars. And 16% of only 19 reviews gave it one or two stars. Another 16% gave it three stars. Most of those poor reviews were spot on, even for the short excerpt that I’d read. So maybe the real problem for the author — the most important thing that he did wrong, was to not pay any attention to the reviews.

Book Reviews, Scrivener Labels, Currently Reading

I read a lot of book reviews on Amazon — even of books I have no intention of buying. The most interesting ones are the one and two-star reviews because they tend to say more about the reviewers than about the books. It’s just another way of studying the human mind, I suppose, but you can also chalk it up to plain old curiosity. What other excuse can there be for devoting so much of my life to trying to understand humans?

There are all sorts of reasons for slamming a book with one or two stars and a negative review, and most of those can be skipped over without any loss. The ones that keep me reading and, sometimes, laughing, are those that set out to explain why the book is a very bad book. What they usually accomplish is the revelation that the reader is only semi-literate. Simply being able to read and comprehend, individually, the words in a book isn’t true literacy. At least some of these semi-lits admit that they don’t like the book because… and it turns out that what they’re looking for is either action or emotion, or both. No complexity, please. No characters whose personalities aren’t straight forward and easy to comprehend. No ruminations, or “navel gazing.”

The rest of the semi-lits critique style, pacing, story line, characterization, all with the intention of showing that they know better than the author how those things should be done. One of their favorite bits of wisdom is about the books believability because people just… don’t… act… that… way. Maybe not in their limited experience and shallow understanding, which they have no problem showing off. The net result is that all they’ve displayed is their inability to comprehend what they’re reading.

Unfortunately, the proportion of semi-lits to actual readers seems to be growing at a truly frightening rate. Which means that I’ll soon be deprived of a harmless source of amusement, because there always comes a time when you’ve seen all the variations and permutations, and there’s nothing new to look forward to.

Scrivener — Still on the prowl for ways to use Scrivener more efficiently. I downloaded a bunch of free templates created by various people, including Scrivener’s developers, hoping to find some tweaks that I could use to make my own template more useful. David Hewson’s was the only one I didn’t trash after a thorough look. Not surprising, since it was his book that got me thinking about templates in the first place.

Looking at all those templates was a great visualization of the variety of ways writers approach and organize their work. All very different from my own. What Hewson’s template persuaded me to use, after have read about them many times, was Labels. Their use just never clicked in my mind as something I needed. But now that I’m trying to grasp story structure as something that could improve my writing, a use for labels jumped right into my face.Scrivener labels

I want to trace Casey’s arc to see if it follows the three-act structure, but even with each scene given a name, it’s difficult to keep track of what’s happening where. Dividing the word count by four let me set up the chapters to conform to the 25, 50, and 75 percent structure. I don’t know yet why Weiland sets up the second act in two pieces, but I’ll probably get to that today. Anyway — now it’s easy to visualize which act I’m dealing with,  and the chunks are smaller, also making it easier.

This is still very experimental, so I’ll see how it goes.

Currently reading: The Raven’s Seal, by Andrei Baltakmens — free on Kindle.
The author is a Dickens scholar and it shows. This is a long, slow mystery in the style of Charles Dickens, right down to the sometimes excessive detail and authorial opinionating. Which is to say, that if you like Dickens you’ll probably like The Raven’s Seal. I’m only on the third of 24 chapters, so I can’t really review it, but from what I’ve read so far, I think I’m going to enjoy it. The hero is about to fight a duel for the insulted honor of a poor but beautiful girl, which leads to his being thrown in prison. I suspect that he will eventually be freed and will marry the girl, even though she is beneath him in both class and fortune.

A Well-Educated Boy — 1

Finding the right graphic for a cover can be easy or frustrating enough to make me tear my hair out. I’m not an artist, so I depend on others’ talent. And because I’m cheap, cheap, cheap, I use only public domain art. That might change if any of my books hit the bigtime, but that isn’t likely, so for now I have to work within my budget of zero dollars.

This graphic is proof that you may think you know what kind of cover art you want for a book, but you really don’t Not until the right image comes along and smacks you upside the head, the way this one smacked mine.


This is the original, uncropped image that I found long before I’d written more than a few hundred words of the story and didn’t where it would be going. I still haven’t worked out the cover, but I’m beginning to see the germ of an idea.

The Joy of Editing and Revision

The joy? I know the very idea of editing and revision being anything but agony will be a foreign concept to some of my readers. But. Yes, it can be agony, but it has such a vital part to play in turning ideas into a novel that the process sometimes seems like a kind of magic. NaNoWriMo and other little interruptions made it necessary to put Gift of the Ancien aside for longer than I really wanted to. But the time away has allowed the dust of forgetfulness to settle on the novel. Now that I’ve come back to it and blown the dust away, what I see is both flawed and slightly unfamiliar.

My big problem is that I pick at the little things needing correcting, and lose sight of the big picture. The big picture is what I’m looking at now, reading the novel from the first chapter to the very end, trying to keep that nit picky editor in its place. Gift is going to require the most massive and difficult process of revision I’ve had to face so far. In addition to the base story, I wrote a series of “interludes,” short pieces that read like short stories, and that were intended to serve as a kind of fictional backstory. That’s complicated enough, right. Fictional backstory for a novel.

Then I decided to continue the story into a slightly distant future, using part of what had originally been a stand-alone spinoff novel. The result could be, and was threatening to be, clutter. Massive clutter. So the revision process has been focused on how to draw all these wildly different parts together into a coherent whole.

An additional complication, thanks to a friend’s insightful critique,  has been moving the original central protagonist somewhat to the side, and ramping up the importance of others. It would be accurate to say that the original novel has turned into a gigantic mess. But it would not be accurate to say that I should just give up on it. Because, shining through the clutter and complications is the novel I hoped to write — exciting and original.

My way of going through the process of editing and revision isn’t one I’d advise anyone to imitate, but it works for me. I don’t create multiple drafts. Bad, bad, bad writer. Multiple drafts allow you to look back at where you started, and rescue parts that you initially thought should be discarded. Instead, I commit surgery and mayhem on the one and only original draft. I may save small chunks in a separate file for possible future use, but very rarely. The original draft rolls along, shedding detritus, picking up new material, slowly evolving into a brand-new creature.

I suppose that way of writing comes from a psychological quirk that prefers to leave the past in the past rather than dwelling on it. The idea of trying to find my way back through four or five drafts, or more, has a nightmarish quality that just makes me want to back away as quickly as possible. The horror! The horror! Not to mention the clutter.

So Gift of the Ancien is now under the gaze of the distant, objective god that created it. I highlight here and there, and make occasional notes in Scrivener’s floating notepad, but mainly, I’m just reading, getting back into the big picture. I never imagined that it would become such a huge picture.

How Long Does it Really Take to Write a Novel?

Like my last post asking how long it should take to write a novel, this question has no answer. It takes as long as it takes. But it’s a very interesting question for me to consider at this particular moment because I’m actively working on a complete revision of the novel that I wrote for NaNoWriMo in 2012. In July of 2012, I started writing posts tracking the development of the idea up to NaNo. Somehow, that dropped by the wayside and I stopped posting about it in October. But I did write the novel.

The New Serfdom turned out to be the shortest novel I’d ever written for NaNo, and the length, just under 51,000 words, reflected my growing uncertainty about it as November went by. By the end, the novel I’d written was very different from the one I’d planned. And because I was no longer sure what kind of story I wanted to write, it was a mess. The basic idea was still there: a United States broken up into variously weak and strong local governments, survivalist enclaves, and personal fiefdoms reviving slavery, serfdom, and indentured servitude. But I didn’t know where I wanted the story to go. Which meant that I had no idea how it would get there, or how its central characters would relate to each other.

So I put it away because I can’t stand to throw away a good idea, but I didn’t think I’d ever have the heart to wrestle it into something worth reading. But there are stories that won’t let you go even if you choose to let them go. So, off and on, over the last year, I’d plug in some notes, mostly about the characters. After a few months of this, I began to see a different story coming out of it, mostly because I knew the characters a lot better than I had when I wrote the darned thing.

It’s coming along pretty well, even if there are still some questions about what kind of decisions the main character will make at the end and how that will influence what everyone else does. There’s no guarantee that I’ll finish it, but that looks like a real possibility. And if I do, there’s a load of posts about it that might just turn into something like The Evolution of A Novel.

Format and Length aren’t Set in Stone

Novel? Novella? Short Story? Which one is the appropriate length for a story idea? Should a short story be a standalone or part of a collection? Can a short story be expanded into a novel after it’s been published?

Probably because I started writing seriously within the context of National Novel Writing Month, I looked at every new story idea as a possible novel. Then two things happened. The collection of ideas grew into a monster. The number of stories to turn into novels would take a lifetime — a lot more years than I had left. By the time I’d written and published a couple of novels, I began to look at all those little gems more critically. Did they all have the potential to be developed into full-length novels? And that’s when the light bulb went on.

Mentally, I had locked myself into a “novelist” persona. It was probably an unconscious reaction to my life-long desire to be a novelist. Now I was, and it kept me from taking a broader perspective. Becoming aware of that point of view, and looking at all those ideas-in-waiting, “fiction writer” belatedly made its way into my narrow self-identity. There was no reason to limit myself to writing novels! It took a couple of years to come to such a profound conclusion, but I’m a slow thinker. I’m also a very slow writer, and it became obvious that short stories can turn a slow writer into a more productive writer. Writing short stories can also be a kind of time-out from the overwhelmingness of  novel-writing.

It can also create new problems. For instance, I started a story that would probably turn out to be a novella. Later, I began a collection of short stories, one that this particular story would fit into perfectly. On the one hand, if I included it, I would have to round it off and leave out a lot of the original plot. On the other, it would give me more breathing room: one less long work in my WIP pile. Neither answer satisfied. The solution? Write the short story, publish it with the others in the collection. Then, at some future date, expand it into the full-length novel or novella that I had originally planned.

Then there is the novel that just didn’t work. The central idea was great, and would probably attract more readers than I’ve had for any book I’ve published so far. But it had a lot of problems that I couldn’t see until a friend who also happens to be an editor shoved them under my nose. So Gift of the Ancien has been sitting on the back shelf until I could figure out how to make it better. One of its big problems was the series of “interludes” that opened the book and ran through it. They provided background in an interesting way, but they just didn’t fit into the novel proper. I took them out, put them back, and took them out again. But they weren’t the real problem. The real problem was that the novel needed to be massively revised. If I could pull that off, then the interludes could be published in a collection later, as a sort of prequel. They would have to be expanded, but that would be all to the good in further developing the world I had created for my characters.

One of the biggest advantages indie writers have over those tied to publishing contracts is flexibility. We’re free to think out of the box, try things that legacy publishing doesn’t allow. But first we have to get our heads out of those boxes.

Priorities Change

Scratched out a thousand words or so yesterday evening after taking the day off from NaNo. It’s time to slow down. I’ll be sticking to a goal of 2,000 to 2,500 words a day from now on. I do this every year after the first few days of frenzied writing. Physically and mentally I can’t keep up that mad pace.

But this year, I have another reason to slow down: the project I mentioned in the last post. I’m extremely obsessive when I get my teeth into a problem that must be solved. Usually, it’s an intellectual problem, more so as I get older and lose interest in my external world. There are lots of problems that can be solved by pretending they don’t exist. Eventually, they will solve themselves.

This particular problem was important to me at one time, until I reached a point where there seemed to be no solution, and no advantage to me even if I solved it. But now it might be important to someone I care about. Even vital. So it’s taken a lot of the space in my brain that would ordinarily be devoted to writing another collection of 50,000 words. Priorities change when time threatens to be short.

Timelines – Keeping Track of Your Plot

Most of my stories have had straightforward timelines, strictly chronological with few, if any, flashbacks or back story that could be confusing to the reader. The New Serfdom is a big step away from that simplicity, and it’s one of the reasons that the novel is still unfinished, almost a year since I wrote it during NaNo. A good deal of the plot depends on flashbacks, so I’ve been looking around for ways to get things under control. After all, if I can’t keep track of what’s going on, I can’t expect readers to.

National Novel Writing Month has an increasing number of sponsors, and starting last year, one of the more interesting ones was Aeon Timeline, being offered at a discount for NaNo participants and a higher discount for winners. It’s available for both Mac and Windows. I downloaded the trial, and since that was last year, I don’t remember any of the details, but it looked extremely well thought out. The trouble was that it was also quite complex, and I rarely have the patience to fool with a program that I can’t dive into without reading a manual just to understand the basics.

It’s probably a great program for anyone who usually writes complicated plots, but not for me. Even at the winner’s discount to $20.00, that’s too much spend on an app that I might use just once. Plus the time involved in learning it. You can check it out here. There’s a FAQ, videos, and a user’s manual.

When the NaNo forums reopened this month, the link to a web timeline was posted to the Resources forum. Tiki-Toki has a free version, and several premium upgrades for power users, businesses and teachers. I plan to sign up and try it out when NaNo is over and I can get back to New Serfdom. My main caveat about using it, even if it turns out to do exactly what I want, is that I don’t like to depend on cloud apps. Call me old-fashioned, but I want to know that my work isn’t going to disappear or be unavailable because a site has some kind of glitch or goes out of business, or my ISP is having a bad day.

Another option, and the one I’ll be working with for a while is a little mind mapping program put out by the brilliant Scrivener crew. I played around with it while it was in beta, and while it was extremely intuitive and flexible, I didn’t have any real use for it at the time. I downloaded the trial version the other day when my mind turned to the never-ending confusion of New Serfdom. Scapple isn’t designed for timelines, but I never let something like that stand in the way of my experiments, so I’m going to see if I can take advantage of its many features and use it that way. You can download a free trial that will last for 30 days of use. That means it will work for several months if you don’t use it every day. Price for both Mac and Windows is $14.95.

Stephen King and Me

I just read a great new article by Stephen King. It’s one of those things that can make you think the universe has its eye on you. It’s about first lines, and how it can take a lot of work to write one that you know will hook the reader. He’s talking about fiction, of course, but it seems like more than chance that I woke up way too early this morning, my brain full of ideas that pushed me out of bed to work on the first chapter of Set Me Free.

As it happens, I did have an opening already, but I got stuck going beyond it. I couldn’t just skip the opening paragraphs and go on to the rest of the chapter, because those first paragraphs would set the tone for the rest, and make clear exactly what the book is about. That blockade has been going on for weeks now, and it was getting pretty frustrating. Suddenly, there it was; I broke through the wall and the way is clear.

I didn’t come across King’s article until after the breakthrough, so I can’t say he had anything to do with it. It was just nice to see that, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, a writer has the same problems. King said, “When I’m starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.”

It’s that last sentence that’s important. It isn’t just the fact of being stuck, of wondering how in the world you can write a book if you can’t even get it started. It’s knowing that there’s a right way to start it, and you have to find that way in order for the whole thing to come out right.

So here’s how it finally came out, after the first line and the Shakespeare quote.

Murder most foul.

Hamlet      Alas, poor ghost!
Ghost        Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing     
                   To what I shall unfold.
Hamlet      Speak; I am bound to hear.
Ghost        So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.

Murderer. Killer. Monster! A life has been taken and it must be avenged. For centuries, that has been the law, whether commonly understood or written into a legal code. Vengeance almost seems to be written in human DNA, and it’s only recently that another idea has taken hold. The idea of mercy, of punishment that acknowledges the humanity of the killer and doesn’t require more killing, in the name of justice.

The wording isn’t final, but that isn’t important right now. As King says, “You try to find something that’s going to offer that crucial way in, any way in, whatever it is as long as it works.”