High-Wire Writing

The majority of questions I get asked have nothing to do with my plots or my characters. Rather, people ask about the mechanics of writing – how did I get started, what are my work habits, how did I choose a structure, how do I get my ideas, how long did it take to write a novel? What this says to me is that there are a lot of would-be writers out there who just haven’t yet (or never will) jump into the pool. I also suspect that many of these folks are thinking: hell, if he can do it, so can I. They have a point.

My answers to these questions never seem to satisfy. The reason is that I tend to be all over the map with my processes. Part of it is because I’m just learning to write myself and, if I’m smart, I will never stop learning and changing.

Getting started was actually easy for me and probably was the result of years of internal pressure building up. I have always written something, although for years it was mostly business writing – letters, analysis, reports, etc. – with a few short stories and some false starts on novels. Then, one day I read a serious historical work on Baltimore’s Firehouse gangs. The topic was fascinating and it was about the city I love. I wanted more, but there wasn’t anymore. I saw multiple untold stories in the history, so I began to tell them as I imagined them.

I found that the writing came easily, the research was great fun and editing was both contemplative and satisfying. I say the writing was easy, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t fits and starts, errors and revisions. It was drilled into me by the Jesuits to first construct an outline for anything I write. I did that and initially it was helpful, but it wasn’t too far into Plug Ugly Ball that something happened. The characters took over. In an effort to be true to the players I had envisioned, I kept finding myself out on planks with nowhere to go except down into the deep blue. So, solving problems around personality or plot or historical accuracy became my creative focus. This process changed my original outline dramatically to the point of it being useless. I began writing what was out in front of my characters’ noses, letting them take the lead, letting them live their lives as best they could. This created a lot of loose ends and no clear idea where I was going or how it all would end. Harrowing stuff. My only guides were a determination to stick to my core theme and an obsession with tying up all of the loose ends I created. Somehow that got me home. But, honestly, in large part, it remains a mystery how my story came together the way it did.

I don’t think this kind of high-wire writing is for everyone. I swore I wouldn’t handle my second novel the same way and I didn’t. The next installment of the Baltimore Tales Blog will explain my attempts to control the world I was stumbling through, much like my character John Rocklan did in Maseah Mountain.

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