When I write a novel, I write it twice. The first time, it's in my head. I call it mind-writing. I walk around, run around, sit around, I listen to music and look at pretty things and just think my brains out. I solidify what the story is and how I'm going tell it, and then I write it down in quick, loose sketches. When I'm finished, I have an outline of every scene in the book. Not an outline like the utterly useless kind they taught you in school.
It's more like a storyboard. You know, those comic-book sketches that eventually become movies? I describe everything that happens and explore the mood and atmosphere and ideas of every scene without stopping to actually "perform" the scenes with prose. What I end up with is essentially the book itself, as written by an idiot.
The second time I write the book is when I take these storyboards and convert them into actual prose. Writing prose is hard. It takes a lot of care to craft a good sentence, even more to connect that sentence to another one, even more to transition from one paragraph to the next, and a whole hell of a lot more to tune the flow of dramatic tension so that each chapter builds into the next all the way to the end. You've probably heard of "pacing." It's hard. So is rhythm, emotion, and thematic coherency. All this stuff is hard even when you know exactly what happens in each scene, so imagine doing all these things WHILE making up the story. Even though I always know the basic elements of a story long before I start working on it--especially in the case of a sequel--there is still a lot of detail to fill in, connecting point A to point B, and doing that and writing the prose at the same time is like walking off a cliff and then trying to build a bridge under you. Aka, suicide.
Mind-writing the story before type-writing it frees me up to focus on the prose and makes the whole mountainous undertaking slightly more approachable.
Anyway, this is my long-winded, faux-academic way of telling you that I started writing the sequel to Warm Bodies today. For the last 8 months, since the day I decided I was going to do a sequel, I have been fiercely mind-writing it. (Well, that and finishing up the prequel novella, The New Hunger--which by the way, you are required to read if you want to understand the sequel.) In many ways, mind-writing is the hardest part. It requires the most sheer creative muscle, ripping ideas and images and emotions out of thin air, and it's by far the most perilous, because you can FAIL. You can't truly fail at writing itself; you can just keep editing and revising forever until it's as good as it can possibly be. But you CAN fail to come up with a good story. You can drive your ideas into an inescapable dead-end and give up in despair. That's a very real danger, so the fact that I made it all the way to the end is actually the biggest news I'll have for you until I announce a publication date.
I finished mind-writing last week, every scene from epigraph to epilogue, and after taking a few days to wipe the tears out of my eyes and regather my courage, I'm now diving into the main event. I wrote the opening scene this morning. It's pretty good. So, please smash a champagne bottle against my hull and toss your hats in the air. This ship is launched.
I'm curious how new writing technology--from pens to typewriters to computers--has affected literature over the years. The typewriter allowed us to write faster and with less physical strain. The computer allowed us to edit and revise with a level of ease and fluidity earlier writers could never have dreamed of. Even the laptop changed things, allowing us to break free from the office and desk and write wherever we felt most inspired.
All of these also came with their own drawbacks. The typewriter introduced new distractions to the peaceful repose of handwriting--the noise of the keys, the loading of the paper, and the constant wrangling of the carriage for each and every line. The computer eliminated mechanical distractions while introducing a whole buffet of digital ones. And the laptop put us in writing environments with the potential to distract us even more--noisy coffee shops and the too-hot, too-cold, too-bug-infested outdoors.
Despite the costs, it's hard to argue with the benefits. Today's writers have a vastly more direct, more efficient and more flexible path from brain to page than the writers of antiquity did. But what are the effects? Because there have to be effects. It's impossible that such a radical shift in writing method could fail to alter the nature, style, and perhaps even quality of the writing itself.
As a modern writer raised with computers, the idea of writing a novel by hand--a massive pile of paper covered in wrist-breaking, barely legible scrawl--is unfathomable. Even the thought of typing one makes me collapse in despair. If I knew that deleting this sentence would require a laborious process of markups and notations, and that I wouldn't be able to hear how the paragraph sounds without it until I'd retyped the whole manuscript, would I still delete it? Or would I sigh, "Good enough," and leave it in?
Or--would I be more careful with my words? Would I plan further ahead? Would I approach the chapter with a stern clarity of intent that's foreign to my modern "let it flow" mindset? The completely paralyzed Jean-Dominic Bauby wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking one eye when a nurse spoke the letter of the alphabet he wanted--his only method of communicating. He had no way to edit once he had delivered his words, so he was forced to "write" and "edit" entire chapters in his head before the nurse came to take dictation. It's hard to imagine a less efficient, less fluid writing method than this, and yet The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a gorgeous book, showing no evidence of the difficulty with which it was written.
When I read a book, I like to imagine the writer writing it. Did he scratch it out with a feather quill in a lamp-lit study with six screaming babies in the bedroom? Did she tap it into an iPad in a busy coffee shop with Maroon 5 in the background? I want to be more aware of the machinery my thoughts pass through on their way to the page. I want to understand my tools and the hands that wield them and someday master both.