I am not the kind of writer, in general, who goes around giving advice to other writers, because I feel like I have no idea and am making the whole thing up as I go along, every day. (It is my impression, by the way, that most writers to some degree feel this same sense of day-to-day fraudulence, which I call writer’s blech—as opposed to writer’s block—but I think a lot of other writers are better than I am at hiding it).
I shall break my self-imposed prohibition on writerly advice to release this single, probably useless, pearl: if you’re writing a trilogy of increasingly bleak detective novels about the end of civilization, try also to be writing a series of spooky poetry books for kids ages eight to twelve. (The corollary rule, which you may have inferred, is that if you’re writing scary poem books, be sure also to also be writing apocalyptic mysteries.)
This might actually be terrible advice. There are writers who would say that working on two books at once—especially if one of them is poetry and one is prose, especially if one is for kids and one is for adults—will muddy the mind, slow your progress, and confuse your style.
But what I find, what I have found throughout my working life, is the opposite. I like to be doing two things at once. I sort of need to be. One thing in active motion and one in the starting gate, warming up, ready to come out swinging—something else I’ve started to play around with, to make notes on, maybe done a wild first pass on.
Because as any writer will tell you, an IDEA for a book is like falling in love, it’s all wild emotion and headlong rush, but the ACTUAL ACT of writing a book is like building a relationship: it is joyous, slow, fragile, frustrating, exhilarating, painstaking, exhausting, worth it. So when I get through the lovey-dovey stuff on Project A and I’m deep into the difficult and complicated part, it is sheer anticipatory pleasure to have Projecet B, still in the pure-joy IDEA phase—waiting, patient, a temptation to which I can look forward.
See what I’m getting at here?
(And yes, I recognize that if I extend the love/relationship metaphor much further, what I get is a new lover waiting for me to get done with the current one. That’s why I switch over to a new metaphor right about now).
I call this The Theory of Rotating Dessert. Because you do, no matter how excited you are about your book when you first set out, you reach a point where you feel like it’s murder, it’s killing you, you hate it and you wish you’d never started. But there! There in the distance, far but not too far, is this other project, your delicious dessert, and the sight of it, the knowledge of it, will keep you going, maintain your excitement and your inspiration and your diligence until you get to the end.
And then when that Project B is actually underway, when you’re deep into it, banging your head against the wall trying to conjure up clever ways to rhyme with “ghoul”, you know you’ve got a whole new detective novel waiting for you: the part of your writing life that was active is now in beautiful abeyance, gleaming under lights in the magic part of your mind, like a slice of diner pie in a rotating glass case.
Hopefully I haven’t mixed my metaphors too terribly. And hopefully the books themselves—which, let’s face it, are all that matters—are satisfying and delicious.
Ben H. Winters is the author of six The Last Policeman (Quirk), which was the recipient of the 2012 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America; it was also named one of the Best Books of 2012 by Amazon.com and Slate. Ben’s other books include the New York Times bestselling parody novel Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (Quirk) and a novel for young readers, The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman (HarperCollins), which was a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of 2011 as well as an Edgar Nominee in the juvenile category. Countdown City, the second book in the Last Policeman trilogy, and Literally Disturbed: Tales to Keep You Up at Night (Price Stern Sloan), a book of scary poems for kids both came out this summer.