On Overcoming a Deadly Case of Writer’s Block
When Each Book is Harder to Write Than the Last
Noir on a hippie commune.
Editors and agents are always looking for a hook—something short and sweet that’ll grab a reader’s attention. As far as hooks go, I think this one is pretty good. Minimalist but evocative. Two things that seem diametrically opposed, but fit together better than you’d expect.
The hook may have been straightforward, but writing the book it inspired was not.
South Village is my third novel, and it’s the first I thought I couldn’t finish. Not by the deadline, maybe not ever. At about 10,000 words in, I came to a dead stop. It felt like I’d run out of road.
That’s never a nice feeling. It really sucks when you’re under deadline. It sucks even more when you’re at (what you hope is) the start of a career. Because if the mechanism is broken already, that doesn’t bode well for the future.
* * * *
Something like nine years ago, my friend Jacqui and I drove from New York to Brunswick, GA, where we stayed at The Hostel in the Forest. It’s a commune dug deep into the Georgia woods. An old friend, Mikey, was one of the managers. It’s a hell of a thing to see. Geodesic domes like mushrooms sprung out of the earth, neat walking paths through the woods, an outdoor shower abutting untamed forest.
We were supposed to be there for four days. The first night, we nearly left.
There were gigantic bugs everywhere, including in the compost toilets. We were both pretty tolerant of the hippie lifestyle, having graduated from SUNY Purchase, but we were also city kids. This wasn’t our jam.
We discussed getting a hotel room nearby, where we could post up in the evening, then come back during the day to see Mikey. But by then it was so dark, we never could have safely traveled the narrow, winding road to get out. We agreed to suck it up that first night.
The next morning I woke up feeling completely different. Maybe it was because we’d been awake for going on 40 hours by the time we settled in. Maybe it was the hue of the morning light. By the time we were scheduled to leave a few days later, we both wished we could have stayed longer.
Growing up in a place like New York, you’re used to this constant hum, like a television left on in another room. Without that, you’ve got to face the things the hum was covering up. Quiet like that goes bone deep. Once I got used to it, it was pretty nice.
There are three memories about the place that stand out to me.
First, at 1 am, playing Apples to Apples, a word association board game, in a screened-in porch at the center of camp, after having drained an industrial-sized bottle of Jack Daniels. We were in blatant violation of the quiet hours, standing on tables and screaming at each other, but since most of the players were commune staff, we didn’t get in trouble.
Second is a bonfire on Jekyll Island, a nearby beach covered in dead, petrified trees, worn smooth and half-buried in the sand like the skeletons of colossal beasts washed up on the shore.
Finally, everyone standing in a circle before the communal dinner, holding hands and taking turns sharing what they were thankful for. A tradition that made me snicker, until I realized that snicker was an indictment of me, not them.
All three moments were the kind where you feel like something significant is happening. As a fledgling writer, I remember trying to remember as much about the place as I could, because I knew one day I’d want to write about it.
* * * *
My first book was intended to be one-and-done. But I enjoyed writing the protagonist, Ash McKenna, an amateur private investigator. I had a bunch of ideas for other books I wanted to write, but didn’t know how to populate them with characters that sounded different from Ash.
Then I realized I could move Ash through these ideas, and make it an over-arching story about a kid searching for his moral compass. Boom: I had a series.
New Yorked took five years to write. The second, City of Rose, took six months. By that point I had found my process. And I’d learned how to buckle down and meet a deadline. My daughter was born two weeks before the manuscript of the second book was due, and on top of that, she was diagnosed with a heart defect.
It wasn’t always fun to be working, but it needed to get done. And it did. I delivered City of Rose a few days early. Then we signed for books three and four. My publisher wanted to maintain an aggressive release schedule, to build shelf space and keep the series prominent in the minds of readers.
This time, instead of buckling down, I got cocky and took some time off from the third book. Part of this is related to my daughter’s health, which ate up a lot of my focus. But I was emboldened by the second book. It went so much quicker, and I think it’s a better book, so I figured the third would be even easier.
I was so confident that I signed to write a BookShots novella with James Patterson—another 30,000 words that would have to be written concurrently with the novel, and delivered within a time frame of three months.
Sure, I told myself. I can handle this.
* * * *
For book two, I did an outline. When it was done, I threw it out, and re-wrote it from scratch a few days later. I threw that one out too, and started fresh a third time.
The third outline I kept. The idea was that I’d remember the good stuff, forget the bad stuff, and have time to think over the parts that didn’t fit.
It worked great for City of Rose. Not so much for South Village. I went through five or six versions of the outline, and all I could settle on was the location (a commune based in spirit on The Hostel in the Forest) and a loose assembly of ideas that revolved around fracking and eco-terrorism.
After that, nothing.
My first two books were built around real cities—New York and Portland. In both I took some liberties for the sake of expediency, but for the most part, I was writing about places I knew, and had been to, and could visit. Things I could verify on maps or with friends.
There was so much about The Hostel in the Forest I wanted to convey. The serenity. The solitude. The alienation. The trepidation that, when embraced, led to personal discovery.
But it felt too far away. Like it was sitting just beyond my grasp. Nine years was a long time ago. I couldn’t picture it, couldn’t put it into words. I had taken no notes. I only had a few pictures. I’d lost touch with Mikey.
I wrote and wrote—words that built up in big piles but ultimately went nowhere. I considered flying down there for a few days, to jog my memory, but I couldn’t make the timing work.
It drove me crazy, and I psyched myself out. Like when you’re trying to sleep, but you can’t, so you get upset that you can’t fall asleep, and that makes it worse, until you’re sitting in front of a computer at 2 am, thinking you’ll use the time to write, but you can’t do that either, and you think to yourself: Two books. That was fun while it lasted.
* * * *
So that was the problem. The thing I’d been (ahem, blush) praised for in my first two books was the thing that was giving me trouble with the third: Sense of place.
Fast-forward through weeks of sitting in front of my computer with my head in my hands, and I found three things that ultimately saved the book.
(Well, technically, four. I got better about time-management. I play less video games. I watch less television. I write like mad when the baby is sleeping.).
From a craft perspective, there were three things I did to save the book.
The first was not getting so hung up on details. You know that saying, how perfect is the enemy of good? Well, perfect is also the enemy of done.
I don’t remember where I learned this but, have you ever seen Andy Warhol’s print of Marilyn Monroe? You know it’s her, even though when you break the picture down into components, it’s pretty abstract. Just some shapes. Taken together they paint the picture of a person, with history and weight. You look at it and you know who it’s supposed to be, even though it’s not an exact likeness.
“South Village” was a place I conjured. And so every scene felt like it happened in a blank stretch of woods, because it was sort of real, but not.
The challenge of writing a place like South Village is that creating something from the ground up means knowing what to include to give it authenticity, and what to leave out so you’re not burying the reader in detail.
Or, it’s okay to talk about the graywater system without showing where the pipes are buried. Once I worried less about the pipes, I found it easier to move forward.
The second thing I did, springing off the first, was draw a map.
It was a simple map. But I needed to let go of The Hostel in the Forest and think: If I was designing a commune in the woods, how would I set it up?
Instead of trying to remember how it was, I made it the way I wanted. A half-mile stretch of road leading in, over a bridge, into a parking lot, with the domes, circled by the tree houses and outhouses, with shower facilities on either end of camp.
Turns out I’m a visual thinker, which led me into the third step.
I looked up The Hostel in the Forest on Google Images and Flickr. I must have spent hours clicking through photos—studying them, but also, chasing the feelings they inspired. And it was digging through those photos, many of them devoid of people, that I realized the setting didn’t matter.
The character’s journey wasn’t about the location. It was the backdrop against which he was supposed to learn about the importance of community. About being open to the world, instead of closing himself off from it.
Because the most important thing about the story turned out not to be where the outhouses were, or how the tree houses were set up. It was how strangers stood in a circle before dinner, and held hands, and shared what they were thankful for.
It was about listening to each person in turn, and learning something about them, and when it was your turn, being brave enough to share something.
That circle was the setting of the book. It just took me a little while to figure that out.
I finished South Village sitting in my friend’s kitchen on San Francisco, while on tour for City of Rose. When I sent it off to my publisher, I immediately opened a new document for the fourth.
By dinnertime, I had most of the first chapter.