"Speed, my name is Speed"

on May 22, 2008

Did you ever see the Pixar movie CARS? Lightning McQueen believes speed is what will catapult him into the winner’s circle, but learns instead that without technique, speed won’t cut it.

Yesterday, I interviewed with a Boston Globe reporter about writing three books a year. Apparently, there are some authors who are struggling to write one book a year. Granted, they are hardcover “big book” authors who are expected to deliver one book a year, and said book will likely stay on the NYT list for 4-8 weeks, there will be an author tour, speaking engagements, and the like.

Still, we all know hardcover authors who can’t hold a candle to some of the best mass market originals. Quality isn’t in the format, much as some people would deny it.

I was my usual happy, talkative self in the interview. I talked about business: meeting deadlines, keeping a regular schedule, not having the “luxury” of writer’s block, time management. I talked about crunch time and 12 hour writing days–9-3 in the day, and 9-3 at night, because I have kids and they have needs. Like they want to be fed and entertained and transported from point A to point B to point C, oh and back to Point A because they forgot their backpack . . .

But the reporter asked me one question that has been on my mind for the last 36 hours.

“If you had more time to write a book, do you think they would be better?”

This wasn’t a disparaging comment–he has never read any of my books. It was a question that required looking inside and honestly assessing my storytelling skill.

I paused–probably for the first time in the entire conversation. (As those of you who work from home and have kids, adult conversation is rare and therefore we tend to overcompensate and talk TOO much during those rare moments.) But the question had me briefly stumped.

Would I be a better writer if I had more time?

I honestly don’t know. All I can use as a measuring stick is my experience and self-knowledge.

What I told the reporter was true: I took longer to write THE HUNT than any other book–nearly a full year–and that was the book that I completely rewrote after my editor read it. As she said, “You wrote the scenes that didn’t need to be written and all the good stuff happened off the page.” FEAR NO EVIL took me only six weeks to write–by necessity, I had a tight deadline for the last book of that trilogy–but it had the fewest revisions of all nine books to date. (Full disclosure: I had very few revisions on my 39K word novella in WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE, but it took me nearly 12 weeks to write it.)

I also know myself. I am a huge procrastinator. I know that it takes me, on average, 8-10 weeks to write a book. That’s my comfort zone. If I had a full year? Well–I’d fool around. Go shopping. Play video games. Go see every movie the day it was released. We’d spend a week at Disneyland, then head up to Lake Tahoe for a week of camping. Because the book isn’t due! I have plenty of time! I’d read more nonfiction, participate in more ride-alongs, and get sucked into research. I’d spend all day reading about underwater forensics just because–even when I already found my answer. And then, about ten weeks before the due date I’d start writing, and then panicking, and then the day it’s due I’d email it off to my editor.

I interviewed the fabulous Lisa Gardner for the July issue of Romantic Times. She writes one book a year. She knows she can’t write more–she tried when she was writing for Harlequin Intrigue and she struggled. She has her system–and it’s a great system. AND she gets to spend lots of time researching. She spent tons of time with SWAT guys. As I said to the reporter, okay, I’m jealous. I’d like to spend lots of time with SWAT and I’d have the time if I wrote one book a year.

The truth is, Lisa Gardner writes nearly every day just like I do. She writes at her own pace. I write at mine. We are all slaves to our own personalities. It would kill me to slow down. It would kill Lisa to speed up. And guess what? I think both our books would suffer for it.

But the question has still been bugging me all day. Until I remembered something else I mentioned to the reporter, kind of flip, but when I thought about it later I realized something else about not only myself, but the art of storytelling in general.

Writing is the physical process of putting story on paper. Story, on the other hand, is the feelings, thoughts and images those words give to others.

It takes me 8-10 weeks to write a book. It takes me months to create the story. While I don’t plan or plot, I am thinking about the story in terms of images and feelings and character. When I research, I don’t research in a vacuum. I put my characters in that situation, or viewing that evidence, or dying that death.

During one of my FBI Citizen’s Academy classes, there was a case presentation on an eco-terrorism case. One of the principals was an undercover informant who had helped the FBI for nothing except her own personal desire to stop people from doing something wrong. As the story developed, I saw much more into her character, and by the end of the presentation–though I didn’t know her name, age, where she came from–by the way the agents who worked with her talked about her with respect and admiration, I saw her. I created a backstory for her. I tweaked the case she went undercover on. I saw a hero emerge from the shadows.

This story has been turning over and over in my mind since. Almost every day I read or watch something and put it in my mental file on the “domestic terrorism” book, which is how I’m thinking of it–though the crime may change. Could I write this book today? I doubt it. I haven’t absorbed the characters enough, and I would be stumped because I wouldn’t know how to begin. But at some point, I’ll see the opening scene and I’ll stop whatever I’m working on to write it. Just that opener. The beginning of the WRITING, but certainly not the beginning of the STORY.

I told the reporter that I had an idea for five years, longer than I’ve been published. Five years ago, I didn’t have the skill to write my Seven Deadly Sins series. I had the snippet of the idea–but I’ve been thinking, researching, absorbing the STORY for the last five years. When we were ready to go back to contract this last time, I told my agent I really wanted to sell this series. I felt READY to write it. Does that mean I have the skill to pull it off? I don’t know. But if not now, when? I FEEL the story is ready, and that is really all I need to get going.

So this first Deadly Sins book may be written in 10 weeks, but it has five years of research and thought behind it. Does it matter that during those five years I wrote nine books? No. Because it’s always been in the back of my mind, simmering.

Five years to create this one book. Maybe my name isn’t Speed after all.

BSP: TEMPTING EVIL went on sale this week. If you’re planning on buying Book Two of the Prison Break Trilogy, I hope you’ll pick it up this week . . . velocity, you know! Ballantine created a radio ad for this book, you can check it out on my website here.