Thursday, June 8, 2017

Process: Guest post by John Connolly

JOHN CONNOLLY is the author of the Charlie Parker series of mystery novels, the supernatural collection Nocturnes, the Samuel Johnson Trilogy, and (with Jennifer Ridyard) the Chronicles of the Invaders series for younger readers. A Game of Ghosts will be published July 4 (Atria Books). He lives in Dublin, Ireland. 

John Connolly:

Many years ago, when I was starting out on my vocation as a novelist, I made a pilgrimage to the home of James Lee Burke. Burke’s work had been a huge influence on me: his poetic use of language; his instinctive understanding of the relationship between landscape, or setting, and character; and his refusal to accept that genre fiction could not aspire to the condition of literature.

What I took from our conversation, apart from a conviction that Burke the man was as worthy of respect as Burke the writer, was the realization that our working methods – our respective ‘processes,’ to use the word that arises most frequently in discussions of the writer’s craft – were similar. Burke would begin a novel with little conception of where its path might take him, and few concerns about commencing a journey whose route, never mind a destination, remained unknown to him. Part of the pleasure of creation – for Burke, as for me – lay in revelation: the gradual discovery of the nature of thing itself.

It is sometimes believed (mainly by those who don’t know a great deal about the subject) that mysteries and thrillers are plot-dependent. But all good fiction, whether genre-based or not (and, to paraphrase Duke Ellington, there are only two types of writing: good writing, and the other kind) is character-dependent. Plot emerges from character. Plotting is what people do. It’s possible to write an almost entirely plot-driven novel, and relegate character to an also-ran, but the result will be flawed. It will feel thin. A novel heavy on plot and light on character may pass the time, but, like eating fast food, it will ultimately leave the reader feeling unsatisfied, and slightly ashamed.

So I usually begin with a character. Sometimes it’s my series detective, Charlie Parker. At other times, it’s someone with whom Parker is destined to come into contact. Often I won’t quite know what is troubling either of them. It’s enough to begin writing, and see what emerges, although when I start I can usually see a little farther than the end of the first page, but not much farther.

I think it was the late E.L. Doctorow who drew the analogy between writing a novel and driving home along a dark country road late at night. At the start, you can only see as far as the headlights of the car will allow, but gradually you begin putting more and more of the road behind you until, finally, you see the lights of home.

That’s me. I’m the guy in the car, and I like driving by night.

In A Game of Ghosts, for example, I knew that the novel would begin with Parker being asked to find a missing private investigator, Jaycob Eklund. But that was it. That was all I had. Yet by the time I had completed the chapters dealing with Parker and the FBI agent, Ross, who engages Parker to search for Eklund, I knew what the next couple of thousand words were going to be, and I moved on.

That’s the other thing: I don’t look back when I write. I find the creation of the first draft very slow and difficult. It’s the flipside of writing the way I do, the shadowy inverse of it. By planning a book, however loosely, the writing of the first draft becomes easier. Some writers – Jeff Deaver, to take one instance – plan in such detail that the outline itself almost counts as a first draft.

But I can’t write to a plan. Were I to outline a book in such depth, I wouldn’t want to write the book itself once the outline was finished. That pleasure of discovery, the sense that I, like Parker, am engaged in my own process of investigation, would be lost. Then again, one might take the view that the more heavily plotted the novel (and Jeff’s novels are very intricately plotted), the more an outline may prove helpful, or even necessary. Yet my novels, too, have intricate plots: it’s just that I, like Parker, am unaware of the intricacies until I begin unraveling them.

The other downside of writing with a plan to hand is that doubt, the great undermining influence on the novelist, is a more intimate companion than one might wish. Doubt is part of the creative process. Doubt is the one person in the crowd who isn’t clapping. Doubt is the critic who has figured out what a fraud you are before you’ve even managed to complete the object under examination. Doubt is always present. Doubt is the bastard ying to the yang of arrogance that allows writers to present the fruits of their labors to the public, and perhaps demand payment in return.

I have just completed work on my 24th novel – my 28th book – and every one of them I have wanted to abandon somewhere around the 40,000 word mark. For me, that’s when doubt begins to set in. I start to worry that Parker and I will ultimately hit a dead end; that the investigation will peter out into inconclusiveness; that I have begun something which does not have, and for which I cannot create, a conclusion.

And when that happens, I hear the siren call of the new idea. It’s the little voice in my head that says “Well, that wasn’t such a good idea, was it? It really let you down. But I’m the shiny, new idea, and I won’t let you down. I would never do that to you. So if you simply abandon the old idea, all things will be well. Trust me.”

But there are no good or bad ideas; there are only problems with the execution, and leaving stories unfinished isn’t the solution. In fact, it sets a pattern that can only end with a drawer filled with unfinished poems, or stories, or novels. All creative individuals begin their lives with a limited supply of confidence. Each time you abandon a project, you chip away a little piece of that confidence, never to be retrieved again, until at last you have none left.

So finish what you start.

Here endeth the lesson.


Unknown said...

I enjoyed this immensely. Thanks! It helps to know that other writers doubt their work at times, are ready to give up, but something won't let them quit.

Weekend In The Hamptons said...

I follow a similiar path when writing my mysteries. I enjoy not knowing what's around the next corner and learning and exploring along the way. Thank you for sharing your process. A huge fan. Kathleen Bridge

Unknown said...

Thank You so much John for this insight into your writing. I too am a fan of James lee Burke and do see so much of his descriptions in your writing. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

I Love Love Love your writing. I find that books I don't enjoy; the main reason is poor character development. How can you like a book if you don't care or cannot relate to the characters?

Carolyn J. Rose said...

John - I've been a fan of Charlie Parker from the start - always on the edge of my chair waiting for Angel and Louis to show up and for justice to be done no matter what it takes. Thanks for letting the characters call the shots through you - in my mind, it couldn't be better.

Cathy said...

Great post. I have always enjoyed your writing. Your books are the ones I go back and read again to enjoy the writing once I've rushed through them the first time to get to the solution of the mystery. My writing process is similar, I like to keep all my characters and plot points fluid to see where they will lead me. Glad to know other writers work the same way!

Paul Dinh-McCrillis said...


I was introduced to your work (specifically the Charlie Parker series) via A Time of Torment and immediately went back to the first one in the series and read them all. I have been transported (sometimes painfully so) back to my youth.

My formative years were spent in the Greater Portland area, but my family lived all around Southern Maine. The Great Lost Bear is fond highlight of return visits to the family homestead. My parents became spiritualists after the death of my brother. Some of my earliest memories are of seances, mediums, and a spiritualist church in Portland. Your CP series gets it right.