What Is This Thing They Call Book Writing?

The word counts are creeping up. Creeping, not blazing a trail through the white space, but plodding, slowly, as if they are weighed down. This isn’t writer’s block. This isn’t lack of enthusiasm.

It’s starting a new book. As my favorite warrior philosopher, Lao Tzu, said:

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Now what’s funny, I needed to look this quote up, because I’m still suffering from tour brain, AKA book release malaise, and I couldn’t get it right in my head – I kept saying a thousand steps, not miles, and knew that wasn’t right. When I looked up the quote, I saw a caveat I’d never noticed before.

Although this is the popular form of this quotation, a more correct translation from the original Chinese would be "The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one's feet." Rather than emphasizing the first step, Lau Tzu regarded action as something that arises naturally from stillness.

“…Something that arises naturally from stillness.”

Isn’t that the perfect allegory for the beginning of a new book? Heck, any new venture, creative or otherwise, starts from that moment of stillness. If you want to get all weighty, we can get into the chicken or the egg argument. This is a cause and effect concept in a writer’s life… At what moment have you set out on your journey of a thousand steps?

Now that I’m a bit more self-aware as a writer, these thoughts enter my consciousness often. What is the exact moment when I have an idea, a spark, that will grow into a story, and thus into a book? And at what point does the beginning really begin? At what point do you shatter the stillness and take the first step? Is it a mental journey first, or purely physical?

To be honest, the writer’s entire journey is fraught with peril, but the most dangerous moment is writing those opening few pages, when you’ve got an idea, one that you think you can sustain for another 399, characters who are living, breathing entities in your head, plot points that race toward the page like a wave through your mind, notebooks filling with chicken scratch, character names, dates, places, ideas. And you have those moments of sheer fright, when you realize you can't remember how to start a book.

So can you say you’ve started writing a book when the idea is formed, or must you wait until those first few words go down on the page?

“Try not. Do.” ~ Master Yoda

There is an offshoot of Hinduism and Buddhism known as Taoism. I fancied myself a Taoist back in college. I was very into the philosophical then, a full-circle I’m enjoying now. And while I studied the Tao-te Ching, the Taoist handbook, if you will, I didn’t truly understand the words. How could any nineteen-year-old who hadn’t experienced suffering understand? Truly, in order to appreciate what you have, you must have experienced the loss of what you desire. That tenant has its roots all over the canon – it’s better to climb the mountain than start at the top, etc. – because it’s the truth. You always appreciate something you work for more than something you’re simply handed, and suffering, at all levels, makes us who we are.

Now, though I’m hardly a scholar, more an enthusiast, I am experiencing bits of enlightenment, especially when it comes to appreciating life and the creative process.

They say the more you talk about Taoism, the less you know. I reveled in that phrase when I was nineteen, feeling so mysterious and noble. It’s true, though. One poem in the Tao-te Ching describes the Tao like this:

The Tao is like a bellows:
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
The more you talk of it, the less you understand.

The Tao, to me, is writing. It is looking into that empty space in the bellows—the empty, yet infinitely capable space—and seeing the sparkly mist of words that will build the house that will shelter your story.

All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small. ~ Lao Tzu

For once, I can pinpoint the exact moment the bellows filled with air and this new book began. It was January 27, 2011, at about 9:45 AM central time. I was on a marketing call with my agent and editor. We came out of it with an idea, one that morphed into an emailed paragraph by 10:09 AM, and another call with a full-fledged endorsement from said agent and a hearty “write the proposal” by 10:20. I found a title and perfect epigraph, wrote the proposal, which was submitted February 8th, which the agent loved, sent it to my editor, who helped tighten a few points down, and it was thus accepted the 18th.  We changed the title to the what I know is the final one on February 24th, I turned in the Art Fact Sheet March 10th, and by the end of the day March 14th, I had 1602 words.

Boom goes the dynamite.

It took 45 days from concept to words. And when I say concept, I mean it—when the phone rang on January 27, I had no idea what this story was. None.

I look at those 45 days with some chagrin and teeth gnashing, because I wanted to get started sooner, but had to do all the promotion and touring for the release of So Close, copyedits and AAs for WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE, write a short story, and continue plotting world domination. There was work being done on the new book though. Research being collected, books being read, thoughts coalescing, Scrivener files filling up with light bulbs.

Ambition has one heel nailed in well, though she stretch her fingers to touch the heavens. ~ Lao Tzu

In other words, the journey has begun.

But I’m feeling rather Taoist about the content of this book. I’m just not ready to talk about it. A few people know what I’m about right now, but I want to wait to get into the gritty.

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. ~ Lao Tzu

I want to be a good traveler with this book. I’m feeling very protective of it. There are good reasons for that, reasons time will reveal. But for now, I want to enjoy my secrets.

For my fellow writers – when do you feel the journey begins?

For my fellow readers – which came first – the chicken or the egg?

And for all – what’s your favorite philosophical quote?