That Dark Country of No Ideas

Last night I went to see Erik Larson at our new library.  One of our patrons performed the miracle of getting him to come for a fundraiser, and there were about a 100 people who came out for the cause.  So exciting!  And you know me — I got there an hour early for my front row seat.

I took a bunch of notes so I’m going to split this into 2 posts.  Today, let’s focus on the writing life.

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His writing process.

He gets up at 4:00 or 4:30 every morning with the goal, initially, of writing one page a day.  This naturally progresses to 2 pages, then 5 pages, etc…  He writes everyday — 7 days a week — and insists this is the only way to keep the tension going in the story and in your own mind.  If you leave the story too often and for too long, the tension dissipates.  You lose interest.  And what happens when you lose interest?   You abandon it and try something else.  This is a sure way to get nothing done.

Best writing advice.

Write everyday.  Whether it’s for 20 minutes or 5 hours, it doesn’t matter.  Keep the story going.  Write every single day.

Do not binge write.  If you’re on a roll and write for 10 hours straight, this feels terrific!  But there will be a let down.  You’ll be exhausted, used up, and you won’t want to write again until the rush comes.  This does not work.  This is not how books get finished.  You will get tired of, or bored with, your project and be drawn to something else … the next new shiny thing.  (Note to self:  This is by far my worst disease when it comes to writing.)

Stop when you’re ahead.  Stop writing at a point where you can immediately begin again.  Stop mid-sentence or mid-paragraph.  Why?  Because when you sit down the next day, it’s easier to pick up and keep going.  There is no new beginning!  There is no blank page!  But also because it’s a mind game: when you leave something unfinished, your mind will continue to work it over, will try its damnedest to complete it without your even trying.  Use this to your advantage.

The fugue state.

He knows he’s in the zone when he’s in the fugue state.  What made him laugh last week is no longer funny, what seemed important yesterday is suddenly insignificant, etc…  It’s hard to describe, but I know you know what he means.

The tools of his trade.

After too many hard drive crashes, he’s switched from the PC to a MAC.  He writes on the computer.  For the toughest passages, however, when he needs to slow it down, he goes back to his Tops Gold legal pad and writes and in pencil.

On selling the movie rights for your book.

Two of his books — IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS (Tom Hanks) and THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY (Leonardo DiCaprio) — have been sold to Hollywood. Someone asked if he’d have any say in the screenplays or final products.  He laughed.  Once it’s sold, it is no longer yours.  Period.  He takes the Tom Wolff approach:  Toss your book over the fence, take the bag of money, and run!

About readings.

He did not read any of his work at this event.  “I’m tired of hearing writers read their work,” he said.  “Aren’t you tired of readings?”  He said he’d rather have a vasectomy without anesthetic than listen to one more writer read their work.

Seriously now — how much do you love that!

Where do his ideas come from?

When he’s finished a project, he goes through a period he calls The Dark Country of No Ideas, those dead-zone weeks and months when he’s absolutely miserable, when he has no idea what he’s going to write about next, when he’s waiting for the spark, for just the right “something” that can be broken down to its basic DNA and then rebuilt anew.  For IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS, he was browsing the history section of the library and was intimidated when he spotted the 1,147 page THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH.  This was the spark.  (more details in my next post about this incredible project)

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25 thoughts on “That Dark Country of No Ideas

  1. ThreeKingsBooks

    Thanks for this wonderful report. I used to follow the dictum about writing EVERY DAY, and I admit to having lost my way. It’s for a good reason, of course: the internet, social media, and attempts to market one’s own work.

    But, no more. I’m starting a new book RIGHT NOW, and I vow I’ll keep to the path of writing every day.

    So help me, goddess.

      1. ThreeKingsBooks

        I’ve written 300 words since I left that comment. Not much, but I liked ’em!

      2. Teri Post author

        Shoot! I’m sitting down right now — the errands can wait. I’m nothing if not competitive, so I thank you for the kick.

  2. Josephine

    it pains me a little to read this because he was near me last month for an event where he was interviewed by a fellow writer and i missed it.

    thanks for summary.

    (i gotta stop binge writing and start writing more healthy and in smaller portions, more times a day/week/month. funny how similar this is to my eating goals. input/output…input/output…fast/binge…fast/binge…alter/ego…alter/ego…) (ha)

    happy friday. i hope it’s as beautiful there as it is here.

    there’s a place on the way to my house that has a gorgeous view of the sun getting ready to set. many nights, i find myself on the section of the road with a perfect view of sky turning into those brilliant colors: pale purples, dark pinks, coral, orange like only the sun can do. anyway, i see this lovely good-bye for the day and think, “awww…there goes the sun…toward teri and suzy and averil.”

    1. Teri Post author

      Did somebody say “binge?” 🙂 When he said that I wanted to crawl under my chair with big bag of potato chips.

      What a beautiful painting of the sunset Josey.

  3. Princess Sisi

    Teri, thanks so much for posting this! (I can see you in that coveted front row seat, pen in hand.)

    Okay, on binge writing I gotta say it. It maybe that for women, especially mothers with full lives, the daily drizzle method doesn’t work. There are days when there’s no fucking way. You know: your kid is sick, or you’ve volunteered to bake a zillion cupcakes, or you need to take your dog to the vet. So, to make up for that, you tell the fam: the third weekend of every month I’m locking myself in the Super 8 Motel room one town over so I can … Finish the Fucker.

    If it weren’t for the promise of total immersion once the kid’s over the stomach flu, I don’t think we’d get anything done. And I know lots of successful, published women writers who would agree.

    (Okay, maybe it’s denial, since I sort of binged my way through my latest manuscript).

    1. ThreeKingsBooks

      This is undoubtedly true, but there is another way, one that has worked for a bunch of women writers: get up one hour earlier than anyone else. Yes, I know it’s godawful. But….it can be done. I also do agree that the binge method over a period of days does work, but that means DAYS, not HOURS. I suspect Larson was talking about a single day’s work?

    2. Teri Post author

      I agree on the man vs. woman thing. Yet, I have none of these excuses. And you know how when someone says something and it cuts straight into your gut? Him saying this last night was yet another sign in the old universe for me.

      Have I, me personally, ever finished anything with the binge method? That would be a big fat no. I have a tendency to leave my story for days, weeks, months even!, and then it takes so damned long to figure out where I am before I can even get started again. Gee, is it a wonder that my book remains unfinished? That I’ve published a bunch of short stories while my book languishes? I hang my head. I need to adopt this new way of working. My old way is not cutting it.

    3. Princess Sisi

      I just had lunch with a writer friend (female AND a mother) and she’s all about the Larson method. An hour a day. And she’s pacing herself right through her memoir.

      As far as the mega-binge, I tried the NaNoWriMo thing once, and it was a disaster. A disaster! But I will say, for me, there’s a critical mass component, and it has to do with investing in my writing to the exclusion of the one thousand things. That only happens when I treat it like a sick kid. Obsessively tending to it, and checking on it, and seeing it through until the fever breaks.

      1. Teri Post author

        I’ve been obsessing on this today — as I do. And in this case as I actually need to. What I need is a balance of the 2. Why do I binge write? Because total immersion brings out my best stuff. But I see I also need the steady daily diet as well. It’s too easy for me to leave it for days on end and then come back with a sense of dread.

        Kind of like dieting. There is no dieting. It’s the lifestyle change that gets it done, no matter how much I wish otherwise.

  4. Lyra

    Thank you for bringing your notebook! You know I love this, so I’ll save you the gushing.
    Write every day…I was a firm believer in this until the wheels fell off recently. So true about the tension. I couldn’t place it before but that’s it, you lose the tense thread thinly looping it all together. I needed the reminder. It must apply to editing too as I’m lost having left the story too long.
    And yes, I adore him for not reading.
    Oh and the switching between pen and Mac? I hadn’t thought of that compromise, only knew I couldn’t handwrite a second one in full.
    Thank you, sister my sister. You may have saved my story…
    Mwah!

    1. Teri Post author

      The thread, as you say, is so very thin, looping it all together …. I swear I go back and think, “In these 350 pages, where in the hell did I leave that last thread?!” (the last thread of the 53 threads I have going, *sigh*)

      And I particularly get his point about leaving it too long and seeing other shiny objects (new fun subjects!) pulling at my gaze. Especially with memoir — I don’t know about you other memoir writers, but I sure can O.D. on myself and my introspection and run screaming from the pages.

      1. ThreeKingsBooks

        For my fiction, I always keep a little notebook with me where I write down every change of point of view, and at what pages this happens, including where each new chapter begins. Plus, names of all the characters. When I don’t manage to write every day, it helps me to know what the hell is going on. Not sure how, or if, this would work with memoir, but I can’t see why not.

  5. macdougalstreetbaby

    I really appreciate his initial goal of one page. My belief has always been if you keep the expectation low, you’re likely to accomplish great things.

  6. Catherine

    I totally agree with the point about finishing before a natural cadence. That makes it so exciting to go to sleep and mull over and wait for what comes next. I love living that tension and yes a great mind game.

  7. tedstrutz

    This is an excellent post, Teri. I don’t know who you are, but I am so glad that dear Averil Dean sent me over here. I now see that the white dog looks familiar, and the woman holding it too. Excellent recap of his talk for me. He is one of my favorite writers, since happening upon ‘Isaac’s Storm’ years ago, and I would sure rather hear him talk rather than read. And what great advice to hear.

    As a side note: I hope Tom is producing and not appearing in ‘Garden’… very jazzed about Leo acquiring ‘Devil’.

    (I’ll be back for part two)

    1. Teri Post author

      Welcome Ted. You’d have loved Mr. Larson —- so charming, so quick and funny. At the start he said, “Would you guys mind if I read a little something? Maybe just 24 pages or so?” The room went silent and he cracked up laughing.

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