“Got her done. And I’m afraid she’s a little dull.”
John Steinbeck, “Working Days,” Entry #22, June 22, 1938
I’ve been plugging away on the book and it’s coming along. The mystery works fine. The characters work fine. The setting works fine. I’m interested to see where everything is going and how we’re going to get there. All of that is fine, no complaints.
The book hasn’t quite caught fire yet.
“Got her done…she’s a little dull.”
Once upon a time, I had a conversation with one of today’s great writers. He said he had gotten to a point with his writing, after twenty some odd years of doing it, that it was always good, but every once in a while it was great. Every so often, he said, he hit on a detail or a description or some thing that made the work ascendant. He had no idea why it would or wouldn’t happen, or when it would or wouldn’t and I don’t, either. The creative process is that nebulous.
But that is where the second Jace Salome novel is right now. It’s competent, it’s a decent read. It doesn’t have much bad writing (this isn’t as conceited as it sounds. I’ve been writing so long in so many contexts that while I don’t always write brilliant sentences, I always recognize shitty ones), but it is – for me, a little dull.
I need that indefinable thing that will fling me into the white hot energy that can pervade an author’s work like a jetstream at 30,000 feet. I’ve had my head in that jetstream before but haven’t quite found it this time.
Then I read this:
“Make earth red, not gray.”
From Steinbeck’s ‘Working Days.’ Entry #20 from June 20, 1938.
Could it be that simple? Have I not yet made the earth red rather than gray? Steinbeck began the Joads’ quest in Oklahoma. I have relatives there and the dirt is indeed red. I believe, with absolutely no evidence for it, that Steinbeck wanted gray as a commentary on the world in general and the colorless, hopeless situation of the Joads. But when he blasts a bit of color into that book – red soil versus gray – did that give him a bit of that fire?
Originally, my time line was in and around Halloween. That didn’t work at all so I moved it out a bit and now we’re sitting in and around Christmas. The main murder happens on Christmas morning and the chase happens on New Year’s Eve.
But I don’t have the Christmas details. There are no decorations, no Christmas music being hummed by guards or inmates, no plans for an office Christmas party. Perhaps those details, small as they are – and, honestly, as inconsequential to the plot and pacing as they are – are the spark I need to set the book ablaze.
Yeah, yeah, writing is about the details. I understand that. But ask any writer and I’d bet a year’s salary that all of them will tell you there are details and there are details. As Bob Seger sang, “What to leave in, what to leave out.” Maybe I simply haven’t yet found what to leave in that will allow me to climb deep into the head of the book, not the characters, but the book.
“Make the earth red, not gray.”
Or, in this case, make the jail Christmas.