Writing with the Spirit

With Bell Mountain I began to write fiction in a way I’d never done before. But first I’d like to tell you about the way I used to write–a way which, after all, helped me to get four horror novels published.

I always started with a very general idea for a story. My first published novel, Lifeblood, began with the idea of a vampire coming to a suburban township in New Jersey. At the time, I was covering such townships as a newspaper reporter–and oh, boy, did I know a lot about them! “Write what you know,” and all that…

Once I had the basic idea, I started inventing characters to populate my story. I filled whole notebooks with the biographies of fictitious people, along with all sorts of information about their town. Since I was patterning their town (scandals and all) after a real place, that wasn’t very hard.

After some months of doing this, I’d get to work on the plot, starting with vague notes and working my way up to a chronology and chapter summaries. My books usually required me to manage at least half-a-dozen subplots, each centered on a different character or group of characters. For this I made up sets of color-coded index cards–purple for the old man spying on his neighbors with binoculars, blue for the police, red for the stupid kid who thinks it’d be cool to be a vampire, and so on. I spent many hours pushing these cards around until I was sure I had them in the best possible arrangement.

Only then was I ready to start writing the book. These preparations took six to eight months; but when I was finished with them, I knew my story inside-out.

I don’t write that way anymore. Now I flop open my legal pad, say a prayer, pick up my pen, and get to work.

I’ve written four “Bell Mountain novels” so far, and I’m amazed by how they’ve turned out. Part of this must be due to my having been writing fiction non-stop for 50 years. But I believe a much greater part is due to God having answered my prayers and given me these stories.

I have no idea where they’re going, when I start them. I don’t know what new characters are going to rise up and play key roles. I start with a dream, or an image, or a turn of phrase. I ask God for the story, and I write it down as I receive it–sometimes in big pieces all at once, as if I were seeing it on a movie screen, sometimes in much smaller pieces. And eventually I have all the pieces, and the book is finished.

I don’t know how many books I’ll be given to write. But it’s been an awful lot of fun, this way, and I hope the Lord will keep it going for a while.

7 comments on “Writing with the Spirit

  1. That is very interesting to hear how you wrote BEFORE compared to NOW. My writing is like your NOW– I barely plan it out; rather, I just pray and start typing. I know it is the Holy Spirit enabling me. Oh, and if I come to a place where I don’t know where to go next, I simply go for a walk (usually an hour) and chat with the LORD about it. 100% of the time, He gives me the next scene, and sometimes the entire climax of the book just for listening. He is the best writing Partner ever.
    Keep writing!

    1. Ellen, I was pretty sure you’d understand. To me this is still a novelty. When the climax of Book #4 (“The Last Banquet”) came to me, it was overwhelming–everything all at once, in real time, as if I were actually experiencing it. And yet it took a couple of chapters’ worth of writing to get it all down.

  2. I’m a strong believer in outlining. I don’t usually go into the outline to the depth of color cards, but I typically write a 50-70 page almost-stream-of-consciousness outline that gives me direction for scene, chapter arcs, and snippets of dialogue. I like to have something of a roadmap of where I’m going before I head out. That way I know I’ll need the flashlight in chapter seven, so I make sure to pack it in full sight of the reader in chapter two. That kind of thing. I’ve finished two novels that way, and I’ve found that as I fill out the bare bones, character intention, subtext and foreshadowing all come rushing in.

    Then again, the current novel I’m working on is the precise opposite. I’ve got a paragraph for each chapter, and so for most of the detail it has to bubble up in the act of writing.

    I’m curious; how many drafts do you guys typically go through?

    1. You won’t believe this, but for the Bell Mountain books, I write the first draft in longhand on a legal pad, type and polish it on the computer… and that’s all. When I see the finished product, I don’t believe it, either. No notes, no outlines, no color-coded index cards: just the story. Oh–after the book is finished, I go through it to add the names of people, places, and things to my glossary. (It’s not always easy to keep the spelling consistent–and sometimes one forgets details. For instance, in the interval between books 3 and 4, I somehow managed to lose 18 priests! And there was a memory glitch between the last chapter of book 1 and the first chapter of book 2. But other than that, no problem.)

      I don’t recommend this as the way for everyone to write every novel. But I’m going to keep doing these books this way for as long as I can.

  3. The only hard and fast rule of writing, I’ve found, is that if it works for you, do it until it doesn’t work anymore. It is astonishing that it works for you! I can’t write long-hand, for instance. My mind runs faster than my fingers, so I have to type it. I do outlining and plotting longhand.

    Losing 18 priests is bad, but not nearly as bad as having Robinson Crusoe strip naked, swim to the ship and fill his pockets with needed items! :p

    Speaking of books 3 and 4, when can we expect them to be available?

    1. No. 3, “The Thunder King,” should be coming out sometime this summer (everything is done–cover, editing, etc.) and No. 4, “The Last Banquet,” I would expect early next year. I don’t want them to be rushed out because I don’t know how long it will take me to finish writing No. 5, “The Fugitive Prince.”

      Back when I was writing horror novels, I did the first draft on my typewriter–manual, of course. I never could stand electric typewriters. I don’t compose on the computer because it’s too fast, which is for me a snare. Going too fast is my weakness in chess, and I would rather it didn’t spill over into my writing. (Uh-oh, back-to-back prepositions…)

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