Milk and Cookies and Murder

This morning I woke up with a new novel in my head.

Okay, not the whole novel. Just the first paragraph.

People say I shot my daddy cause I was so scared. But thats not how it was. You dont shoot someone cause youre ascared of him. You shoot him cause you decided to stop being ascared.

What’s odd about this is, I have no idea what novel this is. None whatsoever. I look forward to finding out.

Though not right away. As it happens, I’ve just started work on a brand new book — and it’s not this one. It’s the next book in the Go-Giver series, which I’m writing with my series coauthor Bob Burg, and which will come out about a year from now, and which has nothing at all to do with anyone shooting anyone else. It’s a fun story, a sweet story; along with the people, there is a large dog in it named Solomon, and nobody dies. I would tell you what happens, but we haven’t written it yet … so I don’t know.

This, right now, is the trickiest part of writing a book, for me, and the hardest: the very beginning. This isn’t even like planing logs for your timber, or putting up the framing, or even digging a big hole in the ground and pouring the foundation. This comes before all that This part is more like standing on the edge of the property for a few days straight, staring at the plot of dirt where the house is supposed to go and wondering what it’s supposed to look like. Soon, I’ll be in the planing-the-logs part, pouring the foundation, putting up the two-by-tens and cutting beams to size, and then start actually framing in the story.

But I can’t do any of that now — because I’m not sure yet just what it is we’re building here.

Here’s how I do this: first thing in the morning, I take a cup of hot green tea and go sit in my favorite stuffed chair with a pen and blank pad of paper. I don’t try to write anything. I don’t even try to think, not really.

Trying just disturbs the surface of the pond.

So I just sit and watch, waiting, hoping some wildlife will emerge from wherever it’s hidden to come drink from the pond, or a fish will leap up from below to pierce its surface. I know there are some ideas in there. I just have to be patient and have earnest intentions. It’s not like building. It’s not carpentry. (That part’s later.) It’s fishing.

I scribble stuff on the pad. Sentences, snippets of dialog, phrases, random ideas flit into view and I catch them and jot them down. (It always surprises me, later on, to notice how many of these scribbles actually do end up being in the book.)

That’s the morning.

In the afternoon, I go sit at my computer and carefully, gently, transfer those scribbles to a Word file titled as generically as possible (“Notes,” “Ideas,” etc.) I say “carefully, gently” because at this point I don’t want to edit them or “develop” them or do much of anything to them, really, but simply slide them through the keyboard and into disk memory, where I can do those other things to them later. Right now I just want to catch and hold.

At night, before I sleep, I set my arm chair by the pond’s edge (in my mind) to prepare for morning. And let the universe know that while I sleep, my mind is open for business, should the universe be so inclined.

I did this last night. It was like setting out milk and cookies for Santa … and in the morning discovering that my little trap had caught not Santa at all, not an elf, not a reindeer, but instead, I don’t know, Karl Childers from Sling Blade, or Forrest Gump as reimagined by Cormac McCarthy.

Hey, writing is like a box of chok’lates … you neva know what’s gonna emerge from the early-morning mist and shoot someone dead.

So that first paragraph, about the boy who shot his daddy? By the time I opened my eyes, reached over, and took up my bedside pen and tablet to write it down, four more passages from that same novel had bubbled up to the pond’s surface and leapt out to join it. Here’s one of them:

On my eighth birthday, my momma gave me a credit card and a gun. She said she wanted to teach me about the world. Expose ye to the dangers a laff, she said. Debt n death, she said, and she showed her gums when she said it. She showed me how to use the card to buy something, then save up my quarters in a jar and pay it off. Said knowing how to do that would mean Id never go hungry again. Showed me how to load the gun, how to unload it, clean it, oil, everything. How to shoot it.

Will these pond-ripples ever turn into an actual novel? I’ll let you know.

Tonight when I go to sleep, I’m putting out a fresh pad of paper, and some more of those milk and cookies. Neva know whatcha gonna git.

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