I’m not silly enough to assume this is true of all writers, but it’s certainly true of me: I need silence.
Not true silence, the absence of noise, though that is also beneficial. What I really need is a sort of mental silence–time in which I don’t have to be thinking too hard about other things, like work, or whether my child is screaming for good or bad reasons, or if I remembered to feed her.
The reason I need that time is so my brain can work through story issues. I can sit, in a hammock, let’s say, staring at the trees above me, blinking but doing nothing else–and in my brain, ideas are being sifted through, sometimes consciously, but sometimes in the “background” of my mind while I’m just processing sensory input consciously. It’s a weird and hard to describe process. So here’s an example:
Saturday night, my daughter and I stayed in a motel in Placerville, about a half-hour drive from my home, because we were going out to watch the Perseid meteor shower and I didn’t want to have to drive all the way home from our star-watching spot at the Ice House Observation Plateau to Sacramento at oh-dark-thirty in the morning. When we woke up Sunday, we got dressed, packed up, and went home, where an hour later, I realized I’d left my pillow–a non-standard, kinda expensive pillow that is literally the best pillow I’ve ever had–in the motel room.
Figuring the gas to get there and back again was less than the cost of buying a new pillow, I went back for it. I went alone, which was useful. As I drove, I started asking myself some tough questions I’ve been having a hard time with about The Remembrance War around some of the events in book 2 and some stuff I’m building toward in book 3.
Namely, I had two major questions: First, instead of getting into a protracted street fight in book 2, why don’t the Zhen simply blast the rebels into the dirt from orbit? Second, why don’t they shoot Tajen dead when he begins [REDACTED]*? And, bonus question, why ARE [REDACTED] getting involved with the whole mess in book 3?
As I drove, with nothing to do but let the music on my crappy car radio be white noise while I thought (and steered), I found all three answers. So I committed them to memory, and then spent some time refining the concepts and pre-composing a few scenes that will help make it all clear–scenes that will fit into the already-planned story arc and scene structure.
That kind of downtime, you see, is precious. And I don’t get a lot of it in my daily life. Between work, ten year old child, and spouse, there’s a lot of talking, and a lot of doing, in my day. And I need the quiet to be able to figure out what’s going on with the story.
Fortunately, once I know what’s supposed to happen in a given scene, writing does not require silence. I wrote one of the best scenes in The Widening Gyre while sitting in a room with 300 chattering parents and their kids at my daughter’s school, waiting for an event to begin. I wrote several other scenes in the middle of restaurants or coffee shops full of noise.
So while it isn’t necessary to actually write down words, it is super necessary to figure out what the general shape of those words should be.
And now, it’s time to get back to the writing. Tajen’s about to make an idiot of himself before the Kelvaki High Council at the worst possible moment.