stay on the case

Yesterday, my contractual copy of another published book arrived in the mail. It’s solid, heavy—no pamphlet. Looks like I’ve accomplished the feat yet again. At this point, I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out the trick to writing books. Let me tell you what it is so we can all get on with the work.

I was simply being methodical, because I didn’t know what else to be.Spenser, Paper Doll

As a private detective, Robert B. Parker’s mononymous protagonist solves problems intuitively. At the start of each case, he feels things out without a fixed plan. Faced with a thorny mystery, he favors action over stillness. Even when a crime seems completely random, he acts as though meaning can be found. That’s because the alternative doesn’t leave him anything to do. No matter how opaque things get, Spenser keeps going by assuming there’s an answer out there that just needs to be excavated. Whatever it takes to keep moving.

To solve a case, Spenser goes places, talks to people, and pays careful attention to all the details along the way. Nosing around relentlessly, he inevitably stirs up trouble. At that point, he falls back on his instincts as a seasoned fighter and former cop to bull his way through. Then, more nosing around. In the end, good triumphs over evil—although, in Parker’s morally gray landscape, Spenser is usually required to define each of these for himself, acting as judge, jury, and even executioner as circumstances require.

Go and do likewise, but with your book.

I’m not being glib here. You can only write a book by feeling things out. Your book reveals itself in the writing. You must favor action—getting words down—over stillness. When ideas arise that don’t fit, don’t go looking for a new approach or read a book on writing for help. Assume everything will click eventually and build on what you’ve got. Anything to keep writing.

To finish a book, keep investigating your subject. Go places, talk to people, and pay careful attention to all the details along the way. Nosing around relentlessly, you will inevitably stumble onto a thread of insight. At that point, rely on your instincts as a seasoned writer to bull your way through. (You don’t see yourself as seasoned? You write all day long. Emails, social media, texts—you are writing constantly. Do that.) Then, more nosing around. In the end, the first draft will be complete—although, in today’s publishing landscape, you are usually required to define what success looks like for yourself, acting as author, editor, and even publisher as circumstances require.

You’re stuck on your book because you think there’s something you don’t know or haven’t figured out yet. (It’s a trick. Get an axe.) The one thing you never do, the thing Spenser avoids doing at all costs, is nothing. Even if the next action is sitting at his desk and staring out the window, Spenser is always on the case: running through the facts and looking for the next thread to pull on. One way or the other, he has faith that steady forward motion will bring the case to a close. So should you.

See, an ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. A repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.Bud, Repo Man

I’m working on my next book now. This last chapter I had to write was a beast. It was so hard. It took so much longer than I’d planned. The harder I tried to wrangle it, the further the ideas seemed to slip through my fingers. Sisyphean comes to mind. But I kept moving forward, and it turned out OK. This is to be expected under the Spenser Method. You don’t find answers by backing off. If you want to finish, you stay locked in to that tense situation. Like Spenser, you have to bull your way through until you close the case.

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