Most people in most places live through four seasons a year.
But those of us with the hard-to-kick habit of writing books also experience another four-part cycle—different from the familiar quartet of autumn, winter, spring, and summer in that it has little or nothing to do with the calendar or the weather. I think of this alternative set of seasons as Starting a Book, Mostly Middle, Finishing and Hoping, and The Time Between. Each of these seasons has its charms, its terrors, its frustrations, and its joys.
Starting a Book is when it just seems flat out impossible. It can’t be done. It’s not that you’re afraid it’ll suck—that fear comes later—but that it seems absurd to believe it’ll get written at all, because you’ve somehow forgotten the little you thought you knew about storytelling, you’ve lost the knack of setting a scene, and, by the way, you have no idea what the plot should be. This is the season when you scrawl little notes in the middle of the night and find them either totally illegible or completely idiotic in the morning. It’s pretty exciting!
But books—like, say, good apple pies—are Mostly Middle, so once you have five thousand words or so, you find yourself in the long season of that same name. That’s when you start to be afraid it’ll suck. That it just won’t come together. That you’ll fall through a narrative manhole and find yourself in a sewer full of people you don’t like much having an argument that makes no sense and that you’ll have to live there for many months. Not so pleasant. On the other hand, Mostly Middle also has its share of wonderful redeeming moments when a character suddenly surprises you, or you write something that you didn’t know you knew, or you crack yourself up at the desk and hope that no one can hear you giggling. Though, honestly, what’s the harm in laughing at your own jokes now and then?
Anyway, Mostly Middle eventually leads on to Finishing and Hoping—hoping that maybe it doesn’t suck after all, that maybe the story offers an emotional payoff and a dose of justice, that maybe this book is at least a small step forward from stuff you’ve done before. You hope for readers, you hope for reviews. You hope for a call from Hollywood. You hope to be anointed by Oprah or at least interviewed by Teri Gross. You hope for an out-of-the-blue endorsement from some huge celebrity you’ve never heard of but whose cachet will make you suddenly really cool among Millennials.
All this hoping is invigorating, but at some point it gets to feel a bit undignified, and as it gradually wanes you move into The Time Between, which happens to be my current season.
It’s the toughest to describe, because it doesn’t really have a shape or a predictable duration. I’ve had episodes when The Time Between lasted two or three weeks then sprang abruptly forward to Starting a Book again. On the other hand, there was a stage when I got into a snit about something or other, and The Time Between went on for twelve years. Hard to remember what I did during those twelve years…except live my life, and that was fine. The Time Between is neither good nor bad. True, it can feel a little drifty, but that’s also sort of liberating. True, there’s a certain mental torpor involved (especially when there’s a pandemic going on), so it needs to be taken on faith that thoughts and fresh ideas are ripening in there somewhere.
Anyway, The Time Between is also when I tend to hear from readers telling me they’re looking forward to a next book and asking if I’m back to work yet. Truly, I am hugely grateful for the interest and appreciate the gentle nudges, even though my first impulse—ever since I was a stubborn kid and before I became a stubborn grownup–has always been to resist. Sometimes I wish I was one of those guys who could knock off a novel every three months and keep the market stocked…But actually, I don’t wish that, because if I wrote that fast I couldn’t give the books the care that makes them worth writing in the first place. I’d have to boss my characters around rather than giving them time to talk to me. I wouldn’t have the luxury of trying to describe every individual aroma of the Key West air. It just wouldn’t be much fun.
So I guess I’m stuck with my process and will have to ask readers to please bear with me while I muddle through. In the meantime, may I humbly suggest re-reading? Or glancing back over the Capers series and seeing if there are any you’ve missed? Or, better yet, checking out some of my non-Key West stuff, like Money Talks or The Angels’ Share. I happen to be fond of those one-offs, just as I’m fond of NY and CA, where they’re set. Anyway, please know that, as I daydream through this peculiar season, I’ll be looking forward to the next flip of the cycle and the privilege of sending some fresh work your way. Thanks for hanging in!