Listen to the Whispers
by Philip Donlay
I can remember clearly how much uncertainty I felt when it came time to write Aftershock. Though it was the fifth in my series, the first four had been written over a span of ten years. I wrote when and where I could while I was still working as a professional pilot and traveling the world. This was going to be different. Change had happened, and I didn’t particularly like the concept. I had one summer to write what would hopefully become the next Donovan Nash thriller. In the weeks leading up to my start date, I’d wake up at night worrying, having no real idea how long it actually took me to write a novel. If I did the math on the first four, it averaged two and a half years each (though the first one seemed like it took a lifetime). . Now I had three months. Would I be focused and disciplined, or would I burn out quickly and lay in the hammock all day waiting for happy hour?
I eliminated all distractions by renting a cabin on a quiet lake. I took my cellphone, but knew that there was no reception where I was headed. Upon arrival, I set up my desk in the corner of the bedroom. As is my custom, I fussed with my work area, creating order despite the certainty that it would be a complete mess within days. I connected the printer, and wondered if there would ever be anything to print. Once my environment was to my liking, I settled in to write. My daily commute was exactly six steps. I laid out months of research and story notes scribbled on random index cards. At the end of day one, I shut down the computer. I’d written nothing. Eighty-nine days remained.
The next day I wrote a paragraph or two, my characters and plot in complete chaos as page one finally staggered into existence. Leave it alone and keep going, I reminded myself, and page two followed. Some days it was easy, other days the process felt like a forced march. Around page one-hundred I had a complete collapse of conviction. Something felt off. I panicked, hesitated, wavered like a baserunner who realizes he’s going to get thrown out at second and desperately wishes he could go back and start over. I did everything except stop and listen for the answers to my own questions. I’d been at this point before in other books, and knew that the answers I needed were out there somewhere. The question was, did those answers know about my compressed timeline? I glanced apprehensively at the calendar and pressed onward.
Mentally, I was always grinding on the story. The characters never left; this was full-immersion book writing. I asked myself a barrage of “what if” questions daily, and played out each scenario in my head, sometimes creating more questions than answers. The clock kept ticking. I’d decided long ago to never go back to page one until the entire first draft was written, as that’s the fastest way I know to lose momentum. Eyes forward – editing is for later.
It was during one of my late night musings that the first glimpse of a completely new idea flashed into my conscious mind, and then bolted off into the ether it came from. I nearly missed the gravity of the fragmented thought, discounting it entirely. Yet the idea lingered. The notion was virtually unthinkable – or was it? I’d never killed an important character before. Don’t get me wrong: killing characters is nothing new to a thriller writer, but I’d never killed a continuing character. Unconscionable, I thought. My characters are real, at least to me, and typically my job is figuring out ways to keep them alive. I couldn’t believe what I was contemplating.
In the past, I’d had days, or even weeks to make a major plot decision. Writing a book in ninety days eliminates that luxury. I had told people that the blitzkrieg book writing process was good, for it allowed me to be completely absorbed, but this was happening fast – too fast. As I continued to type, I drew closer to the point where a decision would have to be made. I slowed down, and then halted work completely. Keeping a careful eye on the time I had remaining, I contemplated the chaos I was about to unleash. I tried to calculate all of the far-reaching implications for not only Aftershock, but for the books to come. That first whisper of an unthinkable idea had evolved into what I now believed was a better book. I made the decision, and a fresh stack of scribbled notecards accumulated on my desk – the death warrant, if you will. I felt a little sick to my stomach. The next morning the writing resumed.
Damp-eyed, I made sure I did it right. I finished that one scene and called it a day. I honestly felt like I’d lost one of my close friends. Deep down I knew that I could go back to my desk, sit down, change the scene and move on as if nothing had happened. I would have been wrong had I done that. In books, as in real life, people die, and friends and loved ones feel the tragedy and mourn. The scene stayed.
It was all a bit of a blur after that, but inside of my deadline, I finally sat back and watched as the rough draft of Aftershock materialized from the printer. It was a messy first draft, but first drafts are supposed to be a bit of a disaster, like a dictionary hit by a tornado. But it was all correctable. In my hands was something I could, and would, make better. Finally, I sat in a comfortable chair, pen in hand, and read Aftershock for the first time.
Since that first read-through, I’ve gone over the manuscript many times, and although I know what’s coming, I’ve yet to escape the feeling of loss when I get to the part where my friend dies. Writing Aftershock in three months was a completely different experience for me, and I felt the stress and the pressure of the task at hand. Though I wobbled a bit on the home stretch, I never once questioned my actions. In the end, neither did my agent or publisher. The death of the character was the right move for the story, which is really what the craft of writing books asks of the author – I’m glad I’ve learned to listen.