Guest Post: The Machine Keeps Feeding Me by Clay Johnson

Welcome to Part Two of our participation in the Off to See the Wizard Book Tour (see Part One), a couple more posts will be up in a while. This is a Guest Post by Clay Johnson, the novel’s author, about his process:

I have to hear the words in my head before I start writing, or I’m pretty much hosed. I used to plan out the whole story, or at least try to. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, picturing the action and the plot points, really getting into the thing. I did a lot of imagining while listening to music. I figured if I could see what I wanted to write, then I was golden. Unfortunately, when it came time to actually sit down and do it, I’d hit a dry spot. It wasn’t writer’s block, though; it was more like I was incredibly bored. What I pictured so vividly in my head just wasn’t coming out anywhere nearly so thrilling, and in the few instances that it did I still wasn’t particularly captivated by the process. I kept trying though, and I kept ending up with a bunch of barely started or, at best, half-finished manuscripts.

One day, somewhere around senior year, of high school, instead of an idea, I had just a line. It wasn’t a particularly good line. It was something like: Bill woke up to find death staring down at him and asking if they had any nachos. But I liked what the line made me think of, and I was bored in class, so instead of trying to plan out what that story might be I just went with it. The result was an awesome mess. But it was an “awesome” mess. It was full of great little moments, and a lot of threads that led nowhere. I couldn’t use the story for anything, but I felt invigorated the whole way through. In working on that story I finally figured out my problem. If I knew where the story was going, I didn’t care. I’d already thought that part out; I just wanted to move on to the next story. Somewhere in the transition from over-planning to not planning, I’d found my voice.

I started riffing on just a line, or a vague idea built around a specific image. But the trick was that I had to be able to hear at least the opening line in my head. I had to be able to hear the voice the character would use. As long as I could tap into that, then I could continue the story. The rest seems to take place beneath the surface.

It feels like there is some constantly running story machine cranking away somewhere in the basement of my mind, and while I’m busy doing other things, it’s making connections and drawing paths between two unplanned plot points. Those are the moments I love the most when I write, those moments where two bits that I wrote on a whim meet up and fit together so well that I can’t believe they weren’t planned. Writing this way makes it harder in the revision process, because I end up with a lot of gems I want to keep and can’t, and there’s also a lot of connections that still have to be made after the fact, but almost always less of them than I would expect. As long as I can tap into the sound of the story, the way the words flow and the beat of the thing, the machine keeps feeding me.


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