I’ve just published my seventh novel (Two for the Show, Thomas & Mercer) and all seven have been written on the commuter train between my home in Connecticut and my job in Manhattan. My commute has been so much a part of my novel writing that my first book, The Cold Truth, is dedicated, in part, to “my fellow commuters . . . on the 8:04 from Talmadge Hill.” The train commute may even dictate the pace and rhythm of my novels. More than a couple of readers have joked that they can feel the train pulling into Grand Central Station at the end of my short chapters.
People have asked me, for years, “how on earth can you write a novel on the train?” Particularly my kind of novel – heavy on plot twists and turns, switchbacks and reversals. “How do you keep all those events, clues, characters, straight in your head?”
This guest post is by Jonathan Stone. Stone does most of his writing on the commuter train between the Connecticut suburbs and Manhattan, where he is a creative director at a midtown advertising agency. His five published novels have all been optioned for film. He has short stories in the two most recent Mystery Writers of America anthologies. “East Meets West,” appears in the collection “Ice Cold – Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War,” (2104) edited by Jeffery Deaver. “Hedge”, appears in the MWA anthology, “The Mystery Box”, edited by Brad Meltzer (2013). His short story “Mailman” will be published in Best American Mystery Stories 2016, edited by Elizabeth George. His latest novel is Two for the Show. A graduate of Yale, Jon is married, with a son and daughter.
First, let me answer the obvious and natural prior question: why have I written my novels on the train? Simple answer: because I had to. My kids were infants, then toddlers, and needed and deserved my full attention at home. My day job – as the creative director of an ad agency in midtown Manhattan – was increasingly demanding and intense. The only time I had to myself – entirely to myself – was an hour on the train into work, and an hour on the train back home. Two blissfully uninterrupted hours, five days a week. (Note to reader: my first novel was written in 1997 and published in 1999, before email and cell phones, so the commute was a little more silent and sacrosanct than it is today. I’ve had to learn to turn off cell phone and ignore email – hard to do, admittedly.)
Now, I’m pretty disciplined, but I’m not a machine. Sometimes I sleep. Sometimes I read the paper. It turns out I’m human. But when I have an idea for a novel that I like, I like it enough to look forward to getting back to it as soon as I take my seat, in my regular spot in my regular train car on my regular morning express. And that’s my first tip, really; A good test of how compelling your premise is – does it hold your attention as you bump along on your commute (or as you wait for a delayed flight, or sit there in a hotel lobby waiting for a meeting, etc. etc.) Does it resist all the natural distractions around you? Does it bring you back to it? Does it have you thinking about it, turning it over incessantly? Then it’s probably going to do the same for a reader. The adversity of your writing conditions may, ironically, be testimony to the worthiness of your idea.
Second thing to know about my writing, which may or may not be a useful tip for you: I begin with no more than a premise. “Hey, what if a cop hires a psychic to help on a cold case, and the psychic proves a little too psychic, since the cop knows there no such thing as ‘psychic.’ ” (The Cold Truth) “Hey, what if a moving company shows up on the day before a scheduled move, convinces the elderly owner that it’s the correct day, then disappears and fences everything; it’s an ongoing scam, but one elderly victim is not going to be messed with like that.” (Moving Day) The basic premise is all I know when I start. I don’t do an extensive outline. I can’t. (What am I going to do? Put post-it notes in different colors on the back of the seat in front of me?) The way I work – starting with only a premise and seeing where it leads me – permits me to write on the train (and in airports, hotel rooms, etc.), and pick up where I left off, without the interruptive discipline or filter of an outline. In fact, it may be a case of the chicken or the egg. Writing on the train and in transit may have shaped this “outline-less” way of working. (Some might say, the literary equivalent of acrobatics without a net.) But I like how this method – or lack of it – always leaves room for the happy accident, the sudden inspiration, the swerve to something unexpected, and better. Does this necessitate lots of changes in what’s come before, “backfilling,” as I call it, when a new idea takes me in a new direction? Yes. But that’s a good self-test too. If a new idea is exciting enough to you that you’re willing to change what you’ve already written to accommodate it, then it’s a good idea indeed.
“And how do you remember the names of all your characters?” Oh, very sophisticated technique: I give each one the first name that pops into my head. My central protagonist through my first three books – Julian Palmer – has my wife’s maiden name. The stories took place in a town whose name was an inversion of my own real life town. In short, make it easy on yourself. Particularly in the first draft. You can always go back and change names later, thanks to efficient Find and Replace functions.
“But don’t you keep any notes? Ideas for new scenes? Snippets of dialogue? Middle of the night ideas? You can’t keep it all in your head, can you?” No. I definitely keep notes. I make them in ALL CAPS, and keep them in a running list, just below the manuscript sentence that I’m actually writing, so I have instant access to them. I delete any note once it’s actually incorporated into the manuscript, so my NOTES don’t get too overwhelming.
“But when you want to insert changes in a 300-page manuscript, how do you remember where things are?” This is hard to explain to people. But you do know where things are. It’s your manuscript. You’ve been living with it. You know its basic flow. Need to rework a scene, a conversation, to foreshadow the scene you’re working on? Scroll through the manuscript. You know what comes where. You know the order of things. You can find the scene you need more easily than you’d think.
And while there is an inherent adversity in writing on the train, there is an undeniable pleasure in seeing someone reading your book – published, a year or so later – on the same train. I’ve had that happen a couple of times. And couldn’t resist, of course:
“So, uh, you enjoying that book?”
“Yes . . .why, have you read it?’
“Actually, I wrote it.”
“Yeah. Check the author photo.”
(And by the way, I looked to make sure he was well along in it before saying anything. Figuring if he was a hundred pages or so into it, he was liking it!)
Now, seven novels later, my kids are grown, I’ve got time to myself in the evenings and on weekends. I don’t have to write everything on the commuter train. But while I’ve had some nice success with my novels – enough that I’ve been able to reduce my Manhattan work schedule to part time – it hasn’t been quite enough to cut out the commute entirely.
But hey, maybe that’s for the best. Maybe I shouldn’t tamper with a system that’s worked for me so far.
And sorry, but I’ve got to go.
We’re pulling into Grand Central.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.