Most but not necessarily all of the time.
There are exceptions.
In the early stages of a novel, I spend a lot of time (probably too much) taking notes, sketching, outlining, and dwelling on what ifs and if thens.
But at some point, usually the first line and opening paragraph of the first draft, I start thinking about who’s looking over my shoulder.
It changes from novel to novel.
For A Choice of Nightmares, my first, it was Fitzgerald and Conrad.
The Great Gatsby and Heart of Darkness have always been important—and intimidating—books for me, and when I started drafting A Choice of Nightmares, I used them as benchmarks for what a work of fiction could be. The novels embodied everything at that time I admired and aspired to.
But aspired is the operative term here.
I never once believed I was or would ever be in the same room with Fitzgerald and Conrad, but having them looking over my shoulder kept me pushing against the limits of whatever skills I had or hoped to have as a writer.
They kept me honest. They made me work.
When I started doing final editing on the fourth draft of the novel, I saw what I’d been trying to do without ever realizing it. Both Great Gatsby and Heart of Darkness are structured as frame narratives, and in Choice of Nightmares, I collapsed those frames. There is no Nick Carraway to explain and justify Gatsby’s actions and character. There is no unnamed narrator to filter Marlow’s version of events on his trip upriver to meet Kurtz. My protagonist, Robert Staples, was a Gatsby-like character who did not end up dead in a swimming pool but instead got the girl of his dreams, a Daisy who in turn promptly took him to the Heart of American Darkness in the late 1980’s where cocaine rather than ivory ruled.
The writers looking over my shoulder change from novel to novel. Their positions can change too. Some help get things started and then disappear. Others pop up in the middle or step in at the end.
The new novel, Words To Die For, takes place in 1986. My goal was to write a crime novel that captured some truths about the American character at a particular tipping point in the culture: the Reagan Years. In many respects, we’re still living in the long shadow of those years.
Nathanael West was looking over my shoulder throughout each draft. I had always admired the scope and focus he brought to bear on America in Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust.
My protagonist, Raymond Locke, in Words To Die For is a Miss Lonelyhearts of sorts. He’s a public relations executive who skips doling out advice and instead fixes and erases the problems his clients bring to him, but by the novel’s close, he, like West’s Tod Hackett in Locust, is a witness to the costs of those fixes for himself and the culture.
Along the way to the final draft and capturing the character of Raymond Locke’s nemesis, Ken Brackett, Flannery O’Connor and Sherwood Anderson stopped by to remind me of the truths that nest in the Grotesque.
I’m grateful for a lifetime of reading and to the writers who end up looking over my shoulder while I work.
In the face of all their talent, I know they definitely keep me humbled and determined to push myself harder with each new project.