Ramblings & ephemera

James Ellroy on how he writes

From Nathaniel Rich’s “Interviews: James Ellroy, The Art of Fiction No. 201” (The Paris Review: Fall 2009):

I begin by sitting in the dark. I used to sleep on the living-room couch. There was a while when that was the only place I felt safe. My couch is long because I’m tall, and it needs to be high backed, so I can curl into it. I lie there and things come to me, very slowly.

[After that] I take notes: ideas, historical perspective, characters, point of view. Very quickly, much of the narrative coheres. When I have sufficient information—the key action, the love stories, the intrigue, the conclusion—I write out a synopsis in shorthand as fast as I can, for comprehension’s sake. With the new novel, Blood’s a Rover, this took me six days. It’s then, after I’ve got the prospectus, that I write the outline.

The first part of the outline is a descriptive summary of each character. Next I describe the design of the book in some detail. I state my intent at the outset. Then I go through the entire novel, outlining every chapter. The outline of Blood’s A Rover is nearly four hundred pages long. It took me eight months to write. I write in the present tense, even if the novel isn’t written in the present tense. It reads like stage directions in a screenplay. Everything I need to know is right there in front of me. It allows me to keep the whole story in my mind. I use this method for every book.

I think of the outline as a diagram, a superstructure. When you see dialogue in one of my outlines, it’s because inserting the dialogue is the most complete, expeditious way to describe a given scene.

I set a goal of outlined pages that I want to get through each day. It’s the ratio of text pages to outline pages that’s important. That proportion determines everything. Today I went through five pages of the outline. That equals about eight pages of the novel. The outline for Blood’s a Rover, which is three hundred and ninety-seven pages, is exponentially more detailed than the three-hundred-and-forty-five-page outline for The Cold Six Thousand. So the ratio of book pages to outline pages varies, depending on the density of the outline.

I need to work just as rigorously on the outline as I do on the actual writing of the text, in order to keep track of the plot and the chronology. But once I’m writing text, I can be flexible, because the outline is there. Take today: I woke up early, at five-thirty. I worked for a couple of hours, took a break for some oatmeal, shut my eyes for a moment, and went back at it. I was overcaffeinated, jittery-assed, panic-attacky. Sometimes I go until I just can’t go anymore. I flatline and need some peace.

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