one thriller wouldn't kill you

On Blue Thumbs and Making Books

I had no idea thirty-three years ago, as an apprentice carpenter with aspirations to become a novelist, that to learn to rebuild the motor of a circular saw, or later, to plan large construction jobs, would prepare me for the nuts ‘n bolts of building thrillers.

In fact I would not appreciate the wealth of job site learning I’d come by until much later,
once I’d traded the hammer for the typewriter,


leaving behind a very lucrative career as master carpenter / licensed home builder to make an all-out commitment to writing fiction.

It was the early 1990s, when the Internet was in the process of becoming.  So was I, or perhaps re-becoming — as a full-time university student.  My practical background — my experience in breaking down the big picture of a given project to its bits, and then diving in to the details – got me recruited to the exciting work of making electronic texts, back when eBooks were yet unheard of.  After a spell I was even asked to serve as a project manager, an undergraduate supervising a bevy of graduate students in creating the World of Dante literary archive, which won a prestigious grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

I discovered I felt very comfortable working side by side with some of the nation’s leading literature professors, distinguished scholars who were at the time building the field of Humanities Computing. And during those semesters I came upon my own discovery:  that my new-found humanities studies and my background as a home builder might, in fact, make a winning combination.

Perhaps what made me a valuable asset to those eBook-building teams was something I by then took for granted: that the home builder must be a thorough planner who can act radically, yet with calm precision.  Looking back, I suppose there aren’t many professions that require the practitioner to walk a piece of land with the owner and then, a week later, cut all (the right) trees; bring in heavy equipment to pop the stumps (often as operator of same heavy equipment); dispose of the stumps and run the slash through a chipper; dig a huge foundation hole; pour footings and foundation — and then bring in the lumber for the relatively calm activity of putting up the shell – all to be done with accuracy, order, and without hesitation.

On the human side, the builder must be a communicator, must rapidly process immensities of information, updating all this data as the homeowner’s vision of the project evolves – and to act the crack administrator when targets involving time and money move at a blur.

Add to that a high degree of hand-holding, reassuring clients spending their last dimes, as well as future last dimes, and when necessary — to play the alternate roles of marriage counselor — or enforcer when clients don’t pay, or if subcontractors don’t perform, or perform sloppily.

It dawned on me at a riper age, how valuable it had been for me to adapt my various expertise as a builder to the world of literature, even though my new work of building literary archives and electronic books was still a distance from my real objective of writing fiction, my first novel, a goal causing me to close a lucrative business in the trades, now the book I entitled: Special Operations.

The day of reckoning, of making full use of my practical and my bookish learning, came in writing that novel’s climax, many years after earning my degree in English.

I needed to create a proper climax for Special Operations involving hand-to-hand combat between the main character Nick, and his nemeses, the villain I still love to hate:  The Illuminator.  And it would have to be convincing.

If the scene was to be convincing, I would need to choreograph the action before writing. Mentioning this to a writer friend, she suggested I look at a piece Ken Follett had included as post-script in one of his later editions of his wonderful novel Eye of the Needle.  In that piece, Follett describes the process by which he had planned out the spine-tingling climax fight scene that makes up the climax of Eye.

Lo and behold, after reading Follett’s keen insights, within twenty minutes I was able to choreograph what is now the climax scene of my own novel. After that, the actual writing took, maybe, a couple of hours.

That experience was a huge breakthrough for me, and I came away with a lot more than a completed scene.  I had discovered that, passionate writer that I was, radical as a builder can be in diving into a job or job site chain saws blazing, it was the planning that made way for quick and smooth composition (as with a smooth-running building project).

Every writer must master the skill of ignoring the critical voice, that devil perched upon our left shoulder that’d have us stop, correcting each line, to effectively keep us silent, our pages a perfect field of white.  Yet in learning to silence the critical, I’d somehow forgotten something equally crucial, that to plan the writing before beginning helps keep the devil at bay, with the effect of simple and speedy writing.

Wish I’d learned this much sooner! Because to sit down to Special Operations each day brought its own special set of challenges,  the requirement  of me to bust through any hesitance I might have had about the type of material that went into that story.

And lo, the experience of choreographing and then writing that, heart-thumping, breath-taking, page-flipping climactic combat scene in its entirety, the ultimate lesson, helped me to integrate yet another key aspect of my past experience into the task of authoring — or I should say, becoming an author.

Here’s the odd little story of how:  as I prepared to choreograph that hand-to-hand scene I was reminded of years ago, the first time I had to take apart my circular saw – a machine I’d previously regarded as a singular operating unit, without appreciating that unit as a system of moving and non-moving parts, of causes and effects.

As a forty-something writer I recalled a nineteen year old apprentice carpenter who hit his thumb more often than any nail, that day in 1981 when my circular saw ground to a halt.

I heard my own nineteen-year-old’s voice ask the boss, “You know somebody who can fix this?”

“Yeah! You!”

Next thing there I was, seated on a sawhorse removing nuts to break open the saw’s steel case.  Then I was into its guts: the copper-wound armature’s fiery serpentine brilliance, the astonishingly inert carbon brushes that make the armature whirl, the gleaming polished bearings.  Moments later, and with only grunts from the boss when I asked about doing this versus that, I had the saw plugged back in, cutting!

Charting out that combat scene for my novel Special Operations was a similar experience: the trepidation of uncharted territory, for all the bluster of a master (and retired) builder who could take down trees, dig a foundation hole, hold a scared homeowner’s hand, and bring in the final payment!

I’ve come to appreciate benefits of writing that don’t always show up on the page – rich rewards of writing my book — from working with different editors to help me see or solve different problems: that there’s only so much an editor can do, regardless of what mass of writing I brought them.  I had to figure that out myself.  And what I term as “figuring things out” can at times be a solution that seems to fly in through the window.

While tidying my final, final draft of Special Operations, so very close to completion, I discovered one tiny, final piece was missing – an element that would fully resolve the hero’s dilemma, and set up the novel’s sequel.  And after wracking my brain, and then setting the book aside for a few days, I discovered that “one element,” because of something I had misheard. That something else – a miscommunication — was exactly what I needed.

As always when involved in a writing project, my mind had been working away in the background, just beneath the surface of whatever else I was doing, listening for that final tiny bit.  That certain awareness, to recognize that crucial piece, I discovered, is a product of the long and delicate relationship one develops with a book.  Old saw or a novel, what would feed me has been to dive in, keep going, and to ignore nothing — even the mistaken.

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