09/20/2010 05:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Making of a Novel: Snail's Pace Race

Yesterday, at a lovely book event at the home of Terry Gilman, owner of the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in San Diego, I participated in an event called "author speed dating." I think Terry may have made up this term and concept. It was crazy, but fun. There were 5 authors present. We were each assigned a different place in the house -- the backyard patio, the living room, the library, the kitchen. The "audience" split into 5 groups and spent 7 minutes with each of us. What can you do in 7 minutes? Give a condensed history of your career, give a condensed synopsis of your latest book, tell a couple (very) condensed stories about writing, and then answer approximately 1 question. The question each group came up with? What are you writing next. (Well, that's not true. One woman in one group asked me how I do all I do. I told her the truth: my house is a wreck. I say no to things I wish I didn't have to say no to. I don't sleep enough.) As for how I answered what I was writing next? I told them that I had just abandoned an idea because it felt like too small a canvas (10 seconds.) I told them that another idea had leaped into the void (5 seconds.) I told them that I had no idea whether or not it was a good idea, or a viable idea, or an idea that I would stick with, but that it was the idea that was currently winning the race for prominence in my mind. (10 seconds.) The speed of this communication, repeated 5 times in an hour, made it seem perfectly natural to abandon one idea for anovel and take up another. After all, it only took 25 seconds.

In the last group, however, we spent a full minute -- quite a lavish amount of time -- talking about a child's game called Snail's Pace Race. It's a simple game in which the snails race to the finish. You roll a dice and move the designated number of spaces. The goal is to bet on which snail will get to the finish first. So all the snails are moving, and all the snails cross the finish lines, but only one gets there first. I explained that this game was precisely the visual I have for all the ideas in my head. Each idea is on the board, moving at its own speed. Each idea will cross the finish line. But some ideas simply move forward more quickly than others.


So this morning, I worked with a new idea-- one that hasn't had the chance to move very far down the board yet. I spent three hours today writing one paragraph. It's one paragraph that describes my new novel idea. I kept changing the character's names, and going onto Google to look them up. I kept changing the title, searching the dictionary and thesaurus for better words, more precise words, more rhythmic words. I did all of this as a way to circle around my new idea -- to try to see it, know it, understand it. I'm not there yet, but I can feel something coalescing, some kind of heat. Maybe this is the idea I'll take up and over the finish line.