Robert Dugoni, New York Times, #1 Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Internationally Best-Selling Author of 20 novels in The Tracy Crosswhite police detective series, the David Sloane legal thriller series, and the Charles Jenkins espionage series, as well as several standalone novels including #1 Amazon Kindle download, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell.
I’ve written in the past about the secret of writing, how I found it and how I define it when it comes to my own writing. This is a secret I first read about in Steven King’s book On Writing and later had confirmed at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference on a panel with Diana Gabaldon.
I didn’t understand the secret right away, but with time to reflect, I came to terms with it. Years ago, after having written five critically acclaimed novels, I had been let go by one of the big five publishers. I had time to read Stephen King’s book, On Writing, a book given to me many years before by my God-daughter at Christmas, 2004.
On the inside cover, she wrote.
Dear Uncle Bob.
I hope someday you become a rich, famous
millionaire like Stephen King.
It didn’t exactly happen that way, as it doesn’t for most writers.
But as I read King’s book, I came to a passage in which he revealed his secret of great storytelling. It was very simple, really. First, King posed a question. How does a writer sitting at her desk touch the heart and soul of a person she’s never met and never will, living in a small town she’s never visited and never will?
The secret Stephen King wrote is Telepathy.
All you have to do is find that place in your mind and telepathically touch the minds of your readers. Simple right?
About a year later, I was on a conference panel with Diana Gabaldon – the uber successful author of the Outlander series. At the end of our panel, we had time for questions, and this gentleman stood and said, “Diana. Can you explain the magic?”
Diana responded that she would go into her office, close the door, light a candle, and wait until her characters felt comfortable speaking to her. And whatever they said, she wrote. She talked about being in a place where she was not so much creating the story as she was transcribing a story being told to her.
I sat back and ruminated on those words and eventually recalled a time in my writing life when I had experienced something similar. My own bit of telepathy. My own magic… though I really didn’t recognize it at the time.
I was in the seventh grade. My class assignment was to write and deliver a speech from the perspective of a slave, a slave owner, or an abolitionist. I chose an abolitionist. I don’t recall writing my speech. What I do recall, quite vividly, is the feeling that overcame me when I stood at the front of my class and delivered that speech.
When I had finished – it was probably all of four minutes – not one of my classmates clapped. They sat at their desks and stared at me in silence. I remember thinking I’d failed. My story had failed. After a moment that felt like an eternity, Sister Kathleen cleared her throat and gave me the parochial school finger, beckoning me to follow her into the next classroom. She marched me in front of the class and said, “Give your speech.”
When finished, I looked to Sister Kathleen, and she gave me a smile and a nod. What I had done and, more importantly, how I had done it, would remain a mystery to me for many years, despite many more writing assignments in high school, newspaper articles, and novels, none of which would have the same emotional impact as that simple speech on slavery had on my seventh-grade class and on my teacher.
As I pondered King’s and Diana’s words, I realized that back in the seventh grade, I didn’t know the first thing about storytelling or story structure. I didn’t know what makes a good character. I wasn’t even writing from my head. I had written that speech from my heart.
Was that the answer? Was that what King and Gabaldon meant by telepathy and magic?
I went into my office, and I closed the door. I put on classical music. I put my hands on the keyboard. Then I waited.
The next day I tried again. Nothing.
I kept going back until finally, I heard this character in my head. He was telling me a story. His story. This boy had ocular albinism – red eyes. Kids had picked on him and bullied him and called him Sam Hell and Devil Boy. I didn’t know him. We had never met.
He would wake me at four o’clock in the morning and say, “I have more to tell you.”
So I’d go in my office and I’d sit at my desk, and I would transcribe what this boy told me. And when I was done, I had written The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell…
More importantly, I truly understood what Diana Gabaldon and Stephen King were talking about. What King called Telepathy. And Diana called Magic.
What I call Faith.
A writer has to have faith in his or herself in order to have faith in our stories. We have to have faith that the story we are writing is uniquely our own and that we are telling it raw and unfiltered, and honest. We have to give up control and stop trying to write stories from inside our heads and instead write stories from inside our hearts. Because that is the place where we can truly touch our readers.
We appeal to their minds, but we touch their hearts.
It’s a scary proposition when someone says write a story from your heart because it first requires that we have one and that we are willing to share it with readers, knowing that there will be some who stomp on it and inflict pain.
I feel that way before each new book. February 22, 2022, Thomas & Mercer will release The Silent Sister, the third in the Charles Jenkins espionage series. I think it is the best of the three books and I hope it touches readers’ hearts. It’s a story of selflessness, heroism, and dogged determination. It’s a story of brutality but also kindness. It’s a story of fulfilling one’s destiny, in spite of tremendous odds to the contrary.
I hope it’s a book that will touch readers’ hearts because that is the magic of writing.
How do our readers contact you?
- Twitter: @robertdugoni
How do we purchase The Silent Sisters? It’s available on Amazon Amazon.com: The Silent Sisters (Charles Jenkins): 9781542008341: Dugoni, Robert: Books
Thank you so much for explaining magic and telepathy.
Mr. Dugoni’s insights into his writing process and the writing processes of others whom he admires really touched my heart. I’ve had those moments of flow in my own writing, but they are definitely few and far between. I’m going to try ‘waiting for the magic’ more often, rather than starting with technique or outline, neither of which really work for me. Thank you, George Kramer and Robert Dugoni.
Such an inspiring post! Thank you!
Love this very inspiring post! Thank you, Robert Dugoni! And thanks to you, George, for make this post available to us!
I’m afraid if I wait for the magic I may be into the next century. Wonderful post. Thanks George as always for bringing us great content. And thanks Robert for sharing your hard-fought view of writing.
Beautiful! Thanks, George and Robert.
Writing a story from your heart – risking that – truly forges a connection with other human beings. Thank you, Robert and George!
Sounds like you’ve found a great system that works for you. Thanks for sharing it with us. Best of luck to you in your writing.
Thanks for the interview! Great advice: Write from the heart.
I’m grateful. Thank you.
This was a wonderful idea, be it magic or telepathy. I know my last story seemed to write it’s own words.
Thank you George and Robert
I think this is the most beautiful blog I’ve ever read.
Marilynn, That is exactly what I thought when Robert sent it to me.
This is the second author interview I’ve read this week that referred to Stephen King’s “On Writing.” That’s my problem. I never finished it. Dugoni gives away some great “secrets” that can be challenging to practice.
Nice to get this author, George.
A wonderful and thought-provoking post. Thanks so much for sharing it.
Thank you for this, Robert and George. Robert – as a reader, I’m grateful that parting with your Big Five publisher didn’t slow you down. As a novelist, I’m grateful for your insight on fortitude and your thoughts on opening the door to magic. Truly, it’s the path to crafting a tale that resonates and rewards.
This reminds me of how two-time Booker Award winner Hilary Mantel, says she sits down, imagines her character (Henry VIII, say) sitting in front of her, and she interviews them. It’s really getting into the head of the character and out of the writer’s own head, and Dugoni describes it beautifully!
This is such a motivating post. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.
Thanks to both George and Robert!
Interesting and thought provoking post. I too listen to my characters and the story flows easily when I do.
…and this is from my heart: Thank you for sharing your gift with the world. You have an innate ability to put forth characters that live and breathe vividly through your writing. These are characters to whom we can all relate on some level and following their journey is enriching.
With much appreciation…
My problem is my characters talk too much and I have trouble keeping up. Other characters interrupt and I want to tell their stories also. Please don’t think that I am mocking you, because I’m not. So far I haven’t written about one person. My stories have multiple characters. They are people I have experienced and they have their own magic, Sometimes joyful sometimes tragic. I have actually cried with their pain as well as their love. Unfortunately, I am not the best conduit to write their magic and to express it their true feelings. I can only write what I observe and what I hear. Too many of my characters are not truly fictional. I recognize them and try my best to interpret their lives. I loved this blog. Thank you Robert and thank you George.
What a pleasure to read advice from you, Robert Dugoni. Your magic truly touched my heart when I read “The World Played Chess” (I think it was your best). I look forward to reading more of your stories. And thanks, George, for inviting Robert to your blog.
We all are very much alike in many ways, so that it’s possible for us to “inhabit” another person’s personality, just as good stage actors do. So, though people differ in significant ways, we can become them, or hear them when we write. Or at least they will become real enough to control our keyboards or our pens.
That’s the magic of the human mind. I like how you describe your process of getting your characters to speak to you.
Thank you for a wonderful post! I will go back and read this whenever I feel stuck. “The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell…” was one of the best books I’ve ever read. Now I know why. Thanks for another fantastic blog post, George! And thanks Robert for being a guest and writing from the heart!