THE BOY ON THE TRAIN
I’m about to publish my ninth novel – and all nine have been written on the commuter train between my home in Connecticut and my job in Manhattan. My commute has been so much a part of my novel writing that my first book, The Cold Truth, is dedicated to “my fellow commuters . . . on the 8:04 from Talmadge Hill.” The train commute has probably even dictated the pace and rhythm of my novels. More than a couple of readers have joked that they can feel the train pulling into Grand Central Station at the end of my short chapters.
People have asked me for years, how on earth can you write a novel on the train? Particularly my kind of novel – heavy on plot twists and turns, switchbacks and reversals. How do you keep all those events, clues, characters, straight in your head?
First, let me answer the obvious and natural prior question: why do I write my novels on the train? Simple answer: because I had to. My kids were infants, then toddlers, and needed and deserved my full attention at home. My day job – as a creative director at an ad agency in midtown Manhattan – was increasingly demanding and intense. The only time I had entirely to myself was an hour on the train into work, and an hour on the train back home. Two blissfully uninterrupted hours, five days a week. (Note: my first novel was written in 1997 and published in 1999, before everyone had email and cell phones, so the commute was a little more silent and sacrosanct than it is today. I’ve had to learn to turn off cell phone and ignore email – hard to do, admittedly.)
I’m pretty disciplined, but I’m also human. Sometimes I sleep on the train. Sometimes I read the paper. But when I have an idea for a novel that I like, I like it enough to look forward to getting back to it as soon as I take my seat, in my regular spot in my regular train car on my regular morning express. I guess that’s been a good self-test of each book’s premise – will it hold my attention as I bump and shudder along the tracks (or wait for a delayed flight, or sit in a hotel lobby waiting for a meeting, etc. etc.) Does it resist all my natural distractions? Does it have me thinking about it, turning it over incessantly? Then it’s a fair bet it can do the same for a reader – if I don’t screw it up, that is. (The adversity of your writing conditions may, ironically, be testimony to the worthiness of your idea.)
I begin with no more than a premise. “Hey, what if a cop hires a psychic to help on a cold case, and the psychic proves a little too psychic, since the cop knows there no such thing as ‘psychic.’ ” (The Cold Truth) “Hey, what if a moving company shows up on the day before a scheduled move, convinces the elderly owner that it’s the correct day, then disappears and fences everything.” (Moving Day) The basic premise is all I know when I start. I don’t do an extensive outline. I can’t. (What am I going to do? Put post-it notes in different colors on the back of the seat in front of me?)
Starting with only a premise and seeing where it leads me, lets me write on the train (and in airports, hotel rooms, etc.), and pick up where I left off, without the discipline or filter of an outline. In fact, it may be a case of the chicken or the egg: Writing on the train and in transit may have shaped my “outline-less” way of working. (Some might say, the literary equivalent of acrobatics without a net.) But I like how this method – or lack of it – always leaves room for the happy accident, the sudden inspiration, the swerve to something unexpected, and potentially better. Does this necessitate lots of changes in what’s come before – “backfilling,” as I call it – when a new idea takes me in a new direction? Absolutely. And plenty painful, tossing aside countless wasted pages when you head down a new, better path. But it’s a good self-test too. If a new idea is exciting enough to me that I’m willing to change what I’ve already written to accommodate it, that tells me even more strongly that it’s a good idea.
So how do you remember the names of all your characters? Oh, very sophisticated technique: I give each one the first name that pops into my head. My central protagonist through my first three books – Julian Palmer – has my wife’s maiden name. The stories took place in a town whose name was an inversion of my own real life hometown. I try to make it easy on myself. Particularly in the first draft. You can always go back and change names later, thanks to Find and Replace.
But don’t you keep any notes? Ideas for new scenes? Snippets of dialogue? Middle of the night ideas? You can’t keep it all in your head, can you? No. I definitely keep notes. I make them in ALL CAPS, and keep them in a running list, just below the manuscript sentence that I’m actually writing, so I have instant access to them. I delete any note once it’s actually incorporated into the manuscript, so my NOTES don’t get too overwhelming.
But when you want to insert changes in a 300-page manuscript, how do you remember where things are? This is hard to explain. But somehow you do know where things are. It’s your manuscript. You’ve been living with it. You know its basic flow. Need to rework a scene, a conversation, to foreshadow the scene you’re working on? Scroll through the manuscript. You know what comes where. You know the order of things. You can find the scene you need more easily than you’d think.
And while there is an inherent adversity in writing on the train, there is an undeniable pleasure in seeing someone reading your book – published, a year or so later – on the same train! I’ve had that happen a couple of times. And couldn’t resist, of course:
“So, uh, you liking that book?”
“Yeah . . . have you read it?”
“Actually, I wrote it.”
“Come on! No way!”
“Way. Check the author photo.”
(And by the way, I looked to make sure the guy was well along in it before saying anything. Figuring if he was a hundred pages or so into it, he was liking it!)
Now, nine novels later, my kids are grown, and I’ve recently retired from advertising – leaving the commute behind forever. My wife and I have been traveling, an anniversary trip to New Zealand, spending winter in California, where both our kids live and work. Point being, I’ve now got nothing but time. I don’t even know the train schedule anymore.
So where will you write now?
Anywhere I want.
Do you miss the commute?
Not for a second.
But do you think there was something about the commute – something undefined, some internal pressure or discipline, that helped to shape your books in a way you don’t even realize? Maybe even made them better?
Hey, I guess we’ll find out!
Jonathan Stone recently retired from a 40-year career in advertising. He was a creative director at a New York advertising agency, and did most of his fiction writing on the commuter train between the Connecticut suburbs and Manhattan. His new novel, Die Next, is due out from Grand Central Publishing on April 14th. Of his eight previously published novels, several are currently optioned for film: Moving Day is set up as a feature at Lionsgate Entertainment, Days of Night has been optioned by New Republic Pictures, and Parting Shot has been optioned by Marc Platt Productions. His short stories are anthologized in Best American Short Stories 2016, New Haven Noir, as well as in The Mystery Box (ed. Brad Meltzer) and Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War (ed. Jeffery Deaver), both Mystery Writers of America collections. A graduate of Yale, Jon is married, with a son and daughter.