Bill Petrocelli

Writing: The Best Group Sport You’ll Ever Do By Yourself

I love the people at RT Book Reviews . Here’s what they said about the prospect of me doing a blog for them:

As avid readers, booksellers occupy a place near and dear in our hearts — second only to authors and beloved characters. So our interest was piqued when we heard of thriller author William Petrocelli, who also co-owns Book Passages Bookstore in San Fransisco and Marin County, California, with his wife, Elaine. We had to know how these dual roles played into the creation of William’s futuristic thriller, The Circle of Thirteen. Here’s what he had to say:

Here’s what I wrote:


Like any other writer, I have my desk, my keyboard, my quiet room, and my comfy chair. It’s all the trappings of a self-contained world. I can easily maintain the illusion that when I’m writing I’m operating completely in my own space, tapping into an inner muse that only I can hear.  But I can sustain that idea only if I don’t think too deeply about it. Because when I do, I realize that it is really pretty much an illusion.

Writing – particularly fiction writing – is a social craft. That’s probably true of all writers; it’s certainly true of me. Every scene I’ve put down on a page is a distilled, re-worked version of some observation I’ve had or some interaction with someone else during my lifetime. On page 94 of The Circle of Thirteen, Julia Moro, who was then thirteen years old, is caught up in a huge peace march on Market Street in San Francisco. The year is 2055, but it might as well be today. The protests, the placards, the chants – the visceral impact – of that that peace march are pretty much the feelings I absorbed from those around me in 1969, when I marched down Market Street to protest the invasion of Cambodia, or in 2003, when hundreds of thousands of us marched the same path to protest the war in Iraq. A page earlier one of the minor characters, Harry, then in his eighties, expressed the futility of all the marches he’d been in: “They just went out and fought anyway.”

The borrowing of images from others or from your past may be done consciously or subconsciously, but it’s always there. This “social” aspect is probably truer with fiction writing than any other artistic activity. A novelist is not seeking out some purity of color, perfect tonal quality, or an abstract rhythm. He or she is writing about the interaction of people with nature, with their inner souls, with each other and – most of all – with the reader. Putting the words down on paper is really the last step in a process that involves a lifetime of intermingling with others.

If you hang around a bookstore, as I have, for a long enough period of time, you realize that the social aspect of writing has several other dimensions as well. Certainly if you pick a book off a shelf and begin to read it, the impact of a well-written sentence or paragraph will impact your own writing. Do too much of that, and you’ll be charged with plagiarism. But if you don’t do enough, your writing will be flat and useless. Again, there’s a subconscious element here. Good writing, like good wine, warms your soul as it’s going down. Many writers – myself included – will stay away from other works of fiction while they are writing so that they don’t copy some memorable passage without being aware of what they are doing.

And books act in bunches. Pull one off a shelf, and it may not be long before the one next to it catches your eye. And it may be the one after that contains the phrase, the setting, the description, the human interaction that gets your own imagination flowing. And what’s true of books is true of other readers. It’s not at all uncommon in our bookstore to see several customers – or maybe the staff and the customer – arguing good-naturedly about a book and debating its virtues. And you can multiply that interaction a hundredfold when authors make an appearance in the store for readings, classes, or just dropping by to say hello. This happens hundreds of times a year at our bookstore, Book Passage. Each of these each interactions with authors, readers, staff, and customers adds to the plate of ideas that a future author has to draw upon.

So when I sit down in my snug little space to put words on a page, I’m really sharing the room with a lifetime of others, waiting for one of them to pop up in my head with a suggestion about what I should write next.