Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Manufactured Experience or the Creative Unconscious

Today’s post resulted from one of life’s tangential moments. While trying to prepare a blog post on a different topic, I read the following excerpt from How to Write Killer Fiction by Carolyn Wheat and was reminded of my own recent experience.

Some writers dislike being reminded that they’re in charge of creating the reader’s experience. They prefer to think of the characters as taking over and writing the story, or they like to believe that an unseen hand reaches in and makes the story work… I think letting your unconscious write your books is like asking a group of nine-year-olds to design the next roller coaster at Disney World. The kids know what they like, but only a real pro can create that experience for them.

Regarding the issue of taking charge of the reader’s experience, within the last month my good friend and writing buddy, John Towler, wrote something that I think is relevant:

“Keeping a reader's interest is such a balancing act. You have to anticipate what they will want and when they will want it.”

While writing my novel, there came a point toward the end of December, when I realized something wasn’t quite right. One of the plot elements felt unresolved, like I had just offered the reader a bowl of ice cream, covered with hot fudge and a cherry, stem included to tongue-tie into a knot, and then suddenly took it all away. I tried to assure myself everything was okay; as long as the other plots kept rolling, the reader would be satisfied with the rest of it. The feeling never went away, and a week or so later it started howling like a dog to get my attention.

I remember when the break-through happened. I had been sitting in my office chair, pivoting from side to side like a pair of intermittent wipers. It was after hours, the rest of the building shrouded in darkness; even the cleaning crew had finished up and called it a night. Finally, it felt like a character’s hand shot up from the back of a gathering crowd, his excited voice shouting, “What about me?” I gave him a minute to consider the question. That one minute suddenly became two, five, and then more as I realized he played a crucial role in resolving that part of my novel. His motives were already there, his character already established; I just needed to work it out in order to complete the arc.

That experience, refreshed in my mind by the excerpt from Carolyn Wheat, raises an interesting question: Do writers craft plots because their characters take over, or do they take charge in order to achieve the one goal that will make their novel a success?

Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages.

Stephen King, On Writing (Emphasis mine)

To add context, Stephen King wrote the above while discussing how writers should connect with their readers by injecting life experiences into their work. The comment can stand alone, though. When writing a novel, while it’s important to tell your story, it’s also important to keep your focus on what book-buyers want—a story to give them a good experience. For my novel, the most troubling aspect of the unresolved plot device was its ability to leave the reader feeling empty and disgruntled about everything else. The worst thing I can do to a reader is leave her with a sinking feeling of wasted time. They just spent ten to fifteen hours of their life with my book, and that’s the best I could do? As a reader, I’ve experience that same emotion and I don’t want to put my readers through the same thing. I doubt any fiction writer does.

Looking back on my experience, I can tell I resolved my plot issue primarily as a result of my initiative and instinct. I recognized a problem, and it had to be fixed. Sure, the character helped; after all, it was his voice that refused to be silenced. However, if it wasn’t for my concern that the story was seeping air through a hole in the latex, that character probably wouldn’t have had the chance to shout his question.

As I move into revision mode, I plan to keep the reader ever more present in my thoughts. How does the information in this chapter help to reveal my characters? How does that plot device create suspense, thus pushing the reader forward to find the resolution? What can I do to make the experience better?

The thing to keep in mind about a roller coaster is that it’s a manufactured experience… Just as the engineer plans the roller-coaster rider’s thrills, so, too, does the suspense writer calculate and produce the effects her writing induces on her readers.

Carolyn Wheat, How to Write Killer Fiction

I believe that Carolyn’s advice is true for all fiction writers, not just those who craft tales of suspense. I would argue (and will) that every book has an element of suspense involved. But that’s another post, for another time.

Maybe you have a different opinion? Maybe you think Carolyn’s advice might be fine for some writers, the blueprint types, but to work that way would stifle your creativity—that your novel should just flow from the unconscious. Or maybe it’s a little of both. The first draft is for the unconscious, the revision where the manufacturing takes place. However you see it, feel free to share.

Addendum: After posting this, I received an update from Nathan Bransford's blog which is also relevant to the discussion.

Other News:

I finished reading Night Passage by Robert B. Parker. A good read. I also read Dry Ice by Stephen White. Not as good. Now, I’m reading The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos, and I’m really impressed with his use of dialogue. Top notch stuff. In preparation for April, I have also purchased Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell. This will be one of the books I read in March. Just glancing through it, the book looks promising; and if it’s anything like Plot & Structure, also by Bell, then it will be a great asset on the bookshelf.

Finally, I’m dusting off and revising an old short story, “Because You Pay Me.” It’s not a crime story, but it deals with the human condition and I think it still has great promise. I just have to write it better.

Until next time…

Monday, February 15, 2010

Honest Scrap Award

Today, I received a pleasant surprise. Writing Buddy, Greta, bestowed upon me the Honest Scrap Award. Greta has been a great friend over the last few years, and she's taught me volumes about writing and driving for the heart of a story. First I need to reveal ten things about myself that you may or may not know:

  1. I love heavy metal music, circa 1970s and 1980s. (e.g., AC/DC, Dokken, Queensrÿche).
  2. I enjoy singing and occasionally sing solos.
  3. I have also done a tad amount of acting too, though not much to consider myself an actor.
  4. I hate flying in commercial jets, but would love to learn how to be a pilot (strange, I know).
  5. My dream retirement is to have a house up in the mountains.
  6. I like to build, and I'm currently working on an entertainment center.
  7. I'm constantly wondering if I can grow this or that in my back yard. The latest is wondering if I can grow a key limes in west Texas. My wife thinks I'm crazy.
  8. And telling a story about my wife, I met her one night while she was dating another man. That night, I knew our paths would cross again.
  9. I want to have a motorcycle some day and take a vacation riding through the Rockies.
  10. I hate all the un-reality TV shows these days and refuse to watch them.

Okay, that much behind, I would like to pass this on to three good friends who are all passionate about what they do:

To Jon Strother, a talented writer who has demonstrated some serious honest, hard work in getting the Friday Flash program running at full steam.

For Carol Benedict, whose blog exudes her personal integrity as well as her passion about the finer points of writing.

And finally to Cindy Adams, who I have known for a couple of years now and who has demonstrated a purity of heart and passion in both her writing and her vision as a mother.

All of you rock.

Until next time...

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

On Writing a Sequel

I can still hear the conversation over lunch that day, my friend asking me about publishing and writing novels. At the time, I told him I wouldn’t even try to submit until I had already started a second book. The logic was clear in my mind. With publishers tying writers up in multi-book contracts, why would anyone consider you if they felt like you could only give them one book?

Where did I get that notion? After reading about authors like J.A. Konrath who signed a contract with Hyperion for six Jack Daniels books, it wasn’t hard to make a cognitive leap toward the multi-book deal. Sounds great doesn’t it? Land one, you land five more, and all your dreams come true. A sweet deal.

Last September, as I geared up for NaNoWriMo, I happened upon an interview with Michael Connelly in Writer’s Digest (October 2009), where Connelly talked about throwing everything he could think of into that first Harry Bosch novel. His comments furthered my belief that the best way to land a contract was to plan ahead for book two. So, I intentionally wrote a few little extras into Lost Hearts, knowing that I would flesh them out in a later novel, so sure that once I had an editor hooked for one, I could also hook him/her for a few more.

Then, this week I came across an interesting post on the Bookends, LLC blog. In her post, Jessica Faust explains the reasoning why writing a sequel before the first book is sold is a bad idea. In summary, if the first one doesn’t sell, you could be wasting your time on writing that second or (heaven forbid) third book. A search of the internet revealed that Faust is not alone. Two other blog postings, one by Corey Schwartz and one by Lisa Cooke, also warn against writing the sequel before the first book is sold.

So much for my bright idea.

On the positive side, I don’t think all is lost. The best thing I can do right now is to make notes about my ideas on a second book and then set it all aside as I tackle a different book with different characters. Then, if an editor inquires: “Why yes, I do have plans for a sequel. I’m glad you asked.”

So, for now I will change course and start looking at the prospect of a new novel. I already have two ideas in the hopper, one which I started previously that shows promise and another one which has merit.

In other news:

Almost a year ago, I received an interesting inquiry about one of my short stories. Would I be interested in optioning it out for a movie? You bet. After making the arrangements, and now waiting several months, I decided to inquire about that option. “I received an e-mail,” the producer responded, “and Beyond the Pale did not get chosen.” I thanked her for considering the story anyway, and told her it was an honor to me that it had even been considered.

In this period between novels, I will pick up a couple short stories and dust them off. I would like to send out at least two over the next couple of months. I'm also still working on a short story idea that came to me while writing the novel. Who knows? I might get that out too.

Last weekend, I finished reading Marked Man by William Lashner. The novel follows the curious case of an attorney hired by a mother who wants to see her son before she dies. Just one problem: the son is on the lam for stealing a priceless painting. Initially, the dialogue feels over-the-top, and the story starts out a little slow, but then everything tightens up and builds steam as Lashner pushes down the throttle for a good plot that tugs at your heart. I give it three bullets out of five, with five being a great read (IMO). I should note that I'm not getting paid for any rating or reading, and the score is purely subjective. With Lashner's book now finished, I'm trying out Stephen White for the first time (Dry Ice) and re-reading a good Robert B. Parker book (Night Passage)

Until next time…

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Slow Down

Physical peril or uncertainty is perfect material for the big stretch.
~James Scott Bell, from Plot & Structure

During the three months I spent on Lost Hearts, I had a few people in the office who knew I was writing a book. One of them, an appraiser who shares a mutual interest in crime stories, asked almost daily about my progress. One morning, he shared with me a review of a murder mystery he had just finished. As it turned out, the author disappointed him. The reason? At the end of the novel, the cop discovered the villain’s identity, arrested him, and that was it. And why was that a letdown? “You expect somebody to die at the end.”

Listening to his criticism that morning, I walked away and thought about my own story. Would it have the big payoff or be a disappointment? Even now, I wonder if I did enough, or if I will need to tweak the ending a little more. After people spend three hundred pages reading a crime novel, the worst thing a writer can do is disappoint.

Okay. Somebody has to die at the end, or at least come out it more than a little scarred. But to set up the physical peril, the reader has to believe the danger is a real possibility. So, how do you accomplish that? Show it in advance.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite Elmore Leonard books is Out of Sight. In that book, there is a fantastic scene where the reader watches Maurice, a thug, commit a crime while taking a two-bit con, Glenn Michaels, along for the ride. In this scene, Maurice demonstrates his cold hearted attitude toward life. He can kill another man, as well as that man’s woman, and not think twice about it. By the end of the chapter, Glenn now understands he’s in too deep. What’s more, Maurice’s sister knows it as well.

[Maurice] turned to Glenn. “You gonna stay with me now, I can keep an eye on you.”

Glenn frowned, squinting at him. “The f*** you talking about?”

“So you don’t disappear on me.”

Glenn kept squinting, trying hard to show surprise. “Why would I do that?”

“Like he has the gift,” Moselle said to Glenn, “can read your mind. I wasn’t even there and I know what you’re thinking. Was worse than you imagined, wasn’t it? Baby, you with the bad boys now.”

While an interesting diversion from the main plot, the primary purpose of that scene was to set up the ending, a showdown between Maurice and one of the lead characters, Jack Foley. If the reader already knows what Maurice and his men are capable of, then the expectation is already set and the physical peril is now a reality. To put it another way, it’s not enough for a reader to see a gun; he also needs to see that a character knows how to use it, too.

Now that the physical peril is set, how does a writer deliver it with a gut punch?

The way to do it is simple—slow down. Go through the scene beat by beat in your imagination, as if you’re watching a movie scene in slow motion.
~James Scott Bell, from Plot & Structure

James Scott Bell couldn’t have painted it better. Thinking over the advice reminds me of one of my favorite thrillers: “Alien” with Sigourney Weaver. If you’ve ever watched it, you’ll probably remember how that last scene gripped you. Faced with physical peril, floating through space in a pod with the creature, Ripley had to find a way to finally defeat the seemingly undefeatable. And weren’t those last few minutes the most painful to watch? The camera panning from Ripley to the creature and then back. The look of terror on her face, hearing the quick breaths, as Ripley tried to slip into the space suit. In that moment, your heart most likely pounded your chest. You probably pulled your legs up. You might have even stopped breathing—wondering if Ripley would find a way to save her life and worried that she might not make it in time.

And do you remember how you felt about the movie afterwards? If you were like me, you felt an odd mix of relief that it was finally finished and a strange desire to watch it all again. The beautiful thing about the final scene, though, is that it was designed. The writers and producers intended for you to feel the fear. And how did they maximize that effect? By slowing it all down.

The same is true for writers. In the novel Intensity, Dean Koontz takes the reader through a terrifying scene as Chyna (pronounced like the country, only spelled differently) hides under a bed. A killer is in the house, and he’s moving around room by room. From her view, she can see his boots and the plop-plop-plop of blood on the carpet. (She tried not to think about the sharp instrument from which it might have fallen.) She feels the carpet pressed against her cheek, and in that moment she remembers doing the same thing as a kid, hiding under the bed to escape the fury of her mother’s boyfriend. She remembers the giant bug the crawled over her, burrowed into her long hair, and now her skin crawls with a newly imagined critter. Ten pages later, Koontz wraps up the scene, but not before he writes in a terrifying mixture of sights, sounds, emotions and everything else he can think of. For anyone who wants to read how a master doles out the suspense, I recommend adding Intensity to your library.

To summarize what Koontz did, I give you one more piece of information from Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell:

Then as you write the scene, alternate between action, thoughts, dialogue, and description. Take your time with each one. Milk them.

That's good advice.

Additional Note: For anyone wishing to leave their thoughts, you'll notice that I have now turned on the Comment Moderation. Believe me, this was not my original desire. I like for readers to post whatever they want without fear. However, recently someone posted what looks like an advertisement. Though much of what they wrote came out as gibberish, the purpose was fairly clear. So, to avoid that kind of material on my blog, I feel forced to stop it at the door. For everyone else, be assured your comments will go through.