Slowing Down a Little

Yeah, things have slowed down a little here at the end. I’m at a 155,454 words (that’s an exact count, boys and girls), and that’s pretty good production, but it’s getting slow now. It’s like I’m choreographing a dance. I have to figure out what steps to use to get where I want to be. I know where the story needs to go, I just have to decipher how to get there. And it’s like the dance is taking place on a floor that could fall in at any time if you step wrong.

Part of that comes from planning for a sequel. Or what might end up being a third book, considering how long this one is. I don’t want to paint myself in a corner on certain aspects of it, but at the same time, I want it to feel complete in itself. It’s no big deal, really. Just takes more careful management and thinking ahead. Up to now I’ve just been writing, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink (and it might be in there somewhere; we’ll see on rewrite), but as I near the end I’ve got a much better idea of what I want the story to do. I’m seeing more of the big picture, the structure of the thing.

Let that be a lesson to you: if you write seat-of-the-pants like I do, you end up doing most of the work part of it after you’ve written it. I’ll set this one aside for a while and work on something else. I’ve had some story beginnings that won’t let me get to sleep at night, so I’ve written them to keep them from running through my head every night. Working on one of them will let me get some emotional distance from Pipeline so that when I got back to it I can be objective about it. What I’m getting at, though, is now that I see the plotlines coming together (just like a reader would), I have to go back and add the elements that foreshadow some of this stuff. It’s the kind of work that someone who outlines would do before they ever write. If you’ve followed this blog at all, though, you’ll know that I discovered I just can’t write that way. It stifles me, makes me feel like I already know everything that’s going to happen and I lose interest.

Something else that’s happened in the course of writing this novel is that I’ve discovered my real writing voice. I mean, I thought I had it already, you know? But when I go back and look at that stuff now, it sounds like I was trying to be a writer, not a storyteller. Nothing wrong with sounding that way if it’s your voice, but for years I’ve had a more informal mode of writing that’s wanted to get out. I didn’t let it, though, ’cause I didn’t think it was allowed. I thought you had to sound a certain way, be a little formal. And maybe in times past, you did. You were expected to sound a certain way or you wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Then I started reading Don Winslow. If you like crime fiction and haven’t discovered Mr. Winslow, get yourself to a library or bookstore and pick up one of his books. His early ones, such as Down on the High Lonely have a different voice than he writes in now. So different that I kept looking at the author photo on the back to be sure I was reading the same guy. But starting with The Death and Life of Bobby Z, he changed his voice entirely. Or, at least, that’s the novel where he changed it as far as I can tell.

So when I started writing Pipeline, part of the reason was to try a new voice: Lyle Villines’s voice, to be precise. I’d already written Crosstown Traffic and someone in my writer’s group made the comment that he wanted to read the novel. Well, the problem was, Traffic was conceived as a short story. I only had so much story there, and I felt that if I padded it out to novel length, it would be dishonest. One thing I’ve always believed about writing is summed up in an old saying (I wish I could remember who said it, too): Start at the beginning, go through the middle and stop at the end. Traffic was simply about a ten-block journey undertaken by a hit man who’s been shot by a hit that was expecting him. I didn’t want to go into detail about the hit or any of the protagonist’s back-story. I never even came up with a last name for the guy. It was all about what happened to him in the space of ten blocks, late at night and, more importantly, what happened when he got to a place he thought was safe.

The other reason I didn’t want to expand it was because I wasn’t sure if I could maintain that voice that long. It was a new thing for me, which you’ll know if you’ve read any of the other writing examples I’ve posted here (and if you haven’t read Crosstown Traffic by now, sorry Charlie. I decided it was time to change it out and let you see my new short story). Pipeline let me try out the new voice in a way that wasn’t so intimidating because it let me write a story in  the kind of voice I grew up speaking and hearing all around me: that of my native Northwest Arkansas. It’s what I call hillbilly, because it’s not Southern, like you’d hear in moves like Gone With the Wind, that lazy, long drawl that’s spoken in the Deep South. We have something that’s left over from our Scots and Irish forebears. We’ve lost the lilt and slowed things down, but if you listen real close you can still hear it.

Now, though, I think I’m ready to try a novel in third-person and my new voice. I’m debating which one to try next. I’ve been thinking of rewriting my urban fantasy, the one I’ve been shopping around to agents. I came up with a new way to begin it, one that seems to grab the reader better, and a new way to plot things. I’ve thought up changes to the characters, too, that’ll make them a little more gritty and not so goody two shoes. I think that comes from dipping my toe in the crime writing pool. It would be easiest to write, because I’m already familiar with the characters, and the basic plot and many of the events would stay the same. That lets me worry more about voice than plot. I’m just not sure if I want to do urban fantasy anymore. I’m having far too much fun with crime stories right now.

The other one I want to try, and I’ve written the beginning to it as well, is one tentatively titled Spree. It came about a few months back when I read a book about Bonnie and Clyde, and also read the book Public Enemies that was used as a basis for the Johnny Depp movie. Of course, the book goes into more detail about the other bad guys of the day, not just John Dillinger: Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelley, Baby Face Nelson, people like that. Reading these two books got me to thinking, though (it’s the bane of being a writer. You see ideas almost everywhere): could two people go on a crime spree like Bonnie and Clyde did with the Barrow Gang back in the ’30s?

It would be a lot harder to do these days. Information is exchanged a lot quicker, there are surveillance cameras everywhere, the list could go on and on. But I thought that, if they just moved fast and switched cars on a regular basis, maybe, just maybe, they could pull it off. I presented the idea to a friend of mine for a reality check, and he said it would be hard, but then he added something I hadn’t thought of: they’d need a reason to be doing this, at least for the purposes of a novel. They can’t just be cruising around like Lloyd Henried and Andrew “Poke” Freeman do in The Stand (though I admit my idea has a little inspiration in these two guys). Lloyd and Poke really are just going around robbing and killing for no particular reason. Stephen King doesn’t need a reason because the superflu is going to put a stop to it anyway. He can allow them to travel around like real criminals, with no thought as to plot. But I can’t do that and make a novel out of it. They have to be going somewhere for a reason.

And I have a reason for bringing this up. When my friend told me that, I kinda put the idea aside. I couldn’t think of a good reason for them to be doing it. But what makes me think I might be able to take this one to the end is that, yesterday, I came up with a reason, something that will drive these two from LA, where the story starts with them robbing a West LA Von’s, to somewhere on the east coast where one of the characters is from. I won’t tell you that reason yet because I haven’t decided whether to reveal it early in the book or wait till the end and let the reader wonder where all this is going. Both concepts are appealing. I’ll just have to work it out in a little more detail.

And your feedback would be welcome. Which works better for you? Should I reveal why they’re doing this early in the book, or wait till the end? Or, a compromise: reveal that they have a good reason but not spell out the specifics till the end? I’d welcome your thoughts. Writers always do. We write for an audience, and there are aspects that we need other opinions about. This is one for me.

Well, I’ve rambled a lot more than usual this time around, so I better be quiet now. Thank you for your indulgence.




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