Tag Archives: Fiction

Learning from Stephen King

If you read this blog with any kind of regularity you know I’m a Stephen King fan. Not so much of his recent works—Duma Key is one I have a hard time remembering the title, let alone the story, and Under the Dome was something of a disappointment as well—but when it comes to his older stuff… well, that’s where my heart is.

The-Stand-Book-CoverFirst off, there’s The Stand, probably his magnum opus, at least in my opinion. It is a close second, and a novel I love to revisit on occasion. And ’Salem’s Lot will always hold a special place in my heart as it’s the first Stephen King novel I ever read—after seeing the second half of the miniseries back in the day and wanting to know what happened in the first half. In our book-poor county, I had a heck of a time finding a copy, but once I’d read it I was hooked.

There’s no way I can count up the pleasurable hours I’ve spent lost in Mr. King’s worlds, from his Dark Tower series, to The Dark Half and his short story collections (he’s one of the few authors I’ll read when it comes to shorts), his words played a big part in my decision to be a writer.

Now, whatever you may think of Mr. King and his works, I think we can agree on one thing: he’s a good benchmark when it comes to a writer’s dreams of success. He’s a regular bestseller, and even he has lamented on more than one occasion that he could probably publish his laundry list and it’d be a hit.

Mr. King is good for inspiration, and I won’t dissuade you from reading him. He knows how to string words together in a way that usually makes you want to keep reading (I’m in the middle of Finders Keepers, his newest, as I write this, and it has me reluctant to put it down), andfinders keepers his nonfiction On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is pretty much at the top of my list when it comes to recommending books, well, on writing.

But you don’t want to follow Mr. King’s methods too closely.

As Inigo Montoya said, let me ’splain.

Stephen King began his writing career in a day when the standards were different. For instance, author intrusion was an accepted way of storytelling that it would be hard to get away with today. The literary landscape has changed, and I won’t get into an argument as to whether it’s for the better or not, because I can see it from both sides (note to self: this might make a good post in the future).

Back in the seventies, when Mr. King and his contemporaries such as Dean Koontz and Peter Straub (neither of which I’ve ever been able to get into nearly as much as I did Mr. King) started their careers, author intrusion was normal, even expected. Let me give you an example from page 126 of Finders Keepers:

Pete lay awake for a long time that night. Not long after, he made the biggest mistake of his life.

It’s that last sentence I want you to pay attention to, because it breaks deep POV, and that’s a no-no these days. Writers like Mr. King can get away with it for a few reasons. His readers expect it. It’s how he learned to write, and he became a bestselling author writing that way, so why fix what ain’t broke? And probably most important, see the aforementioned reference to his laundry list. It don’t matter what the boy writes, his fans is gonna buy it.

Why change?

But I have a news flash: You’re not Stephen King. Or Dean Koontz. Or Peter Straub. You don’t have decades of bestselling books on your résumé. Your name isn’t a virtual guarantee of being on the bestseller list.

You don’t got clout, man.

foreshadowingI know, too, why Stephen King does things like he did in the example above. It’s a form of foreshadowing that heightens the tension a bit. You’re given a tidbit that bodes ill for the character, and that’s why we read books, isn’t it? To see what happens to these poor people and how they deal with it. And we really want Mr. King’s characters to get out of their predicaments because his strength is in his characters. Story is almost second in importance in a Stephen King book. We care about the characters because Mr. King rounds them out so well we can’t help but care about them—even the bad guys, in a lot of cases.

But in today’s publishing atmosphere, if this was his debut novel, an editor would tell Mr. King to go back and find another way to tell us that foreshadowing detail, one that doesn’t tell us something Pete couldn’t possibly know. Because, as much as that little detail heightens the tension, Pete can’t know it, so you can’t tell it to us that way. Mr. King can, because he got that clout I mentioned above.

The clout you ain’t got none of.

And that means you can’t get away with it, unless you find some old-school editor, and I think there must be a lot of them out there, from what I’m seeing in some published works.

And here’s the thing: if you use deep POV properly, the fact Pete doesn’t know he’s about to make the biggest mistake of his life can be used to heighten tension just as much as Mr. King’s little snippet of author intrusion does. One method might be to drop little hints, small clues, that the character (and, by extension, the reader) would see as signs of danger if only he were paying enough attention. And even if the reader sees these things and Pete doesn’t, it still heightens the tension because the reader is screaming at him to wake up and pay attention already!

There are some other authors who break these rules as well—James Clavell and Mario Puzo come to mind, as they do what is commonly called head-hopping, a huge no-noShogun these days—but you’ll notice they, too, are from the seventies.

I’m not suggesting you can’t learn anything from these authors. You can learn from any author, and there’s some merit to the argument you can learn more from a bad author than from a good one (if you can get through the book, that is), because a good one makes fewer mistakes. But you don’t want to mimic them too closely (for one, that would be plagiarism) or you’ll be making mistakes that won’t fly with most publishers these days.

And, hey, like I said, Finders Keepers is a good book so far. Last thing you want to do is ignore pleasurable reading, and there are a lot of good things you can learn from Mr. King. Such as excellent characterization.

Just don’t follow in their footsteps exactly.

Later,
Gil

Short Stories

I’m posing a question to you this week: what do you think of short stories?

Of course, by posing that question, that means I’m gonna give you my answer, and it’ll make for a good subject because it’s not a simple answer.

Short stories are hard for me, most of the time, though I’ve become much more tolerant of them in that last few years. Maybe because I’ve actually been able to write a few, an ability that mostly eludes me. I get too involved with the story, the ideas, and the characters, to want to give them up in only four thousand words or so. It seems like I’m just getting to know them, really get involved in the story, when it abruptly comes to an end.

And that goes for writing the damn things as much as it does for reading them.

In fact, I’m not sure which is more frustrating.

Thing is, I understand that shorts can help you break into the publishing business. Sell some to regional and/or national magazines—and I include such modern things as ezines in that term—and somebody out there is bound to notice. And even if they don’t, it looks good in that final paragraph of a query letter. If somebody else has already taken a chance on you, that big-name agent/editor you’re trying to hook might be more willing to give you a better than even chance. Publishing credits make you stand out from the crowd.

But they’re so…short.

I think I’ve mentioned this.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve read some short stories I truly enjoyed. And was jealous/envious that Author A could do them so well.

It helped some when I read somewhere that you use ideas to write short stories, while you develop full concepts for novels. Sure, novels usually start with ideas, but you can’t sustain 80,000+ words on a single idea. You have to blow it up into a complete plot, using whatever method you write with.

But short stories are a single idea. You ask yourself “What if…?” and then you answer the question. In as few words as possible. A novel is a long string of what-ifs, whereas a short story is a single idea. You flesh it out and let it stand on its own, without much in the way of a supporting cast. I mean, sure, it can have thousands of characters, even if most of them are background scenery. But it’s a single idea, and you leave it at that.

For me, that can be unsatisfying. And very hard to write. I have more abandoned short stories than I do novels (okay, maybe not, but it’s close).

But getting a couple published sure helped me get noticed, that’s for sure. I came very close to snagging a major agent.

So what do you think? Do you like short stories? Hate them? Somewhere in between? Let me know.

Later,

Gil

Start Shooting

Black, white, brown, or yellow, on Chicago’s South Side, your neighborhood is your surname. Put on a gun belt, a suit, or a nun’s habit, and all you did was accessorize.

For those of you exiting the ’L near Eighteenth and Laflin in the Four Corners, the etiquette is: grab a length of rebar, scratch a cross in the concrete, set both feet solid in the quadrant that best fits your skin tone, lean back, and start shooting. Welcome to Chicago, the “2016 Olympic City.” We’re glad you’re here.

Thus begins Start Shooting, the new—and second—novel by Charlie Newton. And it’s a great read. There. That’s mySTRAIGHT SHOT Set against the backdrop of corrupt Chicago, Newton's two protagonists navigate the dangerous world of crime review in a nutshell. It’s not perfect, of course, but what book is? I’ve seen novels reviewed as perfect and, when I read them, found all kinds of problems.

Critics. Go figure.

Start Shooting is the story of Bobby Vargas and Arleen Brennan, who grew up in the Four Corners. Bobby is a gang cop. Arleen is a waitress/actress and the twin sister of Coleen Brennan, who was murdered twenty-nine years ago at the age of thirteen. Mr. Newton tells us their story in alternating first-person narratives that have very distinct voices, which is no small feat in and of itself.

Here’s the basic plot: twenty-nine years ago, Bobby and Arleen were next door neighbors. This was before the further segregation of the hood and the current war between the Twenty-Treys and Latin Kings. Booby and Arleen’s sister Coleen were boyfriend/girlfriend in that innocent way young kids can be. They had held hands and kissed, but all this had to be done in secret, since Coleen was Irish and Bobby Mexican American.

Then Coleen was raped and murdered. A year later, her mother died, and  twin sister Arleen disappeared. As the book progresses, we learn that Arleen hopped a bus to LA and tried to become an actress there, but all she ever got was tantalizingly close. So now she’s back in Chicago, waiting tables and still hoping for her big break.

Bobby, meanwhile, grew up and became a cop, as did his older brother Ruben, who is a homicide detective. One night while staging a drug buy, a new female member of the gang team Bobby works on is killed. Everything goes downhill from there.

A front-page exposé in the Herald brings back Coleen’s murder and implicates Bobby and Ruben. As the story progresses, the accusations deepen to the point Bobby is accused of being a child molester and murderer. In short, he starts feeling as if he’s being blamed for every crime that’s happened since Cain killed Abel.

The story is gritty and real, and you come away from it feeling some of the grime of Chicago’s South Side streets and corrupt political machine—not to mention a bit of dirt from the federal government thrown in. I say that last to tantalize you, because if I tell you more along that line, it’ll spoil it for you.

If I have issues with this, it’s more on the personalities of Bobby and Arleen. Both start realizing there’s some kind of conspiracy going on (and I don’t mean in the Grassy Knoll sense but in the more common criminal conspiracy), and it turns out that Ruben is at the center of it. For Arleen, this means she is constantly doing what I thought were stupid things in order to break free of Ruben’s control. For Bobby, it’s his stubborn refusal, despite almost twenty years of being a street cop in Chicago, of all places, that his brother might be corrupt.

It’s understandable. When you step back and look at it, these two have to have hang-ups. It makes them human, for one. And for another, they’re the kind of people who would fight the system. Part of the reason Arleen returned to Chicago was that she realized she couldn’t beat the Hollywood system, no matter how many “favors” she did for movie and casting directors. For Bobby, it’s seeing what’s happened to his neighborhood and fighting for recognition as a second-generation Mexican American who insists that other Hispanics speak to him in English.

There are plot twists aplenty, such as the truth about Coleen and Bobby, which isn’t sinister but adds depth to the story, as well as the corruption that Ruben is involved in and just how wrong it is. All the characters, no matter how long they’re onstage, are fully realized individuals with distinct personalities. Some of them you want to backhand and tell ’em to wake the hell up, others you want to hug and tell them the world isn’t all the way you’ve experienced it. You become involved in their lives because they become friends you care about or enemies you want to see—well, at least caught, if not killed.

And the vast majority of it takes place in the space of six days. Six long days for the participants, in which they seem to seldom sleep or even get a chance to clean up, must less stop for a moment to regroup and reassess.

It’s a story where the past not only haunts the present, but figures into it in a major way. It interweaves with the present like threads in a tapestry. And like a master weaver, Charlie Newton brings all those threads together into a satisfying picture that, while not perfect—and this time I mean in the sense of Disney movie happily ever after—brings everyone a measure of closure, maybe even happiness. In other words, it doesn’t have a Hollywood ending, but it does have a good one that makes sense in the real world.

So if you’re in the market for a gritty, street-real read, pick up a copy of Start Shooting by Charlie Newton. It’s worth the time.

Later,

Gil

Political Correctness Invades the Writers Group

“‘They looked down at the body for a moment, and then Rory took Glenda in his arms and kissed her passionately. Yes, there would be the police to deal with, but he knew in his heart of hearts that this was the end of the matter, and that he and Glenda would have a wonderful life together.’”

The silence stretched out for some time after Paul finished. He’d been reading his novel to the group for months, and he felt the feedback had helped him immensely. But the ending was the important thing. Had he wrapped it up right? Would it put paid to the rest of the story?

Jackie cleared her throat. “Um, well, Paul, that was certainly an interesting novel.” She stared down at her copy of the manuscript. “I mean, um, the way you kept the plot confused right through the ending really kept me, um, guessing at what was gonna happen next, you know? And, uh, I really like that you leave the ultimate conclusion up to the reader instead of forcing the reader into your idea of how it should end.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Terry said. “I’m still not sure who really did these things, even though Marty died at the end. I mean, he could have done it, sure. All the signs seemed to point at him in the beginning. But then you took the plot line in an entirely new direction maybe a quarter of the way through it. It was like, um, two books in one, maybe even three, with that twist close to the end. Well, maybe that made it two books and a novella, but you see what I mean. Jeez, man, when you brought in that guy we’d not met yet and made him seem to be the bad guy…that was, um, great. Totally unexpected.”

That made Paul feel good. As the founders of the writers group—as well as being published authors—Jackie and Terry always got to speak first. Once they were finished, the others could add anything they wanted. It was all part of the critique—what the group preferred to call the finessing—of the story. Having both Jackie and Terry like his work was gratifying.

“Anybody else having anything for Paul?” Jackie said, finally looking up.

“Um, yeah,” Derek said. He was a younger guy, and it showed in his writing. Not many in the group liked his profanity or his graphic violence. His stories seemed so…mainstream. “I gotta wonder about pulling this one dude out at the last minute. I mean, it was cool and all, ya know? But, like, maybe you should go back and foreshadow him or something? Right now, it feels like you put him in because you needed a worse bad guy than—what was his name? Oh, yeah, Marty—a worse bad guy than Marty.”

“Are you sure that’s fair?” Jackie said. “Unexpected plot turns are part of the genre, aren’t they? Don’t you see that kind of thing in Michael Connelly’s novels? I’ve never read one, but I understand he does that a lot.”

“Well, sure,” Derek said. “But he plants clues that let you look back at the end and realize it was all laid out for you. Connelly just plays cat and mouse with you, making you think one thing when it turns out you’re interpreting the evidence the wrong way. That’s how he gets his surprise endings.”

Michael Connelly? Who was that? Did he write about crime, too? Paul jotted the name down, thinking he should look the man up. He couldn’t be too serious a writer, though. Probably had a book or two out, just breaking into the business.

“But, that’s the kind of thing you’d expect from a mainstream, commercial writer,” Terry said. “What about symbolism? What about being all-inclusive? Paul does that with his story. He’s got someone from every culture represented—well, except, perhaps, for persons of reduced stature—and the characters are all so tolerant. Even Marty ends up changing his opinions about African Americans before he dies. And since we don’t know for sure if he killed all those people or if it was this other guy, that makes it all worthwhile. And I like that you left this other bad guy nameless. That way no one is really to blame.” He chuckled at his pun.

To think that, when Paul started this novel, he wanted it to be a real whodunit, like the ones he saw on the bookshelves. How hard could it be, after all? Just put in a supposed crime, then have the protagonist find who did it. But under coaching from this group, he’d started including symbolism and socially conscious discussions in the text, all of which helped him cloud the main issue further. By the time he finished the book, even he wasn’t sure who’d done it, or even if anything had happened.

But he’d finished the novel, and without one of those pesky outlines. Planning anything when you were being creative was so restricting, after all. And using all those repeated words and confusing paragraph structuring just gave the story an avante-garde feel, maybe even a Bohemian bent. Wasn’t that what every writer wanted? What was bestseller status beside that?

He glanced at Derek, but the man wasn’t saying anything, just staring around at the rest of the group with a look of…was that disgust? Amazing. Especially considering the stuff he brought to read. It was offensive, really. Characters actually used racial slurs. How did that reflect on Derek as a person? You had to hold those kinds of beliefs to write them, no matter how much Derek denied it.

“I love it,” Moira said in her soft voice. She was the shy one. Paul didn’t understand her poetry, but it was beautiful anyway. “I think you should maintain its integrity and self-publish it, Paul. Don’t subject yourself to the competitiveness of the markets. If you self-publish, you’ll know that everyone who buys your book will really want to read it instead of wondering if they bought just to go along with the masses.”

There was a general chorus of agreement.

“Anybody else?” Jackie said.

No one said anything.

“All right. Next up is Adam with his existential science fiction story. Adam?”

***

I know that’s not very good. Satire isn’t my strong suit, at least not in any extended way. I can make satirical comments, but I think good satire requires more planning than I usually do. In fact, the above is a good example of how a scene can turn out entirely different than what you originally pictured. 

But that’s okay. This isn’t about the real quality of the story so much as it is an attempt to make a point: I hate political correctness, and it seems to me that a good writers group is one of the last places where you can get an honest opinion these days. I hoped to show that in a more humorous way, but I have trouble taking PCness in that vein. It pisses me off too much.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should be impolite. God knows criticism can be hard enough to take at times, even when it’s couched in good manners. Sometimes we can’t help but be offended when we think no one else gets what we’re doing. But, the key to that is giving yourself time to cool off and think about it rationally. After all, if no one else gets what you’re doing, that probably means you’re doing it wrong.

No amount of political correctness will help you, um, correct that.

I just hope that PCness never invades writers groups. If it does, we won’t be reading stories anymore. We’ll read existentialism gone wild. And how entertaining could that be?

No political correctness

No political correctness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Later,

 Gil

Storytelling

Though I don’t know this for sure, I believe most of the people who read this blog are also writers. Yeah, that’s probably a grand total of like four people (I know I have three who subscribe, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they actually read the posts), but still…you take fame where you can get it. Or, in my case, maybe it’s notoriety.

Anyway, the point being, I don’t have to tell you how hard writing can be. Some days, you sit down at the keyboard (or take pen in hand) and it comes easy. It’s like dictation, or being a court reporter: the characters speak for themselves, and you don’t have to figure out what they’re gonna do next cause they do it for you. All you have to do is manage to keep up and get it all written down (the major reason why I don’t use pen and paper; I have enough trouble keeping up when I’m typing).

But then…there are those other days. The days when you pound your head on the desk—for starters—stare at the blank monitor/paper (or monitor that looks kinda like paper, if you use Word like I do. Thank God I don’t have to feed real paper into a roller anymore. I never could get them straight first time), and wonder what the hell you were thinking.

Write? A novel?

What a laugh! You can’t even string two words together, unless it’s some version of I go. And even that feels like you’re pushing it and brain cells might well catch on fire if you keep it up. You think and think, you try out different things in your mind, you consider just giving up on the current story and moving on to something new and maybe even entirely different. (That’s not always a bad thing. It’s basically how I got started writing crime fiction.)

Maybe you even consider trying to invent something like Ex-Lax for writers: something that’ll make the thoughts come out a lot easier (isn’t that a tasty visual?).

But nothing works. The page taunts you, and when you think about the 4,000 words you wrote the day before, the frustration level goes into the red. Something’s gotta give or, in the immortal words of Montgomery Scott: “I can’t hold her together, Kepten. She’s givin’ all she’s got!”

Water boarding? Puh-lease. Bring it. That ain’t nothin’ compared to sitting in front of a demanding blank canvas. You wanna see some renditions to object to, bring your bad self over here and partake in this.

So, why do we do it?

Well, I can’t answer for anyone but myself. That’s not me being PC, it’s just the honest-to-God truth. Different people do it for different reasons, but I suspect that it all boils down to this: we can’t help it.

What that means for me is that, if I go for a while without writing, I literally can’t go to sleep at night.

Oh, sure, I do eventually. But I toss and turn with sentences and even snapshots of scenes running through my mind. It’s the creative urge, and I suspect it’s why cavemen started scaring the crap out of each other around the campfire at night: good ol’ Ug, he’s just gotta tell us the one about the mammoth that got away. Again.

Okay. Same old story, told for the umpteenth time. Ug’s audience could probably recite the thing word-for-word. Ug saw this, decided to tell about the time he escaped a saber-tooth tiger. Voila! A series is born! Centered around a man of action, even if that action was to run screaming from the big, toothy kitty-cat until it happened to fall in a nearby tar pit.

That’s storytelling, man! The fire gleams in his eyes as he tells it, and he has a captive audience. Of course he does. They’re not going out there in the dark. That cat has cousins.

Of course, not everybody liked it, and you gotta wonder if Ug killed the first critic. Maybe that’s how critique groups got started: killing the critic gets even worse reviews from other critics, so let’s polish that sucker up before we tell it again.

And stop repeating some of those words. It sounds…um…repetitive.

We’ve been telling stories probably for about as long as we could, well, string two words together. Maybe the first one was the original Quest for Fire: “We go. Get hot thing.”

Okay. Maybe that one’s got too much description and needs a little editing, but you gotta start somewhere.

Sometimes it didn’t work out so well, but Ug kept at it, because he had to. Cave floors aren’t that comfortable to being with, even when you throw down a couple of animal skins, so anything that kept him from going to sleep had to be taken care of.

That meant a new story.

It’s not different today. Well, a little. We have to wrestle with a larger vocabulary, but it really doesn’t change things. Sure, we know more words, but stringing them together the right way is still a bitch.

There’s also the fascination with your subject matter. The last thing in the world I want to do is lead a criminal life, but the mindset of someone who does is fascinating to me. Partly, it’s in that rubbernecking, car wreck kind of way, where you know you won’t like what you see, but you gotta look anyway. I get that with the serial killers, a subject I’ve followed for years.

But I don’t truly know what spurs someone to live outside the law, so the character I write best is Lyle Villines. He’s pretty much a criminal against his will. He started out just for some extra cash, but once he was drawn in, he discovered it’s kinda like stepping off into quicksand: the harder you try to get out, the deeper in you sink. That’s what’s happening to him in the third novel (which I wasn’t sure I would ever write, but I think I’ve got enough of an idea to go to a fourth novel with him, and a good Ledbetter novel to boot): something that was a subplot in the first book has now come back to bite him in the ass. And he’s gotta do something about it.

I tell stories because I have to. No, nobody’s holding a gun to my head or even twisting my arm. At least, not anyone external. But, if I don’t tell my stories, it drives me nuts, and I lay there in bed at night wondering if I’ll ever get to sleep.

I guess it’s the adult version of having a story read to you when you were a kid, except in this case, I have to tell myself stories so I can conk out. And, despite how tortuous it is when the words won’t come, those sessions when I’m getting finger cramps from trying to keep up make it worth it.

Later,

Gil

Settings

NPR has an occasional series where they take a look at movies whose settings are practically a character. For instance, In Bruges, which tells the story of two Irish hitmen who are hiding out after a job in the town of Bruges, Belgium (I hope I’m remembering the right country). Bruges is a beautiful medieval city, with Gothic cathedrals, a canal and who knows what else. Sometimes it’s hard to follow the action because you’re looking at the scenery. It’s a real town, and if I become a world-famous author, I just might have to take a trip there to see it for myself.

On the other hand, the movie War Eagle, Arkansas uses the real community of War Eagle, but builds it up into a town, rather than a rural community. They did it by using settings in various towns in the area: the high school baseball diamond at Fayetteville, several scenes on the square in Huntsville, plus some others filmed in Berryville and some rural settings. They took a collage of real towns and formed it into the fictional town of War Eagle, all to tell a story based on something that actually happened in Little Rock. It’s a good movie, if you haven’t seen it.

Books do the same thing with settings. Stephen King inserted an entire county—Castle County—in Maine for his characters to gallivant around in. It included the towns of Jerusalem’s Lot (I think, but don’t quote me on that one), Derry and Castle Rock, and, in Under the Dome, Chester’s Mill. Plus a whole slew of rural settings. Derry, the big setting for the book It, had features from Portland and Bangor, such as the huge fifty-foot statue of Paul Bunyan.

Ben Rehder, who writes the Blanco County mysteries, set in—of course—Blanco County, Texas, uses the real towns in the largely rural county, though how much invention he uses, and how much he changes things, I can’t say.

I bring all this up because I’m always curious just how “real” the setting is in any novel I happen to be reading. Of course, when I pick up a sf/f book, chances are pretty good the setting is entirely fictional. There are always exceptions, of course, such as in urban fantasies like Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series, set in Los Angeles. And, of course, there are sf ideas such as the future San Francisco, where Star Fleet is headquartered in Star Trek.

 In his novel The Shimmer, David Morrell—the man who wrote First Blood—uses real phenomenon—unexplained glowing lights—that occurs outside the town of Marfa, Texas, but puts it in the town of Rostov. I haven’t checked, but I suspect Rostov is a fictional town.

There are advantages to doing this kind of thing. For one, you can arrange the town any way you want it. Stephen King goes into quite a bit of detail about Derry. And, of course, it allowed him to virtually destroy Castle Rock in Needful Things. Sure, people destroy real towns in books and movies all the time, but it’s easier to destroy a fictional town. No consequences. No throwing the readers out because they know New York City is still standing. It’s not cordoned off as it was in the movie Cloverfield. (No, I’m not name-dropping for the sake of it. These are examples I’m familiar with.)

One of the authors in our group, Claire Croxton, has novels set in such diverse locales as Greece, Japan and Alaska. As I understand it, these are places she’s lived. How much of the real details she uses, I can’t say. I’ve never been to Greece, Japan or Alaska.

My Pipeline duology is set largely in Northwest Arkansas, where I live. I’ve said this before, but I set it here because of an editorial I read in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that told of how we’re part of the pipeline for Mexican drugs making their way north and east. I took that idea and ran with it.

I think it might be one of the reasons I was able to write the novels in something like five months: I didn’t have to do much invention when it came to my setting. Yeah, there are times when he goes other places, such as Tennessee. I based those scenes on memories of trips across I-40 in the late 80s and extrapolated. As for Lyle’s trips to Mexico, well, there are probably Mexicans who will laugh at me, because I had little choice but to base my settings on things I’ve read or seen in movies and documentaries. And I may have done parts of Texas a great disservice, too.

 On the other hand, the novel I’m working on now, Spree, is set all along I-10, and I’m having to more or less make things up out of whole cloth. The only parts of I-10 I’ve ever been on were the stretch between the Louisiana state line and Houston and—maybe—the stretch between Lake Charles and New Orleans. And that was back in the mid 80s—a long time ago, and I’ve slept several times since then. The trip to New Orleans, for the 1984 World’s Fair, only happened once. The trips to Houston were a little more frequent. I saw several concerts in Houston. But, what did you do when you went to heavy metal concerts in the 80s? You partied. Tends to muddle up your memories.

Besides, I wasn’t driving.

To be honest, I don’t really like to alter locations. In small ways, I don’t mind. For instance, Lyle finds an abandoned house in the first Pipeline. The house is real. It’s one I discovered last year while working the Census, and I’ve described the location pretty much as it really is (or was at that time). But I moved it from a remote location in Madison County to one in Washington County. I wanted Lyle to be leery of Madison County, though he really has little reason, these days, to be so. Likewise, the large house Lyle builds throughout the latter parts of the story is fictional, based on something I’d like to live in. I’m never specific about the location, except to say it’s in a remote part of Washington County, and I excuse this by having  keeping its location secret for Lyle’s safety. He’s made a lot of enemies, after all.

But, see, when I was getting into reading, for a long time I read only sf/f. Not a big deal as far as location. You make ’em up. But then I got into Louis L’Amour, and one of the things he’s known for is putting real settings in his novels. He explored a lot of the West and the landscape inspired his writing.

That set a standard for me. I gave thought to trying my hand at a Western. I like that pioneer spirit, the sense of being on the frontier, all that. Yes, in a lot of ways, L’Amour’s  West is a mythical West, and he probably makes his good guys gooder and bad guys badder than either really was. People are complex, after all, and the Ming the Merciless bad guy, who does evil for the pure sake of being evil, won’t fly these days. For good reason. Not even Hitler thought he was doing wrong . L’Amour’s characters weren’t that extreme, of course, but he needed larger than life people in his stories. And, I think, he had a basic belief in the human spirit that I don’t. Probably why I’ve chosen to write crime novels.

Spree starts in LA, goes through—so far—Phoenix, then on through Tucson (though I don’t have any incidents there), then takes a side trip up to Roswell (partly to throw law enforcement off), then back down to the 10 across Texas, where things start really heating up. And not just because they’re crossing Texas in the summer.

I’ve never seen any of these places, so I’ve fictionalized them for my own purposes. I don’t much like this—I’d prefer using real locales—but since I don’t have access to Google Earth, and don’t have the money to go following I-10 across the country, with the requisite side trips, I don’t have much choice.

I suspect this kind of things happens a lot. Even when we use real locales, we adapt them to our fictional needs. The story is all, you know. When Lyle takes his trip to Santa Monica, I set the action mostly on the 3rd Street Promenade—because I’ve been there. I left the names of most of the stores vague because there were simply too many to remember. The ones I did, such as Johnny Rocket’s, I tried to locate where they really are. But it’s been almost four years since I was there, and although I was very close (just up on 5th Street), I didn’t go down there very much. What little I did, I went to the Barnes & Noble on the corner of 3rd and Wilshire to pick up coffee at the Starbucks. And to browse books in the store, of course. I used the Starbucks as a meeting place for Lyle to meet Joaquín Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, because I knew the store.

I won’t even dive off into the subject of using real people in novels. I will say that I was careful to portray El Chapo as being very human, even sympathetic. Yes, he’s a drug lord, and he’s probably more ruthless than I portray him. But I had to make him my Joaquín Guzmán, not the real life one. I hope he likes it. I’d hate to have Sinaloa sicarios coming after me.

Nor will I even talk about the prospect of historical novels. Setting a gang novel in modern-day LA is one thing. But what about, say, a post-war novel in 1948? I understand LA was a lot smaller in those days. Guess you could go read a Raymond Chandler novel. But I’d hate to do the research it would take to get one to be authentic.

I could go on and on about settings I’ve read or seen, but I think you get the idea. This  post wanders around a little more than usual because, to be honest, I’m low on inspiration this week. I’ve been busy critiquing my daughter’s YA novel (if you don’t buy it when it gets published, I’ll hunt you down and kill you) and dealing with a bout of insomnia brought on by chest congestion. I’ve finished the critique, and the congestion seems to be clearing up finally, so maybe I can get creative again in few days.

I didn’t mind the critique—I’m probably Jesi’s biggest fan and always will be—but I could have done without the chest congestion.

Hopefully I’ll be more coherent next week. In the meantime, you can read my daughter’s blog at jesimarie.blogspot.com (it’s in my links), and Claire’s site is clairecroxtonromanceauthor.wordpress.com.

Later,

Gil

Keep it Moving, Just Not too Much

I complained once about flash fiction. I don’t remember which post it was, except to say it hasn’t been all that long ago. Call me old-fashioned, but I like a story that I can invest in. Since flash fiction is so short—generally less than a thousand words—I feel like I’m just getting settled in and figuring the character(s) out when it’s over.

Reminds me of eating cotton candy when I was a kid: it looks so sumptuous, but then you take a bite that feels like flavored air, and it melts in your mouth and is gone before you really taste it.

Fluff.

But there’s something to be said for flash fiction: it moves.

I bring this up because of two books I’ve encountered this past week and the realization they brought with them: a story needs to move, but please oh please don’t tell me every movement it makes.

Let’s start with making the story move.

I’m trying out a British author (there’s a clue for ya) named China Miéville, and the book, which I’ve just started, is Perdido Street Station. It shows promise, if you’re into speculative fiction. I’m only to chapter four, but it looks to be a grab bag from sf and fantasy: there are several different races of beings, steampunk is present, along with science, chemistry (which he spells chymistry) and God knows what else.

Let’s make this clear at the outset: I realize it’s unfair to judge a book after reading three chapters. I’ve read some that looked absolutely crappy at that point in the story, but kept at them and, by the end, I was glad I’d read them. Miéville’s prose is good, if a bit thick, so it could get better. Story is very important, and it is a long book—the kind I prefer, as a rule. I’ll have lots of time to get invested in the characters. No flash fiction here.

And I’d probably enjoy it thoroughly if not for the fact I’ve read crime fiction, and I’m aware of the kinds of things readers want these days. In both cases, it’s better to stay somewhat sparse on details. Let the reader fill in the details. Just give ’em a good idea of setting and let their imagination supply the rest.

Here’s a paragraph of description of a being from Perdido Street Station: The great creature stood more than six feet tall, on cruel clawed feet that poked out from under a dirty cloak. The ragged cloth dangled down almost to the ground, draped loosely over every inch of flesh, obscuring the details of physiognomy and musculature, all but the garuda’s head. And that great inscrutable bird face gazed down at Isaac with what looked like imperiosity. Its sharply curved beak was something between a kestrel’s and an owl’s. Sleek feathers faded subtly from ochre to dun to dappled brown. Deep black eyes stared at his own, the iris only a fine mottling at the very edge of the dark. Those eyes were set in orbits which gave the garuda face a permanent sneer, a proud furrow.

Whew!

Well, at least we have a full picture of this garuda being. In fact, he goes on for another paragraph talking about the huge wings the garuda has hidden under the cloak and the descriptions of them Isaac has read. It’s not as long a paragraph, and it leaves you with the unmistakable picture of a sentient bird of prey.

This is the kind of thing sf, and British sf in particular, is known for: long descriptions. On the one hand, they’re somewhat necessary. The author has to give the reader a good picture of beings he’s never seen in real life and likely never will. In most cases, he also needs to convey the alienness (I know, that’s not a real word, but it is a concept, so bear with me here) of the being in question. As a reader, you’re becoming acquainted with something that might never have occurred to you.

British authors are more descriptive than American writers. I think it’s the difference between English and American (we do not speak English here. English and American are all but two different languages). It may also be that English authors are still unduly influenced by the likes of Dickens and Shakespeare. Nothing wrong with that per se, but there is a difference in writing styles. Many American Victorian era authors write the same way. I once tried to read The House of Seven Gables, but gave up when Nathaniel Hawthorne spent the first chapter describing the damned house, leaving me wondering when the story was gonna start.

In short, the story itself doesn’t move very fast. I remember reading a review of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, in which the reviewer (and I wish I could remember who it was to give credit) said that one of the things The Hunger Games did that every novel should was introduce the main plot by the end of the Chapter 1. In fact, this might not have been so much a review as an example in a How-To on writing. I’ll say more about The Hunger Games in a bit.

The next book up for consideration is The Buntline Special by Mike Resnick.

The Buntline Special is a Weird Western, and Mike Resnick is an old hand at sf. I learned of him back in the ’90s with his book Paradise, a novel of an Africa-like planet and its exploitation. Mr. Resnick is, as a rule, the kind of author who starts right out with action, and The Buntline Special is no exception. The central character is Doc Holliday, who is traveling to Tombstone at the behest of his friend Wyatt Earp. In this alternate reality, the US stops at the Mississippi River due to the strength of the Indians’ magic, and because of Geronimo and Hook Nose, a Cheyenne medicine man, in particular. Both are exceptionally strong, though they have yet to join forces.

It turns out that Tombstone is the only country in the world to have electric lighting, thanks to Thomas Edison. However, it seems that Geronimo is afraid Edison will find a way to counter his magic, so he has put Edison’s life in danger by motivating the Clanton gang, called the Cowboys, to kill him. The Earps have called in Holliday and Bat Masterson to help them, but Masterson ends up being a liability when Geronimo puts a curse on him.

It’s an interesting concept. Weird West tales are gaining in popularity, and I picked up this book partly because I’d like to write a Weird Western, partly because I’m a Resnick fan.

Unlike Perdido Street Station, The Buntline Special (yes, Ned Buntline is also in the book, but I didn’t want to get too detailed in my synopsis) moves. Description is sparse, just enough to give you the setting without weighing you down with details. Until, that is, the author starts telling you what his characters are doing. Time after time, we’re told in detail what they’re doing. Here’s a short example: Morgan got up, walked to an adjoining room, and returned a moment later with a chair.

Isn’t that nice?

I hate to be sarcastic, especially toward an author who’s won numerous awards and been in the business longer than I’ve been alive. But couldn’t he just say Morgan got a chair from another room or Morgan went to the next room over and retrieved a chair, something like that? Why do you have to tell me he got up, walked to the other room and returned with the chair? Isn’t that implied in my renderings? I realize mine are rough because I composed them on the fly, but they get the point across.

If this was the only or one of the few times Mr. Resnick does this in his book, I wouldn’t complain, but he does it numerous times, telling me in one instance that a character walks through the kitchen, out through the parlor, and onto the street. Why not just tell me he went out to the street? I’m smart enough to know he has to go through the kitchen (the room he was already in, by the way), across the parlor and out the door to get to the street. I’ve left a house, too, you know.

I mentioned before that long description—and lets’ face it, Mr. Resnick’s are long descriptions, even if they’re short sentences—is a forte of sf. I think many sf readers revel in the stuff, and since I’ve started reading crime, I’ve become somewhat impatient with it. One thing to keep in mind is the different conventions genres use. What’s acceptable in one will never fly in another.

The Hunger Games finds a comfortable niche in between these two books. In fact, it argues for some sf authors maybe taking some lessons from YA writers. Hunger Games is Young Adult but, like the Harry Potter books, is appropriate for adults. It doesn’t weigh you down with description, and you’ve got a good idea of the world and the plot by the end of the first chapter, as I’ve mentioned. You don’t know all the details, of course. If you did, the rest of the novel would be a waste of time.

The Hunger Games takes me back to what I consider good science fiction: an intriguing setting that lends itself to the story, rather than a weak story that’s there just to take me through loving descriptions of the setting. Unlike the paragraph I quoted above. Ms. Collins doesn’t use 124 words to describe a single character. She gets on with the story.

And isn’t that why we read in the first place? Isn’t that why authors should write, to tell the story? Why get wrapped up in words? If you want to do that, go write poetry. That’s what poetry’s all about, in a way.

Make your story move, just don’t tell me every move it makes.

Later,

Gil

Why Crime?

I’ve called this post “Why Crime?”, but I could have called it “Why Science Fiction?” or “Why Romance?”. I’m using crime because that’s the genre I seem to have settled into very comfortably. And I ask the question because, well, I ain’t sure if there’s an easy answer. Why are we drawn to write in a particular genre?

Well, I don’t know why we are, but I might be able to say why I am drawn to crime.

It wasn’t what I started out to write when I discovered I wanted to be an author. If you’ve paid any attention to this blog at all, and if you’ve read some of the writing samples I’ve posted here, you know that science fiction/fantasy (sf/f) is my first love. I fell into it quite happily when I had The Hobbit read to me in sixth grade. You’ll find that story elsewhere on this blog. Tolkien’s Middle-earth took me to places in my mind I’d never been and I wanted more.

It wasn’t long after that I discovered the flip side of fantasy: science fiction. I can’t remember the first sf novel I read. The first one that really stands out is Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy. It seems there’s a thing in sf/f for trilogies, though Foundation was written, or at least published, before LOTR, if I remember correctly. Of course, it’s been expanded past a trilogy since then. Asimov had a simple writing strategy: eight hours a day, seven days a week. No exceptions, no holidays. I read an anecdote where he was on a sf cruise once as a featured speaker (along with several other sf/f authors). While the fans were enjoying the attractions of the cruise ship, the authors were in their cabins writing, Asimov among them. He brought his typewriter. I’m not saying everyone has to have that kind of work discipline, but the man did publish an average of twelve books a year. On all kinds of subjects, not just sf or even fiction. He seemed to have an interest in pretty much everything.

Another sf author I cut my teeth on was Robert A. Heinlein, author of such classics as Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. If you’ve never read either of these books, do yourself a favor and go get them. Even if you don’t like sf, you might like these books. Heinlein, like Asimov, is one of the Grand Masters of sf, and there’s a good reason for that.

I could go on and on about the sf/f authors I’ve read in the past 30+ years, but I won’t. That’s not the point of this post. I just need you to get the idea of why I decided to become an author. Like fantasy author Dennis L. McKiernan, I soon ran out of the kinds of stories I liked. Tolkien died in the early ’70s and, let’s face it, not many can write up to his level. For modern readers, LOTR is probably dry and stiff, especially when you consider Tolkien was a linguist and let it show in his writing. But the story, in my opinion, is wonderful.

I do not now and never did pretend to approach the level of Tolkien or one of my other favorites, Stephen King. But they did inspire me to write, King especially. I’m sure he’s inspired more than one author. For me, it was the first inkling that you don’t have to write like a stuffy professor. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. With his penchant for indirectly addressing the reader and writing in a thoroughly modern style, it was easy to get caught up in the story and, later, think that maybe I could do this writing thing, too.

My first efforts, good as I thought they were then, were embarrassing, to say the least. I came upon one several years ago, something I wrote while I was a teenager, and though I kept it around for a while, I cringed when I read it. I can also remember submitting a story to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine somewhere around that same or perhaps a little later, and when I think of it now (I can only vaguely remember the story, thank God), I picture the editorial staff doubling over with laughter after reading the thing. I was about as far from being a competent, much less good, writer then as I am now from being an astronaut.

But I started out writing sf/f because that’s what I read. I still enjoy the stuff. You can’t read the same genre for as long as I did and not have an abiding love for it. I’ve read several times where some folks always dismiss their reading sf/f in their teen years as being juvenile. As if the only way you can enjoy the subject is by being immature. They look back on it from their lofty positions as sophisticated, hip, modern, urbane writers who can only shake their heads in wonder that they were so immature that they once read such icky stories. Ridiculous!

Well, bite me.

If you read any real sf/f and not that Tom Swift stuff, you’d know that sf/f authors, especially back in the Golden Age of Heinlein and Asimov, took on some pretty weighty subjects there beneath the spaceships and alien races. Speculation about the future and how humans would conduct themselves abounded. Heinlein has a novel called The Menace from Earth that tells the story of First Contact from the alien’s point of view. It’s one of the few (of his) I have yet to read, but you can see how it would be a challenge to write. It’s not just a man trying to write a woman character, which would at least have some kind of familiarity to work with, but a human writing from an imaginary alien character.

It was this kind of thing that made me want to write sf/f. I tried my hand at a few other things, like horror (inspired by my love of Stephen King) and toyed with the idea of doing a Western, thanks to Louis L’Amour. The horror never got off the ground, and the Western never had more than a page or two written before I gave up. I wanted it to be authentic and didn’t want to take the time to know that period of history as well as L’Amour did.

But I devoured sf/f all the time, so it was only natural that I write sf/f.

One of the first serious efforts I made was back in the early ’90s. I set out to write a Tolkienesque fantasy on a world called Aja (stolen from the Steely Dan album of the same title) about a group of characters questing for an object called The Phar Medallion, and artifact crafted by an all but extinct race. I wasn’t sure what its powers were, but I figured I’d know when it came time to write The Final Battle.

That story never got written. Along the way, they met a character named Luke Fontaine, a former bounty hunter on the run from a mysterious past. The more I thought about Luke’s back-story, the more I wanted to write it, so I did. Two novels and maybe half of a third. They’re still on my hard drive as I write this, and I still toy with the idea of rewriting them. I’ve had several ideas over the years, but never sat down and tried them out. I originally wrote them with the idea that I would tell the Phar Medallion Quest from Luke’s first-person POV. The problem I ran into in the third novel was that you can’t tell an epic story like that from the first-person POV. I needed other things to happen, and I couldn’t have Luke be present for all of them. I thought about telling the others in third-person, but never felt real comfortable with the idea. These were supposed to be Luke’s memoirs. How could he tell the things I needed told? I still think about it from time to time.

The bottom line is that I never finished anything, and I couldn’t figure out why. Now, I suspect, it may be that I’m not a sf/f writer. Maybe I’m a crime writer.

I fell into crime through the Tony Hillerman mysteries. If you’ve never read them, do so. The books revolve around Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, two Navajo tribal cops in the Four Corners area. They solve mysteries on the Navajo Reservation, and while they’re at it, their lives go on from book to book. It’s not all just about the mysteries. Each of them has dreams and problems, and Hillerman writes them fully fleshed. I have yet to read them all, but I will eventually.

Thing is, I’ve always had an interest in the criminal mind. Why do they do what they do? Why are certain people attracted, or even driven, to commit acts that the society around them considers wrong? It could be chalked off to one-dimensional reasoning, but that’s not why we write characters. “Oh, he’s a member of a crime family, part of the Mob, and he does it to make money.” Or “He’s evil.”

Please.

Nobody thinks of themselves as evil. Not even such icons of evil as Hitler. He thought he was advancing the German people and removing the insidious threat of the Jew. Sure, the rest of us see that as horrible, but he didn’t. To him, he was being reasonable and good. Most, if not all, criminals are the same way. They know their actions are illegal, even “wrong,” but they just think those are artificial restrictions. Either they don’t apply to them, or they just don’t care.

I’ve always been fascinated with this mindset. It started with serial killer novels, but then, after visiting my daughter in LA, I discovered there is a whole subgenre of crime novels set in LA, just as there is another one set in New York City. I started reading them, at first, as a way of feeling a little closer to where my daughter lives. But when I read Robert Crais, and in particular his novel L.A. Requiem, it became about the novels themselves. LA is a perfect city to tell multiple stories in. The settings are so varied and there are so many different kinds of people there.

At first, the idea of writing a crime novel didn’t really occur to me. Reading them was one thing, but writing one? Naw, I’ll leave that to folks like Crais and T. Jefferson Parker.

I kept this thinking up until I went and saw the movie Winter’s Bone. If you’re not familiar with it, Winter’s Bone is set in southwest Missouri and it’s about a girl who has to try and find her father after he’s been busted for cooking meth and puts the family home up for collateral as part of his bond, then disappears. It’s a great movie, filmed on location in the Ozarks, and it uses real homes and people from the area. It’s based on a book by the same name by Daniel Woodrell.

But it’s so damned depressing. I thought about it, and about the Billy Bob Thornton movie Sling Blade and decided that, as a native of the Ozarks, I wanted to tell a different story about us. In both of those movies, people from this area (yes, I know: Sling Blade doesn’t take place in the Ozarks, but it does take place in Arkansas) are grim and going through life just trying to get by.

Crap.

The people I know aren’t like that. Sure, we have our off days. But we don’t go around depressed all the time. After all, we don’t live in New York City.

But what could I write? I’d tried the idea of a horror novel set here, and it didn’t fly. I’d also written an urban fantasy set here, but it felt a little hollow. Urban fantasies really work better in an urban setting. We’ve got that, but not a big one like most of them are set in, like LA or Chicago.

Then I read an editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about how Northwest Arkansas is part of the pipeline for Mexican meth going further east to places like Virginia. This was backed up when I read Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding. In an aside, he states that one of the Mexican immigrant informants he interviewed made his first delivery to men with long beards outside Rogers, Arkansas. Rogers is only like fifteen or twenty miles at most from where I live.

Voila. Story. One that started with that infamous what if: what if a local guy got caught cooking meth and was offered the chance to work with law enforcement in lieu of going to prison? That’s how the novel Pipeline was born, and it’s how I discovered Lyle Villines. I’ve gotten to know him very well over the last (almost) 180,000 or so words and I’ll be sorry to see him go. But he’s been a good way to fall into writing crime from the criminal’s POV, and I have a few more ideas on the back burner for more. All told from the criminal’s POV. I figure there’s plenty of cops and private detectives out there telling their stories. I want to tell the other side, the side that fascinates me so much.

And maybe, someday, discover why they do what they do.

Later,

Gil

PS. I just finished re-reading L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais, and I have four words for you: Get it. Read it. It may well change what you think a crime novel is, and it definitely defines what a crime novel should be.

Shameless Plug

Yes, this one is a shameless plug, but it’s not for me. It’s for my daughter, ’cause I think she deserves it. I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about me, and lately I’ve really centered on my novel—maybe novels, it’s getting so long (164,00+ and counting)—and what I’m encountering as I write it. I have to say it’s still something of a singular experience for me. To pump out that many words in roughly five months still kind of amazes me. I keep wanting to pinch myself and see if it’s real.

But one reader has told me that it was good to read my post that included seven things about me you didn’t know because it branched out into something besides writing. I don’t know that this post will qualify as being outside of writing, but we’ll see. Guess it depends on what you consider to be “outside” of writing. You be the judge.

I don’t know if any of you have followed any of the links I have on my main page or not, but one of them leads to my daughter’s blog, and I’d like to get you to go over there because she’s a good writer. I’ve had her writing move me in ways I never expected, and that says a lot to me. I’ll be fair and warn you that she doesn’t write the same kind of stuff I do. She explains it better than I do, so I won’t go into all the details, but don’t head over there expecting crime or speculative fiction of any kind.

However, when you get over there, you’ll be treated to samples of her writing that I hope you find interesting. She posts stuff like the prompts her writing groups does. They do five-minute writing exercises during group meetings and also send a list of words home with all the members to include in a story for the next meeting. Entirely different method than we use in my group, but interesting nonetheless. I’m fortunate enough to be in a group that has at least three published writers.

Jesi has a nice, informal writing voice that’s more like she’s talking to you than writing. It’s hard to do that (I’ve changed my own writing voice radically since dipping into crime. Maybe I’ll talk more about that on another post) in this game. Like a friend of mine said recently, writers have to be more formal in our writing than people are in everyday life because we have to tell the reader all relevant details. It’s not a formality of voice, but of method. If we don’t tell you about Colonel Mustard killing Mr. Body in the Dining Room with the Lead Pipe at the end of the book, you’ll never know. And if we don’t give you the clues ahead of time to see that’s true, you’ll feel cheated.

Having said that, for me, Jesi’s voice—not her method, but her voice—bridges the gap between telling a story and writing a story. That’s not a bad thing. Her style isn’t stuffy by any means. We’re not talking Henry Wadsworth Longfellow here, or Herman Melville. We’re talking Jesi Marie, who grew up in Santa Monica, is part of what I think of as the Digital Generation, and has a wry way of looking at the world. She’s serious about her writing, loves doing it and has since kindergarten. Heck, I had to be in my teens before I realized I wanted to be a writer, and she’s doing it before she can even write. Coolness.

She’s smart, too. I rely on her input to my own writing. Not in crime novels per se, but in plot ideas. We had a writer’s conference here this past weekend, and Dusty Richards, Western novelist, pointed out that, no matter what kind of fiction we write, the basic methods are the same. Our characters just wear different costumes. So even though Jesi doesn’t write crime, and doesn’t even like science fiction, I can still bounce ideas off her and get good feedback. She’s good at giving me an alternate point of view.

Let me give you an example. I’m developing an idea for a novel I’m tentatively calling Spree (let’s hear it for simple, unimaginative titles). It’s about a couple of guys who are going across the country, starting in LA, robbing grocery and convenience stores. The idea is that one of them, who is originally from New Jersey, has gotten a call from a family member telling him that his brother has a tumor. It’s operable, but for reasons I haven’t decided on yet, they can’t pay for it. So this guy gets the idea of robbing these places, laundering the money and using it to pay for the operation. My question to Jesi was: should I tell the reader why they’re doing this right up front? Or should I hint there’s a reason and only reveal it at the end? Or, not reveal it till the end? These were the three possibilities I’d come up with.

Jesi said, “Why not tell the reader the reason up front, but when they get to the East Coast they find out that one of them has lied to the other. All he really wanted was the money, and he lied to his buddy to get him to help steal it. He really wants to go to the Bahamas.”

Devious, isn’t she? Maybe she should write crime fiction.

I will say that the idea has been refined a little farther than that by now, but since I’m still in the planning stages, I’m not giving any more of it away. Not to you, anyway, heh-heh. But you can see why I turned to her for feedback. I ain’t makin’ these claims up just ’cause I’m her dad. Writing is far too important to both of us for me to be dishonest in any way about it. I give her only the praise I feel she deserves. It’s just too darn mean to give hopes where they shouldn’t be.

What’s made me even more proud of her is that, recently, she began a program to obtain a bachelor’s degree. She’s majoring in professional writing and minoring in creative writing. Go Jesi. Is that serious, or what? I’m not even sure how to go on from here, to tell you the truth. It’s so awesome that she’s doing this that I’m not sure how to talk about it. Or write about it. Some author I am, huh?

I cheer her on every day. It’s an online degree, and I’ve had some experience with that (I had a disagreement with the school I was attending that made it impossible for me to continue with them). It takes a lot of self-discipline to make yourself sit down and do the work when you don’t have to look an instructor or your fellow students in the face, and it’s all too easy to find an excuse not to. I had to give myself several pep talks when I was going. It got old. So I want her to know I’m proud of her, and I understand what it’s like and I’m behind her 110% (that’s just the measurable part).

So head on over there, check out her writing. And keep in mind that a lot of what she posts there is pretty much first draft stuff. It’s at jesimarie.blogspot.com. I can’t promise you’ll like her subject material anymore than I can promise you’ll like anybody else’s, but I think you’ll see that she’s an excellent writer, no matter the genre.

And that’s my shameless plug. We now return you to regularly scheduled programming.

Later,

Gil

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.

Later,

Gil