They tell you in articles about how to do a blog—at least a writer’s blog—not to talk too much about yourself. And yet, the purpose of these blogs is to promote yourself. You’re supposed to find a compromise by talking about the stuff you write, maybe about writing in general, I guess. At least, that’s the compromise I’ve reached. Along with the occasional rant about society, I like to talk about writing and reading—two of my favorite things to do.
But I’ve decided to be somewhat selfish on this post, though I do have a point beyond just talking about myself.
See, I’ve always been interested in why a person chooses to write in a certain genre. Writing how-to’s will tell you to write in a genre you read a lot of and enjoy. To a certain point, that makes sense. I mean, if you like to read romance, you know the field, you know how to avoid the clichés, and you have a pretty good idea of the kinds of stories that have been tried already. That means you can avoid the pitfalls, and maybe take some old ideas and put a new twist on them. It’s been said there are only something like seven stories to tell, anyway. All we can really do is put our personal touch on them.
Except…what if that doesn’t happen? What if the genre you tried to write in for years isn’t the one you can write in?
I spent over twenty years trying to write science fiction. I’ve read tons of the stuff. And yet, I end up writing crime fiction. How’d that happen?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and I think that maybe, just maybe, I have something of an answer. It’s probably far from complete, but I’m hoping to show how the secret to your writing might not be quite as obvious as you think, as well as maybe finding a little more out about myself.
I’ve said before that the book that really got me reading was The Hobbit. Those of you who’ve stuck with me all this time know the story, and for you newbies…well, you’ll have to go back and read old posts. Sorry.
That started a love affair with speculative fiction for me. I read The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. I got into Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. I discovered the Elfquest graphic novels by Wendy and Richard Pini. I traveled to the Land with Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, and followed along on the quest for the Sword of Shannara. I read the story of Valentine Michael Smith and grokked it. I went to war with the Starship Troopers—and I mean the original novel, not that piece of crap movie.
Later, as the field changed, I got into cyberpunk in Neuromancer, went to Mithgar with Dennis L. McKiernan. Even more recently, I escaped from hell with Sandman Slim in Richard Kadrey’s novels.
And so much in between that I can’t even remember. Reading the Grand Masters like Asimov, Heinlein, Williamson, Pohl, et al. Trying to keep up with some of the new stuff as well, even the stuff that didn’t especially appeal to me. Feeling a little dismayed when the whole paranormal/magic realism/urban fantasy thing took off, knowing I had a book of that myself that I’d never had the courage to submit, but if I had and been accepted, I would have been on the leading edge of it.
Still, reading all this, ingesting all of it, you’d think I’d be able to write the stuff, right? That I’d be churning out sf/f novels left and right.
Except it didn’t happen that way. I was never happy with what I wrote. Sure, there were a couple of fantasies about a bounty hunter, where I tried to incorporate some elements from Westerns I’d read. And the aforementioned urban fantasy along with a start on a sequel to it. I even had a large story arc in mind to turn it into a series.
But most of my story ideas never panned out. Died before they could really even see life.
Until I tried to write a crime novel.
Back in my teenage days, I read sf/f almost exclusively. There were a few odd books in there. I devoured Louis L’Amour Westerns (especially the Sackett novels), and sprinkled a few Robert Ludlum thrillers (I read the Jason Bourne trilogy years ago).
I think the real turning point, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, came when I read Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. And this was when I was a teenager, probably not long after it was published. Coming from my sheltered life, I’d never head of serial killers, and the concepts Mr. Harris put in his book slammed into me like a train T-boning a Volkswagen stranded on the tracks. But there weren’t a lot of that type of novel out there, at least not that I knew of. I just passed it off as a fluke thing and didn’t think too much about it anymore.
Years later, around the turn of the century, I got into reading about the real serial killers. I read Helter Skelter, took in the stories of John Wayne Gacey, Jeffery Dahmer, and others. For some reason, they fascinated me. How could somebody get that way? Sure, there’s usually the common elements of a broken family and physical/emotional/sexual abuse, but not even that accounts for it all. There are hundreds, thousands who go through that and, while they have their problems, they aren’t all out killing strangers as a method of exorcism.
But too much reading about that kind of thing got to me after a while. Sort of depressed me, I guess you could say. So, I still spent most of my time reading and trying to write sf/f. Full disclosure: I didn’t put as much time in on writing as I did reading.
Then, one day, I saw that editorial about how Northwest Arkansas was part of the pipeline of drugs moving out of Mexico and on to the eastern part of the country. A few days later, I wondered what it would be like if some local country boy got involved in the trade. I gave it some thought, decided I’d write it like he was telling it to a reporter and try to put as much local flavor as I could in it.
Five months later, I had just shy of 214,000 words, and I was reading crime novels left and right. And enjoying the hell out of it.
Now that I’ve thought about it—and I mean thought about it a lot—I can see how it happened, at least in a general way. It started with Red Dragon, but went on in unlikely directions like reading Tom Clancy novels, being a fan of Miami Vice and other crime shows/movies, and consciously realizing I’ve always been fascinated with the criminal mindset.
What makes people deliberately live that kind of life? Why do they have to do this, when they know the consequences?
Not being a criminal, I couldn’t answer these questions. But, with Lyle Villines, I could skirt around the edges of answering them. Lyle isn’t some lifelong career criminal. He started cooking meth for extra money and got caught, then flipped to go into it deeper. As he learned to live the life, I learned about it. At least, as far as people like me and Lyle can learn about it. We’re not sociopaths, so we can never truly walk that path. We can’t be the crew in Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. We’re not made that way. But, given a chance, maybe we can fake it.
I hope I never have to kill anybody like Lyle did. I doubt I’d live with it as easily as he did (though I’ve tried to show that he didn’t get away with it guilt free). I’d like to think, though, that if I had to, I could. And by had to, I mean to defend myself or those in my charge.
I’ve even given thought to attaining a criminal justice degree and working in that field. It’s possible I still might try that, though at my age I’m not sure how useful it would be. And it would be a rather expensive thing to do just to write better novels. And might not help in that regard anyway.
Like the title says, this is a mini-bio, touching only on the highest of high points, but maybe you get the idea. My daughter tried writing romance for a long time, then hit on the idea of YA crime. She did better at her romance than I ever did at sf/f, but she’s done hella good at YA crime. A chip off the old block? I don’t know. I like that she takes after me in a lot of ways, but I’d hate for her to be a carbon copy (that’s what that CC thing means on your emails, kiddies. If you don’t know what a carbon copy is, ask your parents). I’d prefer she write what she wants to write, and I believe she’s doing just that.
How about you? Is there something you have an interest in but haven’t necessarily thought of writing about? Maybe you can write dramatic novels. Or Westerns (they seem to be making a comeback, you know). Perhaps you’ll be the next Tom Clancy. Or James Patterson. Or Stephen King.
Well, okay, maybe there won’t be a next Stephen King, but you get the idea.
If you’re having trouble getting something done in the genre you’re struggling with right now, try something entirely new and off the wall. It worked for me. It might for you as well.
Give it a try.