Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Details, Details, Details

Two passages:

“He sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee. He’d have to go out sooner or later.”

“He sat at the stainless steel kitchen table, chosen by his ex-wife and left behind when she moved on, drinking the last of the espresso. He’d have to go out into the cold sooner or later.”

Which passage makes you think you can see the scene? Which one draws you to read on? If I’m not badly mistaken, it’s the second. The old adage is that “the devil is in the details.” But the angel is also in the details. In other words, it’s all about the details.

I’m working on a thriller with a pretty good premise. At 2,000 words a day, it’s humming along. But I hate it. Everyone within earshot has heard me whining about it. If you haven’t heard me, it’s because you haven’t been listening.

The thing is, this is a first draft—what I’m calling a “plot” first draft. It’s one scene after another of who is doing what to whom. Most of the “where” is vague. “Somewhere in Los Angeles.” Somewhere” in Kabul. A few of the characters have made themselves known, but I haven’t bothered to describe them or to describe much of the “place,” where the action is happening. I sometimes mention a polished marble floor here, or a desk there, or a quick glimpse out a window. But that’s about it. And I know that’s why I’m not enjoying the book—because I’m leaving out the details.

In the two passages above, by the end of the first one, you have no idea what “he” looks like or what his “place” is in life. All you know is that he has a table, he drinks coffee, and he has to go out before long. At the end of the second one, you know he’s divorced, and he’s down to his last cappuccino. You also know that he has, or has had, money—to buy the steel table, the cappuccino machine. You know that he let his wife choose the table—does that mean he doesn’t care about furniture? Or that his wife was strong-willed? Or that she was a decorator? You know it’s cold outside and that he hasn’t been out for a while, which may give you some indication of the mood of the story.

I’ve read some manuscripts and even some published books that suffer from the issues that the first passage has. Not that every piece of furniture in a room has to be described, or that every detail of a person’s face has to be described, or that the number of steps leading up to a house has to included. What does have to be included is the “telling” details—the details that indicate something about the character in the scene. So if the point of view character is tied to chair in a strange room, yes he’ll likely look at every single item visible in the room, and we’ll want to know that. If the protagonist is looking at a loved one for the last time, the reader will want to see every detail of that loved person’s face. If your protagonist is walking up to a house he doesn’t want to enter, he might very well count every step.

My point is that it’s the details that make a story worth reading—details that matter. When the details aren’t there, it’s the devil. When they are, it’s the angel.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Trying a New Process

When the question “pantser or plotter” comes up, I always say “hybrid.” For the uninitiated “pantser” means flying by the seat of your pants. In other words, the writer starts writing and goes along for the ride, letting the plot unfold on the page. Plotters plot. Some of them make general notes on the direction of the story they want to tell and others write detailed outlines. I’ve heard of writers putting together forty page outlines.

Pantsers say they would be bored to tears if they already knew what was going to happen. Plotters say they will get lost in the weeds if they don’t know what is going to happen.

My hybrid process in my Samuel Craddock series is to start out with a general idea of what precipitated events, and a knowledge of who did the crime. Then I start writing to discover how the story will unfold. At about 20-30,000 words I usually grind to a halt, not sure what will happen next. At that point I write a loose outline of how to get from that point to the end. It isn’t a detailed outline, and things can change, but it gives me a direction.

In the book I’m working on now, that has changed. I’m writing a thriller, and for some reason the mere idea of an outline makes me feel constrained. I want to discover the action as if I am reading the book. I know the end, know who the bad guys are, and know the plot. What I don’t know is how everybody behaves as we move through the book.

Doing this I find meeting my daily goal of 2,000 words really, really hard. Why? Because I have no idea what direction the characters will take. I am discovering who they are as I go along, and in the process am discovering what they are likely to do. I have had a few great surprises, but mostly I find myself slogging along, watching over their shoulder as they show me what they are up to. I find myself favoring some characters over others. I’m doing multiple points of view, and I have to balance whose “turn” it is to be on stage. I have to balance the timeline, making sure I don’t have someone move forward faster than the main action.

The result is that I have chunks of prose that I know will have to go. In some places I mark time, waiting for someone to make a move. At the end of some days I feel like I don’t have any idea what I wrote. Other times I feel pretty good about things—someone explodes onto the scene and shows me what they’ve got.

At close to 60,000 words, I suddenly realized that I have the arc of the book set. Suddenly the converging story lines are all at a critical moment and I know that from here on out, they will start moving together to work toward the end. I don’t know exactly how this happened, but it’s an adventure I’m willing to go with.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Why now?


The zipless fuck

Gary Gilmore

Hannibal Lecter

Jurassic Park

Keyser Soze

Jason Bourne

The Da Vinci Code

Sooki Stackhouse

The Martian

Everyone of these names evokes an image of a book that suddenly, inexplicably took off and sold millions of copies, stunning the book world, both publishers  and readers. The last entry, The Martian, is what spurred this post. It’s the newest phenomenon, a book that had plodded along for a while entertaining its readers—and suddenly exploded in sales. Its writer, Andy Weir, slogged along in obscurity for a time, and is now looking at book and movie contracts. And I, for one, couldn’t be more delighted.

In an interview I read Mr. Weir suggested that the success of the book was due to its man against nature theme. He said everyone roots for the man, and no one roots for nature. But I have another idea. I think the popularity of the book stems from a combination of the main character’s irrepressibly cheerful nature while he battles seemingly insurmountable odds, and the loyalty of the people involved in a dangerous project.

What does readers’ affection for Whatley, the main character of The Martian have to do with the other names on the list I wrote above? Some of them are despicable characters who invoke fear and hatred. No one is rooting for Hannibal Lecter to succeed. Gary Gilmore was a blatant killer, so no love lost there. Some of the books I’ve mentioned are badly written or formulaic. So why when they were introduced did people snap them up?

I took a course that talked about the “high concept” novel. This is a novel that for whatever reason, when people hear about it, they feel as if they were just waiting for it to come along. A movie version of this was Star Wars. There had been numerous sci-fi films that did modestly well at the box office, so what was it about Star Wars that the first time I (and many others) saw an ad for it my heart leaped and I said aloud to whomever I was with, “I have to see this movie.” And see it I did, right away, standing in line for hours along with everyone else. We did it because it was an idea whose time was “now.”

Why would anyone care that it was “time” for Hannibal Lecter to come along? Did he appeal to some dark side in the American psyche that needed expression? It’s pretty apparent that Erica Jong’s novel in which she put words to the “zipless fuck” was an idea whose time had come. Women were ready to read about a heroine who wasn’t’ afraid of her sexuality. Jason Bourne exemplified people’s suspicion about the dark side of our country’s security forces. The book Norman Mailer about Gary Gilmore spoke to questions about the nature of killers, and the death penalty. The Da Vinci Code addressed questions of murky religious fanaticism.

And The Martian? Why now? The space program is moribund, the public’s appetite for wildly expensive pie-in-the-sky government projects pretty much dead. Or is it? We’ve fought what seems like endless wars in the Middle East, we’re horrified and fascinated with extreme religious fanaticism, both Christian and Muslim. We’re weary of the constant drumbeat of vicious propaganda on polar ends of the political spectrum….is it any wonder that the story of a man in an elemental struggle for survival that requires his wits is so appealing? When everyday we hear vitriol from any number of angry politicians and their fanatic followers, is it any wonder that we find relief in a character who is irrepressibly cheerful—whose superiors have noted that he always seems to be optimistic?

I didn’t intend for this to be a long-winded examination of the phenomenon of the high concept novel—that would take way too much space. I wanted to suggest that when people crave something hat puts a voice to a strong feeling, if they find it in a book, they’ll latch onto it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Traveling and Writing

I’m on the road….again. This time I’ll be on the east coast for almost two weeks, attending lots of book events. A very exciting, fun-filled time. I’ll be staying with friends that I never get to see enough of, and who have scored book club, library, and bookstore readings for me—not to mention a special western themed dinner. I want to spend every minute enjoying the company of friends and being “on” at these wonderful gigs.

BUT. That’s two weeks out of my writing time—time I need to move forward on my current work in progress. So how do I handle this?

Last year I went to Africa for five weeks. I decided there was no way I could forego writing for that length of time. But I also knew I didn’t want to drive myself crazy with a writing schedule that would make me feel guilty every day that I didn’t meet it. In the end I decided that I would aim for a modest 500 words a day, and try to do that at least five days a week. And it worked! While everyone else was napping or reading in the afternoon break, I took out my tiny little ipad mini with its tiny little keyboard, and I tapped away. Luckily, I don’t nap in the afternoon, so I didn’t miss it. But you can be sure that when we were escorted to our cabins at what seemed like a ridiculously early hour, I fell into bed and slept soundly.

My writing mentor and pal Sophie Littlefield once said that she had learned to write on the plane and in her hotel room when she was on book tour. That’s what I do. I’m writing this as my friend Karen is and getting dressed for the day. Of course it’s easier for me because I don’t have household chores to do. But instead of reading, or messing around on Facebook, I’m writing my blog. Yesterday on the plane I wrote 1500 words, despite the best efforts of the woman in the seat in front of me (may she get a bad case of laryngitis) who screeched at her seatmate for the entire five-hour flight. Thank goodness for the lovely man next to me who was working as feverishly as I was (hmmm, maybe he was writing a novel).

Luckily on the east coast I’m up a couple of hours after everyone else has retired for the night, so I can always sneak in a little writing time then.

Writing: it’s what writers do. What I’ve learned is that I can take off a day now and then, but if I take off too many days in a row I lose momentum and lose the thread of the story. Not to mention that I start to get that itchy feeling that something isn’t quite right. Are we a crazy bunch, or what?