I don’t remember exactly when I started THE CLEANER. And with THE DECEIVED, I know it was the summer of 2006, but that’s only because I had turned in the first 50 pages with my proposal to my editor then. My third novel, SHADOW OF BETRAYAL, was started much in the same way in the summer of 2007. And for my next novel (we’ll call it Quinn 4 – or simply Q4 – since there’s no title yet) I also wrote a few chapters just this July to get my publisher on board.
But in the months since I sent those pages off, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the new book. And as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve also taken a recent trip to the UK and Paris to do location research. Because of all this, the way the book starts has been morphing in my mind. I no longer think what I wrote this summer is the way for the book to begin.
The reason this is pertinent to my post today is because I made a plan several weeks ago to get Q4 going on November 5th. Why the 5th? One, because it would be enough after my return from Europe that I shouldn’t be effected by jet lag any longer, but mainly because it was the day after election here in the States, and I knew it would be stupid to start before that was over.
So now I’ve begun. And I can truly point to the 5th of November as the day when Q4 began. (Okay…for you purists, of course it began the first day I started thinking about it, but I’m talking about real words on paper, most of which will – hopefully – make the final cut!)
Beginnings are exciting to me. It’s not like I’m staring at a blank page wondering what to write. I’m jazzed up, ready to dive in, and usually within a few days I will have made excellent progress…it’s later, around page 80 that I might waver a bit, but for the beginning? Golden.
And since I’m writing a series, it’s like coming home. I want to see what my characters are doing now. I want to find out how they get into and out of what ever adventure they are barreling toward. And, most importantly, I want to see how their lives have changed. See, it’s the over-story, the personal tale of Quinn and Orlando and Nate’s lives which stretches over the whole series that truly interests me. It is the story within the story. One that is told in increments from book to book. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have ideas, but often my characters have ideas which deviate from where I was going to take them.
So I sit here at the beginning again. Ready to go, and excited to see what happens next. The only think I know for sure is that in the course of the next several months, I’ll be learning more and more about Quinn’s world. And I can’t think of a better way of spending the time.
So let’s talk beginnings. We all know they are important. They make or break a good thriller or mystery. If you don’t get your reader right away, they’ll put your book down and never pick it up again…well, accept to take it to the used bookstore. So let’s get your thoughts…writer’s do you enjoy writing beginnings? If so, why? If not, why not? And reader’s, what are you looking for when you crack open a book and start reading?
Song of the day: THE BEGINNING by Seal (fooled you didn’t I? Thought I was going to choose Chicago’s ONLY THE BEGINNING, didn’t you?)
One of the things that has always drawn me to a story, right from when I first started reading as a kid, is when I’m taken to someplace new, someplace I’ve never been. Now, when I was a teenager, more often than not, this meant to space or other worlds guided there by the capable hands of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and James White to name a few. Occasionally I would dip into the world of fantasy, visiting Tolkien’s Middle Earth or journeying along with Thomas Covenant in Stephan Donaldson’s original Unbeliever series or even to Shannara in the first Terry Brooks’ book THE SWORD OF SHANNARA.
These books were perfect for me because I was always dreaming about places that lay beyond the forever-tan landscape outside my bedroom window in the Mojave Desert where I grew up. I mean, who wouldn’t, right? Dirt, dirt everywhere, seeded only by sage brush and tumbleweeds.
I guess that’s why, in between those trips to space I took in my head, I was also pulled into the works of Alistair MacLean. ICE STATION ZEBRA, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, WHERE EAGLES DARE, BEAR ISLAND…holy crap, I could just go on and on. Don’t think I read everything by Mr. MacLean, but I tried.
He served not only as another means of escape for me, but he was also my introduction to the international thriller. Later I would move on to Robert Ludlum and get lost in his European landscapes where an innocent man – usually – got sucked into an far from innocent plot. And, of course, there was Bourne. What a great character. An amnesiac assassin who found he could do things that even surprised him, and who was desperately searching for clues to his past, but then found a life that this new Bourne didn’t believe in. Brilliant.
Not only did these novels instill a love of thrillers, they also fueled my growing need to travel and see the world. In high school I was twice given the opportunity to go on a trip to Europe…I accepted both times. And in the three years after high school but before college, I spent a total of at least seven months out of the country…more Europe but also a lengthy stay in Mexico traveling deep into pre-rebellious Chiapas.
My love of thrillers and love of travel never died. Over the years there have been several more trips to Europe and three to Asia. And I’m not through. There is much of the world I am still hoping to see. Most of it, in fact.
And I guess, because of these two loves, it was only natural that I would want to write international thrillers. To be able to travel to interesting places and write about them? What could be better than that? Because, you see, I don’t like to write about places I haven’t been. It does happen. There are a few locations in my first two books and in my new one coming out next summer that I haven’t been to. But for the most part, I have walked the streets of the cities I write about. I have eaten the native food. I have breathed the air, and listened to the language, and observed how the locals interacted.
Not all authors need to do this. But for me it is a necessity. It gives me the confidence I need. Because I like to think that the locations my stories are minor characters themselves.
This is all a long, round about way of saying that as you read this (if you’re reading on the day I posted or the several before and after) I’m in London researching locations for my next Quinn novel, the one that will come out in 2010. I’m sure I’m have a blast. I’m positive I’m taking TONS of pictures and shooting gigabytes of footage. And notes are no doubt being scribbled in my little moleskine notebook. And the smile on my face will be genuine and unmovable because I will know how blessed I am to be able to be doing what I’m doing.
You see, that’s the point. Those writers out there still trying to find your voice or your “hook” or your whatever you want to call it, my advice is to use something you enjoy in your writing…whether it be travel, or a hobby, or a love of history, or a knowledge of music, or…
You get the picture.
Bottom line: You don’t have to write what you know, but you should write what you love.
So, what is it you love? (And since I’m traveling I’m unsure if I will be able to respond, but know that I will definitely read everyone’s comments!)
Since today is the first day of Bouchercon 2008 (and that’s where I am, so if I don’t get back to your comments, please forgive me), I thought I’d share my experience with the first Bouchercon I attend. And for those readers and aspiring writers wondering if you should go to a conference, I’ll let you make your own judgment after you finish reading.
It was Chicago, 2005. My first novel had been bought by Ugly Town the previous February, and had been scheduled to come in October, a month after the conference. Only in August, Ugly Town ran into some business problems and had to suspend operations. This was the time between when Ugly Town shut down and two months later when Bantam Dell would buy my contract from them. So as you can imagine, it was a very unstable period for me. I thought I was going to have to go back to the beginning and start sending out queries again. Hell, I thought I was going to have to shelve THE CLEANER and write something new.
I had already signed up for Bouchercon at the suggestion of the Ugly Town guys, but was suddenly unsure if I should go. What was the point, I thought. Jim Pascoe talked me into it. He said go learn what I could, and to talk up my book. (At that time Ugly Town was still hoping to maybe – stress maybe – bring it out in the spring of ’06.) So, based on this, I decided to go.
I was nervous as hell. I only knew one person who was going to be there, Nathan Walpow. But he wasn’t going to be around that much, plus I hated the idea of relying on him to smooth my way through the conference. So I ended up keeping mosly to myself.
When I arrived, I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t even sure how many people were going to be there. Because of work commitments, I didn’t arrive until after lunch on Thursday. (NOTE to those thinking about attending Bouchercon in the future: come in on Wednesday as things get rolling first thing on Thursday morning. I’d actually make this a blanket suggestion for all conferences to come in the day before, because you can hook up with a lot of people that evening when things are still manageable.)
Where was I?… Oh, so I come in Thursday afternoon and find the conference in full manic mode. There were people EVERYWHERE. And I mean TONS of people. I check in and get my conference materials (schedule, badge, etc.) and this big bag stuffed with books! BONUS! I had no idea I’d be getting so many free books. I immediately went up to my room, dropped off my stuff, looked at the schedule, and worked out a plan of panels I wanted to see.
My first panel is the panel I remember most. (I think it was my first panel…could have been a later one, but that’s what my memory’s telling me right now.) It’s not the topic I remember…have no idea what that was now. I do remember a large room with a standing room only crowd. And I remember the moderator. This big guy with a beard and glasses running around the room, cracking jokes and getting the crowd going. Of course it was Joe Konrath, but I had no idea who he was at that time. (If you’ve never seen Joe work a room, it is a site to behold.) I was mesmerized by the things he and the panel were talking about. I think Barry Eisler was on the panel. He was definitely on one of the first panels I saw because he also made an impression on me. (And if any of you have seen Barry speak, you know what I mean, he’s really good at talking to a crowd. )
From there I bounced from panel to panel, never taking a break. The evenings, though, were a different story for me. Since I didn’t know anyone I didn’t know what to do. I actually spent most of my evenings in my room reading. After seeing Barry speak, I picked up the first three Rain novels and read them all that weekend in Chicago. Somehow I found out that the bar was the place to hang out after hours. Well, the one time I went, the bar was almost empty. Must have been a night when everyone was out at some other event. Not sure. But soon I found myself back in my room , a Rain book in my lap.
I’m not sure if I miss any panel times all weekend. They were so energizing and inspiring to me, that later, when I was back in L.A., I wrote out a marketing plan for THE CLEANER and gave it to Ugly Town to get them excited again. (It worked, but in a whole unexpected way…the previously mentioned buying of my contract by Bantam.)
Anyway, at some point over the weekend I did drum up enough courage to introduce myself to Barry and Joe, just a quick in and out – “Hi, I’m Brett. Great to meet you.” And I did make it to one bar where some award was being handed out. Can’t remember which though.
But if my weekend ended there, with all I’d learned while watching the panels, it would already have been approaching priceless. Yet, though I wouldn’t know it for another six months, there was more to come.
On Sunday vans shuttled people from the hotel to the airport. I think there were probably about seven other people in the van I got on. One was a recently hired editor at (I think) Romantic Times magazine. She struck up a conversation with the woman next to her. The woman, it turned out, was an agent. As we neared the airport, I finally thought to myself “What the hell,” then said to the agent, “I’m an unrepresented author with a book coming out.” We talked for a few minutes. I still wasn’t sure what was going on with Ugly Town so I wasn’t pushing her. After we all got out, I said goodbye to the woman and entered the airport.
As I sat eating…something I can’t recall…at the cafeteria in O’Hare Airport, I suddenly realized someone had stopped in front of me, and was looking at me. It was the agent I’d met on the van. She said something like, “I wanted to give you my card. Let me know when you’re looking for representation.” I took her card and said I would. I was a little stunned, but very happy.
And guess what? Six months later I did need representation. And when I emailed her with the reminder that we had shared the van ride in Chicago, she called me back immediately and said she remembered. I explained what was going on with me, and asked if she would be interested in representing me. She had me email her my book, and the next day she called me back and I had an agent. Which is kind of ironic since for the three books I’d written at that time (two unpublished and remaining so, so don’t even ask), I’d sent out nearly a hundred queries on each. Ultimately being rejected every time.
So are conferences worth it? In my case, hell yes. I can’t promise you you’ll find an agent. But I can promise you’ll get a much better picture of the industry, and, depending on how hard you try, will make some connections that could serve you well later.
So that’s my conference story. Feel free to share yours in the comments!
Song of the Day: MURDER INCORPORATED by Bruce Springsteen
As most of you know, my last post left off with me about to take the plunge into writing full time. I had one more week at the day job, then…bam…I would no longer be answering to anyone but myself on a daily basis.
Well, I’m here to report my last week at work was great. Lots of folks came by to say goodbye, a few even bringing books to sign. A great party on Wednesday afternoon that was supposed to be a surprise, but…well…it’s hard to surprise me. Then two more days of finishing things up. Had lunch with the people I worked closest with on Friday, and then had something they call an exit interview. It sounds painful, but it wasn’t. A few questions, some paper work, and the all important final check. And then…I was done.
Monday brought my first real day as a fulltime author, the weekend having been spent with other pre-planned activities. I got up early, opened all the windows, turned on the ipod, sat down at my kitchen table, and began working on the edits for my third novel. I didn’t stop for another seven hours. Wow. Bliss.
Still, it was early in the day, only 3 p.m., so I went for a hike up one of our local canyons. You see, part of my plan for this new way of life is to get back into shape, something I’ve been neglecting for too long. The hike was great, though exhausting. Even then, after I finished and had dragged myself back into my car, I felt exhilarated.
Tuesday, I did the same, the writing again bliss, but the canyon actually harder the second time. Wednesday, stir and repeat, only this time the canyon was easier. I plan on doing the same again today.
I still have this feeling in the back of my mind that I’m supposed to be at a meeting somewhere, or need to check my messages in case someone needs something. I’m sure that will go away in time. God, I hope so.
But mostly I feel lucky. Lucky that I can spend big chunks of time working on my books instead of shoe horning writing sessions into my schedule in two hour bits here and there. I feel lucky that in the middle of the day I can go for a long walk, or a hike, or can spend hours bs’ing with Rob and Bill Cameron and Tasha Alexander on iChat. (Wait, I used to do that iChat thing even when I had the fulltime job…but you get the idea.)
It’s early yet, and I’m still getting used to things, but what I do know is that I love this. It does mean I need to be on top of keeping a schedule. Thankfully I have a bit of a talent for that.
So that’s where I am right now. Week one almost done and I’m loving it!
I’m not writing this progress report to make those of you who are writing fulltime jealousy or for me to brag. I’m writing this so that you know it’s possible. A few scant years ago I didn’t even have a contract. And when I finally did get one, it almost disappeared because the small press that signed me went out of business. But I kept pushing forward, taking an active part – as much as I could – in keeping my fledging career alive. And now I’m here. So keep the faith, keep moving forward, and keep writing the best damn books you can.
The Dream is to write and only write. Not to have to do something else to pay for the roof over your head. Not to have to answer to some boss who’s constantly checking to see if you’re in on time or if you took a long lunch. Not to have to pull yourself out of bed every weekday morning, join the rush hour traffic to get to your cubical so you can work 8 or 9 or 10 hours a day then go home to sleep so you can do it all again the next day.
That’s the dream. That’s my dream anyway. A dream I’ve had since I was in sixth grade. Seriously. I think it would be fair to say it’s the dream of most writers, though, admittedly, not all. I know a few who love their day jobs, and have no intention of every leaving them.
Me…I can’t wait to get out.
But there are a lot of considerations that need to be made before someone takes the leap. Sure, maybe you have a contract that gives you enough cash that you can live and write full time. It might not be live-in-grandeur style money, but enough to pay the rent and buy your food. But the question then is…for how long? You see, that money you just got might be the most you’ll receive at one time for the rest of your career. (I sure as hell hope not and don’t wish that on anyone, but it needs to be said.) If it is, would it be better to sock it in the bank and continue working the two jobs…your day job and your author job? How can you know?
And then there are the added expenses. There’s those pesky estimated tax payments you need to make that cut into the lump sum you thought you got. There’s the fact that now you have to pay for your own insurance. And all those freebies you got at the office? The paper clips? The pens? The free copies? All gone.
Yes. There’s a lot to think about when you make “the” decision. It’s a decision I had to make this summer. And for me, it took all of perhaps one nano second to make up my mind.
Five and a half weeks ago, I told my bosses that I was retiring from television.
That’s right. I’ve chosen the life of fulltime novelist. Yet because I have a great job and work with people I don’t just consider my colleagues, but also my friends, I gave a seven week notice. That’s right…I was VERY generous. The good thing is that that notice will be up a week from tomorrow. So the next time I blog here, I will no longer have the 9 to 6 desk job I’ve been at for the last 6 years…hell, perhaps they were at different places, but the last 19 really.
I intend to take my new fulltime job very seriously. I’ve already started planning out my schedule and my goals. You see, I have a responsibility to make sure that this leap I’m taking isn’t only for a limited amount of time, but rather forever. I think the possibly of going back to a corporate job should be more than enough to keep me focused.
But I can’t lie. I am so excited about the new freedom I’ll now have to do things whenever I want to do them. I’m thrilled at the idea of being able to spend more than an hour or two a day at most writing, and now stop only when I feel done for the day. I cannot wait to be able to focus totally on the story I’m working on, to not be forced out of my train of thought because I have to go to work.
Taking this step is a huge risk. I know. But it’s time.
So this is my last post before I retire from television. It’s been a wonderful career. It has taken me places, exposed me to new things, and introduced me to people who have become friends I’ll have for the rest of my life. It has given me the safety net I needed to foster and grow my writing abilities, and to keep me afloat until I was ready to jump. Though I doubt any of the people I work with now will be reading this…I just want to say thank you.
Oh, and another bonus that comes with my new found freedom…an ability to be more active here at Murderati. My colleagues have been more than patient with my less than stellar involvement, and I plan to make up for that now. Well, not now…in a week and a half.
When I’m free.
When I’m a fulltime writer.
Song for the day (Let’s make that for the next week or two): BEAUTIFUL DAY by U2
And for those who missed my good friend Rob’s post from yesterday, scroll down and check it out. It’s excellent.
Here’s something they don’t usually tell you when you’re an unpublished novelist trying to get a deal. That title you gave your masterpiece? The word or phrase you felt was perfect, in fact was the rock you built your entire opus on? Well…there’s a very good chance the only one who will know the book by that title will be you.
I know, I know. Not everyone comes up with a title right at the beginning, but we all come up with titles. Even if we don’t always love them, we feel a certain amount of compassion for them. Hey, WE came up with them after all.
But the long, hard truth is that if your publisher doesn’t like the title you’ve lived with for months or even years, when your book comes out your title is going to be different. Now, not all houses work the same. Some will strongly suggest a title to you in a way that will make you feel compelled to say, “I love it”, or at least, “It’s okay. I can live with it.” Some, hopefully most, will ask you to come up with some titles while they do the same. Everyone working together for the greater good. Even then, the decision on what the final title will be will fall to someone other than you. That would be your publisher. Either a specific person high up on the chain, or a group. They will choose from the list, perhaps yours, perhaps theirs. Hopefully it’s a good one.
The good news is sometimes it’s even better than the one you had.
Though I only have two books out so far, I actually have a bit of experience in the title arena. As most of you know, my debut novel is entitled THE CLEANER. For those of you who read it, you also know that the title is perfect for the book. It’s the obvious choice.
So obvious that I never thought of it.
As I wrote that novel, I had no idea what to name it. I played with several ideas, finally settling on a one. I called it…and I kid you not…DEVIL MAY CARE. That’s right, I gave it the same title that eventually was used this year for the latest James Bond novel. Now I’d love to claim responsibility or some kind of connection, but it’s highly doubtful. The only people who knew my book by that name were the members of my writer’s group, and Jim Pascoe and Tom Fassbender, the publishers/editors at Ugly Town – the people who initially bought my book. (For those who don’t know my publishing story and how I ended up at Bantam Dell, I’ll probably tell it again someday, but it’s around the web somewhere.)
Jim and Tom didn’t like the title. And, honestly, I wasn’t sold on it either. So they asked me to come up with alternatives. I came up with a list…a sucky list, but a list nonetheless:
A DEEP DISRUPTION
DROP FROM SIGHT
THE EDGE OF DEATH
THE DISRUPTION POINT
THE POINT OF DISRUPTION
POINT OF DISRUPTION
THE POINT OF NO RETURN
A TIME OF MADNESS
THE EDGE OF MADNESS
IN THE FACE OF MADNESS
THE MADNESS POINT
THE SEED OF HATRED
A REASON TO FEAR
Boy, that list is bad. Maybe not for some books, but for mine, none of them make too much sense. Jim and Tom thought the same. So more lists were developed, and finally from the last list one title stood out:
HUNG OUT TO DIE
It retrospect, it’s a much better title for a mystery than a thriller, but at the time I was just happy that we had something.
Flash forward a few months to when Bantam Dell bought my contract from Ugly Town (I refer you to the previous note re: publication story.) “We love the story,” my acquiring editor said, “but that title. Think we need to come up with something else.”
So with a heavy sigh I went back to the drawing board. Came up with more suggestions. But, ultimately, it was that same editor who said to me one day, “Have you ever thought about the title THE CLEANER?”
I was silent for several moments. When I finally did speak, I think I said something like, “It’s perfect,” and then proceeded to flog myself for days for not thinking of it earlier.
With my second book, when my editor asked what the title was, I said THE DECEIVED. And for some reason that stuck. There were no lists this time. No back and forth. I even came up with a title for book 3. I thought I was on a roll. It was starting to come to me now. A half dozen other titles revealed themselves over the next months, titles for potential future novels in the series. This was going to be easy now.
Oh, ignorant fool.
The call came this week. “The title for book 3? Think we need to find something else.” Suddenly I knew all of those other titles would no longer work for the series either.
Square one. Crap.
Soooo…that’s where I am this week! Fun times. Time to put my thinking cap on and pull that drawing board out again.
If you have a title story to share, please do. Or if you’ve heard of one, share with the class. Hell, if you just want to rant about all the typos I probably have in this post, have at it. All comments encouraged.
Song for the day: Most Beautiful Girl In The Room by Flight of the Conchords
So I was faced with a problem. How in God’s name was I going to keep up the string of great topics. My answer? I decided I wouldn’t. It just seemed like too much…well…work. And, honestly, perhaps what we really need today is an interlude – a day when we can all just sit back and not strain our brains.
So I thought we could talk about creativity. Not necessarily written creativity, but creativity as it’s expressed by people who aren’t necessarily writers. And when I say talk about creativity, what I really mean is showing.
Okay with you? Hope so, because it sure as hell sounds like a good idea to me. Just to focus myself a little bit, I decided on the subtopic of creative interpretation. So let’s have at it.
This is very cool. A lot of you might remember the movie TRON from back in the early 80s. I actually have a personal story about the movie that involves a friend who to this day has not fully forgiven me for taking him to see it. But I don’t really care, I enjoyed it. And, apparently, so did these guys. In fact, they liked it so much they decided to recreate one of the chase scenes…only instead of computer graphics and special effects, they decided to use…wait for it…cardboard:
Pretty amazing. Talk about a creative use of everyday materials!
Our next creative endeavor is by artist Michel de Broin, who re-envisions an ’86 Buick by removing all the “superfluous devices”:
From those ultra cool folks who brought us the animated videos by the Gorillaz – designer Jamie Hewlett and musician Damon Albran – here’s a piece they did for BBC Sports. They’re vision of the Olympics:
And finally, a little music. Not an original piece by the artist, but like all the above, an interpretation.
Sometimes it’s nice to look at other methods people use to be creative. I don’t know about you, but I feed off of creativity whether it’s a story I’m reading, a painting I’m viewing, or a song I’m listening to. It can be almost anything. The creativity of others is inspiring and energizing.
Honestly, I could have posted hundreds of more visuals, but thought I’d give you a chance to jump in. Tells us about creative works that have inspired you, include links if you can but it’s not necessary.
And remember, today is a relaxed day at Murderati. No formal attire necessary.
Occasionally there are events in the world at large that work their way into the fabric of the literature landscape. World War Two. The Assassination of JFK. The Vietnam War. First man on the moon, to name some big ones in the last 70 years. Most recently you could add 9/11 and the Iraq War.
I’m not trying to get into a political discussion here. We all have our own views on things, I’m sure. But what interests me, and what I want to discuss is how there are these events that not only do they work their way into our daily conversations, but, eventually, they work their way into what we read, specifically our fiction. In fact, I would be willing to bet that the true marker of the impact of a particular event is how far it seeps into that fiction.
Something like 9/11 has certainly become a prevalent topic within literature of all genres. And in my area, international/political thrillers, unless you’re writing a period piece that takes place in decades past, not acknowledging the effects of 9/11 on just about everything means you don’t have a grasp of this post September 11th world, and therefore probably don’t have a fair grasp on the story you’re trying to tell.
One of the things I’ve noticed more and more is the growing number of stories that are partly or wholly influenced by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And between the two, it is the war in Iraq that draws the most attention for the obvious reasons. There are at least several dozen stories that bring the war directly to the readers. Soldiers stories, stories of those left at home, political stories that deal with the decisions made.
My focus is on the thriller/mystery stories that directly or tangentially touch on the war. Lee Child’s latest Reacher novel, NOTHING TO LOSE, does this, as does Marcus Sakey’s upcoming GOOD PEOPLE (haven’t read it yet). I’ve also been lucky enough to read Sean Chercover’s new novel, TRIGGER CITY. I got an ARC at Thrillerfest, and just finished it a few hours ago. In a phrase, it’s fantastic. It doesn’t come out until October, but when it does, I recommend picking it up and putting it at the top of your reading stack. His is an example of a tangential relationship to the war, and compelling from beginning to end.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that once an event becomes so ingrained in our literature culture, it’s fair bet its something that will not be soon forgotten.
I know, I know. You’re saying, “D’uh, Brett. I could have told you that without all this correlation between real world events and literature crap.” You’re right, you could have. But in my opinion, as stories such as CATCH 22 and THE NAKED AND THE DEAD help to paint our perception of World War Two, in fifty years from now, it is our current crop of literature that will help define our era and explain the events of our time to our descendants. Bring it a human face not possible in history books and other non-fiction tomes. And it is our literature that will determine which of those events were important to us, and which events will be all but forgotten.
Didn’t realize I was going to get so serious today, did you? Neither did I. I blame Sean Chercover. I’m on vacation this week and brought TRIGGER CITY with me. That’s what inspired this, so you can blame him, too.
So what do you think? Am I making too big of a deal about this idea…that literature is the ultimate filter of what’s important…what will be remembered? (Perhaps I should broadened that to include film as well as literature, as these days they are closely tied.) Love to hear your thoughts.
Today I want to talk about four things that I think are essential in helping to write well and smarter.
I call them ROWE.
What’s ROWE? Simply this:
R –> Read
O –> Observe
W –> Write
E –> Experience
If you think about it, it’s pretty obvious. I’m sure most authors do all of the above without even realizing it.
The first teachers we have as writers, the first who really begin to shape our skills, are the authors we read when we are young. We didn’t even know we were in training then. But the way sentences were crafted, the way dialogue was presented, even the subconscious realization of point of view, all were seeded in us beginning with that first book we read.
But the learning process doesn’t stop there. The best writers continue to read everything they can. Learning, soaking it in, and just enjoying. Each book is like a classroom. Even the bad ones (perhaps even more so than the good.) We learn what to do and what not to do. What sounds right and what sounds forced. We learn that sure, sometime you can get away with short cuts, but we also learn that when short cuts aren’t taken how much better a story can be.
It doesn’t happened all the time, but when it does it always surprises me when I hear about a writer who doesn’t read much. Mostly, this has been people I’ve met in old writing groups. And when I read their submissions, more times than not, what was on the page was not very good.
We stand on the foundation of those who have gone before us. To ignore that is just stupid.
Reading is probably our most important tool…
…but it is not the only one.
Good writers are able to see what others do not see. We observe life. We watch the interactions of strangers. We sit in a coffee shop and try to guess at the lives of those around us. When we walk into a room, we not only see the person waiting there for us, but we also see the couch that’s slightly askew, the stack of comedy DVDs next to the television, the dying flowers in the vase across the room. We may smell the chicken baking in the kitchen, or the scent of rain that has followed us in from outside.
We see place. We see character. We see life in levels others don’t even care about. This is what we do. This helps to make us better story tellers.
Hand in hand with observation comes experience. You can’t always do everything your characters need to do. But you can do things that will help you understand them better. If your main character is a risk taker, then jump out of a plane or take hang gliding lessons or just drive on the freeway for an hour. If she or he loves to travel, then travel. If your character shoots a gun, go to a range and take a handgun lesson. Know what these things feels like as best as you can. Drink the wine that they drink. Watch the movies that they would watch. Go to the places they would go.
Experience your own life then use that in what you write.
And really, that’s what it comes down to. Writing. We must write. Every damn day. Even if it is just a paragraph that you toss in the trash as soon as you are done.
WRITE. WRITE. WRITE.
There is no excuse not to.
READ. OBSERVE. WRITE. EXPERIENCE.
Love to hear your own thoughts and ideas to writing smarter…so leave a comment and share with us.
I heard somewhere that it takes 10 years and writing 4 novels on average before someone becomes published. Don’t know if this is true at all…in fact, not even sure it’s something that can be accurately measured. Because in there you’d need to consider those who’ve written for years, have produced a dozen novels or more, and yet are still not published.
But for argument sake, let’s pretend it’s true. In a way, it’s almost right on for me. That is if we consider the 10 years to mean 10 years of solidly working at developing your writing career. My 10 years was split up over 17 or so. But the novels are right on. While my first published novel, THE CLEANER, was the third book I had written, I actually finished a fourth before THE CLEANER was sold. So there…for me 10 years, 4 novels. According to the 10/4 rule, I’m the average.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the total is for the years and novels. It could be 5 years and 2 novels, or 12 and 5, or even 9 and 6. The point isn’t the numbers themselves, it’s what they represent. And what they represent is the desire and the dedication to the craft of writing. What it means is that if you want it – want to be published – you can’t give up. Persistence.
So if you believe in this rule does that mean you’ll get published? No. But you’re chances are much better than if you give up after you finish your first manuscript. The thing is – and there are exceptions, of course – that first novel is your tester novel. It’s the one that proves you can actually do it. Looking back on my first manuscript, I cringe at the stilted dialogue, the forced scenes, and the stitched together plot. At the time I thought it was pretty damn good. Good enough even to send out to agents. Thankfully no one bit. That novel now sits buried in the storage area under my parents’ house, never to be retrieved again. In fact, if I do find it, I just might burn it. (It sucks. Take my word for it.)
But it also served its purpose. It was my training novel, the start of my personal college degree in writing. And looking back, that’s exactly what I needed it to be.
Even the best baseball players don’t start playing in the major leagues without ever having played a game before. The analogy can be carried to almost any profession. Those that are good, worked at it. Even those with a natural talent need experience and practice.
Take acting for example. George Clooney, one of today’s top actors and a pretty good one by my account (see BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? Or GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK or SYRIANA for starters), didn’t come out of the gate in Oscar nomination form. According to imdb.com his first role was as an uncredited village extra in the 1978 TV mini-series CENTENNIAL. He followed that up with some other television work including stints on FACTS OF LIFE, HUNTER, MURDER SHE WROTE, and GOLDEN GIRLS. Sure he was working, but he was also not yet at the top of his form. And I can guarantee you that when he wasn’t doing these bit parts, he was probably taking classes, doing scenes with other actors, and maybe even appearing in some small theater plays to build experience. He worked at his craft. He worked like we all have to if we want to achieve success we desire.
So what does that mean for the aspiring novelist? If you don’t sell your first, write your second. If you don’t sell your second, write your third. If you don’t sell your third, or your fourth, or your fifth, you keep writing, and you keep writing.
Each step of the way you should be examining what you did before, and then working to improve on that. Did you have a tendency to over describe? Or under describe? Have you killed all your darlings? Meaning have you gotten rid of all those cute phrase that you loved, but are ultimately getting in the way of your prose? Is your dialogue believable? Or does it sound tinny, and unnatural? And while we’re on dialogue…are you using your dialogue to tell your reader things that would be better shown? Do you have scenes that you like, but are unnecessary to the plot of your story? I could go on and on.
The point is write, and write again, and write again, each time using the opportunity to improve. Don’t get dejected when a book doesn’t sell…sure, give yourself a day or two to be bummed, but then move on. That book becomes training and experience, and you should do everything in your power to make your next manuscript better because of it. (And once you get published…this shouldn’t end. Each book should build upon the last.)
Hope this all made sense…I’m not trying to preach. It’s just this is the method I used to finally reach my goal, and to keep myself focused on the way.
Remember, we’re all going to be different. Some will take longer and some shorter. And, let’s be honest, some will may never get there. The best advice I can give is to write a good book. And – sorry if I’m repeating a theme here – write another, and another, and never giving up.
So tell me what you think of the 10/4 rule. And those of you who are published what did it take you? And those of you who aren’t yet, where are you at in relations to this? And remember, there’s no bad answer. We each take our own road.