Category Archives: J.D. Rhoades

The Practice Novel

By J.D. Rhoades

I’m not sure where it
was—which blog or website—that I first saw the term “practice novel.” At first,
the phrase  kind of tickled me, because
it seemed like a sort of wry acknowledgement that the person’s first attempt at
a novel really wasn’t all that good, let
alone publishable, that its main value was in providing examples of what didn’t
work (or maybe as fire starters when the supply of pine knots gives out). But
then, when googling for more examples, I discovered that some people apparently
actually did write their first novel purely for practice, that they really
didn’t have any intention of trying to get it published. John Scalzi, for
example, whose brilliant Old Man’s War
is one of the best SF novels I read last year, had this to say: 

I decided to make it easy on myself. I decided first
that I wasn’t going to try to write something near and dear to my heart, just a
fun story. That way, if I screwed it up (which was a real possibility), it wasn’t
like I was screwing up the One Story That Mattered To Me. I decided also that
the goal of writing the novel was the actual writing of it — not the
of it, which is usually the goal of a novelist. I didn’t want to worry
about whether it was good enough to sell; I just wanted to have the experience
of writing a story over the length of a novel, and see what I thought about it.
Not every writer is a novelist; I wanted to see if I was. 

The result was a humorous
SF novel entitled Agent to the Stars, (now available online) which, as Scalzi predicted, didn’t
sell. But he credits the experience with making his “debut” novel (the
aforementioned Old Man’s War) not
only salable, but award-winning. And, he says,

between the writing of this novel and the
publication of that one, five other books slipped out of my brain, due in some
measure to my confidence that I
could write
book-length works, be they fiction or non-fiction. In a sense, this novel is
the midwife to every book since.

This idea fascinates me:
the idea that you’d write something as long and demanding as a novel with no
real idea that you were ever going to try to sell it or even have anyone else read it. Not because I believe, as
Dr. Johnson once said, that “no one but a blockhead ever wrote anything except
for money.” I’ve quoted that line before, in jest, but the truth is, the money’s never been that big a driving force for me (which is
fortunate, all things considered). Even if no one paid me for this, I’d
probably keep doing it (but for God’s sake don’t tell my publisher  I wrote that. Or my agent).

And I’m also not talking
about writing something just because it might pander to some imagined audience.
It wouldn’t be satisfying, at least to me, to write something that didn’t
please myself first. I can’t see myself spending that much time and skull-sweat and not writing the "One Story That Mattered To Me".  That’s one of the most terrifying things about this
business, though, isn’t it…putting something out there that you care about,
not knowing if anyone else is even going to read it, and even if they do,
appreciate it.

My own first attempt at a novel, a humorous mystery entitled Rebel Yell, never saw the light of day.  And now that I look back on it, I can see the mistakes I made as well as the things I think I did right. My other novels have benefited from the experience, I think, and, like Scalzi, I did find that yes, I could write to novel length, which gave me the courage to attempt The Devil’s Right Hand.

But I wrote Rebel Yell with the intention of seeing it in print. To start off not even caring whether the
book reached an audience, that you wouldn’t really care if no one but you ever
read it…well, you might as well be a tree falling alone in a forest. You’d make
a noise, or you might not, but who the
hell would care?

 How about you guys? Have
any of my fellow writers here ever written a “practice novel,” one where you
were just riffing, just playing around? Would any of you aspiring writers
consider doing such a thing? Why or why not? And would having the fixed  idea that no one was going to read a particular piece of work cause you to change the way you wrote it?

Curious Incidents

By J.D. Rhoades

Alex’s post below on collecting characters set me to thinking about how we, as writers, take the "flotsam and jetsam"  in our minds and use it as raw material. (Great image, Alex). But we don’t just collect characters. Sometimes, it’s a real life incident that sticks in our minds, that nags at us, that becomes like the grain of sand that irritates the oyster into the work of creation.

  I just
recently finished Laura Lippman’s bestselling novel, WHAT THE DEAD KNOW. As you
no doubt have heard by now, it is an excellent book, an amazing book, the kind
of book that you put down at the end and go “holy [expletive deleted], that was

  A central point around which the plot revolves
is the disappearance in the mid-1970’s of a pair of young sisters from a mall
in Baltimore.
In the Afterword, the divine Ms. Lippman talks about her memories (shared with
all Baltimoreans of her generation) of how the real-life disappearance of two sisters
from a Baltimore mall rocked the city in the late mid-70’s. But the book isn’t “based on” the
real life disappearances. The resolution of the mystery in that book bears no relation to what happened to the actual Lyons sisters. 

Unfortunately, as
Laura relates in her blog The Memory Project, some people just don’t get it. In
fact, some ninny apparently asked her if she “chose to use a real-life
inspiration for WTDK” because she
thought it would help sell more books.” (You can read the response she wished
she’d had at the tip of her tongue here. Suffice it to say that Laura is much,
much nicer than I am).

I’ve run into this sort of thing myself. Since I still practice law, I’m frequently asked if any of the incidents in my books are based on what’s happened to real clients. And one reviewer, who no doubt meant
well, said that I must have observed and recalled “the seedy details”,
because “no one could totally invent this stuff.” I’ll take that as a
compliment, and not a claim that I lack imagination.

It’s certainly true that we learn to use the stuff we’ve run across in our own lives as raw
material. But by the time those real-life incidents have made their way into your story, they’ve been mixed with other memories, chopped, stirred, blended, and churned around to the point where
you can’t really say that the story is ‘based on” them.

Case in point: My
next book has a scene in which the mutilated body of a missing Special Forces
soldier is found floating in Drowning Creek, in Richmond County, North Carolina. Many years ago, when I was a
lawyer still wet behind the ears, the local papers were full of the story of a
Special Forces soldier who’d gone missing and whose body was eventually found
floating in Drowning Creek.

Do I think that unfortunate young man was involved
in the same kind of nefarious doings described in the book? Not at all. It was
just an incident that stuck in my head, because shortly after the body was found,
my law partner got a call from a CID agent over at Fort Bragg.
Our firm card had been found in the man’s pocket. We never were sure why. And as far as I know, they
never figured out how or why the fellow died. But that  image: of  one of these guys who seem ten feet tall and bulletproof suddenly disappearing, then turning up mysteriously dead, stuck with me. Eventually, the image, not the actual man himself,  found its way onto the
page. The explanation of how he got there? Total fabrication, spun out of webs of "what if…" and  "how about…".

Do I worry that I’ll be accused of exploiting that tragedy? Do I worry that a family member of that dead soldier will e-mail me and ask why I’ve defamed the memory of their lost kin? A little. But if it happens, I’ll tell the truth: in the end, we make stuff up.

So, writers: have you ever worried that an incident in your books or stories is a little too close to one in real life? Have you ever been confronted with someone claiming you’d exploited their or someone else’s real life story?

And readers: has anything you’ve read seemed a little too close to real life tragedy (or comedy) for your comfort?



Somebody’s Goin’ to Emergency, Somebody’s Goin’ To Jail

Friends and neighbors, it’s great to
be here at Murderati, Thanks to the gang
for inviting me, even though I confess to being more than a little intimidated,
being surrounded by all this talent.

I mean, dear Lord, I have to try and follow Bruen? Thanks just oodles, guys.

Those of you who know me know that I
also have my own solo blog, What Fresh Hell is This? My tens of fans from that
effort know that I tend to engage in a lot of discussion there on politics and
society, and by "discussion" I mean "unhinged ranting."
Never fear, however, I’ll be saving the political stuff for there, and I’ll try
to keep my ranting here as hinged as possible. 

Now having just disclaimed any
intention to do political and social commentary here, I will now discuss
political and social commentary, at least as it pertains to crime fiction. 

 I recall a panel I once did at the Cape Fear Crime Festival
with the brilliant  Michele Martinez
during which she talked about one of the attractions of crime fiction, namely
that it provides us with stories in which the bad guys are caught, justice is
done, and balance is restored to society. I, on the other hand, pointed out
that I tend to like (and to write) stories in a more minor key,  in which corruption and evil exist from the
top of society to the bottom and things are coming apart at the seams. Balance
may be restored in stories like that, but more likely not, at least not without
terrible cost. 

But if you break it down to its most basic level, we crime writers, from
creators of the darkest noir to the
fluffiest cat mystery, write about the same thing: a world that’s gone out of whack, a
world where, as Shakespeare said, “the
time is out of joint,” or, to quote a more contemporary poet, “somebody’s goin’
to Emergency, somebody’s goin’ to jail.”  And when you write about a world out of whack,
it’s very easy to begin putting in your own opinion as to how and why it got
that way. It’s a temptation to want to use a particular book to grind a
particular axe. And that’s okay, if it’s done right. Some of the best crime
writers, like Ian Rankin, weave their Big Idea into the fabric of the
story so deftly that you don’t even realize a point Is being made until the
book’s over, and you go, “yeah, that’s right.” . Others…well, not so much. Some writers beat you over the head with
their particular version of the Big Stick O’ Commentary until you cry “Uncle” and toss the book aside.

Now, in person,   I’m a positive kind of guy. In addition, I
have a powerful aversion to being  punched in the mouth or having a
drink thrown on me by a disgruntled colleague. So let’s talk about who does it
right. Who, in your opinion, can not only make a point about society, including but not limited to a
political one, but can  make you like it?