Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Look of the Thing

88,000 words

Those pesky damn descriptions. You know what your character looks like, but how is the reader supposed to?

It's been almost a hundred years since Dashiell Hammett could get away with stopping the action for most of a page every time he wanted to describe Sam Spade or anyone else. And if you ask me, it didn't really work then. Less than ten years later, Raymond Chandler was using leaner, more poetic descriptions.

I'm too lazy to get up and get Chandler off the bookshelves, so here's one from the table beside me, Earnest Hemingway describing Brett from The Sun Also Rises:

Brett was damned good-looking. She wore a slipover hersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy's. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey.

That's all the physical description one of the three major characters gets. Robert Cohn has glasses and a broken nose and not a lot more. And our narrator, Jake? Your guess is as good as mine.

And to my way of thinking, that's a pretty good way to go. Thomas Harris uses it with Clarice Starling. Everyone admits she's good looking (including herself), but that's it. Hair color? Eyes? Height? WHo cares?

She doesn't stop in front of mirrors, pause to admire photos of herself, or take time out for ridiculous conversations about her appearance. You know the ones:

"Hi Bob."

"Hi Clarice. How is a girl like you, five-six with shoulder-length blond hair and eyes like a winter sky, trim and athletic without losing your curves, not have a boyfriend?"

"Probably all the serial killers I work with, Bob."

Ack. Ick.

We've all read that kind of crap, and worse. And notice those verbs I used: stop, pause, take time out.

Description kills action. Be careful with it.

I ran down the center aisle, my leather boots making rapid hollow sounds on the wet stone flags.
Two acoloytes, their robes marking them as servants of the Dark King of Alkalbharkarkkkanakk, were up at the nave of the ruined church, working the final stages of the Ritual of LLewyylnffnororr. In mere moments, the final spell would be spoken and their blades would plunge into the creamy bosom of the maiden on the altar. Her blond hair and fair skin were pale against the dark rock and the iron chains that dug so cruelly into her wrists and ankles, and the gauzy veils about her body did nothing to hide its lush curves.
Her death would summon the Legion of Shadow Demons of Hrrkkkrrrkk and doom us all.
I drew my trusted blade, Bright Star of Morning, from it jewelled scabbard at my back.
As opposed to...
I hit the center aisle at a run. Two mutts in robes were working the ritual, the girl on the altar between them.
I pulled my sword.

See what I mean? The time to've done that kind of descriptive brickwork is before ActionBoy gets near that altar.

For me, it's a hard and fast rule that no character describes themselves. I can probably count on one hand (and have five fingers left over) the number of times I've had my mind on a problem but took time out to think about my looks in a mirror, or to admire convenient photos of myself. Or discussed my looks with others.

Actually, that's not quite true. Way I look, it's a subject for discussion. But that's "How'd you get your dreads like that?" and "Those tattoos hurt?" or "Hey cool! I've got a tattoo too, want to see it? It's waaay down here..."

And that's a legitimate way to paint a picture in the reader's head. Another is, if you're not writing in first person, to let the viewpoint character in that chapter describe the others. Elmore Leonard uses it brilliantly.

Otherwise, leave it alone. One of the best suspence novels EVER, Rebecca, not only doesn't tell us what the heroine looks like, it doesn't even tell us her damn name!

In comics, this isn't an issue. Ink, paper, character set in stone. Every reader sees the same lines and shapes, the same character. Tin Tin is Tin Tin, Archie is Archie, and it takes zero time to look at them on the page and see em there.

Movies are the same. They freeze stuff, close it off to interpretation. Clarice is Jodie Foster, end of story. Too bad Julianne Moore, she's still Jodie Foster. Nice writing Thomas Harris, but we'll be seeing Jodie Foster when we read.

In prose, we have more flexibility. Shame not to use it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Got Clue?

86,000 words

You've got a situation. Charles used an intruder in the house, mum and dad home and playing happy families while the baddy skulks from room to room. Great stuff.

You've left clues for the reader. But are they enough?

I never know. I've gone wrong in both directions. I once wrote a murder mystery with one suspect (what I call a Scooby Doo), and another where the clues were so subtle it looked like the murder's big reveal came out of nowhere.

Way I see it, it's up to the readers. Starting with me.

I'm in the home stretch on the current novel and still discovering what happens. It's fun. Later, I'll go through with a notepad and a big blue sketching pencil and read the thing for myself. Lots 'n lots 'n lots of stuff will come out or change. It's how I work, and I'm happy with it.

But one thing that always kind of amuses me on that first read-through is seeing the clues I subconsciously planted early on, before I even knew what I was cluing about. More clues also go in, or get amplified and clarified.

Then the Tiny Dynamo usually gets it. She's a tough reader, fair but demanding. If she's confused in the reading, I make a note, go back and amplify. If she sees my surprise coming a mile (excuse me, 1.6 kilometers here) off, I go back and obscure. Poor sausage, she never gets to see the work at its best.

Except the last book (Poison Door). I didn't want to even try doing a Big Reveal of the villain. I wanted him right out front in Chapter One. There were still heaps of little clues for the various reveals throughout the book, but the big showdown at the end was never in doubt. The Dynamo dragged her feet with her first reading, but after a couple pass-throughs myself, I was sure I was onto something and started querying.

Agent Anne suggested some changes. Good ones. I rewrote (those clues, further refined), and Anne called it good. By the time the Dynamo read this one, it was already out on submission.

One unintended benefit: The Tiny Dynamo now thinks my plotting is much improved.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

You Like Me, You Really Like Me...

84,000 words

...Or not.

Yesterday was rainy as hell (winter coming), so the Dynamo and I went to see Miss Potter. Fine, fine film, and for a couple of hours I was totally a 30something English spinster at the turn of the last century. I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me.

Then later that night I watched another movie (a rental) that completely lost me. The heroine was a racist control-freak jerk, and her love interest was a passive patsy pushover. I've felt more identification with faces glimpsed in bus windows. Really.

Where did one go so right and another go so wrong?

One important part of the ID (it's not even dawn yet, and I can't be bothered writing 'identification' over and over) process as writers is the cues we give our readers. Or viewers. Whatever. Part of the magic of fiction is that our common experiences make it possible to go where we've never been before-- into the heads of secret agents, werewolves, street urchins, feline aliens and emasculated former ambulance drivers.

But fuck it up, and your audience will pull your story to shreds. The Dynamo and I sat through the Bad Movie pointing out all the logic flaws to each other. Why? We didn't care. Now, every bit of fiction will have some kind of 'leap of faith' somewhere. We make this stuff up, after all. But build the ID right, your audience doesn't even notice they've crossed that gulf with you.

Bad Movie had character transformation at its heart. The heroine was supposed to go from being so uptight and fussy about what she wanted in a man that she was lonely as hell, to finding true love when she learned to loosen up a little.

Fair enough. Can't say I know what that's like (it might be argued that I have historically been, shall we say, too loose about what I wanted), but I'm game.

And yes, the character transforms. She was almost likeable by the end, except that so much distaste had built at the beginning. The first act of the story was handled in a very straightforward manner: we got heaps of evidence that the heroine was an uptight jerk and no reasons to *want* to see her transformed.

She had to do SOMETHING redeeming in those first few minutes, to get us all on her side.

Best example comes to mind is a 40's noir about personal transformation (might be This Gun for Hire, but I could be wrong. I'm shite with titles), where a cold-blooded hitman redeems himself. This guy kills people for money, beats a woman and generally establishes his credentials as a bad bad man in the first ten minutes. But we also see the seed of redemption when he saves a little kitten.

Nobody doesn't like someone who saves kittens.

In fact, from now on I'm going to call this sort of cue Saving the Kitten. Bad Movie needed some serious Kitten-Saving to get us on side.

Coming back to yesterday and Charles' and my ongoing villainoscopy (it's a perfectly cromulent word), if you want to gray those villains up, give em a little Kitten Saving. If you want to gut-punch your readers (I know I do), make the Kitten Saving part of the reason for their badness.

For example, an illiterate drug dealer just trying to afford the medical expenses for his handicapped child. He has to be hard and cruel to command obedience, but he loves his kid too much not to.

Or the antiheroes in James Ellroy's American Tabloid. They cozy up to the mob, run heroin in from Vietnam and fucking kill Kennedy, for crying out loud. And they do it all for the good of their country.

Of course, that's emblematic of one fucked-up time. They had to kill the kitten in order to save it.

Busy day ahead, so I should go. I'm *really* behind on my drawing (like, hoping angry clients aren't reading the blog today behind), some errands just have to be run and no way am I stopping or slowing down on the novel.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Like Em Bad, Do Ya?

83,000 words (and it's like two trains on a collison course, shovelling on more coal)

Charles gave me a good idea for today's post. He was talking about identifying with fictional characters, even if they're a different race, gender or even species. Except Charles seemed mostly to talk about the heroes. I'm going to talk about the villains.

We see ourselves in others. We can't help it. It's some of the deepest hard-wiring the human brain has.

Long before we had speech, or even tools, we had body language and tribe. Today we're able to see faces in everything from a light socket to a car's front grille, to accept a dog or cat as a member of the family (Midge sits on my lap right now) and to see our own heart's pain in the projected drawings of animals (Bambi, anyone?)

You want to really give your readers a good time? Make them see themselves in the villain. Want to make them remember you long after they close the book? Make them halfway cheer the villain on!

Having a clear and consistent motivation for your villains is the bare minimum for any story. Otherwise, the baddy runs the risk of sounding like the mad scientist in Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town: "I didn't do it for money, and I didn't do it for glory. I'm... just.... MEAN!"

On the other hand, Frankenstein's monster wants an end to his loneliness. Iago is well and truly pissed off about being passed over for promotion, and Mrs Danvers resents the intruder trying to replace her former love and mistress, Rebecca.

We see a bit of ourselves in these villains because we know their pain. We've been lonely. We've been rejected. We've been jealous. Even if we don't approve of their actions, we know where they're coming from.

Want to make that identification stronger? Give the baddy a bit of the postive. When Hannibal Lecter defends Clarise's honor by killing Miggs and helping her with her case, he becomes a little more real to us.

But be aware. making strong, rounded villains is harder than it looks. Too much 'rounding out', and you've got your hero fighting a milksop. Now, while I'd pay good money to watch Jack Reacher bitch slap the holy tar out of I-molested-my-foster-daughter Woody Allen, it wouldn't exactly be a worthy challenge for Mr Reacher.

Also, it's not altogether necessary. The out-of-tribe Others are ancient storytelling villains. Part of us doesn't *want* to know why they're coming over the hill. We just want them defeated. Making them alien and unknowable is part of how we justify the terrible things we'll do to them (Native Americans in 19th century penny dreadfuls, anyone?).

And some villains are little more than the personifications of the vast dark beyond that fragile circle of firelight. That's a balancing act with its own set of tricks and challenges, but I'd be lying if I said it couldn't be done.

Dracula's got a clear motivation, the need to feed, but at the heart of it, the guy's basically just an asshole. Why'd he do it? He's evil, that's why. Now shut up and turn the pages.

On a lighter note, recut trailers! Watch these here and here. They're a hoot! (Links from Neil Gaiman's blog.)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Next Steps

81,000 words

For your reading amusement, samples of six word short stories from various famous authors. Here, and here.

Is it just me, or did the genre scribblers over at Wired write a more generally entertaining batch than the more mainstream crowd at The Gaurdian. Maybe I was just won over by, "With bloody hands, I say goodbye." and "I'm dead. I've missed you. Kiss...?"

So I'm coming into Act 3, the endgame. The setting for the Big Final Showdown isn't at all where I'd pictured it, but it's too right to argue with. The bad guys are descending in their droves. The good guys sit placid and unaware. The hero who can save them all is off chasing a trail gone cold, never suspecting that she is among the hunted.

Or something.

At this point, I can see the big shape of where I'm headed but, as usual, not much of how I'm going to get there.

Fair enough, too. If I can't follow directions well enough to even follow an outline I write, I deserve what I get. Besides, I know I'll get there. I always do.

Several times back in the States, I hopped in the car with a vague destination and enough money for the gas, Mountain Dew and beef jerky to get me there. I moved to New Zealand with two suitcases and no idea where I was staying that night. This isn't all that different.

Right now, I have the scene I'm still writing, and know who's colliding with whom in the next scene (every scene is conflict, remember), and that's enough for right now.

Friday, March 23, 2007


79,000 words

One thing I love about thrillers (and part of why I naturally gravitate to writing them) is that sense of doom, not impending, but hurtling at the protagonist at 100mph (or 180kph, since we're metric here...).

A thriller will have a built-in deadline to disaster, be it large (doomsday device, et al) or small (pay the ransom or we kill your child). The hero must struggle to get on top of a situation in which she's initially out of control and relatively powerless. The later the hero gets the upper hand, and the more her eventual victory looks in doubt, the more exciting the story.

A powerful way to keep the hero off-balance is to take that deadline and shorten it. Drastically. Move that countdown timer from 10 minutes to 10 seconds. Reveal that the kidnappers won't wait for the ransom to kill the kid; they're going to do it tonight.

One thing about my jump-in-and-write style is that in this first pass I'm often as surprised as anyone by the twists and turns in the story.

I should have seen the shortened deadline coming, but I didn't. And I didn't see how the stakes would suddenly ratchet up in so many ways as it shortened.

Sarah was supposed to have two or three days to get on top of her situation. Now she's got one night. She's going to need every resource she has to beat this. Now my heart's beating as a reader, but it's freaking jackhammering as the writer. I can't let her down, but I don't see how I can do it.

I'm going to need every resource *I* have to beat this. :-)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Second Honeymoons

77,ooo words (and every one a joy)

I've been suffering through the hard times waiting for this. The Sudoku Moment has been fully unravelled, and I'm once again as excited as a little kid. Tension's really high, things are happening, and I get to be the first one to read about em!

Yesterday I got write to the end of the rewritten chapters and stood with my toes hanging out over the edge of the new stuff. The Tiny Dynamo was at work, and I had the house to myself.

Oops. Temporary block.

Ah well, I hopped on Old Coppertop (my much-battered elderly mountain bike) and rode the 10k into town. I'm not the sort who can exercise for the hell of it. Elliptical trainers, stationary bikes and treadmills all make me think of hampster wheels, and just, you know, riding the hell around strikes me as more or less pointless.

So I 'invent' errands. This one involved how very, very badly I needed to repurchase my favorite Social Distortion album. I've had maybe four or five copies of the damn thing, but every time I lend it out of my sight, it's gone again. I don't mind, not really, but it *does* mean I keep buying the same few things over and over and over again. It's all just stuff.

Except I couldn't just buy that album. No, I saw an old Love and Rockets that some girl spirited away in the wee hours one morning and had to have that as well. And then there was some new stuff: Chixdiggit, Deisel Boy and one I didn't have by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. If you haven't checked those guys out yet, they're great fun.

Exercise is expensive.

By the time I got home, I knew where I was going and, ass safely and firmly wedged in Lazy Boy (how'd they know to name it after me?), I went there.

Except there's still more there to go to, and I wrote til I fell down last night. So it's back up early for more of the good stuff. Ooh yeahhhhh... Straight in the vein, baby.

I have to get back to it, because the Tiny Dynamo won't tolerate being a writer's widow today. The sun's out, and I've been threatened with tennis. My lanky reach really should put me at an advantage, but the Dynamo is so damn small and darty.

It's like playing against a cloud of leprechauns!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Ass Glue

75,000 words (grinding along)

I can't remember where I came across this Bryce Courtenay anecdote, and I heartily apoligize for any details I get wrong. I will stay faithful to the spirit of the story, though.

It seems he's a bit of long-distance runner, marathoner, something like that. Running like that is a mental game as much as physical, and it takes a particular kind of toughness.

He was in a race and, not feeling it was competitive enough, decided to pick on the guy next to him. He started asking questions, trying to throw the guy off his stride, and it turned out the guy next to Bryce was a writer too.

Bryce knew he had him. He asked the one question sure to do the poor bloke's head in.

"What's the secret to writing a good story?"

The guy never dropped a step.

"Ass glue," he said.

Bryce knew he wasn't going to beat this guy. He shared the only real secret to writing.

They helped each other finish the race.

Of course, that anecdote was longer when Bryce told it (as are his books), but the moral's there all the same.



Call it what you want, but put words on the page. Then some more. Feel like they're no good? Put a few more on there. You won't get better without practice. Write something bad. Then write something better.

You weren't born knowing how to walk. Imagine what your life would be like if you looked at your first unsuccessful attempts, decided you obviously had no walking-talent and gave up.

One of my cartoonist heroes/mentors once said, "You've got a thousand bad pages in you, but you've got to draw them before you get to the good ones." John D. MacDonald had a similar thought, but put it at one million words.

My writing pace is a compromise. I don't have the time to do more, but if I take much longer than three or four months on the first draft it starts to go stale on me. After that come several months of revisions before it's ready to step out into the world, but hell, it took me seventeen years to leave the house.

As Michelle said in her blog today, talent comes out of hard work. Glue your ass to the chair and practice, practice, practice.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil

73,000 words

Stephen King says building memorable and believable characters is nothing more or less than our own observation of human beings and our ability to tell the truth.

He also says, tell the truth and you won't be popular in polite society for long.

I remember being fourteen or fifteen years old. Being afraid all the time, and turning hard to hide that fear. Looking at the violence and addiction around me, the teenaged parents, the kids who came out of prison dead eyed and flat faced and the ones who never got more than a memorial page in the yearbook, I was scared.

I remember sitting with Interview With a Vampire and getting my first clear vision of a life beyond what I knew. The thought that I might one day sit at a sidewalk cafe on a sunny street in Paris was impossible, but too tantalizing to resist.

I got tastes of what I wanted, but I also plumbed a lot of my own personal darkness. One day, I finally did get free. My dreams came true because I paid what they cost.

When my work goes wrong, this is usually where it gets lost: it loses its honesty. It's tempting to write these sort of nifty-clean thrillers where you can imagine Roger Moore in the lead. Or genteel murder mysteries where old ladies have to figure out who killed the vicar. Hell, I love to read that stuff.

But that's not my voice. It's part of the human condition I can relate to vicariously, but not the part that I can speak from with any authority. I *can* be honest about fear, about predators and victims and souls in moral freefall, about violence, hope and love.

I once couch-surfed with a stripper/sometime hooker and her disgraced cop boyfriend/sometime pimp. I can be honest about the love and anger and sadness between them in a way that I can't about, say, a witty and debonair jewel thief, or a group of high school kids throwing a party with their parents out of town.

The Tiny Dynamo sometimes wishes I wrote Regency Romance. She's afraid to let her parents see my work. *My* parents never finished my first book. Ten pages, and they were out.

When the Dynamo read about the Christchurch I know, she was aghast. But she also admitted every word was true. So these last couple weeks, that's a lot of what I've been doing with this (almost finished) retrenchment.

Telling the truth.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

71,000 words (not counting stuff taken out)

Still chuddling along, and happy as Larry. Except last night.

Last night, I had to un-kill a character. Now, I liked this character, and wasn't exactly thrilled to kill her in the first place. But I needed a strong 'beat' to end Act Two, and that was it.

I'm glad to have this character back, even if she can be a pain in the ass sometimes, but it meant unravelling some darned good writing. One of the better scenes in the book in fact.

Them's the breaks. And the truth is, the end of Act Two should be one of the stronger scenes in the book.

Why's she back? Did I need her later? No. It's that the three act structure shifted underfoot in the process of fixing up my altest Sudoku Moment. So out that tension point had to come, which left my character alive again.

For those who don't know, most modern fiction more or less runs in three acts. The Ancient Greeks used five, I think, as do some of my favorite operas, but most books, movies and TV use three. I think of them as The Setup, The Chase, and Endgame, and each one has its own beginning, middle and end, just like it was a mini-story all its own.

Big difference is that Acts One and Two, the climax needs to be *right* at the end, and of a nature to propel the audience into the next act with enthusiasm. Act Three, the climax comes a leeeetle way back, so that we have a couple of chapters, or a few minutes of film, to wind down a bit, decompress after all those (hopefully) strong emotions. In TV, this often involves the series characters sitting around the set and having a pointless, feel-good joke before the credits roll. That little nubbin at the end is the denouement.

In Predator, everything with the commandos being deployed, exploring the jungle, being stalked a little bit (not a lot, but a few creepy sounds and the sight of the soldiers seen through some sort of IR/UV thingy), right up to the hanging corpses of the missing troops is Act One.

The story at this point is all about framing the problem. Arnold on the field? Check. Something rotten in the South American jungle? Check. The climax is the sight of those corpses hanging like trophy kills. It's the boost the ratchets up the tension and carries us into Act Two, in which We Meet the Monster.

This is The Chase. Except instead of Holmes tracking the Hound, or Bridget Jones chasing true love with the wrong man when the right one's under her nose (the movie here -- the book used Jane Austen's original, more act-y structure, and I don't want to get into that), we've got a mysterious presence (still haven't seen the Predator yet) hunting and killing a group of elite commandos.

The commandos try to fight back. They do intelligent things, gradually figuring out (at gruesome loos of life) that their enemy has weapons and technology far beyond anything they're ready for. There's so much blood and gore in this act that the climax *isn't* more gore. It's Arnold looking at some yellow drippy bits on a leaf and delivering the line, "If it bleeds, we can kill it."

And Act Three eases the tension off a bit, as Arnold and the mysterious creature prepare for what both know will be their final battle. Even sugar-hyped twelve year olds know this is the Endgame.

And the third act should be a series of climaxes. The first good sight of that Rick James-looking motherfucker, Arnold screaming his defiant challenge, the tripwires failing, the heat-vision revelation, one hell of a big fight. One right after the other, building on top of each other until the audience is on the edge of their seats. Or hopefully, anyway.

Of course, Predator also has about the shortest denouement ever. Maybe ten seconds of film with Arnold and The Girl in a helicopter headed home. But we do need that little bit...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Plotting and 'Plotting'

Why I Can't stick to an Outline
with assorted notes on Character...

70,000 words (and likely to be 40-50,000 more...)

I really have no idea how long my word count is going to be. None. I can make guesses based on my past history, but that's about it. No real idea how this thing ends, either. I know how I'd like it to end, but that's no gaurantee.

Some writers make a plot outline before hand. Lots of them even stick to it. John Ramsey Miller started as a response to these weeks of untangling messes. Fair enough. James Ellroy's plots are famous for being nearly the length of the finished book. Me, not so much.

Today I'm thinking about character-driven versus situation-driven fiction. I don't mean plotted or not-plotted, but rather, is it the setup or the actors who drive the story?

Gerald's Game started with pure situation (what if a bondage game went wrong?). Barry Eisler's Rain books and Richard Stark's Porter series both started with the mental image of a guy walking. The writers had to find out who that guy was, and where the heck he was going.

For me, it's a little of both.

I've got an escaped killer, the cop hunting him and the people he's hunting while he's out. Situation? I guess. Character? That too. I started with a sense of who this killer was (and blog readers have seen that change as I write him), a better sense of who the cop is (from the last book) and almost no sense at all of who the hell these people are this guy keeps killing.

But now I'm at the point where I understand who they are, and why he's doing it. And the victims have turned out to be nastier and more resourceful than I would have thought as well. I can't stand cardboard characters or red shirts. Part of my 'psychosis' is that I'm always looking at each player and asking "why?" I also hate it when cannon-fodder acts stupid.

Even the smallest players have to have their reasons in my work. Sometimes those reasons make them larger, sometimes those reasons keep them small, and sometimes their reasons and reasonable actions march them right out of the story.

It's easier to think of stories as found objects. The metaphor's useful, and doesn't make my head hurt.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

67,000 words (Not sure where I'm going, but I'm getting there quick!)

I started this novel a few days after Agent Anne said she'd start selling Poison Door. It was something to keep me from checking my email twenty-three times a day. Normal response time is around three months, and freelance drawing just leaves me too much time to go crazy.

Now I'm around the six week mark, both for sale and work-in-progress, and I'm not sure which makes me crazier.

But it's a happy sort of crazy. I'm chuddling along (yes, chuddling -- it's a perfectly cromulent word) with my various pursuits, and each one brings a tiny bit more joy into my life.

Still back in the early days. I'm adding, adding, adding stuff I missed before. I know one hell of a lot of it will come out (or more likely, over half of what I've written in the last month won't make it), but it's part of the process for me. I flail a lot, especially in the beginning. No worries.

I'm really in this first draft to see how the story turns out. But I'd gotten up to Chapter 40-something (my chapters are really short - about 1000 words on average) and had a 'Sudoku Moment'. That's the sinking feeling where you realize you went wrong somewhere, and you don't know where.

Instead of realizing to sixes couldn't fit on that one line, I realized Sarah was meeting up with a character didn't belong in the book nohow. But he was in something like three or four scenes. And he was doing important stuff. The guy had a bit of weight.


So back I went, knocking stuff around, looking for other characters to pull his weight if he left the story. And that's when I realized I had a couple of characters who *really* needed to be up to more (villains, of course -- lots n lots of villains in my work). I'd been thinking Maryanne would end up being deleted, but I realized she really had a LOT more to do. More writing....

This isn't my first Sudoku Moment in this book. Earlier, I noticed my Big Nasty Villain kept trying to be all noble. And it pissed me right off. I made my peace with the character by letting Baker know he might have his day in the sun sometime, but it wasn't this story. I rewrote Chapmann into the role, and man, is he a nasty little shithead. And he keeps getting worse!

I still don't know who's going to take Lerner's weight. Right now, it's not the important question. Right now, Helen and Maryanne have finally opened up to me, and I'm listening.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Deep in the Weeds

64,000 words (maybe nine of them good)

(just kidding!)

I sorta remember baseball. Except that's not true. I remember standing in the sun a lot, sitting on the bench waiting to bat a lot, and both 'teams' tromping around in the high weeds looking for the ball. I'm not sure much sport actually got played.

I've got to the point where forward progress just isn't possible until I clear some space on the mental hard drive by going back and putting in some earlier scenes, revisions and extra bits. I kept trying to write what happens next, but my brain kept saying, "Now don't forget, you'll need to set up that last bit with the dancing frogs. Get those frogs in early, drop it in a conversation or something. DOn't forget."

So of course I go to 'drop it in' and find that the convo I've picked alludes to a bunch of stuff that didn't happen anymore, didn't work out that way, or nothing exploded by the end of the scene. (I do write thrillers, after all!) So off into the old side file it goes, and a ten minute job turns into several chapters over several days. My seat-of-the-pants plotting needs the occasional patch, is all.

Funny thing is, I'm having a blast. The extra material is giving the story more of that flavour that it lacked.

It's a bit like cooking for me. Y'see, I'm a seat-of-the-pants cook as well. I make it up as I go, tasting and stirring and generally having a ball until there's food on the table. Or at least, that's how I remember it. The Tiny Dynamo runs a kick-ass kitchen, and my meager efforts just can't compete.

That's just an average dinner! Which reminds me, I haven't had breakfast, yet...
PS. No one tell the Dynamo I can cook. It suits my purposes to have her believe I'd otherwise be standing over the sink eating straight out of jars.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Went out to dinner last night with the Tiny Dynamo and the rest of the Dynamo clan. *Leeeetle* bit hard to keep the old eyes open this morning, so I'll put up some links.

John Connolly interviewing many fine authors. There's Stephen King, James Lee Burke, and more...

I don't know if he mentions it in the interview, but John got lost out in the Montana badlands trying to find Burke's house, and old James Lee had to let loose the hounds to find him!

Ed Gorman on Edgar Rice Burroughs
I suppose I probably read an ERB or two a year myself. They're simply wonderful, but yeah, in a very, very naive sort of way. A lot of people who were baffled by the Da Vinci Code's success might want to go back and look at those. Who cares about literary when you've got a Lost City of Gold?

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

A Few of my Favourite Things

59,000 words (some of them torn out by the roots)

The paradox of this stage: the word count's high and mounting, but every new word makes me realize another five or six will have to come out somewhere earlier.

Last week I hit (and am still working through) a short but nasty little block. I got my 'missing scene' written, then stared at the screen for a day. I broke out pen and paper, because sometimes changing the physical act of writing helps the story flow. No dice.

In the end, what got me through was a sense of retrenching, of asking myself what my work's really about. What sets me on fire and shows up in my work again and again?

The pain of the young: So many of the world's small evils track back to the messed-up stuff that happens to kids. Child abuse, child neglect, addiction and plain old bad parenting all create adults with scar tissue on their souls. Some medicate their pain (and create a multibillion dollar industry of fear and violence and greed and betrayal). Some use the cops and the courts as replacement parents, fucking up and being disciplined for it over and over. Some lose their own pain in that of their victims.

The predators: Not just the small-potatoes, one-victim-at-a-time predators working the bus terminals and cruising around in vans and so on. I'm talking about the *really* nasty motherfuckers, the ones in five thousand dollar suits and mahogany board rooms. They live in a moral freefall defined only by their own rapacious greed, and the rest of us pay.

Humanity's endless capacity to fuck up: I've seen a lot of people take 'geographic cures': someplace warmer, someplace nicer, someplace where every dealer in town doesn't already know their name. Mostly, it only spreads *their* mess to another place. We take our darkness with us, and usually recreate it.

And last....


Every minute of every day, every damn one of us wakes up with a choice. And new choices are right there the whole time we're awake. Mostly we use that endless, wonderful choice to do what we know and what we're used to, however painful. It's easier. But we don't have to. All over the world, every minute, somebody somewhere's turned a corner. They chose a new option, and their lives will change on the back of it.

I guess at the end of the day my work is about the struggle between light and dark in every human heart.

And that little essay above is why I let my characters do the talking and acting instead of trying for a career as an essayist. Once I reconnected with those themes and struggles, my characters started doing their part again, and the book began to move on greased rails!

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Back out of the Blocks

53,500 words (pedal to the metal once again...)

Dylan and I've been friends for years now. When my last book stalled last year (seemed like forever but actually a couple-three weeks or so), he was surprised to find out I get writer's block the same as anybody. I just try to nip it in the bud.

This one wasn't the Inner Critic. I wasn't worried my words weren't good enough, though if I'd let the situation continue, I might have started.

It wasn't What-Happens-Next. I've got a good sense now of where I'm going, even if I don't know how I'll get there.

Problem was, I was trying to write forward while my mind was writing back. That is, I sat there asking for the rest of the current scene, and what started playing was an earlier scene I knew I would need but hadn't written yet.

So last night I sat down and made a start. Fifteen hundred words and a couple of hours later, I had my earlier scene and a lot of surprising revelations that streamlined the plot and made stuff I didn't understand make sense.

Now I've got to sit down and do it all over again today...

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Take that Hill, Soldier!

52,000 words (all of them feeling famous and last after the week before)

Five hundred more words today, each one a bloody struggle, bayonets and sidearms and bare hands if that's what it takes. These days come. I'll get there anyway.

In the meantime, mighty-good writer Alan Guthrie gives us *his* 32 Rules about writing. Can't say I follow them all, but that doesn't make them bad advice...

Come to think of it, I'm not sure he follows all his own rules, but Hard Man was a rocking freaking book!

Friday, March 2, 2007

Strangle Your Darlings... Slowly

51,500 (not every day is a good one)

Murder your darlings. We've all heard the advice, but oh, nobody told us how very hard it can be. They are, after all, our darlings.

I'd say I'm a confident writer,but it's an odd kind of confidence. I can be as insecure as the next guy day to day, but I have enormous faith that I will get better with practice. When I look at my first (and now thankfully out-of-print) book, I can see it's true. I write better than that in my sleep...

And as you might have gathered from other blog entries, I'm not of the Dean Koontz/Kurt Vonnegut/Tom Robbins stripe. I don't do multiple drafts of each page as I go, until that page shines and sparkles like the gem that it is. I sketch in my first drafts, loose lines that gradually solidify, then passes and new drafts until the lines are clean.
But sometimes a wildly wrong line needs to go. It just doesn't fit in with the rest of the picture. But, even when I know it's got to go, I look at it and think, "But it's soooo pretty..." It's hard to cut a scene or exchange or bit of description that really doesn't belong when it's well-written.

It's just a silly bit of insecurity way down at the heart of it. I wrote my darlings, and I'll write some more. In fact, every damn thing I write should be well-written. That's what I'm trying to do, after all. But we've all seen it: some of what we write is just a little... better. And those are always the bits we don't really know where they came from.

But knowing all this doesn't make the cutting any easier.

What I do is, rather than the mercy-killing of a straight razor to the carotid, I lock my darlings in a cupboard and wait for the thumping to stop.

That is to say, when something has to go and I'm still in first-pass stage, I stick it in a side file where I can retrieve it later. You know, just in case it turns out to be a mistake. I'm not sure I ever have, but I could. My latest (Poison Door: shopping at major US publishers right now!) is 90,ooo words long, but those cupboards contain 40,000 words. That's one heck of a lot of tiny fists pounding at those doors. I haven't gone back for any of them.

Leaving the possibility of opening that door makes those cuts less painful.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Halftime Chicken Dance

Status: 51,000 words

Okay, so six weeks after I started, I'm roughly halfway through my first pass. Yay. Somewhere around five or ten thousand, I was sure I'd be doing a funny little dance at the 50k mark. And if you'd ever seen me try to dance at all, you'd know why it'd have to be funny...

But I blew past it and on to 51k without really noticing. Yesterday the plot moved forward a little, but most of the motion was backfill. I realized there were early scenes that were just, dammit, gonna need writing in. They were crowding out the forward bits, so I didn't fight it. Just sat down and wrote them.

I like the archeology metaphor: I'm unearthing this thing a word at a time. Yesterday I found a few bits of jawbone in among the leg. They were distracting me so I went and assembled them and laid them near the rest of the head. Where exactly they'll fit in remains to seen, and I'm pretty sure at least some of these bits aren't bones at all, just hard crumbly dirt and possibly someone emptied their bucket of chicken in here...