On Writing

I grew up a reader.

As a kid, I always wanted to grow up to become a writer.

I had a room that was all set for the writing life. I had a desk, a chair, a lamp, and a typewriter. A stereo for distracting myself with (or writing to) my favorite music. Plenty of windows, plenty of light. Faulkner might have written “The Sound and the Fury” there, for all its comfort and privacy.

I still want to grow up to one day become a writer. I am on the downhill slope to 50.

I find myself plugging away on a variety of writing projects. I’ve done mysteries, comedies, some science fiction, some action. I’ve tried my hand at autobiography, reviews, political soap-boxing. Always, I struggle to either complete or find the right voice for the project.

I still haven’t published.

I’ve researched the markets – fiction and  non- – and I know how hard it is to land an agent or a publisher. I do not trust the self-publishing rackets. Getting a book deal is not only akin to getting struck by lightning; it’s more like aligning the clouds themselves and causing lightning to strike in the first place. How do you make it happen?

This isn’t a screed against a business that I am not even involved in and have no inkling of (beyond Writer’s Market and Jeff Herman’s Guide). This is about writing.

When I was a kid, I wrote a lot of fiction. I got some recognition for it in school, won a couple of creativity prizes, and since I wasn’t especially known for anything else, people thought of me as a writer. I guess I thought of myself that way, too.

I landed a newspaper job and learned a different style of writing – my fellow journalists know what that style is – and began writing for a living. Of course, reporters don’t actually write for a living. Reporters report and deal with all the other shit that goes on at a newspaper, most of it internal and political. Their writing is merely a delivery system for information that is consumed and then discarded as easily as an empty beer can. Not even the best reporting lives forever; such writing has a short shelf-life. My creativity was bent toward the demands of the daily deadline; my concentration levels dropped, and I began to write only material that had an immediate, built-in audience – the consumers of our newspaper, who cared, ironically, not one whit for good writing.

In college, my attention was dragged back to the art and craft of creative writing, but my newspaper instincts kicked in and I found myself reverting to the journalistic style. I had no patience for the finely-turned line, for the poetry found in the best of prose. I had become the thing I now – the writer for hire, the hack, the grammatically-correct pragmatist. If I’d ever had a shot at becoming an artist with the written word, it was drilled out of me by hard-case, flea-bitten editors who might themselves have been failed, frustrated, impatient artists.

Today I scroll through digitized mountains of bad writing generated by semi-talented authors vainly pursuing the title of The Next John Grisham or The Next Stephen King. I flip through their books online and read their desperate, self-edited, look at me manuscripts, and wonder who vetted these books and what, if anything, separates them from the rest of the pack – what makes The Next John Grisham? I wonder, naturally, if I secretly harbor those qualities – if I am The Next (albeit undiscovered) John Grisham.

Is it style? Well, yes, partly. Renowned authors with multi-million-dollar contracts, legions of fans and plenty of shelf space have oodles of style, a distinctive voice that readers instantly recognize. But what is style and what is voice? Is it a manner of writing, a method of revealing plot and character? What’s the difference between Grisham’s “The Firm,” or Crichton’s “Jurassic Park,” or King’s “The Stand,” and, say, the thoroughly mediocre, self-published Kindle Fire book that I just flipped through on Amazon.com? Is it purely a matter of style, of authorial voice? Partly it is, yes, but not completely.

Is it plot? Well, here we’re getting closer. Plot matters immensely. It’s the thing that can be boiled down to a single sentence and printed on the book jacket. The plot of a classic page-turner like “The Firm” (not my favorite book, but a good example) has to be both original and familiar, and simple – almost offensively simple. A young lawyer runs afoul of the Mob. Or “Jurassic Park” (for example): Dinosaurs run amok in a theme park. It’s the simple idea that not only sells but lasts forever. Oh, and the sexier, and timelier, the better.

Is it complexity? Well, yes and no. Readers want to feel like they have access to secret, arcane information, like the genetics behind “Jurassic Park” and the legal machinations behind “The Firm.” We like for the author to tell us things we didn’t know but have been curious about. Perhaps my favorite example of this is JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, which unveil world after world in a setting that could never exist – but, oh, if only it could! Readers like to feel as if they are discovering things for the first time.

This information, however, needs to be presented as clearly and simply as possible. Almost in journalistic fashion. In my mind, cause and effect is best. Arcana is great if it’s spelled out for the reader, not so great – a bogged-down bore – if treated as arcana. Nobody wants to read the ingredients on the back of the cereal box, but people are happy to read the back of the cereal box. Successful writers write the back of the cereal box.

This leads us to the question of story. The plot tells us what happens – a farm boy leaves his home world to save a princess and blow up a space station. Story tells how it happened, and what other things occurred along the way. The farm boy was named Luke Skywalker, and everything happened after he met two robots on the run from …. this is story. It must be told clearly, effectively and simply, with as few words and as little getting in the way as possible. Big, bold strokes that allow the reader to fill in information gaps.

Ultimately, a good piece of fictional writing is about character. A novel isn’t about a scene, or a series of individual scenes. A novel has psychological underpinnings. It tells us what happens to a character (or cast of characters) and how they are changed. Or not – sometimes the character doesn’t change. But it’s still all about what happens to the character and how the character reacts to the events that occur.

Without that, you have action and movement but no meaning. Colors without form, words but no voice. Nonfiction (journalism) tells us what happens and why it means something. Fiction tells us how characters feel about what is going on, what they think about it, how it affects them. Even James Bond, a totally static character, experiences things from a very personal point of view, which Ian Fleming invites us to share. Fleming doesn’t write from the position of the impersonal, uninvolved journalist who merely says, “This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.” Rowling’s Harry Potter, on the other hand, starts out as a naïve child hungry to experience the world; he ends having seen far too much of the world and longs, in a way, for a return to innocence. (Interestingly, Rowling doesn’t write from a very internalized or psychological place. She takes an objective point of view, telling us what happens, showing us the action in visual terms. Harry and his friends practically spell out for us what’s going on in their hearts and minds.)

There are thousands of ideas in the world and it is impossible to create something truly fresh, original and unique. The good thing is, no writer is required to do so. George Lucas borrowed from everything under the sun to create “Star Wars,” but even in Ecclesiastes it says there is nothing new. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was preceded by Poe’s Dupin; Dumbledore was preceded by Gandalf, and King Arthur by Jesus. Originality isn’t the key. It’s the story that’s told.

My theory is that while plot and action might not be wholly original, characters must be. Characters are the people in your story, and people are unique, independent beings capable of exercising free will. Your characters generate suspense, not the setting or production design or plot mechanics. Your characters decide what happens, not you, the author. They either experience interesting things and tell us what they think of them, or allow these things to help them grow, change and mature. Characters who fail to do either might as well be the list of ingredients on the back of a cereal box.

I can’t tell you much about the plotline of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” but I know a lot about the protagonists, Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. They are two of the most powerful characters in recent crime fiction. I read all three Millennium novels not because I cared so much about what happened, but because I cared about Lisbeth and Blomkvist. They were original, engaging, thought-provoking characters who captured my imagination. I saw them as in a movie. I had fun anticipating their moves and reactions. Yet they don’t participate in non-stop action; the novels aren’t full of guns-blazing chaos. The novels are mental games of chess in which the two characters plot out their moves and find themselves reacting to each other in strange and unexpected ways. The secret to the novels isn’t the plot or the description; I couldn’t care less that they are set in Sweden, though that is central to the story. No, it’s the characters.

Characters should tell us something about ourselves. If they don’t, they are merely word exercises. We should ask ourselves, “What would I do or say or feel in this situation?” And the outcomes should have an affect on us; any successful novel is something of an educational experience. You should come away with some idea or view of the world, not simply a hankering to “buy the next one in the series!” You only want to buy the next one if you want to find out what happens next, and that only happens if you legitimately care about  the characters.

(A word about originality and series characters. About ten years ago, there weren’t many “Girl Who…”-titled books, until, of course “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” came out. It and its sequels became an enormous publishing success. Today there is a flood of books with similar titles. But Stieg Larsson was there first with a wholly unique take on an old genre . Lisbeth is the original “girl;” the others are pale imitations.)

So – it’s impossible to come up with a new idea. But it is possible to come up with new characters, because people are unique individuals with differing points of view. I’m heartened to think that perhaps I do have the capacity to come up with characters that are interesting and different, because you can put characters into any number of situations. What you’re interested in is the reaction.

I have two ongoing writing projects, both totally different in style and voice. “The River City Detective Salon” is a parody of the classic PI genre, but the plot of each installment in the series is hardly the point – the point is Chandler Fleming, the detective, who’s as static as James Bond but, I think, funny and tough and romantic and kind of pathetic. The stories aren’t about what happens, they are about how Chandler views himself and the world, and how each case shapes (or, more likely, confirms) his viewpoint. I keep coming back to the stories because they focus on him, not the mechanics of the traditional mystery.

My new project is provisionally titled “California Beaumont,” and it is about an orphan girl (shades of Dickens) called upon by a wealthy industrialist to participate in a murderous plot. She gets entangled in a mystery involving artificial intelligence and the enigma of her own family history. Shades of “Dragon Tattoo”? Perhaps, but to me, California is a wholly original character and the reason I keep writing. It’s her that I’m interested in, not the details of AI or mineral extraction or military training or any of the other things peripheral to the story.

If I can keep California Beaumont herself alive and interesting, and her experience of the world and of other people interesting, then I have an original story worth telling, even if the plot does seem influenced by other authors, even other movies. It’s the character that keeps us reading, just as it’s the character that keeps writers writing. Or should be.