That's it. Just lean in a little bit more. Wait.
Are you sure you're alone?
Just take a quick peek.... No, I won't talk louder. This is going to be our little secret.
It's just us?
Okay. Lean over. Let me whisper in your ear. Ready?
I'm sick of formulaic $h!t.
And it's all Brian's fault.
The other day, we were driving home and a song came on the radio. One Brian wanted to hear. We were close to the house, so he ended up driving around for a while so that he could make it to that moment. You know the one. That identifiable moment in a song when it kicks into high gear and grabs you.
Man, I love it when a song does that for me. Starts off slow, quiet. Lures you in, gets you inside it, and then BAM! It has you by the throat and won't let go. And I bet every single person reading this can think of a song like that, a song that gets them every time. For Brian, it was Come Sail Away. For me, King of Pain.
Amongst others. The more subtle touch of L'Affaire Dumoutier...
Who can deny the brilliant execution of Copperhead Road?
Or the execution of The Rising?
As we drove around just so that Brian could hear the song kick into high gear, it got me thinking, and it got me thinking about formula, predictability, and ultimately, writing.
Yes, there are limits to how we can approach telling a story, but why is it every blurb or review seems to suggest the action starts word 1, page 1, and doesn't let up until the end? Why, especially in crime fiction, is there so much pressure on that opening line of the book? Grab your reader in 30 seconds, or you won't get a chance to grab them at all?
Is everyone reading crime afflicted with ADHD?
Hey, I really don't mean to be too flip about that. Outside of writing, most of my adult life has been spent working with students who have ADHD, amongst other challenges. But I think that's what doubly frustrates me when it comes to the writing. No, I don't think a book should be completely boring and pointless and spend page upon page meandering to nowhere at the beginning...
But is the idea of heating steadily to a boil really such a bad thing?
Sandra Seamans and I seemed to be having the similar thoughts.
That pattern of sameness thrives in the marketplace. Pick up a copy of EQ or AHMM and you can almost always tell how every story is going to end. It's like reading an episode of "Murder She Wrote". I think that's one reason I enjoy anthologies. Yes, there is that genre sameness, but a good editor will find stories that step beyond that sameness into new territory.
I adore writers who can surprise me with each new story. Stephen King collections are a good example. His stories, while wrapped in the cloak of horror, step into the crime and sci-fi genres. His endings vary from the twist, to the gotcha, to the yeah, it needed to end that way. You never know how one of his shorts is going to end so you're never bored.
I adore those writers, too. I want to get something in my hands that's fresh. All too often, I think new writers are under the wrong pressure, to define themselves by having a character with some quirk or distinction that's going to set them apart. It's becoming more of the same. Got to be an alcoholic or a pill popper or a narcoleptic or suffering from a chronic skin fungus...
When was the last time you read a book with a protagonist who actually sounded kind of, you know, normal? When was the last time you read about a main character who got along with his mother, or liked something normal, like sports, or actually took a day off? Is it possible to present such a character in a compelling story that doesn't have to follow the Three Act Structure?
Several years ago, I took a creative writing diploma. I now tutor aspiring writers for the same school. As a student, I eventually learned that I had to throw some of the curriculum advice out the window and do things my own way. I realized that they had to teach us to pre-plot novels, because you can. Teaching someone to write by the seat of their pants? Almost impossible.
Here's how it happened. I'd started a manuscript. I was feeling pretty good about it. My tutor had nothing but good things to say. I'd done what I was told, outlined it, and written the opening chapters. I was about 90 pages along when I moved.
And lost the outline. And got discouraged. And convinced myself the manuscript wasn't worth finishing.
It was almost a year before I went back to the pages I'd written, and had to admit that they were pretty good. Why shouldn't I finish the book?
Okay. So I went to the text of what I'd written, and decided to figure things out as I went along. I have no idea what I originally intended the story to be, who was guilty of what and how it all unfolded, but I finished it.
My first finished manuscript. (Because there's another that's about three pages from being done that actually predates this, but remains unfinished to this day.)
Then I edited it. And edited some more. And kept tweaking. I added a whole subplot on the third draft.
I've been thinking about that first finished manuscript a lot lately, because I recently regained my rights to the book. Yes, it was my first published book. It won a writing contest, placed in another international competition, and enabled me (after countless rejections) to finally land an agent and a bigger publisher.
When I started going over the manuscript a few weeks ago to reformat it for Kindle release, I went through all the usual thoughts authors have when they read an earlier work. What was I thinking? That's a bit wordy.
I also had some other thoughts, about the fact that I'd featured two protagonists who were genuinely decent people. Real. The kind of people who really could live next door, and you'd like them if they did. They're... normal.
But I don't think they're boring, and while the book may not start off with a cop chasing a perp down a dark alley with a gun, or the discovery of a body, or an assault, I think that's a good thing.
It starts off different. Subtle. Quiet. It starts off with a bit of bass before it lets loose on the drums.
Every time I sit down to write, I try to push myself to do something different. Even if I only change one thing in my approach to the character or the storytelling, my goal is to never grow complacent. I'm sick of having next to nothing to watch on TV because it's predictable, and I'm tired of formulaic books.
And now that SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES is legally free and clear and back in my hands, I can admit I'm proud of my debut. Sure, I wish I knew some of the writing tricks I know now back when I was writing it, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a book that's unlike anything I was reading at the time, and stands on its own, with two protagonists I'm hoping to spend more time with again very soon.
Within the next few days, SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES should be live and available of Amazon's Kindle story for 99 cents. I'm in the home stretch, hoping to catch any technical formatting glitches first, but will update my website as soon as the book's available. Look for more information Friday when I guest blog here.