Monday, March 21, 2011

Come Sail Away


Come closer.

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.

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?

No outline.

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.


John McFetridge said...

First of all, what great news that Suspicious Circumstances will be available for Kindle, and for ninety-nine cents.

As for the post, I have to say I agree, but I wanted to point out that I think there's sometimes confusion between the action and the story.

A professor I had once told all beginning writers that the first page of a novel illustrated the theme. Usually that's done through some kind of action - the hero chasing someone, as you said, the perp gets away but the hero won't give up. The theme of never giving up is established and the characters and story grows from that.

But an action scene isn't the only way to illustrate the theme of the book.

Chris said...

SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES is a hell of a book. Psyched to hear it's gonna get such a wide release. I hope it sells like crazy.

Steve Weddle said...

I dig the theme and action thoughts about openings, but come back to the one thing I think you just gotta have in the first bit of the book -- conflict.
Even small, localized conflict -- the sort of thing that tells you about the character, the story.
I don't need an explosion, but I damn sure need the conflict, the tension.
I read a book to see how things will resolve.

John McFetridge said...

It can be inner conflict, too, right Steve?

Look how many Elmore Leonard novels open with a little background on a character and what he's thinking about, trying to decide something, and before you realize it the story has started.

(Tishomingo Blues is terrific for this)

Steve Weddle said...

John, Yeah. I was thinking of a Tom Clancy (shut up. it's research) book I'm reading that opens just AFTER the big explosion. The conflict is the Secret Service agent trying to keep the President from walking into a crowd.
Safety of the President = Safety of the country etc etc etc
But a small thing such as putting an overcoat on the President has a big impact there in terms of conflict. Small, but ties in to the theme.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

"Come Sail Away", now that brings back some memories. Heard it on AM radio when it came out and still love it. I'd also suggest that "Mistral Wind" by Heart fits nicely into that catagory. Like John mentioned, physical action isn't the only way to open a novel and get the theme moving. If done right psychological suspense can do that as well. "Suspicious Circumstances" sound very good, the price is right, and count me in. This was a great post by the way.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yes, John, I agree about confusion between action and story. And I think that's a better way of expressing part of my thoughts, because so often I pick up books that are simply about doing one thing after another and another. I think it's been confused, that action sets pace, but that's not necessarily the case. Watch horror films and you understand how important all those quiet moments leading up to terror are.

Thanks Chris! I was reluctant to promote the book much with the former publisher not paying me royalties, and ticked that they never put it in a cheaper format (as was agreed to). I really got myself to the point where I said, "I don't care if it dies and I never see the sequel published." Then I got the rights returned. It made it so much more rewarding to get the rights back.

Steve, I do agree, and maybe even as a newbie understood that, because initially my protagonists distrust each other and there are all sorts of personal conflicts on the table.

Sean - I was tempted to out Brian as a Styx fan who knows all the words to Mr. Roboto. Of course, he doesn't think it's weird when I say that, because he thinks everyone knows the words. ;)

I also think internal conflict is central to a great story.

Oh, and I'll readily admit if I rewrote SC now I would change things. But I'd say the same about any of my books or stories. I had to look at SC for the core, these two characters, and ask if I'd done my job with them. They're at times cheesy, at times, nauseatingly nice, but they're also committed and believable and I like spending time with them, so I hope they finally find their audience.

Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I very much like your distinction between story and action. I’ve been going back to the fountainhead recently and reading lots of Hammett and Chandler. Is there a more memorable opening than that of “Flypaper”: “It was a wandering daughter job.” Action? Not really. Story? You bet it is.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"