Eventually, You Have to Bring Order to the Story Stuff

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last week my lovely wife and I were in New York for ThrillerFest, and as usual found time to enjoy some of the city. We did the Strand bookstore (where I scored an autographed Mickey Spillane from a spinner of used paperbacks), then walked up Park Avenue to my favorite building in all of New York: Grand Central Station, the beaux-arts beauty of midtown.

Why do I love it? Start with the clock tower sculpture, because it captures the robust spirit of classic New York, back a hundred years ago when the city was the unapologetic colossus of commerce. That’s why you have the three Greek gods above the clock. Mercury, god of merchants, dominates the piece, with Hercules (representing strength) and Minerva (representing the arts and professions) on either side. I love coming out of the subway stop, looking up and seeing this magnificence.

Inside Grand Central, the main concourse always seems larger than I remember. You can’t help thinking of Cary Grant at the ticket window in North by Northwest, or any of a number of movies from the 30s and 40s featuring New Yorkers getting on trains. There’s a dining concourse below, with our favorite oyster bar. Cindy and I shared a dozen, along with a nice chardonnay.

And we attended the International Thriller Writers Awards banquet, where I was honored to receive the award for Best E-Book Original (for Romeo’s Way). (And thank you for all the kind comments that have already been posted here at TKZ.) It was a delight for Cindy and I to share a table with the amazing Joanna Penn and her husband, Jonathan (Joanna, writing as J. F. Penn, was a Best E-Book Original finalist for her novel Destroyer of Worlds.)

The coolest thing about ThrillerFest is all the off-the-cuff conversation with fellow writers, usually at the hotel bar following the day’s proceedings. That, in fact, is where I caught up with brother John Gilstrap and one of our longtime TKZ commenters, Basil Sands. We were soon joined by weapons expert Chris Grall, and it wasn’t long before John and Chris were instructing us on the best way to cut people to ribbons with a sharp knife … and exactly what a body does when hit by a blast from a shotgun.

Also got to chat with TKZ emeritus Boyd Morrison and current blogmate Mark Alpert.

Reed Farrel Coleman (photo by Adam Martin)

Another guy I always like to see at these conventions is Reed Farrel Coleman. Reed was an ITW Award finalist for his novel Where It Hurts. At the Awards “after party” I had a chance to ask him about his writing method, as I’d read in interviews that he describes himself as a pure “pantser.”

I started by asking what his novel was about, and Reed gave me the backstory of his lead character, Gus Murphy. How he was a cop with a family, but now is divorced and off the force, working a low-end job, drowning in grief due of the death of his son. “That’s where the book starts,” Reed said.

“So you start with a character and a set-up, and then start writing?” I asked.

Reed nodded, then added that he goes “over and over” the first fifty pages until he feels they are just right. Then he moves on.

“How many drafts to you do?”

“One,” he said, with a definite twinkle in his eye. Then he quickly added that he revises and revises as he goes along, so in effect he’s doing multiple “drafts” by the time it’s all wrapped up.

I wrote Reed a follow-up email. “My thought is that as you are making your way through after those first fifty pages, your brain is starting to come up with future scenes. IOW, the ‘outline’ is taking shape organically, in your imagination, and you start to write toward those scenes.”

Reed answered, “Yes, unconsciously, at least, knowing those early pages cold lets my mind work on an outline for the rest of the book. I don’t think of it that way, but it’s a fair assessment of what’s going on.”

And Reed, of course, understands beginning, middle, and end. He knows what has to happen for a character to pass through the “Doorway of No Return” and into the confrontation of Act 2. When I teach, I tell students the main character better be through that doorway, at the latest, by the 20% mark, or the book will start to drag.

Guess what happens at the 20% mark of Where It Hurts? Yep:

When I heard the sirens, I went back around to the front of the house and waited. But I was through waiting to make up my mind. I was in now, with both feet.

And just to amuse myself, I went looking to see if Reed, by way of his storytelling DNA, had included a mirror moment. You bet he did, and right in the middle where it belongs:

Was this, I wondered, what it was like coming out of a coma? Is that what Krissy, Annie, and I were doing? Were we coming around at last? Had enough time elapsed? Had we all finished acting out? Had we finally proved to ourselves and one another that no amount of pain or grief or self-flagellation or magical thinking or deals with God or guilt or fury would restore to us what we had lost? Was it okay to live again?

My goal as a writing instructor is to “pop the hood” on what writers have technically accomplished (even if they don’t realize how they did it), take it apart, and explain how any writer can assemble similar parts for a similar effect.

Reed’s method is one way to go about things. (See? I come in peace, my pantsing brothers and sisters!) By churning over those first fifty pages, Reed is firming up the foundation for his entire novel. By rewriting his previous day’s work, he’s letting his mind suggest scene possibilities that build upon that foundation. “Plotters” do the same thing, only the churning comes before the writing as they prepare a map, strategy and tactics.

The important thing is that the writer, sooner or later, brings order to the story stuff. That’s what structure is all about. It’s getting things lined up so the readers can best relate to the tale you want to tell them. Even more, the story you want to move them. Without order, no matter how “hot” or “creative” you feel about what you write, most readers are going to be frustrated or, worse, annoyed.

My advice: try to avoid that.

I love New York, but it’s always great to get back to L.A., where I am currently in the process of bringing order to my next Mike Romeo thriller.

What about you? Where are you in the “ordering” process? 

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Writing Doesn’t Make You a Better Writer

I was sitting contentedly at one of my branch offices (with the round green sign) when I overheard a curly-headed young man say, “The only way to learn how to write is to write!”
His female companion nodded with the reverential gaze of the weary pilgrim imbibing the grand secret of the universe from a wizened guru on a Himalayan summit. I dared not break the soporific spell. Even so, I was tempted to slide over and say, “And the only way to learn how to do brain surgery is to do brain surgery.”

I would have gone on to explain that it is too simplistic to say “writing makes you a better writer.” It might make you a better typist. But most writers want to produce prose that other people will actually buy. For that you need more than a clacking keyboard, as essential as that is to the career-minded writer. I’ve heard that some decide to look into having a custom research paper for sale made for them to have a specialized writing reference to help hone the structure of their prose.

Bobby Knight, the legendary basketball coach and tormenter of referees, had a wise saying: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

That’s so true. If what you ingrain in your muscle memory are bad habits, you are not moving toward competence in your sport. In point of fact, you’re hurting your chances of getting to be the best you can be.

When I was learning basketball, I made sure my shot was fundamentally sound: elbow in, hands properly placed, perfect spin on the ball. I became one of the great shooters of my generation (he says, humbly). That skill never left me. At my first Bouchercon I got in the pickup basketball game that S. J. Rozan put together. Nobody knew me yet, but as we were shooting around Reed Farrel Coleman saw my shot and said, “Wow. Look at that spin!” That was cool. (I should have said to Reed, “Look at that prose!”)

But I had spent countless hours refining my shot with the proper fundamentals. By way of contrast, I’d play against kids who had goofy, elbow-out, sidespin shots that had never been corrected. They were never a long-term threat.

So, let’s get a few things straight about getting better at this craft:

1. You learn to write by learning how to write

As a kid I’d check out basketball books from the library and study them. Then I’d practice what I studied on my driveway. I’d watch players like Jerry West and Rick Barry and observe their technique. Later on, I got coaching, and once went to John Wooden’s basketball camp. I played in endless pickup games, and afterward I’d think about how I played and what I could do to improve.

Writers learn their craft by reading novels and picking up techniques. Also by reading books on writing. Then they practice what they learn. They get coaching from editors and go to writers’ conferences. They write every day and after they write they think about how they wrote and what they can do to improve.

2. Creativity and craft go together

Every now and then some contrarian will say a writer should forget about “rules” and just write, man. That’s all you need to do! Rules only choke off your creativity. Burn all those Writer’s Digest books!

It’s a silly argument.

First, they use the word rules as if writing craft teachers (such as your humble correspondent) lay them out as law. But no one ever does that. We talk about the techniques that work because they have been proven to do so over and over again, in actual books that actually sell. And even if a technique is so rock solid someone calls it a rule, we always allow that rules can be broken if—and only if—you know why you’re breaking them and why doing so works better for your story.

What should be said by creativity mavens is this: creativity and the “wild mind” (Natalie Goldberg’s phrase) are the beginning but not the end of the whole creative enterprise. One of the skills the selling writer needs to develop is how to unleash the muse at the right time but then whip her material into shape for the greater needs of the story and the marketplace for that story.
That’s why structure is so important. Structure enables story to get through to readers, you know, the ones who dish out the lettuce. That’s why I call structure “translation software for your imagination.” I know many writers would love to be able to simply wear a beret, sit at Starbucks all day, and have whatever they write go out to the world and bring in abundant bank and critical accolades.

Not going to happen.

Meanwhile, more and more writers who have taken the time to study the craft are happily selling their books in this new, open marketplace we have.

3. Passion, precision and productivity make for writing success

To gain traction in this game, you would do well to consider the three Ps: passion, precision and productivity.

Passion.You find the kind of stories you are burning to tell. For me, it’s usually contemporary suspense. I love reading it, so that’s mostly what I write. But I also believe a writer can pick a genre and learnto love it. Like an arranged marriage. The key is to find some emotional investment in what you write (usually that happens by way of heavy investment in the characters you create). But that’s only the first step.

Precision.Eventually, the selling writers know precisely where the niche is for the books they write. They spend some time studying the market. That’s how all the pulp writers and freelancers of the past made a living. Dean Koontz at one time wanted to be a comic novelist like Joseph Heller. But when his war farce didn’t sell, he switched markets. He went all-in with thrillers. He’s done pretty well at this.

Productivity. Finally, selling writers produce the words. Even so, not everything will sell as hoped, but the words won’t be wasted. They will be making better writers, because they have studied the craft and keep on studying and never give up.

Therefore, writing friends, don’t be lulled into thinking all you have to do each day is traipse through the tulips of your fertile imaginings, fingers following along on the QWERTY tapper, recording every jot and tittle of your genius. That’s the fun part of writing, being totally wild and writing in the zone. The work part of writing is sweating over the material so it has the best chance to connect with readers. That is what makes you a better writer.

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Hugging the Porcelain

By P.J. Parrish

A friend of mine got some pretty good news this week. He won the Edgar for Best Novel.

William Kent Kreuger is his name. The book is Ordinary Grace and there’s nothing ordinary about it. Now I didn’t read all the best novel nominees this year, but I can vouch for this book and for Kent himself. He’s one of the good guys. He’s paid his dues, is generous to other writers, and has kept his Cork series going at a high level for fourteen books now. (Not an easy feat!)

So last Thursday night, I was delighted to see him hugging that ugly little porcelain statue.

I’ve had a front row seat to the Edgars for seven years now. My sister Kelly and I are the banquet chairs. That’s us in the pic above just before the night got started. We produce the “show” that is sometimes called the Oscars of the crime world. It’s a great gig because Kelly gets to make movies for the night, I get to make the Powerpoint and work with great writers to produce the annual. It’s even fun to help MWA’s Margery Flax set things up. Can I share some backstage snapshots?

Here’s how Eddie arrives at the Grand Hyatt, rather unceremoniously:

Here’s me doing grunt-work, unboxing the annuals.

And Kelly helping Margery set up the registration table.

I can hear you sighing. Ugh…awards. Who cares?

True, there are some great and successful writers in our genre who never won an Edgar. Or an ITW Thriller Award, or Shamus or Anthony or Dilys. Many really good books are overlooked every year. Some publishers neglect to even enter their authors’ books. And except for the Mary Higgins Clark Award and the Agatha Award, there is a bias against traditionals and cozies. But after working the Edgars for seven years now, come banquet time it is fun to see folks who slave over their Macs in sweatpants put on tux and gown, put aside their cynicism, and get their moment in the sun.

But can an award change your life?

My sister Kelly and I got an Edgar nomination for our second book Dead of Winter. We were pretty naive — hell, stupid — about the book biz in those days. We didn’t even understand what the Edgar was, to be honest.  I do remember exactly what I was doing when I got the news. The Bucs were beating up on the Raiders so everyone at our Super Bowl party was three sheets to the wind, including me. The phone rang and I took it outside so I could hear. When the person delivered the news, I screamed. My husband came running outside.

“What the hell is wrong?” he yelled.
“We’re an Edgar nominee!” I yelled back.
“I thought the cat drowned in the pool. What’s an Edgar?”

Things got better fast. First, the book jumped a couple notches on Amazon. It was probably from 1,4456,957 to 56,789, but hey, you take what you can get. We got some late reviews from folks who had ignored it the first time. (Paperback originals don’t register on most reviewer radar screens).

Then came the Edgar banquet. We bought new dresses and went to New York. At the hotel bar, we sat in a quiet circle: Kelly, her son Robert, my husband Daniel and our agent. We allowed ourselves one drink because if we did win, we didn’t want to make asses of ourselves up there.

Inside the cavernous dining room, we sat at our publisher’s table, ogling and pointing. There goes Harlan. Was that T. Jefferson Parker? Laura Lippman is taller than she looks in her pictures. Look at the red dress Mary Higgins Clark is wearing. Omigod, that’s Edie Falco over there!

Everything was a blur. Then they started announcing the winners. It is excruciating sitting through all the categories knowing your moment is coming. The sound starts rushing in your ears and your vision grows dim. You’re stone cold sober but you feel like you’re going to pass out.

I felt my husband grab my hand.

Then…

We lost.

I applauded the winner then grabbed the wine bottle and poured myself a tall one. The next day, we went home and I went back to chapter 12 of what was to become our fourth book, Thicker Than Water. 

I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t tell you the truth: Losing bites. My good friend Reed Farrel Coleman has been nominated three times in three different categories. He was up this year for Best Short Story. He lost.  He says he is now chasing Jeffrey Deaver’s record who has lost seven times.

It is now ten books later for us. There have been dark days when I couldn’t put two decent sentences together and darker nights when I have fretted that the world was finally going to discover that I have no talent and am a complete fraud. Writing is a lonely affair. It’s a cliche but a true cliche. And the egos of most writers I know are swiss-cheesed with doubt. So yes, I think getting an award can change your life. Hell, a nomination can change your life.

Not because it’s some outer confirmation like a bump in sales, or a translation into a better contract or a bigger publisher. It is because it is an inner validation — that something you did, something you created out of the ether of your imagination and the sweat of your faith — is real. And your peers know and honor that.

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