One True Sentence

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast.”

I think writer’s block, or page fright as I like to think of it, is probably a young man’s disease.  I know I had it bad when I was in my 20s and bouts of it had the potential to drive me to distraction.  Looking back on it, it seems obvious that writer’s block at that age is less about artistic torment than simply not having lived long enough to have a depth of experience worth writing about. 

In order to break that block, I took Hemingway’s advice rather literally.  Whenever I got blocked on something, whether it was getting started or finishing a chapter or what have you, I would type the following sentence:

“In the morning, the women went down to the water.”

That was it.  Every time, same sentence.  It never failed.  It didn’t matter if I was in the middle of writing about a one legged man climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, I wrote that sentence and it somehow aligned my neurons or blew out my cobwebs or reiterated my internal voice or whatever it did and I would be off and running again.

The only time that sentence ever failed me was when I ran out of story before the end.  I’ve never been much of an outliner and I rarely know how the story is going to end when I begin a first draft, so it isn’t rare that I get two or three hundred pages into a novel and just have to stop until I’m struck by a bolt from the blue that contains the ending.  It’s a sloppy way to write and certainly not one I endorse but it seems to be the way my brain works. 

The other thing that has helped me get through the blocks since I started my second assault on a writing career is that I keep multiple novels in play at all times.  It sounds crazy, but it actually makes a kind of sense.  Not writing regularly derailed my first attempt at a writing career so when I decided to try again, I made myself a promise that I would write every damn day.  Not every day.  Every damn day.  And I keep to that rule better than any other in my life.  Especially speed limits.

An unintended consequence of obeying this rule occurs when I run out of story before the end of a draft.  The worst thing I can do is to force myself to continue.  You get some really dry toast doing that, my friends.  You have to drop it temporarily.  But what are you going to do when the appointed hour rolls around tonight?  You start another book.  You write, “In the morning, the women went down to the water” and you stare at that for fifteen minutes and then you plunge into one of the other stories rattling around in the back of your head.

I have over a dozen novels that are one half to three quarters done and will stay that way forever.  For one reason or another, the rest of the story never came to me on them.  Does that mean writing them was a waste of time?  Oh, hell no.  I am the world’s most energetic self-plagiarizer.  Any character, line, incident or sound effect from one of my dead novels is fair game for inclusion in a new novel.  Plus, all that experience creating characters, writing dialogue, and working plot points pays benefits later on.

But the benefit of this is that when I get blocked on one story I just peruse the others until something catches my attention or I’m struck by a possibility and then I plunge back in.  Does it work?  For me, yeah. 

The Legacy of Black Mask

I heard something the other day that turned my head around full on Exorcist style: Dashiell Hammett said that he based the character of Nora Charles on his lover Lillian Hellman.  That’s like saying Betty Boop was based on Dorothy Parker.  Don’t get me wrong, one of my favorite movies is The Thin Man – that movie had a lot to do with getting me hooked on writing in the first palce – and I’ve always harbored a secret crush on Nora Charles but can you honestly imagine her saying, “Belief is a moral act for which the believer is to be held responsible.”

And this is the problem with genre fiction.  Very often a woman like Hellman, a successful playwright, author and aggressive left wing idealist, gets translated into an adorable dingbat like Nora Charles on her way to the page.  You certainly don’t have to scratch very deep in Chandler’s work to find the misogyny.  Just look at the difference between the book and the movie of The Big Sleep.

In the book, there is no love story between Marlowe and Vivien Rutledge.  She’s just another conniving, manipulative woman.  As a female in a Chandler novel, that’s about the best you can hope for.  Otherwise, if not mentally incompetent, you’re either a mannish ice queen or a ruthless killer.  I even winked at this in The Vengeance Season by having one character start out as the mannish ice queen and work her way through the other phases until she ends up a mental incompetent.

It sounds like I’m bagging on Chandler, but I’m really not. The first time I read The Big Sleep in college it was like lightning snapped through my synapses.  Every word on the page elevated what had been a pretty trashy genre to the level of literature.  It was amazing.  It was the first time I didn’t feel guilty for wanting to write genre fiction.  And that misogyny did not enter detective fiction through Chandler.  It was already well established by the time he came along and it continued on long after he died.

Watch Out of the Past or The Killers or especially Double Indemnity and you get right away why the French added the femme fatale as a critical ingredient in any film noir.  Carry that forward to one of the best faux noir ever made, Body Heat, and you find Matty Walker, the finest example of the vicious, self-serving woman so crucial to these stories.

How do you turn that around?  Frankly, I don’t know that you can remove that character from detective fiction entirely.  There is a portion of the genre’s archetypes that couldn’t function without her.  I had the same problem in The Vengeance Season and could never get rid of her completely.  In the end, I made sure the other two female leads were empowered females not looking to suck the life of the nearest man.  Maybe that’s all we need, some more fully developed characters to balance out the sometimes necessary ugly stereotypes.

Write What You Can

Everyone has their list of island books, the novels they would want to have with them if stranded on a desert island, and that list says a lot about them.  I used to use it as a sort of litmus test when meeting new people, but nobody in my industry seems to read anything but programming manuals anymore so I had to give it up.

My list: Dune, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, The Cryptonomicon, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Ready Player One.  What does my list say about me?  Well, for one thing, it begs the question why I am a crime fiction writer when I obviously love science fiction so dearly.  The answer to that is a resounding, “I don’t know.”  I even came to write my first detective novel via science fiction.  Roy Doyle was originally a time traveler stuck in 1946.  When my agent couldn’t figure out how to market that story, I cut out all the science fiction and, in the process, found my voice for writing about detectives and criminals.

That still doesn’t explain why my writing voice is so radically different from my reading preference.  Anyone who has ever had trouble finding a voice, as I did for so long, will tell you that when you find it, you don’t spend a lot of time questioning it.  You just start using it.  I continue to dabble in science fiction but I never feel the same “click” I do when I’m fomenting a murder mystery.  That genre just feels so natural to me I’ll probably never be able to work comfortably outside of it.

The other possible reason for the dichotomy between what I read and what I write is that I don’t find a lot of the crime fiction I read to be very compelling.  I read a lot of crime/mystery fiction and, while many of them are good, most have the airy weight of something that is essentially redundant.  The only really innovative detective novel I’ve read in the last ten years was The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.  And that one?  It’s built on a speculative fiction chassis, an alternate reality in which the refugees of the Holocaust were given land in Alaska as a temporary homeland after the fledgling state of Israel collapsed in 1948.

Maybe I should put that one on my island list.  And, as long as we’re talking about Chabon, I have to add Summerland, the best baseball fantasy story ever told.  (Yes, I’m one of those guys who doesn’t like The Natural.)  But that’s the problem with the island list.  The more you think about it, the longer it gets.

To circle back to my point, your Creative Writing 101 instructor pounded the phrase, “Write what you know” into your head freshman year of college and every book on writing will tell you the same thing.  Does that mean that, as forklift operator, all your stories should revolve around warehouse management?  No.  What those instructors and books should be telling you is, “Write with authority.”  And the best way to write with authority is to find a voice that feels natural in your brain and sounds right on the page.

The difference Between Typing and Writing

I confused the actions of typing and writing for most of my life.  Basically, I thought they were the same thing and I was always confused by people who still wrote longhand.  Why add the extra step of converting your sloppy scribbles to a nicely typewritten manuscript when you could just bang it out straight onto the machine?  I mean, why do you think they invented the word processor in the first place, man?

About ten years ago two things happened at roughly the same time that combined to get me to understand the difference between typing and writing.  First, I turned forty and realized that the time had come to get serious about writing or the window would close.  Second, I got the most boring job in the world.  I’m talking about sitting in a cubicle all day, eight hours a day, with absolutely nothing to do.  I had been hired, it turned out, for my expertise and was expected to be there when someone had a question – but no one ever did.

At first, I slowly began to go crazy.  The boredom got to me in a bad way.  Then I began to pace.  I just walked the cubicle farm in random squares touching base at my desk to see if anyone had sent an email.  Eventually, my mind began to roam those old pastures where story ideas go to graze.

I had been working on a science fiction novel for the last year or so but by “working” I mean typing for an hour a night with a cocktail close to my keyboard.  I worked all day long, my head full of work stuff and my imagination tightly caged and pushed out of sight.  Then, at night, I would sit down for an hour and try to be instantly creative again.

Pacing the cube farm day after day, I began to think of that science fiction story, its elements, its structure, the characters, the dialogue.  For obvious reasons, I couldn’t do any actual typing at work and this turned out to be a real boon because I was forced to think about writing all day and then spend the evening writing down what I had come up with.  This was the first time since college that the quality of my writing improved.

That science fiction novel didn’t go anywhere and neither did the next two novels I wrote, but I was getting better for a change.  I could see it in my product.  Two years later, I wrote the first Roy Doyle novel and got an agent.  My first editorial acceptance since college.

These days when my life gets complicated and I fall back into that trap of combining typing and writing, I remind myself that I do have time to think about story during the day – on my commute, at lunch, after work, in the shower – and to keep my hands away from a keyboard until I know what I’m going to say.

Action Movies are RomComs for Men

What I love about The Answer Man is that, at its heart, it’s a love a story.  Yes, it’s one long chase scene with a steadily rising body count and some truly insidious villains, but under all that it’s the story of two people reluctantly allowing themselves to fall in love.

Think about it from this perspective: What makes a good action movie?  Lots of action?  All action moves have lots of action.  That’s why, you know, they’re called action movies.  But what makes The Terminator so much better than Transformers?  The special effects in the latter are far superior to those in the former.  For that matter, there are more action scenes in Transformers.

I would argue that The Terminator is superior because it has a story, and in this case the story happens to be a love story.  “I came across time for you, Sarah” has far more impact than, “Bumblebee, message from Starfleet!”  Or whatever.  I could never make it all the way through a Transformers movie.  But my point is that while we tend to think all we want for dinner is candy, we actually yearn for some meat and potatoes, too.

And that’s what the love story at its heart does for The Answer Man.  It gives you another way to connect to the characters and to the story so that when you put it down, you feel like some of your close friends just went through a thrilling, if harrowing, experience.

The Answer Man

The Answer Man is now available for Kindle

I spent a lot of time with Russians when I was learning their language in the Air Force.  That was a crazy, fascinating experience that left me with a lot of stray character traits I eventually molded into Vanya, the ex-KGB interrogator who is the protagonist of this story.

Also known as The Answer Man, he’s modeled partly on a legendary (most likely apocryphal) cold war interrogator who was supposedly able to get all the information out of his subjects without asking a single question.  This version of The Answer Man is a little more sympathetic, however.  Vanya has turned 53 and is beginning to regret the empty wasteland of his life.  He’s reached that black mood of post middle-age where you stop recounting your victories and start wishing for redemption.

He seizes an opportunity for that redemption when he decides to save Lolly Graham’s life rather than leave her for the post-interrogation cleanup squad.  That simple, irrational action kicks off a series of events that leaves a trail of bodies across Europe and the United States.

It’s a fun adventure that starts quick and never stops running until the last page.

Murderology

Murderology is now available for the Kindle.

Let me tell you about Murderology because it is different from any other book I’ve written and most of that comes down to the circumstances under which it was brought to life.  My agent was unable to sell yet another novel of mine, this would be three in a row he couldn’t move over a course of three years and I asked him why.  Basically, I wanted him to tell me what to write so we could just break the seal and get started.

Sex and serial killers.  If you want to sell a book today it has to have sex in it.  Sex like erotica.  Then, once you have your sex, add either vampires or a serial killer.  Bring me that book, he said, and I will be able to sell it.

I was dumbfounded but I sat down to do exactly that.  But here’s the problem with trying to write something in someone else’s style: If you can do it, you’re probably not a very good writer or, at least, you’re not a very original one.  Every writer is like a lens.  You take the same light and pass it through that lens and you get something different from when it passes through other lenses.  When I took the standard, breathless serial killer genre and all its clichéd tropes and passed it through my lens, something really crazy came out the other side.

Murderology turned out to be more of a parody of the serial killer genre and, while there’s a lot of talk about sex, there’s definitely no erotica.  And the story is so crazy, I think of it as my Fight Club.  This is a comic novel that is a real ride and, considering only two of my three first readers liked it, I would say it’s probably going to be pretty divisive, too.