Ramblings on the Craft of Writing
Wow, It's already the 23rd. I want to take a moment to thank you all for inviting me.
I've been wracking my brain trying to come up with some profound advice, astute observations, or heck just something that's not going to bore the shit outta people. Something about writing…as Shared Wisdom is about writing and promoting and editing. Something you might find in a good book on writing. But, frankly, most of the writing books out there on plotting and characterization sound like regurgitations of my 6th grade English teacher's lectures. And none of what they say has really ever worked for me.
I realized that the only thing I can authoritatively talk about is what I do and how I do it. Take what you need from what I say… if something sounds like it would help you great, but chuck what you don't feel applies to you.
Thus, this is James' take on writing
and it's basically two things:
The first Rule of James* is short and sweet. I co-opted this off my Advanced Poety prof in college: "Learn the rules then learn when to break them."
She was talking about the structure of a Villanelle or a Sonnet, but it works in fiction as well. Heck, I've used those techniques in court briefs. A one word paragraph is a slam against the wall. A run-on sentence leaves the reader effectively breathless. Short, sharp sentences in rapid succession create a feeling of urgency. If that's the effect you're seeking to achieve then by all means, use it.
Obviously, you have to have grammatical structure, basic punctuation and know the difference between then and than, which I often screw up – more in the path of writing fast than not understanding – or no one will understand what you're trying to tell them. But there is a time and a place to do what's considered improper. No punctuation or quotes around dialog – leave that to those who have delusions of being among the literary avant guard. Changing it up on people, however, can drive your point home.
The second Rule of James is far more involved, although it can be summarized fairly succinctly. Some profound soul once postulated that there are only three plots in the world: Man v Self, Man v. Man and Man v Nature. I take it one step further. In all three of those there is one constant: Man. Fundamental human nature. What it means to survive as a sentient, emotional creature in this world.
So, for me, the main characters are the plot and everything else is a McGuffin
The McGuffin creates the conflict for the character to move through, confront or avoid. His reactions to it drive the reader toward the resolution. My "plots" are usually something fairly half assed as I'm writing. I always know generally who I'm going to write about. If you ask me what the "story" of Twice the Cowboy is…well, we got to get a horse back. That's not the plot though. The plot is how the characters involved make that happen and what do they need from each other that motivate them to go to those lengths. This need for connection is what drives the story. Everything else that happens is, shall we say, window dressing. That is not to make light of it…no, window dressing draws you in, makes you explore the story and – if done right – tells you a great deal about the characters.
When I created Joe, from Hard Fall, I knew he was a cowboy and a law enforcement officer in a small town. I could "hear" him in my head. But, I had to decide how I'm going show the reader who he is. Murder is always good – I tend to be good at hanging a romance around a mystery. The question is, how am I going to get the reader to play along with me that murder is what we're here to explore? Well an 80ft fall would be good – and this is where the fact that if you tell me something, I'll remember it and use it somewhere in a story. In this case it was one of my partner's relatives who witnessed a jurisdictional pissing match between several law enforcement agencies in rural Utah on a body recovery. And that was a great place to start. Then I begin looking at where this is going to happen. Well, Utah is the only place I know of with that level of jurisdictional patchwork. So, it's small town law enforcement officer, in Utah and there's a body pull out of a canyon and I start to build that world.
World building is a function of character.
I see reviews of my books discussing my vivid settings and how the cities and landscape feel like characters unto themselves. To me they are. The where is indistinguishable from the who (you know the drill – who, what, where and why make a book). Even in a contemporary romance I am world building. People are a function of where they live. And the perception of where they live is filtered by who they are.
I live in the Metro Hell of Southern California. I am a creature of this environment: a place where I can hit the beach in the middle of winter, fit and pretty people are norms around here, and you can drive down to San Diego and the only time you loose a view of urban sprawl is when you cross Camp Pendleton. I am in constant contact with all races and sexualities and there's enough room to do what I want without coming into conflict with others. Now, where I've been before also contributes. Growing up in a smallish town in Texas where everyone knew everyone else gives me a different make up than someone born and bred in Reseda – the home of the California Valley Girls. So where my characters came from and are now, give them core values.
And then that core spins around and filters the environment back to the reader. My partner and I had reasonably similar backgrounds. Grew up in small southwestern towns with big military presence in both, and moved to the Los Angeles basin after college. But if you listen to us talk about where we live it's like different cities. I like to get off the freeway and cut through town, explore a neighborhood, slow down and feel it. He knows where he wants to go and no detours are allowed. If the most direct route is the 110 to the 10 to the 405, he could give a damn that Crenshaw Blvd is faster at 4:00. He describes the city as a series of discrete places. I see it as a melding of neighborhoods where Korea Town fades into Boyle Heights merges with Watts. So depending on which one of us is the focus, the city will be conveyed differently to the reader and would change the feel of a story significantly.
Brandon Carr and Nick O'Malley (Cheating Chance, Inland Empire) react to things the way they do because of where they live. Nick lives in Vegas – the most insane modern city there is. You can get anything you want 24/7. The place where you've gotten coffee for the past three years…tomorrow it might be torn down for a mega resort. To survive there, without going nuts, you have to have a rather flexible personality, someone who can roll with punches and get off on the constant stimulation. You can be out, proud and down right outrageous in Vegas and fit right in. With Brandon, living in Riverside, CA, a different dynamic is at play. When I set his home there, it was for the reason that I had relatives on the force in Riverside and had a head full of thier stories. It also made sense, because I was there for my job all the time. I knew the city and how it felt. Riverside is pretty big, but it breathes like a small town. People stroll through downtown Riverside. The court clerks call you "honey," and the Judges come out of chambers with their shirt sleeves rolled up and shoot the shit with you before calendar is called. Plus, the city is in an area where the outlying community is fairly redneck and rural. That gives him a reason to be closed down about his sexuality.
The dynamics of who and where create the real conflict.
Once I've created a core for the character it gives me a reason for his reactions to the situation. Without them he's a puppet. Puppets are boring and predictable. I'll be writing a scene thinking this is the way something should play out and my characters will vehemently disagree with me and refuse to go there. I could force it – they are fiction and I'm not. But once I know them, I understand why it's not going to happen a certain way. I understand that one character would scream and run while another would pick up a baseball bat and wade in. That includes how the screamer and charger would deal with each other. The differing expectations create their personal conflict as well as their common ground. Both had a need to get out of the situation, they chose different methods to achieve it.
The conflict over differing expectations and how the characters navigate and resolve that conflict is what is romantic to me. I believe in soul mates. I also believe that soul mates have knock down drag out arguments where they have to walk around for three hours cooling off or else they'd be tempted to beat the shit outta each other.
Darkness lets light shine through.
If it were only the main characters creating conflict with each other, they'd be whiny emo boiz who needed a swift kick in the shorts…not good fiction - at least to me. Discord needs to be sowed from the outside as well. There should be a decent proportion of the internal conflict of the character creating drama and drama arising from reaction to outside stimulus. I don't always hit the balance, but I try for it.
Think about all the crises you've ever been through. Those darkest times are when you discover what means the most, who steps up to the plate to help and who lets you down. Heroes are born of tragedy and strife. When I give a character a crisis to deal with, then I get to show you both their most noble attributes and where they fail as human beings.
Brandon Carr is probably the best example of this. If he has no time to react he will do the right thing with Nick, because that is his nature. He is loving and deep down kind and became a cop so he could make the world better. But give him two seconds to think about it and Brandon will cover for himself first and then try and figure out how to fix it with Nick later. Caesar Serrano from The Good Thief is another good example. The main character is a burglar who, when the story starts, is breaking into people's houses and stealing their shit with no moral qualms about it. Until he discovers something worse. Then, even though he knows it's going to fuck his own life over, he does what he has to do to make it right.
Without conflict and without darkness what you have is a narrator. That narrator may be engaging, but he's just telling you a story. The gritty, dark subtext to my stories let's my protagonists shine forth as heroes. Heroes are far more memorable than narrators. And no matter how good of a mystery or fantastic of a future universe you set up if the characters aren't memorable, if they don't live and breathe in the reader's mind your work won't be memorable.
* TM. Yeah, right. You believe that I've got some land in South Florida you may want to look at.