An obvious statement to some, because I've already had three novels and a collection of novellas published. Still, sometimes--often, maybe--I don't feel like a novelist, whatever that feels like. I'm a writer, and most of the time that's good enough.
But, this week, or at least today, I feel like a novelist.
Well, yesterday I got the contracts for THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS, the 4th Derek Stillwater novel, which is tentatively scheduled to be published by Oceanview Publishing on September 1, 2011. That always gives a concreteness to the feeling of being a novelist.
Another thing, and this made me feel more novelist-like, was that none other than New York Times Bestselling author James Rollins provided a rave blurb for THE FALLEN, which is the 3rd Derek Stillwater novel, which is scheduled for an April 2010 publication by Oceanview Publishing. And that, my friends, makes me feel pretty damned good all over. I recently read Jim's latest, THE DOOMSDAY KEY, and enjoyed it a hell of a lot, and I thought he'd probably like my stuff. We have similar sensibilities--lots of action, fast pace, science, etc.
You've got to give a damn. I think that's a statement about facing the world, frankly, but that's probably too broad a topic for a blog entry. A good one, I think, because I know an awful lot of very lovely people that don't seem to give a damn about anything outside their immediate sphere, but....
I'm talking about writing, and in this case, fiction in particular. There are certainly novelists that apparently phone it in, and some that can write whatever they're assigned to write for the paycheck and produce something completely serviceable.
But I think for most of us, what hopefully sets our work apart from the unpublished is craft and passion. And let me tell you folks, a novel is a long frakkin' thing to work on if you don't give a damn.
Erica Orloff wrote today about mining your fears--or not--and this was a good case of our parallel lives and minds, so I decided to write it here today instead of on her blog.
Here's the thing. I write fairly intense thriller novels about terror attacks. They're violent. Very, in many cases. And yes, sometimes that bothers me. What are the limits? Because, in some ways, my novels are fantasies very much the way the Die Hard novels are fantasies. They're shoot-em-ups, and in some ways they're no more believable than a cozy mystery about a caterer solving crimes in her spare time.
Okay, specifically. A few years back Robert Crais wrote an astonishingly good, intense novel called "The Last Detective" in which the main character, Elvis Cole, is babysitting his girlfriend's son when the boy gets kidnapped. And the kidnappers put the kid in a plastic box and bury him.
I just finished reading a novel by Randy Wayne White called "Dead Silence" and a high school kid is accidentally kidnapped in lieu of a senator and the kidnappers stick him in a box and bury him in the ground. (Yes, I know. If you read enough mysteries and thrillers, you begin to wonder if they aren't all starting to eat each other. Hence, I'm reading more SF, fantasy and nonfiction).
Now, a month or so, a little girl in the Detroit area disappeared. Her name was Nevaeh, which is heaven spelled backwards. I kept hoping they'd find her alive, but had the sinking feeling after a day that they wouldn't. They didn't. They found her dead, buried in the ground beneath a layer of concrete. Now, just yesterday, I was at a store and there were copies of The Detroit Free Press and the headlines indicated that the autopsy results showed Nevaeh had dirt in her lungs, which means that she was buried alive.
So the question for me as a novelist and I think as a reader, has suddenly become, how could I possible write something like that for entertainment? How could I possibly even read something like that for entertainment?
My wife was giving me some good-natured grief about watching "Music and Lyrics," on cable recently, noting that as a guy I was rather odd for liking romantic comedies. I commented, as I have often, "Isn't it nice sometimes to watch a movie where nobody dies? Where nobody carries a gun? Nothing explodes?"
Don't get me wrong. I love shoot-em-ups, thrillers, adventure, suspense. Drama requires that your characters have obstacles, and those obstacles can certainly be physical peril and violence. Now, as a person, I like Joe Konrath. I liked his first couple books okay. Then I read "Rusty Nails" and there's a scene where we find that the serial killer has had, let's say, some really disgusting, horrifying body modifications/mutilations. Joe lost me as a reader then, frankly. I read "Dirty Martini" after that, then I gave up. In Erica's blog talk with Joe I mentioned that scene and he told me, in his own defense, apparently, that he based that on actual case history.
I didn't rebut the argument, but the same thing remains: those were images I hadn't had in my head before and don't want them there now. In some ways, it's like being mentally raped.
So the question remains largely unanswered. What's too real? What can you take from real life? What is fair game for entertainment and what isn't? And what do those choices say about you as a writer and as a reader?
But I know this. I will probably be haunted forever by the thought of a little girl suffocating to death underground.
For reasons somewhat obscure to me, my fiction agent posted my next book deal in Publisher's Lunch. I knew she was going to. Then my nonfiction agent e-mailed me to congratulate me.
Of course, my fiction agent, for reasons that are less obscure, but still obscure (to me, I guess, although I have guesses, surmises and speculations), provided a bunch of incorrect information, suggesting that the deal was for The Fallen. No, as a matter of fact, the deal is for The Valley of Shadows, which is the 4th Derek Stillwater novel, which is supposed to come out from Oceanview Publishing in 2011. Of course, I haven't actually seen the contract, let alone signed it yet, although due to some of the language in the contract, I can expect the new contract to be, well, identical to the first one.
Anyway, the gist of it is that my publisher has offered me a contract for the 4th Derek Stillwater novel, The Valley of Shadows. Go me.
LurkerMonkey, AKA Jon Van Zyle, started something over on his blog. He shows a prompt of some sort, a photo or whatever, and anybody who wants to can create a story or scene or whatever, as long as it's under 1,000 words. He'll post them.
So he put up a photograph and I wrote a little 600-or-so word story (vignette, whatever), and sent it to Jon. He hasn't quite decided in what order to post things, but he grabbed mine at random and put it up today. It's called "The 5,000-Pound Gorilla" and for me it's rather odd. I hope you like it. And why not, why don't you get involved? Might be fun.
2009 ThrillerMaster: David Morrell Silver Bullet Award: Brad Meltzer Silver Bullet Corporate Award: Dollar General (winners announced July 11, 2009)
Best Thriller Of The Year Hold Tight by Harlan Coben The Bodies Left Behind by Jeffery Deaver* The Broken Window by Jeffery Deaver The Dark Tide by Andrew Gross The Last Patriot by Brad Thor
Best First Novel Calumet City by Charlie Newton Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith* Criminal Paradise by Steven Thomas Sacrifice by S. J. Bolton The Killer's Wife by Bill Floyd
Best Short Story Between the Dark and the Daylight (Ellery Queen Magazine) by Tom Piccirilli Last Island South (Ellery Queen Magazine) by John C. Boland The Edge of Seventeen (The Darker Mask) by Alexandra Sokoloff* The Point Guard (Killer Year Anthology) by Jason Pinter Time of the Green (Killer Year Anthology) by Ken Bruen
I'm not sure that any of you care, or even should care. I do want to point out two sort of interesting things. First, I was a judge for the Thriller Award, in the category of Best Thriller of the Year. The second point I want to make, which is a very strange oddity, is that due to the way the Thriller judging was done last year--ie., judges were paired and given about 30 books to read--I did not read any of the titles that made the short list, let alone the one that won. NONE. Frankly, I don't know what to think of that, so I'll just leave it at that.
Huh. Am hearing good news, or at least, good rumors, hints and allegations, from my agent regarding a couple projects out. One is the follow-up to The Fallen. Go figure. I told her I was in a writing funk, she told me I was too good for that, to stay cool and things would get better.
I hope to have more concrete news in the next month or so.
I was going to post a WFT? message about media coverage of Michael Jackson. This kind of hit me harder yesterday when Time Magazine came and there was a 3 or 4 page spread inside about him. Mostly I can just say, this is a guy who was raised to be a social oddity since the time he was very young and became weirder and weirder as he grew older, and the spectacle (nice word) or debacle (maybe more accurate) that is his post-death continues the tradition. Whole thing creeps me out. Nuff said.
I'm thinking a lot these days about why I can't seem to finish any long fiction. I was pleased to finish the long short story here on the blog, "Flatfooted," but I'm sort of stuck on the fiction. Partly this is because I'm concentrating on getting my publishing venture off the ground and otherwise making a living. It's partly because I just finished proofing the copyedits for The Fallen and my editor is looking at the follow-up to it, The Valley of Shadows, and I'm reluctant to jump into anything until I know its fate.
But I'm concerned that I haven't really completed a novel in a while, or been sticking with any. I get to 140 pages, or 200 pages, and abandon it. That's a bad, bad habit. I'm working on an SF novel and I feel sort of stuck, although not because I don't know what's next, but every time I open the file I write a paragraph, go, "eh," and close it out and go do something else.
Alternately, my oldest son started getting Writers Digest and there was a lengthy interview with Stephen King and the guy, Jenkins?, who wrote the Left Behind series, and they talked a bit about quitting/retiring and simply recharging your batteries. I'm hoping I'm merely recharging.
Do you sometimes find the need to just NOT write fiction for a while?
Pretty good, overall. He wrote a novel about two brothers, one a cop, the other a P.I., one black, one white, that he introduced in a previous novel. Like most readers, I prefer his Alex Delaware novels, but I thought the brothers' interactions were interesting.
Magickeepers: The Eternal Hourglass by Erica Kirov
The first in a series for middle grades about a boy who discovers he belongs to a family of magicians. Includes Houdini, Anastasia, Rasputin and tame polar bears and tigers, among many other things. A lot of fun, but I'm biased, because Erica Kirov is actually Erica Orloff, who is a friend of mine.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Last Olympian
The 5th and final book in the Percy Jackson series for middle grades. A fantastic conclusion to a fantastic series.
Wicked Prey by John Sandford
Another excellent outing by crime fiction's most reliable writer.
The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success by Donald Maass
Although some of the e-rights issues are dated, this is an excellent reference for writers and aspiring writers, and it's free as a download on Maass's website.
A Knife Edge by David Rollins
An Australian thriller writer who writes about an American military investigator. The voice is terrific. The action is over the top--even by my loose standards--but Rollins delivers. The voice reminds me a lot of Nelson DeMille.
The Human Disguise by James O'Neal
SF under a pseudonym, James O'Neal is actually James O. Born, better known for writing police procedurals. Guess what? This is a police procedural. But it takes place 20 or 30 years in the future when everything's pretty much gone to hell, aliens are headed our way, and some mysterious folks are trying to locate the parts for a nuclear weapon. Good stuff.
Dead Silence by Randy Wayne White
Another Doc Ford novel. It involves kidnapping and all sorts of strange stuff and unfortunately, spends a huge chunk of the time in the Hamptons instead of Doc's Florida. It's enjoyable, but not his strongest outing. And there's just not enough Tomlinson.
The Disappeared by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
SF and great, although I found it a bit depressing because of the subject matter. It's a significant distance in the future. We have colonies on the moon and Mars and other places. We interact with a bunch of other races. For a variety of reasons (I would have been interested in a book about how these came about), Earth has made a number of treaties with other races on other planets where we abide by their laws under certain circumstances and they abide by ours under certain circumstances. Unfortunately, some of these races have laws that make your skin crawl. One does ritual revenge killings. Another takes the "eye for an eye" thing to an extreme, by taking the perpetrator's oldest child and raising them as their own, genetically modified and everything. As a result, companies have sprung up that help people disappear. This is a complex, haunting novel and I spent much of it doubting that it could possibly have anything resembling a happy ending, but Rusch pulled off a reasonably satisfying ending that didn't make me want to kill myself.
His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis
More than most of the founding fathers, George Washington is a bit of a cipher. Not much is known about his formative years. Martha W. burned all their letters upon his death, and Washington was so concerned about his posterity and public persona that he periodically edited his diaries so nobody's even sure if his early writings aren't bullshit. It seems like he was an enigma while he was living and remains something of one 200+ years after his death, but a fascinating book.
Typically, we're taught in life to start at the beginning and proceed to the end. Which isn't necessarily a good idea in fiction. Not that you want to start at the end and go backwards, although from time to time a writer will try that. Or use some sort of framing device or a prologue, etc.
So, without giving too much away, I'm reading a couple chapters of a thriller novel by an accomplished novelist friend of mine who shall remain unnamed (Erica), and I'm pondering (not powdering) the first chapter. Because it's good. Very good, probably.
But it starts with description, moves on to character development, and then gets going with a nice surprise, action, twist toward the end.
I'm thinking: this is a hell of a way to start a thriller.
Or is it?
I'm biased, because I like to start my novels pretty much in the middle of something very dramatic. Here's the first couple paragraphs of a novel I'm probably going to write next.
The Russian agent, Pyotr Sidorov, was dying and he knew it. He barely made it back to one of the UAZ Patriots his team had come in, stumbling in the dark over uneven, potholed concrete. Should have brought a fucking Vodnik, he thought through his pain, referring to the Russian Army’s version of the Humvee. He flung open the driver-side door with the last of his strength and tumbled behind the wheel.
Behind him the warehouse burned. All dead, he thought, and fumbled with the keys to the Patriot. Glancing down in the gloom, he saw that the hand clenched against his gut was scarlet with blood. The pain was immense, unlike anything he had experienced. It seemed to stretch onto infinity, some bizarre, unending sensation that took away all other sensations. How the hell did I make it this far?
* * *
Granted, not all novels, thriller or otherwise, need to start in the middle of something filled with action. It's my preference that they do. Maybe I'm ADD. And I think there are a lot of good reasons to set the stage and develop your character before setting him on fire (for instance). But I also think readers, especially readers that don't know your work, need to be able to pick up the book at the bookstore on the basis of the title and cover, look at the first couple sentences, and either be drawn in by the story or by your voice. Maybe I just don't trust readers, which is a topic for a different time, I think.
So should She-Who-I'm-Not-Naming (Erica) change her first chapter? Well, I'm not sure. I would probably recommend a prologue. Given the nature of the book, she should check out, for instance, James Rollins' latest, The Doomsday Key, to see how he starts it--with an historical prologue; or some of David Morrell's novels like The Fifth Profession or The Brotherhood of the Rose.
Or not. Because I read it, after all, and was surprised and drawn in by the end of the chapter, if not earlier. I was entranced by the idea of a person being killed by a pack of wild dogs, which struck me as being a potential prologue, rather than a brief mention.
It depends. The technique of starting in the middle of things is called in media res, and it works very well, although some readers want to be seduced into a story rather than thrust into it. Maybe I'm just a guy who wants to get over the foreplay and onto the, er, main event. That said, scene setting can be important, and if there's a weakness in my books (not "if" actually) it's related to scene-setting and characterization. How you do it, when you do it, those are all complicated decisions.