Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Recipe for Good Crime Fiction

  1. Start with protagonist. If you start with a main character rather than a plot, it will help you create a character-driven novel. Write or brainstorm a brief character sketch.
  2. Create antagonist. If you have one villain, write or brainstorm a brief character sketch. If there are multiple antagonists, write or brainstorm multiple character sketches.
  3. Add stakes. Answer the following questions on a sheet of paper: What does your protagonist want? What happens if s/he doesn't get it? What does your villain want? What happens if s/he doesn't get it? What do they each have to lose?
  4. Create concept. Write a one or two line prompt that starts the book. This will give you a place to begin. What's the first thing that happens in the book? What gets the ball rolling? Example #1: A father comes home to find his entire family has been kidnapped. Example #2 A P.I. is framed for the murder he was hired to investigate. These are very simple and will become more complex as you write.
  5. Create setting. Where is this all taking place? Is the setting real or imagined? Take time to think about the setting. This will give your book authenticity and you may discover some aspects of the place that you can use in your story.
  6. Mix steps 1-5 and create outline. Now that you have your protagonist, antagonist, concept and setting, you're ready to start shaping your book. If you don't have a good handle on those things yet, try writing a few scenes, just to get a handle on the voice of your story. Some people work better at outlining first, others write their way into it. But having an idea of where your going will create a tight plot without a lot of "throat clearing".
  7. Write, write, write!
  8. Raise stakes throughout. In a good book, characters change. Therefore, their motivations will too. With each turning point, you must raise the stakes for your characters. This will heighten tension and keep readers intrigued.
  9. Add a dash of tension on every page. Elmore Leonard said it best, "I don't write the parts that people skip." It doesn't have to be, edge-of-your-seat-character-could-die-at-any-moment tension. That would be too much. But adding some sort of tension, whether it be internal or external, is necessary to keep the book moving forward.
  10. Sprinkle clues throughout. Give readers just enough to keep them guessing, but not enough that they get it right.
  11. Turn up the heat. As you near the end of your book, the pacing should pick up a bit. Don't give readers a chance to put the book down.
  12. Create a strong finish. A good ending is one that readers don't predict beforehand, but, in hindsight, realize the answer has been in front of them the whole time. Avoid cliches, don't pull a rabbit out of the hat, but don't go for the obvious either. When you're finished, if it's too predictable or too out there, go back to step 10.
  13. Set aside and let cool.
  14. Reread and revise until perfect. Don't be naive and think that your first draft is perfect. After you've set the book aside for a while, you'll hopefully come back with enough perspective to give the book any necessary tweaking.
  15. Test. Your book, like new recipes, should be tried out on the people closest to you before sending it out. Let trusted friends and family read the book and give you feedback before querying agents. They'll be able to see many things that your eyes missed.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Get the Facts

A fiction writer, by definition, makes things up. The stories we tell stem from our imagination. I know very few crime writers who are also detectives solving murder cases or romance writers that are seduced by a hunky, but unattainable, man on a daily basis. Our stories are fantasies, ideas, entertainment.

But even though our stories are fictional, even though we can get away with making up characters and weaving high-concept plots, so much of the book needs to be factual. Mysteries must stay true to police procedures, weapons and forensic science. Thrillers must give accurate accounts of the FBI and CIA, stay true to the laws of physics (can't have the hero flying through the air to save the day), and while the plot is made up, it must be feasible enough to feel like something that could actually happen. Fantasies create their own worlds and laws, but must stay true to the rules they create. While yes, we're making things up, I'd say 60% of the book is based on truth.

Think back to your favorite books. What was it that you enjoyed so much? Was it the characters and their authentic dialogue? The setting and how true it rang? The history or science within the pages and how much you learned from it?

A few of my favorites include: PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN, MYSTIC RIVER and anything by Chuck Palahniuk. Would PORTNOY have been as interesting if the dialogue wasn't so authentic? If it didn't hit the nail on the head in portraying a Jewish family of that time period? Would LAST EXIT have been as compelling if the place wasn't so wonderfully portrayed, if Selby didn't make you feel the grit and grime of Brooklyn's streets? Same goes for MYSTIC RIVER and Lehane's portrayal of south Boston. But what I found even more compelling about that book was Lehane's ability to stay so true to human emotion and motivation. Chuck Palaniuk bases most of his books on weird facts and tidbits he gathers in his daily life. While the story and characters are fascinating, it's those little facts, those things that you would never in a million years think of, that make his work memorable.

Conversely, inaccuracy or lack of authority, can easily break a book. So many books are written about Chicago and when they're wrong, I immediately put the book down. Same goes for inaccurate police procedurals or weapons information. The worst, however, is when the dialogue isn't believable, when the characters in the book are people that would never exist, when they act unlike any person you've ever met. Even a vampire or a werewolf should have believable personality traits and real motivations.

So how to you ensure accuracy in your writing? One word: research. Authenticity is not something that comes from simply surfing the web. It requires authors to get away from the computer. This could include:
  • Police ride-along (and then going out with them to the bar afterwards to nail their dialogue)
  • Walking or driving around the places in your story. Getting a sense for the people who live there, the businesses in the area, the terrain, the weather, etc.
  • Sitting in a cafe or restaurant and writing down overheard conversations. It's a great exercise to practice writing dialogue.
  • If your main character has an occupation that you've never had yourself, talk to someone in that industry. By, talking with a journalist or P.I. you not only learn the details of their job, but you also learn about the type of person they are: what clothes they wear, how they work, their personality, etc.
  • Going to a gun range or taking a martial arts class.

There's the common mantra of write what you know, but personally, what I know isn't all that interesting. I find it a lot more fun to write about bad guys. But those bad guys must be authentic, and achieving that requires a bit of research. So although we make stuff up, even though our stories come from our imaginations and our creativity, it's actually the facts that set the good books apart from the bad.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Adapt or Die

As the layoffs continue, the sales decline, and the number of acquisitions grinds to a screeching halt, it's impossible not to think about the future. As a newbie novelist, I am constantly thinking, "Well, if it was hard to break into the industry before, it's going to be virtually impossible now." As newspapers go under and book sections are cut, my job as a freelancer is also put in jeopardy. So how can we survive in such a struggling industry? We adapt.

I think now, more than ever, online articles and reviews are key to staying in the game. Journalism is a lot like novel writing: go too long without publishing something and you are soon forgotten. Guest blogging and publishing reviews or interviews online is an easy way to keep your name in the game. Since their overhead is minimal, online publications aren't struggling the way newspapers are and they have far more space for freelance submissions.

From talking to people and reading industry publications, it seems that the movie business hasn't taken as much of a hit as print, however, these two industries often work hand in hand. How many novels were completely forgotten until their adaptation was released on the big screen? I do believe that authors (unless they're horrible at writing dialogue) can write decent screen plays, so why not take a stab at adapting one of your novels or short stories? Sure, it's great to get a book optioned, but unless the movie gets made, it won't translate into sales. I'd say in this climate, it's a lot easier to sell a screenplay than it is to sell a novel, so why not try your hand at something new?

One thing that I still would stay away from is self publishing or e-publishing. While technology like the Kindle and Sony Reader will eventually give way to a burst of e-books, the market still isn't there. I'd say your much better off holding on to that novel until the market improves than going down the self-publishing path.

In order to survive in a changing industry, one must adapt. Writing has always been a tough industry to break in to, but now, it's tougher than ever. Innovation and creativity are necessary to getting a foot in the door, even if it's a different door than you originally intended. Opening yourself up to different genres or different mediums will make it easier to break in and give you valuable experience so you, hopefully, will stay in.