Showing posts with label Don Winslow. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Don Winslow. Show all posts

18 July 2022

Question Number One


Next spring, I'll be part of a panel discussing where writers get ideas. If you're a writer at an event (or anywhere else, for that matter), you can give odds that someone will ask you that question. There are several snarky answers non-writers don't understand: Joyce Carol Oates sends me her rejects; I subscribe to the Idea of the Month Blog and many others. My favorite serious answer comes from Neil Gaiman, who says, "Getting ideas is the writer's job." 

Think about it. If you don't have good eye-hand coordination, you don't become a surgeon. If you're bad at math, you don't become a chemical engineer. If you have a poor memory, you don't become an actor. 

So...you want to be a writer. How do you do Job One?


There are as many answers as ther are writers, but they fall into a few basic categories. You get a plot idea, or you get a character idea. Rarely, you might get a setting idea (think London's "To Build a Fire").

When I conduct my writing workshop on plotting (or on NANO, which incorporates plot and character), I tell people you need a CHARACTER who WANTS something. Give him or her a backstory that explains why the goal/quest is important, and invent obstacles to prevent him or her from achieving that goal. The obstacles form the plot, but the plot grows from the character. I could go on at great length, but I think you get the idea and I want to spend more time here on plot. When you can do something easily, you don't think about it. When it's hard, you have to figure out how you do it. Plotting is very hard for me because my usual thought process is far from linear.

Plot is a series of events during whch a character meets and overcomes obstacle to achieve a goal (or not).

In 1895, French critic Georges Polti published The 36 Dramatic Situations, a book delineating all the plots he had found in literature to that time. He examined the drama and stories (and maybe opera) in existence at that time and claimed every story followed one of his basic templates. Actually, when I cited the book in my creative writing classes, I pointed out that many of Polti's plots were variations on the same theme. Family feuds could be father-son, mother-daughter, brother-brother, and so on, and he considered each one a distinct plot. I disagreed and felt there were only about a dozen individual situations. 


The book is over 125 years old, and nobody has found a new plot since then. Victoria Lynn Schmidt's Story Structure Architect is a modern reworking of Polti's book and adds new variations, some of them involving changing time. I recommend her book because she includes open-ended questions that generate ideas and plot twists. I'll take all the help I can get.


My point here is that THERE IS NOTHING NEW. You won't create a brand-new idea at this point. You can change the names, the setting, or the time period, but that's all. The same story works with knights in armor, as a western, as a contemporary crime story, or as a future sci-fi tale, all with a change of props and setting. Your job is to find the new twist that works for you. 

Maybe you find a story in the news or overhear gossip at the mall. It's going to turn into one of those basic plots just because that's all there is/are. Maybe you remember an incident from your own life that mattered for some reason. I have published 16 novels, and six or seven of them were inspired by real events. I changed them from "truth," but the original events really happened. One of my short stories grew from recalling the worst summer job I ever had, one where I quit after one day.

The Greek and Roman playwrights took their inspirations from the myths (I wonder who came up with THEM). Recently, I've read Laura Lippman's Dream Girl, which she tells us up front is her re-working of Stephen Kin'g Misery. Both books involve a writer who is badly injured and at the mercy of a crazy nurse. Last week, I read Don Winslow's new novel City on Fire. It's a crime novel based on gang wars in Providence, Rhode Island in the late 1980s, and it's Winslow's retelling of The Iliad. If you know that work, you can identify the modern versions of Helen, Cassandra, Priam, Patroclus, Hector, and Paris. 

How many films and TV shows are spin-offs, borrowing a character or thread from a previous story? Look at the Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman or Marvel Comics franchises. Look at the various incarnations of NCIS and other forensic dramas. Nothin' new here, Jack, but we know how to sell it.

You want to write? Stop beating yourslef up because you don't have a shiny new idea. Take what you like and give it a new paint job. 

One of my favorite writing quotes has so many different variations and is attributed to so many different authors that it makes my point yet again:

Poor writers imitate. Great writers steal.

23 May 2022

Writing Outside the Outlines


Two weeks ago, I attended an interview with Don Winslow at which he was autographing his new novel. During the Q & A, someone asked about his process, which is almost sure to be a question at such events. 

Winslow said that he doesn't outline. Dennis Lehane, Tess Gerritsen and many other major writers don't, either. About half the crime writers I know don't, and the other half do, but in different ways. The debate can get pretty heated, but I don't really think it matters.

"Outline" has different meanings for people in different parts of the writing world. I suspect that's part of the cause of many arguments.

Practically everyone who graduated from high school wrote at least one research paper, certainly in English class, and possibly one or more in a social studies class, usually history. I remember having to hand in an outline during the process, in that format with Roman number I, two or more subdivisions, cleverly called "A" and "B." If those were also subdivided (which they usually were), they had to have at least two subdivisions, "1" and "2." If those were subdivided again…

Getting flashbacks yet? I'll bet you took the same ride yourself.

When I taught English, I required an outline, too. The point was to make sure the student worked through the assignment steadily over the six or eight weeks instead of throwing everything together the night before it was due. None of us ever did that, of course.

That outline form is very rigid, good for a persuasive or factual piece with a logical linear organization. Unfortunately, fiction isn't always linear. Stories can involve flashbacks, tangents and misdirection, and they muddy the waters.

Sue Grafton used to write a journal/outline/ideas book while she worked on her novels. She may have worked that way because, before she sold the Alphabet series with Kinsey Milhone, she wrote screenplays for TV movies. She said that her workbook sometimes ended up longer than the actual novel.

Robert Crais oulines, too. Like Grafton, he started in television, writing for Hill Street Blues and being a major force behind Cagney & Lacey. Story boards were routine and he stayed with what he knew. Obviously, it works for him. 

When I began my first novel fifty years ago, I didn't outline. I wrote stop and start for a few months, then got busy with grad school and teaching again. When I returned to that 60-page draft several months later, I decided to make a list of characters for the first time. Those 60 pages had over 100 characters, many who only appeared once, and my "story" was a series of tangents, more clang association than plot. I eventually finished that manuscript in about three years, and it was resoundingly, excruciatingly awful.

So were the next two.

When I decided to rewrite the first book as my sixth-year thesis at Wesleyan, I had to convince a professor to become my advisor. For the first time, I built an outline of what I thought that heavily-revised book would become. I listed the four or five events that would occur in each chapter. Years later, I discovered that it resembled Charles Dickens's outlines. Since Dickens serialized his novels in magazines, he need to know where he was going. Below is a sample of his outline for Bleak House.

I used the same format for several unpublished novels. When I attended writing workshops and met other writers years later, I learned of the "outline" agents and editors expected with a query, which isn't an outline, but a summary. Some people called it an outline and some called it a synopsis, but they were basically the same except that an outline is longer. I hated writing a two-page synopsis of the entire novel and I hated a ten-page outline just as much. For years, when people asked why I turned to self-publishing, I told them it was because I didn't want to write another damned synopsis. Ever.

By 2010, I'd published a few short stories but five or six novels accumulated 400 rejections. Then I read John Truby's The Anatomy of Story, which is geared toward screenwriting. I began to view an outline as a story board, and I suspect that Crais's outlines resemble that, too.

The form is especially helpful if you use several POV characters, and my novels often have five or six. Truby's form makes it easy for me to keep track of how much information a character has at any particular moment. It also make it easy to know how much time has passed because I incorporate it into the sequence. I first use the form for The Whammer Jammers, which I saw as a potential film.

Below is the first page of my final outline for Words of Love. The POV character for each scene is in caps. The first version usually took me about two months because plotting is the hardest part of writing for me. I don't have a linear thought process and have to write stuff out before I can tell if it works in that order. I move scenes around and cut them and add new ones as I discover what the story needs. This sample is "I," the ninth version. Some books went as far as version "M" or "N," and I often was halfway throught the first draft of the MS before I had the final chronology set.

There's no right way to outline or NOT outline. But if something isn't working for you, maybe this will give you a plan B or even a plan C.



27 April 2020

How Low Will You Go?


Over the last two weeks, I've joined several other Connecticut crime writers on two podcasts from the Storyteller's Cottage in Simsbury. I've touted the venue before and love working with them. Now they're trying to keep their programs for writers functioning during the shutdown, and Lisa Natcharian invited several of us to discuss villains in our stories. I'll post the link to the podcast when it's edited and live, probably sometime in May.
Lisa came up with some provocative questions, and the topic for today is "How much evil can readers tolerate and how do you decide when to rein in a dark character?"

Her question made me look at my own writing again. I've sold nearly 30 short stories (a good week for Michael Bracken or John Floyd), and about half of them are from the bad guy's POV or have her/him getting away with it. Most of those stories involve revenge or poetic justice, and I seldom have a REALLY horrible person go scot-free. The comments on my website and Facebook Page indicate that readers like those stories, and some are among my special favorites.

Revisiting my novels, I was surprised to find how nasty some of my villains are, probably because I've worried lately that both my series characters are becoming more domestic in their private lives. Maybe I've done that unconsciously to contrast the "normal" and the dark side. But when I look at the bestseller lists, it's not just me.

If you look at those lists, you'll find Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Meg Gardiner, Lisa Gardner, Laura Lippman, S. J. Rozan, Robert Crais, Stephen King, Harlan Coban, Tana French, Dennis Lehane, Don Winslow, Alison Gaylin, and a slew of other excellent writers, all of whom go deep. When I think back to the 90s, maybe the first book and film to come to mind is Silence of the Lambs, which presents two twisted villains.

I don't remember the last time I saw a cozy mystery on the list.

One of my undergrad history professors from days of yore said the best way to understand the minds and values of a civilization was to look at their popular arts. Plays, music, stories. . .

Remember, in Shakespeare's time, his most popular play was Titus Andronicus, which I usually describe as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in blank verse. It was a time of political turmoil, and his plays reflected that.



One of the other writers on the podcast said her readers know she won't get violent and won't use much profanity. Obviously, if you write cozies, your body count is lower. She doesn't read my books because she thought one of my covers was objectionable.

Maybe my readers want darker stories to help them cope with the real world, the way we tell ghost stories around the campfire. Remember Shakespeare's observation in King Lear:  "The worst is not/ So long as we can say, 'This is the worst.'"

Think of the Brothers Grimm, too. The original version of Cinderella involves the wicked stepsisters cutting off toes to make their feet fit the glass slipper, and birds pecking out those same stepsisters' eyes on their way to and from Cindy's wedding. The Greek tragedies wallow in gore.

Ditto slasher flicks, like Halloween and Friday the 13th.
We want to go waist-deep in the big bloody. Aristotle talked about catharsis. Maybe he's right. Maybe we've always been enticed by the horrific and crave a release. Maybe my history professor was right, too.

My most recent novels involve a serial killer who leaves the bodies of street people in abandoned buildings in Detroit, a cold case involving five people murdered in a home invasion, and a serial rapist. I think that as I watch the current social and political situation deteriorate, my inherited pessimism has become even stronger and it's coming out in my writing. Or maybe I do it to show that my life is nowhere near as bad as that of my characters. All I know is when I sit down at the keyboard, this is what comes out.

The book I'm vaguely resurrecting has a main character who is an alcoholic with an abusive husband, and I re-discovered things that excited me when I re-read scenes I had forgotten long ago. My last few short stories are darker, too. As long as people buy them, I'll keep going because people seem to need them.

When do I rein these characters in? I don't.

What's in YOUR holster right now?

08 January 2020

The Rap Sheet



An uncertain year, 2019, but a lot of good books came out. Plenty of brand names, Bob Crais and John leCarre, Alan Furst and Steve Hunter. Here's a completely arbitrary list of my own.



Laura Lippman, Lady in the Lake.

A smart, tart, penetrating story about race and class, memory and regret, self-absorption, self-awareness, and the limits of transparency.



Chuck Greaves, Church of the Graveyard Saints.

If not exactly an eco-thriller, at least second cousin to Edward Abbey. A completely Western novel, and a meditation on how landscape inhabits us.



Lara Prescott, The Secrets We Kept.

Irresistible. A spy story, a history, a corrective to romance. The deep moans round with many voices. A book of echoes, unspoken sorrows, hope.



Don Winslow, The Border.

A fierce, furious, savage novel, a wounded lion dragging himself through a desolate waste, failing in everything but nerve. An absolute shocker.



Philip Kerr, Metropolis.

Bernie Gunther takes his curtain call. A look behind, the uncertain shadows before, a sense of irredeemable loss, and the hinges of horror creaking open under his feet.


A couple of books that weren't new this past year, but that I came on late. Mick Herron's Slow Horses and John Lawton's Black Out, both exemplars of why to start a series at the beginning. I also stumbled across Val McDermid's Forensics (2014), which is utterly indispensable, I kid you not.


Speaking of which, there was still nothing to beat the austere and windswept Shetland, all gorse and moody weather, or the sturdy and engaging Douglas Henshall as Jimmy Perez.



And best picture? Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (I know, I don't like him either, but fair is fair.)

10 April 2019

The Border


Don Winslow's The Force made my top-ten list for 2017, and his new novel The Border is already on my 2019 list. If you're familiar with his work, you can guess why; if you're not, how come?
The Border is the third book in a trilogy about the Mexican drug wars that began with The Power of the Dog in 2005 and continued with The Cartel in 2015. These are decidedly unsentimental. This ain't the Mexico of mariachis and margaritas. This is a landscape of sangre y muerte, bitter enmities and brute force.



The thing here is that it's almost impossible to write about the drug war without getting political. We've long had an abusive relationship with Mexico, and American attitudes have been condescending from the start, going back to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo - which Mexico has always regarded as a humiliation. Mexico in American popular culture is caricature, Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa, Cinco de Mayo a sales pitch for Corona. But not to recognize our part in this dynamic isn't just turning our backs on history, it's dangerously delusional. The most basic fact of the drug business is that the U.S. represents an enormous market, and the supply chain is a growth industry. Secondly, we're talking big money, and the reach of the cartels is long. This leads to institutional corruption, to the degree that Mexico is close to being a failed state, although to imagine the problem is limited to the Mexican legal and political machinery is ridiculous. Thirdly, the War on Drugs itself is an established enterprise. We commit huge resources to it, and nobody wants to jeopardize that. We've created a toxic, symbiotic relationship.



Is any of this a surprise, or up for debate? I'd think it was Narcotics 101, but in some circles, apparently, the mechanics of Cause and Effect are disputed. For example, you can give billions in military aid to the government of Guatemala, say, for drug eradication. When that government uses the training and weapons to turn their military and police into engines of political repression, it's a little disingenuous of us to be shocked when thousands of refugees show up on our doorstep.

It's to Don Winslow's credit that he shows us the political dimensions to the story without taking sides, and shows us the personal cost, too. You can tell he's in a fury, but he's not writing a polemic. These are novels about choice and consequence, moral confusion, self-destruction, and even redemption. It's a story about internal conflict, and interdependence, Mexican and American.



Writing about what Jeff Parker has called The Iron River, the drugs and human traffic coming north, the money and guns moving south, it's hard not to tell a story that resonates. Jeff has done it, Don Winslow has done it, I've certainly tried. But none of us has any prescription.

This isn't the first time I've quoted Porfirio Diaz. "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States."

05 November 2018

Present Tense Tension


by Steve Liskow

One of my beta readers returned a manuscript yesterday and commented that she liked the way present tense carried the story along.

I grew up listening to baseball games on the radio, and the play-by-play was always in present tense. All the announcers were great story-tellers, putting you on the mound, in the batter's box, racing for the fence after that fly ball. You became part of the game. That's why so many of us grew up wanting to be Willie Mays, Yogi Berra or Al Kaline.




But today, many editors loathe present tense. At least one publisher I know says "Absolutely no present tense" on their website guidelines, and I've seen the same warning on a few magazine sites. I've never understood why.

Present tense is nothing new. Charles Dickens used it for portions of Bleak House, one of my favorite novels. Other writers have used it off and on, just as some people experiment with point of view or stream of consciousness or some other technique.

If we're telling a story, we can assume that it's over so past tense is natural and logical. Past tense adds distance if you're discussing a particularly disturbing event because it implies that the narrator survived to tell about it. Everything is over and it's safe again.

But present tense became more common after World War II. Salinger opens The Catcher in the Rye with Holden Caulfield talking to us (his therapist) before he moves into past to tell his story. Kesey's first words in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are "They're out there." Both Salinger and Kesey trace their literary lineage straight back to Huckleberry Finn, which starts by addressing the reader in present tense: "You don't know me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain..." Twain even manages BSP right out of the gate.

By the 1970s, the style choice was fairly common. Pynchon opens Gravity's Rainbow with "A screaming comes across the sky."

All my early unpublished work was in past tense. Then I read Don Winslow's California Fire and Life, still one of my favorite crime novels--in present tense. Winslow consistently uses present tense, and while you may or may not like his characters or plots, the tense is never a problem. He made me consider that choice seriously for the first time.

My first published novel, Who Wrote the Book of Death? is in present tense. I started writing The Whammer Jammers in past tense and it bogged down after about 50 pages. Then I realized it was sports, like those baseball games when I was a kid. As soon as I changed to present tense, the story took off and I finished a 300-page first draft in five weeks.

Regardless of editorial bias, the present tense has advantages. First, it's more immediate. Not only does the action happen before the reader's eyes, it makes him participate. I generally use what used to be called third person detached POV, and it helps me share the character's reactions and responses, too. It's easy to add sensory detail without calling attention to it, which helps deepen character, too.

Three different readers (all good writers, all female) tell me that the most disturbing scene I've ever written is in The Whammer Jammers. The scene involves Annie Rogers being raped by the abusive boyfriend against whom she has a restraining order, and it got the book rejected by at least one agent (She told me her reader stopped at that scene). The scene had to be horrible to change the trajectory of the plot, and present tense accomplishes that. It means that since the event isn't "over" yet, it could get even worse. I only remember one other scene nearly that bad, and it's in past tense (Shoobie confronting the killer in Dark Gonna Catch Me Here), which seems to soften it a little.

I write the Connecticut novels (Zach Barnes, Trash & Byrne) in present tense because that's how and where I started them. The early drafts of the Detroit books used past tense, and I decided to keep them that way to help me separate them from the Barnes stories. That helped when I was writing or revising two or even three books at once. Now it's not an issue, but I find that I'm used to plotting the Guthrie books in past tense except for Megan Traine's scenes. Meg lives in the moment, so sometimes her scenes work better in present tense.

I'm currently plotting the next Woody Guthrie book, which doesn't even have a title yet. The list of characters grows and shrinks daily, too. I know one pivotal scene that will occur around the middle of the book, though, and it's ugly and brutal. It's also necessary. It will take the book into darker places than I usually go, but it already feels right. The good news is that the Detroit books are in past tense, and that adds a little buffer zone.

Hold that thought…

14 February 2018

The Iron River


Mexico has long fascinated us gringos, I think as a place of the imagination as much as a physical destination. The idea of Mexico is at least as strong with the Mexicans themselves, but more as a promise never kept. These days, Mexico in the grip of the narcotraficantes is far darker. "So far from God, so close to the United States," Porfirio Diaz once said. Easy to forget that it's a mirror image.
The simplest and most troubling schematic is the pipeline, The Iron River, drugs and human traffic moving north, money and guns moving south. What we're talking about is market share, access, gangster capitalism. Mexico has all the characteristics of a failed state. No rescue, no refuge. A phenomenon like the Juarez feminicidio, the unsolved murders of hundreds of women (a low estimate), doesn't take place in a vacuum. It has a context. I don't pretend to know all the reasons for it, but the drug traffic, and gang terrorism, is a fair guess as a contributor. 



But for all its reptilian chill, we have to admit it makes marvelous theater. That's the contradiction. I look at the narcos, and I see predators, carrion-eaters, and maggots, the food chain as career path. Mara Salvatrucha? Looney Tunes. And the Zetas? Let's not even. On the other hand, you can't make these guys up. They're gonna crowd your peripheral. You want to take on the drug wars? This is the furniture. It's the threat environment. The picture's already been cast.



You set out to tell a cautionary tale, probably. Or almost certainly. It's the nature of things. T. Jefferson Parker, in the Charlie Hood novels. Iron River, The Border Lords, The Famous and the Dead, to name his most recent three. Two by Don Winslow. The Power of the Dog and The Cartel. And the stories I've written myself about the border war. Doc Hundsacker, the Texas Ranger working out of El Paso, and Doc's pal Fidelio Arenal, the Federale major across the river in Juarez. Pete Montoya, the state cop based in Santa Fe, and Albuquerque FBI agent Sandy Bevilacquia. They're real to me, their strengths and weaknesses, and the consequences of what they choose to do. Not my sense of duty, or my moral choices, but theirs.



I'm not beating a drum, or selling a cure for cancer, or telling you how to vote. I'm saying that if you decide you're telling a certain kind of story, you may very well have to choose up sides. In fact, the story will probably pick a side for you.  They do that, damn it. You wind up on the side of the angels, when you were ready to sell your soul to the Devil. Cheap at twice the price. 

27 December 2017

Book of the Year


Guy's name is Don Winslow, his novel's called The Force.



North Manhattan Task Force. They target the drugs, the guns, the money. They work the barrio, the projects. They like to call themselves the Kings.

Denny Malone. Detective sergeant, gold badge, rock-star cop. The man. Top of the food chain. Malone's team gives good weight. They make cases, they make headlines. They make the suits look good. Malone delivers on his promises, puts meat on the table.

Here's the thing. Denny Malone is dirty. Do the numbers. 4th of July, his crew takes down a Dominican heroin mill, score a hundred keys and five million cash, waste the kingpin. Fifty kilos go in evidence, two million of the money. Malone's crew splits the difference. Call it the 401K. Something happens, on or off The Job, they've got extra benefits, cover your family in case of need. Malone and his partners have each other's back. Can't be otherwise, line of work they're in.

Short declarative sentences. Not a lot of wasted motion. Not a lot of adjectives, either. Skip unnecessary verbs, too. Keep it propulsive, present tense. Might put you in mind of early Lehane, a little, maybe Ed Dee. Not that this guy doesn't have a singular voice of his own. But the story, and the voice, belong to Malone.

All he ever wanted to be was a good cop. This is Denny's ambition, and his doom. It could stand as his epitaph. The Force is tragedy, in the classic sense - not an accident, but a fated choice. There's nothing hesitant or peripheral about it, it's front and center. Denny can feel the darkness closing in. At the same time, he can't help but try and work some angle, he's still thinking there's a way to save something of himself. Not because he's bad, either. He's basically good, or like most of us, he'd like to think so. He's just run out of moral collateral.

This is what gives The Force its center of gravity, but don't mistake it for ponderous. The book is a sheer, headlong adrenaline rush. (Malone's team suits up for a raid, and Dexedrine is part of the mix.) The dialogue, the human dynamics, the corrupt politics, the combat gear and the technical specs, the neighborhoods, the urban landscape and its discontents, is all convincing, and made familiar, but the brutally compelling action scenes are something entirely apart. Winslow makes it look effortless. Trust me, it ain't. The most basic principles of physical geography apply. Where is everybody, and where are they in relation to everybody else in the stairwell when all the lights go out? You can't leave it to chance. If you don't block out your fight scenes, they're incoherent.

I think the book delivers the knockdown punch it does because Winslow shows the emotional detail and human costs of The Job so effectively. The fierce loyalties and savage betrayals, the gallows humor, the scabrous vocabulary, the locker-room jive, the brittle tensions, the presence of death. There's this reflection. "Malone isn't a big fan of God and figures the feeling is mutual. He has a lot of questions he'd like to ask him, but if he ever got him in the room, God'd probably shut his mouth, lawyer up, let his own kid take the jolt."

Hard-boiled, and heartbreaking.



My suggestion for best mystery or crime thriller of 2017.