Showing posts with label Lee Child. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lee Child. Show all posts

22 July 2019

When to Enter


by Steve Liskow

Many moons ago, I discussed why I enter so few writing contests. If there is a hefty entry fee, I stay away. If I don't know the judges or feel comfortable with the criteria, ditto.

But sometimes, dumb luck gives you an advantage, and it's true of both contests and submissions to anthologies. If you're in the right place at the right time, there are ways to get an inside track.

Several years ago, I learned about the Black Orchid Novella Award. I had a short story that never sold, and I expanded it into a novella and won. Yes, writing a good story helps, but the Black Orchid Novella Award pays tribute to Rex Stout and his detectives Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. My parents liked Stout, so I read many of his novels and novellas when I was young. We were both raised in the Midwest, so his voice and rhythm and characters influenced my own writing. In other words, writing a story that fit the contest's requirements was definitely in my skill set.

I've entered two stories in that contest, and won both times. Since it's an annual event, the submission dates are standard, which means I know when to have a story ready and have a whole year to come up with an idea (or not) and rewrite until it's worth sending. That means no rushing, important because I can't rush. I've written on demand, but it always takes me several revisions, which means lots of time.

My titles should tell you I like blues and rock and roll. Several years ago, I wrote a blog about plagiarism in rock music. Among other performers, I mentioned Led Zeppelin and their frequent "borrowing" from blues artists. That idea was fresh in my mind when the Mystery Writers of America posted a submission call for an anthology with the theme of "Vengeance," to be edited by Lee Child.

Well, Child's first novel is Killing Floor, a title taken from an old Howlin' Wolf blues classic. Led Zeppelin milked it dry for a song they called "The Lemon Song" on their second LP. Child has another novel called Bad Luck and Trouble, a line that appears in both "Born Under a Bad Sign" by William Bell and Albert King and "Double Trouble" by Otis Rush.

I figured Child was a fan of American Blues. What if I could write a story about a blues songwriter who stole a song and the results caught up with him? I called it "Hot Sugar Blues" and hoped the title would help the story get through the gatekeepers to Child himself. It appeared in the anthology and was later named a finalist for the Edgar Award.

Yes, I think it was a good story, but it still needed the right audience. You can help that happen.

Several years ago, I joined four other writers judging submissions for the Al Blanchard Story Award, sponsored by the New England Chapter of MWA. Let me share what that five-month stint taught me.

The submission time was three months, and we received 142 stories of 5000 words or less. Only a dozen came in during the first several weeks, and only 41 through the sixth week, so I read them all, Because I was used to reading lots of papers, I read EVERY story (even though I only had to read every fourth one) and took notes. (Some people have lives. I'm not one of them). I graded them all from 1 to 10 and made a spread sheet of my comments.

I didn't award any story a 9 or 10, but I gave NINETY-ONE stories a 1 or 2. That's right, nearly 2/3 of the entries earned that score, and for the same reason(s). They started with turgid--often unnecessary--backstory and most of them wallowed in description. They tended to tell rather than show, had little or poor dialogue, and a few had endings that came out of nowhere.

Don't do those things.

A whopping 41 stories came in the last day of the contest. Don't do that, either. By then, judges are in a hurry. They're looking for a reason to dump you and move on, so a typo, a badly-chosen name, or a cliche may be enough to knock you out on page one.

If a contest takes submissions for three months, I like to wait about six weeks. That gives readers time to go through enough entries to establish a personal standard of their own. They still have enough time to be flexible, though, so they'll give leeway to something a little different. When the time crush kicks in (the last two weeks), they may already have their personal favorites locked in and it's hard to dislodge them. Hit them when they're still comfortable.

Keep in mind that judging is ALWAYS subjective, no matter how specific the criteria, and no matter whether it's for a contest, an anthology, or a standard submission. Three of the five stories I rated the highest in the contest I judged didn't make anyone else's short list, but seventeen of the stories I rated a 1 or a 2 DID.

Not long ago, an editor turned down my submission because he liked the story but didn't like the golf that was essential to the plot. He never explained why. I sold the story elsewhere in two weeks. Maybe if I'd used tennis or Jai alai, it would have sold the first time out.

You never know. But some guesses are better than others.

10 December 2018

The Fast First Draft


by Steve Liskow

Between about 9 and 10 am Thursday morning, I wrote 1534 words on my current WIP. I'm not bragging because (1) I'm sure everyone else who blogs here can do the same and (2) I'll probably revise everything except the proper nouns over the next nine or ten months. That's my normal approach. But it's worth noting because while it takes me two or three months to assemble my scene list--my version of a storyboard or outline--I expect to write a scene a day, normally in less than two hours. In most of my books, the scenes average around 1500 words. For contrast, in my senior year of high school, my honors English teacher gave us eight weeks to produce a research paper of 1000 words. If we taught children to walk the way we teach students to write, the human race would crawl on all fours.

Years ago, Graham Greene produced 300 words a day. Books were shorter then. Now, the average thriller clocks in at 100,000 words or more. My own books average 83K. I plan on eight weeks (or more) to create the outline, then another six to eight for the first draft. I revise the entire text four or five times with at least a month between drafts, so my novels usually take me about 15 months.

Jodi Picault says that a writer has to learn to write on demand. When you sit down at the keyboard, desk, legal pad or clay tablet, you job is to produce words. Stephen King and Lee Child expect to produce 2000 a day. None of those authors mentions how many of those words change, but that's a separate issue.

How can writers write so quickly?

Well, part of it is being able to type or write quickly, of course. The other part is easy once you know about it. Alas, pretty much everything you learned in school gets in your way.

Back in the mid-80s, I stumbled on a few books that completely changed my way of teaching writing. We had a copy of Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers in our English department bookshelf, but I don't know if any of my colleagues read it. I didn't until about 1990, and I had to blow dust off it. It was a landmark book that few people appreciated when it appeared.

The book I did appreciate (All the books I mention here are available on Amazon) was Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico. She introduced me to clustering or webbing, a quick way of connecting apparently random and disparate ideas for writing. She also pushed free-writing (Elbow's idea first). She offered a series of techniques and writing prompts students could grasp and apply quickly. I was struggling with kids who read five or six years below grade level, hated grammar, and were terrified at putting anything more than their name on paper. For years, they'd known they were stupid because their teachers and their grades told them so.

The following September, I stared using Rico's exercises. By the end of the first semester, many of the kids wouldn't admit it, but they wrote more clearly, more creatively, and with more pleasure and less fear. Rico encouraged them not to worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. I spent the first month of classes encouraging them to write fast for five or ten minutes without worrying about making sense or being correct. If they got something down on paper, we could fix it later.

Remember, a first draft is like the block of marble before you sculpt an elephant. That first few minutes is chipping away everything that doesn't look like an elephant. Rico does that. So does Elbow. The beauty of free-writing is that the only wrong way to do it is to think about it. Just write. If you go fast enough to outrun the constraints, an idea will present itself. That was the hardest sell for my students, but they finally discovered it was true.

Henriette A. Klauser's Writing on Both Sides of the Brain uses many of the same techniques. The left side of our brain is sequential, literal, and organized. It also judges. The right side works in patterns, sounds, and images. It's creative without judging. We're trained from day one to be correct, but we don't learn to let go. Those books showed me how to help my students let go.

Years later, I discovered Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird with her priceless advice on the value of the "shitty first draft." Don't think about spelling, grammar, punctuation or making sense. Just push yourself. If you don't know what you want to say, the cluster or web will help you. If you do know what you want to say, don't worry about how to start. Jump in and listen to the words. Maybe even say them out loud. But turn off the editor.
A character web for my WIP. Over half the names have already changed.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I checked the spelling) published Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience around the same time as the other books, and James L Adams gave us The Care and Feeding of Ideas with the same message. Their findings work for almost any field you can name. Athletes call it being in the zone and musicians talk about finding the groove. Time stands still because you focus ONLY on the task at hand, whether it's shooting the free throw, following the chord changes or staying in the moment without worrying about the result...yet. Very Zen, yes?

For me, once I know what should happen in a scene, I write a first sentence (usually telling where or when it's happening) and keep going. Maybe it's a great sentence, but more likely it's junk. It doesn't matter because I can fix it later. I no longer listen to music when I write (I used to like Baroque Largos because the slow tempo helps concentration) because I have to hear the words. Sometimes I even say them out loud and the scene becomes a dialogue or group discussion. I can type about 85 words a minute and I don't worry about typos or grammar. That's what the next five or six drafts are for. If I get lost, I type whatever comes to me and cut it or move it later. A few years ago, I wrote a scene


that had a half-page of "where the hell am I?" over and over until I found it again.

It's energizing and it's productive. The hardest part is letting go of everything you were taught to worry about in school.



24 September 2014

Lee Child's Personal


by David Edgerley Gates

PERSONAL is the nineteenth Jack Reacher book in the series, and Lee Child doesn't need my help to sell it. It opened at #1 on most national lists the first week it was out, and week two, it's still there.

This post isn't about promoting the book, which happens to be a knockout - Lee certainly hasn't lost his chops, and Jack keeps getting deeper as a character - but about P.O.V.



PERSONAL is told, appropriately, in first-person. This isn't a departure for the Reacher books, but more commonly, they've been told in the third. In other words, Jack is observedand doesn't share his confidences. This is true of thirteen books, so far. It's interesting to me why you'd decide to shift gears. Lee uses the first-person in KILLING FLOOR, PERSUADER, THE ENEMY, GONE TOMORROW, THE AFFAIR, and this book. Oh, you might think, work with the change-up pitch to keep yourself on your toes and avoid getting stale, or to keep your readers invested, over the course of a long and successful run of novels, but it seems to me there's a more calculated narrative choice involved.

Reacher's never been entirely generic - unlike, say, Travis McGee. John MacDonald, famously, never wanted to do a series character, but he got talked into it. McGee has his quirks, but he remains a flat character, until you get to THE GREEN RIPPER, and he steps outside of himself, the formula no longer able to contain him. The dynamic for Reacher, even at the beginning, allows for more expansion and contraction. Lee Child himself has said that he meant from the get-go to write books that would be accessible, and commercial, and that Reacher was a conscious construct, designed - not market-researched, but a means to an end.

He turns out to be more. This is something that happens, and not always by accident. There are other examples. We might start out to write one story, and then find it gets away from us, or a walk-on part suddenly takes center stage, and completely unexpected. But in Reacher's case, Lee Child might have intended a sort of empty vessel, a hero you could inhabit with your own devices and desires, and what he wound up with was somebody whose own devices and desires overtook the original template. 


Which brings us back to choosing a voice. In each of the books where Jack himself is speaking, he invites our confidence, and we become complicit. This is, I think, most true of THE ENEMY and THE AFFAIR, which take place in the past, when Jack is still active military. One of my favorite lines, in all of the books, is a throwaway, from THE ENEMY, a seemingly casual remark. Reacher's gone to Germany, and they're outside some big U.S. Army armor base, Baumholder or the like. In the early morning fog, they hear the tanks coming back from a live-fire exercise. The sound of tank treads on pavement, the sound of the 20th century, Reacher thinks to himself, the Wehrmachtthe Soviets putting down the Budapest revolt. One of the rare instances where Reacher is reflective. It's a very telling detail. Jack's not your average lifer.

Also, in THE ENEMY, we get to meet not just Jack's brother Joe, but their mom, with her own past history in the French resistance, something neither of the boys know about. Lee revisits this in PERSONAL. The real zinger in the book, for my money, isn't ninety pages in, with the Russian (no spoilers), but a hundred pages in, the scene afterwards, at Pere Lachaise cemetery, where Jack visits his mother's grave. This is the entire argument for using first-person. We hear Jack's thoughts. We see him revealed.

Vulnerability isn't the first word that comes to mind, with Reacher. Far from it. He's kind of a force of nature, a guy without visible weakness. Big, and certain. Nobody you want to mess with. People do, and live to regret it - or don't. Live, anyway. A hard guy, and unsentimental. A guy you believe in. A guy you want on your side.


I don't think, though, that you believe in Jack Reacher simply because he's an unstoppable force. I think what Lee Child has done, in the course of the books, is to pull off a real hat-trick. You get used to Reacher in some diner by the side of the highway, hoping he's going to get a decent cup of java, or head-butting some asshole cop who gets in his face, just being Jack. What takes you off-guard is the occasional, and sudden, moment of clarity. He assesses the background, his immediate environment, the threat potential, how not? What makes Jack different, what gives him depth, isn't that he examines himself. He doesn't. But he knows who he is.

You could say this is one in a long line. Spade, or Marlowe, Lew Archer. Spenser, and Travis McGee. Kinsey Milhone, for that matter. Lone wolves, who stake out their turf, and make it their own. I beg to differ. Reacher is somehow on another plane. I don't know how to explain it to myself. Not even Bob Lee Swagger - and I bow to none in my admiration for Steve Hunter - but Lee's done something else. He's reinvented the character, he owns Jack Reacher. he speaks with his voice.

We identify with our characters. I do with mine. Lee seems to have actually inhabited Jack. This is a gift, or a kind of magic. I think it's astonishing. We don't all manage it. Not even. Lee got a gift. It wasn't handed to him, by any means, but we take it when the tray is passed.



02 July 2013

Counterclockwise?


by Dale C. Andrews
“That’s what made it easy,” I said.  “You were circling Margrave.  Not too close, not too far.  And counterclockwise.  Give people a free choice, they always go counterclockwise.  It’s a universal truth . . . .”  
                                        Jack Reacher in Killing Floor
                                        Lee Child
        A year or so ago I was reading an interview with one of my favorite authors, Tana French, and was astounded by something Ms. French said. According to her, while she was writing her second murder mystery, The Likeness, she did not know how the book would end.  She did not know, in fact, who committed the murder.  The Likeness is a favorite of mine and while it is not a classic “golden age” mystery, in which all of the clues are present and can, through deduction, lead the reader to the culprit, it is nonetheless a great murder mystery and a great read.  But the interview floored me:  How can you create such a tight mystery without knowing how it will end?
        I know there has been a lot of discussion on SleuthSayers about writing with or without outlines, but on the base principle of structuring a  “whodunit” I sort of thought we were always guided by the maxim underlying an observation Francis (Mike) Nevins made back in 2005 in his speech during the Ellery Queen Centennial Symposium in New York.  Mike mentioned that people over the years have asked him how he worked out the deductive process in his stories.  Mike rolled his eyes incredulously at his audience and said “of course we know how the deduction works -- we know who did it and how they did it before we ever start writing the story!”
      The incredible bravura performance of Ms. French aside, one of the most difficult aspects of fashioning a detective story is figuring out the ending and the string of clues that will tie everything satisfactorily together, ultimately pointing the reader to one, and only one, solution.  Once you have that well in hand, the rest (as Mike Nevins observed) is simply back-filling the details of the story that will lead up to your conclusion.
      And generally we mystery writers are held to a very high standard.  Those deductions, the foundation on which we premise our story, better hold up to pretty strict scrutiny.  Those who read mysteries tend to be an unforgiving lot that delights in trying to pick holes in an author’s deductive process.  As a personal example, before Janet Hutchings accepted my latest story, Literally Dead (appearing in the December issue of EQMM -- plug, plug, plug), she questioned whether my solution to the “locked room” aspect of the mystery would actually work in real life.  In order to convince her I filmed the solution (I got to play Ellery, my elder son Devon drew the Sergeant Velie straw) and emailed the filmed solution to her as a download.  (Sorry.  Can’t attach a link here.  It would be too much of a spoiler!)  Only after Janet reviewed the film did she accept my story for publication.
      All of which, at long last, brings me back to that quote at the beginning of this post.  
      Up until this winter I had never read any of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels.  I decided to remedy this since so many people around me were devouring this popular series.  I now have three under the belt, and I started with the first book in the series, Killing Floor.  I was happily enjoying the roller coaster ride until I came to the above-quoted language, approximately ¾ of the way through the book.  At that point I screeched to a halt.  
      When it comes to deduction I am a strict constructionist -- like other mystery readers alluded to above, I have to be convinced that the deduction works.  There seemed to me to be a number of things wrong with Jack Reacher’s deduction that this particular character would predictably begin circling the town in question in a series of bus trips at all.  But what bothered me most was Reacher’s (and Child’s) conclusion that he would begin this by going counter-clockwise and that there is a universal tendency for people to head counter-clockwise whenever they have a choice. So I set aside the book and started to research.
     As it turns out, I was initially surprised.  There is, indeed, a counter-clockwise bias in many of our movements.  In sports, for example, all races are run counter-clockwise, and baseball is also a counter-clockwise sport.  Moreover, studies have documented that virtually all joggers, if given a free choice, will settle on a circular route that runs counter-clockwise.  After a little digging I found that Professor Watanbe Hitoshi of SOKA University in California has devoted a great deal of time studying clockwise versus counterclockwise choices.  
[Professor Hiroshi] reached a point in his research where he had to decide if it was better to design stairs that you have to go down clockwise or counterclockwise. Experiments had been carried out previously and it was known that there is tendency to turn counterclockwise, for example, if you cover your eyes and try to walk straight almost always you will end up walking a little bit to the left. But Mr. Watanabe wanted to investigate more: 
  • Most . . . human beings are right handed.
  • Most . . . left-handed people are right-footed, while most of the right-       handed people are also right-footed.
  • Most . . . human beings have slightly longer right leg than left leg.
These three factors make our right leg . . . dominant over the left leg, which causes a tendency to turn to the left, and to be able to run faster and more comfortable in a counterclockwise direction. He also found out that:  Humans walk instinctively protecting the left part of their body (for example by putting their left part of the body nearer to walls) because our heart is in the center-left part of our chest.  Drifting to the left is basically human nature, and running in a counterclockwise direction practically an instinct.
        So.  All good so far, Mr. Child.  
      
     But consider this:  Executing a counter-clockwise circular route requires a series of left-hand turns.  Indeed, Jack Reacher’s deduction concerning where he would find that missing character was premised on a supposition that the first turn the character made would be to the left.  All of that counter-clockwise research notwithstanding, an equally large body of behavioral research indicates that, given an uninhibited choice, most people at an intersection will naturally turn not to the left, but to the right.  Professor Stephen Bitgood of the University of Alabama, in his article collecting and distilling prior studies on pedestrian movement noted the following:
The tendency to walk on the right side of a path is a common finding (at least in the United States). The sociologist William Whyte (1980, 1988) has studied people’s behavior in city plazas and on city streets. Whyte (1988), in his chapter on the “skilled pedestrian,” summarized the pattern of walking on the right of city sidewalks:
Pedestrians usually walk on the right. (Deranged people and oddballs are more likely to go left, against the flow.) 
        Summarizing earlier studies, Professor Bitgood also concludes that “[o]ne of the most frequently reported findings is a tendency for people to turn right at a choice point or intersection.”  Evidence of this is all around us.  Professor Bitgood notes that the right hand turn is always the easier and less energy consuming choice.  In recognition of this fact stores tend to be designed, as Bitgood notes, to allow shoppers to steer to the right upon entering.  There is also some evidence from highway studies that in cities circled by beltways the more predominant way to drive around the city is by beginning with a right turn, and then driving the beltway clockwise, not counterclockwise.  (A study by the Washington Post published just last Sunday noted differing commuting times for clockwise and counterclockwise trips on the Washington beltway.)  

     Bitgood also references a number of studies that have focused on museums and zoos, and by and large these have documented a pronounced tendency of visitors to enter and then turn right, although some (but not all) of the studies also indicated that the museums or zoos were then toured in a counterclockwise direction.  It has also been noted that typical grocery store design anticipates that the shopper will enter the store and turn right, usually towards the vegetables, but then circle the store counterclockwise with a series of left turns.  Professor Bitgood conducted his own study of shoppers entering several malls and found a pronounced, but far from universal, tendency of the shoppers to veer right, not left, upon entering the mall.

       But let’s get back to Killing Floor.  I don’t want to end up dishing out a “spoiler” for Mr. Child’s first Jack Reacher mystery, but suffice it to say that the purported “universal” tendency of people in all circumstances to bear left, that is counter-clockwise, is a key element in Jack Reacher’s deduction concerning where he predictably will find a critical (and missing) character.  From this postulate of “universally” predictable behavior Reacher concludes that when booking passage on an inter city bus to a random location one will always pick a bus that turns left, and heads out of town on a counter-clockwise route.  But would this be the case?  Does a person choosing a bus route on a map behave like a jogger or a baseball player, or does he or she behave like a shopper in a store, or a visitor to a museum?  And what about those beltways that have more clockwise than counterclockwise drivers?  Even in Lee Child’s native England (where driving is on the left) the answer is just not that simple nor that predictable.
        So here the deduction is simple for Reacher, but only because Mr. Child (the man behind the curtain), consistent with Mike Nevin’s observation, knows the result in advance.  But the deduction does not objectively and invariably flow from the evidence.  It is, in a word, far-fetched.  It would not, in the real world, support an incontestable conclusion.  

     Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoyed Killing Floor and the other Lee Child books that I have read thus far.  But if I structured a deductive conclusion based on a premise as suspect as Mr. Child’s, I would expect the Janet Hutchings of the world to at the least raise some very legitimate questions -- or more likely just send me one of those damned rejection notes!

27 October 2012

The Gifted Child




by John M. Floyd


Like most of my writer friends, I enjoy reading different genres.  In fact I read books and stories in almost all genres, except maybe romance novels--and now and then I even like a good love story.  As for authors, my favorites run from Bradbury to King to McMurtry to Cormac McCarthy, with a lot of offbeat writers in between.  One of my absolute favorites will probably always be Nelson DeMille--I love his novels and his style--and only a couple of years ago I discovered another great author, someone most crime/suspense readers have known about for a long time: Lee Child.

For some reason I didn't start reading his Jack Reacher series at the beginning.  I started with the twelfth installment, a novel called Nothing to Lose.  But after that one I was hooked.  I went on to seek out and devour every Reacher novel I could find (no Child left behind?), and I only recently finished the latest, A Wanted Man.  Unlike any other series I can recall, this one had not a single misfire; I enjoyed every one of these books.  Yes, some were better than others--I consider The Killing Floor, The Enemy, Die Trying, and The Hard Way to be among his best--but all of them are darn good.  Apparently a lot of readers agree.

If you don't know Jack . . .

Reacher is one of those rare characters that both men and women seem to like.  He's a former West Point grad and Army major who has since lost most of his respect for authority and conformity, and has a strict personal code of honor that sometimes reminds me of Robert B. Parker protagonists like Spenser and Jesse Stone.  Reacher is tough, smart, and resourceful; he owns nothing but a foldable toothbrush, an ATM card, and whatever clothes he happens to be wearing at the moment; he has no attachments, no home, no car, not even a driver's license; and he travels mainly via bus or hitchhiking.  Maybe that's why he's so appealing--he's nothing like the rest of us.  He also doesn't talk much.  One of the few criticisms I've heard of Child's writing style is that the sentence "Reacher said nothing" happens too often.  But, hey, Reacher often does say nothing.

The only drawback I've found to the series is that the titles usually aren't related at all to the content, which means I sometimes can't remember what title goes with what adventure.  And in the grand scheme of things, that ain't much to complain about.

Child psychology

The author, I'm told, is a native of England and a former television director--and I would guess that his background in TV probably influenced the entertainment value of his novels.  His books are always smooth, fast reads; there's a lot of action and excitement, and very few slow spots.  That's exactly what most TV productions strive for (although they don't always deliver), and is a perfect illustration of one of Elmore Leonard's famous Ten Rules of Writing: leave out the parts that people skip.

I think the best thing about Child's writing is that the stories themselves are fascinating, with plot reversals throughout.  I once heard that the creators of Cheers chose a Boston bar as its setting because in a neighborhood tavern different people would be coming in and going out all the time, thus there would always be stories available.  I would suggest that Lee Child made Reacher a drifter so that he could have limitless opportunities to run into interesting situations.

Short (?) subjects

As a movie lover, I must say a few words about the upcoming and long-awaited film adaptation of Child's novel One Shot, called (believe it or not) Jack Reacher.  I was a bit surprised by the casting of Tom Cruise in the lead role, mainly because Reacher's size--six-five and 200+ pounds--is, in the novels, a big factor in what he can accomplish and the impression he makes on the other characters.  I don't doubt for a minute Cruise's star power or his acting ability, but from a physical standpoint he does seem an odd choice.  (Russell Crowe isn't a giant either, but it seems to me he would've made a perfect Reacher.)  Having said that, I do understand that Child himself approved of the casting decision, and that helps dispel some of my doubts.  I suspect that I'll wind up enjoying the movie.

Something else that's close to my heart is short stories.  There are now two shorts starring Jack Reacher: "Second Son" and "Deep Down."  Both are available on Kindle, and I heard that the paperback version of The Affair contains a copy of "Second Son."  Apparently there is also one more Child short story featuring Reacher, although not as the main character: "James Penney's New Identity."  I look forward to reading all three.

Reaching Reacher readers

Have any of you read Lee Child?  If so, do you like his work?  Which book in the series is your favorite?  Your least favorite?  Are you familiar only with his novels, like me, or have you read his short stories as well?  What do you think of the Reacher character?  If you were producing the new movie, who would you choose for the part?

For those of you who haven't read the novels, here they are, in order of publication:

Killing Floor
Die Trying
Tripwire
Running Blind
Echo Burning
Without Fail
Persuader
The Enemy
One Shot
The Hard Way
Bad Luck and Trouble
Nothing to Lose
Gone Tomorrow
61 Hours
Worth Dying For
The Affair
A Wanted Man

Next up: Never Go Back

I can't wait.


05 October 2012

What's the Objective?


by Dixon Hill

Recent events in my life -- unrelated to writing -- caused me to remember the old adage about "putting things behind you."  When something is over and done with, you can't go back and change it; you have to just keep moving ahead.

I don't know when I learned this adage, but my time in the Army brought me face to face with some of the most painful occurrences requiring it's implementation   Thankfully, those days are over.  Now, for me, the path ahead is inevitably made easier by the love of my wife and family.

And, I'm reminded that the easiest way to turn my back on the past -- putting something behind -- is to focus on an objective ahead of me  This is a good trick for writers to remember: both in their personal lives, and in our writing.

When the inevitable rejection slip arrives, for instance, it's always much easier to deal with when I've got a new work in progress.  I take a moment (maybe an hour or two -- to be sure I've got it right) to repackage the rejected material for the next market I've got on the list in my computer.  I try to list as many markets as possible for each work, in advance, because I find it hard to remember where I intended to send the manuscript next, when it's just come back to me.  Once it's repackaged and shipped off, I do my best to drop it and forget it until the manuscript either sells or comes back again.  And, it's much easier to drop it and move on, if I've got a new objective ready and waiting: that new work in progress that's calling me from my Word program.

My recent ruminations about putting things behind, by focusing on an objective farther ahead, has also led me to consider how this concept fits into writing.

The Series

Lee Child, author of the Reacher series
Currently, I've been reading novels from the Jack Reacher series, since a friend of mine decided to get rid of about a dozen books she had read, and these included a lot of Reacher novels.  I've read several other successful series, in the past, and it seems to me that protagonists in nearly all of them were focused on distant -- often unobtainable -- objectives.

These objectives are often not mentioned directly, within the novels of any given series.  However, even if they are not clearly spelled out, or alluded to, these objectives still come through, via a manner of transmission similar to that of an unstated theme:  The words may not mention it, but the characters' actions, words and/or thoughts shout it loudly (or, at the very least, seem to repeatedly murmur it) to the reader.

I haven't quite decided what Jack Reacher's objective is, but I suspect it's something along the lines of: Finding roots that he can pull out and carry with him when he moves on.  Reacher is a wanderer -- he moves from place to place -- from what I've seen of the series. (Some of you know him much better, and I invite comments or corrections.)  This idea of a wandering protagonist, in search of some objective or ideal, is an oft-repeated theme in literature -- but seems even more recurrent when it comes to series protagonists.

Though he occasionally winds up working in New York, Mexico or California, for the most part Travis McGee seldom gets far from where his houseboat, The Busted Flush, is moored at slip 18F (if memory serves me correctly), yet I would argue that he's also a wanderer.  He wanders from job to job (though they're all part of his "salvage" operations), and from woman to woman.

Through the life of the series, he wanders mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually.  And, in all that wandering, he's seeking.  What is he looking for?  Well, perhaps it's True Justice and True Love, coupled with Fiscal Security.  I suspect, however, that he'd trade away Fiscal Security, if he thought he could get the other two as a result.

There may be those who are shaking their heads, wondering why I'm writing about objectives, when what I just wrote about Travis McGee looks more like motivation.  And, that's not a bad question to ask.  To me, objectives and motivation seem to be two ends of the same stick.  The objectives the character wants to achieve -- even if they're beyond the character's grasp -- motivate that character to do what he does.  More importantly, they motivate that character to do these things the way he does them.     

An objective such as True Justice may lie far beyond the story parameters.  It may well be an objective that cannot be achieved just by solving any plot problem -- such as a criminal investigation -- but if the protagonist is seeking True Justice, that may well influence the way s/he deals with people who pop up as obstacles to solving the case.  And it would certainly influence how the protagonist deals with having to kill or injure someone.

This is one reason why I think it's important for the author to have a firm grasp on the protagonist's long-range objectives, even if the other characters, or even the protagonist, are unaware or a little "iffy" on the subject.  Keeping the protagonist's long-range objectives in mind helps keep that protagonist in character -- no matter how many installments finally make up the series.  When the protagonist changes over time, which can happen in a long series, it also helps an author understand what sort of soul-searching that protagonist is going to have to go through as s/he changes.  Maybe the change is internal, but the long-range objective remains unchanged, thus providing a touch-stone for how the character will change.  Or, perhaps the objective itself may change, which could engender much greater soul-searching.    Either way, this is one reason to keep a protagonist's objective in mind while writing.

Another Reason

NUMBER  "B"
How many Westerns feature a gunslinger with a good-guy streak, who goes around righting wrongs?  The movie The Magnificent Seven may have been based on The Seven Samurai, but I suspect its tremendous success was the result of snatching up seven such wandering gunslingers and putting them all together on a mission to right a wrong.  And, each of the seven clearly had his own objective for doing so.

This plot line reverberated with audiences, who felt as if they knew where these guys were coming from. I suspect, however, that the mechanism for making the audience members identify with these guys had more to do with those objectives, than with the gunfights.  Action may sell a film, but I suspect audience identification with the main characters is what makes a film great.  People may wonder: "How would I handle those bandits?"  But, when viewers think, "How would I handle this, if that were my objective, if that was what I was worried about and/or trying to achieve -- how would I act in that man's shoes?" then the guts begin to twist, and celluloid springs to real life.

I think it works the same way in novels, too.  No one would enjoy being in an actual fire-fight, and few readers can say, "Yeah!  I remember what that was like.  I totally identify with this guy being shot at and shooting back."   Give the protagonist some long-range objectives, however, similar to those other folks might have, and suddenly the reader identifies with the character.  S/he has a reason to care about that guy being shot at, because there's a connection there.  After all, we all have unobtainable objectives in our lives -- don't we??

When I was in the Army, I was much younger and quicker as well as single.  I also spent a lot of time flying between far-flung places, where I was not always surrounded by friends.  And, there was a Sci-Fi "Men's Action" series I used to read, about a wandering band of travelers in a post-apocalyptic world.  The group had stumbled across a network of teleportation devices, which made it possible for each novel to begin in a completely new setting.   Essentially, it worked as a Sci-Fi version of a traveling band of Old West gunslingers who went from town to town cleaning up each place they moved through (i.e. killing the bad guys, thereby liberating the oppressed populous).

At the time, I had enough blood and guts in my life, without adding more from my reading.  What kept me buying the books (aside from the fact that I could find them in most airports) was the unstated group objective.  What the group was really traveling around, looking for, was A Safe Place to Nurture Love.

Now that would hardly seem like a successful objective for a "Men's Action" series, but I'm convinced it was indeed the group objective.  Each of them had lost people they loved to sudden, unexpected violence several times in the past.  Each was now in love with another member of the small party, but unwilling to fully commit to that love, for fear it would "Jinx" the relationship, causing them to lose another person they loved to the sudden senseless violence that ran rampant in the post-apocalyptic world they inhabited.

Not that any of the macho male characters would even have been caught  even thinking about nurturing love!  And, none of the female characters -- who were a bit more intelligent than the male characters -- would have deigned to mention it aloud to any of the males.  I got the feeling, however, that everyone understood this was what they were looking for.  Their personal histories, their actions, words, thoughts -- the way they went about doing things -- made this very clear.  And, that objective, A Safe Place to Nurture Love, was absolutely unobtainable, given their circumstances.

At the time, when I was reading these books, I knew that I identified with the main characters.  But, I didn't know why.  Only in retrospect did I realize that my personal objective at the time was quite similar.to theirs.  They were seeking a safe place to nurture love.  I – a single soldier on an A-Team, who was in and out of the country quite a bit ˆ was seeking a way to live, which would give love a chance  to grow in my own life.  That seemed unobtainable to me, back then.

And -- when I tried to re-read one of the books in the series, years later, after my wife and kids had become such a fundamental part of my life -- well, I suspect that's why the book couldn't hold my interest.  I was no longer a part of the target audience for the series, because my own objectives had changed.  I no longer identified with the main characters.

In Conclusion

Certainly, there are other ways of helping readers to identify with characters. But, helping them identify via connection between objectives is useful.

I've always felt the line that gave the Declaration of Independence it's greatest strength, was mention of "the pursuit of happiness."  It probably also gave the framers of the Constitution their biggest headache, too.  I often picture them sitting around saying, "That damn Jefferson!  It's one thing to write about the pursuit of happiness, as if you're a poet!  We all know there's too much random chance in life, creating unexpected sadness, to make True Happiness possible.  Yet, we have to write a document that gives people the latitude to at least try to pursue happiness.  How the hell are we supposed to that?"

And, that's one of the nice things about writing fiction.  We don't actually have to make any of our characters achieve True Happiness.  In fact, doing so would probably destroy the ability of a reader to suspend disbelief (unless you're writing for children).  We just need to remember what our main characters' objectives are, so readers have another way of identifying with them.

For what it's worth, that's my two cents.
--Dix


30 July 2012

Brain Exercises


by Jan Grape

How do we learn? Have you ever watched babies or toddlers interact with each other? Many times it's monkey see, monkey do. They learn from each other. If one rolls a ball, the other laughs and then he gets the ball and rolls it. If one stacks one block on top of the other, then on of the other children will see that and stack one block on top of the other. Babies and little children learn from their parents and their siblings. Their teachers and friends. Babies and little children are like sponges, they soak up everything.

Guess what? Animals also learn from each other. My female cat, Nora, is the one I call the smart one. She learns something, like jumping from the floor to the big stuffed chair to the top of the bar and down onto the kitchen counter top in order to get the the sink and water faucet. Her brother, Nick, is Mr. Friendly and is somewhat like the dog, Odie in the Garfield comic strip. He goes along happily ignoring most everything, until suddenly he sees Nora doing her jumping act and then he copies her. They both love jumping to the counter to get to the kitchen sink and then try to get me to turn on the water faucet so they can drink. (I ignore them.)

As writers we read other writers and learn from them. At times we are just baby writers, we read and study and learn how to write. We can see how other writers make a character seem real and intriguing. We see how someone plots and we learn how to do the same. We learn from someone how to build tension. We read a book by someone we think is an excellent writer and we learn from them. We go "wow" I never thought of that. Or how in the heck did they do that? We learn how to set the scene, how to write realistic dialog. We learn how to end chapters. We learn how to get through the middle part of the book. We learn how to bring everything to a climatic end and bring it all to a closure.

I don't mean we copy from them. But we can analyze other's work and learn. And then we practice, practice, practice. Yes, you can learn how to write better by practice writing. You can take a published book and actually set out to copy it on paper word for word. I hope you've picked up and are using a really good book. Use one that you know has won an Edgar or a Shamus award if you're interested in writing mysteries or thrillers. This exercise is for practice, not to plagiarize someone.

You begin copying the first line, the first paragraph, and the first page. Pay attention as you copy. How did the author grab your attention? If that book doesn't grab you on the first page. Put that book down and pick up another one. As a retired book seller I learned just how important that first page is because a person who picks up your book just might not buy that book if you lose them on the first page.

Take Stieg Larrson's, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. Chapter one begins and reads as follows:
Dr. Jonasson was woken by a nurse five minutes before the helicopter was expected to land. It was just before 1:30 in the morning.

Tell me that doesn't grab your attention. Who is this doctor? Where is he that a helicopter is on its way? And who do you think might be in the helicopter? Man, woman or child? Is the doctor in the military because a helicopter is expected to land in five minutes. Or could he be on an aircraft carrier bringing a wounded soldier? Is the doctor a good guy or a bad guy? Is the incoming patient a good guy or a bad guy? We don't know yet, but I can almost guarantee that you're going to want to read at least a little more to see what is going on.

I chose the next example just to show how after a very intriguing opening scene, and then when you get only a few pages into the story, how you are hooked and grabbed once again.  Look at this paragraph on Page 6 of Lee Child's book, Echo Burning. 

Seven thirty-nine, more than three hundred miles to the north and east, Jack Reacher climbed out of his motel room window. One minute earlier, he had been in the bathroom, brushing his teeth. One minute before that, he had opened the door of his room to check the morning temperature. He had left it open, and the closet just inside the entrance passageway was faced with a mirrored glass, and there was a shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm, and by a freak of optical chance he caught sight of four men getting out of a car and walking toward the motel office. Pure luck, but a guy as vigilant as Jack Reacher gets lucky more times than the average.

A big wow. Five sentences in that paragraph but what a wealth of information here. A man, a vigilant man, named Jack Reacher is running from someone. There's a brief description of the motel room...can't you just see it? The mirrored glass on the closet door? The shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm? How can you not keep reading?

I honestly think good writing is a talent but great writing takes some effort on your part. And if you learn from other outstanding writers you almost have to learn to be a better writer.

Don't think there's anything wrong in copying another's writing. You're only doing this as a learning experience, a writing exercise. Like I said at the beginning, we learn from each other. Even as a baby. Even as one animal or bird learns from their parent. We can learn. And if you're going to learn to be a better writer, then copy from the best. Learn from the award winners or the best-selling authors. But strive to be a better writer. You'll be glad you did and so will your readers.