How I Write (Or: What the Hell am I Thinking?)
April 15, 2008
My novels almost always start with an idea, a situation, or a conflict that piques my interest, and which suggests to me a story line of some sort, though that is typically vague at the outset. (Beginners beware: This is not a strategy I would recommend; it's just my own muddled method, developed through half-assed trial and error.)
In the case of The Devil's Redhead, the germ of the book was a discussion I had with a co-worker when I was a private investigator. I'd started out in the early eighties working marijuana smuggling cases, and the defendants (our clients), were by and large not so much criminal in their inclinations as simply wild. By the latter part of the decade, all of that changed. I remarked to my buddy, "We're not getting the clients we used to," and he responded, "If those guys were still in the business, they'd be betrayed or killed."
For my second novel, Done for a Dime, I had several things I wanted to address, gathered both from my work as a private investigator and from my wife's law practice: the hard grind for ethnic neighborhoods in post-industrial cities, the too-often peculiarly explosive nature of probate proceedings (family, death and money), the corruption surrounding real estate development, and the often morally ambiguous nature of real police work, especially when mixed with racial tension. But the spark that set off the story (excuse the pun), was a conversation I had with my arson investigator nephew that started with the question: "How do you burn down a whole neighborhood?" His answer, based on a real incident he knew of in Baltimore, provided me with the major crime at the heart of the story. To all of that I added my love of R&B and jazz, which gave me the idea for my starting scenethe senseless murder of an aging musician.
My latest novel, Blood of Paradise, took form after I read a play by Sophocles called Philoctetes. I saw the setup for a cop story in it, though it would require a foreign locale. The only foreign country I know with any specificity is El Salvador, and the country became relevant again when certain political commentators began to pronounce that our "success" in El Salvador provided a template for "victory" in Iraq.
In each case, I began with just a certain environment: a moral climate, if you will, a social dilemma (or several mixed together). Then I began developing my characters, who often begin appearing to me seemingly of their own volition. I attend to my first impressions of them, then develop their physical, psychological, and sociopolitical selves, with particular attention on what they want, what and who they love, their moments of greatest joy and starkest dread, their most shameful secrets. I build biographies around these questions, sketch scenes embodying them, then ask myself the classic What if questions: What if this character found himself in the place and time of this novelHow did he get here? What will he do? What will his fellow characters do? What would happen next?
At this stage, the story begins to take form: A smuggler from the bygone days leaves prison after ten years hoping to reconnect with the love of his life, but finds the world changed in more ways than he imagined (The Devil's Redhead). A detective haunted by his brother's pointless death in the Vietnam War sees the opportunity to redeem that sacrifice by bringing to justice those responsible for an urban firestorm in his own hometown (Done for a Dime). A young bodyguard whose father was a corrupt cop tries to live up to his own sense of manhood, while still accommodating a dubious request from another morally compromised father figurehis old man's best friend (Blood of Paradise).
I think scenically and, as I'm doing my character work and my background research, scenes begin to suggest themselvesI write them out on index cards, which I arrange on my dining room table (no, I don't entertain much), using a different color for each key character. As dialogue begins to take shapei.e., I begin to hear voices in my headI'll sketch the lines out on the computer in very rough draft form. During this brainstorming I don't edit the process much. That comes next, as I begin to shape my scenes into three act structure: What's my setup, what's my triggering incident, what's my turning point, my mid-point, my climax? I also think in terms of story arc: what is my protagonist's back-story wound? What is the dysfunctional defense he uses to deal with it? How does the catalytic incident begin the process of the erosion of that defense? How does the subsequent conflict continue that process of erosion? What causes his crisis of insight, when he has to choose whether to change or die? How do the climax and the crisis of insight support each other? Does he ultimately move beyond his past or remain trapped by itand does that decision lead to victory over his nemesis or not, regardless of how he chooses? (In Done for a Dime, for example, my protagonist defeats his enemy, but does so without making the fundamental change of character that would redeem him. This is a theme I return to often: how even honorable acts often have decidedly mixed motives, and how victory often contains an element of the tragic.)
I do not try to manipulate the plot to contrive suspense. Rather, I try to create tension through the interacting and mutually incompatible passions of the characters. I often try to devise three through-lines, one for each major character, so that they are working at cross-purposes in more than just one way. As I'm writing, I revise language and shape my scenes continuously, often starting my day by going back over what I completed the day before and touching up the scenes, to get my focus back into the story. I usually build the first draft as I go along, and it is usually quite close to my final draft, save for some cutting and reshaping.
Then I send it to my agent, who reviews it, and may or may not make suggestions. I'll do the suggested reworking, then it's off to the publisher, with further rewrites as my editor deems fit.
Sooner or later: a book appears. Like magic.