A great animator-cartoonist once asked: “Can you remember, or care to remember, the plot of any great comedy? Chaplin? Woody Allen? The Marx Brothers? It’s all about character. Personality is everything.”
Mark Twain wrote: “The writer merely has some people in his mind, and an incident or two, also a locality. He knows the selected locality, and he trusts he can plunge those people into incidents with interesting results.”
For me, and I suspect for all writers who’ve come into their own (although not necessarily into money or critical acclaim), this is exactly how it is. Someone, a character, a personality, enters my head and starts talking. Sometimes a place comes first, or a time in history. What does NOT come first is story, a plot, a structure. I’m suddenly filled with a personality seemingly not my own who wants to act out her or his own story. And I follow, often blindly, but I follow, always in the dark.
I’ve read writers who tell you that you can’t know your tale unless you know your ending. They mean a goal. Writing means reaching that goal. I’ve read writers who tell you before you write a word you must write a detailed outline of all that will happen. When I was young and had not come into my own, this kind of thing seemed true. And I despaired. I never know my ending. As for an outline, well, one always dislikes a thing one cannot do. I cannot write an outline because for me story is not a mechanism, a Lego structure, a feat of engineering. A story is organic and it flows from the personality of my main character. He or she knows what she wants. I write as I’m told by some inner voice whispering as I go, trying to keep up. I make wrong turns when I don’t listen, when I impose “me” on my character. Hypatia of Alexandria fought back. I knew I’d lost the story when I felt her struggle with me. But when I stopped messing with Hypatia’s one true voice, the story once more wrote itself.
I have no idea if the advice I heard when I was young works for anyone. All I know is that it doesn’t work for me and it’s lovely to know it didn’t work for Twain or for the man who created some of the world’s most iconic cartoon characters.
If it doesn’t work for you, stop doing it. Sit in front your computer, your typewriter, your pad of real paper, and just listen. Someone will begin speaking to you. Write down what they say. And word by word, day by day, they will tell you a tale no one else has ever told before.
I can’t fool myself. Like any writer, I’d like to think at least a few people are reading what I write.
But as a novelist I struggle with a huge disadvantage, one that few writers overcome. I can’t write the same book over and over. I can’t even work in the same genre.
Someone who can write the same book over and over is someone who gets read. Someone who writes in at least the same genre over and over gets read.
But someone who writes what I think is mainstream fiction one day (CHINA BLUES & CHASING WOMEN) , then historical fiction the next (that was one long day: it took seven years to research and compose THE SECRET MAGDALENE and three years to create FLOW DOWN LIKE SILVER, HYPATIA OF ALEXANDRIA) can’t build a readership.
So then what do I do? Instead of building on the interest of a major publisher when Random House bought my Magdalene and encouraged my Hypatia, I have to go off and write HOUDINI HEART. I didn’t know it was horror as it appeared on my screen each day, fully formed in the mind of its nameless lead character. But apparently it is. The Horror Writers of America certainly saw it that way else why ask me to submit it for a Bram Stoker Award for the Best Horror Novel of 2011? It didn’t win but it came horrifyingly close.
And now what do I do? I’ve been taken over by a would-be noir private detective. He’s named himself Sam Russo. He was dragged up in a Home for Kids Nobody Wants. He lives in Stapleton, a town nobody knows, on Staten Island, a place nobody takes seriously. I was born on Staten Island. I haven’t seen it since. But Sam has.
For Sam, it’s the late 1940s, he’s survived the Second World War fighting on the Pacific Front in the last cavalry unit of the US military. Sam loves horses and horse-racing. He likes reading dime crime paperbacks in his one room four story walk-up. He’s crazy for the movies. Jimmy Cagney. Edward G. Robinson. Bogart! He wants to be Bogie. He wants to solve crimes. He wants to be hard-boiled. He wants to swap wisecracks with great lookin’ dames. He doesn’t want a dog.
I’ve written three Sam Russo cases, now available in all the latest formats books appear in these days. SHADOW ROLL is set at the Saratoga racetrack in Saratoga Springs, New York. Three young jockeys are dead. The town would like ’em to stay that way and get on with their lucrative racing season. Sam wants to solve all three cases like Bogie would. GOOD DOG, BAD DOG takes him and his new-found friend, the one he’s brought back from Saratoga, up and down Broadway: “The Great White Way.” They’re in and out of one hit show after another looking for a giant killer. THE GIRL IN THE NEXT ROOM is all about his neighbor Holly. She has the single room next to his. Holly is a girl. Or maybe he isn’t. Whatever Holly is, Sam and his new friend like her. They like her a lot. So when she disappears off her street corner, they take it seriously, very seriously.
Now I’m writing DEAD ON THE ROCKS. Sam is on a huge first class yacht headed for Florida. And so is his friend. Sam hates water.
You see? As a writer, I’m all over the place. What next? A surreal musical film called THE LAST SHOWBOAT?
I’d ask for professional help, but I love writing. Apparently, I’ll write pretty much anything. Well, maybe not a western. But then, but then… there’s all those pretty horses.
On my facebook fan page, I posted this.
And then I said this: Dear readers, do any of you have an opinion on this? Love to hear it if’n you. I certainly have one. Or three.
My wondering got me this from a good friend, a terrific writer, and a great editor.
“If literary critics had solid standards for a critic’s education, perhaps even certification, he might have a point. But what is “traditional lit crit” except self-appointed experts who found someone to publish their opinion? Now anyone can publish their opinion. He says all opinions are not equally valid, and I agree. Amazingly, most people can manage to distinguish between those that are and those that aren’t, given what they like to read. For instance, I expect that Sir Stothard’s opinion of any particular book of fantasy fiction, were he to even bother to review one, would differ widely from mine. Now I can go online and find lots of opinions on a fantasy book, some of which I will learn to trust as being similar to my own. And this is a problem because…? Silly man.”
To which I could not help but respond:
“Oh, good point! We require certification for almost everything now, things that were once the province of wildcats. Like making movies. Used to be you grabbed a camera, some real cowboys, a pretty girl to tie to some railroad tracks, and you had a movie. The internet has given us wildcats back and in, of all places, the world of books. If you’re good enough, and work hard enough, you can get a successful blog going. Of course, if I know human nature, successful bloggers will find a way to control their new “industry” just as this poor man fights to save his old industry. But for now it’s a free-for-all.
Then there’s your terrific point about what REAL literary critics actually read and write about. Certainly not fantasy or sci fi or horror. Genre fiction has been ignored forever. Actually, they’ve been scorned. I will admit I do try and read what wins the Booker Prize or the National Book Award each year, but almost always set it aside for something much more interesting. Like a good book.”
And now here, I ask: any thoughts?
T’would be nice to know what I was doing. It seems that for the moment I drift. No particular place to go. Nothing in particular to do. No particular goal to achieve. (Except writing two books and co-writing a film script for a film that will most certainly get made…but enough of that. Such stuff doesn’t seem to count when one feels rootless.) I live in a charming little cabin in the deepy woods that could be taken away at any time. An interesting place to be. Like being weightless in a space capsule floating about in uncharted space. I could float off at any time. Yet I look out my tiny porthole with an eye just as it has always been: timeless, curious, eager, expectant, and fully believing in magic. Magic is nothing more than intent. I intend – ah, that’s how I started this paragraph.
I AM, therefore I write.
Over the last few years things have changed radically in the world of the writer. For a hundred years or so, the publisher has been mightier than the pen. A tremendous industry grew up around us. They told us what we could write and how to write it. They designed our covers. They pushed us into bookstores. Or out. If we would not or could not comply, we simply weren’t published. That is, unless we dared to publish ourselves. And oh, what an outcry from the “industry”. Vanity press, they called it. Conceit and folly! Only worthless writers need publish themselves, said they. Writers like Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, T.S. Eliot, Deepak Chopra, Margaret Atwood…and other such worthless ilk. They sneered, they laughed. And we bought it. Everyone bought it.
They broke our hearts.
And for those they “allowed” to join them, those they considered “real” writers? For those, they cooked the books.
Wee sidebar: I’ll never forget being shunted into a rather shabby, rather useless little room at the London offices of Harper Collins (my first publisher) and being told by the receptionist, oh so secretly: “They think you writers are nuisances. We’re told to keep you in here so you won’t wander about and bother people.”
But ah, the internet has changed all that, oh lordy has it. The industry that lived off us for so long is scrambling for its very life. Just as the rapacious music “industry” went down, the publishing industry is going down. One by one, the houses disappear, or get bought by Bertelsmann, the German behemoth. I think there are seven majors left. As I write this, we could be down to six. We writers are supposed to mourn this. We’re supposed to feel we are bobbing like small wee boats on a tossing sea with nowhere to land. And I do admit that the cache of standing on the decks of a great and venerable ship like Random House or Doubleday (I’ve stood there; it’s cold) still has its romantic grip on an unpublished writer’s mind. But that will pass. It’s passing now. And all because of the internet which spawned Amazon and those who would be Amazon like Barnes & Noble. It gave birth to the ebook.
A revolution has taken place in the world of publishing, one that’s been stewing for quite some time, one only recently taken seriously by the industry. And for them it might be too late. Amazon has announced it is hiring editors and other publishing professionals to launch its own in-house publishing business. They now are not only selling more books than anyone else, they may soon be publishing more.
What does this mean to writers? Without fear of snide remarks, we can publish ourselves. We can promote ourselves. Bedad, we can design our own covers! In the day of the Big Publisher, we weren’t allowed a single word about how our book would look. I always thought that how my books looked meant that the door in a big publishing house with a sign that read: Art Department opened into a broom closet.
If our work is worthy, we will sell. Maybe not quickly, maybe not to the masses, but it will pass into the hands of that truly beloved person out there waiting, a reader. And maybe it will sell quickly and to the masses. You never know. If it’s not worthy, we can still look at our work, bound or kindled or nooked, and know that we wrote it. It’s ours. No one can send us those horrid form letters writers used to paper their walls with. “We’re sorry, but your book isn’t suitable for us at this time.”
I’ve been lucky. I have an agent and it’s your agent who sees such things and doesn’t tell you. I’ve also known what it’s like to be published by the big names, quite a few of them. A moment’s heady rush and then the frustrating truth. If your book doesn’t sell well enough in its allotted time span (a matter of weeks), it’s literally trashed. Every unsold copy is destroyed.
But that too has changed. If you publish yourself you will never go out of print. Your books will never wind up on a tacky remand table for a buck a copy. My latest book, my one and only (so far) tale of supernatural horror, Houdini Heart, will live as long as I do. And hopefully a lot longer.
As I said, the industry built on our hopes and our dreams and our talent once had the power to break our hearts. Only our writing, published or not, read or not, could mend it. But now their power is waning. Publish and be damned. Publish and be blessed. But bloody hell, publish. They can’t stop you. And they can’t trash you.