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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Discovery through writing, part 1

When I first began writing seriously (meaning, I took myself seriously and took writing courses and joined writing groups and forums in order to improve my craft), one of the things I learned was that much of the discovery of what your book was about -- the theme-- was rarely apparent in the first draft. Or even in the second. It wasn't until you'd been through a few extensive rewrites that you began to see the theme.

I noticed this when I wrote "A BUTLER'S LIFE," about Chris's experiences as a formally-trained English butler. (Oh boy, don't get him started on the reality of domestic service vs. Downton Abbey!) A Butler's Life is a memoir, not fiction, so I wasn't consciously seeking a theme.  But an unexpected epiphany occurred as we read through the drafts I was editing. A pattern emerged. While Chris had never consciously realized it as it was never a caregiver situation, every one of his major career choices was made in response to his relationship with, or responsibility towards his father...right up to and including his father's death. (And later, outside of the timeframe of the book, the impact of my father's death on him precipitated another major life change, which eventually led to our buying a bed and breakfast inn.) The pattern, an unexpected revelation of motivation, unintentionally shaped the story told in A BUTLER'S LIFE.

It made me think about how rarely we stop to consider the timeline of our lives...usually not until we face a terminal illness or old age do we take the time to look back and try to find the patterns in and meaning of our lives. Journal work is good for this, but how often do we actually read back through our journals and do the work?

Do you re-read your journals, to look for consistencies in thoughts and behaviors, or patterns over time?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Writing the graphic scenes

"I'd never guessed that little girl-next-door you could write such a book! Did that really happen to you?" 

Maybe it's because my background doesn't include law enforcement or medicine, two fields that tend to see too many variations of how pain, suffering and death can be inflicted on other human beings. Maybe even authors like Tess Gerritsen (a retired physician) or Linda Fairstein (a former prosecutor) get asked how sweet little women like them come up with some of their  more graphic scenes. (I'm positive that male authors never get asked this kind of question.) But probably it's because some of the first buyers of NET STALKER are, bless them, friends and family...who wonder what secret corner of depravity I conceal in order to write a story about a serial snuff killer.

Truthfully, even my husband Chris gave me the wide-eyed stare when he read BLOOD EXPOSURE, my first novel. Actually, he got his first inkling of where imagination can take me when he came home from work one evening to find me on the porch with a book in one hand, a glass of wine in the other, and a Cheshire Cat smile (or so he said) on my face.

"Good day?" he asked.

"The best. I just killed someone off."

"Is that right?" His eyebrows went up, and he veered a little farther than necessary to pass me. "What's that you're reading?"

I held up the paperback: DEADLY DOSES: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO POISONS, part of the Howdunit series published by Writer's Digest. (What a great book.)

"Hmmm...we'll just go out to dinner tonight, shall we?"

Where do you get your ideas? is the most common question asked of writers doing public events like book signings or author panels. There is no one answer. Not even within one book. In the case of NET STALKER, several factors that had touched my life over the years were amplified into much bigger "what if" scenarios to become plot lines in the book: self defense, date rape, a old boyfriend who wouldn't take "leave me alone" seriously, and the rise of Internet relationships into which too many people pour their hearts out to faceless individuals who may or may not be who they seem. Writers take stuff like this and think, What if it got really bad...? And then the story catches fire in your mind and it DOES get really bad.

Interestingly, I was very aware of the timeframe when the story caught fire for me. I was writing the first draft of NET STALKER, and I knew roughly where I was going with the book and what crimes would be committed. I had written one or two of the more graphic scenes found in the first part of the book, but I was unhappy with them.

Then my beloved father had a stroke and a heart attack. Chris and I caught the first plane back to Orange County to be with him in his final hours to say goodbye. I was executor of his estate, which as anyone who has ever done it knows is a tedious, frustrating, soul-draining experience fraught with far too many emotions. So grief and anger were uppermost in my psyche when, as an antidote, I went back to work on NET STALKER.

And suddenly, the hard scenes were there -- all of them. I pumped every shred of anger, pain, and passion into a horror totally unrelated to my own personal pain, but one that unstoppered my "nice girl" upbringing and allowed me to feel the hate necessary to portray the violence. Those scenes are graphic. Gory. Uncomfortable to read. But they are, somehow, true. Not in my personal life, thank God. But to the victims of these very real crimes out in the real world.

And as everyone who loves a good mystery or suspense novel knows, the most satisfying thing of all is getting to right a wrong, destroy that bad guy, give him or her what s/he deserves. Its doesn't happen often enough in real life. In fiction, writers can make the good guy win, no plea bargain or technicality involved. It's one of the biggest reasons we write in this genre. (This is why, though I tend to cringe at most gratuitous violence, I am Lee Child's protagonist Jack Reacher's biggest fan. You know none of those bad guys are going to survive Reacher's justice.)

Channelling strong emotion to write difficult scenes...just another lesson learned in the scheme of writing life.


It is the deepest desire of every writer, the one we never admit or even dare speak of: to write a book we can leave as a legacy. And although it is sometimes easy to forget, wanting to be a writer is not about reviews or advances or how many copies are printed or sold. It is much simpler than that, and much more passionate. If you do it right, and if they publish it, you may actually leave something behind that can last forever. -- Alice Hoffman