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VIEW FROM THE TREEHOUSE
Celebrating the creative life and all that feeds it.
I'm currently out at one of my favourite places for the start of our week-long winter writing retreat. I'm continuing work on the first draft of my latest novel, trying to stop myself thinking about whether the story is any good. I'm just about halfway through at this point and my aim is simply to push ahead, adding new scenes to edit later.
In writing each one, my attitude is to 'throw everything I can at the page and sort it out later'. I simply write down, as basically and ineptly as it comes out, everything I can think of that might need to be in that scene. Then I let it sit for a bit, usually until the next day, come back and tinker with it, moving things around, cutting bits, adding bits, and editing to the point it reads logically if not brilliantly.
It's like throwing handfuls of paint at a canvas and coming back to refine the picture later. Maybe the act of throwing everything out there first lets me get a handle on all I have or need to work with and during the break my subconscious sorts it all out for me.
In any case, it seems to be working. With a first draft, progress is the only requirement.
I stated in my author greeting (see Home page) that I don’t write crime, I don’t write mystery, I write suspense. So what do I mean exactly?
While there are always some overlapping elements, to me, in their purest form, crime, mystery, suspense, and even thrillers are distinct genres.
The classic mystery is about solving the puzzle. It’s largely an exercise in deduction and the pay-off for the reader is intellectual.
The mystery protagonist is usually trained in some way – a police detective, private eye, forensic expert, medical examiner, profiler, etc. Even the amateur sleuth has qualities that elevate him above the other story characters.
Whatever his training, the protagonist in a mystery is the one in charge and is usually one step ahead of the reader, showing the way and uncovering clues with his superior knowledge, training and insight.
Crime fiction is similar to mystery in that it focuses on the investigation. I once heard a publisher say at a conference, ‘With crime there’s a body on the first page and the rest of the story is about finding the killer.’
As with mystery, the crime protagonist generally possesses some kind of training. While he or she may come into danger and suffer setbacks, it’s the mental challenges of solving the case that take center stage.
So again, the pay-off for the reader of crime is mostly intellectual.
Suspense on the other hand is all about emotion. The protagonist has little special training and is unprepared for the dangers they face. Their journey through the story involves personal growth. To survive their ordeal and defeat the bad guys, the suspense protagonist must reach deep inside him/herself to find courage and strength they never knew they had.
In suspense the reader knows things the protagonist doesn’t which helps generate tension. What gets the reader to the edge of their seat is knowing the killer is hiding in the closet when the hapless protagonist goes to open it.
The pay-off for the reader of suspense is emotional.
Thriller is a term loosely used these days but to me a true thriller is suspense on steroids, meaning some element of the plot is beefed up or taken to the next level.
Fast pacing is sometimes enough to earn a novel the label ‘thriller’ but more often it involves elevated stakes. In suspense the protagonist and his loved ones are usually the only ones in danger, whereas in a thriller the threat is to a wider community – cities, countries, even the whole world.
International Thriller Writers based in New York, groups all these genres under the heading ‘thriller’. American bookstores have them shelved together in their ‘mystery’ section, and Australian bookstores group them under the umbrella of ‘crime’. But that is simply for ease of marketing. To fans (and writers) of each of these genres they are distinct.
So why do I love suspense above the others? It’s the under-dog element that gets me.
In most mystery and crime novels the villain and hero are equally matched. In suspense, the protagonist is the clear under-dog, their skills and training no match for the bad guys.
In fact I like taking things one step further and giving my protagonists some deep flaw or past trauma that makes them even less likely to succeed.
My protagonists don’t even know themselves what they’re capable of until they’re tested by events in the story. And it’s usually because of their love for someone else that they find the courage to meet the challenge.
For me there’s no struggle more compelling than that.
When I first joined my local writing group (over twenty years ago now!) I thought writing to a prompt was a lazy, hit-or-miss approach to getting a story. I thought, if you're a 'real' writer, you should have so much to say about life, you'll have stories bursting out of you.
I've since come to change that view. It seems to me now that writing this way is like going fishing - with the prompt as your bait. You throw out your line and hope for a nibble. If you get a bite and it's something interesting, you 'reel it in' by writing more about it, going deeper, exploring what's there.
This method works not because writers lack ideas but because they have far too many. Our choices for subjects are truly infinite. It's like asking someone, 'What do you feel about every event, every situation and every person you've ever encountered, real or imagined?' That is literally what every author has to work with. Hard to not be overwhelmed - where do I begin?
A writing prompt gives me something to focus on. How do I feel about the colour green, or a specific scent from my childhood? It's taking a single drop of water from an endless ocean and examining under a microscope. There might be something there or there might not. And sometimes we writers don't even know what we think about a subject until we write about it.
Don't get me wrong, ideas still come to me out of the blue. Stories and characters waking me at night, wanting to be written. But every now and then it's good to go off and do a little fishing on the side.
It's the first day of our winter writing retreat here in Port Lincoln, South Australia. I arrived at our campsite at 8 am and spent the morning all alone setting things up for the others who'll arrived later this afternoon.
The wind was, and still is, ferocious, driving sheets of rain across the water. We rarely get waves in this sheltered bay but the ocean is boiling, the sky like pewter.
To me this is heaven. Sitting in my chair by the window, a candle burning, the fire roaring, sheltered and warm as I write in my journal with the storm raging outside.
Pretty soon I'll have to start dinner, to have everything ready when my friends arrive. A week of writing and laughter is ahead of us. Life is good.
A moment's insight: The thing about writing is you can't do it for what it will give you. You can't write for money. You can't write for fame. The only true way you can write is for the love of it. Anything less is a waste of your heart.
Publishers like a sure thing and who can blame them. They’re in business to make money, not give chances to struggling authors.
When a fiction genre starts to do well, publishers are quick to jump on the band wagon, bringing out more and more books of that kind, riding the wave till the trend is exhausted.
The problem for authors NOT writing in the chosen genre is that this creates a bit of a cycle. When publishers narrow the playing field, readers don’t have the option of ‘reading around’. And if readers aren’t exposed to a genre, how will they know if they like it or not?
There are 2 ways this cycle can be broken. The most notable is when a new book suddenly breaks out big time, igniting interest in a formerly less-popular genre. Harry Potter is the classic example. Before Sorcerer’s Stone, children’s fiction was in a slump. After that? The rest is history.
But there’s a second way to raise awareness of any genre that isn’t currently the flavor of the month. Long-term steady exposure.
If you write in a genre that’s currently on the less-popular list, your chances of being picked up by a major publisher are greatly reduced. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get your books out there.
If you write great books and consistently make them available to readers by self-publishing, they WILL eventually get noticed. It might take longer than the breakout scenario but if you give your readers a fantastic ride they’ll return for more.
If you love writing in a particular genre, have faith that there are others out there who enjoy reading it. You just have to gear yourself for the long haul.
Each reader you please with your current book will come back for the next one and hopefully bring a friend or two with them. If those friends like what they read, they’ll check out what else you’ve written and buy your first book. Repeat this over several books and your fan base grows.
So as far as writing to the market goes, I prefer to follow Jim Carey’s advice: ‘Give them you until you is what they want.’
I'm happy to announce that I'm currently running a pre-release giveaway of my latest domestic thriller, HIT AND RUN.
The giveaway will run until March 20 and is open to U.S. and Canadian residents. (Aussie giveaway coming soon!)
For your chance to win one of 20 copies, click on the link below.
I’m a domestic thriller author. I love writing about ordinary people thrust into danger who discover within themselves the courage to be heroes.
The type of characters I most like to write about aren’t the FBI agents, or criminal profilers, or forensic experts. Not the protagonist with all the training, but the Sarah Connors, the Paul Sheldons, the Mark Sways, the Newts and the Suzys (the blind heroine in Wait Until Dark.) Young people. Vulnerable people. People with no professional training that still somehow manage to outsmart the villain.
I like writing about damaged characters but not the kind so twisted with bitterness they lash out at anyone who looks at them sideways. I find far more to admire in the person who, despite all they themselves have been through, can still step up and help someone else in need.
While there’s always the element of danger in my stories, when it comes to graphic violence I’m a firm believer that less is more. I believe that, like a good striptease, far more tension can be rung from a scene by purposely leaving some things to the imagination.
By far the best example of this I’ve ever seen is in the Hitchcock movie, Lifeboat. After their ship is sunk by a torpedo, ten people take refuge in a lifeboat, one of whom is badly injured. As the story progresses so does the infection in his leg, to the point where it must be amputated – no doctors, no instruments, no anaesthetics.
In the hands of a less skillful writer a scene like that would be unbearable – at least to me. But Hitchcock handles it perfectly in my mind. First there’s an agonizing built up to the moment. Everyone knows what’s about to happen and all gather round to watch the poor victim drink a flask of brandy, each in their own way offering comfort.
When the moment comes, we see only the backs of the other characters as they close in tighter around the patient. Until one of them turns and drops the man’s boot aside.
The sound of that boot hitting the deck punctuates the horror of the scene in a way no amount of violence or gore could ever match. Hitchcock truly is my idol in this regard and I always strive to emulate him when handling violence in my stories.
Yesterday I finished the first draft of my current novel, No Good Deed - a contemporary thriller set in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia.
Today I began the revision process. I worked for a total of four-and-a-half hours and loved every minute!
It’s funny how some writers love revision and others hate it.
Some authors live for the exhilaration of putting their first draft down on the page. For them it's an act of total freedom. But once that initial draft is finished, they look upon the polishing yet to be done with a sense reluctance and despair.
I’m the opposite. I love editing. To me it feels like the hard work is done and now I get to play with what I created. But it isn't just the tinkering I love, it's the magic that takes place during the phase.
When I write a first draft, I try to write as fast as I can and not edit as I go. I think of each sentence as simply a place holder for what will eventually be there in the end. Even if it’s a total cliché, it doesn’t matter – I just have to get the basic meaning and sentiment down.
As I go through my draft a second time, I begin refining these basic sentences to contain more of my own author voice. Now that I know my characters better I also start giving them more individual ways of speaking.
It amazes me to see how a page of generic dialogue can come alive when I change each line to reflect that character’s unique personality.
For example, in my first draft I had a character say, 'Hurry, we open in fifteen minutes.' A pretty generic line of dialogue, basically anyone could've said that. But today as I went back over that scene, I changed the line to, 'Better get cracking. Only fifteen minutes to show time.' Not a huge difference perhaps but more in keeping with my character's personality. And if you make lots of little changes like that it does add up.
What also amazes me is this: Occasionally I'll write a conversation designed to get across certain information to the reader. That dialogue might not be terribly interesting on its own.
But…and here’s the part I love…When you add what the characters are thinking and feeling, everything changes. Suddenly that scene of boring conversation is infused with fascinating subtext.
A character might say one thing and think something completely different, revealing themselves to be dishonest, conflicted, afraid or unwilling to hurt another's feelings.
Or a character might voice a certain sentiment while their actions declare they're feeling something quite different. I love when that happens!
So, yes, I really enjoy the revision stage. To me it’s as though I can finally say, 'the Christmas tree is up. Now I get to decorate it!'
I took a break from writing over Christmas. During my week off, on a whim, I picked up the proof copy of my soon-to-be-released thriller, Hit and Run, (coming in April.)
While reading it through I recalled the headaches I had in writing it – plotting problems that had me wondering if the story would work: How to reveal information in an interesting way that didn’t slow the pace. Logistics of the timeline, the order of scenes, who’s point of view to be in, etc.
I remembered that at the time I was writing it, the story became such a mess in my mind I couldn’t see how I would ever smooth out the knots. Even when I read through my finished first draft, I couldn’t tell if the story worked because I still had all those discarded options in my head.
But reading the finished product through after a long break (with all those headaches just a distant a memory) I got to experience the story as a reader. And was reminded of something I’d already learned but keep forgetting: In the midst of revising - chopping and pasting, moving things around, discarding scenes, adding others - NO author can experience their story as the reader ultimately will.
This was a timely reminded for me because I’m currently at that exact some place with my current work-in-progress, No Good Deed. I’ve entered the treacherous third quarter where all kinds of plot and timeline issues start to arise. And once again I find myself wondering: Will this ever work? Will this be a story readers can enjoy?
The thing I need to keep telling myself is, it’s happened before. In fact it’s happened with every book I’ve written and I’ve always managed to work my way through it. So my first note-to-self of the new year is: just suck it up and get back to work!
I’ve suffered from anxiety for most of my life. In the last few years the battle has enlarged to include depression and insomnia. Only recently have I discovered that all three are part of a repeating negative cycle:
Lack of sleep contributes greatly to my depression. > When I’m depressed I don't have the energy to do the things I need to do. > This in turn leads to anxiety, a sense that I’m falling behind. > And that anxiety keeps me awake at night.
That is my repeating cycle. And I’ve found the best way to interrupt it is by targeting what’s causing my anxiety.
For me it’s all about convincing myself that the small steps I take toward my goals each day really do matter.
Because I can’t see a huge immediate result from doing them, it’s easy to think, ‘So what, if I skip my writing today?’ ‘So what, if I don’t go for my walk?’ ‘So what if I have that extra piece of cake?’ What can it hurt, it’s just one day.
But over time those little daily decisions matter. In fact, over time they’re what matter the most!
Creative people tend to be driven and highly-motivated. But that can work against you if you can’t shut it off. If you never give yourself credit for small accomplishments, you live in a constant state of guilt.
By recognizing that those small steps matter, I have eased my anxiety. Now when I go to bed at night, instead of stressing over all that still needs to be done, I can relax in the knowledge that I’m moving forward. I’m on track. Everyday, with each small step I am getting closer to my goals.
That freedom from anxiety allows me to sleep better, which eases my depression, which gives me more energy to make even more small steps and the spiral starts on an upward trend.
What tricks have you found to ease depression/anxiety?
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