This is a talk I gave to the Croak and Dagger chapter of Sisters in Crime on February 24th, 2015.
I suppose I should open with a couple of apologies. First, since I’ve been given the opportunity to talk to you without the benefit of a topic and also because I’m not very good at focusing unless I have three or four hundred pages to play with, I will probably meander about more than you are used to. And second, I’ve written the talk out and want to read it to you, which isn’t really the right way, or even the polite way to give a talk, but in the last few years my naturally glib style has become a bit staccato, interrupted by frequent painful pauses while I search for the perfect word to complete a thought or even, as I grow more desperate, any damned word at all that might sound as if it belonged in the same conversation. As a result, reading to you is my attempt to show some consideration, and to get the talk done in a reasonable time. And finally, while I’m pretty sure my thoughts are generally true, I’m reluctant to speak for anyone else afflicted with this compulsion to reinvent the world. As a result, I will speak only from my own perspective.
Anyway, I’d like to talk about writing, but not the process of finding a concept, drawing up outlines, developing character sketches, choosing a viewpoint, setting, discovering themes, voice, tone, mood, and the rest of the technical aspects of the craft. I’m not talking about a writer’s goals, ambitions, motivations or obsessions. I’m not even talking about the character flaws that lead an otherwise well-adjusted individual to live in a dream world for months, sometimes years, at a stretch.
Those are all part of writing, but I’m sure others have already addressed them far better than I could, so I’d rather spend these few minutes talking about what I regard as the most terrifying part of the business: the first page of a new project. Not chapter one, page one. Not even the first page of the outline. The very first page, when I’ve just woken from a dream, or overheard a conversation, or watched a woman running silently down a poorly lit street after midnight, or had some other experience that triggered one of those ‘Aha’ moments, and compelled me to find a pen and a blank sheet of paper, or more likely just to flick the power button on my computer du jour.
Then I find myself perched, pen in hand or fingers curled over keyboard, and I hesitate, just for a second, because that first stroke of the pen, that first word on the screen, is powerful. It fixes an image in my mind that will color the vision. It limits my options for the second word and even if I erase it, I can’t truly start over. It will imprint me. I know it, and so I hesitate, however briefly, and wait for the right word to capture the vision.
We writers have our talent, our experience, our knowledge of plotting and characterization, our vocabulary, and all the rest of our bag of tricks, so obviously we will tell the same story no matter how we start. On the other hand, we’ve all started with a terrific idea — explosive plot, great characters — and had our story fall apart in fifty or a hundred pages. It goes off track. When that happens, I rewrite, start over, rewrite again, and usually can’t get it back on track. After a week or two I either abandon the story or put it in my trunk, which amounts to the same thing. And the next time I have a sure-fire, really dynamite idea, I hesitate just a bit longer.
It’s not like I’m going to run out of stories. There are only seven basic plots, or maybe nine, or possibly twenty, depending on which expert you read, but there are countless variations on each and they all work in pretty much any genre or time frame. The Romeo and Juliet plot works for New York gangs in West Side Story and a variation works for post-apocalypse zombies in Warm Bodies. There are hundreds of thousands of different stories out there for each of us. Losing one won’t ruin me. So why does it hurt to throw away a promising story?
Part of it is the lost time, of course. I may have a thousands of stories available, but I’m mortal. I can’t write them all, and once I’ve committed to one, created a world, populated it and invested myself in the characters’ pain and dreams, letting go before bringing the creation to resolution hurts.
But there’s more to that brief hesitation than reluctance to invest my time and imagination in a story that might go nowhere.
I’ve been talking about that blank page as if it were a canvas. For most of my writing life that is exactly how I saw it, but no longer. I’ve come to see that, at least in my work, each empty page has been a mirror. I’ve held my past and my present, harsh reality and fantastical daydream alike, up to that mirror, turned them slowly, and traced every reflected wrinkle on every character’s face, every mannerism, every virtue and every vice. When a dusty blue Piñon Jay flashes through the woods in Monkey on a Chain, it echoes a jay that streaked through a juniper forest somewhere east of the Sandia Mountains forty years ago. The central crime in Monkey grew out of a very wet bar stool conversation in Vesuvio’s across from the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in the mid-seventies. The street scene outside Clark Air Base in the Philippines in that book was a cross between Juarez and Tu Do street in Saigon, and a character sketch of a slightly more alienated Holden Caulfield that I did way back in undergraduate prehistory eventually grew up to become Rainbow Porter, the tortured protagonist of that series.
Sharon Coulter, the P.I. Rainbow hired to help him trace Jenny Murphy in Jennifer’s Weave, took part of her name and some of her looks from a woman I loved, though not well enough, back in sixties, but her limp came from a bullet a friend caught while running from an unhappy husband and her obsession with the missed head shot popped out of my own subconscious, full-blown and unbidden.
I’ve never sailed the Sea of Cortez but I’ve seen the South Pacific, the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the South China Sea. Pieces of them all became the Sea of Deception in my stand-alone of that name. Helen Daws, the strongest and most fascinating woman I ever wrote and the villainous mastermind in Sea of Deception, is an amalgam of every woman I ever met who, as we used to say, had snakes in her head combined with several women so smart that they ran like hell when I approached them and one or two so beautiful I didn’t dare. And Paula Stafford, the woman Sam Cowan, my protagonist in Deception, needs most desperately took her looks from a girl I saw on the playground when I was in the 4th grade and never spoke to because I was in the 4th grade and she got her heart from a woman I shared a cubicle with in grad school. In truth, by the time I needed them, all I remembered of the first girl was light brown hair and gray eyes while the second contributed only a west Texas twang and a broad smile.
Like all metaphors, this mirror is imperfect and can only be extended so far. Once the seeds are in place on that blank page, craft and judgment come into play. Events move around. Characters evolve, sometimes at the writer’s discretion and sometimes on their own. Another thing: the parts of me that land in a book don’t crawl out full-grown. Like every other man, I’m formed by and to a large extent I am a reflection of my history, my family, my country, my century. That makes a book an imperfect reflection of an imperfect reflection, even before my inner author starts distorting the elements to reflect the original vision. This connection, however tenuous, links readers to an image of their world that has been filtered through the book and the author, that can resonate with their own histories, their personal tragedies and triumphs. Of course, there are all sorts of resonance. Some books change the way we view the world; some the way we view ourselves, and some simply help us to sleep. From a reader’s perspective, all are important. Well, maybe the sleep one is a bit more useful than the others, but they all rely on the reader establishing a connection with his world through the book, and that happens to the extent that the author finds himself on that first blank page.
There is something else going on, though. Just as readers take something they like from a book – a vicarious adventure with a character they like, a thrill of triumph over a villain they hate, a walk through a world they’ve only imagined, or maybe just the quiet satisfaction that comes from a good story well told – the book rewards its creator as well. It’s a different kind of reward. It begins with that first word on an empty page and it grows with every incident added to the outline, every image added to a scene, every word of dialogue, every blow, every kiss, every insult, every sacrifice. Every thought, however noble or despicable, falls straight from the author’s mind to that blank page. Well, at least the thoughts the author needs for the current work and is willing to share. Lots of other thoughts wind up on the page too, but that’s what erasers and the delete key are for.
Not everything is shared. There’s a lot of self-censorship that goes on. Writers, like every one else on the planet, have a dark corner in their hearts, but if they weren’t willing to take a risk they would never open that first blank page.
So, what kind of rewards are we talking about? In my mind the biggest is the occasional epiphany, the rush that comes when a serendipitous word or juxtaposition of characters suddenly opens a new dimension in the story. In the book I’m finishing now, for instance, the hero, Arthur Penn, has been shanghaied into a time war between two groups fighting to control mankind’s future. He’s talking to a woman who loves him and has just described his childhood in Chicago several hundred years in their future. She asks, “What do you want, Arthur? If you could have anything, what would you truly want?”
His answer is, “Home. I want to go home.”
I’m not certain exactly where those words came from, but once they hit the page I knew they were true for that character, and then I realized they were true for most of my characters. Nick Cowan in Sea of Deception wants and needs to find a home more than anything in the world, except possibly forgiveness. Rainbow Porter in Monkey on a Chain and Jennifer’s Weave has a safe house, but the war left him permanently isolated. He is one of those who stand a permanent watch outside his community’s safe border, and his only real contact is with others who wander alone in the dark, women like Jenny Murphy and Sharon Coulter. And after that insight settled in, it hit me that this could only show up on my pages if it were floating around in my subconscious somewhere and somehow true for me as well. But I’ve got to tell you, the insight was a complete surprise and I’ve no idea where it came from or what it means.
Even more puzzling, these characters escape the hobgoblin of consistency. Both Rainbow and Nick are deeply alienated, and the female characters are just as conflicted — probably not surprising, since they are as much a part of me as the males. As a private detective, Sharon Coulter holds others at bay with her professional detachment, but she feels cut off as much by her involuntary separation from the LA police department, a rejection she feels deeply, as by the limp she still carries from the time she didn’t pull her trigger. And Jenny is far more deeply conflicted. Very early in their relationship, she describes her first failed marriage: “I wasn’t depressed . . . I was angry. Twenty-four hours a day. I began to hate Tommy. Even Sally. But mostly I hated my life. My body. Everything. I hated being a woman. I even hated being human.”
Rainbow asks, “What did you want?”
“I wanted wings. But I couldn’t grow any. I wanted to just fly away, rise up in the air and fly away until I couldn’t see the world and even if I fell I would just fall forever and never touch the earth again.”
That is pretty alienated, but Jenny has nothing on Helen Daws, who stripped the tiny west Texas town of Bartleby of every cent in every bank account, left it bankrupt, hopeless, and then gave back everything she’d taken in exchange Nick Cowan’s soul and a fortune that dwarfed Bartleby’s. Helen is a woman of enormous appetites. She devours wealth, sex, power – all the certainties of normal human life – without believing in any of them. They mean no more to her than an amusing way to pass time. She is not alienated; she is alien. And yet she somehow popped into the same story with her exact opposite, Paula Stafford. Nick wavers between the two women just as he wavers between Paula’s home town, Bartleby, the physical and emotional home he craves, and Helen’s Sea of Deception, the dream world where everything is possible because everything is meaningless.
So far I’ve talked about the externalities, the surface of the story, the plot, the setting, the incidents and the characters.
Every book on writing offers the same advice: write what you know. It is repeated so often that it has become trite. The point is credibility. Write characters you know and their actions will ring true, their vocabulary will be believable. Write a setting you know and your readers will recognize lay of your land, the sound of its waters, the smell of the grass, the color of the birds and the cry of the beasts. Slather this sort of reality over a conflict common to all of us – disapproving parents, straying lovers, angry children, frightening poverty or unattainable wealth – and you’ll have a tale that can grab your readers and drag them in.
This still isn’t what I’m talking about. Instead of repeating the usual advice to write what you know, I’m talking about the unavoidable necessity of writing what you are, and writing it fearlessly. From my perspective, the external details that conventional advice tells you to mine from your experience can almost always be found elsewhere with a bit of diligent research. This is a good thing because otherwise writing fiction would be nearly impossible and necessarily boring. Research frees writers and readers alike from the iron rule of reliance on personal experience. It isn’t necessary to live among the landed gentry of Regency England to set a story there. Google and Jane Austen will lend atmosphere and credibility to your story. Want to set a hard and cynical mystery in 1940’s Los Angeles? Read Raymond Chandler, then plot your own course through those mean streets. Or in my case, when I needed to send a character through Julius Caesar’s Roman empire, the gates of the eternal city were mapped on the internet, and Google Earth allowed me to walk the streets of Pompeii the day before Vesuvius blew. Sufficient research will allow a writer to tell any story, if coupled with sufficient imagination. Which brings us back to that empty page and how we go about filling it.
For example, suppose I decided that the world was again tired of war and desperate for a return of the cozy mystery, just like after world war one. In short, suppose I decided that the time was ripe for a new Agatha Christie, and a fortune awaited me if only I could be her.
Research would be needed, of course, so I’d immerse myself in the collected works before announcing my plan to relocate to a small village in rural England to my wife. She’d shoot the move down with a simple observation: there is no green chile in rural England. And that would be that. On to Plan B: Since I can’t move to England, then Agatha must come to America and what better place than . . . Española! That settled, I’d choose a plot. Romeo and Juliet worked well for Bill and his imitators. Then I’d crack open my laptop, ready to type my way to the waiting fortune. And there it would be. That empty page.
What should I choose for that first word?
Clearly, more planning would be required.
Romeo needs development. He should probably be a veteran. Maybe conflicted about his role in the war. A tragic love affair drove him to enlist, and now he’s back, broken in mind and body, ready for Juliet’s healing love, but what about her? She grew up in Española, but she’s still young. She must have dreams, maybe of moving to a bigger city. Bernalillo? No, she’s more ambitious that that. Santa Fe. There she finds a job as secretary to a wealthy art dealer who flies her around in his private helicopter and makes her sign a non-disclosure agreement before pulling out a pair of handcuffs and . . . no.
Agatha would not approve.
Back to that first word. Just throw something on the page and see what comes next. Something that worked well recently. Maybe Romeo takes a healing walk through the bosque when a large white owl flies by and drops a bottle containing a message at his feet. Maybe it’s a message from Juliet, who can’t make their lunch date because she’s tied up. Maybe . . . maybe it’s time to stuff this story in my trunk and let Agatha rest in peace.
But Romeo has promise. Lose the owl. Lose the bottle. Keep the message. Put a few years on him. Lines on his face. He needs pain to make him interesting, so keep the war, but the bosque doesn’t work. This Romeo wants some distance between himself and the world, so give him a mountain. And don’t make him easy to find. Make the owl work for it. Wait – I lost the owl. Okay, Juliet can deliver the message, but it has to be something big, something explosive. Something out of his past. A bomb might work, but it has to be important to him. There were lots of bombs in the war. Killed lots of people. Maybe this one killed a friend, and Juliet is coming to tell him about it.
Why him? How does she know him? Suppose she’s the friend’s daughter. No, that’s too easy. Not enough conflict. Make her an adopted daughter, adopted out of the war. And we need more tension between Romeo and Juliet. Love interest? No, she’s too young for him. But still, there has to be something. And those names – Romeo and Juliet. Won’t work. What was that poem my stoner friend kept reciting back in the sixties? Something about April. April and Nancy are one. Hated that line, but . . . Nancy won’t work, but April might. And Romeo . . . why not get some mileage out of that stupid character sketch I did back in college? Rainbow. Romeo will be Rainbow Porter and Juliet will be April Bow. Now all that’s needed is a plot.
Remember the time I crawled home from Vesuvio’s back in San Francisco? The story about a shoot-out on the beach between those two CIA operations?
So. Time to type. Start with a setting: “The road to my house twists up the west face of the northern end of the Sandia mountains, doubling back on itself in a number of hairpin curves.”
And that is the opening line of Monkey on a Chain.
Now I see something in the mirror. A war. It’s aftermath. How I feel about the men and women I knew there, both those who left on foot and those who left in the cargo hold. And of course those who couldn’t leave. And their children. All the treachery and deception from all sides. Even the victims, innocent victims and guilty victims alike, involved themselves in one deception or another, and the guilt piled up and flowed, as is its wont, downhill, down the generations, where it taints our children and grandchildren with the same red delusion.
Anyway, that’s a kind of quick sketch of one mirror. There are many others, one to a page for each book I’ve written, published or not. The image in the mirrors is not meant for the readers, though. Not exactly. The image exists to make the words. I expect readers will use the words as a mirror and see in it their own images, whether of devils or angels or just plain folks, family or friends or strangers or enemies. Maybe they will see themselves, if I’ve done my job well, or maybe they’ll just drop the book and fall into an easier sleep.
So now I come to the part of every talk where I’m expected to wrap it all up, tie everything together, and explain the meaning of it all. Well, I began with an apology, and I guess I’ll have to end with one too, because I don’t know what any of this means any more than Helen Daws would know, though like Paula Stafford I have faith that there is some meaning in it, somewhere, and like Nick Cowan I’m sure I’ll have to make a choice, eventually. And as an author, I’m pretty sure that these kinds of connections will keep popping up as long as I keep avoiding reality, whatever that may be, but I’m also suspicious that they may turn out to be no more than fantastical conceits and shameless deceptions. Fiction writers are, after all, notorious liars by definition, and we lie to ourselves almost as much as the rest of the world.