by J.M. Redmann
The Most Important Thing
The first rule–really the only rule, the one you can never break or get around, is that you have to do the work. A book doesn’t get written in a burst of inspiration. A book gets written day after day, page by page by page. Sometimes it takes years and you will have to claw time out of your days when too many things already demand your time. The part of writing that’s seen, open to public scrutiny–the book signings, readings, articles in the paper or on radio or TV–is about five percent of what an author does. The other ninety-five percent is sitting alone in our rooms starting at a computer screen or page in a typewriter or a blank sheet of paper.
My friends (and these are my friends, goodness knows about other people) think I’m strange. The last time I turned my TV on was when there was a major hurricane heading straight for New Orleans. My to-be-read stack has forced me to believe in reincarnation–two or more lifetimes is the only way I’ll get through it. I triage my social engagements, and often avoid all but the necessary ones–”Damn, two weddings and a funeral this month, I’ll never get any writing done.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration–sometimes I skip the weddings . . . .
For me the magic in writing occurs in those lone moments with the words on the page. Have I caught something, trapped a world with words, put people in it, real cantankerous people with messy needs and desires?
If you want to be a writer, the first question to ask yourself is: Can I cleave to the first rule? Do I have the discipline to write day after day–to have to miss a few days or weeks because of work or other commitments and still come back to the writing–day after day, month after month, year after year? If you think that writing is about having adoring fans waiting in hushed silence for your autograph and chunks of money being flung into your bank account–well, it might happen–meteorites fall from the sky, lightning strikes odd and improbable places. I know a number of writers, but only one who actually earns her living by writing (not me, alas). Write because of the words on the page, writing for riches and fame will not sustain you.
Story comes from the intersection of who and what. Who the characters are will determine how they will react to the body in the parlor. We don’t expect the same response from Colonel Mustard that we get from Miss Scarlet. But don’t assume that Miss Scarlet will scream, while Colonel Mustard will remain stoic.
It’s okay to steal–borrow might be the better word, though you won’t be giving anything back–from people you know, people you’ve seen, people you’ve read about, but make sure that you don’t remain locked into, “But she would do it that way.” At some point your characters grow up and take on a life of their own. Real life isn’t fiction.
Know why your characters do things, even if it is an irrational why. If your dainty, 5’2″ female detective is going to chase down the ally after the three big thugs, we have to know why she would do something like that. “Well, there’s no story is she doesn’t,” might be the real reason, but you have to give the reader some reason to believe that she would do such a foolish thing. Revenge? They kicked her beloved dog? Because they hold the key to the case she’s trying to solve and if she doesn’t catch them, she doesn’t get paid and if she doesn’t get paid, she gets evicted and can’t meet her car note? And she really, really likes her car?
I don’t have a formula for writing character. Some people note down complete backstories for their characters–what they eat for breakfast, where they were born, their grade point average in high school–none of which appears in the books. I don’t. I tend to be at the far end of the spectrum of what I’ll call ‘head’ writers. I don’t do an outline for any book and my notes are confined to a notebook that I keep handy in which I occasionally scribble down ideas or plot lines or snatches of dialogue. But I can tell you what my characters have for breakfast, where they were born, etc. I just never write it down. However, pay no attention to how I do it, do what works for you. To be creative enough to write, you have to be creative enough to find your own way of writing.
To me the most important rule for character is to be honest. We’re all messy, mixed up people who sometimes do the wrong thing for the right reason and the right thing for the wrong reason. So will your characters, if you are honest with them. What fascinates me and keeps my characters interesting to me, is the internal struggle they wage–how do ‘good’ characters overcome their desires to be selfish, to be needy, and how do ‘evil’ characters succumb, what pulls them down, what do they get from it, how do they justify their choices? I think to be honest with your characters, you have to be honest with yourself–how were you able to spend a year taking care of your dying mother? Why did you cheat on the test? Did you pass on that bit of malicious gossip about your best friend’s new girlfriend that you don’t like or did you keep it to yourself? What pivot allowed you to forgive your brother? Acknowledge that you’re a messy person with conflicting desires and aspirations, angers and temptations, virutes and vices. Be willing to explore the far reaches of your soul and you will find all of your characters there.
People often tell me that they ‘couldn’t put my book down.’ As with character, I have no formula for creating suspense. My best advice is to make it matter. Make us care about the people and what happens to them. If we care about the person killed or wronged–it doesn’t always have to be murder–it can be a poison pen letter, something stolen–if we care enough about the people in the book we will care what happens to them. (I personally don’t like using murder is shorthand for saying ‘this is important, of course a dead body means that the detective must solve the mystery.’ Make us see why this dead body is important and what compels your detective to have to solve the crime.)
There are a few ‘cheap’ tricks for ratcheting up suspense. Time is one of them. Give us a deadline. A kidnapped child who will be killed in three days. The bomb goes off at five p.m. just when the rush hour crowds will be leaving. Your detective has two days to prove her harebrained theory and then she’s fired/the computer is taken away/etc.
Add obstacles. In one of my books, I have my detective wounded in the leg, and having to escape from the bad guys by trekking through a swamp. Loss of blood makes her progressively weaker, she stumbles over snakes and sinks into mud holes. Make the obstacles real–to use my example, the snakes work in a Louisiana swamp, but might seem contrived on the streets of New York. (Unless earlier you’ve planted a very good reason for there to be mean snakes on the mean streets.)
Location, location, location. Some places are more suspenseful than others. Swamps vs. convents, for example. Put the detective in an unfamiliar place–or a familiar place that discombobulates your detective, such as the scene of a previous murder or the place her mother abandoned her. Make it a confined space such as a warehouse or on board a ship with no escape. Or have a scene of mayhem–the detective and the bad guys weaving through the madness of Mardi Gras, with masked people and surreal costumes on every corner.
Suspense isn’t just a madly rushing plot, page after page of bad men with guns going after your detective becomes wearying after awhile. Is it a .45 or an AK47 won’t keep most readers on the edge of their chair. For me, real suspense always starts with character, how does this person handle this problem? In The Intersection of Law and Desire, my character was given the task of investigating a possible case of sexual abuse. The questions I wanted to explore were: How did her past history of having been abused affect her handling of this case? Would she cross the line into obsession–doing anything to prevent what had happened to her happening to another girl? What damage would the forced revisiting of her past have on her, on her sexuality, on her relationship with her lover? It was her struggle with all these issues, not just finding out ‘who dunnit’ that made the story interesting for me to write, and hopefully, for others to read.
If the struggle of good vs. evil is easy–wonderwoman sucker punches the bad guys–then the end is a forgone conclusion and suspense is lost. If the struggle of good vs. evil is not only hard, but not always clear cut–the bad guys aren’t totally bad and the good guys have their faults and failings–then the struggle becomes a real battle and one that commands our attention. Keep your stakes not only high, but real. The destruction of the world is certainly high stakes, but unless the reader believes that the world may well be destroyed, the stakes are not real.
The only other rule is that if it works, it works. There are no other rules.