Sunday, August 12, 2012

What Thriller Guy is Reading: Pure Gold

Thriller Guy has commented on several occasions about how he likes reading pieces by writers on how they go about their craft. Of course, much of what a lot of writers say is crap, but you’ve got TG here to help you separate the chaff from the wheat. In a recent issue of Publishers Weekly, at least on their web page, they asked mystery writer Chelsea Cain for some of her writing tips. Cain is the author of a series featuring Det. Archie Sheridan and serial killer Gretchen Lowell. TG has never been assigned any of her books to review, so he can't say that they meet his high standards, but he does like what she has to say about writing. Here are her tips, in shortened form. You can read what she has to say by clicking on the above hyperlink. The first three of these are pretty much obvious, but the last one was new to TG. You can show your appreciation to Chelsea Cain by buying one of her books.

1. Cain: You won’t make a living writing until you learn to write when you don’t want to. A lot of writers wait for the muse to seize them. These writers don’t get much done. Here’s a secret: writing is not always fun. If it is, you’re doing it wrong. 

TG has harped on this over and over. If you are a writer you write every day, if humanly possible. And it's not fun, it's work. You may enjoy it on some levels, but if you tell TG it's fun, he knows that your work is crap.

2. Cain: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Don’t be afraid of clichés. Write the book you want to write. If you want to write about an alcoholic cop with an ex-wife and an insubordination problem, do it.

TG will go along with this one up to a point. He finds that the trick here is putting your own spin on a cliched genre format. And here's a footnote, you'd better read deeply in whatever genre you want to work in, otherwise you won't know what's a cliché and what isn't.

3. Cain: Always remember that you are the boss. Don’t let your characters tell you what to do.  They can be pushy. Some writers say that they create characters and then just sort of follow them around through the narrative. I think that these writers are out of their minds. 

TG thinks writers who say that are full of the aforementioned crap. Make up the damn character and make it do what you want it to do. Just because you use some physical reference to a guy you know doesn't mean that the character has to act and talk like the guy that you know or do what he would do.

5. Cain: Details are not created equally. Writing teachers go on and on about the importance of using details to flesh out a scene. But not all details are created equally. When you write thrillers like I do, and suddenly your main character is running for his life from a serial killer who is chasing him through the woods, slowing down the action with a bunch of descriptions seems counterintuitive. Why would the main character be noticing the pine needles on the ground when he has a killer on his heels? But I’ll tell you a secret, the more detail that I unpack about that woods, the night air, the sky, the sounds of his footsteps, the more tense that scene becomes. I read a study recently. Some professor wanted to look into the experience that time slows in life or death situations and he tied some graduate students to Bungee cords and pushed them off a ledge, and studied the results. His conclusion? In normal circumstances our brain culls details. In tense situations our mind stops culling – it notices everything – because you don’t know what detail is going to save your life. This is what creates the experience of time slowing—lots of details. The next time you’re writing a tension filled scene – maybe there’s a serial killer in it, maybe your character is asking someone out to prom  – remember to stop culling. Notice everything. The acne on her forehead. The buttons on her shirt. It all becomes important. It’s the ordinary moments that fly by. With those, the brain does cull details, so the details that your character does notice become all the more important and revealing. An object accrues more significance every time it’s mentioned. Notice the vase on the table once in a scene, and it’s a detail in the room. Notice the vase on the table three times and it means something to your character. It becomes a prop you can use. It starts to tell a story.  

This one is pure gold. TG likes to think he does this intuitively, but now that he has seen this tip and the explanation he will be paying very close attention the next time he's writing an action scene.TG is going to order a Chelsea Cain novel in payment. I would suggest that every one of you writers and would-be writers buy one of her books in thanks for the tip.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks. I loved the part about slowing down time by adding details to an action scene.