Friday, October 12, 2012

Follow Your Passion Bullshit

Thriller Guy hates to be the curmudgeon always raining on the manuscripts of thousands of wantabe writers. Young and old, pounding away on their computers, or, more usually, talking about the book they would write if they only had the time. These are the ones who always say they are passionate about writing. Oh, please, spare me. TG has written in this blog about how he hates hearing over and over again from writers who claim they are driven to write, that even if they never earned a penny for it they would write. One pictures them sitting at the kitchen table in their ratty pajamas, emaciated, slowly starving to death, pen in hand.

TG knows a lot of writers. Most of them, no, all of them, write because they need to earn a living and the one thing they are good at or at least pretty good at is writing. Many of them are passionate, but none of them are passionate about writing. Among their various passions are sports, golf, naked women, drinking, the stock market, watching movies, playing games on their computer and caring for their children. So TG has sat by silently and listened to the good-hearted folks who are always telling kids to follow their passion. Silently because he is tired of pissing these sorts of chuckleheads off. Or at least tired of hearing from these chuckleheads after he has pissed them off.

Recently a sort of backlash has arisen which gladdens TG’s heart. Michael Ruhlman, a famous food writer, recently wrote a great blog saying he too is sick of hearing this advice aimed at young cooks. In this excellent blog, he pointed TG to a writer, Daniel Coyle, who says pretty much the same thing in a couple of blog entries. Rather than having TG paraphrase, just go over to his site and see what he has to say.

Here’s the deal. It’s not about passion, it’s about work. You want to write a novel? Fine, you can write a novel. TG can teach you the technical parts. Others can as well. (Quite soon TG will have his new website up where you can learn all the cool details about hiring TG to chew your ass out until you’ve got an actual book written.) TG’s method, and this is the name of his forthcoming book on the subject, is:

Shut Up. Sit Down and Get to Work: Thriller Guy’s Guide to Writing a Novel.

TG would love to have some magical method to impart that would lead to the glories of publishing. Anyone who promises you anything like that is full of crap. The Interweb can point you to hundreds of these shysters who will promise you the moon and charge you accordingly. TG spits on these people.  So for now, TG will leave you with the only thing you really need to know.

Shut up. Sit down and get to work.

And he says that with great passion.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Why We Write What We Write

Thriller Guy’s alter ego Allen Appel’s first published novel was the time travel book Time After Time. (Buy it HERE for Kindle!) He has written on this blog about how the book was conceived, written and followed by four more in the series. TG, and Appel, have remained interested in the story of the murder of the Tsar and his family as details have come to light over the years. When TG’s pal Syd Jones blogged about a new book on the topic, TG snagged a chunk of the Q&A with author Sam Eastland about his book, Archive 17, to use here. To see the entire interview, go to Syd’s excellent book blog, Scene of the Crime. What was particularly interesting to TG was Eastland’s explanation of how the idea for his book came to him.
“During the mid 1990’s, a friend of mine was present at a construction site in Russia when a backhoe unearthed the body of a soldier. The dead man was laying spread-eagled on the carcass of a horse which had been buried at the same time. The man was wearing a long greatcoat, tall boots and had a thick leather belt across his middle. The clothing and the body had been preserved by the soil so that the man appeared to be partially mummified. Upon examination of the corpse, it became clear that the rider had been buried around the time of the First World War. It also seemed clear, from the fact that he had been laid to rest along with his horse, that the man had probably been buried on the same spot where he had been killed. The man’s belt buckle, which clearly showed the double-headed eagle of the Romanovs, identified him as a soldier of the Tsar’s Army.  However, because of the location, which was not on what would have been the front lines during the Great War, the man must have been buried after, not during, the war. This would have placed the soldier’s death at some time in the early days of the Revolution, when soldiers still loyal to the Tsar, known as the Whites, fought pitched battles with the Bolsheviks, who became known as the Reds. During the course of the construction, several other bodies were discovered, all of whom were similarly dressed and, presumably, had been killed during the same battle. After the bodies had been re-interred, my friend was given one of the belt buckles as a souvenir. He then passed it on to me, and I still have it.
For every book, there is always some unexpected catalyst that sets everything in motion. Waiting for these catalysts to take hold is like standing in the path of a gently falling meteor shower. Ideas will come hurtling past, but they don’t hit you, so eventually you forget them. But then some image or some anecdote, will strike you right between the eyes. From that point on, the formation of the book becomes like the making of a pearl inside an oyster. The grain of sand embeds itself inside the oyster. The oyster is not trying to produce a thing of beauty. It is trying to survive. The pearl is the product of pain. It is the same with these stories. Once they have snagged like a fishhook in your brain, you have to find a way to work them loose.
Holding that buckle in my hand made me think of the tens of thousands of people who were swallowed up in that revolution whose stories have never been told. For months after I began writing the Eye of the Red Tsar, that rider galloped through my dreams. It became an act of self-preservation to conjure back to life the story of that buckle, and of the man who wore it to his death.”
TG, and Appel, understand the power of an object to evoke a story. Usually Appel sees a period photograph that somehow calls to him across time and sets up an echo in his mind that rattles around until a story begins to fall into place around it. With Appel’s last book, it was a photograph of Abraham Lincoln looking at a book with his son Tad, a photograph that had sat on a bookshelf above his computer for 20 years.
What’s the point here, TG?
When searching for a story idea, look around and see if anything calls to you, Seeing a picture, holding a belt buckle, going to a museum, or even a walk in the woods can jog loose a single thought, that, amazingly, will sometimes spin itself into a story, a novel.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Warriors and Writing

Here are a couple of treats for TG’s loyal readers. A video of a Maori military unit giving a send off to one of its members. This was sent to TG by his writing partner,  Mike Rothmiller. Three minutes or so of video and there’s enough backstory implied to hang a novel on. My gift to someone who wants to do the work and write it.

Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment send-off for a fallen comrade. This is Maori war chant tradition. Note when the procession leaves, the ghillie suited sniper is point man.

And here’s a URL for the script for the pilot episode of Breaking Bad. There is no better show on television:

And this week’s writing tip.

A year or so ago TG was having an email conversation with the great military/aviation/adventure writer Dale Brown, who was at the forefront of that genre with his great thriller Flight of the Old Dog and who has published a dozen or so NYTs best sellers. Dale said he liked TG’s blog but that he wouldn’t be reading it “because it was about Hemingway and literature” and he didn’t have time for that at this point in his career. TG was a bit bothered by this because he hopes that his blog isn’t about literature, but about writing and reading on a more workmanlike level, but he respects Dale’s opinion and his work. So if the following gets a bit heady, soldier on and TG hopes you’ll pick up a tip or two that will help you not with your literary writing, but your every day get-the-job-done writing in whatever genre vineyard you are laboring.  Onward…

The New York Times sometimes runs essays on writing in their series entitled Draft. This Sunday, September 30, they ran an essay by Michael Erard, the author of the book: Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. While the article was fairly obtuse, some of what Erard was talking about was reminiscent of some of TG’s earlier blogs.

Writers need to be careful about what they are reading when they are in the process of writing. If TG is writing a thriller, he steers clear of reading other thrillers (mostly, for the caveat see the writing tip below) for fear of picking up another writer’s style. He also steers clear of books that have strong styles, say, reading Shakespeare or someone writing a novel about Spanish people complete with dialogue. You wouldn’t want to be reading The Friends of Eddy Coyle and put the book down and start in on your own stuff.  This novel, by George V. Higgins, has a strong auditory style, written almost completely in dialogue as spoken by Boston dwellers in 1970. If you haven’t read it, do so as it is master writing at its finest. Just don't read it before starting in on your own work.

Here’s a chunk of the article from the NYTs:  “…your brain’s activity in one part of the day shapes it in another, especially when it comes to creating sentences. This is a real phenomenon, described by psycholinguists, who call it ‘structural priming’ or ‘syntactic persistence.’  Basically, earlier patterns in what you say or read or write “prime” you to repeat them when you are acting automatically.”

TG takes this to mean, putting it simply, just what he said several paragraphs above: if you read Brad Thor before you start to write, you’re going to sound like Brad Thor. If you read William Faulkner before you write, you’re going to echo William Faulkner. Here’s the question: if you’re writing an action adventure thriller, who do you want to sound like?

Erard’s article was primarily advice for writers, like himself, who have a day jobs writing, say, technical articles about the drug chemical industry and at night writing, say, thrillers or science fiction, sex books or poetry for that matter. He says you must “cleanse” you day-writing before beginning your night, or after-work, writing. “Each time you sit down to write, you should cleanse your linguistic palate by reading some things that are vastly unlike what you’ve been writing.” That may be true, but TG is more interested in how you set the tone for any of your own writing, be it day or night.

When TG was starting out as an action thriller writer, if he was heading into an action scene, he would pick up an early Richard Marcinko book, turn to any page with an action scene -- and there were many -- read it, put the book down and then plow straight into his own action scene. The point was not to sound like Marcinko, it was to pick up the straight-ahead, headlong rush of Marcinko’s rhythm, the adrenalin rush of his scene. Later on, TG would rewrite the scene making sure he took out any Marcinkoisms that were too close. It worked very well, but TG would advise against using Demo Dick’s present-day books which are often so jokey you might pick up more than action in the vibe. There are plenty of this type of thriller to choose from.

But here’s the real tip… if you want to sound like an author you care about, and who’s style you are happy to emulate, then read yourself before you start writing. TG’s tip is the same as Hemmingway’s ”stop your day’s writing in the middle of a sentence and the next day begin where the sentence leaves off.”  TG advises writers to begin a new writing day by reading, and correcting, all that was written on the preceding day. By the time you have finished that chore, you will have the style and pace of your own writing in your head. You can then head right into a new day of writing untainted by anyone else. And when you need an extra jolt, pick up something fast and hard and give it a paragraph or two.

Then the next day you start all over again. And the next day. And the next. In about a year you’ll have a novel, written in your own style.