Friday, April 26, 2013

John McPhee and How to Write.

Thriller Guy would like to take a quick break from the “Mistakes Thriller Writers Make” series. The current issue of The New Yorker has a must-read article for anyone who writes, young, old, newbie or seasoned professional: Draft No. 4. TG loves this piece because McPhee says the same things that TG has been yelling about for years in this blog. TG devoured McPhee’s early writing -- late 70’s, 80’s and even into the early 90’s -- until it finally just became too hard to pay close attention to the hundreds and hundreds of pages as McPhee sank into complexity and minutia until an exhausted TG cried “enough!” and just quit reading him. It was way too much work.

In the early 90’s, TG heard an interview with McPhee in which the writer was asked -- out of his eight hour writing day, how much of that time did he enjoy what he was doing? “About one minute,” he said. “Maybe two if it’s an especially good day.” TG was astounded, not because the time was so little, but because that’s exactly the way TG felt. Here was a real writer and his message that day to TG was: You are not alone. You are not a whining slacker. (Though that word was not yet common.) TG was just like John McPhee! Well, at least on this one small point.

So here comes McPhee in the New Yorker this week and he’s just as adamant as he ever was about the pain and perils of the writing life.

He is particularly good on first drafts: “You are working on a first draft and small wonder you’re unhappy. If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.”

You can look back in the TG archives and find the many times TG has excoriated the pompous assholes who tell him, and the world, that they live to write, that they would do it for free simply because they must, they are driven to write, blah blah blah. Here’s McPhee: “If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you, “just love to write,” you may be delusional.”

Or like TG says, you’re an asshole. Probably you can’t say that in The New Yorker.

More on first drafts: “For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something – anything – out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something – anything – as a first draft. With that you have achieved a sort of nucleus.”

Exactly. And when you have that first draft you can go back and start fixing things, putting in things, developing some complexity in tone, character and plot. You can then begin the actual business, craft and art of writing.

In a letter to his daughter, a novelist who has said to him that she doubts she should be doing it at all, saying “Who am I kidding?” He responds, “I still ask myself, ‘Who am I kidding?’ Not long ago that question seemed so pertinent to me that I would bury my head in my office pillow. To feel such doubt is a part of the picture – important and inescapable. When I hear some young writer express that sort of doubt, it serves as a check-point; if they don’t say something like it they are quite possibly, well, kidding themselves.”

But enough of TG passing along John McPhee’s advice. Get a copy of the April 29 issue and read it for yourself. It’s full of gold. Keep it in your desk drawer and when you’re asking yourself, “Who am I kidding?’ take it out and reread it. Or just swing on over to TG’s blog and see what he has to say. It’ll be pretty much the same advice, only here the curse words are left in.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Five Mistakes Thriller Writers Make: Number Four.

The Two M’s: Motivation and Method.

OK, Maybe there’s going to be Six Mistakes. We’ll see how long this takes; maybe we’ll break it up into two parts.

Thriller motivation: by that TG means what drives the bad guy, from the creepy loner who kidnaps women and takes them into his underground lair, to the power-obsessed madman with legions of minions who stands on the edge of the cliff in the driving rain, screaming into the night, “I WILL RULE THE WORLD!”

You’d think there would be a hell of a lot of psychological distance in between these two extremes, but is there really? It seems to TG, after reading and reviewing hundreds and hundreds of thrillers, that the motivations that drive these two individuals to commit their crimes are often not all that different.

This makes it really tough for thriller writers. There always needs to be a reason villains commit crimes. And Thriller Guy gets mighty sick of reading the same solutions to this particular plot problem over and over again. It is true, as in basic plots, there isn’t a whole lot to choose from, which means writers have to find their own take on motivation and make it new, different or more credible than all those that have gone before. Which circles back to an earlier Mistake: know thy genre. If you haven’t read deeply in the thriller canon you’re not going to know what’s already been not just done, but done to death.

Bad guy characters can be fun to create, often far more fun than heroes, but they aren’t easy. They have to be interesting, smart enough to prove worthy opponents, but also really, truly bad. Not misunderstood, not bad for a good reason, but just downright bad. To the bone.

So here are some possibilities. Thriller Guy would love to hear from you if you want to chime in other motivators. That’s what the Comment section is for.

Pure evil. Very few people are born evil. Though some are, at least in fiction, so let’s give those individuals the first motive to do the bad things that they do: that’s just the way they came out of the womb. Rosemary’s Baby is one of them, though that little fellow may be an extreme case. Then there’s the thing that popped out in the old movie It’s Alive! Whoa. He was really scary, but these are horror anomalies. Let’s just say that your position is,  He Was Born That Way. You can build in a good backstory if you want, (and TG would advise it) but it’s a simple motivation that a good writer can get away with: you just say that’s the way this person has always been. If you insist on it, most readers will go along. But the story you’re telling has got to be good enough to soak up all a reader’s attention, otherwise, readers will start thinking too much. So here’s TG’s Golden Rule of Thriller Writing: You don’t want your readers thinking, you want your readers reading. So go ahead and say the villain is bad and has always been that way. Then turn him loose to do his worst. If your story is compelling enough, you can get away with it. Did TG say you had to be good, no, really good, to pull this off? Yes, he did. But it can work. Sometimes flailing around trying to explain things that can’t be explained is far worse than just declaring them so.

His parents did it to him. (Sidebar: Him. It’s always Him. Where are the really great women villains?) His parents, singly or together, turned him into whatever sort of monster he is. This is a big one in the business, and TG is getting pretty tired of it. Mrs. Bates is an early progenitor with her son Norman, (with a new TV series to prove it) but there are many examples. Usually mom or dad perform unspeakable acts on these children and they grow up to perform unspeakable acts themselves. This has a lot of science in its side, so it’s an evergreen, but it’s tired, tired, tired.

The Bad Americans did it. International terrorists spring from an unending string of vicious American military men who storm into innocent households and shoot all the adults, who chase down truckloads of men with drones and kill everyone, including the children aboard who are on their way home from school, who rape, who commit atrocities upon, usually, Middle Eastern men, women and children. And then the children grow up to declare jihad on the Evil Empire. It’s probably true enough in real life to explain at least some of the horror visited upon the world by angry, violent terrorists, but it’s getting old in fiction. It’s an easy motivation for newbies, insiders who don’t know the genre, or lazy writers who just want to get on with their gore-fest.

Revenge. See above. And it doesn’t have to be just military guys in the Mid East, you’ve got anger against cops, both good and bad, and any federal agency, government entity, high school indignity, or any other moment where someone feels dissed by someone else. Even the smallest injury can grow in the minds of a nutter to proportions where going into a grade school with an automatic weapon can actually make sense to these people. Remember, couple revenge with insanity and the sky is the limit. Is it a good technique? It’s a cliché, but good things can be done if you can turn a cliche to work in your own favor. Give it a new twist and you’ve moved it into new territory. Remember, you have to know what is old before you can make something new. Read, read, read.

Ideology. This used to be easier when Communism made sense to a lot of people, but when the wall came down it no longer seemed like a rational reason for anything. Now that the old commies and the even older Nazis have all aged out, these cabals of doddering elderly men just seem plain silly. (Sidebar:  If you haven’t read the Ira Levin novel or seen the 1978 movie The Boys From Brazil do so immediately. You’ll see what a master can do with this type of material that is no longer viable to lesser writers.) Fortunately for thriller writers, Religion has replaced political ideology with a great reason to kill lots of people: God wants them to do it. It’s hard to dismiss this as a good motivation because in real life there are millions of individuals who believe it to their very core and who are perfectly happy to go to their deaths in pursuit of it. Much of civilization has progressed to about the fourteenth century where the inhabitants are perfectly happy living in a world where the simple values of raping their own wives, demeaning all women and killing anyone their local religious leader tells them needs killing makes sense. The whole 14 virgins thing is a joke to modern, thinking people, but most religious folk, be they God-fearing fundamentalist Americans as well as the most deluded jihadist, pretty much believe the same brand of religious idiocy. They are simply different sides of the same ignorant coin. So if you’re looking for a mass murderer who has no pity, empathy or sympathy, you can’t go wrong with your religious fanatic especially if you put him at the head of a anti-government radical-right hate group.

Power. This is usually at the base of any of the above motives, be it power over a tied-up defenseless woman or power over a world that trembles at your feet because if they don’t do what you order them to do you’ll turn on your earthquake machine. Or tornado machine. (You can’t imagine how sick TG is of guys with machines that control the weather. These books are usually written by TV weathermen who seem to have never read a thriller before they decided it would be a good way to make some extra money. After all, how hard could it be?) Or unleash your suitcase nuke, or regular sized nuke. Power is still a believable motivation, but it usually needs to be hooked up with one or more of the above motivations as well – ideology, religion, etc. But it is, in the end, kind of boring unless you can build a really interesting, exciting tale around what is a very shopworn reason to commit malfeasance, small or large.

And now we come to the biggest, simplest, most convincing of all reasons for crime of any variety:

Money. Everyone understands the desire for money. But here’s the problem -- how much money is in play? TG always remembers that great scene in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, when Dr. Evil tells the meeting of the world’s rulers that he will unleash his death bomb unless they pay him the sum of One. Million. Dollars! And everyone laughs at him. But that’s the problem. Say Dr. Evil asks for a trillion dollars. (Or in other films, a cajilion bazillion dollars) Each amount presents it’s own set of problems. We live in an age where dollar amounts have risen to such levels that they are incomprehensible not only to readers, but villains as well. After all, how much does it cost to buy a dormant extinct volcano island lair for your diabolical experiments? And do you take the money in used hundreds or maybe there’s a bank somewhere that will handle the transaction. So money, sure, great motivator, but how do you handle the inherent problems? Once again, it can work, but you’d better be damn clever.

OK, TG is tired. Time to go have a drink. Have one yourself while you ruminate on the above. Here’s the takeaway: There are main motivators as the basis of evil in the thriller world. They’ve been used effectively over the years. So effectively they have become tired and shopworn. Mistake Number Four is either using an old plot device because you don’t know any better, or because you’re not good enough to change it, or don’t care enough to work up something new. Writers need to come up with new motivators or they need to retool old ones in new ways. TG can’t tell you how to pull off this trick (well, maybe he could, but he’s not handing that info away for free, go to The Appel Store and see the excellent deal offered there.) As always, it comes down to TG’s thriller mantra:

Shut up. Sit down. Get to work.