Early in my writing career I focused entirely on writing screenplays—something I would not recommend to the foolhardy. You see, unlike novels, screenplays serve absolutely no purpose if you can’t sell them. They sit in a pile in the corner of your home office collecting dust, instead of appearing with nice covers on Amazon. That said, if you are lucky enough to have a written a screenplay that sold (I did that once), you might be on your way to an actual career in the movie business.
But enough about fairy tales.
Horror Comedy, Anyone?
I want to talk about a particular screenplay I wrote a few years back that had to do with a fourteen-year-old girl, a nasty marital breakup and a behind-the-scenes look at an indie horror film. Sounds fascinating, right? At the time I really thought I could make that thing sing. Now, from a technical perspective the work was professional. But I was never really able to generate enough interest. So … I tossed it into the corner and allowed it to gather a nice patina of dust.
I’d been toying with the idea of adapting some of my screenplays into novels. I mean, why let all that good writing go to waste? And I decided that, because I had just come off a heavy horror thriller trilogy with lots of bloodshed, I would tackle a fun horror comedy … with somewhat less bloodshed.
I’m just about finished with the “novelization”—something I’d never done before. And let me tell you, it’s hair-raising. In screenplays, each page is a combination of slug lines, short descriptions and dialogue. That’s it. Try turning that into beautiful prose that descends on the reader like the first gentle snowfall in a New England winter. The process is quite instructive, though, and I am learning more about voice than I ever thought I would.
I’ll keep you posted on the progress from time to time, but it’s my goal to turn this thing into an enjoyable book that captures some of the craziness of living in LA, from the POV of a precocious teenager. Wish me luck.
If you plan on reading the TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD series but haven’t gotten around to it yet, then stop right here! Go ahead—I’ll wait.
Okay, you know the title of this post is total clickbait, right? Admit it, though. It got your attention. Anyway, I want to talk about killing someone and actually getting away with it. Before you call 911, let me explain. I am a writer and I create characters. Many times the characters are expendable—bad guys, helpless bystanders … But sometimes I am forced to grapple with killing off a character who is not only central to the story but beloved.
This is what happened when writing my horror thriller trilogy TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD.
Plotters and Pantsers
Before I go any further, I must tell you there are two kinds of writers—plotters and pantsers. Plotters like to create vast, detailed-filled outlines before writing a single word of their novel. When they are finished, they know exactly where they are going and how they will get there. Good for them. I hate plotters. Which brings me to pantsers …
We pantsers like to fly by the seat of our pants. We have only the vaguest notion of where we are going, and we have no frickin’ idea how we will get there. Welcome to my world, by the way.
Pantsers manage to move the story along through intuition and serendipity. When we are inspired, we happily travel in a westerly direction. When we are stuck, we curse and throw things and gain fifteen pounds. But here’s the dirty little secret—and it’s why no one in the history of writing has ever proven once and for all that plotters are better at writing than pantsers, or vice versa. Why?
Because we all end up in the same place.
Now, you could argue that plotters write faster because they already have the story down pat. But that’s not entirely true, since they must spend a fair amount of time creating their outline—a step pantsers like me happily skip.
So what does all this have to do with murder?
Death in Venice
I made the decision to kill off a main character in Book Two. And I did it after discovering she needed to be dead in order for the protagonist Dave Pulaski to fulfill his destiny in Book Three. For those of you who read Books One and Two, you’ll know I’m talking about Dave’s wife, Holly. And this was no easy task. Here’s the pivotal scene …
Holly stood there on the platform, paralyzed. Her slender body trembled. She couldn’t even cry. Next to her, Griffin and Fabian stood mutely, his fingers reaching for her hand and gripping it. I wanted to will myself to Holly’s side and made a move to reach her. The cop standing next to O’Brien pointed his rifle at my head. Warnick gripped my shoulder. Balls of red light streaked across my eyes. My heart raced. I wanted to rip out the throats of everyone who meant to harm my family.
“You took away everything from me!” the mayor said. “My wife, my sons … my future!”
The mayor let out a pitiful wail that echoed throughout the cavern. O’Brien eyed him uncomfortably. His voice softer, he said, “If you hadn’t come after me, they’d still be alive.”
Warnick wasn’t finished with him. “Why did you leave them behind? You could have saved them.”
“You don’t understand. This was supposed to be my ticket …” Choking up, he forced himself to go on. “It’s bigger than you can imagine. They got me out of there, they …”
“You abandoned your wife and children,” Warnick said, unafraid.
“They promised me,” the mayor said, weeping.
Overlapping voices echoed in the cavern, and I struggled to make sense of them. Sweat dripped into my eyes, and the vague forms of Holly, Griffin and Fabian wavered in front of me like ghosts in the harsh orange light, pleading with me to do something. I wiped my eyes, and Holly screamed. When I looked up I found her on her knees in front of the mayor.
The mayor tore the weapon from O’Brien’s hand and pointed it at Holly’s head. My heart thudded—I couldn’t breathe.
“Dave, I love you! I’ll always love you!”
“Please,” I said. “Please don’t.” I wept, unable to control myself. I was completely helpless—at the mercy of a madman. There was nothing I could do.
“I lost everything,” the mayor said, his voice a monotone. “Let me show you what that feels like.”
It was a dream. The bullet—a .45, I think—left the chamber so slowly. I could see it spinning as it raced home to its target. Every thought in my brain vanished, my mind laser-focused on the deadly projectile. And when it struck my wife in the head, exploding out the other side in a burst of blood, brains and bone, I died for a little while. That picture—that memory of Holly—the impact of the bullet twisting her sideways and down into the dirt—that photograph is burned in my memory forever like a cattle brand. And it’s always accompanied by the sound of screaming—Griffin maybe—and Greta’s desperate, urgent barking.
It was a dream—I knew it was. Not real. A nightmare. But if it was, why couldn’t I wake up?
Because it was real. There was no escaping it—not this time. If I’d been holding my weapon I would have used it to join Holly. There wasn’t any point in going on. She was all I had lived for. Nothing else mattered. And the baby. So blessed to be conceived but not to be born. I fell to my knees and could only remain there, sobbing.
I’m sure you’ve heard of writers who weep when their characters die. After I wrote that scene, I cried like a baby. Really. I loved Holly deeply, and I wanted with all my heart to let her live. But she couldn’t. She had to die in order to give Dave the hate he needed to exact his revenge in Book Three.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I wanted you to know that writers do care deeply about our characters. When they suffer, we suffer. And when you think about it, doesn’t that make for a better reading experience?
Want to know what the hardest thing about writing is? For me it isn’t a lack of ideas. I have more stories knocking around in my head than time. In fact, when they bury me I will ask that they toss in the dog-eared notebook with all the unfulfilled dreams I had hoped to get down on paper. Is it a clean well-lighted place? No. I work in a dungeon of sorts. I do have access to coffee and a bathroom, though, so it’s not so bad. Honestly, the hardest thing about writing is not writing. Why? Because it’s 2016, people, and there are just TOO MANY DAMNED DISTRACTIONS!
Finding a Balance
Now, I am not suggesting that just because I am a writer I shouldn’t get to enjoy a little R&R. But bingeing on ‘Nurse Jackie’? I literally spent the summer getting caught up on ‘Supernatural’—which is a great show, BTW. I even bought Season 11 on Amazon Prime. But it’s these kinds of stupid interruptions that kill the writing process.
Want some more? How about Facebook? Yeah, that. Okay, I love staying in touch with family and friends, but do I really need to watch another hoverboard catch fire? And Twitter—don’t get me started. I mainly use that to curate and share content I am interested in. I also do a little marketing. But the thing is a huge time sink, let me tell you. What about reading? That is not a distraction. To write better, you need to read more. The truth is, I don’t read nearly enough either.
Okay, time for a resolution. I need to dial down on Netflix and amp up on actual writing. The only reason I’m baring my soul like this is because I am confident there are hundreds—if not thousands—of writers out there suffering from the same condition. Look, it’s easy not to write. All you have to do is pretend you’ll do it tomorrow. And let me tell you, streaming and social media were godsends for the born procrastinator. Hooray, ‘Orphan Black’! Nevertheless, the next book isn’t going to write itself.
So, say it with me …
I will write first and goof off later.
I will ignore cute pet videos, raging political debates and recipes from the New York Times.
But above all, I will spend more time with my family, because writing will never be as important.