Today, I had the pleasure of being a guest over at The Kill Zone. These guys are first-rate authors. Take a look at my post and decide whether I measure up.
If, as Stephen King likes to say, the road to hell is paved with adverbs, then finishing a novel is paved with mouse traps; and here you are trying to get across that minefield in your bare feet. As writers, we tend to get distracted—a lot. Thanks, Netflix. And then, there’s life. How many of you have said, “If only I could focus exclusively on my writing, I’d finish this damn book, by cracky.” I know I have. Repeatedly over the years, much to the irritation of my long-suffering wife.
Then, a little thing called COVID-19 happened. We were told we had to shelter in place. Sure, there was still Netflix and Amazon Prime to distract us, but we couldn’t go anywhere. What’s a writer to do? Well, like the wily poker player whose bluff was called, I decided to shut up and write. And guess what, I finished the damn book.
Pantsers Are People, Too
I’m a pantser by trade. That means I don’t have a clue where I’m heading when I begin a new book. That’s not entirely true. I do know where I would like to end up, but I haven’t worked out the details. I have a main character in mind, of course. And I’m pretty clear on the conflict arising between the mc’s goal and the thing standing in the way. Other than that, I’m free as a bird when it comes to the plot. I suspect that some plotters look at pantsers as undisciplined children with uncombed hair and sticky fingers. My image of a plotter is a person who dresses impeccably and has an English accent. Borrowing from the wonderfully insane film Galaxy Quest, plotters are Alexander Dane, while pantsers are Jason Nesmith.
The book in question is the third in my supernatural suspense series, Sarah Greene Mysteries. My main character sees ghosts, which tends to get her into serious trouble. Over the course of the three novels, Sarah goes from discovering a mirror that holds the spirit of a dead girl to the entire town pretty much erupting into flames. Now, as a card-carrying pantser, I had no idea how I was going to go from a murder mystery to Armageddon. I had to trust that the characters would get me to my destination. Spoiler alert—going about crafting a novel this way requires you to rewrite. Often. That’s the downside. The upside is, there are lots of opportunities for discovery. And then, there is what I like to call the happy accident, which in my opinion, is a gift from heaven and makes for a better story.
When I started writing fiction seriously, I pretty much began the process by staring down the blank page and typing words. I didn’t produce a complex outline or write detailed backstories about my principle characters. I just wrote. And wrote. And wrote. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a pantser. I knew this when I used to write screenplays. I was always taught to create the outline, define the characters—and only then, begin with FADE IN. I tried this once, and I got so frustrated, I gave up and banged out the damn thing. Take THAT, mother!
Defining the Terms For those of you who might be new to the discussion, let’s first explain the terms. I am quoting the from a post I found over at “The Write Practice.” For my money, these comments work pretty well as definitions.
Plotters, having planned out their novel ahead of time, know what’s going to happen before they write it. This makes it easier to bust writer’s block. It’s harder to get stuck when you know what’s going to happen next. Plotters also tend to get their novels written faster, or at least more smoothly.
Pantsers have the freedom to take their novel in any direction they want. They have flexibility. They’re not stuck following an outline, so if they don’t like a character, they can simply kill him. If they don’t like the way their plot is going, they can change it.
I will say that if you read the article, you’ll notice the author is biased in favor of plotters. And I say, bully for her. Because, in the end, whether you are a plotter or a panster—if you’re a good writer—it doesn’t matter. Let me give you an example.
At the risk of bringing up Woody Allen, I would like to talk about that beautiful and funny opening scene in his 1980 film Stardust Memories. The whole thing was heavily influenced by the opening to Fellini’s 8-1/2, by the way. Even some of the shots are nearly identical. Never mind.
In this scene, the main character, Sandy Bates, finds himself on a train. He is surrounded by humorless passengers who look like they’re on their way to a mortician’s convention. He happens to look out the window and sees another train across the way, filled with well-dressed passengers drinking champagne and laughing gaily as they show each other their trophies. One woman blows him a kiss. Realizing he must be on the wrong train, he tries to get off, but it’s no use. At the end of the scene, Sandy’s train has arrived at a landfill. But so has the other train.
Now, I’m not saying plotters are humorless, and pantsers are happy-go-lucky folks who like to socialize with a drink in their hand (wink wink). It’s just that if you are a professional writer, you’re getting to your destination despite the How. By the way, that girl blowing the kiss? Sharon Stone.
The Problem with Labeling I don’t like being labeled. No one does. So, whoever came up with these labels for writers must own a labeling machine company. My main problem is that calling someone a pantser vs. a plotter seems to imply that pantsers don’t care about the plot. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We do care, but we just haven’t figured it out yet. With each new book, we are on a road of discovery. And trying to lay it all out in advance isn’t much fun. It’s like eating your vegetables. We want dessert!
Another problem with labeling is that it encourages people to take sides, which is never a good thing. Need proof? How about the HUAC hearings in the late 1940s which led to the Hollywood blacklist. Yeah, that went really well; it practically tore the country apart. Fun times, people.
Finally, what if you’re a writer who is somewhere in the middle? I’ve adjusted my writing process to accommodate a short synopsis and a timeline, so I don’t trip myself up by getting dates wrong and such. I still don’t consider myself a plotter, because I don’t follow an outline. So, what does that make me, a hybrid? Sounds kind of SciFi-ish, don’t you think? Folks, to deal with the hybrid problem, I’m afraid we’re going to have to ban these nutjobs from ever using Amazon KDP again.
Okay, so here it is. When I sit down to write a new novel or short story, I have a general idea of where I am going, and I let my characters tell me where they need to go next. If that sounds a little new-agey, I get it. But it’s true. I can’t tell you how many times a character has surprised me by disobeying me. Come on—I’M the writer! And guess what—the story was better for it. I’m not sure those kinds of discoveries would happen if I forced myself to outline. And as far as plot, I can assure you, there is one.
Wrap-Up So, whether you like to write copious outlines with detailed scene descriptions—or you’d rather put on your shoes, go outside, and see where the road takes you—I applaud you. Over the years, I’ve read many wonderful books by plotters and panters. And to be honest, I couldn’t tell the difference in terms of quality. They were both excellent. Why? Because the authors did the hard work.
Look, the point of writing is not to feel bad about yourself. Writers do that enough already. We should celebrate who we are and be professional writers. I don’t know, maybe out there somewhere there’s a plotter who wishes she were a pantser. Sure. And maybe unicorns are real.
This is the last in a three-part series on better writing. In Part One, I covered prologues and why I don’t like them. You can find that here. In Part Two, I delved into what I like to call “dithering,” or boring the reader to death before you can get to the frickin’ point. Click here to find out what I’m talking about. In this final installment, I want to cover something that, as least in my reading experience, is rare. Nevertheless, I think for the reader it’s a turn-off. Here we go.
Abandoning Your Protagonist This one is a doozy and something that’s still hard for me to get my head around. I started reading a thriller that has received a number of excellent reviews on Amazon. For around the first third of the book, the author had me hooked. The protagonist—a woman—narrates the story which, layer by layer, leads the reader into a world of suburban madness and revenge. At times, I found myself marveling at the phrasing and keen sense of timing. Each character was well drawn and possessed a unique voice. And the narrator’s observations—wickedly funny!
Then, for no reason whatsoever, the author decides to abandon the protagonist, rewinding everything back to the beginning and picking up the story from some new character’s POV. Of course, I guessed that the two story lines would inevitably collide. But, to be honest, I didn’t stick around to find out. If this book hadn’t been sitting on my Kindle, I would’ve flung it against the wall in disgust. Needless to say, I was disappointed. So, what exactly did the author do wrong? Simple. He took me out of the world he’d created for my pleasure and sent me to jail (do not pass Go). He ruined the ride by making me get off in the middle and board a different ride. Here’s what I mean.
You’re watching the classic movie Blade Runner. From the opening shot, you’re hooked as Deckard is unwillingly drawn into a hunt for missing replicants who have already committed murder. Then, just as things are getting good, the director brings everything to a halt, and we go back to the beginning so we can follow Rachael and learn what she’s been up to while Deckard is running around the wet streets of Los Angeles with that fancy gun of his. Now, be honest. Even if you did decide to stay and finish your popcorn, wouldn’t it be jarring to be suddenly taken out of the story like that? Sure, it would.
What should the author have done? Well, if it were me, I would swtich POVs in alternating chapters. Take a look at these excerpts from the excellent thriller Little White Lies by Elizabeth McGregor. She weaves a hypnotic tale of deceit and betrayal involving several characters. Here is Beth, the wife of a man who has apparently committed suicide:
She glanced at him. He had expected to see a difference in her face: sadness, grief, tears. But there was nothing at all. She wore the usual slightly preoccupied look that she had when weighing up a garden, calculating in her head. Beth was nothing if not capable, but he was surprised to see any strength now.
‘Alan,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry about this. I know you’re busy.’
‘Christ! That doesn’t matter.’
‘Is it archaeological, then?’
‘The body. Is it recent, or what?’
‘Beth… Look, why don’t you come in?’
She smiled a little. ‘They all want me to come inside,’ she remarked.
Now, here’s Julia, a neighbor of Beth’s whose daughter, Rosie, is chronically ill for some reason:
‘Mummy,’ Rosie called from the back seat of the car. ‘Stop.’
Julia Woods glanced in the rear-view mirror. She was driving at fifty along the back farm road to the village. She hardly heard what her daughter was saying.
‘What is it?’
‘You mustn’t do that.’
A junction was approaching; Julia changed gear, and then realised what Rosie was talking about. She was going too fast. The car slewed slightly to one side, and clipped the uncut verge.
‘All right. We’re going slow. See? Very slow.’
I realize it’s hard to talk about structure by using a couple of small excerpts. My point is, you’ve got two women in crisis, plus a few other characters who seem to be broken. And the author is able to tell each’s story beautifully in a single hypnotic work.
Recently, I read and reviewedThe Last Victim, a first-rate thriller by the immensely talented Jordan Dane. Like Elizabeth McGregor, this author does an excellent job of moving the story forward, alternating between the POV of the FBI profiler, Ryker Townsend, and the serial killer he is pursuing.
For Readers. Which do you prefer—stories told from one person’s POV or from several?
For Authors. How have you solved storytelling problems when dealing with multiple POVs?
In the first post in this series, I talked about prologues and why I feel they are no longer relevant to good storytelling. You can check that one out here. Now, except for the occasional literary fiction classic, I like to devote my reading time to indie authors. In this installment, I want to talk about a more pervasive problem—and one that is pretty easy to avoid. It happens when the author thinks they need to wait to get to the good stuff. Here’s what I’m talking about.
Dithering Recently, I started a book—a ghost story—and I have to tell you, I was bored out of my skull. I think I got less than twenty pages in and finally had to stop. I just couldn’t take any more. To make matters worse, the novel in question begins with a prologue that could have easily been replaced by good backstory! Frankly, that should have been the tipoff. If you really want to lose readers, be sure to write pages and pages of well-constructed, correctly spelled prose that features characters who all sound the same and where nothing happens. It’s what I like to call “dithering.” And in this case, it was almost as if the author was afraid to bring in the paranormal and instead decided to dissect the daily lives of the boring protagonist and his boring wife. Boring, I tell you!
So, what should the author have done instead? Well, if you’re going to write about ghosts, then begin by scaring the pee out of your audience from the get-go. Same with thrillers. You must grab the poor unsuspecting reader by the throat and refuse to let go until the book is finished. Sounds harsh, I know. But I believe in tough love when it comes to writing this kind of stuff. If you don’t know how to get started, try an exercise. Take your boring married couple and pretend they are serial killers. What would they talk about at the breakfast table? What were they doing last night? What are they keeping in the garage? You get the picture.
Here is an excerpt from Stephen King’s iconic ghost story, The Shining, where Jack Torrance is interviewing for the job of caretaker of The Overlook Hotel. Notice that King can’t wait to reveal the horrors lurking in the hotel’s murky history as Ullman explains what the previous caretaker did:
“I suspect that what happened came as a result of too much cheap whiskey, of which Grady had laid in a generous supply, unbeknownst to me, and a curious condition which the old-timers call cabin fever. Do you know the term?” Ullman offered a patronizing little smile, ready to explain as soon as Jack admitted his ignorance, and Jack was happy to respond quickly and crisply.
“It’s a slang term for the claustrophobic reaction that can occur when people are shut in together over long periods of time. The feeling of claustrophobia is externalized as dislike for the people you happen to be shut in with. In extreme cases it can result in hallucinations and violence—murder has been done over such minor things as a burned meal or an argument about whose turn it is to do the dishes.”
Ullman looked rather nonplussed, which did Jack a world of good. He decided to press a little further, but silently promised Wendy he would stay cool.
“I suspect you did make a mistake at that. Did he hurt them?”
“He killed them, Mr. Torrance, and then committed suicide. He murdered the little girls with a hatchet, his wife with a shotgun, and himself the same way. His leg was broken. Undoubtedly so drunk he fell downstairs.”
And that’s from Chapter One! Talk about setting the stage for the savagery to come. The point is, don’t wait to get to the good stuff. In medias res, people! It’s why the reader bought your book in the first place. Also, think about this. Readers can preview your book by reading the first ten percent or so for free. Why in the world would you risk boring them right out of the gate? Next time, we conclude our series with something strange. See you then.
For Readers. What are some things authors do that bore you?
For Authors. Do you have a favorite technique for punching up a boring scene?
I’ve been doing lots of reading lately. Of course, you would expect that since I write books! Anyway, I’ve noticed some things other indie authors do sometimes that drive me nuts. If you’re looking for me to name names, forget it. Professional courtesy and all. What I plan to focus on over the next three posts is what I have observed and what you, being the brilliant writer you are, can do to avoid falling into these habits.
First, I want to frame things up. I’m not talking about an overreliance on adverbs. Yes, we all know Stephen King said the road to hell is paved with them. Use them. Don’t use them. Whatever. Second, regarding hiring an editor. If you’re not doing that, then I suggest you get out of the business. Amazon already offers plenty of self-edited books, and frankly, it doesn’t need any more. Same thing for covers. Hire a professional whydon’tcha. Okay, let’s begin.
Prologues The word prologue comes from the ancient Greek word prólogos. This form was very popular in Greek drama. Merriam-Webster provides two definitions as they relate to literary works. Here is the second, which I think most authors actually intend when they include one in their book: an introductory or preceding event or development.
So, here’s my take. Unless you are planning to rewrite Canterbury Tales, do not use this outdated literary form. In the 21st century, prologues are often used to address backstory. And that is a mistake, in my view. Here’s an analogy. I’ve heard a lot about this amazing new steakhouse. Spendy, but worth every penny, my friends tell me. So, I decide to see for myself and book a reservation.
After I am seated, I peruse the menu and order the best steak in the house. When it arrives, I can see it sizzling on the plate, the red juices seeping out from underneath. The server places it in front of me and, just as I am about to cut into it and enjoy that first tasty bite, he grabs my hand. Then, he begins telling me about the cow, how it was raised, and that time the tipsy cattle farmer got a little too aggressive with the branding iron, which explains why there is a noticeable dent along the edge.
Of course, there are always exceptions. I am currently reading the fortieth anniversary edition of The Exorcist. And yes, there is a prologue. But in this case, I feel it’s warranted. The author, William Peter Blatty, uses it to set the stage for all the bad things to come. He also introduces a major character, Fr. Merrin, who will eventually fight the demon that is possessing Regan. Now, the author could have chosen to include Fr. Merrin’s backstory later. But starting the book in Iraq, where the priest physically confronts a terrifying statue of that same demon, he’s letting us know that not only is evil real but it’s ancient. Check this out:
The man in khaki prowled the ruins. The Temple of Nabu. The Temple of Ishtar. He sifted vibrations. At the palace of Ashurbanipal he stopped and looked up at a limestone statue hulking in situ. Ragged wings and taloned feet. A bulbous, jutting, stubby penis and a mouth stretched taut in feral grin. The demon Pazuzu.
Abruptly the man in khaki sagged.
He bowed his head.
It was coming.
If you’re going to employ a prologue, then use it as God intended. Generally, I would stay away from them, though. Instead, weave your backstory as you go, letting the reader uncover new connections along the way. This makes for a much more satisfying read. Reading is all about discovery, and it’s okay if we don’t know a character’s history up front. We are willing to trust that the author will reveal all in good time. Next up, we look at dithering. Don’t worry, you’ll see what I mean.
For Readers. Have you come across books where you felt the prologue was actually helpful?
For Authors. Have you found yourself using a prologue because you felt there was no better way to tell your story?
Wow, what a crazy year! What with everything going on in Washington, all the bad behavior being reported by the media, and the devastating wildfires in California, I for one am ready for this shit show to be over. And I’m pretty sure you are, too. Well, enough about that. Here’s to a better 2018! In the meantime, why not take a look at my top ten posts for this year. Peace and love.
I used to ride horses. I know, right? Let me just say that these creatures are beautiful. And when the horse and rider are one, the experience can be magical. But horses are also dumb—and incredibly powerful. Not a great combination, if you ask me. If a horse doesn’t want you on its back, it will throw you. And there is nothing you can do about it. Ask a rodeo cowboy. We’re talking half a ton of raw animal power, people. Oh, and they bite, too. But—and I can only vouch for English riding—show a horse a thirty-inch riding crop, and things can change for the better. You don’t even have to use it—just let them see it out of the corner of their eye.
Lately, I’ve been reading posts by other writers moaning about their inner critics. You know what I’m talking about. The inner critic is that nagging little macher who’s always in your face whenever you try putting pen to paper (not to be confused with one’s Muse). And, as far as I know, it doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are. Mine is a guy, is shorter than me, and resembles Ray Liotta, for some reason. Though he smells like hand sanitizer, I gotta give it to him—he dresses well. Now, I have never met Ray Liotta, so rather than besmirch his good name, I’ll call the bane of my existence “Stan.”
The Prick Who Came to Dinner Stan is not the kind of person who values relationships, so obviously, he’s single. He’s been known to vanish for most of the day—I have no idea where he goes. Maybe he’s torturing some other poor schmuck. Which makes me wonder. Does he talk about me? Never mind. Stan has an uncanny ear, and as soon as he hears me typing on my laptop, he’s in the room, standing directly behind me. Breathing through his nose. Watching every letter that appears on the screen. Well, that’s how things used to be, anyway. Sound familiar?
If he gets the chance, Stan will tell me what I am writing is crap and should be burned. He wonders aloud how I’ve managed to have any success at all as a writer and suggests I look into selling insurance. He enjoys laughing at my analogies, similes, and metaphors, and bawls comically whenever I attempt to craft a tender scene. In short, he’s merciless. Now at this point, I’ll bet you think I hate Stan, right? Well, I don’t. Because as annoying as he is, he’s smart—really smart. Okay, he’ll never invent time travel. But he knows a lousy sentence when he reads one.
Stan, ladies and gentlemen, is my inner critic, and I need him. There, I said it. But here’s the thing: I need him on my terms, not his. If it were up to him, I would never write another word. “The world will thank you,” he told me one time, leaving a trail of pistachio nut shells on the shag carpet. But I’m not listening. A long time ago, I decided to train him. Just like a horse. And although he doesn’t always behave, things have gotten way better.
Now, there are writers out there far more qualified than me to explain the phases of writing in a way that makes sense. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a go.
Dreams and Nightmares An idea comes to me, and I jot it down in my Big Book of Ideas. This can happen when I overhear a piece of a conversation or in the middle of the night when I’m trying to fall asleep. There’s really no rhyme or reason to it. Most of the time, the idea just sits in that book, collecting dust like a lonely little toy no one wants to play with. Sometimes, I incorporate it into something else. And on rare occasions, it becomes a short story or even a novel. I do not control this process—it just happens. And as I record it, Stan is nowhere in sight.
The Dreaded First Draft This is where I sit down to the blank page. Or, in my case, the blank screen. By the way, this stage applies to short or long fiction. I’m a pantser, so I have only the vaguest notion of how to write this thing. I have a protagonist and, if I’m lucky, an antagonist. But other characters come into the picture as I go. The minute I start writing, Stan waltzes into the room, ready to tear me a new one. But before he can take his place behind my chair, I show him the riding crop. His eyes get huge, and he slinks away, muttering something like “Just for that, I’m eating all the Häagen-Dazs.” But don’t be fooled. He’ll continue trying to get back into the room, usually pretending to be the cable guy. My job is to keep him out until I finish the day’s writing. And let me tell you, it’s exhausting.
The Baby Edit This happens the next day. I read what I’ve written and invite Stan to join me. That’s right. This pomaded idiot is like a kid in a candy store as he goes to work, pointing out lame construction and tired clichés. After allowing him to eviscerate me, I kick him out and proceed with the next day’s writing.
Keep in mind these last two phases continue until I finish the book or story. Sometimes, I get stuck and work on a different project. Currently, I have at least three unfinished novels kicking around. I’m pretty sure I will finish them. But even if I don’t, others will take their place.
The Mother of All Edits This is where I edit the entire manuscript, with Stan at my side. I leave the crop on the desk so he can see it, in case he gets any ideas. Usually, he keeps his snarky comments to himself and provides useful suggestions on how to improve what I’ve written. This process takes days, and when I am finished, I set the work aside. I may go through this stage half a dozen times over the course of months. When I am absolutely sure the thing is perfect (nothing is perfect, but you know what I mean), I send the book off to my editor.
Wrapping Up So, there you have it. Every writer approaches the process differently. No matter how you write, though, there is one thing I would advise. Never mix writing and editing. That’s like inviting Stan to sit down. And you don’t want that, trust me. For one thing, he’s never had an original idea in his life. Also, writing is miserable enough without saddling yourself with a banshee screaming in your ear over every ill-chosen bon mot. Not to mention those pesky adverbs. Anyway, enough. I’d love to hear how you deal with your inner critic. Why not post a comment? In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this quote.
You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished. ― Will Self
Talk about fortunate! My friend Jordan Dane, who recently did a guest post on this blog, gave me a slot over at The Kill Zone, where only the coolest authors hang out. Happy reading…
I first heard Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” when my younger daughter was teaching herself the bass. She would blast it every day, following along on her instrument. Eventually, I found myself listening to the lyrics. I came to love that song and now have it on my phone. Yeah, I know. Talk about late to the party. Well, in my defense, I mostly listen to straight-ahead jazz, so. But enough about Weezer…
Trying Not to Be a Pompous Ass As a writer, I can really identify with those lyrics. I won’t quote them here, but you can use this link if you want to refresh your memory. The point is, the books I choose to write are a product of my, shall we call it, pork-and-beans attitude. I really don’t give a crap about researching popular genres and writing the kinds of books I think people might like. I notice a lot of “experts” like to give that kind of advice to non-fiction authors. To me, that’s right up there with “write what you know.” Spare me. Now, on the surface, I might sound a little pompous. But stick with me for a sec. I am simply trying to stay true to myself. You know, like Lady Gaga.
I watched a lot of movies and television as a kid. My favorites were horror, sci-fi, and comedy. As I grew older, I came to appreciate thrillers. And in the last few years, I fell in love with Westerns. I guess I can thank Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood for that. I also love foreign films—especially those from Japan and Korea. As you can see, my tastes tend to run the gamut. I do lean toward horror, though. In fact, my first four books revolve around zombies and demons.
So, my friend Jordan demanded that I turn over my blog for this post. In fact, she pointed to a picture of my dog and, with a sly grin, said, “You do the math, Sparky.” Fine. Anyway, she’s an outstanding writer with a sharp sense of humor. If you haven’t done it yet, check out book 1 in her Ryker Townsend series, The Last Victim. I just bought it, so look for my review soon. Over to you, Jordan.
Horror makes me giddy. There, I said it. I’m not into overly descriptive gore, but the titillating anticipation of what is about to happen makes me tingle. I like the bizarro world of Dean Koontz when he tiptoes through scary notions and the paranormal. I watched the seductive Penny Dreadful on Showtime with equal parts abhorrence and glee, yet I’ve never seen the movie Jaws, by choice. I don’t want to have nightmares about turning into shark poop, but I put my readers in a front row seat to darkness in my crime fiction books, without shoving them off a cliff.
In The Last Victim, my FBI profiler’s secret is a gift and a curse. Ryker Townsend sees through the eyes of the dead. The last images imprinted on the retinas of the dearly departing become macabre puzzle pieces for him to decipher. These creepy flashes come to him as he sleeps. Hence, the tag line – When he sleeps, the hunt begins. Ryker is an open vessel for the dead, and they reach out to him, sometimes beyond his nightmares in broad daylight, until he’s unsure which side of reality he should be on.
Ryker’s Basic Framework In crafting Ryker Townsend, I wanted to look beyond his gift of communicating with the dead to solve heinous crimes. I formed him from two characters I love—Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane from Sleepy Hollow. Ryker has an eidetic memory. His mind is like a computer that spits out facts without a filter. He’s socially awkward and highly intelligent, but not exactly macho.
As an author, I have firsthand knowledge of the perils of an unfiltered brain. Writers need to “hear” the voices in our heads, but it can get us in trouble at social occasions. This I know.
Ryker’s Added Layers I wanted Ryker to have more layers to his personality and his past. I needed to heap on the right baggage to make his job more challenging. Being an odd child, he had a special bond with his mother who embraced his psychic gift. His father didn’t always understand it and Ryker’s sister Sarah became jealous of the extra attention from mom.
Ryker’s gift is at the center of all his strengths and his weaknesses to show how he lives with a trait most people would fear. When something happens to his dear mother, it creates a wedge between Ryker and his sister—and of course, it’s my duty as an author to torture him.
Ryker’s Journey I couldn’t write about Ryker without delving into his personal life and heaping emotional heft into his Samsonite. It’s what makes him real. I force him to confront his personal demons while he’s up to his neck in bloody murder.
The Last Victim (Novel 1) In book 1 of Ryker’s story, his life is laid bare. He’s in the middle of a hunt for a baffling serial killer who has eluded him. When a gory crime scene puts him in Seattle, home to his estranged sister (and her family that he’s never met), his life becomes an onion with layers to peel away.
He’s kept his psychic gift a secret from everyone and withdrawn into himself. His only outlet is his work, but he’s afraid of losing respect within the ranks of the FBI—and he risks his cases being overturned by the courts if it became clear how he investigates. He hasn’t told anyone about his nightmares, not even the trusted team who work for him.
After he realizes that the killer has targeted him personally, he must use his gift to hunt on his own terms—alone. Ryker learns what it’s like to become a victim and he’s forced to deal with his past, a theme that will become his journey through any story I write about him.
Following the novel that established him, I wrote novellas that allowed me to examine his life in different ways. A common theme for me is spirituality and how investigators deal with the violence they see. How does it change them?
Redemption for Avery (Novella 2) In novella 2, Ryker deals with the aftermath of becoming a victim and nearly losing his life. He’s confided in a special woman, and the relationship carries more risk and complications. Because this story deals with a brother who lost his younger sister to a serial killer when he was only fifteen, Ryker and his notions of family are put through an emotional wringer.
In the Eyes of the Dead (Novella 3) In novella 3, I wanted him to struggle with lingering PTSD from book 1 in a case involving Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and superstition. He’s forced to confront his own beliefs on the afterlife. I had to examine the things that truly get my heart pumping—my own mortality—and the things I sometimes wonder when I can’t sleep after the death of someone I love.
The Darkness Within Him (Novella 4) In story 4, Ryker must recreate a horrific moment in a young runaway’s life, the night his mother murdered his sister and tried to kill him. Imagine someone like Ryker—who had a close relationship with his mother—how would his feelings of failure with his own family affect him? He’s forced to confront the guilt he has for the way his mother died.
Fiona’s Salvation (Novella 5) In story 5, the reader sees his compassion for the dead, no matter who they were in life. He feels a profound duty to them in a grander scheme as if he has a role to play in death. He protects Fiona as she deals with her haunting demons, something he knows about.
Ryker’s Journey Is My Challenge Each character Ryker encounters becomes a mirror for him to see into his dark corners—and his journey becomes my own voyage of self-discovery. My characters explore where I sometimes don’t want to venture, but I push to discover things about me through them. They are my teachers. The old adage to “write what you know” never worked for me. I believe you should write what you fear and dig deep for the truth to breathe life into your pages.
For Writers. How do you tackle adding layers to your characters to make them memorable?
For Readers. What novels have remained with you long after you closed the book? What made the story and the character(s) memorable?
Author Bio Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel No One Heard Her Scream as Best Books of 2008. Dane is multi-published in crime fiction thrillers, has books in over seven countries, and has written young-adult novels for Harlequin Teen. Formerly an energy sales manager, she now writes full time. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. www.jordandane.com
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot more. Mostly, I stick to contemporary fiction—especially in the genres I write in. This helps me in two ways. First, I get a look at the competition. And second, I see what’s hot and what’s not as far as reader tastes go. But there’s another benefit and, depending on what you buy, you can take advantage of another writer’s research.
But wait, you say. I thought writers just make crap up and hope they can fool you. Well, that’s true—for bad writers. Good ones take the time to learn about the world they are constructing and endow their stories with a rich undertone that immerses the protagonist—and the reader. Here’s an example. I just finished a novel about a journalist who gets caught up in a conspiracy that involves soulless corporate giants and an assassin with a love of greasy food. To be honest, the book isn’t great. Though the story is well constructed, I felt the principal characters lacked believability. In other words, they just didn’t ring true. Nevertheless, I am so glad I read the book. Here’s why.
The Only Source of Knowledge Is Experience Einstein said that, and I happen to agree wholeheartedly. The author of the book in question is a former journalist and, when it comes to dogged reporters on a beat, he knows what he’s talking about. I really enjoyed learning about the mindset of the journalist, as well as hearing the faint praise and jeering commentary about the profession as a whole. The author has also peppered the story with discussions of the power of big media and print vs. online. I’m not saying that after reading the book I could go off and write my own novel about a journalist/detective. But I could certainly create a secondary character who’s a journalist and make them sound authentic. Experience counts.
Reading for Pleasure and Learning When I was a kid, I always compartmentalized my reading. There were books I read to learn and those I devoured for pleasure. But it was rare that a book served both ends. I say nuts to that! Providing you pick good material, every book can be a learning experience. Often when I read, I like to pore over the language. This is what helps me to write better. But I am also aware of the setting and the jargon a character uses. Recently, I reviewed a horror collection. There was one, in particular, I fell in love with—“The Corpse King” by Tim Curran. Now, I could be wrong, but I am of the opinion that the author researched the hell out of the period and in particular about how resurrectionists plied their trade. This is an excellent example of a story that is pleasurable to read and teaches you something in the bargain.
Apply Your Knowledge I’ve read a lot of nonfiction books about the demonic and possession. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I do bring that background to the stories I write. The last thing I want is for someone in the know to read my work and dismiss it as uninformed drivel. And this is apart from the writing. Readers either like my work, or they don’t. I just don’t want to be accused of ignorance when I could have just as easily researched before I wrote. And neither should you! Remember, writing isn’t just about the words—it’s about what’s behind them. Have fun.