Well, here we go. We’re down to like eight weeks away from my first novel. On April 8th, I’ll be a published writer. Been a LONG and crazy time since I got the call from my agent that she’d sold a two-book deal to the greatness that is known as Midnight Ink. Since that time, I’ve lost BOTH my parents, almost died, and now have some medical condition that I will probably have the rest of my days.
We’re really defined by the turning points in our lives. These last twelve have certainly defined me. I’ve left the old me behind, never to be that person again.
And then, there is Mark Mallen and his first adventure: Untold Damage. It’s crazy to think I’ll have a book out in bookstores, both here and abroad. That it will eventually be available on both the Kindle and the Nook.
After like ten long years of trying and trying and trying to get to here, I’m finally actually at this point!
I’m looking forward to what happens after the book comes out. I’ve got that blog tour from TLC BLog Tours, that appearance in Writers Digest, a book giveaway and review on Criminal Element. And hopefully a lot of other interesting things. Personally, I’m looking forward to the book giveaways. I’m devising all sorts of interesting contests for you guys.
Anyway, we’ll talk soon, I’m sure.
Happy New Year! Here’s hoping that your 2013 rocks and rolls and brings you a ton of happiness.
I get to kick off the new year with my latest post over at Criminal Element. My appreciation of the movie Jaws:
On Jaws, or How I Came to Love the Summer Blockbuster
The first ever blockbuster.
Began Steven Spielberg’s career.
That legendary musical score.
Had Robert Shaw in it.
Yes… I’m talkin’ Jaws.
Where to start, right? This was the movie that gave us the “summer blockbuster.” It also began the long series of “nature gone angry” genre films such as, The Swarm, Day of the Animals, Piranha, and of course…Grizzly.
You can find it over on Criminal Element!
“The Devil Doesn’t Want Me is a humorous noir novella by Eric Beetner, recent recipient of the Stalker Award for Most Criminally Underrated Author (available October 23, 2012).
I’ve never done one of these Fresh Meat things before, and was a bit nervous about it. I mean, giving my opinion when it’s asked for is something new to me. I’m fine when it’s NOT asked for… in fact, I’m in a whole ’nother realm when I give unasked for advice. But after reading Eric Beetner’s new novella, The Devil Doesn’t Want Me, I was certainly glad I got the opportunity. Why?”
For the rest of the review, go here.
Thanks to everyone who voted for me. You really rock.
Here are the results:
So, now I’ve got a nice set of book launch stuff going on for Untold Damage.
Oh yeah, did I mention that I’ll be in the March/April edition of Writer’s Digest? Yup, it’s true! I’ll be in the “Debut Authors” feature for that issue. I will also
be doing a blog column and book giveaway for Chuck Sambuchino’s great site, Guide to Literary Agents, that will run concurrently with the Writer’s Digest feature.
There will also be a couple other things, but I’m going to keep those to myself for now, and spring them on you when I get closer to my pub date. Mark your new calendars for next year, 04/08/12.
However, this brings up an important point. One of the most important reasons I won this contest was due to the building my writer’s platform. It’s not huge, yet, but I’m hoping to increase it.
When I first signed with my agent, Barbara Poelle, and she told me to start blogging, I was already hanging out on some writing forums. Now, I ALWAYS believe in “paying it forward”, helping as much as I can my fellow writers. Being there with support and/or advice (if asked for), being considerate and not an asshole, and just being a generally nice guy helped me to connect with people (and this goes for life in general, too, imo). If you help them, they’ll most probably help you. I was able to mobilize a small army of wonderful people, and I really owe them a great debt I’m more than happy to pay off. Blogging, Twitter, Facebook, writing forums; they all help in varying degrees. Don’t overlook as you most forward on your writing journey the importance of building your writer’s platform.
a small army of writers and friends
Just finished the first draft to the 2nd Mark Mallen novel.
That one… hurt.
This is what I would term a “bad draft”. It was hard. Beat me to shit and then laughed as it stood over me, victorious, reveling in the fact that if it was better than anything, it was better than me. No, it’s not always like that. An earlier draft of what will become Untold Damage, the one I did for my editor over at Midnight Ink, came out of me like Jimmy Page riffing during the solo section of Dazed and Confused. It was just so easy. However, as the draft for the 2nd book bogged down more and more, I felt that maybe I’d gotten cocky since the first one went so well and easy. Maybe that’s true, not sure.
What I AM sure of is that the pressure is different now. (And by the way, I’m listening to June Carter Cash singing “Will the Circle be Unbroken”. Yeah, the one they play at the end of an episode of Deadwood. Pure awesome.) I have an entirely different group of people relying on me. Maybe that’s what made this draft so difficult. The pressure. I’ve heard this from a lot of my writer friends who have sold their novels; that the first one you write AFTER the one that sold is a tough slog. And trust me, I really struggled with this bastard, so this is feeling like what they told me was indeed true.
But beyond all that I realized that this is how it just is. Sometimes the drafts are good and strong, and sometimes they’re not. This last draft was, as Anne Lamott calls them in her timeless “Bird by Bird”, “a down draft”. One where you just.get.it.down. The next draft will then be, as she also tells us, the “up draft”, the one where you fix it up.
You have to have faith for something like that, right? That no matter how bad the draft is, the next one will be able to be fixed up. I have that faith, I really do. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it ain’t over ’til it’s over. There’s a lot of crap in this current draft, no doubt. There’s a lot of stuff I’ll have to take out, a lot to repair, a ton to rethink…
But at least there’s SOMETHING TO RETHINK.
For me, I can’t work in a void. I doubt any of us can. I NEED to have something to work from. Even 278 pages of pure bird cage liner. There are a lot of things that I know I can use when I begin the next draft. There are a lot of… place markers, for lack of a better phrase.
This is the process. This is the work.
So, always try to keep in mind, as you work forward with your writing, that you have to fight through the bad. Don’t allow it to beat you. If that draft is standing on your chest, laughing in victory, punch that bastard in its bread basket and throw it to the floor. Pull the stuffing out of it like it was The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, then get back to work.
Because, in the end, that’s all we really have as writers: the work.
This, my friends, is what I’m up to nowadays:
Yes, I’m back in the saddle, as it were.
This photo before you are my current projects. They are (in no particular order, or… um, odor?)
-A Mark Mallen short story. My first short story for Mallen. I have high hopes for it, but, um… I might be high.
-The screenplay to Untold Damage (STILL can’t get used to the fact that my book has an official title and pub date! 040813. Memorize it, lol!)
-The next book in the Mark Mallen series (title as yet unknown, ha!)
Yeah… it’s a lot. Especially given what last month shoved my way. However, the work is the salvation, as they say.
I’m excited about ALL of these projects, thankfully. That’s not always the case, naturally.
Am I worried, or bothered, about any of them? Do any of them… give me pause? Well, if any of them seem daunting, then I would say that, probably naturally, it’s the next Mallen book. The first one won’t be out until April of next year, but I have to turn in THIS guy ahead of that. I think this is pretty normal in the publishing world, though maybe not. But yeah… that sorta scares me, a little.
Second books are a whole topic in themselves, of course. I, since I wrote scripts for so long, tend to think of them like movie sequels. You know… how does The Empire Strikes Back build on and improve what was Star Wars? Why does Aliens work the way it does? Is it because of Alien, or in spite of it?
Regarding books, how does an author build and expand on what he set down in book one, but still keep the fans of that book happy? Readers (of series books especially) have expectations. We all do. I know I do. When I sit down to read an 87th Precinct novel, you know damn sure I have expectations. But, Ed McBain, aka Evan Hunter, managed to keep it fresh and keep us happy. And for a really long, f’n time, too. How do you think he did it? How do you think any novelist can pull off a successful sequel?
I am VERY much enjoying taking Mallen and putting him in a short story that takes place at another point in his life. It’s a helluva lot of fun! It’s almost like writing the history of Mallen! I’m hoping this short pleases people, for sure. It’s an early draft, but I think there’s something in all that dung that will eventually shine, after copious drafts, natch.
The screenplay is something that I’m really crossing fingers will come into play at some point. The jury’s out on that, however it was a total BLAST to write that first draft, man. Writing the first screenplay I’ve written in like seven years really brought back to me all the joy I used to have writing movies. I really urge EVERY writer to attempt at least ONE screenplay. An adaption of your recent novel. An adaption of your “pet project” (You know you have one. We ALL do). Even a completely NEW idea. Whatever it is, write it as a movie. It really takes you out of your head and shows you story and pacing and character and dialog in an ENTIRELY new way. A way that will REALLY, REALLY HELP YOU as a novelist.
Trust me on that one.
See you soon!
Oh, um…. yeah. That thing I keep dropping hints about? Unfortunately, I was told it will be soon(ish) before I can share it with you. And YES, it’s for real, this is not me trying to hook my readers. It’ll pay off, I assure you.
ROBERT sits at his desk, typing out a post for his blog. (O.S.) rain beats on the windows of his office.
He pulls A 9MM AUTOMATIC PISTOL from his desk drawer. A LOUD CLICK is heard as the hammer is pulled back.
Well, here goes nothin’…
* * * * *
So, I was emailing with my agent a couple weeks ago, asking about what I can do to help get the rights to Untold Damage either optioned or sold next year when the book arrives. Her answer was basically, “Well, you have the chops, dude. Why not write the screenplay? It might help, right?”
And I thought, well… yeah. Why the F not, right? I haven’t written a screenplay in like 6-7 year, but before that I was averaging about three a year for the previous ten years. I didn’t ever think I’d go back to it, now but here I am, about twenty-five pages into the first draft.
And you know what?
I’m loving it. I guess I’d missed it more than I’d realized. And to be adapting my own book? It’s incredibly enjoyable. I can sit there and pretend that the head of Universal hired me to do this, lol!
No, not really, but adapting Untold Damage is quite the intellectual puzzle. I mean, it’s like, “Hey, I can’t have interior monologues now! So, how should I show this scene then?” Screenplays are ALL about “show, don’t tell”, which brings up all sorts of little conundrums that need to be solved. What the protag is thinking needs to be worked out in some sort of visual way, etc. Turning a book into a screenplay is sorta like tearing each scene in the book down to its barest of bones.
I started the process by sitting down the with a copy of the book and a yellow highlighter. I went through the entire novel and highlighted the scenes I felt HAD to be in the screenplay. I learned this approach from reading one of William Goldman’s books on screenwriting, can’t remember which, unfortunately. This approach turned to be VERY helpful. For this draft I’m pretty much keeping most of the dialogue straight out of the book, like when The Maltese Falcon was adapted. That was a VERY faithful adaption. Read the book, then watch the film. You’ll see what I mean.
On another note, my publisher has had both the “Vision Meeting” and the “Launch Meeting” for my book. Both went extremely well, and everyone is happy and enthused about Untold Damage. April of next year is still the drop date. They took the tagline I suggested and even THE CONCEPT of what I suggested for the cover. Judging from the other covers Midnight Ink has put out, I’m in VERY good hands. I’ve also made the changes my editor suggested to the book, and now it’s back on their desk (before deadline, I might add, lol), moving forward. Besides working on the screenplay version, I’m already hard at work on the next Mallen book, that I need to have done by next March 1. I’m also working on a couple of other things, but I’m going to save that info for later.
Keep up the writing! Talk with you soon.:-)
Verisimilitude. It’s defined as, “The quality of appearing to be true or real.”
It’s something every writer strives for. It’s part of what we do, right?
My books take place in San Francisco. I’ve lived there many times, and for many years. I know the feel of the place. How it sounds. How it smells, etc. But what if I wanted to place a book in say, New York, a place I’ve never been? (I KNOW, I KNOW, I gotta go!) Then I’d need to either do a lot of research, or of course go there and spend some time. Why do either, you may ask?
Because I’d want it to feel real, of course.
If you wrote historical fiction, and you had one of your characters ask for a Mai Tai, well… that would be bad, right? The writing has to feel real. Authentic. Not a laundry list of facts, either, but just enough to lend it verisimilitude. So somebody who knew New York, or lived there, would think that I either visited all the time, or have maybe even lived there.
It keeps the reader in the story. Because every time the reader stops and thinks something like, “Man, anybody knows the subway doesn’t do THAT!”, then they’ve been taken OUT of the story, and every time they’ve been taken out of the story it’s harder for them to get back INTO the story. End result? You’ve lost your reader.
Makes sense, right?
My books have guns in them. Sometimes a LOT of guns. And sometimes they go off, too. Quite a lot. But I’d never shot a gun in my life. I could point to three instances where I’d actually held a firearm.
1. I once held my dad’s old army .45.
2. I once held a shotgun the drummer in my band wanted to sell me.
3. I once held a .357 magnum that someone was showing off to me.
That’s it. Everything else I know about guns was filtered to me through pop culture. Movies like Death Wish, Dirty Harry, Pulp Fiction, the films of John Woo, etc. Fun fact: when Chow Yun Fat made his first American gun film, The Replacement Killers, he said in an interview he didn’t even know how to really load a weapon, because in John Woo films, no gun ever runs out of ammunition!
That’s me, shooting a .9mm automatic. After running through a safety rundown on how to load, unload, what happens if it jams, etc, away I went. Also got to fire a larger handgun, a 40 caliber automatic. I gotta tell you, there was a lot of adrenalin flowing as I stood there and picked up a loaded handgun for the first time, and took aim. I was nervous about the recoil, but it turned out to not be anywhere near what I thought it would be. There was this one moment, where I was reloading a clip, which can be a little time consuming and tedious as you put one bullet after another into the magazine, like loading a Pez container, one Pez at a time, and I realized that Tarantino doesn’t show THAT side of it, that’s for sure.
So, I shot about 200 rounds off. It was surprisingly fatiguing on the shoulders. My fingers turned black from the gun powder. I got used to the gun bucking in my hands, and even through the earplugs, it was loud. The shells eject all over, too. A couple landed on my head! And as I stood there, I didn’t think so much about how this will impact my writing so much as I realized my awareness of what a gun can do grew with each spent shell. You can’t take back a bullet. Shooting a gun is an irrevocable act, whether at a paper target, or at a person. I think it will be that aspect of it that will find its way into my writing. And I wouldn’t have received this insight, either, if I hadn’t wanted some verisimilitude in my writing.
So, never sell your book short. Do the research. Take that trip to where your book takes place, if you can manage it. Talk to people who posses the information on the subject you’re needing info on. The internet is great for finding information, sure, but really talking to the people that USE that information is, in my opinion, way more valuable. I’ve called homicide detectives, coroners, even called down to the SF morgue to get some information I needed on the room where they perform the autopsies. They don’t give tours, I was told, but if I really wanted to know what it looks like, just watch “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen. That’s the real morgue they shot in, and it hadn’t changed at all at the time I called (about five years ago now).
Anyway, always work for that authenticity. Make the reader feel you know your business.
Oh, and how did I do at the range? I couple people told me I did very well, especially for someone shooting for the first time. I guess it’s all those video games, hahaha.
Here’s a blurry photo, as the camera on my phone is sorta junky:
(Turns out I naturally shoot to the right of target as I’m right eye dominate, but left handed. Or something like that, anyway.)
Until next time!
I was reading an interesting thread the other day over at a great forum for writers called Agent Query Connect. If you’re searching for an agent, they also have an incredible database of agent email addresses, with information on what each agent is looking for, and their submission guidelines, etc. Use it. Love it. You can find that here.
Anyway, there I was, reading this thread on word count per day (excuse me if I’ve talked about this before, my mind is going) and the originator was wondering if we work in this way, by word count. I do write with a certain amount of words in mind. One thousand a day. Most days I make that, but about once a week or so, I miss it through being too tired from my day job, etc. Life intrudes, yeah? Can’t help it. Happens to us all, even the lucky writers who get to do this for their day job. I also set deadlines. Some writers do not, and other writers couldn’t care less about words per day. They just write, keeping their manuscript moving forward in their own way, using their own process.
And it struck me that this is really one of the beautiful things about writing: we each have our own process. One of the greatest days that happens for a writer is when they find the process that works best for them. There’s no right or wrong process, either, which is also wonderful. How can a process be wrong, if it works for someone? 500 words a day or 5000 thousand. Whatever works for you.
For me, during the first draft, it’s about momentum. Moving the story forward. My 1000 words a day gives me that. I’m now approaching the last 20K or so of this current project. I’m hoping to write the last 10K over a couple days, as I feel this might lend itself to the forward thrust of the last act of the book. Anyway, that’s what I hope for. Writing like this is a part of my process, a process that I figured out about five years ago now. My process during rewrites, however, is completely different, and I’ll blog about it once I get this manuscript to that stage.
So, the question for the day is: what is your process? How do you work?
And, as an added special bonus for today, here is a list of the writing books that are my favorites. I love reading books on writing, and have read each of these many times over. The exercises at the back of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction have taught me so much, and I still pull them out and do one or two of them from time to time, when I need a little “umph” in my writing muscles.
Here they are. If you’ve not read them, I heartily recommend you do. You won’t go wrong, trust me.
Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose
On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner
The Art of Fiction, John Gardner
Bird by Bird, Anne Lammott (really, this one is also a life primer, not just a writing primer)
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne and King
The Faith of a Writer, Joyce Carrol Oates
Stein on Writing, Sol Stein
I guess you could say that continually reading books on writing is also a part of my process.
This is good news for writers. The more bookstores, chains and/or indies, that keep afloat the better as far as I’m concerned.
From Publishers Lunch:
Borders Lives: Gets $90 Million Term Loan and Extends Smaller $700 Million Credit Facility Into 2014. Fourth Quarter Sales Fall Sharply, But Operating Income Improves
Borders announced after the close of the market today that they have secured a $90 million term loan credit facility from Banc of America Securities (a subsidiary of Bank of America) as “sole arranger”, most of which matures in March 2014. The company “expects” that lenders will “include an affiliate of Stone Tower Capital, funds managed by Tennenbaum Capital Partners, and Gordon Brothers Merchant Partners.” $10 million of that facility will be amortized over September through December of this year. Separately, the company says, it “has met its obligation to Pershing Square” in repaying their $42.5 million loan.
More importantly, Borders has secured longer-term financing by extending an “amended and restated” revolving line of credit that matures in March 2014, at a reduced maximum of $700 million. The existing line of credit would have expired in July 2011. The new financing is a “senior secured asset-based” credit facility, where the previous line was simply “secured by eligible inventory and accounts receivable and related assets.” The previous facility allowed borrowings up to $1,125 million but was effectively smaller because it was “limited to a specified percentage of eligible inventories and accounts receivable.” Borders should disclose more details of the new financing when the file formal statements with the SEC.
With new financing in place, Borders also reported fourth quarter and full-year earnings. The company made $59.9 million (91 cents a share) from continuing operations in the final quarter, much improved from $28.9 million (48 cents a share) a year ago, though adjusted EBITDA fell from $132.6 million to $91.3 million. Their debt net of cash at the end of the quarter was $245 million, a $37.6 million reduction from a year ago.
Comp-store sales were about as horrible as their holiday report indicated, down 14 percent in the Borders superstores, also declining 14.4 percent for the full year. Fourth quarter sales of $937 million were down 13.3 percent overall.
For the full year, superstores sales of $2.3 billion were down 13.7 percent, and Waldenbooks sales of $387 million fell 19.3 percent, due to the closure of 212 stores during the year. They finished the year with 508 Borders superstores and 175 Walden specialty stores. The full-year loss from continuing operations was $110.2 million, better than the 2008 loss of $184.7 million in 2008, but adjusted EBITDA of $67 million was down from last year’s $107.7 million.
Interim ceo Mike Edwards says in the announcement, “Restoring the financial health and profitability of the company remains our top priority. We took important steps toward this goal with the long-term extension of our existing credit facility and the additional capital provided by the new term loan. We have made significant operational and financial improvements and will maintain those disciplines as we shift our focus now to growing market share by acquiring, engaging and retaining customers through a transformation of the Borders brand. I’m pleased with the cooperation we have received from our bank group, lenders, vendors, partners and associates who share our vision for a successful Borders.”
Yep, that’s where I currently am in my first draft. It’s now about 42K and some change.
I love getting to this point, as it feels it’s all downhill skiing from here. I can see the end now, still way off in the distance, the heat waves rising from the pavement making it hazy and dreamlike, but I can see it now.
In my novels, this part of the story contains a major turning point, one that redirects the story into a new direction. I’m not sure if this is technically a “correct” thing to do, however, that’s the way it’s ended up so far in the last three books I’ve written. In an earlier book I wrote, one that is hopefully now on its way to becoming a graphic novel, there was a very distinct line between the first half of the book, which took part in our world, and the second half, which took place in Hell.
Just seems to be a natural thing for me. What about you? Are you aware of reaching any points in your story, like the third act, or end of the first act? I’m always very aware of these demarcation lines in my stories. I feel it’s important to be aware of them, and write with them in mind, at least in some way. I realize not everyone does that, of course, and some just… well, write. Nothing wrong with that, that’s for sure. I used to be that way, however that was awhile ago now. I feel the game has slowed down for me a bit, and I can step back and keep a larger picture of the book in my head, and the direction it takes me in. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you feel anything when you reach the mid-point of your book?
Oh yeah! Let me you about my new blog. If you’re a guitar enthusiast, you might dig it. I’m assembling my own Telecaster copy, and chronicling the journey. It’s called “From Wood to Sound“. Hope you enjoy.
What’s an opening line? An opening line is like being out in a night where the rain is just beating down and the wind is howling. You see a small house, the lights on. Someone is home. You hurry and knock, wanting to get inside and away from the rain. The door opens, warm light spills out, and you can smell something wonderful being cooked in the kitchen. You step inside the house, the promise of warmth and safety ahead.
That’s what an opening line is. The knocking on the door, and the door opening. The promise of good things to come.
Here’s some awesome opening lines from books that are on my nightstand:
From The Slaughterer, by Isaac Bashevis Singer:
Yoineh Meir should have become the Kolomir rabbi.
From The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler:
The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.
From The Stranger, by Ambrose Bierce:
A man stepped out of the darkness into the little illuminated circle about our failing campfire and seated himself upon a rock.
From The Bees, by Dan Chaon:
Gene’s son Frankie wakes up screaming.
And finally, from The Man With the Getaway Face, by Richard Stark:
When the bandages came off, Parker looked into the mirror at a stranger.
Now, they don’t all start with a bang, like Chaon’s opening line, but they do all have one very important thing in common: They make the reader ask why.
Why isn’t this man the rabbi like he should’ve been? Why does Frankie wake up screaming? Why is the man there, out in the woods, and why did he come and sit by the fire unannounced and unasked?
I have something I do every time I go to a bookstore, and I’m going to tell it to you in the hopes that you’ll maybe find it useful like I do. Whenever I’m in a bookstore, I walk to a shelf of fiction, usually in a genre I enjoy, and open up each novel to see what the opening line is. You really learn a lot when you do this. You start to see what works and why. What doesn’t work, and why. Give it a shot sometime. It works, trust me.
A friend of mine asked recently, “Man, where the hell do you get your ideas from? Like, for your latest novel?”
It’s a good question. One of the usual questions that writers get asked quite a bit. And like most writers, I have a some answers:
1. I dunno, man. It’s weird, they just sort of pop into my head, usually when I’m watching TV, or reading a news article.
2. I dunno, man. It’s sorta like when you were in high school, and just as you exhaled this huge plume of smoke, you just kinda… saw the idea, right there, shining brightly like Jimmy Page’s eyes, circa 1977, while he was loaded.
3. I dunno, man. I really don’t.
Actually, I’m mostly along the lines of number 1. I usually get ideas while reading news, or catching a glimpse of TV news while I sit on the bed in a hotel room, waiting for my wife to get out of the shower. See, we don’t have cable, so don’t watch any TV. The TV becomes an added piece of vacation candy, and I watch it quite a bit. Man, I have to admit: I’m fascinated by HGTV.
However, that aside, I can tell you concretely how I came up with the idea for the first Mark Mallen novel. I had written a short story, called “Needle Priest”, which you can find here, on Cherrybleeds.
That gave me my first glimpse of Mallen. It got put up on CherryB’s, and I of course told all and sundry. A co-worker came to me later on and said, “Wow, you could really do something with that character.” I didn’t think of it at the time, but that statement stayed with me.
A couple months passed. The book I’m shopping at the time, an urban fantasy novel, is going nowhere fast. No one wants to read it, and I realize it’s time for the next book. Now, I’ve been a HUGE noir fan since I first saw Bogie in The Maltese Falcon when I was nine, and I’d always wanted to write a mystery, but I found the genre intimidating, what with all those pesky conventions and expectations. However, I’d been feeling that this might be the time to get my noir on.
I had, in the interim, written a piece of flash fiction, from the POV of a psycho:
The man turned the key and unlocked the door. The excitement was growing, and he wanted to touch himself, but knew it would be better to wait. It was always better to wait as long as possible, until that last, voluptuous moment when a life ended and his began again. He sighed as he passed through the doorway into the darkened room. His eyes, out of habit, went first to the windows. There were scratches in the paint, allowing thin, almost invisible rays of sunlight in. The rays didn’t make the room any lighter,
but he knew they often gave hope to the little visitors. Those scratches would have to be painted over. He hoped he still had the dark green paint down in the basement.
There was a rustling sound, and he looked to the far corner. There she was, nestled in the mound of blankets and old clothes, just like a little kitten warm in her bed. His heart beat faster as he gazed at her. The large, frightened eyes. The rosebud mouth. The little shorts that exposed the tanned legs. He walked across the room, noting he’d have to empty the bucket again. She hadn’t eaten much, and that made him sad. She would need her strength. She huddled away from him as best she could but the ropes and tape made that difficult. He smiled at her efforts. This one had real heart. He pulled the knife from his coat pocket as he undid his zipper. He prayed she would scream, long enough and loud enough.
That piece, along with Needle Priest, I’d pinned to the cork board above my desk. I felt they were the two strongest things I’d done. My wife, an incredibly voluminous reader and vocal critic, also felt that these two pieces were my best, especially the flash fiction. So, there they hung on my cork board as I sat there, trying to figure out what the hell to do next. I was literally looking back and forth from one to the other…
psycho… junkie… psycho… junkie… psycho… how do I get the junkie to the psycho… how… psycho… junkie…
And Unseen Damage was born. I made Mark Mallen an amateur sleuth who goes after a psychotic killer, and it took off from there. Hopefully successfully, but we’ll have to see about that.
Which brings us to today’s question. Where do you get your ideas? How do they happen?
Ryan’s first novel, Acts of Violence is a brilliant opening salvo in what I’m sure will be a very successful writing career.
Here’s what his novel, Acts of Violence is about, and I can’t recommend it highly enough:
This is Katrina’s story, and the story of her killer. It is also the story of Katrina’s neighbors, those who witness her murder and do nothing: the terrified Vietnam draftee; the woman who thinks she’s killed a child, and her husband who will risk everything for her; the former soldier planning suicide and the man who saves him. And others whose lives are touched by the crime: the elderly teacher whose past is catching up with him; the amateur blackmailer who’s about to find out just what sort of people he’s been threatening; the corrupt cop who believes he is God’s “red right hand.” Shocking and compassionate, angry and gripping, Acts of Violence is a sprawling, cinematic tour-de-force, a terrifying crime novel unlike any other.
And now, the interview.
– Robert Lewis
Robert Lewis: Why this story? What was it about this story that fascinated you enough that you wanted to spend an extended period of time with it?
Ryan David Jahn: I wish I had a good answer for this, but I don’t, mostly because I don’t spend a lot of time analyzing my own motives for doing things. I’m not a careful planner, or even remotely methodical in my decision making. I joined the army when I was nineteen because I’d lost my job and was behind on rent, I asked my wife to marry me after knowing her for two months, and I decided this was the story I wanted to write because it was the story I was most interested in when I sat down to try my hand at a novel (for the fifth or sixth time: I’d written others which remain, rightly, unpublished). I’d been aware of the Kitty Genovese case for fourteen or fifteen years and had turned it over in my head many times. I’ve always found it fascinating. But why this story now? Who knows? Certainly I don’t.
RL: How long did it take you write this? From 1st draft to the point you could send it out to publishers.
RDJ: It depends. As I said, I’d been aware of the event which inspired Acts of Violence for fourteen or fifteen years, so in a very real sense, that’s how long it took. But if we mean “writing” literally — I started the first week of July, 2008, and was submitting the sixth or seventh draft by the last week of November. I don’t usually write that quickly — though I’m not a person who enjoys spending years on a project — but the first draft came very quickly (I wrote the first 60 pages on day one), so even though it was written in less than six months, four months of that was rewrites.
RL: Where do you think your style comes from? What books would you point to that heavily influenced your writing?
RDJ: When I first started writing seriously fifteen or so years ago, I thought writing should be dense and complex and one should display one’s expansive vocabulary at every opportunity. This was my conclusion after reading several classic works, as well as many recent novels that were considered literature: Moby-Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Tunnel. That kind of writing didn’t suit me, so I stripped down to short sentences and simple words that anyone could understand. It was more natural to me. Hemingway, Carver, Hammett, and Vonnegut all informed this process to some degree. Once I found my natural mode, it was — and is — a process of getting better at it, refining it.
RL: Do you have a favorite part of a book you like to write (such as the opening, or the climax, dialog)?
RDJ: On first drafts, I enjoy the puzzle aspect of putting a story together so that all the parts fit. This includes putting the right characters into the story and finding out what they’ll do. In later drafts, I work more on sentences and paragraphs and imagery and — I reluctantly admit — theme. I enjoy all of it. I think I enjoy rewriting most, as it’s in rewrites that you really have a chance to sharpen the blade of the story and really make it cut. The first draft is the sweat work of forging the thing, really hammering it out, and that’s where most of the frustration lies. At least for me.
RL: Writers are fascinated with other writer’s processes. I know I am. What’s your process like?
RDJ: It’s an insult to other writers to call what I do a process. I pace around a lot, go for walks, write fifty pages and throw those pages out. Rewrite those fifty pages from scratch, but better, and then add another twenty. Throw those pages out. Rewrite again and manage to add another thirty pages of story. I print out the hundred or pages and retype them, now with some idea of where the story is going. I plant seeds that I hope will grow into something more, I clean up the writing a bit as I go through it, and I combine or split or drop characters as I think will suit the story later. With the setup done as well as I know how, I write the rest of the novel as quickly as possible, preferably in less than three months. First draft done, I read through it at least half a dozen times and make changes and notes. I print out the first draft and retype the entire thing. I go over it another three or four times. When I get to the point where I can’t even stand to know that the document is open on my computer, when I absolutely hate the thing so much I can’t stand to think of it anymore and want to start a new project just to get the thought of this one out of my mind, I know I’m finished. It’s not a process I think I could promote in workshops.
RL: Which author would you most like to drink with?
RDJ: Mark Twain.
RL: Why Mark Twain?
RDJ: I admire his work. And I have the sense that he’d be an entertaining drunk and not one to quit halfway through the night. If I’m going to drink with someone, I’d like it to be someone who doesn’t check his watch to calculate how many hours of sleep he can still get in before his alarm sounds when you ask if you can buy another round.
RL: What was the revision process like with your editor?
RDJ: Excellent. He gave me a hundred and twenty-two notes. I read through them and the novel simultaneously. Then I made changes. I agreed with over a hundred of the notes. Those I disagreed with, I argued against, trying to explain why I disagreed. My editor, Will Atkins, was convinced by my arguments, so we only went through one round of edits. I turned the revised manuscript in, much better than it was before Will’s notes, and that was that.
RL: You’ve written screenplays for quite awhile. Did you find the switch from writing screenplays to fiction difficult?
RDJ: No, I found it liberating. All that space and depth. It was like moving from a bachelor apartment to a four-bedroom house. There was finally room for all that furniture I’d been keeping in storage.
RL: How did you hook up with Macmillan?
RDJ: Macmillan UK has an imprint called Macmillan New Writing that accepts emailed manuscripts. While I am a dedicated writer and care very much about the art and craft of the novel, I am very lazy about the submission process. I just don’t like it. It’s slow and frustrating. My novels aren’t particularly synopsis friendly, so writing query letters is a pain in the ass. Then, after managing an okay synopsis for an okay query letter, maybe twenty percent of the agents you contact are interested in reading any of the work, but instead of just asking for the manuscript and letting you know they’ll only read up to twenty-five or fifty pages unless they love it, they ask you to email them twenty-five or fifty pages, and if they like those, then they ask you to send them the whole manuscript. (I know they have their reasons, and I’m not anti-agent. I have a film agent and the process of getting him was about the same, but with a screenplay instead. And they’re handy to have. I’m simply trying to describe my frame of mind at the time.) I’d been sending query letters off to agents for several weeks when I decided to email the manuscript to Macmillan New Writing and see what happened. Macmillan is a major publisher, and though MNW doesn’t offer advances, I thought getting in with them would be better for my career than getting in with a small publisher that might offer a $2,000 – $5,000 advance. (This is debatable in general, of course, but in my case I think it worked out: I signed a longer-term contract with them after submitting a second novel, and got an advance that allows me to work on the third novel full-time; they also just licensed German rights to the first two novels to Heyne Verlag, part of the Random House group, which will also throw a little extra money my way, and, of course, put me in print in Germany.) A month to the day after I submitted Acts of Violence, they offered a contract. The editing was great, my publicist, Sophie Portas, works her ass off despite my being less than cooperative about certain parts of the publicity process, and so far the relationship has been a good one.
RL: What’s the next book about?
RDJ: t’s called Low Life and it’s about a payroll account who lives a lonely, friendless life. One night while he’s asleep in bed someone breaks into his apartment and tries to murder him. During the altercation he ends up killing his assailant, and rather than calling the police, he puts the body on ice in his bathtub and tries to find out who wanted him dead and why. He can’t think of anything he’s done that might warrant death, but he must have done something: someone tried to kill him. But the more he discovers, the less he seems to comprehend, and the deeper he finds himself buried in contradictions and dangerous situations. It’s scheduled to come out 2 July 2010.
RL: You went to London for the book’s launch, didn’t you? How’d that go? What did you do while there?
RDJ: Yeah, it went well. Met my editor and publicist and publisher and the rights people and the marketing people and the man who designed my book all for the first time. Recorded a podcast with my editor, recorded a reading of the first chapter of the novel, went to lunch with some people and dinner with some other people, went to a few bookstores and signed some books, met David Headley who, with Macmillan, put out the numbered edition of Acts of Violence, and managed somehow to pre-sell all 250 copies of it, and generally was thrust into new situations to which I responded poorly. Everybody but me was a joy, though, and I was very glad to be there.
RL: Do you write to music? If so, what’s your favorite music to write to?
RDJ: I write to music and rewrite in silence. I write to music because I think music can help set the right tone and also it’s good for drowning out other sounds, and I rewrite in silence because it’s on rewrites that I really try to get the rhythm of the sentences right, and music is a distraction at that point. I create playlists to write to. For Acts of Violence, it was Buddy Holly and early Stones and the Beach Boys and acoustic blues. For the second novel, Low Life, it was Pere Ubu, the Pixies, Talking Heads, and that kind of stuff.
RL: What else is going on with your career? What’s coming down the pike?
RDJ: The first novel just came out and the second comes out 2 July 2010. I’m working on the third, which will be released, if all goes well, summer or fall of 2011. Beyond that, it’s a mystery. Which is fine. I know the freelance writing life and its unknowns makes a lot of people very nervous, but I am blessed with a combination of shortsightedness and obsessiveness that ensures I don’t see beyond whatever I am doing at the moment.
RL: What good books have you read recently?
RDJ: A Quiet Belief in Angels by RJ Ellory, Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy, Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson, Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson by Robert Polito, and The Incendiary’s Trail by James McCreet are some of the books I’ve read recently and enjoyed. I try to read new books as well as classics I haven’t yet gotten to, as it’s kind of a thrill to “discover” a writer before everyone is talking about him or her. James McCreet, for instance, is, I suspect, going places. But enough about other writers.
Done! And with about 6.5 hours to spare. I’m now at 60,028.
That was fun. I really got into a zone this morning, words shooting out of me like bullets from a tommy gun. I was able to maintain a nice momentum over both days, and it just really felt so, so good. The words are still first draft level stuff, of course, but at least they’re down there now, on the page, rather than in my head.
Think I deserve a drink now.
Today is Friday, November 6.
My current manuscript is not moving fast enough for me. I’m used to doing about 1500 words a day, six days a week. This one, well, this one’s been rough. I’m at 53K, started back in early September. I need to get it moving. Like when a football team goes to the no huddle to jump start an offense that’s playing flat.
So, my challenge to myself? By 8pm on November 8, I will have written 7000 words. That will get me to 60K. Can I do it? Yeah, I can. The story is there, I just need to write it.
And this got me thinking: the importance of self-imposed deadlines. I need them. I work best “under the gun”. I set a deadline for myself every first draft, based on the above mentioned 1500 words a day. This is the first time I’ve not met a writing deadline. First time ever. I don’t know what it is this time, however, I suspect it’s because this book is the most complex story I’ve ever attempted, and it’s been a bit on the intimidating side. Trying to keep all the threads weaving, etc. I think this challenge will be exactly what’s needed to get me rolling down the road to The End. It will build the momentum that’s so very necessary in a first draft, what keeps a writer writing to the final page.
Do any of you use self-imposed deadlines? I would say to you that the next time you feel the draft flagging, give yourself some sort of deadline. Like, 10K words in the next week, etc. See if it helps.
I’ll fill you in on Monday as to how good, or bad, I did. Oh, and that’s another reason for me putting this down on the blog: I’d be WAY too embarrassed to drag my tail in here on Monday and say I didn’t make it. Great. Now I’ve got performance anxiety on top of everything else.
See you in a couple of days.
Yes, it’s true. I’ll be interviewing debut author Ryan David Jahn, whose book Acts of Violence is one of the strongest debuts I’ve come across in ages. Seriously. Here’s what Laura Wilson of The Guardian said about Ryan’s book:
“Acts of Violence is a wonderfully visual book – the effect is of watching, unseen, though a dozen different windows as Jahn switches from one scenario to the next. Powerful, compassionate and authentic, it works both as a mystery and as a snapshot of America in the early 1960s.”
So, stay tuned. Ryan’s a really interesting writer, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what he has to say.
Now, if I can only come up with some interesting, never been used before, questions!
I know, this is a blog about noir fiction and writing. I just… just needed to get this out of my system.
I’ve read Uylsses. No, I do not think it was good. Why did I read it? Well, it’s the book everyone talks about but I never could find anyone but one person who ever read the damn thing. You see, I had just finished reading Joyce’s short story, The Dead. I can lay the blame for my decision right at the feet of this very paragraph, perhaps one of the greatest paragraphs ever written by anyone, ever:
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
I mean, look at that thing. It’s a work of art. That incredible alliteration: soul swooned slowly. It’s lovely. The entire rhythm of, “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling…” isn’t just literature, it’s poetry, man. It’s really so incredible, it chokes me up to read it.
So, I figured, yeah… I can do Uylsses.
Wrong. Now, I’m well aware of the reams of paper written on this novel. I came to it completely aware of its place in the canon. I opened it knowing that people have even graphed out the journey that Bloom and Dedalus take on that fateful day. I got that it was based on Odysseus. But, people, this book is just… well, the most convoluted piece of work every committed to paper. I had, in preparation for my journey, bought the Cliff Notes to go with it. Hey, I’m not proud, but when even Clif Notes tells you something along the lines of, “Well, even we cannot be sure what this chapter is supposed to mean, or its relation to Odysseus’s journey”, you know you’re in for it. Outside of a few parts of the novel, including the final section from Molly’s POV, the book is one of the most self indulgent things I’ve ever come across in art, and that includes The Phantom, Andy Warhol, and Guns n’ Roses’s Use Your Illusion 1 & 2.
However, that aside, I do feel it really is one of the most important things ever written. I can hear everyone throwing drinks at their screens, taking this blog off of their bookmarks, etc. Hear me out. It came to me one evening when I was ranting about the thing to my wife:
The book is not in and of itself great, but it is great because of all the doors that it opened for those that came after it.
Think about it. We wouldn’t have Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Bukowski, etc. No Virginia Woolf or Getrude Stein, either. No novels that pushed boundaries, both in form and content. Joyce really blew the door in, and he did it at just the right time. Good? No. Watershed? Most definitely yes.
Anyway, I’ve read it. Now at least I’ll always have something to talk about at parties.