Category Archives: Writing

Crime writers: a “fatal lack of talent”?

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Last week, William O’Rourke, emeritus professor of English at Notre Dame, wrote an essay for the Irish Times about the Irish writer Michael Collins, his former student. Things kicked off from there. O’Rourke wrote:

Michael, unfortunately, had, has, too much talent to succeed as a crime writer. He doesn’t possess the fatal lack of talent required. He asks too much of a reader.

And from crime writers came laughter, and spit-takes, and the rolling of eyes. Until the Books Editor of the Irish Times, Martin Doyle, invited us to respond. Thirteen of us did: ‘Untalented’ crime writers respond to their No 1 critic.

My contribution:

I had a drop of talent once. I got rid of it. Sold it out of the boot of my car so I could write a crime novel.

My main point is this:

There’s a damaging belief that talent is binary. You either have it – gifted by genetics, the Almighty, a lotto scratch card – or not. You’ve got it? Off you go to Hogwarts. You don’t? Muggle. Give up. Don’t waste our time.

But as a writer, a teacher, and above all as a parent, I’ve come to regard talent as a false god.

Read on for the rest of my response, and for replies from Sarah Hilary, John Banville, Declan Hughes, and a host of other fine crime writers.

Blast from the Past: Writing Chase Scenes

Today I’m dipping into the blog’s archives. From December 2012: Writing Chase Scenes.

I got a question from a writer today: “I’m struggling with writing about journeys/chases/pursuits. Any tips? Who does them best?” He’s writing about a “journey across Russia & into Georgia, evading KGB, switching trains, sleeping rough, some bullet-dodging…” and his question is: “It has to be made possible without being so detailed it’s dull and nitpicky. So, when to describe and when to skip?”

Some general suggestions for building a suspenseful journey/chase:

1. Set up. Build in suspense, tension and questions from the beginning. The hero must get to Kamchatka or Terrible Thing X will happen. The heroine must escape from Moscow with The Tiny Thing the Spies Want, or the truth will die with her. Give the character a goal. Lay out the stakes.

2. Build up. Make the goal important: freedom, rescue, justice, survival. Then start throwing obstacles in the character’s path. Add time pressure. Throw in a monkey wrench: the flight is canceled. The flight is boarded by the police. The flight is brought down in the middle of the steppe by a flock of geese, and now the hero must accomplish his escape on horseback.

3. Climax. Add emotional pressure. Up the stakes. The Tiny Thing the Spies Want starts ticking. The cub scout troop that’s leading the hero out of the forest betrays him to the KGB. The hero finally eludes the cops and arrives at the convent with seconds to spare… only to discover that Sister Mary Margaret has been taken hostage by the bad guys.

Two other points:

4. What to skip. The dull, nitpicky parts. I don’t say that to be snarky — if a section feels dull and nitpicky, cut it. You can summarize uneventful portions of a long journey in a few sentences: “The border cop finally stamped his passport. Sweating, he boarded the train. Four days later, he climbed off in Novosibirsk.” Or you can jump cut: Scene A = the border crossing. Scene B = the cafe in Novosibirsk. Show the scenes where the big action occurs. Allude to everything else.

5. Ingenuity. Chase scenes have become a mainstay in thrillers. The trick is to keep them fresh. Vanilla won’t cut it anymore. You need to think of unexpected twists and build them in from the beginning.

AND: Chase scenes should be designed to reveal, develop, or illustrate character. (Thanks to Jeff Abbott for reminding me of this point.)

Who writes good chase scenes? Examples from novels:

Ian Rankin, Tooth and Nail — a car chase through London with Rebus in a judge’s Jaguar. And it turns out that the elderly judge is in the back seat.

Michael Connelly, The Black Echo — Harry Bosch on foot in the storm drains and sewers beneath Los Angeles, facing his greatest fear and going back in the tunnels to hunt down major criminals.

Lee Child, Gone Tomorrow — Reacher escapes cops who are pursuing him through the New York subway.

Justin Cronin, The Passage — this novel contains various intense and inventive chases featuring pursuits on foot, horseback, and on a train. Most of the action is between humans and virals (“don’t call them vampires”).

Movies: We’re spoiled for choice.

Bullitt: the ur-chase

The French Connection

Ronin

The Bourne trilogy

The Dead Pool: This one puts a twist on the car chase and is a (funny) homage. Clint Eastwood is chased across the hills of San Francisco, a la Steve McQueen in Bullitt — but by a tiny remote controlled car that’s packed with explosives.

If you can’t tell, I love chase scenes. Love to read them, watch them, and especially to write them. Some scenes I’ve written:

Mission Canyon: Evan Delaney must flee a murderer on foot through the foothills of Santa Barbara. But: she must make sure he stays on her tail instead of attacking somebody else, who’s injured and can’t flee. And it turns out the murderer is chasing her in a Porsche.

Kill Chain: Evan escapes an assassin in Bangkok on foot and by boat, only to run up against her again in London. But: now Evan is trying to rescue a school girl, and the assassin has managed to get on the same crowded Underground train.

The Memory Collector: Jo Beckett drives through San Jose, trying to escape the marksman in the SUV behind her who’s armed with a high powered rifle. And: Jo is handcuffed to the steering wheel. And the marksman doesn’t know his wife and son are in Jo’s vehicle. And the only path to escape is across an active runway at a major airport.

I hope that begins to answer the question. As for examples of good chase scenes — any favorites out there?

Ask Me Anything 2017: Do I ever scrap ideas? Does my inner critic still pipe up?

Notes

Today I’m wrapping up this session of Q&A by answering these last few questions from readers.

djpaterson asks:

Do you ever get a fair way in, say 20k+ words, and decide that it’s not working, and scrap the idea?

Yes. I’ve written more than twenty thousand words and scrapped the idea. The photo above shows a binder containing 100 pages of notes and the first few chapters of an espionage novel I worked on for months, and months. And finally abandoned, because it was an absurd and doomed idea.

And I wrote the opening chapters to an Evan Delaney novel that ground to an unceremonious halt about sixty pages in because I simply ran out of ideas. I put that story away for six months, picked it up again, and clawed my way through to the end. I should have left it unfinished — the plot was weak, and in the end, no matter how many times I fiddled around and jammed crazy subplots into it, that novel wasn’t published. The story wasn’t strong enough.

But that was a long time ago. I’ve learned since then. Now I brainstorm ideas with my agent and editor before I start to write. I discard the ones that fall flat. I work up an outline. I rework it. I tear my hair out. I work it again, until the professionals I work with think it pops.

Easy peasy. It only took me twenty years to learn this.

Lisa asks:

A little late getting a question in, but here goes anyway. After all the books you’ve written and all of us readers who love your work, do you believe you are a successful author, or does your inner critic pipe up once in a while?

I can’t legitimately deny that I’m successful as an author, because I can look at my bookshelf and see a dozen published novels. I see everything I dreamed of as a kid, as a teenager, as a college student, there in black and white.

And of course my inner critic pops up. Regularly. It sticks its head up when my editor suggests I dig deeper into the emotional conflict between characters, and when my agent says that my outline still needs work because it’s fat with exposition and riddled with plot holes. It pokes a finger in my back at times like this morning, when I draft a scene and think: Where’s the tension? What’s the revelation? What difference does this make?

I’m glad it does.

My inner critic spurs me to dig in, do the work, and improve my writing. If my inner critic didn’t flick spitballs at me, all I’d have on my bookshelf is that reeking binder with notes for a disastrous, never-written thriller.

Bill Malloy writes:

I still want to know about those flying monkeys, and, whether
they will someday make an appearance?

Right now they’re too busy in my basement, typing away at my next novel, so… wait, what’s this?

Dan writes:

Shhh, You’ll wake the flying monkeys.

Well, you’ve done it. Fly, my pretties! Fly!

Ask Me Anything 2017: law enforcement research? Character names?

Ride Along

I’m still answering readers’ questions. Today we have a couple more from stevenangie05.

First:

Say you have never been an attorney and you are a new author. How would you get law enforcement to help with information on procedures?

Many law enforcement agencies have public relations departments, or media affairs officers. Check out the agency’s website to find contact information. Write or call to find out what kind of information they provide. Some offer citizens’ police academies to give the public a taste of an officer’s job.

Some writing conferences — those with a crime, mystery, or thriller focus — bring in officers to offer seminars and answer writers’ questions. I’ve attended conferences where bomb squads have brought their equipment vans, and where officers demonstrate firearms safety. For the past few years, the FBI has offered a full-day seminar to writers attending ThrillerFest, at their New York office.

Some law enforcement agencies have ride-along programs that allow citizens to spend a shift on patrol with uniformed officers. I’ve gone on ride alongs twice; once in high school and once, a couple of years ago, in Austin… both of which turned into interesting experiences.

Second:

How do you come up with names for all the characters?

To name characters, I have to get to know them. Their names have to fit their personalities and their role in the story. Heroine? Hero? Villain? Prickly cop? Nosy neighbor?

Evil monkey?

To round out the cast, I check that I haven’t given characters names that are too similar — Danny and Donny; Gary, Gabby and Gordon; Mary, Marie, and Mara. I also read through baby name books, phone books (I have an old one lying around), and the credits at the end of movies. Crew names are a trove of possibility.

And now that I have a dozen books under my belt, my husband no longer panics when he walks into my office and sees 10,000 Baby Names open on my desk.

Ask Me Anything 2017: Researching locations

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stevenangie05 asks:

How do you pick a location for your books and how much historical research do you do for that location?

I write about places I love, and places that lend themselves to intrigue.

I grew up thinking that Southern California was an ordinary place to live. But when I moved from Santa Barbara to England, I discovered that my British friends considered California to be as exotic as Jupiter. I was only too happy to write about a place I adored — and knew well — which also fascinated people.

Later, I wrote about London as the great teeming world city that had become a second home to me. In my novel Kill Chain, I portrayed London through Evan Delaney’s eyes, as she raced through the capital on a mission. She saw the city as a shell-shocked American tourist (and as I, a shell-shocked American tourist overwhelmed by the place, had first seen it). In my recent short story “Irregular,” I showed it through the eyes of a teenage Londoner, Shaz. Her city is hyper-modern yet ripe with old world etiquette; throbbing with international money yet home to hard working class neighborhoods and caravan parks where families live in trailers beneath motorway overpasses.

All my novels are contemporary, so I don’t delve too deeply into historical research to write about the places where they’re set, unless history influences the plot.

If I can get to a location where I’m setting a book, I go. There’s nothing like feeling the air, smelling the aromas that waft from food carts and dank alleys, and watching how people interact in market stalls or on the Metro. I never would have been able to write about a chase scene through Bangkok if I hadn’t ridden a long tail boat down the Chao Praya River, with waves whipping around me and a Chevy 350 hemi engine pouring exhaust at the back of the boat.

But if I can’t get to a location, I rely on books — with lots of excellent photographs and maps — plus Google Street View. And I always try to talk to someone who lives there or who has visited the place. That’s what can provide the telling detail that brings a place to life. For instance, I’ve never been to Amman, Jordan. But my uncle told me that the patio at the Intercontinental Hotel serves fabulous coffee, from a silver service that shines brightly in the desert sunshine. So, in The Memory Collector, that’s how Ian Kanan spends a warm afternoon before flying home to San Francisco and unleashing havoc.

None of this stopped me from getting San Francisco directions wrong in The Dirty Secrets Club. It took a helpful reader to point this out, and for me to realize that when I head down Bush Street, I get turned around, and have since I was eight years old.

Photo: Oxford Circus, London, December 2016.

Ask Me Anything 2017: What about politics? Do I know the endings of stories when I start? London v. Austin?

mysterystoryamiplasse

Kris Calvin asks:

How is the current “noisy” political environment affecting your writing (ability to write and/or content), if at all?

The current political environment is — let’s call it intrusive. It’s omnipresent. Pervasive. And thanks to 24-hour news channels, the net, and social media, it’s ridiculously easy for someone who works at a computer to be distracted every ten seconds by the latest eruption from Washington.

That’s unhealthy for both my equilibrium and my ability to concentrate on my work. The solution, as far as getting writing done, is to shut down the television, turn off social media, and only check the news a couple of times a day. Because writing — like painting, composing, or writing code — requires uninterrupted concentration.

What I’m writing will probably be affected as well, because I write about America, and ignoring the political climate would lead to unrealistic fiction. We all write about our times. Our work should reflect and explore that — not in any didactic or propagandistic way, but to shine a light on the world we live in.

As for politics itself: I urge everybody to educate themselves, get active, vote, or run for office.

Doug Moring asks:

S. King says when he starts a book, he has no idea how it will end. John Irving says he knows how the last page will read when he starts writing. I was wondering which of these groups you are in. And also which is your favorite, London or Austin?

I have to know how a story ends before I write the first word.

A novel, any story, is all of a piece. The seeds of the ending are planted on the first page.

And I know from rotten experience that if I don’t wrestle out the entire story — beginning, some turning points in the middle, and the climax — I end up with a soupy mess of a story that goes nowhere. Except into a folder in the bottom of my filing cabinet, marked, Do Not Open Under Pain of Excruciating Embarrassment.

I think Stephen King has such a strong, deep understanding of story structure that when he starts a book, it’s going to go someplace rewarding, someplace right.

London or Austin? London for theater, pub food, and long, lingering summer evenings; Austin for Texas swing, tacos, and football.

Artwork by Ami Plasse (Instagram: @amirocks73), illustrating my talk to CreativeMornings/Austin.

Ask Me Anything 2017: What’s the best writing advice I’ve gotten from a fellow author?

mysterystorytelling

LaEmgee asks:

Will you please come see us in Chicago? On book tour or otherwise?

Dan nudges:

I second that emotion.

I love Chicago. I was reminded exactly how much I love it this past autumn. While preparing to interview Sara Paretsky, I looked up V.I. Warshawski’s northside neighborhood — and realized that I’d lived in it the summer I worked in Chicago during law school. When I checked Google Street View, I saw that the neighborhood is all spiffed up, leafy green, full of bistros and coffee bars; a far cry from the creaking row of apartment buildings where my roommate and I spent sweltering evenings outside on the stoop because we had no air conditioning.

clifton-ave

Have I distracted you enough?

Real answer: I hope to come to Chicago on book tour or for a conference. I don’t know my schedule this summer yet, but if I can make it to the Windy City you’ll be the first to know.

Dan also asks:

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten from a fellow author?

Here are two pieces of advice that have stuck with me.

From mystery author Leonard Tourney: Create sympathetic characters and put them in jeopardy.

That about sums up what you need to know about kicking off a novel.

From Stephen King — of course — in On Writing:

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair.

If you want to write the stuff that matters, that excites and thrills, that resonates, that chills and grabs you by the heart and throat: Go down to the basement. Dig. Bring it all up. That’s the only way your work will be fully creative and emotionally honest.

Photo: Julia Robson