NEW INTERVIEW:  Yours truly with Kipp Speicher on craft and process.

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As writers, our job is to tell stories. Whether fiction or non, we are at heart, weavers of tall tales, some fact-based and some pure invention.

I’ve interviewed four different authors for my Author Spotlight blog to date, and each is a storyteller with a different approach to the craft. I have focused my questions on the mechanics of writing, trying to provide illumination as to how these authors arrive at the point where they have a story completed. I find it fascinating to hear what works, as it gives me ideas and insights, as I hope it does you.

But one question remains. Is there a secret to developing gripping, can’t-put-it-down stories? Some magic formula? A template one could follow to make it so?

Sadly, I think not. Just as some people are naturally extremely funny, like Ricky Gervais, or Louis CK, or George Carlin or Sam Kinison, legions will try for funny and fall short. Part of it is timing, part of it is luck, but a big part is that most people just aren’t naturally nearly as funny as those four. We can debate why they aren’t for years, but the plain truth is they aren’t, which is obvious to everyone. I think the same goes for writing. Some are just natural storytellers, capable of arresting us with their gift and carrying us along effortlessly, and making us want to come back for more.

One of the big things I think all great comedians have is facility with language. It’s their currency, their clay. They use words to create an effect, hopefully comedic, just as we, as authors, craft language to generate our effect. Which is why it’s critical to know the rules and broaden our vocabularies. The more armed we are, the more fluid our grasp of our idiom, the better we can get to the business of telling the story.

Unfortunately, knowing the difference between an Em dash and an En dash won’t enable us to better create a compelling narrative, but it will ensure that we have tools with which to do so. Being able to select between car, vehicle, conveyance, craft and myriad other permutations may not help us make a reader feel our protag’s pain or care whether hearts have been broken, but it will avoid reader boredom and annoyance. Understanding echoes and self-censoring them as we write can make editing far easier, but in the end, all of the tools of language are meaningless if our story lacks essential honesty – that quality a reader recognizes, and makes them go, “A Ha, this is true,” even if everyone knows it isn’t. Honesty in writing isn’t about veracity. It’s about demanding from yourself a logically-consistent world you create, and being hard on your writing in terms of making it coherent. If your gut tells you that something is a little too pat, or you sort of suspect maybe you telegraphed something that you shouldn’t have, or if you’re typing just to get the word count up, the burden is upon you to force yourself to fix it. If you want to maintain suspense, you have to be convincing in doing so, and you can’t cheat. You can’t deliberately hold out material facts that would make everything come together in the reader’s mind, or in the end the reader will feel screwed. And they’ll probably pass on any further of your work.

It’s hard to write good fiction, especially good thrillers, because you have to be at the top of your game at all times. You need to have chops, but more than that, you need a story that is worthy of being told, and you need an innate sense of timing, of when and how to provide the beats, or kick the chair out from under the reader. If you can do that well they’ll follow you anywhere. If you try to force it, or if you haven’t thought it all through, in the end you’ll be abandoned by them. As it should be. Life is too short to read crap books. So don’t write crap. Or at least arm yourself with enough technique and vocabulary so it’s at worst well-written crap, and then hope your editor isn’t drunk or apathetic and will tell you the truth about what you wrote.

Now for some shameless self-promotion. My new assassination thriller, King of Swords, has gotten stellar early reviews, and upon re-read, I can honestly say that it is one of the best books I’ve written. Night of the Assassin, the prequel, is the only thing that might top it. Soon, Night will be free, so there will be no barrier to sampling my fiction. This is deliberate. While I’m reluctant to give an entire stand-alone book away, I’m confident enough in its quality to believe that most who read Night will be compelled to buy King. And then, after, to buy Geronimo. And then the two trilogies – Zero Sum and The Delphi Chronicle. By which time, I’ll have released yet more thrillers.

I believe that the more people who get a chance to taste my particular flavor, the more will seek it out. Which is all another way of saying, ya gots to give love to get it.

Am I right about that? Time will tell. But I believe that it’s a decent strategy, and I’ll keep everyone posted on how it pans out. So far, so good.

If you’re not a complete cheapskate, BTW, you can currently buy Night for .99 at Amazon, or download it for free from Smashwords. All I ask is that if you do so, and you like it, leave a review at Amazon and Goodreads. Consider that a way to pay me back for my investment. If you do, my efforts will have been worth it.

I expect Night will polarize my readers. Some will absolutely love it, and some will hate it to the point that they can’t express their disgust and rage strongly enough. I don’t expect to see much, “Yeah, I read it, and it was okay, but you know, I sort of got sidetracked and put it down halfway and then forgot to pick it up again for a week.” Either it’s a thriller that stops you in your tracks and grabs you by the throat like you owe it money, or you’ll hate it. Same for King of Swords. I don’t expect a middle ground. We’ll see.

Happy holidays, everyone. Be good to those you love. Unless they’re clowns or chimps. They deserve nothing but castigation, and they’re probably even now plotting your downfall.

 

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Comments

  1. Sun 25th Dec 2011 at 4:15 am

    Very thoughtful words, Mr. Blake, and true. The written word can be more permanent than it appears at the time of its creation, so why not pause for just a second and try that little bit harder to make something pretty into something glorious?

    Thanks for making 2011 a little bit gloriouser.

    Reply
  2. Sun 25th Dec 2011 at 5:35 am

    Well said. Someday, when I actually have time to read for pleasure again, I’ll drop back by. I love thrillers, whcih is why I’ve chosen to write them, of course. :)

    So if I had to start with one book to set the tone for the rest, which would you suggest?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Sun 25th Dec 2011 at 4:34 pm

      One of my favorite thrillers ever was Day of the Jackal. King of Swords is written to compare favorably to that offering – no higher bar exists, in my estimation, so if I even come close, it’s a home run. If that’s not so much your cup of tea and prefer a more quirky thriller, read The Geronimo Breach. In fact, I think the right order would be KOS, Night of the Assassin (the prequel), Geronimo Breach, Fatal Exchange, then the two trilogies. That’s how I’d read them. But they are all very different books. Be a shame to write the same book 10 times, although some names do (wink).

      Reply
  3. Mon 26th Dec 2011 at 6:02 pm

    The mistake that gets made a lot is that non-fiction writers forget they are telling a story — and fiction writers forget to say something through the story. But yes, the story comes first, and that means hitting it with words, over and over till you tell it right.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 26th Dec 2011 at 6:52 pm

      Yup. Which is why I also tend to ignore word count to a large extent. I find that if you focus on telling the story as well as you can, whatever you wind up with in the end is the right number of words. You can go back and rewrite, and polish, and flesh out detail, but reality is that if you have a 50K story, stretching it to make some arbitrary word goal is silliness. Especially if the story, as is, reads well.

      Happy holidays, by the way. My nano adventure, and the prequel I did after it, are both live now. King of Swords, and Night of the Assassin. For those who are interested in my continuing journey of storytelling, some of it at breakneck velocity…

      Reply
      • Gerhi Feuren  –  Wed 28th Dec 2011 at 2:19 pm

        I am thinking of totally shutting down any awareness of word count in terms of how much I write or how my project are getting along. I find the times when I write with no sense of how I am doing I tend to do better than when I’m chasing a specific count.

        But it feels a little bit scary letting go of the Word Count lifeline. What if I get lost?

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Wed 28th Dec 2011 at 9:24 pm

          You can always check word count at the end of every session. That’s what I do. I don’t pay much attention when I’m actually writing. Time enough to count ‘em, when the dealing’s done…

          Reply

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