I chose “writing as life” as the title for this series because if you’re truly a writer, the work becomes your life. It’s clichéd but true: You write because you have to. It’s a compulsion, a need deep down inside. If you do it—that is, put words together, tell stories, work with language, try to express and evoke thought and emotion with a narrative—if you do it, I say, for any other reason, you’re not a writer in the sense I’m talking about.
I’m by nature an introspective person—I dwell, ruminate, contemplate, obsess. This is part of the reason why I chose philosophy as my vocation; and the philosophical life is one that fosters and develops introspection. To put it plainly, I live a lot in my head, and thus it was natural that I became a writer—not merely of academic works, but also of fiction. But living so much in my own head means that it’s difficult to transition back to expressing ideas, thoughts, emotions externally, orally. Communicating with others verbally is difficult for me. The introspective life strains relationships, makes it difficult to live with others. That’s why the writing life is a commitment and a sacrifice.
Since 1998 or -99, when I began writing fiction, I’ve completed ten novels and done a major revision of four of them. I recently, within the last couple of years, went through two revolutions in my writing: the first epiphany was a new understanding of the nature and structure of story itself; in the second revolution I discovered how to integrate my philosophical interests with my fiction writing.
The writing life is full of rejection. I’ve had countless numbers of rejection letters and emails from agents and publishers. But the best response to rejection is to keep writing, keep getting better. Check that—it’s not the best response; it’s the only response.
Writing suspense fiction happened accidentally for me. I had a friend and drinking buddy when I was in grad school. He told me he was working on a screenplay, and I was intrigued by that idea, so we decided to work on one together and started kicking around some ideas. We didn’t have any particular genre in mind, but a story developed over many drinks, and finally we came up with a plot outline for a mystery/suspense story. He left it to me to turn into a screenplay, which I didn’t know how to do, so I set it aside.
One summer, several years later, I took out the notes and started writing the story as a novel (since I at least knew what a novel was supposed to look like). I hadn’t read any crime or suspense fiction before that, so I started reading in the genre. That was my introduction to authors who became my major influences: Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, and David Goodis. I developed the outline for the story, figured out the characters, wrote and rewrote, and finally I finished it. I enjoyed the process so much that I started a second one right away and have continued ever since.
With the first novels I wrote, I was consciously mimicking those authors. I wrote an Elmore Leonard novel, a Jim Thompson novel, a James Ellroy novel, etc. It was when I was writing my 6th novel, originally entitled I Hate Sinatra, that I started to find my own voice. The writing began to sound like me. That was some eight years into the process, and it took a few more years to really hone in on that voice. It’s a never ending process, of course, and as I said above, I subsequently went through a couple of revolutions in my writing, and I’ll discuss those in future posts.
My first novel, the one based on the screenplay ideas, I called The Big Picture, which is a terrible title, I know. It’s the story of a psychologist, Henry Blackwell, who does criminal profiling for the Philly PD. Blackwell’s wife was murdered prior to opening of the story, and the case was never solved. Blackwell has in the meantime become an alcoholic and suffers blackouts. At the opening of the story, a young woman is murdered and there are definite similarities between this crime and the murder of Blackwell’s wife. Further, Blackwell was acquainted with the victim. For Blackwell, this is the break he’s been waiting for, a fresh set of clues to help lead the police to his wife’s killer.
But it turns out that the killer was only just getting started. Other young women Blackwell knows also become victims. The detectives, Slomann and Busch, have a serial killer on their hands, and the evidence starts to point back to Blackwell himself. In a subplot, Blackwell becomes involved with a younger woman, an intrepid reporter, who’s hot to make a name for herself by telling Blackwell’s story. Blackwell begins to spiral out of control, and the women in his life—the reporter and Blackwell’s daughter—become potential targets for the murderer.
The first draft of the novel was crap, of course. But the story was good, so I did a major revision of the novel in 2010, eleven or twelve years after I completed the first draft. That revision was re-titled, Blackwell’s Coda. I did a subsequent revision of it in 2013, when I had the opportunity to publish it as an e-novel. The published version, then, became Killer’s Coda.
An Active Protagonist
I intend to use the posts in this series to offer some things I’ve learned about writing along the way. Here’s the first one. In the first two drafts of what became Killer’s Coda, a lot of things happened to Henry Blackwell. There would be no story if nothing happened of course, but in those drafts, especially the first one, the climax and resolution of the plot occurred through the agency of other characters for the most part.
What I came to learn, and what now seems obvious, is that the protagonist of the story needs to be active. He or she must be the one who makes things happen in the end. Life, and thus story, is about struggle. A novel is about the struggle of the protagonist against forces that are either internal or external, or both. For good or ill, that is, whether you have an up or a down ending, the protagonist must be the agent of change, else the story is unsatisfying and the reader unhappy.
The first few lines of Killer’s Coda:
“I once took a shit at the Van Gogh museum,” said Henry Blackwell, as he toyed with a stack of crime scene photos laying on the bar.
“Yeah?” said the blond sitting next to him. “Where’s that?”
“Amsterdam,” he said.
“That’s in Europe, right?”
“Precisely,” he said. “It was a nice facility, very clean, no smell. It was obvious they maintained it with great diligence, which is characteristic of the Dutch, and they’d stocked it with soft, double-ply toilet roll. Very impressive. Much different than most public toilets you see around the world. You might not believe it, but some of the oldest, most respected restaurants in Paris offer you a simple hole in the floor for your convenience.”
“That doesn’t sound very nice.”
“It’s not, trust me.”
“I always wanted to go to Paris,” she said. “Is it as beautiful as it looks in the movies?”
Henry looked up and waved to the bartender. “What’s that guy’s name?”
“Charlie,” she said. “What’s in the pictures?” She came close to spilling her gin and tonic, leaning towards him to have a look. The photos contained unimaginative shots of the intimacies of brutal violation and death. Bruising covered the victim’s face and upper torso, blood speckled the flooring around her head, strangulation marks striped her neck.
“Hey, Charlie,” said Henry, waving his glass. “I need a refill.”
The bartender grabbed a bottle of Scotch from the shelf. “You should slow down on these,” he said, as he poured the whiskey.
“On the contrary,” said Henry. “I haven’t imbibed nearly enough. Can’t you leave the bottle?”
“You already asked me that, and the answer’s still no.”
“I thought you might’ve changed your mind.”
“What’s ‘imbibed’ mean?” said the blond.
“You should keep in mind,” said the bartender, “we’re not allowed to serve people who are visibly drunk.”
“Do I look drunk to you?”
Charlie raised his eyebrows. “No, I guess not,” he said. “But you’ve already had seven of those.”
“And I drank a pint before I got here.”
“Jesus, why aren’t you falling off the stool?”
“I have good balance,” said Henry.
The bartender walked away, shaking his head.
Henry wrote half a sentence in the notebook accompanying the photos and glanced around the somber West Philly tavern, a joint no one would call cool. A handful of kids from Penn occupied one of the tables. Henry pegged most of the other patrons as blue collar workers. They drank Budweiser or Yuengling, some of them wearing Eagles caps. Eric Clapton issued from the juke box, and rushes of cool air swept through the room whenever anyone entered or left.
“Haven’t I seen you in here before?” said the blond.
“Not for a while,” said Henry. He gulped the Scotch. “Normally I drink at home, but it’s a special occasion.”
“Oh, yeah? What’re you celebrating?”
“It’s eighteen months to the day since I lost everything,” he said.
She frowned. “You mean like on Wall Street?”
He stuffed the photos inside the notebook and wrapped a heavy rubber band around it. “Something like that.”
“You must be feeling real down,” she said. “I was wondering why you were drinking so much.”
“Yeah?” he said. He turned towards her, in a safe place now, gliding on top of the alcohol. “I was wondering why you don’t drink more.”
“What do you mean?” she said.
“Your makeup is meant to cover the bruising around your eye,” he said. “There’s a cigarette burn on your wrist, and your jaw is slightly misshapen on the right side—indicating that it’s been broken but not set properly, likely due to a lack of adequate medical treatment. Add that to the insecurities obvious in the way you speak and the questions you’ve been persistently asking since I sat down, and the fact that you’re seeking refuge in this place, looking for some stranger to give you comfort, tells me you’re in an abusive relationship. Your husband beats the shit out of you, doesn’t he?”
She stared at him and nodded her head.
“Don’t stay in that relationship,” he said. “Leave him before he kills you.”
“Okay,” she said, still staring at him.
“There are plenty of shelters in the city for victims of abuse. Find one in the phone book. They’ll have counselors who can help you.” Henry gathered his things and slipped on his jacket. The notebook fit into his pocket. “Nice talking to you,” he said.
“You too,” she managed to say.