Thursday, September 25, 2008

So You Want to Write a Book

By Beth Terrell

If you're new to this business of writing, or if you're an old hand who wants to try something new, the first step is deciding what kind of book you want to write. To do that, you might consider what kind of book you like to read. If you love romances, that might be a good genre for you to start with. If you despise romance novels but think you could just dash one off and make a bushel of money because they sell like hotcakes, maybe you should consider another genre. It's almost impossible to write well in a genre for which you feel contempt; readers who love the genre will sense your disdain and resent it.

There are no bad genres. The best of any genre is just as literary as the best literary novel--or darn close to it. (Think Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Godfather, and The Lord of the Rings.) Since this is a Murderous Musing, let's assume you're writing a mystery or thriller.

Do you like hardboiled detective novels? Cozies? Something in between? Psychological suspense? Mysteries with a hint of the supernatural? Period mysteries (such as those set in Victorian England or ancient Rome)? Maybe that's the kind of book you should consider writing. Let's try an exercise. Write down the titles of your ten favorite mysteries (or mystery writers). Ask yourself what you like about each one and what they have in common.

Let's say you have on your list: Janet Evanovitch, Elaine Vietz, Nancy Cohen, Susan McBride, Parnell Hall, Tamar Myers, Patricia Sprinkle, Donna Andrews, Sarah R. Shaber, and Agatha Christie. You might be more comfortable writing a cozy mystery, possibly humorous with little graphic sex or violence, because those are the kinds of books you like to read.

But imagine you have on your list: Jonathan Kellerman, Dennis Lehane, John Sandford, David Wiltse, John Connelly, Thomas Harris, James Lee Burke, Joseph Wambaugh, Ed McBain, and Philip Margolin. There's a good chance you are going to want to write a darker, grittier story.

What if you have an equal mix of both? Then you might feel comfortable writing several different kinds of books, and other concerns, such as characters and theme, will help you decide what kind of book you should write now.

My list included writers from both of the above lists, but more from the second. I noticed that my favorite books had a serious tone and rich, complex characters: Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware, Tony Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone. I may not remember the plot of A is for Alibi, but I do remember that Kinsey was orphaned at a young age and was raised by her aunt, that she likes small, enclosed spaces, and that she was once married to a gorgeous but irresponsible musician. I read Sue Grafton's books because I like Kinsey. I read Janet Evanovitch's books because I like Stephanie Plum. (Joe Morelli and Ranger have nothing to do with it. No, really... )

What this tells me about my own writing is that I'm likely to be most interested in writing books with multidimensional characters with real relationships. Not primarily romantic relationships, but deep connections. If I look at the book I ended up writing, this turned out to be true. Jared has complex relationships with his brother, his ex-wife, his ex-wife's new husband, and his roommate (a gay man with AIDS). It is these relationships that drive the story and will (I hope) provide a unifying thread through future books in the series.

Sometimes the amount (or kind) of research you're able to do influences your decision about what book to write. When I was brainstorming for the first Jared McKean mystery, my initial idea was for a mystery (perhaps a series) set in the Florida Everglades. To do it justice, I would have had to spend months (if not years) in the Everglades, learning about the plants and animals, how to survive in the swamps, and about the lives, traditions, and beliefs of the Seminoles. I had neither the time nor the money to carry out such extensive research, so that story went on the back burner. Every now and then, it raises its head and lets me know it's still there, but now is not the time for me to write it. Don't get me wrong. I've done a lot of research for the Jared McKean books, but it was research that was within my capability. So the book you write should be the kind you like to read, but it should also be one you can write knowledgeably about, or one that you can (and want to) research well enough to write knowledgeably about.

Another decision you need to make (or at least consider) is whether you envision your novel as a series or a stand-alone. Obviously, if you plan to kill off your protagonist, you're probably not writing a series.

A stand-alone novel has a story arc, in which the protagonist changes or grows in some way over the course of the story. A series character should also undergo changes, but within a single book, these changes may be relatively small. Instead, there is a greater story arc that covers the entire series. Think of Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder. While Scudder reacts to the events of each book, the major changes of his life take place over the course of the series. He acknowledges his alcoholism, joins AA, and learns to control his urge to drink. He dates a series of women, falls in love with a former prostitute, marries her, and begins to reconcile (after a fashion) with the adult sons of his first marriage. If you envision a series, your main character needs to be a multifaceted character with enough complexity to sustain a reader's interest for the long haul. If your series contains twenty-six novels (A is for Alibi to Z is for...Ziggurat?), your character had better be up to the task.

It's especially important that you like your protagonist and be willing to invest a heft chunk of time with him (or her). If you don't enjoy his company, how can you expect anyone else to? And what if you should be fortunate enough, and talented enough, to write a best-seller? When a million readers are clamoring for more, will you like this character enough to live with her for a decade or more?

Think about it. Make your list. It doesn't have to be ten writers. It could be two. It could be twenty. As long as it helps you understand something about what draws you to a story--and what keeps you coming back for more--it's fine.


Jean Henry Mead said...

An excellent article, Beth. A shame that it didn't headline longer. I noticed that we read the same authors. I'd love for you to guest blog, when you have time, at my blog, Write on! It's about the mechanics of writing:

Beth Terrell said...

I'd be honored to be a guest blogger, Jean.

As for the amount of headline time, I feel fortunate that I got it up in time for the date above the post to say Thursday:)

Jean Henry Mead said...

Then you must be very busy. Let me know when you can guest blog. I look forward to it. :)