My friend Jeff Wheeler‘s new book Dryad-Born just came out in digital, print and audio. It’s the second book in his bestselling Whispers of Mirrowen trilogy for Amazon/47North. So I invited him to talk about some of the challenges of writing the follow-up to a hit novel…
Some writers struggle with “Second Book Syndrome” when doing a series. If you haven’t heard of this syndrome, it’s the complaint some readers have that the second book in a series almost always fails to deliver the same emotional punch as the first. The second book is a bridge novel, connecting the initial story to the grand climax at the end, and so it is often stuffed with meandering plots to fill up word count until the reader gets to the final battle.
I’m actually quite addicted to the second books of some of my favorite authors, and I don’t look at the second book as filler at all. In my worlds, book one is meant to introduce the main characters, develop the setting, and thicken the tension. Book two is where I save some plot twists that really ratchet up the tension, introduce new characters that throw the lead characters off their game, and position some revelations that hint at things to come in the final book—just cryptic enough to keep readers guessing.
This month, 47North has launched my newest “second” book: DRYAD-BORN, Book 2 in the Whispers from Mirrowen trilogy. The story begins with an entirely new character and an entirely new subplot before reconnecting with the heroes from Book 1, FIREBLOOD. I love the suspense that comes with writing a second book, when the enemy seems to be winning on every front and the danger builds. That’s why The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite Star Wars movie. It’s not just a bridge. It’s where the story really begins to emerge.
Here’s another guest post from my friend Kate, a big fan in the UK of crime shows, crime novels and everything noir, talking about her six favorite crime TV series that are now available in boxed set DVDs. I’d be interested to know your recommendations, so leave a comment…
It’s the season of goodwill to all men, when boxed set sales go crazy. I thought it’d be fun to explore six of the very best crime and investigation TV series, to inspire this year’s joyous boxed set shenanigans. If you’re not sure what to immerse yourself in, why not give one of these little beauties a go?
6 of the best crime and investigation TV series
Crime TV series don’t get much better than The Wire, a show series friends and family are probably sick to death of me banging on about. Sorry, sorry, but it’s just such a class act. How about I shut up about it and cover something a bit different instead… Sherlock Holmes, anyone?
Good old Holmes and his sidekick Watson are international stars, covered time and time again on film and TV. But my favourite and freshest take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s best-selling character is the recent series Sherlock, starring the marvellous Benedict Cumberbatch and my old friend Jamie’s brother Martin Freeman of The Office and The Hobbit fame. Here’s what Wikipedia says about it:
“Sherlock is a British television crime drama that presents a contemporary update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes detective stories. Created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, it stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Doctor John Watson. Six episodes have been produced, the first three of which aired in 2010. Series two aired in 2012, and a third series began production in March 2013. The series has been sold to over 180 territories.
Gatiss has criticised recent television adaptations of the Conan Doyle stories as “too reverential and too slow”, aiming instead to be as irreverent to the canon as the 1930s and 1940s films starring Basil Rathbone, which were mostly set in the then-modern post WWII era. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock uses modern technology, such as texting, the internet, and GPS, to solve crimes. Paul McGuigan, who directed two episodes of Sherlock, says that this is in keeping with Conan Doyle’s character, pointing out that “in the books he would use any device possible and he was always in the lab doing experiments. It’s just a modern-day version of it. He will use the tools that are available to him today in order to find things out.”
The update maintains some traditional elements of the stories, such as the Baker Street address and Holmes’s adversary Moriarty. Although the events of the books are transferred to the present day, some elements are incorporated into the story. For example, Martin Freeman’s Watson has returned from military service in Afghanistan. While discussing the fact that the original Watson was invalided home after serving in the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–1880), Gatiss realised that “it is the same war now, I thought. The same unwinnable war.”
Crime TV shows don’t come much better than the epic classic TheSopranos and the boxed set is a six-series whopper, perfect for total telly immersion.
If you’ve been in outer space or at the centre of the earth for the past decade or so, you may have missed it. Otherwise you’ll know what I’m on about. It’s a cracking US television drama created by the seriously talented David Chase, about the life, loves and disasters befalling a New Jersey-based Italian-American mobster called Tony Soprano, played by the sadly-missed James Gandolfini. Conflict threads its way throughout the show, as Tony tries his best to balance the conflicting requirements of his home life and his career in organised crime. He’s one of those characters I love to hate. In many respects the man is a violent, amoral, fat fool. In others he’s a straight up gentleman and scholar. For me, it’s the stark contrasts that make it so compelling.
Here’s what one Amazon reviewer, Simon Brew, says about it:
A flat-out treasure trove of television, The Sopranos Complete HBO Seasons 1-6 boxset brings together every episode of a genuinely extraordinary series. Those that call it quite possibly the best show America has produced in the last decade aren’t far wide of the mark (although fans of The Wire could have an argument there).
To think The Sopranos all started from a simple sell: that a New Jersey mob boss falls into depression, and seeks out counselling to help him cope. And while early episodes followed Tony Soprano’s balancing act as he sought to keep this from his mobster friends, The Sopranos took this foundation and built upon it a collection of layered, intriguing characters from both Tony’s ‘work’ and ‘home’ families.
That’s only part of the reason for The Sopranos’ extraordinary success, though. Because the writers then seeded many delightfully intricate plotlines, that seemed to seamlessly weave between one another. The end result was that every character was important, and–crucially–there was a real sense of unease, as fans began to realise that The Sopranos could have a quiet run of episodes, and then suddenly take out a character you’ve spent hours engaged with.
It’s a fascinating cocktail. Ruthless yet emotional, violent yet intimate, brash yet insecure, the characters of The Sopranos are as three dimensional as television drama gets. It’s a tragedy it’s finished, but the six series in this box offer a stunning legacy, and a masterclass to anyone else in the planet looking to make a character-driven drama.
Another epic, the Dexter crime series on TV covers eight seasons, so is perfect for whiling away a few post-Christmas totally-fed-up-with-turkey days. Based on Jeff Lindsay’s books, it’s about a Miami police blood spatter pattern analyst and forensics expert who kills baddies in his spare time.
The character Dexter himself, played by Michael C. Hall, is profoundly affected by his mother’s murder when he was a toddler. So much so that he embarks on a murderous spree punishing the bad guys who he feels have escaped justice while trying his best to avoid suspicion. It’s quite a balancing act, pulled off via a deceptively mellow daytime facade. By day he’s a sweetie, by night he’s a serial killing monster.
I know it’s all a bit silly. The plots stretch credibility way too far, the ending of the final series has been slammed by reviewers, and I dearly hope there isn’t a real-life Dexter out there. Who says he owns the moral majority, after all? But it’s grand entertainment. Sometimes storytelling is about pushing the boundaries, suspending belief rather than sticking slavishly to realism. If you fancy a bit of escapist fun, give the complete boxed set a go.
My all-time favourite, I can’t resist including Breaking Bad in my top 5, even though it’s only partially a crime drama TV series. I love the way the makers don’t moralise one way or the other about crystal meth production and use, keeping moral judgements to themselves, letting viewers make up their own minds and allowing the storyline to stand up for itself. The characters are about as far from black and white as you can imagine, which is extremely refreshing. The main character, Walter White, played by the remarkable Brian Cranston, is about as believable as it gets. The story telling is quality on a stick, matchless and peerless. The scripting is unbelievably good. The acting is superb. And the storyline will have you on the edge of your seat from the start.
“Felina,” the last episode ever of the magnificent series Breaking Bad, was a kind of machine gun of narrative, knocking down all of those questions with auto-fire efficiency. (Well, almost all. Sorry, Huell!) It was not flashy. It wasn’t structurally ambitious, in the way other Breaking Bad episodes have been. It was not, in most respects, surprising. (Except for Walt’s laundering scheme with Gretchen and Elliott, I think I saw nearly everything predicted, at least in general terms, by people besides me in the last week.)
And that’s OK. Because what “Felina” was–as effective, satisfying series finales are–was true. It was true to the five seasons that preceded it, true to Walter White’s obsessions and pride, and true to what Breaking Bad is at heart: a Western. As in the song “El Paso,” the protagonist (I’m not going to say hero) rode back to town, faced his enemies, said his goodbyes, and died. A Western is meant to go out with a bang, and Breaking Bad went out with about 40 of them per second (plus a dose of ricin).
It’s a Western, though, in which we were following the man, literally, with the black hat. Having seen the trail of suffering Walt has selfishly left behind him, I didn’t necessarily want to see Walt end up triumphant, feeling like a hero. But as I wrote when this final run of episodes began, the definition of a “good” Breaking Bad finale was not whether it punished Walter White. It was whether the series stayed true to his character, to its themes, whether or not it was pleasant to see.
If you like your crime TV shows a bit more laid back, less in-your-face, you could always give Hercule Poirot a go, one of Agatha Christie’s best-loved detectives and a much gentler telly experience than the usual contemporary murder, mayhem and violence.
I thought a US viewpoint would be interesting, so here’s what ‘Mad Max’ from Florida has to say about the latest series, now available on DVD:
Ever since David Suchet indicated that he wanted to film the last five episodes, most lovers of Poirot have been waiting impatiently for them to be released. “Clocks” was aired in December 2011 in the UK but “Elephants Can Remember” was not shown until June 2013. A long hiatus, but they are now finally here.
Except for “Elephants Can Remember” which was on YouTube for awhile until it was removed for whatever reason, and which I really enjoyed, I haven’t seen these episodes yet.
I live in the USA but because I am so impatient to see them, I purchase UK DVD editions (it’s not a problem to get a DVD player that plays all regions/all codes). The US releases are just too delayed. I think ‘Third Girl ‘ and ‘Appointment with Death” and “Orient Express” from 2010 are now, finally, available. It’s ridiculous it takes so long for a US edition to be released.
So, I am thrilled that the final five mysteries are now finally released. I didn’t expect a DVD release until next year, since “Curtain” was just aired in the UK on November 13, but whoever rushed these to market should be congratulated. Poirot lovers thank you and I will wait with bated breath until the Amazon box shows up in my mailbox. A great review of all five episodes has already been posted so I will just enjoy them without further comment. Ciao from Florida.
Poirot isn’t exactly quintessentially English, he’s Belgian, but you get the picture. Classic British period drama-style whodunits with exceptional sets, costumes and scripting, and a charmingly eccentric feel. Perfect for family viewing, something that won’t shock the pants off your elderly aunties or scare the kids so much they have nightmares.
Diagnosis Murder is bigger right now in the UK than anywhere else, and for good reason. It’s a terrific mystery starring Dick Van Dyke as the chief of internal medicine at a Los Angeles hospital… and a genius when it comes to solving crimes, often assisting his son Steve, an LAPD homicide detective, in his investigations.
The series, which Lee wrote and produced, is known for its well-plotted mysteries, warm humor, and big-name guest-stars from classic TV shows. My favorite episode brought back Robert Culp from I Spy, Patrick MacNee from The Avengers, and Barbara Bain as Cinnamon Carter from Mission Impossible in a clever mystery set in the world of espionage. Wes Britton, author of the Encyclopedia of Television Spies, interviewed Lee about the show’s popular stunt casting:
It all began with one starring Mike Connors reprising his role as Joe Mannix. Goldberg recalled.
“The Mannix episode was such a huge hit – in terms of publicity and ratings – that we knew we had to do more like it. Not only that, but I am a major TV geek. I was reliving my TV youth by doing these shows. I think the first one we did after Mannix was TV cops (an episode with Fred Dryer, Martin Milner, Kent McCord, Angie Dickinson and James Darren), then TV spies, TV doctors (Wayne Rogers, Chad Everett, Jack Klugman, Bernie Kopel, etc.) TV SciFi (with George Takei, Walter Koenig, Grace Lee Whitney, Majel Barrett, Billy Mumy, etc.) and even a “fire” show with cast members from Emergency. We also did some bizarre `theme’ stunt casting shows . . . like one entirely comprised of people from various versions of M*A*S*H (Elliott Gould, Jamie Farr, Sally Kellerman, Loretta Swit, etc.) and another of just actors who’d starred in Garry Marshall sitcoms, another full of country music stars. We just wanted to have fun . . . and to indulge our love of old television. Plus the stunt episodes all got big ratings and tons of publicity. The public loved it as much as we did.”
Diagnosis Murder is television comfort food…not as old-fashioned as Poirot or as dark and edgy as Dexter, but hitting the sweet spot right in the middle. It’s good fun for the entire family. All eight seasons, including the pilot and the three TV movies that preceded the series, are now available in a boxed set .
Place your vote now…
It’s always fascinating to find out what other people like best and why, and there’s plenty to talk about in this massive and ever-popular genre. What’s your favourite crime series on TV? And which boxed sets will you be enjoying this Christmas?
My friend Kate loves crime shows. She’s given her passion for the genre a lot of thought, which she shares with us today. Why do you love crime and investigation TV? I’d be interested to know, so leave a comment…
Good old telly. It’s a microcosm of the world at large, covering every human foible and failing, triumph and disaster, from domestic-scale to universe-wide. But crime and investigation TV is my favourite. Here’s why.
People get so snobbish about TV. Some turn their noses up at soap operas, others get sniffy about less-than-classy B movies. You can gussy it up any way you like, and be as pretentious as you like, but at the end of the day it’s all about storytelling. Great stories, dull stories and everything in between.
Crime stories are amongst the most popular TV shows. Take CSI, by CBS, which has run for years and years and is now at season 14. As revealed by Wikipedia, it’s incredibly popular stuff:
“CSI has been nominated multiple times for industry awards and has won nine awards during its history. The program has spawned several media projects including an exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, a series of books, several video games, and two additional TV shows.”
“CSI is a fast-paced drama about a team of forensic investigators trained to solve crimes by examining the evidence. They are on the case 24/7, scouring the scene, collecting the irrefutable evidence and finding the missing pieces that will solve the mystery.”
Crime investigation TV – Fulfilling an ancient need
Humankind has told stories from the beginning of time. Hundreds of thousands of years ago we huddled around campfires, safety in numbers, trying to avoid the terrifying, predatory megabeasts lurking out there in the darkness. And we still love being entertained whether it means being scared out of our wits, thrilled, perplexed, mystified, disgusted, horrified, amazed, shocked, or even offended.
That’s my number one reason for loving crime investigation TV. It’s excellent entertainment, populated with remarkable plots, scarily bizarre protagonists and eccentric criminologists. Baddies versus goodies always makes for a great tale. The less predictable the outcome, the better. And the best crime drama TV show plots are nothing if not unpredictable.
Crime TV series as workouts for the brain
Most brain training products have been thoroughly myth-busted. You can tap away on a little screen answering questions and playing games all day, but apparently it doesn’t do much good. As a report in New Scientist magazine says:
“Brain-training software may be a waste of time. People who played “mind-boosting” games made the same modest cognitive gains as those who spent a similar amount of time surfing the web.
“It didn’t really make any difference what people did,” says Adrian Owen of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK, who tested brain-training software on volunteers recruited through a BBC television programme.
Skills learned via the programs didn’t transfer to the cognitive tests, even when they relied on similar abilities, says Owen. For instance, people who played a game in which they had to find a match for a briefly overturned card struggled at a similar test that used stars “hidden” in boxes.
“Even when the tests were conceptually quite similar we didn’t see any improvement,” says Owen. He concludes that brain-training software only makes people better at the specific tasks they have been practising.
Torkel Klingberg, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, agrees – to a point. “A lot of what is currently marketed as ‘brain-training’ is not created based on scientific evidence and not properly tested,” he says.”
Having said that, other reports indicate that, as a general rule, keeping your body and brain busy and entertained does seem to have physical and mental benefits. I reckon a beautifully tangled plot is just one way to keep the old grey matter moving.
Crime TV shows as vicarious adventure
If you live in the western world, life these days is pretty safe. We’re protected and policed at every turn, and we hunted the megabeasts to extinction a very long time ago. Survival isn’t so much of a struggle. We’ve evolved amazing reflexes and multiple senses designed to help us discern and avoid danger. But in everyday life, we don’t really need them any more.
Very few of us have proper adventures. Unless you happen to be an adrenaline monkey hooked on sky diving or one of those crazy people who leaps off cliffs in a bat-like flying suit, our fight or flight responses are mostly under-used. To me, crime TV shows deliver a vital taste of danger that just isn’t present in modern life. It might be a vicarious thrill. But it’s better than no thrill at all.
Crime drama TV shows reveal the human condition
Everyone has their own sense of morality, immorality or amorality. If a psychopathic murderer turned up on our doorstep, I’d probably run screaming to the nearest cupboard and shut myself in. But we’re all different. You might grab a weapon and slot neatly into ‘kill’ mode. Someone else might collapse into a terrified jelly, unable to move. Others might ignore him, hoping he gets bored and goes away. You might try to make friends with it, more fool you. But we’re all different, and one of the greatest pleasures I get from watching crime drama TV is the insight you get into the way other people react to situations. Last time I ran away from the baddie. But next time, having seen someone in a similar situation survive, I might feel confident enough to grab an axe.
Crime investigation TV and social interactions
TV is a useful conversation point, a place you connect with your fellow humans. If you’ve ever found yourself at the water cooler, or at a party, talking about the new crime series you caught last week, you’ll know common experiences like that act as social glue. If you’re stuck for small talk, telly delivers, especially when it’s compelling enough to drive a satisfyingly interesting discussion.
Crime drama as therapy
The best crime TV shows draw you in so you’re unaware of the outside world. Your life might have either turned to shit or become magical. You might have lost your job, or be unbearably excited about a new career. You could be feeling hurt, sad, furious or furiously horny. Either way, a jolly good crime series helps you forget your current state of mind and become totally engrossed in something completely different. Therapy, if you like.
When you’re immersed in a TV crime show you love, time stands still. You’re living 100% in the present, with no pointless worrying about the past or trying to second-guess the future. Weirdly, despite the excitement, it’s an incredibly peaceful place to be. Just like a good book.
Why do you watch crime and investigation TV series?
We’re all different. Why do you watch crime drama TV? And if you don’t, why not?
My friend author Vicki Hendricks is perhaps best known for her classic, contemporary noir novel Miami Purity, an explosive mix of crime and explicit sex. She followed that break-out novel with several more critically-acclaimed edgy, sex-soaked noir tales, including Sky Blues, Cruel Poetry, Iquana Love, and Involuntary Madness. But now she’s trying something very different with her new novel, Fur People, and I invited her here to talk about it.
When I switched from crime-noir writing to general fiction, I didn’t realize the difficulty I would have in dropping my usual methods of keeping readers’ attention—sex and violence. I was inspired with a story about Sunny, a young animal-lover, because I share her needs and pain, if not her behaviors. I love animals much more than I love murder, and the irony involved of love taken to the extreme fascinated me. Somehow I failed to recognize obsession, the basis of noir—old habits do die hard. Around every tree in the Florida setting lurked a noir opportunity begging to be explored—my subconscious at work. I hadn’t set out to write a Marley and Me, but it’s as if I was writing blindfolded.
Sexual desires spring from Sunny’s past, as she dreams of the ex-boyfriend she left ten years earlier and hopes to love again. Drunken men with sick talk stumble through the woods and find her camper-bus. What’s a girl to do? In addition, the local veterinarian can’t stop obsessing about the young hunk who so smoothly led her into trafficking Special K and cost her six months in prison and the loss of her license. And the homeless man, Buck, has nothing on his brain but the inside of Sunny’s shorts, ever since he spots her guzzling Half and Half in the grocery.
As I’m writing this, I remember that just a few days ago, worried about my usual quantity and length of sex scenes, my sister asked if the book would be appropriate to give her mother-in-law for Christmas. I assured her it would be fine– just a smattering of romance in there, I told her. Now I wonder if that’s true. Somehow I think so, considering the amount of adult situations in comparison to everything else that happens in the 300 pages, but as I tease out details for examples here, I wonder if my sensibilities have become warped over the years. Am I too perverse to be the judge?
There’s crime, too, I realize, and even firearms, in Fur People. Buck’s unregistered Police Special appears as a complete shock to my conscious self, but there it is, sure as heck, buried under blankets and towels in a Rubbermaid bin. Chekhov’s advice couldn’t be ignored: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” I had to deal with that concept.
I now recognize that noir crept into the story immediately through the main character, no matter how I tried to lighten and disguise it. The struggle of a young woman who lives in a school bus with a load dogs and cats is intrinsically dark and obsessive, no matter how many baubles, or in this case Coors Light cans, you hang on her Christmas tree. The tree metaphor comes from another favorite instructor, to emphasize the importance of the main plot, as driven by the need of the character. The plot is the tree itself and the rest is merely decoration. I knew this, but on some level I didn’t care.
Other misgivings arise. Buck battles deadly rays from the sky. Sunny develops telepathy with animals. Sunny’s drunken father recreates the hell she escaped. And more. I built in seven points of view and subplots attached to each, including a German shepherd and Chihuahua conflict, to make up for the seeming lack of sex and murder. Now these multiple strands haunt me. Are they patterned in a jeweled web or tangled like seaweed? Am I in soap opera territory or the vicinity of Charles Dickens/Jane Austen? One hopes for the best.
During the writing, I asked my favorite professor from twenty years ago if there were “rules” for subplots, and she said that each subplot has to affect the main plot and the main plot has to affect the subplots. How logical. Or was it the other way around? Does it matter? I think it does, but I can’t remember how I did it anyway, and trying to analyze the finished structure gives me a headache.
I promised myself that his time I was going to write about a sane person in a crazy world, the opposite of noir, and for a long time, I thought that’s what I’d done. I feel exactly as Sunny does about animals, and most people will tell you I’m normal. But I see now that Sunny’s dedication is mountainous compared to mine. Her guts outweigh mine by a ton. As the writer, I lost control, or gave it up. Maybe that’s as it should be. I can only hope.
Stella Green is one of my wife’s closest friends. Stella showed me the manuscript for her novel Awakening Snakes. The book was great, and her voice was so strong and self-assured, that I couldn’t believe it was her first novel. So it was a no-brainer for me to offer her an assignment writing the 21st Dead Man novel. Her novel, The Rising Dead, has just been released by Amazon’s 47North imprint…and is the final “regular” installment in the bi-monthly series before the series returns with REBORN, a big Dead Man Amazon Kindle Serial that’s coming in early 2014. Today I invited Stella to talk about her experience writing The Rising Dead…
When Lee asked if I wanted to write a Dead Man book, I wasn’t sure I could write an action book, but I certainly wanted to try. Who doesn’t like stories with tortured characters battling evil, especially when the bad guys are rotting from the inside out?
My biggest hurdle came quickly — the plot. A detailed outline was something new for me. Of course, this type of planning is absolutely necessary in a book series with multiple authors. Unfortunately for me, the group of fine writers that proceeded me had already put Matt Cahill through many varieties of Hell. Most of my ideas were shot down because they were similar to those of other writers who were in different stages of finishing their books. Some of my other inspirations were, well, let’s just say Lee wasn’t feeling them — especially the ones with pirates. Working with someone else’s characters is quite different than working with your own. You have to respect the world they’ve created. After a few weeks of flailing, I wondered if I was ever going to get it right, but Lee didn’t give up on me. Eventually something better came along: the Stranger.
I liked the idea of a character who had lived a dark and difficult life — like Matt Cahill’s — for hundreds of years. A person would either go mad or become extremely hard. During drives through the desert between Los Angeles and Phoenix I’ve seen dangerous looking drifters. They make me remember to lock my car doors; they also make me wonder what their stories are. I began calling my character the Stranger because I hadn’t decided on a name. Later, I realized he had worked hard to isolate himself and become the unknown, so I let him stay The Stranger.
Lee and Bill were open to a new character, and with their help, I finally had that detailed outline. The actual writing flowed. Now I understand the value of all that prep work.
So I think I’ve finally got an angle on those pirates that Lee is really going to love…
In the mean time, here’s more on my novel The Rising Dead. I hope you like it!
Matt Cahill was an ordinary man leading a simple life until a shocking accident changed everything. Now he can see a nightmarish netherworld that exists within our own. Now he’s on a dangerous quest for the answers to who he is and what he has become…and engaged in an epic battle to save us, and his soul, from the clutches of pure evil.
In the blasted hell of the Arizona desert, Matt hitches a ride with a young couple who meets a terrible fate that he’s powerless to stop. The bloody encounter leads him to a mysterious stranger with a terrifying history…who may know the reason for Matt’s resurrection and hold the key to finally ending his lonely quest. But first they must survive in an unforgiving wasteland to do battle with a gang of heavily armed smugglers who trade in human flesh.
My friend Mark Barnes’ new novel The Obsidian Heart is a character and plot driven story, as much political thriller as fantasy adventure. It’s the second novel in his lyrical Echoes of Empire series, an epic, fantastic tale of family loyalty and political intrigue, fraught with shadowy visions, baroque magic, arcane science, bloody feuds, and ancient forces whose agendas are as yet unknown. I invited him here to talk about what he learned while writing the second novel in his series.
It’s been said that the second novel is the hardest, and the one where a number of authors stumble. Inexperienced as I may be, I’d challenge that to say the novel you’re working on should be the hardest, because you want to improve in some way on what you’ve done previously. I looked at the second novel as a blessing, and a curse. A blessing, because this time I was being paid to do what I loved, to share more of my story with readers, and to get better at what I did. A curse, because I had to do all that while the clock was ticking, adding demands on a life that was already reasonably full.
When I signed a contract, the landscape changed. I was no longer working for myself, and had an obligation to complete my work within an established time frame, to an acceptable level of quality that wouldn’t cause my agent to facepalm, or give my editors a stroke. It reminded me a little of the warning you see on the side mirrors of your car: deadlines in the mirror are closer than they appear. In this case, three books released in a 12 month period.
By the time I broke ground on The Obsidian Heart, I was in the position where the first novel, The Garden of Stone, had been written and edited, but not released. The foundation for everything that was yet to come hadn’t been seen by the public: there were no reviews, and at this point no feedback on the project other than an enthusiastic agent, and publishing team. That support helped ferry me across rivers of doubt and second-guessing. But I was writing in a vacuum with regards to the response of paying readers. The only option was to continue with the story I wanted to tell, with the characters I’d become more familiar with, but to leverage from the lessons learned in the writing and editing process.
With The Garden of Stones, I had a detailed story plan that described everything. Writing The Obsidian Heart, I relied less on a rigid structure, and leaned more towards an organic experience where I strayed from the plan as the story grew, and characters evolved. This came from a greater familiarity with the world, the story, and the characters, as well as the knowledge that my work was going to be seen in the wild. My first readers had the impression that I enjoyed writing The Obsidian Heart more than I did The Garden of Stones: a shared view that I was more relaxed, and focused more on telling a story, than writing a novel. Such is true, because the pressure of getting published was no longer a millstone; it was replaced with the challenge of telling a better story, and being a better writer, which was more enjoyable Some of the things I found useful in the journey of writing the second novel were:
Knowing what the story was going to be, and where the characters were going, before finger touched keyboard;
More familiarity with my world, the people in it, and how they related to the various story threads that were going to unfold. A solid grasp on the foundations also meant I could be confidently flexible, as well as reigning things in when I needed to because a scene, cause, or effect made no sense;
A world that grows in the telling. By changing the setting, I gave readers something new to see;
Being aware of how long the narrative was going to be. This made it easier to work out how long writing and editing the novel was going to take;
Having built up some writing fitness, and discipline. On a bad day I was doing about 1000 words. On a good day, circa 4000 words. This was a sustainable effort, thanks to having already written one novel;
The deadline itself, as it gave me the time frames from which I calculated how much I needed to write in what time frame, allocating editing time, time for first readers to review and critique, etc; and
Learning from my mistakes. I had no doubt that my agent and editors were focussed on making my book a better artifact than I had given them. A collaborative approach in editing taught me a lot about where I could improve. I hope it’s something for which I never lose my appreciation: good editors were, and always will be, my friend.
I’m writing this a week after the release of The Obsidian Heart, and early reviews and reader responses have been great. Here’s hoping it stays that way. I’d enjoy the ongoing opportunity to give readers the kinds of stories and characters they care about, in worlds they love.
Everybody plots differently. I could never plot a book the way my friend Steve McHugh did with his two acclaimed novels “Crimes Against Magic” and “Born of Hatred.” But he might not finish a book at all if he took my approach. Creativity isn’t cookie-cutter. Everyone has to find their own way to their muse, so I asked Steve to tell us about his approach…which, considering how successful his books are, has clearly worked for him.
If you ever ask a writer what type of plotter they are, you normally get one of two answers. They either have everything arranged and know what’s going to happen from one scene to the next, or they throw caution to the wind and see what happens. But there is a third group, the one that does a little bit of both. And that’s the group that I fall in.
I started my first published work, Crimes Against Magic, about 4 years ago. I’d just finished writing a book that will never see the light of day and decided that I needed to write something new. I only knew two things. 1. That the main character would be Nathan Garrett, a sorcerer and thief whose memories had been forcibly removed some time before the start of the book and 2. That it was going to be hard work.
I had almost zero notes for the story beyond a very basic outline and just decided to figure it out as I went. The first draft took about 6 or 7 months and was an abhorrent piece of rubbish, as were the next 2 drafts. I re-wrote the book 4 times in total until I found a story I actually liked and then I set about editing. That was another 4 or 5 drafts. I’m not sure how many it was in the end, but it was a lot and it took a very long time. In all, it took me 3 years to finish the book. After which, I decided to self-publish it and it, to my great shock, did very well.
I knew that I couldn’t take 3 years to write the sequel, so in between editing Crimes Against Magic, I started plotting Born of Hatred. When I say plotting, I mean in detail I knew what was going to happen at every moment.
That whole plan lasted about 3 chapters before the book went off on a tangent and I changed a bunch of things. This happened a few times during the story and I quickly realised something. I was not a detailed plotter. Once I’d re-done the plot so that it was just the beginning and end with details about what I wanted to happen and roughly when, the story flowed a lot easier. I finished the first draft in 6 months and then the 2nd a few months later and that was it. The story was then edited, but that only took another draft or 2. It took me a lot less than a year to write book 2 and it was an even bigger success than book 1. Enough that 47North picked up both books, which were re-published last month, and book 3, which will be published next Feb.
I learned a lot from the experience of writing both books. And when it came to write book 3, I started with how I’d finished book 2. Enough details to guide me though what I wanted, but not enough to know every little detail. I know now that I like to be surprised, but still have that guideline to know where to go, even if I don’t know how I’ll get there.
It can take time to figure out which way of plotting works best for you. Some people take books to get to a place they like, and some do it with the first thing they write. And while you can read about how other people do it, the trick is trying different ways until you get it just right for you. Once that happens, you’ll find that your story comes together much easier.
I invited my friend, bestselling author Paul Levine, to write a guest blog about his new book, “State vs. Lassiter,” tenth in his acclaimed series about the former linebacker who became a night school Miami lawyer of dubious ethics. Professing to be too lazy to do a blog item, Paul instead interviewed his protagonist with predictably hilarious results.
Paul: You look like you’re still in shape to play for the Miami Dolphins. How do you do it?
Jake: Being fictional helps. By the way, you look like pelican crap.
Paul: You’re just peeved because I got you indicted for murder in the new book.
Jake: I don’t get “peeved.” I get pissed, and when I do, someone gets decked.
Paul: Let me ask you a tough question.
Jake: Take your best shot, scribbler.
Paul: You’ve been called many things. “Shyster.” “Mouthpiece.” “Shark.”
Jake: Careful, pal. They don’t call me a shark for my ability to swim.
Jake: I never stole from a client, bribed a judge, or threatened a witness, and until this bum rap, the only time I was arrested, it was a case of mistaken identity.
Paul: How’s that?
Jake: I didn’t know the guy I hit was a cop.
Paul: Okay, at the start of the book, you’re having an affair with a beautiful woman who also happens to be your banker.
Jake: So sue me. Women think I look like a young Harrison Ford.
Paul: One keystroke, I’ll turn you into an old Henry Ford. You and your lady are having a fancy dinner on Miami Beach. She threatens to turn you in for skimming client funds, and next thing we know, she’s dead…in your hotel suite at the Fontainebleau.
Jake: Is there a question in there, counselor?
Paul: What happened?
Jake: I take the Fifth. Every heard of it?
Paul: You go on trial for murder.
Jake: Hold your horses. No spoilers!
Paul: “Hold your horses?” What are you, an extra in “Gunsmoke?”
Jake: Sorry if I’m not hip enough for you, scribbler. You won’t find my mug on Facebook. I don’t have a life coach, an aroma therapist, or a yoga instructor, and I don’t do Pilates.
Paul: So you’re not trendy. You’re not a Yuppie.
Jake: I’m a carnivore among vegans, a brew and burger guy in a Chardonnay and paté world.
Paul: You’re a throwback, then?
Jake: If that’s what you call someone with old friends, old habits, and old values.
Paul: May I quote one of the five-star reviews on Amazon.com?
Jake: Do I have a choice?
Paul: “Blend the wit of Carl Hiaasen with the dialogue of Elmore Leonard and throw in John Grisham’s courtroom skills, and you have Jake Lassiter.”
Jake: Makes me wish one of those guys was writing me.
Author Anne Charnock is a former journalist for such publications as The Guardian, New Scientist, Financial Times, and International Herald Tribune who self-published her first novel, “A Calculated Life” at the end of 2012. It sold so well, and garnered so much acclaim, that Amazon’s 47North imprint quickly snapped it up and is releasing a new edition on Tuesday, rushing it through the editing/production process in less than two months. I had to know more about this book…and a story that people found so immediately captivating…so I invited her here to tell us about it.
My attention is always grabbed by a book that asks, “what if?” So I’m delighted to see that Lee’s thriller “The Walk” ventures into this territory with the question: What if The Big One were to occur and someone had to walk home across a landscape of destruction? That is, what would happen if an apocalyptic earthquake ripped along the San Andreas Fault and demolished Los Angeles?
My debut novel, “A Calculated Life,” is a “what if’ novel, though the starting point is not a catastrophe. Instead, I imagine humanity walking (or sleepwalking) into a new world where genetic tinkering at birth has freed society from addictions – from drugs, alcohol, gambling, everything. No addictive tendencies means virtually no crime. Sadly, life in this near-future world is not all rosy. The population is now compliant and segregated so that high achievers live in the inner cities and suburbs, while menial workers live in subsidized but spartan enclaves.
Although my story is classed as science fiction it gradually morphs into a thriller. One reader told me there are “blink and you’ll miss it” moments. He’s referring to the clues I lay in the book that explain the final outcome. So my worst fear is that readers who skim through their novels will miss these key bits of information! Maybe this is a worry for all authors of mysteries, thrillers and whodunits.
Jayna, my main character, is hyper-intelligent and she’s a star performer at a top corporation that forecasts economic and social trends. A string of events contradicts her forecasts, and she suspects she needs better intuition and more contact with the rest of society. The reader follows her journey as she stumbles into a world where her IQ is increasingly irrelevant… a place where human relationships are difficult for her to decode. And along this journey she crosses the line into corporate intrigue and disloyalty.
In effect, I prompt Jayna herself to ask the question, “what if?” by placing her in awkward social situations and by making her confront the fact that she’s making mistakes. She starts to look more critically at her privileged yet restricted life and it dawns on her that there are attractions to living life in a different way, on the margins. Jayna is not the only character who is dissatisfied – maybe the grass is always greener on the other side.
“The Walk” is set in the immediate aftermath of The Big One and dramatic events occur in frightening and quick succession. In my novel, I imagine society taking a slow walk into a new genetically engineered future, but the impact in the long term could be as seismic as any earthquake.
The Chicago Tribune hailed my friend Libby Fischer Hellmann’s new novel HAVANA LOST as her “most ambitious book, a sprawling novel that spans more than six decades and a number of countries and comes peppered with passions, love affairs, kidnappings, conspiracies, CIA and Outfit thugs, and, naturally, a pile of dead bodies.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? So I asked Libby to tell me how this book came about…
I was talking to my sister on the phone after I finished A BITTER VEIL. I was already about 60 pages into my next Georgia Davis thriller, but something was preventing me from investing in it. I considered writing a World War Two thriller—I’m continually drawn to periods of extreme conflict in which some people are heroes, others cowards, and you never knew whom to trust. Unfortunately, I realized there was probably nothing I could write about World War Two that hasn’t been done better by someone else.
Our phone conversation turned to other time periods and settings of extreme conflict, and my sister brought up Cuba. As soon as she mentioned it, I started to get that itch—the kind of itch that can only be scratched by diving into a subject. We both remembered how my parents flew down to gamble in Havana. This was when Batista was still in power. I must have only been about 6 or 7, but I remember being jealous that they were going to a foreign country and culture. I wanted to go. Of course, they didn’t take me.
A few years later Fidel took over and Cuba was suddenly off limits to Americans. Soon afterwards it turned Communist, and Communism was our enemy! Because of that, Cuba seemed even more mysterious and exotic, and I wanted to know more about it. A year later, of course, came the Bay of Pigs, followed fifteen months later by the Cuban Missile Crisis, both of which made Cuba even more impenetrable and threatening. So close and yet so far.
Finally, and I’m not ashamed to admit it, I recalled one of the Godfather films where Al Pacino (Michael Corleone) and Lee Strasberg (Hyman Roth aka Meyer Lansky) are on a rooftop supposedly in Havana discussing how they’re going to own the island. Shortly after that, Michael sees a rebel willing to die in order to overthrow Batista . Michael changes his mind about doing business with Roth.
That clinched it. I realized I had most of the elements for a terrific thriller: revolution, crime, conflict, an exotic setting. And while I knew it would be a stand-alone story, rather than a series, there is a thematic link between HAVANA LOST, and the two previous stand-alone thrillers I’d written: A BITTER VEIL and SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE. That theme is revolution and what it does to an individual, a family, a community, a country, a culture. In fact, I consider HAVANA LOST the noir leg of my “revolutionary trilogy.”
There was only one other element I needed. I enjoy—actually it’s more than that… it’s probably an obsession at this point—writing about women and the choices they make. I needed a female character I could insert into the middle of the volatile situation. It would be fascinating to see what she did and how she coped. How would she survive? What kind of a woman would she become? I found that woman in Frankie Pacelli, the daughter of a Mafia boss who owns a Havana resort. She’s eighteen when we meet her but in her seventies by the end of the book.
The rest was, as they say, is history.
Btw, I finally did make it to Cuba in 2012 with my daughter, and it was just as fascinating as I thought it would be. I want to go back. In the meantime, I hope you’ll take a look at HAVANA LOST.
Chicagoan Libby Fischer Hellmann is the award-winning author of ten compulsively readable thrillers. They include the Ellie Foreman series, which Libby describes as a cross between “Desperate Housewives” and “24,” the hard-boiled Georgia Davis PI series, and two standalones, SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE, and A BITTER VEIL. Her tenth and newest release, also a stand-alone, is HAVANA LOST, a historical thriller set largely in Cuba. She also has written nearly twenty short stories and novellas. A transplant from Washington DC, she says they’ll take her out of Chicago feet first.