Writing demands discipline. Inspired binges in a fever swamp of productivity may satisfy that occasional artistic lust, but a true relationship with writing is more than a series of one-night stands. It takes commitment.

What particular processes a writer uses is less important than the necessity of having a process to begin with. I don’t think it is correct, as some believe, that all processes are equal or equally valid, but I do believe that all attempts at foregoing any process at all are equally bad.

The big debate when it comes to process seems to be over outlining. On one extreme, you have the “organic” writers, those who eschew all but the vague-est notions of what comes next as they forge ahead with their story. They are the anti-outliners, convinced that characters need to be free to act and react without the stultifying confines of a preordained plot. These writers sit down with an idea of where they want the story to go, give the characters a gentle nudge, then chronicle what happens as it unfolds before them on the computer screen (or paper, for the really old-fashioned ones).

At the other extreme, you have the meticulous outliners. These are the writers who plan out every thing that happens chapter by chapter, maybe scene by scene, before they begin the actual writing. Some always start with the ending and work backwards. Others painstakingly plot each step. These writers almost always know exactly what they are going to write when they sit down to write it.

Most writers, I would venture, naturally gravitate toward the organic. The outliners, however, have distinct advantages when it comes to plotting and structure of their novels. Experience tells me writers who outline stand a far better chance at seeing their work published.

My own process involves outlining, but not in great detail. Envisioning a general storyline and creating characters are things I don’t think I have any significant problems with, but outlining doesn’t come as easy for me as I’d like. I admire people who can outline every aspect of a novel before they begin, but I know I would end up spending more time revising my outline than I would writing the book. I tend to plot out the story by major scenes with only minor detail, the point of the outline being to establish what each scene is intended to accomplish in moving the story forward. If a scene doesn’t move a story forward, it probably shouldn’t be in there. I measure the progress by what I call milestones. These are major plot events or twists. It’s sort of like planning a road trip from New York to LA, and listing out the major stops along the way that determine the route you take. You know that your last leg of the journey will start in Phoenix and end in Santa Monica, but you don’t necessarily know precisely what interstate or highways you’ll be using then.

The primary culprit in instilling a resistance to outlining is probably the short story. I’m sure it was for me. Short stories, while arguably demanding more focus and unity of purpose for each word than a novel, more economy, if you will, are not nearly as restrictive in their form. Since most writers cut their teeth writing short fiction, the freedom of not necessarily having all the details of the story planned out ahead of time and allowing creative juices simply to flow becomes the familiar way of approaching the craft. It’s not that short stories can’t benefit from outlining, it’s just that outlining provides less of an advantage for them. The good news is, for those who hate the process of outlining and feel the need to write free, those same short stories provide a wonderful break from novel writing. The beauty of the form is that pieces of short fiction vary tremendously in length and structure, and don’t always have to follow traditional notions of beginning, middle and end. Any story of up to moderate length can also be revised and massaged extensively after the first draft much more easily than a novel, so it provides a convenient way for a writer to indulge himself or herself in the art with the knowledge that the entire end product can be chiseled and polished—or even started over from scratch—until it’s exactly the way the writer wants it. A major attraction of the short story to me as a writer is that you can just about see the light at the end of the tunnel from the moment you type the first sentence. But that is also the problem. Writing a novel is a different undertaking altogether, and what works for one does not necessarily work well for the other.

My approach to short-story writing differs significantly from novel or novella writing. I may start with nothing more than a situation, or a character, or even a title. From there I tease out ideas of where to go, often while I’m starting the first draft. The length of a short story makes it manageable enough that I’m confident I can make as many changes as I want at any point without being overly concerned with continuity issues, since making major revisions to a work a mere few pages long is not that daunting. The longer the piece of writing, however, the harder that becomes. Sometimes I have almost the entire story plotted out in my head when I start. Other times, I don’t even know how the first paragraph is going to end (my most recent short story, set to appear in Horror Library Volume 4, was that way). What matters, of course, is how the end product reads.

The bottom line is, while everyone has their own approach to writing, I submit that there are definite advantages to outlining (if nothing else, with an outline you keep updated handy, you’ve already complete most of the work you need to do when providing the always-asked-for synopsis publishers want to see). With short stories, however, you can accommodate the organic writer in you if you absolutely must.

But all writing, novel or short story, is work. Satisfying, perhaps even wonderfully enjoyable work, but work nonetheless. Labors of love aren’t just about the love, they’re also about the labor.

I feel compelled to respond to an LA Times review I read today of the latest Dexter novel, Dexter by Design (hat’s off to Paul Levine for posting it on Facebook). http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-book24-2009sep24,0,5311988.story  The reviewer, Jonathan Shapiro, not only panned the book, he insulted the many thousands of Dexter fans out there (and yes, I’m one of them), saying it comes as close to meeting the legal definition of “obscene” as anything he’s read in years, since he claims the book is “prurient and lacking in any redeeming social value.”

Mr. Shapiro is a lawyer. If he truly believes what he wrote, he should approach his law school and demand a full refund of his tuition.  Not only do I disagree vehemently with him on Dexter’s merit, but I think someone needs to point out that by his apparent standards the entire romance section of any Barnes & Noble would be subject to banning.

To put it bluntly, Mr. Shapiro cavalierly misrepresents the legal definition of obscenity. Setting aside the fact that it is hard to understand how he could twist much of Dexter into “appealing to the prurient interest,” that is merely one component of the legal definition, and the definition doesn’t actually use the vague term “redeeming social value” at all.

 

 For something to be “obscene” it must be shown that the average person, applying contemporary community standards and viewing the material as a whole, would find (1) that the work appeals predominantly to “prurient” interest; (2) that it depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and (3) that it lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

 

 Shapiro’s entitled to his opinion, of course, and to the public expression of it.  But to pretend that Dexter by Design comes anywhere even remotely close to meeting this definition would constitute malpractice if he did it in the course of representing a client.

 

Dexter is a brilliant creation (frankly, I hate Jeff Lindsay for all eternity for having come up with him, because I didn’t). He’s a sociopath who, lacking a conscience, is instead guided to prosecute an unconventional version of “good” by a code of conduct instilled in him by his late foster father, Harry. A veteran police officer, Harry recognized what Dexter was at an early age, and decided to channel his violent tendencies in pursuit of a higher justice.  He saw him as a possible way to balance the flaws in the system, and to that end trained him throughout his youth how to avoid detection and blend in with normal society.

 

The plots are usually dark and darkly fun, but what makes the Dexter novels so enrapturing to me is the journey his first person narrative takes you on through his psyche—the exploration of his struggles to appear normal, to figure out the proper way to act in a given situation, to do what is “right” by his father’s code.  In each book, Dexter is baffled by the way everyday people behave, the way their actions and feelings often defy logic, the way their expectations are frequently unreasonable, and the way they are driven by inscrutable emotions.  And by “their” I mean, of course, “our.”  It is in Dexter’s constant need to analyze those around him, to divine their intentions and perspectives when their true motivations are clearly a mystery to him, that we find common ground with this supposedly conscienceless serial killer.  Dexter, who constantly reminds readers that he’s not human like the rest of us, is actually very, very much like the rest of us.

 

Dexter professes not to believe in God, but he often wavers on the subject and seems at best uncertain. He doesn’t believe in the criminal justice system, but manages to work by day within law enforcement, efficiently and professionally. He doesn’t believe in friendship, but frequently goes above and beyond what anyone could reasonably expect a friend to do in his effort to appear normal. He doesn’t believe in love–indeed, claims to have no emotions at all—but he manages to be a supportive boyfriend (now husband) to an emotionally damaged woman, and a father-figure to her two children.

 

In other words, he’s just like everyone else, only more so. He’s a microcosm of the modern man, exaggerated and played out on an objective slate. A prism through which we can analyze the human condition while stepping outside its bounds.

 

Which brings us to the review. Shapiro takes offense at Dexter’s blood lust and killing as depicted in the novels, and takes particular umbrage over Dexter’s intentions regarding his stepchildren.

 

Mr. Shapiro is missing the entire point.

 

Dexter is a monster, but a monster who’s been harnessed by a father figure, a man whose towering presence haunts him like a ghostly mentor. As a result, Dexter’s monstrous urges are directed solely at other monsters, people who rape and kill and escape the system, those who prey on the innocent with impunity. Dexter’s a guardian, a protector, the most unlikely hero of all. He can’t help what he is, only what he does. And what he does instead of simply murdering randomly is kill bad guys.

 

The children in his charge, Cody and Astor, survived an abusive father and suffered through the death of their true humanity at an early age, much like Dexter. They are filled with a dark presence, a supernatural force that seeks out such voids, just like Dexter is, and see him for his true self, just as he recognizes what they are. While Shapiro obviously objects to Dexter’s intentions with these children as deplorable, what he’s doing is taking little monsters who are going to be monsters no matter what and ensuring they don’t grow up to harm innocent people and end up institutionalized or on death row. He’s saving them, them and their potential victims. To compare Dexter’s relationship with them to the main character in Lolita probably does more to reveal how Mr. Shapiro thinks than how Jeff Lindsay does. The only people who need fear what Dexter’s doing are other monsters, the type that will undoubtedly provide the eventual outlet for Cody and Astor’s homicidal urges. If that offends Mr. Shapiro, someone needs to remind him that novels like this are works of fiction. Nobody’s actually getting killed. No homicidal scumbags are actually being deprived of due process.

 

And because it is fiction we’re talking about, Mr. Shapiro’s words pose a far greater threat to society than Dexter ever could. By throwing around a label like obscenity, couching it in terms of a legal definition it clearly doesn’t meet, shrouding it in the authority of a former federal prosecutor, Mr. Shapiro is implicitly declaring that these novels might be considered as falling outside the scope of first amendment protection. That is scary as hell, folks. Jeff Lindsay isn’t promoting violence, or vigilantism, or sociopathy; he isn’t promoting anything. He’s telling stories, stories involving a fascinating character through which readers can observe the human animal—red in tooth and claw, sure, but one bound by a surprisingly admirable code that does a better job of protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty than our vaunted system of justice often does.

 

Guys like Dexter don’t disturb me nearly as much as guys like Shapiro do. For one, Dexter’s not real. And for another, he poses absolutely no threat to free speech.

Book Launch!

Today (August 25th) is the official release of Damnable, and, not coincidentally, the kick-off of my blog. To keep in line with the street-date of my first novel, I’m starting off with a discussion of what it feels like to publish your first book, since that seems to be a question a lot of people want to ask.

Short answer: probably not like what you think.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great feeling, carries with it a satisfying sense of accomplishment. I read somewhere that out of every 1,000 people who make the decision and set out to write a novel, only three ever make a sale to a major publishing house. Heady stuff when you get the call from your agent telling you you’ve got an offer. By then you’ve already imagined seeing your book on racks, laid out on tables, in readers’ hands. But from the time of the sale (to a major publishing house, at least) to the date it lands on bookshelves, far too much time passes for the reality and the expectation to be in sync. And for the for the aspiring career novelist, far too much work is involved, the meat of it beginning on publication, for the release date to be event you assumed it would be.

What it really is, is the start of the marketing phase.

Writing a fantastic novel means little if nobody reads it. If you want to be a professional writer, you have to treat writing like a profession, which means recognizing that it’s a business. The business not just of writing books, but of selling them. Assuming you’ve written something worth reading, selling copies of your book means getting people to know about it.

So, for the typical debut novelist, the release date is a different experience than what he or she likely imagined when they were envisioning being published. The twelve-eighteen month interim between sale and publication is filled with work on the next novel (a must if you want to be a professional writer), and the months and weeks leading up to release is a time filled by arranging book signings, working with a publicist, and getting copies of the book into the hands of reviewers.

It’s a hectic time, a demanding one, and bears little more than a passing resemblance to what a writer is likely to have imagined at the beginning of the process.

Okay, I’ve told you briefly a few ways how and why it’s likely different than most would expect, but there’s still the question—what does it feel like?

Ask me tomorrow.  Today, I’m just going to enjoy it.

HankS-WallWords don’t kill people, thriller writers do.

And the beautiful part about it is, nobody has to get hurt.

That’s one of the things I love so much about fiction, that ability it has to transport us not merely to a different time or different place, but to a different existence, an existence where we get to experience things we would otherwise only dream about, and experience them in full, rich detail.  Some of those dreams are ones we embrace, musings about different careers, different lifestyles, different adventures; others are more like nightmares, intense, scary conjurings of the imagination that linger in our thoughts long into the night, disturbing our sleep.  But, unlike reality, nobody has to get hurt.

As a writer, I have the privilege of creating those experiences for others.  The privilege, and the burden.  I’d like to think I chose that path, but it’s not true.  The path chose me.  I just happen to walk it in boots made for violence.

Hence the title of this blog.  That’s what we thriller writers do, we trade in violence.  Sure, it’s pretend violence, but that’s what makes for the thrill.  People often ask, if there is a God, how can He allow such awful things to happen in the world?  Whether they admit it or not, writers know at least part of the answer to that question.  We create our own worlds, usually reasonable approximations of the real one to some extent, and none of us populates that world with peaceful, harmonious, happy people all getting along.  We imagine good people, bad people, flawed people, conflicted people.  Tortured souls and haunted individuals.  Men with pasts and women with secrets.  Good versus evil.  Good versus good.  Murder and mayhem.  We create characters, and we assassinate them.

Why?  Why not write about puppies and flowers and sugar and spice, happy beginnings that lead to happy middles followed by happy endings?  Because at some level, most all of us know that the boundaries of civilized conduct, the foundation for the things we hold dear in life, are defined by conflicts and always have been.  Conflicts that predate civilization itself.  Conflict between species, conflict between rivals, conflict between the sexes, conflict between siblings, conflict between nations, religions, ideologies.  Whether or not it is considered taboo to mention in polite society–the modern incarnation of which demands that we unequivocally deplore such strife and deny its essential nature, going so far as banning child’s games like tag and dodgeball from school playgrounds–the fact is it is this constant, ongoing human dialectic that makes things interesting, the accumulated synthesis of it that allows us to appreciate all the wonderful, unconflicted things life has to offer.  Including things as simple as curling up with a good book.

This, therefore, is my blog.  Come join me as I share my thoughts on writing and publishing, on books and movies, on monsters and mayhem and life and death and murder most foul.

These boots are made for violence, but, like I said at the start, no one need get hurt.  What do you say we take a walk.