Three Questions on Writing

Recently my friend Talis Kimberley, an amazing songwriter and musician, asked me a couple of questions I thought might be of more general interest. So I thought I’d answer them here.

1: What are you proudest of having written?

That’s got a couple of answers.

new in paperback!Every writer has, in his or her head, an ideal version of their book. It’s graceful, powerful, and affects the reader unlike any book written before or since. Unfortunately, what we put on paper is often far below these lofty goals. We have bad word choices, poor characterizations, awkward prose and other similar but unavoidable discrepancies. Simply, we never get it right. As Da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” and so we abandon our works when it seems we can do no more, or when deadlines arrive.

However, one time I almost got it right. I remember reading the page proofs for the second Eddie LaCrosse novel, Burn Me Deadly, and realizing about halfway through that this was exactly the book I had in my head. Now I’m not saying it’s a great, or terrible book; that’s for readers to decide. But I can say that it was the closest to that “ideal” version that I’ve ever gotten. And I’m proud of that.

THE HUM AND THE SHIVERThe second thing I’m proudest of is The Hum and the Shiver, because it was a first for me in several ways. It was my first fully contemporary novel that was not only set in the modern world, but dealt with modern issues. It was my first female protagonist. I used more of my own experiences in it than I’d ever done before. And I remain delighted and humbled by the response it continues to get from readers, two years after its release.

2. What have you read recently that made you think, “I wish I’d written that”?

dappermencvr1The most amazing thing a reader can experience–and it’s magnified if that reader is also a writer–is the realization that someone you know, a person you might’ve interacted with on a daily basis, has created something awe-inspiring. The most recent example of that was the graphic novel Return of the Dapper Men, drawn by Janet Lee and written by Jim McCann. Jim and I used to work together, and while I knew he was a writer, I had no idea he was capable of the delicacy, heart and imagination of this book. Not only do I wish I’d written it, I wish I knew Jim better back in the day so I could’ve learned some of his secrets.

3. Which parts of the process do you agonize over and which do you fly through?

That one’s easy, actually, because I deal with it every day. The hard part for me is always plotting. I generally don’t work from outlines: I just start writing and see where the characters take me. I’ll have a vague story structure in my head, but it’s malleable and often changes significantly through the process. Yet I admire writers who can concoct intricate plots that fall together with perfect precision by the end; they’re often not given much critical respect, but heck, even Raymond Chandler had to teach himself to plot by rewriting Erle Stanley Gardner.

Alas, his cat was no help.

Alas, his cat was no help.

The easiest thing is dialogue. I don’t claim any great talent, but for some reason I usually have no problem hearing my characters talk. Often my first drafts are simply page after page of dialogue that I go back and polish with attributions and description to make the scenes work. I don’t have the confidence to become another Elmore Leonard, who can write whole chapters with nothing but unattributed dialogue, yet he’s so good at it you’re never unclear about who’s speaking or where they are in relation to the other characters. But I do love writing characters talking to (or among) each other.

Thanks to Talis Kimberley for the prompt. If you have any other questions you’d like me to answer, leave a comment below and I’ll get to it as soon as I can!

2 Comments on “Three Questions on Writing”

  1. Wow! Thank you for the honour. I love to hear what you say about your craft. Thank you for your graceful and powerful fiction, Alex.

    It tickles me to see you have an ‘ideal version of the book’ before you start. I get that sometimes – as though the thing I’m writing already exists (in my case, a song), and my job is to reverse-engineer it in hopes that, on re-assembly, it will at least be close to the original vision.

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