12 Lessons in 12 Years of Writing
Writing is always an exercise in getting better. Authors continuously learn from both good and bad experiences, and from their editors and readers. Here are some of the lessons I've learned in the approximately twelve years since my debut Inspector Darko Dawson novel in 2009, WIFE OF THE GODS.
1. A bigger publisher isn't necessarily better
In 2012, CHILDREN OF THE STREET, my second novel in the Inspector Darko Dawson series had been published. It didn’t do well, following the traditional pattern of the “second-semester slump” in which the second novel, unlike the first, crashes so badly that it's barely noticed. Compared with the glitzy WIFE OF THE GODS debut, it was a painful letdown for me, and Penguin Random House (PRH), the publisher, wasn't happy about it either and chose to drop me from their author list.
Although PRH’s action seemed catastrophic at the time, it turned out to be a good thing, because my agent then found Soho Press, who took me on. Soho is a much smaller press with high production values and meticulous editors. I’ve met them all in person, which might never have happened if I had still been with PRH. Soho is very loyal to its authors and allows them to stretch the span their wings and fly.
2. When writing, follow every thread to the end
In my first draft of WIFE OF THE GODS, I introduced Darko’s beloved son Hosiah who had a congenital heart disease. And then I just dropped him from the story. The “Reader,” someone who does a screening read-through of the book to see if it’s worth passing up the chain to the editor. She pointed out the obvious: everyone reading the novel will want to know what happened to the kid. It’s an appealing part of the story.
3. Make every character count
Even “minor" characters must have some relevance to the story. If it looks like two characters play a similar role in the plot, consider combining them into one. When I say “character,” I don’t just mean the name of someone we meet in passing in the narrative. To me, a character is someone who matters now and will likely matter later. In my latest novel, LAST SEEN IN LAPAZ, which is going to galley soon, a character who appeared earlier popped up toward the end without my planning it, suddenly opening up an entire new dimension. I had been at risk of having that character disappear somewhere midway through the novel.
4. On the other hand, don’t let a character eclipse your protagonist!
As I was writing WIFE OF THE GODS, I noticed that Dawson’s assistant, Chikata, began to seem more interesting than Dawson. Chikata, who smoked marijuana, was rough around the edges and sometimes engaged in beating suspects up, i.e. police brutality. I transferred both vices to Dawson, who then began to seem more complex.
5. In murder mysteries, sex is controversial
Frankly, many mystery devotees just don’t like sex in crime fiction, especially that involving the protagonist. A hint of sexual desire is okay, but not the act itself. [Colin Dexter did that well with his character, Inspector Morse]. During a book-signing for my novel MURDER AT CAPE THREE POINTS, one reader came up to me to object strongly to a sex scene in that story and told me “not to do that again.” I guess her admonition didn’t work because sex keeps showing up in my novels. I feel that the modern crime fiction landscape has changed from the “old days” and allows for some of these “rules” to be broken, e.g. I believe it was Chandler who said a detective or PI should never be married. The fact is that readers do want to know about the protagonist’s life outside of detective work, and in the same fashion, movie and crime shows in which the hero has a complex background life are always the most interesting
6. The [my] first draft is always crap
I’m echoing Ernest Hemingway, who famously said, “The first draft of anything is s**t,” but I think the draft for the upcoming novel LAST SEEN IN LAPAZ tops them all in the Department of Crappiness. I tried to stuff too much story into one and tried to do it too quickly. It takes place in three different countries and there are something like twenty major characters. Thankfully, as painful as it was rescuing LSIL from the figurative trash, it’s now just about ready to go.
7. The publishers will ask the author if they approve of the jacket design . . .
but if the author doesn’t like it, the chances of the design being changed are slim to none. Stick to the writing, bro.
8. Rely on your readers to spot any errors/typos post-publication.
They will do it anyway, so be gracious about it and thank them. This way, the error can be fixed for the paperback. We see continuity errors in even some of the best movies, so it’s not such a big deal. It happens.
9. Apparently, I can’t completely conquer dangling modifiers.
“Walking down the path, the sky became dark with rain clouds” is a simple example of a dangling modifier--it’s not the sky walking down the path, so the sentence that comes before that is “dangling.” Nowadays I look for them in my drafts with the eye of a hawk, but the editors always get me on at least one! Grrr!
10. Darko’s cult following
I suppose I didn’t realize there was a hardcore group of “Dawsonites” who were dismayed by Darko’s near-death/death? at the end of DEATH BY HIS GRACE. The scene was somewhat ambiguous, but most took it as the death of Darko, and it was not well received. Dawsonites howled with protest and demanded the return of Darko, à la Sherlock Holmes. FYI, Darko isn't dead, but to be honest, I’m not sure when he’ll return. If only I could write as fast as Cara Black! *wistful sigh*
11. Book clubs are dope!
Whether virtually or in person, I encourage authors to join book clubs in their discussions of their novel. Book club discussions are great fun. There will be insights you, as the author, hadn’t perceived before, even some about your protagonist. Women make more incisive observations than men about a book or its characters, so listen to the women. For instance, one measure I took after attending a book club was to include a map in my subsequent novel, because the club members gave me the feedback that they appreciated maps in the first pages of a novel. Also, if the novel includes a significant degree of local languages other than English, as mine and Michael and Stanley’s do, a glossary is essential.
12. The author doesn’t need to know or understand everything about their protagonist.
Without comment, I’m throwing out that possibly controversial notion for discussion!