Sunday, August 06, 2006

Pick your poison.

Rick here:

I just put down a book written by a well known author, and it's not the first time that's happened, nor will it be the last – although that would be terrific if it was!


I found I just didn't care about any of the characters. The plot was a pretty good one (or at least wasn't the reason for my disinterest) and the book has gotten good reviews. Maybe it's just me (or my current head space).

Are you like that?

Or is it the plot that really grips you, keeping you racing through the book, reading past the time you have allotted, keeping you up past your bedtime, irritating you when you have to put it down?

The last book I read like that was The DaVinci Code. I know, I know. Don't laugh. I was sucked in by the plot, willingly accepting the fact that just about every character seemed to be made of cardboard. It wasn't until the end of the book that I realized just what had happened, sort of like seeing a magic trick and then finding out later how it was done. That's not really a knock on the book. I'm sure Dan Brown realizes he wrote a totally plot-driven novel, in fact I would posit that this might be the best example of the plot-driven novel ever. Without a doubt, it's the most successful.

But that's not what I look for in a book, and it certainly isn't the way I want to write. By now you've probably realized that I'm into characters. As a matter of fact, my novels start with a very sketchy, very basic idea and then I go in search of characters, people I'm interested in and would like to spend half a year to nine months living with (because that's the reality of writing a book).

Sometimes they come to me easily. Shooting Straight in the Dark (2002) was like that, so is my about-to-be-released novel, When Hell Freezes Over. I hardly noticed as the story populated itself with interesting characters, people with possibilities that caught my interest.

With Cemetery of the Nameless (2005), I had a lot of trouble. The original protagonist was a down-on-his-luck composer, someone who didn't want to give in to the easy way out, i.e. teaching theory and harmony as a way to make money. So I made him a cab driver who composed during the day and struggled to earn a living in the evening.

Setting to work, I produced about seventy pages of the story before I realized that this person was, to put it mildly, irritating. No matter how hard I tried to send him in other directions, give him a "personality facelift", he always wound up whining. Since the story was going to take quite some time to write, I decided then and there that we had to part ways. I couldn't imagine spending an entire novel with this...whiner. So I fired him. That stopped my writing in its tracks for a good month while I sent out "casting calls" to try to find characters that I'd like to live with(and by extension, my readers – hopefully). Finally, out of desperation, I looked at what I had around me and realized that the two characters from my second novel, The Lark Ascending, would be perfect for my story. It was one of those moments where you feel like idiot slapping yourself for being so obtuse.

Once that problem was settled, I began the story again, and while all was not smooth sailing by a long shot, at least I was dealing with people whom I really enjoyed working with and who were entertaining. With the first protagonist, I'm sure the urge to kill him off would have eventually proven to strong – and then where would I have been?

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