Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Why I write what I write

Some years ago, I was listening to the late crime writer Barbara Parker speak, and she said something that sparked an interesting discussion, so interesting that it took over the rest of her lecture. She said that after her first book came out, she found herself at times wanting to apologize for having written a genre novel. She admired lots of nongenre fiction, liked fine prose and thoughtful writing as much as the next reader, but had written in a genre that critics rarely praised for literary qualities. She said that feeling disappeared when she started hearing from her readers how much they liked her story, how much they appreciated her skills and the long work and thought required to craft the story. Over time, she said, she understood that crime fiction can be just as powerful as any piece of literary fiction, and can be a lot more fun to read.

I didn't know if I agreed with her back then, but of course I do now. I'd been known to rail against some books, expressing dismay that people actually liked this or that piece of manipulative crap. It took me a while to realize that it wasn't any particular genre I was railing against; it was bad writing I didn't like. And I didn't get how some readers couldn't tell the difference between strong writing and storytelling and bad, cliched stuff.

I've come to know, like I know my face, that good writing is good writing, no matter the genre, and no matter what some critics think. People will have their biases. It's unavoidable. I have a bias, too: I like well-crafted stories, with interesting plots and stong characters. No matter what the New York Times may think of them.

Scottish crime writer Denise Mina recently wrote a cogent response to Jame Kelman's comments about genre fiction. If I could speak to any young writer who may be doubting herself, doubting the value of her chosen genre, I would tell her something like this.

Lastly, a message to beginning writers: Write in the genre you read; its what you know, and you'll write confidently.

Confident writers strive to entertain intelligently. Insecure writers seek to impress.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The criminal character

Plot is character and character is plot. You've heard that one before, but I often wish we'd keep reminding ourselves of it when we write crime narratives. One of the biggest challenges for writers is creating characters believable enough to propel a plausible narrative. Without believable characters, plots suffer because we find ourselves questioning characters' motivations, their thought process, their overall behavior, and because plot is also action, or thought conveyed dramatically, when we find characters' actions less than credible, our belief in the plot fizzles.

The surest way for fiction writers to veer off the path is to assume that all people are alike. Yes, most of us act in ways that make us recognizably human, but experiences, DNA and nurturing or the lack thereof can combine to make us into startlingly different beings. And this, for the crime writer, is where it gets interesting. When we realize that the criminal mind is not like our mind, when we begin to understand that criminals -- those recognizably human people who habitually commit crimes -- perceive the world differently, our understanding of our story criminals will deepen and our plot possibilities will become vastly more interesting.

The danger is that we turn our criminals into cartoons. How many books or movies have been wrecked by cartoonish villains and over-the-top violence? One bit of violence I witnessed happened so suddenly and was so nasty that it left my body humming for days.

I was maybe 15, walking home late one night from a movie with friends. It was a residential street, quiet except for the occasional barking dog. About three blocks from my street, we saw two men approaching, arms around each other's shoulders, swaying drunkenly. A motorcycle roared past, the rider shirtless, reddish dreadlocks. He turned around, parked the bike streetside and marched toward the drunks, shouting and cussing. Under the streetlights, we could see that he was sweating. One of the drunks, a slim black guy, shouted back at him. We couldn't make out what they were saying. We stopped to watch, wondering what the hell was going on.

The biker spun to his left and leaped over an open ditch to get to a picket fence. He jacked a foot on the fence, tore a picket away and leaped back over the ditch with the picket. The slim drunk put up his dukes and waited. The biker ran up and brought the picket down on his head. The drunk's knees crumpled, he went down slowly, tried to stand up and lurched sideways onto the ground. His friend had a beer bottle in his hand and now held it by the neck, like a club. It was the first time I'd seen the bottle. He didn't give the biker a chance, he swung, catching the biker across the face, the bottle breaking. The biker fell straight back into the ditch, still holding the picket. He lay motionless with his feet sticking up out of the grass.

Out of the darkness, another shirtless guy came running up the street. He could have been the biker's twin, the same muscular build, the same sunburnt dreads. But he was bleeding -- why, we never found out -- and he was crying as he jumped into the ditch. While he helped pull the biker out, the friend helped the slim guy to his feet. Then the friend looked up and met my eyes. I tried to look away. Blood on the pavement. Broken glass. Then the friend smiled. He called out my name. I'd never seen this man before. Amiably, he asked after my brother, my cousins, and explained why he had to do what he just did; he even apologized.

I was scared, couldn't take my eyes off the bleeding drunk. I stammered that I had to get going now, my friends started walking away. The man said, "You don't have to be afraid of me," and kept smiling the warmest smile. It was an eerie moment, and the whole thing lasted less than twenty seconds.

I never knew what precipitated the fight, but here's what I found out. The friend was a fisherman and a known drinker and brawler, in and out of jail. The week before, he and another man had kicked someone senseless at a house party. But everyone I spoke to said, yeah, he was the nicest, coolest guy. I could never get over that. The nicest, coolest guy. Sometimes when I think about his smile, it chills me.

For him violence was a matter of course, a way of life. It didn't reach down and tug at parts of him the way it did for me at age 15. What was his deal? How could he lash out with such nastiness and in the next second, smile and want to chat? Since then, I've grown up some, had several jobs, met interesting people, traveled, read books, tried to live thoughtfully and have concluded that criminals, lifelong deviants of every stripe, though their backgrounds and life stories and crimes may differ, they have one thing in common. You can pick any number of words to describe them and you'd be right -- lazy, selfish, narcisstic, mean -- but it would all point to one defining truth: Criminals are deeply flawed personalities. They have a dark defect in their thinking.
But the mugger's raging feelings of entititlement and the killer's extreme violence are by themselves not that interesting. For the writer who cares about character, it's the knowledge that these troubled people are fathers, sisters, brothers who prefer McDonald's fries over Burger Kings'; who know when to say please and thank you and when to put someone at ease with a smile or casual conversation; who know, in effect, how to manipulate. Criminals may act like you, but it's often just an act, and as writers we would do well to recognize this. The criminal character is mostly always playing a game. Saying this when he really means that. Using you. And if his charm fails, then perhaps his primitive logic of violence may convince you.

The killer isn't that intersting when he's killing; it's when he looks up and smiles.
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Sunday, July 26, 2009

True story ideas

A question I'm sure every writer is asked , and there are many variations of it, is, "Where do you get your ideas from?" Sometimes the question comes after the reader has read a story. If you're a fiction writer and a reader asks, "Is this true?" take it as a compliment. It probably means that your lie, which is what fiction is, sounds like the truth. You have done your job of convincing her.

But often writers miss, and readers sense it. They don't believe you, they shake their heads, put the book put down. You can be the most graceful prose stylist, the most energetic storyteller, but if your tale doesn't ring true, forget about it. A part of the reader will withdraw. And one major reason why writers fail to convince is that they simply don't know what they're talking about, or don't know enough.
The primary challenge for writers, before the hard work of mastering technique and language, I think, is finding a true subject.

So, what is a true subject? First, the idea has to excite you. It's got be an idea or plot line to which you're emotionally drawn. If you aren't excited about it, chances are readers won't be either. It helps if it's a storyline that you haven't quite heard before, or one in which there is some event you've yet to encounter, either in narrative or real life. Something that strikes you as original, perhaps. (And on this subject of originality -- strive for it, but don't lose sleep, all the stories have been told; especially if you're a genre writer. We are merely writing variations.)

Most importantly, a true subject must be one that you identify deeply with. It must be one that reflects something you recognize about a place, or about people. A subject or plot line true to your experience, that accurately reflects life as you know it, may inspire a story only you can tell.

Here's Hemingway on writing: "Write when there is something you know, and not before."

When you have a compelling story idea that makes you want to stop somebody and say, "Hey, listen to this," that makes you want to find out what happens next, you're on to something. You may have discovered a true story idea.

The proof will come in the telling. You'll find out if it's a true story idea, when the writing begins. Still interested 20 pages in? One hundred pages in? If yes, keep going. Tell us that story.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Welcome to the C of C

Welcome to the College of Crime. Here, you'll find lovers of crime narratives -- mainly books, but movies, too. Whether you're a published author or an aspiring one, whether you've dreamed about writing a novel or you're content to be a serious reader who likes reading about the process of writing and discussing narratives, this is the blog for you. The College of Crime will strive to be a spot for intelligent people with high-minded ideas about what crime fiction can be; a spot for critical analysis of books and of technique; a place for advice and constructive criticism. The College of Crime's tenets are based on respect for readers and writers, their challenges and satisfactions. This will not be so much a place for information on the publishing industry or for marketing ideas as it will be one for learning, from each other, how to tell memorable stories, stories that rivet, stories that entertain, and teaching ourselves how to read deeply.

My name is Ian Vasquez. I'm a lifelong reader, a newspaper copy editor, and a novelist. My two books are In the Heat (2008) and Lonesome Point (2009), and for our purposes, they'll serve as a sort of proof of my credentials. Read them when you get a chance. I'd appreciate that, but if they don't sound like stories that might be to your liking, no worries. There are so many fine novels out on the market by so many fine writers, that we'll never run out of books to discuss. And we will get around to talking about our favorite novels in due time, I promise. So this blog will also be a place for recommendations and inspiration. A place to learn from each other, and to relish in Story. Sit back and let's enjoy each other's company. College begins when I post again.