Mystery writing / writing is a mystery

This is a very short blog entry that is really just to share one thing with you.

I’ve been doing research on the author Richard Price because on Thursday night I’m teaching his book (masterpiece, if you ask me) Clockers for my mystery fiction class at Butler.

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I found this quote in an interview with him and it just about knocked my head off. One of the great true things I’ve heard said about writing…

“I have to be a little intimidated by what I’m writing about. I have to feel a little bit like I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I can master this, I don’t think I can get under the skin of this, because when you’re a little scared, you’re bringing everything to the table because you’re not sure you can do it unless you bust your balls and really, really get into it. Terror keeps you slender. I need a sense of awe.”

That’s probably true of all art forms, and maybe all things that require effort to yield something complex and complete: “when you’re a little scared, you’re bringing everything to the table.”

In other words, when it’s hard you know you’re doing it right.

Can you tell I’m working out the idea for a new book? Can you tell it’s making me feel various complicated emotions, ranging from joy to terror?

The other thing that happened today was that I had a call with the marketing department at Quirk Books (or as I like to call her, Nicole) to discuss this summer’s little book tour in support of World of Trouble: The Last Policeman Book III. We’ll be announcing all the dates soon.

 

 

Cover uncovered

Hey, here’s the cover of the third and final book in the Last Policeman series, World of Trouble.  Let me know what you think!

You can see the rest of the book (the part that comes after the cover) on July 15, although you should feel free to preorder it any time.

 

WorldOfTrouble_Final

How to Write a Novel

(This quick piece originally appeared on the website of the Indiana Authors Award, where I am privileged to serve as a panelist this year)

One of the new and joyful things about my life since moving to Indy a couple years ago is getting to hang out at Butler, where I have been privileged to work as an adjunct professor in the MFA program in writing. It means I get to pal around with cool novelists like Dan Barden and Mike Dahlie and Allison Lynn, but also that I’ve had to think seriously about a very hard question, which is how do you teach people to write?

Don’t get me wrong. You can learn to write. In fact, you should—writing is not, I repeat not, a magical inborn gift that grows inside the lucky few, or that only emerges when the muse deigns to descend from the heavens and blow her golden trumpet or blah blah blah. Nothing drives me so bonkers as the romantic gauzy idea of the writer as conduit, rather than creator, as if writers (especially fiction writers and poets) just lounge and loaf, Whitman-like, under shady trees until the words appear, illuminated and glistening and syntacticly impeccable.

Nonsense! (As Agatha Christie would say: jiggery-pokery!) Writing, like all things worth doing, requires skill and training and practice.

But then how do you teach it? There is no secret to writing a book.

Or, rather, there a thousand overlapping and interlocking secrets, including “come up with a good idea,” “make a good outline,” “know when to ignore your outline,” “get a good night’s sleep,” and “stop checking your email so much.” Also “trust your instincts,” “know when your instincts are misleading you,” “conflict is the engine of narrative,” “don’t worry so much about what other people think,” and “stop checking Facebook so much.”

See? There are a lot of things to learn. One can never finish learning all the things there are to learn, which means you should probably just start writing and find your way forward—which is another not-too-shabby piece of advice. But the best—the very best—piece of writing instruction I think I’ve got is to learn to read. And I don’t just mean achieving functional literacy (although I am a big, big fan of achieving functional literacy, which is why I love Indy Reads), I mean learning to live inside a piece of fiction. Love a book or hate it, you need to learn to see how the writer built the thing—to walk around in there and see where the beams and the posts are, see where the stairs creak and why, see how many windows there are and how the light comes in.

A lot (most?) of what I know about being funny in fiction I learned from Charles Dickens; a lot (most?) of what I know about the slow build of suspense I learned from Patricia Highsmith. What I teach my students (I hope) is to learn occasionally from me; frequently from their fellow students; and most of all and always from books and authors.

That’s why you always see writers at libraries. They want to be surrounded by books and authors, like pandas want to be surrounded by bamboo. Go to the Central Library in downtown Indy, on any given day, (or any other library or any other day) and you’ll likely see them, hunched over tables, pecking away, surrounded by the stacks—the writers in their natural habitat. Don’t get too close, or they might get spooked and spill their coffee. One of them will be me.

#TwitterFiction recap

What follows is the full text of the “story” I posted today as part of the #TwitterFiction festival:

 

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This is not the story I’m supposed to be writing. (#TwitterFiction 1/66)

 

Nor is it a story I particularly WANT to be writing.(#TwitterFiction 2/66)

 

I pitched @TwFictionFest (&wrote) a tense multi-character hour long drama called Free Charlton Connors (#TwitterFiction 3/66)

 

The tale of a desperate man named Atlee Connors who seizes a bank to demand his bro’s release from prison. (#TwitterFiction 4/66)

 

In the story,”@AtleeConnors” live-tweets as he takes hostages, negotiates w/ cops. etc. (#TwitterFiction 5/66)

 

I was excited about it. (Excited & nervous) (#TwitterFiction 6/66)

 

But then two weird things happened, related to this story (#TwitterFiction 7/66)…

 

…which together pitched me into a spiral of confusion and dread (#TwitterFiction 8/66)

 

[Preface this by saying that I am under the BEST circumstances a welter of self-doubt and uncertainty (#TwitterFiction 9/66)]

 

First of 2 incidents: Mon. eve., checked phone during #LegoMovie, had email from man named “Atlee Connors” (#TwitterFiction 10/66)

 

[Same name as character from my planned story)  (#TwitterFiction 11/66)]

 

Email was sent vis the Contact Form on my website (BenHWinters.com) (#TwitterFiction 12/66)

 

It was the WEIRDEST AND MOST AWFUL communication I’ve ever received. (#TwitterFiction 13/66)

 

Basically someone sent this guy a link to publicity about @TWFictionFest and my story http://twitterfictionfestival.com/schedule/hostage-situation-real-time/?timezone_string=America/New_York— (#TwitterFiction 14/66)

 

—and he is super pissed. Also deranged. And ALL CAPS. (Next 2 tweets quote the email NSFW).  (#TwitterFiction 15/66)

 

quote 1 DEAR FUCKING LIAR & THIEF BEN H. WINTERS THERE IS NO SHAME AND PEOPLE FUCKING DIE FOR SHIT  (#TwitterFiction 16/66)

 

quote 2: YOU ARE A COWARD TO USE REAL PEOPLE’S HEARTS FOR SPORT I FUCK YOU YOU GET STOMPED  (#TwitterFiction 17/66)

 

The rest I kid u not is about the dude’s plumbing company being audited & how the government hates True Christians (#TwitterFiction 18/66)

 

There are people prob who would shrug this of thing off, but I AM NOT ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE (#TwitterFiction 19/66)

 

I read the email over and over in deepening panic and horror. I felt sick. (#TwitterFiction 20/66)

 

I considered a polite return email (“dear clearly insane man, thanks for taking the time…) (#TwitterFiction 21/66)

 

I considered changing the name of my story or the character “Atlee Connors”(#TwitterFiction 22/66)

 

But I couldn’t just change name of 1 character, since 2 lead characters are BROTHERS…(#TwitterFiction 23/66)

 

and the TITLE of the story has their last name in it (#TwitterFiction 24/66)

 

AND I’d set up all these fake Twitter handles (inc. @AtleeConnors), they’d been “cleared” by @TwFictionFestival… (#TwitterFiction 25/66)

 

AND the whole thing had been publicized by me & @TwFictionFestival & @QuirkBooks, posted on schedule etc (#TwitterFiction 26/66)

 

AND I had already changed my whole story idea & had to resubmit to @TwFictionFesival once already! (#TwitterFiction 27/66)

 

[And had  felt REALLY bad about it: I’m conflict-averse, nervous about how I’m seen as a writer & a professional) (#TwitterFiction 28/66)]

 

Considered consoling possibility that angry email was fake (joke by @ADamZucker? @BWesthoff? @EricSmithRocks?) (#TwitterFiction 29/66)

 

But not in character for most of my friends. Stayed up late gripped with anxiety. Do I have ENEMIES? (#TwitterFiction 30/66)
Tues. morning I defaulted to lifelong habit of cowardice & inertial: archived crazy email, did nothing. (#TwitterFiction 31/66)

 

I got back to work on new novel + putting finishing touches on “Free Charlton Connors” (#TwitterFiction 32/66)

 

I worked at @IndyCENLibrary—tried to work—working under the dark shadow of “real” Atlee Connors (#TwitterFiction 33/66)

 

Thinking will he see the story? How will he feel when I show “him” murdering strangers, blowing up a bank? (#TwitterFiction 34/66)

 

AND THEN WHEN I LEFT @IndyCENLibrary A MAN RUSHED ME ON THE STEPS (#TwitterFiction 35/66)

 

Skinny dude/shaking hands/ overalls/matted hair/pale skin/ twitchy eyes. Pushes me against library pillar (#TwitterFiction 36/66)

 

He comes right up in my face, grabs my shirt with both hands. His teeth are all fucked up. (#TwitterFiction 37/66)

 

Backstory: I have written tons of violence but have NO experience. I am a coward. Dread discomfort let alone pain (#TwitterFiction 38/66)

 

Dude has got some kind of kitchen knife peeking blade-first out of the front pocket of his overalls. (#TwitterFiction 39/66)

 

And Of COURSE i’m thinking “It’s him! It’s him! It’s Atlee Connors!” (#TwitterFiction 40/66)

 

Worst part (except for the knife): The dude is shouting “Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare!”. Over and over. (#TwitterFiction 41/66)

 

Just raving, muttering and raving; prob. schizophrenic or paranoid, maybe coming down off something or going up. (#TwitterFiction 42/66)

 

But to me, at that moment—and now, still, sort of—I was convinced. “Holy shit it’s him.” (#TwitterFiction 43/66)

 

“I’m sorry,” I said. Pure cowardice. Pure fear. “I’m really sorry. It’s OK. It’s OK.” I was TERRIFIED.  (#TwitterFiction 44/66)

 

At last he lets go and spits on steps & stalks down steps of the library (#TwitterFiction 45/66).

 

I clutch the side of the building, trembling, in the shadow of the donut sculpture. (#TwitterFiction 46/66)

 

Driving home my panic slowly subsided & gave way to melancholy; a well of grief & confusion opened up inside me. (#TwitterFiction 47/66)

 

I was sure of it—it was impossible, but I was SURE that the man on the steps was the man who had emailed me— (#TwitterFiction 48/66)

 

& I was sure moreover that he would torment me forever, because from his (madman’s) perspective I was his NEMESIS (#TwitterFiction 49/66)

 

I’d picked his name at random & implicated him in a crime he was innocent of—a crime which had never existed (#TwitterFiction 50/66)

 

I’d stepped across some line separating make-believe from reality, & the prospect filled me with sadness and horror (#TwitterFiction 51/66)

 

I felt as if I had invented a character who’d become real— (#TwitterFiction 52/66)

 

—an avatar of all my anxiety about being a writer, trying to make a living in a world of pretend (#TwitterFiction 53/66)

 

It was like from Grimm’s or Poe or @StephenKing: the murderous double, the dark self made flesh & given a weapon (#TwitterFiction 54/66)

 

I was lost in these complicated shadows, feeling obscurely scared, baffled, defeated, lost— (#TwitterFiction 55/66)

 

—certain I had to back out of @TwFictionFestival, maybe I had to back out of being a writer in general— (#TwitterFiction 56/66)

 

When I realized that THE GUY HAD STOLEN MY WALLET. (#TwitterFiction 57/66)

 

I laughed. I mean, I freaked out, but I laughed. (#TwitterFiction 58/66)

 

Here I was, contemplating the Borgesian oddness of my situation, mulling the blurred line between truth & fiction (#TwitterFiction 59/66)—

 

Having a little narcissistic writerly pity party for myself— (#TwitterFiction 60/66)

 

& my tormentor was back at library park using my 65 bucks and chance to get high! (#TwitterFiction 61/66)

 

And so there you have it, dear Twitter: the story of a desperate man named Atlee Connors. (#TwitterFiction 62/66)

 

Not the SAME story of a desperate man named Atlee Connors that I had planned, but it’s better. I think it’s better. (#TwitterFiction 63/66)

 

I think it has something to tell us, though I’ll be damned if I know what. (#TwitterFiction 64/66)

 

The only moral of the story I can think of is: that dude’s got my Geico card, which has my address on it. (#TwitterFiction 65/66)

 

So if this is the last tweet I ever send…you know why. (#TwitterFiction 66/66)

 

 

A bold experiment

I am not, as I have said  (most recently in this interview) particularly adept at the whole social media world, but I was nevertheless delighted to be asked to be a “featured author” in the upcoming Twitter Fiction Festival.

I am always game for a—well, a game—a challenge—a fun new way to tell a story.  images

The story I’ll be telling—tweeting—is called Free Charlton Connors. It plays out in real time over one hour, as a desperate man takes over a bank demanding that his brother be released from  prison.  It’s a classic multiple-POV kind of story, with five different narrators weaving the tale from their varying and overlapping and sometimes contradictory points of view.

To play along you’ll need to be online and on Twitter from 2 to 3 pm on Thursday, March 13. 

AND sometime before then, follow these Twitter accounts:

@AtleeMiller (that’s the man who has taken over the bank, demanding his brother’s release, and has hostages with him in the vault)

@UplandNB14thSt (that’s the official account for the bank)

@UplandPD (the local police)

@USPDanvers (the official account for the federal penitentiary where Charlton Connors is serving a life sentence for a murder he may or may not have committed)

@UplandBEE (the local newspaper)

So come play along, and let me know what you think! (And be sure to check out the listings for the rest of the festival — the line up is quite remarkable, and includes friends of mine like the admirably twitter-savvy Eric Smith.)

Here is the official description of my story, from the festival homepage:

“Free Charlton Connors” is a crime story that plays out in real time over the course of one tense daylight hour. Atlee Connors (@AtleeConnors) is a “regular guy” who has barricaded himself inside the bank vault at a branch of Upland National Bank (@UplandNB14thSt), with six hostages and a bomb strapped to his chest, demanding the release of his “wrongfully convicted” brother Charlton, who is being held in solitary confinement at nearby United States Penitentiary, Danvers. Local police (@UplandPD) enter into a dialog with @AtleeConnors—who insists on communicating only over Twitter—even as the hardline warden (@USPDanvers) is flatly rejecting Charlton’s release. A local newspaper reporter (@UplandBee) is on the scene, and her reports add color—and contradictory information—to what’s coming from the cops and from Atlee in the vault. One way or another, Free Charlton Connors is a story that ends with a bang.

 

 

So please tell

The End is Nigh (in more ways than one)

The_End_is_NighOn March 1 you’ll be able to read The End is Nigh, the first in a series of apocalypse-themed short story collections, edited by John Joseph Adams, who publishes Lightspeed Magazine, and Hugh Howey , who wrote Wool and a bunch of other hugely popular sci-fi books. I love the story I wrote for this first volume– it’s called BRING HER TO ME (the all-caps is part of the title)—and the best part is that there are two more volumes to come, so I’ll get to continue the tale with two more stories. You can preorder The End Is Nigh, which also features contributions from Robin Wasserman, Jake Kerr, and a ton of other science-fiction authors, at this page.

And speaking of completing trilogies…World of Trouble, the third and final book in the Last Policeman series, is approaching the point of no return: it is being copyedited by the good folks at Quirk Books, while I do my final pass, which I call the “read the whole thing out loud to my cat” pass. (You can actually see said cat, and all my other writing accoutrements, in this picture). That book will be available on July 15 but you can order it now. Thanks to everyone who kept  asking me how it was going. Like all books, it was going real bad, then for a while it was great, then it was TERRIBLE, and now I think it’s pretty good. Ask me again next week, OK?

I’ll have a cover mockup to show you one of these days.

Nominated for Philip K. Dick award

It is hard to overstate how excited I am about being nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award for Countdown City, the second book in the Last Policeman trilogy. As I’ve probably said here before, when I set out to write these books I wasn’t really thinking of them as science fiction, per se–although when you’ve got a giant asteroid in your story, that story is probably automatically a science-fiction story.

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Philip K. Dick

What I always said was, “well, if anything they’re speculative fiction, ” and if people said “what is speculative fiction?” I would refer them, first, to Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (which is actually probably the most clear influence, given that it is not only speculative fiction, but a speculative-fiction detective story), and then to Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. If you don’t know it, it’s about an imagined version of post-war America, in which the Allies lost World War II, and the Western part of the United States is now a Japanese protectorate. Like (almost) all of Dick’s work, it’s twisty and bizarre and strangely moving; these are qualities I have aspired to in The Last Policeman and Countdown City…

…and also the third and final book in the series, World of Trouble, which is now in that nebulous, painful state between first and final draft, which means that I, myself, am in that nebulous, painful state between thinking myself an inventive, ambitious writer and hating myself for being such a miserable talentless fraud. (Which is why it’s nice, on this particular day, to be nominated for an award.) Now, off the internet and back to work!

(Although I will be back on the internet, if not before, then in mid-March, when I’ll be a featured author in the 2014 #TwitterFiction Festival)

Let’s call it the Plot/Pants Fallacy

For those of you who are preparing for this year’s NANOWRIMO  (National Novel Writing Month, where participants are given tools and tips and encouragement to bang out a book-length work of fiction in just one month) I have just a quick piece of advice, which is that this whole “plotter versus pantser” thing is just a big pile of horseshit.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say “plotter versus pantser”, you’re probably better off. There is this supposed dichotomy between plotters on the one hand, who decide in advance, in detail, what they’re going to write, and then write it; and, on the other hand, pantsers, who fly by the seat of their guess-whats, opening up their golden conduit to the muse and letting the ideas come willy nilly and then just slapping them into place.

My awareness of this distinction comes from doing blog interviews, where people ask with apparent seriousness, “which kind of writer are you? A plotter or a pantser?”

The question is flawed. The question is not, “are you a plotter or a pantser?”, the question is “how do you develop and maintain a healthy balance between these two complementary and crucial components of your process?”

For me, I start by writing a shitload.

Let me say that better: I get an idea I’m excited about, and I launch in, sailing on the wind of the idea for as long as the wind holds—maybe it’s a chapter, maybe it’s twenty pages, maybe it’s just a few exhilarating hours where the force is strong in me, the idea keeps racing forward, and I am just galloping along trying to keep up with it.

burton-heated-pants

Some pants.

If you are a writer for whom that exhilarating white-hot feeling lasts long enough to write a whole novel, then I say peace to you and godspeed—and I will tell you what the pediatrician told my wife when she reported that our daughter was sleeping through the night at three months: Don’t tell the others, because they will burn you for a witch. 

But usually, you feel lucky when the white-heat-exhilaration segment of the program lasts long enough to get that great idea on paper, to establish the opening scenes, to get a good strong sense of what this world is and where it might go. And, crucially, this is where a lot of people stop. How many marvelous ideas have been abandoned somewhere at the end of chapter three? At that moment where self-styled “pantsers” run out of steam, where their metaphorical pants fall off, and they figure they’ll go and check their email real quick, and leave their great idea to die, forgotten, on a fallow field.

So here’s what you do: you stop, there, and you outline. (By the way, I’m using a form I call the pretend-second-person, where you say “you” instead of “I”, to presume that your own preferences and habits are universal). But it’s not a solid rock, carve it in stone outline. You can’t know yet everything that will happen in the entire story,and you shouldn’t try and force yourself to know. It’s loose. It’s bare bones. It’s “here are ten basic story beats, here are three moments of conflict, here are one-sentence descriptions of each of the, oh, let’s say, 25 chapters”.

WHITEHEAT

I’m talking about the inimitable sensation of writerly exuberance, not the Cagney movie.

While you are making the outline, though, you will make discoveries—you will find new ideas—you will get flickers of the white heat, and one of them will drive you back to the draft with a revived passion.

You make discoveries in the outline and bring them into the draft, and then when you are working on the draft you make discoveries which you then build into the outline. Both documents are provisional, both are rough drafts, both grow together.

Because, look, when you get that white-hot feeling that says I have to write that’s when you know you want to be a writer. When you implement a set of  strategies (i.e. building a provisional outline and then tacking back and forth between it and the draft), strategies that allow you to write in the absence of the white-hot feeling, that’s when you are a writer.

 

Clancy and the muse

I keep drafting blog posts that start with “sorry I haven’t posted in so long,” but it always seems such an internet cliche to start a post like that, and as a writer I am professional antagonistic toward cliche.

Also, just vis a vis the internet, I can actually measure my success at getting real work done in inverse proportion to how much blogging/posting/updating I am doing, so a long stretch of no blogging, while perhaps detrimental to my hit count, I know also means I’ve been doing a ton of writing, which I actually have. The second half of the third Last Policeman book (as-yet-untitled) is to my editor, and I am pleased—and starting to get a bit of anticipatory sadness about being done, soon enough, with Hank and his world. That’s the business, I guess.

I’ve also completed the third book in the Literally Disturbed series (my scary poems for kids, with great illustrations by Adam Watkins; the first one is in stores now & the second one comes out in the spring, I think), and I’m working on a short story for an anthology I’m extremely excited about, though I’m not sure whether I’m allowed to talk about it yet.

But the reason I’m breaking blog silence is actually to note with sadness the death of Tom Clancy, who I commend to the ages on the strength of this quote:

“[Y]ou learn to write the same way you learn to play golf…You do it, and keep doing it until you get it right. A lot of people think something mystical happens to you, that maybe the muse kisses you on the ear. But writing isn’t divinely inspired — it’s hard work.”

Hard work. Yes. Off to write more.

 

Mystery Dance

An open letter to my fellow murder-fiction aficionados:

This spring I’ll be teaching a class here at Butler University, where I adjunct in the MFA writing program,  about  reading crime and mystery fiction—my (accurate) thesis being that truly great crime novels and mysteries, far from being mere “popcorn books” or “beach reads”, have much to teach us about structure, style, tension, conflict…you know, all the elements of good writing.

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So I’m in the process of drawing up a list of ten classic crime/mystery novels—no, you know what, forget “classic”—ten crime/mystery novels that are A) really good and B) pedagogically valuable, in terms of showing off some aspect or aspects of craft particularly well.

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All I’m 100% certain on, so far, are The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, and Clockers, by Richard Price.

What else would you insist that I include?