Picture drawn by Maggie Stiefvater, 2009. Header made by S.F. Robertson, 2010.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

GLBT Week- Guest Blog from April Lurie

This article first appeared in Hunger Mountain, a literary journal for the Vermont College of Fine Arts. It's a different kind of guest blog for this type of event, but I think you'll all still find it interesting. The book she's talking about here is her most recent one, The Less Dead (click on the title for my review). Thanks April for participating in this event and to Hunger Mountain for letting us reprint it here!

Organically Grown Thrillers by April Lurie

I have a confession to make. When I was asked to write this article, I was flattered. Apparently I had achieved a level in my career where I could offer advice, a strategy, a few pearls of wisdom. But after accepting the offer, I began to panic. What did I really know about writing a mystery/thriller? Yes, I’d read the young adult masters such as Robert Cormier, Nancy Werlin, and Gail Giles. Yes, I wrote a book in this genre, but was there a method to my madness? I wasn’t quite sure.

So I hit the local library and checked out all the Mystery Writing for Dummies titles I could find. Now you’re probably wondering why I didn’t do this sooner, say, before I wrote a mystery, but I wanted my story to be organic. I didn’t want a formula to seep into my brain and corrupt it. One of my favorite lines is, “You’re not the boss of me.” (My husband will confirm this.) No book was going to tell me how to write my next novel. So there you have it.

But after skimming through my stack of library books, I was relieved to discover that my story had a sleuth, a victim, and a villain. It had a suspenseful plot. I’d thrown in a red herring or two. There were surprises along the way, and a few twists and turns. At the climax of the story, my sleuth confronted my villain, saved his own life and the lives of future victims, and solved the case. I wasn’t an imposter.

At that point I was able to sit quietly, reflect, and figure out what I’d learned on my journey. So here we go.

April’s Organically Grown Thoughts on Writing a Mystery/Thriller.
1- Don’t decide to write a thriller. Decide to write a story that fascinates you–a story you’d like to read. If it happens be a thriller, go with it.

I have another confession to make. It wasn’t my idea to write a book about a serial killer. After finishing The Latent Powers of Dylan Fontaine (Delacorte 2008) I had planned to write a historical novel set in Paris during the time of the impressionist painters. It was going to be lovely and lyrical and bring to life Degas’ sculpture, Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. When I told my editor my idea, she said, “Um, instead, how about a serial killer story?”

I was stunned. My editor is sweet, reserved, soft spoken, not a person who thinks about murder. On top of that, she’s French! Why wouldn’t she like a story about Degas? Anyway, I told her I would think about it. And I did.

Soon, Son of Sam popped into my mind. When I was fourteen years old, David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam, was shooting and killing blond, blue-eyed girls in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Needless to say, this was a bit unsettling, especially since I was a Scandinavian girl living among a majority of Italians. I remembered the panic, the fear of walking the streets. Suddenly I realized I had an emotional connection to serial killers.

Next, I thought about how David Berkowitz had professed to become a born again Christian in prison. So, I wondered—what if there was a religious, homophobic serial killer who thought he was doing God’s will by killing gay, homeless teens? With my evangelical upbringing, knowledge of the Bible, and strong feelings regarding the way some Christians view homosexuality as a sin, I knew I could write this story. In fact, I had to write this story. I was hooked.

2- Write a synopsis with as many details as possible
You have no idea how much it pains me to say this. “I don’t do outlines” is my motto. But if you’re going to write a mystery, it’s a good idea to know where you’re going. Believe me, writing that five page, single spaced synopsis for The Less-Dead was grueling, but necessary. And don’t worry if your brain isn’t big enough to plot every detail ahead of time. Mine’s certainly not. But do some planning, and of course, leave room for your characters to surprise you. This will keep you on track, and allow for many organic moments.

3- Don’t just know your villain, become your villain.
This activity is not for the faint of heart. Thankfully I have a penchant for the macabre—my favorite musical of all time is Sweeney Todd—but realize that you are going to be spending a lot of time among devils. You may even need to visit hell a few times. When I decided to write The Less-Dead, I began reading books about serial killers. I read their biographies, their interviews, and visited their crime scenes (via books and videos). At times I felt so contaminated I’d be yearning to watch an episode of The Waltons or Little House on the Prairie. But you have to go there. You have to get inside your villain’s mind and understand what makes him tick, what makes him want to kill, torture, or psychologically brutalize another human being. If you don’t, your villain will most likely be two-dimensional and his actions won’t ring true.

4- Your character’s inner journey always comes first.
When I finished the first draft of The Less-Dead and sent it to my editor, I imagined her calling immediately and saying, “This is brilliant, April! Simply riveting! I couldn’t put it down!” But of course that wasn’t the case. Instead she said, “It feels a little flat.” After a sudden wave of nausea, I said, “Really? But, wasn’t the mystery element, like, pretty good?” Silence. “Well, the mystery was okay,” she continued. “It needs some work, but I’m more concerned about Noah. He doesn’t grow and change. He’s still basically the same person at the end of the story.”

I was heartbroken. But she was right. (She’s always right.) And after mulling things over, I realized that I had become so wrapped up in the intricate details of the plot and all the twists and turns, I forgot to give Noah his own personal journey. Sure, he’d learned some things along the way, he’d grown to appreciate his father, and he’d forged better relationship with his friends. But there was nothing gut-wrenching about his change, nothing memorable.

Now here’s my third (and hopefully last) confession. I didn’t know how to fix it. But thankfully, my editor offered a suggestion. She said, “I think Noah is too accepting of Will being gay and his having a crush on him. I think Noah needs to give Will the brush off. Reject him as a friend.”

At first I didn’t want to do this. I loved Noah, so how could he possibly be intolerant? Without realizing it, Noah had become a reflection of me, and I was a kind, tolerant person, right? But then I remembered the time when I was seventeen, a freshman in college, and a girl approached me in a way I wasn’t used to. (I suppose it didn’t help that I was unknowingly sitting in an area where a gay and lesbian group met.) I was horrified, weirded-out, and I ran! Literally. This is something I’m not proud of. Sure, I was young, inexperienced, and stupid, but still, imagine how that young woman must have felt. So I asked myself, why wouldn’t Noah react the same way I had?

Finally I had discovered the heart of my story. Noah had to face his own prejudice. This became the memorable life-changing event for him.

5- Your character’s loss can become his catalyst.
When your character makes a grave mistake (like Noah rejecting Will’s friendship) there’s a price to pay. A loss that can’t be recovered. I knew what that loss would be for Noah. He’d never get to make it right with Will before Will is brutally murdered. That loss turned out to be Noah’s catalyst—his driving force for hunting down the killer, no matter how dangerous his situation might be.

Sometimes it hurts to write a story. Sometimes we have to face things about ourselves that we’re ashamed of. But I think that’s what makes good fiction. Revealing the ugly truths about our own lives allows others to do the same. Isn’t that how we all grow and change? Isn’t that how we become organic?

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