Last week I delivered a presentation to group of students at the Victoria University of Technology. One particular student confided that he didn’t really like reading fiction. This isn’t an uncommon statement, particularly from men.
‘I don’t read many books,’ he said at the end of the session, ‘but if I do, I want it to be real, like an autobiography. I don’t like made up stuff.’
To which I replied that I don’t like made up stuff either.
‘But your books aren’t real, are they?’
As a writer, pleasing non-readers is a challenge, but a worthy one. After all, I’m very select in what I read and enjoy, and I’m easily bored. So if I’m easily bored by a book, I have to assume my readers are too.
The students were studying a book written by one of the best in the business, simply titled Writing Fiction, by Garry Disher. This is the book that I studied several years ago and from which I drew many lessons, lessons that upon reflection are what got me over the line and helped transform an old manuscript into an actual book.
In the second half of the session we started to draw upon some of these lessons. I don’t profess at all to be an expert. With only 3 books under my belt, I’m just a small fish in an ocean full of big sharks and killer whales, but I do have a few rules that I follow, which work for me and hopefully continue to do so.
First, I assume that nobody wants to read my work. This isn’t for lack of confidence. It’s a deliberate mindset I adopt from those who don’t read books or at least any made up “stuff”. For me, they are the toughest critics of all.
Second, I assume that most people don’t have the time to invest in reading or are easily bored. Linked to this is an underlying assumption that most readers have a limited threshold for investing time into a book. Some will stop at the first page if they’re not hooked; others persist or stick it out. For me, I work under the assumption that the thresh hold is low and that if given a reason, most people will stop reading as soon as possible. So I must provide every reason for them not just to start the book, but to continue and remove any excuse to put it down or give up. That is the ultimate objective.
Every chapter, page and word has to pull its weight.
Of course the story, plot, theme and characters have to pull their weight too, but the words, prose and dialogue all count in keeping the reader engaged. And this begins right at the beginning. I am a big believer in the power of the first sentence. Steven King is a master in his own right, and I recall him commenting on one of my favourite authors, Michael Connelly, when he describes the opening scene in “The Poet”.
Here is the opening…
“Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional relationship on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker — sombre and sympathetic about it when I’m with the bereaved, a skilled craftsman with it when I’m alone. I’ve always thought the secret to dealing with death was to keep it at arm’s length. That’s the rule. Don’t let it breathe in your face. But my rule didn’t protect me…”
Brilliant, but it can’t stop there (and it doesn’t). Every word on every page must count. To borrow a phrase from Harry Bosch, Connelly’s most well known character: either everybody counts or nobody counts.
It’s a noble attitude or ‘code’ for a homicide detective to live and work by. Perfect for fiction because as Connelly rightly says, the best stories are not about how a detective works on a case, but how a case works on the detective.
In essence, I try to apply Harry Bosch’s code to the craft of writing.
Either every word counts or none of them do.
Take it another step and it applies to readers as well;
Either everybody’s opinion counts or nobody’s does.
For those fans of Michael Connelly, you will be pleased to know a television series will soon be produced entitled BOSCH, based on three of his novels, including one of my favourite, The Concrete Blonde.
Connelly was another writer I learned from both for entertainment purposes but also in homage to Garry Disher’s best advice; read what you want to write.
These days I cringe when I flick through my first book “Head Shot”, as I didn’t write by the same code back then. So I have re-written it entirely and it will be released later this year. I’ve raised the bar for myself and I hope it hits the mark. And, if I’ve done my job, every word and every page will pull its weight, and when it’s out I’ll get an email from someone who never reads books, telling me they couldn’t put it down. Finger’s crossed.
Catch and kill your own. The underworld lives by this code. When somebody gets out of line, they handle it themselves. The victim ends up face down in a driveway with three bullets in the back of the head. Bowling ball style. The families don’t call the cops and they don’t expect our help. They wash their own dirty laundry and they do it on their own terms. It’s been that way since I can remember, probably since anyone can. This is how they live. And how they die.
A revamped edition of Head Shot will be out soon. Click the collage below for a look at the trailer.