Friday, 26 November 2010

Round Robin: Floundering, with (probably misplaced) Faith

To review, my assignment from the estimable Doug Worgul:

So, David. My first question has less to do with the process of writing a story and more to do with creating a story. Your novel, Shock and Awe is a suspense/action thriller based on real-life geo-political, military, and espionage scenarios. What stories, plots, characters has your fertile mind imagined based on some of the world’s current conflicts; Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea (maybe Chechnya, perhaps Venezuela)?

Next, which is more satisfying to write, the action sequences or the internal moral conflicts your characters struggle with?

Finally, who would you cast in the major motion picture version of Shock and Awe?

Thanks, Doug. Interesting questions—and the first one is somewhat disturbing, because my approach to constructing a story is somewhat like tossing a bunch of lumber into the air and hoping it will magically assemble into a house as it falls. I can’t really think my way through a plot without writing it, so I generally have only the vaguest idea what happens next.

I should mention that I never set out to be a thriller writer. I just happened to write a book that falls into that bin. But I hardly ever read in the genre, and most of the ideas I have don’t fit the genre. (I’ve completed one full novel since Shock and Awe…and it’s an urban fantasy!)

I really need three elements to get a story running, and I have a hard time getting them all on the same table. I have to have characters that interest me; I have to have a theme or question that interests me; and I have to have a place where I can box them in to let things happen. (I get many of these elements all the time, but they seldom belong in the same story.) The setting and situation, such as the conflict-ridden regions you mention—is usually the last element that is decided.

I’m utterly bored by the idea of writing stories where the protagonist is someone assigned to protect our nation or the President or whatever/whoever from disaster. Where’s the underdog aspect of that? The underdogs in that scenario are invariably the bad guys. I have to have characters who are a little bent, or are trapped or deceived into something, or are unwilling to act (the latter being a recipe for a protagonist who is really a lot of trouble for the writer).

Your list of countries is worth thinking about. I couldn’t do anything with Afghanistan because I don’t know the place or people well enough. I can imagine a great story taking place there, if I knew Afghan tribal intrigue well enough, with someone—maybe an Afghani-American returning home for some reason?—being smuggled from place to place on sort of an underground quest, but I don’t have the knowledge to write it. Ditto Chechnya.

North Korea is a no-go, because I can’t imagine a story set there that wouldn’t be about the North Korean nuclear program and turn into a good guys/bad guys thing.

I have thought about Iran many times, because I understand Iran and Iranians reasonably well, and I think a great deal of fun could be had with the complexity of the situations of everyday life there but I’ve never had characters and a theme present themselves. Maybe someday.

Venezuela? Now you’re getting warmer. Much of Latin America is dissolving into chaos, and at least two of the novels I’m toying with are set at least partly in Latin America. Another moves from North Africa (also a bit chaotic) to the US.

Let’s talk theme/problem. One of the big ones for me recently has been the commercialization of US intelligence. About 80% of our black budget now goes to private companies; the NSA in particular contracts out all manner of work. The idea of intelligence, paramilitary capabilities, and profit motivation all gathering under one roof is spooky to me—and I foresee that in parts of the world, small multinationals will emerge to run lawless areas of failed states (in return for economic concessions, of course). I have a story along those lines that takes place in the Peruvian Amazon, at the potential flash point between Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil. The protagonist is a failed, drug-addicted medical doctor who saw things in Kosovo that he can’t shake, and has essentially been drafted by the local representative of such a “security corporation.” The book has sprawled out of control, and I need to simplify it somehow. I have more than 200 pages, and the situation is just getting set up properly. It'd be a 700 page novel if I let it play out.

Another theme? Well, torture and compulsion is always something to gnaw on. And, despite what the experts say, torture works. Oh it doesn’t usually work well on the individual being tortured. But torturing or harming their loved ones works wonders (that's how the Soviets approached it). So I have a story about an American who is tortured by the CIA by mistake. When they realize they have grabbed the wrong fellow, he is then sent out of Europe on a rendition flight to North Africa, where it is assumed he will die at the hands of interrogators (who have been assured that he was involved in a number of bombings in Morocco). He survives, though not exactly unscathed, and comes back to the US, intent on revenge. Then, like so many victims, has to face the question of what is fair in the matter of retribution. How many pages? About 130.

Last but not least, I have a partly finished novel about a fairly smart, irreverent young guy who in the course of data theft (his livelihood) stumbles across something he shouldn’t see. This one starts in California but detours down into Mexico. The theme or issue in this one is genocide—but not the nasty, old-fashioned Hitlerian type, or even the easy-going machete-wielding African tribal type; no, this is 21st-Century genocide, fast, clean, neat. Almost undetectable. Again, more than 100 pages. This one is easier to work on because I can see where it is headed, but I’m having a lot of trouble managing the tone, because the character is a little flip and the subject matter is pretty dark.

Am I stuck? You betcha. In every case, what I’m writing needs simplification, boundaries, limits: a crucible, a box, a lifeboat, some simplifying factor that corrals everyone and contains the sprawl.


Second question: Are action scenes or moral dilemmas more satisfying to write? That’s easy—moral dilemmas. Since I tend to write such scenes from a close POV, it is a fine opportunity to inhabit someone else’s head, and it has that charge that some people get from acting.

I actually think that scenes of sex or violence are more challenging to write, because you have the problems of keeping it fresh, keeping it believable, and not getting tied into knots with all the Tab A-Slot B nonsense that such scenes require. But they are craftsmanship issues, and therefore not as satisfying to me as something deeper. Of course, when you’re lucky you can get both action and moral dilemma rolling in the same scene, and that’s the best of both worlds.

Third: Who would I cast in Shock and Awe as a major motion picture?

I have fairly clear pictures of my characters in my head, but I never fill them in with actors. (Do the rest of you?)

The male protagonist, Boyce Hammond, would be fairly easy—someone a little on the boyish side, but able to do angst if needed. Ewan McGregor* could do it (he does Americans just fine). So could a lot of other guys.

Carla Smukowski would be a problem. A-list (or even B-list) actresses don’t look like her. She’s a little brawny for a female. Hollywood would without a doubt cast Hilary Swank, and it would probably work. Carla doesn’t look a thing like Swank, but between Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby I’m sure Ms Swank could pull it off. But that’s not what Carla looks like.

Thanks, Doug. That was fun. *(See comment trail for odd slip of the forebrain, adeptly caught and translated by Neil Ayres.)

And with that, on to prizewinning novelist (and my neighbor, at least in SoCal terms) Ryan David Jahn.

So, RDJ: Acts of Violence certainly is as noir as the books by your Californian predecessors (Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald, et al), but it employs a very different literary toolkit (and isn't a detective novel anyway). Did you always want to write crime novels, or were you drawn to other genres as well? Have you written or started novels in other genres? How do you think writers in other genres, or literary fiction, have influenced your approach?

(For extra credit, why do people read and write crime fiction in the first place?)

Second, you’re a screenwriter as well as a novelist, which shows in your attention to economy. But Acts of Violence is very internal, with character thoughts spilling directly onto the page and adding a third (and very literary rather than cinematic) dimension to the narrative. What would you care to share about the differences between the two forms—-and, in particular, which feels more rewarding and natural to you?


Neil George Ayres said...

Ian McEwan? I didn't realise he was an actor. Did you mean Ewan McGregor, David?

David Isaak said...

Jeez Louise. There's a weird slip.

And even more startling that you could sort it out without blinking, Neil.

But, precisely. Ian McEwan McIan McGregor.

Or perhaps Farmer McGregor. Or is that RobesPierre Rabbit?

I'm going to amend that in the post so as not to cause dain bramage (sic) in those who encounter it. But they can still check it out when they get down to the comments!

Aliya Whiteley said...

Awesome post. I think you should squidge all your unfinished books together into one mammoth epic. With dream sequences.

Tim Stretton said...

David, there isn't a single one of these I wouldn't want to read. Keep 'em coming...

Deborah Swift said...

Great post that makes me admire your abilty not to be limited by genre and your search for something fresh. What a good insight into the workings of a creative person's mind, and Tim's right, they all sound like goers.

Frances Garrood said...

Really interesting, David. And now, (last question): exactly how many WIPs do you have on the go at the moment?

Alis said...

Interesting slip of the keyboard with McGregor/McEwan - funnily enough they're two names I constantly get confused in a kind of 'Ian-McEwan-or-do-I-mean-Ewan-McGregor' way.

I agree with the others, by the way, awesome post.

Doug Worgul said...

Great read, David! Thank you. As the question asker in this case, I declare your answers to be exceedingly enlightening and entertaining.

C. N. Nevets said...

Such a great portrait of the whirling chaos inside most of our writers' minds, David. I hope you find your crucible soon, because it sounds like you have several great stories to tell!

David Isaak said...

Thanks, all (and special thanks to Doug, who somehow aimed his question right at the heart of what's happening with me these days).

Frances--It all depands on how you define "going." (Verbs of motion are tricky in any language.) Being generous with myself, I'd say about 3.1. (The three I mentioned here, and two chapters of one more. I really LIKE those two chapters--but I have no idea what the novel is about!)

I think Aliya may be on the right track. Just mix them all together. And add Albanian dwarfs in red socks.

Aliya Whiteley said...

Now that's a plan.

David Isaak said...

Yes. A stolen plan, and stolen fruit always tastes the sweeter.