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William Lashner's PI-Writing Blog

Racing in the Streets

Friday, May 15, 2009

I wrote the first part of the new novel, an action-packed thrill-ride of a scene that takes place in Vegas. Why Vegas? I could say it represents a sort of way station in American culture, or I could say 'Road Trip.' Either would work. I wrote it in the first person and the voice is okay, not yet totally right. Sometimes the voice comes in the first line, sometimes you have to write your way into it. I'm trying to write my way into it here. It's solid now, if a bit noir, but I think it needs some more humor and attitude, which is hard because the narrator is a suburban dad who has spent his life getting rid of his attitude.

But the first part is done and now I have a choice. The set-up is so sweet that I could easily write the expected thriller out of it and it would be damn good. Or, I could run with it in a slightly skewed direction and maybe end up with something extraordinary. I'm going to try for the second, and that requires some nifty underlying ideas.

I had a writing teacher who told me to figure out what a story was about, write it on a card, and tape it to the typewriter. He was a bit old school, but I do exactly what he said, although not quite like he said. First, I tape it to a computer monitor, and secondly I don't have one idea but two. Every good story is a battle of ideas. In most crime stories the ideas battling it out are: (1) Crime pays; and (2) Justice prevails, with number two ending up ascendant. The problem is that neither idea is all that interesting and the first idea is weak. What I try to do is come up with two organizing ideas that both have strengths and both are interesting. You could sit over a beer and debate them for hours.

Now I'm trying to express with precision the two ideas I have rattling around in my head for this book so that I can tape them to the computer monitor. The root for me is a line from Springsteen's song "Racing in the Streets" where he says, "Some guys they just give up living, and start dying little by little, piece by piece; some guys come home from work and wash up, and go racin' in the street." It's almost like he has two opposing ideas right there. I've been to one of those small time stock car tracks in Maine and seen the guys who work all day and then race all night and I think the idea is pretty cool, that you have something rich in your life that makes the rest of it bearable. And then I've known guys who have just given up. But I'm going to approach it a little differently than Bruce.

What if the thing that keeps you going, instead of a racing gig, is a secret, something that you did in the past and that is still paying dividends. The secret would be dangerous as hell and something you couldn't share with anyone, your wife included, but it would give you great satisfaction. In a way, your whole life would become a vehicle for servicing the secret, almost a cover story. Think of Madoff, or maybe just the neighbor having an affair. Would that be a great thing, something that provides meaning to everything, or would it be a curse, turning your whole life into a lie. I guess the battle here is between the value of open authenticity versus the delirious joy of the great, empowering secret. I need to phrase it just right so both are equally attractive. Everything in the book should be in service of one idea or the other. I'm working on that now, and it might take some time. But, as I figure out where to take the story next, what I'll be looking for is a place where these ideas can battle it out most spectacularly.

An interesting book needs interesting ideas fighting like gladiators to the death.

Steak au POV

Monday, May 11, 2009

One of the biggest questions you start with at the beginning of the writing of a novel is whether to go third person or first person. Generally third person is the default mode, by which I mean if you can't decide which to use you go third person. Third person has a lot of advantages, particular the ability to hop around to the most interesting POV at each point of the story. There's a great Hemingway story called "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" where Hemingway's POV shifts are just perfect. You can go through the story and figure out at each point exactly why he shifted when he shifted. At one point he's in two POV's at once and at another point he moves into the lion's POV (it's a hunting story, of course.) He even shifts into the wife's POV at one point just so he can shift into her POV at the end, which is the crucial moment of the story. It's just easier to tell a good story in third person. First person, however, can be a really rich way to narrate a story, what with the voice, the self-delusion, and the surprise that can arise from crucial information that one character always lacks.

The story I'm working on now is pretty basic. A man commits a crime long ago, and after building a new life for himself (mostly with the proceeds) is suddenly discovered and is again on the run. A story like this could go both ways, and probably for pure story telling purposes, third person would work best, moving back and forth between the guy running and the guys chasing. But every story has conflicting ideas working one against the other through the course of the story and here the conflicting ideas aren't playing out in the external battles but are all playing out in the running guy's head. I'm most interested in the chasee, and so I'm going to try to write this one in first person. In the end, writing in first person all depends on the voice, and I don't have that yet, so it's a risk. But if it works, I think the story will be much stronger.

I'll talk about the clash of ideas next, but for now it's enough to know that it's crucial to figure out what ideas will be clashing even before you decide on the point of view you choose.

It's not just the story, but the ideas animating it, that determine the most effective Point of View.