Friday, July 31, 2009

High Wire Act

by Tim Maleeny

As my fellow scribes have mentioned, there are two parallel universes co-existing, one in which writers outline and one in which we don't. I tend to shift from one to the other at various stages of the writing process, but on the whole live in the world where there is no outline or roadmap. This is particularly true when I begin a novel. I have a clear sense of the characters and the triggering event, something that happens to set the plot in motion. A catalyst that changes the relationships and turns the characters into allies, enemies, lovers, or all of those things.

After that it's a high wire act, taking one careful step after another, each time asking myself what happens next? I keep asking that same question with no clue what the right answer might be, letting my characters reply, wondering what they will do next when confronted with the obstacles I put before them. Will they hang in there, is their grip on the situation strong enough to hold on until the next chapter? That's a critical question, because if they won't stick around, neither will the readers.

After about a third of the story has been written, I jump into that parallel universe where outlines are law and try to convince myself that I knew what I was doing all along. I build a retroactive outline, looking for patterns in what I just wrote. What is the rhythm of the characters' points of view? What is the trajectory of the story? Once I finish this outline of the first third of the book, the ending becomes crystal clear to me, whereas before it might have been a faraway destination, ill-defined and beyond my reach.

The further into the story I get, the faster I write, so towards the end it feels less like writing and more like channeling. Often during the second act I worry that the book is going to be too short because I'm seeing several chapters ahead. The ending becomes so clear that you start to feel it's closer than it really is, like a mountain on the horizon.

Once the first draft is finished, the question changes from what happens next to what have I done? Or who the hell wrote this? What do I do now? I edit, that's what I do. Line by line and page by page, remembering that the words shouldn't get in the way of the story. Chapters change order, characters change behavior as their motivations become more clear. Scenes become pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, and it's my job to move them around until the true picture reveals itself.

This, for me, is the real work of writing a novel.

Perhaps if I outlined more deliberately, self-editing wouldn't be so critical. Or so painful. I'd know where all the pieces fit before I put them down on paper. But then I'd already know what happens, and I'd get bored with the story before I even wrote it, and I'd probably start another book that I wouldn't finish, either.

Writing is really the act of telling yourself a story. So I take that first step onto the high wire, knowing that once I do, there's no turning back.

I Write Naked. Doesn't Everybody?

By Shane Gericke

I write naked.

Not literally. If I did, and you saw it, you'd run away screaming, like those crowds fleeing Godzilla as he chews through downtown Tokyo.

Rather, naked in that I use no outline when I write.

(Alright, alright, the naked stuff was a cheap ploy to get you to read my blog. My partners in crime already did such a great job dissecting outline vs. no outline vs. short outline vs. long outline, that if I didn't throw in some fakey nude stuff, none of you would have made it this far. But now you're here and not snoring, so we can go back to our tale.)

I hate to commit to anything when starting a new book. My characters reveal themselves through the act of writing, not through the act of outlining. I need the total freedom to let them take the fork in the road that leads through the briny swamp, if they so choose. I need to go commando. (All right, that's the last faux-nudie bit, I promise. Or, is it . . .)

So to unleash those creative forces, I picture exactly how my book will open, and how it will end, down to the smell of the air and sound of the sirens. All the rest I leave to whimsy, coffee and fingers. In MOVING TARGET, which launches next summer, for instance, I knew the story would start with death in a howling thunderstorm, would close with death in a howling thunderstorm, and the major players would be changed forever. The rest came as I wrote. div>

That's the ideal for me: writing without a map.

Problem is, it doesn't work for purposes of selling idea to your publisher. Editors understandably need to know what you're going to turn in, and with some detail; they have to sell your book to their bosses, their sales and promotion people, their designers and artists, their bookstore buyers, and the other parts of the vast team that actually gets your book into the public's hands.

In the argot, it's "commercial vs. creative." Well, my argot, anyway, mostly because I love the word "argot" and use it when I can.)

So, when I'm ready to go with a new book, I write a two-page story summary, telling my editor the beginning, end, major plot twists, and major characters. She accepts or rejects the idea based on that document (plus helpful author inputs like, Aw, pretty please, let me keep the bus full of decapitated corpses, pleeeeeeeeaseeeeeee . . . )

Once she accepts the outline, I start writing, and see what happens.

Fortunately for me, my editor is patient and kind and allows me the freedom to go off track--sometimes, um, considerably off track--as long as it's in the realm of what we agreed upon. If I promise a serial killer novel and deliver a traditional police procedural, I'll be pulling three to five in Rewrite Penitentiary. But if my outline promised that the serial killer would do X and wound up doing Y instead because Y is much more interesting, then we're good.

If I've done my job well, the commercial and the creative ends of the business dovetail neatly, and everyone is pleased.

If I don't, well, see morgue photo below . . .


John Dillinger lies extremely dead in the Cook County Morgue after cops ventilated him outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Back in the '30s, anyone who wanted to gawk at a gen-u-inely dead criminal-type could walk on in and do so. Also pictured are the Colt Army Special (with Timothy O'Neil, the cop who used it to plug Dillinger); the Remington double derringer; and a typical wanted poster of Dillinger from the era.

Talk about your double-barrel crime news: Two guns used by the infamous John Dillinger have been sold for nearly as much loot as he got by sticking up banks.

The Colt Army Special revolver that slew Dillinger outside a Chicago movie house ("slew" is almost as cool as "argot," don't you think?) sold for $36,400 in a Chicago auction, more than three times expected value. The second gun, a small Remington .41 double derringer that Dillinger carried, went for $95,600, or more than twice estimated value, in a Dallas auction.

Dillinger was carrying the Remington in one of his socks when he was arrested in Tucson, AZ, 75 years ago. (Socks were tougher back then, apparently. Our sissy socks of the modern era can't carry a piece of twine without sagging.) It was the beginning of his end--the notorious Roaring Twenties bank robber was killed six months later, on July 22, 1934, by federal agents and local policemen outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, after being fingered by the infamous "Lady in Red." (Little remembered is that her dress was orange; it only looked red in the street lighting of the time. "Lady in Red" sounded more tabloidish to the newspaper writers of the time anyway, so that's what they went with.)

East Chicago, Ind., police Capt. Timothy A. O'Neil is credited with the kill. He and a partner had arranged for the Lady in Red (who undoubtedly was naked under the dress) to point out Dillinger as he and Miss Red left the theater after watching "Manhattan Melodrama." The cops and three FBI agents plugged Dillinger when he came out. O'Neil's descendants sold the famous Colt to a museum. An anonymous "member of a prominent Tucson family" sold the Remington to an anonymous L.A. collector.

All I can say is, the sellers should send big wet kisses to Johnny Depp, because his bravura turn as Dillinger in the new movie "Public Enemies" undoubtedly kicked up the bidding. Maybe Dillinger should have gone into show biz. He'd have made a lot more money.

And, sigh, yes, since you insist, I'll tell you . . .

He is nekked under the sheet.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

All the World's A Stage ...

by Kelli

"How do you write? Outline or free-form?"

I guess the easiest way to explain it is this: I write like an actress. I started acting and writing at about the same time -- maybe acting came a little earlier, if you count traipsing around the house pretending to be Marlo Thomas in That Girl. ;)

When I was young, I planned to launch a career in the the-ah-tah, and majored in Drama for a time, and studied craft, and memorized my monologues and bestrode the stage in Greek tragedy and Shakespearean comedy. Eventually, I realized that the life style wasn't for me--let's just say I don't do rejection well. Of course, that's why I became a writer ... ;)

Y' see, creativity, like murder, will out. I tried to channel it intellectually, but there was a reason why I enjoyed translation more than pottery analysis, and why the thought of pursuing a Ph.D. in Classics--as honorable as it is--gave me hives. And so, I found myself at a--well, let's just say "adult" age--plunging into a creative career, this time prepared for rejection. Kind of. ;)

I bring up the back story because it is the method in my madness (no pun intended). When you're on stage, you function on two levels simultaneously ... the conscious awareness of blocking, lights, your colleagues' cues, the audience's reaction. And then there's the subconscious, addictive part, the mad heroin rush of sensation, of losing yourself, of becoming someone else entirely ... You're so deeply in a part you have a hard time shaking it off afterward ... you dream in your character ... and you know what it's like to have your city razed, be sold into slavery, or plot to murder your husband's friend ...

In comedy, the conscious awareness is more acute. Timing is everything, and the sympathetic, magical immersion in another identity not as complete. Which is why I preferred to act in drama or tragedies, as fun as it is to make people laugh. I confess it here: I preferred to make them cry. Not because I wanted to make people unhappy, but because the sense of a double catharsis--theirs and mine--was a heady, opiate high that defies description.

It is, however, akin to writing. Because when I write, I act. I'm in a life-and-death situation with my protagonist, her hand shaking, holding the small gun. I'm the elevator operator, scared to talk, with a kid on the way. I'm lying in an abandoned grave, victim of a brutal murder.

I immerse myself in characters, or they immerse themselves in me, whichever way it works. And if I kept to a tightly constructed outline, it wouldn't. Their actions would be predicted, forecast. Done.

However ... remember the craft part? I'm writing a thriller. That means pace, it means page-turning immediacy, it means things have to happen, and damn quick, too. So I outline--enough to construct plot arcs for the overall story line.

There are some things my conscious mind knows have got to happen, and I tap into that 30-35% of my awareness and take notes, zeroing in as I dig deeper into various chapters. And yes, I write from front to back, generally in acts or sections (like a play) and I'm mainly an early draft writer. My revisions are usually light, typically trimming and tightening.

It should come as no surprise that for me, the joy of writing is the exhilaration of losing myself, of living in a different world, a different time and place, of understanding and knowing what it's like to do the things my characters do, and making readers understand that, too. So do I outline? Yes--enough for a blueprint, a roadmark of hitting my marks and picking up my cues. Do I wing it? Of course ... every actor likes to improvise.

After all ... one writer, in her time, can play many parts. ;)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

More Mad Rush, Please

By Sophie

Are you an outliner or do you wing it?

Like many of the other Criminal Minds, I've tried both. Early in my writing development, I had these binders I would fill with timelines and tables and character sketches and pictures torn from magazines. I went to workshops where I learned to color-code my prose, to put it on notecards, to use software to organize scenes, to "interview" my characters, and so on.  

One of my favorite traditions from that time was one that my friend Lisa and I started. We both had young kids back then, so we had art supplies lying around the house, including a roll of butcher paper and about ten thousand colored markers. Whenever we started a new book, we used to tear off six-foot lengths of paper and spend a day plotting out our work-in-progress, annotating with post-it notes and drawing all kinds of arrows and diagrams and notes in the margins.

Those were fun days. Sometimes we'd go on a weekend retreat and pin those charts up on the walls of the cabin or hotel where we were holed up, and from time to time we'd get up from our laptops and go track our progress against the chart. Looking back on that phase now, I think that - for me - the chart was more of a confidence builder than anything else. It was tangible proof that I had my story under control, that I could reduce it to a flow chart with a beginning and an end and a middle.

I often say that fear is the writer's greatest enemy, and looking back I think I had a lot of fear back then. I was not convinced I could write a full and balanced story, and sketching its skeleton into an outline gave me confidence.

Nowadays, the outline - what there is of it - lives only in my mind. I might make a few pages of notes, but these are very free-form and unstructured, closer to the mad scrawlings of a fevered dreamer than an engineer's careful schematic. That's because I've found something even more addictive than the feeling of holding the reins of my story - and that's the feeling of letting go.
Somewhere between ordinary world and dream world lies this meta state that is a place of intuition, a conduit from the soul to the page, and being in that state is like standing in the violently swirling mist of a thunderous waterfall. You're of the process even if you aren't driving the process - and if that sounds a little organic-voo-doo-y, sorry, I plead guilty.
It's a mad rush, and I could no sooner exist in that state all the time as I could exist on whisky and black coffee, but it's exhilarating as all hell, and it has its place in story creation. It's the place of broad strokes, of first drafts, of shadows of characters whose details can be added later during the painstaking revision process.
I can't say I'll never write from an outline again. I know less and less about the process of writing as time goes on - or rather, it grows more mysterious to me, the more I attempt to learn. But for now, winging it suits me just fine.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Process serving

Outline or wing it? Both.

There. Done. My shortest blog post ever.

More details? It won’t be pretty.

Don’t tell my editor, but I write the first 50 pages blind. I have no idea who the characters are or what they will do. Because I write historical fiction, I know when and where they’ll be, and have researched the era and place for hours and hours and hours and…you get the picture. I have some ideas of cool or truly awful historical events and facts I want to look at, but that’s all.
After I finish those 50 pages I read them to see if they might actually be part of a novel. If not, I pitch them and write another 50 pages. If so, I start to outline. I outline the whole book, beginning to end.

Then I write another 50 pages. At the end of those I discover that my outline is wrong. The outline is wrong both going forward (i.e., things I haven’t written yet) and going backward (i.e., things I have written that weren’t in the original outline). More outlining. I write another 50 pages and…you get the idea.

Looking at it put down here, it seems totally crazy, but it is my process. After having sat through many classes on “the writing process” I’ve discovered only one truth: Your process is your own. Figure out what your process is and honor it. If you think outlining sucks all the fun out of writing, don’t make yourself do it. If the thought of embarking on a year long journey of novel writing without any damn idea of what you’re doing gives you hives, by all means write an outline. Neither approach is wrong, despite what you may hear.

When I’m all done I match up the outline to the actual book I wrote so I can keep track of what happens in the book. Rewriting starts. I rewrite tons as I’m one of those weird writers who writes too little and always has to add new scenes (as opposed to the writers who write too much and have to delete scenes).

There it is: the good, the bad, and the ugly. My process.

What’s yours?

Flying Blind

From CJ

 Are you an outliner or do you wing it?

Finally, an easy question!  I wing it--yes, folks, I fly blindly into the mist, jump off the Grand Canyon without a parachute, write by the seat of my pants....

Honestly, it's not as scary as it sounds and a heck of a lot more fun.

I usually write in three drafts.  The first, what I tell my students is the "voyage of discovery draft" but which I actually call my "vomit into the computer" draft, is selfish, purely for my eyes only.

That's right, it's for me, me, me!!!

In this first draft I get to play.  I can waltz down blind alleys, try on outlandish plot twists, dissect and eviscerate my characters so that I know them better than myself.

It's when I figure out the who and the why and the how.

Then my second draft is actual work....sigh.  It's my re-visioning draft, or what I call my "slice and dice" draft, where I focus on words of wisdom Jeffery Deaver once shared with me: the reader IS god....

As in, hey, they're paying you to write, so you better give them good value for their money. 

Each scene gets evaluated for maximum impact, greatest reader enjoyment, and its "holy shit, batman, didn't see that coming!" quota. 

Then I build the scenes into chapters, chapters into acts, and try to build towards a "breathtakingly fast-paced" climax.....or in the case of my Berkley series, multiple-climaxes.

Oh yeah, baby!  Four climaxes for the price of one!

How many folks with real jobs get to say that?

I still vividly remember reading the final action scene of JAWS.  I think I set a new above-water breath-holding record.

I literally could not breathe while speeding along, waiting to see what happened next, my hand pressed against my throat, pulse jack-hammering against it.

Now, that's the way to climax!

So, while we're talking climaxes, which book knocked you off your butt with its  ending (happy or otherwise)?

Thanks for reading!

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a National Bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller."

The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, was released January, 2009 and the third, URGENT CARE, is due out October, 2009. Contact her at

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mystery, Like Life, is Like a Box of Chocolates

Gabriella Herkert, Catnapped and Doggone

How dark is too dark for reading or writing mysteries? I like my mysteries like I like my chocolate. A lot and in every imaginable darkness. My taste buds relish an eclectic range from white chocolate to bittersweet.

On days of light and happiness, I turn to a white chocolate delicacy like P.D. Wodehouse. Are Wooster and Jeeves (ok, we all know Jeeves is the brain here) on Indiana Jones’ path to the Arc of the Covenant? Heck, no. They’re looking for lost heirlooms at house parties dressed to the nines. They sip cocktails and figure out how to avoid social faux pas without ever acknowledging that WWI is happening at the same time. Sweet, delicate and not exactly chocolate but tasty all the same.

For my milk chocolate fix, I turn to Janet Evanovich. Yeah, there’s the occasional psycho boxer with a little girl’s voice and lots of funerals but they mostly end with hot men and birthday cake. For the nuts, I’ve got Lula, the former ‘ho, and Grandma Mazur. Sometimes you feel like a nut and sometimes you don’t. Both are readily available in the milk chocolate variety. These are my reliable afternoon end of the work day savories.

For my darker fix, say 70% cacao on the chocolate scale, I turn to J.A. Jance’s J.P. Beaumont or Jonathon Kellerman’s Alexander Delaware. There’s some gun play and the occasional character in need of serious psychiatric couch time but the plots are twisty and the motivations elegant. Too much of this delicacy and you might break out but what a way to go.

Ah, bittersweet. This degree of darkness must be handled with care. You don’t want to snack on these late at night or while searching the basement by yourself. You’ll be wide awake at two in the morning. But some days, you just need that little bit of extra darkness you can only get from Tami Hoag or Kathy Reichs. These are sophisticated science-heavy special occasion treats to be savored. They are both a mind and a palate sensation.

Just remember there’s no such thing as bad chocolate. On the right day, there’s a flavor to match. On any day, come to think of it.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Escape Clause

"How dark is too dark?" by Tim Maleeny

As a writer I'd say anything goes, but as a reader I'll admit that much of crime fiction is too dark for me. The real world at high noon is dark enough to scare me on most days, so when I choose a book I'm typically looking for an escape.

An adventure, a roller coaster ride. Unapologetic entertainment and distraction from the shadows all around us. That's one of the main reasons I bring a book everywhere. Think of a good book as my pulp-and-glue-powered flashlight, shining some light on the human condition and putting even the scariest realities into stark perspective.

I find I'm a better reader if the writer's voice has some irreverence, an undercurrent of humor. For me, too dark means too serious, because I think the real world is just as absurd as it is scary. So make the bad guy quirky or charming. Have the good guy be slightly neurotic. Drive the tension in the dialogue through humor. Let off some stream as you turn up the heat. The books that are wall-to-wall dark tend to sit on my shelves unread, perhaps because they don't reflect my own skewed perspective on the world.

However, I wouldn't be much of a reader or writer if I couldn't embrace contradictions, so as I thought about this question I realized there are a number of dark books that I would recommend unreservedly. Books with tension but very little release. Ghost stories that chill your fingers as you turn the pages. And what I realized was this: the darker the book, the more critical it was for me that the writing be exceptional. Silence of the Lambs is an easy example. Not a lot of humor or optimism in that book, but the pacing, attention to detail and rich characterizations propel you forward in a way that entertains even as the subject matter horrifies. Somehow the disturbing details didn't seem gratuitous. But many serial killer books that came later were pale derivatives, tales of horror devoid of any craft. Books like those made me feel enervated instead of energized. They offered no escape.

But my ability to sit in the dark for long hours is definitely stronger if there are occasional flashes of light. I recently read two historical crime novels which take place in Russia. One of them was brilliant, David Benioff's novel City of Thieves. Because of the friendship between the two protagonists and the preposterous nature of their mission, the book is funny, poignant and wildly entertaining. But the backdrop of the war, the casual cruelty of the Nazis and the daily horrors of the siege of Leningrad all wash over you in a way that is much more powerful than any work of nonfiction. This is a book you want to read, as opposed to a book that fails to entertain as it educates.

By contrast, the other book I read, which shall not be mentioned by title, was a good story in need of a great editor. It was at least a hundred pages too long, but even worse, it took itself way too seriously. It was trying hard to shock or scare me, but as a reader I could see the writer's big shoes sticking out from under the curtain long before he ever jumped out to say boo. By the end I just didn't care enough about the characters, because their lack of humanity made them two dimensional. And I think, in many ways, it's the lighter moments in life, however brief, that reveal our humanity.

But enough of all this literary claptrap, here I am taking things way too seriously. It's too dark in here, so excuse me while I go find a good book that is also a great escape.

When Art Imitates Life Too Closely . . .

National Geographic photo

By Shane Gericke

Fiction is never too dark for me.

Life, sometimes, is.

I mention this because a good friend just died for bad reasons, and it hurts.

His name is Mark. His wife--it's too difficult right now to say "widow"--is Bev. They were high-powered educators till a couple years ago, when they retired. They had life licked. Their pensions were strong. The assets were many. Their health insurance was covered. Their love was strong. Their disposition was like the sun coming up in the morning . . . so many things they were going to do with all their freedom from the brutal work schedule. So many travel plans, so much time to spend with loved ones.

Then, he got what all the doctors thought was Parkinson's Disease.

A crummy way to go, Parkinson's. It shuts down your body little by little till there's no "me" left. But it’s a slow mover compared to many, a turtle crossing the Plains, so it can take decades to get to the bitter end. Victims have time to adjust. Do the things they want without too much adjusting, particular in the early stages. Mark was doing well with the various therapies, and the doctors were optimistic. He worked his butt off and fully intended to live his--their--life. So they figured they had plenty of time.

Turns out they didn’t.

Several weeks ago, Mark fell apart. Violent shaking. Brutal loss of hearing. Blurred vision. Wild, deep hallucinations. Swallowing so completely shut down he had a feeding tube installed. He could hardly talk. He could barely walk. He couldn't do anything physical without close supervision.

Friday night, he began vomiting like a sewage pump.

Saturday morning, he died.

Now the doctors believe it wasn't Parkinson's after all. They think it was a variant of mad cow disease-- the kind that lurks within some people's genes, and when triggered, hits them like a Mack truck.

A Mack truck driven by a infected serial killer.

It's called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. It twists the proteins in your brain into cruel little scythes that cut holes in adjoining cells. Every hole wreaks havoc somewhere in your body. Too much wreak-age and you die. There is no cure. There is no hope. Once you have it . . .


So Mark is dead and Bev is alive and she profoundly wishes she wasn't but she'll come back little by little with her remaining loved ones' help and it won't be easy but someday she'll just . . . be.

And so will we.

So no, dark doesn't matter to me in fiction. As long as it makes sense, bring it on, the darker the better.

But in life, dark stinks.

Every damn bit of it.

(For more on CJD: )

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Whistling in the Dark

By Kelli "How dark is too dark?"

No one is actually afraid of the dark. The dark itself can't hurt you ...

No, what makes us dive for a flashlight and jump at household noises is the awareness of things that hide in the dark.

Hiding, too, makes us uncomfortable. Outside of the childhood game -- and when you think about it, hide-and-seek is kind of a sinister early training for survival -- human beings don't hide unless we're either predator ... or prey.

The dark makes us hyper aware of our vulnerability. Our mortality. And we look for what may be hiding from us, not in fear, but in intention.

So when we talk about "dark", what are we really saying? Fear. Fear of death, pain, loss. The strongest, most common impulse that unites human beings--at least the sane ones--on the planet.

I don't think of violence or any single criminal act as "dark" writing. For me, darkness is hitting those unspoken fears, of flirting with our demons, sometimes even sleeping with them.

It's going to the dark places of the mind, the shadowed corners of the soul. It's teasing out the heartbeat of a perverse thrill, a peep show for the reader into motivations that may be more disturbing than actual deeds.

Now, all that said: I really loathe gratuitous violence. Casual murder. Unexpressed and glossed over agony. And there are certain things that I just can't write about.

I once threw a book across the room because it featured a particularly gruesome death of a child, and the act was handled with all the subtlety and sensitivity of a hockey puck. To me, that's mind pollution.

I feel that my duty as a writer--particularly as a crime fiction writer--is to make every death matter. Every crime matter.

Every loss hurts, every act of contrition or confession seems inadequate. I experience the pain with my characters, and recreating it leaves a scar.

Go figure. When I was a Drama major, I always preferred to act in tragedies, though I loved to watch comedies. I read a lot of different types of books, but what I'm wedded to as a writer lives in the darker levels of humanity. I don't want anyone's pain forgotten.

I guess that's why I'm a noir writer. Through pain--through our universal fear of the dark--we come closer together as human beings. We resonate, empathize. Even find redemption.

And maybe, if we get close enough, we'll figure out how to keep each other safe from what's out there ... lurking in the dark.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Only the Darkest Shades of Gray

By Sophie

How dark is too dark for you?

I used to think I didn't have an outer limit for dark. I mainline bleak like other people put away Ben 'n Jerry's or fresh air or right-wing talk radio - which is to say hungrily, immoderately, addictively.

I don't merely appreciate flawed characters, I crave them.

Part of my problem is that I'm a natural-born envelope-pusher. A rebel, a contrarian. I don't like being told what to do. Everyone knows, for instance, that good needs to prevail over evil; that altruistic impulses ought to be rewarded; that everything happens for a reason.

Only, what if it doesn't?

I mean, isn't it kind of interesting to set aside what we know about fictional humans, and reach into the grab-bag of our observation and imagination and work with whatever deeply flawed character we pull out? Do so and you get to work with questions like these:

  • Think of the most horrific crime you can imagine - is there ever a circumstance where it's justified?
  • Could you love a child who lacks a conscience?
  • Is there a man or woman alive who cannot be tempted to abandon everything s/he holds dear?
  • Is addiction a curse from the gods, or a necessary expression of a particular corner of the human soul?
  • Is true forgiveness possible?
  • Is it possible to determine the exact moment when a tortured soul crosses over into irredeemable? How close can you drive your narrative to that cliff's edge without going over?
  • How profoundly can you taint romantic love before you turn it into something else entirely?

Yikes, I tossed those off in mere moments. And I could keep going and going. Oh be still, my heart - I'm getting all excited just thinking about all of these possibilities...horror and perversity and violence get my blood pounding.

I am absolutely aware that a great many readers - a majority, in fact - prefer lighter reading. They want their heroes to be good and their villains to be bad, their justice served cold and their love stories to be firmly in the happy-ever-after camp.

But my own restless mind wanders when I try to write in that territory. A dear friend frequently insists that fiction ought to be pure entertainment. I don't disagree,'s just that I find the darkness way more entertaining than the alternative.

As it turns out, even I have my limits. A friend recently introduced me to a work that I wish I'd never seen, proving that I do have a bit of marshmallow left on the inside. Frankly I'm glad to know that's the case - I'd like to hang onto the possibility I might go soft someday.

Incidentally, I like other stuff too. Sometimes you're just not in the mood for soul-gouging, you know? I own books that make me laugh and romances that make me dab at my eyes with a hanky, and I'm quite fond of them. I own a Bible and, until recently, about two hundred books about quilting. I own cookbooks and trail books and guidebooks, and they all have their place.

But when I'm in the mood for dark, please don't drop me off in the suburbs - drive me straight to the seething heart of it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

It Matters

From Becky, on the road ...

Sorry for the brevity. Am thumbing this in on my iPhone on my way to my book party at The Web in Manhattan tonight (Monday)at 7:30. It's "check your pants at the bar for a free drink night." Not like a traditional bookstore event, as there will be gratuitous nudity!

I can deal with gratuitous nudity, but not gratuitous violence. If I feel like the people are just fodder for the plot or humor, then I'm done with the book. Death matters. All the time. Fictitious or otherwise.

Thinking otherwise is too dark for me.

Back next week with more to say. Promise.

Never Say Never....

How dark is too dark for you (as reader, viewer or writer)?

When people hear what I write, some will say: I never read books about children in jeopardy. I never read about sexual assaults. I never read about people killing their families.

Seems like a lot of people have "nevers" in their rules for reading. I respect and understand that. But aren't the greatest, most lasting stories those that successfully break the rules of "decent" behavior?

A father raises his hand against his son, the dagger glinting in the harsh desert son....

A married man lusts after a young girl, goes to her in disguise, and rapes her....

A wife, desperately in love with her husband, kills and dismembers her own brother for him, then when her husband betrays her, kills their sons.

The above examples break these "never" rules--and they're some of the most widely read and told stories in history: Abraham and Isaac, Leta and Zeus, Medea...

As both a writer and a reader, I like to be challenged. I don't believe in rules--why limit yourself? Why not first try the thing that you have pre-judged, then decide?

I like light and fluffy and I like dark and twisted. And a lot in between. Usually I enjoy my fiction grounded in reality, but then I'll fall in love with something like Mark Helprin's Winter Tale and be totally transported into an impossible never-land of magic.

So why bother with rules?

Why not view life as a smorgasbord, taste everything you can, then go back to feast on seconds with the writers who fill you up while also leave you craving for more?

I'm not talking gratuitous violence or sex--but gratuitous is in the mind of beholder. First, the author who creates the story and then, their audience.

In my own books there are often children in jeopardy--as a pediatric ER doc, how could I not offer justice to some of the victims I worked with for seventeen years?

I also won't shy away from including crimes against women. Not to be salacious, but to illuminate a significant problem that our society often forces into shadows.

In fact, my next book, URGENT CARE, due out October 27th, is about a victim of a sexual assault facing her greatest fear: the man who raped her and has come back, now killing his victims.

I strive for emotional honesty, keeping it as real as possible and still be entertaining. I try to respect my audience--after all, they're paying for the privilege of reading my books.

As a reader, there are definitely some excellent authors whose books I will no longer read--because to this audience member their writing is too over the top, without giving me a payoff that ties the violence and gore to the main characters, leaving me feeling used, abused, and manipulated.

I don't read a book to see how much pain or angst the author can wring from me. I read to be enlightened, inspired, to laugh, to feel good about myself and the world around me, to immerse myself in a new world with new ideas and new people to learn from.

So, yes, there are Brussels sprouts and cauliflower mixed in with the prawns and Belgian chocolate on that smorgasbord of stories, and I might taste them and never go back for seconds.

But that's okay. Because the next dish down is a new delight to try....

So where's the line for you as a reader? What makes a book a "fling against the wall", never to trust that author again?  What kind of stories make you come back for more?

Thanks for reading!

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a National Bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller."

The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, was released January, 2009 and the third, URGENT CARE, is due out October, 2009. Contact her at