Writers on writing

"Writers on writing" Continued...

Issue: "2010 Books Issue," July 3, 2010

Q: But throughout your twenties you wanted to be a musician. When I got out of school in 1970 I really was taken by the conventional wisdom, which was that no one in 20 years would be reading. It would all be music and magazines. The novel was dead. I became a professional musician, I was a solo player for the first couple of years, then formed a band. I quit on my 30th birthday. I had a ton of demos and a few good songs, but I couldn't put it together to get a record deal.

Q: In your thirties during the 1980s, you decided to become a writer. I got up at 5:30 and from 6 to 8 every morning tried to write four pages. Then I worked my day job from 9 to 5: I was the head of the word processing department at a large law firm in Los Angeles. Then I ate a paper bag meal and did various typing jobs at other law firms until 11. So my day went from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. I did that for six years and published three books. Nobody bought any of them. I was disciplined, but I lived in a sense of panic because it wasn't working. The day job was really onerous. I typed literally 11 hours a day. I had bad carpal tunnel. I had wristbands on and wraps around my elbows. It was intense.

Q: Maybe you could list other jobs you had over the years. How much time do you have? I was a bartender in San Francisco, a legal secretary at the Bank of America, a moving man, house painter. From the age of 30 until 45, it was pretty brutal.

Q: You had a crucial moment when you were 41. We went to the beach and went body surfing. Later that night I was delirious: spinal meningitis. A summer rainstorm had flooded the sewers but they didn't put up any warnings. I was in a coma for 11 days. When I woke up from that, I knew I couldn't keep doing the 16- to 18-hour days plus trying to figure out the novel. I said if I don't make it now, I'll become a lawyer. I took a chance and decided not to just write another book, but a different type of book-a legal thriller.

Q: So you wrote The 13th Juror. It became a huge international sensation-sold four million copies in 1994. That's when I finally quit my day job. I got a check for $630,000, more than I had made my whole life. That will change your life in a hurry.

Q: People call your books legal thrillers, but they're really about how humans survive under duress. I try to find a very good duress point to start the book. My books tend to start when people are happy and that lasts for about three pages. Then they are very unhappy very quickly, plunged into this deep abyss. Then I pile on the physical and moral complication: That is what turns the book.

Q: How do you think through the moral implications? I write scene by scene. I usually know my inciting incident and the issues I'm going to be dealing with, the themes. Then I start writing in scenes. The "show, don't tell" mantra is true. If you just have characters doing things, people reveal themselves and their problems to you in actions. So the action is about character, and things follow organically once you get a good start and you pay attention to the individual scenes. The characters take on a life of their own.

Q: I've been in discussions about the relationship between God's sovereignty and human free will. Seems to me the process is like writing: The writer is the creator, but the characters assert their free will. Yes, you're right. It's a tremendous conflict. Often it will almost stop you dead, because you're trying to shape a plot: If the characters don't want to be in your template, you have problems. You can't force them against their nature. Once you get to know these characters they really speak to the author and tell him or her what they are going to do.

Q: When you're creating antagonists, how do you balance making them believable-not stock villains-while still making readers want to oppose them? Action is character. I try to have several people who are legitimate suspects in a mystery, complicated human people, all of whom have flaws. I have the same kind of flaws occur in people who are factually innocent as in the one person who is factually guilty. My lead guy, Dismas Hardy, is mega-flawed. He has problems being a good father and sometimes he is confused and isn't always sure what the right thing to do is. I deal with most of my characters on those terms-they're living in a veil of tears.


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