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Category: What Grows From the Dead

Writing past your headlights

This article on my writing process was posted as part of a blog tour for What Grows From the Dead. It was originally posted here.


Writing past your headlights

It’s late, and your trip’s been long and difficult. You’re off the main road, trying to follow directions, but they aren’t detailed enough. You’ve never been here, you’re not familiar with the territory, and nothing looks familiar in the dark – just shadows, hints, only coming into focus for an instant as your lights cross them. There’s paint on the road to show the lanes, but some of it is worn away, and the intersections and turns aren’t marked.You’re going too fast for your lights, and if something’s in the road, you’re in for a few moments of either terror or panic as you try not to run headlong into it. 

That’s my writing process. I’m what writers call a “pantser,” somebody who writes by the seat of their pants. That’s in contrast to a “plotter,” somebody who has reams of backstory, character profiles, recipes, history, and a massive, detailed plot outline, somebody who knows what’s happening in each chapter, what beats they need to hit, as they progress towards the plot’s conclusion, along the route they’ve already worked out and carefully crafted step by step.

Those two styles are wonderful in that they both can lead to terrific work. J.R.R. Tolkien was clearly a plotter, almost more excited about creating the details his world’s history and language and legend than he was in the story on which the book rests. Donald Westlake, author of countless mysteries, legendarily hated outlines and just wanted as he wrote to find “what’s next?”

How it works for me is I just start writing, page one, and usually I just write until the first draft of book is finished. I usually have no more than a couple sentences of concept, not a plot, just a setup. I often don’t know who my characters are, or even how many they will be, until I begin to discover them on the page. A pattern I often follow is to write for a bit and then throw myself a curve at the end of a chapter – a twist in the plot, an unexpected appearance, a secret revealed. I certainly don’t try to make every chapter end on a cliffhanger, but those seem to me to be natural moments of heightened interest, nice punctuation marks in the narrative. Often I don’t know what they are or even when they’re coming until I write them. If I’m doing my job right, they also serve as little nudges to keep reading – the reader saying “what’s next?” right along with me.

In What Grows from the Dead, one of those moments that turned out to be central to the story was a “what’s in the box?” moment, one that readers of the book will surely remember. I had no idea starting the chapter what was in the box. I hadn’t even known there was going to be a box until I threw it in as another twist a couple chapters earlier. I certainly didn’t know that the contents of the box would be critical to how the story played out. I did know it had to be something important and maybe a little unexpected given that I’d kind of hyped it up some, but beyond that, I didn’t know until I wrote the last sentences of the chapter what was in there.

I’m sure that sounds chaotic, and it is, but I have a good bit of background in thinking this way. I’ve been doing improv comedy for the past 18 years with a group at a local comedy club, and my love for that feeds perfectly into my writing style. With improv, you start a scene without knowing what it’s about, without knowing where you are, who you’re with, or even who you are. All of that gets solidified as you go, ideally early on in the scene so you can build the relationships and the drama that make the scene get moving and have a more appealing (and if you do it well, amazing and funny) plotline. You’re doing all the elements of storytelling there in the moment, while people are watching you, without a chance to edit or go back or rethink, and it’s just magical when it works. The basic tenet of improv is “yes, and” – meaning I accept what you’ve just added to our world, and here is something else I’m giving back, something that hopefully expands and defines the world, our characters, our relationships, our desires. 

When improv succeeds, it’s absolutely enchanting. In part, that’s because the expectations the audience has are so low – they know you’re making up a scene and a story and a world on the spot, and if you pull it off, even halfway, they’re with you, impressed or even amazed. If you fail, you can just go on to the next scene, and you’ve only wasted a few minutes of people’s time. With books, however, it’s totally different. You’re asking people to spend hours in your world, and there’s a strong expectation going in that the book will be good, that it will be polished, tight, meaningful, lyrical. You don’t get the grace that an improv audience will give you, and you shouldn’t get it. Even if you write a book using the principles from improv, the book still needs to be just as good as what you’d get from somebody with fifteen notebooks full of outlines, backstory, and character sketches.

That’s where editing and rewriting come in for me. I can improv a first draft, see what happens, get to know my characters, come up with a plot and world, emotional beats and a satisfying ending. Once I’ve done that, I get right back in my car and drive that route again, this time in daylight, where I can see appreciate the colors and the leaves and see everything coming. That’s when the world truly takes full shape.

Writing to genre

This article on my writing process was posted as part of a blog tour for What Grows From the Dead. It was originally posted here.


Writing to genre – challenges and shortcuts

I’m here to talk about my mystery book, but I have been publishing books for about five years now, and I’ve branched out from fantasy, where I started, to sci fi, and more recently, to mysteries and thrillers. I love to read in all these genres, but writing them really reveals what different ingredients are needed for each.

With my fantasy novels, most of which are actually also mysteries, I feel like I have the most freedom. I can create new worlds, new cultures, new populations. I can mess with reality using magic and weird forces. I can create people who are very different from people in the real world, and give them all kinds of interesting skills and quirks. I do a lot of research to try to understand how people lived with less technology and in a feudal society, and I try to represent that to the extent that it fits into the story. Medicine and laundry are two areas where I’ve done a deep dive, along with different styles of fighting, because fighting is central to lots of stories.

Sci-fi has a bit more constraint. You need to respect the rules of physics and reality, or at least most of them, and, more than with fantasy, you need to justify where you’re breaking these rules and how. Sci-fi readers can be more unhappy when your worlds don’t make sense or violate basic laws. With the sci-fi books, and with the scientific elements of my thriller, I’ve enlisted physicist and biologist friends to check my work and make sure what I’m saying is at least in the neighborhood of plausibility. There’s also a kind of common lingo with sci-fi that fans know and accept, some of it real, some of it sci-fi – nanites, wormholes, that kind of thing.

With my novels set in the real world, there is, paradoxically, a sense of relief but also a sense of even more responsibility to get things right. The relief comes from not having to invent or explain everything about the world. Readers understand cars and cell phones and cultural references and how people in the modern world live their lives, so you don’t have to explain the society your characters live in at the same time as you’re trying to tell a story. That can make the storytelling much more focused, because you don’t have to digress to explain who the Knights of the Imperial Boot are, or how mineral magic works, or how space warp travel works and is possible. These mysteries and thrillers can be leaner, more efficient, and hopefully more relatable right at the start.

The responsibility part of writing in the modern world is that people can almost instantly tell if you’re getting something wrong. You can’t just make up how something like a hospital or a police station works, because your readers, or at least some of them, will find your errors and be unhappy about them. I should know – as a geologist, I am often annoyed when shows get things like lava and quicksand and Earth history wrong.

That responsibility is a duty, but it’s also an opportunity. When starting to write Got Trouble, I made my main character, Glynnis, knowledgeable about guns, something that I wasn’t at all. That meant I had to learn and research to get that stuff right. I read up whatever I could find, and I watched a ton of videos, which helped not only with factual stuff like loading and unloading and effective range and all that, but also with a culture of gun owners that I hadn’t had much contact with. I also have a friend (and reader) who gave me some great feedback both on how the guns would work but also how somebody comfortable around them would think of them and act. I also had some friends who work in emergency departments help me with how the intake of a patient with gunshot wounds would work. When I wrote a story set on an old sailing ship, I consulted with sailors to make sure I was getting the sail names, the equipment, and the basic operation correct. 

With What Grows From the Dead, I made the main character somebody who had worked as a professor, a life I know very well. But the stuff that happens to him and the things he chooses to do were not familiar at all. I needed to research how police procedure works with search warrants, arrests, defense counsel, and a county jail. I also spent a whole evening learning how to run a meth lab, something that will raise concerns if anybody’s watching my search history. With all the poisons, swords, and other questions I’ve done with the fantasy stuff (e.g. how long would it take somebody to die if stabbed in the gut?), I’m sure I must look like a seriously troubled Google user.

There is a lot that’s common to books no matter whatever genre you’re in. You need relatable characters who act believably, who make choices that fit their situation and their personality. You need the words they say to make sense, to mesh with their values and background, and to be what actual humans say. You need excitement, secrets, humor, longing, adventure, sorrow. Those are the fundamental elements to any human story, going back to tales around campfires long ago. If I do my job, then my readers will find something to relate to as they sit there in the firelight, imagining other lives and keeping warm.

Vampire Steve

Vampire Steve is a character in What Grows From the Dead. This was a character guest post as part of that book’s blog tour, originally posted here.


Transcript of Taped Interview: Stephen Janewicz, session #2

Date: November 3, 10:45am

Background on the Drummond case

Interviewer: Det. Gerald Palmer, NCSBI

Palmer:  Mr. Janewicz–

Janewicz: You may call me Steve, mortal.

Palmer: Sorry, Steve. We’ve covered the facts of the case in our conversation earlier this morning, so now I want to turn to what you know about Morris Drummond. I’m trying to get a sense of who the guy is.

Janewicz: To what end?

Palmer: [breath noises] He’s not in trouble. At least, not yet. I’m just trying to corroborate the things he’s said while we unwind what’s going on in Baxter County.

Janewicz: Very well. You may continue.

Palmer: So, you’ve known him a while?

Janewicz: The fleeting lives of your kind do not always impinge upon my memory.

Palmer: Right. But you know Morris better than that?

Janewicz: He has served as my chariot-master these past six moons.

Palmer: The chariot in question being his mom’s Chevy?

Janewicz: [no reply]

Palmer: How often did he drive you?

Janewicz: When the sun was at its height, and at its most dangerous to me, and again when the gloom of night reigned.

Palmer: Can you put that in, er, mortal terms? With hours?

Janewicz: My shop opens at noon and closes at midnight.

Palmer: So he drove you there and back?

Janewicz: And sometimes other places, when I was in need of sustenance.

Palmer: What’s a guy like you eat?

Janewicz: I favor pork rinds. And other foods darker and more mysterious.

Palmer: Right. So, you and Morris are friends?

Janewicz: I sensed there were none closer to him than I during his time of darkness, though others became entangled. I hope his curtain of shadow may yet lift.

Palmer: That was kind of a yes or no question, you know.

Janewicz: [no reply]

Palmer: This curtain of shadow thing. You mean the business with the Baxter County sheriff’s department?

Janewicz: In part. But the pall cast over Morris began well before that. He dwelt in shadow, sucked dry by his employer and then by the loss of one he loved.

Palmer: Who’s that? That he loved?

Janewicz: The one who cast him forth into this sorry world.

Palmer: His mom, you mean?

Janewicz: [no reply]

Palmer: So, he was, what, depressed?

Janewicz: His soul shed tears of blood from a wound that would not close.

Palmer: Right. [Breath noises. Papers shuffling.] Do I have this right that you were in the military?

Janewicz: I served in the ranks of blood and strife, once. It was a time long ago, before I became as I am now. I almost feel that was a different man.

Palmer: [chuckling] I bet. Can’t see you pulling off this, uh, whatever this is, in basic training.

Janewicz: [no reply]

Palmer: Did you ever know Morris to be violent? Use guns?

Janewicz: Morris is a man of peace. Weapons of war and violence were alien to him.

Palmer: How do you know this? Did you talk about it?

Janewicz: He told me he had to watch YouTube videos to even figure out if a gun was loaded.

Palmer: Right.

Janewicz: I must needs depart? My place of business opens anon.

Palmer: Sure, just one more question. When did Morris get agitated about all this… this situation he found himself in?

Janewicz: I think it grew with each new insult to his honor, each new threat to his life and safety.

Palmer: Right. Can you maybe put a date on that?

Janewicz: It was when he found that which his mother preferred buried.

Mindy

Mindy is a character in What Grows From the Dead. This was a character guest post as part of that book’s blog tour, originally posted here.


An essay about a family member? Are you kidding? That’s soooo sixth grade. No, I don’t think I’m special. No, I don’t want detention. Duh. 

Ugh.

OK, here you go.

Mindy Drummond
AP English 
3rd Period Mr. Jones

My Beloved Father  

(Of course I’m going to give it a stupid title if you make me write a stupid essay)

My dad, Morris, is a college professor. Well, sort of. He’s on a leave of absence now because of the business-ification of higher education administration. That all happened last year. Well, last academic year, in like February. Well, I think some of it was going on before that, but that’s when he told me, during one of our weekly phone calls. He doesn’t usually say much during those calls because I talk so much, but I could tell he was unhappy, so I asked. I think talking about it made him more unhappy, maybe, but it also seemed like he felt better telling somebody. I wish he’d find a girlfriend, but I think he needs to get through this stuff first.

Anyway, it sounds like the college where he works, Riggson, was a bunch of XXXXs (fill in strongest insult that won’t get me detention). Well, the administration, anyway. They closed his department and fired him, even though he has tenure, and even though he’s worked there for years. It sounds really sketch. He said he’s protesting, going through an appeal, and that he can sue them for breach of contract and improper termination. Maybe that will work, I don’t know. Do I look like a lawyer? No, I do not, is the right answer to that question.

That all was hard on him. Like, really hard. I don’t remember too much from when he and Mom divorced, because I was little, but I think it might be like that. Like, he pledged himself to this stupid institution, gave it the best years of his life (well, so far), and then they cheated on him and fired him, and now he’s left feeling hurt and betrayed and angry and sad. I don’t know. It’s not like I’ve been divorced. I’m sixteen. But it seems like that might be what it’s like.

I go out to see him summers, and I convinced Mom to let me stay a little longer last summer. It wasn’t fun, because Grandma (his mom) was sick. Serious sick, stage 4. With dad just terminated from the college and dealing with all that, and Grandma dying, he was pretty much a wreck. I mean, we all were. Grandma physically, him emotionally, and me too, trying to help, even though there wasn’t much to be done. I mean, Dad was cool even with all that going on. He’s funny, and nice, and he really cares about me, unlike certain other supposed father figures who live in Alpharetta I might mention. He’s really dorky too, but in that kind of cool way dads can sometimes be. He also buys me milkshakes all the time, which is nice – the divorce dividend, you know? They destroy your home life and fracture your family and your identity, and you get delicious ice cream.

Anyway, Dad took Grandma’s death even harder than I thought he might. I think it’s because of the job thing, like everything being stripped from him at once. He’s pretty strong, usually, and stays happy, but this was as dark as I’ve seen him go. He put on a brave show at the end of the summer, when I had to go back, and he acts like things are OK when we talk, but I can tell he’s not really holding it all together. I really don’t know what he’s going to do next, and I worry about him.

In conclusion, this is my essay about my dad. More than 500 words, which is what was required. If you find it boring, remember that if you let us do cooler stuff, like multimedia or TikToks, you would have more interesting things to grade than this dead-tree old-school drivel, so it’s kind of your own fault. Get with the 21st century, Mr. Jones. We are the youth of tomorrow, not the youth of 1960 or whenever you went to school.

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