Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Liability and Responsibility

While I don't consider my books to be subversive, dangerous, or inciteful, I have noticed that I've written about some things that perhaps should have remained unwritten about.

In WHISKEY SOUR, I explain how to put fish hooks and needles into Halloween candy.

In BLOODY MARY, I explain how to beat a lie detector.

In RUSTY NAIL, I explain how it's possible to break out of prison.

And now, in DIRTY MARTINI, I go into detail about how to poison food products and make explosives.

On one hand, I want the books to be realistic. I write about things that interest me, and I think that these bits of 'forbidden' information make the story more compelling.

On the other hand, I'd be mortified if some psycho used my books as a blueprint for their own sick crimes.

I justify my forays into criminal explanations by rationalizing that:
  1. The information is already available on the Internet, in books, in movies, etc.
  2. Sickos are going to commit crimes anyway, no matter what the inspiration.
  3. It's doubtful disturbed individuals are reading my books when there's a wealth of prurient material already out there to indulge in.

Ridley Pearson's wonderful book HARDFALL was about some terrorists who fly a plane into the White House, years before 9/11. Clancy had a similar concept in one of his books.

Did the terrorists use these books as blueprints? We may never know. But if they did, are the writers to blame?

There was a big lawsuit involving the HOW TO BE A HITMAN book from Paladin Press, when this was found among the items of an actual assassin. Paladin lost, and had to pay big bucks.

With DIRTY MARTINI, I'm considering putting a disclaimer at the back of the book, telling would-be sickos that if they tried some of the things mentioned, it wouldn't work out as I've described.

What do you think? In an age where you can get any type of information on the Internet, are there still some things that shouldn't be written about? Should writers self-censor?

Outlines, Writer's Block, and Motivation

There are a few universal truths for writers.
  1. There's always something else to do other than write.
  2. Forcing yourself to write is easier said than done.
  3. Writing is easier if you have a game plan.

Writers are motivated by different things, but motivation often isn't enough to get the words down on paper. Every writer struggles with the blank page, at some point in their life. Doubt creeps in, the words just don't come, there are other things that need to get done, the deadline is looming, the story doesn't work, so why bother.

If you never played the game of baseball before, and you were put onto the field without knowing what the heck you were doing, it doesn't matter how much determination or enthusiasm or talent you have; you won't do well.

It's the same thing with writing. Knowing what you're doing is just as important as doing in. And the easiest way to know what you're doing is to come up with a plan.

For novels, the plan I use is an outline.

When you have a multi-book deal, you'll need to turn in outlines. It's specified in your contract. Money is portioned out to you in lump sums. You get paid upon signing the contract, upon turning in an outline, and upon turning in the next book. And your editor must approve the outline before you begin working on the book.

This is only the case for Book #2 and beyond. Your first book doesn't require an outline. No one will ask for one--not editors, not agents.

But an outline is still a useful tool to help you finish Book #1. First of all, it helps you know where the story is going, so you don't run into dead ends or run out of steam. It can help you find the slow spots in your narrative, it's much easier to add scenes and characters to an outline than a novel-in-progress, and it helps you focus on the craft of the story, as opposed to the art of writing.

An outline is also extremely helpful when it comes to motivation. Once the story is down on paper (in outline form) all you need to do is add the bells and whistles; the action, dscription, and dialog. You don't need to worry about what happens next because you already know. That frees up your mind to create characters and settings and scenes without having to wonder if the book is working, or if there's enough conflict.

I've never really understood writer's block, because I've never had it. I know it is part psychological and part motivational, sort of like being on that baseball field, knowing you have to perform, but not knowing how to get the job done.

Here's the thing; if you already have a template, you don't need motivation, and you don't get blocked. It's like painting by numbers.

What is an outline does is offer you a template. You simply need to fill in the color.

My outlines are very detailed. They run between 30 and 40 pages. I go chapter by chapter, and list who is in each scene, what information needs to be revealed, and what the conflict is.

I write outlines in present tense, and give each chapter a paragraph or two. If you're interested, here's the outline for BLOODY MARY as a download.

Q: How long does it take to write an outline?

A: Outlines are hard. They require a lot of thought, because you're plotting the entire book--every scene, every twist, every dramatic moment. It usually takes me a solid week of 8 hour days to knock out a forty page outline. But once I do it, writing the book is easy, because I already got all of the hard stuff out of the way.

Q: Do you use action or dialog in the outline?

A: Sometimes. It's sort of like describing a movie to your friends. Sometimes you quote dialog. Sometimes you mime some action. But the thrust of it is "What Happens Next?"

Q: Do you ever deviate from the outline?

A: All the time. A book is organic, and can change dramatically. Don't be afraid of that. An outline is a basic frame, but it's pliable. It's much easier to take a book in a different direction if you know your ultimate destination, and an outline helps remind you of that. It also keeps you focused, and allows you to bang out a few pages of manuscript even when the muse isn't around.

Q: Will your editor get angry if the book changes from outline to finished novel, especially since she had to approve of the outline?

A: Not as long as you're keeping the essence of the material.

Q: How detailed do you have to get?

A: The more detailed the outline, the easier it is to write the book. Some authors turn in a ten page outline, which is fine. But they usually do more sweating when the deadline looms closer.

Q: Isn't it harder to write a good outline than it is to write a good book?

A: No. The outline doesn't have to be perfect. When you turn it in, you aren't expected to make your editor laugh, or move her to tears. You're just showing her blueprints of your boat, and she's just checking to make sure it will float when built.

Q: Are there any good books on outlining?

A: Probably. I've never looked. I think most writers know about dramatic structure. In my books, I try to keep raising the stakes, constantly introduce conflict (both internal and external) , and make sure the chapters end on a high note so the reader wants to keep reading. Each scene has to have a point, a reason for existing. It has to fufill some kind of purpose--reveal clues, enhance character, add suspense, raise tension, ratched up the conflict. If a scene does several of these things, it's a really good scene. This is much easier to spot in an outline than in a book.

Q: Should I outline?

A: If you ever sign a multi book deal, you'll be required to outline, so you might as well start now. But don't worry about turning in an outline for a first novel---the agent and editor wants to see a finished book, not an outline.