Friday, November 18, 2011

Writing Tip #327

We all have different methods at getting us through those dark, dreary days of a first draft. They're not so dark, I find I actually have a lot of fun writing, otherwise I wouldn't do it, but sometimes you get stuck. When you get stuck, the worst thing you can do is just to give up. I'd never have completed a single manuscript if I gave up every time it got hard.

Over the years, I've come up with little shortcuts to help me get through those times that are harder than others like we all do (or should do.)

My brain sees stories as movies playing in my head. I came from a world of screenwriting and I'm a very visual, cinematic writer. That method of writing poses its own challenges since you can't just follow a logical chain of events in a novel the same way you would in a movie. At my most recent writing critique group (With Janine Spendlove and Aaron Allston), I was torn a new asshole because of all of the random POV shifts in the rough draft of my manuscript that would make perfect sense in a movie.

Although some techniques don't carry over as well, there's one I've picked up over the years that's helped me a lot when I get stuck working on characterization.

I cast my book.

I'd do it with my screenplays, too. But I would use a cast of characters from movies I loved, but it would have to consist entirely of dead actors. There's something more literary about the sensibilities of old movies, but imagining that my bad guy was being played by Sydney Greenstreet and my hero was in Ray Milland's shoes would help me work through scenes. Greenstreet's sort of villain was entirely unflappable. My version of Ray Milland always seemed a little pissed off he wasn't as sophisticated as Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and turned to cutting corners in life.

The list of dead actors I've cast in my screenplays, novels, and short stories would be a mile long.

I don't always do it, and I'm not a slave to it in any way shape or form, but it helps me imagine my way out of some situations I would ordinarily get stuck on. And it allows the characters to surprise me.

Some might say, "But they'll see right through you! It's cheating!" But I'm not actually writing these characters. I'm letting them, in the rough draft, fill in holes that happen to create fascinating dichotomies with the characters I've already worked to create.

And in order to prevent them from completely taking over and to smooth out the dialogue and mannerisms, I'll recast the part during my revisions, usually from a living actor with a completely different sensibility. How much would Richard Dreyfuss bristle at being in a Ray Milland part? How would Harrison Ford handle getting cast in a part written for Sydney Greenstreet or James Cagney?

For me, it adds an energy and depth to my characters with very little additional effort. It helps me surprise myself with what comes out on the page and it layers characterizations that would otherwise seem flat.

Maybe this technique isn't for everyone. I have a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of a lot of movies and this comes naturally to me, it's just how I think. But next time you get stuck with a character, why not cast Cary Grant in the role and see how he'd play getting out of the situation?

This technique helps me muscle through scenes to write that would force other writers to stagnate. It's just one of the things I've developed that works for me and brings an extra energy to the page that helps you get through that hard times.

And you really never know where it'll take you.

Try it. Let me know how it works for you. And I'd love to hear about what gets you through tough pages and passages. I'm always looking for new tools to put in my toolbox.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Interview with Max Allan Collins

I had the chance to do an exhaustive interview with the author Max Allan Collins about his new book from Mickey Spillane's manuscript, The Consummata. It's a fantastic read and a sequel to the top selling Delta Force.


For the portions of our interview regarding Spillane and The Consumatta, those will be appearing on The Huffington Post. For the portions of our conversation that had to do with Collins's time at DC Comics and writing Batman, they will be appearing on Big Shiny Robot. I'll link up to them as soon as they go up.

This portion of the conversation had a lot to do with writing and the state of the book publishing world from a writers perspective, so I felt this was an appropriate forum for it.

Bryan Young: How much of your time as a writer do you divide between producing collaborations with Spillane’s work, which are popular and excellent, and your own work which I think is just as unique and important for a reading audience?

Max Allan Collins: I’ve always been prolific and I sometimes get kind of beat up for that, I’ve certainly gotten beat up for doing the movie novelizations and TV tie-ins I’ve done over the years.

BY: Don’t, though, the Dick Tracy movie tie in is one of the first book I was absolutely daffy about as a 10 year old when it came out

MAC: I bet you got it at school, too.

BY: I did, actually

MAC:
That’s a lucky break, too, because the edition that went out to schools is the only edition that has the complete ending because the Disney people censored the ending because they didn’t want the book out there giving away the ending before the movie came out and I was just beside myself because they published a million copies of this mystery that didn’t resolve the mystery. That’s one of the great frustrations of my early career.

I guess my point is that what happens is, really what the situation is, and really it’s ridiculously simple is that I’m a professional, full-time freelancer and I’m somewhat well known. I consider myself successful, but I’m also not a super star. I don’t have sales on the level of Harlan Coben, Mary Higgins Clarke or those kinds of folks. So I can’t write one book a year, like everybody else I have to go to my office every day and go to work.

What looks like this incredible amount of material flying out of my office is just the work of a steady, blue-collar writer who’s just hanging in there and doing the work. I’m also lucky the way that my mental make-up is such that I have a lot of enthusiasm. Even when I do a novelization, it’s a usually some property that I’m really interested in. Sometimes I get to do something like Saving Private Ryan, other times I do something like GI Joe so it’s not always a picnic.

I do like telling stories, I really enjoy working in a variety of mediums. I love doing screenplays, I’ve done comics at the start of my career and I’ve even done video games. I view myself as a storyteller. A lot of people that are not in the upper reaches of the super-star authors, if you go look at them and find out what’s going on in their lives a lot of them are teachers, some are lawyers, doctors, but many many of them have day jobs. I don’t have a day job, this is my day job so a lot of stuff tends to come out.

BY: I’m in that other boat, my day job is film and video production and journalism stuff like this and you know the writing.

MAC:
It’s a job that really takes the same kind of juice. I found that early in my career I was going to University of Iowa, in the summer I was lucky to work in a newspaper. I found that when I got home I used up the juice at work. I thought maybe I should get s job at a shoe store or something so that when I come home there’s something creative in me.

On the other hand, it sounds like you have a lot cooler job than working at a shoe store! Film and video production is something that I actually like a lot and I don’t get to do that every day

BY: I’m a freelancer all the same, sometimes I get to do really creative stuff for me like I’ve put out a few documentaries that have done really well that got put out. I guess maybe I’m sort of in some respects I feel like you were 30 years ago, I’ve had a couple of books published, a couple of comics published, a couple of movies distributed but no one knows my name. I’m just working as hard as I can

MAC:
One of the really gratifying things lately for me has been, this just may be the result of being around for a while but I do talk to a lot of people who’ve read my books now.

It’s very rare where I do an interview with someone where they’re not familiar with my stuff, sometimes in depth. That didn’t used to be the case, but what happens with me is there’s sort of a compartmentalization. I mean I talk to people who are big fans of one segment of what I do; for example loved the CSI novels or they’re fans of the comics but they don’t read anything besides the comics. I guess that’s fine and it’s interesting, but it’s always a little frustrating to me because I’m like well if you love my comics you’ll probably like the novels too. It’s funny, people do compartmentalize.

I think the most important thing is, this is going to sound so incredibly basic but if you can be a freelancer and you can make a living in that area that you love, even if it is GI Joe sometimes it is still such a gift. It is such a richer, better life than the vast majority of people are subjected too. I’m always grateful that I work at home, that I kind of generate my own stuff.

I still am going after jobs like any freelancer, sometimes getting them sometimes not.

Writing proposals for books, sometimes getting a contract sometimes not getting a contract.

It hasn’t changed all that much in all this time that I’ve stayed at it and produced a certain body of work. I’m lucky that a lot of stuff is being reprinted for the very hungry e-book market.

BY: I was going to ask if you’d considered dabbling into that as far as original stuff

MAC:
I actually have because just recently AmazonEncore, which is sort of a boutique publisher within Amazon empire, approached me about my Nathan Heller series, about doing the backlist because I have a new book that’s been out for about a month called Bye Bye, Baby and it’s the first one in about nine years so I just jumped at the chance to get the backlist out there and they were proposing that they publish all twelve novels and two short story collections basically at once. They’d make them all available on e-book and trade paperback. I thought if you’re going to gamble on something, they’re the biggest bookstore in the world so I went along with it.

Last week they launched it and put my novel True Detective, which is the first Nathan Heller story that goes back to 1983 out and sort of showcased it, they put it on sale at a bargain rate of $.99, I’d given them my blessing to do what they needed to do, and the book was number 1 in the Kindle e-book best seller list by midafternoon. It’s remained on their top 100 most of the time in the top 25 even after they put the price back up.

I am very impressed by the ability of the e-book to bring a whole new audience to my material. They sold more e-book copies of my novel True Detective in one day than, granted at $.99, they sold more copies in one day than they entire print run. So I may actually do a book for them.

It’s kind of controversial because some book sellers see them as the evil empire but I think it’s misguided and people are going to have to learn to adjust to this new landscape and see how we all fit into it. It’s no different than when television came along and threw a wrench into radio and movies, it’s no different than when the VCR came along. Anytime something changes the landscape, people react in negative ways but eventually it settles into something different, sometimes better.

BY: It’s hard to take it out on the authors when they are concerned, they have to make a living and sell the books where the books go. It shouldn’t be our responsibility to any type of retailer, we want people to read our stories and we’ll get it to them however we can

MAC:
I actually think the independent book sellers stand to make comeback now. You’ve got Borders gone, that changed the landscape drastically. The chains anyway, were not the type of place where books were handsold the way that independent booksellers do.

I think that, here’s one example of where Amazon and a mystery book store can coexist, is that Amazon put out all of my Heller stories. If you’ve been around a while, and have a new book come out there’s a kind of resistance of readers if they can’t access the other books in the series. Most book stores, true of chains and independent book stores, don’t have shelf space to stock 14 Nathan Heller books by me on the shelf. They both benefit. The independent bookseller sells by book by hand to the reader because it’s so fabulous, then they’ve got someplace they can go where they can fill in a book they otherwise wouldn’t have bought.

I think there’s a positive flow between those that will eventually develop, I sort of see the independent sellers as the gate keeper. They’re sort of the tide pools where the books the publishers maybe haven’t chosen can find life and find their way to a best seller list.

BY: Do you think that the stigma will affect you on The Consummata or do you think people are thirsty enough to dive in without Delta Force?

MAC: I haven’t done anything original for Amazon or for the eBook market yet except for a short story collection, again that’s a Nathan Heller collection called Chicago Lightning that’s out next week coming out from AmazonEncore. There’s no stigma yet, I hope that the stigma would not attach to the author.

I think what might happen is that a bookstore might not stock a book that Amazon published, but if Amazon is selling thousands of them, I think I can get over that. I think it’s shortsighted, when the landscape changes you have to navigate it, you don’t bring a plow in and try to make it what it used to be. That’s a losing battle, and it’s always been that way.

I also got to ask about the mountain of material Mickey Spillane left for Max Allan Collins to adapt and flesh out and publish, wondering why he had so much stuff he just did nothing with.

I think it speaks a lot about how some people write and what their process is.

BY: What had him say he wasn’t going to finish or publish these things in the 80s’? he still had 20 years left in him...

MAC: There were several things going on, it’s complicated. The short answer is that Mickey, at the height of his fame in the early 50’s converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and they did not approve of what he did. So Mickey basically didn’t publish a novel for almost 10 years. He went from Kiss Me Deadly, one of the most famous mystery novels ever written, the first private eye novel, to the charts.

Then he stops because his church said they didn’t like the sex and violence. About 10 years later he left the church and then he had a very prolific period of about 15 years, then he got back into the church. Then the rest of his career he spent in sort of start-stop mode.

He’d occasionally publish, one time he got in trouble again, so I think a lot of these he put aside thinking he’d get in trouble with his church so he didn’t finish it. I know it sounds like a crazy story, but it’s absolutely true.

BY: Reading The Consummata and the subject matter in it, I guess that makes perfect sense...

MAC:
The other factor is, there is another factor, is that he [Mickey Spillane] was a guy with a lot of enthusiasm and if he lost his enthusiasm on one story, if he got distracted, he often wrote books in 9 days or 2 weeks, but if he had to stop and go do promotion or something of if he got another idea for a different story he would drop it and just go do the other story. Some of it had to do with the fact that he would say “I’ll get back to this another day” but it was hard for him to get back to something. He did things in the white heat of enthusiasm and if he lost that, he would just start something new.

I think this was a fascinating discussion, and I hope you did, too.

Be sure to check out The Consummata. It was a very fun read that I enjoyed immensely.

And if you found this interview helpful, be sure to do me a favor and buy some of my books. That enables me to bring you more content like this.