At a recent panel discussion, “Writing that First Book” at the Anaheim Central Library, I talked about my first novel Offline and how my writing has changed since then. Afterwards, an audience member asked me for specifics. What have I learned since I published Offline in 2005 that I put into my novel Amiga from last year? I didn’t get a chance to finish my answer, so I’d like to share it with you.
Offline is a good book. It got good reviews. But it isn’t my best novel, nor should it be. If my writing hadn’t improved in the past 15 years, I’m not growing as a writer. There are several lessons I’ve learned from writing Offline that I’ve used in subsequent novels. Here are some spoiler-free specifics.
There’s a scene in Offline that goes on way too long. It’s a scene that’s supposed to build tension as one character has to wait for another character to act. Because of the passivity of the scene, it drags on too long. We don’t get a sense that something ominous is about to happen (even when it does).
The challenge in a standoff scene like this is to provide motion even when the characters aren’t doing anything. Readers need a sense that the scene is going somewhere, and a potentially positive or devastating payoff is coming. Think of the coin-flip scene in No Country for Old Men. The gas-station owner doesn’t know why Anton Chigurh challenged him to a coin flip, what is at stake, and what would happen if he refuses or wins. We already know Anton is violent, and one outcome is the owner’s death.
So when I have standoff scenes in Amiga, I build tension by not letting characters be passive. I give them options where situations can be defused or taken in a different direction. Most importantly, I keep those scenes short. Readers will wait for a payoff, but not too long.
I look at some scenes in Offline and ask, “Why did the character do that? It seems out of place for that person.” It stems from the conflict between plot and character.
My earlier books were more plot-driven. I expected the characters to do something at a specific point in the story, and those characters better do it! And if my imaginary friends wouldn’t cooperate, I tried to go back and reprogram them so they would take the actions I needed them to do. If they still didn’t, I had them carry out those actions anyway so the rest of the plot can hold together.
Today, I trust my characters. I wind them up and watch them go. If they don’t go in the direction I expect, that’s OK. For example, I rewrote a critical scene in Amiga because it doesn’t fit who those characters are at that point of the story.
It has also helps that I’m using first-person point of view in recent novels. I have to get in my characters’ heads more and follow their internal logic.
Plot is still important because it provides characters with motivations, goals, challenges, conflicts, and courses of action. But natural and fascinating characters give readers a reason to care about what is happening. I let those characters choose their own adventure while providing them with traps and troubles to keep them and the readers on their toes.
I was a different person in my 40s than I am today approaching 60. The world has also changed. I reflect those changes in perspective in my writing.
Part of it comes from knowledge and experience. During the past 15 years, I changed jobs and worked with different types of people. Young people have entered the workplace, and we work with teams around the world. I needed to reflect those changes in the occupational fiction I write.
I’ve always considered inclusion and respect important. It has become more important today, especially in the light of recent scandals. People must tell their own stories, and we need to support authors of different communities. It doesn’t leave us off the hook. We live in a more diverse society, and our writing must reflect it. When we include other communities, we have to do it right. We need to do the research, get out of our own heads so we can understand different people as they are, and show empathy and respect. Some would decry diversity as “political correctness.” It is a correction, but it’s towards the way society should have been all along.
Part of our growth as writers is to embrace our world as it is today. It helps us stay relevant and attract new generations and communities of readers.
Creative fields are filled with one-hit wonders. Musicians, authors, performers, and other artists who found spectacular initial success that they tried (and failed) to duplicate. The artists with staying power challenge themselves. They experiment, try different genres, stretch their abilities, and break expectations. Growth is the goal because it offers us the best chance for success. And taking on new challenges makes writing fun.
Look for ways to stretch yourself with each book you write. Learn from what worked and didn’t work in your previous books. This way, you can look back what you’ve written years ago and take pride in the progress you’ve made.