I've just finished the vague outline for the fourth installment of my series featuring Smoky Barrett. I used to hate doing outlines. The first book almost wrote itself, Smoky and her team told me who they were; it was effortless.
But there's been a bit of water under the bridge since then. The first and second novels have been published worldwide, and I've gotten feedback. I've gotten to hear people's opinions, the goodand the bad, the overjoyed and the outraged. I got an email from a reader who thanked me for making him cry. He said he was almost 40, and hadn't cried since his stepfather sexually abused him when he was five. He'd been through all kinds of therapy, but had never been able to weep. He read Shadow Man, and at some point realized he had tears running down his cheeks. I remember thinking that was pretty cool.
I also got an email from a woman who said I was (paraphrased, but not by much) obviously a twisted and filthy man. She was offended that I, a man, had written a book about a woman FBI agent in the first person, and that I'd put that character through so much abuse. In her opinion, I was vicariously enjoying this abuse. She said I was sick. I remember feeling overwhelmed by that. Almost aghast at first, then angry, then 'whatever', then… who knows? This woman had never met me, but she'd decided who I was based on the fiction I wrote. It was a little scary.
When the first novel was purchased and published, I was uncertain of everything. I didn't really feel like a writer. I felt like an impostor. I felt more like someone who'd picked a winning lottery ticket than a craftsman. There were those who loved what I wrote and wanted more, there were those who hated what I wrote and let me know, there were those who thought I had a lot of talent but maybe needed to 'tone it down a little'.
I took it all in and tried to make sense of it. The problem was, it was all contradictory. Who was right?
Part of the thing was, I hadn't paid my dues, you know? I wrote a book when I was thirty-five, Shadow Man, that got picked up when I was thirty-eight. Prior to that, I'd written squat. Some poetry, some scribblings, but nothing serious. I had no stack of rejections to point to. I never went to college, so there was no literary degree to explain myself with. The only thing I could say, really, was that I read a lot, and had done so for as long as I could remember. Well, I've flown a lot, too, but that doesn't make me an airline pilot, you follow?
I remember seeing the bios of all these other writers. This one had been a lawyer, this one had been an English Professor, this one had been a doctor. Many had been journalists. Who was I? Some unworthy who'd squandered the better part of his life doing everything but writing, who'd suddenly been admitted to the ranks of the published. I felt naked and foolish and self conscious. Yes, of course, I was excited, and it was wonderful, a dream come true, but there was plenty of self-doubt to go around. Big heaping helpings. Some part of me, and this is the truth, expected failure as a foregone conclusion.
I went into writing my second novel, The Face of Death, covered in this uncertainty. Shadow Man had been written in a bell jar; a book with no certain audience. The Face of Death was being written in a stadium, with people watching. People expecting. Every day I sat down to write, I felt as if someone were looking over my shoulder. I hate to say it, because it's such a pathetic cliché', but I wrote a lot of that book at least partially inebriated. There were vast stretches of time where I did nothing but think about the book. I wrote it in my sleep. I mumbled to myself about it over my breakfast-coffee. It was a fabulous, colorful, self-indulgent implosion. Ah, how very writer-quirky of me. Kudos to me. Pass the absinthe, please.
Something came out of that experience, though. I liked that book. I remember finishing it and going… yeah. It's not great (I'll never look at anything I write as 'great', I hope), but it doesn't suck. There's some meat on those bones. It was the first time I started to think: maybe I can write. Maybe.
I was deluged, again, with both sides of that argument. Most of those who were fans of Shadow Man were fans of The Face of Death. Those who already hated me, hated me more. But this time, I had some distance. A series of ideas had begun to form, in no particular order. I was a writer. It wasn't an accident. I was no Hemingway, and probably never would be, but I had stories to tell, and there were people who wanted to read them.
And finally: it was okay for me to have an opinion about writing. In fact, it was vital.
So I put aside my self-pity and the tortured artist façade and decided to take some responsibility for what I was doing. What was I writing about? What would I continue to write about? What could readers expect in the future? Rather than continue to be a leaf in the wind of opinion, it was time to make some decisions.
All of which brings us, in a round-a-bout way, to this article. I was given 1200 words and a pretty broad dictate: tell us about your writing, where you see your series going, or whatever. So here we are.
I finished the third novel, The Darker Side. It's a book about the secrets people keep. Not the itty-bitty ones, but the big bad ones. The ones that would reveal things about our true nature that we don't want revealed. The killer in this book is obsessed with these kinds of secrets, and he starts finding ways to reveal them to the world. In the process we find that Smoky still has some deep and very dark secrets of her own.
The book, you see, is a reflection of some of those decisions (as above) that I made. It is dark. The violence is violent. There are monsters walking through the pages, and there are things that will jar you, hard. Because that's the kind of book I write and will write in the forseeable future. I want my readers to finish a book and feel as though they just went through something. I want them to feel a little bit shook up, or a lot. I want them to need to take some time to settle back down. Love it or hate it, that's what I'm trying to serve up.
I'm not writing the next great literary novel. I am writing character-driven thrillers that teeter on the edges of being too much to bear. My hope is that I don't teeter off that edge, something I know will always be debatable and a matter of opinion. In the end, I think the newest book, The Darker Side, accomplishes that, and is the next logical step of evolution for me as a writer and for the series itself. As for what the future will bring, all I can say is this: anything can happen to anyone in the series. Anything. We'll have to hope for the best and that the good guys outrun the monsters. But no guarantees.
THE DARKER SIDE is published by Hodder Stoughton £17.99 hbk July 2008
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