I work alone… but I don’t. The writing is definitely done alone, but I like to talk over my ideas and discuss possibilities and more importantly – problems. Several of my friends and beta readers are involved in this process. The discussion often begins with my friend Jennifer. I’ll tell her what I’m working on, and ask her what she thinks about something or someone. The resulting discussion usually helps me sort out the who or what issue that I’m working on. In one book, I was stuck with how the lead character would decompress at the end of the day. While I like to drink heavily and break things to relieve my stress, that wouldn’t be something this character would do. We talked for a little while about the character’s job and the role of the character in the book and Jen said, “She’d get on her elliptical with her iPod and tune out her day.” It’s a tiny part of the book, but a huge key to this character. With that comment, I saw the character as a whole person for the first time.
Arwen and I took a road trip two years ago and I brought my notebook along. I was trying to figure out why someone would put out a contract on my lead character. We spent at least an hour tossing ideas back and forth. I knew what I wanted as soon as I heard her say, “…a son in prison.” We discussed many other things, but in the end, I went back to that one comment and focused on it. As soon as I typed the words, “Joe’s testimony had been key in sending him to prison,” the entire backstory played out in my head. All I had to do was write it down.
My friend Dave is often the catalyst for some interesting turns in a story. Dave was in the Marine Corps for some years and he always has a unique take on behavior. Many of his smart a** comments in our discussions become the basis for things in my books. In a recent email, he was telling me about his platoon sergeant, who was really a corporal – I’ve bleeped his language.
“He was a wiry, black guy who also happened to be a Recon Marine (go figure, right?) Had his Marine Corps jump wings and scuba bubble and everything. F***er loved to P.T. and ran our 18-year old d***s into the dirt. Also taught us a lot of cool, useful s***. Lots of good tactical grunt s***. (Of course, he also told us to check for d**** on the hooks if we ever got to the P.I., how to check to see if our San Miguel was ‘green’, that Trobicin was your best friend, and which fat broads to stay away from at the Del Mar E-club). He was also a HUGE fan of Monty Python, The Black Adder, Rudyard Kippling, Warren Zevon and skinny, tall, slightly-dikey, white girls. We all thought he was pretty cool.”
Just in case you’re confused – he thinks this corporal walked on water. So what did I get from that email? I have a clear picture of one of my side characters and an immediate idea for a scene in my book about two very different generations of Marines and the connection that music provides. Sometimes, when I’m getting ready to write a specific passage in which one of my Marines is talking, I’ll call Dave and talk to him for a few minutes. He has a very military cadence to his speech. It’s like watching westerns when you’re going to write a conversation involving a Texan. All you’re looking for is the rhythm.
And then, there’s my friend Pat. He’s my devil’s advocate. I tell him what I’m doing, he makes fun of me, and then he picks apart my idea. He asks really tough questions and neither of us is offended when the other one calls us an idiot. It’s not a book until we disagree on at least two things and sort out the details. He once prefaced his written comments with, “Okay, take a breath, read my comments, walk away and scream – then call me and we’ll talk.” I didn’t scream, but we had a “lively” discussion. Pat also firmly believes that I like Marines way too much to have ever worked with them, and I remind him that I’ve known him for over twenty years and still like him.
The point of all this is that I like to toss the ideas around with my team. Some things sound really good in my head, but not so great when I say them aloud. Sometimes, my friends will say something that sends me down another path from where I was going when we discuss the idea of what could happen versus what should happen. These conversations are often question and answer periods about the character or the location in which I have to defend and justify my character’s behavior and reasoning.
Most often, the conversations tell me what I don’t want to do. I’m able to clarify my characters and plots by saying, “No. He wouldn’t do that. He’s the type of man who would do this.” Because sometimes, knowing what is not happening is more important than knowing what is happening. Did that make sense? Well, it did in my head. See why I need a team.