Friday, March 28, 2014
The best stories come from the heart, not from trends
After pestering you guys all last week with my new book cover, I thought I'd end the week with somebody else's cover. The above is my friend Tim Bowen's memoir from when he was an LAPD officer, which I read while researching my detective thriller CHIMERAS. I needed to learn the LAPD lingo and the added bonus was that Tim's stories are simply hilarious. The following year, Tim and I met up in Los Angeles and he escorted me to both the old and the new Parker Center (the LAPD headquarters), the 911 dispatch center, and the LAPD Air Support Division. Fun times!
Tim's book is not the only book I read while researching CHIMERAS. I also enjoyed Miles Corwin's true crime books: Corwin spent a whole year "embedded" with the Homicide Special Detectives (CHIMERAS' main character is a Homicide Special LAPD detective) and followed "live" some pretty controversial cases. Even on the most gruesome crime scene, all dressed up in black suits and formal attire, these guys will look at one another and crack up a joke. And they always say asshole. I mean, always. As Tim taught me, it's not "Freeze, police!" as they do on TV. It's actually: "Freeze, asshole!"
I wrote CHIMERAS over the course of two years. I queried agents for about three months, got a first offer of representation, and after that the offers kept flocking. With 8 offers of representation I had no doubt my book was going to get published -- maybe not by one of the "Big Six", but certainly by a traditional publisher.
My book is a hard-boiled detective thriller, and my main character is a modern Philip Marlowe with a genetic twist. Yes, talk about mixing genres. I got comments along the lines of: "I get the genetic twist, but could you turn it into paranormal?" And about my writing, which I honed after Chandler's noir tradition: "I found the writing exceptional, but could you remove all the descriptions?" Another one praised the sensitivity to smells as a great novelty but wanted me to turn my detective into a woman because heroines are trendier than heroes.
So, what does a wannabe author do in a situation like this?
It really depends on what your priorities are. If all you want is getting your foot in the door, then you're probably ready to do anything to make it happen. Then by all means, do what they tell you.
For me, the priority was this: TO BE TRUE TO MY STORY. This does not mean to be completely closed to feedback. Like I said before, I had 8 offers of representation AND every single agent requested some changes to the story AND no two changes overlapped.
Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing says, "Don't lie." It's not that writers lie, but they do need to be true to their story and characters. As readers, we've all come across characters that feel stiff and unrealistic. You see, the writer has to fall in love with his/her characters in order to make the readers fall in love with them. If you let others pull and tug at your story, and you start making one change here to accommodate X, and another change there to accommodate Y, and the changes become one too many, you end up losing track of your original story. And that chemistry you had originally built with your character(s) gets lost.
Back to my book: if all editors and agents hit the same nail, I would've known there was something wrong with my story. But some requests were literally at the opposite ends. Some made sense, some didn't. I wasn't going to change my main character just because gals are trendier than guys. I fulfilled the requests that made sense and ignored the others. As an author, you've had some time to get to know your characters. Don't trash them just because somebody told you they're no longer trendy. You might try and write something trendy, but great stories aren't made with the head only. Great stories are made from the heart. And believe me, readers can tell stories that are made from the heart from the ones that aren't.
Trends eventually grow old, but great stories last. I'm publishing my book so I can finally claim that Track Presius -- and most importantly his quirks and uniqueness -- is mine. Maybe my book will never soar. But whatever happens, I remained true to my story. And for the first time in four years I feel liberated.