kevin michaels

Sliding Down The Razor's Edge

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Writing About Murder
(when you’ve never killed anybody)
  

Published in Sirens of Suspense 4.03.2017

  
          People often advise aspiring fiction writers that the best thing to do is “write what you know.”  Writing about what you know conveys authenticity.  Realism.  It’s one of the so-called cardinal rules of writing.  However well-intentioned, it is not only misunderstood but has somehow become the standard by which many stories are too often judged.  There is a belief that real authenticity in writing can only be expressed by someone who has shared the same experiences as characters in that writer’s story.  But if you’ve never robbed a bank, how do you write a realistic scene involving a bank robbery without first walking into a nearby Wells Fargo wearing a mask, carrying a forty-five, and shoving a note across the counter at the teller demanding all the money in the drawer (except the dye-packs which can be problematic)?
            Writing what you know can not only be boring, but creates an impression that readers should care less about characters and more about their surroundings and the things that inspired them.  The story becomes less about fiction and more about reporting.
            As writers, we use imagination to create worlds populated by fictional characters.  Many of us who write crime, mystery, and suspense have never robbed a bank, spent time in lock-up, or been involved in any number of the violent crimes committed by characters in our stories but it doesn’t stop us from writing.  Most of us lead boring lives.  One day looks like all the others.  That’s not the kind of realism readers want.  The challenge in finding an authentic voice is to be exciting, interesting, and different.   We use imagination to give voice to characters and create not only the realism but the authenticity editors, publishers, and most importantly, readers demand.
            I faced a number of challenges with Still Black Remains.  One had to do with marketing a book that had no clearly defined genre – no vampires or zombies or love-struck college sweethearts doomed by a combination of fate, bad luck, and rare disease.  But it was the story I wanted to write, and that was more important than everything else, no matter what’s popular in bookstores.  That is the true cardinal rule of writing: write your story. It doesn’t matter what your friends, your college professor, or even other writers think you should write – you need to write the story you want to write.
            But the biggest obstacle had to do with telling a story through the voice of characters completely unlike me.  Still Black Remains is the story of a street kid turned gangster named Twist, his drug-dealing gang called the Skulls, and an out of control turf war that escalates with the kidnapping of a mafia capo.  The kidnapping was supposed to provide a bargaining chip in negotiations to end the war; it was never intended to be anything more than that.  But like most great ideas, the plan doesn't turn out as expected.  Most of the characters in Still Black Remains are black, and as any number of agents, publishers, and even other writers pointed out, my characters could not be authentic because I am not black.  According to them, I could not write this story because I am nothing like the characters in the book.
            Really.
            As if a writer cannot write about someone who doesn’t resemble themselves in the mirror.
            The implication was that only a black writer can capture the perspective of a main character who is part of a drug-dealing street gang.  A thug. A killer. How could I know anything about the grittiness of the Skulls’ Newark, New Jersey neighborhood?  How could anyone like me understand the nuances of a gangster’s life, capture their voices accurately, know the ins and outs of street level drug deals, or understand the terror you feel when someone has a forty-five pointed at your chest?  How could a white man write a novel from a black man’s point of view?
            That kind of belief not only dismisses creativity but diminishes the skills and abilities writers need to imagine.  I couldn’t “write what I know” because I didn’t know any of the experiences I was writing about.
             Which is bullshit.
             That would mean that only cowboys can write westerns.  And only CIA or FBI agents could write thrillers and espionage. And that any good zombie apocalypse novel can’t be believable if it hasn’t been created by a zombie writer.  If any of that were true - if authentic writing is truly defined by writing about what you know - how do you explain anything written by Stephen King?
              Good writing pulls you into a world where characters live and makes them believable.  Imagination is essential – not experience.              Writers bring out the attitudes and feelings of those characters and give them emotional integrity.  Good writers research locations and ask questions – not just of themselves but of the characters in their stories.  They ask “what if” questions, developing their characters realistically and getting them into and out of problems. They listen because authenticity comes from listening to people and how they talk. Elmore Leonard’s writing sounds the way people talk and rings true because he captured the rhythm and cadence of conversations, and I’m reasonably certain he never did half the shit his characters did.  Gillian Flynn effectively told “Gone Girl” from both the male and female point of view.  She understood her characters and knew their emotions, as well as the things that drove them – being a woman had nothing to do with it.
               Realism is important even in science fiction, which needs elements of existing life, technology, and culture. But writers can write about things they don’t know firsthand.  Writing requires letting our imagination sprawl into the unknown – not just staying with what we know. Writers have to be open to what we want to know, what our characters understand, and their experiences.
              If you’re a writer, it’s never about writing what you know.
              It’s about writing what you can imagine.
  

Writing Naked

Published in The Pulp and Mystery Shelf

  
              
            When we talk about writing naked, we’re not discussing another sequel to 50 Shades of Grey.
            Or erotic literature.
            Or if you’re old enough, that magazine section in the corner store where only adults were allowed to browse.
            Writing naked is all about risk.
Risk is a broad term when applied to writing and writers, and takes on many forms.  But writing naked involves going to the hard places, especially when it relates to the mystery and thriller categories.  The best kind of writing in those genres – the kind that is moving and compelling, and stays with us long after we’ve finished reading that last page and closed the book – is the kind that lets it all hang out and pushes past our comfort zones. It’s writing that takes creative risks, changes the narrative structure, voice, or uses characters to tap into emotions and make hard-hitting social commentary.  Honesty.  Bleeding on each page and baring emotions without compromising integrity.
            All writers carry a fear of failure.  Writing is one of those professions filled with the competing voices of self-doubt and critics who believe they can write just as well if not better than you.  The same critics who expect to see blood, sweat, and angst seeping from every page. Perhaps the worst thing a mystery or thriller reader can say about something you’ve written is that it’s “too predictable”, or that they’ve “seen this before.”  That’s the kind of criticism that cuts with a serrated edge.  Risk is the thing that can keep writing fresh and unpredictable, but more importantly, allow you to write with impact.  Taking risks is how writers become better.  Taking on risk starts the moment you sit down to write.  You can’t start off trying to write a book that will appeal to everyone.  Agreeableness is boring.  If you water down your writing to suit everyone’s tastes, you’ll never find the power of your own voice. 
          I didn’t write Still Black Remains for any particular audience or demographic, which might explain why it was initially difficult to find the right publisher – there might have been more options if I had chosen a genre like YA or NA with a more specific group of readers.  I wrote Still Black Remains because it was a story I wanted - needed - to tell, even if no one wanted to read it.  It started out as a simple crime story but once I pushed past my own comfort zone it evolved into something more.  The central theme in the book is about the struggle of a different generation trying to realize the American Dream against all odds, and through any means possible.  The characters have learned that hard work by itself will never help them achieve what they want - they have to work outside the system to get what they want. The inner city landscape where they live is filled with desperation, anger, and a sense of futility and in many cases violence is both the solution to problems and the result of problems.  Actions – no matter what’s involved or who gets hurt – are justified as being “part of the game.” 
          If I tried shaping the book towards a particular audience or played it safe, I might have been tempted to change the voice, minimize some of the violence, or sanitize the language.  It is a gritty story.  Life in the New Jersey neighborhood where Still Black Remains takes place is equally gritty, violent, and harsh.  There was no way to soften the writing without losing the legitimacy of the story.
          It was a risky path to take because readers might be offended, but it was absolutely necessary to tap into the characters’ emotions and maintain the authenticity of the story.
                There was no other way to write it.
                As a writer you need to strip away the fears and worries that might hold back your story.  You need to go out on a limb to write with impact.  You need to write naked.  Write without fear.  If you don’t push your limits your writing won’t take off, and more importantly, it won’t matter to  readers.