We’re happy to introduce you to James Preston, author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries series. James’ wife, Nancy, encouraged Fae Rowen to write her first book. James encouraged Fae to go to the San Diego Writers Conference to learn how to write that first book. He shares his insight on how to get started on your novel, and how he deconstructed his favorite book to learn how to write what he likes to read.
by James R. Preston
Let’s assume you want to write fiction, and most likely, genre fiction. You’re reading this because you are looking for clues on how to proceed, how to get from the blank page to those magic words The End. Okay, you came to the right place.
My name is James R. Preston, and I write the Surf City Mysteries.
I’ll try to answer a very basic question: “I want to write, but what do I do first?”
In an early episode of The Sopranos, Christopher wants to be a screenwriter. He says something like, “I bought this computer because I thought it would do a lot of the work but it’s not.”
Sorry, pal. Write. When I sat in a cubicle and wrote training and documentation for a living, for laughs we used to sneak up behind one another and shout, “Type faster!” Maybe you had to be there.
One of my writing teachers, an LAPD homicide detective named Paul Bishop, author of a good series of books, including Tequila Mockingbird and Citadel Run, said once that a lady in one of his early classes was all ready to write a mystery, “Just as soon as I know what the entrance to the FBI building looks like.” I’m guessing, but I’m pretty sure she never got to “The End.”
Writers write. That’s all there is to it, folks.
Watch Out For That First Step
Of course, there’s more to it than that. We’re talking genre fiction. So, you need some structure, right?
What’s the basic unit you’re working in? Well, after sentence and paragraph, it’s either the scene or the chapter. Here’s how I do it.
I work in scenes. When I’m starting to figure out what happens in a book, I use file cards. On each card (if you’re curious, I prefer 4” x 6”) something happens. I did not invent this. I think I first heard a science fiction writer named Larry Niven articulate it at a convention.
An example is, “Mac and Kandi run up the stairs to see who has broken into Mac’s house.” A non-example is, “The evening sky purpled in the distance, frogs harrumphed.” See the difference? Nothing happens in the second. It may or may not be great writing, but it’s not something happening, and, friends and neighbors, genre fiction is about things happening to people you care about.
So, how long is a scene? In my case, it varies. Typically about four pages at a minimum, or a thousand words. For a good example of short scenes, look at any of the Mike Hammer books. The upper end is more flexible, but rarely is more than twelve pages. And, for impact, sometimes a really short, one-page scene stands out.
What about chapters?
Take a look at a fine example of storytelling, A Catskill Eagle, by Robert B. Parker. He builds his story around scenes and each scene is a chapter. Clean and simple, and the reader never bites off too big a chunk right before bedtime.
Another way of doing it is Janet Evanovich in Two For The Dough. Her scenes vary in length, but she assembles them into chapters that are all about twenty pages. Again, she moves from scene to chapter.
Can you start by thinking of chapters? Of course, but it is, in my opinion, more difficult.
So, you’ve got a stack of cards with action, conflict, love, and all kinds of other neat stuff scribbled on them. Now what? Why, you start writing. Words on paper. Have I said that?
Taking It Apart
If you want to learn more about our craft, you might want to take a deconstructionist approach to the novel. I did, and it paid dividends. Find a book in the genre you want to be a part of, and that you like a lot. Let me say that again—you need to like this book a lot, because you are going to spend some time with it.
I took a fine mystery by Robert Crais, called Lullaby Town, and I took it apart. Yep, I sat down with a stack of cards (what is it with this guy and cards?) and identified all of the scenes Crais uses to build his story. At the end of this exercise you will know that book so well you can recite parts of it in your sleep. I can and my wife used to look at me strangely, but she’s gotten over it. But you will learn, oh, boy, how you will learn.
Specifically, you will see:
- how many scenes go into a chapter
- how those scenes and chapters build on one another, and finally make a book.
- You may see the underlying structure: plot points, midpoint, denouement. (At another time if I get a chance I’ll talk about that kind of novel structure.)
But Wait, There’s More
So, you made some cards of your own that represent a novel, and you are actually writing, and maybe you have taken a novel apart, telling people at cocktail parties about your deconstructionist approach until their eyes glaze. Is there anything else?
You bet. You’re doing part of it now reading this blog. Also, you might consider attending conferences, specifically, the San Diego State University Writers Conference, and the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference. The latter is in Seattle, July 19-22. 2012.
However, like poor Christopher in The Sopranos, you still have to write.
I’ve sucked you in this far, and now I’m assigning homework? The nerve of this guy!
Your assignment is to find a copy of Stephen King’s novel It, and in Chapter 3 “Six Phone Calls (1985),” Part 6, “Bill Denbrough Takes Time Out,” read the section where King talks about his hero’s experiences in a writing class. That sums it up nicely. It’s about story.
Truly, it’s worth a look. And there won’t be quiz.
You will realize that there is a line of storytellers from the unknown author of Beowulf, to Shakespeare, to Richard Prather, Janet Evanovich, and me.
And to you. Good luck.
What genre do you write in? What started you down that road? Was there a particular author you “wanted to be like someday?”
James R. Preston writes the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He lives in Surf City (Huntington Beach to non-locals) where he is completing the fourth book in the series, called Pennies For Her Eyes. His next project is a historical novel set in Germany during the Weimar Republic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, check out www.jamesrpreston.com.
ANNOUNCEMENT: If you’d like to meet James, he’ll be signing his books and visiting with readers at Men of Mystery at the Irvine Marriott Hotel on Saturday, November 19, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.