Monday, November 14, 2011

Guest Grok: Dana Haynes

I've known Dana Haynes since he was a wee reporter, toddling up to the Oregon State Capitol to grill some politician or other. And now he's all grown up and writing thrillers! He's an excellent and passionate writer  and a hell of a nice guy. Dana was nice enough to write the first ever guest post in a (I think) monthly series of same. I'll let Dana take it from here and come back at the end to wrap up.

Adam Gallardo asked me to be today’s designated hitter for this blog, and the timing was perfect. I’m working on a lecture for the Portland chapter of Sisters in Crime and this will give me an opportunity to mull some of the thoughts I want to share with the “Sissies” (as the members call themselves). 
First, some brief background. I am, by training, a journalist. Twenty years in Oregon newspaper newsrooms, split evenly between weeklies and dailies. I am very proud of this background. 

Second, I published three mystery novels from Bantam Books and Severn House in the 1980s and early 1990s, then experienced a … shall we say, “dry spell.” A really, really dry spell. I couldn’t get any traction on anything, either novels or screenplays, for close to 15 years. Then Minotaur, the mystery and thriller arm of St. Martin’s Press, picked up my novel “Crashers.” That was published in 2010. The sequel, “Breaking Point,” hit stands this month. Minotaur has asked for two more thrillers, the first due in early 2012. 

OK, that’s me. 

So: topic. 

Here’s one of the things I’m going to tell the Sissies: When thinking about the characters in a scene, remember that “important” is not the same as “essential.”

Always ask yourself: “who should be in this scene?” And keep in mind The Embassy Rule. 

Which is this: 

During most times, the most important person in a foreign embassy is the ambassador. The ambassador is charged with speaking for his or her country, and for the head of state. The ambassador reaches out to indigenous leaders. The ambassador paves the way for the business community back home, and for tourists. The ambassador serves as a mini head-of-state for a tiny, often walled-off bit of real estate that serves as a slim slice of his or her sovereign country. 

In your novel, your protagonist is your ambassador: the most important person, and the one who is charged with carrying the message (the story). 

But if there is a suspected bomb in an embassy, or if there is a maddened mob tearing at the gate, or if the military is about to knock down the walls, then the U.S. State Department can make the decision to evacuate all non-essential personnel. 

And that usually includes the ambassador. 

The ambassador is the most important person in an embassy but, in an emergency, also is a non-essential person. It’s not his or her job to defuse the military or the mob or the bomb. A chargĂ© d’affaires might have that task, or a representative of the State Department, or a military expeditionary force, or the CIA. But not the ambassador. 

When writing your novel, there is a tendency to put your protagonist in ever scene. She is your most important person, right? But if you’ve written a scene and something seems wrong, or “fat” or somehow crowded, ask yourself: Do I need my protagonist in this scene? Could the scene move the plot forward, or serve to develop character, without her? 

If the answer is “yes,” get her out of there. 

Same for other characters. If you have a scene with five characters, ask yourself: Would it have worked with four? With three? 

If they don’t serve a person, think about nixing them. 

(This, obviously, assumes you write in the third-person and not in the first-person. If you do write first-person … well, you’re screwed, mate. We the readers cannot know anything your protagonist doesn’t know. And any scene in which she’s told about something that happened in her absence, that’s just crap writing. That’s telling-not-showing. David Mamet rightly reminds us that any time you write a scene in which Character A and Character B are talking about Character C, that’s bullshit. Rewrite it.) 

OK, that’s my thought for today. Thank you to Adam for this opportunity to test drive one of my themes for the Sisters in Crime speech. 


You should check out Dana's web site here, and then go here to look at and buy his books -- Crashers is now out in paperback and his new novel, Breaking Point is out in hard cover today!

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