Writing a novel is hard work. Hard work that some authors make look easy, but it is hard all the same. Today on Fictionophile I have the privilege of hosting a guest post by attorney/novelist Steve Clark, the author of the legal thrillers “Justice is for the lonely” and, most recently, “Justice is for the deserving”.
Steve Clark discusses the writing process, character development, and more. From plotting to first drafts, Steve Clark shares some of the challenges of being a writer.
What’s the hardest part of any novel? The first scene. Make that the first sentence. How many of us have stared for hours at that blank page? Worse—how many have never started a novel for want of a beginning?
In my first book, Justice is for the Lonely, I decided I couldn’t go wrong having the protagonist, Kristen Kerry, confront one of the antagonists in the first scene. Before we get three pages in they have a major conflict, i.e. the guy tries to date-rape our heroine. She beats the crap out of him, and we’re off. Hopefully that was a sufficient carrot to entice people to read on.
How about those days when the fingers freeze over the keyboard? When I’m floundering, I ask myself, “What would likely happen next?” In Lonely, did the guy survive his whipping? Did Kristen get in trouble for putting the guy in the ER, instead of just throwing him out? So in chapter 2, I switched to the point of view of the failed rapist, Tony Caswell. I described his agony, hoping readers would enjoy a fuller description of his injuries and the difficulty he had getting home. Then I cemented his vow of revenge—putting Kristen’s life in danger.
Caswell’s chapter flowed into the establishment of his boss, Michael Stern as a major character, who starts as a villain, then becomes Kristen’s love interest later in the novel. I showed (hopefully not told) his loveless marriage, his ruthless ambition, his disregard for others’ feelings, his disdain for Caswell, and his determination to later double-cross Kristen in the malpractice case. While Caswell is truly evil I tried to paint the handsome, charming Stern as a ‘bad boy.’
In the next several chapters I set up conflicts over the litigation between Kristen and Stern, gradually painting each becoming attracted to the other. One key to character development is showing that your character is capable of emotional change and overcoming his or her faults. Hopefully I succeeded with Stern in Lonely. I developed the truly evil Leonard Marrs, but kept the parolee away from the other major players, trying to build suspense. When would he manage to get in the Stern house? Who would he assault or kidnap?
A problem with any first draft is keeping the pace, making the reader want to turn pages. I had so much fun getting into the character’s minds and observations that it was difficult to not slow the action down. But keep cranking everything you can—you can go back and cut later. Like running a marathon put one foot in front of the other. You can analyze the race afterwards. Lonely eventually was cut by a third.
Writing the second book, Justice is for the Deserving, entirely in Kristen’s POV was a different challenge. In first person you can’t jump to another character’s thoughts to explain what your narrator will find out or what others are doing. I imagined Kristen sitting down and telling the story after the adventure was over. First person allows greater intimacy with your character—easy to slip right into her thoughts, pick up where I left off. But of course the reader knows she will survive, so the plotting may be harder.
In my third manuscript I arrange immediate conflict between Kristen and her adoptive daughter’s boyfriend. The struggle wasn’t blood chilling, but hints at more to come. The initial hook doesn’t have to be between two people. For instance, in What She Knew by Gillie MacMillan, we learn in the first chapter that the narrator’s son has gone missing. It doesn’t matter yet who took the kid or if he simply got lost, because it’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Before we ever see an antagonist we want to learn what happened to the child.
You can’t increase tension in a parabolic line without interruption or without reaching levels of implausibility. One way of dialing back a bit is creating sub-plots which can be resolved as the main story moves along. They also make good red herrings to keep the reader guessing.
In Justice is for the Lonely I worked several sub-plots which helped advance the main plot. Kristen’s sister lived with an abusive boyfriend. Would she find the courage to leave him? Will Leonard Marrs be paroled to commit mayhem? Will Caswell make partner in Stern’s law firm?
Stern’s paralegal has had a crush on him for years. When I introduced this sub-plot, hopefully readers wondered what she might be willing to do to get Stern relieved of suspicion for his wife’s death.
As you plot your main story line, think of other desires or frustrations that your characters might experience that would generate interesting sub-plots. It’s not enough to have the cab driver who picks up the protagonist announce that his wife doesn’t like him anymore and then disappear. The sub-plot must tie in and be relevant to the conflict between the major characters.
If you are really stuck start your first draft with action. Sally slaps Bob or Bob plows into the rear of another car while thinking of his ex-wife. Once you have action you can have reaction and may build characters through their responses to the action.
If after hitting the other car, Bob jumps out, feverishly apologizing and accepting responsibility, that defines his character one way. But if he starts screaming at the other driver for having stopped in front of him, threatening to kill him, that defines him quite another way.
It’s trite to say that a first draft consists of simply getting something on paper, but it’s true. Don’t worry whether it’s great. Remember Hemingway, “All first drafts are shit.” Or Oscar Wilde, “When I write anything especially brilliant, I am sure to tear it up the next morning.”
Steve Clark is an author and lawyer in Oklahoma City specializing in medical malpractice. He is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, an honor limited to the top 1% of attorneys. He is also listed in The Best Lawyers in America.
With a lifetime of practicing law under his belt, Steve began his writing career. He has authored two legal thrillers featuring the young attorney Kristen Kerry.
Steve’s latest novel, “Justice is for the deserving” is available at the following retailers: