My favorite Adele song is called “Who Wants To Be Right As Rain?” The song begins with two lines that pretty much describe decades of my life:
Who wants to be right as rain, it’s better when something is wrong.
You get excitement in your bones and everything you do is a game.
It’s not that I thrive on being unhappy. On the contrary, I have been described at various times in my life as “maniacally cheerful” and “insanely optimistic.” But I was raised in a large family that included more than a handful of actors and after years of living in such a high-pitched environment, anything short of high drama often comes off feeling flat and boring. It has taken me a long time to realize that some of the nicest moments in life sneak up on you and are very quiet while they are happening. But even with that realization, I have never quite managed to quench the thrill I get when things are wrong and I feel excitement in my bones. I am aware enough of this legacy to keep a sharp eye out for those times when I might sabotage my happiness just for a fix. But, like a lot of things we discover about ourselves and can only change so much, I have also looked for ways to turn this drama gene into a strength, rather than seeing it solely as a weakness. One of the ways I think it has helped me most has been in my writing.
You see, I love the architecture of a book — creating the characters and the plots, layering the scenes on top of those bare bones, building a story paragraph-by-paragraph, inch-by-inch. But you can do all those things right and still end up with a book that lacks emotional richness. And when you do all those things without being emotionally involved on some personal level, you also walk away from the magic that happens when an author’s subconscious is driving the choices he or she makes as they write the book. Because the truth is, whether we know it or not, we authors use writing to work out all sorts of subconscious dilemmas and to indulge lifetimes of emotional currents. Especially crime fiction authors.
I have often thought that the most interesting job in the world would be to become a writer’s psychiatrist. If I were a writer’s psychiatrist, the first thing I would do is read every word my patients ever published, looking for themes: who do they like to choose as their killers? What motives drive their characters most often? What kind of protagonist and heroes do they built for themselves? How do they define good and evil? I feel certain that virtually every writer of crime fiction could be accurately psychologically profiled by examining three or more of their books. And I feel certain that writers who have become so successful that they essentially phone in their novels have lost that connection between writing and their subconscious, resulting in books that may not insult but certainly do not engage.
In my own writing, I have seen many themes emerge but always well after the fact, when I had grown up enough to understand all that I carry within me from my childhood. I sometimes imagine that the therapist I had in my 20’s is still holed up in her New York City apartment somewhere, turning the pages of my books and thinking to herself, “Oh, no! Not another middle-aged female killer!” (Although, I assure you, dear Pamela, that I will kill before another middle-aged female will in one of my future books….). I can choose to shudder that my Freudian slip is on display for anyone to ogle, or I can choose to be grateful that my heightened sense of my own psychology and my love for human drama have made my books deeper and helped me connect with more readers. Naturally, being naturally blessed with insane amounts of serotonin, I choose to embrace the positive.
My Casey Jones book-in-progress is a good case in point. I have had the book outlined for quite a while and all of the characters fleshed out. But for some reason, I have been avoiding a very likable character who emerged in the last book and who was, uncharacteristically, a self-sufficient good guy quite willing to be in Casey’s life. I really liked this character while I was creating him, but now here I was just one step further down the road, there I am unwilling to even mention his name. I came up with some surface excuses for why that allowed me to merrily continue on with a plot that virtually ignored him (probably not a good idea when you have fans who have read your whole series and who pick favorites among your characters). I did what I do in real life with this character, which is compartmentalize him and push them off to one side. (Like Scarlet O’Hara, I’ll just think about it tomorrow.) But then I went through an unexpected period of personal introspection recently in which I had a few “Come to Jesus” moments between me and myself about some of the more uncomfortable similarities between Katy Munger and Casey Jones. Ouch. As part of this latest inner journey, I realized that there was a reason why I was avoiding this worthy character — and that it had a hell of a lot to do with why I am often uncomfortable with self-sufficient, independent, good guys in my own life.
Now, admittedly, it’s going to be hard to take what I have learned and apply it to my personal life. I will not be holding my breath on that one. But it’s going to be a blast to apply what I have learned to this Casey Jones book-in-progress. I realized that Casey is avoiding this character for a reason and, if she can circle that reason and come to grips with it by the end of this book, I will have a book that is the better for it. In fact, it could make all the difference in the world between this book being just another entertaining read and actually connecting with my readers.
So, the next time you read a book — preferably one written by one of my peers — I hope you will put on your shrink hat and keep an eye out for what the author’s choices tell you about him or her. If they are generous enough to share parts of themselves with you, whether consciously or not, I can guarantee you that you’ll be reading a better book because of it.