Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Writing a Novel

You know and I know Vincent Zandri.  If you like reading noir/hard boiled steeped in the dark side of possibility, then you've read this guy.

He's that kind of writer who goes out and does a lot of research before he sits down to sling words around on a computer screen.  Maybe its because of his  gigs as a news reporter he worked, and still works occasionally , which ingrained this first step into him.  Who knows . . .

All I know is if you want to read one hell of a gripping novel, read one of his.

So it occurred to me . . . . . hmmm.  How does this guy go about writing a book?  And wouldn't it be kinda of freaky tapping into this resource and extracting the messy details out of him for all of us to see.  So . . . what the hell.  I asked if he'd be willing to step into the confessional and rip his guts out for us. 

Surprise!  He agreed!  (and I owe him big time for that.)

So without further ado, let's get into the interview.  You're gonna love it!

1. Okay, I'm ready to pick your brains, my friend. I want to know what makes you tick when it comes to writing a novel. So first question; how do you choose a story? Does a feeling come over you that makes you want to write? Or does a story/plot idea grab you by the collar of your shirt with both hands and slaps you around like some B-movie mobster first before you take notice?


It’s a strange process and one I’m not always in charge of. I’ve had situations where I’ve thought a book through for more than a year before I started writing it, like The Concrete Pearl for instance. I knew the ending to this book and the beginning, but I had no real way of knowing what was going to happen in between until I finally started on it. Even after thinking about for all that time, it was a tough one to write. Maybe because I was so close to the subject, which is corruption in the commercial construction industry, and having grown up in the family construction business, it might have been over researched.

The Concrete Pearl
But then there are stories that flash into my brain and grab me instantly, like when I’m getting coffee at the local bodega for instance, and I set to work on them immediately without thinking about what’s going to happen. That’s a magical thing. If all goes well, before you know it, five or six weeks will have passed and I’ll have a full first draft of a novel. It’s entirely spontaneous and wonderful, like meeting a beautiful woman while taking a coffee as a small bar in Florence.

Moonlight Rises was that way. My wife and I had split up at the time and I was a little out of sorts because she was dating, as was I. In order to deal with this, I wondered what would happen if my character Dick Moonlight died suddenly, and she came to his side while he lie on his deathbed. I pictured the scene in my mind a hundred times over the course of one single cup of coffee: Moonlight lying on his back and his ex, Lola coming to say her final goodbyes. Only, while doing so, her new boyfriend comes into the picture. Moonlight, having just passed is watching all this from up above his body while he has his out-of-body experience. What happens? He gets so mad, he forces himself back into his body so he can kick said boyfriend’s ass…Moonlight Rises!!!

In the end, the stories choose us, not the other way around. I do however subscribe to the farmer policy, in that I switch crops now and again. If I’m just getting of a hard-boiled thriller like The Guilty, which I just completed or Murder by Moonlight, then I’m apt to try something in a different vein, like my new action adventure series CHASE. 


2. Specifically, what are the key components in a story that must come together first before your convinced this story will work as a novel? Are your novels always based off stories from the outside world? Or does an idea slowly begin to build from within, piece by piece, until it reveals itself as a full fledged masterpiece?


I go both ways. Murder by Moonlight is very much based on the true story of Bethlehem, NY axe murderer, Chris Porco, and I knew I had no choice but to structure an intricate fiction around the existing non-fiction. This is a case where you research enough material to make you plenty hard, and then you stop and go about the business of literary copulation. It also keeps you guessing as a novelist and not bound by any fences or Stop signs. In my case, I was able to explore many scenarios and possibilities the cops could never explore in the real case. In the end, I’m not convinced the kid did it alone. I guess you could say that in some ways, “Murder” is my Norman Mailer, “New Journalism” novel.

Then there are novels that begin with a character I want to create. I don’t write notes. Like Capote, I allow the character to take up space in my brain for a while. If he or she sticks around long enough, I know I’m going to write a book for them, bring them to life if you will. My new CHASE series was created like that. For months I was walking around Italy thinking about a character names Chase Baker, who is both a novelist and an adventurer. He lives in New York and Florence, but he also travels the world, on occasion doing some tomb raiding as a sandhog, which was his original profession. The sandhogging makes him some good money but also provides the basis for some of the novels he writes. That in mind, I travelled to Egypt this past October and got plenty good material for the book. I wrote the first draft in five weeks.



3. Fitting characters to a story; how does that take shape? Do you pull characters out and expand upon them from a real crime story? Or do you build a character to fit a story?


Sometimes neither. Sometimes both. Obviously, Dick Moonlight is a carefully designed character who has a small piece of 22 cal. bullet in his brain which could kill him at any moment. Therefore all the Moonlight novels are written around this circumstance which can make for some fun plotting. Especially when he dies and must be resurrected yet again!! That’s why those novels are so fun to write and to read. You never know what’s going to happen and in a sense, anything can and will happen.


The Remains
In other instances, like my very popular stand-alone, The Remains, I wanted to write about identical twins who were abducted when they were pre-teens, which required some research into how twins function. That research helped develop the plot and in some ways determined the plot and overall story. It also features an autistic savant oil painter, so I had to be careful how I treated that character. Unlike the Moonlight books, anything can’t happen that wouldn’t happen in real life. You following me here? 


4. Continuing on with the character development angle; writers who write a continuing character . . . a series featuring one or more characters . . . does this limit a writer's imagination or enhances it? Why do you think many publishers prefer a writer developing a continuing character?


I don’t think it limits anything. If anything, you get to explore more of your character as he grows and changes and ages. Unlike the Spenser novels or even the Mike Hammers, I try and age my serial characters as the years fly by. I think if you make them real like that, have them experience what it’s like to turn 45 or 50, for instance, it makes for an more interesting novel. You can’t do what you did at 25 at 50 even if you’re in top shape, so that makes for interesting writing.

Publishers like serials because, if they’re good, you build more and more of an audience with each book published, which is happening with my Moonlight series, and also my Jack Marconi books. As a writer, however, I feel you can become almost too comfortable by concentrating too much on serial writing. Which is why I try and write a stand-alone every two or three books. Keeps you sharp as an artist and keeps life interesting.


5. Writing habits; when you're knee deep in writing on a project, do you carve out a block of time each day to write? Do you set deadlines on the amount of words that must be produced? Or do you use a when-the-mood-hits-me approach? Are there advantages/disadvantages to either approach? And most important of all, do you do a lot of research before you write? Or while you're writing?


I’m a disciplined writer. I write every day, two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. I keep the schedule no matter what, even when I’m overseas. The most time I’ve ever taken off over the past twenty years is a week. As for the research, depending upon the project, I study what I have to in order to get started. Then I might do a little more as I go, strictly on a as needed basis. In general, I might outline the first few chapters, but I rely on the story to form organically as it goes. However, I also make sure to end in a place where I can be sure to carry on the next day. Papa Hemingway did the same thing way back when and it’s some of the best advice you can pass on to a young writer. Never shoot your entire load in a single sitting. By the way, one of my hugest fans is Ernest Hemingway’s great granddaughter, Mia Hemingway. I think there’s something very humbling about that.



6. Traditional publishing versus ebook publishing? How has this conflict changed, if any, the writing process? Should books, page number wise, be longer or shorter if writing for ebook publishers only? Should there be a different style in the writing between the two? Are there any differences between those who prefer reading traditionally compared to those who have gone electronic?


In the words of Jim Harrison who was recently asked more or less the same question, “Who gives a shit?” So long as I am writing the stories I want to write and people are reading them either on paper or on a screen or listening to them on audio, it really doesn’t matter because my job is always the same. I get up, make the coffee, sit down to a blank page. 


7. Last question. How much success have you seen since you've gone the ebook route? What are you writing on now? Any news about possible movie options? Television series options? Don't be shy . . . tell us everything that is on your plate currently.


My success with ebooks is widely known, and for some reason I’m being written up by the likes Publishers Weekly and being interviewed by the New York Times as this huge indy and self-publishing success. But the fact of the matter is this: I’ve never self-published a novel in my life, and there are far great success stories out there than me. LJ Sellers, for example. I guess I’m lumped into the “hybrid author” category since ebook publishing is almost entirely based on the self-publishing model. That’s fine with me. I refer back to the previous question. Who gives a shit how it’s published or the business model under which you are contracted? The point is to write great books and to earn a readership who will follow you forever or longer.

There is indeed some movie play, yet again. Craven Films has been showing interest. Also Mel Gibson’s company, Icon. But I never hold my breath in these circumstances. I leave it all up to my agent Chip MacGregor. Right now I’m finishing my first CHASE novel. I’ve also just finished book three in the Marconi series, The Guilty. Thomas & Mercer is bringing out the fifth (or is it sixth?) Moonlight novel, Moonlight Sonata in the late Fall of ’13 or early Winter ’14. And did I just say I’ve never self-published. Well, I’m in the process of staring my own label, Bear Media, so that I can finally put out a couple of my own novels. I’m not sure how it’s going to go, and I suppose that in the end, if it doesn’t work out, I can go to a traditional publisher with the work. But for now I want to experiment a little with being both author and publisher of at least a small selection of my own work. It should prove to be an adventure at the very least. And I think that’s what life should be all about. The adventure.

Thanks for having me, BR.  

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