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Friday, 24 April 2009

How I Write - Dan Wells

Today’s blog marks ten weeks since I started writing posts for Headline, and in this two and a half months I’ve talked about what I write, and why, but I’ve never really talked about how. So, here’s how.

The first thing I do when I start a new book (after the preliminary “mulling ot over for months” phase that I tend to go through) is to write down all the story elements I can think of: one document for characters, one for events, and one for general free-writing about the book’s themes or plot or climax. It’s important for me to get all of this done and down on paper, because it solidifies what I’ve got in my head and lets me manipulate it directly. It sounds strange, but most of the book is already rolling around inside my mind, and putting my fingers on a keyboard is like plugging the computer directly into my brain. I think with my fingers, I guess. Once I get a chance to write it down, the ideas gain form and the story starts to take shape.

At this point I compile my ideas into an outline, usually a simple chapter-by-chapter thing with a simple paragraph for each. These paragraphs are not pretty, and sometimes don’t even have complete sentences—all I need is a quick description of what happens in each chapter. When it’s time to write, all I have to do is open my outline, look at today’s chapter (I try to do one per day), and start writing. On subsequent days I add another step: after I look at the outline, I read through everything I wrote the say before; this helps get me in the right frame of mind, makes sure the sections flow together well, and helps me catch any egregious errors I may have made. When I get to the end of yesterday’s section I just pick it up from there and keep going.

For almost ten years I was a corporate writer, writing copy for ads and magazines and websites and brochures and everything else you can think of, right down to that blurb on the back of the shampoo bottle that tells you how to use it. I would sit in a cubicle all day, typing on a computer, and then I’d come home, eat dinner, put my kids to bed, and sit at my desk all night, typing on a computer. I did this for nine years, and in that environment managed to produce five books, none of which were good enough to publish. It was kind of fun, in a way, at least in hindsight, though it quickly became very difficult to sustain—when you write all day you get burned out on writing, and it’s hard to go home and do the same thing even longer. Sometimes I think that aspiring writers shouldn't have writing jobs, to avoid this kind of burnout, but at the same time I admit that I would never want to work at anything else. Writing is what I do, whether it’s for novels or for people who don’t know how to use shampoo, and I can’t imagine not doing it for hours and hours every day.

When I got the idea for I Am Not a Serial Killer (a process detailed more fully in last week’s post), I was very excited to get started, but I was finishing up something else and talking to any editor about one of my other books and blah blah blah, and I kept putting it off. Then I lost my day job on the same day the editor finally rejected my book, and I had to make a choice: do I drop writing for a while and do a full-time job hunt, or do I use this time and write that serial killer book I’ve been desperate to write? I chose the latter, and treated it like a real job: every morning I’d get up, get the kids to school, spend 30 minutes or so on Internet job searches, and then drive to Brandon Sanderson’s house to write in his basement for eight or so hours. I knocked out the entire book in 6 weeks, then dove back into my job search and found a new one very quickly. I sold the book several months later, and they asked for a trilogy, so I wrote book 2 of the series on the good old nighttime schedule again (plus all day on Saturdays and, for a time, all day on Thursdays and Fridays while I burned off all my vacation days). Eventually I was able to sell enough foreign contracts to quit my job and go full time, so book 3 was written on the daily schedule again.

Friday, 17 April 2009

The Story of the Story: How did I Am Not a Serial Killer come to exist?

This is not the story of how I started writing, because I’ve always been a writer—telling stories and manipulating words has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. This story starts much later; I think I’m going to start it just after I graduated from college, with two finished but atrocious books under my belt. They were high fantasy, with sprawling plots filled with elves and dwarves and blah blah blah. I was ready to move on and try something new, and starting from a free-write project I ended up with a dark, funny, screwball book about historical vampires and literary figures. It was pretty good—good enough to sell, assuming I could actually find an audience for something so non-standard and weird. I started shopping it around, fielding rejection after rejection, all while plunging back into the world of high fantasy in the next several books I started.

I only finished one of the those fantasy projects—they were fun, but they weren’t satisfying. There was something off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it; I liked my funny horror book, and kind of wanted to write something like that, but I was having so much trouble selling it that I didn’t dare. Eventually I submitted my book to Stacy Whitman, then working at Wizards of the Coast, and she gave me some excellent advice: “This book is a great historical horror, but too wacky for us right now. Take out all the wacky, focus on the scary, and write me a proposal for a historical horror YA series.” Somehow, in all my soul-searching, it had never occurred to me to just try a straight-out horror. I threw some ideas together, wrote several proposals, and eventually got rejected in favor of another author who did the history much better than I did. This is when I got another piece of excellent advice from my friend Brandon Sanderson.

You may have heard of Brandon; he writes the Mistborn series, the Alcatraz series, and he’s finishing the Wheel of Time. He’s also been in my writing group for years, ever since those original fantasies that sucked so bad, and one night when we were out driving I mentioned my recent rejection for the historical horror series. “You already took out the wacky stuff,” he said, “now take out the historical stuff and just focus on horror—a pure modern horror.” We debated what kind of modern horror story I could tell, and somehow the conversation drifted toward my part-time hobby of serial killer research. I mentioned some of the behavioral predictors that show up in a serial killer’s pre-killing years, and Brandon nearly jumped out of his seat. “That’s what you write,” he said. “A character who has all the predictors of becoming a serial killer, but doesn’t want to be.”

The idea caught fire in my mind almost immediately, and I ran through a hundred different scenarios: how old should he be? Should the book be adult or YA? Serious or funny? Supernatural or completely real? I toyed with it for a full year, find pieces here and snippets there that slowly started to form the character of John Wayne Cleaver. One of the first pieces to fall into place was his family: I knew I wanted a mom, since most serial killers have horrible relationships with their mothers, but I also knew I wanted a sympathetic mom—if she was too much of a harridan (the way many real serial killers’ mothers are) the book would feel like an apology, as if John were not as responsible for his own choices. I also knew I wanted an absent father, both for the sense of mystery and the sense of loss; John needed to have plenty of holes in his life.

The next big piece of the puzzle was the other killer—I wanted to throw John into a big conflict situation, where his psychology could really come to a boil, and that meant he needed another serial killer to follow and learn about and compare himself to. If I was going to have a serial killer investigation I needed a plausible way to involve a teenager in it, so I searched around and eventually came up with the idea of the mortuary—a part time job in a small-town police station would have served the same purpose, but the mortuary added so much to John’s character, with a spooky background and an obsession with death. The peripheral characters followed soon after: John needed someone to talk to, so I gave him a sidekick and a therapist. The final piece was Brooke, who I didn’t plan at all—she inserted herself into the story and worked perfectly, and when I eventually found out I needed to turn it into a trilogy I discovered just how valuable Brooke really was. The series, and John’s character, would not be the same without her.

Now that I had all the pieces, all I had to do was put them together—but that turned out to be the hardest part of all. I had such a cool idea for the bad guy that I didn’t want to leave him a mystery for too long; a typical “investigation” plot structure would need to end with his reveal, and I really felt like that would lessen the impact he was supposed to have on John. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t read it yet, I’ll simply say that I came up with a very different structure which not only used the villain better but strengthened John immeasurably: we get to see him being both better and worse of a person than the original plot would have allowed for.

I’m very pleased with how this book came together, and even more pleased with the exciting new directions it opened up for books 2 and 3. But that is another story, and will be told another time.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Serial Killers, Part 2

Dan Wells

Last week I talked about the serial killers who had a strong influence on me and on John; they also get mentioned fairly often in the book, so I hope it helped clarify who they were for people who, because they are not weirdos like me, don’t already know everything about serial killers. In that same vein, this week’s post is about the other three serial killers mentioned in the book: Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis Rader, and Edmund Kemper. These killers don’t have the character influence the others did, but they might be able to shed more light on the state of John’s head. I apologize in advance; if you’re easily spooked, you might want to join me next week when I speak of happier things.

Jeffrey Dahmer was fascinated by death from a very early age, collecting dead animals and dissecting them at home (one of the classic Macdonald Triad behaviors). In hindsight it’s easy to look at that and say, “well of course he ended up doing the same thing to people,” but at the time it was overshadowed by more pressing factors: his parents fought constantly, home life was terrible, and Jeffrey was a full-blown alcoholic while still in high school. His parents divorced during his Junior year, and he killed his first victim, a hitchhiker, just one year later. As time went on Dahmer began killing more frequently, first one a decade, then one a year, and as many as one a week when he was finally arrested in 1991. At that time his apartment was filled with human remains, he had several heads in his freezer, and he was not only eating his victims but delusionally attempting to turn them into zombies.

Dahmer’s progress is incredibly typical of a serial killer: he started with early warning signs and unhealthy obsessions, culminating in a botched sexual encounter that became an accidental murder. Most serial killers’ first kills are accidental: this event connects all the dots in their skewed perspective and shows them that they are free to actively pursue their obsessions. The next few kills are experiments, often with long gaps between them, as they find a method that works, and then their compulsions take full hold and they start to escalate, killing more people more quickly until they grow so frenzied that they get careless, and they make a mistake and get caught. The evidence against Dahmer was so powerful that his trial was a lightning-fast two weeks long, sentencing him to 957 consecutive years in prison. Over the next two years many other inmates attacked him, and in 1994 he was beaten to death in a prison weight room.

Dennis Rader was a mystery until very recently, killing 10 people under the name BTK (“Bind, Torture, Kill”) and sending long, taunting letters to the police. He stopped killing in 1991 and the trail went completely cold, but eventually his pride resurfaced and he started sending letters to the police again in 2004; he wasn’t killing new people, he just wanted the old thrills back and tried to spark a new investigation on himself. Unfortunately for him, forensic technology had advanced greatly in the intervening years, and Rader was unprepared for the new methods. He was very quickly found and arrested, and is currently serving 10 consecutive life sentences (he will be eligible for parole in the year 2180).

Unlike most serial killers, who confess to more attacks after being caught, there is no evidence that Rader was ever involved in any other deaths—he was far more thrilled by his own terrifying legend than by the killings themselves. He taunted police, he sent letters to local papers and TV stations, and in some cases he even sent letters to his intended victims, telling them exactly how he planned to kill them. He wrote poems, he wrote a false autobiography, and he left crime scene photos and toy dolls (bound at the hands and feet, with plastic bags over their heads) all over the county. More than anything else, Rader loved the spotlight and the sense of “serial killer culture,” creating propaganda for his own boogieman status and even going so far as to suggest cool names for himself.

Edmund Kemper is a remarkable case, because he is the only serial killer I know of who actually fulfilled his need. Serial killers are driven to kill by some kind of need, but in most cases that need becomes secondary to the pure thrill of the killings themselves. Dahmer killed because he wanted to be close to death, and Rader killer because he wanted to evoke and manipulate fear, and the more they killed the more intensely they were able to satisfy those needs. No amount of killing would ever sate their appetites. Kemper, at the risk of oversimplification, killed because he hated his mother, and when he finally stopped killing college students and just killed her, he was done; he called the police and turned himself in.

Kemper was known primarily as “The Co-Ed Killer,” he’s one of the main reasons people tell you not to hitchhike—almost all of his victims were Santa Cruz college students hitching their way to and from school. His early development, as with Dahmer, was classic sociopath: he tortured animals, had a bad home life and few friends, and eventually shot his grandmother because he “just wanted to see what it felt like to kill grandma.” During his active killing phase he hung out with the local police and helped in the investigation, and the cops didn’t believe him at first when he confessed and asked to be arrested. He pleaded insanity, as most serial killers do, but the courts found him to be not only sane but remarkably intelligent—he knew enough about psychology that he could turn his sociopathic indicators on and off almost at will when talking to therapists in prison.

Next week we’ll leave the real killers behind and get back to the fiction, where I’ll talk about the process of writing my book, I Am Not a Serial Killer.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Win a paintballing trip!

To mark the launch of THE LAST THING I REMEMBER by Andrew Klavan Waterstones are offering an action packed trip paintballing for the prize winner and 9 of their friends!

Check out the competition here - and good luck!

Friday, 3 April 2009

Serial Killers, Part 1

My main character, John Cleaver, is fascinated by serial killers. This was easy for me to write, because I’m also fascinated by them; I have many hobbies, but true crime research is one of the biggest. Why does a serial killer decide to kill? Who does he choose to kill? How does he choose to do it? How do all of those elements fit together, and what does it all mean? As John Cleaver says in chapter 3, “it’s not weird to be fascinated by that. It’s weird not to be.”

There are six killers whose stories and psychology had a huge influence on I Am Not a Serial Killer; they are, for the most part, six of the most famous American killers. I’m going to talk about three of them today, in brief overview, and next week you get the other three. My purpose is not to glorify these men, but to explain their effect on me and on my writing.

Number one is Ted Bundy, not because he had a huge impact on the book but because he had a huge impact on me. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, one of Bundy’s main hunting grounds. He attended the University of Utah—the same school my parents attended, and at the same time. My childhood home was just a few miles away from the university, and a few miles in the other direction was the Fashion Place Mall, where we frequently shopped and where Carol DaRonch became one of the only victims to ever escape Bundy’s grasp. I drove a dozen times through the neighborhood where Bundy was arrested. All of this happened before I was born, but it was a big deal to me as a kid—Utah was a small, idyllic place, and the idea that such a dangerous, evil, deadly criminal would not only live but thrive in that environment seemed very significant to me.

My favorite part of Bundy’s story has always been DaRonch, for two very different reasons. First, there’s the fact that DaRonch escaped—she was very smart, very capable, and very willing to do anything necessary to get away, including a crowbar fight and a leap from a speeding car. It’s thrilling and, yes, inspirational to hear that someone finally managed to escape from the killer that no one was even sure existed. DaRonch’s escape from Bundy was the biggest turning point in the case, and marked the beginning of his end. But that’s only half of the story—that same night, after failing to kill DaRonch, Bundy drove an hour north to Bountiful, Utah and abducted a high school student from a play performance. That’s a remarkable window into the man’s mind: so intense was his need to kill—an actual, physical need—that even with an eye witness and a swarm of police hunting for him, he had to keep going. Once that need gets into their heads, serial killers will keep going until their need is satisfied. I won’t say too much, but that driving, blinding, unstoppable need plays a huge part in my first sequel.

Ted Bundy had a huge impact on me, but the two killers that most impacted John Cleaver were David Berkowitz, called the Son of Sam, and of course John Wayne Gacy.

David Berkowitz was something of a unique serial killer in that he didn’t hang around any of his kills—he shot them at range and ran, without stopping to touch the bodies or take any souvenirs. Serial killings do what they do for specific reasons, whether or not those reason make sense to the rest of us, and those reasons are very rarely fulfilled by a simple death—the killer has to go further, often arranging or defacing the body, and very frequently taking something from it. This is called “ritualization,” and in the killer’s mind it grants the killing some kind of meaning or significance that sates their need to kill. The fact that Berkowitz did none of this points to a very inward need—a psychological drive that was much more focused on himself and his own pain than on any outward force. What Berkowitz did do, however, was write letters; he wrote to the press and to the police, and while these letters are riddled with technical errors they are surprisingly eloquent. In another life, with other influences and choices, Berkowitz could have been a very successful writer.

The Son of Sam label came from the (oversimplified) story that Berkowitz attributed all of his kills to a demonically possessed dog named Sam. Speculation on his true motives is rampant, but what is obvious is that Berkowitz was dangerously unbalanced and probably very delusional, seeing and hearing and reacting to things that didn’t exist. This does not mean, however, that he was too insane to stand trial—for all his hallucinations, Berkowitz knew what he was doing and why it was wrong. Serial killers very, very rarely achieve a successful insanity defense because the law (self defense notwithstanding) doesn’t care why you do something, only that you do it; having a reason is not the same thing as having an excuse. Something was driving Berkowitz to go out at night, look for young women with black hair, and shoot them, and no matter that something was it was still Berkowitz himself who made the choice to go outside, find a woman, and pull the trigger. In his letters he begged the police to find him and stop him, but he never took the steps to stop himself. Berkowitz’s struggle with choice and compulsion play a huge part in John’s own search for identity, and in many ways he identifies with Berkowitz more closely than anyone else in his life.

John Cleaver’s middle name is Wayne (his dad was a fan of old movies), and John’s first exposure to serial killers came when he was first learning to read, and saw his own name in a magazine next to a picture of a clown. This single image—the smiling killer, the evil clown, with his own name below it—had an enormous influence of John. John Wayne Gacy was a friendly, well-liked businessman who had a family and lived for years in a simple community, even dressing as a clown for neighborhood parties, and all the while kidnapping and killing dozens and dozens of men and boys and burying them below his mother’s house. Gacy’s smiling clown face has become a powerful symbol of the “hidden enemy”—the idea that anyone, no matter how nice or normal, can harbor a terrible secret and a horrifying double life.

Gacy was a human paradox, simultaneously good and evil, and that more than anything else is the reason both John and I are drawn to serial killers. For me, it’s the idea that great darkness can exist at the heart of something light; that in our darkest thoughts any one of us, no matter how pure, is capable of evil. For John it is the opposite: the eternal hope that somewhere inside of the killer there is a clown, smiling and happy and loved by everyone, just waiting to get out. This is his hope, and often the only hope he has, for if a good guy like John Wayne Gacy can turn bad, it just might be possible that a bad kid like John Wayne Cleaver could turn out good in the end.