Business of Writing  

 
Thriller Author Charles Wilson Answers Questions 
About Writing

Reprinted by permission of Charles Wilson

 

   

[note: The following is an excerpt of a question/answer period with Charles Wilson at a writers conference.]

Do you have any special advice for someone who is thinking about writing?

The simple answer is just start writing. That might sound trite, but so many people who think about writing never actually start putting the words down on a piece of paper. Everybody in the audience paid a fee to come here, so all of you are obviously serious about writing. And, yet, if I asked for a show of hands from those of you who have actually started a manuscript, I think you'd be surprised at how few have. I've asked before and sometimes not seen one in ten hands go up in an audience. What happens is a person has read Tom Clancy, or Mary Higgins Clark or John Grisham or some other author and thinks, 'I can't write like that.' No, you can't. But neither can those people write like you. You don't have to be flowery, you don't have to write long sentences or short sentences, you don't have to write grammatical sentences, you just simply write. The main thing is simply to be a storyteller, telling the story in the way you want to tell it, in the First Person or Second, or whatever, but just get started. If nothing else, the practice will help you in learning how to write. 

Is taking a creative writing course worthwhile? 

Anything that broadens your perspective is worthwhile. I said you don't have to write long sentences or short sentences to be a writer. And you don't. But a good creative writing course could give you some general rules-of-thumb to keep in the back of your mind. For instance, if you are writing an action scene, the pace of the action is easier to covey with short sentences. Joe Blow hits somebody...the man is knocked backward...the hero pounces...a shot rings out--you can give a reader the feeling of things happening quickly with these short sentences.  

On the other hand, you might want to write long, slow sentences in describing a romantic scene or in describing a scene of someone paddling leisurely across a lake. As for me in particular, I never took a course, but rather just started writing. A lot of pacing and stuff like that is really just common sense. 

What are some other rules? 

Remember, I said there is nothing you necessarily need to follow all the time, No concrete rules to follow, but there are things I think it wise to keep in mind. For example, basically, you need to remember that though all your characters in the book that you are getting ready to write are intimately familiar to you before you even start the story, that a reader when first opening the book knows absolutely nothing about them except for what you're getting ready to tell them. So make it easy on your readers. Keep each character separate and distinct and easy for your readers to remember. For example, if you have two or three or four important characters who have to be introduced early in your manuscript, don't introduce them all in the same paragraph, or even on the same page if you can keep from it. You know them, but a reader is going to get confused at so many characters jumping up at the same time. Have one come on the scene, maybe meeting the other. After they speak awhile, or whatever it is they're doing, then introduce the next character. Take at least a few sentences to make certain the reader has each character in mind, then introduce another one. But even as I'm telling you that, sometimes it's not possible to take the time for the reader to get to know each main character well before you introduce another. In Fertile Ground, I have three main characters all coming down a rope, one behind the other in the opening scene. I certainly didn't take time to introduce them. Again, remember, rules are 'rules-of-thumb', not concrete rules, and so don't get caught up in trying to tell a story in some kind of artificially structured way, just tell the story. 

What are some of your other rules-of-thumb? 

A lot of my rules are what it's probably more accurate to call preferences. Ideas I tend to believe make a better story in so far as readers are concerned. For example, often when I introduce a character, I find that in describing them, that what I call 'a brevity of description' works best as far as readers are concerned. Let's say I'm introducing a woman I want my readers to visualize as 'beautiful'. If I say she's a tall, slim, blonde, I'm describing someone that many readers can picture as beautiful, but then there are other readers who might prefer short brunettes over tall blondes, prefer someone more heavily-built than slim, so my character is 'not' beautiful to them, and I lose the point I'm trying to make--that she is very, very beautiful. So instead of giving too much detail, let your readers make the woman as beautiful as 'they' want to picture her, and don't give so much description that they can't do this, but instead have to go with your picture. I think Thomas Harris is one of the best authors at this. In The Silence of the Lambs, his heroine is Clarice Starling. In the first few paragraphs of the story, just before she is to enter an office to meet one of the other characters in the story, her boss in the FBI, Harris, has her stop in front of a glass pane in a door, look at her reflection, and fluff her hair. Then his next line is something like, 'But she knew she could look alright without primping.' That's all he said in describing her. So each reader then decides in his own mind what 'looking alright' is--what the reader likes in a character, and now there is a closeness between the character and the reader. Of
course there are other places where a more detailed description needs to be used, setting a location, or a mood, and so on.   

Other rules of thumb I tend to follow are, when possible, I try to make each chapter end with a scene that makes the reader want to turn to the next chapter, what critics call, 'a story that make readers keep turning the pages.' In the old Saturday afternoon serials at the movie houses, the serials tended to end with the hero with his hands bound behind his back, stuffed in the trunk of a car that was going over the edge of a cliff. When the movie-goers saw that, they simply had to hurry back the next Saturday to see how the hero escaped that seemingly inescapable predicament. It was a moment of suspense, making them want to see the next scene. That's a little too melodramatic for a chapter-ending scene in a serious book, but you get my point.  Another thing, a lot of beginning writers get into a problem in trying to make their dialogue sound real. I mean where it sounds like real talk instead of sounding like written sentences. In real dialogue we speak in half-sentences, run-on sentences, and grammatically incorrect sentences... So, if you have a problem of making your dialogue sound like real talk, get a tape recorder and dictate your dialogue into it.


You will be 'really' speaking, not writing. Then you can transcribe it to paper and clean it up where you wish--and you will have produced real dialogue.
 

Your first books were mysteries. Why that particular genre? 

I can't say with certainty. The biggest tragedy I've had to face in my life was my oldest sister being murdered. I spent a year of my life working with the authorities and investigating on my own in trying to bring the person the police accused of the murder back to Missouri to stand trial. We succeeded. The accused was acquitted. And that was that. But a few years later I thought of the idea of writing a book that maybe would memorialize my sister's death. I started a couple of times, a few pages, then would stop. A few more years went by and then I thought about writing again. This time pure fiction. Since I had never thought of writing fiction before, I still wonder if her death had something to do with it. Maybe that's the only reason I'm a writer now. In any case, I wrote my first mystery. And even though it remained fiction throughout, I found that as I was writing, a lot of the story's characters on the law enforcement side were actually compilations of law enforcement people I had worked with during the investigation. Then I found, again though I was writing
fiction, that the scenes I typed were based, to one degree or another on investigative work I had actually done at the time. I've continued a little of that in all my books since, even in my science-based thrillers, finding myself going back to things I remember or people I met during that time.
 

The father in Nightwatcher was you? 

No, not me. Not any more than the attorney in Embryo or the marine biologist in Extinct was me. But some of the things I did or saw during the investigation. And, of course, a lot of the things that I never did. But speaking about things I did, lets get back to the only rule of thumb I think comes close to being one that I can say, at least for me, is close to being inscribed in concrete. I strongly believe that a writer, whether writing his first book or already a best-selling writer, tells a more credible story when they write about things they're most familiar with rather than things where they have to research nearly every sentence. When I write about a cop, I don't write about a cop in Outer Mongolia. I don't know what a cop's uniform looks like in Outer Mongolia. I don't even know if they have cops as such in Outer Mongolia. I write about cops in America. In particular cops in the South because I live in the South and observe them all the time.  

All my characters tend to be people I at least know something about. Areas I know something about. Again, that's why I place most of my scenes in the South. There's enough you're going to have to research even when you write about subjects you're familiar with, so why make the task even harder? I think the 'knowing' about a subject makes the written word always come out much more credible than when it's a subject you had to research constantly to tell the story. John Grisham is a lawyer, so he writes legal thrillers. Nevada Barr was a park ranger, so she writes about rangers and parks and the outdoor life. A friend of mine, Johnny Quarles, writes Westerns. He wasn't a cowboy, but he lives in Oklahoma and has loved everything about Westerns since he was a child. It seems like everyone in my family was physicians, my father, uncles, great-grandfather, and great-uncles. Even though I didn't feel like I wanted to be a physician, that's the course of study my family directed me toward. My college classes were heavily loaded toward science. When I finished college and still didn't want to go on to medical school, I was a big disappointment to my family. But even though I didn't know it then, the years I had spent studying science and the doctor-talk I heard around the dining table weren't a waste. That's why many of my novels have doctors for heroes, and villains, and why many of my scenes are set around hospitals or research centers. It's something I know enough about to at least have an idea where I'm going--and then my research fills in the rest.  

In fact, even though I didn't know it at the time, it seems now like just about everything I did in my teenage and early-twenties life was preparing me for writing. I always had this feeling of wanting to experience something different. I was fairly independent. I spent some time in Mexico as a kid. That gave me enough background to write the Taxco, Mexico scenes in my novel Embryo. I started SCUBA diving when I was fourteen. That enabled me to write some of the underwater scenes in Extinct. I and a few other friends pooled our money and bought an old airplane and learned to fly it when we were teenagers--and by the way, crashed it finally. Totally destroyed it. In little pieces. That flying experience has helped me in 'flying' scenes in my novels. So far, no 'crash' scenes. But I can certainly write from a personal point of view how they effect you.  And, even later, in my business life, no matter how lucky I was in each endeavor I went into after I moved from Missouri to Mississippi, I seemed to get bored with it after awhile and would sell out and go into something else.  

Again, this searching for what I really wanted to do with my life, I believe was preparing me to be a writer. I farmed for a few years, then bought and sold real estate, developed a residential subdivision, and put oil and gas investment partnerships together. During that time I also took a couple of summers to cruise the Gulf Coast in a boat that I describe in Donor, a novel that I am now writing. I spent several years working with children, mainly coaching youth sports teams, including serving as a volunteer junior high football coach for seven years. Which, by the way, is probably the most fun hobby I ever had. Finally, one day I decided to write a book. Everything I had done has helped me ever since. And that's what I continue to write about. Something I know about. Every one of you out there has something that you know about, something you're intimately familiar with, at least a subject you care a great deal about. In my opinion, that's the subject around which you should write your first book. Again, it's so much easier to write about what you know.


2000 Charles Wilson, All Rights Reserved