Heroes in thrillers can be anyone: male, female, any walk of life, any level of expertise in solving crimes, spying, or thwarting villains. Heck, in the long-running television series Dexter, probably the single best example of genre-bending fiction, the hero was a serial killer. (If you haven't binged this series, I submit it is among the top ten indispensable for any aspiring thriller writer.) In my own series of books starting with Rogue Agenda and continuing this fall in a title yet to be announced, the protagonist and heroine is a phone-sex girl.
A common trope of the genre is the washed-out, disgraced ex-professional, usually an ex-cop/detective/soldier. Usually a guy, he is usually an alcoholic heavy smoker with a harridan ex-wife, an embittered child, and a long-suffering girlfriend. He's wracked with guilt and self-recrimination, all of which usually eventually turns out to be undeserved. I see the attraction of the trope; these can often be great, complex, layered characters to write. The problem is it's been played and played out. I would encourage aspiring thriller writers to reach deeper, find other ways to make your protagonist interesting and complex.
Some scholars of fiction will tell you that the hero must have some personal stake in the outcome of the conflict. It isn't enough that he/she is just doing their job, investigating a crime or seeking to thwart a villain. They must be under threat themselves, seeking to clear their own name from suspicion, prevent the death of a loved one, etc. It is the only way, they argue, to justify the hero moving forward against obstacles and resistance. Otherwise, why would they bother? Why suffer through depredations, torture, and possible death for the sake of something less? I agree that this often makes a compelling plot, but I think it is extremely dogmatic and cynical to try to maintain that this is the only way to impel a hero and their story forward.
I think it is just as compelling to witness a hero risk life and limb for higher ideals than self-preservation, to read about the patriot soldier willing to stake his life for his country, experience the conviction of an advocate undergoing agonizing trials in the name of just doing the right thing. To me there is no more noble sacrifice than one that saves the day in such a way that no one will ever know, for which the hero will never gain notoriety or gratitude.
What makes the hero compelling is conviction and the lengths to which they are willing to go to defend their ideals. These can be every bit as personal and precious as his/her life and limb if written in an engaging, interesting, and exciting way.
Who are some of your favorite heroes in fiction, thrillers or other genres? What is it that impels them through the story? I'd love to read your comments below.
When I first started writing fiction, I was writing blind. I was a trained journalist and understood non-fiction, but writing a novel… Suffice it to say, it presented a number of new challenges. At the time, we were living in Frisco (Colorado), and there were no writers groups, no published authors, and no creative writing classes offered at the mountain college. Then in rode Maggie Osborne.
Maggie, a founding member of RMFW and an award-winning romance writer, moved to Summit County around 1986. Her first summer, she gave an author talk at the Frisco Library. I went up at the end to chat, and ended up cajoling her into putting on a workshop. By the time the librarian barred the door, Maggie had agreed to teach 5 two-hour sessions, once a week at her house, for $20, provided I could find at least two other writers to join in. A bargain, to say the least.
It didn’t take long to find two other interested parties, and we were brimming with excitement that first session. Maggie focused on character—point-of-view, motivation, physical attributes, flaws, strengths, desires… At the end of the session, she asked each of us to go home and write a few paragraphs from the POV of our heroine and bring back the pages the following week.
I was the only one who showed up. During the course of the week, the others had decided it was too much work, claimed Maggie was demanding too much. But I wasn’t complaining—we’d paid upfront, which meant, I had four one-on-one sessions coming with a master.
My first AHA moment came during that second class.
Here’s a sample of that early work.
“Why should I?” Lauren stepped back as Alex moved a step forward. “Look, my ex-husband introduced us. Once. I hardly know the man.” She returned Alex’s defiant glare.
Alex felt the muscles twitch in his neck. He had been furious when his contact suggested Lauren was involved in her partner’s business indiscretions. If they discovered that she knew Woodley, it would only fuel his colleague’s doubts.
“Did you mention Harmon’s accident in the conversation?”
“Yes, I didn’t realize it was a secret.” She studied him with dark eyes. “Now, it’s your turn to explain something to me.”
The important lesson that night was about POV. As Maggie pointed out, in addition to wonderful choreography, the above four paragraphs included four POV switches. Not to mention that Lauren can magically see her own “dark eyes.” It was like a lightbulb went off.
Is it any wonder that this book never got published?!
My second AHA moment came during critique.
I was at Lee Karr’s, another founding member of RMFW and award-winning romance writer. Here’s a small slice of what I offered up:
“Hello, how are you?”
“Great, great. Nice day, isn’t it?”
“Beautiful. They say it’s supposed to reach 90 degrees.”
“A scorcher, which reminds me, you were getting hot when you started asking questions about…”
The important lesson that afternoon was about Dialogue. When it was Lee’s turn, she pointed out that the dialogue served no purpose whatsoever. Her advice, make sure your dialogue does one if not two of the following things:
1. Advance the plot.
2. Characterize the characters.
3. Create suspense and intensify the conflict.
4. Reveal motivation.
5. Control the pace.
Another lightbulb moment.
My latest AHA moment came during this year’s RMFW conference. I signed up for a master class with Stuart Horwitz, Book Architecture. I’ll admit, I was skeptical. His method encourages a pantzer-plotter-pantzer/plotter type of model. In the first draft, you just write. Whatever you want, in whatever order you want. Pantzer technique. In the second draft, you apply a method for structuring the novel, cutting up the scenes and reordering them as necessary, discovering what you put in that you don’t need and what you didn’t put in that you need. Plotter technique. In the third draft, you rewrite, in any order you want. You punch up the scenes already written, write the scenes that you left out and add transitions between chapters. Of course, this is a very encapsulated version of a four hour workshop, but the point is—I think Horwitz’s method may be just what I need.
Here’s to all the AHA moments.
Including the ones yet to come. That’s why I still go to critique, still attend conferences like the Colorado Gold. It’s important to me to stretch my abilities as a writer, to always write a better book. It’s my hope that the AHA moments keep on coming.
In my four-part blog series on the Thriller genre, I'm going to discuss the core nature of the thriller and what sets it apart from other forms of fiction. In three future segments, I plan to discuss the hero(es), the villain(s) and plotting and pacing. My intent is to offer some insights to fellow thriller-writers and perhaps learn something myself along the way.
The primary thing that sets the thriller apart from its cousin, the mystery, is that most often there is no whodunit. For the most part, the bad guy (or guys...assume hereafter I mean both singular and plural, masculine and feminine) is revealed fairly early on in the plot, if not the very first page.
This leads to a temptation for many aspiring thriller writers to open their book with a prologue, in which the villain incites the story through some nefarious act that sets his plans in motion. Please resist the urge. Most editors do not like prologues and neither do I. There are justifications for prologues, but they should be the exception, not the rule. Prologues are a whole other blog article.
While the primary question in a mystery is 'who?" the big question in a thriller is 'how?' How is the villain planning to accomplish his goal? This is critical for the hero to know how to stop the villain. In a mystery, on the road to finding out who committed the crime (usually murder), finding the 'why?' or motive goes a long way toward helping the protagonist sleuth to finding the culprit. In a thriller, similar but different is the 'what?" Finding out what the villain plans to do helps our hero know how to thwart him.
Which brings us to another difference. In a mystery, finding the perp is usually the end of the story, sometimes after a brief pursuit and/or capture scene. In a thriller, finding the answer to 'how' only kicks the thriller into high gear. Our daring protag still needs to execute a spectacular plan to dismantle the villain's plans. And of course when has a plan ever come off exactly as laid out? Therein lies more fun.
Your audience for a mystery is those who like the process of uncovering secrets and following obscure evidence trails to uncover even more. In many cases, the more shocking the secrets revealed the better they love it. I know that's part of what makes me love a good mystery. Your audience for a thriller are those who like action, adventure and daring do. The pitching of two enemies against each other until one comes out on top. Where a mystery is like the old card game Concentration - uncovering clues and remembering them, matching connections when they appear - a thriller is like chess - opponents making moves in attempts to misdirect and outwit each other and win the day.
Of course, like all attempts to define something complex, these definitions (mystery vs. thriller) are not all-encompassing or true in all cases. For example, I haven't mentioned how many mysteries and most thrillers include elements of romance, or how either can take place within the realm of historical fiction or SciFi, etc. As with all forms of fiction, there is overlap. I've only attempted here to lay out the broad strokes of what makes a thriller. Your results may vary.
Even the freshest idea must follow specific ‘rules’ or elements of the genre.
Don’t believe me? Then why in almost every romance novel the main character has one or more dead parents and the poor orphan was often raised by a kindly/odd/distant aunt or uncle? Or better yet, why is it that in an urban fantasy, the female lead is always haunted by something, whether it’s a real ghost or the ghost of boyfriend past, or in some cases herself?
Crime fiction is perhaps the worst offender.
And that’s why I love it.
These elements and rules give crime fiction its grit and style.
Mind you, not every one of the elements I list below will be in every book. But I bet that if you pull a copy of any crime novel off your bookshelf, you’ll find at least one and likely many more inside.
The hooker/thug with the heart of gold
A dirty cop
A bottle of booze hidden in a desk/cabinet/toilet tank
A femme fatale
The term “Doll face” or “Baby doll”, really just some reference to a doll
A description of a woman’s legs, in vivid detail
A lounge/bar/nightclub/strip club
A guy named “Fast” something, usually Eddie
A dead partner/lover and/or betrayal by a former partner/lover
Pipe/cigarette smoking hero and/or villain
A dead body in the first 10 pages
Got any more? What about the genre which you write, what are the 'rules' in it?
One of my favorite movies of all time, Front Page, features one of the first cinematic examples of what has come to be known as "snappy dialog": a rapid-fire exchange of witty banter and rejoinders. When a stand-up comedian drops a clunker (delivers a joke that earns little to no laughter) he can sometimes be heard to say, "On the way home tonight you're going to get that and laugh your head off!" With snappy dialog, the one-liners dropped in that machine-gun barrage can often go by so quickly you find yourself laughing at it minutes after the scene has already passed.
Examples, you ask? Well, I was recently watching a sci-fi/fantasy show set in the midst of WWII in which, as a byproduct of a sci-fi event, a group of unknowing people are healed by very thorough nano-robots of an alien virus. A woman then walks up to her physician to report, "My leg's back! I had only one leg, and now the other's grown back!" To which he replies, "Well there's a war on. Is it possible you miscounted?" This line is delivered so flatly, almost as an aside before the scene goes back to the main plot, I found myself laughing still minutes after the show had ended.
In another example, the captain of a ship on which a bomb is about to explode is on the intercom demanding his crew find a way to jettison the explosive.
Captain: "How about we stuff it in an escape capsule?"
Crewman: "There are no escape capsules."
Captain: "Are you sure?"
Crewman: "Yes, Captain."
Captain: "Have you looked everywhere? Under the sink?"
Crewman: "Yes, Captain."
I enjoy comedic dialog, if done well, and strive to include it as much as possible in at least one of my ongoing series of suspense adventures. In an unpublished manuscript of mine there is a scene in which one character comments on a bullet wound that only creased the main character's scalp:
"What happened there?"
"Freak knitting accident."
And the dialog goes on, taking no notice of the joke. The funniest dialog is when it isn't acknowledged by the characters in the scene. In an interview, Mel Brooks once said of an actress, "She didn't do comedy. When she delivered a line, she couldn't stop herself from broadcasting it, all but winking at the camera and saying, 'Here comes the joke, folks!'" The very nature of comedy is the surprise. The funniest dialog is delivered non-sequitur, and it's even funnier when others in the scene act as if it's a perfectly normal thing to say.
Douglas Adams, celebrated British comedic sci-fi writer wrote this bit of a giggle:
"I have detected disturbances. Eddies in the space-time continuum."
"Ah...is he. Is he."
"Er, who is Eddy, then, exactly?”
Here, an anomaly of the English language leads to a misunderstanding, giving rise to comedy.
I've heard other comedic people, writers and comedians, say comedy either comes naturally to a person or it doesn't. It cannot be taught. What's your opinion?
I often think I'm quite hilarious. Some don't agree. Which leads to another point: some comedy is subjective. I, for example, don't find bathroom humor funny, as a rule. The recent cinematic trend in gross-out humor leaves me cold. Other's nearly pass out with laughter. On the other hand, many hold that puns are the lowest form of humor. For me, contrariwise, a well-placed pun or double-meaning will send me into gales. Triple-, quadruple-meanings...the more facets an entendre has, the funnier it is.
Physical comedy is very hard to do in fiction. Don't believe me? Try describing your favorite comic strip to a reader. The challenge comes in explaining an action without dragging the joke on so long that by the time you get to the punch line the reader has already outthunk you and moved on. You need to develop a talent for pithy narrative. Good comedy writing is some of the tightest, most backloaded writing I've ever read. Even if you don't write comedy, it's good practice for any kind of writing.
An example of bad physical comedy in fiction?
"Lucy holds the football upright by the tip, an evil gleam in her eye. Charlie Brown, tongue planted firmly in the corner of his mouth, narrows his eyes and takes aim. He charges, planting his feet to pour on maximum speed. Just as he swings his foot at the ball, Lucy pulls it away. Charlie can't stop, and his momentum carries him off is feet, to where he it seems to him he is actually suspended for several seconds, time enough to scream, 'Aaaaaaargh!' When he falls he slides on the grass for a yard or so before coming to rest, staring at the sky. 'You blockhead!' he hears in the distance as Lucy struts away, not laughing, just disgusted."
This scene comes off as rather sad when written out this way. (BTW: It's my opinion Lucy secretly likes Charlie Brown. Every time she pulls the ball away she's testing him to see if he has yet become the man(boy) she needs him to be to justify her crush. But the subtext of cartoons is a whole other blog topic. One for true fiction-nerds.)
Now consider this physical scene:
"Turning the knob, she tried to open the door quietly, but it creaked as it opened. She tried to step through gaps in the crime scene tape, but it stuck to her pant leg, then her sleeve, and before she knew it she was stumbling through the door, a-tangle in the sticky stuff, hopping on one leg and trying to pull it free of her clothes."
Here the writer could have gone on to describe the scene in greater detail, and if this were any other kind of scene you might encourage them to do so. But in a comedic scene, it's only the action that convey's the humor, not the color of the door or the texture of the clothing that made the tape stick so well, etc.
One more point: strive to make your comedy as inclusive as possible. When you make others laugh at the expense of another, it's fun for your audience, but not so much for its victim. Puns aside, this is, in my opinion, the true lowest form of humor.
What's your favorite comedic moment in television, film or literature? Leave comments below.
First, this article is for Working Writers WHO WANT TO SUPPORT THEMSELVES BY WRITING.
My Reader Hat: I buy books that sound good, mostly romance (all sub-genres), fantasy (most genres), some mysteries and YA. Less often I download a sample. And I rarely read something NEW when I'm far behind deadline, as I was from November through May. So I've been opening up the purchased-last-year books to find something, particularly a series to read. Not having much luck. As follows:
A book starting with teenage date rape (probably not the heroine but I gave it NO chance). Just. No.
Writer Hat, Note: I HATE opening with a Victim’s Point of View Just To Show Us The Bad Guy Deserves A Hideous Death, which is what I think the writer was going for (but I don’t know because I stopped and moved on to the next book).
A mystery written by a man with a female first person point of view that he gets wrong. Writer Hat, Note: No, women don’t think that…or that…or that. Can you run it by a female that age and that career, please?
A romance written by an urban fantasy writer with a plot conflict that is so cliche, I can't handle it. Writer Hat, Note: Excellent characters, interesting twist, BUT this conflict over Save The Ranch/Sell The Ranch to Developers has been done a zillion times, and I don’t think you’ve read widely enough in romance. KNOW YOUR GENRE.
A couple of first person present point of view books that just aren't good enough with plot and characters to make me forget about first person present. Sorry, you have to work harder for me. Writer Hat, Note: I’m not the only person who finds First Person Present Point Of View a challenge, especially when you write/dialog about a past event and you go into Past Point Of View, then have to yank us back to Present. That also makes it challenging for you, the writer (sort of like Initial Caps of Words, yes I can poke fun at myself and these pronouncements).
A 18th century historical set in England with: “Failure was not an option.” That ripped me straight from the lush setting to the white counters and male scientists of NASA and Apollo 13 and I probably won’t go back. Writer Hat Note, KNOW YOUR HISTORICAL SLANG/ANACHRONISTIC PHRASES.
Reader Hat: An okay book with sort of interesting characters up to the half where I realized the guy I didn't like was the love interest.
Reader Hat: The next book in a mystery series where the heroine gets pregnant. Not for me.
Reader/Writer Hat: Now, the last two are just a matter of personal preference. Nothing that really irritated me into stopping reading. The author did his/her job.
Personal Preference: I know this issue. I've had people say, "I don't like reading about intelligent/talking animals." And I reply "You will never like my work." I accept that.
And no story will please all of the people all of the time.
And I may be a little harsh right now, but the book's gotta hook me, have good characters and plot. I can deal with a slower historical/high fantasy plot, or one that zooms along at light speed. I can deal with ramped up, graphic violence. Off-scene romance, erotic romance, all okay by me. I can suspend a modicum of disbelief.
But, as WORKING writers, we must all be aware of our choices, and what will cause someone to put the book down, for a moment, or forever…and whether that reader will ever buy us again. And, for me, I will never buy the author of the date-rape book again. NOT a good place to start.
I AM a WORKING WRITER, I MUST SUPPORT MYSELF (and two cats) BY MY WRITING, so I DO think about the above when writing, or, more likely, revising.
That said, Reader Hat, I AM up to a very promising YA/paranormal school series. Which, like a marriage of convenience, can pretty much always hook me.
When critiquing the work of colleagues, whether in a critique group or just between friends, the hardest thing is when it's a topic, genre or style you don't normally enjoy reading in your leisure time. It isn't often spoken about, but it's true. It can sometimes be an interminable slog to try to read and critique a colleague's work when it's not something you would have chosen on your own to read. It's not that they're a bad writer, in fact, they could be the best writer in the world, and it would still be like a trek through a vast, barren, hard-pack, salt-flat desert.
Actually, I take that back a little - I enjoy reading the writing of a really talented writer whatever the topic. But let's face it, most of the critiquing we do is for fellow travelers on the journey to becoming great writers, who, like us or like we once were, may not quite be there yet.
So how do we get through the torture of reading for critique something that, to our tastes, is either bitter or bland? I have five suggestions below. These are the same tactics many of us used when studying in school, reading chapters of a dry technical manual or textbook. Maybe they won't make it easier, but they should help us stay motivated to get through it.
Sooner begun, sooner done. It's as simple as that - the sooner we just knuckle under and get through it the sooner we will be finished and on to something we do enjoy. Don't watch the clock, stop glancing at your watch and just do it.
Set goals for yourself. If you're doing a full-manuscript critique, set goals of, say, one chapter, then take a break and do something you enjoy. BUT be sure to set a time limit on that break, and stick to your schedule. A half hour of TV, then back to the next chapter. Eat lunch, then back for the next chapter, etc.
Imagine someone who enjoys the topic or genre. What might they be thinking as they read this piece? How might they feel, what might strike them as exciting or interesting about the work?
Play archaeologist. This a text you found in a deep dark tomb somewhere, and inside it you just know is a single nugget of truth that could cure athlete's foot (or whatever) and if you read it you might be the one to find it.
Pretend you are an Audiobooks performer. Read the text out loud like a narrator, adding tone, accent, and timber to each voice, making the dramatic moments breathless and the moments of discovery triumphant.
Can you think of other ways to make the slog more palatable? I'd love to read your ideas in the comments below.
After more than thirty years of writing genre fiction, I will finally be able to answer “yes” to that irksome, miserable question that all would-be novelists get at cocktail parties, “Are you published?” On November 2, 2016, I signed a contract with Five Star (Cengage/Gale) for publication of my historical romance, Love’s Last Stand. Yes, yes, yes, the publication monkey is off my back forever. I am finally a so-called “real” writer. But getting published took so long I thought I’d also answered that other nagging question would-be novelists sometimes get. “If you knew you’d never get published, would you keep on writing?” Lately, my answer has been, “Well, yes, I’ve pretty much done that already.”
I first started writing fiction in 1981, in the most clichéd manner possible. I heard somewhere that Harlequin would give you $1500 for three chapters and an outline. How hard could it be to write romance? Yes, dunderhead, harder than your thick skull. I didn’t get my advance or a contract, so I went to law school. But the writing bug had bitten, and I simply couldn’t abandon that story I’d started. After graduating and working for the Department of Justice for three years, I managed to finish the book, and without ever taking a writing class, reading a book on writing, or attending a critique group. How good could that book be?
Lo and Behold! My classic story of romance took second place (or was it 3rd) in the RMFW contest, way back when we still awarded places. I was a genius! Fortune and fame were close enough to touch. Ask me about my smug smile, please. Alas, it was not to be. The story, which I still love, violated every rule of fiction writing imaginable, especially those of romance writing, and I invented a few new rules to violate along the way. I shudder at the memory. That manuscript will remain forever buried, not in a drawer, but even further out of reach, in the murky depths of Word Perfect 4.0, where no one will ever find it, except perhaps, Robin Owens.
Undeterred, I continued to write. And, more importantly, I found RMFW and my critique group, not to mention my future wife (thanks, RMFW!). I was still not getting published, but it could have been my fear and loathing of rejection, as much as the quality of my writing. I simply didn’t query much. At least not as much as I should have. Not as much as you should, if you’re not already published. I much preferred the writing and, if I wasn’t going to publish, the one thing I could do is win or final in a contest.
And contests I did with a passion. Between 2002 and 2016, I was a contest finalist twenty-seven times. On top of that, I won the RMFW Colorado Gold Contest twice, and got first place in the Crested Butte Writers Friends of the Library Contest (twice), the Southern Louisiana Romance Writers Dixie Kane Contest, the Land of Enchantment Romance Authors contest, the Central Ohio Fiction Writers contest, and the San Antonio Romance Authors Emma Merritt Contest. I was Champion of the Contest World! But I still wasn’t published.
Eventually, I simply read ten pages for Five Star editor Tiffany Schofield at the RMFW conference, and the rest is history. What to make of it? You tell me, please. Was it as simple as not sending out enough query letters? Was everything I wrote “over the top,” as one agent told me? Was it just plain dumb luck? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time all these years? Truly, I don’t know.
Mine may be a cautionary tale, and I can’t recommend my strategy for getting published. What I can recommend is finding a good critique group, continuing to write come hell or high water, and, of course, never, ever giving up. Sorry, there’s nothing new or innovative in my advice.
I may never get published again, but at least now I know it’s possible, even for me. As long as it took, I’m not ready to rest on my laurels. My smug smile has been replaced by one a bit more knowing and patient.
After all, I’m just getting started.
When he’s not writing fiction, Steven Moores is an attorney for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to law, he has degrees in journalism and fishery & wildlife biology, and his interests in writing are as varied as his education. He has written contest-winning stories in romance, mystery, young adult, and middle grade genres, and he is currently under contract with Five Star Publishing (Gale/Cengage) for publication of his historical romance, Love’s Last Stand.
RMFW writer friends of mine – and anyone writing fiction out there – I ask this: how many writers do you know who put together 25 novels (most of them in near-perfect shape) without ever receiving a word of encouragement for an agent or publishing house? In fact, Gary was discouraged many times. He would query now and then, get rejected, and keep writing.
Twenty-five! And most only need a light dusting, editing wise, to get them shipshape today.
Quality? Three Colorado Book Award finalist nominations so far. Booklist has raved about Gary's series. National Public Radio has twice talked about Gary's works in a positive light. And Gary's Vietnam fiction has drawn praise from Ron Carlson, Stewart O'Nan, Gregory Hill, Tim Bazzett, John Mort and David Willson, who reviews books for The Vietnam Veterans of America. The single story Gary had published during his lifetime was accepted by The Iowa Review and later included in the fourth volume of The Pushcart Prize anthology, the best fiction from small presses.
For many of his works, Gary Reilly did what writers are taught to do. He drew stories from his life. And livelihoods. For many other stories, he conjured from his quite active storytelling imagination.
So Gary wrote about going to war. He wrote about driving a taxi. And he weaved into his books many of the frustrations about being an unpublished novelist.
Gary, who died in 2011, left behind a mountain of fiction.
Here at the worldwide headquarters of Running Meter Press, we are closing in on the half-way mark of publishing Gary’s works.
Later this month, on Friday, June 23, we will launch The Discharge, the third book in Gary’s trilogy about his experiences during The Vietnam War.
The series started with The Enlisted Men’s Club, set in The Presidio and around San Francisco as Private Palmer (Gary’s alter ego) faced the grim prospect of going to war. Private Palmer drinks beer, smokes cigarettes, and tries hard, during the occasional training run, to imagine what lies ahead.
Palmer touches his shirt pocket for a cigarette, then drops his hand. The smoking lamp isn’t lit. Do real grunts smoke on patrol? The point-man has an incomprehensible look of panic on his face. Lt. Norbert turns him around by the shoulders and shoves him back toward his position. Can patrols in Vietnam be as half-assed as this? Palmer knows he could very well end up in the Infantry and that he is not guaranteed to remain an MP once he arrives in a combat zone, though maybe that’s just Army Apocrypha. He will never be able to separate his illusions from his ignorance. When he was inducted he had expected everyone to end up with nicknames, like Bookworm, Lefty, or Ace. His nickname would be Colorado, as in, “Colorado bought the farm last night, Ace.” Everyone would look like Bart Maverick, Bret’s less-interesting brother. When they got into arguments, they would raise their chins and say things like, “Back off, buddy boy.”
In The Detachment, Private Palmer is “in country,” but he’s an MP and his combat is internal. The Detachment is 154,000 words. It’s a one-year arc and its three parts are beautifully distinct. The war is nearby and Palmer and witnesses its toll, but he’s not fighting out in the jungles of Vietnam.
The sounds of the choppers fade as they fly toward the PX, cross over it, then separate and begin spreading out in a combat formation, their fantails easing back and forth, the Hueys now like tiny fish idling against a river’s current. A circle of light suddenly appears on the mountainside, a white disk that must cover twenty square acres, and at first Palmer thinks it has come from a helicopter. The circle probes the hillsides, slithers along its rills and gullies in search of VC, moves as rapidly as if Palmer himself were twitching the beam of a hand-held flashlight across the far ranges, thousands of meters swept in less than a second….
Tracer bullets streak toward the side of the mountain, the Hueys now like angry spiders spinning endless red threads, raking the gullies, the rills, the folds as the circle of white light stops, creating a bull’s-eye target for the bullets tearing up the earth…
The battle sounds cease, the faint pulse of the earth no longer throbbing at irregular intervals through Palmer’s soles. The massive spotlight begins to drift slowly north along the hillsides, its shape changing as it traces every mound and crevice like a flattened liquid cat in a cartoon sliding off a chair.
And in The Discharge, Private Palmer returns home to Denver and, quite frankly, here’s where I get chills.
I think about all the soldiers who have returned home, alive. I think about how returning soldiers from Vietnam were treated.
I think about how anyone would find meaning in life after seeing so much killing or being the cause of your enemy’s death. The suicide rates among veterans is a harrowing issue to this day and it's no accident that suicides play a major role in both The Enlisted Men’s Club and The Detachment.
Gary’s fiction captured the reality of the mental state of his fellow soldiers—and, of course, his own.
Coming home in The Discharge, Palmer (no longer Private Palmer) faces heavy bouts of ennui and a lack of purpose. The first section is bleak. Hopelessness is right around the corner. What to do? How hard to work? And what will hold meaning?
In the first section of this third novel, Palmer is looking for an anchor and ponders going to California so he drives up Berthoud Pass in a raging snowstorm and gets stuck, dreaming of San Francisco.
The whitened top of Geary, electric trolley cars every five minutes, the sweet odor of saltwater and green leaves and sandy Sunset Beach. At the beginning of this journey he thought he would somehow find himself at that place in the morning. He put a wine bottle to his lips, but there was no wine left. He set the bottle on the floor and it tipped and rolled and stopped.
He held his beer can until it was empty and he tried to think about the things other than the things which can never be escaped, and all the time he kept promising himself that the one thing he would not do alone in the dark mountains was cry about it. It seemed to him finally the only thing he had any control over, and when it began, he found he could not stop it.
He wept until the morning light turned the road and the forest to red and then to gold as the sun lifted above the far plains and shrank, and the road and the snow between the trees grew white as burning phosphorous.
In the second section of The Discharge, Gary switches to first-person as Palmer goes to Hollywood. In real life, Gary came very close to being hired to write for stand-up comedian Louie Anderson and this middle section gives an idea of how high Gary’s hopes were—and how he managed to deal with the disappointment. Or did he?
And in the third section, back in third-person again and back in Denver, Palmer decides to start driving a cab, just as Gary did. Still, Palmer is looking for routine and a sense of place in the world of work (without doing too much). And we see fictional Palmer "meet" the future fictional Murph, The Asphalt Warrior.
Murph is Gary’s greatest creation, the asphalt philosopher Brendan Murphy, star of eight novels to date. (Booklist has called Murph "a truly original fictional creation and National Public Radio has raved about the series as "huge fun.")
Murph, as fans of the series know, is an unpublished novelist as well as being a cab driver. As a cab driver, Murph wants to earn as little money as possible—just enough to keep his bohemian life afloat. And Murph is bound and determined to never get involved in the lives of his fares, a personal mantra that he violates on a regular basis (for our comic benefit).
But in The Discharge, as Palmer finds stability and comfort in the cab driving business (despite some harrowing moments), Palmer saves himself.
He’s still looking for escape, a way out of the now and the ordinary and a way to deal with what he experienced in Vietnam, an experience to which he “refuses to attach any nostalgia.”
How does Palmer escape? How does he heal himself?
By becoming an artist.
Against the darkness, he turns on the kitchen light. He sits at the table.
He’s got a mountain of fiction to produce and it offers him hope, a way forward. We can feel it.
We've published 11 novels so far. Ahead, a couple of 'noir' mysteries in the vein of Patricia Highsmith, at least one more Murph, some science fiction, some fantasy, and some big, old-fashioned multi-generational literary fiction.
Despite the occasional ray of hope from an agent here or a publisher there, Gary Reilly never stopped writing (right up to the end). He was a writer, through and through.
Gary Reilly knew his place in the world, as a storyteller. And an artist, the greatest writer I ever knew.
Join us at The Tattered Cover for the launch of The Discharge: Friday, June 23 | 7 PM 2526 E. Colfax Ave.
We've all been there. Or maybe we're there right now? In this collective, yet solitary brain-trust known as writing. This hive-mind of almost universally shared desire. It's what we do. Why? Because we have stories to tell. So we spit them out of our heads and onto paper (never mind the mess). But what do you do when the words won't flow? You can call it "Writer's Block" if you want. Soooo cliche. To me, he/she/it (to utilize a sympathetic fallacy) is kind of a mythical super-villain. Not actually real, but we convince ourselves that they/he/she/it, is the cause of all our woes. "I can't write because I'm blocked." It becomes an excuse. And so it rules over our writing lives as an unexploded bomb in the middle of the towns of our minds, soaking up the power that we choose to give it. Well I say, NO MORE...at least for right now.
The fact about writer's block:
Or, as I like to think of it, that irrational, motivational miasma that occasionally slaps you around like a pre-pubescent school yard bully. Regardless of how or when it hits you...it's all in your head. That's right, I said it. IT'S ALL IN YOUR HEAD! This horrible slump, this unfortunate malaise that stalls the swiftness of you fingers, is...All. Your. Own. Doing. So snap out of it already.
Well, I can't really answer that. Not definitively, of course. We're all different people. With our own styles, likes, dislikes, and ways of reacting to the world. Maybe we're tired. Mentally exhausted. Maybe we're bored? I don't know. Bottom's your limit.
What to do about it:
Now here's a good question. What DO you do about it? The most obvious piece of advice is: Keep writing. Write anyway. Real writers get words to paper no matter what. They don't wait for inspiration, for the good feels or the muse. They make it happen on their own time and in their own way. There's merit to this, obviously. And this is probably the best advice I can give (even if it can be incredibly hard to follow at times). In fact, I've let myself fall prey to the motivation vampire as I've awaited word on publishing interest in one of my books. But it was, and is, a huge mistake we're all capable of making. Time is not our friend as writers. We need to work. We need to blast words onto paper, and pretend like, above all else, that we know what the hell we are doing.
This one might seem odd. It is a bit esoteric. But visualization is one of the best ways I've found to break myself out of a mental funk. What I mean by this is putting yourself into your character's head and allowing yourself to react to specific situations in the same way your character would. So sit back, think about that character, and really get into how they would react in that instance. Play the scene out in your mind. Don't think about it too hard, just let it unfold as if you are this character. I think you'll be surprised at the new ideas that come up, and the fun and interesting ways it can change or open up the story.
Here's something you probably haven't considered (and I mean really emotionally considered) in quite a long time: You're writing that story for a reason. Something about it, the characters, the situation, the underlying idea, or the motivation behind your drive to write it. Something about that story is so AWESOME!!! (note the triple exclamations) that you just had to get it on paper. This is something we often forget after we've spent long and often torturous hours slaving over the same things, the same ideas, the same characters and situations...over and over, and yes, over again. We forget that there was something so cool and exciting about these characters or ideas that made them worth putting out there for other people to read and invest themselves in. So recapture that! Sit down and ruminate about what makes your story special. What idea, what character, what situation? Really dig into it and remind yourself just how amazing these ideas are, and (here's the key) let yourself get excited about it again! Get back into those ideas and investigate them because they're worth investigating. And this will lead directly into the next point...
Generate new ideas for your story:
Similar to the visualize option above, when you get excited about a story again after you've carefully gone through and thought about some of its elements in a different way from their original conception, you'll surprise yourself by starting to come up with new ideas. These can be simple additions to the direction you're already taking the story, or they can be wholly new and interesting navigational changes, seeing things from the eyes of different characters or entire groups of people. Use these ideas! Write them down. Stay excited about them, and let them pull you back into that story so you can do what you need to do: WRITE!