Today a friend asked me to tell her how to write a book.
“Um…you just type words. With, you know… a computer. There are some books on writing and stuff. I’ve never read any of them, but I hear they’re great.”
Thank you, Queen of Lame. All the way home I thought about the way I write books. One of the first questions writers get asked in interviews is whether they are plotters or pantsers. [NOTE: plotters do what’s on the tin and plan out the story with outlines and notecards and post-its and other organizational-type stuff that gladdens the hearts of office supply companies.There may even be dry-erase markers. Pantsers, of course, fly by the seat of their pants. [Okay, all my British readers, just go ahead and get that snicker out of the way right now. Feel better? We’re talking about AMERICAN pants, not your knickers.]
What kind of writer would you be? Well, here’s a quiz. When you get up in the morning, do you:
- Turn the alarm to snooze so you have ten minutes to review the day’s to-do list and check the news, before rounding up your current book’s characters from where they are all lined up next to the bed in order of appearance, ready and waiting for you?
- Wonder (again) why you’re not waking up in your bed, why you’re not sure what time (or day) it is, where the hell your current book’s characters have disappeared to (again), and just who that spectacularly interesting new character curled up next to you will turn out to be?
- Make the bed, exercise, and eat a healthy breakfast from ingredients you regularly have in your fridge, then brush your teeth and floss?
If you chose Number 1, you’re a Plotter, efficiently reaping the rewards of all your hard upfront research, planning, and scheduling.
If you chose Number 2,you’re a Pantser, waking up to see what new story your characters will tell you today, which you will then dutifully transcribe, and undoubtedly cut it when you edit.
(I’m very sorry, but if you chose Number 3, at least you’ll have your health. Certainly, you’ll never be a writer.)
Personally, I’m a plotter wannabe. Before I start any new project, I draw up character sheets, take my characters on practice outings, and make an outline. Then I start writing and all of that just floats off into the ether, never to surface again. Yup. I’m a total pantser. When it comes to revising, the only way I can strike the superfluous passages (the bane of pantsers) is to very soothingly assure the deleted bits that I’m going to put them in a wonderful, safe little file (called Dead Kittens) so I can use them in my next book, but I still love them very, very much. Then I kill the little darlings and never look back.
There are great writers on each side of the divide.
‘Creativity is raw and flickering like fire — you want to make use of it, you have to bring often ugly, unpleasant metals to it and forge that shit into the shape you desire. It’s hard, sweaty, sometimes grumpy work. Nobody wants writing to be about discipline. We all would love it if it were the equivalent of catching fireflies in a moonlight meadow. We wish it were fun and goofy, like icing cupcakes in zero gravity.
But it’s not. It’s tough work. Satisfying work, yes. But tough just the same.’—Chuck Wendig, Terribleminds
‘When you plot books you take all the energy and vitality out. There’s no blood. You have to live it from day to day and let your characters do things.’—Ray Bradbury
But recently, I’ve been considering a slightly different approach. I realized that the greatest mass murderers, villains, and world-class meanies aren’t those in the history books. They’re the ones writing fiction. As writers, we do horrible, disgusting, life-ruining, gut wrenching, often bloody things every day. It’s our job. Because “Once upon a time a boy met a girl and they got married and lived a long lovely life and then died. The End.” might work for Hallmark but isn’t going to get a lot of stars on Amazon.
So here’s my new definition of writers. Forget pantser or plotter. The real question is: sociopath or psychopath?
Sociopaths vs. Psychopaths
Let’s start with the traits a sociopath and psychopath share—at least according to Psychology Today)—AND which all writers automatically embody as they
torture their characters develop their plot:
- A disregard for laws and social mores
- A disregard for the rights of others
- A failure to feel remorse or guilt
- A tendency to display violent behavior
Where does a sociopath’s behavior separate from the psychopath? Well, writers, I don’t want to make you nervous, but the differences can be summed up as PLOTTERS vs PANTSERS.
Take the creation of the villain, for example.
- Psychopaths can be charming and witty, they can mimic social and emotional ties they are actually incapable of feeling, but most of all, they are careful, meticulous planners. Of course, what they are planning often involves self-gratification via unspeakable acts of violence and cruelty.
- They don’t have a moral compass, but they know how to project one. This lack of the ability to separate right from wrong makes them fearless.
- Unless it’s a police procedural where the detective meticulously tracks down his clever opponent, psychopaths generally make boring villains. (Interesting anti-heroes though!)
Some real life examples include serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy. Historical figures would include Adolf Hitler (and, arguably, his associates such as Josef Mengele, Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Eichmann, etc.), Ivan the Terrible, and the Spanish Inquisition’s Tomás de Torquemada. In popular culture, they might include TV’s Dexter, or Hollywood’s American Psycho.
- Sociopaths are far from fearless. Instead, they are more likely to react nervously to events, making them volatile and prone to fits of rage.
- Above all they are masters of the Machievelian: cunning and deceitful, hiding behind outward masks of trustworthy sincerity. They’ll use seduction, charm, or flattery to achieve their ends. It’s not that they lack a moral compass, it’s just that they are manipulative, pathological liars. They can perceive the difference between right and wrong, but they are incapable of judging the morality of a situation in any terms other than their own gratification.
- Although forming attachments is difficult for them, they can become attached to an individual or group, while still having no regard for society or its rules. But to any outside their small chosen group, they are persistently angry or hostile, exhibiting mean or cruel behavior even in response to minor slights.
Examples in pop culture include BBC’s Sherlock, or The Dark Knight’s Joker.
So what should I tell my friend about how to write that book? Well, I’m not sure she’s ready to tell me about who wakes up with her each morning. And I really don’t know if she considers herself to be either a
psychopath plotter or sociopath pantser. But she might be interested in the book I’m reviewing today, Roam, by one of my favorite writers, Erik Therme. Because although it tells a terrific story, what it’s really about is how writers fill in the bits between Once upon a time and The End.
Roam by Erik Therme
When Kevin finds Sarah stranded by the side of the road, he’s more than willing to give her a ride. Young, beautiful and distraught—she’s everything a single guy could ask for in a girl. What he doesn’t know is that she already has a guy: an abusive, drunken boyfriend who left her there in a fit of rage. And when that boyfriend comes back and finds Sarah missing, a simple ride will turn deadly.
Like Josh Gaylord and Daniel Kraus before him, author Erik Therme explores the angst of disconnected youth in his enthralling and powerful Roam. Therme’s darkly tinged novel is an unforgettable tale of three errant souls brutalized by life’s cruel circumstances, and a remarkable night of discovery and violence that will change them forever.
In past reviews, I’ve said Erik Therme’s books are terrifically written, with a great sense of pace and individual style, while full of characters I really do not like. At all. In both earlier books, he efficiently nailed the tropes while keeping the genre requirements secondary to the characters’ development, and used the sheer power of excellent writing to have me compulsively turning pages to keep up with his flawed, unlikeable characters.
And at first I thought Roam was more of the same. Out for what was supposed to be her dream twenty-first birthday date, beautiful young Sarah finds herself stranded with her drunk boyfriend. Inside Sarah’s head, we see her reading potential danger into everything he says and does. I soon realized that Sarah applies this knee-jerk worst-case scenario expectation to almost everyone and everything in her life. As reader, I wasn’t sure if she was just an unreliable narrator, or if her life truly sucked in every dimension.
Fearing her boyfriend will turn abusive, Sarah flees down the dark road. She’s rescued by Kevin, who has his own demons to battle. Their night’s journey together takes on an epic quality—think Wizard-of-Oz meets Ulysses, with a touch of American Graffiti thrown in—in which YA coming of age/horror/thriller mashup ticks all boxes from testosterone-crazed murderous attackers, to creepy motel, to supernatural—or maybe just plain crazy—forces. Nobody has had a happy childhood, nice family, trauma-free teen years. They’re all somewhere on the spectrum from batshit to homicidal cray-cray.
And THEN I got it. While Roam IS a traumatic coming of age romance, that’s just the middle of the story. As Sarah’s rescuer Kevin—a teenaged writer-wannabe—explains, the beginning and the end are just the framework. The real story is what happens in between a beginning, an end, and the events that move the story along.
The most important thing isn’t working through the main events to reach the conclusion . . . it’s the little stuff in between. Little things that maybe aren’t essential to the plot of the story, but essential to other things, like getting to know the people and their motivations.
And there you have it. This isn’t just a book about attractive teenagers who roam around encountering scary stuff and maybe falling in love. It isn’t even just a terrific story with unreliable narrators, moments of terror and tenderness and lots of angst, and a fair amount of blood. It’s a writing lesson. A how-to primer by a writer at the top of his game.
As both Sarah and Kevin embark on their night of roaming in Kevin’s car, they reluctantly face their pasts, their fears, and their most secret hopes for the future. At the same time, we readers have the additional treat of peeking under the literary hood to see how the book’s engine is put together. Erik Therme succeeds brilliantly on all those levels. Yes, his characters are all still deeply flawed, very human, and often unlikeable. But they change, they grow, and most of all (as we learn from Kevin’s high school writing teacher) they preserve the fragile flicker of hope that ultimately transforms their lives.
Roam can be read on many different levels. I think it deserves five stars on all of them.
*I received this book for free from the publisher or author to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.*
- Book Title: Roam
- Author: Erik Therme
Coming of age, romantic thriller, how-to writing tutorial
- Publisher: Thecker Books (February 21, 2017)
- Length: 244 pages