Tuesday, October 14, 2003

from Poynteronline
Posted, Oct. 13, 2003
Updated, Oct. 13, 2003

The First Draft of Mystery

By Robin Sloan
Online Reporter

There are a lot of would-be novelists in newsrooms across America.

Maybe you're one of them. If so, today's your lucky day, because I've got a sure-fire plan to go from writing police briefs to paperback best-sellers.

Here's what you do:

First, attend the University of Florida. Read all of Raymond Chandler's stories. Major in journalism, minor in creative writing.

Graduate. Get yourself to a newspaper in Florida.

Start on the cops beat, then move to feature writing.

Get a gig writing for the Fort Lauderdale News/Sun-Sentinel magazine during the height of the '80s crime wave in Florida, during that magic, morbid moment when Fort Lauderdale is the murder capital of the world. Write some awesome stories, and get short-listed for the Pulitzer.

As you're doing all this, write on your own time, too. Pen a couple of novels after hours -- but leave them in your desk drawer. They're just for practice.

Parlay your magazine experience into a gig at the Los Angeles Times. Now you're in Chandler's territory.

Wait three years. Publish your first mystery novel. Win a prize. Quit journalism.

More than a dozen years -- and books -- later, you'll find yourself at the Don CeSar, a huge, pinker-than-life hotel on Florida's St. Pete Beach.

You'll be talking to a room full of features-page editors from across the country. And here's what you'll say:

"It's safe to say I would not be standing here talking to you about my novels if I had not been a journalist first."

OK, maybe it won't go exactly like that. But that's what happened to Michael Connelly, who's gone from covering cops in Daytona Beach to selling millions of books around the world. And even if your path is, er, not precisely the same as his, there are some lessons to be gained from Connelly's experience.

The Telling Detail
Michael Connelly was working at the Sun-Sentinel magazine, and Fort Lauderdale was the most dangerous place in the country.

Let's see how the homicide squad operates, he thought. So he spent a week with them, going out whenever they were called, day or night.

The central character in his story was the squad's sergeant. At each murder scene, he would take off his glasses and crouch quietly beside the body. Connelly made a note of these solemn moments.

Later, at the very end of the week, he was talking to the sergeant for the last time. The man looked utterly exhausted. He took off his glasses.

And that's when Connelly saw the groove. When the sergeant took off his glasses and held them in his mouth as he crouched over the murder victims, his teeth were clenched so tight they cut into the plastic. There was a deep groove.

That was a window into the sergeant -- it was the telling detail.

Connelly has looked for those details ever since.

Here's the story.

From journalism, Connelly learned the craft of writing well and quickly; the discipline to do it every day; and the focus that comes with searching for the single, telling detail.

He also learned journalism's public mission.

Connelly calls his genre "mystery with a message." In mystery, he says, there are writers who are trying to talk about what's happening in our lives today — racism, terrorism, corporate greed. And because mystery writers, like journalists, write fast, their work has a special immediacy.

Six months after Sept. 11, 2001, Connelly had a book out, "City of Bones," that talked about the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and how they made everything else seem small in comparison.

Last April, his book "Lost Light" hit the stands. The Publishers Weekly blurb says that the book leads Connelly's recurring hero, Harry Bosch, into contact with "the elite terrorist hunters of the new Department of Homeland Security. "This is a thriller that raises questions about the Patriot Act, Connelly says. Mystery with a message.

So Connelly still uses the tools of journalism, and he deals with many of the same subjects. But there are, of course, some significant differences as well.

Now Connelly revels in the journalist's curse: He never lets the facts get in the way of a good story.

"I don't let accuracy get in the way of the velocity and drama of a story," he says. "In a way, I pride myself on being a manipulator of facts."

In 1996, Connelly wrote "The Poet," a mystery with a journalist as protagonist.

"I'd never read a fictional account of a journalist that was accurate to my experience," Connelly says. So he said to himself, "I'm gonna write the first accurate thriller about a journalist ... I accomplished that for about 50 pages."

Here's how it sounds:
Glenn was a good editor who prized a good read more than anything else about a story. That's what I liked about him. In this business editors are of two schools. Some like facts and cram them into a story until it is so overburdened that practically no one will read it to the end. And some like words and never let the facts get in the way. Glenn liked me because I could write and he pretty much let me choose what I wrote about ... If he were gone, I'd probably find myself back on the daily cop beat, writing briefs off the police log. Doing little murders.
But after that, Connelly says, the character becomes a journalist's fantasy. For example:
The rest of the windows shattered and as I completed my roll I opened my eyes enough to get a bead on Gladden. He was squirming on the floor, his eyes wide but not focused and his hands held to his ears. But I could tell he had been too late in recognizing what was happening. I had been able to block at least some of the impact of the concussion grenade. He looked as if he had taken the full brunt of it. I saw the gun lying loose on the floor next to his legs. Without pausing to consider my chances, I quickly crawled to it.
Oh, well. "Being deadly accurate -- in novels -- is deadly boring," Connelly says.

A journalist turned novelist, using the skills learned writing the first draft of history to infuse current concerns and meaning into popular mystery. Could there be anything he misses?

Absolutely. He left journalism a decade ago. He works at home now, all alone, weaving intricate plots, making mysteries with meaning, and more than anything else, Michael Connelly misses the newsroom.

» Read more about Connelly at his official website


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