Thursday, October 07, 2010



I’m not in favor of rules. However, free-thinker that I am, I’m willing to admit they have their place. Just don’t let those little buggers into my writing life. Talk about a great way to strangle the muse.

In the interest of true-confessions, I wasn’t always this…liberated. Like every wanna-be novelist, when I sat down to figure out how to write a novel, I wanted to know the rules. Just tell me how to do it, and I’d write a story the paint-by-numbers way. And, of course, this being the good ‘ol U S of A, the land of the ‘How To’ book, I found no shortage of opinions as to the proper approach to writing the next Great American Novel.

In my quest for the literary holy grail, I eagerly absorbed the proffered information. I learned some of the building blocks of craft—varied sentence structure, elimination of backstory and narrative, description only when necessary to set the scene or characters, adjectives and adverbs are not your friends, realistic dialogue (try reading it out loud), well, you get my drift. I’m sure there are plenty of other rules I absorbed so well that they became part of my subconscious. Others were pounded into intuitiveness by members of my critique group. And all of them helped me become a ‘writer.’

But my goal was to be a ‘novelist.’ So, what’s the difference? Well, a story, for starters. Now that I had some basic understanding of HOW to write (although I was far from being proficient—a reality that most beginning novelists find a bitter pill to swallow—I was no exception), WHAT to write became the burning question. I consulted my writing bibles. Thankfully, they provided a blueprint.

The first one suggested I should write what I read. Okay, I could do that. So I slaved over this international intrigue, romantic suspense, mystery/thriller. Suffice it to say, even after a million rewrites, the story was unsalvageable. It was so bad that I spent a great deal of time destroying every copy. I would rather see naked pictures of myself on the internet than have anyone read that first attempt.

Back to the books. The next suggestion was that I should write what I know. At the time I was a tax attorney in Colorado raising my son on my own. Life was a slog, punctuated by sublime moments, but a slog none-the-less. Who would want to read about that? By this point I was smart enough to know that was a rhetorical question. However, lacking any better idea, I set about writing a story with a lawyer who was a single mother as the protagonist. This attempt was better, and it was sufficiently proficient to garner the interest of an agent. But, while he liked my writing, the story was a bit too workman-like, too mid-list, for his liking.
Back to the books. Which, after offering the above suggestions, were curiously short on further specifics. I needed to be unique, but not too. I needed to find my own voice. I needed to write the story I was meant to write. Great. But how, exactly? I had no idea. So, I did what every good writer does…I punted. Actually, I didn’t punt so much as explore. I stretched other writing muscles.

First, I wrote a few feature articles for various publications. One of them was a bit flip, a bit cheeky—a less-than-confident attempt at humor. And, it worked! I had found my niche! And, I was having fun! Unconstrained, I let the stifled sarcasm run wild. After accepting an offer to write a humor column for a small national magazine, I flexed my humor chops. Along the way, I refined what was funny and what wasn’t, I learned to write tight, and I learned to write even when my muse took an extended leave.

After a few years of this, the dream of writing a novel could no longer be ignored. So, what to do? I can remember sitting at the computer, staring at the blank screen, and consciously deciding to throw away the rules, to shrug off the constraints on creativity, to boldly go where I had never gone before.
The resulting story features a sarcastic female protagonist who is the head of customer relations for a major Vegas strip property, a male lead who impersonates Cher for a living, the protagonist’s mother, who runs a whorehouse in Pahrump, NV, porn stars and swingers in town for the weekend, several mysterious men, and a girl taking a header out of a tour helicopter right into the middle of the 8:30 Pirate Show at the Treasure Island Hotel. Yup, I had a blast.

And, after all of this, I sold the story.

Deborah Coonts' mother tells her she was born in Texas a very long time ago, though she's not totally sure—-her mother can’t be trusted. But she was definitely raised in Texas on barbeque, Mexican food and beer. She currently resides in Las Vegas, where her husband, Steve (a bestselling author in his own right) assures her she cannot get into too much trouble -- silly man. She's spent more time in school than any sane person should, acquiring along the way a bachelors and masters degree in business, a law degree and a masters of laws in taxation (can you say ‘geek’?)

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