Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The kid stays in the book

Tell me if this ever happens to you:

You're typing along, and you start hearing voices in your head. It's a couple of your characters, chatting away. And you find your fingers flying just trying to keep up so you can record it all.

That's how I get my dialogue. I swear sometimes I am channeling, that is how clear it comes in on my receiver. The hard part is sometimes the voices come when I'm NOT at the computer -- like when I'm jogging or looking at towels at Target -- and I can't get it down on paper. Pffttt! Gone like the last seconds of a dream.

And then -- and this doesn't happen very often -- I am typing away and I see people come onto the screen in my head. These are people I have not summoned, characters I have not accounted for, and it's like, wtf, who are you? You don't belong in this story. Get outta here, can't you see we're working here? Somebody throw this bum off my set!

But they don't leave. They hang around. And they start whispering, "forget them, tell my story."

The first time I got visited by one of them was during the writing of our third book, "Thicker Than Water." This is a story about a dirtbag con who raped and murdered a girl and twenty years later gets out of prison and proceeds to kill his defense attorney. Or so the cops say. His son Ronnie hires our hero Louis to help clear his father's name. I was writing a scene in which Ronnie and Louis were in Ronnie's tool shed talking about how Ronnie had no money to pay Louis and suddenly, in my head I heard the screech of air brakes. My fingers froze over the keyboard, but I said, I wrote in that Louis heard the braking screech of a school bus outside. A second later, a boy was in my head, whispering to me. But he was so sullen and closed, I couldn't hear what he was saying. I didn't like him. I almost ignored him. But then I gave in and wrote him into the scene -- suddenly, Ronnie had a son named Eric.

The kid hung around for 300 pages, moving in and out of the plot like a small ghost. I didn't have a friggin' clue why he was there except to make the dirtbag con, his grandfather, look even meaner. I kept wondering if Eric was just what I call a clutter-character, and that I needed to heed Elmore Leonard's famous advice to "cut out the stuff readers skip over." But I let Eric stay. Then, on page 363, Eric said something to me that changed the whole book. He said:

"Can a kid get in trouble for something he knows?"

Damn. It came together in a blinding flash, the whole key to the book. This kid was it. We had to go back and rewrite and set up the bread-crumb trail of clues better to make it work. But this ghostly kid held the final great twist of the plot in his hands. And without realizing it, for hundreds of pages, I had been giving Eric motivation and layers that set up everything for the ending. Or maybe Eric had been giving them to me.

I now call this serendipity. I have learned to welcome these intruding wraiths. I have learned to trust them. Because they are the ones you didn't build. They are the ones who came on their own. They are the ones that bring life and serenpidity to your story.

I just have to learn to listen more carefully when they come a callin'.


Anonymous Mark Terry said...

Sometimes I think I should use a Ouija Board instead of a computer.

4:31 PM  
Blogger lucylangley6993 said...

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9:24 PM  
Blogger JA Konrath said...

Congrats on the new contract!

1:40 PM  

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