by David Ellis
The most important lessons are always the simplest ones. I sometimes think of that book “everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten” or whatever it was called. The basic rules for writing well are the same. I’ve written about some of them before. They’re not hard. They’re mostly obvious. And yet I continue to violate them. I continue to need reminders. And then, lucky you, I mention them in my blogs, assuming you might appreciate the reminders.
When I was face down in Springfield in 2007, buried under an avalanche of Rod Blagojevich attacking my boss Speaker Madigan (which by extension meant attacking me), and being forced to cancel my book tour for my fifth novel, I tried to explain to my publisher in New York about this crazy governor we had. “Then write about him,” they said. “It would be interesting to people.”
Well, fast-forward, yadda yadda yadda (if Elaine can yadda-yadda-yadda sex, I can yadda-yadda-yadda Blago), and now Rod has become a wee bit interesting-er.
All the more reason to write about him. So, my seventh novel, coming out next year, is about political corruption. I’ve written here before about it. I mentioned that it was weird writing about something to which I am so close. It still is, by the way, but that’s not my point here.
What is interesting in the development of this novel is not just that it’s not turning out as planned (mine never turn out as planned), but the way it’s diverted from the original specs. I had originally envisioned a book that chronicled a flawed man who became governor and didn’t know how to handle it. Yes, I would draw on the foibles of one Mr. Blago, but only as a launching point and nothing too on-the-nose. No matter, it seemed like a compelling topic on which to write.
And if I have any mind for marketing at all—I’m getting there, but trees grow slowly—I would capitalize on this impeachment that brought me some short-lived notoriety. Oh, and look: His criminal trial is coming up next summer, so it will be just in time for my book’s release!
All good, right? A cool idea and a built-in marketing plan?
Maybe not so good. Because I’m approaching the end, and it really isn’t all that much about a corrupt governor, after all. It’s much more about my series protagonist, Jason Kolarich, than it is about any of the corrupt public officials sprinkled in the novel.
And now I find myself trying to force a square Rod into a round hole. I’m not thinking about what’s best for the book. I’m allowing external forces to dictate my story. I’m thinking about what I “should” be writing about from an outsider’s point of view. I “should” be writing a character study of a governor like RRB, because I saw him up close and it’s what readers will expect.
It seems so obvious when I write it here: Write whatever’s best for the story. But I’ve spent the last two months or so essentially violating that rule. It took me much longer than it should have to realize that what readers “expect” is the best I have to offer. So I’ve liberated myself now and focused on what is the best story, regardless of how may cameos my flawed governor makes.
The most important lessons really are the simplest ones. I’m not sure why I keep forgetting them.