LitReactor: Planting the Clues

joe_banner_datesStarting Tuesday, April 19th, I will be teaching a four-week course over at LitReactor on planning and plotting mysteries. Since it is an online class, you can literally take it from anywhere, meaning, best of all, pants are optional. (Lord knows I won’t be wearing them. Hate the damn things.)

Here’s the thing with mysteries. Writing them doesn’t have to be that mysterious. I know before I started doing this for a living, I had two central ideas: 1.) I wanted to write books, and 2.) I had no fucking idea how to write books. I could write pretty sentences. I’ve always been good with words. It’s why I played in bands for so many years. Wrote great lyrics. Singing was … trickier. 

titleWhen I sat down to write my first book, which, if we skip over the amateurish teenage attempts (and, yes, sadly, they exist) we’re mostly talking Junkie Love. There are those who will argue that Junkie Love is the best thing I’ve done, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. I mean, who can forget Joel Landmine‘s riveting performance as a young me? Or the kick-ass Get Set Go soundtrack?

91gncXzx1RLLike a first-born child, Junkie Love will always be special. But it’s also not a traditional book. When I interviewed Brian Panowich, whose masterful debut Bull Mountain will surely be on the tip of many an Anthony tongue this year, Brian confessed part of the reason for BM’s episodic approach stemmed from necessity. Like me, Brian found the story better told via fragmented, interconnected vignettes. That approach works perfectly for Bull Mountain, and I think it works well for Junkie Love, too.

But I wanted to venture into more mainstream, commercial fiction after Junkie Love, which is, let’s face it, a one-off story. I chose to tell the tale of my addiction and redemption via a highly stylized form of narration. Again, this isn’t to disparage the end result. I love Junkie Love and would never distance myself from it. But it’s not a commercial mystery. It’s not conventional, period. Part of the reason it took so long to find someone to take a chance on it (thank you, Vagabondage Press!). In fact, without my MFA (the degree always a controversial topic), I don’t get that book published period.

December Boys high-res copyBack to wanting to write a novel. I always figured I would someday. Once I figured out how. That took longer than I thought. Turns out writing a book is really, really fucking hard. Part of my time as a junkie I swear was research (though my tax person still won’t let me write-off the years of addiction. Too bad. We added up all the money I spent on dope as part of a rehab class. Conservative estimates placed the amount around $325K).

What I learned getting my Master’s in creative writing is that writing can be taught. There are some writers, like my buddy Tom Pitts, who understand the process inherently. Without an MFA, Tom has written several pulse-pounding thrillers. If you can do that too, good on you. I needed school. And, in particular, Lynne Barrett, who showed me how to write a book via causality, a concept I just couldn’t grasp until she broke it down. This instruction is the only way Junkie Love was seeing the light of day, and it also helped me forge a successful career writing mysteries. This causes that. Sounds simple. And it is. Try putting it in practice. But there are tricks, tips, techniques, and, not to bust my arm patting myself on the back, I’m good at explaining them. In addition to Lamentation, December Boys, the second in the Jay Porter Thriller series, is out in June (and off to some rave reviews), and we’ve sold Book 3 in the series, the tentatively titled Cold, Cold Hills, which takes its name from this bone-chilling Paul Kelly song.

angermanagementsessionWhile this is a pitch to get folks to sign up for the class, it is also a confessional. Combining my rich junkie history with how to write mysteries is a (wait for it) novel approach. But this is me. This is how I talk. How I convey information, straight from the heart, heart on the sleeve, no punches pull, name your cliché. Part of the benefit of living the way I did involves certain communicative skills. Maybe I always had them. Maybe it was the years on the street, nursed via survival, second chances, augmented with an education. I’ll never be sure. But I do know this: I can teach writing. I do it all day, every day. I have people–strangers, friends, everyone in between–writing me, and we talk writing, mostly because I am a lonely, lonely man desperate for validation, but also because I love to help.

33_03photoNot people at large, mind you. I still possess disdain for mankind in general. But writers? Artists? I’d bleed for them. Especially ones who desperately want to be published–want to be published so bad the desire feeds off the marrow of their bones as they scream into a infinite abyss like Natalie Portman. I care about those people. Because that was me. And it sucked. I had all this stuff in my head and heart and I couldn’t get it out, and it ate me up. Cost me a wife. And it almost killed me. But then CCSU, FIU, Lynne, and I learned.

Now I want to teach other people how to do it. Because writing a book, specifically mysteries, is a formula. Note: NOT formulaic. As Lynne used to say, “All art is contrivance. When someone says something is contrived, what they are really saying is the author/artist has done a bad job in concealing the puppet strings.” I am paraphrasing.

10799702_306820702848376_1014875482_nI fully expect to end up in academia someday. My dream job is to buy back the old family homestead in Berlin, and teach at my alma mater, Central Connecticut State University (Tom Hazuka, my number is the same). Until then, I’ll be ramping up classes like this (and the one I taught at Josh Mohr‘s place, the Writer’s Grotto), because I love talking shop, and after having slagged off so many years, it’s a joy to find something I’m good at that’s a benefit to others. Being a cynical bastard, I know I should caveat that with something snarky. But I can’t. When it comes to writing, I mean every goddamn word.

Hope to see you there!


4 thoughts on “LitReactor: Planting the Clues

  1. “When someone says something is contrived, what they are really saying is the author/artist has done a bad job in concealing the puppet strings.”

    You may be paraphrasing, but it’s a good quote. As much as we llo like to say our books are character-driven, most often they’re really character-centric. The plot still drives the action (and therefore the characters), but the best writers are able to disguise that. It’s the problem with too much “literary” fiction: the character truly drive the story, and nothing happens.


  2. All due respect to Jay Porter, which is very well-crafted, intentionally mainstream mystery fiction, “Wake the Undertaker” is STILL the best thing you’ve ever written, as far as I’m concerned (“Junkie Love” being a close second). Which is why my own work remains obscure, I guess. My tastes are worthless, literally.


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