Malformations of the human species

The news that former criminology and psychology student, and convicted animal-torturer, Karla Bourque was released from prison last week is unsettling news. Kayla Bourque was convicted of cruelty towards animals and sentenced to eight months in prison, six of which she had already served. The judge in the case gave her the extra two months so that a long list of complex parole conditions could be prepared. These parole conditions included a ban on owning knives, needles or duct tape.

It raises challenging questions: this is a woman who has admitted wanting to kill homeless people, and who has shown to take pleasure in torturing her family pets, so why is she being released from prison after serving just eight-months, and what can be done about it? How do we protect ourselves and our communities against people who feel no remorse for their actions, and experience none of the moral constraints that prevent them from committing terrible crimes?

This story strikes a nerve with me because my 2011 book The Vanishing Track is about a male version of Ms. Bourque. In this mystery novel, set in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, a young man named Shawn Livingstone graduates from juvenile delinquency to torturing and killing animals, stealing cars, burning down a neighbourhood grocery store to stalking and killing the homeless. Sean is a psychopath – a human abomination incapable of feeling the most basic emotion: empathy – and that makes him capable of committing the most heinous crimes without feeling any remorse. He, like all psychopaths, is intelligent and superficially charming, but he lacks the ability to feel. He can mimic normal human emotions, but as Dr. Richard Hare of the University of British Columbia, and the world’s foremost expert on psychopathy, says “he knows the words but not the music.”

I don’t know if Kayla Bourque is a psychopath, but the odds are in favour of it. Dr. Hare has developed the standard model for assessing this severe form of mental deviation. It’s called the Hare Phychopathy Checklist and it includes two main categories: personality “aggressive narcissism” and case history “socially deviant lifestyle.” Under the first category are behaviours such as having a grandiose sense of self worth, pathological lying and the failure to accept responsibility for his/her own actions. In the second category are historical habitats such as a need for constant stimulation and tendency to experience boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, poor behavioural control and juvenile delinquency. Twenty questions in all, the checklist is administered by a trained professional and each of the twenty categories is scored on a scale of 0-2 (zero meaning no evidence of the trait is displayed, 1 meaning there is a partial match and 2 if there is a reasonably good match). The maximum score is forty; different administrators have varying thresholds for the label psychopath but it is usually in the range of 25-30.

Screenings of the general population using Hare’s checklist suggested that around 1% of the people in North America are potentially psychopaths. One in a hundred people demonstrate the behavioural or historical traits of psychopathy. Not all psychopaths turn to criminal behaviour: in fact Dr. Hare, along with Paul Babiak, wrote a fascinating book about what many psychopaths end up doing called Snakes in Suits: when Psychopaths go to Work. Think about the collapse of Wall Street in 2008 and the lack of remorse shown for the suffering that caused and you’ll understand Hare and Babiak’s thesis.

Many psychopathic individuals are content to live non-violent lives, but they are almost never without victims. Some male psychopaths express their parasitic tendencies through casual and exploitive sexual relationships; others prey on families and associates through petty crimes or mental, financial or emotional abuse.

The cause of phychopothy is not known: researchers speculate that a chemical imbalance between testosterone and cortisol may be to blame; others suggest environmental factors such as abuse during childhood while others say poor socioeconomic status might be a factor. No one has yet stated categorically that there is a definitive cause.

Psychopaths are gross malformation of the human species; so like us in so many ways, but lacking the moral fibre that we associate with humanity, and therefore not quite fully human.

There is no cure. One psychologist who spoke with the troubled Ms. Bourque before she was released said that the young woman will likely require supervision for the rest of her life.

Ms. Bourque has admitted to wanting to kill people, and is intelligent enough to study criminology at Simon Fraser University to learn how to do it in a manner that she will not be caught. Consequences have little meaning to psychopaths: they don’t fear being caught because they will be punished; they fear being caught because it will spoil the fun.

It was only Ms. Bourque’s inflated ego that led her to being arrested: she bragged about her cunning to a fellow student who called the police.

The question remains: what do we do with people like Ms. Bourque? She hasn’t yet committed a crime that warrants locking her up for the rest of her life, but obviously the judge in this case feels that she is likely to re-offend or he wouldn’t’ have imposed such strict probation. Our judicial system prevents us from locking Ms. Bourque and others like her up for crimes she has yet to commit, and monitoring her behaviour for the rest of her life will be a costly and human-resource consuming operation for police and social service providers. If we don’t watch her she will almost certainly commit additional crimes. And what do we do with all of the others?

There is no easy answer. I’m open to your ideas:

First, it gets bigger

Before it can get smaller, it must first get bigger.

That’s got to be one of the laws of editing.

Last week I finished another draft of The Glacier Gallows, the fourth book in the Cole Blackwater series. It tips the scales at 100,479 words. At the end of the first draft it was 91,400 words. Between drafts one and three I found 9,000 words-worth of things I hadn’t said.

I also cut a bunch of pointless shlock out during this draft; I think it’s safe to assume I added at least 11, or 12,000 words during the 2nd and 3rd draft.

I know full well they won’t last. More shlock will need to go. My last two novels have been about 95,000 words each, so I’ll soon be taking the ole’ editorial chain-saw to at least 5, or 6,000 innocent verbs, nouns, pronouns and what-have-you. If I don’t, someone else will.

When I write a first draft, I don’t worry too much about filling in the holes in my plot. If something doesn’t add up, I make a note in the draft and keep going. In many ways it’s like hand building with clay; I don’t worry too much if there is an arm missing in the sculpture as long as the torso of the work holds up. I can come back and ad an appendage later.

This works for me, more or less. I know other writers who couldn’t live this way. I recently did a reading with another TouchWood author, Cathy Ace, where she confessed that her novel The Corpse with the Silver Tongue emerged pretty much fully formed in the first draft. I didn’t let on at the time but I was dumbfounded by this. My novels emerge looking more like something a hobo cobbled together at the city dump and then dragged through the streets for a few weeks during the monsoon season.

First drafts, at least for me, are for getting the idea down. I use them to create a framework that I can build the rest of the story around. It also happens to be where most of the dialog develops. During that first draft flow – where I’m not troubling myself with things like past-progressive tense, which I’ve recently discovered I use all the damn time – I can allow the characters to have their conversations in my head and capture what they are saying without worrying about trifling matters like spelling.

During the second draft of The Glacier Gallows I read through the armless sculpture of a novel and made pages of notes on where the holes in the plot were and where inconsistencies occurred. It probably sounds asinine to most people, but I’ve got to work hard to keep track of my own characters. I mix up names of some secondary characters and find myself reluctantly making a chart about half-way through the second draft to keep everybody organized.

The third draft is where I start working on style. Why, you ask, not do it all at once? Capacity: I lack the mental capacity to work on the content of the novel – the guts of the mystery – and check to see if I’ve used the word “said” too many times, or if I’ve transposed from and form or written “Cole was standing by the table” instead of “Cole stood by the table,” which I am told by my 10-year old is a stronger sentence.

The truth is, I get caught up in the story and forget to read for grammar and style.

I also, almost inevitability, miss holes in the plot, which troubles me more than just about any other matter. The sculpture might have both of its arms now, but it can’t tie its own silly shoe laces for lack of fingers.

With the third draft under my belt I’ll now and start shaving off the unnecessary bits of the story that only get in the way. How many times do I need to explain Cole’s investigative thinking to the reader? I know there is a chapter where he takes a flight from Calgary back to his old stomping grounds of Ottawa and spends the whole time contemplating the mystery. I’m pretty sure there are four pages – about 1,300 words (and a fair amount of beer drinking) – that I can chop there. There’s likely a lot more.

So I build the story up, and then shave it back down. There is likely a much more efficient process for writing, but this is the one I’ve used now for 10 books (5 published, 4 on deck and 1 sad, lonesome book lost and alone, searching for a publisher) and it works for me. Every writer has their own process and mine is to make things bigger before I can make them smaller again.

Looking into Glacier National Park, Montana, from the Bison Lakes, Badger-Two Medicine region of the Lewis and Clark National Forest.

Canmore event

I love reading to my friends, and so it was in Canmore last night. My thanks go out to new friends and old for your attendance at Cafe Books last night for another book event in the Bow Valley. Cafe Books has hosted events for my last four novels and as always they made me feel very welcome, with wine and kind words. Thanks to those who stocked up on books – at least two folks went home with four books each! Below is a photo of me getting into character; the photo was taken by another character, my ten-year-old son Rio. Thanks again to all for a very nice evening.

There’s a big stack of signed copies of The Vanishing Track, The End of the Line, and The Darkening Archipelago at Cafe Books. I’m told The Cardinal Divide is on order. Click here to read a summary of each of these titles.

Reading from The Vanishing Track in Canmore, Alberta.

I’m off to Vancouver and Victoria next. Check here for event details. Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault for updates.

Five Chapters and an Owl’s Nest

I did a little mini-tour of Calgary’s books stores last night. I didn’t get to all of them, but a lot. I thought that with the Vanishing Track enjoying some degree of success in that city that I should do what I could to maintain momentum. There’s only so much an author can do; one of the things is sign books.

It’s always humbling to walk into any book store, let alone five Chapters stores in a row. The first Chapters I visited was in the Chinook Centre and I had to navigate my way around a massive circular table adorned with the biggest stack of books I’ve ever seen. It must have been piled as tall as a person could reach, and all by one writer: Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games trilogy.

She also got her own section. Similar piles of that same book greeted me in the other Chapters.

More than just that display of marketing power, the thing that really humbles me when I walk into a Chapters is the sheer volume of titles vying for the consumer’s eye. There are tens of thousands of books on their shelves. And that’s just a drop in the bucket of what is being published each year. Ten times that number are being published as e-books. It’s good to keep perspective.

I dutifully sought out copies of The Vanishing Track and the End of the Line, my two most recent books, on the store’s shelves and signed them and introduced myself to store staff and asked for “signed by the author” stickers. I don’t really know if this helps book sales. I don’t think it hurts, and I suppose if a reader has to choose between two books, a scrawled personalization might tip the scale in my favour.

I did have two really positive experiences. The first was visiting Owl’s Nest Books, one of my two favourite book sellers in Calgary, the other being Pages on Kensington (who I visited last week). They had lots of my books on their shelves, including copies of The Darkening Archipelago, a previous Cole Blackwater title. Owl’s Nest, like other independent stores, is not so easily influenced by mass hysteria around books like The Hunger Games. I’m sure they had copies in the store, but nothing that threatened to bury a customer if they inadvertently knocked the display table.

The End of the Line, Darkening Archipelago and The Vanishing Track at Owl's Nest Books. You can just see Stieg Larsson being crowded to the side by my titles.

The other really positive experience was in the Dalhousie Chapters. They were short on staff, so I just grabbed copies of my books off the shelves and took them to the checkout counter where I signed them and handed them to the clerk for stickers and re-shelving. The people in line behind me had a small armload of mystery titles and they asked me about my books and then happily added copies of The End of the Line and the Vanishing Track to their purchases. Connecting with readers is one of the best parts about being a writer.

In the end, I don’t know if driving all over Calgary and signing books will help sell a few more. But it was good to meet more book sellers and a few readers. And my message is that, as a writer, I’m willing to go the extra mile to make a success of my books.

An opportunity for gratitude

“Actually, I’m an overnight success. But it took twenty years.” — Monty Hall

I started my day today by checking my email and finding a Google Alert for my name. The alert told me there was something in The Calgary Herald so I clicked on the link and found out that The Vanishing Track, which was released a month ago by TouchWood Editions, was the #1 bestseller there last week.

I was gob-smacked. My first instinct was to tell someone, but because I start my day at 5am there wasn’t anybody around to confide in. The kids are at their other household and Jenn is on the coast where it was only 4am. Its not part of a healthy marriage to wake your wife up so early, even if it is with good news.

I don’t even have a pet I could tell so I made another cup of tea and paced around the house for a while, and then sat down and felt a wave of happiness and something else –relief? — rush over me

I’ve been writing since 1988 and seriously trying to publish since 1994. My first book was released in 2006 and since then I’ve had four more published. This is the first time I have been on a bestseller list. Just like Monty Hall said, this overnight success has been some time in coming. No, it’s not The New York Times or The Globe and Mail, but this means something to me.

It means that my hard work is paying off. It means that the choices I’ve been making are sound. And it means that I have a lot to be thankful for.

That’s what is most important about this for me: gratitude. I am grateful that every morning I can wake up and sit down at the computer and without fail write something. I’ve never had a single day of writers block. Yes, I’ve encountered plot challenges, but that’s different. Writing comes completely naturally, if you call dogged determination and waking up hungry to create and succeed every single morning natural.

I’m also grateful to have an impressive team behind me, starting with my wife Jenn, who is the first person to read everything I write to keep me from seriously embarrassing myself. Ruth and Frances at TouchWood form the backstop of my editorial team and Lenore has been doing her best with my rotten syntax and terrible spelling for the last couple of novels. Without them I’d be nowhere. The rest of the gang at TouchWood – Peter, Emily, and a whole gaggle of other folks who I adore but whose names I can’t remember or find in my email – make me look far better than I deserve.

I can’t forget my children: a couple of hours ago my 6-year-old Silas called me up to congratulate me. Either his mom and step-dad told him about this or he’s creeping me on Facebook. Kids these days.

There are a lot of people selling my books. To get to #1 on a local bestsellers list (without passing through numbers 10 through 2 I should ad) means that two book stores in Calgary – The Owl’s Nest and Pages on Kensington – had to sell a stack of books. That’s how it works: bestsellers lists, including the Globe and Mail‘s, are compiled from sales from independent booksellers. There aren’t as many of them around anymore, and digital book sales are having an impact too, so this is a heroic effort. In additional to these fine Calgary book sellers, Victoria’s Munro’s, Bolen and Russell Books, and of course, my favourite Chronicles of Crime, are what keep writers like me motivated. In Canmore Café Books pretty much treats me like family.

But most importantly, readers are who I have to be grateful to. People like you who buy these books for their Kindles or Kobos, who pick them up at their favourite independent book seller or at one of the big stores, who take them out of the library or buy them used or, as one woman recently wrote to tell me, found The Darkening Archipelago in a lending library in her hotel in Thailand. It turns out that Alison and I worked at Royal Roads University at the same time (and the book was one of the only English language books on the shelf) so she picked it up and now it’s continuing its globe-trotting.

Readers are what make my job so much fun. We connect across the universe; we are, as someone once said, holding hands under the table (or maybe it was the covers….). So thanks for buying my books; you make it possible for me to keep doing what I love, hopefully in every increasing amounts. I am grateful to you.

If you’d like to keep in touch follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.

Good Friday Writing

I finished the first draft of The Glacier Gallows today at twelve thirty this afternoon. On the dot. The manuscript is full of holes and there are rents in the plot that you could drive just about any cliché you wanted to through. But they can all be fixed, and most will, in the subsequent drafts. Because I made a bunch of plot changes towards the end of the novel, I’m going to have to go back and make more additions and subtractions early in the book.

I penned about 8,000 words this morning. I had planned to work on this manuscript over the long weekend, being at home sans wife and children, and now that it’s done all have to do for the next few days is sit back and gloat. And go skiing.

In case you’re just dying to know, here’s what a day in the life looks like as I race through the conclusion of a first draft.

10:30 pm. A good morning’s writing starts with an early bed time. Healthy, wealthy and all that, minus the wealthy.

4:14 am. Wake up, already thinking about the final chapters of the book. I just fall back asleep when…

4:50 am. The alarm goes off. I lay in bed for a couple of minutes and then go down to the kitchen, make tea.

5:00 am. Back in bed I listen to the news. I usually do this in my office, but Jenn is away so I won’t wake anybody.

5:03 am. The news is the abbreviated version reserved for holiday’s when there is little newsworthy going on, or nobody left at the CBC to report it. Thanks Stevo. Feel cheated. Listen to the first 6 minutes of some BBC show on science.

5:09 am. Still savouring my first cup of tea, I commute the 7 steps to my office and read the Globe and Mail, Politico, and Pearls before Swine, online.

5:11 am. Open The Glacier Gallows and start reading the last few paragraphs I wrote yesterday.

5:12 am. Read Calvin and Hobbs. That’s right. On Go Comics you can read the whole strip, right from the start, with a new instalment daily. The internet is swell.

5:13 am. Back to The Glacier Gallows: start writing. I’m still not fully awake so it’s slow going at first.

5:20 am. Make second cup of tea. First breakfast: Honey-nut cheerio’s with almond breeze.

5:30 am. I work my way through some minor changes that I was thinking about at 4:14 and then start into a new chapter. The writing comes very quickly at this point and by 6:20 I’ve written 1,200 words.

6:21am. Third cup of tea. I switch to decaf (And don’t sneer. Taylor’s of Harrogate makes the best bagged tea in the world and they started making a decaffeinated tea and it’s awesome.)

6:30 am. Check Tweet Deck. Send a few tweets. Check Facebook. Check weather forecast and look at Ski Louise web site. Fantasise about skiing.

6:40 am. Back at it. (Sound of whip cracking.) I bore into the next chapter, and write another 1,100 words before…

7:30. Fourth cup of tea. Back to caffeine. High octane stuff. I use a fork to speed the steeping process.

7:33 Get distracted (again, always) by sunrise out my office window. Take pictures. Upload. Edit. Post.

The view from my office window of Mount Peter Lougheed (right), Wind Ridge (forested, foreground) Mount Allen (centre) and Mount Collembola (left)

7:42. For the next couple of hours I work on one of the climatic scenes in the book. It’s the much anticipated (by me) chase scene. Good fun.

9:45. Fifth cup of tea. Back to decaf. Switch things up. Keep the adrenal glands guessing. Second breakfast: toast with jam. I’ve come to a plot challenge that I have to work through, so I pace around the empty house, talking to myself. “Well, what would Cole do? He would do this…No, no, no he would do this….”

10:04 am. Take a shower. Next to going for a run, this is the easiest way for me to solve a plot problem.

10:09 am. Warm up fifth cup of tea.

10:10 am. Back at it. The plot challenge overcome, I burn through the a very long, exciting chapter that involves a car chase, a gun fight, a fist fight, an car accident and livestock being startled by masked assailants.

11:45 am. I want more tea, but it’s a bad idea, so I drink a glass of water and feel slightly righteous.

11:47 am. All I have left is a short epilogue. Not much room for creativity there….But wait, the excitement isn’t over! I decide to set up the fifth Cole Blackwater book right there in the epilogue. Legault you clever fellow. That’s where all the smug gloating comes from.

12:30 pm. I punch the last period of the last sentence of the last paragraph….you get the idea…of the first draft of The Glacier Gallows.

12:31 pm. Tweet about it.

12:32 pm. Wonder what I’m going to work on next.

If you would like to know what comes next, follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.

To read all of my posts on Deconstructing Draft One for both The Glacier Gallows and The Third Riel Conspiracy, click here.

Just the dude at the keyboard

Rest easy: I made it through the rough patch.

Everybody seemed so concerned. I did an interview with Russell Bowers, the host of CBC’s Daybreak Alberta last Thursday and he started the interview noting that I was in a bit of a jam. He had read this blog. It’s no big deal, I assured him: Cole got the pickup truck moving again and he’s no longer loitering on the streets of Cheyenne Wyoming.

He did get himself in a heap of trouble, mind you.

Things don’t always go as planned when I’m working on a first draft. That’s certainly been the case with The Glacier Gallows. Given that this story has been in my head for more than five years, and the meticulous planning that I do when I’m preparing to pen a first draft, you’d think that this would have been all but feta-complete. It doesn’t work that way. I step into first draft mode with a solid idea as to where I’m going, and a good idea as to how to get there, but there are a lot of miles between word one and word ninety-five thousand.

Characters change; the story takes on a life of its own. It goes in directions that I couldn’t’ have foreseen. It’s a living thing: born of the grey matter between my ears in part, but more a mixture of the creative soup of the cosmos than anything else. I’m just the dude at the keyboard.

The one thing that has happened in penning The Glacier Gallows that has never happened before is about two-thirds of the way through I changed who the killer is. I didn’t see that coming. But there I was working my way through that jam in the plot line when it occurred to me that the killer had been revealed too soon, and maybe I had better rethink this whole mess.

I did, and things changed. I’ll have to go back in draft two and expand on some stuff in the early chapters, but I’m pretty happy with the way the story is shaping up.

As always, there’s going to be a lot of work to do to get this book to print in the next eighteen months. And I’ve still got three or four chapters, and another six or eight thousand words to write tomorrow morning, but I’m in the home stretch. I think.

Wanna read more about first drafts and plot changes? Follow along @stephenlegault.

Trust

I’m writing this blog post about the first draft of The Glacier Gallows because it’s easier than writing the first draft of the Glacier Gallows.

I hit a wall this morning. It’s not an insurmountable wall. From experience I know that I’ll overcome this obstacle, but it stopped me never the less.

I’m about 75,000 words into the book; this is the time when the story’s pace is supposed to be peaking; when all the red hearings are supposed to be evaporating, and our hero – Cole Blackwater – is supposed to be figuring out what exactly the mystery in the novel actually is.

But he’s not. I left him parked in a pickup truck in Cheyenne Wyoming this morning. He’s about to brace one of the bad guys in the story; a character who the reader hasn’t met, but who we have heard a lot about.

The problem is, I’m just not certain what happens next.

I have my outline, but so far into the novel a few things have changed, and the outline only says that Cole discovers that…. It’s not much help, frankly. When I was writing the outline I knew this would be a problem, but trusted I’d have a solution by the time I got to this point in the novel. I don’t. Not yet.

I know what I’m supposed to do: Just keep writing. And I will. Tomorrow morning I’ll sit back down and write my way through the obstacle. I’ve learned to trust the first draft process. This is my 9th first draft, and after facing this challenge before, in particular in The Third Riel Conspiracy, I know that if I just keep my fingers moving, I’ll get enough material down in the first draft that I can clean up the plot in subsequent versions of the book.

Trust is a critical component of the creative process. These stories emerge from somewhere I can only vaguely describe as my imagination. And what is that? Imagination is a part of the subconscious self that is connected with the vast store of ideas, energy, information and inspiration that makes up the universe around us. We’re all connected to that storehouse of creativity; for some the pipe is just a little fatter, allowing the ideas to flow faster, and with greater regularity. Practice and millage is what makes the pipe bigger.

We have to trust the creative process. It’s never failed me before, and it won’t fail me now. Part of that trust is knowing this can’t be forced. I can’t force myself to solve this plot problem. I can work at it, but in this case working to solve the problem means taking a step back and letting my subconscious take over. I’ll meditate and later today I’ll go for a long run in the hills. As Lao Tzu says, emptiness is the source of all things.

The way to overcome these challenges is to relax and not worry too much about it. There isn’t a shadow of a doubt that I’ll write my way through this predicament and the novel will take shape. It might not be very good, but I’ve got lots of time for second, third and fourth drafts.

One technique I’ve used to tap into this creative store-house in the past is to sleep on the vexing challenge. Before going to bed I meditate on the problem (which means, I clear my mind of the challenge and then ask myself a simple, clear question) planting the seed in my subconscious and believing that when I wake up, I’ll have the solution. Sometimes it takes several days, but this almost always works.

So I’ve left Cole sitting in his truck, watching, and waiting for me, his author, to know what to do next. I’m as excited as the next guy to find out what that will be.

If you want to find out what happens next when I do, follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault.

Click here to read more notes about Deconstructing Draft One.

The middle of everywhere

I reached a landmark in the writing of The Glacier Gallows over the weekend. On Sunday morning I finished Part 1 of the book. 53,000 words in, and there it was. It took me a few false starts to get there; the children needed food, and there was this business of household chores: apparently the kitchen and bathrooms need to be cleaned every now and again.

But on Sunday morning I breezed past the 225 page mark, wrapping up what I consider to be a distinct part of this novel. In the first half of the book the story is told by several people, in different places, and at different times. At the end of Part 1 the various timelines and character-perspectives collapse into one. Cole Blackwater, the novel’s protagonist, is part of each chapter but sometimes only peripherally. At the end of Part 1 the focus shifts squarely onto Cole and will remain there throughout Part 2.

Without giving too much away, Part 1 is where Cole Blackwater gets into something of a pickle. Cole is working on a climate change project with Brian Marriott, his once arch-enemy who used to work for the Petroleum Industry.  Brian is murdered while they are leading a hike though Montana’s Glacier National Park, thus the glacier part of the title. Cole isn’t above suspicion, hence the gallows.

On Sunday I wrapped up Part 1 and then I just kept on going. Right into the middle of nowhere.

The next morning I started back again with Part 2 and realized that I was boring myself to tears; never a good sign. After a rather dramatic culmination of the action at the end of Part 1, I had to keep the energy up in the middle of the book. I backed up and took a run at it again. The reader, I guessed, will likely expect the same sort of walloping suspense that the book starts with (or at least that I think it starts with, delusional pen-jockey that I am). I think my second attempt was better; at least I was able to stay awake.

The middle of the novel is always a challenge for me. By breaking this book into two distinct parts, I’m trying to inject some freshness into the middle nowhere; make it the middle of everywhere!

To keep the middle of everywhere from becoming the middle of a bowl of mushy oatmeal, I’ve been developing a few first draft techniques:

1. Avoid exposition

I try to keep the plot crisp and resist the urge to melt into narcissistic explosion, expounding on how much my characters (ie: I) know about the world by having them droll on in their heads about subject matter only peripherally related to the novel’s plot. I know from that which I speak: I’ve done this many times, and thankfully my story editor has had the good sense and courage to remind me that I’m writing a mystery novel and not a polemic on some environmental issue or a lesson on Canadian history.

2. Keep everybody talking

With The Glacier Gallows I’m writing as much of the book as possible as pure dialog. I learned from reading one of Chuck Wending’s expletive-filled but insightful blog posts on the craft of writing to eliminate as much exposition as possible. If I have to, I’ll fill in some additional scenery and details in subsequent drafts.

The reader, I am told, is less likely to skip over dialog than narrative description or exposition. That means they will continue to read through the mushy middle if you just keep everybody talking.

3. Now is a good time for that plot twist you’ve been saving

I like to introduce a plot twist somewhere in the middle of the story. In the Cardinal Divide the twist was the discovery that the murder hadn’t actually happened where the cops and even the protagonist thought it had. In the Darkening Archipelago the twist was the revelation that Archie Ravenwing, heretofore believed to have died in an accident at sea, had actually been murdered. Do something to keep the reader on their toes. Give them a jolt to get the blood circulating. Step away from the cattle prod; yes you.

4. Cut to the Chase

If you’re slogging along wondering when the hell your novel will finally come to an end, there’s a good chance it will, and sooner than you want it to. Scrap pile of broken dreams time. Sometimes when I’m writing the middle of a book I catch myself wishing I didn’t have to scribble all this crap and could just get to the good stuff. So I do. As I said above, if what you’re writing seems tedious and tired, there’s a very good chance readers will find it tedious and tired as well. Get to the point! Skip a chapter, even two: write the next chase, cut to the sex scene, or revel in the big reveal. There’s a fair chance that whatever you are labouring through is unnecessary anyway. Even if it isn’t entirely, you can likely cut 75% of it and still have a stand up novel.

5. Beware False Summits.

I hate false summits. When in the mountains, sometimes I’ll look up and think, wow: I’m almost there! Then I crest the rise and realize I still have a thousand feet of elevation gain and I’m out of Snickers bars.

In writing, however, false summits can be useful. I started dabbling with them when I wrote early drafts of The Vanishing Track, and continued with the publication of The End of the Line. The reader gets the impression that the mystery has been solved and there’s nothing left but the Sherlockian summation of the crime when whapo! More action, another twist, more fisticuffs! This sort of thing helps me write the mushy middle because I never hesitate to throw one of these false summits somewhere into the middle of the book.

6. Head down, chin up

Sometimes the middle of the book is just plain hard work to write. The excitement of starting a new project is long in the rear-view mirror. At the 45 or 50,000 word mark I’m still 45 or 50,000 words from the end. This is the time when I heed some of the best advice I’ve read. It’s from Henry Millar: “When you can’t create you can work.” It’s not all glamour; it’s not all car chases and fist fights and nail biting tension. Sometimes it’s weaving a complex story that slowly, deliberately builds towards a crescendo.

Sometimes I just put my head down and write through whatever ennui I’m feeling towards my project. Sometimes I’ll just force myself to write another thousand or fifteen hundred words, even if I know I’m going to burn them in a garbage can during the next draft. It gets the creative juices flowing. If nothing else, I can write my way to the next car chase or fist fight.

I’m trying to learn the difference between this need to just work through a difficult chapter and plain old boring writing. It’s the difference between being in the middle of nowhere and the middle of everywhere.

Fifty thousand words to go.

To read more  blog posts on Deconstructing First Draft, click here.

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A mystery about love

With the release of The Vanishing Track I’m sure to get the occasional question about what the book is about. I’ve got my stock answer all down pat: it’s a mystery book about homelessness. Cole Blackwater and his friends discover that homeless people are vanishing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and soon uncover a dangerous cabal of city officials, high ranking cops, developers and crime bosses who are conspiring to bulldoze Skid Row. Are the people living in the Single Room Occupancy hotels in the way of progress? Or is something more sinister at work.

Dum-dum-dum.

When Shelagh Rogers and I yack it up on The Next Chapter, that’s likely what I’ll say. But like the other books in the Cole Blackwater series, this is a murder mystery with a message. Of course, the plot comes first. No soap box rants, just good old fashioned story telling. But beneath the narrative arc of the story is something far more meaningful to me. The Vanishing Track is a mystery about love.

Every single human being that I met during the research for this book was born with dreams and hopes and a vision for their lives that, in many cases, have not come to fruition. They now live lives that they could not have imaged: lives of poverty, disease, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, fear and pain.

But they also live lives full of love, hope, courage, joy and triumph. When I meet people on the street, this is what I choose to see.

We are all connected by love. In the late 1990’s I spent a lot of time in Ottawa. One night I was walking back from the Market to my hotel. As I crossed the bridge over the Rideau Canal I met a man who was asking for change. I had some left over pizza, which I handed to him, and we chatted for a while. He gratefully accepted the food and as we parted he said, “God bless you.” I said “God bless you” in return.

That was strange for me because it’s been a very long time since I believed in a God that would bless me. Later when explaining this to a friend she told me matter-of-factly “Well, what you were really saying was I love you.”

And of course, I was. Love is the energy of the universe that animates us and binds us together and breathes life into everything we see, hear, feel, taste and touch. And everything that is beyond our senses.

When I wrote The Vanishing Track I wanted to ensure that the book was grounded in love; that it was a book about the need for us to reach out to people less fortunate than we are and treat them with love, respect and compassion. When we see someone on the street we must remember that we are merely extensions of each other, all waves in the ocean of humanity, and that to love these people is nothing more and nothing less than to love ourselves.