Saturday, January 16, 2010

Partners in Crime: Jeffery Deaver

Jeffery Deaver Guest Blogs today as part of the Partners in Crime (writers who collaborate with other writers) series here on Mystery Fanfare.

Jeffery Deaver, the author of twenty-five novels and two collections of short stories, has been awarded the Steel Dagger and Short Story Dagger from the CWA, is a three-time recipient of the Ellery Queen Reader's Award for Best Short Story of the Year and is a winner of the British Thumping Good Read Award. The Bodies Left Behind won the "Best Thriller Of The Year" award from the International Thriller Writers Organization in 2009. His thriller The Cold Moon won a Grand Prix from the Japanese Adventure Fiction Association and was named Book of the Year by the Mystery Writers Association of Japan. He's been nominated for six Edgar Awards from MWA, an Anthony Award and a Gumshoe Award. He was shortlisted for the ITV3 Crime Thriller Award for Best International Author. Jeff won a "Lovey Readers Award" for best series of 2008, for the Lincoln Rhyme series, at the Love Is Murder writers' conference. His book A Maiden's Grave was made into an HBO movie starring James Garner and Marlee Matlin, and his novel The Bone Collector was a feature release from Universal Pictures, starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. His most recent books are The Bodies Left Behind, The Broken Window, The Sleeping Doll and More Twisted: Collected Stories, Volume II. And, yes, the rumors are true, he did appear as a corrupt reporter on his favorite soap opera, As The World Turns.

Playing with Others
By Jeffery Deaver

I was a little surprised to find how much I enjoyed the process of contributing to the two novels that are included in Vanguard's recent release, Watchlist.

I'm one of those people who would be described by the school psychologist as somebody "who doesn't play well with others." Not that I don't like people, in fact I'm quite--sometimes too--social. (I mean, who wouldn't rather go out for a beer with friends than proofread your damn manuscript one more time?) But when it comes to my novels and short stories, I have such a strong idea about where I want the plot to go and who my characters are that I have little patience for other people's input in the early stages of writing. Of course, I have editors; in fact, before my manuscript even goes to my publisher, I will have sent it to at least two copyeditors, hired at my expense, to pull apart the book and find errors and inconsistencies. But that's only after the novel's more or less done and I've rewritten it thirty or so times.

I've collaborated once in the past, though not for a published project, but for a TV show. In the interest of protecting identities (and my future career as a star on 24 . . . ha!) I won't mention the network by name, but it was one of the big broadcast outfits. I was a creative consultant and writer, and the producer got it into his head that it would be a great effect for a character to have to find and remove an important piece of evidence from a fish. (Oh, by the way, one that happened to be swimming in the ocean at the time.) I asked the producer some basic questions that I thought were important. Such as, how does the character know the clue is in the fish? And even more basically, how did the evidence get into the damn thing in the first place? His reply forever characterized collaborative writing for me: "You're the writer. It's your job to figure that out."

So you'll understand that it was with some reservation, shall I say, that I heard from the International Thriller Writers organization, asking if I would participate in a serial novel. But when I learned what they had in mind and I decided to give it a go, in large part because it was to be a fundraiser, in effect, for ITW. I would have the freedom to create the first chapter of a thriller and then hand it off to another author, who would write the second, and send it on its way, and so on. There would be about 15 of us involved in the project altogether. There would not be any true collaboration; we would each be writing our own chapter, with the only limitation being that, of course, subsequent writers had to take into account the plot and the characters of the prior chapters. It was agreed, too, that I would write the final chapter. This was because I particularly love to conclude my books with two or three surprise endings, and I hoped to do this with the serial novel.

Part of the attraction too was the stellar cast of proposed writers, which included Lee Child, John Gilstrap, Joe Finder, SJ Rozan, James Grady and David Hewson.

I had recently been on a book tour in Poland and decided that I would open our thriller there. I came up with the idea of a previously undiscovered music manuscript by Chopin, which may or may not have secret messages in it. My hero was a former military intelligence officer, named Harry Middleton, and he and a group of associates were now involved in tracking down war criminals. I then handed off my chapter to the second author and the project continued from there--under, I must add, the superb editorship of fellow writer Jim Fusilli. Finally the manuscript came back to me. I read the fantastic story that my fellow authors have created from my rough idea, and came up with some twists and turns in the final chapter.

This became The Chopin Manuscript, an original download from The novel became extremely successful, and in fact won the Audie award for best audio book of the year. (We even beat Harry Potter!)

Well, what happens when you have little success? They come knocking at your door. I was approached by ITW again, about doing a sequel. Since I had so much fun with the first project, I of course agreed. The second book features Middleton and his colleagues as they pursue a terrorist involved in Pakistan, India and Kashmir. This novel, The Copper Bracelet, was Audible's number one bestseller when it was first released.

Now, both books are appearing in print form, from Vanguard, combined in a single volume, titled Watchlist.

I have some thoughts about my experience in working on these serial novels.

First, I was very impressed that all my fellow authors kept in mind that this was a joint project and took the trouble to carefully read the previous chapters and to make sure that their contributions provided a springboard that would make it easy for subsequent authors to pick up the story. I was sure that somebody would write a chapter in which aliens from the planet Zantar would fly to earth and kidnap our heroes--or at least introduce a plot twist that was over the top. But no such thing happened. There were a few instances in which we had to return to prior chapters and make a few minor edits, in the interests of making sure we had real zingers of an ending. In every case, the authors were more than generous and accommodating in making those changes.

Second, because each of the contributors was a seasoned thriller writer, every chapter was filled with an arc all its own. There are a lot of novels out there in which simply nothing happens for long stretches of page. That wasn't the case in either of these stories.
Finally I found something quite interesting that had less to do with the nature of collaborating than with the form of the book itself. And that had to do with the process of writing originally for the voice.

Since Watchlist began as an audio book, I knew from the beginning that everything I wrote, not only dialogue, would be read by a professional actor. With this in mind, when I wrote the passages I would often say them aloud and then go back and revise them. Prose that seems elegant and articulate on the page can be very stiff when spoken. In fact, sometimes it can sound downright silly. I also found I was writing more dialogue than prose, and paying particular attention to exactly how my characters sounded. I've always felt that authors should pay particular attention to writing accurate dialogue. I myself have never turned to my girlfriend and said, "My darling, shall we now dine?" And yet you'd be surprised at how often passages like that appear in the novels of otherwise talented storytellers, ruining the credibility of the book. (I must mention too that we were very fortunate to have as our narrator one of the best actors working in America today, Alfred Molina.)

When I went back and read the novels in Vanguard's printed form, I think our attention to the spoken nature of the project made for particularly hard hitting and fast-moving thrillers.
I don't know whether we'll do another sequel, but I can say that despite the high body count you'd expect from thriller writers like us, there is ample opportunity for the story of Harry Middleton and his colleagues to continue in the future.


Pat Brown said...

Wonderful post, Jeff. I've always wondered what it would be like to collaborate. But I had never heard of doing it quite this way. It sounds intriguing -- and to be able to write with that caliber of authors would be amazing.

Shane Gericke said...

Couldn't agree more with your analysis, Jeff. Writing something as a "spoken" story, then turning it into print, really makes the story take off. I try to read aloud as much of my own manuscript as possible before shipping to the editor, and am pleased to see how much the process tightened up the prose. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

Barbara said...

I always read my writing aloud. My dialogue that looked so good can sound silly or unreal, and description that looked so good can be deadly boring when I do so. Saves a lot of embarrassment. said...

If you have a Mac, you might try blocking the text, and then having your Mac read it to you out loud.

I find that when I listen to my Mac read the text, it allows me to sit back and concentrate better. When you are proof reading allowed, you are doing three things; 1) reading the words, 2) forming the words into sounds 3) listening to what you are reading to catch strangeness.

Two things; FIRST when you read, you often read what you think you see, not what is actually written, especially when you wrote it, so allowing the Mac to read it for you, the Mac won't make the mental mistakes that you might. and SECOND, by only doing one thing, listening, you can give better attention to listening for strangeness.

Just a thought.

Cheers! Ricco

Janet Rudolph said...

How do you get your Mac to read the text? I haven't tried this..