Yesterday, I finished Wings of Mayhem and sent it in to my publisher (as I told you in my last post, Writing Detectives: Learn from a Pro). Once I finished the last-minute synopsis and sent it in, a weight lifted off my shoulders.
It’s back. Self-doubt is gnawing at my side. What if they hate it? What if they don’t like my protagonist? What if, God forbid, they reject it?
Those who aren’t trad-pubbed may not know this, but every book must be “accepted.” There’s no guarantee unless you have a last name of King, Patterson, Cornwell, or Child. And that, is terrifying! Once you’ve established an audience you can send in an outline and get it approved. Until then, it’s a flip of the coin.
Let me give you a little background. I created Shawnee Daniels a few years ago when I wrote my thriller, Timber Point. And I still adore her. She needs to be heard. There’s no way around it. I’ve tried to resist her and write other things, but she keeps calling me back. To me, that’s a sure-fire sign that she’s meant to shine in the literary spotlight.
She has her faults. Many faults. By night, she’s a thief. Specifically, a cat burglar. But she steals for the right reason (in her mind) and only targets those who deserve it. She’s got such a huge heart. It just happens to be masked by a cool, often brash, exterior. Over the years I’ve written three Shawnee Daniels novels, and have never tired of her. But then, I added so much to her character that all three novels need to be rewritten.
While working with Larry Brooks, he discovered the dreaded eye-roll moment in Timber Point. You know the kind. The “Oh, please. Yeah, right, like that could happen.” So, I tore the novel apart. Then I got an even better idea, and an even better idea, and one of the best ideas for a murder that I’ve ever had. It’s actually a real MO, but it’s not included in 60 Ways to Murder Your Fictional Characters. Twisted doesn’t even begin to describe it.
On top of that, I concentrated on filling the novel with symbolism and signs and cryptic clues. It was one of the hardest rewrites I’ve ever done with all the details, to make them blend and flow with the storyline to create an overall cool effect. I spent hours upon hours tweaking so it all fit perfectly. Notes everywhere. Scribbles on the back of envelopes, in the corners of my notebook, upside-down, sideways, you name it, it’s there.
So now, I’m in an absolute panic. What if something went wrong and I couldn’t see it?
This was the first time I didn’t have time to run it by a critique partner because the deadline was Friday. If I missed that window, I’d have to wait until after the first of the year.
See my problem?
Writers can NEVER see their own work. I don’t care how experienced you are; it can’t be done. To send in the manuscript sight unseen is a total crapshoot. And I’m paying for it now. I sent it to my CP today, but this is ass backward.
I can’t reveal all the ideas that swirled in my crime writer mind, but one of them was to give her a day job AT THE POLICE STATION (actually, that was Larry’s idea. Best coach ever!). A cat burglar surrounded by cops. What if someone discovers her secret life? The possibilities were endless, and I made sure to hit almost all of them.
Back to my initial point using Shawnee as my example. Here is a character who grew up on the streets, sometimes living under a bridge. She steals. She swears. She hates to be hugged or any public displays of affection. She wears almost Goth-like makeup, but no one better ever call her Gothic. To most, she appears cold, hardened, and snarky.
My first problem was, how do you frighten a character who’s been through it all, muggings, sexual assault, homelessness, abuse?
That I was able to solve with a bizarre, terrifying murder spree, and a serial killer on her tail.
The next problem was, how do I make readers care about a thief?
You might say, “Show her heart.”
Fair enough. But how? Show her love of animals? Show her helping an elderly woman across the street? Show her musing about how much a certain event in her past hurt her? (<- the latter is not the best way to do it, but you see my point)
Here’s where secondary characters can really work for us. In Wings of Mayhem I gave Shawnee one friend. Only one. She is a loner after all. But in order to show her soft side I needed to make that friend her polar opposite, someone to play the mother role, someone who’d be Shawnee’s conscience, and someone who’d strike at her flaws.
Who did I choose?
A librarian who’s never sworn a day in her life, who wears comfortable shoes, and who loves to bounce on her toes and wave jazz hands when she’s excited, who shouts, “Woot!” and whose personality is the furthest from Shawnee as you can get. Juxtaposing galore!
Did it work? I think it did. Only time will tell.
By showing how Shawnee related to Nadine, I could bring out her softer side and, hopefully, make readers empathize her. They don’t have to like her. But they do have to empathize enough to keep reading. It’s a fine line. Characters who aren’t squeaky clean are always a crapshoot. But, in my experience, readers love them. Case in point: Frankie Campanelli from Marred. I can’t tell you how many people loved her as much as I did. Granted, she stands on the right side of the law, but she’s certainly no saint. Far from it. Frankie sleeps around, has a trash mouth, is snarky, and wouldn’t hesitate to sucker punch someone who said the wrong thing.
And so is Shawnee, only she’s more of an extreme case. When I added a gay detective who Shawnee hates and who’s always on her case, the end result is hilarious. While writing I’d be laughing so hard I was crying, and my husband would ask, “What’s so funny? I thought you were writing a grisly thriller.” But the way the characters play off one another is an absolute riot…to me, anyway. Who knows what anyone else will think?
What’s your opinion? Do you need a squeaky clean character? Or would you be willing to go along for the ride with someone who has one foot on the wrong side of the law?