If you’re interested in finding out how brilliant people get to be brilliant, how do you do so? One route I’ve discovered useful, given my interest in writing, is to go to talks by writers on publicity tours. All kinds of good stuff comes out, and you get the chance to ask questions as well. Which is what I’ve been doing tonight…
I went to see thriller writer Michael Connelly, author of heaps of crime books that have sold in bucketloads internationally. Now, I haven’t actually read any Connelly at this point, but it strikes me that if you’re going to learn from people familiarity with their work is no obstacle if what you’re interested in is the structure of how they do what they do. That was very much the case: a good chunk of the questions came from people fascinated by this or that character he’d written about, which is fair enough. My eyes and ears were open to other matters, and had I been a devotee I might have been too fascinated by the content to notice the things I did come away with.
Time and again it becomes apparent that you can’t divorce what someone does from the life they’ve lead, much as Grinder school NLPers would like to suggest otherwise. There is no way that Connelly would be writing what he writes, and approaching it the way he does, without his particular background. He worked as a journalist in Los Angeles, and was troubled by a reality of the job: the city had so many murders that they vied for the front page. Only the most ‘interesting’ ones – with a celebrity angle, or an especially gruesome aspect – would be singled out for coverage.
There’s a moral stance within that perspective which informs Connelly’s worldview. It’s at the heart of his interest in the stories he writes, and I got real insight into how he develops his books through his description of how he put together his latest novel. I asked a question that built on that revelation, which made things all the more fascinating, and the following is my take on how to approach writing in the same fashion as Connelly.
The key element of what Connelly does is to use a striking image as an organising principle for a story. His newest book, The Drop, takes its structural inspiration from the twin helix formation of DNA, which can be found – for instance – in a drop of blood. That’s one of the meanings of the title, and it has two more: the drop a body takes from the roof of a famous hotel that his hero investigates, and the LAPD acronym DROP which relates to the hero’s forthcoming retirement.
So, what we have in this instance is two stories which circle around one another but never meet, which struck Connelly as being more representative of reality than stories which do coincide. His choice many years ago that protagonist Harry Bosch would age in real time is also important, since it accounts for the fact that he is facing the end of his career after a long sequence of books. And each of them features repeated thematic aspects, concerning the growing role of technology, the nature of evil, and Bosch’s relationship with Los Angeles.
That’s one example. Another is a forthcoming book that coincides with a 20th anniversary, and to explore that Connelly has gone back to 1992 and his vivid recollection of a riot that he witnessed as a journalist. Etched in his mind is the memory of a bottle of Southern Comfort being thrown towards him, in such detail that he can recall the writing on the label. That specific visual will feature at the climax of the story, as other key images have shaped the structure of other books Connelly has written.
Even if you’re not planning to write a novel, the idea of having an image as an organising principle to work towards is one that can usefully be explored. Ken Campbell used a candelabra as the inspiration for the structure of a one man show. The influence of that image may not be apparent to the audience, but if it helps a creator shape the material they’re working with then it is invaluable.
In Connelly’s case, he has such faith in that process he does not need to plot out the story in detail, allowing himself to be surprised by what comes up. But then, why wouldn’t he be? One way to describe what he does is that he experiences a trance through focusing on a detail, allowing the whole to emerge in its own special way. Hmm. That reminds me…
A long time back, I interviewed comics creator Dave Sim, who said something very similar:
Sim As Neil Gaiman put it, it’s as if you’re building a bridge, but you’re not building a bridge sequentially, the way you have to do it in the physical world. The moment you start building it on this side, it starts growing from the other side. And you just start trying to predict where all the curlicues and whatnot are going to be, and all of a sudden one of them shows up, and you’ve got a chunk of the bridge about 30 feet out in mid-air that’s about 15 feet higher than you thought it was supposed to be.
AR And you don’t know how the hell it’s going to work.
Sim You don’t let that trouble you. You just start building the rest of it, and eventually some dramatic curve comes in and you go ‘Oh, alright, it’s going to rise up in some way and hook up with this side. And I can see now looking at all this stuff that’s getting built on the other side in my unconscious mind that yeah, this could be quite attractive when it’s done. You know, it could be quite symmetrical.’