FINDING THE BOOK YOU ARE MEANT TO WRITE
By J. Carson Black
The first book I ever wrote was a ghost story. I was enamored with Peter Straub’s and Stephen King’s works. It took three years to sell it for $2500 (before the agent’s cut)—not exactly cost effective! But I’ll never forget when I held that first mass market paperback in my hands.
I didn’t realize that an author has to stick to the same genre to build an audience. Instead, I wrote a big historical saga that came right at the end of the big historical saga craze—and it didn’t sell. My agent suggested I write a simple historical romance for an easy sale. It wasn’t. Eventually both books sold for very little money. And, I realized this was not what I wanted to do. I was just writing to get a sale.
So I eased over into romantic suspense, writing a book set in the world of horse racing. Which was a ton of fun because there was murder, suspense, and lots of racehorses to write about. I followed that up with a straight mystery inspired by an article on the skyrocketing market value of celebrities when they die young.
Next, I wrote a mystery starring a smart-mouth probation officer—actually, I wrote three of those. Couldn’t sell a one.
Eventually it became clear to me I was trying to sell to the market, but I had yet to find the right genre for me. For who I was, for the books I loved to read. The only thing I could do was land on the kind of book I truly wanted to write.
I knew writing crime fiction would be a challenge, because I would be trying to write alongside the best crime fiction writers in the business. The authors in that genre challenged the reader. Their books were elegant, smart, but also rough, and sometimes cold. Bad things happened. When I read Michael Connelly, James. W. Hall, Robert Crais, Jeffery Deaver, John Lescroart, J.A. Jance, T. Jefferson Parker, and authors like them, I knew I was home. These authors inspired me to bring up my game.
I took my time and studied them, saw how they built a story. There was a rhythm and a beauty to the way they worked their books—what they chose to put on stage and when. I diagrammed a book or two, trying to learn the alchemy these giants in crime fiction practiced with such great skill. I took myself to the woodshed and taught myself how to write my own crime fiction thriller, Darkness on the Edge of Town. It took some time. But it was fun! I wrote longhand in journal after journal, talking to myself about what I was missing and what I was achieving. At the end I had what I wanted. I had the book I could be proud of. The books I loved to read turned out to be the books I had been meant to write.
Once I found them, I knew I had come home.
Write in the genre you love to read.
Realize the different purposes of narrative and dialogue. Narrative can move you faster through time, and dialogue slows the story down to one focal point—a scene onstage.
Read hard copies (actual books) of two or three of your favorite authors and see how they do things. What beginnings look like, when a book transitions from the beginning to the middle, etc.) Make note of the way the story is changing. Remember: books are long, so they will go through different phases
Try to figure out what single element dominates a scene and makes it strong
Buy hardcover books of authors you think you’re most like, and do something your mother wouldn’t want you to do: write notes on pages of the book when you see something that helps you figure out how a scene or narrative or piece of dialogue works—or just something you like.
You can read more of J. Carson Black’s posts on her blog.
Hailed by bestselling author T. Jefferson Parker as “a strong new voice in American crime fiction,” J. Carson Black has written fifteen novels. Her thriller, THE SHOP, reached #1 on the Kindle Bestseller list, and her crime thriller series featuring homicide detective Laura Cardinal became a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Although Black earned a master’s degree in operatic voice, she was inspired to write a horror novel after reading The Shining. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.