Best Intentions and Speed Bumps

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When making the decision to begin a series of mystery-thrillers about a National Transportation Safety Board aviation accident investigator and his metamorphosis into a private crash detective, I had no clue about how hard writing the second book was going to be.

During the time that some of my fellow writers have completed more than one novel, I’ve been beating my head against the twin brick walls of plot and characterization in a frustrating attempt to give readers what they expect in a series, while at the same time avoiding a formulaic approach.

To be clear, I’m not at all opposed to formulaic stories. Two of my favorite authors have created main characters I’m willing to follow through an endless succession of mysteries involving catching the bad guy. John Sanford’s Lucas Davenport (and the spin-off character Virgil Flowers), and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch can engage my interest without trying very hard because I’m only looking to be entertained. It’s not about wanting to gain a new outlook on life, religion, the pursuit of happiness, or an altered view of the universe.

These characters are all homicide detectives who, in the course of multiple novels, have individually been in more car chases and shootouts than all the policemen in the USA combined, the vast majority of whom never pull their weapons, much less pull the triggers. I know that’s not realistic, but I don’t care. The last thing I want to read about is the dull, mundane everyday boredom of being a cop. I’m looking for the exciting stuff. So when my buddy Lucas Davenport gets in another firefight, I’m loving it.

Shifting focus now to Nick Phillips’ role in Red Line, I got about halfway through the first draft and realized that his being a pilot had taken a back seat. He needed to travel from his home in Cedar Valley Colorado to Phoenix Arizona, for example, and I put him in a Jeep. Huh? Why not let him fly there?

Okay, that’s easy to do, but most pilots never have a life-threatening emergency in an airplane. And just as I don’t want to read about Harry Bosch doing paperwork for 300 pages, it’s not hard to conclude that my readers aren’t interested in being with Nick during hours of flight in cruise. A common description of flying is, “Hours of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer, stark, raving terror,” which is where I need to put Nick, who then becomes either the most incompetent pilot in the world, the unluckiest, or both.

It may seem incredibly dense of me not to have grasped this truth from the outset, but I finally came to realize that any reader who wants to follow Nick’s adventures in second and subsequent novels won’t hold it against me if I confront him with an unrealistic number of tense situations in airplanes.

Another problem arrived with that conclusion, however. I can’t have Nick chasing after bad guys in airplanes over and over again, especially since he’s not flying a fighter with machine guns mounted in the wings. That would be a lot of fun to write, but . . .

Nick’s character arc in Pilot Error was easy for me to imagine because of the original concept for the series about a disenfranchised sleuth, a term used to describe the typical private investigator. Something happens to terminate the main character’s career as a law enforcement officer, and he continues doing what he does best as a PI.

In Nick’s case, the additional thematic element of family versus career is integrated with his transition from husband and father to homicide investigator (in violation of his official role with the NTSB) and finally to avenger (i.e. vigilante). I’ve always liked that concept, but it didn’t dawn on me until well into the first draft of Red Line how another aspect of the aviation theme would complicate my plans for the series.

The typical PI in fiction operates on the fringes of legality when it comes to handling the chain of evidence. He can’t hand a murder weapon to a homicide detective for use in proving a case against a killer. It takes creativity, better described as framing, to sic the law on the bad guy, or more commonly, direct action. Readers forgive the PI because his actions are justifiable under the principle of doing what it takes to obtain justice for the victims.

My private crash detective has a similar problem. In the absence of official status, he can only gain access to the evidence after the wreckage is released by the NTSB. Once his superlative and tenacious sleuthing skills uncover the truth about what caused the crash, he can’t hand it to the NTSB (which is prohibited from investigating criminal wrongdoing anyway), or the FBI because a legal chain of evidence doesn’t exist. What about direct action? Will readers accept him in a vigilante role?

I’m personally a law-and-order guy. One of my favorite movie scenes is from “And Justice For All,” in which actor Jack Warden plays the part of a judge who rules his courtroom in unusual fashion. At one point, the judge picks up a law book off the bench, announces, “This is law . . .” then pulls a Colt .45 from under his robe and says, “. . . and this is order.” My sentiments exactly.

Readers who have accepted Nick’s actions in Pilot Error will probably give him some leeway when it comes to seeking justice. That said, he can’t be a rendition of Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey character in “Death Wish” and its sequels.

Layered on top of these issues is the sometimes rebellious tendency of a story to assume a life of its own.

It sounds absurd when authors tell normal people that a character in their novels took over and shifted the plot, but it’s a real phenomenon. In some cases, it opens new doors into tunnels that have light at the end. It can also lead into blind alleys where the story grinds to a halt.

In Red Line, some of my characters refused to accept their assigned roles. I hadn’t even finished the first draft when a compelling urge came over me to show three more characters in point-of-view (for a total of five), which is a major decision that alters many other aspects of the story. Rather than go back to the beginning and revise the earlier chapters to reflect this decision, I elected to complete the first draft and incorporate the changes in the second draft.

When I submitted this revision in six installments to the smaller of two writers’ critique groups in which I participate (known as Little Group, or “El Gee,”) they let me know very quickly that I’d missed capturing the essence of what they believe to be the ultimate potential of my vision for the story.

Although it may sound contradictory to allow the opinions of others to affect my vision, it’s not in the least a question of letting them write the story for me the way they would like to see it. Of all the benefits we find by participating in El Gee, the collaborative brain-storming effort centered on plot and characterization is invaluable because it expands the horizons of the two most important structural elements.

I have six recorded El Gee critique sessions waiting from earlier this year when I had to put aside my daily writing effort temporarily to deal with issues involved with the other half of this website’s description. As you might imagine, airplanes require careful attention to maintenance details, and ignoring them is not an option.

My current strategy is to review the recordings and create a revision plan for the third draft that will incorporate the lessons learned, and the time has come to get started.

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