Saturday, September 10, 2011

When You Write About A Spy: Lessons Learned From Having Michael Westen In My Head For 3 Years

[Reposted from Tod Goldberg's blog] My latest Burn Notice book -- The Bad Beat -- came out this summer and since it's also my last Burn Notice book, after five of 'em, it feels like a good time to put a bow on the experience by talking about it a bit. First, since I've done it for all the previous books, a little behind the scenes info about the new book:
1. I completed the book on October 7th of last year and though it's the longest of the five books by about ten thousand words, it's exactly the same number of pages as the previous books...276 pages. Which either means I used very small words in the previous books or the people at Penguin are really good with margins and white space. Anything you happen to see in the current season of the show was written after I finished the book, as usual. So that means, as usual, for the fucktards who persist in writing to tell me I'm not keeping canon, uhm, and I mean this with all due sincerity, please, eat a bowl of dicks. 
2. As usual, I like to use people I know in the book. The client in the book is named Brent Grayson, which is the combined names of my two nephews. There's a character named Marci, named for a woman who won a contest on the USA Forum. She wanted to be bad ass and I feel I've done her justice. One of the villains in the book is named Mark McGregor, after a childhood friend who asked to be in the book and what better way than to make him an evil genius? One of Michael's aliases is Kurt Riebe, which is the name of a former student of mine's boyfriend. Again, he asked, so he got in. Rest assured if someone has a name in the book, they're named for someone. It turns out a lot of people want to see their name in a spy novel. Who knew? 
3. The book touches on one of my current obsessions: do we need notaries? I mean, really, aren't they all just fronts for illegal actitivites? There are three businesses I do not quite understand still existing in the 21st century: notaries, piano stores and waterbed repair shops.
4. I decided, since this was going to be my last book, that it would be fun to use Sugar, who appeared in the first episode of the show. It's one of the coolest things about the show, in my opinion, in that Matt Nix and the writing staff have always recognized when they have really good secondary characters who can be reused. I've used Barry in every book because he's fun to write, but I always like it when the show reuses villains as clients or as sources. I like the idea of shifting allegiances, which seems particularly fun when dealing with criminals.  And as luck would have it, Sugar appeared in last week's episode, too, so it's good I didn't kill him off or make him into a post-op trannie or something. 
5. The first line of the book begins "When you're a spy..." and then you'll have to figure the rest out for yourself.
Since I finished the novel 9 months ago, I've had some time to think about what it was like to spend three years with Michael Westen rattling around in my head. I learned a few things, like I now know how to blow up a lot of shit using common household items. I know so many capers and scams and ways to illegally make money that I'm actually a pretty good person to know if you want to start a criminal enterprise. I know how to, uhm, Burn Notice anything, which is a pretty decent bar trick. So those are good things to know just generally, as a human. As a writer -- which I recognize makes me at least partly human -- writing Michael Westen taught me how to write series fiction and, beyond that, how to pace commercial crime fiction. See, previously, the crime fiction I wrote was decidedly not series and decidedly not commercial, really. (And I would argue that I never really set out to write crime, specifically, even if Living Dead Girl and Fake Liar Cheat and a bunch of my short stories are, you know, stories about crimes.) At any rate, writing the books required a completely different skill set -- the deadlines alone required that they be almost completely plot and voice driven, which is somewhat different than my other work which tends to be character and setting driven. Writing Burn Notice has changed the way I approach crime fiction, which is good since the novel I'm writing now -- more on that in a moment -- is a pretty straight crime novel. 
A bit about the deadlines -- I typically had three or four months to write the books, which was truly grueling and, at times, more than a little dispiriting, because I knew if I spent more time on the books that they'd be better. I wrote the first two books right after each other, the first in 60something days, followed by a month off and then I wrote the second book in 90 days. And, I regret to say, the second book sucks. I had a terrible cold for pretty much the entire writing of the book, which is why, uhm, it doesn't make any sense. Again, sorry about that. I had much longer breaks between books after that point -- and by that I mean three months or so -- which made them better, I hope. But because the deadlines were so close, I also had to learn to not be an obsessive rewriter, which meant I had to keep a pretty tight plot, which meant I did more outlining than usual...and by that I mean I outlined anything at all, which I typically don't do. I also ended up trusting myself more. Usually when I'm working on something new, I show drafts to my wife or to my agent or trusted friends to get some feedback, but I just didn't have the time to do that with these books and the result is that I ended up needing to be honest with myself. Not an easy thing for any writer. 
When I first wrote about this endeavor in the LA Times, I said that I'd come to the conclusion that "I had to start thinking of myself like a musician covering a hit song -- in order to make it my own, I had to tweak it a little, give something of myself in the process and make it fresh and new to the fans who already love the original by adding additional elements they might not be expecting. Think "Walk This Way" by Run-DMC versus Aerosmith's original. Same song, different experience." By the time I finished this final book, my feelings were unchanged. It's hard to write about a character that belongs not just to the creator of the show, Matt Nix, but also to the show's writing staff and, most importantly, to the millions of people who have an experience with that character on TV each week. So I tried to do what I could to carve out my little piece, which I was grateful Matt let me do, by adding my own flourishes here and there. 
One of my other goals with the books was purely personal: I wanted to increase my profile as a crime writer, because I knew what I wanted my next novel to be and I thought having a few hundred thousand new fans wouldn't hurt that project. My plan all along was to write a novel based on the main character in my short story "Mitzvah" (which first appeared in Las Vegas Noir and then later in my collection Other Resort Cities), a hitman hiding out in Las Vegas as a rabbi. Then a funny thing happened along the way to that plan: the producers of Justified optioned the story and then sold it to FX for a potential series. Now who knows if the show will ever happen -- in my career I've sold a lot of things to Hollywood, some big deals, some small deals, some medium deals and I've learned not to get too excited until such time as I see my name on a movie or TV screen -- but what it made clear to me was that if I was going to write that novel, well, I'd be wise to get on it. So since I finished writing my last Burn Notice book, that's exactly what I have done. I hope to be done in October and then, well, we'll see what happens. 
Nothing is assured for any writer, of course, so leaving the security of writing the Burn Notice books -- I was offered the chance to continue the series -- was a calculated risk. But the fact is, also, I was ready to move on to other things. I've written 11 books in the last 11 years, plus another book I couldn't sell because it wasn't very good, plus countless short stories, plus essays and book reviews and, and, and, and...which is to say I've always gone on to something new and its worked out well. The other truth is that every character I've ever written still visits my mind periodically -- you spend enough time pretending to be someone else, it's the least you can expect -- and as I've written my new novel I've had to tell Michael Westen to pipe down a few times and that, well, is actually pretty damn cool. 

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