March Madness

by | Mar 25, 2018 | The Writer's Life, On writing | 2 comments

 S. Lee Manning: So the topic of the month is pet peeves, especially writing pet peeves. I was debating writing about people who mix up fewer and less – it’s fewer than six items, fewer, not less (can’t tell you how many grocery clerks loathe me) – or those who can’t quite grasp that it’s means it is and its is possessive – and other infuriating mistakes along those lines that shouldn’t be made by anyone who paid attention in seventh grade, but today, these all seem trivial. Grammar. Schmarrar.  Let me talk about what’s really pissing me off this morning– the intersection of real life events and my novels.
This is me, determined not to write books about funny cats, while Xiao
tries to persuade otherwise.
I write espionage thrillers. By definition, I write books that should be a little more exciting than life, that are believable with a bit of a stretch – and kind of scary, but not really, because it’s fiction.
You know where I’m going, don’t you?
The current political and international scene makes it very hard to write thrillers. Think about what’s going on in the news right now – today, Friday, as I’m writing this, President Trump has fired his national security advisor and hired John Bolton, one of the architects of the Iraq war. Earlier this week, President Trump ignored advisors and called Putin to congratulate him on his “victory.”
Mathew Quirk, who writes political thrillers, wrote an essay on VOX last fall, stating: “I write political thrillers, which means spinning fantastic stories out of everyday headlines. But when reality becomes utterly implausible, what’s left for an author to do?”
Yeah, well, exactly.
My latest book, finished draft but in the final edit stage, centers on weapons grade uranium smuggled into the United States either by terrorists or by Russia in a false flag operation. There’s twists and turns, and an exciting finish, but now, I don’t have to worry whether it’s too unbelievable – just whether it’s too close to real life.
Are my readers going to be bored? After all, if we’re about to go to war with North Korea, is my book old stuff? The possibility of a nuclear bomb going off in the United States? Yawn. An unbalanced psychopath willing to kill millions of people for his own ego? Double yawn. Been there. Seen that. Next.
Or conversely, is my book too exciting? Are people sick of thrilling twists and turns, and unscrupulous leaders, and the possibility of war wiping out millions? Should I turn in my thriller hat and write funny books about cats?
And it’s not just that I have to worry about reader boredom or burnout. I have to worry about plot theft. There are only so many plots, and I’m sick of real life stealing mine. Come on.
My first book, which has still to come out, involves a digital attack on nuclear power plant computers. So imagine my dismay at the news last week that the Russians had hacked into American nuclear power plants. If that novel had been out, I could have charged the Russians with copyright infringement. But no.  Now, whenever it comes out, it’ll look like I took my ideas from the news.
This is really irritating. Really, really irritating. I’m annoyed enough that I don’t even notice when signs use possessives instead of plurals – “World’s best haircut’s.” Okay, I do notice, but my focus is elsewhere.
I’m not a speed writer. It takes me at least a year, sometimes a year and a half to go from idea to finished draft.  I’ve started outlining my next novel – and what if world events make it old before I even start the first chapter? I can’t write fast enough to keep up with this stuff. Even if I wrote a book in six months, which, nope, don’t do either, I couldn’t keep up.
So I’m peeved. Really peeved. I just want it to stop. I just want to wake up, watch the news, and not say, damn, another plot point blown.
I don’t want to write funny books about cats.

Lizzie attempts to look mysterious so I’ll write about her.
 Not going to work.

I need to get back to trivial annoyances. I need to get back to harassing clerks and store owners for poor grammar on signs while writing books that aren’t too close to real life.
Can we get back to a world where we thriller writers are the ones providing the scares?

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  1. Karna Bodman

    I wouldn't worry, S Lee — readers still love to read thrillers – whether "grabbed from the headlines" or developed from an author's unique curiosity. Can't wait for your novel about the digital attack on a nuclear power plant. I'm sure your characters and plotting will provides great twists and turns. Keep the faith!

  2. Jamie Freveletti

    Yes, I've been wondering about this for a while now. Wish I had an answer! Interesting post and thanks for writing!