Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my absolute pleasure today to welcome David Corbett, bestselling author of several books of crime fiction, and writing teacher extraordinaire.
His book on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character, has been called “a writer’s bible,” and it will soon appear in translation in both Spanish and Mandarin.
More in the extended biography at the end of the post. For now, I’ll invite you to read his responses with some sterling writing advice, some of which I’ve highlighted in blue.
Interesting word choice – “preoccupation.” Better than “obsession,” I suppose, though perhaps not as accurate.
I would say all my stories deal with the struggle for dignity and decency – and love – in a world that prizes deceit, power, self-interest, and blame. And almost all my stories deal with one or more character becoming a bit more brave, honest, and caring.
I suppose I’m also always looking for some way to find meaning in life in the face of certain death. I lost both my brother and my first wife at far too young an age to horrible illnesses. I had to come up with a reason for sticking around. That continues to inform my writing.
2. You have a background in criminal investigation. How has that informed your writing in terms of both plot and character?
My background is as a private investigator, which is a bit different than “criminal investigation,” which suggests law enforcement. If I worked on a criminal case, I typically worked for the defense, meaning I was in an adversarial role to law enforcement, though ostensibly we were both trying to establish the truth (he says wryly).
One learns a great deal about power in the so-called justice system. I saw how cancerous ambition could be. I saw how seemingly convenient – and easy – it is to lie your way out of a problem. I learned that money buys justice, and how, in the courtroom, the rules of gravity no longer apply. I saw how similar our legal and political systems are—both are far too often maddeningly unaccountable for the horrible consequences they create. And yet, for all that, I also saw a great deal of personal integrity, commitment, and humility.
Incidentally, I get asked often if women can be PIs. I respond that some of the very best private investigators I’ve ever met are women. Know why? Women listen.
I’m currently teaching creative writing to prison inmates, and my background in criminal defense has helped immeasurably. I know how easy it is to find oneself on the wrong side of the law. And it’s reminded me of something I always tell my students, and which I’m reminded of every time I step into that prison: “Justify, don’t judge your characters.”
If I had to name just five they would probably be:
The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler: Established the crime novel as worthy of literary regard. I think of it as more akin to The Day of the Locust than a crime novel.
Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain: One of the few books I picked up and didn’t put down until I was finished. Tight prose, exquisite plotting.
Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris: I’m not one for serial killer stories (I still think The Collector is my favorite), but this is considered by many the absolute best. Well-researched, with one of the most compelling villains ever created.
Clockers, by Richard Price: Raised the bar for all crime writers. Puts the criminal and the cop on equal moral footing. Hugely influential—Pelecanos, Lehane, etc.
Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson: Once again, the crime novel as literature, with possibly the most admirable private investigator ever created. But just trying to narrow the list down to five made me feel as though I was being unfair to a great many others.
Any of the five I just mentioned would qualify. I also think Dennis Lehane’s work is particularly strong. His focus is always on place and community, not just cops and robbers, something I think he’d admit he learned from his own mentor, Richard Price, who once said that if you want to convey a certain place and time, put a dead body in it and cut a detective loose.
5. What writing advice would you give to someone outlining their novel?
- First and foremost: Never forget that characters create the story. Until you have a basic understanding of your characters, any story you try to create risks becoming formulaic. You also risk turning your characters into “plot puppets.”
- The other problem with outlines is that one tends to think in terms of: This happened, then this happened, then this… And that can create a story that reads like “one darn thing after another.”
- Stories aren’t about what happens. They’re about what goes wrong—and then making that problem progressively worse.
- So if you’re outlining, don’t think in terms of what is likely to happen. Create a problem, then build a sequence of follow-up scenes through cause-and-effect that intensify that problem.
However, once again, you can’t neglect your characters, for they’re the ones creating the incidents that make up your story. Force the characters to move the action forward by looking deep within themselves in solving those ever-worsening problems you devise.
6. What makes a character real and interesting? What questions does a writer need to answer in order to get readers invested in their characters?
I would say the core question to ask is always: What does the character want, and why? The follow-up questions to that include: What is missing from the character’s life? What kind of person does he want to be? What way of life does he yearn to live? Why doesn’t he have it already? What is holding him back—a weakness? A wound? A limitation? Some kind of exterior opposition? A moral flaw? What is his external goal in the story? How does he expect to achieve it? What stands in his way? How does he intend to overcome that obstacle and get what he wants?
I would explore secrets and contradictions.
Finally, I would explore key moments in the character’s past when they were helpless, for these moments expose our character in ways we can’t predict. Moments of extreme fear, shame, guilt, betrayal, and loss. To counter-balance these, so that you also understand the character’s hope, willfulness, and confidence, explore moments of great courage, pride, forgiveness, trust, and joy or love.
Overall, remember that each character has struck a balance between pursuing the promise of life, and protecting himself from the pain of life. Your story will disrupt, challenge, and possibly even dismantle that balance.
7. An oft-quoted Vonnegut quote goes: ‘Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible’. As a crime writer, how do you decide how much to tell your reader?
Well, I’m not sure I agree with that. Anne Perry, when asked recently what technique she would advise for presenting backstory, responded, “Intravenous drip.”
And whenever a secret is key to the story, you undermine suspense by revealing it too soon.
Always remember that backstory is behavior. Whatever information you need to provide should be revealed in how your characters act and speak in the environment in which they find themselves. It should intrigue the reader, not baffle or confuse her. But as much as possible, explanations should wait until at least the middle of the story.
I wanted to write a guide to characterization that would both instruct and inspire. I drew not only on my own fiction-writing background but my years of studying theater.
9. Tell us about your work as a writing teacher. Where and when can one access your classes online and offline?
You can always learn about upcoming classes, seminars, and workshops at my website, specifically this link.
- The Devil’s Redhead (nominee: Anthony and Barry Awards for Best First Novel)
- Done for a Dime (NY Times Notable Book; Macavity Award nominee, Best Novel; named “one of the two or three best American crime novels I have ever read” by Patrick Anderson of the Washington Post)
- Blood of Paradise (nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar, and named both one of the Top Ten Mysteries and Thrillers of 2007 by the Washington Post and a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book; published in France in both hardcover and mass-market paperback)
- Do They Know I’m Running? (Spinetingler Award, Best Novel—Rising Star Category (“a rich, hard-hitting epic”—PW, starred review).
- The Mercy of the Night (“Superlative hard-boiled crime fiction” —Booklist, Starred Review)
- The Devil Prayed and Darkness Fell (novella)
- The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday (coming from Black Opal Books, September 2018)
Corbett’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in journals as diverse as Mission and Tenth, The Smoking Poet, and San Francisco Noir, and his stories have twice been selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories (2009 and 2011). His story “Babylon Sister” was named one of the Top Five Stories of the Week for the two year-period 2015-2016 by Narrative Magazine, while his story “It Can Happen” was nominated for a Macavity Award and has been adapted for TV as a pilot for a Hulu series based on the anthology in which it appeared, San Francisco Noir. His story collection Thirteen Confessions was published in 2016.
He serves as co-chair for the highly regarded Book Passage Mystery Writers’ Conference, where he has served as a faculty member for over ten years. He has also taught at the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Litreactor, 826 Valencia, and numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico.
Prior to his career as a novelist, he worked as a private investigator for the firm of Palladino & Sutherland in San Francisco, and played a significant role in such headline litigations as The Peoples’ Temple Trial, the first Michael Jackson child molestation scandal, the Cotton Club Murder Case, and many others. For more, visit www.davidcorbett.com
Are you a reader, a writer, or both? Do you read or write crime novels? Have you read David’s work before? What do you think of David’s writing advice? As a reader or writer, do you have questions for David Corbett?
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