Sep. 16, 2010

It’s All Been Done

For a crime-novel writer of any quality or ambition — for a serious writer working in any genre, I imagine — there is always the little voice whispering, “It’s all been done.” How can you possibly produce, say, a courtroom drama that is original, fresh, unpredictable when there have been ten thousand courtroom dramas already written? (And that doesn’t count the endless loop of “Law & Order” reruns on basic cable.) The ten-thousand-and-first, no matter how clever or well crafted, will inevitably feel derivative, formulaic, small.

On the other hand, writers choose to work in a genre for good reasons. I write crime stories because, first, the situations are dramatic and emotionally resonant (“bad men do what good men dream”). Storytellers need drama; crime stories have it in spades. But I also like writing crime stories because they come with a ready-made shape. A murder mystery will proceed, one way or another, from the crime to the unmasking of the criminal; a courtroom drama from indictment to trial to verdict; a heist from the planning to the robbery to the escape (or failure to escape). You can play around with these formulas as much as you like, but the formulas are there and that is no small thing when you are staring at a blank computer screen. (There is another, more obvious advantage to writing genre novels, of course: people actually read them. But we’re talking about an artistic problem here, not a commercial one.)

So that is the bargain. And the little voice whispering “It’s all been done” generally doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, I find the conventions of the genre stimulating. Twice now, I’ve had a fine time playing with the tropes of police procedurals, subverting them in my first novel (“no unreliable narrators!”) and taking them out for a spin in a strange new neighborhood (Boston in the Strangler era) in my second. All been done? Well, let’s do it again, in a new way.

In fact, I try quite consciously to find a “precursor text” for all my books, that is, a book or film (usually several) that will give shape to the story I am trying to tell, particularly in the early stages of writing when the story is still unformed.* You don’t have to dig too deeply in The Strangler, for example, to see the influence of L.A. Confidential. All writers do this, with varying degrees of awareness. How could any writer not be influenced by the books he has read and loved? Even using the term “precursor text” to describe the practice is something I borrowed from one of my betters, novelist David Lodge, who always identifies a precursor for his novels.

But with book three, for some reason I listened to that little voice too much. I let the genre novelist’s insecurity get to me. The book is, in the end, a courtroom drama. It is narrated by a man whose teenage son is accused of killing a classmate, and the centerpiece of the novel is the boy’s trial. The trouble was, when it came to writing the critical courtroom section of the book, I was too determined to avoid cliché, to write a courtroom drama utterly unlike any of the ten thousand that have come before — a fool’s errand, but then it’s easy to make a fool of yourself in this business. So out went the usual pre-trial strategy talks. Out went the tried and true good-cop-bad-cop interrogation of the defendant. Out went the dramatic parade into the courtroom for the arraignment. Any scene that felt remotely secondhand was cut or truncated.

Monday I heard from my editor that this section of the manuscript needs a rewrite to restore at least some of these conventional scenes. After I had ruthlessly excised every scene that had ever appeared in a legal novel, she suggested, there just wasn’t enough drama or mystery left. The storytelling was fresh and innovative, yes. It just wasn’t very compelling.

It ought to have been devastating news. This is the third or fourth major rewrite of the manuscript (I’ve lost count). And of course I was disappointed. The trial sequence ought to have been the most sure-footed part of the book. As a former trial lawyer, it’s what I know best. Worse, I had resisted making these very changes in previous rewrites.

But I see now, after taking a day or two to wrap my brain around the problem, that my editor was right. The formulas work. Subvert them, twist them, depart from them by all means. Be daring and original. But remember that story comes first. It is a mistake to sacrifice good storytelling to some abstract conception of immaculate originality. It has all been done, it’s true. The trick, so late in the life of the genre, is to innovate just enough — make it new, but keep what works.

Another rewrite. So it goes.

* Note to the book-nerds out there: Yes, yes, I know, the term “precursor text” is borrowed from Harold Bloom and I’m not using it properly. Obviously I am talking about a purposeful, self-aware sort of borrowing, which is not the “anxiety of influence” that Bloom means. The term is a useful descriptor, though, and I’ve been using it this way for years in plotting my books. No emails, please, about what a boob I am to have misappropriated it. Emails calling me a boob for other reasons are of course always welcome.

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