Creative Living 11; Brett Battles

March 24th, 2009

Once in a while, I read someone who just grabs my imagination and won’t let it go. Brett Battles has done that to me twice, and if you like fascinating characters in a riveting story that moves at Doppler-shift speed, you should read him. Battles is the author of THE CLEANER, nominated for a Barry Award for Best Thriller, and a Shamus Award for Best First Novel. The second book in his Jonathan Quinn series, THE DECEIVED, came out in June of 2008, and the third book, SHADOW OF BETRAYAL, will be in stores July 2009. He also has a short story entitled A PERFECT GENTLEMAN that appears in the anthology KILLER YEAR edited by Lee Child. Brett lives in Los Angeles, California where he is working on the fourth Jonathan Quinn novel.

When did you first know you wanted to write? What drew you to writing?

I can’t exactly remember what drew me to writing, but I’m guessing that it was the stories I was reading. I just wanted to tell stories, too. The reason I can’t fully remember is because I first told people I was going to be a novelist when I was in fifth or six grade. So basically for as long as I can remember, I’ve planned on being a writer. (The actual execution took longer than I expected.)

What experiences, people, books, or events have had an impact on your writing?

There are dozens of people who’ve had an impact on me, including friends, family and the authors whose work I read. I probably don’t even remember half of their names. But my most important influences? My parents. They’re both readers. And for as long as I can remember, I seldom remember my dad without a book in his hand when nothing else was going on. In fact, as I’m writing this at my parent’s house for the holidays, I can see my dad sitting in his leisure chair reading the book I gave him for Christmas. I’m not sure what they did to me when I was young, but I became a voracious reader right out of the gate. And when I started to write stories in elementary school, they were my biggest supporters. They never said to me when I told them I wanted to be a writer that I should think about doing something else. Even as my adult years went by without my dream being realized, they continued to support and encourage me. And when I finally sold my first book, I think they were even happier about it than I was if that was possible.

The other huge influence on me is the late author William Relling Jr. I met Bill when I took a novel writing course at UCLA Extension. He was the teacher. After the last class he asked me to join a writing group he was forming, and subsequently became not just a teacher but also a mentor and a friend. Over the years he helped me improve my craft, taught me the ins and outs of submissions, and he helped me to improve my voice. Sadly he passed away before I had sold anything, but I don’t think he ever had any doubt that I would.

Was there a “eureka” moment when you felt equal to writing a novel? What provoked it? If there was no eureka moment, how did you get to the point where you sat down and wrote sentence one, in the expectation that it would lead to a complete novel?

No eureka moment. Just kept plugging away because I knew in my heart that writing novels was what I should do. Still, it took me awhile before I actually finished a full book. I have dozens and dozens of beginnings and middles and random scenes that never lead anywhere, but every time I sat down to write something I was always thinking that I was writing a novel. I don’t know where that idea came from for me. Writing short stories never crossed my mind. I was always interested in writing a novel. Even now, I find it very hard to write a short story. The longer form just comes more naturally to me.

Please describe your writing routine.

I’ll come at this answer in two directions. To start, the story itself. The first thing I do is come up with a basic idea for my next book that I write out in a proposal between three and five pages long. I don’t do that because I want to, but because I’m contractually obligated to do it. After I turn that in, it’s usually a few months before I actually start working on the novel. At that time, I don’t go back and reread the proposal, I just start writing. I tend to always have an opening scene in mind, then I let it go from there. Yeah, I’m not an outliner. I’m one of those writers who lets the story tell me where it wants to go. It’s not that I completely forget about the proposed plot I turned in, I do keep it in the back of my mind, but I don’t let it dictate what happens. What this means for me is that I tend to have to fix a lot of things when I rewrite. But that’s okay. I actually enjoy rewriting.

From a practical standpoint, my process is to write first thing in the mornings. I try to start no later than 9, and I usually wrap up by 1-ish. I shoot for 2000 words a day. Don’t always hit it, but there are days when I actually write more. As for location, I tend to write at coffee houses or bookstore cafes. I like to have a lot of people around me. Sometimes I’m listening to music, but often I’m not. The noise around me becomes a background drone that I only tune into when I need a distraction. I seldom can write at home when I’m doing a first draft. Too many other, more “dangerous” distractions – TV, books, Wii, a great couch to take a nap on. Oddly, when I’m doing rewrites I find working at home works better because I tend to read sections of my manuscript out loud, and for some reason this gets me a lot of funny looks at coffee shops. I’m strange that way.

Is any portion of a novel – beginning/middle/end, characters/setting/plot/dialog – more difficult for you than others? How do you deal with the times you get into trouble on a book?

Every book has been different for me. In my second book, for example, I think every part of it was difficult. It was just a struggle to get the words on the page. It’s a condition I’ve learned that hits a lot of novelists on their sophomore efforts. But my third one (which comes out next July) had few, if any, areas that bogged me down. It just flowed from one part to the next in a way I hope all my future novels will be written. I’m not holding my breath though.

I’ve heard a lot of people say the middle is the hardest part, but that’s one area I’ve had little problem with to this point. I just keep the story moving forward. If you really wanted to pin me down to one area where I have issues, I guess I’d have to say it was the endings. Those I tend to rewrite more than any other part.

If you could give one, two, or three pieces of advice to a beginning writer, what would it (or they) be?

Read. Read. Read. Read books in the same genre you, but also read books in other genres. It;s important to have a lay of the land of the area you’re focusing on, but you can gain knowledge in everything you read. Both the good books and the bad books are helpful. They will teach you how flow works (and sometimes show you when it doesn’t work!), and what dialogue sounds like when it’s done right or wrong. You’ll see how masters handle setting a scene in a way that makes you feel like you are there, and how pretenders set a scene that makes you realized the author doesn’t have a handle on his own story. Books are really our most important teachers.

Experience and observe life. These will be the things from which you will draw your characters, your situations, and even your plots. All good writers see the world around them in ways other people do not.

And finally write. Even if it sucks. Because it’s all practice. Don’t expect that the first novel you write is going to be the be-all-end-all. My first published novel was the fourth novel I wrote. The other three are what I refer to as my practice novels. I learned a TON from them, just like I continue to learn from everything I write now. I’m always trying to get better. So write – I won’t say every day, but as often as you can. And don’t lie to yourself and make excuses for not writing. The person you’re cheating is you.

5 Responses to “Creative Living 11; Brett Battles”

  1. usman Says:

    That was a great Q&A.
    Brett, do you structure your novels in any way…three acts and so on. Or is the structure something that comes natural to you.
    Secondly, do you aim for a ‘Mood’ of the novel. Voice, I guess, plays a big role in this. So does the story. What determines mood, and how do you define it?

  2. Dana King Says:

    I’m a regular reader of the Murderati blog, where Brett is a contributor. It’s good to see him here. Good insights, and, speaking as a pre-published author with several manuscrips “in the drawer,” it’s always encouraging to see someone successful who has some “practice novels” in their past.

    Thanks Brett, and Tim.

  3. Larissa Says:

    Good stuff-I think what I like most about this series is that it points out exactly how human all the people who “can write” really are-they all have their quirks and their moments. When I am writing I can really relate to Brett in that he writes in a place where he’s surrounded by people. A lot of the scenes that I’ve practiced writing have been created from something I saw or heard around me. And I like to read my stuff out loud too, even if they think it’s strange. I think reading work out loud is natural because it brings us back to the roots of story telling, which were all orally told to begin with. It makes sense to see what an impact the words have on the space around us-and it can sometimes help me get my punctuation correct if I can hear how it sounds with the various options I have inserted and deleted. (c:

    I like the idea that it’s all practice too-writing is the one thing that if you write a bunch of total crap and then delete you haven’t really killed any resources except for time. Which is a concept more than a resource anyway I think. If I sit down to paint and I royally hose it, I’ve blown a canvas and money and time and all that stuff. Writing, I can just delete it, claim a mulligan and start over.

    Thanks for another great, candid post. I’m stockpiling all this information somewhere in my brain. Maybe if I hear it all enough I’ll do something with it.

  4. Brett Battles Says:

    usman…structure is a natural thing for me, it just happens. I don’t plan it. And as for mood, I sometimes start with an inkling of what I want to do, but often the tone of voice my writing takes dictates which direction I’ll go in. I guess on all fronts you could call me an instinct guy…I just go with it.

    Dana and Larissa, thanks for the comments!

    And, Tim, thanks again for giving me this opportunity.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, everybody —

    Larissa, I’m as fascinated as you are by the themes that are emerging in common among most of our creative guests. I think most professionals, by which I mean people who have made the commitment to try to live off their writing, have learned from sheer necessity that one can only write by writing, whether one wants to or not, and if that means that one occasionally writes crap, so be it. That’s what second (and third, and fourth) drafts are for.

    Dana — I also frequent Murderati, which is a great site, and I’m delighted to have siphoned off some of Brett’s energy for a guest appearance here. By the way, in case you can’t tell from the interview, he’s great to have lunch with.

    And about structure, Usman: most of the writers who have contributed here discover their structure as they go along. The big exception to that, although she didn’t write about it here, is the wonderful Laura Joh Rowland, whose Sano Ichiro novels are painstakingly outlined. (I actually suspect that Laura may have a much larger outline that contains the events of the next 3-4 novels in the series. I’m reading her in order now, and she’s clearly laying track in book 1 for things that happen in books 2 and 3. I brought the first three to Asia with me, read them all, and am currently in withdrawal.

    And the thanks are due to you, Brett.

    We’ve only got two more of these essays shelved, and then I think we’ll take a break from it — maybe bring it back, somewhat refocused, in the future.

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