A Chat with Eric Beetner

Eric Beetner and JB Kohl are the authors of One Too Many Blows to the Head and the recently released Borrowed Trouble. Just to get you in the mood, here is the trailer for Borrowed Trouble: 

Not bad, eh? This is a book I can’t wait to read.

Eric and I met at Left Coast Crime in Los Angeles in 2010 and have since become friends. To celebrate the release of Borrowed Trouble, we took some time out to chat about our writing processes.

EB: From what I gather we are very different in our approach [to writing].

HW: Unlike most writers, I don’t work a day job, so I can essentially devote myself to writing full time. Sounds idyllic, but the reality is that unless one is extremely disciplined, a day can pass in the blink of an eye and nothing gets done. I really have to force myself to keep my butt in the chair and WRITE. I’m such a time waster that an 8 hour work day results in about two hours of actual writing time. But then, I have that luxury.

This process has gotten easier since I’m at the tail end of my final draft. Most of the work is just reading and tweaking a passage here and there. I’ve learned that the two parts of writing I like most are the first draft and the final draft–everything in between is torture.

I know you have a job and a family, which means in order to get the writing done, you have to carve out and protect your writing time as much as you can. What is your writing schedule, how easy is it to keep it, and how often do you find yourself sliding?

EB: Yes, I have a day job. (I should be working right now but I am ignoring one computer for my laptop.) I feel certain that I’d dilly dally and waste time all over the place if I had an open schedule to my writing.

I am a night writer. I always have been but that comes more from necessity than anything else. When I was screenwriting I wrote 16 screenplays only at night. Now I’m nearly done with my sixth novel all written between 10pm and 2 am. I’m also a short burst writer. I tap out after about 2 hours. Could be the late hour but even when I have written during the day I can do a burst in the afternoon then I have to come back at night, hours later, and can get another burst going.

Borrowed_trouble_cover  

I’d say I average 1,500 words at a shot, but I’ve been known to do nearly 3K in a 2 or 2 1/2 hour sitting. I’ve stayed at the keyboard for as many as 4500 words at a time but not often. I find myself needing to finish a thought. I spoke with Brett Battles about this not too long ago and he (as well as Christa Faust I know) is a stop-in-the-middle guy which he claims makes it easier to pick up the next day. I feel the opposite. I need to complete a scene otherwise I risk an inconsistent flow. It could be, too, that if I don’t finish I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about it. If I put a period on the end of the sentence I can let it go.

How about you? Are you a finish-the-thought type or a leave-it-in-the-middle type?

HW: I’m kind of all over the place with that. When I wrote my first draft, I began with a fairly tight twenty chapter outline. Having never written a novel before, I felt I needed the guidance an outline would provide. Each chapter detailed a particular scene, and every day when it was writing time, I’d look at the outline to see what still needed to be written and write whatever scene I was “feeling” that day. My goal was 1000 words per day, and if, by the time I met that goal, I’d not finished the scene, I’d allow myself to quit. Some days, when the writing came easy, I’d go beyond those 1000 words and finish the scene. I agree with Brett that stopping in the middle gave me something obvious to work on the next day, but it didn’t necessarily make it easier.

It took me six months to write that first draft. At 70k words, I knew there’d be a lot of “beefing up” to do in the re-write and my final draft will be just under 100k words.

Like you, I have a screenwriting background. In learning the craft, I was taught to do a 120 point outline (1 page for each plot point for a full-length screenplay). I think that’s where the idea for the 20 chapter outline came from–it got me through the story from A to Z, which is really what I needed at the time.

I am fairly certain I won’t use an outline, at least not one that rigid, for my next novel. Now that I have a firmer grasp on story structure I think the outline will inhibit me. I also know I can up my word count to at least 2k words a day without too much trouble. But that leads me to the question: “Are you an outliner or a “pantser?”

EB: Oh I’m an outliner. I don’t see how people can just improvise a whole book. Kudos to those that do. Partly I think it’s because I’m not much of a rewriter. I prefer to get it as close as I can in first draft because I agree with what you said, the revising can be painful.

My outlines are loose, or at least very skeletal. I need to know where the story is going and major milestones but an outline for an entire novel can fit on a single page. It can be as simple as: Ray goes back to the apartment. That will lead to a whole chapter. The fun part of writing for me is filing in the gaps, but I need to know the basic elements before I can feel free to do that.

This is a good segue to my new book, Borrowed Trouble. When my coauthor, JB Kohl, and I started that book we outlined and had a good idea of where things were headed. Once we had that structure down it freed us up to be able to adapt as things started appearing in the writing. Characters were added and dropped, scenes cut and moved, subplots excised. We didn’t deviate much at all in writing One Too Many Blows To The Head, but for Borrowed Trouble I’d say we ended up changing around about 40% of what was in the original outline.

As each of us would dive into a chapter we might add a detail here and there that caused a ripple effect on down the line but it was easy to adjust. It could have been a real roadblock and it was what I feared most in writing with a partner but it was all smooth sailing for two books now. I still can’t believe it.

Now, I can’t imagine having the patience you have had with your manuscript. It sounds like you have plans to streamline the process for your next book. What do you think led to it taking over a year? Do you think that is just your pace or do you think you will speed up with each new book?

Mb_talking HW: It’s actually taken 2 1/2 years to write. It took me 6 months just to plot the book! Sure, I wish I could’ve done it quicker, but really, that’s a luxury that unpublished authors have. I used the time to research, learn the craft, and try to tell the story as best I could. I spent a lot of time feeling overwhelmed–I often felt like I’d bitten off more than I could chew, so to speak. And I wasted a lot of time on the Internet.

I plan to quicken the pace with the next book, if only out of sheer necessity because I have a contract and a deadline looming.I’m interested in the fact that you have a co-author. Does that process more or less run smoothly? Do you think that speeds up the writing for you, knowing if you don’t get your work done, someone else is effected? Any major arguments with plotting?

I’m so invested in DIARY OF BEDLAM I don’t think I could give control of any part of it to another writer. Did you ever have any qualms about that?

EB: Yeah, no way I could do 2 1/2 years. I admire that. You had the research though.

Writing with a co-author has been weirdly wonderful. I was as skeptical as anyone at the start. The good news was since we live in different states we had nothing to lose. If it all flamed out we would never run into each other at a bookstore event or anything. We could just walk away and say, “nice try.”

From the very start it went so smoothly though. We were both shocked. Initially it was Jennifer’s idea to write together after I had read her first book, The Deputy’s Widow, a 1940s set PI novel I would still recommend to anyone who likes a good mystery. I’d say if you liked City of Dragons you’d like it. I sent her a short story of mine that was published in Thuglit and she came back with, “Would you ever want to write something together.” It was one of those just-crazy-enough-to-work sort of things.

We have never argued. Never disagreed very strongly about any plot turns. Any time something doesn’t work for one or the other we’re very up front and just come out and say, “I don’t think that works, How about this?” She may curse me to her husband after she gets an email but I can honestly say I’ve never had to do that with her. She puts up with my notes and opinions quite well.

We never stick to any set timeline when we’re writing. It tends to go fairly quickly. We’ll exchange a chapter every 4 or 5 days usually. Then someone will get sick, kids get in the way or something else to throw off the momentum and we’ll take a week or two down before we pick it up again. No pressure. For Borrowed Trouble we weren’t working on a deadline, just an open invitation from the publisher to do another. So that was nice.

I think we feel invested in our individual characters – I write the Ray Ward chapters and she writes Dean Fokoli – but other than that the story is ours, the book is ours and there is no territoriality involved.

That said, I don’t recommend co-authoring. I think we stumbled onto something very unique and we both know it.

It’s weird for me because on my solo stuff I don’t do any writers groups, workshops or anything like that. I hate having anyone else critique my work as I’m writing it. Part of that comes from my day job as a TV editor where I get input and notes all day long on my creative output so writing is the one place I can be in charge and not have to bend to any whims.(not that I always get it right. I just can afford to be deluded and naive for now).

I know you’ve gotten a lot of input and feedback on Diary of Bedlam along the way, for the better you’ve said. How important has that been to the book? Have you ever felt crushed and insecure after a critique (like I would be)?

HW: For the most part, the people I’ve chosen to read DOB so far have been great at giving much needed feedback while not hurting my feelings. My husband is my first reader and I trust him to be honest with his critique but he generally does it in a way that doesn’t cause much of a sting. My other two readers are invaluable because they’re both avid readers and great at articulating what’s good and what’s missing from a story. Without them, DOB would not be nearly as strong.

I look at it this way: I want to get this book published, which means it has to be the best book I can possibly write. Part of that, for me, has been getting feedback from others I trust. That said, I am very sensitive and generally do not take criticism well. I vacillate between being defensive or crushed by it, usually, both. I really have to work at being pragmatic about the feedback I get on DOB, that the people giving that feedback want me to succeed and that it’s not to be taken personally. And in the end, that’s all it is, feedback. It’s up to me whether the book gets changed.

I’m looking forward to reading Borrowed Trouble. Was writing this book any easier than One Too Many Blows to the Head? I keep thinking writing the sequel to DOB will be easier because I’ve spent so much time with my characters and know their world intimately now. Also, tell me a little bit about it to whet my appetite.

EB: You absolutely nailed it there, Holly. People want you to succeed and it’s up to you in the end. You’re more mature about it than I am I guess (grinning).

I wouldn’t say writing the second book was easier but the characters did come easier and were actually fun to get back into. Like visiting an old friend. One of the plot elements that worked so well in One Too Many Blows To The Head was that they stayed separated almost the whole time and you get both sides of the story so it was tough to have them together a lot more in Borrowed Trouble but still get to plot points that worked to split them up. That dynamic works well for our writing process and the characters. We didn’t want to force it though. It helped that Ray and Dean aren’t exactly the best of friends. 

Without giving anything away about the first book, Borrowed Trouble picks up about a year later in 1941. Ray Ward is living out his small life in Kansas City just keeping his head down and trying to stay away from any unwanted attention. Dean Fokoli has been let go from the police force and is now slumming it as a P.I. in a nasty part of town.

Ray recieves a package, postmarked Hollywood, from a mysterious girl named Audrey. It contains a reel of 8mm film and a note asking for help and claiming the girl is his sister. The only problem? Ray doesn’t have a sister.

With nowhere else to turn he seeks out his old nemesis Fokoli for help. (I won’t give away what’s on the film but it ain’t pretty) Ray and Dean travel to Hollywood to find the missing Audrey and get tangled in a web of sleazy film producers making less-then-reputable films of girls fresh off the bus and seeking stardom. The deeper they dig the higher up into the ranks of Hollywood’s elite it goes and it doesn’t seem like they are any closer to finding Audrey.

It delves again into Ray’s warped sense of justice and Dean’s old demons and his desire to atone for past discretions.

I imagine there was a lot more research for my time period that was quickly available than for yours. Did you at least get a trip to London out of it?

HW: Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. Although I should say that since Mick’s [my husband] from England we go to London a lot. But this trip, taken in August 2009, was a research trip, during which I visited every location in the book, took lots of photos and video, and generally tried to soak up atmosphere. I love London, and there were times when I was writing the manuscript that I craved going there, I was so deeply immersed in it.

EB: This has been great to talk back and forth about process.

HW: Thanks for visiting my blog, Eric, and best of luck for Borrowed Trouble and your future work!

 

Holly West

2 Comments

Leave a Reply to Sheila Deeth Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *