I set aside the novel I’d spent most of the previous seven months working on several weeks ago. A lot of good stuff was there, but the story wasn’t going anywhere.
I then spent a few weeks trying to outline a different story for the same character, a PI about whom I’d written what I’d hoped would be a series several years ago. I rehashed the same steps, back and forth, until I realized the problem was I’d lost touch with this guy. He’d made a guest appearance in my last completed Penns River novel, but I hadn’t worked with him as the lead since before Wild Bill. (Still available for Kindle for $2.99!)
I came to the conclusion the problem was Nick Forte and I hadn’t spent much time together, apart from a flash piece a couple of years ago. I set my writing muscles aside and began devoting the time I usually spent writing to reading what I’d written about him in the past, books I still hope to make available once the next one comes out, to show how he became the man he is today. (Or will be, once I get around to writing him.)
What an eye-opening experience. I’d forgotten how long I worked and worried over the beginning of Wild Bill to get the new voice right, and how different it was from the old. The PI books are far more influenced by Chandler and Parker, whereas what I’ve written more recently owe far more to the interest I’d developed in Elmore Leonard and George V. Higgins. The Forte stories have more descriptions, more similes, and more time spent letting things unfold than in the multi-POV stories.
That may be better or worse; it’s certainly different. It may also be less in tune with current taste, but we all know I'm rarely a slave to that. What I’ve learned through reading a book-and-a-half of Forte is how different he appears when you’re in his head looking out. He’s defined more by what he thinks, what he feels is important enough to mention, and by the tone in which he mentions it. It’s a whole different attitude and approach, and I hadn’t done justice to the differences when I started the first two abortive efforts. (Too belated thanks to by good friend, the late Jim Munford, for having pointed that out to me so all I had to do was remember it—and him—and not figure it out for myself.)
Now it’s time to suck it up and re-read all four previous books, to reacquaint myself with how he came to be where I wanted to start over with him. Get his voice back in my head, and pick a story better calculated to express him, rather than a story I liked that happened to have him in it.
Lest anyone start thinking along these lines, I haven’t been blocked; just ahead of myself. I’ve learned to better respect my characters, that they all deserve their own approach. So, a timely reminder of a truth often overlooked: writing is reading.