WRITING THE VAMPIRE
This interview originally appeared in DNIR - Darla, New, Improved, and Revamped -- a web zine dedicated to writing vampire fiction. It goes further than just vampire fiction and the interviewer (she calls herself Black Winged Angel) did a pretty good job, I think. -CM
The vampire has long been one of literature's most volatile weapons. It's got all the perks that make the blood boil and the audiences coming back for more: youth and beauty, active nightlife, kinky sex games -- and did I mention that eternal life thing? Whatever your fancy, the vympyre has taken the attention of readers -- and writers -- all over the world.
One of the most fun, most unique vympyre books of the nineties is Bloodsucking Fiends, a hilarious, delightfully modern story of an unwilling undead in San Francisco. Filled with fantastically memorable characters and wacky plot twists, Bloodsucking Fiends is a masterpiece of intelligent plot devices and witty humor. Its author, Christopher Moore (Coyote Blue, Practical Demonkeeping) speaks with us about the basics of kick-ass writing.
DNIR: First of all, do you object to the term "kick-ass writing"? Do you have a phrase or term to describe your writing?
CHRIS: I'm flattered by the term "kick-ass" writing, particularly in reference to Bloodsucking Fiends. That book was such a delight to write, and much of what I did in it was what I'd have to call "reactive" writing. I was reacting to a lot of the writing I was seeing from other contemporary writers of vampire fiction, that is sort of depressing, dark, obsessive attention to detail that didn't seem particularly important or to move the story forward. Let's call that a particular "type" of vampire fiction. Neo-gothic, I guess. I wanted to write a vampire story that moved and hit a lot of beats along the way.
DNIR: Okay, now real writing questions. For a while, anyway. Do you just write when you get the itch, or do you sit down and force yourself?
CHRIS: You really can't write novels "when you get an itch". You might be able to pull that off for short stories, poems, or songs, but you can't wait to be taken by inspiration to write a novel. You have to have some sort of discipline or schedule. When I'm working on a book I try to work every day for at least three or four hours. It doesn't always work out that way, but that's my goal. I usually work in the morning because I'm less stupid then, but I have moved my schedule around to work around noise and distractions.
DNIR: What about a process? Do you write in certain sequences, like writing the beginning and the end, and then filling in the middle? (Or like starting with an idea and seeing where it takes you?)
CHRIS: I start with an idea and think about it for a long time before I actually start on the manuscript. I like to have six months to think about and research a book. Then I write it from beginning to the end.
DNIR: Where'd you get the ideas for your vympyres? I mean, physical limitations, and the ability to sense how much life is in a person from seeing the kind of heat they give off; stuff like that . . .
CHRIS: I didn't set out to change the genre or explain things. Right before I started Fiends there were a lot of vampire books that explored the science of vampirism, playing around with AIDS and other blood-borne diseases. I didn't really want to go there. I thought it had been done well by a number of authors, and I also thought that Anne Rice had done a great job of creating the history of the vampire race in Lestat, so I just went back to those things that I thought would be interesting to play with. Those turned out to be heightened senses and the nature of a predator. Natural predators tend to feed on the sick and the weak, so I gave my vampires an ability to pick out the sick. The "heat" vision was nothing new, but I liked the idea of using it as a plot device and trying to describe it in print. The only thing I really played with other than that, I think, is that my vampires go out precisely at sunrise and go out precisely at sundown. It seemed to raise the stakes in having an accurate watch and an almanac. You hardly ever see those in vampire stories.
DNIR: Your writing is extraordinarily funny. How important do you think humor is to a good story? Does it serve any specific purpose, or is it just an extra special bonus?
CHRIS: For me it's the core of everything I do, but that's just me. I construct situations that can be played for comedy. On the other hand, I think you could strip most of my books of the humor and they'd still tell a pretty good story, so I guess story is first. The problem with writing humor is that it absolutely has to hit. If you miss many times then the reader will turn on you. (Watch a comedian bomb some time if you don't believe me.) So I guess humor is the bonus, and it requires some instincts that aren't absolutely required for a good story.
DNIR: Irony used to be a major part of literature, so much so that stories that contained irony almost had their own genre. What place do you think irony has in modern fiction?
CHRIS: Modern fiction IS irony. (Sorry, authors always say some dumb shit like that.) About every year or two someone declares irony dead. Consequently the best writing in books and movies over the following twelve months will be fraught with irony. One of my books (Coyote Blue) originally began with an essay about how irony is the most powerful force in the universe. The premise was something like this: The entire universe is constantly striving to attain balance, yet is forever doomed to be out of balance, therefore, irony is the most powerful force in the universe. (Okay, it was a little more eloquent than that, but you get my meaning.)
Basically, for the writer and the reader, the best reason for irony is that it makes both feel clever. Sometimes, irony is the only developer for the images of human experience. (That would be another one of those dumb-shit author things to say.)
DNIR: A similar question: what place do you think symbolism has in modern fiction? How do you employ symbolism in your work?
CHRIS: While an author might make his message clear with irony by stating that which is contrary to his message, so with symbolism, he might use a symbol (a metaphor, if you will) to direct the reader's eye to his message by coming at it from an oblique angle. Archetypal symbolism, I suppose, can serve as shorthand for the author's message, but it depends on the reader getting it. I'm not fond of the idea of a symbolism that doesn't communicate beyond the symbol, or that is used as some sort of puzzle for the reader. Writing is about communication, revelation, even entertainment writing. Anything that obscures serves neither the writer nor the reader. As a writer, I'd say the usefulness of symbols is as a device to clarify your story in the context of the archetypes of human consciousness. (Which means it doesn't hurt to know your mythology and become aware of how almost all stories can be distilled to a classic myth.) All that said, I think one can write a magnificent story without the slightest consideration for symbols, archetypes, mythology, or allegory AND consideration of those elements over good character development and storytelling is how literature teachers kill a lot of good young writers.
DNIR: Do you prefer internal or external conflict? Why?
CHRIS: External, because more shit gets blowed up.
DNIR: What do you use as the driving force behind your plots -- character interaction or an outside antagonist? Do you find one of these methods more effective than the other? Why?
CHRIS: The driving force behind my plots is movement. (See internal, external conflict question above.) Plot is merely the equation by which one calculates the movement of the story. For there to be a story, things must happen. A great character with nothing to do and no problem to solve may be a great character, but he's not a story. Plot is the order in which things happen and the device by which they happen. In a short story there may only be one event, one problem for the character to solve, in a novel there are so many that I can't really answer the question in terms of "which do you use, character interaction or an outside antagonist". Invariably I start the action by something out of the norm (status quo) being introduced, but from there the rest of the plot may be dictated by the characters' reaction to that event and to each other. Other events follow. It's actually easier to plot a book when you have character's pursuing conflicting agendas, each pulling in his own direction, because your next move is often dictated by the character's agenda (What does he or she want?). Plot is simply answering the question, "What happens next?" The "Why does it happen?" can be answered in a million ways, and still be correct as long as the answer is credible. In other words, you have to give your work the "idiot plot" test. (I believe "idiot plot" is a term coined by Roger Ebert, and is defined by a plot which would not work unless everyone in the story is an absolute idiot.) .
When I plot I use a triangular-shaped diagram that I swiped from John Gardner's The Art of Fiction.
(This is from memory and my be off a bit, but it's basically the diagram I use.)
The bottom line is the status quo, how things would have gone if nothing had happened. The first ray moving upward is the way things have become, or the new set of events set off by the main conflict. The top of the triangle is the climax of the story, and the final line down is the return to a new status quo. Along the upward line forces clash causing conflict and producing motion. It's weird, but it actually helps to visualize a book this way. I've never really tried it with a short story, but I suppose it would work just as well.
Rather than "outline" I like to plot a book visually, in diagrams, with a lot of circles and arrows and colored pencils and stuff.
DNIR: What do you think makes a better story: love, or lust? Are the two interchangeable? What tips would you give on accurately combining both?
CHRIS: I look at it this way. Lust is a plot device, love is a story. Lust almost always precedes love. It's more immediate and less discriminate and tends to move smaller things in a story, while love is more complex and tends to move large chunks of the story. Love ties, lust doesn't. My only advice is to remind you that everyone has sex. Everyone has a standard by which they measure sex. You can write about staking out vampires all day, about gunfights and space ships and pirates and bank robberies and most of your readers will have absolutely nothing but other fiction to compare with your portrayals, but when you write sex, they know. So use the same policy for sex scenes you would for a commando mission: get in, get out, and no one gets hurt. Desire is much more interesting than the culmination of desire (in fiction, anyway).
DNIR: How do you research for your books? Are there any tips you could give us on researching?
CHRIS: There are two kinds of research that I do; one is to give me ideas to generate the story and the other is to corroborate facts in the real world. If you are doing research looking for ideas, then you should, by all means do as much research as you need to find your story. On the other hand, don't let research stop your story. I have a friend who stopped writing his book because he had a scene that took place on a private jet and he didn't know how fast it went and what it look like inside. I asked him, "How many of your readers do you think have ever been in private jet? And what does the plane's speed have to do with the scene?" The answer was, not many and nothing at all. Don't stop writing to research detail that no one cares about. Specific detail that's vivid, but spare, will allow your reader to fill in the reality you've created with his imagination better than pointillistic detail that isn't germane to the story. Tell the story now. Go back and fix the facts later.
DNIR: How do you find a voice for your characters? Are there any exercises you go through when trying to figure out how a character speaks, thinks?
CHRIS: Not really. I just think of how I want them to be. I often use real people as models for my characters, then jack up their personality traits to make them more interesting. Sometimes I'll combine the traits of two or three real people to make one interesting character. The most important thing to ask yourself about your characters is "What do they want and what will they do to get it."
DNIR: Where do you come up with the names for your characters? Do you think that a character's name is an important aspect of their person?
CHRIS: Character names are really important to me. I have to feel that the name and the personality go together. A guy name Tad is going to talk differently than a guy named Antonio, a woman named Bambi or Candi comes with a set of assumptions on the part of the reader and it's almost always a mistake to go against that grain, in my experience. I use the phone book for last names and a baby book for first names to name my characters. Also, if I run across a great character name in history I'll write it down and use it later. My character Augustus Brine, from Practical Demonkeeping was named from a painting I found in an art book. In the painting he was a 12-year-old midshipman on a 19th Century British sailing ship. In my book he's a 65-year-old fisherman. The name works for both. (There are also a couple of baby name web sites that you can use if you don't have a book. Run a search on "baby names.")
DNIR: Do you write/know your characters' backgrounds? How far back do you go; how is this important to writing? How does a character's past affect the story?
CHRIS: I usually shape the character's background based on what I need him to do. I only go back as far as I need to for the details that are important to the story. I usually have the story affect the character's past, rather than the character's past affect the story. You can shape either to your needs, you see? If you need a guy to hotwire a car then you'd better give him a past where he might have learned that skill. It goes deeper than that, but you see what I mean. An accountant forced into the role of a secret agent is more interesting than a secret agent forced into the role of an accountant. Build what's interesting. In my vampire book, Bloodsucking Fiends, it was important that my protagonist, Tommy, came from a small town in the Mid West because the book is set in San Francisco and I wanted to portray the city through new eyes. When he encounters Jody, the vampire, it's weird, but it's also another weird event in a whole series of weird events set off by his coming to the city. On the other hand, the big change for Jody is going from being human to being a vampire in THE SAME environment where she functioned as a human, so I have her growing up in Northern California and having lived in San Francisco for several years.
DNIR: Which is more important to you: writing a good plot, or writing a plot well? What suggestions can you give for combining the two?
CHRIS: Most writing questions are not an either/or questions. This one certainly isn't . You need a good plot AND you need to write it well. My advice is to have both. Plot first in some sort of outline, diagram, or in your head if you must, but have some idea where you are going, although not necessarily in detail Then write it to the best of your ability, paying close attention to everything you know about writing.
DNIR: In a horror story, should there be a somewhat equal balance of humor? Do you need to create an equal balance of parts in order for a story to work?
CHRIS: No, not at all. Most horror stories have very little humor. I've make my living by writing comic novels, but I'm the exception.
DNIR: What kind of things are important for setting the mood of a story?
CHRIS: Language and selective detail. This is where you learn your voice. Narrative voice is one of the more important aspects of setting the mood of a piece, in my mind, anyway. If you don't know what narrative voice is, then it's not a bad idea to find out. Selective detail? Picking the stuff that's vivid to write about.
DNIR: How important is setting to a story? How do you choose your settings? What makes a certain place a good place for a story? Are there any tips you could give us on creating imaginary worlds as settings?
CHRIS: Setting is an integral part of the story. More important in some stories than in others. How do you know how important setting is to your story? If it couldn't happen anywhere else, it's probably pretty important and you should pay some attention to it.
I really don't know anything about creating imaginary worlds. That might be a better question for another writer.
DNIR: Who's your favorite of your characters? From Bloodsucking Fiends? From any of your books? Why?
CHRIS: My favorite character is Biff, from my upcoming book Lamb. Biff is the childhood and lifelong best friend of Jesus Christ, and he's basically a horn dog and a trouble maker, so he was a lot of fun to write. (But Jody, my vampire in Fiends and Roberto the talking fruit bat from Island of the Sequined Love Nun run close seconds and thirds. )
DNIR: Who's your favorite vampire? Do you think that's a creepy question?
CHRIS: Jody, in Bloodsucking Fiends is my favorite vampire. I wrote her that way. Next up would have to be the Lance Henrikson character (Jesse) in the movie, Near Dark. I always have to fall back on Dracula, too. I read that book for the first time when I was fifteen and I slept with the light on for a week. It scared the bejeezus out of me. And yes, that is a creepy question, but in a nice way.
DNIR: And finally, the question you've been dreading: can you give any advice to young writers?
CHRIS: Don't pay any attention to or worry about symbolism, allegory, irony, balance, or any other of the stuff that deconstructionist professors teach you in lit classes. Concentrate on characters and story telling. DO NOT TAKE ON THE BURDEN OF CREATING LITERATURE. IT WILL KILL YOUR WRITING. If you are destined to develop the talent to create literature it will come, but you can rest assured that if you try to create literature before you learn the craft of storytelling you will fail miserably. Write stories. Have fun. Entertain.