S.G. Browne

Beyond the Keyboard: Lucky Bastard

Lucky Bastard - trade paperbackSome novels develop over a short period of time, like embryonic ideas that are nurtured and gradually grow into fully-formed creations.

Other novels are more like Frankenstein’s monster, with ideas harvested from seemingly unrelated moments of inspiration until it all comes alive with a jolt of creativity.

Next up in my Beyond the Keyboard series, my homage to the hard-boiled detective novel that was harvested from various inspirations: Lucky Bastard.

The Short Story, Part I

Sometime in 2001-2002, I started an untitled short story about two brothers and their grandfather who live together in Central California. I wrote about five pages and liked the characters and what was happening but I didn’t know where the story was going or what it was about. All I knew for sure was that I was sold on the opening line: “Grandpa only had one finger left and it was pointing at the door.”

The Amsterdam Connection

In October 2002 I took a trip to Amsterdam, where I found myself in a coffee shop called Softland, so called because it had a bunch of soft, comfy pillows for patrons to sit on while they enjoyed their coffee. I believe the coffee I consumed was a mellow blend called White Widow. I brought a souvenir from Softland back with me that would sit in my desk drawer for six months or so before I took it out.

Softland1

The Short Story, Part II

I was still trying to figure out what to do with my short story I’d started more than a year earlier, which had a working title that I can’t recall. But when I took out the lighter from Softland, something clicked and I decided to adopt the Amsterdam coffee shop name as the title for my story. Now all I needed was a reason for the story to exist.

The Spanish Connection

intactoAround this time, I saw a Spanish film titled Intacto, which came out in 2001 and dealt with the concept of luck as a commodity. In the film, the main premise centers around underground games of chance in which the losers surrender their amassed good luck to the winners, usually resulting in their death. One of the characters, the hero of the film, has the ability to steal luck from others.

The film didn’t spend much time on this unique ability or how it might have come to exist, but I was intrigued with the concept and decided it would be fun to create my own mythology about luck poachers.

And just like that, “Softland” had it’s premise: a family of luck poachers. A year later, in 2004, I finished what at the time was the final draft. Eight years later, “Softland” would appear for the first time in print in my eBook short story collection Shooting Monkeys in a Barrel.

The Journal Entry

Lucky Bastard1In July 2006, during a free-flowing writing exercise for my weekly writing group, I came up with the opening line: “It’s my understanding that naked women don’t generally tend to carry knives.”

From there I wrote a scene about a man confronted by an angry naked woman with a knife while on the roof of The Windsor Hotel. At the time I didn’t think it would go any further than that, but something about the scene tugged at me until eventually I decided to do something more with it.

When Ideas Collide

I always felt that “Softland” aspired to be more than just a short story but I didn’t know where to go with the two brothers and their grandfather. And while it took me a while to figure it out, I realized I didn’t have to continue their story. I could instead expand on the mythology of luck poaching. And my journal entry proved to be the jumping off point for that exploration.

But the plot, characters, and storyline for what would eventually become Lucky Bastard didn’t take shape until three years later when I was compelled to write a synopsis for my unwritten third novel.

The Synopsis

In April 2009, while negotiating the sale of Fated to Penguin/NAL, my agent asked me if I had an idea for another novel that we might be able to pitch for a possible two book deal. At the time I didn’t have much more than a dozen pages written and I wasn’t sure how to make the story work. And since I don’t plot out my novels, I’d never written a synopsis for a book I hadn’t written yet. The synopsis always came later.

So I sat down and wrote a two-page synopsis about this private detective who stole luck, had an affinity for Lucky Charms and mochas and corporate coffee-house baristas, and who got caught up in a big luck fiasco with the feds and a Chinatown mob boss. I also had him meeting a kid with the purest luck he’d ever encountered.

I didn’t know if any of that was going to stick. It was just what stuck when I threw a bunch of ideas on a blank piece of paper. As it turned out, I ended up using almost everything in the synopsis. Go figure.

The Chandler Connection

Big_SleepWhile preparing to write Lucky Bastard, I picked up The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler to get some ideas about writing a detective novel. I’d never read Chandler and fell in love with his writing immediately.

In addition to Chandler, I also read The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay (about a narcoleptic detective in Boston), and Marlowe and the Spacewoman by Ian M. Dudley (a futuristic detective novel that was work-shopped in my writer’s group).

So after all of those detective novels, it was unavoidable that my main protagonist in Lucky Bastard would be a private eye. The only problem was, I needed the right name.

The Screenplay

Back in 1991, while living and working in Hollywood, I wrote a screenplay titled A Fish Out of Water about a private detective in Chicago trying to track down a rare Asiatic myna bird that had been bird-napped. The script was inspired by the Airplane! and Naked Gun films with lots of goofy gags and clever/silly wordplay.

My protagonist was a semi-competent private detective named Nick Monday, while his leggy and sexy client was named Tuesday Knight. The script never got bought but I loved the names and wanted to find a way to use them. Since I’d decided my main character in Lucky Bastard would be a private detective, I borrowed the name from my screenplay and brought Tuesday Knight along for the ride as a femme fatale.

And that’s how Nick Monday got his name.

The Final Jolt of Creativity

Even with all of the pieces in place, the novel didn’t come to life until I brought everything together and sat down to write it. And although I’d written a synopsis that included a lot of plot elements, many of the other supporting characters showed up in the first draft unexpectedly, including Bow Wow, Scooter Girl, and the proprietor of The Starlight Room.

For those of you who have read Lucky Bastard, when Nick first meets the woman at the bar in the nightclub atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, I was probably just as surprised as you to find out who she was.

And setting the story in San Francisco was a lot of fun, since I live here. Researching all of the locations and sitting in Huntington Park or at O’Reilly’s Irish Pub and writing several scenes made the story come alive that much more for me.

If you’re interested in taking a virtual tour of some of the San Francisco locations that appear in Lucky Bastard, I did a series of blog posts under the category Lucky Bastard San Francisco Blog Tour.

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Beyond the Keyboard: Fated

media-upload-2This is Round #2 in my Beyond the Keyboard series of blog posts in which I’ll share some insights into the background and creation of my novels. I’ll even include pictures of the original journal entries that eventually spawned Andy Warner, Nick Monday, and Fabio.

Last week we kicked things off with my debut novel Breathers. This week, we’re talking about my second novel, Fated.

A Tale of Two Journal Entries

At 10:00pm on the night of September 10, 2003, I came up with what seemed like a brilliant idea and started to write it down in my journal. I’d turned on ESPN just before getting this brilliant idea and got distracted by my desire to check the baseball scores.

After nearly a page it became clear that the “brilliant” idea I’d come up with had sounded better in my head before I wrote it down. I even commented on this fact in my journal.

So I spun that lost and less-than-brilliant idea into another idea. The failed idea would be the story. And it would be about this character who lives in New York City and is involved in some supernatural events and who writes about them. Or tries to write about them because he has first-hand knowledge of them because this character is Fate. That’s a picture of the journal entry below.

Fated1

That was it. Or mostly it. I continued for another couple of pages but that was the first idea I had to write a story about Fate. I didn’t do anything more with the idea at the time. It was just an entry in my journal but it remained in the back of my head, lurking in the shadows.

Nearly a year later, in July 2004, I was sitting on a bench at an art festival watching people walk past and I wrote down a scene that starts out with the line:

“I look at people and see what they’re going to be like in twenty years.”

From there I went on to more or less describe the people Fate/Fabio would eventually see in the shopping mall in Paramus, NJ, in the opening chapter of Fated. While I still wasn’t sure what to do with the idea, I thought this could tie in somehow with my journal entry from the previous September.

Fabio Gets His Name

Fast-forward to December 2006. I’d finished Breathers six months earlier and decided it was time to get started on another novel. So I dug through my notes and journals and came across my scene from nearly 2004 with Fate sitting on the bench watching people.

At the time I had no idea where that scene would go, but as soon as Destiny showed up at the bottom of Page 2 I felt something click into place and I knew it was worth pursuing. And when Destiny called the narrator Fabio, drawing out the last syllable in a playful yet sarcastic tone, my main character had his moniker. And his foil.

Gluttony, Karma, and Death Walk Into a Bar…

Those of you familiar with my writing process know that I don’t tend to plot or outline my novels but rather I channel my inner Indiana Jones and make it up as I go. So originally I had no intention to fill Fated with Deadly Sins or characters who were attributes or intangible concepts, such as Lady Luck or Love. And I definitely didn’t plan to have God as a main character.

But as the story developed and Fabio took me along for a ride, I discovered that he was friends with Karma, hung out with Sloth and Gluttony, and had a five-hundred-year-old feud with Death.

Fated Outline 2As more characters showed up and their mythology and history developed, I realized I needed to clarify their roles. While some of them were already categorized for me (The Seven Deadly Sins), I grouped the others into their cosmic job responsibilities:

The Attributes (Honesty, Truth, Wisdom); The Emotives (Love); The Intangibles (Lady Luck); The Lesser Sins (Failure); and The Eventuals (Fate, Destiny, Death, Karma, and God). That’s a partial list there on the left.

I also had The Seven Heavenly Virtues, The Seven Contrary Virtues, and The Subversives (War, Hysteria, Paranoia), but none of them ever had a speaking part.

The Thing About Fated is…

If you’ve read Fated you know I use a recurring line throughout the novel to describe each of the characters. This wasn’t something I planned on but it just showed up at some point in the book and when it did, I realized I wanted to use it when introducing each immortal character.

But I didn’t want to just lazily tag each immortal character for the fun of it. I wanted their identifying features to be meaningful. I wanted to give each one of them a specific human flaw. I wanted to make theses immortal beings fallible, like the Greek Gods. Only instead of living on Mount Olympus, they live in Manhattan.

Rule #1: Don’t Get Involved

I also realized (with the help of my writing group) that in addition to creating defined roles for the different characters, I needed to create some rules for them and what they were in charge of doing. What could Fabio do as Fate? What were his limitations? Were they different than those of Gluttony or Secrecy or Lady Luck?

In my initial drafts of the novel I didn’t list specific rules and the novel didn’t start out with what would eventually become it’s opening line. It wasn’t until I defined these roles that I came up with some of the thematic meat of the story about humans and how we deal with what life throws at us, about how we choose to react to our failure or our lust or our greed that ultimately affects our fates and destinies.

A good potion of this happened in the rewrite phase, before the manuscript ever made it to my agent.

How Sara Got Her Groove

It took me three months to write the first 45,000 words of Fated (a little more than half the novel), then I spent the next nine months spinning my wheels, trying to figure out where it was going and what it wanted to be. During this time, I wrote another 15,000 words.

The biggest problem facing me was that, while I knew there was something special about Sara, I had no idea what that something was. I had some ideas but none of them excited me.

Then one day in late December of 2007, the last line of the novel popped into my head. It wasn’t something I’d thought about. It just showed up. And when it did, I thought: “I like this. But if this is the last line, then that means Sara is…” (I’m avoiding specifics and spoilers just in case someone hasn’t read the novel.)

After that, once I had that last line and Sara’s purpose, everything fell into place. I wrote 20,000 words in a month, finishing the last 5,000 words of the novel on the Friday and Saturday before the Super Bowl while fighting off a bad cold.

Fate and the Consumer Culture

When I started writing Fated in December 2006, I had no intention of writing a book about the consumer culture and how it affects our choices as humans and how we live our lives. But the more I wrote, the more it became apparent that this would be a recurring theme.

So perhaps it was destiny that I started my novel out with Fate sitting in a shopping mall. (Most of the social commentary about consumerism in the first chapter was added in later once I realized what the book was going to be about.)

But more than a social commentary on the consumer cultured, Fated is about finding something you enjoy doing, something that matters to you and fills you with a sense of purpose, rather than just living to work and working to live.

Fated Fun Facts

  • Originally all of the immortal characters had pseudonyms that started with the same letter as their identity (Destiny/Desiree, Sloth/Seth, Gluttony/Gus), but I decided to scale back the pseudonyms because I thought it worked better to just have a few of them named, instead
  • Chapter 6, where Fabio is assigning fates on the computer at Starbucks and gets the message from Jerry about a big event coming, was added in rewrites
  • Some of my favorite chapters include: when Fabio goes to Jerry’s office for the first time; Fabio and Karma eating at Curry in a Hurry; the scene at the Westfield Mall in San Francisco; when Sara discovers Fabio’s identity; and pretty much every scene with Destiny
  • There really is a law on the books in the state of Minnesota that prohibits sex between humans and birds
  • In my fourth novel, Big Egos, Truth and Wisdom are sitting at the bar in Chapter 56 (page 306) during the scene at the Formosa Cafe
  • Death (aka Dennis) also makes a cameo in Big Egos at the Mythical Creatures party in Chapter 44
  • While I love all of my novels, Fated remains my favorite
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Filed under: Beyond the Keyboard,Fated,The Writing Life — Tags: , , , — S.G. Browne @ 10:50 pm