Chris Irvin: Five Things I Learned Writing Federales

Mexican Federal Agent Marcos Camarena dedicated his life to the job. But in a country where white knights die meaningless deaths, martyred in a hole with fifty other headless bodies in the desert, corruption is not an attribute but a scale; no longer a stigma but the status quo. When Marcos’s life is threatened, he leaves law enforcement and his life in Mexico City behind for a coastal resort town—until an old friend asks him to look after an outspoken politician, a woman who knows cartel violence all too well. Despite his best efforts, Marcos can’t find it in his heart to refuse, and soon finds himself isolated on the political front lines of the war on drugs.

Write to find your voice.

I read a lot of fiction. Between books and short stories the word count can, at times, become ridiculous to the point that my brain can’t retain it all and I have to take a day or two to reflect and decompress. Reading is important, as they say, to the development of a writer. It’s true and unfortunate for a lot of writers that reading is the first activity to feel the squeeze when more is added to the already full plate of family, work, friends, writing, etc. Such is life, even for those of us who cut sleep to the bone.

But I think even more important – as such wise sages as Joe R. Lansdale and Chuck Wendig will also tell you – is to get your ass in the seat, buckle down and write. Every day. Every other day. Whatever – you make the goal. I wrote my first novel in mid-2012. Thought I could surpass my fellow first novelists’ problems (too long, too short, too fat, too skinny, you name it) and plot-wise promptly ended up with everything AND the kitchen sink. But it’s my first novel and it rocks so let’s kick it to agents, shall we? Crickets.

I received one piece of feedback from a respected agent that drove me on. To summarize: This is good, but it’s not you.

It’s not you.

Damn, right? But I continued to write, almost every day, and I think over the past eighteen months between Federales and a range of short stories, I’ve found my voice. Is it good? Who knows, that’s for the reader to judge. Will it evolve? Yes, I’m learning more every day. But it’s me. Thinking about it didn’t get me there, writing did.

Less is More.

With finding my voice came a discovery of my style – less is more. I don’t mean “minimalism” and don’t get me wrong: I love a gritty crime novel stuffed with violence and action, even ‘forget reloading’ over-the-top action. But it’s not me. I’ve tried (and will again) with short fiction but when I sit back and take it all in, I always seem to find a slow burn staring back at me.

Maybe it’s in my DNA. I’m certain it’s the kind of books and television I enjoy. True Detective, Drive, Memories of Murder, The Wrestler, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Queenpin by Megan Abbott, Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Conner. I’m inspired by the likes of these works daily. The way a story can hinge on one action, one scene, burning an image into your mind. Something as subtle as the significance of a dress hanging in a closet, or a character’s grim determination hinting at stubbornness that you know can only lead down a dark road. What’s said and more importantly, what isn’t said. The impact of each heightened by the subdued surroundings where they might otherwise be lost amid the static.

Perhaps it’s the slow burn mentality so rooted in the history of the noir subgenre (at least with Cain and Hughes) that rings with me. The underdogs and their irrational hope in the face of almost certain failure. Here, I think, I’ve found where I fit.

It has a name: Hamartia.

The classical Greek term for the hero’s “tragic flaw.” The downfall of the White Knight. Despite a character’s best efforts at becoming cynical and immune to his sympathies for others, he remains devoted to The Right Thing. He tries to do X, but his actions have the opposite effect, resulting in the ultimate tragedy that is his disastrous fate.

An idea I subconsciously knew, but hadn’t fully wrapped my arms around.  Thanks to my man, Bracken MacLeod, for the lesson.

Researching Mexico, noir central.

Politics and Spring Break aside, the country of Mexico is largely out of sight, out of mind for Americans. The goods come in, the goods go out. Drugs come in, money goes out. And I heard there’s violence, right? Lots of violence. But not in my neighborhood.

The violence in Mexico is extreme. Estimates of the number of people killed in drug-related violence since 2006 hover around 60,000. But what I find even more chilling is the threat of violence. Can you imagine police in the United States (I use the U.S. as an example because it is where I live, but take your pick of the First World) covering their face during an arrest, at a crime scene or press conference for fear of being recognized and putting their friends and family in the cross hairs of retaliation? Can you imagine paramedics waiting for a victim of a shooting to die before providing aid, because his survival means their deaths? Or thousands of armed vigilantes patrolling a state, complete with sandbag bunkers and checkpoints, because the police, or in this case, the military, have failed to bring law and order to their lives? It’s not just the stuff of fiction.

Love to write? Love to edit.

I’ve found most of the writers I know fall into one of two camps: Those that love the draft (crank it out, it’s shit anyway) and the meticulous editor. I fall into the latter category, sometimes to the extreme, especially while writing short stories. I find a first draft can be downright frightening at times. At the start of my current WIP novel, I sat writing and rewriting and rewriting the first sentence for an hour before I just gave up and moved on. Just last week I put out a meager 400 words in three hours because I was afraid of the garbage that would spill out. But that’s what a first draft is, right? Garbage. So you just have to power through and get it all down on the page.

While I find it satisfying to finish a writing session with a solid word count, it doesn’t compare to the high of the editorial process. Spending a morning revisiting a chapter, playing with sentences, adding key details here and there. Moving on to the next chapter knowing (hoping?) you’ve got something great that you can pass on to your writing group/spouse/editor/etc. for further critique. There’s nothing better in the writing process than that, for me.

Christopher Irvin: Website | Twitter

Federales: Amazon

19 comments

  • I sat writing and rewriting and rewriting the first sentence for an hour before I just gave up and moved on.

    I rewrote the opening chapter of a novel for about five years: it was surprisingly easy to do. That said, I am intrigued by your novel, and am now going to go purchase it.

  • Chris, do you feel that your voice manifests itself fully during your first (second or third?) draft or only after you edit a bunch of times? Or is it a culmination of the whole process?

  • David – thanks for picking up the book! Perhaps I should clarify and add that I’ve since gone back to the first sentence and will again. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s not worth getting hung up on small issues in early drafts. You can always return and tweak and polish (as you mention you have) over time.

  • Mark – I think it is a culmination of the whole process over time. Where before I would see it more in my later drafts (second, third, etc) I now see ‘me’ in my first drafts. Writing short stories was a huge boost toward deciphering my process and voice. I think it would have taken much longer if I had started off concentrating on longer works, but I’m sure it is different for everyone.

  • Well you certainly have a good voice now.

    First drafts sure get beat up on. I think the majority of first drafts are pretty good actually. But then my sales suck so I could be wrong on that.

  • Hi Chris,

    Not that I’m far enough along to fully understand my process (I’m pretty sure I haven’t found my voice yet) or that I’ve completed enough work to be certain, but I have a suspicion, I also prefer the editing process.

    Book sounds great by the way.

    • Thanks, Joe. I’m still – and expect always will be, to some extent – on the road to better understanding my process/voice. It will be interesting to look back in another year and see the difference.

  • I’m with you on editing. It’s hard but I find there are few things more fantastic than the feeling when I’ve finished, and I have this book which I so much better than the first draft that I can’t believe I actually wrote it.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • These are some great points you discuss, Chris. I fall into that ‘meticulous editor’ category, too.

  • “Maybe it’s in my DNA. I’m certain it’s the kind of books and television I enjoy. True Detective, Drive, Memories of Murder, The Wrestler, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Queenpin by Megan Abbott, Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Conner. I’m inspired by the likes of these works daily. The way a story can hinge on one action, one scene, burning an image into your mind.”

    Loved this, probably because I share the same moods and tones in my entertainment. That somber appreciation of the details and complete lack of glamour. As for my own voice, I’m still in search of it. Not sure if I’ve found it yet, so I will continue to write until someone one day tells me about it (or plead with me to stop writing).

    I got me a copy of Federales. I’ve been interested in the cartel wars for a while now, and given your own peculiar voice and interests, I’m looking forward to see how they inform your writing.

  • Chris, great piece here and I really enjoyed it. It rang true and solid….I’m with you on the two kinds of writers theory too. I’m in that other camp. A cranker, I have to before it floats away. I’ll sort this shit out later.

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