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.