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The Kidd Series
The Singular Menace
John Sandford on Secret Prey
I should have called this book Brain Prey.
Secret Prey, the ninth of the Prey series featuring Lucas Davenport, is the most intricately plotted of my books, at least so far. At this point, with twenty-three Prey books under my belt I'm writing this new introduction fifteen years after Secret Prey was first published it'll probably retain the championship.
And I gotta tell you, complicated plotting is no walk in the park.
The more intricate the plot, the more moving parts you have. If you don't keep track of them, the readers will discover every single little misfire, no matter how obscure, and will pester you with them: I occasionally let one slip into a book, and sure enough, at the next bookstore appearance, somebody will stand up and ask, "Mister Sandford, you refer to Weather, Lucas's wife, as 'Karkinnen' in Winter Prey but 'Harkinnen' in this one. How did that happen?
I'll tell you how: I screwed up.
By the time I finish a book, I feel like my brain is bleeding. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. With Secret Prey, I felt like I'd blown an artery.
Here's the thing: These Prey books are not inspirations, or written with a Zen-like intuition in which, as some would have it, you simply let the creativity flow.
No. For me, they are engineering projects. They are like laying a concrete-block wall. Everything is engineered for a particular effect. I want you to sympathize with that guy or hate another guy. I want you to see this event coming. I want you to be surprised by the next one. I want you to accept the facts: that the bad guy had an Uzi, not a Glock. It's my responsibility to see that if he has an Uzi in one scene, he still has an Uzi in scene forty-four.
Unfortunately, though everything is engineered, it's not engineered ahead of time.
It's as if you were building a house, but didn't exactly know where you were going with it. First you dig a hole for the basement and put in the foundation, then you put a floor on the foundation and raise some walls... and then you realize that the bathroom won't work where you'd planned to put it, so you have to go back to the basement and rearrange the plumbing. Then you start putting in more walls, only to realize that with the bathroom in its new location, the bedrooms won't meet code, so what used to be the kitchen has to be a bedroom. Now the plumbing won't work again, so you go back down to the basement...
And so on.
You eventually wind up with a house, but nothing came easy, because there was no original and specific plan.
Building a book is like building a house: Logic and consistency are required or the thing will fall down. At the same time, I personally don't work well from a plan an outline because when I do, everything becomes too slick. I want a rough, cinema verit#233; quality in these books. I want the characters to experience accidents and mistakes and errors. I want them to be forced to backtrack and disagree with each other, because I think that's closer to real life than those really slick book-machines that move gracefully from one clue to the next.
I've found the best way to do that is to risk my own accidents, mistakes and errors, and to have to backtrack and to argue with myself about how things should be written.
And that's fine but that adds even more parts, and the more parts you have, and the more reversals you have, the more you have to keep track of, and the more difficult it is to fit everything together in a way that is logical and consistent and satisfying.
As a result, I'll write two chapters, and then in the third, realize that I have to revise some stuff in the first one, to make the third chapter work, and then I'll write the fourth and fifth chapters, which require adjustments in the second and third, and so on.
Sometimes you trip over yourself.
In one recent book, I have a man in the process of being murdered he's not quite dead, but he knows he's dying, and he does his best to leave a clue that will point at his killers. I got to the end of the book, and never found a place where I could use the clue. I meant to, I really did. But in the end, I couldn't fit it into the plot. On the other hand, when I went back to eliminate it, I felt it really added to the dying man's character... so I didn't want to lose it. I wound up doing a little literary tap dance: The clue exists, but Lucas and the crew never find it, and a crime-scene tech inadvertently destroys it. That gives the story a sad, extra twist, right at the end. (Sandford stifles an evil laugh, having turned a bug into a feature.)
This story, Secret Prey, starts with a murder, and then expands to a whole batch of murders, extending more than twenty years back in time. There are numerous suspects. There are at least three subplots, unrelated to the main story, but fitting within it (the after-effects of an old romance, the beginnings of a new romance, the detection and arrest of a bunch of improbable opium junkies) and the main plot itself has a couple of subplots, including a continuing case of domestic abuse, and another new romance.
Further, I found it best to hide the identity of the villain from the readers, at least through most of the book, which means I had to do some careful, and possibly even treacherous, writing. The villain (I won't say who it is) was carefully designed to be amoral, clever, and more than a little crazy and always acting behind a screen, on which Davenport could only see the projected shadows.
All of that added complication. So far, I'm not aware of any serious logical problems with Secret Prey, though I have found a couple of dropped prepositions. Those are not entirely my fault I figure they should have been caught by ______. [Editor's name, address, phone number, and photograph redacted over author's protests.]
With all the complications of the story, with all the twists and turns it may take, you must keep it clear enough that the reader can follow along without struggling. If a reader is working through an exciting passage, you can't mention "Smith" and have the reader stop to ask, "Wait a minute. Who is Smith, again?"
So clarity becomes the final complication. You work back and forth through the text, straightening out sentences, getting all the "Lucas saids" and "Del saids" in the right places, and so on. In doing that editing, you must not inadvertently drop some fact, or some clue, that is referred to later in the text. I know one writer who once had the bad guy leave a gun in the garage, and then later kill an old lady with it. At the next bookstore appearance, a fellow stood up...
With all these complications, capped with the requirement of clarity, you have Brain Prey.
I mean, Secret Prey.
I'm not complaining. I'm just sayin'.
John Sandford, March 4, 2013
10 February 2017
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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