Category Archives: B&S Deconstruction

Deconstructing “Bait and Switch”: Concept and Voice

(Quick note… check out the new posting on the Peer Review Page HERE, a novel partial by J Fairfield Perry.)

From Notion to Idea to Story: An Author’s Personal Account

Even though I’m deconstructing my own novel this time around, my approach won’t differ (much) from that taken with other deconstructions here on Storyfix.  That is… the objective isn’t so much to show how the author did something, but rather, to illustrate underlying storytelling principles that we might otherwise not notice.

To show why a story works.. or not.  Once we know why, then the how becomes a matter of choice and creative optimization. 

Two things jumped out at me the moment this story launched itself in my head: there really is a huge difference – measured in many weeks and many drops of blood seeping from one’s forehead – between an idea and a story

… and that the notion that we shouldn’t ever write stories in the first person is pure, unmitigated horse manure.

The writing teacher who told you that last one is either dead of old age or committed to remaining unpublished.  Some of the best books on all the collective bestseller lists of the last two decades have been written in first person.

There are no rules.  Only principles.  And they are inviolate.

Death, taxes, gravity… and the principles of storytelling. 

The Nature of Ideas

Ideas are like the days of our lives.  They are inevitable, they keep coming at us, and they can either be ignored or committed to memory.  Each day/idea is different, each contains common elements, and not all of them are worth remembering.

Some of them define us.

Sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference.  If you’re a writer, telling the difference is your job.

When I’m searching for a story to write (which can involve submitting to the idea or a story choosing us), I begin with a large and growing inventory of “what if?” conceptual ideas that I keep filed in the largest cavity of my mental warehouse.  The place where I store ideas that just might amount to something.

I never write an idea from an initial rush of interest in it.  I let it steep, age and either rot or grow.  An idea always comes off different when you look at it again later on… this is key to making sure your idea is worth pursuing.

I’m fully aware of the fact that an idea does not a good story make – even when it’s a great idea… because the greatest of ideas need a long list of stuff added to them before they can become a story), so my initial vetting process has more to do with staying power than anything else.

If an idea won’t let me go, I pay attention to it

Even then, I toss more than I pursue.  As should you.  Weak ideas, even when well executed, are among the most common reasons for stories sinking like stones.

When I do want to pursue an idea, I add more “what if?” propositions to see if the idea will either go away, collide with a brick wall (demanding violation of those principles that are, once again, inviolate)…

… or become intriguing to the point of love and then obsession.

When the latter happens, I officially knight the idea as a concept and begin building it into a story.

A story won’t work without a sturdy, compelling concept.  A simple idea isn’t enough. 

You don’t have to begin with concept..

Fact is, it doesn’t always happen that way.  It did with “Bait and Switch,” but I’ve written other novels that began with one of the other of the Six Core Competencies, usually either a vision for a character or a passion for a theme.

Darkness Bound began with a character—the antagonist – in mind.  The Seminar began with a theme I wanted to explore.  I had to add concept to both of these initial sparks before a story became possible.

Principle: all stories begin with a single core competency. 

The initial spark is either a concept borne of an idea… a character (also borne of an idea)… a theme (usually borne of an opinion or a particular passion)… or something that happened to you or someone who know (which may or may not yet be conceptual in nature).  Or sometimes, with a scene that plays out in your head (their eyes met across a crowded room filled with IRS agents…)

A story rarely begins with voice… that’s like singing the shower.

If a writer creates a story because they like the sound of their own writing voice, if the story is a contrivance just to give their wondrous voice something to sound off about… this is a recipe for failure, with very low odds.  And it happens all too frequently.

This is critically important to understand

Because inherent to that particular truth is this: you always begin with one of the core competencies front and center, and usually the energy of it quickly gifts you with a second one (sometimes it’s almost simultaneous, to an extent you might argue that the “idea” came to you as a united concept and character… I’m picking nits to disagree, because they are both essential). 

But from there, after that first creative spark, you must sweat out the other five core competencies.  You’re not done – indeed, you’re not ready to write a draft that will work – until all six are solidly in mind.

This includes voice, by the way, as you’re about to see from my own experience with “Bait and Switch.”  The more you know about your story, the more you’ll know what kind of voice is required to tell it well. 

If you can only write in one flavor of writing voice, then you’d better be sure the story fits it.  Stuart Woods isn’t competing with Jonathan Franzen for this very reason.

This development process can take place either as a story planning exercise or a draft writing exercise… it doesn’t matter which.  

The Idea that Became “Bait and Switch”

I don’t know where it came from.  Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t.

People ask authors all the time, “where do you get your ideas?”  The answer doesn’t matter.  They come from somewhere, and very often somewhere you cannot predict, comprehend or control.

To put it simply, I was intrigued by the following idea: what if a rich guy was locked into a prenuptial agreement that he now wanted to render null and void, and the only way to do so would involve catching his wife committing adultery?

Maybe this was an alternative to that old cynical saying: can’t live with ‘em, can’t kill ‘em.  Who knows.

Then I wondered… what if that could be arranged?

What if, knowing his wife’s desires and vulnerabilities, the aforementioned rich guy set out to make this circumstance a reality?  One with an agenda to get out of the pre-nup.

What if he hired someone to seduce his wife, feeding him his wife’s weak spots and fantasies and desires all the while?  By putting the perfect guy right under her self-serving, potentially adulterous nose?

What if the guy hired for this job had no idea what was really going on?  Or, at the outset, he needed the money and entered into the deal without truly grasping the stakes?  What if his own moral compass was the subject of his character arc?

The idea presented several aspects of what makes a concept appealing.

It was vicarious, forbidden, compelling, challenging, delicious, thematic, and fraught with risk and twists.  It was something I’d want to read about.

Was it original?  It was when I got into it.  Ideas are rarely original.  Execution should strive to be.

Don’t discount this criteria about writing something you’d like to read.  That you’d pay money for.  In fact, put it at the top of your vetting list.

Because – and this was a decision I strategically decided to throw at it – in my story nothing would be as it seemed.  And the hero of my story – the guy hired to do the seducing – would be more than meets the eye, with something of his own at stake. 

A backstory that was sympathetic.  A goal that was empathetic.  A self-deprecating sense of his own gifts and weaknesses that was endearing.

Somebody we would root for.  Feel for.  Like.  Want to be.

This is all stuff you can plan. That you should plan.  Or at least, if you don’t plan, you must discover as you write your drafts.

Of course, all those subsequent “what ifs?” came after the initial idea

They were – and it is almost always the case – the elements that turned my idea into a story.
The concept was launched. 

Inherent to it, conceived as a direct by-product of the concept, was the appearance of a character, a hero.  Also inherent to it as a another by-product of drilling deeply into an idea to find the conceptual core: conflict and dramatic tension, both of which are fundamental to story.

Interestingly, it was the vicarious nature of this idea – the secret truth that the reader, not to mention the author, would want to be this hero, would long to personally experience the world of a billionaire, to seduce a billionaire’s trophy wife and be paid millions to do so – that led me to voice.

I knew this story would work best in first person. 

I needed to go deep into the head of this hero, to tell this from his point of view.  Only first person would give me this access.

I also knew that, in order to propel the story forward expositionally in a way that optimized both tension and stakes, I needed to show more than what the character knew as the plot unfolded in real time.

So make that happen, I decided to break another rule: to use both first person narrative and third person point of view in separate chapters, the latter of which would show what was transpiring behind the curtain – or beyond the scope – of the hero’s awareness.

I’d seen Nelson Demille do it – brilliantly – in The Lion’s Game, so I was already a believer.

The reader would know more about what was going on than the hero.  Which is a compelling and strategic dynamic in a story, one that opens up all sorts of opportunities for tension, drama and pacing.

Three things, by the way, that make a novel leap off the page.

It’s hard to be strategic in a draft.  Much easier to go there from the blank page.  My opinion.

All this was solid in my mind long I wrote a word. 

Writing an effective novel or screenplay – any story – is an exercise in strategy.  In making the right choices, not just the linear, obvious choices that emerge from writing from flow or inertia. 

It’s about optimizing, not just getting it down on paper.

But that’s just me.  My planning approach – or yours, however that looks – is but one way of getting to this first important creative stage in the story development process.  I could have written a draft to discover these things, but that’s all it would have been… a draft.  One that would have required, once the optimal creative platform had crystallized, to be rewritten from page one.

Writing draft after draft is nothing other than a form of story planning.  Chew on that one.

The published version of the story was, by the way, the first draft I actually wrote, plus some very minor editorial (not story) tweaks.  So I know this works, that it’s possible and feasible.

But do what you must. 

Just don’t compromise principles, strategy and outcome in the process.

Your creative, expositional story choices should never be random, by default or because of some externally-imposed rule.   Or worse, simply because that’s how you wrote it in a draft and it would be too much trouble to start over. 

Principles… yes.  They are sacred, and they are never confining.  When they are honored, then there truly are no rules. 

Follow your heart, your passion and the finger pointed by your idea.  Because it is sending you toward a concept and a character and a theme, and it is there where the gateway to a story can be found.

Use the links to the right to get your copy of “Bait and Switch,” either as an ebook or via used paperback, so you can participate in this deconstruction process. 

Next up: the double-edged opening hook employed in this story.

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Deconstruction of a Novel: “Bait and Switch”

“Bait and Switch” was published in 2004 by Signet (a Penguin-Putnam imprint) in 2004.  This is what it looked like:

baitandswitch 

It didn’t sell all that well, but that assessment is, of course, relative. 

In today’s self-publishing market, 60,000 copies would be considered a home run.  But it wasn’t self-published (indeed, it was from a “Big-6” outfit), and compared to my first novel (“Darkness Bound,” also published by Penguin, in 2000), a USA Today bestseller which sold over 200,000 copies, it was a lame duck, but one with a bit of a pedigree, as it turned out. 

Which is why and how I got the rights back.

Both numbers pale in comparison to the sales of A-list novelists and the rare seven-figure iconic books (“The Help” has sold over 20 million copies, “The Lovely Bones” over 7 million copies, and “The Davinci Code” clocking in at over 90 million copies and counting).

Which proves nothing if not this: we should never compare our results with those of others.  Having anyone — any one — read our work is an honor and a privilege.  The rest is largely out of our control.

I recently republished “Bait and Switch” as a digital downloadable ebook, available through all the usual channels.  That version looks like this:

Cover for 'Bait and Switch'

But there’s more to the story behind this book… and the “making of” aspects of it.

Which prompts me to address the question you may be asking yourself, relative to this deconstruction… why should I care? 

I have a couple of reasons to offer.

First, the book was a critical home run.  Which justifies our deconstruction of it (which, I should add, is by rather popular demand since the digial republishing and the little promotion that accompanied it… this is my end of the deal).

Upon publication it received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, followed by their selecting it their lead July 2004 Editor’s Choice.  At year-end it was named to two PW lists, one of which I’m proud of, the other of which still puzzles me: “Best Books of 2004 – Mass Market” (lead entry)… and “Best Overlooked Books of 2004” (the only paperback original so-named).

Then came the reviews, two of which I’ve posted below to help convince you that this will be time (and perhaps money, since you really should read the book to get the most out of this exercise) well spent.

The other thing, besides the book itself, is the nature of this deconstruction. 

I’ve yet to see an author — much less someone who claims to be a teacher in this realm — analyze their own work to this level of detail.  I’ll lay it all out there for you, including the moments of desperate guesswork (inevitable, no matter how well you plan or how much you know) and the overtly Machievellian manipulation of the reader.

The first post will illustrate the strategy behind the book’s double-barbed opening hooks, which set the tone for the whole story.

Hoping you’ll join us.  Past deconstructions have — based on feedback — provided a monster load of insight and learning for all, including me.

If you need to find the book, you can get it on Kindle HERE… on Smashwords HERE (be sure to read the review on that page)… on Nook HERE… at the Apple iTunes Bookstore… and as a used paperback from Amazon.com HERE.

I have two other of my earlier novels available as ebooks, as well (see sidebar), in addition to my latest, “Whisper of the Seventh Thunder,” which won a big honkin’ award last year.

Those reviews…

From Publishers Weekly

In a sexy tale laced with plenty of surprise twists, Brooks (Pressure Points, etc.) examines the underbelly of high society and paints an ugly portrait of greed in America. Wolfgang Schmitt, a newly single former model looking for an excuse to leave the advertising industry, finds his opening when billionaire Nelson Scott offers him a million dollars to seduce his wife. Schmitt’s involvement with Kelly Scott would trigger a prenuptial clause, ensuring Kelly can’t get her hands on her husband’s fortune—or so Schmitt is led to believe. After wrestling with his conscience, Schmitt accepts the assignment and immediately gets swept up in a complicated plot involving betrayal and murder. This intoxicating and intelligent tale of corporate corruption feels as authentic as a true crime chronicle, but Schmitt’s first-person narration ensures that it is much more entertaining. Brooks balances Schmitt’s wry, wisecracking nature with a rare moral fortitude, resulting in a likeable protagonist whose cynicism never fails to entertain (Entry #201 in Schmitt’s work in progress, Bullshit in America: “The price of movie popcorn—the time for rebellion is now. Take a big purse and stop at your local convenience store on the way. Then leave the candy wrappers on the floor so they’ll know. It’s what Rosa Parks would have done”). In a savvy move, Brooks concludes this book with a question mark, leaving it wide open for a sequel. Readers will welcome the prospect.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
 
From Bookreporter.com
5.0 out of 5 stars
An addictive novel with surprising and complex plot twists, September 24, 2004
By Bookreporter.com (New York, New York) – See all my reviews
This review is from: Bait and Switch (Paperback)
 

Mass market paperbacks — the ones that you find on the revolving display at the drugstore, or on displays by the hundreds at your local big box department store — lend themselves for impulse buying. Got something long and boring on the horizon, like a plane ride, afternoon at the beach, or court-ordered marriage counseling? Grab a paperback on your way to the chip aisle. Who can resist a paperback? The price of admission is relatively low, so if the book turns out to be a dud, you haven’t invested much; they don’t take up a lot of room; and they can be held with one hand and, if you’re practiced and/or dexterous enough, you can turn the page with your thumb. And, once in a while, you take a chance and find a treasure, like BAIT AND SWITCH by Larry Brooks.

The opening gambit of BAIT AND SWITCH would be only mildly interesting in the hands of a writer with lesser ability than Brooks. Wolfgang Schmitt is a former model currently stuck in an advertising job that he has come by degrees to abhor, and he is still reeling from the abrupt end of the relationship with the love of his life. It is ironic that he is also a part-time relationship expert, being the author of a monthly column on the subject for a women’s magazine.

Nelson Scott is a self-made millionaire who can buy anything except his personal freedom. His wife, Kelly, holds the keys to that kingdom and is set to make him pay heavily. Scott’s only hope is a condition of his prenuptial agreement that will enable him to escape the matrimonial bonds with his considerable fortune more or less intact. For that to happen, however, Kelly has to cohabit with another man for 30 days. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Scott’s plan, therefore, is to have Schmitt seduce Kelly. Given that Schmitt is an expert on relationships, this should be a piece of cake, especially with Scott’s ability to manufacture a new identity for Schmitt right down to the last nuance. Schmitt, in return for his time and trouble, gets to play with lots of new luxury toys and receives a significant amount of money. Of course, wooing and seducing a beautiful woman is nothing to sneeze at either. Schmitt sets to work — that term is applied loosely here — and appears to be well on his way to accomplishing his mission.

BAIT AND SWITCH would be a great book if it was only a subtle reworking of INDECENT PROPOSAL. But it’s much more than that. Brooks, a little over a third of the way through, begins dropping hints that there may be much more involved than divorce settlement machinations. And, indeed, what seems to be a fairly straightforward storyline takes some curves and turns that leave you smiling, shaking your head in wonder, and, most importantly, reading. For a while Schmitt thinks that he is the violinist to Kelly’s Stradivarius; he is, in fact, only the bow. Schmitt is getting played, big time. But he’s not the only one.

BAIT AND SWITCH has a complex plot, but Brooks is such a masterful writer that it doesn’t seem so involved. Brooks is in no hurry here; he takes his time guiding the reader through a few labyrinths, but does so with a sure-footed assurance that never permits the plot to drag or droop. Surprises abound, practically to the last page, which contains a surprisingly satisfying ending and a tantalizing promise of more to come. I, for one, will be waiting.

— Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub

Author note: that sequel is finished, by the way, and in the hands of my agent.  Stay tuned.

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