" I don't feel competitive with TITANIC . . . In all cultures in the world, everyone just happened to like that movie. But I can't run my career as a filmmaker trying to reverse-engineer the combination to that lock."
I sat there (I'm not going to mention where I was sitting) totally stunned at the profundity of that statement. How many times have I seen that happen? An author (or a film maker or a painter or a musician) scores big with something and then keeps trying to reproduce it, but it doesn't always work. The result can be cold and lifeless, because the heart that originally went into the book (movie, painting, song) just isn't there in the pale reverse-engineered duplicates. Or someone else tries to emulate the book and you get the same thing. An imitation of its external factors, but none of the internal guts that really made it work.
I know I'm guilty of it. I can think of several proposals that were shot down for various reasons, but I really think this is the real one. I reverse-engineered the life out of the story. Instead of letting the story grow organically out of my characters, I forced situations on them that I thought would fit a certain mold.
Then (because I am incapable of only seeing one side of an argument which is why even trying to pick what to make for dinner can be excruciating for me), it occurred to me that some times, reverse-engineering is really about learning my craft.
When I started working on my first urban fantasy, DON'T KILL THE MESSENGER, I really didn't know anything about the character. I'd had a snippet of a scene pop into my head and wanted to figure out what to do with it. I started thinking about which books that I'd read recently that I'd loved. Not liked. Not enjoyed. LOVED. Robin Hobb's Assassin series popped into my head.
I loved those books. Couldn't put them down. I adored the main character. I asked myself why? I did some rereading and lot of thinking and came up with the fact that the hero didn't really look like hero material at the beginning. Sure, he had some special skills, but he didn't even know how to use them correctly and some of them had to be kept secret. He was essentially a little cog in a very big machine, but ended up being the crucial piece that allowed the good guys to win. He became hero material. He had to. I wanted to make a character like that and that's where Melina Markowitz, Messenger to the supernatural world in Sacramento was born. Her story grew out of who she was and who she needed to become.
I love writing Melina. I think she's one of the better heroines I've created in a while and I don't think she would have happened without a little bit of reverse-engineering.