Last Friday, we had lunch with some friends we hadn't seen in almost a year. We talked about what each of us had been up to, and I admitted I was ready to start publishing the mysteries I've written. One friend asked what the books are about. Another asked to be informed when they are available.
Another said Stephen King's On Writing is really a good book. Some others agreed. I think this was the only time I've heard a book on the craft of writing mentioned and discussed by people who aren't writers.
On Writing might be widely read because King's fiction is so popular and because the first 90 pages is about how he grew up and became a writer. But I think people are also reading the 140 pages that make up the middle of the book in which he lays out how to write fiction.
These pages are practical and inspirational for the writer, but also, I would imagine, entertaining for anyone to read. For instance, King says the room in which you write needs only one thing, "a door which you are willing to shut." That's bound to raise a smile.
A writer I know found it perplexing that King devotes about 100 pages of the book to autobiography, although the subtitle of On Writing is A Memoir of the Craft. But another of my favorite books on craft, Lawrence Block's Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, illustrates many of its practical points with anecdotes from the author's career.
I also like the way King says, "I have written because it fulfills me." This reminds me of how Patricia Highsmith in her how-to book says, "Writing is a way of organizing experience and life itself . . ." Ultimately, it's as much personal as practical.
I read this book about a year ago and enjoyed it. I learned some things about writing, but mostly I got to know Lawrence Block. He hits all the usual topics---Developing Plot Ideas, Developing Characters, Outlining, etc.---and illustrates these with examples from his own career.
He has had a remarkable career beginning with writing paperback originals in the 1950s and continuing through the present. In 2014, Liam Neeson played Matthew Scudder in A Walk Among the Tombstones, a book from his most successful series.
Two weeks ago, I found myself thinking about this book, so I decided to read it again. This time, I enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time, but I also saw that he gives answers to most of the practical questions writers ask, if you pay attention.
For instance, in his chapter on rewriting, he recalls his experience writing in the 1950s, and says, "When you're turning out somewhere between twelve and twenty books a year . . . you may never rewrite a line."
What he is saying about rewriting is obvious, but there's a further point. He began his career churning out short novels at a furious rate and pouring them into a marketplace newly opened by the introduction of paperback originals. It was a marketplace that required formulas and demanded quantity rather than quality. This was his paid apprenticeship.
Similarly today there is a vast online marketplace for ebooks, including formulaic genre novels. The beginner can pound them out and get paid a little while learning the fundamentals of the craft.
Of course, he can also spend years revising a unique personal novel and hope that someday a publisher will recognize his genius.
It's good to have choices.
Patricia Highsmith begins the preface to this book by saying, "This is not a how-to-do-it handbook." Of course the title makes one expect exactly that. Later in the preface, she says, "In this book, I speak a lot about the odd happenings, the coincidences which have led to my writing a few good stories or books." At the time she wrote that, 1966, she had published eleven novels. So then this slim volume is not so much how-to-do-it, but how-she-did-it.
We learn that Highsmith, "never found other writers stimulating. . . . I get along much better with painters, and painting is the art most closely related to writing." She has more to say on this, and, though I'm not convinced, I'm delighted to know she thought so.
In her chapters on "The Germ of an Idea" and "Mainly on Using Experiences" she is eloquent on the subject of keeping notebooks. She relates developing extended descriptions into short stories, but also comments, "Even three or four words are often worth jotting down if they will evoke a thought, an idea or a mood."
I was thrilled to learn she was a fan of afternoon naps, as I am. She says, "I go to sleep with the problem, and wake up with the answer."
She covers lots of grand ideas, and lots of nuts and bolts, but she speaks to me most when she says, "Writing is a way of organizing experience and life itself."
This book is one of a handful that has changed the way I write and, I hope, shortened the apprenticeship I am serving on the way to being a published mystery writer.
Matt Bird writes for film and television and insists that these principles of storytelling also apply to writing novels, comics, and stage plays. That said, he admits that he is talking about stories in which a hero has one big problem to solve. If you're writing another kind of story, this may not be as helpful.
The book contains entertaining descriptions of laws for, and misconceptions about, storytelling, but the bulk of the book (256 of its 352 pages) is the "Ultimate Story Checklist." This is a list of questions such as, "Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?" and "Is the hero already doing something active when the story begins?" Each question is accompanied by a page or two in which Bird illustrates potential answers with examples from great films such as Casablanca and The Silence of the Lambs.
This is just what I need as I polish up the umpteenth draft of my murder mystery and ask myself, "Is it ready?" I have run it by my writers' group and a few fellow writers with whom I swapped manuscripts, but dreaded the thought of endless rejections because it was good but not great. At least, by the time I've worked my way through Bird's checklist, I'll be convinced I've done all I can.
Elmore Leonard's ten rules for writing have become famous among writers since he published them in the New York Times back in 2001. They have even been published recently as an illustrated booklet. When a great writer tells you how to do it, you pay attention.
Partly writers love them because they are simple and practical. For instance, rule #1: "Never open a book with weather." Also, rule #8, "Avoid detailed descriptions of characters."
I do believe everyone's favorite is rule #10: "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." He gives some examples of what that part consists of, but he brings it all home when he concludes, "I'll bet you don't skip dialogue."
What struck me most though was the first sentence of the article in which he originally presented the ten rules: "These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book . . . ."
Invisible? The author? He goes on to say, "If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip these rules."
So I ask myself, when someone reads my pages, do I want them to think, "this is a good story," or do I want them to think, "this is a good writer?"
I'm doing my best to be invisible, like Elmore.
Last fall, I thought my suspense novel, Krieger's Rescue, was ready to go, so I read the websites of a few dozen agencies. Some of them post tips for submitting work. One of them recommended this book.
Usually, I don't like books with numbers in the title: seven ways to do this, five secrets of that, etc. But I thought I should be sure I was not making the most common mistakes before I submitted to an agent.
I enjoyed reading this book, and was pleased to see I was not making most of these mistakes. I was even more pleased to see that I was making several significant mistakes and that I could correct them. This led to a fourth draft. My weekly writer's group at The Mechanics Institute Library tells me it is a significant improvement.
Bickham says a scene consists of a goal, conflict and disaster, and must be followed by a sequel that includes emotion, thinking and decision. I found this compatible with what I knew of acting and directing scenes in plays. These tools helped me de-bug my book.
Jack M. Bickham got his start writing westerns in the era of pulp fiction. At the end of his career, he wrote a successful espionage series about a retired tennis pro, Brad Smith, who works undercover for the CIA -- sort of Dick Francis meets Ian Fleming. I've read a couple of them, and he was a more-than-competent writer of thrillers. He died in 1997, having published 75 novels in his lifetime.
From 1969 to 1990 he taught fiction writing at the University of Oklahoma. His books on writing come out of that experience. He learned to recognize the 38 most common mistakes by reading students' work for 21 years.
Over the years, I've attended lots of conferences and workshops, and some of them featured artists (actors, guitar-players, writers) who are the best in their fields. It seems like they would be the best to learn from, but that's not always the case. I've benefited most from those like Bickham who are also teachers.