Wednesday, January 13, 2016

How to Write Good, Vol 2: The Block Way

In the last five years Lawrence Block has become one of my favorite authors.  Even if you haven't heard of his books or remember the post I wrote on him, you might remember there was a Liam Neeson movie called A Walk Among the Tombstones or maybe on Netflix or something you can find 8 Million Ways to Die starring Jeff Bridges in the late 80s.  There have been one or two other movies based on Block's work.

What's interesting is that Block and Dwight Swain largely came up from the same place writing-wise.  They both sold a lot of work to "the pulps" and "the paperbacks" in the 50s and 60s.  Though I gather Swain stopped doing that to teach while Block to my knowledge is still writing and publishing books.

While I was plodding through Swain's book I saw Block's Writing the Novel was only $1.30 on Kindle for Cyber Monday or whatever.  That was a lot cheaper, so what the heck, it seemed like a good way to kill a couple of hours.  (Good thing I bought it as the version I linked to above is the "revised and expanded version" that is $9.99 while the one I have on my Kindle is no longer for sale.  Those dastards!)

Being a narcissist (and saying that confirms I am a narcissist) I liked that a lot of what Block says dovetails with my own experiences.  Even things I've said to people like Jay Greenstein or just in general in my blog.

First thing being:  There is no magic formula.  Writers have gotten to the same place by an almost infinite number of means, so there is no one perfect way to write that can instantly make you a bestselling author.  I mean if there were, there wouldn't be so many writers working second jobs, right?

So really unlike Swain, Block doesn't give you a "system" to use.  He more or less provides some down-to-earth tips on how to write a book based on what was at the time over 20 years of experience.  (At this point it's more like 60.)

This was written in 1978 so like Swain's book there's the caveat that a lot of the market information is way out of date.  By this time the pulps were already gone and even Block admitted that most magazines would no longer take short stories, nor pay enough for it to matter much.  And yeah that was like 38 years ago!  (Pretty much my whole life.)

Unfortunately someone like me can't do it the same way Block did.  He started out writing a "sex novel" (a lesbian erotica book) for a paperback publisher and eventually wrote a variety of suspense and mystery books (some with pseudonyms and others not).  By the late 70s he had the first three novels for two series that are still ongoing, one featuring unlicensed private eye Matthew Scudder (featured in those movies I mentioned) and the other featuring gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr.  Both series by now have over 10 books.  Anyway, these six books are ones he refers back to frequently as examples.  Which really it was nice in that he could point to specific examples that I had actually read, unlike Swain who referenced moldy old books that have long been out of print.

OK, so the first point is there's no magic formula.  That includes outlining.  So often (mostly for lack of better things to do) writers argue about whether you should write with a detailed outline or "pants it" by writing whatever you feel like.  As I eventually came to accept, Block says again that you should go with what works for you.  Because again there are examples of authors who ruthlessly outline every little bit and others who never outlined a single damned thing and all those authors got their books published.  So just find how you work best and go at it.

That also includes your writing process.  Every author has their own little quirks and habits.  Block mentions a guy who would go to some random European city, set up shop for a few weeks to type like a madman, and then go home when he had finished the book.  Would we could all do that, right?  Block's own habit (at this point) was after breakfast he would sit down and bang out 5 pages on the typewriter.  Even if he didn't really feel like it, he did it anyway.  Then at the end of the day he'd go back and read over what he wrote.

There's one area where we are not simpatico.  I almost never write before 10am.  A lot of the time when I write in the morning it's really slow because I am not a morning person.  It's not usually until 3-4 in the afternoon when I might start getting hot, probably because I can feel dinner approaching and want to actually accomplish something.

Something reassuring was when he talks about characters.  Basically the idea is that every character we write is pretty much as if we were playing that character.  It's like how every Tom Cruise character is just Tom Cruise as a fighter pilot, Tom Cruise as a secret agent, Tom Cruise as a bartender, Tom Cruise as a Nazi, Tom Cruise as a vampire, etc.  Even though I've never been transformed into a little girl, schoolgirl, whore, geek girl, dominatrix, Goth girl, fat girl, MILF, bimbo, cougar, bride, pregnant girl, maid, Asian girl, toddler, baby, or twins, the characters are pretty much saying and doing what I would say and do in that scenario.  And I didn't get my face badly burned and my mother didn't die when I was three and my dad didn't abandon me and I didn't meet twins who basically ran my life, but if I had all that shit go down then I'd do and say the things Frost Devereaux does in Where You Belong.

I did feel reassured because to go all IWSG on you, sometimes I worry that maybe I don't create characters who are unique or "real" or whatever.  But when someone who has published as many books as Block has says it's OK that your characters are not completely different from you then I can tamp back the anxiety a bit.

A dated part of the book is about research.  Obviously in 1978 it was a lot harder to do research than in 2016.  You didn't have Google and Wikipedia.  Actually in a couple of Block's older books it's funny for that same reason.  In one they were trying to find out who was in a particular movie and had to call a bunch of people, finally ending with the Screen Actors Guild.  Nowadays it would take about thirty seconds on IMDB to find that out.

Be that as it may, the answer to research is not to overdo it.  Which again is a good point.  You only need to research enough to make people think you know what the fuck you're talking about.  For instance, when I wrote Another Chance, I had to do some quick research on military weapons and uniforms and stuff like that.  It was good I did because I found out in 2010 the army changed their formal uniforms from green to blue (or white).  I could have gone several steps farther and enrolled in boot camp and all that Method Actor bullshit.  I could have gone around asking military people a bunch of questions.  But really, who the fuck cares?  The basic division is when does research stop making the book better and just waste time so you don't have to write?

At the same time, do SOME research at least.  Don't assume no one will notice or someone at your eventual publisher will fix it.  The best example is Jeffrey Eugenides's Pulitzer-winning Middlesex where he has B-52 jet-propelled bombers being made in Detroit during WWII (before the US even had jet engines) and Al Kaline playing first base, though admittedly he played a few games there at the end of his career but it wasn't the position for which he was known.  Messing up obvious stuff like that just makes you look like a jackass, especially when Eugenides could have double-checked both on Wikipedia in like 2 minutes.  Rant over.

Block actually recommends something Swain sneered at, which is learning by reading other books.  That is a tip that is frequently bandied around writing groups and such.  Block suggests that you learn to read as a writer.  He even goes so far as to practice by outlining books you're reading chapter-by-chapter.

I don't go that far but when I wanted to write a John Irving-esque book, you know what I did?  I read all of his freaking books and mentally listed common elements, at least for the books I actually liked.  I probably did a post somewhere about it at some point.  And you know who Irving studied?  Dickens.  And who did Dickens study?  I have no fucking idea.  When I wanted to write a mystery-like book (Chance of a Lifetime) you know what I did?  I got a big fucking book of Raymond Chandler short stories.  And eventually that's how I came into reading Lawrence Block.  All the Chandler reading came in handy again when I wanted to write a private eye story (Private Dick, Gender Swap Detective), though actually the end of that book was more based on Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr books, which were based on Nero Wolfe books.  So you see that despite what Dwight Swain thought, authors study each other all the freaking time.  It's just a good idea that if you want to write a certain type of book to read what other people are doing.  I mean before I started my whole gender swap franchise under my other name I read three or four books by other authors, though there were a lot fewer authors in those heady days of 2014.  The first book I wrote, Transformed Into a Little Girl, was largely patterned after a couple of the books I had read.  Not plagiarized because I am not Shia LeBeouf, but patterned more in terms of structure and what elements to include.

Rewriting is another area where Block and I were simpatico in that we don't like it.  Pantsers especially usually end up writing the book a couple of times, which is something that would bore the shit out of me.  OK, admittedly Where You Belong was better the second time around, but that doesn't mean I want to go through rewriting every goddamned book.  Even a speedy typist like me has limits.  As I mentioned, Block does do proofreading at the end of a day but he doesn't do a lot of rewriting unless it's absolutely necessary.  We're both lazy that way.  But like a lot of things he allows that you may feel differently so rewrite as much as you feel you need to, though I'd say not to the point you drive yourself crazy fiddling with it.

That's pretty much all the relevant stuff.  So I guess I saved you a whopping $1.30--or $9.99 now, right?  It's a lot easier to read than Swain's and shorter too, so if you get the chance, buy a copy.  Or I think you can borrow it free if you have an Amazon Prime account.

Up Next:  Stephen King's On Writing


  1. I try not to go overboard with research, but I do participate in it. One thing I was glad I looked up for Caledfwlch was where in a Volkswagen Beetle the engine is. At first I thought it was up front, but then remembered some weird Herbie movies and recalled that the engine might be in the back. Turns out, I was right and had to change that in my book.

  2. This sounds like a decent book at a bargain price. In general (now that I know better) I stay away from the books that say there is a magic formula.



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