Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

Write and Wrong

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

I will be tweaking THE WRONG QUARRY today, doing final rewrites, and I hope “shipping it” (i.e., e-mailing it) to editor Charles Ardai) today. It was written largely in two frenzied weeks, although my fourteen-day-no-day-off stay in the bunker was preceded by a week of prep and plotting, and now a day (or two) of tweaks and rewrites.

A writer my age should probably not undertake to write a novel in this fashion, working till 1:30 a.m., rising at 7:30 a.m. and starting in again, before going down for orange juice and English muffin. But I have always written Quarry novels in two to three weeks (with the exception of the first one, which took six months) because they are stream-of-consciousness affairs that require me to live inside the story (and Quarry’s head) for the duration.

The story is set in the early ‘80s, and falls into the Quarry sub-category of our hero helping the target of a hit contract. It takes place in a small town in Missouri, during the off-season of its tourist industry. This may sound like a fairly ordinary Quarry set-up, but I assure you it’s wilder than Mr. Toad’s ride. In fact, Barb gave me the best Quarry review ever: “Who is this twisted man I’ve been sharing my bed with?”

This will be, since I obviously have work to do, a brief update. Barb and I saw SIDE EFFECTS, the Steven Sonderbergh thriller starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara (American GIRL WITH THE DRAGON etc.), and Catherine Zeta Jones. Very good twisty piece of work, sort of like ‘70s DePalma but slightly less overt in the sex, violence and style department. Like PARKER, a throwback to kind of grown-up genre piece that the theaters used to regularly offer.

My anti-Super Bowl rant last week got some interesting comments, particularly Mike Doran aptly pointing out that my lack of interest in pro sports may be related to my living outside a metro area. No big sports franchises in Iowa. Good point. The U of I’s Hawkeyes are worshipped in this state. My father fetishitically bought black-and-gold everything, including a Cadillac once.

Odd postscript to my sports “bloviating” (as one commenter termed it): I often love sports movies and sometimes books. Mark Harris’ Henry Wiggins novels are among my favorite novels. DAMN YANKEES is high on the list of my favorite movie musicals. And I’ve already written here about TV’s FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, one of my favorite shows.

Ah yes, I am an enigma wrapped in a riddle. If an occasionally bloviating one.

Here’s a terrific early COMPLEX 90 review from Ron Fortier, an excellent writer his own self.

And here’s a terrific review of my new collection (as complete as possible) of the MIKE HAMMER comic strip.

My friend (and great excellent crime writer) Ed Gorman was kind enough to post this generous review of SPREE, the final Nolan (to date, anyway).

Just in time for the publication of the third Jack and Maggie Starr (SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT), here’s a nice review of the first one, A KILLING IN COMICS.

Speaking of which, here’s a fun review of SEDUCTION from a gaming site.

And to celebrate finishing THE WRONG QUARRY in 2013, here’s a good review of the 1976 Quarry novel, QUARRY’S LIST.


The “H” Word

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012
The Comedy is Finished

The rediscovered Donald E. Westlake novel, THE COMEDY IS FINISHED, is getting some great reviews. Regular readers of these updates know that I had the manuscript for the novel in my basement (actually a drawer in a cabinet in my basement, with other Westlake materials). Don and I had explored revising the novel for publication under both our names (or possibly a joint pseudonym) after he had difficulty finding a publisher for an unfunny Westlake novel about a Bob Hope-style comedian. The book didn’t really need any work, but he was sick of looking at it, and I had some ideas about streamlining, and addressing some complaints editors had expressed about the political content. But when the similarly plotted film “King of Comedy” came out, Don called me and scrapped the project. As I’ve said before, when MEMORY came out as the “final” Westlake novel (a book I also knew about but didn’t have a copy of – I could never get Don to loan it to me), I got in touch with Hard Case Crime editor Charles Ardai about THE COMEDY IS FINISHED.

Most of the reviews are mentioning my efforts to get this book into print, and several have been very kind – this one is typical.

Another good review began oddly, stating that there might be something fishy about this discovery if it hadn’t come from me, because after all I can be trusted. You see, the reviewer (Steve Donoghue) says “a more honest thousand-word-a-day hack isn’t living.”

Here’s the thing. I resent the word hack. Any writer would. It is the “n” word of the writing world. Further, if Steve Donoghue thinks that a “hack” is anybody who can turn out a thousand words a day, he is (in my case at least) 1500 words short. And trust me, Donald E. Westlake never had a thousand-word writing day in his life. Ed McBain probably never had a day under 5000 words.

Anyway, speed or lack of it has no bearing on the quality of writing, which should and does speak for itself. I rewrite heavily, but my practice is not to rewrite the life and spontaneity out of a work. Barb considers herself slow – 1000 words would be a good day – but the result is terrific and has an off-handed feel as if she just threw it off quickly. That’s an art in itself.

I understand that – like Don – I am a prolific writer. This does not mean that I don’t work hard at writing. In fact, I work very hard at it, and if I write 2500 words of a Nate Heller or Jack Starr or some other historical novel, many hours of research have gone into it. And it’s not just research. One thing that Barb and I share in our approach is a propensity for thinking about what we’re going to write for at least as long as it will take to write it.

For me writing is an art, yes, but first and foremost it is a craft, and selling what I’ve crafted is my business – you know, like trouble was Phillip Marlowe’s. When a reviewer – whether in the New York Times or on a blog – dismisses a writer as a “hack,” or talks about a writer “churning out” or “grinding out” a book, that reviewer is indulging in a lazy, prejudiced, sloppy way of thinking…and writing. Those of us who do this for a living – and are not lawyers or doctors or teachers who write on the side, and are not blockbuster writers who can afford to write a thousand words a day, or less – deserve more consideration if not respect than being called the “h” word.

* * *

Here’s a nice review of CHICAGO LIGHTNING.

Here’s a fun review of a short story that Barb and I did a while back, “Flyover Country.” [From Nate: Most recently published in the anthology ONCE UPON A CRIME, 2009]

And here’s a column on the great film noir, GUN CRAZY, from writer Mike Dennis. The comments below include one by me.

George Hagenauer is spending a few days here at La Casa Collins in our first meeting about the new Nate Heller novel, tentatively titled ASK NOT (the second JFK book). We’ll be mostly brainstorming, strategizing, and assigning homework to each other.


Breaking Elmore Leonard’s Rules

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

Every now and then somebody puts Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing in a magazine column or up on a blog, and a lot of people rave about what good advice it is. The best advice I can offer writers is not to listen to advice from other writers.

Just the same, here are Leonard’s rules followed by my take on each.

1. Never open a book with weather.

An opening describing weather can create mood and atmosphere. See the first chapter of ONE LONELY NIGHT.

2. Avoid prologues.

Prologues can be effective, as for example when the first chapter takes place some years later and the prologue sets up back story. A prologue can (a) suggest a certain sweep to the narrative, and often (b) sets up something that will be paid off later.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

“Said” is the preferred verb for carrying dialogue, but an occasional specific verb – like “insisted” or “demanded,” when the dialogue itself isn’t suggestive – can break things up a little. Also, “asked” is perfectly acceptable and even preferable for dialogue that poses a question.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

Said can be effectively aided by an adverb when the dialogue itself doesn’t convey the tone. The suggestion that the tone should be inherent in the words spoken by the character doesn’t acknowledge the variation between characters and/or the mood of a character. (“I love you,” he said hatefully. “I love you,” she said sarcastically.)

Leonard’s general dislike of adverbs takes to the extreme the common sense notion that adverbs should be used sparingly. Better to choose verbs strong enough not to require an adverb (which is why “said” sometimes is not enough). Sometimes an adverb provides just the right seasoning.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

Exclamation points should be used sparingly, but the notion of limiting yourself in the way Leonard suggests makes little sense, unless he’s just being cute. Any story, and its needs, will determine how many exclamation points you might use. You might use none. You might use twenty.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

“All hell broke loose” should be avoided as a cliche, but not necessarily in dialogue, because characters are allowed to use cliches in their speech, particularly as a point of characterization. While “suddenly” should be used sparingly, instances where it’s useful do turn up (“Suddenly he knew he was a fool.”).

By the way, if I dropped the adverb “sparingly” from the previous sentence, the sentence would advise the use of the word “suddenly.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

This would depend on the story and the characters therein. I think we can agree Mark Twain did all right with Huckleberry Finn.

By the way, Leonard just used an adverb again (“sparingly”).

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

A typical Leonard “rule” that is fine for him, because it’s part of his style and a preference he developed over years of writing (and reading). It derives chiefly from Hemingway, a writer he admires, and screenwriting, a reductive form Leonard has practiced through most of his career. You omit detailed character description in a screenplay not as an artistic choice, but because producers don’t want to limit casting possibilities.

Leonard’s notion that readers should essentially decide what a character looks like based upon dialogue and other action strikes me as absurd or even lazy – often physical characteristics are at odds with behavior. Like the description of a room, clothing reveals character. Reporting grooming, age, weight, height, and other physical aspects of characters is a vital part of the writer’s tool kit.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Again, this borders on laziness and puts onto the reader responsibilities that are rightly the author’s. Of course, “great detail” is a subjective term, and I would agree that one shouldn’t overdo. But that is according to the taste and technique of the individual writer.

10. Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

Write well and they won’t skip anything. If they have ADD, let them go to You Tube for their entertainment.

Elmore Leonard is a terrific and distinctive writer. He developed these rules for himself and no doubt means well sharing them. But you should follow his rules only if you want to write like Elmore Leonard. And there seems to be an Elmore Leonard out there already writing perfectly good Elmore Leonard novels.

I like Elmore Leonard’s writing very much. But wouldn’t the world of books be boring if everybody wrote like him?

* * *

The Top Suspense group (of which I’m a part) has a new e-book anthology out, FAVORITE KILLS. The theme is stories that were either award winners or otherwise were successful for authors. My contribution is the Quarry story, “A Matter of Principal,” which launched both the new cycle of Hard Case Crime Quarry novels and the Quarry movie “The Last Lullaby.” Read about the new anthology here.

I finished SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT last Friday (Barb and I took Saturday and Sunday off with a Chicago getaway). I say “finished,” but I will be re-reading today and tomorrow, looking typos and tweaking. Should be in Charles Ardai’s hands by Wednesday.


[Quick note from Nate: ANGEL IN BLACK is on sale for the Kindle through the end of the month. Don’t miss it!]

Copy Editing

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Very soon you will be able to leave comments as these updates become more like a regular blog. But it’s my intention only to post once a week. It would be very easy for me to abuse the blog format and write a bunch of stuff for free every day.

This week found me plugging away at Heller, nearing the half-way mark on the new novel. I also did some work on RETURN TO PERDITION, as Terry Beatty has started on the artwork, and my job is to stay out ahead of him. I played a Crusin’ band job Saturday night.

In addition, Matt Clemens and I spent a day comparing notes, and preparing to send back to our publisher, the copy-edited manuscript of YOU CAN’T STOP ME. There is no part of the writing process that I like less than dealing with a copy-edited manuscript. Copy editing should be restricted to preparing the manuscript for typesetting, correcting typos, correcting spelling, noting missing words, pointing out inconsistencies (i.e., a character starts out with red hair and becomes brown-haired by the end), pointing out word repetition, and flagging unclear sentences or passages (for the author to rewrite). About one out of three copy-edited manuscripts I receive seems to have been attacked by a well-meaning soul who anoints him-or-herself as my co-author. I’ve been at this professionally since 1971. I have taught college English, and countless writing seminars. Yet they constantly “correct” and “improve” me.

What do they correct? How about “fixing” grammar in dialogue? How do they improve me? How about turning long run-on sentences in action scenes, designed to hold the reader down into the fray, into a bunch of short, choppy ones? For me a major problem with such copy editors is my use of punctuation, which I view as a tool and use for sound and effect. Style seems to bewilder some copy editors.

Putting Humpty Dumpty back together is a task I have had to undertake many times. This despite the fact that I usually include a note to the copy editor (very politely stated) that lists my preferences and eccentricities. Understand that the copy editor’s real functions (listed above) are crucial, and I am as often grateful to them as I am, well, not grateful….

The other aspect of the copy-edited manuscript that is frustrating to writers is its arrival at inopportune times — these manuscripts (and galley proofs are the same) frequently arrive with little or no warning, with a crazy turn-around-time, even as a short as a couple of days.

I find, when I’m working on a novel that losing days to this necessary but unexpected work can really slow me down. I build up a certain momentum, and these interruptions — again, a necessary part of the process — cause me trouble. For me, writing a novel is akin to reading one. And I like to stay immersed.