When you’re looking for advice on writing, the masters are of course always reliable. But it might be wiser to just dive right into the ranks of those who spend their lives toiling in the fields of pulp. After all, it’s the creators of genre fiction who are more likely to have to work with brutal deadlines and for fiercely judgmental audiences.
Michael Connelly, 2013 (Brian Minkoff)
So, here’s Michael Connelly, of the Harry Bosch series of novels, as well as The Lincoln Lawyer, talking to Writer’s Digest about his three favorite bits of writing advice. They’re all gold:
The best crime novels are not how cops work on cases; it’s how cases work on cops. — Joseph Wambaugh
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. — Kurt Vonnegut
When you circle around a murder long enough, you get to know a city. — Richard Price
Some writers can work anywhere, in any circumstances, with any implements, on a schedule that only their muse is herself fully comprehending. The rest of us need to set goals.
Take Graham Greene. According to legend, he wrote 500 words a day, no more and no less. Take this recollection from writer and editor Michael Korda, who was introduced to Greene while cruising on a private yacht in the Antibes in 1950 (as one does):
An early riser, [Greene] appeared on deck at first light, found a seat in the shade of an awning, and took from his pocket a small black leather notebook and a black fountain pen, the top of which he unscrewed carefully. Slowly, word by word, without crossing out anything, and in neat, square handwriting, the letters so tiny and cramped that it looked as if he were attempting to write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, Graham wrote, over the next hour or so, exactly five hundred words. He counted each word according to some arcane system of his own, and then screwed the cap back onto his pen, stood up and stretched, and, turning to me, said, “That’s it, then. Shall we have breakfast?”
By the way, the novel Greene was finishing in such an offhanded way was The End of the Affair.
In any case, the lesson from Greene is a good one. Once he hit his word count, he supposedly quit and went off to live his life; possibly one of the reasons his fiction is so richly imagined and deeply reported.
German soldiers march through Paris, June 1940 (German Federal Archive)
Sometimes it can just take you a while to get around to that book that everybody has been reading. Anthony Doerr’s fairly beloved novel All the Light We Cannot See has been hanging around on the bestseller lists pretty much since it was published last summer, and for good reason. It’s not just the France-during-the-occupation setting or the gorgeous language, though both of those attributes help, of course. It has a magic to it, plain and simple.
All the Light We Cannot See is available in hardcover everywhere, with a paperback edition scheduled for this December; my review is at PopMatters:
Like many great novels of the Second World War and other epic clashes of civilizations, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is a story of the grandeur of terror. At least it begins that way. It’s August 1944 in Saint-Malo, a venerable seaside town on the northwestern coast of France. The Allies have landed and are steadily punching their way out of Normandy. The war is nearing another crescendo of death…
Roddy Doyle (photo by Jon Kay)
When an author’s resume includes such masterpieces as the Barrytown trilogy (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van), it’s generally best to listen to what they have to say…at least when it comes to writing.
Herewith some rules for writers from the great Roddy Doyle about calming down and getting on with it when you’re blocked:
Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph — Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety — it’s the job.
By the time James Baldwin gave this interview to The Paris Review in 1984, his time was past as one of the writers whose voice was loudest in the great postwar arguments over what America would and should be. He was living in semi-exile in France at the time of the interview, heading into his 60s, but still full of burnt truths and hard-fought advice. Such as:
- “The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.”
- “Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.”
- [On starting out reviewing books for small change] “I had to read everything and had to write all the time, and that’s a great apprenticeship.”
- “I doubt whether anyone—myself at least—knows how to talk about writing.”
- “I do a lot of rewriting. It’s very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it.”
(image by pepo)
After PopMatters published their best fiction of 2014 feature earlier in the week, they ran the (perhaps more serious in tone, but still somehow more fun) compilation of the awesomest (yes, that’s a word) nonfiction titles that came out last year.
Doing my part, I wrote about:
- Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond
- Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Pikkety
- The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, Greil Marcus
- The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Rick Perlstein
- The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Olivia Laing
You can find the feature here.
Now that we’re fully into January 2015, it’s time to think about all the books we never got around to reading in 2014. To that end, the book staff at PopMatters have compiled their annual list of the Best Fiction of 2014, with short writeups of all the year’s most notable novels and collections of poetry and short fiction.
I wrote about:
- The Peripheral, William Gibson
- The Book of Strange New Things, Michael Faber
- Redployment, Phil Klay
You can find the feature here.