Lessons via ebook from Lawrence Block

One evening six years ago the master crime novelist Lawrence Block LBlock(right) made an author appearance at the Westport (Conn.) Library next door to Fairfield. At that point, among the more than  100 books Block had published were four about writing. During the question-and-answer session, I asked him if he planned to write any more of those.

“God, I hope not,” he said, or words to that effect.

Two of Block’s then-existing books—Telling Lies for Fun and Profit (my favorite) and Spider, Spin Me a Web—were collections of columns he wrote for Writer’s Digest. Block contributed a monthly column on fiction writing to the magazine for more than 14 years, beginning in 1976. Not long after Block came to Westport, a fan and collector named Terry Zobeck turned over copies of 77 WD articles to him that had not been published in book form, and in 2011, Open Road Integrated Media, a leading digital publisher, issued two new Block books on writing: The Liar’s Bible and The Liar’s Companion. So, while technically he hasn’t written any more writing books, he has published two more. (The other two that fill out his shelf of six are Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print and Write for Your Life: The Home Seminar for Writers.)

The Liar’s Bible and The Liar’s Companion were among the first titles I downloaded when I got a Kindle two-and-a-half years ago. I got around to doing my Bible study perhaps a year later. Now I’ve finished The Liar’s Companion.LiarsComp

While I read a lot of crime writers, Block has never been a favorite. At most, I’ve read 10 of his novels and story collections. Yet I delight in reading his writing about writing. In addition to the practical advice he imparts about storytelling and other craft elements, he offers snippets of autobiography, travelogue, anecdotage about other authors and more, all told with a sense of humor and a sense of fun that I find very appealing. Almost all of these facets come together in the fifth chapter, in which Block tells the story of the conception and writing of his 1988 novel Random Walk, including a 30-day residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (perhaps the most idyllic-sounding artist retreat I’ve read about, both in Block’s book and in the Fairfield University MFA program’s guide, Now What?). You come away from reading The Liar’s Companion and the other column collections with a fly-on-the-shoulder portrait of a working writer, one who makes a compelling case that the writer’s life is an ideal one indeed.

By the way, just this past week, NPR’s “Morning Edition” aired a feature on Block, who is 76. He may never publish another writing book, but his existing ones are worth revisiting, and I urge you to do so. For a taste of what you’ll find, here are some excerpted words of wisdom from The Liar’s Companion.

On writer’s block: “Does an out-of-work steelworker call it Steelworker’s Block? The hell he does. He calls it unemployment.”

On story ideas: “For all the books and columns I’ve written and for all the seminars I’ve conducted, I certainly spend an unseemly amount of time trying to think of something to write, and start a disheartening number of books that I never trouble to finish.”

On fiction’s essence: “One morning, struggling to get a scene right on the page, I thought to myself something along these lines: ‘Dammit, I know what happened. Why can’t I just tell it?’ And I looked up, struck by a thought.

“Because what I wanted to get on paper was not something that had happened. It was something I was attempting to fabricate out of whole cloth. . . .The whole book, along with the scene I was agonizing over, were solely the products of my admittedly overactive imagination. . . .

“I took up a pen and wrote down the following: ‘The superior fiction writer is the superior liar. When I write a novel, I am trying to report honestly and accurately about an event that did not happen in the lives of people who do not exist.’ ”

On beginnings: “First, of course, you have to attract [the reader’s] attention and draw him in. . . .

“At the same time, you want to let him know what kind of story he’s reading. . . .

“A further chore of the beginning is to make [your reader] care about the story, to convince [him] that [he] ought to give a damn how it turns out.”

On middles: “In [a] novel. . .most of the book is middle. . . .The most self-assured of writers is apt to suffer a crisis of confidence during a book’s lengthy midsection. His nightmare tends to be two-fold. First, there’s the mounting concern that the book will never be done, that the middle will extend forever, that each new page he writes will bring him farther from the beginning but not a whit closer to the end. . . .

“Also the writer is typically concerned that what he’s shouting is going to fall on deaf ears, or on no ears at all. The reader, cunningly hooked by the book’s beginning, will dislodge that hook and swim off into the sunset. . . .

“The first thing to remember is that [the reader] wants to keep on reading. . . .Once hooked by your opening, he has an investment of time along with his investment of money in your book. Every additional page he reads increases his investment and commits him more deeply to finish what he has started. . . .The reader would prefer to stay with you, to see the book through to the end. . . .

“All you have to do is keep him. . . .And how do you do that?

“• Have interesting things happen. . . .

“• Keep the story moving. . . .In the broadest sense, fiction is about the solution (successful or not) of a problem. If the reader loses sight of that problem during the book’s vast middle, he ceases to care. . . .Even if he does keep reading, you may lose your hold on his emotions. . . .

“• Pile on the miseries. . . .making the problem a headache [and] by making the problem’s solution more difficult.

“• Enjoy the trip. . . .If writing a book is driving across America, the book’s middle is an endless highway across Kansas, and there are days when every sentence is as flat as the unvarying landscape.

“There are, to be sure, a lot of interesting things in Kansas. But you won’t enjoy them much if you spend every moment telling yourself you can’t wait to get to California. . . .Forget all that. Stay in the now. . . .”

On endings: “The end of the story is the payoff. It’s the promised destination that drew [the reader in]. . .in the first place. . . .If the ending doesn’t deliver, the reader feels cheated by the entire experience. . . .

“What makes an ending work?

“Maybe the best way to answer that is to listen to a Beethoven symphony. By the time the last note of the coda has sounded at the end of the fourth movement, you damn well know it’s over. When that last ringing chord hits you, every musical question has been answered, every emotional issue has been resolved. . . .”

On enjoyment: “Why not sit up and enjoy [writing]?

“In other arts, such an argument would probably not be necessary. Painters love to paint. Musicians love to make music. Why should scribbling or tapping a keyboard be more agonizing and less pleasurable than rinsing out a brush or blowing through a reed?

“I think the answer, or a good part of it, lies in our propensity to get fixated upon the ultimate result of our work and to regard the actual process of writing as a means to an end, an arduous and time-consuming business that must be endured if we are to wind up with a finished book in our hands. With our eyes so firmly fixed upon the far horizon, how can we possibly take delight in the journey itself?”

On tenses: “The present tense distances both the reader and the writer from the events. It takes away both engagement and certainty.

“The past tense in fiction states unequivocally that a given thing happened, that it happened in a certain way. The present tense calls upon us to believe that the thing is happening now, as we read about it, that it is unfolding in some alternate universe. . . .[T]he past tense. . .carries more conviction.”

On bad news: “What takes the sting out of rejection?

“Experience, first of all. The experience of rejection, and the experience of living through it. Only by sending things out, time and time again, and by getting them back, time and time again, can we truly learn what rejection does and doesn’t mean. It means that a particular publisher [or agent or editor] has declined to buy a particular story on a particular occasion. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the story’s bad. . . .With time you begin to understand that all any rejection means is what it says on the rejection slip—the manuscript does not fit the publisher’s current needs.

“Another big help is acceptance. . . .Why? Because the acceptance is proof of a tangible sort that your work has merit, and the worst thing about rejection is its capacity to make you believe that your work is worthless and so are you. If one editor supplies validation with an acceptance, it’s a lot easier to shrug off the next batch of rejections. . . .”

So there’s a good takeaway. Keep submitting your stories.
—Alex McNab

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Published in: on August 12, 2014 at 3:04 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting to hear what Mr Block thinks about the present tense in fiction. I must say that, like him, I prefer the past tense. Thanks for bringing these books to my attention.

  2. I started reading his columns in the magazine when I was a teenager. Thanks for re-introducing me to his writing books. I’ll have to read them, too.

  3. […] Click here to read the review […]

  4. Reblogged this on Travels with Mary and commented:
    Great write-up and review. Thank you!


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