Why Do I Write?

The Fairfield Writer’s Blog is pleased to welcome our new monthly contributor, Donna Woods Orazio. Donna earned both an MA (American Studies) and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University. She facilitates a writing group at the Fairfield (Connecticut) Public Library with a focus on new writers. Donna co-hosts the Library’s First Friday Writer’s Salon, which provides an informal opportunity for writers to discuss their work. Past President of the Friends of Fairfield Public Library, Donna currently serves on the Board, is involved with the One Book, One Town committee and the Home Bound program. For the past eight years, Donna has volunteered at Mercy Learning Center in Bridgeport tutoring women in the ESL program. An avid genealogist, Donna is a collector of pages and photos from the past, understands the power of words, and values writing that tell a story. As her three adult children spread their wings, Donna and her husband, Jimmy, remain anchored in Fairfield.

How many times have you asked yourself, why do I write? How many times have you been asked by others, who don’t quite understand your need to put words on the page, why do you write?

There are as many different and valid answers to this question as there are writers. A search on Goggle reveals dozens of references to books, articles and sites in which authors, famous and not so famous, answer this question.

Joan Didion (top) said, “I write entirely to Didionfind out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”

Toni Morrison (bottom) said, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Ernest Hemingway said, “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

toni-morrisonI asked myself, why do I write? For many reasons, was my quick answer. I write in many forms. I copy quotations, ones that make me pause, into a small blue journal.   I keep a gratitude journal. I am a letter writer. In particular, I write essays to capture a memory, to figure out my response, to tell my story. Writing, in all forms, is a way to more fully participate in my life. I write for me.

Take a few minutes and answer the question: why do I write? Does your current writing relate to your answers?

Ultimately, every writer has something unique to say. This is worthy of putting words on the page.

Keep creating, word by word.—Donna Woods Orazio


Published in: on July 27, 2015 at 1:12 pm  Comments (1)  

Sure Cure for Writer’s Block

Inspiration-light-bulbHello writers, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you about inspiration and lack thereof. Does your creative well ever run dry? Are you faced with deadlines and have nothing to write? I’m hesitant to call it writer’s block because that has negative connotations, but it’s a phrase we understand.

As a writer it’s helpful to know my own mind, body, and spirit. We all have an internal and very personal barometer guiding us. Mine is a spark, a sense of being fully alive, energized, when I feel that ignition I know I’m inspired and ready to take action.

I knew I was stalled this morning because:

  1. I didn’t have a bright idea
  2. My energy was depleted

When my creative juices are stagnant my brain feels like it’s filled with yesterday’s porridge. I knew staying  in that mood too long would be productively paralyzing. Feeling idea-less for less than a minute I Googled “inspiration for writing” and a plethora of links appeared. I briefly scrolled through them:

Finding Your Muse

Top 10 Sources of Inspiration for Creative Writing

9 Sources of Inspiration for Highly Successful People

Nothing grabbed me. Ho hum, I’d already heard it, read it, or written about it. Determined to keep pace with my deadline I opened my dog-eared quotes binder. I flipped through pages, scraps of paper, and jotted-down notes, nothing inspired me.

Continuing to roam through the Robin’s-egg blue binder my fingers lit upon a small , 5 x 4″ plain white envelope with a March 2012 postal stamp on it. It was from a letter a friend wrote while she was living in Hawaii. I wondered why I had an empty envelope in my quotes folder. Then I turned it over, on my way through the binder. Out of the corner of my eye I saw there was handwriting on the back. My friend had written a quote by William James.

“A new idea is first condemned as ridiculous and then dismissed as trivial, until finally, it becomes what everybody knows.”

This spoke to me! My blood flow perked up, my energy increased, I knew I’d found my own kind of inspiration! It wasn’t a how-to list, it wasn’t a walk in nature, it was a message dropped by the universe that spoke directly to my heart.

Let yourself get to know your own internal barometer. When you do, I’ll bet you never experience writer’s block again. Let us know your favorite cure in the Comments section below.

Until next time, keep on writing.

6 Simple Rules Every Writer Needs to Know

tips-for-writerHello writers, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you today. Spring is in the air, it’s a time to refresh, renew, let out the old and bring in the new. We’ve spoken about building your author’s platform in this blog before. I’m going to continue that thread with six basic rules for amazing content marketing.

Content marketing is any marketing that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire and retain readers, customers, followers. Traditionally advertising has used content to disseminate information about a brand, and build a brand’s reputation. As a writer that’s still true, you need to develop your brand. It’s also important to build relationships in the digital community. No matter what online platform you use — Facebook, Goodreads, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, Instagram, the following guidelines apply to them all.

1.) Be consistent
Choose how often you can realistically post, tweet, or publish. Then do so. For some of us it’s once a month, for others, it’s once a day. Find the rhythm that fits into your schedule.

2.) Be useful
Remember the 80/20 ratio of success. 80% of your posts should be interesting useful content. Making it easily shareable is part of the magic and fun of social media networking. 20% of your content includes call to actions, such as registering for a workshop or buying your newest book.

3.) Be authentic
When we are true to ourselves and others, we build trust. Even vulnerable content can resonate with people.

4.) Tie into your reader’s emotions
Easier said than done, yet it’s achievable. If you are feeling something, it’s more than likely your readers are too. When we can give voice to the whispers, we deepen our relationships.

5.) Be where your audience is
If you’re like me, you don’t have time, resources, or inclination to create and share content equally across every social media network. Pick and choose based on where your audience is.

6. Tell, don’t sell
Nobody wants to be sold something every time they hear from you. They do want to follow you or learn more about you and hear how you view the world, if you give them a good story. Use storytelling to create content that people actually connect with. Find ways to create vignettes in your communications.

As the winter ground breaks open with new buds of springtime growth, let your writer self show fresh colors to your online community.

Until next time, keep on writing.


How to succeed as a 21st century writer, part 2

For Alison McBain, searching digitally for a publication to which to submit your creative writing is like seeking a job. You have to do your homework, you have to be organized and you have to make the right impression. Here she talks about researching places to send her work, matching a piece’s style to a publication’s, keeping track of her stories’ progress, the specifics of getting paid and more.


Learning what’s out there. “Pretty much when I started writing for publication, I didn’t know the markets very well,” McBain says, “so I just started reading. Almost every site that I submit to I read ahead of time. It’s sort of like doing research for a job interview. You have to research the company you’re applying to.”

McBain does not rely on the listings in the back pages of the writers’ magazines to find venues to submit her work. She uses the internet. For many writers, the go-to standard of online search sites for fiction and poetry (as well as nonfiction) is Duotrope. But Duotrope charges an annual subscription fee of $50. McBain opts for a free alternative, The Grinder, which is still in a beta format. “I love the Grinder for looking at markets but once every couple of months it goes down for a couple of days as they’re adjusting,” McBain says. The online directories identify such useful information as genres and lengths of stories, submission periods and deadlines, response times, payment scales and more. You can customize your search for publications according to many of those criteria. “I also like Flash Fiction Chronicles a lot,” McBain adds, “because, as I said, I like flash fiction. They do just sort of a list form, and it’s not everybody.”

Then there are the opportunities she learns about through her online writers group. And finally, “I also have a calendar for upcoming deadlines.” Many she picked up “through Grinder or through my writers’ group. Some markets I just keep track of, like Glimmer Train. Their Fiction Open call is two months of the year, June and December. [The most recent Open deadline was January 15, 2015.] So whenever that happens, I know.”


Be stylistically aware. When she finds a publication that matches her genre and payment goals, McBain scouts it further by reading previously published pieces. “The thing that I most look out for is, first of all, style,” she says. “That’s a big one, because you can write a story that’s maybe a little bit outside the genre, but if it doesn’t fit stylistically, they won’t accept it. One of my most recent publications, FLAPPERHOUSE, does experimental. The work has to be sort of a merging of almost a poetic voice with the storytelling, which wouldn’t fly at a place like On the Premises. Experimental is definitely not what they’re looking for. So even if I took the same subject matter, I would write it in a different style. A more straightforward story.”


An onscreen demonstration. In addition to her writing, the main thing for McBain as a successful 21st century writer “is organization. It helps that I used to be an office manager for several different companies.”

Looking at a big, color-coded Excel spread sheet, McBain says, “This is my master [chart]. It shows where each story has been submitted, the date, rejected, the date, everything. Some of these I wrote and haven’t submitted yet, or I need to edit them, or perhaps I need to finish them. I have a second chart of story ideas; it’s just a list, basically. And there are the ones I was writing for deadlines that I didn’t make.”

She clicks to another color-highlighted screen: “For my book I keep track of all the places I submitted it to, which draft got queried or went out to which agent, the rejections, places to research afterward. This is all the places it’s out to right now.” She tracks her poems as well.

“This is a big thing, knowing where a story has gone.” You must be careful. “Occasionally—I think I’ve done this twice—I sent a piece to the same place more than once, because I changed the name of it. Of course, that’s bad.” Luckily, she was not called on it either time.

She tries to update her charts daily. “I have maybe 40 stories out right now. Every day I’m figuring out what I need to do. The organization can take more time than writing.”

McBain also uses a popular website: “A lot of this is also duplicated on QueryTracker. But I always keep my own backup system, because sometimes the system might go down and were all my updates saved?”

Moving up the ladder. Online magazines have slush readers who take the first cut at reviewing submissions. (In fact, one of McBain’s Library Writers’ Salon colleagues, Ed Ahern, is a slush reader for the online publication Bewildering Stories.) In the digital world, a writer often can track her story as it is assessed. “Some magazines have a specific tier system: editor, assistant editor, etc.,” McBain says. “In the information age they’re really great about telling you if you get bumped up. I submitted to Plasma Frequency magazine. They have three tiers: slush [including her Scribophile writers group leader Alexis A. Hunter], assistant editor, editor. My piece got all the way up to the editor, and got rejected. But each time I got a notification.”

Two go-to places for book writers. “I did a ton of research before sending out my book,” McBain says. “[Agent and author] Noah Lukeman did a fantastic how-to,” How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent [available for free downloading as a .pdf at his website]. “He suggested sending out eight pieces or query letters at a time. Every time you get those eight things back, revise your query.

“I also entered some contests online where a professional agent would edit your query if yours was one of the ones chosen. And there’s Pitch Wars. It’s run by [author] Brenda Drake. You send in your query and your first chapter. All these different published writers choose a mentee. They help polish up your book and then they end up pitcBOTF_Lo-Rez-Coverhing it to 20 agents. They do all genres. Mystery, fantasy, literary, young adult, adult. It’s all free. It’s all online.” [The 2015 Pitch Wars submission window opens August 17.]

Don’t forget anthologies. At least two of McBain’s works are in recently published anthologies. “Someone in my writers group posted something about an anthology open to everyone,” she says. “The one thing the writing guidelines talked about was they were looking for humor. That was something I hadn’t done, written literary humor, and it would be a fun challenge.” The subject of the collection, in fact, was writers coping with rejection, and its title was to be Blood on the Floor. “I actually included the line in my poem, which is ‘Bloody Ink.’ I got the editors’ attention because I took it right out of their submission guidelines.”

For the anthology Abbreviated Epics, the call was for “something under, I think, 3,000 words. I rewrote the Minotaur myth as a short story, ‘The Lost Children.’ I have a classics background. In an early version of the myth, it wasAMcBBook not set in stone what the Minotaur looked like. Some versions said it had the body of a bull, the head of a man, instead of the opposite, which has now become very popular. So I just followed this idea, what if it was opposite? And they were siblings? I went from there.”


Why payment matters. “There are several reasons that I feel getting paid for writing is important,” McBain says.  “First of all, there are terms built into one’s status as a writer that depend on pay scale.  For example, ‘semi-professional’ payment is 1-4 cents a word.  ‘Professional’ payment is 5+ cents a word.  Membership to certain writers’ associations, such as the Science Fiction Writers of America, depends on having made a set number of ‘professional’ sales.  I could make a hundred ‘semi-professional’ sales, but never be able to join SFWA.  Someone else could make three ‘professional’ sales and become a member.  So in order to be seen as a serious writer on a certain level, you have to consistently get paid a certain amount.

“Other than that as a goal, I always hope that my writing brings something of value to the reader, and so I am thrilled to receive even a nominal payment for my work.  I know that journals don’t make money anymore, and few writers are able to quit their day jobs.  But receiving that $5— or $50 or $100—will always be a thrill.  An added value is placed on something that already I love to do.  And that is really very cool.”

Fast start. McBain uses contests as an incentive to submit, and has been rewarded for doing so: “I won second prize in On the Premises Contest # 22 for ‘Grandmother Winter.’ At the time, the prize was $140 (they have since increased the prize money to $160). It is highest payment I’ve received for a story. ‘The Maybe Baby’ won the Patricia McFarland Memorial Prize at Flash Fiction Chronicles. Both of these were early in 2014 after a 10-year hiatus in my writing career—so [it was] a good way to get started again!  No other prizes since then.”

Lesser amounts. “The lowest payment I’ve received for a story was $5 for flash fiction,” McBain says. “Poetry tends to pay less than fiction on average, so most of my published poems have paid $5-$10.” She is not completely averse, though, to submitting to a nonpaying journal. “Some places I go to are for exposure. A Public Space [an independent magazine of literature and culture based in Brooklyn] is one of the top 50 literary magazines. But they don’t pay. I’ll send stuff to that. But mostly I get some nominal fee.”

Reader input. The two-way nature of the digital world raises the question of whether online magazine readers can influence which writers get published and who among them gets paid. McBain’s assessment: “There are some online magazines and journals that are interested in reader feedback, sometimes to the extent that it affects pay rate for the writers, although I don’t know of any magazine that directly equates page views with writer payment. One magazine that has a public submission queue for writers is Crowded Magazine, where all stories posted to the queue are visible to members and can garner comments. I don’t believe this affects the acceptance/rejection rate, though, but is used more as a critique tool to help writers improve their writing. Another magazine that encourages reader participation is Mash Stories.  Readers cast votes for their favorite stories, but there is also a jury of editors who moderate the choosing of a finalist for each quarter—so voting might help steer the judges toward a winner, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a most-voted story will win the cash prize. A third magazine that does directly rely on reader feedback to award cash prizes is SpeckLit. The editor chooses which stories to publish online, and each quarter readers vote for their favorites and the winner receives additional compensation.”

Is she a pro? McBain answers cautiously: “I guess I would define myself as a professional writer once I get my book published.” The FWB would beg to differ. McBain pursues her writing seriously, and she gets paid for it. Thus, she is a professional writer.


A nonfiction idea. McBain’s grandmother, who had Japanese ancestry, was in internment camps for parts of World War II. “I’m hoping to someday write a book based on my grandmother’s life,” McBain said. “My grandmother’s first husband died in the war fighting for the U.S. After his death, she returned to the internment camps to rejoin her family, which was where she met my grandfather, who was recovering from a wound he’d received in the war.  Originally, it was thought he’d die from his wound—he’d been shot through the kidney and received his Purple Heart in the hospital from a chaplain.  They were married for more than 50 years.” The love story, however, is only half the tale McBain plans to tell, the other being the negative effects of the treatment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during and after the war. One example: “As a result of the camps and racism after the war, my grandparents tended to turn their back on Japanese things—they didn’t teach their children the language although they could speak it, and they didn’t keep up Shinto/Buddhist traditions although they had been raised with them.”


Cultivate creativity. Even if you do not write every day—and McBain doesn’t—she recommends that you “be creative every day. Sometimes I work on rescuing stories from my rejection pile and I’ll send them out again. Or I’ll do art. Or I’ll do a handcraft. Encourage your creativity.”

Keep on believing. Don’t give up on placing work you are proud of. McBain recently sold a story after nine rejections, which may sound like a lot but is not by conventional standards. “If you love it, you’ll find a home for it,” she said.—Alex McNab

Published in: on March 17, 2015 at 11:17 am  Comments (1)  
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Remembering Elmore Leonard, Part 1

ELBooksBy now you surely know that Elmore Leonard—author of 45 novels (many made into movies and TV shows, both good and bad), numerous short stories collected in three volumes, and his famous 10 Rules of Writing—died at age 87 on August 20, about three weeks after suffering a stroke while at his desk working on novel 46, Blue Dreams.

Leonard, who lived in Detroit or its suburbs for all but his early years, began his professional storytelling career writing Western short stories and novels. When that market dried up, he turned to writing contemporary crime novels populated by ”pretty much low-lifers, just trying to make a score one way or another,” he told Publishers Weekly in 1983. His genius lay in what he called his “sound,” both in dialogue and narration. He often used the word “cadence” when describing it. And that sound frequently contained humor, although, as Leonard always pointed out, the characters in the scene, both speaker and listener, were dead serious.

“His writing seems effortless, and sometimes people think that it is,” George Pelecanos, the Washington, D.C.-based crime novelist, told The Washington Post in 2008. “Sometimes you’ll hear people say, ‘I read an Elmore Leonard book, and I just don’t get what the fuss is about.’ You just try it sometime. Try it, buddy. Nobody’s been able to duplicate it.”

On May 18, 2009 I published a post here on the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB) about Leonard’s visit to the nearby New Canaan Library, where he was interviewed in an “Authors on Stage” event by his close friend, sportswriter and young-adult-bestseller writer Mike Lupica. When I spoke to Leonard afterward and told him that I was working on my first novel set in the world of a certain type of tough guy, he asked me a question about my characters: “Are they mean enough?” Not a day of composing at the computer goes by without recalling hearing him say that.

My Leonard library includes all of his books, beginning with a Bantam paperback of 1953’s The Bounty Hunters, through the Avon paperbacks of such Detroit and Miami 1970s and ’80s crime classics as 52 Pick-Up, Stick and LaBrava with their wonderful photographic still-life covers, to a shelf of hardcovers starting with Glitz and running through the Morrow hardcover of 2012’s Raylan.

It includes, as well, a couple of short critical studies and a small limited-edition signed 1990 hardcover from Lord John Press titled Notebooks. This last includes notes and expense tallies from a 1974 trip he made by car from Detroit to Los Angeles (Travel Tip: “3. Go as fast as you can through Kansas. Or, if you are less than halfway, consider going back and around it”) and 43 pages of character sketches, scene summaries, dialogue passages and random notes for his 1990 novel, Bandits. Finally, I have a huge file of three decades’ worth of Leonard clippings—profiles, interviews, reviews and more.

Elmore Leonard was renown for how his characters talked. A quote from a 1980s review in the Boston Globe that appeared in the paperback edition of Swag read, “He has a wonderful ear for the way the kind of people you’d never want to meet talk.” He was a wonderful talker himself. And he was a delight to meet. Author Denise Hamilton, writing in the Los Angeles Times after he died, said, “Writers loved Elmore Leonard because he was so amiable and approachable. He didn’t hold court in the officious way so many ‘important’ authors did, he chatted with people and was genuinely funny in person, not only on the page.”

In celebration of the work and life of a great American writer, this extended post of the Fairfield Writer’s Blog offers quotes mined from my Elmore Leonard file, as well as a few selected comments from the many post-mortem tributes written about him. In Part 1, the focus is how he wrote. Part 2, to be posted in a few weeks, will focus on his life as a working writer. Meantime, blogger Alex Belth has gathered the first sentences of every Elmore Leonard novel here.

Style. “I have a very straightforward, economic style. The writing is lean, with no unnecessary words. I take ordinary people and put them in unordinary situations and see how they work themselves out. I introduce characters as I go along; the story comes out of how they act and interact.”—Detroit Free Press, 1982

“Your style comes out of your attitude, what kind of person you are. Your personality. How you see things. Are you optimistic? Are you funny? Are you grim? What? This is all out of your attitude. . . .I don’t see that there’s that much to take seriously in everyday situations that come up, that people worry about. People worry about things that might happen, you know, which is a big waste of time. I don’t worry. . . .I don’t take my work that seriously, and I think that’s what keeps me loose. If I try to write—if I catch myself trying to write—I’ll fall on my face. I’ll see it. If I can see in the prose, ‘Boy, look at me writing,’ I’ll rewrite it. Because I think it’s distracting.”—to Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” 1995

“The style is naturalistic, I suppose; it avoids images and purple passages. . . .I stick to the third person and wrote only one [novel] in the first person, Hombre; a minor character tells the story. But I like to use different points of view; so first person is too restrictive.”—The Armchair Detective, Summer 1983

“His flair is hard to borrow, because so much of it depends on what he did not write, not what he did. . . There was great elegance to his elision.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times, 2013

“He gave you just enough detail to set a scene or sketch a character, and let your imagination do the rest.”— Matt Zoller Seitz, New York magazine

Point of View & Sound. “Once I decide the point of view of a scene, then that character’s sound will permeate the narrative, will continue on through, because everything you see in that scene is from that character’s point of view and you won’t know what anybody else is thinking until you come to a place on the page where I’ve skipped down a few spaces and got into someone else’s head.”—Contrappasso Magazine (Australia), 1991

“When I’m serious, my writing is stiff, like a high-school composition. I have to forget about writing and just think about the characters and the way they sound. . . .” —U.S. News & World Report, 1987

Outlines. “When I’m writing the book, I know I’ll think of an ending. . . .[When] I finally get into page 300, approaching the end, then I may have to go back just a little bit to set something up. . . .But I know it’s going to work. I’m confident, always, that my book is going to work. . . .Forty years ago I was probably outlining a whole book. Now, I don’t want to know what’s going to happen. It’s only in page 100 to page 200 [that] is the tough part of the book, how you keep it moving, moving ahead with the characters that you like, getting them to do certain things that’ll be entertaining, and then in that last part, getting it going a little faster and have a big finish.” Crimeculture Q&A with Charles Rzepka, 2010

One reason not to outline at the start: “For the next six months you’re going to have good ideas, better ideas.—Crime Fiction Academy Master Class, 2012

Dialogue. “Whenever anyone mentions my dialogue, that it sounds so true, I say to the person, ‘Don’t you hear things in your head, don’t you hear people talking?’ That’s all it is. Use that, if you’ve got it.”—Crime Fiction Academy Master Class, 2012

“The dialogue in my novels is mostly made up. It isn’t the words that are authentic, but rather, the rhythm of the way people talk.”—The New York Times, 1983

“I think of the character’s attitude, and how that character would say a line.”—Writer’s Digest, 1982

“A line of dialogue is not clear enough if you need to explain how it’s said.”— Esquire, April 2005

Characters. “I usually identify with the main character. The way his mind works is the way mine does, and what’s important and what isn’t important to him is the same for me.”—VICE Magazine, 2009

“I want my books to look at reality and my characters to be as lifelike as possible—but with quirks to make them interesting.”—U.S. News & World Report, 1987

“You can make antagonists more interesting by showing human sides to them. They’re not simply evil. Some criminals, when they’re not committing a crime, are like everybody else.”—U.S. News & World Report, 1987

“I don’t try to get into the psychology of the guy’s makeup. That doesn’t interest me, and I don’t think it interests the reader. Also, it’s too much work.”—The New York Times Magazine, 1984

“Names are important. Names are everything. Once I get the right name, I’ve got the character. Or once I know the character well enough to give them the right name. . .well, maybe that’s the way it works.”—Writer’s Digest, 1982

“He was more comfortable writing characters of color than any white writer you can name.”— Matt Zoller Seitz, New York magazine

“These crime novels about felons and schmos are actually uplifting.”—Joan Acocella, thenewyorker.com, 2013

Women characters. “I was autographing books and a woman came up to me in the store and criticized me for the way I handle woman characters. She said that I had a sort of chauvinistic attitude toward them. I said, ‘Well, which ones do you have in mind?’ She said, ‘The women in Stick.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? The female lead is an investment counselor!’ She said, ‘Well, I mean the other ones. The girl friends [of the criminals].’ I said, ‘Well, what kind of woman do you imagine would be attracted to these guys? You’ve got to consider that they pair off with their own kind.’ ”—Xavier Review 1987

“I always spend a little more time with my woman characters, making sure they’re important to the story. . .and they’re not just there to follow the guy along.”— Author Learning Center Videos, 2011

First Drafts. “Before I start to write I’ll open one of the books and just start reading so that I get into the rhythm of it again. I’m sitting there cold in front of my desk and I’ll read something and I’ll laugh because I’m surprised by it. When I was working on a line, it was just a process of work.” —VICE Magazine, 2009

[He wrote first drafts by hand on unlined yellow paper] “Some of my longhand is barely decipherable, because I’m writing just as fast as I think about it, as the characters talk back and forth. I’ll probably throw away four sheets to get one. That seems to work for me. The rewriting is done as I’m writing. Once I get through a scene, and I don’t know what will come next, I type it and try to clean up the presentation. I always hope for about four or five pages by the end of the day. The next day I rewrite it, pick at it, and add things, because it is too spare the first time I write it. I add in a cigarette or a drink, or something going on.”goodreads.com, 2009

Rewriting. “I revise as I do it. I don’t go all the way to the end and then try to rewrite. When I get to the last page, it’s done.” —Crime Fiction Academy Master Class, 2012

Genre. “A genre has a form. It has some rules. It’s great when you’re starting.”—New York Daily News Magazine, 1985

Theme. “I generally don’t begin thinking of a book with the theme. Later, a reviewer tells me what the theme is.”—Detroit Free Press, 1982

Perseverance. “The writer has to have patience, the perseverance to just sit there alone and grind it out. And if it’s not worth doing that, then he doesn’t want to write.” —Writer’s Digest, 1982

Rewards. “It is the most satisfying thing I can think of, to write a scene and have it come out the way I want. Or be surprised and have it come out even better than I thought.”—Writer’s Digest, 1982

The 10 rules of writing. “The rules. . .are full of exceptions. . . .In other words: Don’t do these things, unless you’re good at them. Then go ahead. Which is actually, in itself, not terrible advice. Leonard’s rules are not so much rules for writing well as they are pointers for how you might avoid writing badly.”—David Haglund, slate.com, 2013

“His famous rules for writing always seemed like shtick to me. He knew lots more than he let on—about writing, about life—but, like all smart craftsmen, kept the good stuff to himself. It’s there in the books though. Read them.—Richard Lange, Los Angeles Times, 2013

The end. “I probably won’t quit until I just quit everything—quit my life—because it’s all I know how to do. And it’s fun.”—Associated Press story, upon learning he’ll get the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award, Autumn, 2012

—Alex McNab

A writer’s to-do list for the New Year

As the calendar flips over to January, here’s a quick rundown of goals you might consider in the new year. At least one writer affiliated with the Fairfield Writers’ Blog (FWB) has already adopted them for 2013.

• Put your work-in-progress (WIP) into Scrivener and become competent in that writer’s program. Joanne Hus of our Saturday writers’ group was the first person who passed along a rave about Scrivener; that was several years ago. The program does cost money to download, and there may be other applications you can find for free that are useful. Plus, there’s always the ubiquitous Microsoft Word. As 2013 dawns, though, Scrivener is a key application in many writers’ toolboxes. For example, friends of our Saturday group and the FWB, including Gabi Coatsworth and Linda Howard Urbach, have written about it online (Linda, as usual, with tongue firmly in cheek). If you need any more convincing, in the Acknowledgments at the end of his big 2012 book Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon lets us know that, “This novel was written using Scrivener on Macintosh computers.” That’s a good enough endorsement for us.

• Sit down and read the first draft of your WIP from beginning to end, then revise same all the way through. Often you have no legitimate excuse for not finishing your revisions. But not always. Remember a couple of months ago when we blogged about local author A. J. O’Connell’s revision efforts on her novel? Like us, she’s still at it, she reports at her site “The Garret.” But she has a good excuse for not finishing in 2012. In the final few months of the year, she also wrote—and signed a publishing contract for—The Eagle and the Arrow, a sequel to her novella Beware the Hawk. Bravo!

• Submit your short stories, creative nonfiction and/or journalism for publication on a regular basis. Use such helpful sites as duotrope.com, with its search feature of outlets for your work (available to paid subscribers as of January 1, 2013), and submittable.com, the popular submissions management site for many literary journals. “Regular basis” means monthly at minimum. One of the writers in our Saturday workshop followed this formula, through many discouraging rejections. Then three acceptances arrived within weeks of one other. Superstition precludes the FWB from offering any further details, though, until the stories are in print.

• Watch the documentary “Tom Wolfe Goes Back to Blood.” WolfeMovieDespite the mixed-at-best verdict of the reviews of the author’s latest novel Back to Blood, how often do you get to follow a master writer, over a four-year period, doing the work of creating a book? A great opportunity to see Oscar Corral’s film in a local auditorium came and went this past fall at the refurbished Bijou Theatre in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut. You should be able to watch it via the bigstar.tv website, which requires that you log in.

• Read Virginia Wolff’s To the Lighthouse for its lessons in shifting points of view and communicating characters’ interior thoughts. Too many mentors and fellow writers have recommended this classic to ignore it any longer, despite the fear that it may be difficult.

• Write some fresh articles of journalism and a fresh pieces of fiction. You may not be there yet as you keep refining your WIP, but the time may come to heed a few words of wisdom from novelist Elinor Lipman, who writes delightful domestic comedies (The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, et al.). She heard this once from her writing mentor: “Sometimes the best form of revision is to start something new.”

Happy New Year and good writing in 2013!—Alex McNab

Advice from Peter Abrahams & Dennis Lehane

If you are lucky, an author appearance at the local public library can resemble a master class for an aspiring writer. The Fairfield Writers’ Blog (FWB) was two times lucky in less than 24 hours not long ago.

Our home base, the Fairfield Public Library, through its “Friends of” support group, hosted a lunch on Tuesday, October 9 with author Spencer Quinn, the pen name used by suspense novelist Peter Abrahams for his Chet and Bernie Mystery Series, in which human shamus Bernie is assisted, Dr. Watson-like, by narrating dog Chet. The fifth and newest title is A Fistful of Collars. The previous evening, the nearby New Canaan Library, in its “Authors On Stage” program, featured Dennis Lehane reading a chapter from his new Prohibition-era gangster novel Live by Night before spending close to an hour answering audience questions, many related to craft.

Abrahams is a writer of bestselling success in many styles. His thrillers include The Fan, made into a 1996 movie starring Robert DeNiro, Wesley Snipes and Ellen Barkin, and End of Story, which Stephen King called a primer on writing disguised as a crime story. For young readers, he wrote the Echo Falls Series of mysteries. The Chet and Bernie books are targeted at adults.

Abrahams has a demanding fan base. He told us of a letter he had received from a schoolkid about one of the Echo Falls titles: “I have to do a report on your book Down the Rabbit Hole. Please tell me the story in your own words.”

At age 7, Abrahams began trying his hand at writing adventure stories. His mother, a writer herself, was his first editor. After reading the opening passage of one piece, she explained why he ought to cut an unnecessary adverb, then imparted a lesson he still follows: the need to find the exact word to use, not a word that is a close second.

Perusing Abrahams’ website before the lunch, the FWB came across more timeless writing wisdom from the author’s mother, summarized as “Enid’s Laws.” Here is the streamlined list; for further explanation, go to the chetthedog website.

1. Organization is everything.
2. Fiction is about reversals.
3. Torment your protagonist.
4. Push everything as far as you can without contriving.
5. Always advance the story.
6. Be original.
7. Be playful. (Abrahams added this later.)

Abrahams revises his books chapter by chapter, printing out a chapter only after revising it. When the warning bell goes off that something isn’t working, he doesn’t let it go for later, he fixes it before printing. Thus, when the whole draft is printed out, essentially the book is done. He allowed as how a lot of writers just want to get the story down, “Get to Z, then rework,” he said. “That’s not my way, but there is no right way.”

During lunch, Abrahams followed up on a comment the FWB related from the author talk night before. “Writers who over-research under-imagine,” he said. “Their stories are often dead on the page. You only need the telling detail.”

Indeed, Lehane had said as much in New Canaan. The chapter he read was set in the mid-1920s at Boston’s Charlestown State Prison, which opened in 1805 and closed in 1955. The site is now occupied by a community college. Lehane did not turn up a lot of information about the penal facility, but it was enough. “Give me the basics and let me run with it,” he said. “How much research do you want to do before you let your imagination rip? My job is to sit in a room, stare at the wall and make stuff up.”

Even if you have never read a Lehane book, you may recognize his work. First came the Patrick Kenzie-Angela Gennaro novels, of which Gone, Baby, Gone was made into a movie. His three favorite books are Mystic River (Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won Oscars for their acting in the Clint Eastwood-directed film), The Given Day and the new one. “All three were the closest to what I had in my head to what I got on the page.” he said. His least favorite to write? Shutter Island, also later a movie, because he “knew 26 major beats of the story” before starting. Usually, he knows only three: “One thing from the beginning, one from the middle and one from the end.”

The protagonist of Live By Night, Joe Coughlin, was a young boy in The Given Day. The two books are part of a trilogy—Lehane is at work on the third—connected by family bloodlines. As any aspiring storyteller should be able to do for his or her own protagonist, Lehane was able to describe in one sentence the arc for Joe in Live By Night: “a character goes up a ladder [to success] and down into a moral abyss.”

At times a slow writer, Lehane found that the new book went fast because of his affinity for his protagonist. The lesson: “When a character speaks to you at high volume, you never turn him off until he stops.”

High volume refers to amount, not decibel level. For a writer, Lehane said, “The last thing to learn and the hardest thing to learn is to whisper. If you shout, the person leans away. If you whisper, the person leans in. It’s seduction.”

For any aspiring novelist, the learning curve is steep. “Here’s the thing I tell students,” Lehane said.  “. . . It takes 10 years to learn how to do this. . . .The first time you write a book, you don’t know what you’re doing. It takes a long time to learn the toolbox.” Eight years after he started, he published his first novel, a result he described as “lucky.”

Lehane offered a quick lesson on starting your story, and a longer one on point of view.

The first: “Don’t start [your story] on Wednesday if Friday is where the action begins.”

The second: “Write a scene from the point of view of the character in that scene who has something to lose.” The point of a scene is whether the character gets what he wants or doesn’t. He cited playwright David Mamet’s theory that, if a character wants so much as a loaf of bread, the audience will follow. So if you write about the beginning of your character’s day, don’t have him waking up, Lehane advised.  “Have him opening his fridge and being out of milk.”

With two young children, these days Lehane only has time to write for four hours in the morning. “That has made me a better writer,” he said. “You give someone all the time in the world and they’ll take all the time in the world. If you compress their time, they’ll use it—if they really want it.” He also advised that writing early or late in the day is the quickest way to connect to the dream world—an alternate universe, the world of your characters.

Lehane was asked whether he thinks about his audience as he writes. “I don’t,” he admitted. “I love you, but I don’t owe you the book that you expect. I owe you everything I’ve got.”

Finally, how does a writer assess how well he or she has written? Lehane said, “At the end of the day, is it honest?”

Class dismissed.—Alex McNab

Talking revision with a novelist-in-progress

Shortly after I began checking in on Connecticut writer A.J. O’Connell’s weblog, “The Garret,” she published a post about preparing to revise her novel-in-progress. The accompanying photo of pages laid out on the floor of her office (right)—pages that, no doubt, had gone through the workshop gantlet—now that was something I could identify with!

Right away, I knew the Fairfield Writers’ Blog (FWB) had to talk to O’Connell about revising. We met at the Fairfield University Bookstore downtown, where O’Connell was to be reading a couple of weeks later—at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, October 10—from her novella Beware the Hawk (Vagabondage Press), which was published early this year.

“One of my mentors used to say you’re either a Hemingway, and you go into journalism to write, or you’re a Woodward, and you go in to report,” O’Connell, a former newspaper reporter for The Hour in Norwalk, told the FWB. “I always was a Hemingway.” She earned her MFA in Creative Writing as a member of the second class of Fairfield University’s low-residency program.

First, the novella. The first draft of Beware the Hawk went through that workshop gantlet years before O’Connell began her MFA program. When she pulled out the 37-page manuscript to revise, at the request of a former workshop member who had started a new publishing company, she had not looked at it in nine years. And the first draft wasn’t finished. Yet by then, O’Connell had earned her degree. Reading the first draft from start to finish “was painful,” O’Connell recalls. “It was so bad. The prose. I mean, it was written by a 23-year-old. I’m not saying there aren’t some talented 23-year-olds, but I wasn’t one of them.” She had no idea where her workshop notes were. Still, she began revising. “I had the benefit of all of the craft that I’d learned. I now know how to write better.” She added five pages at the end.

O’Connell provided me with the first five pages of her original manuscript, which I compared to the first few pages of the printed book. The published version demonstrates how all of those fundamentals you read about in craft books make a story better.

One example, the first sentence:

(First draft) “I was exhausted when I got off the bus from New York.”

(Published version) “I hurt my ankle almost as soon as I stepped into Boston.”

Active verbs versus passive. Character entering a setting rather than having left one. Pain in a specific body part versus a general feeling. Stronger sense of foreboding.

Other improvements in the opening pages include: Using all five senses in description. Eliminating unnecessary character movements and backstory. Intensifying an atmosphere of conflict between the protagonist and another character.

Now, the novel-in-progress. O’Connell submitted chapters of her novel for critiquing to both classes in her MFA program and outside workshops. She put the critiqued pages into big manila envelopes, on the outside of which she wrote what the piece was, which workshop it was distributed to and the date.

“I tend not to work from those until the very last minute,” she says. “Either there were so many of them that you’d just go all cross-eyed looking at them or they were so critical they were not helpful. For me, it’s still important that I’m in charge of the revisions, and I don’t want to be steered by that kind of thing.”

But for her most trusted group, she went a step beyond. She had her entire first draft printed in book form by Lulu, one of the top self-publishing companies. She passed out those few copies and asked her colleagues to read the novel in its entirety. Meanwhile, she did the same:

“One of my professors, Rachel Basch, told me to put [the first draft] in a drawer for a couple of months, go back, pick it up and then try to read it in a day. Don’t read it with a pen in your hand to make notes on your manuscript. Don’t pretend you are correcting your own work. Pretend you’re reading someone else’s manuscript. Make notes on a separate pad.” Just as with those enveloped pages, “I rarely read my notes. As a journalist, I know when my pen’s moving I’ll remember something.”

The upshot of the others reading her whole book? “They came back with, I don’t know these characters very well. Now, I know them pretty well. But I hadn’t done my job—fully developing the characters. So I spent a week writing index cards out for each character. While I’m writing, the wall in front of me and the wall to the side of me are covered in my characters’ index cards. If I have a question, I just have to look up or over.”

Index cards sound a bit 20th Century, don’t they? “I prefer them to the character function in Scrivener,” O’Connell says, referring to the popular, downloadable organizing program for writers. In fact, she is a convert to it. “I thought I was going to hate it because I’ve been using Word since I was a kid. I really like Scrivener because I can, without having to mess up my floor any more than it’s already messed up, see chapters and can group them.” That idea of spreading printed scenes out on the floor? It works better for a short story than for a novel.

Also on her office wall, next to the character cards, are O’Connell’s cards for “new scenes that need to be put in.” When working on a first draft, “My first inclination is to write the scenes that are interesting to me and leave a bunch of holes,” she says. “Then I’d try to connect the dots with some lame prose. If I can’t write my character from one place to the next place, and if I can’t make the transitions as interesting as the scenes that appeal to me. . . .”

On many of her projects, including that unfinished first draft of the novella and her current work, O’Connell would run into a familiar problem: “Plot is my biggest snarl. When I think of this story in terms of plot, that’s when I lose my way. It’s part of the reason I stopped. . . .What I was taught at Fairfield, and the thing that’s helped me most, is just to stick to the character. How to Write a Damn Good Novel is one of those craft books. . . .The author talks about keeping your character in the crucible. And keeping your character in the crucible has always been the thing that’s carried me through with plot.”

So here’s how O’Connell is tackling the revisions of her novel. She’s been retyping the entire manuscript from the first page, making the alterations she feels necessary without looking at hers or her colleagues’ critique notes as she goes along, although she will occasionally look at her professors’ comments. Some writers have been known to work on one specific part of a book in each successive draft: plot, character, dialogue, etc. O’Connell is revising everything that needs it as she moves from page to page. “One page takes a long time,” she says.

“That’s what the second draft really is for, to go back and find the things that aren’t fully developed and develop them,” she says. Or the opposite.

“Every scene in a novel has to carry some weight,” she says, again citing Rachel Basch. “It has to raise a question, it has to be there for a reason. I look at each thing, and if it’s just in there because I think it’s cute, then it’s got to go or I have to make it carry some weight. I don’t have a hard time cutting.”

There is one other thing she is striving to do as she revises: “Really working on the level of the sentence. Making sure the sentences are as good as possible.”

The prospect of revising a novel can be daunting. “Like anything else, it’s momentum,” O’Connell says of what you need to do the job. “Now. . .I have momentum going with the revision. . . .But it took me more than a few months to get back into my manuscript and start revising. Because it was so terrifying. And because there is more research to be done.” In addition, the publisher of Beware the Hawk wants a sequel, the writing of which requires momentum of its own.

O’Connell has employed another unusual tactic, like the Lulu books, to keep her on course. “I have a contract with another writer,” she says. “We wrote ourselves a contract saying how long a day we would work and what we would do. We set weekly goals for ourselves and share it with each other. If we don’t [meet the goals], we have to admit it. We check in with each other every Friday or Sunday.”

The reward for all this diligence is the joy of being published. Beware the Hawk first came out as an e-book, and O’Connell says, “I was very thrilled. I was especially thrilled when it came out in hard copy. I remember getting the proofs in the mail. I couldn’t believe that I had something with my name on it. But. . .”

Does there have to be a “but”?

“. . .I have a very hard time reading it because I want to make corrections whenever I go out to read. It never ends.”

Now that’s a real writer.—Alex McNab

Published in: on October 10, 2012 at 6:03 am  Comments (1)  
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What it takes to be a fiction writer

Alliterative lists are a staple of how-to advice, so why not a few for aspiring fiction writers?

For example, a few years ago, when I asked award-winning Fairfield author Nina Nelson (who has been known to write in the Library) for some tips I could pass on to our writers’ group, she included her list of Three C’s, writing activities in which we aspirants should partake: critique groups, conferences and contests. In fact, her first book, Bringing the Boy Home, a middle-grade title, began its path to publication as a contest entry. It won the 2005 Ursula Nordstrom Fiction Prize and was named a Smithsonian Notable Children’s Book.

A second list might be Three I’s: intelligence, imagination and inspiration.

What truly successful fiction writers share, I believe—what makes them start and, more importantly, finish one book after another—is another trio of C’s: craft, commitment and compulsion.

At least, that’s what I thought of when I read a recent interview with James Lee Burke (right) in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Burke writes bestselling novels set in Louisiana, Montana and Texas, the most notable being the 19-title series about New Iberia (La.) sheriff deputy Dave Robicheaux, including the recently published Creole Belle (copies are in both the Main and Branch Libraries). Burke is in his mid-70s and has published 33 books—and he shows no signs of slowing down; he’s hard at work to meet an autumn deadline for his next novel, he told the LA Review. When you are a writer, he said in the interview:

“[Writing is] all you think about. It is an obsession. The writing never stops for me. If I’m not actually doing it, I’m thinking about it. When I taught creative writing, students would sometimes ask me, ‘Do you think I have the talent to make it?’ I would never answer, because it is the wrong question. Those who have it, know it. You have a kind of arrogance, but you have to be able to see the drama that surrounds a person every day. Drama is all around us. It does not have to come from a grand panorama.”

Burke’s first few novels, all literary, were well-reviewed sales duds. Then he wrote The Lost Get-Back Boogie. How does it tie in to my three C’s? Concerning Burke’s craft, once The Lost Get-Back Boogie was published by the Louisiana State University Press, it was nominated for the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. Prior to that, though, over a period of nine years, it was rejected by publishers 111 times. Yet Burke did not give up. Now that is commitment and compulsion.—Alex McNab

Published in: on September 19, 2012 at 1:42 pm  Comments (2)  
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Writing thoughts from a professional reader

From time to time the Fairfield Writers’ Blog (FWB) has spoken with published authors about what makes good storytelling and about the other challenges we deal with in our writing groups at the Library. Now it’s time to hear from a distinguished published reader.

Bridgeport’s Joe Meyers, book and film critic of the Connecticut Post and Hearst Media News Group, was presented with the 2012 Ellery Queen Award by the esteemed Mystery Writers of America (MWA) at its annual black-tie awards dinner in New York in April. In announcing the award, the MWA said, “Meyers writes about mystery/thriller books, reviews them, and blogs about them. . . .His reviews are thoughtful and perceptive, and his criticism is constructive. He is a scholar of mystery and crime fiction, attending conferences and moderating panels.”

Meyers’ reading extends far beyond genre titles, as evidenced by three of his recent “Book Beat” pieces in the Sunday Post. One covered Fairfield University Creative Writing MFA graduate David Fitzpatrick’s Sharp, a memoir of mental deterioration and self-mutilation. A second spotlighted literary novelist Alice Mattison of New Haven and her new book, When We Argued All Night, about which Meyers wrote, “We get a real sense of lives being led.” After speaking with him for an hour about what makes good fiction, it is clear that that is high praise indeed. And a third featured newcomer Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements (a novel the category-obsessed book business might label as commercial rather than Mattison’s literary). In our discussion a few days before his article ran, Meyers said that the book “gives you such a view of WASP culture. Middle-aged malaise. . . .The story is strong, but [Shipstead’s] grasp of character is really outstanding. For a first-time novelist, it blew my mind.”

Here’s an edited transcript of Meyers on other writing topics he spoke about with the FWB:

Keys of good fiction writing: “A story that grabs me. A setting that interests me. Human psychology and human behavior played out in believable characters. A key thing—you want to go to the next chapter. To me, if you have to work too hard at reading a book, there are too many other books that you don’t have to work hard at. Not to dismiss very dense, complex novels, but I put a high premium on good storytelling. The style of the writing, the dialogue in the story [should convince me] that the story I’m reading could really happen. That’s why one of my prejudices, and it’s a bad one, is that I veer away from science fiction—it’s never clicked with me.”

Criticisms of some current fiction: “People are rushing almost too fast to grab you with something outrageous. Especially in mystery and suspense. Caleb Carr’s first novel, The Alienist, was set just before the turn of the 20th century and was a big fat book. A lot of mystery writers or readers I know hated it because they felt like he wasn’t getting to the story fast enough. But in that case, the detail of what it was like to live in that time I found fascinating. I got swept up in it. A lot of people did. [The Alienist made bestseller lists and the paperback rights were sold for more than $1 million.] Another one of my criticisms is short chapters. That’s overdone. It’s like the writer is almost afraid of losing your attention.”

Common traits among successful authors he’s interviewed: “Perseverance is the major thing. A good proportion of them tell stories about how hard it was for them to get started. [Bestselling legal thriller author] Lisa Scottoline, who is a friend of mine, wanted to transition from being a lawyer to being a writer. She was a single parent and she wanted to work at home. She got rejected and rejected. She tells a story about an agent who sent her back her manuscript and said something to the effect of, we can’t take any new clients at this point but even if we could, I wouldn’t want to represent this. Some real crushing, mean stuff. They all seem to have an inner determination. They have to do it. And somehow they find the right agent or editor who shares their vision.”

Defining an author’s voice. “There’s a personality. There’s a world view. I was just re-reading Nora Ephron’s last collection of essays. Now there’s somebody who had strong voice. You felt like she was talking directly to you. And even if you didn’t agree with everything she said, you felt like it was a conversational tone. It was so appealing. Here’s a woman who was a daughter of Hollywood, wealthy beyond any of our dreams, mingling with the most celebrated people in the culture, but she had some kind of a common-sense take on things where you could relate to almost everything she wrote about. She did one of the things that’s most difficult in writing, humor. Funny. And self-deprecating. Boy, she was good. It’s a shame, in a way, that she spent so much time in Hollywood. What a writer she was as an essayist.”

Critiquing an aspiring fiction writer’s work in progress. “I’ve done it only a couple of times. And I’ve regretted doing it. I’m not a publisher. I’m not an agent. I’m not an editor. I wouldn’t want to say anything negative to a friend that would impact their finishing the book. Editing is such a skill, to see what somebody’s trying to do and bring it out of them. It’s a separate thing from what I’ve ever done.”

Books made into movies. “When I’m reading a book I like to think I’m getting something that I can’t get from movies or television. I think it’s apples and oranges. I do agree with people who say a lot of times that mediocre or not-so-good books make better movies because you can improve them. The movie ‘Jaws’ cut out the real crap in the book. ‘The Godfather’ is another classic case, where Francis Ford Coppola cut out all the junk and made it so much better. ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ is to me a case where the film is superb and the novel is superb. George Axelrod, who did the adaptation, was very faithful and had to really be creative because under the censorship of that time there were elements of the book he couldn’t use. I think Richard Condon, the novelist, was very happy with that. Another Condon book that was made into a wonderful movie was ‘Prizzi’s Honor.’ One of my favorite examples of a really good book and a really good film is a novel people have forgotten called Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg. The film ‘Cutter’s Way’ is terrific and the novel is terrific.”

Unpublished writers giving one-minute pitches of their books to agents and publishers at writers’ conferences. “I’m not an aspiring novelist. But that depresses me in a way. Because so many good things cannot be boiled down that way. That’s more of a movie thing—this meets that. Trend chasers drive me crazy—and people get sucked into it—because people in the business don’t know what the next big thing is going to be. No one saw The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo coming. No one saw Fifty Shades of Grey. No one saw The Da Vinci Code. And then for two or three years afterward you get all these copies. Rather than try to write copies, why not write something original and good?”

Writing characters of the opposite sex. “A problem with a lot of male genre writers—their women are often unbelievable. What I really admire about [bestselling suspense thriller and romance author] Sandra Brown is that she writes men as well as she writes women. She wrote a book about a football player called Play Dirty that, if you had taken her name off of it, I think you would have assumed it was written by a man.”

Writing violence. “The more that it’s off the page, the more effective it is. Suggested violence is much more horrifying than real violence. I’m not really into serial killers or psychopathic stuff. I think the movies took over serial killers. And they are such a blip on the reality screen. There are so few of them. The stories are so melodramatic and over the top. The other thing I’m not interested in, honestly—and I loved the first couple of Patricia Cornwell novels—is this CSI stuff, autopsies and all, I couldn’t care less. A couple of years ago a Cornwell book came in, and I said, well, I haven’t read her for years, she’s hugely popular, I’ll give this one a try. She did the lowest trick a writer can ever do, which is something out of a daytime soap. She killed a character and then brought him back to life. Give me a break.”

One crime novel worth reading.A Judgement in Stone. What Ruth Rendell does in the first sentence of the book is say, “Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” So she gives away the perp and the victims in the beginning of the story. You think, why would I read a book when she’s telling me this? She violates the rules right in the first sentence. Then she backs you in right away to the fact that this woman was hired to be the maid to this upper class family that has a house in the country. The suspense becomes almost overpowering because she shows you how tiny slights that these people make, and the fact that this woman is hiding that she can’t read—it’s a very deep shame of hers—are creating a situation which is going to cause a violent collision. It’s fewer than 200 pages; I don’t think you could sustain it for much more than 200 pages.  But it is a classic of the genre because it doesn’t seem to follow any of the rules. It was made into a very fine French film by Claude Chabrol called ‘La Ceremonie.’ ”—Alex McNab