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