Creative Writing: The Power of Limits

Once-we-accept-our-limitsHello to all you writers out there. This is Adair Heitmann writing to you about constraint.

I’ve just finished reading Biz Stone’s, Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind. Stone is the co-founder of Twitter. As a writer, you probably either love or hate the social media giant, but we’ll leave that conversation for another time.

Stone’s book encouraged me to examine how my own mind works and I’ve come away inspired. In his chapter, “A Short Lesson in Constraint,” Stone tells a few real-life stories to illustrate his point.  One is a story about his mother’s answer to his continuous query when he was a child, “What should I draw?” When she finally said, “Draw a dump truck,” limiting the options gave him a place to start.

Writers can take away a writing tip from this kind of thinking.  Instead of your character asking, “How was your day?”  Which is almost always answered with, “Fine.” Put restraints on the question, such as “How was your lunch with Steve?” This will yield a far more interesting answer.

One story tells about a Silicon Valley billionaire who invented the perfect microchip for mobile devices by accident. He gave his team no money, no time, and no resources. They came up with the technology that powers the chips that are in practically all cell phones.

Each story talks about the power of limitations. How many of you are writers who have full-time jobs outside the sphere of your personal writing? Welcome to my world. While my life is filled with what others may view as constrictions, I’ve learned to accept them. It’s exhilarating to be drafting this blog, sandwiched between work and picking up my son at cross country practice. The limits force me to think clearly about what I want to say, focus on that and that alone, then type fast. I’ll publish this blog later tonight after washing the dinner dishes.

Biz Stone says, “Embrace your constraints, whether they are creative, physical, economic, or self-imposed. They are provocative. They are challenging. They wake you up. They make you more creative. They make you better.”

Until next time, keep on writing.

Three Easy Ways to Get Started in Book Clubs

bookclubs_custom-1ec58e61bccbffba94a3c846786b5fc6af15cce1-s6-c30Hello writers! This is Adair Heitmann writing about reading, discussing what you’ve read, and the impact that can have on your writing.

Do you want to add spice to your life? Join a book club. Today’s book clubs range from one-time casual book chats to long-running serious literary encounters. Welcome in the new era!

Three easy ways to get started:
1. Sign up for library eNewsletters
Libraries have book clubs, and most have eNewsletters. Go to the library’s website and sign up for the eNewsletter for all the libraries within your driving range. Book clubs will be announced via the library’s eNewsletter.

2. Dive into social media
“Like” on Facebook and follow on Twitter the above said libraries. They’ll announce their books clubs on social media.

3. Start your own book club
“If you build it, they will come.”  If you can’t find a book club that works for you, start one.* Be sure to do it with joy. Maybe create a Beach Bum Book Club so you can deepen your tan while discussing the newest fiction. Or start an After Work Wine’d Down Club, the possibilities are endless.

Synergy is important. My favorites are the intergenerational book clubs. They are lively, fast-paced, and intense.  This passion for the written word then overflows into your own writing. You can observe what people like or don’t like about a book and apply that insider information to your own writing.

When your favorite books become movies, that ignites a whole new level of interest and intrigue. Did they choose the right actors? Was the scenery what you imagined?  You can gain even more fertilizer for your own crop of books by discussing and listening to what really matters to people when a book becomes a movie. Then apply this to your own writing.

Until next time, keep on writing.

* I’ll write more about this in later blogs.

Published in: on May 9, 2014 at 1:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Happy Birthday John Steinbeck

john_steinbeckHello, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you. Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Steinbeck would be 112 today. Steinbeck (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American writer widely known for the The Grapes of Wrath (1939), East of Eden (1952) and the novella Of Mice and Men (1937). As the author of twenty-seven books, including sixteen novels, six non-fiction books, and five collections of short stories, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

What do you think his secret is for writing works with such staying power?

A few hints may lie here . . .
quote

and here . . .
john steinbeck story quote

Until next time, keep on writing.

A local guru’s writing tips for 2014

A lot of us in this Connecticut town got our start as creative writers in one of Carol Dannhauser’s Writers’ Workshop of Fairfield groups. Carol is an award-winning magazine writer and TV producer, author of three books, a former big-city newspaper reporter, an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University, a dedicated foodieCarolD (that’s a persimmon gelato cone she’s eating in the photo on the right, incidentally) and a determined if fledgling fencer. She also is an indefatigable, effervescent writing coach of groups and individuals of all ages and levels of experience.

So when she appeared as guest facilitator at the Library’s first monthly writers’ salon of 2014, the turnout overwhelmed the capacity of the lovely writers’ room and the group had to move upstairs to a much larger space. Carol’s topic was “tips, tools and techniques for actually writing the pieces you need/want to write this year.” In her inimitable idiom, here are highlights of what Carol told us:

“Have a deadline.” Read on to learn why.

“Figure out your motivation.” Writing, Carol says, “is fun. And it’s hard. It’s fun and hard at the same time. What is it about this project of yours that will help you derive satisfaction? What makes you do it, on top of whatever else you do, when your kids are still sleeping, when you get up an hour before everybody else gets up, when it’s Wednesday night and everybody else is watching ‘Modern Family.’ Something has to be nudging you along to pick up the pen. The fact that maybe you should do it isn’t the right answer. I make my living as a writer of nonfiction. I dabble in fiction. . .[but] I am determined to finish a draft of a novel this year.” Why? “I want to see if I can do it. And it’s a great story. It’s a great story and I think I can do it, but maybe I can’t.” Of course, that thought process gets in the way of every writer, she says. So…

“Get rid of the judgment.” Carol admits she’s a terrible fencer. “But every single week I devote a certain amount of time to becoming a better fencer. I get my ass kicked, by children, including my own. I will leave and go, ‘I’m terrible.’ Then, in a couple of more days, I’ll try it again.” Many of us don’t approach writing that way. “There’s all this judgment that comes with writing,” most of it from yourself. “You write it and, ‘Oh, it’s terrible.’ It’s terrible now. Every single thing I write is terrible—until it’s not.” That’s why. . . .

“You have to have the faith that it will get better.” Writing takes practice. “If you do it long enough, sooner or later it will get better. Yes, you go on a wing and a prayer sometimes. Try really, really hard to tell your inner critic, ‘I know it sucks. Give me some time, and it will suck less,’ and less and less. And then maybe it won’t be so bad. Then maybe pretty good, then good, then maybe it’ll be great. But you can’t give up. How many people have half-finished projects? A third finished? That’s my big one. You just can’t give up.” Eventually, though. . .

“You need to be done.” Why? “Because if you wait for you to be done, you might not ever be done.” So refer back to her command about a deadline.  “I would suggest making a deal with yourself: ‘Self, I’m going to finish this piece of something by March first. Maybe it’s not going to be perfect. But it’s going to be finished. And then I’m going to do something with it by April first.’ If you are a perfectionist, you will never finish it.”

“Give your writing respect.” That means writing something every single day. It “needs to get the same little bit of respect as your other projects in life. It doesn’t have to be a whole production. But it has to be a commitment to writing in some way on a regular basis.” One way to do that is to keep a log of every time you write. “Not that you read about writing, or read someone’s blog. That’s all great. [But] you’re not writing.”

“Make your goal smaller.” Carol says, “Yeah, I want to write a novel. But my goal yesterday wasn’t to write a novel. My concrete goal was to figure out how time was going to elapse in this little novel of mine, and how to split it up.” Over the course of a two-day writers’ retreat, she did just that, as well as figure out how to amp up the conflict and reach a resolution in the last quarter of her story. Again, your goal “doesn’t have to be, ‘I’m going to write my whole memoir.’ Like Legos, you don’t have to build the whole thing in a day.”

“If you’re stuck, skip over that part.” As she says, “What do you do in traffic? Detour. You can sit there all day, and it’s not happening. Go around. Skip it. [If you want to], put some piece of crap on the page. The beauty is, you can go back and fix it. I think of poor Michelangelo when he was sculpting. ‘Oh my God! You wrecked the nose. You’re screwed.’ And I just cut and paste.” Once again. . .

“You have to stick with it.” Mixing her artistic metaphors a little, Carol says, “In creative writing, you have to understand that it’s going to be a piece of clay for a long time. Maybe you don’t get the nose right 15 times. You try it again. How many guitars did Picasso paint? Again and again and again. How many horses? Again and again and again. Till he got it right? He never got it right. And every one was a masterpiece. People will spend a million dollars on one of his sketches. So try, try, to let the judge go.”

Deal with procrastination. “The first thing I’d do was play Scrabble against my computer,” Carol confesses. “I would not begin writing until I had won. Sometimes 25 minutes would pass and I’d think, ‘Well, this is good. It’s words. It’s priming my brain. Like warming up at the track.’ No, it’s not. It’s playing Scrabble. I have quelled my Scrabble habit. Not like going cold turkey. Since January 1, now I play after writing 500 words.” If procrastination is your problem, Carol told us, Hillary Rettig’s website may help. It offers an online newsletter with tips and tools for overcoming procrastination. Carol took a two-hour writers’ workshop with Rettig at Hartford’s Mark Twain House (a very writer-friendly locale with a calendar of events worth considering) and says, “Go check her out. And if you ever contact her, tell her I said hello.”

“Get a partner.” Before we left the room, Carol asked us to introduce ourselves to a person we didn’t know and exchange email addresses.  “Tell them what you’re going to write, then check in later,” she advised. The focus should be on what you plan to do next. As for what you accomplished between check-ins, a simple, “Did it,” will suffice. “Because I have promised my partner that I will be writing, that’s what I do,” she said. “Or you can meet up. But the commitment is what’s important. It’s so helpful. Writing is so solitary. That commitment to somebody, it’s magical.”—Alex McNab

Poetry: A Gift that Keeps on Giving

Simple-GiftHello writers, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you during this holiday season. I’m writing about a little known American poet, Grace Noll Crowell, (October 31, 1877 – March 31, 1969). Her work walked into my life last month, when I attended a discussion group about the topic, “enough.” I read one of her passages and saved it to share with you here.

What’s interesting is that Crowell wrote her first poem at age 8, but her otherwise loving family laughed at it. Humiliated, she didn’t write again for decades. Crowell went on to have a  happy marriage and three children, but she fell gravely ill in 1906. While resigned to spending life as an invalid, she had no desire to be a burden to her family. She turned her emptiness into plenty, and was determined to become a writer. Crowell’s first poem, The Marshland, was written and published while she was recovering from her illness. She started to write as a way to inspire others not to give up hope. She became the  author of 36 books of inspirational verse and 5,000 poems. Her work appeared in hundreds of magazines and newspapers. She wrote books of poetry, stories for children, and poem and prose devotions.

Crowell was so popular it was necessary for her husband, who was a bank teller by day and a writer himself at night,  to quit his job to manage her writing career. Thousands of pieces of correspondence from grateful readers needed to be answered and hundreds of visitors from all parts of the United States and Europe who visited her at her Dallas home needed to be received. She died at age 91.

As 2013 comes to a close and we anticipate the new, I’ll share Crowell’s words with you.

I Have Found Such Joy
I have found such joy in simple things:
A plain, clean room, a nut-brown loaf of bread
A cup of milk, a kettle as it sings,
The shelter of a roof above my head,
And in a leaf-laced square along the floor,
Where yellow sunlight glimmers through a door.

I have found such joy in things that fill
My quiet days: a curtain’s blowing grace,
A potted plant upon my window sill,
A rose, fresh-cut and placed within a vase;
A table cleared, a lamp beside a chair,
And books I long have loved beside me there.

Oh, I have found such joys I wish I might
Tell everyone who goes seeking far
For some elusive, feverish delight,
That very close to home the great joys are:
The elemental things — old as the race,
Yet never, through the ages, commonplace.
-Grace Noll Crowell

Until next time, keep on writing.

Laura Lippman’s four little words

You’ve read them here before.

They are my favorite four words of writing advice.

They also haunt me.

“Finish the damn book.”

Go to the website of author Laura Lippman. lauralippman The words are right there in bold type, in the “Self Help” and “Son of Self Help: The Sequel” areas, under the “Letters” menu heading. Lippman (right) is the Baltimore-based, Edgar Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling crime novelist who writes a series about private eye Tess Monaghan as well as acclaimed stand-alone titles including, most recently, And When She Was Good. On February 14, 2014, After I’m Gone, another stand-alone, will be published by William Morrow. aftergoneUS-199x300It is Lippman’s 20th book, the first of which was published in 1997.

I’ve been trying to meet Lippman’s charge for a long time.

At this point, I have written a long first draft of what I call a literary tough-guy novel. I have read most of the chapters in critique workshops over the years, and I’ve revised much of what I’ve written. That, however, isn’t the same as reimagining and rewriting the parts that need it. I still wrestle with the plot and the characters’ motivations. Also, I need to strengthen existing scenes and add missing ones in the domestic subplot, which I find hard to do. (Who would have guessed? I’m a guy, after all.) And at one point or another, I’ve fallen victim to almost every one of the following 10 reasons I’ve come up with for why aspiring fiction writers don’t finish the damn book.

1. Laziness;

2. Fear—of the book being too lousy; too self-revealing; too offensive to family, friends or an interest group; etc.;

3. Paralysis by analysis because the novice novelist studies too many craft books and feels his/her story misses too many beats of the prescribed story-structure formula;

4. Failure of imagination in coming up with an ending that meets the ideal, that it be both surprising and inevitable;

5. Losing one’s way in the story;

6. Perfectionism;

7. Inability to stop doing research;

8. Self-inflicted internet interruptions;

9. Lack of compelling need or desire to finish;

10. “Not enough time.”

At this point, while I can see a path toward the finish line, I seem to lack the confidence that I can invent what it will take to get there.

There seemed to be one thing left to do to try to overcome the dilemma: Reach out to Laura Lippman for her insight behind those four words.

When an initial email to Lippman came back as undeliverable, I contacted Joe Meyers, the Ellery Queen Award-winning book critique at the Connecticut Post, who had just seen Lippman at the Bouchercon mystery writing conference in Albany, N.Y., where the above photo of the author was shot. He suggested I contact Sharyn Rosenblum, the ace publicist at HarperCollins, of which William Morrow, Lippman’s publisher, is an imprint. Rosenblum forwarded my general query to Lippman, which I planned to follow up with a more detailed message. Before I could do that, Lippman wrote me back with answers that anticipated everything I planned ask her. Here is what she said:

“People don’t finish for a lot of reasons. Some don’t finish because a book is like a marriage or a new relationship. There’s a lot of giddy excitement in the early going, but then it requires work and patience and good habits and showing up—if not every day, pretty regularly. You can’t neglect it. Some people just don’t know what they’re getting into. It’s not hard, relative to a lot of jobs, but it’s harder than it looks.

“People also don’t finish because of fear. What if it’s not good? What if I don’t get published? What if I get published and people say it’s not good. A lot of perfectionism—the tendency to rework the same pages over and over—is a way of masking those fears. There’s a line in the musical ‘Company,’ about marriage/relationships: ‘Don’t be afraid that it won’t be perfect. Be afraid that it won’t be.’

“Every external dream we have about publishing has the nutritional value of cotton candy. I’ve been lucky enough to see some big dreams come true—prizes, making The New York Times list, having one of my books adapted for film. And that’s nice and that’s lovely and I tried to enjoy those moments, but they were moments and they didn’t really feed me.

“The work is what feeds us. So when you’re down in the dumps and trying to finish, imagining money or red carpets or even the Nobel Prize ceremony isn’t going to take you there. Because none of those things can nourish you.

“You try to make the book better. The book tries to make you better. Together, you struggle toward the finish line. Sometimes, the book will be urging you on, pacing itself. Sometimes it will be the other way around. The book wants to quit and you have to do whatever you can to keep it going. There are lots and lots of tricks. Have a character write you a letter. If you know the end of the book, start writing it and work backward, see if you can make it connect to what’s already written. Rewrite what you have until your characters do what you need them to do. (I had to rewrite a book three times or so before I could get the characters to go to Delaware for the climax.)

“The reward for finishing is finishing.”

Indeed.

Those six words are my new second-favorite piece of writing advice.

My thanks to Laura Lippman.—Alex McNab  

Published in: on November 17, 2013 at 10:55 pm  Comments (2)  
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Inspiration for Writers

light bulbs inspirationGood morning Fairfield writers! This is Adair Heitmann writing to you on this sunny and warm October morn. In the real life of work, family responsibilities, and community volunteering, not to mention exercising, seeing friends, and possibly pursuing a hobby, writing time for many of us is at a premium. That’s why I like to keep short quotes by other authors around me. These inspiring tidbits help me through my creative day. Today’s encouraging words follow:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov

Until next time, keep on writing!

Published in: on October 2, 2013 at 1:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Remembering Elmore Leonard, Part 2

The envelope, bearing a Royal Oak, Michigan postmark dated April 17, 1985, had the return address, in Birmingham, Michigan 48009, printed sideways along the left edge of its front. A careful slit across the top spread open to reveal a single sheet of unlined yellow papELNwswker folded into thirds. Below the date, the pica-sized typed text—four paragraphs in all, filling up the entire page—began with “Dear Alex, [new line] GUNSIGHTS is a Western.” At the bottom of the page: “Take care,” beneath which, in black ink, sat the legible signature. “Elmore Leonard,” its only flourish a large loop at the top of the capital “L.” I’m looking at the envelope and letter as I write this a few weeks after Elmore Leonard died on August 20 at age 87 after suffering a stroke while at his desk working on his next novel, Blue Dreams.

In celebration of a great American writer, this second part of an extended post of the Fairfield Writer’s Blog focuses on Elmore Leonard’s life as a working writer. Scroll down to read Part 1, on how he wrote.

I had written to Leonard care of his publisher at the time, Arbor House, on March 8 of 1985, after finishing his 23rd novel, Glitz. “It is the 11th one of your novels that I’ve read in the past two years, and I enjoyed it as much as any of the others,” I wrote. My letter asked him about his previous novels that I had not read. I wondered which were Westerns and which were contemporary crime dramas, and which might be coming back into print. The news was good, he said: “By the end of the year everything of mine that’s been published will be in print again.”

All these years later, there is at least one missing piece to my almost-complete Leonard collection, the short story “The Treasure of Mungo’s Landing.” It is contained in the paperback version of The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard. First published in True Adventures magazine in June 1958, it surfaced from pulp limbo only after the publication of the hardcover edition of TCWS , the version I have.

Here, now, in the inimitable voice of the author himself and others, an anecdotal portrait of the evolution of a writer’s career:

Early days. Leonard was born in New Orleans and spent his early childhood in southern and southwestern states such as Tennessee and Oklahoma—while his father, who worked for General Motors, scouted locations for new car dealerships—before the family eventually settled in Detroit when Elmore was 10. Leonard revisited this period in The Hot Kid, Comfort to the Enemy and Up in Honey’s Room.

“I knew I wanted to tell stories. In grade school, I used to tell movies. I’d get with friends and tell ‘Captain Blood’ and anything Errol Flynn was in.”—Rolling Stone, 1985

“Then I read a serial version of All Quiet on the Western Front in the Detroit Times. I must have loved it because I wrote a World War I play that was put on in our fifth-grade classroom, using the desks as No Man’s Land.”—People magazine, 1984

“I was in high school and needed a nickname.”—The New York Times, 2013 [For the rest of his life, his friends called him “Dutch,” after 1930s major-league knuckleball pitcher Emil “Dutch” Leonard of the Washington Senators and other teams.]

“I joined the Navy in ’43 and ended up as a storekeeper’s mate with a SeaBee unit in New Guinea and the Admiralty Islands. We maintained airstrips for Aussie and U.S. Navy fighters. The closest I came to action was when some Jap[anese] airplanes dropped eight-pound antipersonnel bombs near us. The only other adventure was when I was stateside [in Seattle at age 19] and got a tattoo. It says ‘Dutch’ on my left shoulder, in script, the Palmer method. Cost a dollar. Red and blue ink, but the red has faded.—People magazine, 1984 & Xavier Review, 1987

“When I was at the University of Detroit [after the war on the GI Bill, I] entered a short story in a contest sponsored by the Manuscribblers, a school creative writing club. Didn’t win. Entered again when I was a senior (didn’t write a thing in between) and placed second or third. I was graduated in ’50. In ’51, I began in earnest to write and sell.”— The Armchair Detective 1983

Western years. “I chose the genre because there were 25 magazines you could aim at selling to.”— Crime Fiction Academy Master Class 2012

Also, “I chose Westerns because I liked Western movies. From the time I was a kid I liked them. Movies like “The Plainsman” with Gary Cooper in 1936 up through “My Darling Clementine” and “Red River” in the late forties.”— Introduction, The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, 2004

“I wrote my first Western short story without having done any research at all, sent it directly to pulp magazines, and it got rejected.” So, in addition to subscribing to Arizona Highways magazine, he read such books as “On the Border with Crook, The Truth About Geronimo and The Look of the Old West [by Foster Harris], which describes everything about cowboys—everything you always wanted to know about saddles and horses and guns, even the kind of coffee they drank. I still, every once in a while, look at The Look of the West.”—Film Comment, 1998

“Trail of the Apache,” a 35-page, seven-chapter “novelette,” was the first story he had published, in Argosy in December 1951. He was paid $1,000. The better pulp magazines paid two cents a word. “The story [‘3:10 to Yuma,’ twice made into movies] was in Dime Western, 4,500 words. I got ninety dollars for it. The editor insisted I rewrite one of the scenes and do two revisions on my descriptions of the train. He said, ‘You can do it better. You’re not using all your senses. It’s not just a walk by the locomotive. What’s the train doing? How does it smell? Is there steam?’ He made me work for my ninety bucks, which was good.”—Film Comment, 1998

“I got only $5,000 for the movie, with Glenn Ford, but in the fifties that was OK.”—The Guardian, 1993

“I was trying to sell something to The Saturday Evening Post because they paid very well. . .more than the pulp magazines. I never really caught on with them. They told me my characters were ‘too relentless’ and that they had ‘no redeeming moments.’ Well, that certainly was true. I really couldn’t argue with them about that. I finally sold one story to them in 1956, I think. [‘Moment of Vengeance,’ April 21, 1956.] It must have been more redeeming than my other stories.”— thedailybeast.com, 2012

Because he was working a fulltime job as an advertising copywriter at Campbell-Ewald in Detroit, “I realized I was going to have to get up at five in the morning if I wanted to write fiction. It took a while, the alarm would go off and I’d roll over. Finally I started to get up and go into the living room and sit at the coffee table with a yellow pad and try to write two pages. I made a rule that I had to get something down on paper before I could put the water on for the coffee. Know where you’re going and then put the water on. That seemed to work because I did it for most of the fifties.”—Introduction, The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, 2004

“Leonard wrote advertising copy for Chevrolet trucks. Then, too, he would go out to do research, use his ear. He would ask: what’s the best thing about this truck? One driver replied: ‘You don’t wear that sonofabitch out, you just get tired of looking at it and buy a new one.’ Leonard proposed the line for an ad campaign; Chevrolet was not prepared for such authenticity.”—Newsweek cover story, April 22, 1985

He also worked on his fiction at the office: “I’d put my arm in the drawer and have the tablet in there and I’d just start writing and if somebody came in I’d stop writing and close the drawer.”—Introduction, The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, 2004

“Never, in thirty short stories and eight novels, did I stage a fast-draw shootout in the street, the way practically every Western movie ends. Later I developed ways of having the violence happen more unexpectedly and low-key. ‘And he shot him.’ ”—Film Comment, 1998

Drought. Leonard wrote Hombre, his fifth Western novel, in late 1959 and sold it in January 1961 for $1,250. Hombre was later selected as one of the 25 best Western novels ever written. The print market for Westerns was drying up as TV became saturated with them. In 1960, after 10 years on the job, he took his $11,500 in profit sharing from Campbell-Ewald with the intention of writing fiction fulltime. Instead, the family bought a house. He sold a story, “Only the Good Ones,” about a character named Bob Valdez to the Western Writers of America anthology Western Roundup in 1961. Then he stopped writing fiction for five years. Instead, he freelanced, including writing education films for Encyclopedia Britannica on such topics as the French and Indian Wars, Julius Caesar and pioneer settlers along the Mississippi. One script was called “Boy of Spain. “I took my family to Spain for that one, my one attempt at real research. It was the only one they rejected.”—Rolling Stone, 1985

Leonard kept one freelance advertising job, for Hurst shifters. “He says that if you had a hot rod in Detroit in 1963, you had to have a Hurst shifter or you were nowhere. Which is where Leonard was: . . .‘The years 1961 to 1966 were the low point, definitely. . . .I had probably resigned myself to writing again sometime, but never full time.’ ”—Esquire, 1987

“Finally Hombre did sell [to Hollywood]—for only ten thousand bucks—but that got me writing fiction again, no more freelance of any kind.”— Film Comment, 1998

Six years after writing “Only the Good Ones,” in seven weeks he expanded it into the novel Valdez is Coming, published in 1970, with the movie version starring Burt Lancaster coming in 1971. “Valdez is Coming is my favorite Western of the ones I wrote. Now when I read it, I can see my style beginning to change. A little more dialogue. The characters are a little more human. I’m loosening up a little bit. That’s what I finally learned.”—to Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” 1995

“It’s pretty much a perfect book, there’s not a word out of place. I re-read [Valdez is Coming] often just to get inspiration and to see how it’s done, and how it should be done.”—George Pelecanos, The Wall Street Journal, 2013

Turning to crime. “My first novel with a contemporary setting, The Big Bounce [published in 1968], was rejected by publishers and film producers eighty-four times in all, editors calling the book a ‘downer,’ void of sympathetic characters—the same ones I’m writing about thirty years later.”—“Introduction,” The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, Owl Books edition, 2000

The Moonshine War (1969) [started as] a nine-and-a-half page outline called ‘The Broke-Leg War.’ . . .Mr. Majestyk (1974). . .became a novel after the movie. . . .I had part of another book I had written for a producer who was looking for a migrant worker story. . .eighty or ninety pages, called Picket Line. . . .I hung it up for parts and used most of it in the novelization of Mr. Majestyk.”—Film Comment, 1998

“. . .197[4]. . .I started doing crime with Fifty-Two Pickup.”—Writer’s Digest, 1997

In 1984, LaBrava won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel, beating out, among others, John LeCarre’s The Little Drummer Girl.  “Glitz, published in 1985, was his 23rd novel and the breakthrough that flew to the top of the best-seller fiction lists and put him on the cover of Newsweek (above).”—Front-page obituary, The New York Times, 2013

Glitz “ ‘began when [movie producer] Walter Mirisch asked me if I wanted to do a sequel to “In the Heat of the Night.” ’ ” [That led to lots of research about the Philadelphia mob’s penetration of Atlantic City, including] “reports of a Pennsylvania crime commission  which contained long runs of wiretapped dialogue with various hoodlums.”—New York Daily News Magazine, 1985

“You read [the wiretaps], and it’s just one cliché after another. And since you’ve got to make these guys individuals in a novel, you can’t go by that. I think that good dialogue is made up to sound realistic, but it isn’t that real at all. And you can’t go on forever with it. You’ve got things said. There’s a topic sentence somewhere, and you’ve got to put that down.”—The Barnes & Noble Review, 2009

“[Inmates] write to me and want to know if I’ve done time. I met a guy at Telluride who had done a few years in Colorado for selling marijuana. He said, ‘God, you’ve got it right down, the way these inmates talk.’ He said, ‘In my trial, I maintained that the marijuana was for my own use.’ And I said, ‘Well, how much did you have?’ and he said, ‘400 pounds.’ ”—VICE Magazine, 2009

“. . .I just feel more secure in a situation [in a book] where I know a gun can go off at any time if things get boring.”—The New York Times Magazine, 1984

Influences. “I was impressed by John O’Hara’s dialogue, and I would learn from and imitate [it]. I think that’s the best way to learn: just to read an imitate for a while, until you finally get your own voice.—The Onion A.V. Club, 2002

“. . . [I]n John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday. . .a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ‘I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . .figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that.’ ”—Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, No. 2, 2001

“I’ve always liked Hemingway. I can still read Hemingway’s short stories and enjoy them. . . .In the fifties. . .I was reading For Whom the Bell Tolls, reading it every day before I started to write—because I thought of the story as sort of a Western; they’re in the mountains with horses and guns. But once I realized he didn’t have a sense of humor, or at least show it in his books, then I had to find someone else.”— F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference Award, youtube.com interview from Montgomery College (Md.), 2008

“There was a writer by the name of Richard Bissell. . .He wrote books set on the Mississippi River, where he was a pilot, he was a towboat pilot. . .He had such a natural style. There was humor on his towboats, guys talking. But it was never forced and he wasn’t trying to be funny. . . .I thought, that’s the way to do it.”— F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference Award, youtube.com interview from Montgomery College (Md.), 2008

“. . . The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972). . .I think it’s the best crime book ever written.”—VICE Magazine, 2009

“What I learned from George Higgins was to relax, not be so rigid in trying to make the prose sound like writing, to be more aware of the rhythms of coarse speech and the use of obscenities.”—“Introduction,” The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, Owl Books edition, 2000

“George Higgins [also] taught me that it was okay to jump into the middle of a scene and let the reader catch up.”—GQ, 1984

“I had an editor who’d. . .say, ‘Well, where are the [characters]? I don’t even know where they are and they’re talking.’ I said, ‘Well, take it easy, you know it’ll be revealed. Be patient.’ ”—Crimeculture Q&A with Charles Rzepka, 2010

“Higgins’ agent at the time of Eddie Coyle read the manuscript, told him it was unsalable and dropped him. Let this be an inspiration to beginning writers discouraged by one rejection after another. If you believe you know what you’re doing, you have to give publishers time to catch up and catch on.”—“Introduction,” The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, Owl Books edition, 2000

A road not taken. At one point, when his crime books were not selling enough, Leonard considered writing romance novels. “I bought some. . . .I thought, Why don’t I just write one of these to make some money? But I could’nt even read the first five pages. I thought, How can I write what I can’t read?”—Rolling Stone, 1985

Two turning points. “I joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1974, and on January 21, 1977, at 9 in the morning, I had my last drink.”—The New York Times Magazine, 1984

“[It’s] an amazing thing, after thirty-two years, to know I can get better. . . .I have so much more confidence in my work. . . .I look forward to working in the morning, something I didn’t used to do. . . .I sit and look out the window when I’m writing away, I look out, and I don’t believe it. I’m sitting here all by myself, doing this story, getting all excited about it and getting paid for it. . . .”—The Courage to Change, 1987

“At the preliminary examination in Recorder’s Court, the defense counsel cross-examined the doorman of the pad. . . .‘Was anyone else present in the room?’ ‘Yeah, that one sitting over there.’ The defense attorney looked around. ‘You’re indicating the gentleman in the first row with the beard and the polka dot necktie?’ ‘That’s the one,’ the doorman said. He was pointing at me.”—“Squad 7: Impressions of Murder,” Detroit News Sunday Magazine, November 12, 1978

“I spent most of three months sitting around squad rooms in Detroit listening to cops.”—Newsweek, 1985

“We’re kind of prejudiced around here about Dutch’s article and book. He got on paper the way we talk and act every day,”—Detroit felony homicide detective Dixie Davies in Gregg Sutter’s article “Dutch,” Monthly Detroit, 1980

“[‘Squad 7: Impressions of Murder’] was the first and only piece of journalism I’ve ever done.”—NPR’s “Fresh Air,”1995

Getting it right. Gregg Sutter’s piece on Leonard for Monthly Detroit was published in October. “In January of 1981, I received a phone call from Dutch. . . He asked me if I wanted to do some research for him on his new book. I said sure. Split Images was a good book to get started on [as Leonard’s full-time researcher and, later, website-master as well]. . . . At our first meeting, Dutch said: “Let’s take the Detroit cop down to Palm Beach.”—Gregg Sutter in The Armchair Detective, Winter 1986 (first of two part-article)

“Sutter’s research fills a box for each book. What cops do each day, books on prison culture and slang. The boxes are kept in the basement. Inside, there’s a regular schoolboy’s notebook, 80 pages. It’s the ‘skinny’ for each book, or [Leonard’s] essential notes. These are filled with possible character names, addresses of banks that get robbed, snippets of dialogue, and facts like the population of Miami and the number of autopsies performed each year in Detroit.”—The Washington Post, 2008

“What Dutch is looking for in research is a series of ‘triggers’ that inspire scenes or characters. . . .My job was to go after the bigger picture, in search of hidden triggers. Dutch would then shop the material very discriminately for a single fact, a gesture, or a backdrop; once he had it he’d be off and running.”—Gregg Sutter in The Armchair Detective, 1986

Adventures & Misadventures in Hollywood. “I love writing books. I wrote movies for money.”—Film Comment, 1998

“Joe Kidd” (1973) was the only screenplay Leonard wrote, that got made into a movie, that was not also a novel. “[Clint] Eastwood [the film’s star] is the easiest guy in the world to get along with. I don’t recall him changing that much. . . .The only time I can recall him saying anything was for the scene where Joe Kidd is confronted by an armed faction, near the end of the second act. Eastwood said, ‘Shouldn’t I have my gun out when I say that?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think you need to have your gun out.’ Eastwood said, ‘But my character has not been presented as a gunfighter.’ He turned to [director John] Sturges, ‘Don’t you think I need my gun out?’ Sturgis said, ‘No. . . .” Eastwood said, ‘Why not?’ Sturgis said, ‘Because the audience knows who you are—they’ve seen all your pictures.’ But when the picture was made, Eastwood did have his gun out.”—Film Comment, 1998

The last property bought by Alfred Hitchcock was [Leonard’s 1977 novel] Unknown Man No. 89—American Film, 1984

Leonard wrote the screenplay for “Stick,” starring and directed by Burt Reynolds (1983), from his novel of the same name. “In Leonard’s library hangs the movie poster. . . .The words on the poster say, THE ONLY THING HE COULDN’T DO IS STICK TO THE RULES. Leonard crossed out rules and inserted a new word: script.”—Rolling Stone, 1985

Dustin Hoffman expressed interest in playing the lead role in Leonard’s screenplay of his 1983 novel LaBrava, to be directed by Martin Scorcese. “By the summer of 1984, Leonard was publicly describing the rewriting experience as ‘laborious,’ and when Hoffman told Leonard, ‘You’ll be paid retroactively,’ Leonard’s agent told the writer, ‘They’ll never make this picture.’. . . .By 1986, Hoffman was gone.”—vulture.com, 2013

[A decade later, Leonard was]  “in Australia, on a book tour supporting Get Shorty. . . .[The] phone in the hotel room rings. It’s Dustin Hoffman. He’s really ticked off. He says the pompous, diminutive character [Martin Weir, later played in the movie by Danny DeVito] for which the book is named is so obviously a dead ringer for him that ‘everybody’s going to know this is me.’ Leonard said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, Dustin. There are a lot of short actors in Hollywood.’ ”—Washington Post, 2013

Whence the name of the protagonist in both Get Shorty and Be Cool? “[Leonard] had a Miami friend who works for a private investigator [named Bill Marshall], a Brooklyn Puerto Rican named Chili Palmer.”—New York Daily News Magazine, 1985

“When I first heard that [John] Travolta was going to play Chili, I said, ‘Are you kidding? Is that the guy in those talking baby movies?’ . . .Then I saw ‘Pulp Fiction’ and said, ‘Oh, my God, he’s the guy.’ . . .[A]nd he was great. He said the lines right. He had the eyes right.”—thedailybeast.com, 2012

“[I]n early June 1996, [Quentin Tarantino] called again. He said, ‘I’ve been afraid to call you for the last year.’ I said, ‘Why? Because you’ve changed the title and you’re starring a black woman in the lead?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Do what you want. You’re the filmmaker, you’re going to do what you want anyway.’ . . .I trusted Quentin and felt certain the film would work.”—Film Comment, 1998 about the movie “Jackie Brown,” a Leonard favorite, starring Pam Grier from the novel Rum Punch

“They made me an executive producer on the [TV] show [“Justified”], and executive producers don’t really do anything. I thought, ‘How can I sit here and collect money and not do anything?’ So I wrote a book, Raylan [2012]. I didn’t want to interfere with the writers. I gave it to them and told them to take what they wanted.”— thedailybeast.com, 2012

Role model. “To say that Mr. Leonard lacks pretension does not quite get it. He is scary normal, friendly in an absent way.”—The New York Times, 2005

“He was the guy that a lot of us in my generation wanted to be. We wanted to be as good as him and, beyond the content itself, we wanted to have his career. I mean, to write good books that were popular and to have his longevity, to be in the game as long as he was and to be as good as he was. . . .Sometimes you meet your idol and you’re disappointed, but I wasn’t disappointed at all. He was a gentleman and very gracious to a young writer, me.”—George Pelecanos in The Wall Street Journal, 2013

“Just before going onstage [at the 2010 Tucson Festival of Books] we thumbed through a program listing all the esteemed authors, of which he was easily the best known and, he told me, the one who had won no prestigious fellowships and few awards. ‘Most of these writers don’t write for a living,’ he said. ‘They write for tenure. Or for The New York Times. Or to get invited to conferences like this. When you write to make the rent or send your kids to school, you learn how to write without a lot of nonsense.’ When he repeated something like that onstage, the room rocked with laughter and applause. In his 80s, Elmore had become the kind of star who could tweak his hosts and be loved for it.”— Scott Simon on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday,” 2013

“We would go to libraries and bookstores and I would be lucky enough to interview him, and sometimes he’d start off slow, telling stories about his stories, and then he’d start getting laughs, and then he was the hot kid all over again.”—Mike Lupica in the New York Daily News, 2013

A few more thoughts on writing. “My handwriting goes up, which I’m happy to hear is a good thing. Hemingway’s went down something awful, like a waterfall.”—“How I Write” in GQ, 2000, with a black-and-white photo of him holding up two handwritten manuscript pages

The fictional precursor to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing are his character Frank Ryan’s “ten rules for success and happiness” in the novel originally published in paperback under the title Ryan’s Rules. Frank is a used-car salesman at Red Bowers Chevrolet in Detroit. He convinces Ernest “Stick” Stickley Jr.—a car thief—to become his partner in armed robbery. Examples: “2. Never say more than is necessary. . . .4. Dress well. Never look suspicious or like a bum. . . . .10. Never associate with people known to be in crime.”—Swag, 1976

“There are a couple [of books] where I went with the wrong main character. In Pronto, I went with the character [Harry Arno] who, when I was writing it, was my age, 67. When he got about 100 pages in. . .I lost interest in him, because he was getting hard to get along with. . . .I didn’t care that much for the guy anymore. I had to bring another character on, who wasn’t introduced until page 40, this guy Raylan Givens, the federal marshal in Kentucky. I could write a book about him any time. I made him a lot more important and opened the next book, Riding the Rap, with Raylan. So I gave him his due.”—The Onion A.V. Club, 2002

“You’ve got to give your characters attitudes, or else. . .they’re just sitting there.”— Detroit Free Press, 1982

“A New Yorker editor used to ask me for stories, and I’d say, ‘I don’t do your kind of stories.’ My stories have endings.”—thenewyorker.com, 2013. [The magazine did publish a Leonard story, “Riding the Rap,” on June 27, 1994; it was the first chapter of the forthcoming novel of the same name.]

“I believe it takes at least ten years for a writer to reach the point that he knows what he’s doing.”—VICE Magazine, 2009

“Write every day. Write all the time. . . .You’ve got to write. That’s it.”— F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference Award, youtube.com interview from Montgomery College (Md.), 2008

Endings. “My favorite ending was in Get Shorty. It’s a [Chili Palmer] line, that character is trying to rewrite the screenplay. And he’s gotten to the end of it, and the last line is, ‘F—-n’ endings, man, they weren’t as easy as they looked.’ ”—Joint interview with Donald E. Westlake in On Writing (a publication of the Writer’s Guild of America East), 2007

The future. The Bounty Hunters, from 1953, was Elmore Leonard’s first novel. It told the story of good guy Dave Flynn, a contract scout for the U.S. Calvary, trying to beat Curt Lazair, an outlaw bounty hunter hoping to earn 500 pesos for a scalp, to the renegade Mibres Apache Soldado and bring him in.

In its July/August 2012 issue, The Atlantic published “Ice Man.” It is an early version of an early chapter of Blue Dreams, Its protagonist is Victor, a Mimbreno Apache bullrider who has just won first place, $4,000 and a new saddle at the All-Indian National Rodeo in Palm Springs. His antagonist is Darryl Harris, a federal agent in Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At the time of his death, Leonard had made the decision to bring his good guy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (hero of Pronto, Riding the Rap and the hit TV series “Justified”) into the story. A few weeks later, Elmore Leonard’s son Peter, a crime novelist himself, told the BBC that he had spoken with family members and researcher Gregg Sutter about his finishing the book.

So at the end, had Elmore Leonard’s storytelling come full circle? We’ll know only if and when the unfinished Blue Dreams is published.—Alex McNab

 

 

 

Published in: on September 16, 2013 at 7:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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

Stephen King: We Lie for a Living

stephen_king_david_williamson_vip_reception_collageHello writers, this is Adair Heitmann writing about meeting Stephen King on July 18, 2013. How does it feel to meet an author worth over $400 million? Pretty damn good. How did it feel, even though I’m not a voracious King fan? Pretty damn good. Thank goodness I’ve liked some of his movies. I attempted to hold my own among his thousands of fans.

I met King at a VIP reception at the Mark Twain House and Museum, in Hartford. His devotees were then bused to the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts for a sold-out author interview. The Twain House was a fundraiser, with all proceeds benefiting the continuing educational and preservation activities of The Mark Twain House. My friend, David Williamson, owner of Betts Books, LLC, got VIP tickets.  He was kind to include me in his family for the night.

Oh, it’s good to know a book-rock star. Not King, Williamson. David was besieged with Stephen King groupies at the VIP reception. While King was protected by his body guard and posed for pictures, the rest of us enjoyed an open bar and ate gourmet finger foods. It was the fans, however, of David’s, who flocked and buzzed around him. For you King lovers, David is the model for the character “Father Callahan” in King’s The Dark Tower series.

King, as you know, is an American author of contemporary horror, suspense, science fiction and fantasy. His books have sold more than 350 million copies and have been adapted into a number of feature films, television movies and comic books. King has published 50 novels, and five non-fiction books. He has written nearly two hundred short stories, most of which have been collected in nine collections of short fiction. He wears his fame well. King was authentic and surprisingly funny.

I’ve been to a lot of author talks, yet this was the first time I’ve witnessed an author receive a standing O just by walking on stage. The audience roared to their feet, clapping and whooping, before King even sat down. Interviewed, at the Bushnell, by WNPR radio personality Colin McEnroe. King said, “All fiction writers are liars, We lie for a living.” King went on to encourage writers to “. . . find a sweet spot in what you are doing. When you get it right, no matter what it is you are doing, you get the buzz, you know you are in the sweet spot.”

King praised Charles Dickens as one of the best published authors to provoke emotions in his readers.  King commented that he, himself, was a sensitive and imaginative boy. Now when he starts writing a book, he “starts with an image.” Once he has the image, the story flows from there.

When an audience member asked King what his favorite book-adapted-into-a-movie was, he answered, “Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Misery. In that order.” Gasping, I leaned over to David, and whispered, “That’s my list too!” In an instant I added my name to the Stephen King fan club.

McEnroe and King discussed many topics. The one that tattooed itself in my brain, was hearing that 36 years after first publishing it, King is writing the sequel to The Shining. As a writer myself, I think that is worth a standing O.