Friday, August 9, 2013

Before We Get to the Good Stuff (or: Better Sex, Part 3)

Earlier (okay, much earlier) I talked about writing as a two-stage process--What to Write, and How to Write It--and whined about my personal struggles with story structure. Then I claimed that the second part comes easier for me, which, by extension, implies I think my prose is hot stuff.

Except, not so much.

In fact, I've spent the last several months (beginning, I'm pretty sure, the day after I said I think I'm an okay writer) wondering how my craft will ever rise to the level of my literary heroes. I'm currently drafting my next thriller, and while I adore the characters and story, some days the words splattered onto the page are mule excrement.

Moments of doubt? Yep. And the Grand Canyon is a nice little ditch.

The result: My usually measured-but-steady pace has slowed to what could be generously termed 'glacial'. I start a scene bursting with action, conflict, and--wonder of wonders--critical plot points. But then, like sand in the gears, doubts sift into my writing. My fingers slow. My mind drifts. My eye catches a clunky phrase and won't let go. It's not so much writer's block as writer's ooze.

So I devour articles that promise to unleash my creativity. Join groups that track my daily word count. And if (when) my internal editor whispers that my prose sucks, I bash her over the head with a coffee cup and keep writing, writing, writing.

But when I'm not writing, I think.

I think about the story, sure. About how my characters will react when I heave them off the next cliff. About clarifying murky plot points. About boiling down the story to essentials, then seasoning the soup with rich detail.

Mostly I've spent the last few months thinking about what kind of writer I want to be. Should I try to crank out 'online content' every two months, or toil away on a deep-bellied tome that takes a lifetime to perfect? Maybe there's a place I should aim for, somewhere in the infinite, always-shifting middle.

That's right. I'm trying to decide whether I want to be McDonald's, Mahogany Steakhouse, or heaven help me, The Olive Garden.

I mean, there are ten thousand writers out there, and probably many hundreds of types of writers. And while I can learn something from--and I mean this sincerely--every single author on the planet, there are a scant few who exemplify the artist/technician/professional I want to be someday.

But there are a few. Robert Crais, Don Winslow, Elmore Leonard (the grand master), and a brilliant new author named Steve Ulfelder. Then there's Dennis Lehane who, in my opinion, is the best noir writer of my generation.

And here's what Dennis Lehane says about self-doubt: 

"Catch me on a good day, I think half of my books aren’t too bad. Catch me on a bad day, I think I’ve never written a good line."


After subjecting himself to the unsparing critique of fellow writers in college, Dennis Lehane began his career cranking out a book a year writing traditional--if deeper than average--crime novels. After achieving some success, he took five years to write The Given Day, a seven-hundred-page literary treatise on civil unrest and the dawn of the American Labor movement that confused his fans and confounded his critics.

The Edgar-winning sequel, Live By Night, took him four months to write.

Lehane has taught creative writing, composed episodes for a couple of television series, and written short stories. I think there's a stage production in there, too. And a movie or four. Meanwhile, he's an active participant in the writing community, a trustee of his local library, and a fierce advocate for literacy.

This isn't a guy who serves up McNuggets, cashes the check, and retreats to his private island.

Maybe Live By Night came easy, but it also came eighteen years into his career. And in those eighteen years, I doubt there was a single moment he sat at the keyboard and tried to generate 'content'. Though I haven't met Dennis Lehane (yet), based on interviews--and the breathtaking precision of his prose--I'd wager he's sweated over every word. That he's paused. Cursed. Backspaced. Typed-and-retyped a sentence forty different ways until it felt right.

I'd guess he sees himself as inhabiting the trenches, fighting to make every word his best and pushing other writers to produce their best. In this interview, he said:

"It's good not only to realise that you can't please all of the people all of the time, but that you don't want to. There's a certain type of reader that you don't ever want to write for. And that really helps."

I'm a long way from being the writer I want to become. But in the last few weeks, I've settled into a quiet acceptance that the way I want to tell stories requires a deep commitment to word choice, to precision and cadence. I've accepted that my chosen course means any success will be at once ephemeral, singular, and hard-fought.

Click on the reviews for Lehane's best book, and you'll find one-star reviews. Check the sales for McNuggets, and you'll see they're selling like...well, McNuggets.

What kind of writer do I want to be? The kind who tells deep, thrilling stories with fine prose. With my best prose. And that takes more than word counts. That kind of work takes effort and thought and perseverance. It means honing my ear, reading other authors. It means writing and re-writing my sentences until they sound exactly, precisely right.

And creating fine prose requires something else--at least in the beginning: Time.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


source for photo:


  1. Good luck with that.
    That's a sincere wish. Best of luck becoming the kind of writer you want to be. And, hopefully, you'll never reach that goal.
    Why? Because if you attain it, you'll stop stretching, learning, growing and getting better and better.
    If you're never satisfied but keep trying and doing your best, you'll make your readers (and maybe yourself) very happy.

    1. Some friends of mine have a saying: "I'll stop growing the day they plant me!"

      Congrats on the new book, Susan.

      For those who don't know, MAKE ME HOWL is available on Amazon.

  2. Time. That bastard. I want it and I want it NOW. :)

    1. Elmore Leonard settled into a book-a-year pace in the 1970's. He's on his forty-sixth novel, and only a few feature the same characters.

      I've lost count how many have been made into movies.

      There's a place for patient effort, too.


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