Friday, January 25, 2008

Lawrence Block (My favorite books on writing)

Lawrence Block, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit and Spider, Spin Me a Web.

The Chandler-Hammett generation of popular writers came up through the pulp magazines to establish themselves as novelists. The next generation of writers, who first published in the 1950s and 1960s, still dashed off things for magazines, but their main route into the world of books was through mass-market “paperback originals” (a now virtually dead segment of publishing).

The appetite for mystery, soft-core sex, romance, and science fiction paperbacks once seemed inexhaustible. The pay was low, but so were the barriers to publication and the standards of craft. The paperback-original writers ‘learned on the job,’ and most of them wrote more than a dozen books a year. Out of this generation came some terrifically talented and long-lived writers: Elmore Leonard, Donald E. Westlake (Richard Stark), Brian Garfield, and, of course, Lawrence Block.

Block isn’t even sure how many volumes of fiction he has written. Checking the front matter of a recent novel of his gives a total of 55 novels and 7 collections of stories, but that doesn’t take into account his vast output of pseudonymous pulp in the 1950s. He only arrived on the radar screen of the critics in the early 1980s with Eight Million Ways to Die, and has since gone on to win almost every honor there is in the field of crime fiction, as well as heaping loads of praise from the literary establishment. He’s now 70 years old, and going from strength to strength.

In the middle of his career, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Block found the time to knock out a monthly column on fiction writing for Writer’s Digest, and it is these columns that are collected in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit and Spider, Spin Me a Web. Although some of the material is a little dated (he frequently refers to some ancient device called a typewriter), most of it has aged remarkably well.

If John Gardner makes fiction seem like a somewhat mystical and perhaps burdensome occupation, Lawrence Block makes you feel like you’ve got a friend in the business. He cheerfully admits that writing fiction is a frustrating, crazy racket, but at the same time he makes it seem approachable. He’s honest about his own failings and fears, but explains them in such a jocular, casual way that he makes you relax about your own neuroses. Hey, you say to yourself, writing a novel is something even mortals can do.

Block claims to dislike the process of writing fiction (and remarks on how odd it is that most musicians love playing, and most painters love painting, but that so many authors get their buzz from having written rather than from writing), but he claims to have had fun writing his column, which he describes as being like dashing off a letter to a friend. It’s easy to believe he was having fun: he fools around with gimmicks, makes corny jokes, tosses in anecdotes, and seems utterly at ease.

Despite all the tomfoolery (who was this Tom fellow, anyhow?), a surprising number of writers I meet cite these as the most helpful books on writing. Because they were tossed off as columns they are concise, and because they were written over a stretch of years they cover a wide range of topics. It’s rare to come up with an issue Block hasn’t addressed at least once. The usual suspects—POV, conflict, motivation, flashbacks, characterization, verbs versus adverbs, dialogue—yeah, they’re all here, and so are the matters of the writing life, such as rejection, envy, fear, and determination.

But Block addresses some unexpected topics. Character names, for instance. Series characters as opposed to characters for stand-alone novels. Writing in the morning versus writing at night. When procrastination rather than writing is a good thing. Living on a writer’s income. Feigning expertise in subjects about which you know little. Pen names. Titles. A technique he chooses to call “Creative Plagiarism” (just to pique your interest). Whatever your issue, at some point Block probably wrote a column about it.

These are perfect books for those times when you have a few spare moments and want something that is bound to be engaging but short. But there’s also the salted nuts problem: after reading one of the short chapters in these two volumes, it’s all too easy to read another…and another…which is why these books keep getting reissued (the Kindle version of Telling Lies... just came out).

Well, there’s worse ways to spend your time.


Anonymous said...

I alluded to it in a previous comment, but the Block books, to me, almost don't come across as books about writing. They're more like war stories... one guy who's been there shooting the shit with those of us who want to be there.

They're wildly engaging and the learning comes from the wisdom that Uncle Lar passes along, rather than the nuts-and-bolts or motivational/inspirational pablum the market gobbles up these days.

If someone's looking for the thirteen/twenty-seven/five hundred plots (or whatever number its up to these days), they're not going to get it from Block.

Instead, there's the story of how Bernie Rhodenbarr came to be (ie. How to nurture seeds of ideas into sustainable plots or even a series), and the one about how he wrote porno PBOs (ie. Write bad books to learn how to write good books). The list goes on.

But the truth is, each time I've checked these books out from the Denver Public Library --- and it's several times now --- it's been after I spent some time on their respective waiting lists. I have to think there's a good reason for that. Scratch that, I know there's a good reason for that.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Rob--

Yeah, there is a good reason for that.

Me, I bought them in paperback, and liked them so much I hunted around until I found used copies in hardback. They seemed like something I wanted to keep in a more permanent form.

Tim Stretton said...

Jeez, you're costing me a hell of a lot of money, Isaak... Not to mention the finite capacity of my bookshelves...Grrr!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

There's some phrase involving a pot and a kettle...wait, it'll come to me...

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