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The Liar's Companion
A Field Guide for Fiction Writers
By Lawrence Block
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2011 Lawrence Block
All rights reserved.
Writing, Always Writing
THE JOB OF BEING A WRITER NEVER ENDS. NEVER.
Man must work from sun to sun.
Woman's work is never done.
That, at least, is how they put it in the bad old days of sexism and long hours. Now, what with union contracts and feminism, not to mention the around-the-clock shifts facilitated by electrification, the old rhyme simply won't stand up. How can we update it, to produce a suitable bromide for our times?
Mere mortals work from 9 to 5.
A writer works when he's alive.
Well, it rhymes and it scans, but I can't say I'm crazy about it. There ought to be a better way to convey in verse the idea that the writer's work never ceases. Perhaps we'll take another stab at it in a little while. Meanwhile, let's examine not the rhyme but the reason.
Is it true? Do writers really work all the time? Is the creative process a metronome that drives us endlessly, keeping us tapping to the beat?
Or is this, as many of our spouses and children and friends and relatives have long suspected, a lot of hooey? Is this just our way of weaseling out of car-pool duties and piano recitals, a rationale for long walks, afternoons in a hammock, hours of uninterrupted reading time, and the approximate social skills of a wolverine? Is "I'm actually working all the time" something young writers learn to say at writing school, much as cleaning women learn to say "It broke"?
Relax. Don't panic. Not to worry.
It's really true.
Writers work all the time.
Take the other day, for example. What did I do with myself? How did the busy little bee improve each hour? Just what action did I take to put words on the page and bring money into the house?
Well, let's see. I read a couple of books and a magazine or two. I watched a ball game on television. I got wet in the Gulf and dried off in the sun.
What's that? You say it doesn't sound like work?
A lot you know.
Take the reading, for example. Now, a lot of reading is research. Sometimes it's specific research, when I want to learn something that I need to know in order to write something I'm working on, or planning to work on. Sometimes it's general research, like reading a book on precious and semiprecious gemstones because I frequently write books about people who steal such things. And sometimes it's not exactly research, but it's a matter of keeping up with what other people in my field are doing.
And is this what you were reading the other day, sir?
Well, no, Rachel. As a matter of fact, I was reading for enjoyment.
Then it wasn't work, sir, was it?
Ah, but it was, Rachel. I'm afraid it's impossible for a writer to read without working.
Consider. One of the books I read was The Good Mother, a bestselling mainstream novel by Sue Miller lately out in paperback. I got interested in the characters and caught up in the plot, and then on page 156 I returned to the business of being a writer.
A few pages earlier, the narrator entered a coin-operated laundry and commenced doing a load of wash. There she meets a young man with whom she had words on a previous laundry visit. They have a conversation in which he apologizes for his surly behavior earlier, and then he tries to pick her up, and then
He turned and looked out the window. The dog came and stood in the doorway briefly, and he and Leo seemed to exchange a long look before he left.
Wait a minute. What dog?
So I find myself looking over what I've read. Half a page earlier a dog had figured metaphorically; when Leo tosses a verbal overture at the narrator, she thinks: Here it comes, as inevitable as a dog at a hydrant. But that's not a real dog, it can't be actually walking in the door and cocking an eye at Leo and a leg at one of the washers, can it?
Three pages earlier, there's this at the end of a long paragraph of description:
Every now and then the same rangy black dog would come in and check the wastebaskets and changing personnel.
Well, that's the dog. I must have read the sentence that introduced him, but he hadn't stayed in my mind for the thousand or so words that followed. Now, having rediscovered him, I couldn't let go of him. Would other readers react as I had reacted? Had the dog been insufficiently established by that single reference to let readers recognize him when he reappeared? How much do you have to implant that sort of stage dressing, and how long will the reader retain it?
There may not be any answers to these questions, but the fact that the questions themselves come up confirms that reading is always work for a writer. Even when you read for sheer enjoyment, at least a part of your mind is busy deciding what works and what doesn't, and how the writer gets certain effects and what alternatives might have been employed. It's a nuisance when I find myself rewriting perfectly adequate sentences in my mind, or wasting time figuring out where the black dog came from. But it's part of my job.
Though he appears a lazy slob
A writer's always on the job.
I don't know if I like that any better. It seems defensive, doesn't it?
What else did I read lately, and how was I practicing my profession when I did so? Well, I read part of a trashy novel about a prestigious law firm. The author was a lawyer with impressive qualifications, so I expected the inside story, whether or not the fiction was well-crafted.
Very early on, a young lawyer under consideration for a position with the firm has a business lunch with one of the partners. The author makes a real point of having him not order a drink first because he'll need his wits about him; it never occurs to either the young man or the writer to have something non-alcoholic. The older attorney, while ordering a martini of his own, smiles approvingly at the young man's decision not to have anything, and then the two of them have a full business discussion, with a job offered and accepted and the young man volunteering to start work that very afternoon, all before they even order their lunch.
Well, I'll tell you. A scene like that makes you wonder if the author ever went out to lunch, let alone with a partner in a top Manhattan law firm. Any lunch of this sort would involve a whole lot of small talk, with precious little serious business broached before the coffee and dessert. One wouldn't have to be a writer to get angry with this particular author. But, as a writer, I found myself musing on how I might have written the same scene. I wouldn't report all the small talk, of course. Writing is always a matter of selection. Start with an opening exchange, then cut to the dessert course? Stay with the small talk and summarize the rest?
I thought, too, about the importance of accuracy. Con-versations in fiction are not exactly as they are in the real world, and events can happen more rapidly. The older man might legitimately reach a decision at the dinner table in fiction that he would sleep on in the real world.
But the reader's suspension of disbelief has a breaking point. When the reader says, "Wait a minute, that's not the way it is," you're in trouble.
Better keep the coffee perking—
Day or night, the writer's working!
What else have I read lately? Well, the August issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine showed up the other day. I could say I have to read it in order to keep up with work in my field, and that's true enough, but I read it because I felt like it. And one of the stories was "Long Shot on a Stone Angel," by Donald Olson.
It was a good story, nicely told. In it a retired gentleman begins visiting prisoners in order to have something to do, and he winds up doing some investigative work to clear a man who has been convicted of killing his wife. Part of his investigation consists of a visit to the convicted man's apartment where the murder took place.
Wait a minute, I said to myself. How is this possible? The guy has been arrested, stood trial, got convicted, and is serving a stretch in prison. The sentence is unspecified, but it's either life or a lot of years, and what's his apartment doing with his pictures and furniture still in it? Even if he owned the apartment, it would be sold for legal fees. If it's a rental, it would have long since been rented. No way on earth it's just going to sit there waiting for him to get lucky and make parole seven years down the line.
And that's a real plot problem, because something the old man finds in the apartment turns out to be essential to the development of the story. There's no way to do it without a visit to the apartment. You either do it as he did it or you forget the story altogether.
Of course, if it had been a house, one that had been in the family a couple of generations and was thus owned free of any mortgage, he might have elected to hold onto it. Or maybe if it was a condo he could have had it set up to rent furnished, and thus his things would still be there. Still ...
Well, it doesn't matter, obviously. The story worked fine as Mr. Olson wrote it, and if I hadn't been in a nitpicking mood, I probably wouldn't have noticed the plot problem in the first place. But, as a writer who doesn't stop working, I couldn't notice it and cluck my tongue and let it go at that. I had to look for a way to replot the story and solve the problem.
Even when the fish are biting
The hapless writer's always writing.
I think I liked the last one better. But the point is—yes, Rachel?
Sir, I think we get the point that reading is work. But what about baseball?
It's the highest form of spiritual activity.
But how does it get to be work, sir?
You think it's easy for those guys? Standing around in the hot sun? Chewing and spitting, they lay waste their power. It may look like a game, Rachel, but ...
I mean for you, sir. How is it work for you?
Well, take the other day. I was watching the Mets and Darryl Strawberry was batting. Now Darryl Strawberry can hit a baseball about as far as any human being alive, but he can only do this when he swings the bat, which is an action he sometimes fails to perform. I sat on the couch while Mr. Strawberry looked at a called third strike to end the inning. His eyes widened in abject astonishment at the umpire's verdict.
"What a surprise," I said.
Then my wife, Lynne, said something, and I suppose the announcer did, too, but don't ask me what it was. Because I was busy trying to decide how What a surprise would work upon the page. I had meant it sarcastically, as you have probably already surmised, but would a reader know as much if I just set the words down without explanation? In actual speech we convey a lot by inflection and tone of voice, and that doesn't always come across in print.
"What a surprise," he said sarcastically.
Well, sure, that works, but I'd generally prefer not to use an adverb to do the dialogue's job. I'd rather let it fall upon your ear as sarcasm than wave my arms and shout out that it's sarcasm.
He arched a brow. "What a surprise," he said.
That works, too. Or the other character would react to the line in such a way that we get the inflection:
"Then what happened?"
"Strawberry took a called third strike."
"What a surprise."
"Come on, he hasn't been doing it that much this year ..."
Down to Work
I could go on. Writing is a full-time job, it really is, and you never really take a vacation from it. I could go through a whole day and show you how every conscious moment—and the unconscious ones as well—were part of the business of being a writer.
I could, but I won't. We're out of space.
Besides, the Reds are at Wrigley for an afternoon game with the Cubs. I've got work to do.CHAPTER 2
The Hearts of the Matter
ON WRITING FROM THE HEART, TO THE HEART.
I just read a book that ought to be unequivocally unpublishable. But it is going to be published, and its publisher thinks it's going to be a bestseller, and I think the publisher's probably right.
The book is Poppy, by Barbara Larriva. Ballantine Books is publishing it as a hardcover title in October, and has taken the unusual step of launching the book with a special reader's edition in trade paperback format for free distribution at the American Booksellers Association convention. They sent me a copy, which is how I am able to rush into print with a column inspired by Poppy even as the book is finding its way onto bookstore shelves.
Poppy is the story of Allegra Alexander, once the brightest of stars in the Hollywood firmament, now a bitter old woman with terminal cancer who has elected to refuse radiation and chemotherapy and is waiting to die. While she lies grumbling in her hospital bed, she is visited by a relentlessly cheerful and cheering young girl named Poppy. Ultimately, inevitably, Poppy's sunshine pierces Allegra's dark despair.
That's enough by way of plot summary. The book is brief and the plot none too complex, and I don't want to give away its few surprises.
But why did I begin by categorizing it as "unequivocally unpublishable"?
For starters, consider its length. Poppy runs to something like 30,000 words. If you were to set out to write something unpublishable, and you wanted to make it unpublishable in every respect, you couldn't pick a better word length than 30,000. A short novel runs 60,000 words, and a very short novel runs 50,000. Thirty thousand words is far too long for a magazine and far too short for a book.
What does this mean when a manuscript is making the rounds? It means that a lot of markets would reject it without really looking at it. If I were an editor with a desk piled high with submissions, and if I saw at a glance that a particular manuscript was half as long as the shortest novel we'd published in the past 20 years, I might very well send it back to its author without even scanning the first page. Not every editor would do so—some are as compulsive as the rest of us, and can't dash a few drops of A.1. Sauce on a hamburger without reading the label on the bottle. But some would.
More to the point, virtually every editor who did read the manuscript would do so knowing full well he was reading a manuscript that was unmarketably short. Given the realities of publishing, given the glut of submissions, given the fact that one is never called to account for the bestsellers that got away but must justify the flops he said yes to, every editor who's been on the job for more than a few months has a built-in predisposition toward rejection. A first novel by an unknown writer and it's only 30,000 words long? Come on!
Enough about length; if I don't watch myself I'll devote more words to the subject than Barbara Larriva did to her whole book. Obviously Poppy got published in spite of its length, not because of it. The book has something that made it impossible for an editor to say that automatic No to it.
What is it?
It is not the brilliance of its style, the poetry of its composition. I do not want to imply that Poppy is poorly written. It is not. Barbara Larriva is a good writer, and Poppy is well-organized, lucid and accessible. But it is not so superbly written that the writing announces itself as a masterpiece. The individual sentences are not so flawlessly composed that they resonate within us as prose poetry. The prose and dialogue are adequate. They carry the story quite effectively, but they never transcend the story. We do not read Poppy in spite of the way it was written, but neither do we read it because of the way it was written.
Excerpted from The Liar's Companion by Lawrence Block. Copyright © 2011 Lawrence Block. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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