In 1976 I began a monthly instructional column on fiction writing for Writers Digest, and kept at it for fourteen years. Two books, Telling Lies for Fun & Profit and Spider, Spin Me a Web, grew out of that job, and they’re both still in print many years and editions later.
But it wasn’t until last year that I gathered up my later WD columns and made two Open Road eBooks out of them. Having noted that Telling Lies consistently outsold Spider by a factor of four or five to one, I called the new books The Liar’s Bible and The Liar’s Companion. They’ve had a good reception, and Open Road has since made them available as trade paperbacks.
Still, it’s clear that many fans of Telling Lies are largely unaware of the two new books. I can tell you that if you like Telling Lies you’re apt to find Bible and Companion at least as valuable, that they’re very much of a piece with the earlier work, that the only real difference is that they were written by a fellow who’d lived a few more years, written a few more books, and possibly learned a thing or two in the process.
I wonder, though. Instead of trying to draw you a picture, suppose I give you a couple thousand words?
So here’s a sample column, one of the first chapters in The Liar’s Companion. It appeared in the magazine in 1987. If you like it, well, I’ll probably post additional chapters here from time to time. Or I suppose you could always cut to the chase and buy the book…
WRITING, ALWAYS WRITING
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. Conversations 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.
Ah yes. Darryl Strawberry. Takes one back, doesn’t it?
Is this a typical chapter? Truth to tell, I’m not sure I ever wrote a typical chapter. My columns were letters to the world, not all that different from blogging. I never told people how to write. But somehow I found something to say every month, to myself and to whoever else was listening.
Now for the hard sell. Here are Amazon links for my writing books:
and these, not mentioned above:
Writing the Novel from Plot to Print
(which is, duh, a book focusing on the novel)
Write For Your Life
(a home seminar centered on the inner game of writing)
(a writer’s piecemeal memoir consisting of afterwords to my books)
And here are Barnes & Noble links for the same: