How do Writers Write?

Over the years I learned that one of the most recurrent questions asked of writers is “How do you write?”

I know some carefully plan their books out chapter by chapter, or even scene by scene, while others take a more open approach, feeling their way along. I understand Agatha Christie carefully plotted each book, and obviously it worked for her. I’ve read that Georges Simenon, on the other hand, simply went into his study and started writing. Thirty days later he popped out with another book.

I’m sure many writers, especially hopeful, as yet unpublished writers, wonder about these things, sometimes questioning their own habits.

Most instructors will insist you establish a schedule and stick to it. Get up and start writing. I can’t argue with that advice. Jack Woodford wrote that while employed as a bank clerk, he got up at four in the morning, rain or shine, and wrote until it was time to go to work. He wanted to give his best to his writing, not to the bank.  Like Mr. Balzac I drink lots of coffee, although it probably hasn’t made my writing better or worse. As Mr. Woodford suggested: No-Doz will keep you going. Coffee will keep you going too… to the bathroom.

I thought that by addressing my own habits (?) some other writers might either take courage or on the other hand, see a pitfall to avoid.

I’ve always been a procrastinator.  I’ve never in my life been able to establish a writing schedule, and like everything in my life, I’ve always worked in fits and (often false) starts.

I’ve never been able to plan a book down to the last detail. In fact, I don’t do much planning at all. Since I write mostly mysteries, I take care to establish the killer before I start, but in between…well, here’s a typical scenario: I piddle on the computer for a while and then I have a cup of coffee and lie down on my chaise in the patio and close my eyes whilst listening to my babbling false brook. Or, sometimes I read for a while and then close my eyes.  Weeks may go by, even months, but one day an idea comes to mind and I start thinking about it, seeing possibilities. I begin to develop it more and more and may actually start writing and creating characters. I have several like that, a number of stillborn books that either linger somewhat mummified in my computer or books have already been lost to posterity.

But now and then an idea comes along begins to grow and the more I think about it, the better it seems. Where did it come from? It could be from something I saw on the news, or something I read about or heard about. I don’t know. It had been over a year — a very dry year — since my last triumph (LOL), “The Sand Bluff Murders”, and day after day I tried to think about things I might write. Just recently an idea began to form and each day I liked it more. Although I didn’t really start writing, I began to visualize it in my mind and — because it’s easier to get an acceptance from my particular publisher is I offer something as a sequel  — I turned it into a sequel to The Sand Bluff Murders and voià, The Morgenstern Murders was born. Here comes the really weird part. After such a long dry spell, I hadn’t even completely finished polishing The Morgenstern Murders when another book began to fall into place. I called it The Handyman but before I got off to a very good start, I realized the handyman was only a catalyst. The story was really about a small town deputy sheriff and it quickly changed from the Handyman to The Deputy. It should be out by July.

In the meantime, I confess, I play it by ear. I pretty much let the characters take over. That brings me back to my chaise in the patio. I’ll take a little break and lie down and close my eyes and start writing prose that would go down in history. I mean impeccable, flawless prose that rivals Shakespeare and the King James Bible.  It’s so good that no matter how tired I am, I just have to get up, go back upstairs and get to my computer. Unfortunately, by the time I get there, somehow things don’t turn out anything like they did while I lay on my back with my eyes closed.  They never do. Sad but true.

And that’s my system. When it’s going right, nothing can interrupt me. When I was working on my first published novel, “The Little Mornings”, my little spare bedroom which I had turned into my office, was invaded by my daughter, her husband and five kids, all of whom took over the office with air beds etc. This went on for a month, but I had reached a point in the book where the urge was too strong, so every day I literally climbed over air beds and, surrounded by noisy kids, kept right on going and finished the book without a ruffle.

I don’t know whether this will help anyone, or perhaps show people pitfalls to avoid, but there it is. Now that I’ve got my fingers warmed up on a hot keyboard, I can get back to writing.



Film Talk

                                                                                                                                                                                ImageEven if you’ve never seen “Gone with the Wind” (maybe you’ve been kept prisoner for seventy-odd years in an oubliette beneath a crumbling French castle), you’ve certainly heard that Clark Gable line: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

I know you recognize: “Go ahead, make my day,” uttered by Clint Eastwood in “Sudden Impact”. And of course, “I’ll be back.” Mr. Schwarzenegger has said it so many times even Bruce Willis told him to give it a rest in “Expendables 2”.

These are indeed memorable, and so well-known that most people do remember them, and the movies were memorable as well.

But we all have certain lines that stay with us. Here are some others, some from really good movies and some from movies that should never have been made, but good or bad, a few lines just stand out, at least to me.

“We’re going back to the tick tock and get the boo boo.” (Sen. Fred Thompson, “Baby’s Day Out” 1994) (My personal favorite.)

“I’m walking here! I’m walking here!” (Dustin Hoffman, “Midnight Cowboy” 1969)

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” (Strother Martin, “Cool Hand Luke 1967)

“Nobody leaves this place without singing the blues.” (Albert Collins, “Adventures in Babysitting”1987)

“I’ll have what she’s having.” (Estelle Reiner, “When Harry met Sally”1989)

“You had me at hello.” (Renée Zellweiger, “Jerry Maguire” 1996)

“The Duck of Death,” (Gene Hackman, “Unforgiven” 1992)

“I saw everything!” (Peter McNichol, “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” 1995)

“—  Eye-ventory.” Strother Martin, “Fools’ Parade”1971)

“Yeah, well right now Sister Lyda’s ass is dragging.” (Kim Novak, “The Great Bank Robbery”1969)

“Don’t say sir to me. I’m a sergeant. I work for a living.” (Warren Oates, “Stripes”1981)

“After all…tomorrow is another day.” Vivien Leigh “Gone with the Wind”1939)

“I never was no good at sharing.” (George Kennedy, “Fools’ Parade”, 1971)

“The, uh, stuff dreams are made of.” (Humphrey Bogart, “The Maltese Falcon” 1941)

I’m sure there are others that will come to mind from time to time, so this list is undoubtedly far from complete. I realize some of these lines may not appeal to everyone, and everyone probably has his/her own favorites, so this is of necessity very subjective.

If you have any favorites, insert them into a comment along with the details, i.e. title, speaker, date, etc. Thanks.

A Good Story…

A number of years ago I sat with my granddaughter, age 4 or 5, while we watched “Zootsuit” with that electrifying El Pachuco performance by Mr. Olmos. In fact the entire film was electrifying.

Pretty heavy stuff for a little kid, you may say, but I didn’t see any reason she couldn’t see the film. Since I was the babysitter, I had little choice. Either not watch, send her to bed, or let her watch. I’m easy.

We both sat entranced throughout the entire film, but at the end she suddenly burst out crying.

“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Why are you crying?”

She wiped her eyes and took a moment before she said, “Because I didn’t want it to be over.”

That got me thinking about my own feelings. Some stories make you want to stay with them all the way. You’re really not ready for them to “be over”.

I’ve read some of my favorite books several times, I suppose because that’s as close as I can get to having them not “be over”.

This morning I read a comment about how tedious Moby Dick is, and how the commentator couldn’t get past the first few pages. I remember my own yeoman struggle to get through the entire book. My thinking was that if it’s so damned famous, it must be worth reading. So I read it. It is a powerful story set against a strange and wonderful background. But tedious, yes. Tedious? More like absolute murder. Especially for today’s reader.

But continuing my wandering thought processes, I thought of other books that are considered classics. They mostly have one thing in common: they’re long and meandering. But then it occurred to me that readers of a hundred or so years ago, having no radio or TV or movies, spent a lot more time reading. And I believe they wanted their money’s worth when they picked up a book. They wanted a book that would engross them not just for an hour or two, but one that would be a companion for perhaps a week or more. Life was slower in those times, and there were fewer distractions for the average person. Reading obviously provided the best part of a person’s solitary amusement and education. Small wonder then that when people in those days got their hands on a good book, they didn’t want it to “be over” too soon.

These days, if we wrote in those dated styles, we’d get a rejection that would out speed  a Voyager spacecraft.

Today you have to start with a “hook” to get the reader involved, and then you’d better keep going. No pulp fiction padding these days when being paid by the word is meaningless. At one time a penny a word could bring in $50 which wasn’t peanuts. Today, too many outlets are wise to the fact that they don’t have to pay anything at all.

There are always exceptions to the good story rule however.

Like many kids, at one time I thought it would be great to join the French Foreign Legion. After all I’d seen “Beau Geste” and “Flying Deuces”. I seem to remember some French film where Jean Gabin hid out in the Spanish Foreign Legion which was patterned after the French model.

Well, I just finished “Legionnaire” by Simon Murray. This romantic 19-year old joined La Légion Etrangère and spent five years undergoing torture that makes Guantanamo Bay look like an expense-paid vacation in the Bahamas. Luckily for us, he kept a pretty close diary. Imagine walking for hours with a bag of rocks for a backpack with wire shoulder straps, digging a “grave” and lying in it beneath a tarp in the Algerian sun all day long without water. How about a twenty-five mile march wearing full gear in the heart of the Sahara summer and coming back to find that while you were gone, everything in the barracks had been thrown onto the floor, including taking the beds apart, throwing soap powder over the entire mess and soaking it in water. Then your company was told there would be inspection in two hours. How about letting a tank knock you down and roll over you without getting smashed, or parachuting into the unknown in the middle of the night. These were but some of the toughening episodes Mr. Murray survived during his five-year stint. Sure, life in the Legion had its moments, but they were few and far between. I have to admit that while I really lived that adventure, this is one in which I was glad for it to “be over”.


I was just reading a blog where a writer had a question about ending a scene in a book or story.
I have my own particular take on this. Being pretty much a self-taught writer, I can only offer things that experience has taught me. Usually the hard way. But this is what I learned.
When I read a book — if it’s any good — I don’t think I’m even aware of scene changes. I believe I learned most about scenes from watching movies over the years. Sort of a subliminal learning experience.
For instance, here’s a time-worn Hollywood scene that you’ve seen many times over the years:
The character is asked to do something. (I hate saying he/she all the time to keep up with this modern age, so we’ll assume this character is a man).
He says: “No way. No. I told you I’m retired now. I’m through with that life. I moved out here into the middle of the jungle to get away from all that. No. No way. Never again…”
There are basically two ways this almost always goes. The beautiful woman from his past (Think Eva Mendez. Well, that works for me!), gives him “that look” and…Cut! Or the ex-CIA boss give him a level stare and says, “Eva’s already there,” and…Cut!
Now you, being a prolific creator of exciting, thought-provoking prose, could have this continue for pages, but is that good?
In Hollywood when this guy gets “that look” from Ms Mendez, or hears “the intelligence” from his former CIA boss, the scene is going to cut to the star sitting in a chopper with a grim look in his eye and an AK47 in his hands.
So there it is: Make your point and then change the scene. Never drag it out a centimeter longer than it takes to make the idea clear.
One last word on this subject. If you ever hope to be a decent writer, please, for God’s sake, avoid that poor scarred and jaded ex-CIA guy who’s retired and hiding in the jungle. After what Hollywood and Ms Mendez have done to him, he couldn’t pull the trigger on his AK47 if he had to. He can’t even operate his Hoveround without adult supervision and probably needs help changing his Depends.

Up ↑