Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Lawrence Block Guest Post: on writing Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel

Photo credit: Mary Reagan
Today I welcome back one of my favorite writers. Lawrence Block has been writing crime, mystery, and suspense fiction for more than half a century. He has published in excess of 100 books, and no end of short stories. Lawrence Block is best known for his series characters, including cop-turned-private investigator Matthew Scudder, gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, globe-trotting insomniac Evan Tanner, and introspective assassin Keller. Because one name is never enough, Larry has also published under pseudonyms including Jill Emerson, John Warren Wells, Lesley Evans, and Anne Campbell Clarke. He is a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America, and a past president of MWA and the Private Eye Writers of America. He has won the Edgar and Shamus awards four times each, and the Japanese Maltese Falcon award twice, as well as the Nero Wolfe and Philip Marlowe awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, and the Diamond Dagger for Life Achievement from the Crime Writers Association (UK). He’s also been honored with the Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award from Mystery Ink magazine and the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer for Lifetime Achievement in the short story. In France, he has been proclaimed a Grand Maitre du Roman Noir and has twice been awarded the Societe 813 trophy.

Lawrence Block:
On writing Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel

Forty years ago, I began contributing a column on fiction writing to Writers Digest. At first it was to be every other month, alternating with a column on cartooning, but after I’d sent them two or three columns they canned the cartoonist and my column went monthly, and I went on doing it for fourteen years.

After year or so, editor John Brady commissioned me to write an instructional book on writing novels. I asked myself what the hell I knew about writing novels, and then reminded myself that I’d written and published maybe fifty of them at that point. And, as with the column, I knew better than to tell readers This is how you do it. With novels, as with any fiction writing, there are at least as many ways to do it as there are writers. (More, come to think of it. There are at least as many ways to write a book as there are books to be written. It’s always different—even when you think you’re following a formula.)

So I wrote the book. I called it WRITING THE NOVEL, and the folks at WD stretched that to WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT. At the time I didn’t like the change, thought it made the whole thing sound too mechanical, but over time I decided they’d done well by me and my book.

For one thing, a definition of a good title is any title on a bestselling book, and this one sold well from the beginning—and, more to the point, went on doing so year after year after year. It started life as a hardcover book, and was eventually reissued as a trade paperback, and stayed in that form with a cover change or two all the way to 2012, when it finally went out of print.

It must have been just about twenty years ago when the then-current Poohbah at WD Books suggested I revise WTN. By then it was dated in certain respects, and the thinking was that they might be able to sell more copies if they could ballyhoo it with those magic words, New! and Improved!

I wasn’t crazy about the idea, and asked what they could offer me for my work. They rather grudgingly said they could pay me $1000 as an advance against royalties. “In other words,” I said, “you’ll reimburse me for my time with my own money.” I said I’d want an outright fee, not to be charged against future earnings, and they balked, and I said with not a little relief that I’d just as soon pass.

Cut to 2014. Alex Kourvo emailed me to renew the suggestion—but I found her a good deal easier to listen to. Alex has a whole website devoted to books for writers, and over the years she’d said some very heartening things about my various offerings, with special praise for WRITING THE NOVEL. She praised it again in her email, while pointing out that the world, in and out of publishing, had changed vastly since 1978, while my book had not. Beside the fact that commercial fiction’s categories had changed—when was the last time you saw a rack of Gothic novels in a drugstore paperback rack? When, for that matter, was the last time you saw a drugstore paperback rack at all?—besides all that, there’d been great developments in electronic books and self-publishing, and they went unmentioned in my 1978 guidebook.

Well, I knew she was right. And I knew the book was out of print, and its ebook edition was under a contract due to expire at year’s end. If I prepared a new edition, I could publish it myself in both ebook and print-on-demand paperback—two options which had not existed when the original book was published.

I sat down and read the book, something I hadn’t done in ages. And I found that, dated though it might be, I still liked it. I was more than a little anxious at the prospect of changing what I’d written, and for two reasons. For one, any piece of writing is an organic creation, very much of its time, and when you change words here and there you risk messing up the whole thing. For another, all those original chapters had clearly stood the test of time, staying in print all those years, pleasing readers and helping them launch their books for all those years. Rewriting might expunge something particularly useful.

So what I decided to do was leave everything pretty much unchanged, while adding material when it seemed appropriate. And I wrote the new material in a sans-serif font, like this one, and printed the original material in an old-timey typewriterish font like this one…so readers could tell what was old and what was new.

That took me all the way through the original book, to which I wound up adding quite a bit. One of the most satisfying additions, in the chapter on outlining, was the outline from Donald E. Westlake’s hysterical yet affecting novel of a blocked writer, Adios, Scheherazade! I’d cited the chapter-by-chapter outline back in 1978, but hadn’t quoted it—probably for fear that WD would have found it objectionable. Well, I didn’t find it objectionable, I found it riotously funny as well as instructive, and I didn’t have to worry what any publisher might think. I did have to sit down and type it out word for word, but that’s the sort of sacrifice I was happy to make for y’all.

Then I wrote new material, several chapters on ebooks and self-publishing, and that was odd—because I did so knowing what I was writing would be wildly out of date long before another 37 years went by. The industry’s evolving at a furious pace, and while the way one writes a novel doesn’t change much from decade to decade, ebooks and self-publishing change constantly.

Whew! One of the miracles of self-publishing is how fast it is. It was sometime in November that I completed revisions on WRITING THE NOVEL FROM PLOT TO PRINT TO PIXEL, and by January 4th, both the ebook and the Handsome Trade Paperback were on sale. Reviews have been pouring in, and so far they’re all extremely complimentary, and sales are strong, and, well, I couldn’t be happier.

—Lawrence Block


R.T. (Tim) said...

Thanks for your generous posting. No pandering here, but I now know which author I need to be rereading in the near future. Thanks for the reminder. Have a beautiful day! All the best from Crime Classics.

LJ Roberts said...

Dear Mr. Block:

Why yes, I do have every Matthew Scudder book you ever wrote, almost all in 1st edition hardcover, and most all of the signed. Me? A fan? You bet! You were also very kind to me at Bouchercon Monterey as I was completely overwhelmed when I met you. Unfortunately, I couldn't even get near you at Bouchercon Raleigh; just know I was there.

Thank you, sir, for your wonderful books, and excellent writing.