Learning from Other Writers

Hey Folks,

Thriller author James Scott Bell, in the Kill Zone blog back in June, wrote  “Authors I Have Learned From: John D. MacDonald.” The article is chock full of gems if you dig just a little.

You can read the post for yourself. I’ll reference it at the end. But for this post, I’ll offer a few hints at those gems, then elaborate a little on each of them.

To begin, there is much to be learned from other authors about “style.”

According to Mr. Bell (and I agree), MacDonald started with a minimalist style that reached back to Hemingway via Cain, Hammett, Spillane and others.

(Note: This is style at the sentence level. Paragraphing and pacing [see below] are also informed by style. MacDonald did not take either of those from Hemingway et al. You’ll find more on style in the second link below.)

Later MacDonald found a balace between minimalism and a slightly more expansive, descriptive style.

The only way to find your own style is to practice. One thing all styles have in common is that they can’t be forced. Style simply emerges.

I particularly like Mr. Bell’s admonition that “You don’t want a style that calls so much attention to itself that’s all the reader is thinking about.” Style follows story, not the other way around.

As just one example, see the short excerpt from MacDonald’s novel, Darker Than Amber.

And for goodness’ sake, don’t fall for the beginner nonsensical fear that reading other writers’ works might affect your personal style. It definitely will. But that is something to be embraced, not shunned.

Also please don’t be waylaid by genre. Just because you don’t write in the genres MacDonald (or Bell) writes in doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them.

There is also much to be learned about the use of the pronoun “it” and, by extension, the use of other pronouns without clear antecedents. (I recommend reading the excerpt from Cancel All Our Vows at least a few times.)

I’ve always been careful about replacing “it” with a more exacting term that creates a less-vague, clearer picture in the reader’s mind. Especially any instance of “it” that doesn’t have a clear antecedent.

But there’s a place for “it” even without a clear antecedent. I’m not saying McDonald’s use is always right or good, but that it’s something to consider.

For example, treat MacDonald’s excerpt as if it’s your own. Can you replace any of the “it”s in MacDonald’s excerpt?

There is also much to be learned about pacing. (Same recommendation as above.)

I can talk about this because the pacing in my own stories and novels has improved considerably. When I read aloud some of my earliest works, I get almost lost in the massive paragraphs and am generally bored to tears.

But when I hit the Return (Enter) key a little more often, even without changing a single word, the writing becomes vastly more interesting. It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of pacing and its impact not only on drawing the reader through the story but on readability.

For example, if the MacDonald excerpt I mentioned above were mine, I would turn it into eight paragraphs. Only three of them could be defined as “terse.” Yet in every case, hitting the Enter key would add emphasis to an already exciting or dramatic (or both) phrase or sentence that was otherwise buried (along with its sense of drama) in the longer paragraph. (If anyone wants to talk about this in greater depth, email me. I’ll share.)

That’s how you draw readers through your books rather than allowing them to slow down — bog down — in a longer paragraph.

As you know, I don’t usually revisit my own stories and books. BUT….

When I recently expanded a series of magic realism short stories (Stories from the Cantina, c. 2011) into a novel (Keeper of the Promise, February 2018), I applied new techniques I’d learned, especially pacing. The latter reads much more smoothly than any of the former, in or out of their collection.

There is something to be learned about knowing and meeting with other professional writers. You’ll see an enticing couple of paragraphs about MacDonald’s exchange with a Pulitzer prize-winning author named MacKinlay Kantor.

I suggest you extrapolate from that exchange. What might you learn or how might you be personally challenged by the successes and accomplishments of other writers? What tidbitts can you pick up? Sometimes your skill as a writer can take a giant leap ahead from the simple act of listening, or talking. The exchange and absorption and testing of ideas.

Finally, if you are or aspire to be a professional fiction writer….

There is much to be learned about having or developing a work ethic. This is another of the gems I mined from Mr. Bell’s article.

For me it was more of a reminder than a realization. One I thought I had nailed. In fact, I did have it nailed a year or so ago. But I’ve let it slide a bit. Those of you who’ve been around here awhile will remember that for a long time I was turning out at least 3000 words of publishable fiction per day.

In my own life, I apply one rule most often. “You either are or you are not.” It works in almost any situation.

For example, I taught my children that “Upright is not a matter of degree. In each moment, you either are or you are not. Decide wisely.”

But that goes to your chosen profession too.

You either show up and do the work or you don’t. I have, but I haven’t recently.

A famous female fiction writer whose name eludes me at the moment once said she showed up every day. On days when the words didn’t come, she remained in her writer’s chair during the allotted time anyway. As a result, most of the time the words came.

In my estimation, that’s a good mindset to have.

According to Mr. Bell, MacDonald “wrote each day from morning till noon, had lunch, went back to work and knocked off at five for a martini and dinner. He took Sundays off.”

Maybe with your other responsibilities that’s a little much. But you can set aside whatever time you have available to set aside. The point is to make a schedule and then stick to it.

Absorbing and applying knowledge from these few lessons (and maybe you’ll find others) is essential for the professional fiction writer. Add to them the ability to ground the reader in every opening and you’re well on your way.

Here are a couple of links for you:

See “Authors I Have Learned From: John D. MacDonald” at https://killzoneblog.com/2018/06/authors-i-have-learned-from-john-d-macdonald.html.

See also James Scott Bell’s “The Great American Novel That Wasn’t” at https://killzoneblog.com/2017/07/great-american-novel-that-wasnt.html.

‘Til next time, happy mining!


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