Saturday, November 27, 2010

What I'm Reading

People are always asking me what's on my night stand.  They're not referring to the tin of Bag Balm that's parked next to my Big Ben alarm clock.  Or to the stray shirt buttons, ball point pens or note pads that are scattered there.  Or to Freddie's brush, Freddie's toenail pruners or to Freddie himself, who at this very moment is perched on the night stand glaring out the bedroom window at the skinny black cat who's had the nerve to wander into our herb garden.

They want to know what I'm reading.  I happen to be a restless reader. I often have a stack of four or five books that I'm reading at once on my night stand.  I'm also a major league re-reader.  I'm someone who comes back to my favorite authors again and again -- especially when I'm in the middle of writing a book of my own.  If I'm lost in a jungle of my own invention all day long with no trail, no map and only a dull pocket knife to hack through the dense undergrowth with, then I like to curl up in bed at night with someone who I know I can count on.  My favorites are like a form of comfort food to me.

Here's what is on my night stand this very morning:

On top is the latest Alan Furst novel, Spies of the Balkans.  Alan Furst is my favorite contemporary writer and whenever I start one of his books I can't put it down so I usually save it for a long holiday weekend.  If you aren't familiar with him he writes noirish, murky, incredibly good spy novels that are set in Europe in the early days of World War II.   My favorite is Red Gold, which I've read four times. I'm halfway through the new one and so far it's great.

Underneath the Alan Furst is The Black Ice Score, which is one of the Parker novels that Donald Westlake wrote under the name Richard Stark.  I probably re-read the entire Parker series from start to finish every three years or so.  They're lean, stripped-down criminal caper novels starring the most ruthless, asocial, unsentimental son of a bitch you'll ever meet.  The first Parker, The Hunter, was made into the Lee Marvin movie Point Blank.  I find them incredibly addictive.   I'm also a fan of Westlake's lighter spirited Dortmunder caper novels, but I don't come back to them nearly as often as the Parkers.

Let's see, under The Black Ice Score is The Seersucker Whipsaw, by the great Ross Thomas, who also wrote under the name Oliver Bleeck.  Like Don Westlake, Ross is one of the writers whom I started reading when I was college.  To this day he remains one of my favorites.  He was witty, sly, cynical, nimble and a great plotter. He could do it all -- hard-boiled detective novels, international spy novels, caper novels, Washington novels, you name it.  He did it with seemingly effortless grace.  He was also one of the nicest guys I've ever met.  The Seersucker Whipsaw is a typical Ross tale about warring factions of greedy Western capitalists and spooks who are all trying to rig the same African election.

Beneath the The Seersucker Whipsaw is an old 1960 John D. MacDonald paperback original called Slam the Big Door, which is a tight little crime novel about a messed up journalist who goes down to a small town in Florida to visit a well-off friend only to discover that the well-off friend is in even worse trouble than he is. I'm a huge MacDonald fan.  I almost always reach for one of his more famous Travis McGee novels as soon as the weather turns cold here in Connecticut.  But as the years have gone by I've come to love his huge output of non-McGees even more.  There's no recurring, larger than life hero in any of them.  Just average people trying to get out of the messes they've made of their lives.  You can almost always find one of his paperbacks on my night stand.

Anchoring the bottom of the stack is Assembly, which is one of the dozen or so short story collections by John O'Hara that I return to when I'm not in the mood to read a novel.  I love short stories and for me John O'Hara is the greatest short story writer of the 20th century.  His fabulous career took him from a small town newspaper in Western Pennsylvania to Broadway and to Hollywood.  He wrote hundreds of short stories along the way.  My favorite story of his, The Man With The Broken Arm, is found in Assembly.  I've probably read it a half-dozen times.  O'Hara was a famously unpleasant person to be around but he understood human nature better than just but any writer I've ever read.

And now, if you'll excuse me, time's a wasting. I want to finish reading that Alan Furst novel before this weekend slips away.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Mind Of A Mystery Writer, Part Deux

I participated in a panel discussion on crime writing the other day as part of an all-day program called Literary Life in the Lymes that was held at Old Lyme Town Hall.   Believe me, this was quite some impressive event they put together.  There were panels crammed with local poets, children's authors, illustrators and non-fiction writers.  There was even cake.  Really good cake.  Honestly? I had no idea there were so many talented people living in this area.  My panel featured top-notch crime writers like Jim Benn and Eugenia West.

Anyway, when our moderator threw things open for audience questions a very nice lady looked in my direction and asked how I manage to write such intricate murder plots.

To which I replied, "Excuse me, are you talking to me?"

She was talking to me.  "Do you already know who committed the crime before you actually start writing the book?" she went on.  "Do you start with the ending and then write your way back to the beginning? Or do you have no idea who the killer is as you go along? How do you do it?"

How do I do it? Wow, how do any of us do it?  Really good question.  If you ask a hundred mystery writers how they do it you'll get a hundred different answers.  Trust me on this.  I know a hundred mystery writers.  And we all go about our business differently.

Some writers like to outline the entire mystery in great detail, scene by scene, before they ever start writing it.  They want to know in advance exactly who did what, why, when and how.  I don't do that.  For me, outlining a book in advance eliminates the joy of discovery, which is half of the fun of writing (the other half is finishing).  Outlining also reminds me way too much of my years in television, where you're often required to break a story down, scene by scene, before you're allowed to go to script.

Some writers are strict adherents of Sturgeon's Law, a philosophy attributed to the great fantasist Theodore Sturgeon that goes something like this: The reader can never know where the story is going if the writer himself does not know. In other words, they have zero idea ahead of time who the killer is. They're uncovering who did what as they go along, much as the reader is.  I don't do that either.  For me, it just doesn't work.

How do I do it?  Here's how: Before I ever set out to write a mystery I need to be able to grasp in the palm of my hand what the story really, truly is going to be about.  Which means I want to know who did the killing and, more importantly, why they did it.  I can usually sum it up in a single sentence: The sister killed her brother so she wouldn't have to share the inheritance with him.  Once I know that then I can start having some real fun.

For me, writing the first draft of a book is a lot like taking a cross-country car trip.  It's a journey.  I know that I'm starting out in here Connecticut.  I know that my destination is, let's say, Los Angeles (see above re: sister killing her brother so she won't have to share inheritance).  What I don't know is which roads I'm going to take or where I'm going to stop along the way or who I'm going to meet or what sorts of strange, interesting things are going to happen to me.  I have no itinerary.  I don't want one.  I want to be surprised.  That's the whole point of making the journey.  I'm excited when I wake up in the morning because I don't have any idea where I'm going to end up that day.  I just get behind the wheel and start driving.  Sometimes I get lost.  Sometimes I stumble onto wonderful people and places that become the highlight of the novel.  The only thing I know is that I will eventually arrive in Los Angeles.

It usually takes me about six or eight giddy, dizzying weeks to get there.  When I have what's before me on my desk is a very sketchy draft of the book.  It isn't until I write my second draft that I strap on my tool belt and really begin to construct the book.  That's when I focus on the mannerisms and speech patterns of the characters who I've met along the way.  Describe the places I've been to in detail.  Do the research I need to do.  And so on.  I usually produce about 25 pages of second draft a week.  Then I spend a couple of months cutting and polishing.  That's when my pacing and style come to the forefront.  I pay little attention to my voice early on.  I'm just trying to have fun on my way to Los Angeles.

That's how I do it.  And it's how I've been doing it since I first started writing mysteries 25 years freaking ago.  You want to hear something insane? I thought I was going to write one mystery and then move to something completely different.  But, like I said, I have no itinerary.  I want to be surprised.  And I almost always am.