Having discovered I’d left a half-read James Lee Burke mystery behind as I boarded a flight from the east coast to Oregon, I decided it was time to write my own mystery. A scientist by profession at that juncture, I do admit to having written the odd poem now and again, verses I kept firmly in the closet. But a book? Are you kidding me? Fast forward a decade, and I can claim authorship to four books, the first of which, Matters of Doubt, will be published this September.
How did this happen, you might ask? Let me explain.
At the core, I suppose, writing is a compulsion. Writers have stories in them that are rattling their cages to get out. For me, the stories are mysteries, and for years I read the likes of le Carré, Hillerman, Moseley, Cornwell, Paretsky, Burke and Connelly, as well as the old masters like Hammett and Chandler. Looking back, reading those books was really a kind of vicarious writing, since I constantly found myself thinking about how I would have written a particular scene or structured a plot element. As Stephen King says in his wonderful book, On Writing, you must read well and often to write well. In my case, it appears I needed a lot of reading before the thought of writing ever occurred to me. It was a long, albeit somewhat subconscious apprenticeship.
By the time my plane landed in Oregon, I had written out the first twenty-five pages of a mystery novel, and with that start, powered through the rest of the book during the following year. When I finished, I had the semblance of a novel, but one bristling with over-the-top descriptions, clumsy metaphors and dialogue, and unlikely plot twists. Out of that effort, however, two characters sprang to life in my head. My protagonist, Cal Claxton—a burned out ex-prosecutor from L.A. who had moved to the Oregon wine country in the aftermath of his wife’s suicide—and his only companion, an Australian shepherd named Archie. That first novel wasn’t a keeper, but the characters were.
Okay, I’d proved I could write a book, but it was clear I needed to up my game if I was ever going to be taken seriously. Somebody suggested a critique group, and I rushed into the first one that would have me. Quickly and painfully, I learned two things. First, critique groups work best when the writing skills are fairly balanced across the group. Second, this was not the case in the group I had joined.
Fortunately, I was invited to join a second group of which I’m still a member some five years later. The group is diverse, with two mystery writers, two YAers and a fantasy writer, and all the writing is strong. I find critiquing someone else’s writing always instructive and often tougher than writing my own stuff, and dealing with a broad spectrum of genres keeps me on my toes. The longevity of the group results from one simple rule—find as much right with the writing being critiqued as wrong. After all, knowing what works is probably more instructive than knowing what doesn’t.
Another key to the group’s longevity is that we celebrate each and every milestone, whether it’s finishing a manuscript, receiving a positive response to a query letter, or selling a short story or book. Champagne toasts are reserved for the latter.
What about books on writing? God knows there are enough of them, and I’ve certainly read my share. In addition to Stephen King’s beautifully understated and inspiring memoir, I’ve found Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Maass’ Plot and Structure immensely useful. And then there’s the pièce de résistance, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. I particularly like Rule 6, which states “Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke lose,’” but Rule 10 is my favorite, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Words to write by, for sure.