Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing - A Review

Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing: a novelist looks at his craft
(Republished in 2008 as The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing)
by David Morrell
Writers Digest Books (2002)
Table of Contents of the 2008 version is available on Amazon.

The Author
David Morrell has written more than 20 books. His best known is First Blood. Yes, as in Rambo: First Blood. I always find it reassuring when the author of a writing book has written books that are still in print years later. Even better when it's a book I recognize or have read. Having written a character that/s become a cultural icon, I expect him to know his stuff.

That said, I wasn't sure what to expect from the title of this book. Was it going to be about his personal journey as Stephen King's book  is, or would it be more of a how-to book? Turns out it's a bit of a hybrid.

Morrell writes about his journey, but his insights are universal. Such as when he writes about what you should write about, he relates what he was once told by Science Fiction author Philip Klass (pen name, William Tenn):

Look inside yourself," Klass said. "Find out who you are. In your case, I suspect that means find out what you're most afraid of, and that will be your subject for your life or until your fear changes."

Morrell calls this "fiction writing as self-psychoanalysis." Because of his childhood, Morrell's fascination is the father-son relationship. This isn't exactly a fear, but it's a part of his personal history he seems to have never worked through completely and so he keeps returning to it. I understand this completely because, having come from a dysfunctional family, my fascination is with how family shapes you. These personal issues are where good characters are born.

Like a lot of writers, I enjoy playing "what if." Morrell adds another question to my repertoire. So What? He recommends employing it as you start playing with your story idea. His own method is to write sort of a stream-of-consciousness conversation with himself. In this way he explores the idea, locating the dead ends without having to write the actual scenes that lead nowhere. This is one of my favorite things that he shares. He also keeps this "conversation" so he can refer back to it to remind himself what he was thinking when he made his story decisions. I've adopted this method and I love it.

There's so much good stuff here. He talks about things like respecting your walk-on characters, the value of hands-on research, writer's block, finding your character's motivation, and dialog tags, among others.

He's also a bit of a contrarian. For instance, unlike most other writing advice, he doesn't jump on the bad-adjective bandwagon. Instead, he illustrates how to disguise the use of adjectives with a passage from Farewell to Arms:

In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. 

Morrell then writes: Surprisingly, this sentence has five adjectives and one adverb, if you take the time to notice them, but Hemingway usually doesn't give you the time to do that. The sentence is constructed so that the adjectives don't precede the nouns they modify and thus impede the flow of the sentence. Instead, they come after the nouns and stand alone, occupying so strong a place in the sentence that they feel like concrete nouns. 

He also doesn't like the idea of reading dialog out loud. In fiction, Morrell states, dialog is an act of silent communication. Reading it aloud allows one to add inflection that isn't there on the page and to convince yourself that the dialog is good (when perhaps it isn't.) He has a point. (A good compromise might be to allow Adobe to read it out loud for you. I guarantee, you won't risk mistaking poor dialog for a performance by Lawrence Olivier.)

One story he relates is about the writer's block he encountered while writing Extreme Denial, a story that started out as being about two men, two neighbors who were best friends, one of whom is in the witness protection program. A hundred and fifty pages in, the story stalled and refused to budge. He couldn't quite figure out what the problem was but, following advice he got from his agent, he made some changes to try to expose the problem with the story. It worked. He saw that his motivation for one of the men was illogical; that it was an idiot plot. He changed the story and presto, the story is off and running again. What was the change his agent suggested? Change the sex of the characters. In the end, he only changed the sex of one of the characters, and that simple thing makes the story far more compelling.

Rambo [Blu-ray]Some of the thing he shares are things I wouldn't think about on my own. For instance, he tells how his agent made sure that the movie contract for First Blood contained a clause about how he would be paid for sequels. He didn't see the point since Rambo dies at the end of the book, but the movie industry managed to stretch the character into three movies. How important does he think it is to have a good agent? I bet you can guess.

Another point I found interesting concerns how books that open on bestseller lists get there. Or at least the ones you see posted in stores like Fred Meyer. He learned about this because he emulated Jacqueline Suzanne's promotion methods of courting the folks who worked in the book warehouses. On one occasion, when he brought donuts and coffee to the warehouse staff, the manager took him into his office where he made up his list.

Number one is this title. Number two is that title. Those aren't true best-seller lists. They have nothing to do with sales. They're prepared six months in advance based on arbitrary rules. The top five are for brand-name authors (King, Grisham, Clancy, Steel, Cornwell, whoever has a new paperback that month). The middle five are for non-brand names that have flashy story ideas: The shark that ate Pittsburgh. The bottom five are genre books: a Western, a romance, a detective story, whatever. This system varies from distributor to distributor, but not much.

Now we're not talking the NYTimes bestseller list here, but it does make me question how they do it, given that I've seen books at #1 the day they're released. Particularly since the publishing houses are so unsure of what's sold that they have to keep a reserve against returns, and indeed, booksellers are allowed to return unsold copies months later.

So do I think this is a worthwhile book? Oh, yeah. Morrell doesn't give you "rules" or even a lot of writing advice. He doesn't harp about conflict or story structure. What he does give you are tools. He encourages you to think outside the box. How to find that story that you need to tell. You can bet that you'll find this book on my keeper shelf.

If you'd like to see reviews of other writing sources, go here.

What's the best writing lesson you've learned from a writing craft book?

1 comment:

  1. I'll have to give this one a read. I read one of his books some months ago, on strange lights in the American southwest, and liked it.