We both write at Louisa’s Bakery and Café. Twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays at 2:30. Thirty minutes of writing, then we read. It’s noisy at Louisa’s. Music, talk, the coffee machine. Keep writing. Shove your words at the noise. Jack writes on a yellow legal pad split down the middle. Keep the lines short and you get better verbs. Bob writes in a field-notes notebook turned sideways, split down the middle. Both Jack and Bob hate –LY adverbs. Sickeningly, allowably, enlighteningly, even salaciously.
Jack’s rewriting his Ricky Edwards coming of age novel. The new title is Either/Or, homage to a philosopher named Kierkegaard .In January, 2011, Jack’s novel, Blood, came out from Camel Press. Bob’s rewriting Murdock #6, Murdock Tackles Taos. In February, 2009, Bob’s how-to, The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel, came out from Watson-Guptill.
When Jack and I wrote The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, we were both writing fiction. Jack had published a novel, The Stolen House, and loads of short stories. I had a couple of Murdocks (Private Eye books), a skewed attempt at a thriller, and a tennis novel. The how-to-write a mystery book sprang from Dell’s rejection of how-to-write a short story in 90 minutes. The Dell editor said: how about writing a how-to about mystery novels? Two and a half years later, after tossing out one complete, edited draft, after permissions wars and a lawyer who said we’d get sued if we revealed an obvious Agatha Christie killer, Dell published The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery. The year was 1998. As Jack and I build post fiction on our blog, the year is 2011. Thirteen years, and our helpful mystery how-to is still in print.
And we’re still writing fiction. Still doing our writing practice twice a week at Louisa’s Bakery and Café on Eastlake in Seattle. Still meeting to read pages suck up feedback. Still trying to write Hemingway’s one true sentence. Doing that writing book was like going back to graduate school. It fed us the triumvirate of story, structure, and style—which is a template for how to write fiction: Story first, Structure second, and Style third. Writing a writing book forces you to look at structure—how things fit together. My job was generating pages. Jack’s job was bailing me out. When I reached How to Write Act Three, I slammed into writer’s block. I phoned Jack. Here’s the conversation:
Bob: What the hell is Act Three.
Jack: Act Three is a template for Act One.
When I was poking into The Maltese Falcon, I blanked out and called Jack. Here’s the conversation:
Bob: What’s the core story for The Maltese Falcon?
Jack: It’s a Grail Quest. The bird is the Holy Grail.
I wrote seven botched novels—SF, adventure, literary satire, historical—before I got one published: a tennis novel that stayed on the shelves for a week, and then disappeared down the culture tubes. Welcome to the book biz. My Murdock protagonist sprang from a love of Travis McGee, John D. MacDonald’s enforcer hero: not a cop, but an avenging angel with an eye for the ladies. McGee lived on a Florida houseboat; Murdock lives above a Surf Shop in the (then) seedy part of Newport Beach. McGee had a smart friend; Murdock has a smart friend. McGee has a different lady-friend, one for every book. Five Murdock books, five ladies.
After the fifth Murdock book, I got a terse kiss-off from the publisher and I turned to non-fiction. I wrote three Weekend Novelist books, the last one on rewriting, and after being amazed at Jack’s synthesis of his vast learning (for details, see the Camel Press interview), putting de Sade and Levi-Strauss together with his insights for the mystery book to create Blood, I started a new Matt Murdock mystery. I’m a slow writer, but this prose came fast. Fast enough so that I could write through hernia surgery and then through the noise and confusion of a house remodel.
For this new book—it’s called Murdock Tackles Taos—I shifted the point of view from the sleuth in first person to the sleuth in third. I brought in a lady detective, Helene Steinbeck, from the mystery book, and gave her a point of view. I created a nasty villain and gave him a point of view—to keep the reader one step ahead of Murdock—and maintain dramatic irony. When I finished a first draft of the Taos book, I used the techniques unearthed in The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel.
Both Jack and I are teachers. At Louisa’s we teach writers who have questions about story, structure, and style. It’s in our blood to teach. Our goal on this blog is to make good writing better.
Jack’s novel, Blood, which came out in 2011, is the first piece fiction that pulled together the lessons learned from writing the mystery how-to. When we read aloud during out feedback sessions, I heard, flowing from Jack’s pen, the stuff that artists dream of: power, rhythm, humor, depth, shape, cadence, and soul. The characters in Blood are whole people. They kill, they eat, they shit, they love, they betray the ones they love. To write Blood, Jack created a new style. To write his next book, The Virgin of Tepenixtlahuaca, he created another new style. To write his next book after Virgin, he created yet another style. The reason—he has to get it right. Each protagonist has a voice.