Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Warriors and Writing

Here are a couple of treats for TG’s loyal readers. A video of a Maori military unit giving a send off to one of its members. This was sent to TG by his writing partner,  Mike Rothmiller. Three minutes or so of video and there’s enough backstory implied to hang a novel on. My gift to someone who wants to do the work and write it.

Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment send-off for a fallen comrade. This is Maori war chant tradition. Note when the procession leaves, the ghillie suited sniper is point man.

And here’s a URL for the script for the pilot episode of Breaking Bad. There is no better show on television:

And this week’s writing tip.

A year or so ago TG was having an email conversation with the great military/aviation/adventure writer Dale Brown, who was at the forefront of that genre with his great thriller Flight of the Old Dog and who has published a dozen or so NYTs best sellers. Dale said he liked TG’s blog but that he wouldn’t be reading it “because it was about Hemingway and literature” and he didn’t have time for that at this point in his career. TG was a bit bothered by this because he hopes that his blog isn’t about literature, but about writing and reading on a more workmanlike level, but he respects Dale’s opinion and his work. So if the following gets a bit heady, soldier on and TG hopes you’ll pick up a tip or two that will help you not with your literary writing, but your every day get-the-job-done writing in whatever genre vineyard you are laboring.  Onward…

The New York Times sometimes runs essays on writing in their series entitled Draft. This Sunday, September 30, they ran an essay by Michael Erard, the author of the book: Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. While the article was fairly obtuse, some of what Erard was talking about was reminiscent of some of TG’s earlier blogs.

Writers need to be careful about what they are reading when they are in the process of writing. If TG is writing a thriller, he steers clear of reading other thrillers (mostly, for the caveat see the writing tip below) for fear of picking up another writer’s style. He also steers clear of books that have strong styles, say, reading Shakespeare or someone writing a novel about Spanish people complete with dialogue. You wouldn’t want to be reading The Friends of Eddy Coyle and put the book down and start in on your own stuff.  This novel, by George V. Higgins, has a strong auditory style, written almost completely in dialogue as spoken by Boston dwellers in 1970. If you haven’t read it, do so as it is master writing at its finest. Just don't read it before starting in on your own work.

Here’s a chunk of the article from the NYTs:  “…your brain’s activity in one part of the day shapes it in another, especially when it comes to creating sentences. This is a real phenomenon, described by psycholinguists, who call it ‘structural priming’ or ‘syntactic persistence.’  Basically, earlier patterns in what you say or read or write “prime” you to repeat them when you are acting automatically.”

TG takes this to mean, putting it simply, just what he said several paragraphs above: if you read Brad Thor before you start to write, you’re going to sound like Brad Thor. If you read William Faulkner before you write, you’re going to echo William Faulkner. Here’s the question: if you’re writing an action adventure thriller, who do you want to sound like?

Erard’s article was primarily advice for writers, like himself, who have a day jobs writing, say, technical articles about the drug chemical industry and at night writing, say, thrillers or science fiction, sex books or poetry for that matter. He says you must “cleanse” you day-writing before beginning your night, or after-work, writing. “Each time you sit down to write, you should cleanse your linguistic palate by reading some things that are vastly unlike what you’ve been writing.” That may be true, but TG is more interested in how you set the tone for any of your own writing, be it day or night.

When TG was starting out as an action thriller writer, if he was heading into an action scene, he would pick up an early Richard Marcinko book, turn to any page with an action scene -- and there were many -- read it, put the book down and then plow straight into his own action scene. The point was not to sound like Marcinko, it was to pick up the straight-ahead, headlong rush of Marcinko’s rhythm, the adrenalin rush of his scene. Later on, TG would rewrite the scene making sure he took out any Marcinkoisms that were too close. It worked very well, but TG would advise against using Demo Dick’s present-day books which are often so jokey you might pick up more than action in the vibe. There are plenty of this type of thriller to choose from.

But here’s the real tip… if you want to sound like an author you care about, and who’s style you are happy to emulate, then read yourself before you start writing. TG’s tip is the same as Hemmingway’s ”stop your day’s writing in the middle of a sentence and the next day begin where the sentence leaves off.”  TG advises writers to begin a new writing day by reading, and correcting, all that was written on the preceding day. By the time you have finished that chore, you will have the style and pace of your own writing in your head. You can then head right into a new day of writing untainted by anyone else. And when you need an extra jolt, pick up something fast and hard and give it a paragraph or two.

Then the next day you start all over again. And the next day. And the next. In about a year you’ll have a novel, written in your own style.


  1. That is interesting. What I read does influence how I write. I noticed that after reading a lot of Elmore Leonard I tend to get a little more efficient in my dialogue. :)

    I know I have a terrible time writing at the end of a day of all the mental energy I spend on my 9-5 job, but sometimes I am able to turn to it, and the way I do get things going again is exactly what you were talking about - I start reading and re-writing what I started, refining it, until I get moving. The other thing that changes how I write is the music I listen to when writing. My three protagonists - three brothers each with their own unique story - to keep their personalities from blending and overlapping I have a whole playlist of songs I listen to while writing that set the mood for them. Gryphon Wallace has Linkin Park, Victor Wallace has a list of stuff that ranges from Cajun artists to Lana Del Rey, and Josiah Wallace is...well, his music is hard to explain. :)

  2. An editor once told me to watch a movie scene similar in style to what I'm writing. Then jot down how I would write that scene (including dialogue) before writing my own stuff.

    It did help to get my head and keyboard into the groove and establish tone without borrowing someone else's style. I was essentially writing my own eye witness account of events. My own voice became stronger in early drafts as a result.

    After that, as always, edite, edit, edit.

  3. This sounds like a great tip. TG will give this one a try to see how it goes.

    And the question of music is always interesting. TG has never been able to write with music in the background. Certainly nothing with words in it. Every so often he slaps on Ride of the Valkyries if he's about to do an action scene.