Thriller Guy has been working for a long time, well, working is not the right word, on a book about how to write a novel. Will he ever get around to settling down and actually putting it all together? Probably not. But bits and pieces of it crop up here in this blog on occasion. In fact quite often. In the course of this noodling, he has been collecting quotes about writing from various writers. From now on, TG will start, or end, these entries with a few of these quotes. He’s not going to comment on them (usually) or expand them, just toss them out there. Good! you say, finally something that he doesn’t have to express an opinion on! I feel your pain. It’s not easy being Thriller Guy.
John Updike worked mornings, preferring to "put the creative project first," as he put it. Of his discipline, he said, "I've never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again."
Thriller Guy has recently been spending time looking over Allen Appel’s shoulder as he labors away on his latest manuscript. Watching paint dry, grass grow, etc. comes to mind when thinking about how dull this is. The image of a solo writer bent over a computer keyboard has never been particularly compelling, as the failure of many computer-themed thriller movies have shown. TG has been observing this professional novelist-at-work, looking for writing tips ‘n tricks to pass along to his readers. Appel is presently working on a short novel set in the early days of the automobile industry, though it has less to do with building cars than it does with sex and murder. Because watching is so incredibly boring, TG has decided to simply interview Appel in an attempt to cut straight to anything useful he has to offer TG’s readers.
TG: Why should my readers, or anyone else for that matter, look to you for advice on how to write? What’s so special about you?
AA: Thanks, TG, for your usual blunt, antagonistic attitude. Don’t you ever lighten up?
AA: I guess it’s because I’ve written and published seven novels, and seven or eight non-fiction books, plus several more novels published as Kindles and too many to count unpublished novels written while learning how to write. I would say it comes down to one word: experience. Or maybe three words: experience, hard won.
TG: OK, so you’ve written a lot of books. Have they made you either/and/or rich and famous?
TG: So why do you do it?
AA: Because there’s always a chance that they might make me, if not rich and famous, at least afford me a reasonable standard of living. Besides, I’m good at it. The reason some writers do very well and other writers do not do so well has far more to do with luck than it does to the quality of the work. This has been proven so many times over the course off history that it is indisputable. Sort of like global warming.
TG: OK, I’m not going to get into a climate change argument. You’re working on a novel. Tell us about it.
AA: I didn’t start out to write this book. I was working on a book that was to be part of my Pastmaster series, time travel books featuring history professor Alex Balfour and his wife Molly. And now the cast includes their son Max, fourteen years old, who has inherited the family time-traveling ability. While doing the research for this book, I came across an interesting fact: beginning around 1910 the Ford Motor Company employed as many as three hundred detectives to help oversee the hiring, firing and lives of their more than 15,000 workers. Henry Ford was obsessed with building not only Model Ts, but building the sort of work force that could produce them reliably and in enormous quantities. These detectives oversaw almost every facet of the worker's lives, from making sure their homes were clean and efficiently run and the men went to work every day to investigating any criminal matters involved with the Ford plant. After I read this, the thought wormed its way into my head that this was an original milieu, this Ford detective agency, that had not been exploited by any other mystery writer, at least none that I knew of.
TG: Why is that so important? An original milieu.
AA: Because there are so many mysteries written that it’s important to begin with an original premise so an author can establish himself as different from the scores, hundreds, of other writers cranking out thousands of new mystery novels every year. Originality is the holy grail of the mystery writer: an original villain, hero, setting, structure, profession, whatever, can be the difference between getting published by either a legacy publisher or self publishing and succeeding rather than slipping soundlessly into the sea of unpublished manuscripts all floating around seeking a home. Agents and publishers aren’t looking for more of the same from unpublished writers, they’re looking for something strikingly original. Self publishing authors need something to separate them from their thousands of writer brothers and sisters, all fighting for a portion of the internet pie.
TG: But you’re not an unpublished writer. You have had many books published by legacy publishers. Doesn’t that give you an advantage?
AA: That’s true, the part about me having had many books published. But the same applies to me as for many other writers and even first timers because I am not a hugely successful published writer. The days of the midlist author chugging along year after year with a mildly successful series are gone. (That is not strictly true. The vast changes in the publishing industry have now brought back that midlist possibility. Independent publishers and self-publishers have show that it can be a profitable publishing model. But more on that in another interview.) At any rate, I had the idea about the Ford detectives and it seized me. I immediately began plotting, even though I tried to stop doing so.
TG: Why would you want to stop?
AA: Because I wasn’t supposed to be writing this book! I was supposed to be writing the sixth volume of the Pastmaster series. This wasn’t part of the plan. And to make things worse, I had put the sixth book up as a Kickstarter project and it had been successfully funded so I owed it to my contributors to write their book. That’s how they refer to it, as their book. And that’s how I think of it as well. Many of these folks are fans of the series and have stuck with it for years. I owe it to them.
TG: So where are you with this book? What’s the title?
AA: The Ford Murders: Delia. I’m in the final stages. In fact, I just finished the final draft.
TG: What constitutes a final draft? How many other drafts have there been?
AA: The first draft was finished last October. I rewrote it, because first drafts always suck, two or three more times. It then went to four writer pals who read it, passed it around, made corrections and gave me notes. These guys are all excellent writers, but they aren’t much use in the trenches of line-by-line edits. Their skills as real nitty-gritty, copy editors is limited but that's fine, that's not what I wanted from them. What I wanted was specific answers to questions I had about the general tenor of the manuscript. One question was if there was too much sex in it. There’s a lot of sex in it. There were other questions as well. When I had all their notes and the marked up manuscript, I went back and rewrote the book again, fixing all the errors they pointed out. Then I rewrote it again to make it better, incorporating their suggestions about style, structure and plot points. Then I gave it to one of my loyal fans, an experienced journalist and excellent writer herself, to read and correct. She did so. I rewrote again incorporating her corrections and suggestions. I then handed it over to my wife, who is the ultimate copy editor and a keen reader, particularly of mysteries. After she finished it, I rewrote it incorporating her corrections and suggestions. Note that by now, it had gone through eight complete rewrites and been read by six professional writers and a few other beta readers whose opinions I value.
TG: That’s a lot of rewrites. Why didn’t you just write it better the first time?
AA: Hah! Because it’s impossible to write it “better” the first time. I’m always amazed, and annoyed, to read and also to hear from writers who tell me that they don’t rewrite, they do it right the first time. They are deluded. I’ve never known any writer whose book couldn’t use another run through, including my own. You never catch everything. You’d think if you had six or seven professional writers comb through a manuscript looking for errors that you could eliminate every one of them, but no, that is not the case. There are always mistakes. And I’m not just talking about misspelling and typos. I have found that those writers who profess to getting it right the first time have the weakest, least original books. (And most error-ridden.) Rewriting forces an author to think about changes, and when you think about changes you come up with changes. You may toss out many of these ideas that float to the top of your brain pan in the middle of the night, but there are always some that you should incorporate. And every time you rewrite a manuscript, you are opening up your mind to new changes. Thus making stronger, more original stories and books.
TG: It makes me tired hearing you talk about it.
AA: It makes you tired doing it. You, TG, have often made the point that writing a novel is the most difficult -- at least physically and mentally -- of all the arts. It’s generally agreed that it takes around a solid year to finish a novel, and by finish I mean have it as good as you can possibly make it without going insane. Because by the time you write The End at the finish of the Nth draft and print it out for the last time you are hovering, if you’ve been working hard enough, on the edge of madness. You are physically spent, you are heartily sick of your characters and you often feel you’ll never write again. Or at least not for a while. (Mark Twain used to write about this spiritual and physical exhaustion when finishing a novel. Fortunately, he said, “The well always fills back up,” and a writer goes back to it, sooner usually, than later.
TG: So the book is done?
AA: The book is never done. I’ve printed it out, I hope, for the last time. I’ll read through it one more time and fix any flubs I find and try not to come up with any new bright ideas.
TG: What happens to it now?
AA: It goes off to my agent. He’ll decide if he wants to handle it. He’s already read it once, an early draft, and thought it might have a chance on the market if I expanded it and smoothed it out. If he doesn’t like it, I might put it up with my other Kindle books and sell it through Amazon. It’s time to move on to the Pastmaster book, back to what I was supposed to be working on in the first place.
TG: I have other questions.
AA: Save them. We’ll get to them next time.
Le Carré: Well, I still don’t type. I write by hand, and my wife types everything up, endlessly, repeatedly. I correct by hand too. I am an absolute monk about my work. It’s like being an athlete: you have to find out which are the best hours of the day. I’m a morning person. I like to drink in the evening, go to sleep on a good idea and wake up with the idea solved or advanced. I believe in sleep…I always try to go to sleep before I finish working, just a little bit before. Then I know where I’ll go the next morning, but I won’t quite know what I am going to do when I go. And then in the morning it seems to deliver the answer…