Telling Lies For Fun and Profit: Setting Your Sights

by Lawrence Block
The Internet Writing Journal, August 2001
A couple of months ago I returned to Antioch College to teach an intensive week-long seminar on fictional technique. One of the first things I remembered as I crossed the campus was a cartoon which had been displayed on the English Department bulletin board during my first year as an Antioch student.

Telling Lies For
Fun & Profit by Lawrence Block
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The cartoon showed a sullen eight-year-old boy facing an earnest principal. "It's not enough to be a genius, Arnold," the man was saying. "You have to be a genius at something."

I recall identifying very strongly with Arnold. I had known early on that I wanted to be a writer. But it seemed that it wasn't enough merely to be a writer.

You had to sit down and write something.

Some people receive the whole package as a gift. Not only are they endowed with writing talent but they seem to have been born knowing what they are destined to write about. Equipped at the onset with stories to tell and the skills required to tell them, they have only to get on with the task. Some people, in short, have it easy.

Some of us don't. We know that we want to write without knowing what we want to write.

How are we to decide what to write?

By chance, I suspect, more often than not. Yet there seem to be some steps one can take in order to find oneself as a writer. Let's have a look at them.

1. DISCOVERING THE OPTIONS. When I was fifteen or sixteen years old and secure in the knowledge that I'd been born to be a writer, it didn't even occur to me to wonder what sort of thing I would write. I was at the time furiously busy reading my way through Great Twentieth Century Novels, Steinbeck and Hemingway and Wolfe and Dos Passos and Fitzgerald and all their friends and relations, and it was ever so clear to me that I would in due course produce a Great Novel of my own.

I'd go to college first, naturally, where I might get a somewhat clearer idea of what constituted a Great Novel. Then I'd emerge from college into the Real World. There I would Live. (I wasn't quite sure what Capital-L Living entailed, but I figured there would be a touch of squalor in there somewhere, along with generous dollops of booze and sex.) All of this Living would ultimately constitute the Meaningful Experiences which I would eventually distill into any number of great books.

Now there's nothing necessarily wrong with this approach. Any number of important novels are produced in this approximate fashion, and the method has the added advantage that, should you write nothing at all, you'll at least have treated yourself to plenty of booze and sex along the way.

In my own case, my self-image as a writer was stronger than my self-image as a potential great novelist. I began reading books about writers and their work. I became a sporadic student of Writer's Digest. I loved the success stories and identified with their subjects. And, reading the market reports, I became aware that there was a whole world of professional writing that lay outside the more exclusive world of significant literature. I came to realize that, whatever my ultimate goals, my immediate aim was to write something--anything!--and get paid for it and see it in print.

I began reading a great many different kinds of books and magazines, trying to find something I figured I could write. I didn't care whether it was significant or artistic or even interesting. I just wanted to find something I could do.

2. YOU HAVE TO BE ABLE TO READ IT. When I was starting out, confession magazines were generally acknowledged to constitute the best and most receptive market for new writers. They paid fairly well, too.

I think I understood what a confession story was, the basic structure of its plot, and what made one story good and another unacceptable. During the year I spent working for a literary agent, the two confessions I pulled out of the slush pile both sold on their first submission, and the author of one of them came to be a leader in the field.

On several occasions, I bought or borrowed confession magazines and decided to read my way through them. I never made it. I could not read one of the damned things all the way through without skimming. I couldn't concentrate on what I was reading. And I couldn't shake the conviction that the entire magazine, from front to back, was nothing but mind-rotting garbage.

Nor, consequently, could I produce a confession story. The ideas my mind came up with were either numbingly trite or at odds with the requirements of the market. I never did turn any of these ideas into stories, never wrote a confession until one bizarre weekend when I wrote three of them to order for a publisher with a couple of holes to fill and a deadline fast approaching. Those stories were awful. I wrote them because I'd taken the assignment, and the publisher printed them because he had to, and that was the hardest money I ever made.

I know other writers with similar experience in other fields. The moral is simple enough. If you can't stand to read a particular type of story, you're wasting your time trying to write it.

3. IDENTIFYING WITH THE WRITER. As a lifelong compulsive reader, I had little trouble finding categories of stories I could read with enjoyment. What I learned then, and have confirmed on many occasions since, is that just because I can read a particular story doesn't perforce mean I can write it.

For example, there was a time when I read a great deal of science fiction. I liked most S-F stories, and I liked the good ones a lot. Furthermore, I used to hang out with several established science-fiction writers. I found them a congenial lot, and I liked the way they grabbed hold of ideas and turned them into stories.

But I couldn't write science fiction. No matter how much of the stuff I read, my mind did not produce workable S-F ideas. I could read those stories with a fan's enjoyment, but I could not get the sort of handle on those stories that left me thinking, "I could have written that. I could have come up with that idea, and I could have developed it the way he did. I could have been the writer of that story."

One of the things that makes a story work is that you identify with the characters. Well, one of the things that make a story writable, if you will, is when you read it and identify not only with the characters but with the writer.

I remember the first time that happened. It was the summer after my freshman year at Antioch. I picked up a paperback anthology of short stories entitled The Jungle Kids. The author was Evan Hunter, who had recently made a name for himself with The Blackboard Jungle. I read the dozen or so stories in the book, all of them dealing with juvenile delinquents, virtually all of them originally unpublished in Manhunt, and I experienced a shock of recognition. I identified, not so much with the characters in the stories, but with Evan Hunter himself.

I can still remember how excited I was when I got to the end of the book. Here was someone writing and publishing well-written stories that I could respect and enjoy -- and I could see myself doing what he had done. I felt it was something I could do and I saw it as eminently worth doing.

Had I known then what I know now, I would have immediately gone to a back-magazine store and purchased every available copy of Manhunt. This never occurred to me. I did check one newsstand, and when they proved to be out of the magazine I forgot all about it. I went on to write a couple of stories about juvenile delinquents, but they were lousy and I didn't try submitting them anywhere.

Some months later, I wrote a story about a young criminal. It had nothing in common with the Hunter stories, and I had indeed forgotten about them when I wrote it. A couple of months after that, I read the listing for Manhunt in a copy of Writer's Digest, remember the magazine as having published Hunter's stories, and sent them mine. It came back with a note from the editor criticizing the ending. At that point I finally took the trouble to locate a copy of Manhunt, read it from cover to cover, rewrote my story with a new ending. It was not, however, a very good ending, and it came back by return mail.

I kept reading Manhunt, however, and a month later I saw how to make the story work, and rewrote it once again, and they bought it, and I decided crime fiction was my metier. I can't say I've never regretted the decision, but I do seem to have stuck with it over the years. Now, as then, I'm sustained by the hope that, if I just keep at it long enough, sooner or later I'll get it right.

That shock of recognition, that identification with the writer, is difficult to describe but impossible to ignore. A similar epiphany preceded the writing of my first novel.

At that point I'd been writing and publishing crime stories for a year and felt it was time to write a detective novel. I'd read hundreds of them, liked them very much, and had made a couple of attempts at writing one of my own. For one reason or another, however, I couldn't get a handle on a novel.

During this time I had read perhaps a dozen lesbian novels. The sensitive subject of female homosexuality was a popular category in the fifties and I suspect I read the books more for information and titillation than anything else. I didn't know any lesbians then, and all I knew about the subject was what I read in these dumb books. But I did find the books compulsively readable, and one day I finished one and realized that I could have written it. Or one quite like it. Possibly, by Georgia, one a shade better than what I'd read.

In the name of research, I promptly read every other lesbian novel I could lay my hands on. Then one morning the plot came to me, and I outlined it, and a few weeks later I sat down and wrote the thing start to finish in two weeks flat, finishing four days before my twentieth birthday. (This seemed highly significant at the time. I've no idea why.) It was sold to Fawcett, the first publisher to see it, and I was published novelist just like that.

Deciding what you're going to write is a major step on the road to discovering yourself as a writer. Once you've found your particular field of endeavor, there are some more steps that you can take that will make it a little simpler for you to get into that chosen field.

We'll get to them in the next chapter.

Excerpted from Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, by Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton (Introduction). Copyright ©2001 by Lawrence Block. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission. Reproduction or dissemination in any manner whatsoever is strictly prohibited.

Photo of Lawrence Block**A Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster and the winner of three Edgar and four Shamus awards, bestselling novelist Lawrence Block is one of the most prolific mystery writers, with over 50 books to his credit. Lawrence Block is the creator of urban lonely guy hitman J.P. Keller, gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, adventurous spy Evan Tanner and the hardboiled private eye, Matt Scudder. But Block doesn't only write fiction. He has written a number of writing books, and is a former columnist for Writer's Digest magazine. His classic reference book for writers, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, originally published in 1981, is still popular with today's writers. Lawrence Block has also recently released the title as an audio book. The audio book can purchased from his website at www.lawrenceblock.com.

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