Writing What You Have To

People are always asking Lawrence Block when he's going to write another Bernie Rhodenbarr book. He doesn't know. Besides, he's not interested in writing what you want him to write… because that's not what drives him, or most writers, to put words on the page. He says: 

It’s counterproductive to tell me what you want me to write. I sincerely hope that my writing pleases you, but if you think I’m here to give you what you want, there’s a lot you don’t understand about writing, and no end of things you don’t understand about me. The greatest disservice I could do my readers is to try to give them what they want. That’s just not part of my job description. All I can do is write my books my way, and try to make them so irresistible that you enjoy reading what I want to write.

[…]as much as I might want to write a book about Bernie, or any other character, the desire’s not all that’s required. There are writers who can write anything they’re asked to write, and I thank whatever gods may be that I am not of their number. I probably was, early on, but I got spoiled, and for years now I’ve been unable to go on writing a book unless it engages me.

I love my readers. I need my readers. But some readers have the ridiculous notion that the novelists they read work for them and have an obligation to keep churning out the same book over and over. Some authors are quite content to do that. But even among those authors, I know many of them keep writing book after book about the same characters because they love it, because that's what they are driven creatively to do, and not only because its what their readers and publishers want from them. I'm on my 14th MONK book, and I can tell you I'm not writing them for the money. If I was, I would have quit long ago, because the money is far from spectacular.

Others, like Lawrence Block, would rather go where-ever their muse takes them, regardless of whether it makes the most commercial sense or disappoints some of their fans (I am sure there are scores of readers who wish he'd do nothing but write Scudder and Burglar books for the rest of his life). He writes the story that he has to tell…not the story that you, or me, or the publishers want him to tell.

I admire that about him.  Maybe it's that dedication to his muse, and not his readers, that's one of the keys to his prolific output and great success. 

15 thoughts on “Writing What You Have To”

  1. Lee, thanks for this. I hear writers talk about the books they are forced to write, the books their publishers insist they write, the books it just makes so much economic sense to write, and I don’t just wonder at their priorities; more, I marvel at their willingness to jeopardize this gift they’ve been given.
    For all that Samuel Johnson’s remark gets bandied about—and I’ve always felt he meant it’s stupid to expect more than money from one’s writing—did any of us get into this game because it made economic sense? Only if we were delusional. It’s nice when the money comes, and I certainly seek it and even expect it, but it’s not the point. It was never the point. The writing’s the point, and we sabotage ourselves when we overlook that fact. Or when, alas, it ceases to be true.

  2. Some analysts estimate that even Shakespeare had this problem, that the audience wanted more of his romantic comedies and so he wrote another and titled it, “As You Like It.” He grinned, bore it and cranked it out.
    But with the Spenser novels, I always have the feeling that Parker writes about his own life. He had a dog, Spenser has a dog. He lived in Boston, Spenser lives in Boston. He had a main squeeze, Spenser has one. He read poetry, Spenser is remarkably literate. He went to the Ritz and the Four Seasons for drinks, so does Spenser. Etc. Parker drew his strength from writing and thinking about his own life, not by exclusively trying to please an audience for money. Therefore, the Spenser novels have a greater conviction and authenticity woven into the spare prose.
    A writer who may have erred in trying too hard to please the audience may be Neil Simon. Whereas, Woody Allan accepts his ups and downs but goes his own way thematically, Simon kept striving to get the laughs, and that was pretty much what counted. It’s an error not to write from the heart in some way and to try to analyze its meaning. Reality is what sells best. Its how the reader connects with the writer.

  3. By your reasoning, Dan, I was clearly the inspiration for Spenser, too. I have a dog. I have a main squeeze. I’m remarkably literate. I like to drink in over priced hotels. I also have a jive talking partner who sounds like a cut-out from a 70s blaxploitation film who does my bidding. And there’s not a lot of complexity in the spare prose Parker used in the last 15 years, there’s just a shit ton of white space. My point is: confusing a writer with his character is the biggest mistake a reader can ever make. Woe be Parker if his real life was filled with the lackadaisical plotting of his last ten books or so. And even his best work — and I was a big fan – wasn’t authentic in the truest sense of the word.
    As for Neil Simon, always wanting to get the laugh was his job…he was a humorist. And Allen suffered mightily for his preoccupations — the Jade Scorpion could be exhibit A — and he very rarely wrote about reality, now or then. He wrote about stylized versions of archetypes, who somehow have managed to have broader emotions than we would expect…except, of course, when he didn’t and ended up writing horrid fucking movies, or films that were nowhere near reality at all (like, say, Sleeper) but were nevertheless funny.
    Reality isn’t what connects a reader to a story — and I can tell you, no writer wants the reader connected to them, they want the reader connected to the story — empathy is. The ability to feel something, to imagine yourself in the shoes of the characters on the page. That’s what gets you invested in a character. Reality gets you invested in paying your taxes.

  4. Tod, I wasn’t confusing Parker with Spenser. I was pointing out that Parker, for me, draws upon his real life in many authentic ways, and this adds to the authenticity and conviction in the books. If you write detective novels, and your hero is completely unlike you, what insights into him and the way he meets the world are you likely to have? Parker, in other words, wrote what he knew, and its one reason his books have a high quality that you aren’t seeing.
    You say that reality doesn’t connect readers to writers/stories, but that empathy does. Okay, but what creates the empathy? What elevates the quality of any writing? My point is that reality does. A good story is written to illustrate a theme. It’s a comment on Life. The comment should derive from an experience the writer has that gives rise to the thematic idea. But someone like Neil Simon didn’t do that, increasingly. He aimed for laughs, period. But a good story needs to be connected to reallity somehow, and it’s this connection that unites readers to stories, and that generates the empathy. Caliban provokes horror, but the reality of his complaints is what Shakespeare got down to more than other writer.
    Okay, Woody’s movies aren’t always five stars. So what? “Jade Scorpion” didn’t work for me either, but neither did “Titus Andronicus” or “Coriolanus.” Neither did, honestly, “Dombey and Son.” Or even many of Trollope’s novels, or Smollett’s “Humphry Clinker.” I know academics that hate the Brontes. But it’s the best of the writer that counts. And Woody’s best is up there with anybody’s, whereas Neil Simon’s, alas, is not. If he was a humorist, fine, but his stuff got disconnected from anything very real and, therefore, bored the audience he was trying so exclusively to please, maybe.
    Anyway, we just disagree on Parker, Woody and empathy versus reality. But if you are right about reality and I am wrong, why have all the greatest novels been about something serious and real even when they are funny? Why are reality shows successful? Because they come from the heart, where any person’s particular reality is found. And showing that sells.

  5. Personally, I love the Scudder Books and wish there were 20 or 30 more to come, but whenever a new Block title comes out and it’s not Scudder, I get i anyhow and he hasn’t disappointed me yet. Case in point, Small Town blew me away. It’s like wishing for steak and getting disappointed with Fillet Mignon….

  6. Writers very rarely write what they know, Dan, and they very rarely write toward a theme. The best writing has always been an exploration of what writers don’t know, about what they are trying to discover. The dictum to “write what you know” is the lazy advice of self-help books on writing — like telling a golfer to hit the white ball. Sure, you might do that at first, but after you’ve got that point down, it’s about invention first and foremost. You think Robert Parker was out solving crimes every day? You think when he sat down to write The Godwulf Manuscript that he was pulling from his rich experience as a private investigator? No, he was and English professor blatantly ripping off his heroes, as we all do, his early novels clearly drawn from his deep appreciation Ross McDonald, Raymond Chandler et al. Which is fine. And he did it well. I certainly don’t think he sat down and hoped to find a great theme — when was the last time you walked into a bookstore and hoped to find a book with a great theme?
    I’m not so sure your arguement that the greatest novels (and I’m positive this is the case for reality shows) come from reality, either, and certainly they don’t come from personal experience — I mean, Dan, we make shit up, that’s what writers do. I’ve never killed my wife, but there’s a dead wife in several of my books. I’ve never shot anyone. I’ve never had a picture of Elvis begin to bleed on my wall…but I’ve written about all of those things.
    What sells is an entirely different animal than where things come from. I’m going to guess that The Hunger Games isn’t based on a true story…and yet, millions of books later, it sells. The best selling books on the market, by sheer number, are Harlequin Romances, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and call those direct fantasy. (Never mind actual fantasy…I’m of the opinion that Tolkien was never a hobbit) And books that come directly from the heart — and of course many do — don’t always sell. Generally speaking, readers don’t give a shit if it comes from the heart. They just want to be taken somewhere different than their own lives.
    All of which is a long way of saying that if you want to believe that in my personal life I am a burned spy and the Lee is some kind of savant crime fighter, well, yes, that’s true.

  7. Tod, I see many of your points and I basically agree with you, except on two issues.
    When you say that most writers don’t write what they know, I agree, but that is what they should do. Ian Fleming was a spy, John Buchan was an outdoors man, Clive Cussler is a diver. They are writing out of the reality of their experiences, feelings and thoughts. From their stories, we enter a new world and a REAL one. It is the REALNESS of the writing, the depth and telling detail, that creates the great reading experience, in my opinion. If a writer wants to sell more books, the answer is to make them more REAL and to get down to the MORAL REALITIES and real character change.
    Second, when you say that Harlequins are direct fantasy, I would say that they are REAL FANTASY, they reflect the fantasies that women really have and like to think and ponder over. And, of course, as you say, they sell. But with a movie like “Cannonball Run,” there’s no connection with reality, it’s a romp, a parade of silly jokes, and therefore, essentially, not nouishing. I think you are the type of writer who likes to deal with serious themes, and not produce the more silly types of stories.

  8. . I’ve never killed my wife, but there’s a dead wife in several of my books. I’ve never shot anyone. I’ve never had a picture of Elvis begin to bleed on my wall…but I’ve written about all of those things.

  9. android, you are taking the point too literally. It’s the theme that has to be real for the writer, not every single incident in the story. The incidents are chosen to illustrate the theme or else, if there’s no real theme working in the background, the story becomes a parade of more or less shallow, superficial and pointless actions by characters who are never really alive on the page.
    For instance, suppose the theme is something like Dicken’s theme in “David Copperfield”–that “we need to be strong in this world.” However, to illustrate it, the writer writes about a night camping in a forest and has never been camping before: if all the details are made up off the top of the head, how real and authentic do you think the story will come across for the reader?–especially those who love to camp and do it all the time?
    On the other hand, if the writer loves to play chess, and read about it, and go to tournaments, and solve chess puzzles, etc., then why not set the story in his or her own reality of experiencing chess? For in this case, the writer is much more likely to serve the reader valuable insights about Life from what he or she has learned about themselves in actual over-the-board combat then by imagining camping in the forest never having done it.
    The more real the theme for the writer, the higher the quality of the writing, I would argue, and the higher the sales.

  10. Dan, I’m not trying to be antagonistic here, but I don’t think you know what theme is. Theme is a construct of the reader, not the writer, and one’s ability to play chess is not a theme. The discussion of theme is something high school teachers do to fill the time when their students haven’t actually read the book, only seen the movie. It’s about as important to the writer as motif is…which is to say, not important in the least. Here’s what I can tell you, having written now 11 books and maybe 100 short stories: I make almost all of it up as do the preponderance of my friends (and family members) who are writers. We make shit up. That’s what we do. I love to write. If I wrote a book about a guy who loves to write, it would be pretty fucking boring. If you don’t believe me, go into a bookstore and ask the clerk for a book with a really great theme.

  11. Tod said:
    “Dan, I’m not trying to be antagonistic here, but I don’t think you know wante theme is.”
    I don’t think you are being antagonistic at all, but I do know what Theme is, Tod. Here’s a definition from http://www.wiki.answers.com:
    “A theme is a lesson learned, like the hidden message or point the author is trying to get across in writing.
    There may be more than one theme in a novel, play, or movie, but usually there is an overriding main theme that sort of ties all the aspects of the story together.”
    The Theme is the point to the whole story: it’s what the story PROVES. It’s WHAT THE WRITER IS SAYING.
    Tod said:
    “Theme is a construct of the reader, not the writer, and one’s ability to play chess is not a theme.”
    Tod, Theme is not a construct of the reader. But it is what the reader realizes that the story means. In the movie, “Star Wars,” the Theme is something like, “If you trust the Force, you can do it.” And so Luke is on a journey to learn how to do so. And by extension, Lucas is saying that what we all need to learn at one time or another is to trust it, to trust what we know is true about us in this world. Which is a pretty good Theme.
    I agree that “one’s ability to play chess is not a theme”–it’s a fact. But by loving to play chess, the chess-playing writer might learn a very deep and real truth about himself or herself, and then the telling of this truth becomes the theme in the story. In the movie, “Bullets Over Broadway,” the character played by John Cusack learns he is not a writer, and he learns what a writer really would do for his play. And it’s not boring, it’s a fascinating exploration of the feelings of a true artist.
    So if the writer writes out of strong feelings about the truth he or she has to tell, the story will at least by authentic. This is how a writer knows what story to write.
    Tod said:
    “The discussion of theme is something high school teachers do to fill the time when their students haven’t actually read the book, only seen the movie.”
    Nooooo. This is you being flip. It’s just the opposite. The high school teachers I had did not know enough about STORY to be able to discuss Theme. The reason why we read literature in high school is to experience what the greatest writers have said about real aspects of Life. “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” portrayed a theory of how love works. That’s why we want our kids to read it and discuss it–because it will tell them real things and ideas that they can use when to understand themselves when they find themselves falling in love.
    Tod said:
    “[Theme is] about as important to the writer as motif is…which is to say, not important in the least.”
    No. Theme is much more important than motif. Finding your theme is the most important part of good writing. It tells you the ending of your story, and then the beginning and then the midpoint, and it tells you why the hero succeeds or not. But motifs–that is, repeating images, phrases, and actions–is how a good writer communicates the meaning of the Theme to the reader/viewer. In the movie, “American Beauty,” the repeated image of the rose and the rose petals is deliberately used to convey how fragile, delicate and beautiful Life really is–something like that. Shakespeare has multiple motifs running throughout all of his plays so it would seem that motif can be used very effectively to make good stories better by adding texture and meaning.
    Tod said:
    “Here’s what I can tell you, having written now 11 books and maybe 100 short stories: I make almost all of it up as do the preponderance of my friends (and family members) who are writers. We make shit up. That’s what we do.”
    I believe you. You make stuff up, but that’s not all there is to it. Writing is an art. There are rules to the craft. In order to write good stories, any writer has to more or less follow them. Even in Theatre of the Absurd, there is a Theme, the Theme is that “Life is absurd.” It is by using the Theme that the writer can follow the craft to create a good story. You may be doing it unconsciously, but that’s what’s happeing. Else, the stories you write would not have a point. (Also, how are the sales of you and the gang?)
    Tod said:
    “I love to write. If I wrote a book about a guy who loves to write, it would be pretty fucking boring. If you don’t believe me, go into a bookstore and ask the clerk for a book with a really great theme.”
    Tod, take “Murder, She Wrote,” for example: a mystery writer solves a murder mystery. There was nothing boring to it, it was great family entertainment. If Lee wrote a series of murder mysteries, and the detective was a TV writer trying to get work in Hollywood, I bet it would be fabulous (as long as farce, satire and irony were left out). The reason why is that Lee loves TV, he watches it incessently, he writes about it, he writes it, he’s been a showrunner, he reads everything he can about it–how much more authentic could his writing get! Whatever the central conflict of a writer’s life is, that’s the writer’s subject, and what he or she thinks about this conflict, and learns from it, is the Theme. That’s where great stories come from.
    Now, it’s true I don’t ask bookstore persons for books with a great Theme, but I do ask them what great books they’ve read recently. It’s the same thing, more or less. A great Theme–that is, a piece of Truth about Reality written from strong feeling–makes for a great book. Books with little or no Theme almost cannot be very good since the scenes add to up little or nothing.
    Final point:
    Tod, have you read Ken Follet’s preface to the new edition of “The Pillers of the Earth”? He is a thriller writer, but he found himself getting fascinated by cathedrals, of all things. He started visiting them, reading about them, walking around them. Then it came to him to write a story about a guy in the 1300’s who wants to build one–huh? To cut to the chase–it’s his best book, and his biggest seller. Why? Because he went with authentic feelings that came from his heart. Theme connects the heart to the head, and from this connection the great stories flow.
    Lee said in a tweet that he was fascinated by the court process when he did jury duty. I couldn’t think of a better emotion to write out of than fascination. The readers will pick up on it, get involved, and the sales will happen.
    What are you fascinated with? What conflict do you keep fighting day after day in your life, your heart, in your thoughts? What is you idea on HOW to live with this conflict in this world? That’s your theme.

  12. It doesn’t work that way, Tod. Unless you have an arguement that makes sense, why should I trust your opinion?
    As for doing it for a living, I’m sure you can, but that does not mean you can explain accurately what you are doing when you write.
    I reread your short story, “The Salt.” The main character learns that he is now over his relationship with his long-dead wife and that he is glad to be with his current wife. The theme is, “how and why this person lets go of his past.” Why don’t you deconstruct how you wrote this story? Let’s see how you write a tightly-written story, in five logical parts, with a focussed theme when, as you say, you just make stuff up.

  13. There’s quite a bit of projecting of one’s own ideas over what actually is on the written page going on here.
    Not saying anyone specific, just throwing it out there.
    As Tod said, as writers (havig been one myself) we make shit up.
    But, as readers, you make shit up. You sometimes look at something and project meaning when none is, and depth when there wasn’t any to be found.
    And hey, Cannonball Run was thematically the most diverse movie you’ll ever come across.
    It was a multiculture snapshot of the diverse backgrounds of theses individuals, trying to achieve the american dream of financial security during a time of great economic upheavel.
    See what I just did?

  14. A good writer can write about almost anything outside his own experience, as long as he has a fundamental understanding of human nature and how the physical world works – and a good science fiction writer isn’t even limited by that. The only thing a writer can’t write about is a character who is wiser than the author.


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