So you can read my books

Sunday, November 28, 2010


A deep rumbling voice awakened me, "Hey, kid. Kid! Roland!"

Gypsy rowled her "Not another ghost" rowl.

I pried open my eyes. And shot right up.

John D. MacDonald.

Sitting in his ghost chair, spectral smoke trailing up from his pipe into the mists of the night.

"You wrote about me in one of your comments yesterday. It called out to me in the ShadowLands."

His eyes gazed out over my shoulder to realms he looked like he wanted to forget but couldn't.

"I feel pretty much forgotten, son."

"Not to me, sir."

He nodded. "And because of that I wanted to drop by and give you a few pointers on how to write."

He blew out his cheeks. "I wrote THE DAMNED because I knew the locale.

I was interested in what would happen if a lot of people got jammed in the crossing. I knew a lot of things would happen."

He smiled crooked, "And that, son, is the definition of a story."

His smile dropped from his lips like the weight of sin. "I found living it in the ShadowLands is the definition of Hell."

He looked back to me. "Now, for writing characters :

I think that most of us have a greater liking for strong and solid people than we have for the wimps of the world.

With strong people you can tell where you stand. Nobody, of course, is too strong to ever be broken.

And that is my protagonist's, Travis McGee, forte, helping the strong broken ones mend."

He put out a forefinger.

"One, people want to spend time reading about someone they would like to be, doing the things they would love to do if they could.

And getting away with it.

No one wants to pay to be depressed and defeated, Roland. That comes for free in life."

He put out a second finger. "Two, writing is an adventure in and of itself :

I remember when I first started out --

I had four months of terminal leave pay at lieutenant colonel rates starting in September of 1945, ending in January 1946.

I wrote eight hundred thousand words of short stories in those four months, tried to keep thirty of them in the mail at all times, slept about six hours a night and lost twenty pounds.

I finally had to break down and take a job, but then the stories began to sell. I was sustained by a kind of stubborn arrogance.

Those bastards out there had bought one story “Interlude in India,”

and I was going to force them to buy more by making every one of them better than the previous one. I had the nerves of a gambler and an understanding wife."

He looked off into the shadows. "Mostly, an understanding wife."

He turned to me. "I can't find her in the ShadowLands, Roland. And it's killing me."

He sniffed sharp and drew in a breath. "Three, series and first-person narrative. You're doing that with your Sam McCord and Victor Standish series.

Remember a series is only confining if you let it be so. If your imagination is large scope so will be your series.

As for first person narrative -

First-person fiction is restrictive only in that you can’t cheat. The viewpoint must be maintained with flawless precision.

You can’t get into anyone else’s head. The whole world is colored by the prejudices and ignorances of your hero.

He rose and slapped his upper thighs, "If you forget what I've just said, remember this --

If you want to write, you write.

Unlike with brain surgery, the only way to learn to write is by writing. Take Stephen King --

Stephen King always wanted to write and so he writes --

books and fragments and poems and essays and other unclassifiable things, most of them too wretched to ever publish.

Because that is the way it is done.

Because there is no other way to do it. Not one other way.

Compulsive diligence is almost enough. But not quite.

You have to have a taste for words. Gluttony. You have to want to roll in them. You have to read millions of them written by other people.

You read everything with grinding envy or a weary contempt.

You save the most contempt for the people who conceal ineptitude with long words, Germanic sentence structure, obtrusive symbols, and no sense of story, pace, or character.

Then you have to start knowing yourself so well that you begin to know other people. A piece of us is in every person we can ever meet.

Okay, then. Stupendous diligence, plus word-love, plus empathy, and out of that can come, painfully, some objectivity.

Never total objectivity.

It comes so painfully and so slowly.

You send books out into the world and it is very hard to shuck them out of the spirit. They are tangled children, trying to make their way in spite of the handicaps you have imposed on them.

I would give a pretty penny to get them all back home and take one last good swing at every one of them. Page by page. Digging and cleaning, brushing and furbishing. Tidying up.

Are we all together so far?

Diligence, word-lust, empathy equal growing objectivity and then what?
Story. Story. Dammit, story!

Story is something happening to someone you have been led to care about. It can happen in any dimension -physical, mental, spiritual – and in combinations of those dimensions.

Without author intrusion.

Author intrusion is: ‘My God, Mama, look how nice I’m writing!’

Another kind of intrusion is a grotesquerie. Here is one of my favourites, culled from a Big Best Seller of yesteryear: ‘His eyes slid down the front of her dress.’

Author intrusion is a phrase so inept the reader suddenly realizes he is reading, and he backs out of the story. He is shocked back out of the story.

Another author intrusion is the mini-lecture embedded in the story. This is one of my most grievous failings.

An image can be neatly done, be unexpected, and not break the spell. In a story in this book called ‘Trucks,’

Stephen King is writing about a tense scene of waiting in a truck shop, describing the people: ‘He was a salesman and he kept his display bag close to him, like a pet dog that had gone to sleep.’

I find that neat.

Nice. It looks so simple. Just like brain surgery. The knife has an edge. You hold it so. And cut.

The main thing is story.

One is led to care.

Note this. Two of the most difficult areas to write in are humour and the occult. In clumsy hands the humour turns to dirge and the occult turns funny.

But once you know how, you can write in any area.

Write to please yourself. I wrote to please myself. When that happens, you will like the work too.

And with those words, he was gone. His wisdom stayed. I thought I'd pass it on.

Gypsy just wants her undisturbed sleep back.


  1. Most of the words in this post are the actual words of John D. MacDonald. The wisdom is all his. The mistakes are mine.

    Much of his words come from his introduction to Stephen King's first collection of short stories, NIGHT SHIFT. I hope this post entertained and helped you in some small way.

  2. Entertaining is definitely the first word that came to my mind, and equally helpful!

  3. Thanks, Emily. I try to engage my friends with whimsy as well drop a writing tip or two.

  4. "Diligence, word-lust, empathy equal growing objectivity and then what?
    Story. Story. Dammit, story!"

    haha loved that! Great post, Roland. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Morgan : I tried to capture John's gruff but kind spirit. I'm glad he made you smile and gave you some food for thought.

  6. I ove your ghost posts; and love the music.

    A string guitar and piano is my favorite.

    Your knowledge of history is so unique Roland. You bring such interesting characters to life in you posts. I really enjoy the characterizations and insightes into past writing guru minds.

    And your excerpts embodie the same sage writing advice you garner from these long dead ghosts. Nobody knows classics better than you Roland. It is so nice to know the wisdom of writers from a long forgotten age.

    The other day I read a post from a blogger friend that listed about uhm ~60 classic novels that every writer should read. Sadly I've read only about 5 or 6 off her list of classics.

    She had comments beside several with something like: but of course you graduated high school; so you've read this one and know what its about.

    And I had a slack jawed "Duh, nope, not required to graduate at my HS" moment."

    I like MacDonald's advice because he seems to say story sells, not education. Characters, and how the characters interact with plot as it unfolds.

    I worry that todays readers want plot and action, and don't care about character. Move the story along and don't care about personal connection.

    I'm an old epic fantasy reader. I learned story line from JRR Token; Catherine Kurz; David Eddings; Jack Chalker; Piers Anthony; Stephen Brus. I read horror from John Grisham; Robert McCammon; Dean Koontz; Stephen King.

    Hmm. Makes me wonder about myself as a writer. New readers want action and dialogue. Move it along and don't ever take a step back.

    I don't know that I can write that way. Even with writing/publishing advice from the past, I wonder if (as Roland Deschain says in the Dark Tower Series) "the world has moved on."

    I think writing standards have moved on. I think the world of publishing has focussed on a specific writing stantard; and it isn't the one the guru's of the past have raised to epic proportions.

    I have five children Roland. And of those five, only the one daughter is vaguely interested in reading. Not my stuff, of course, b/c I don't write YA Urban Fantasy. Readers choice, right?

    Writers Choice doesn't pay if reader's don't buy.

    Anyway: I'm commenting too late. Gotta got to bed.

    See you later. Have a good week.


  7. Donna : You raised some interesting and arresting points :

    1.)Writers Choice doesn't pay if reader's don't buy.

    Really true. Yet, I believe primal always sells.

    We all yearn to belong but deep down feel we do not -- at least somewhere or with someone important.

    There seems to always be someone or something that's out there to knock you down.

    We all yearn for magic, for the tales told us when our heads were dream-high to be true.

    2.) I have five children Roland. And of those five, only the one daughter is vaguely interested in reading.

    Ouch. But true. We live in a video game/movie generation. SOYLENT GREEN had people designated as Living Books, because most of the population could no longer read. The movie didn't end well for all. Morale : Turn a deaf eye to the world of prose at your own peril.

    3.) I think writing standards have moved on. I think the world of publishing has focussed on a specific writing stantard; and it isn't the one the guru's of the past have raised to epic proportions.

    Again, true. Like Heraclitus wrote over a thousand years ago : the only thing constant is change. Life assumes the pattern of the tides. The pendullum swings both ways. Hemlines go up/they go down. Greed alway stays the same. And the heroic always stick to their beliefs. Write what rings true and magic to your heart, and another soul will perk up when she reads those lines.

    4.) I like MacDonald's advice because he seems to say story sells, not education.

    Yes, me, too. From Homer to J K Rowling, books which have a siren call to readers are the ones that carry us to a story of primal threat and dream-high magic.

  8. Intriguing post. What I liked and took away:
    --People want to spend time with strong characters. True! (These characters can make mistakes, but we see how they work through those mistakes.)
    --No one wants to pay to be depressed and defeated...yeah, they can get that in real life, for sure. Books can tell you how to overcome something, be victorious! Rah!
    --First person is restrictive and you can't get into someone's head. I like that "problem" and I use third person limited in the same way. It's like being a real person, only in a book. You only see what you can really see.
    --Having a taste, a GLUTTONY for words, to roll in them. Perfectly said. Love the word wallowing!

  9. I like taking writing notes from spectral professors. Stupendous diligence just about sums it up for sure, Roland. You wrote him with a great voice. A pleasure as always.
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  10. Nice!

    One point that every successful author makes is this: DILIGENCE!

    They kept putting stories out there until the world couldn't help but know their name. I personally think this is my biggest weakness.

    Maybe I'll post on this point later.


    - Eric

  11. Eric : Dilgigence goes hand in hand with discipline ... in submitting stores and continuing to writes stories and novels. I'm glad I could give you an idea for a new post.

    Raquel : I think it fun to let the great authors who inspired me talk to all of us in their own words on how to write well. Gypsy just wants her undisturbed sleep!

    Carol : For me, first person roots the reader into the reality of the story, sensing it as the sense real life from the viewpoint of one person, who never knows what really is going on in the heads of everyone around her/him.