So you can read my books

Friday, September 14, 2012


{Image courtesy of the genius of Leonora Roy}

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

Gypsy rowled her "Not another ghost" rowl ...

which was rather funny since she is a ghost cat.

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 underlined passages in my book you were reading before you fell asleep tonight. It called out to me in the ShadowLands."

"You're a master, sir. I learn so much from your prose even after re-reading it for the tenth time."

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 personally and give you a few pointers on how to write. I wanted you to learn the truth behind my words."

"What truth, sir?"

"Integrity. Integrity is not a conditional word. It doesn't blow in the wind or change with the weather. It is your inner image of yourself,

and if you look in there and see a man who won't cheat, then you know you never will. Integrity is not a search for the rewards of integrity.

Maybe all you ever get for it is the largest kick in the ass the world can provide. It is not supposed to be a productive asset.”

I whispered, "That's what you wrote in THE TURQUOISE LAMENT."

He nodded. "But nonetheless true. At times it seems as if arranging to have no commitment of any kind to anyone would be a special freedom.

But in fact the whole idea works in reverse. The most deadly commitment of all is to be committed only to one's self. Some come to realize this only after they are in the nursing home.”

He sighed. "There are people who try to look as if they are doing a good and thorough job, and then there are the people who actually damn well do it, for its own sake. You are a writer of the later sort.”

He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "The only thing in the world worth a damn is the strange, touching, pathetic, awesome nobility of the individual human spirit."

He put them back on and nudged them up his nose. "I know just enough about myself to know I cannot settle for one of those simplifications which indignant people seize upon to make understandable a world too complex for their comprehension.

Astrology, health food, flag waving, bible thumping, Zen, nudism, nihilism --

all of these are grotesque simplifications which small dreary people adopt in the hope of thereby finding The Answer,

because the very concept that maybe there is no answer, never has been, never will be, terrifies them."

I said softly, "I think there is some kind of divine order in the universe. Every leaf on every tree in the world is unique.

As far as we can see, there are other galaxies, all slowly spinning, numerous as the leaves in the forest.

In an infinite number of planets, there has to be an infinite number with life forms on them. Maybe this planet is one of the discarded mistakes. Maybe it's one of the victories. We'll never know."

MacDonald husked, "Not on your side of the grave."

He blew out his cheeks. "But I came here to talk on how to write better not to speak of the damned. Speaking of which, 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:

We're all children. We invent the adult facade and don it and try to keep the buttons and the medals polished.

We're all trying to give such a good imitation of being an adult that the real adults in the world won't catch on.

Each of us takes up the shticks that compose the adult image we seek."

He brooded a look at me. "Which leads me to what character should drive the actions of your novel. 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 never to 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."

I cleared my closing throat. "I'll ask Samuel McCord ...."

He shook his head. "He's already tried, son. No luck."

He sniffed sharp and drew in a breath. "Where was I? Oh, yes."

He stuck out a third finger. "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.

Remember the child in your hero.

Adult pretenses are never a perfect fit for the child underneath,

and when there is the presentiment of death, like a hard black light making panther eyes glow in the back of the cave,

the cry is, "Mommy, mommy, mommy, it's so dark out there, so dark and so forever."

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 be published.

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 you and I all together so far?

Diligence, word-lust, empathy equal growing objectivity and then what?

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 Stephen King story 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."

His deep eyes locked onto mine. "Life is a coin, Roland. You can spend it any way you want. But you can only spend it once."

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

Gypsy just wants her undisturbed sleep back.
Here is a tune that John D. MacDonald likes:


  1. Very nice Jesse Cook Youtube! That's the first time I've heard him. He almost has a gypsy jazz sound.

    As for John D., sorry to say I'm not familiar with him.

  2. D.G.:
    Gypsy jazz is the exact term I think of when I think of Jesse's music.

    Alas, most modern authors of today will suffer the same fate of John D. MacDonald, forgotten. Stephen King loved his prose.

  3. I loved this. Really, really, really.


    Hugs and chocolate,


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  5. Shelly:
    Thanks. I was beginning to fear I had written a flat post. I hope your weekend goes smoothly, Roland