At Bouchercon in Baltimore, several of us from Criminal Brief were going out to dinner. Along for the ride was a couple I didn't know, so I introduced myself.
If I could have picked any one person to meet, it would have been John Lutz, and here I was with my hand in a frozen clasp and my jaw unflatteringly prolapsing.
Gushing– I detest gushing. I hope I didn't gush. Gushing would have been the ultimate uncool. But I may have prattled on a bit about Nudger, maybe Frank Quinn or the Night series. Maybe a little. Or a lot.
Carving a Place for Himself
John Lutz rose to the top of my favorite American mystery authors long before I began writing and long before I realized how much he was honored by his colleagues. This man manages not only to be a prolific writer– both short stories and novels– but he avoids the death trap of an occasional contractual dud.
Usually writers excel at either characterization or plot. John Lutz handles both with ease. His protagonists are real, they're accessible, they're ordinary people with extraordinary barriers to overcome. Jack Reacher they are not but neither are they Tom Cruise.
My favorite is Nudger, a gentle PI with a carnivorous ex-wife, crushing debts, an unreliable car and a very reliable girlfriend. Indeed, he has a few very good friends even when, like Danny the doughnut man, they can be too much. Nudger doesn't bounce out of his rut, but he manages to climb up a centimeter at a time. That's good enough for most people.
My favorite novel plot comes from the Fred Carver series. Carver has a bad leg and bad enemies… one of them a corrupt police lieutenant. Carver finds an ingenious way to keep the lieutenant in line.
And premise? Imagine a cameraman taking time lapse photos of an office building and realizes one person doesn't move… all day long. Dum, de-dum, dum.
John Lutz's Top Ten Tips
While I was in South Africa, I received an eMail mentioning John Lutz'stop ten tips for writers. I haven't provided famous author tips in quite some time, so I was pleased to see this. Recently published by The Strand Magazine, I paraphrase here for the purposes of discussion.
What can we learn from John Lutz? Let's recap and study his recommendations.
- Appeal to a broad range of readers.
This should be obvious, but clearly many would-be authors miss the point. We've all known writers like that. When others question who their intended market is, they become defensive and talk about artistic merit and avoiding the crush of the mainstream– no problem there.
- Write characters your readers will enjoy, likable and
interesting. Bear in mind the importance of chemistry between
You'll remember an outstanding plot for a long time, but if you keep coming back to a book, a series, or an author, chances are it's for the characters.
- Know the ending before beginning. John calls this a 'magnetic
north' that keeps the writer from meandering.
I'm relieved John makes this point. So many of the start-writing-and-see-where-your-story-takes-you school eschew having a fixed plot that I started wondering if I was the odd duck out. I may sketch a scene and then dream up the circumstances surrounding it, but I like to have a goal when I start writing. That doesn't mean an initial target can't be revised, but I have to know the ending first.
- Build your characters as if you were to act them on stage. In
other words, what is the motivation of each? Corollary: How can you
John asks what drives a character: respect, love, wealth, power, forgiveness, revenge? Figure that out and turn to method acting. Then give your players distinctive characteristics in looks, speech, and catch phrases.
- Practise your craft in the same place and time each day. John
says this makes it easier to lose yourself in your writing so readers
might lose themselves in your work.
This is where I fall short. I like to work at night because it's quiet where I can think and paint pictures on the dark screen of my mind. Unfortunately crazy people (merchants, schools, government offices) think I should remain available during the day. Ah, the privations and tribulations of an artist!
- Read chapter endings and beginnings. End each chapter with a
question, actual or implied.
I believe John is suggesting making chapters sort of cliffhangers. In chapter 33, the good guy breaks away from the bad guys who were chasing him and turns onto the mountain road just as the brakes fail… turn the page to chapter 34.
- Concentrate on the particular. Make the smallest details singular
This is somewhat related to (4) above. Romance writers recommend employing all five senses when describing, but good genre writers of any stripe should follow suit. Consider an amazing paragraph from Sue Grafton:
As a child, I was raised with the same kind of white bread, which had the following amazing properties: If you mashed it, it instantly reverted to its unbaked state. A loaf of this bread, inadvertently squished at the bottom of a grocery bag, was permanently injured and made very strange-shaped sandwiches. On the plus side, you could roll it into little pellets and flick them across the table at your aunt when she wasn't looking. If one of these bread boogers landed in her hair, she would slap it, irritated, thinking it was a fly. I can still remember the first time I ate a piece of the neighbor's home-made white bread, which seemed as coarse and dry as a cellulose sponge. It smelled like empty beer bottles, and if you gripped it, you couldn't even see the dents your fingers made in the crust.
- Read dialogue aloud.
I am a believer in reading not just dialogue, but everything aloud. There's something about the exercise that catches errors and rotten writing like no other tool. And to vary the equation, I sometimes instruct my computer to read to me.
- Let your writing 'cool off' before re-reading and revising.
Again, I 'm a believer. Days, weeks, even months later, the brain sees a story in a new light. My reaction is often disgust. Only when I reach a point where I no longer detest what I've written do I begin to think it might be ready for someone else.
- Double check you're satisfied with the four elements: character,
situation, setting, and theme.
If you're not fully comfortable with your writing, others won't be comfortable either. It all has to fit and work together. Don't 'make do', find a way to make it all work.
- Pat yourself on the back.
Now you know why John Lutz is a favorite of mine.