The Learning Curve

I think it was not long before his death that Louis L’Amour, speaking at a writing conference, said that he felt he was just beginning to learn his craft.

Think about that. He was a bestselling author and had been for years. Probably the bestselling Western author of his day. Now, we can argue all day long about the quality of his writing. I’m a fan, and I’ll say so without any embarrassment. I know I’m not alone. Maybe his Westerns were romanticized, but so what? He told a good story, and isn’t that what we all want to do?

And yet, he felt that, after fifty years in the business, he was just beginning to learn his craft. If you’re a fan, you get an idea what he was talking about. His last few books were departures from the material he’d been writing for years. The Haunted Mesa was as much an urban fantasy as it was a Western, and The Last of the Breed is an action novel that takes place in modern Siberia. I think he always meant to write a sequel but was unable to before he died. I haven’t read or heard anything to support this, but it ends on something of a cliffhanger.

If you follow any writer and read his books in the order they were published, you’ll see a growth curve in practically every one of them. If you like Mac Bolan novels, well, maybe not. I can’t say for sure, as I’ve never read any of the series. But, like Harlequin romances, the men’s adventure books—The Executioner, The Destroyer and others like them—are formula books. I’m sure that writer gets better at what he’s doing, but I’m not sure if you can see it, since he has to basically write the same story repeatedly.

Writing has a learning curve, just like anything else. Any writer can tell you that if they go back and look at some of their early stuff—the stuff they probably wouldn’t let see the light of day—it’s almost embarrassing to think you ever wrote like that. It’s usually overly dramatic, while being short on something or other that’s actually important to writing. Maybe the description is lacking, or the dialogue sounds like a hack wrote it, something like Rambo saying, “I’m your worst fucking nightmare.” Stuff that sounds like a computer wrote it.

I’ve never been good at description of surroundings. Sometimes, I see the scene fully realized, but mostly, I have to agonize over what the setting is. I think it’s because of how I read. When I’m reading a book, I tend to kind of skim over the descriptions of the surroundings, unless it’s important like a murder scene. Why do I care? Sure, it’s supposed to ground me to the place, but I guess I assume that I’m already there and don’t really need to know what it looks like. It’s a place. Who cares what it looks like?

Obviously, I’m an exception to the rule. But, because I’m that way, I have trouble coming up with any kind of specific details about surroundings. Which is why the current trend toward painting the scene in broad brush strokes works for me. Let the reader fill in the details. Doesn’t bother me a bit. Frees me up to concentrate on what’s happening, which is the important part to me. I can paint the picture in broad strokes because that’s how I usually see it, unless setting is intrinsic to the scene, another character, as it were.

Following an author can impart some of his writing tricks to you, too. A good writer is like a sponge: he/she absorbs lessons learned from successful writers. It’s one of the reasons you’re encouraged to read as much as possible. It’s good as long as you don’t take it too far, as a friend of mine seems to have done (in my opinion, anyway). I once remarked to him that he didn’t seem to enjoy anything that he read, and he replied that he didn’t read for entertainment. He read for education.

That’s great if you’re reading nonfiction and/or doing research. But he was talking about fiction. Reading fiction to learn writing techniques is well and good, but he’s totally left out the idea of reading for fun.

Anyway, a case in point for me is Don Winslow. I’ve mentioned him before, but his case is a very good example of what I’m talking about. Mr. Winslow’s early books are good, but the writing style is extremely different from what’s he’s writing now. Down on the High Lonesome is the only early one I’ve been able to read, but if it’s any example—and I’m sure it is—of his initial books, it’s like a different man wrote them. Long paragraphs written in a fairly formal tone. Very writerly, to use a word I read once. It’s good writing, and the story was good, but it’s nothing like what he’s doing now.

Starting with The Death and Life of Bobby Z, Mr. Winslow took on a very informal tone, and a lot of the books are in present tense. They’re full of slang, incomplete sentences, and lots of everyday type humor. His novels have lots of white space in them, and not a lot of exposition. They move forward and never stop, even when “nothing” is happening. He even shows us backstory rather than lecturing us about it, to the point we don’t really realize he’s doing backstory and character development at all.

I have no idea what spurred him to change his writing style like that. Maybe he felt some need—as I did after I read one of his books—to break out of that stodgy mold he’d set up for himself. He can even do a hybrid of it, as he did in The Power of the Dog. If you haven’t read that book, you’re missing out. I’m tempted to go back and read it again.

Mr. Winslow’s work was an epiphany of sorts to me. He showed me that I don’t have to have what I think of as “that voice.” You know the one I’m talking about, because it’s in so many books. It brought home to me a technique Elmore Leonard uses. He said that he writes his book, then goes back through and takes out everything that sounds like a writer.

I’m still learning how to do that, but I’m getting there. I write more formally here on my blog, but even here I sometimes let little bits of my writing style show through.

Some of that has to do with the character, though. For instance, I’m trying to write a Western short story about a Pinkerton agent. Since it’s the Old West and people wrote and probably thought more formally back then, the prose comes across as more formal than some of my other work. I think it fits the character. But it’s not as easy for me to write that way anymore. It feels stiff and unnatural.

Michael Connelly’s writing is teaching me to make my plots more intricate. His mysteries are so multilayered that you’re never sure till you turn the last page that you’ve seen all the layers. Reading one of his books is like peeling an onion—except it doesn’t make you cry. I’m watching his stuff carefully to learn how to plant subtleties in my stories that don’t pay off till further down the road a piece. It’s something new I’m learning, so I’m not at all sure how well I’m doing at it, but at least I’m trying.

Robert Crais’s writing shows me how to take my crime stories outside the box by inserting elements that go beyond the formula. His latest novels—especially from L.A. Requiem forward—examine parts of life that I haven’t seen in very many other crime novels. Friendship, loyalty, and the damage that life can invoke on these things are themes he’s examining, all under the setting of criminal doings. Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are seeing more of the dark side of the criminal world, and you can’t witness all this and not have some of it rub off on you. These two men don’t see the world the same way we do, and their unique backgrounds prepared them to handle these revelations better than you and I might be able to.

I could go on and on about how I’ve learned from various authors, but I think you get the picture. So don’t neglect your reading. Find something that interests you. You can pull things from other genres—I love the idea of doing some mashups—that other authors in the field might not have used. Yeah, it’s sorta risky if you’re unpublished, but I’m convinced that voice means as much as correct technique to agents/editors. You’ve got to make yourself stand out from the crowd to get noticed, and using something in a new twist will do that, as long as you do it right.

But you’ve got to know the rules to break them effectively, and that’s where reading what’s already out there comes in.




3 thoughts on “The Learning Curve

  1. rgayer55

    Yesterday, I was reading “Revelation” (a short story) by Flannery O’Conner. One of the writing conferences has a contest asking for something in her style, so I thought I should read one of her pieces and study up. This little piece, published in 1965, takes place in a doctor’s waiting room. She doesn’t wear you out with details of the room, but there’s enough there to give you a clear picture of the surroundings. She focused more on the characters.

    Like you, I could care less if there’s a picture of a dead president on the wall. I want to know about the characters and move on with the story.

    1. Greg Camp

      That’s a story that I use regularly in my classes. I’ll have to look at it again as an example of description. The masters of (excessive, overwhelming, verbose) description were the Victorians–oy!


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