Tag Archives: L.A. Requiem

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.



Robert Crais

I don’t know how regular I’ll be about this, but it was an idea for this week, at least. I haven’t been that good at the book reviews, but then I feel like I don’t do a real good job of those. I spot what I like about a given book but forget to mention some of the things I don’t. Maybe I’ll still do that some, if only because there are lots of weeks I don’t know what to write about. I don’t like to get on the soapbox because this is not supposed to be a political blog, though I occasionally do when something’s been bothering me a lot. As a rule, though, I’d prefer to avoid that.

So, I’m gonna start this week with what I hope will be an occasional series talking about authors that inspire and/or influence me. We’ll see how it works out.

You’d think I might start with Stephen King, but I talk about him enough as it is. I’ve stated before that he’s the one who showed me you didn’t have to sound like an English Major with a thesaurus handy in order to write good prose. (We used to have a preacher who wrote to the Madison County Record who sounded like he really did keep one on hand. He used words I’d never heard of and, of course, he just came off sounding pretentious. Or should I say he sounded full of hot air?)

Another influential author is Robert Crais. Yeah, I’ve mentioned him before as well, but I’d like to go into a little more detail about him.

I don’t plan to profile authors so much as their work, because that’s what truly motivates me. There are certain authors that, when I read them, I want to run to the keyboard and pound out some words of my own. They inspire me not so much to write like them—I’m past that point where you copy your influences—as write up to their standard if I can. I don’t want to sound like Robert Crais or Stephen King, but both authors make me want to craft words of my own, to strive to make my work approach theirs.

Robert Crais writes mostly of LA private detective Elvis Cole. And even some of his non-Elvis novels connect, with the exceptions of The Two Minute Rule and Hostage.

Mr. Crais is from Louisiana originally, but he moved to LA, where he worked as a screenwriter. In that job, he wrote for such shows as Miami Vice, L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues. As I understand it, he turned to novels to escape the strictures of screenwriting.

The first Elvis Cole novel, The Monkey’s Raincoat, came out in 1987 and doesn’t even come close to what the later ones, such as L.A. Requiem are. But that’s to be expected. You hope a good author gets better as he goes along.

I’m actually of two minds about recommending you read the entire series. There are some elements that carry from one to the other, though not for the first few novels. On the other hand, you get to see how the characters evolve, especially Joe Pike, Elvis’s partner in the agency.

Joe is a former Marine with two combat tours and was in Force Recon. He’s done time as a mercenary, but only when he sees a cause he can get behind. He’s not your typical soldier-of-fortune. He owns a gun shop in Culver City, drives a red Jeep Cherokee, and has red arrows tattooed on both his deltoids. The idea is that he never looks back, but always moves forward. He’s quiet, taciturn, always wears mirror-lens sunglasses, even at night.

This kind of thing sound familiar? It will if you think about the decade Mr. Crais started writing about these guys. He makes Elvis—not only the main character but the narrator—more approachable. Elvis is a gourmet cook, drives a yellow 1966 Corvette Stingray, and practices yoga for exercise. How many 80s tough guys would be caught dead doing yoga?

Joe, on the other hand, is the typical tough guy, and you can see Crais’s influence from Robert B. Parker and his Spenser character. Spenser is also a gourmet cook who smarts off to everyone, though he’s something of a clothes horse where Elvis prefers shorts and Hawaiian-style shirts. In Joe Pike we have the tough guy sidekick that resembles Hawk from the Spenser books.

I haven’t been able to read all of Mr. Parker’s books, though I did read about three of the early ones. I’ll probably work my way through them, but from what I can see, Mr. Crais departed from his initial influence and charted his own course.

Again, what you’d expect from a good author.

If you read the series, you’ll see that there are reasons Joe is the way he is. He’s not that way just to be a tough guy. He’s a tough guy because he had to be. His father was an alcoholic, abusive father/husband. When Joe got big enough to beat his father up, the man never touched Joe or his mother again. But Joe left and never went back.

Elvis, on the other hand, was raised more by his grandparents because his father was absent and his mother would run off at times, saying she was going to bring his father back. Elvis had another name when he was born, but when he was about three, Elvis Presley hit the scene, and Cole’s mother was a huge fan, so she renamed him. If I remember correctly, eventually his mother was committed and he joined the Army.

Elvis and Joe are both Vietnam vets.

The way Elvis smarts off, both in the text and in dialogue with other characters, is what inspired me to make Lyle Villines the same way, though with a more Arkansas sense of humor. Another thing Elvis does is describe LA lovingly, but it’s true love, not the romantic kind. He sees its shortcomings, too, all its ugliness and its attractions. I try to do the same with the Ozarks.

The series takes a major turn for the better with L.A. Requiem. In that novel, Elvis and Joe’s friendship is put to the test when one of Joe’s old friends, Frank Garcia, calls on him to find out who killed his daughter, a former lover of Joe. Frank is rich, but he came up in the barrio as a member of the White Fence gang. Now, you can buy his convenience store Mexican food in pretty much every store in LA. He will spare no expense in solving the murder of his daughter.

Joe ends up becoming a suspect in the murder because the woman is actually one in a long line of girls killed by a serial killer—who looks just like Joe. Even drives a red Jeep. So Joe has to drop off the radar, doesn’t even contact Elvis. But Elvis never gives up believing in his friend, and the climax of the novel is both satisfying from the mystery point of view as well as emotionally.

You can see the series building up to this departure when Elvis takes a case that requires him to travel to Louisiana, where he meets an attorney named Lucy Chenier. Lucy eventually moves to LA, but their relationship doesn’t last. I know I’m giving a lot away, but I’m trying to make it just enough to pique your curiosity. There’s a lot of ground I’m not covering here.

Mr. Crais explores these kinds of subjects more and more, even giving Joe his own spinoff series starting with The Watchman. We get to find out more about how Joe thinks and what motivates him. Elvis makes cameos, of course, but he’s not the main character and we get to see what Joe does when he’s not with Elvis.

Mr. Crais says he doesn’t recommend you read these novels in order because he’d prefer you read what he’s writing now as opposed to seeing where he came from. I can understand his opinion, but as a writer I’d also say you might consider, at some point, reading in order as I did, if only to get the whole story and see how Mr. Crais evolved as a writer and his characters evolved as people.

There’s an emotional undercurrent in all the books since L.A. Requiem. The Forgotten Man is somewhat poignant when a man who claims to be Elvis’s father is discovered shot in an alley, pulling Elvis back to his childhood (this is where we find out a lot of his back story), while in the previous novel, The Last Detective, we learn of an incident from Elvis’s Vietnam service that’s having an effect on his life today. And, along the way, the books go from being typical mystery novels to something more. Sometimes we know who the culprit(s) is, sometimes we just think we do. In others, such as L.A. Requiem, we get tantalizing glimpses of the antagonist, but they only deepen the mystery.

I don’t know if I can ever achieve Mr. Crais’s level of writing or success, but he will continue to inspire me. And, if things work out, his agent, Aaron Priest, is looking at my first novel as I write this (though he may have rejected me by the time I post it), and wouldn’t it be awesome to share agents with one of your inspirations?

I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, if you want to see where crime novels can go without getting off-base, read Robert Crais. He might end up being the only crime writer you read.



Handling Criticism

One of the things you have to learn to deal with as a writer is criticism. I’m not talking about those who can’t do the job, so they make a career out of tearing authors down. I’m talking about the kind of criticism you get in a good writing group, or from friends you trust to give you an honest opinion about your work. In my mind, criticism from fellow writers is better than the other kind—at least you know they’re familiar with what it is to spend several months composing your Great American Novel. By the same token, however, in a way their criticism is harsher than a critic’s.

Let me explain what I mean.

Critics look for abstract things like theme and whether or not you measure up to whomever they consider the greatest author of all time—whether it be Shakespeare or Chaucer, Koontz or King. Fellow writers, on the other hand, help you correct your story. Not only do they help point out typos (you can never spot them all yourself. Give it up), they also help you develop your writing in all kinds of ways: improving dialogue, tightening sentences, getting rid of unnecessary words, the list goes on and on. I have the good luck, among other things, to have a woman who spent her career writing newspaper articles, not to mention a published Western author.

(In case you’re interested, that author, Dusty Richards, was just named Greatest Living Western Writer. Not bad.)

In other words, what other authors (hopefully) help you with is stuff they’ve learned in the trenches. They give you an objective opinion about your work and make suggestions for its improvement.

Not a bad deal.

Learning to take this criticism isn’t easy, and it seems to be an ongoing process. There are still times when I have to bite my tongue and remind myself that they’re not attacking me personally, that what they’re saying is meant to help me. It’s a human reaction, because we all want to think we put out superior product on our first try, no matter how much the evidence says otherwise. You have to develop skin that’s thick enough the criticism doesn’t hurt, but thin enough that what they’re saying actually gets through to you as it’s meant to.

I had some prior practice when I joined my group: a friend I’ve known since I was around eleven years old. We grew up swapping sf and fantasy books back and forth, and he’s very good at playing devil’s advocate with my writing. Sometimes I think he’s too good, in a way. I don’t know if there’s a book that’s ever been published that met with his wholehearted approval: they all fall short in one way or another, and usually in more than one. When he finishes a book, the overall impression he tends to give is that he’s had yet another disappointment.

And he’s not so…diplomatic about his criticisms as most of those in my group are, so I’ve learned to bite my tongue very well. Sometimes I’m surprised callous hasn’t built up on it. I don’t always agree with what he says, and I believe some of his convictions about first-time authors are just wrong. For instance, he seems of the opinion that, in order to get published, you need to dampen down your voice to a degree so that it’s not too individual. I am of the opinion that it’s that unique voice that gets you noticed in the first place. It’s what makes you stand out from the herd.

This week, though, I’m having to figure out how to deal with the opposite kind of criticism: the kind that can go to your head.

Don’t get me wrong: the opinions given in my group aren’t all negative. Even if very few people come out and say anything, a lack of marks on returned manuscript pages is tacit approval of what you’ve written. And, there are often other comments written there as well. Since I’ve started reading Pipeline, I’ve had the good fortune to have at least one person, and usually more, comment on how they like the voice I use in that novel. For me, it’s positive reinforcement and helps to build up my confidence in my writing. I think I’m pretty good, but I’m also wise enough to know that everybody thinks they’re good. It takes others telling us that to make us fully believe it, though. At least it does in my case.

This past week, however, there were a couple of comments that, as much as I appreciate them, I have to take with a grain of salt, so to speak. Not because I think they’re lying to me, but because if I believe them too much, I’m afraid I might let them go to my head. And that’s the last thing I want to do.

Here’s one of those comments: Dynamite voice! I’d buy this book in a heartbeat & I don’t usually read crime! The other one that got me was: Your voice is absolutely fantastic. This is an instant bestseller!

Pretty heady stuff.

I hope you realize I’m not bringing these up as a way to brag. Sure, I’m proud to have gotten comments like this, as well as a general reaction from most of the group that they look forward to Lyle’s adventures. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t feel good, ’cause it does. It validates that I’m not wasting my time with this writing stuff, that maybe it’s not just a pipe dream.

There’s a point to this: not resting on your laurels. It’s good to get comments like this, especially for me. I’m coming into this writing thing a little late in life compared to most authors: I’m closing in on 50 years old. When I compare this to my daughter, who’s been writing since she was in kindergarten, I feel like the slow kid in class. So when I get these kinds of comments, it makes me feel like I’ve got a chance anyway, despite being older. Besides, I wouldn’t be the first one to start a writing career later in life.

But when any person gets too many of these kinds of comments, they have to guard against ego. And since I know that I often come across as egotistic when I don’t mean to be, I really have to watch it.

Right now, it’s easy to keep from getting a big head. All I have to do is look at some of my past works. I do that, and my feet come right back down to earth in a hurry. I realize part of that is that I was learning my art—Louis L’Amour comment toward the end of his life that he felt he was just beginning to truly learn his craft. Writing is a never-ending process of learning and improving, or so it’s hoped. It’s my sincere desire that I can look back on Pipeline and see how I’ve improved since I wrote it.

Maybe that’s the key: keep an eye on what you’ve done and compare it to your present work. You’ve heard me mention Don Winslow in this blog, and I’m betting that, although he’s proud of his early published work, he may be even more proud of his recent stuff. I’m about to start his 2010 book Savages, which Oliver Stone is making into a movie starring, among others, Benicio Del Toro. There are some other big-name actors in it as well, but I’ve only seen the cast list once, so their names escape my mind.

The thing is, if you read Mr. Winslow’s early work and compare it with what he’s doing now, you’d think you were reading two different authors. His prose, once thick and writerly, is now sparse and tight. He’s been a major inspiration for my altering my voice, and it shows even more in my work-in-progress Spree.

Another influence, Robert Crais, said that if you were new to his work, he’d prefer you read his new novels and not worry about reading his Elvis Cole series in order. Yes, there’s an ongoing life there, and if you deprive yourself of L.A. Requiem when you’re reading his work, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. Mr. Crais says he’d prefer you read his newer books because they’re more representative of him and what he’s doing now. He has a good point. As well-written as the early Cole novels are, his latest ones, including the new Joe Pike series (Pike is Elvis’s partner in their detective agency), are solidly rooted in crime but also show great flexibility in straying outside the conventions of the genre. They’re satisfying books, and while Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are some tough hombres, they have an inner life that makes you wish you could go have a drink with them.

I hope I can keep improving that way. I tried to put some of those elements in Pipeline by making Lyle the kind of character most people can identify with, even if he’s introduced to you when he’s busted for cooking meth. Most of us wouldn’t do that, but we can understand why he’s doing it, maybe even see ourselves in his shoes if circumstances were bad enough.

But more, I hope I always realize deep in my heart that I can stand to improve. I think that’ll be one of the best defenses against comments like those quoted above.

I also hope I stay good enough to keep getting those kinds of comments.