Authors I Have Learned From: John D. MacDonald

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

On July 14 I’ll be leading a panel at ThrillerFest on literary influences. The guests are David Morrell, Lisa Gardner, Ted Bell, Peter Blauner, Robert Gleason and W. Michael Gear. Still time to register for TFest. Hope to see some of you there.

That subject got me thinking about the authors who have influenced me, so I thought from time to time I’d write about them, and some of the lessons learned.

I begin with John D. MacDonald. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, here’s a clip from The Red Hot Typewriter by Hugh Merrill:

From the 1950s through the 1980s, John Dann McDonald was one of the most popular and prolific writers in America. He was a crime writer who managed to break free of the genre and finally get serious consideration from critics. Seventy of his novels and more than 500 of his short stories were published in his lifetime. When he died in 1986, more than seventy million of his books had been sold.

I first became seriously interested MacDonald when I read that he was one of Dean Koontz’s favorite writers. I’d read a couple of the Travis McGee books, for which MacDonald is most famous. But it was when I picked up some of his 1950s paperback originals that I really got into him. I went on a collecting binge for several years and now have a full collection of said paperbacks, including the one hardest to get, Weep For Me (1951). MacDonald refused to let it be reprinted. He was embarrassed by it, calling it a lousy imitation of James M. Cain. (I went to her in that shadowy place under the concrete arch. The early traffic slammed across the bridge, tearing the air. I took what I had won, the way any animal does.) It’s better than that (the folks at Random House have decided to give it life again) but was still hewing to the minimalist style popularized by Cain, Hammett, and Spillane—who were all beholden to Hemingway.

In those early years MacDonald wrote science fiction, hard-boiled detective, crime, contemporary adult, and even a multi-protagonist novel (The Damned) centered around a single event, influenced no doubt by Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

One theme he returned to was the existential angst of the 50s man. His 1953 novel, Cancel All Our Vows, is superior to Sloan Wilson’s more famous The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955). It’s the story of one Fletcher Wyant, age 36, a middle manager at a big company. The following passage is quintessential MacDonald:

And, as he was looking, it happened to him again. It was something that had started with the first warm days of spring. All colors seemed suddenly brighter, and with his heightened perception, there came also a deep, almost frightening sadness. It was a sadness that made him conscious of the slow beat of his heart, of the roar of blood in his ears. And it was a sadness that made him search for identity, made him try to re-establish himself in his frame of reference in time and space. Fletcher Wyant. He of the blonde wife and the kids and the house and the good job. It was like an incantation, or the saying of beads. But the sadness seemed to come from a feeling of being lost. Of having lost out, somehow. He could not translate it into the triteness of saying that his existence was without satisfaction. He was engrossed in his work and loved it. He could not visualize any existence without Jane and the kids. Yet, during these moments that seemed to be coming more frequently these last few weeks, he had the dull feeling that somehow time was eluding him, that there was not enough of life packed into the time he had.

When MacDonald finally settled on writing mostly crime fiction, he produced some true classics, like The End of the Night, which pre-dated Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and The Executioners, the basis of the movie Cape Fear. (Note: The 1962 Gregory Peck-Robert Mitchum version is better than the 1991 Robert De Niro-Nick Nolte remake directed by Martin Scorsese, though it was a nice gesture to give both Peck and Mitchum minor roles in that one.)

There’s a great story around the writing of The Executioners. MacDonald regularly met with a group of writers in Florida, one of whom was MacKinlay Kantor. Kantor, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, used to needle MacDonald about all the “paperback trash” he wrote. One day he asked John, “When are you going to write a real book?”

MacDonald was ticked. He said he could write a book in thirty days that would be serialized in a magazine, become a book club selection, and be turned into a movie. Kantor laughed. MacDonald bet him fifty bucks. And, of course, won.

The first lesson I picked up from a wide reading of MacDonald is what he termed “unobtrusive poetry” in the style. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish. You don’t want a style that calls so much attention to itself that’s all the reader is thinking about. On the other hand, it’s not stripped-down minimalism of the Hemingway-Cain school.

MacDonald found the right place. His books are filled with passages that capture a character or setting with just a few incandescent lines. Here’s an example from one of the Travis McGee books, Darker Than Amber:

She sat up slowly, looked in turn at each of us, and her dark eyes were like twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. Maybe something had, once upon a time. There were piles of picked bones back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where the fires had been.

I’ve never forgotten that image. Indeed, I believe MacDonald could have been one of our best mainstream writers, a Book-of-the-Month Club darling like Norman Mailer or John O’Hara. He could have written “big” books that weren’t disasters. But his paperbacks paid the bills, and that’s what he kept producing.

Which brings me to another aspect of his career that inspired me—his work ethic. MacDonald came out of corporate America and approached his writing like a job. He wrote each day from morning till noon, had lunch, went back to work and knocked off at five for a martini and dinner. He took Sundays off.

MacDonald also left behind a legacy of short stories. Two collections of his crime and mystery stories are The Good Old Stuff and More Good Old Stuff. But I think I prefer his more literary collection, End of the Tiger. One of the stories, “The Bear Trap,” inspired me to try my own hand at this type of tale. So in honor of JDM, I’m making my story “Golden” free this week. Enjoy.

John D. MacDonald was once asked how he’d like his epitaph to read. His answer: “He hung around quite a while, entertained the folk, and was stopped quick and clean when the right time came.”

MacDonald’s time came much too soon. He died at age 70 from complications arising out of heart surgery. He left his wife an estate worth $5 million (in 1986 dollars) and left the rest of us some really good stuff. Not a bad way for a writer to go after all.

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Do You Have a Typical Writing Day?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Novelist Tracy Chevalier recently observed:

Part of me wishes it were easy to describe my typical writing day. I have heard about them, those smug productive hours when a writer – usually male, it has to be said – sits down each day at 9am with an espresso, writes till 1, makes bouillabaisse, writes from 2 till 5, plays tennis, and after supper sits with a glass of single malt whisky reading over what he’s written that day. That is a scenario I both crave and detest. It will never be that controlled and disciplined for me.

This is an absolute slander! I make a sandwich for lunch, haven’t played tennis in years, and in the evening prefer a California red.

I do, however, have a typical writing day, though of course it has varying tones and I’m free to be as flexible as I want to be. That’s the nice part of being your own boss. Yes, I have to call myself into the office and chew myself out from time to time, but I generally get along with the old so-and-so fellow.

Here’s how I like my day to go:

I’m up before the sun rises. The coffeemaker was set to timer the evening before so my morning brew is ready. I love starting work in the dark. Most people I’ve broached this subject with look at me with a mix of wonder and horror. Their eyes and dropped jaws nonverbally retort, “You do what? The dark? Are you daft?”

Yep. From daft to draft!

I try to do some writing immediately, to bring up what my writer’s mind has been working on all night. There might be a good plot twist there, or an idea for another book, or maybe just a way of phrasing something. Or perhaps it’s just junk. Whatever it is, I spill it into a free form document that I’ll assess later.

I then set out to write a Nifty 350.

Later on, I’ll give a light edit to my previous day’s pages, then go for my quota.

What I really have to watch out for is the temptation to jump onto social media the moment I hit some challenge or other. I’ve written about this before.

However, I do like having some ambient noise going on, which means I will sometimes be found writing at some local coffee establishment. But at home, I turn on Coffitivity. I compose in Scrivener, which allows me to have a background on my screen. I have taken a photo of my favorite deli, Langer’s, so it’s like I’m there in a booth, writing:

From about 11 – 1 I’ll generally take care of business matters (e.g., marketing, email) and have some lunch. I’ve pretty much settled that from 1 – 3 it’s zombie time. My brain just wants to lie in a hammock. So I’ll work in a power nap (15 – 20 minutes). That sets me up for the late afternoon. I can usually squeeze in another hour of writing or editing from about 4 – 5.

Then I pretty much knock off. Dinner with Mrs. B. We might watch a movie or classic TV show. If I finish a book, or my wife closes a real estate deal, we’ll celebrate by going out to eat. It’s a short drive to Malibu, where we can nosh by our beloved Pacific Ocean.

That’s as typical as it gets, so long as there are no earthquakes, fires, mudslides, power outages, or locusts.

So now I’d like to hear from you. Do you have a typical writing day? If not, how would you design one?

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Writers Need to be Amphibious

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

So here we are at the end of another Kill Zone year. (We’ll be taking our traditional two-week break starting tomorrow.) It’s been an amazing run for this blog, which began way back in August of 2008. I’m in awe of my colleagues, both present and emeriti, for the depth of their wisdom and generosity of spirit toward the writing community.

Emeriti, by the way, is the Latin plural of emeritus.

Aren’t you glad you stopped by?

Reminds me of my favorite Latin joke. Or I should say, only Latin joke.

Julius Caesar walks into a bar and orders a martinus.

The bartender says, “You mean a martini?”

And Caesar says, “If I wanted a double I would have asked for it!”

Speaking of which, 2017 was a year a lot of people ordered doubles. I seriously think we need to take a collective breath and, for a couple of weeks at least, imbibe the true spirit of this season: family, friends, generosity and gratitude.

And just plain old relaxation! So kick back and watch a couple holiday movies (Miracle on 34th Street and the 1951 Christmas Carol are always at the top of my list, though I would remind everyone that Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are Christmas movies, too!)

Don’t stress about things you can’t control (this is the wisdom of the Stoics, and what says holiday fun more than the Stoics?) As Epictetus (b. 50, d. 135) so succinctly put it, “There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

Changes in technology, Amazon algorithms, the size of advances … these are beyond the power of our will. Ditto the shrinking of slots in traditional publishing catalogues, the number of bookstores that are still open, and bestseller lists (unless, of course, one takes the nefarious road of buying one’s way onto the NYT list, in which case the power of will has been corrupted by the siren song of list-lust. Don’t go there).

Nor can we stuff a stopper in the flood of system gamers, sock puppets, nasty reviewers, and inveterate haters—except to the extent that we adamantly refuse to become one of them.

What is within our power?

Our writing, of course. Our dedication to it. Our determination. Our discipline.

The page we’re working on.

The goals we set and the plans we make.

Concentrate on those things. Chill about the rest.

This is still the greatest time on earth to be a writer. Remember, just ten short years ago there was only one way to get published and into bookstores. The walls of the Forbidden City were formidable indeed.

Then came the Kindle, just in time for Christmas 2007, and suddenly there was another way to get published and into the largest bookstore in the world (with your cover facing out, no less!)

During those heady first years of digital disruption, a few pioneering scribes jumped in and showed massive ebook sales at the 99¢ price point. This got the attention of writers inside (and formerly inside) the Forbidden City, and ushered in a “gold-rush” phase when good and productive writers began to make really serious money going directly to Amazon.

At the same time, traditional publishing began to stagger around like a boxer who gets clocked just before the bell rings to end the round. Many predicted that by 2013 or ’14, the whole traditional industry would be kissing canvas.

Instead, we have entered a new equilibrium where the wild highs in the indie world are leveling off, and the disruptive lows in the traditional world are bottoming out (as one trad insider put it to me, “Flat is the new up.”)

But change, albeit more slowly, continues. Thus, what both of these worlds demand are a new set of business practices. I’ve tried to provide these for the indie writer. I’m not sure who the Bigs are listening to, but I suspect they need more Sun Tzu than Peter Drucker these days.

However, here is one bottom-line truth that applies across the board and will always be apt: What wins out in the end, and perhaps the only thing that does, is quality plus time, which I define as steady fiction production providing a swath of readers with satisfying emotional experiences. This holds true for any genre. You can figure out and strive to do the things that create reader satisfaction.

And what are those things? They are matters of craft. The more you are conversant with the tools and techniques of fiction, the better your quality control. It’s like that inspirational quote from a college basketball player some years ago. During an interview he said, “I can go to my left or to my right. I’m completely amphibious.”

Writer, you have to be amphibious to make it in the swirling ocean and on the rocky shores of the book world today. So my end-of-the-year suggestion is this: Invest in your writing self. Spend a certain amount of money on writing-related improvement, like books and workshops. Go to a good conference and network with other writers. If you’re starting to realize a little income from your writing, set aside a portion of it for this type of ongoing investment.

And do take advantage of one of the best free writing resources around—Kill Zone! Traipse through our library and archives. Subscribe to our feed so you don’t miss a day. Leave comments! We love the writing conversation.

We’re on this journey together, so keep in mind something the great Stoic philosopher Yogi Berra once said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Let’s take it in 2018!

Blessings on you this holiday season, from all of us at TKZ to all of you.

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7 Habits of Highly Successful Writers

atlas1Some time ago I came across an article about the success habits of wealthy individuals, based on a book by Tom Corley. As I scanned it, the habits seemed to me applicable to writers as well. The ones I know who’ve made it in this game—who’ve been published traditionally, or are making good dough as indies, or are doing a bit of both—they share these seven habits:

1. They are persistent.

The article states, “While we generally think of persistence as more of a personality trait, it’s certainly a habit that can be learned and practiced over time. When faced with adversity, wealthy individuals keep pushing through, knowing that success could be right around the corner.”

The successful writer never gives up. Or stops learning. The article found that 88% of the wealthy successes (in other words, not trust-fund babies) read at least 30 minutes every day in order to increase their knowledge. Are you doing the same, writer? I cannot think of a single week in the last 25 years where I have not read or studied something regarding the craft of writing.

2. They set attainable goals.

The article discusses the wrong kind of goals, such as:

“I want to become a recognized leader in my field.”

“I need to bring in more money in order to meet my financial obligations.”

“I want to take an expensive vacation with my family every year.”

The problem with these goals, of course, is that they aren’t specific, and they aren’t necessarily realistic. For instance, if I’m working for minimum wage, going on an expensive holiday probably isn’t in the cards for me this year.

True goals are those to which action may be applied. “I want to be a New York Times bestselling author” is not a goal, it’s a dream. You can’t push a button to make it happen. What you can do are the things that will make you a better writer. You can determine to spend 30 minutes a day studying craft, and an hour a week brainstorming projects. Most of all, you can determine the number of words you will write each week. These are things you can measure and control.

3. They find a mentor.

The article contends that 93% of wealthy individuals had a mentor who assisted them on their path to success.

Mentors can be personal or they can be in print. I consider Lawrence Block to be a mentor, even though he’s never personally coached me. Why? Because I religiously read his fiction column each month in Writer’s Digest and felt like he was counseling me each time. He had the ability to get into the writer’s mind, and certainly he did mine. The books I contribute on the craft I try to write the same way.

A good editor, of which there are many out there, can provide mentorship (usually for a fee, which is money well spent when the editor knows what he or she is doing). A good critique partner fits this role as well.

4. They are positive.

According to the article, wealthy individuals had a positive outlook on life, were upbeat and happy, and grateful for what they had. Some specific findings were as follows:

94% avoided gossiping
98% believed in limitless possibilities and opportunities
94% enjoyed their chosen career

Writers, too, need to be grateful that they have the ability to write. And grateful for the opportunity to publish. Further, don’t tear down fellow authors. Believe in your limitless choices. Nurture the love of writing that got you started in the first place.

5. They educate themselves.

The article found that 85% of the successful people read two or more books per month on an ongoing basis. This is especially important for writers, who need to read widely and not just fiction. All sorts of nonfiction helps to expand your horizons and understand humanity better.

What are you reading, besides fiction, these days?

6. They track their progress.

Corley found that wealthy individuals were meticulous about measuring how they’re doing:

67% kept up-to-date to-do lists
94% balanced their bank account each month
57% counted the calories they consumed
62% set goals and tracked whether or not they were on track to achieving them

Since 2001 I have kept track of my writing on a spreadsheet. I can tell you how many words I wrote, and on what projects, day by week by month by year.

I prioritize my projects and know each day which one I want to work on.

However, I don’t count my calories. I have determined that eating healthy food does not make you live longer, it only seems longer

7. They surround themselves with success-oriented people.

Corley writes, “Wealthy, successful people are very particular about who they associate with. Their goal is to develop relationships with other success-minded individuals. When they stumble onto someone who fits the bill, they then devote an enormous amount of their time and energy into building a strong relationship. They grow the relationship from a sapling into a redwood. Relationships are the currency of the wealthy and successful.”

His suggestion is to dedicate 30 minutes each day to nurturing such a relationship. This could mean being a sounding board, giving advice, or just generally being a helpful companion. As you build and nurture relationships, people likely to reciprocate and become trusted and valuable supporters.

Writers are mostly an encouraging lot. You can find places to hang out with them, starting here at TKZ. Join a local writers group, like an arm of Mystery Writers of America. Go to a good conference.

Systematically disassociate yourself from the sour pickles of life.

Have fun, write, assess, measure, study, correct—then have more fun, write, and never quit. That’s a formula for success.

Anything you’d like to add?

[NOTE: Today I am associating with a bunch of fellow writers at a conference near Santa Cruz, California. Yes, suffering for my art. I’ll try to pop in. Until then, talk amongst yourselves!]

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Self-Discipline for the Writer

Nancy J. Cohen

Writers sit in a chair for hours, peering at their work, blocking out the rest of the world in their intense concentration. It’s not an easy job. Some days, I marvel that readers have no idea how many endless days we toil away at our craft. It takes immense self-discipline to keep the butt in the chair when nature tempts us to enjoy the sunshine and balmy weather outside.

We don’t only spend the time writing the manuscript. After submitting our work and having it accepted, we get revisions back from our editor. This requires another round of poring over our work. And another opportunity comes with the page proofs where we scrutinize each word for errors. How many times do we review the same pages, the same words? How many tweaks do we make, continuously correcting and making each sentence better?

These hours and hours of sitting are worth the effort when we hold the published book in our hands, when readers write to us how much they enjoyed the story, or when we win accolades in a contest. As I get older, I wonder if these hours are well spent. My time is getting shorter. Shouldn’t I be outside, enjoying what the community has to offer, admiring the trees and flowers, visiting with friends? Each moment I sit in front of the computer is a moment gone.

But I can no more give up my craft than I can stop breathing. It’s who I am. And the hours I sit here pounding at the keyboard are my legacy.

BICHOK is our motto: Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. This policy can take its toll on writers’ health with repetitive strain injury, adverse effects of prolonged sitting, neck and shoulder problems. We have to discipline ourselves not only to sit and work for hours on end, but to get up and exercise so as to avoid injury. This career requires extreme discipline, and those wannabes who can’t concentrate for long periods of time or who give up easily will never reach the summit. They can enjoy the journey and believe that’s where it ends, but they’re playing at being a writer and not acting as a professional.

We’re slaves to our muse, immersed in our imaginary worlds, losing ourselves to the story. And then we have to revise, correct, edit, read through the manuscript numerous times until we turn it in or our vision goes bleary. We are driven. And so we sit, toiling in our chairs (or on the couch if you use a laptop). Hours of life pass us by, irretrievable hours that we’ll never get back.

So please, readers, understand how many hours we put into this craft to entertain you, to educate you, and to illuminate human nature in our stories.

And this doesn’t even count the time required for social media.

I put myself in the chair until I achieve a daily quota. In a writing phase, this is five pages a day or twenty-five pages per week. For self-edits, I aim for a chapter a day but that’s not always possible. I do this is the morning when I’m most creative. Afternoons are for writing blogs, social media, promotion, etc.

How do you get yourself to sit in the chair day after day? Do you set daily goals? Do you offer yourself rewards along the way? Do you ever doubt the time you sacrifice to your muse? Or do you love the process so much that you’d not trade those hours for anything else?

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The Most Important Characteristic Every Writer Needs

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There are three things that are required for success as a writer: talent, luck, discipline … Discipline is the one that you have to focus on controlling, and you just have to hope and trust in the other two.
—Michael Chabon


Some time ago I waxed lyrical on the two things every novel needs. Today I’d like to focus on the writer, and the single most important characteristic for success: Self-discipline.
That’s right. Even more than talent. Talent is overrated. The ability to get tough, stick with it and produce words beats lazy literary giftedness every time.
That’s why you need your own inner drill sergeant. He has four areas of concentration.


1. Motivation
Desire drives discipline. Mega bestselling writer Phyllis Whitney once said, “You must want it enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning. Like any other artist you must learn your craft—then you can add all the genius you like.”
You’ve got to go into this with the thought that nothing will stop you. And you’ve got to get yourself pumped up to do your work, which is producing the words.
One way to do this is with visual motivators. When I first started I got a coffee mug with WRITER written on it. I looked at it every day.
Another kind of visual is a “model of possibility.” I found a picture of Stephen King that did that for me.

There’s a guy working at his job, his dog under his chair, his office stuffed with books and papers, sitting back with his feet on the desk, editing a manuscript. That’s what I wanted to be doing. I put this picture in a frame and set it in my office where I could see it every day. 
Find your own visual motivators. Create some. It’s not hard to do, and they’ll get your blood flowing.
2. Action
The whole idea of motivation is to get you to take action. If you take action every day toward your goals you begin to feel unstoppable. Let’s say you decide to write 300 words a day, 6 days a week. Maybe that’s all you can manage because of your job or other life priorities. So you do it, and after a month you’ve acquired the habit. You keep this up and in a year you’ll have a book. Keep that up over 20 years and you’ll have 20 books, which is not a bad output at all.
If you have not set a weekly writing quota, do so now. What can you realistically accomplish in a week? I’ll wait.
Good. Now, up that by 10%. Push yourself toward that goal each and every week.
3. Assessment
At various times, just like any business would, you need to step back and assess where you are and where you need to improve. At different stages of my career I would look at where I was in the craft and find weak spots. For example, a few books in I knew I’d become a good plotter, but decided my character work needed improvement. So I designed a self-study program. I gathered a bunch of novels with memorable characters and read them with an eye toward studying what the authors did. I took from my shelf of writing books those that dealt with characters and re-studied key sections. Every time I learned something I would write a scene using that tip or technique.

4. Time Management
Finally, you must learn to manage time. That’s your real currency. When you are holding down a job or chasing kids around the house, finding writing time can be a challenge. But you can if you do three simple things:
a. Plan in advance (use Sunday to plan a week ahead, with a calendar in front of you)
b. Write it down (fill in your calendar with all your obligations, then block out times you can write)
c. Prioritize (learn to ignore those matters that are not important or urgent. Watching the Kardashians is not as important as finishing your novel)
The best book on the subject I ever read is now sadly out of print: How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life by Alan Lakein (but you can pick up a used copy via Amazon’s used book sellers. You can have one for under $5. Well worth it).
So how are you doing on your self-discipline? Are you producing words on a regular basis? Or do I have to make you drop and give me twenty?

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