the deep end

I’m enjoying Lawrence Block’s memoir, A Writer Prepares, which came highly recommended by author and editor Ed Park. (If Ed says read the book, I read the book.)

Block is an enormously prolific crime writer, having published an astonishing quantity of books over his six-decade career. He’s written books both under his own name as well as under beaucoup noms de plume—so many books, in fact, that his bibliography is described by one reviewer as “monumental.” Not Block’s body of work, mind you, but his bibliography, the actual, published book that lists all of Block’s books—that’s what’s monumental. (According to Block, his would-be bibliographer still missed a few plume noms along the way.)

Block got his start working at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency back in the 1950s. At the time, SMLA supplemented the money it made from client commissions by offering paid editorial services to novice writers. Nowadays, it’s a commonplace that you don’t pay your literary agent—they operate strictly on commission. Otherwise, as you might imagine, the incentives get pretty screwy. As an agent, do you sell that perfectly good manuscript when it’s ready? Or charge the author one last time for editorial help and then take that juicy 15% on the sale? Back when Block worked there, SMLA built a business model on this conflict of interest.

Aspiring writers may not have done well by paying for Scott Meredith’s professional evaluation—actually young Lawrence Block’s evaluation, since he’s the one who read the submissions and wrote the responses. But Block certainly benefited from reading “all those dreary stories” himself. Evaluating hundreds of slush-pile submissions and deconstructing them taught Block how to write stories that sold, and he often wrote his own stories in spare moments at the office. Through their many, many errors, those novices taught Block what wouldn’t work and gave him a glimpse of what might:

It’s not uncommon in writing classes to study great works of fiction, to take them apart and see how they’re made, even to transcribe them verbatim as a way of absorbing the essence of a master’s style. I’m not disposed to label all of that as valueless, but I’m convinced you can learn far more, and far more easily, from bad work than from good. The very best writing is seamless; you can see that it’s good, but you can’t tell why, or what the author did to make it work so well. It’s easier by far to see what’s wrong with bad writing, and how it got that way.

The job was a perfect storyteller’s crucible: plenty of work for Block to tear apart and plenty of time to make work of his own using what he’d learned. To understand what makes writing—any writing—tick, you have to take it apart at the seams which, as Block points out, is much harder to do when the writing appears seamless. Instead, you take apart a lousy effort, see how it fits together, and reassemble it better than before.

As a teenager, Benjamin Franklin outlined the articles in a London periodical and then reconstructed them from those outlines. Comparing his versions with the originals taught him where he’d fallen short in expressing the same ideas using his own words. Once he’d mastered that, Franklin upped the challenge by randomizing his outlines and then arranging them in a way that made sense. This taught him how to build his arguments. Finally, to improve his facility with words, Franklin translated articles into verse and back. As Franklin writes in his Autobiography, the rigorous training regimen paid off:

By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method of the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.

When it comes to rapid improvement as a writer, there is no substitute for active immersion in the kind of work you want to make. Rejecting book proposals and editing manuscripts all those years built my nonfiction muscle memory. Now it comes naturally. When I try my hand at fiction, however, the difference is palpable. It often feels like brushing my teeth left-handed, awkward and unfamiliar. It isn’t enough that I read lots of fiction. My fiction-writing muscles are weak. Which is frustrating, and makes me want to quit.

The guaranteed way to keep going at something is to not quit. Simple, right? In an interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Helen Hunt recalls an incident from the set of As Good As It Gets that took place between Jack Nicholson and the film’s director, James Brooks:

They got in some headlock over something that might seem small but meant the world to both of them. It may have been whether you say noodle pudding or noodle salad. I’m not kidding. It meant something. I think one was a deeply kugel Jewish memory and the other was a memory of WASPs and picnics. I mean, I think it was in that zone. And I was just there watching them. And Jack got really frustrated. We were in the makeup trailer. And he said something like “fuck it” or “who cares?” And then there was a beat, and he said: “The only art I have left is not to say that.”

This would be one of Nicholson’s last great roles, winning him his third and final Academy Award. After a lifetime at the pinnacle of his profession, the guy still remembered the only thing that mattered. In Hunt’s view, Nicholson still saw himself as a journeyman actor. Being a professional meant, “I’m not going to say, fuck it. I’m not going to take my ball and go home. I’m going to stay in.”

I guess I’ll stay in.

p.s. My friend Arman Assadi recently interviewed me about writing and creativity for his podcast, Flow. We had a great conversation and the podcast itself is well worth listening to in general.

p.p.s. Hearty recommendation for a tool that just works. Inbox When Ready is a free Chrome plugin that does one thing and does it well: hiding your inbox until you’re ready to process new emails. Typically, I can’t block Gmail entirely because it’s often hiding correspondence related to a project. With this plugin, I can search for emails during the writing process without getting derailed by urgent incoming messages. If this makes sense to you, too, go get it.

Subscribe to The Maven Game

Don’t miss out on the latest essays. Sign up now.