stay on the case

Yesterday, my contractual copy of another published book arrived in the mail. It’s solid, heavy—no pamphlet. Looks like I’ve accomplished the feat yet again. At this point, I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out the trick to writing books. Let me tell you what it is so we can all get on with the work.

I was simply being methodical, because I didn’t know what else to be.

Spenser, Paper Doll

As a private detective, Robert B. Parker’s mononymous protagonist solves problems intuitively. At the start of each case, he feels things out without a fixed plan. Faced with a thorny mystery, he favors action over stillness. Even when a crime seems completely random, he acts as though meaning can be found. That’s because the alternative doesn’t leave him anything to do. No matter how opaque things get, Spenser keeps going by assuming there’s an answer out there that just needs to be excavated. Whatever it takes to keep moving

To solve a case, Spenser goes places, talks to people, and pays careful attention to all the details along the way. Nosing around relentlessly, he inevitably stirs up trouble. At that point, he falls back on his instincts as a seasoned fighter and former cop to bull his way through. Then, more nosing around. In the end, good triumphs over evil—although, in Parker’s morally gray landscape, Spenser is usually required to define each of these for himself, acting as judge, jury, and even executioner as circumstances require.

Go and do likewise, but with your book.

I’m not being glib here. You can only write a book by feeling things out. Your book reveals itself in the writing. You must favor action—getting words down—over stillness. When ideas arise that don’t fit, don’t go looking for a new approach or read a book on writing for help. Assume everything will click eventually and build on what you’ve got. Anything to keep writing.

To finish a book, keep investigating your subject. Go places, talk to people, and pay careful attention to all the details along the way. Nosing around relentlessly, you will inevitably stumble onto a thread of insight. At that point, rely on your instincts as a seasoned writer to bull your way through. (You don’t see yourself as seasoned? You write all day long. Emails, social media, texts—you are writing constantly. Do that.) Then, more nosing around. In the end, the first draft will be complete—although, in today’s publishing landscape, you are usually required to define what success looks like for yourself, acting as author, editor, and even publisher as circumstances require.

You’re stuck on your book because you think there’s something you don’t know or haven’t figured out yet. (It’s a trick. Get an axe.) The one thing you never do, the thing Spenser avoids doing at all costs, is nothing. Even if the next action is sitting at his desk and staring out the window, Spenser is always on the case: running through the facts and looking for the next thread to pull on. One way or the other, he has faith that steady forward motion will bring the case to a close. So should you.

See, an ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. A repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.

Bud, Repo Man

I’m working on my next book now. This last chapter I had to write was a beast. It was so hard. It took so much longer than I’d planned. The harder I tried to wrangle it, the further the ideas seemed to slip through my fingers. Sisyphean comes to mind. But I kept moving forward, and it turned out OK. This is to be expected under the Spenser Method. You don’t find answers by backing off. If you want to finish, you stay locked in to that tense situation. Like Spenser, you have to bull your way through until you close the case.

a view to a thrill

“There is only one recipe for a best seller and it is a very simple one,” wrote Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. “You have to get the reader to turn over the page.”

Even with the right elements for a thriller—an “unmannered prose style, unexceptional grammar and a certain integrity in our narrative,” in Fleming’s words—you aren’t going to capture a large audience until you learn to compel their attention. Compel: “To drive or urge forcefully or irresistibly.”

Lately, I’ve been on a tear through Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels. I won’t admit to how many I’ve read in only a few weeks, but there’s no question I’m pinned to the board alongside the other butterflies. Still have dozens to go in the series. But it won’t be long now.

Fleming’s advice applies to more than the cloak-and-dagger category, of course. If you’ve ever been captured by a story of any kind, you know the pull can be almost violent. Nowadays, we “binge” TV shows. Think about that word. It isn’t being used ironically any longer. I’m not sure any of us has a clear sense of what to think about that fact.

Recognize first that compulsion doesn’t arise by accident. As a reader or viewer, you are being compelled. Purposefully. Deliberately. The author holds you in place and puts their work in your head. That’s what it takes, a willingness to do that. Maybe you don’t have the technique down yet. Would you be hungry enough to use it on readers if you did?

Today, the cognoscenti decry software developers for building purposefully addictive apps. Companies use A/B-tested copy, “dark patterns,” and casino-inspired design tactics to hook our attention. “It’s wrong to use our understanding of user behavior to sell users more stuff!” For some reason, this moral calculus doesn’t apply to potboilers and pop records. If anything, reviewers, essayists, and other arbiters strain to the social and political merits that will justify the literary value of what we read and watch compulsively.

The truth is, we read and watch these things for their gravitic quality alone. People like being hooked. It doesn’t matter to the reader, once captured, whether that novel or documentary makes a profound political statement or sparks a national movement. We just like to believe that it matters to us—it gives a patina of respectability to a process of visceral enjoyment that feels almost lurid in its intensity.

Fleming, for his part, was blunt: “My opuscula do not aim at changing people or making them go out and do something.” (Opuscule: A small or minor literary or musical work. Or newsletter.) If social justice wasn’t Fleming’s goal, what was he doing with his words? His goal was simple: “The total stimulation of the reader all the way through, even to his taste buds.” If your character eats, why not describe the meal in all its sensory detail? Fleming created an appealing environment in order to lure readers into his stories and hold them fixed in place to the end. “The sun is always shining in my books,” he added. If Londoners wanted gray skies, they could look out the window. For blue skies and Mai Tais, they needed James Bond.

Regardless of your medium or genre, compelling your audience to continue is a violent act. It requires an unusual combination of empathy and ruthlessness, an understanding of how other people think and a willingness to use that knowledge to your own ends. To compel your readers, give them no quarter. Wrench them into place. Pin them to your work till their necks hurt and their eyes are so dry that their contacts fall out. Nothing less will suffice. It isn’t enough to learn how. You have to be willing.

There’s a reason many authors are ambivalent about their most popular creations. They deliberately sought to “boil the pot.” The magnetic quality they achieved was no accident. If anything in the reader’s life feels more important or interesting than finding out What Happens Next, you’ve failed to boil the pot. Dress it up as “literature” or “art” or “advice” all you like. Any highly effective form of communication is fundamentally coercive. It demands a callous disregard for the intellectual and emotional autonomy of others. Do you have what it takes to pin butterflies?

can’t get no satisfaction

Agnes de Mille left the company performing Rodeo, her landmark ballet, to choreograph a musical on Broadway. Months later, she had the opportunity to see how the show was doing in her absence. What she saw horrified her: “It was unrecognizable,” she wrote. Without her presence to keep the dancers in line and maintain standards, the ballet had wilted. Or at least she thought so.

The beauty of writing is that the entropy happens all by itself, in your head. I’ve had this sinking feeling many times when revisiting a piece of work left a little too long in a drawer. I guess I’m used to it. For her part, De Mille took it hard:

All changed, all passed. There was no way of ensuring lasting beauty. Verily, I wrote in water and judging my work with a dreadful dispassionate vision, perhaps it was as well.

De Mille turned to fellow choreographer Martha Graham for advice. Characteristically, Graham had no interest in a pity party. Thankfully for us, de Mille wrote down exactly what her legendary peer told her there on the sidewalk outside Schrafft’s restaurant:

There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

That’s the most beautiful and complete thing I’ve read on the subject of art. What else is there to say? Naturally, De Mille pressed for reassurance anyway. Would she find no satisfaction in her work as an artist? None whatsoever, Graham replied without hesitation:

There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others. And at times I think I could kick you until you can’t stand.

Keep the channel open or expect a spectral kick from beyond. And say what you like about Martha Graham, the lady could kick.

your very own bag of tricks

I used to get hung up on technique. As a theater major in college, I expected to be taught how to put on a show, soup to nuts. Build a stage like this, lights go here and here, tell the actors to do this, and so on. Unlike my High School Musical peers, I’d never done any theater before college. As a new major, I thought I’d graduate as summer-stock MacGyver: drop me in the woods with a bunch of actors and a Leatherman multi-tool. A week later, we’d have a fully staged Macbeth ready to go with bamboo proscenium stage, flies rigged with vines, lights made with quicklime dug out of the ground. 

I left college with an artistic sensibility, a mode, a paradigm. But technique simply hadn’t been part of the curriculum. When I did put on my own shows, I had to fumble toward what I wanted to achieve through trial and error. With my so-called teachers holding out on me, I was forced to become a technique magpie, cobbling together whatever knowledge I could from wherever I could find it. I learned to cover the artificiality of an actor’s entrance with an action, like having her remove her glasses as she entered. I learned to move actors across the stage at a diagonal to create a more dynamic impression. I learned to write plays with fewer set changes to retain narrative momentum. With each little discovery, my frustration only deepened. Why couldn’t the professors save me all the effort and just tell me how to do the job? On some level, I figured they just didn’t like me. I was sure they shared secrets with their favorites.

Before directing his first feature film, Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino attended the Sundance Institute. There, he met Terry Gilliam. Tarantino had made a couple of shorts, but he was still wrestling with the same anxieties around technique:

I have all these cool visuals in my mind. I think I can make a great movie. But it’s all theory until you do it. I asked him: “Look, your movies all have a very specific vision. You have a vision and that specific vision is in each of your movies. How do you do that? How do you capture that vision?”

Considering Gilliam’s body of work, I would have expected a mystical or abstruse response along the lines of an Oblique Strategies card: “Towards the insignificant.” Instead, the filmmaker delivered some resolutely pragmatic advice.

“Well, Quentin,” Gilliam told him. “You don’t really have to conjure up your vision. What you have to do is you just have to know what your vision is. And then you have to hire really talented people. And it’s their job to create your vision. It’s their job.”

“All of a sudden,” Tarantino recalled, “what I was scared about and seemed like a mystical enterprise became very practical. I know I can articulate it. I can describe exactly what I want. All those fears and worries that I’d had leading up till that time just kind of went away because I knew I could do that. I knew what it looked like, hence the vision. I knew what it looked like. And I knew I could describe it.”

Gilliam had been referring to the skilled technicians behind any feature film. As a director, you don’t learn to sew. You trust the costume designer to know their craft and execute on your ideas. Likewise with the cinematographer and the prop master. But Gilliam’s philosophy can be applied universally. At heart, he was telling Tarantino to prioritize intent. Figure out what you want to do and trust that you’ll figure out a way to do it. That doesn’t apply the other way around. All the skill in the world won’t make something out of nothing without a vision to guide it.

So much of what we think of as “technique” is just an array of handy tricks and shortcuts developed by people from a different time in order to make yesterday’s work. Techniques are solutions to problems you may or may not have. Does crossing the stage diagonally always work better? If I’d been handed that technique my freshman year, I never would have found out. I’d just have done that every time, for every trip across the stage, whether it served my purpose or not.

The tools—rules—you’re handed by a well-meaning teacher may or may not be right for the work you’re doing now. How would you know if you haven’t had the opportunity to try to solve the problem your own way first? Any technique is seen as useful because it makes doing certain things in certain ways more feasible. But should you be doing those things? All we know is, you’re far more likely to once you’re given that nifty technique. 

A lack of technique provides a constraint, and constraints fuel creativity. To make work that matters, you don’t need a shortcut to a slicker presentation. You need something significant to say. With a clear vision for what you’re trying to accomplish—in words, sounds, or images—you can figure out a way to get it done, developing your own techniques along the way.

Looking back, I can understand why my professors might have been reticent to hand over their tricks. They didn’t like me very much, yes, but that’s not necessarily why they were holding out on me. In any case, it amounts to the same thing: I ended up a writer and never even took an English class.