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On WritingSERIES

Writers Write

writers write

The late, great Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

The same sentiments were echoed in 1946, in Confessions of a Story Writer, by Paul Gallico—author of the the novel The Poseidon Adventure, which was made into a blockbuster disaster movie. He said: “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.”

I believe Hemingway and Gallico are both right.

But what do they mean by that?

I take it to mean that writing should come from a place deep within a writer’s soul. Opening up a vein, metaphorically speaking, the writer spills his blood, pain, disappointments, fears and hurt, whatever’s in his heart, in his bones, down onto the page. You’ve got to believe in the characters and the story with all your heart.

But I believe the Hemingway quote also refer to the simple fact that writing is hard. Sometimes you have to hack out the sentences, word by word. Gut it out, so to speak. And that’s the only way to unearth the gems by digging deep, word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page. Day by day. On and on.

When I wrote my first book, Miami Requiem, it was a day-by-day slog. There was no outline. The idea came to me after I interviewed (I was a journalist in a former life) a woman whose son was on death row. I scribbled down a few words onto my old word processor. Then I hacked through it without a clear idea where I was going. Poured it all out onto the page. All I had were the bones of the story: an old Scots guy on Death Row in Florida and a young African American reporter investigating his case.

Then as I was writing it, I figured out a structure. A primitive outline. Three chapters for the protagonist, followed by one chapter for the second point of view (POV) character. Then protagonist for two chapters, then followed by one chapter for the third POV character. That was the extent of my plotting. It was loose. Very loose. I didn’t realize where the story was headed until I got to the final chapters. But in a way, that was also a good thing. It worked.

Crime fiction novelist Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, said, “I don’t really give a shit about plot—I live and die by story.”

I love that. There’s something to be said for that. It wasn’t so much about the “architecture of the journey”, the plot. But the human story which all readers really want to know about.

I don’t want to know about twenty separate characters and their beautifully imagined lives, and how that story represents this, that and whatever literary motif it’s supposed to be getting over, or whoever it’s trying to impress. The theme. That doesn’t do it for me. It’s got to be about the story. The human story. The human condition. We’ve got to see the characters in action. How they respond. How they act. How they overcome obstacles in their way. This will reveal their character.

But there’s something else. Something so important for a writer to consider from the off.

Get the goddamn story down. Write. Stop whining about how difficult it is. Suck it up. And get down to work. That’s what it is after all. It’s hard work. So, you need to sit yourself down, fix yourself a strong coffee, and get going. It doesn’t write itself.

To be fair, I don’t always find it easy to follow this advice to the letter. The amount of time I’ve wasted procrastinating and daydreaming a story into existence you wouldn’t believe.

Now I write an outline, maybe a page, of what I think the story is about. Very broadbrush. Then, I figure out how I tell the story. I write a single sentence for each chapter, indicating how I will get from A to Z in my book. Some might call it plotting. In a loose sense, yes, I suppose it is. But it also gives me huge space to head off on whatever tangent storyline grabs me as the story progresses.

When it comes to obsessive plotting, no one holds a candle to the great James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential. My favourite book of his is The Cold Six Thousand. Amazing author.

Apparently, with his book, Perfidia, he had about 200 pages of notes. Then he did around 80 shorthand pages that only he could read. But then he wrote a 700-page outline. Yes, 700 page outline. That is heroic. It’s mad. It’s brilliant. It’s ridiculous. And it’s magnificent.

There’s no one size fits all. But one thing holds true. Gallico’s word still ring true: a writer must open their veins and “bleed onto the page…”.

The Opening Sentence

Book author J.B. Turner

It begins with nothing. Not a word. Just staring at a blank page. Blank computer screen. That’s how it starts. That’s how it always starts.  Trying to find the right words.

I tend to obsess over the opening sentences in my thrillers, trying to figure out not only the right words in that opening sentence, but at what point the story shall begin.

Authors can be like that: obsessing. Horror maestro Stephen King famously obsesses over his opening sentences and paragraphs. Days, weeks, months apparently. He’s right of course.

“But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”
Stephen King, On Writing

I love great opening sentences. I love simple opening sentences. Here’s a few of my favourites. See what you think:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’.
Truman Capote, In Cold Blood 

It is cold at six-forty in the morning on a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.
Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal  

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.
Richard Parker, The Hunter

They’ve got one thing in common: they grab you. They make you want to read on. You’re intrigued.

When I sat down to write the opening sentence for my first Jon Reznick book, Hard Road, I must have written, re-written and re-written again the opening line what seemed like a thousand times:

The call came from a man he knew only as Maddox
J.B. Turner, Hard Road

And from there, it led naturally, to the first paragraph. Here’s what it looks like:

‘The call came from a man he knew only as Maddox. Jon Reznick was sitting on his freezing deck as darkness fell over Maine, nursing a bottle of beer, staring out over the ocean. He let his cell phone ring a few times, knowing what lay ahead.’

In my mind, and hopefully in the reader’s too, they can picture the scene. I want them to read on. To find out more about Jon Reznick. More about exactly ‘what lay ahead’. And also, why did he know the man only as Maddox? When I wrote the opening sentence of that book, I was still forming the storyline, the narrative arc, whatever you want to call it. It evolved. Word by word, page by page. It took on a life of its own. The story unfolded as I thought it should as I was writing it.

It began with a broadbrush idea about an assassin who, for whatever reason, doesn’t carry out the hit. And from there, it snowballed.

So, from the opening paragraph, we have the beginning of the story, the beginning of the intrigue, and a reason to read on. And yes, it’s an invitation to go on a journey. Where it leads, no one knows. I certainly didn’t. It will unfold as slow or as fast as you want it to.

Next time you open a book, check out the opening sentence. And remember, before that there was nothing. Just a blank page. A blank computer screen. Nothing.

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