Thursday, March 26, 2015

Even More Thoughts on Writing

Among the many benefits of writing crime fiction is interacting with other crime fiction authors, who are, as a group, as entertaining and generous a bunch of professionals as you’re going to find. Never was this more obvious to me than when I was asked to participate in a group of four writers called Meet Myster Write, pulled together as a promotional device to give presentations on our approaches to crime writing, and, hey, if you want to buy a book, ain’t no one stopping you.

That’s where I met Larry Matthews, creator of the Dave Haggard series. (It’s not hard to see why Dave is haggard, all the shit he has to go through.) Larry has a thirty-five year career in broadcast journalism, working in radio and television as a street reporter, investigative reporter, anchor, news director, editor, and producer. He’s worked at some of the nation's premier radio stations, including WMAL in Washington when it was the market leader and one of the most respected stations in the country. He also reported and anchored newscasts for ABC and National Public Radio.

He also taught broadcasting and writing for radio and television at The George Washington University, where he conducted media workshops and training, and has produced programs and reported for Maryland Public Television. His awards include The George Foster Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting, The DuPont/Columbia Citation, The National Headliner Award, and other national and regional awards for journalism and excellence in broadcasting.

Larry is the author of nine published books, including his acclaimed memoir, I Used to be in Radio. His newest Dave Haggard thriller is Detonator, where Dave uncovers competing terrorist cells that have turned on each other. At least as important as all of the above, he’s a gentleman in the best sense of the word, always ready to provide thoughtful and honest answers to any question. That’s why I was delighted when he volunteered to help me out with this guest post.

Enough from me. Take it away, Larry.

As a writer I often find myself comparing my work against the works of others. I write thrillers at the moment and so I read thrillers written by other, more famous authors. People like John Grisham and Jeffery Deaver, to name only two out of many. How do my opens compare to theirs? My characters? My pace? Things like that. I won’t bother to tell you the score.

So it was a bit of a surprise when my publisher suggested that the authors published by W&B Publishers, a unit of Argus International, read and review each other’s books. W&B publishes dozens of authors in all genres. Take your pick, we were told. The company has best-sellers, newbies, wannabees, you name it. It was eye-opening.

The first author I chose to review was David O’Neil, a best-selling British author who favors swashbuckling tales of the sea set in the early 19th Century. The book was Quarterdeck, part of a series. Now swashbuckling tales of the sea are not a regular part of my reading but I was impressed by how much research O’Neil had put into the book and how alive the action was. The story had all the elements, of course. Beautiful women, spies, handsome heroes, bravery, battles at sea. Five stars.

The next book I read and reviewed was a tough read. It’s called Daddy, Don’t. Mommy, Why? by Jaqueline Aaron. It’s a book about horrendous child abuse said to be based on a real story. Unless you’re researching such abuse I suggest you leave this one on the shelf. Frankly, this is a book about a monster.

Finally, Bryce Baker’s Ghosts of Time. This is a book for folks who like creepy stories about weird people.

The real lesson for me was experiencing the work of authors who do not write in my genre nor do they write in a style I am comfortable with. For authors who are curious about other writers such an exercise can be valuable and fun.

Writers are often bombarded with advice about how to do it “right” or how to follow “the rules.” As W. Somerset Maugham famously said, there are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one know what they are. Reading different authors across different genres can remind us that there are no rules and no proper way. It’s all about the story.

I’ve read books that were, frankly, insults to proper English. Here, I suppose, I should refer you to Dave Barry’s review of Fifty Shades of Grey. But some badly written books have compelling stories that make the books work. I won’t comment about Fifty Shades… but other books tell a good yarn and keep you turning the pages even though you might wince at the language from time to time.

A best-selling author friend offered some sound advice after he read my latest Dave Haggard thriller, called Detonator. I use a bit of Spanish in the dialogue, which I translate for the reader. “Don’t use that much foreign language,” he said. “It gives the reader a chance to go to the bathroom. Never give the reader an opportunity to put the book down.” His advice is sound. Foreign language breaks the mental state the reader is in and lets him/her take a break from the story the author has so carefully created.

In this case the reader of my book wasn’t trolling for ways to improve his own writing. He was finding ways to improve mine. It’s often said that the way to become a better writer is to read. There’s truth in that, although I also believe a key to becoming a better writer is to write. Often. Every day.

If you chance to read any of my books I would love to hear from you, pro or con. I’m at

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