Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer VI

Dear Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer,

Some years ago, never mind how many, I knew on some unarticulated way that most of my stories didn't begin soon enough, which is to say they began too late, coming to life only after a page or so of the stuff editors don't especially like to read, stuff that makes readers impatient, and bookstore owners apoplectic. The real irony is that at the time I'd already become an editor myself, growling to myself just as fiercely as did the editors who were reading my work and sending it back.

I had a pretty good friend at the time, worked a few miles north of me on the same street for a publisher called Price, Stern and Sloan.  She and I would share moody lunches at a whacked out Chinese restaurant on La Cienega, where we shared complaints.  "You'll notice,"  she said one day addressing the topic of beginnings, "how the fortune cookies here get right to the point.  There is a lesson to be learned."

A literary agent named Morrie Graushin owed me for some now forgotten favor.  He had one client I wanted to bring into the umbrella of the publisher I worked for.  After a few months of back-and-forth with letters and telephone, I got Morrie and his client to lunch at Dan Tana's Restaurant on the Sunset Strip.  This was definitely an expense account incident.  Could scarcely wait to turn in the chit.  Lunch: SL, Morrie Graushin, and client, Louis L'Amour.

The client was a tall, imposing, sincere man who came quickly to the point of asking me why we were there and then, before I could answer, suggested it was perhaps to effect his moving from his publisher, Bantam, signing on with Dell, whereupon I would become his editor, a concatenation--he used words like than when he spoke but not when he wrote--he was sure would be pleasant but not about to happen because he felt a loyalty to his publisher that transcended--he never used that word in one of his stories, either--his long-term financial plans.  This established, he suggested we have a pleasant lunch and talk shop.  We did.

I'm telling you all this because it has remained with me to this day.  Notwithstanding the hundreds of millions of copies of his books that have variously been published and made into films, Mr. L'Amour was not a notable stylist.  You might even say he was clunky, several hundreds of millions of copies of his books purchased to the contrary of my argument notwithstanding.  Nevertheless, he was and remains an accomplished storyteller.  He knew where story lived, knew how to coax it out and perform.  Knew where to begin, where to end.  The thing I came away from that chat with was the sermon he delivered on writers who began their stories too soon, filling them in with all manner of background nonsense that--he pounded the table with enough force to cause the garlic bread in the basket to jump a good four inches--no one cared about because it came too soon.  Looking directly at me as a representative to him of a type, he averred that too many editors allowed this state of events to continue.

To this day, when I am in a workshop situation, an appropriate classroom situation, or in some related editorial mission and the subject of beginnings becomes an issue, I think of his wisdom and his table pounding passion.  I see the wicker basket of garlic bread jump.  In my mind, the basket hovers for a moment of emphasis before settling down to the starched white napery.

Toward the end of May of this year, my literary agent, Toni Lopopolo, had business in the area.  She also had a speaking engagement at the Borders' Bookstore in Thousand Oaks, whence I drove just to hear her in action and hang out for a bit.  Speaking of beginnings to a group of writers, she read from a novel, Beat the Reaper by a new writer, Josh Bazell, using it to illustrate what I call opening velocity, the momentum a novel needs to yank readers in over the edge of reason, keeping them thoroughly in place by passion and heartsick curiosity.

Interested in your take said the note accompanying the book, which arrived just before the world shut down for the three-day weekend.  I am duly impressed with the opening, which was slick enough that it took me to page 20 before I realized A) no story had been introduced yet, only the barest hint that one might be coming, and B) in lieu of story, there was sufficient violence and mean spiritedness to take the reader's mind away from the fact of being there to read a story, presenting said reader instead with attitude, half-assed iconoclasm, and the setting forth of yet another Charles Bronson John Wayne Charleton Heston protagonist who not only takes me where I don;;t want to go but in the process makes me realize this is not a simple matter of dramatic skill but a playing on an instrument of anger, destruction, disrespect, cynicism, and a few bones of altruism thrown in to make it seem acceptable behavior.

I am not in consequence about to hold up Laura Ingalls Wilder as a role model for you, young, middle-aged, or geezer writer, or to suggest the goodnight litany mantra of the Waltons as the only true path.  Be cynical if you wish, but do it with a panache and a purpose other than bringing the rough and tumble of Nascar to the printed and soon-to-be-digital page.  Stomp on my moral, ethical, and political toes if you will, but do so from a place of conviction and passion.

Let me see the translation in you work of your passions to the dramatic passions of your characters, that splendid high-trapeze moment when they realize they are driven to what they do through love in all its various incarnations.

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