Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Creative Writing

About two years ago, a close friend of mine lost his publishing contract. He had been writing a series of crime novels that appeared to be doing well, but I think he felt that he had exhausted that particular seam and wanted to try something set elsewhere with a different central character. Unfortunately, the new series didn’t sell as well as he had hoped and the publisher didn’t renew his deal. I felt pretty terrible for him, perhaps in part because what had befallen him is something that most published writers worry about fairly constantly, even, I suspect, those who appear to be virtually untouchable in terms of sales and critical kudos. It only takes a couple of missteps before one finds oneself in a potentially difficult situation, and publishers are notoriously unsentimental about their authors once sales begin to plummet.

I suppose I’m more than usually aware of this at the moment as I’m reading through the copy edited manuscript of the next book, The Book of Lost Things. (The copy edit, incidentally, is the version of my manuscript that has been checked for errors and inconsistencies and has also been annotated with instructions for the typesetter. The next stage is the proof, which looks like an unbound edition of the final book and offers a final chance to catch errors before publication.) Last year, when I was touring The Black Angel in the United States, I was asked in a bookstore what my next book would be about. I explained The Book of Lost Things as best I could, and a reader came up to me afterwards and told me that he had no intention of reading it, that he had no interest in any book of mine that wasn’t a mystery, and when I got back to what he thought I should be doing he’d consider parting with his money for what I wrote.

Now apart from possibly requiring a lesson or two in diplomacy, the reader in question was quite within his rights to say what he did. Just because I write something doesn’t automatically mean that anyone is going to want to read it, and if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool mystery buff then you may not want to read something that isn’t a mystery, even if it’s written by a writer whose previous work you’ve enjoyed. Nevertheless, a response like that from a reader is going to send a shiver down the spine of even the most well-adjusted of writers.

Suppose, when the book appears, that everyone feels that way, or at least enough people that sales plummet and a noise that sounds suspiciously like thin ice cracking comes from beneath one’s feet? What then? Perhaps it would be better to stick with the stuff that works and sells right from the start. After all, I get paid less for writing non-Parker books than I do for Parker books, so it actually hurts me financially to take a creative risk. In fact, I didn’t take an advance at all in the UK for Nocturnes because I was worried about sales and I didn’t want to make it an unattractive proposition for my publisher (and also, to be truthful, I wanted to take a little pressure off myself, for if the book didn’t do well then I hadn’t taken the publisher’s money and it would be less likely to go down as a blot in the copybook of my career. Such are the things about which a writer worries . . .)

The problem is, of course, that it’s impossible to progress and take the easy option. We develop by trying new things, not by doing the same ones over and over again. In addition, while I love writing the Parker books and have tried, in my way, to make each one different from the last, there are some themes and stories, some avenues of exploration, that are just not suited to that structure: hence most of the stories in Nocturnes, and the writing of The Book of Lost Things. These departures also allow me to stretch writing muscles that have not been used during the writing of the Parker books: I can experiment with voices, with points of view, with other genres. I can learn different skills that may be applied, in turn, to the Parker books, enabling me to return to him with fresh eyes and some new weapons in my armoury. In that way, taking time out to try to experiment with other forms contributes to keeping the quality of the Parker books as high as my skills allow.

(I’m also fortunate in that there is a loyal core to my readership, or so it seems. Nocturnes sold far better than anyone expected, myself included, and it’s been heartening to see some of the responses to my remarks about The Book of Lost Things on my website. All writers should be so lucky, I sometimes think . . . )

But there is still that fear, that nagging voice that sometimes sounds like one’s own but at other times emerges from a little man in an American bookstore. Why take the chance? Why not stick with what’s working, even if the quality takes a bit of a tumble along the way? Not an enormous tumble, not enough to make readers feel cheated, but a tumble nonetheless. I’ll have more money in my pocket. I’ll probably have bigger sales. A couple of people may complain that the book wasn’t quite as good as the last but, hey, there’ll be another one along next year and perhaps that one will be better. Whole careers have been sustained by that kind of reader optimism. There will be no real risk involved. It’s a sweet deal, so why mess it up?

The answer: because I have to. Last week, I read Kurt Vonnegut’s slim, wise little book, A Man Without a Country. Towards the end, he recounts a conversation that he had with the graphic artist Saul Steinberg.

“Saul,” Vonnegut asks, “are you gifted?”

Steinberg doesn’t answer for a moment, then says: “No, but what you respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations.”

I don’t know that I’m an artist. I think most creative work aspires to the condition of art, but that’s not the same thing at all. (Secretly, most creative people would like to believe that they’re creating art but probably suspect that they’re not.) But I do recognise that struggle, that refusal to take the easy road, that need to risk failure because without the risk the thing isn’t worth doing at all. In the end, like James Lee Burke says, you have to learn to ignore both the catcalls and the applause.

You have to go with your heart.

This week John read:

A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
The Planets by Dava Sobel
The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin (uncorrected proof)
Desperation by Stephen King
Doctor Who: A Critical Guide by Kim Newman
The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

and listened to:

Espers by Espers


Jo said...

Really enjoyed Black Angel and wouldn't listen to those who aren't willing to try something new. He probably always gets pepperoni pizza as well. I like your writing and plan on reading as many books as you put out.

alldewater said...

I'm looking forward to The Book of Lost Things. Branching out in new creative directions is a lot like the risk you take in bringing up children. Everyone has an opinion about what you're doing, particularly people who've never done it themselves. And there are no guarantees about outcome. There's a lot of joy in taking your chances, though.

hrhg said...

You're taking a risk, true, but what your work has going for it is not the only the mystery, or even the mystery-possibly supernatural mix. The fact is that you create characters who are not just a collection of typical (or atypical) traits in the genre. Your characters trip up, are there to catch others and are as generally contraditory and multi-faceted as people one would meet in any part of one's daily life. They live, they breathe. And that is the hardest trick for any writer, to create not just a vehicle character that the plot moves through, but rather a person/people with whom the reader can't resist taking a journey.

Can't wait for TBOLT.

Jayne said...

Just want to say that I really enjoyed reading this week's blog and that I'm looking forward to The Book Of Lost Things. Much as I love the Parker books, I do like a break from them occasionally and I'd like to see John write more standalones/short story collections in the future...

Erik said...


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

This poem says it all, I think
Take care

Belfast said...

I guess like most people on here I can't wait to get my hands on The Book of Lost Things. Ok, yeah I love the Parker character but I certainly don't want to read one book after another about him, everyone needs a break author and reader a like. As soon as I set a Parker book down, i'll dive into something totally different, for me personally it keeps things fresh. Just recently finshed Nocturnes and went straight to Susanna Clarke's - Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, excellent book by the way. Anyways, just hoping Lost Things will be as far from Parker as possible, and when we do get back to Bird, well I just hope he'll be his usual charming self...

Noeni said...

I think your own comments about James Lee Burke and the Robicheaux novels is pertinent to this!

I love those novels - they're what led me to JLB as a writer and I'm always eager to see "what happens next". I guess though, just as it can be difficult for the public to separate an actor from a particular role in that he or she can be slated or lauded for the actions of a fictional character, so can it become hard for a reader to realise that the imagination of a writer can contain or reflect many more stories than those relating to a small group of characters from one novel or series.

The site is marvellous. The books are superb. They leave me itching to write more myself!

Jeff said...

I have read all of your Parker novels and enjoyed them very much. One of my surprise gifts for Christmas was an autographed copy of Nocturnes. What I especially liked about Nocturnes was that it was still your "voice" but presented in a slightly different form. I applaud your desire to stretch your creative muscles, so to speak, and I'm looking forward to The Book of Lost Things. :)

dan said...


Found your blog via amazon.connect and love it. wish you much more success again and again with each new book. your q and a to new writers about contracts and advances and kinky freidman and maine and everything, lovely blogging!

You deserve the best.


Danny (in Taiwan, go figure!)

Tom Hyland said...

John's dilemma seems a necessary evil of his own making. Read as: artist enjoying the monetary fruits of labor while languishing in a sort of literary purgatory.

The callously rude critic appears by standing on the floor of a bookstore and sighing with pompous regret that he will not be able to purchase his favorite authors latest endeavor because he won't (in fact) even give the story a chance.

The simple truth of the matter is that some of the greatest themes ever put to print have been constructed by authors digressing from usual form or story line. Several modern authors whose works leap to mind are Dan Simmons (commercially successful at horror and Science Fiction and even… for a brief time… crime novel). Stephen King performed a daring literary end run by beginning with horror (first blatant and then subtle) and then… yes… post apocalyptic Western themes and then… paperback pulp crime and… full circle to… blatant horror. It hasn’t much hurt his readership or… his pocketbook. And then there is Elmore (king of dialogue and terse statement) Leonard. Leonard began as Western writer and changed to contemporary crime writer.

John mentioned Kurt Vonnegut (an author whose eccentricities seem always anchored to autobiography). He’s traveled the full gamut from humor to parody to wartime horror and back again. He is an extraordinary author who has produced some of the finest examples of post-modern literature that you’ll find and all the while not missing a beat of his own different drummer (and in fact, eventually wandering so far from his original darkly humorous fictitious themes as to write a novel that is considered by the folks at TIME magazine as one of their ‘100 best English language novels from 1923 to present’).

I look forward to John’s latest effort and relish the thoughts of entering his own version of ‘digressive’ territory.

Greg said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Greg said...

John - I loved Black Angel? Which of your books should I read next?

ps - are you Catholic?

Sarah said...

I'm so happy that you're following your heart. Taking risks and branching out is a beautiful thing and no matter what you write, it will be magnificent. It's amazing how the writing industry is so similar to the film and music industry. There's always pressure to go mainstream and to follow the path of money. In my opinion, those that stretch their feet and feel free are true heroes, :).

Man With Big Ideas said...

I thought Noeni's comments hit the mark. When I watch a film and enjoy an actor's performance I'm also interested to see them in different roles. Similarly I always find it exciting to look at different work from an author. I've just started Nocturnes and really enjoyed the first two stories.