Barry Eisler has two different claims to fame. To readers, he is the best-selling author of two exciting thriller series: the guy who doesn’t just write about heroes who are ex CIA covert ops specialists, Judo experts, international players, and start-up lawyer/operators but actually IS all those things himself. Or was at some point before coming in out of the cold to do boring things like collect awards for his work.
To indie authors, he’s a hero of another kind: one of the handful of writers like Konrath and Doctorow and Hocking and Locke who have become icons, living totems that not only testify to seismic changes in publishing, but have had a major hand in making those changes happen.
It would be hard to identify a single action that did more to light up new potential and realities for independent writers and publishers than Eisler’s decision last March to snub a half-million dollar advance from St. Martins in order to go his own way. The answer to the sneering, “Yeah, but if they offered you a big advance, you’d take it, wouldn’t you?” officially changed from “Damn straight” to “Maybe”, and that small shift put a very major crack in the monolith.
But as revolutionary icons go, Eisler is different from the others mentioned above. Without denigrating their work, the difference is that Eisler is more important to more people as a writer than as a marching banner. He has more fans than disciples or legions. I’m not going to go into detail about his work because it’s easy enough to get information on his series about half-Japanese assassin John Rain or black ops soldier Ben Treven, and highly recommended. While at his website it’s also well worth exploring his blogs of iconoclastic insights into language, writing, and that peculiar form of black ops we refer to as “politics”.
He graciously responded to my request for what he considers an essential writing tip with this:
If there’s one thing all writers should do to improve their mastery of craft (besides writing itself), it’s this: read like a writer. Let me explain what I mean.
Sometimes I hear people say, “You can’t teach writing — after, all, you can’t teach art.” This is foolishness and I find it irritating. Of course you can’t teach art, but teaching art isn’t the point. Art can’t be expressed without craft — so the point is to teach craft, and craft absolutely can be taught and learned.
So if there’s a book like the one you’re trying to write, something you love, one of your favorites — read it again. Read it first as a reader, for pure enjoyment. And then read it another time, this time asking yourself what is it the author is doing that makes the book so good. You can do this kind of analysis for anything — the entire story arc, a description of setting, a love scene, an action scene, dialogue, whatever. Don’t ask what is it about you that makes you like the book — that will teach you something about yourself, but not about craft.
Ask yourself what techniques the writer is employing that make the scene or story or whatever so effective. Look for those techniques and you’ll find them, and the more conscious you become of them in the writing of others, the better you’re able to articulate what those techniques are, the better you’ll be able to deploy them yourself.
As an example of this exercise, have a look at the opening paragraphs of Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca. Ask yourself how Follett is introducing who (character), what (plot), and where (setting). Ask what he’s holding back. Ask how he’s building suspense and engaging your interest — how he makes you want to read more. At every level, ask what makes these opening paragraphs such a superb start to the story.
That’s just one example, of course. Again, you can — and should — do this kind of analysis for whatever kind of story, sequence, plot, setting, character, dialogue you’re trying to write.
The greater the mastery of craft, which can and should be taught and learned, the better you can express yourself as an artist. Your art is a function of whatever is unique about you. If you hadn’t been born, your art could never have happened. But if you don’t learn craft, it’ll never happen, either. So your job is to learn your craft and then to use it to express your art. Good luck!