Tips from the Masters: Lawrence Block

Lawrence BlockIt’s a real rush to pass on a tip from Lawrence Block because he just might be the most major monster in crime fiction. Consider: he’s author of over forty novels (and that’s just under his own name — not counting another 50 or so under various noms du travail). But it goes way beyond that. He’s one of those writers that everybody in his field has read, and most other writers in that field have been influenced by. His Matt Scudder series is an uber-classic, a modern version of Chandler or Hammett. But with a more human character arc, readers watched Scudder come to grips with his alcoholism. Scudder alone would enshrine Mr. Block in the Crime Hall of Fame…

And then there’s Bernie Rhodenbarr. Bernie is far from noir; he’s a serio-comic burglar with a genius for choosing second story targets that are another story. Bernie alone would also put Block on a pedestal, a very small pantheon of favorites alongside Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder — and any argument about him belonging to that rarified club should be settled by the fact that he collaborated with Westlake on three novels.

Don’t forget Keller, the wistful, all-too-human hitman who was a regular in Playboy. Most writers would kill just to have created Keller, yet to Block fans those four books are merely a minor footnote. This guy has sold more books than China’s got chopsticks.

awatt-tie-inOddly, though, I first encountered Block’s work at the movies: the film version of Eight Million Ways to Die, with Jeff Bridges portraying Scudder. The film has been bad-mouthed as “noir light” and a Californication of a classic Yorker, but I was very impressed by the story, quite different from the usual 80s mystery films — and led me into Block’s camp. And this year another film makes a sort of bookend for Block filmation; a much-anticipated A Walk Among The Tombstones with Liam Neeson as Scudder.

He might be the last of a breed: Like Elmore Leonard, his work goes back to pulp novels in the fifties, jumps genres, and is generating contemporary films that get attention in critic’s columns and at the box office. If I haven’t said enough to give you the impression that Lawrence Block is a giant among crime writers, go look him up on Wikipedia… there’s actually much more.

So what did he respond to my recurring quest for The One Best Writing Tip? Well, this…

The best advice I can offer is very simple: Write to please yourself.

And that goes against the grain, doesn’t it? For years every wannabe I met wanted to know what editors and publishers wanted; now, with the miracle of self-publishing, the same folks want to know what readers want. Well, here’s the thing — what they want is none of your business.

If your work is ever going to bring any real pleasure to anybody, it has to be written in your voice, and it had better reflect your inner vision. When you start out, you may not be able to access either voice or vision. That’s not unusual. So you keep writing, and you throw out a lot of crap, and you find the voice and make art of the vision.

And if it never works, well, nobody ever said you had to be a writer.

So — write to please yourself. That way you’ve got at least a chance of pleasing other people. And otherwise you won’t please anybody — including, most importantly, yourself.

And a bonus tip, that I started offering when a friend was awaiting publication of his first novel. (And it would be just as valid if it had been his twentieth.) Here’s what I told him: Don’t expect too much.

“What they want is none of your business.” Draws a simple line, and in direct opposition to reams of what you read about successful writing. I’d say consider the sources. For more information on Mr. Block, see his impressive Author Central page.

Author: Lin Robinson

Linton Robinson was born in occupied Japan, schooled in Asia, and is now a 20 year resident of Latin America. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and noted photographer, with credits in top markets. His syndicated columns were cult favorites in the nineties. Learn more at his blog and his Amazon author page.

12 thoughts on “Tips from the Masters: Lawrence Block”

  1. Something we have in common, Lin. If I were to list my top three-ish favorite authors of all time, those I’ve been reading since I was a young teen (40+ years), Block would be in the list. (Probably not a coincidence that Westlake, who would top this list also gets a mention.)

    And it’s great, logical advice, too. It’s none of your business what readers want, except for the one reader that you can know exactly what they want, yourself. I’d venture a guess that there are other readers who want the same thing. This might account for the number of interviews I’ve seen from authors who have had some level of success who say they’ve done exactly what he advises, wrote the book that they wanted to read.

  2. Great post, Lin, and I heartily agree. Only by writing what we like, what moves us, can we be authentic. Once I tried sitting down to write a “commercial” novel. I wrote about a half chapter and threw it away. It was garbage. I’ll never do that again. Now I only write what grabs me by the throat and drags me to the computer. Some readers will like it and some won’t, and that’s okay. I like it, and that’s all I have control over. Thanks for posting this. Very impactful.

  3. Sage writing advice from the ‘writer’s writer.’ If you’re pleased by what you write, you have a better chance of pleasing at least some readers. If you’re not pleased, I don’t think you have a shot at pleasing anyone.

  4. I absolutely agree. If you try to fit into someone else’s idea of what people want you will lose your voice and your product will be crap. One caveat, though, it still has to be well written and well edited. I fear some might read his advice as a license to cut corners.

  5. Perhaps because I have never needed to earn a living from writing, from my first short story I have always written to please only myself. The result has not been fame or fortune, but more fulfillment than I have enjoyed from any other endeavor.

  6. I never missed an article Lawrence Block wrote for Writer’s Digest. I always found him inspirational. He’s awesome, and his advice is sound. Thanks so much, Lin, for posting about this remarkable author.

  7. He was totally right about expectations. I’ve just written a blog about that. And about volume and number of publications. I guess we are all working on that.

  8. What great advice he offered, and it makes sense. If you’re writing to please someone else, you’ll never be able to get it just right. But, write to please yourself, and you’re sure to hit the right note.

  9. I may be the black sheep of this group.
    He IS writing what readers want. Readers want crime fiction. Readers want flawed characters they can identify with. Readers want a plot that keeps them awake.
    It is great advice to write what pleases you, the writer. But some genres sell and some do not. He is a master of his genre, and his fans devour his books.
    Your posts, as always, make me turn back to the computer and write. Thank you.

  10. That, I would say, is the rub. If you grow up wanting to crunch numbers or do deals, you end up having a lot of money. If your dream is to being a poet or performance artist, you generally don’t.
    But not many poets would change places with stockbrokers or real estate hucksters.
    There’s a huge luck element involved, and the first bit of luck is liking to do what people like to buy.
    Another thing to keep in mind is, when Block started writing crime pulp, and Leonard switched over from westerns to crime, it wasn’t the hugely popular field it is now. It was practically penny dreadfuls. It’s grown into a monster field, and those guys are part of what made that happen.
    Both writers, particularly Block I would say, were also innovative. They wrote stuff unlike any other crime writer before. Bernie and Scudder and Tanner were extreme oddballs, a big gamble. Block and Westlake pioneered comic crime, criminals as heroes. And it paid off. But that was never for sure.

  11. Lin, your comment coming after Lois’s provides great perspective. Ain’t it great when what you write is what the readers want–and they happen to discover that fact.

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