Thursday, March 25, 2010

A new author for you: William Landay

I want to introduce you to a thriller writer recommended to me, as a nice guy and a talented writer, by my agent. And I have to agree with her assessment. I linked to his blog last week and today present an interview with William Landay, author of MISSION FLATS and THE STRANGLER.

In his own words, here he is:

1. Did you always want to be a writer growing up?

Growing up, I didn't imagine anyone could really "be a writer," meaning that you could do it as a full-time job. I was always a writer, though, in the sense that I wrote a lot. I've just always felt it was a natural way to express myself and I've always been a fluent writer, no matter how clumsy and inarticulate I was (and still am) in other ways. I always expected to go into the shoe business, though, which was what my dad did for work.

I wound up as a lawyer, like you an assistant D.A., in the Boston area for most of the 1990's. When I hit my thirtieth birthday, I decided that, if I was ever going to try writing, I ought to do it while I was young and single, with no kids or mortgage to hold me back. Mind you, the goal was not to become a full-time writer; just to write and maybe even publish one novel. One decent novel that I could be proud of.

Unfortunately, I'm a stubborn bastard and I just couldn't give up on that goal, even as I struggled for year to produce a few fragments of awful novels. When I finally did finish a presentable book, I still had not decided to "become a writer." I hoped to, I suppose, but I was not sure I could pay the bills just by writing. So my plan (if you can call it that) was just to submit my one manuscript to publishers and see what happened.

By that time I was married and expecting my first child, my son Ted. While my wife and I were in the obstetrician's office one day, anxious to listen to my baby's heartbeat on one of those amplifiers that attach to pregnant women's bellies, I got a call from my agent that the book had sold and I had been offered a two-book contract. So that was how I "decided" to keep writing: I signed a contract that obliged me two produce a second book.

That's probably how it goes for a lot of artists, I imagine. You go from project to project, hoping to complete each one and sell it. It's only in hindsight, when you string all these projects together, that it looks like a career. Really, it's just a series of haphazard, one-off projects. I'm not sure artists can have a proper career.

2. What is your writing schedule?

I write all day, 9 to 5. Which is to say, I sit there all day, or mope around all day pretending to write, or drink coffee and stare off into space all day pretending to write. But I show up for work every day like a banker and I try to get into that zone of complete focus where real writing happens. That "flow" state only lasts a few hours in any given day, but I never when those hours will be, in the morning or afternoon or what. Someone (can't remember who) once said, "I never know when inspiration will come, but when it does come, it usually finds me at my desk." If you're not working, trying, then you have no chance. Working hard is no guarantee that you'll write anything worth a damn --- but not showing up is a guarantee that you won't.

For the rest, I try to get out of the house, where I have an office. There are just too many distractions at home. I go to libraries and coffee shops. My favorite spot is the main reading room of the Boston Public Library, which is a gorgeous, soaring space. But anyplace will do --- it's best not to be too finicky about the precise conditions under which you can write.

With one qualification: no internet access. I usually don't bring my laptop with me. I just waste too much time on the web. So, when there's serious writing to be done, I usually do it on a gadget called an AlphaSmart Neo, which is just a glorified keyboard with a little LCD screen. There's not a damn thing you can do with it except type. Even dedicated procrastinators --- of whom I am the heavyweight champion --- can get down to work on the AlphaSmart. There is simply nothing to distract you. I highly recommend it.

3. You indicate a preference for anonymity - how do you square that with the marketing authors have to do these days? Do you enjoy the sales and marketing aspect of being a writer?

I can't square the two. Unfortunately. I'd rather remain anonymous. Just write my books in peace, send them out into the world like orphans, and never run around doing readings and all that to support them. Obviously that sort of privileged, private writing life is not realistic anymore, unless you are Thomas Pynchon. (Even Cormac McCarthy went on "Oprah" to support "The Road.")

I did not do much publicity for my first two books. The advice I got from my publisher was that my time was better spent writing (which I did not do very productively, actually). That was before the collapse of publishing last fall and the rise of social media.

Now, it's a new landscape and you have to do all you can do, for the simple reason that your competitors are going to do it and you can't concede any advantage. That's why I launched my blog, a Facebook fan page, and Twitter feed. I don't know how many books these things will actually sell, but I do them anyway, on blind faith. Anyway, you can't leave it up to your publisher to publicize your books for you. They won't, they don't know how, and they don't have the resources to. So it's up to you.

I intend to get out there in person, too, and do a lot more touring and speaking for my next book in summer 2011. Again, that is a very expensive and inefficient way to sell books, since you can only read to a couple dozen people at a time. But publishing is in such dire straits that you have to do everything you possibly can to make your numbers.

4. Do you actively look for story ideas (combing newspapers etc), or do they just come to you?

I never consciously look for story ideas, but they do tend to come out of my reading in newspapers and magazines and so forth. Nothing ever "just comes to me." At least it doesn't feel that way to me. I am actually not all that creative. I am more of a craftsman. A builder and problem solver, not a visionary artist. A bricklayer.

5. Have you ever thought about writing in a different genre?

I don't really think about writing in a genre at all. I write about crime because it interests me and I find it an incredibly rich source of dramatic material --- of stories. I don't actually read crime novels, either, though I read plenty of novels that happen to be about crime.

6. Who are your favorite authors?

Too many to name. I love F. Scott Fitzgerald. I am on a Charles Dickens kick at the moment. Ian McEwan is brilliant, though I haven't loved all his books. Philip Roth. I am reading Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" right now and it's incredibly good.

7. If you could offer just one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?

Oh, I wouldn't dare offer advice. Everybody has to just write and write and find their own way, I think. Just keep writing, ignore everyone who doubts you and everyone who pretends to have the secret to writing. The secret to writing is that there is no secret. "There are no Mozarts in writing." The only way to improve is to keep writing. Wish there were an easier way, but there isn't. Sorry. (Hey, if it was easy, everyone would do it.)

8. Do you outline your novels?

Yes. You have to if you're writing mystery/suspense because the plots are so complex and the pieces have to fit precisely. But I don't outline the whole thing. I try to outline the first act (100 pages or so) in detail, then write it. Then outline the second act, then write that, and so on. I find it is impossible to outline any more than that because the story morphs as you write it, so your outline of act 2 will be moot by the time you finish writing act 1. I always know roughly where I'm headed, though, whether I've actually outlined it or not.

9. How much energy do you put into the language aspect of your novels?

Every ounce of energy I have. I don't understand writers who say "the language does not matter, only the story." To me, the joy of the language is one of the great pleasures of reading, and writing. I know a lot of readers feel differently, but I can't read a book that is badly or even blandly written, no matter how good the story. Books that endure, I think, are always beautifully written, even if the beauty of the writing is in a stripped, plain style.

10. Do you recommend any specific "how-to" writing books for mystery/thriller writers?

No, I've never found one that was much help. I have nothing against how-to books. Whatever works. If they help you, why not? The only danger is that if you rely on the formulas in books, your own books will be formulaic. Worse, every aspiring writer is reading those same recipe books, so it will be hard to differentiate yourself from the herd. So read them, if you like, take from them whatever helps you. But then go do your own thing. Break as many rules as you like. You're a writer, not a baker.

One thing that has helped me a lot, actually, is books on screenwriting. Screenplays are so stripped down to plot, and Hollywood is so mercenary about defining story ingredients, that screenwriting guides are generally very explicit and precise about traditional plot formulas. They have helped me think about plotting. (After that, you're on your own, alas.)

11. Is there any part of being a professional, full-time writer that you don't like?


12. Did you have a lot of support when you began writing, or did you suffer the same raised eyebrow most of us do? In other words, what kept you motivated at the start of your career?

Of course! Every unpublished writer gets the raised eyebrow! Because when you think about it, every shiftless fool is an "unpublished writer." How can people be expected to tell the difference?

My wife always supported me, though, even when there was not much reason to. When we started dating, I was living in my mother's basement at age 30-something, calling myself an "unpublished writer" --- every girl's dream. And when we got married I was still unpublished. My wedding turned into a roast. So everybody goes through that.

As for what kept me motivated, I'm not sure. I think I'm just too stubborn to quit. Is that the same as "motivation"? Close enough, I guess.

Thanks, Mark. Regards to everyone in Texas and beyond.

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