Tag Archives: Mark Stevens

On Productivity

By Mark Stevens

I did the math so you don’t have to.

25 + 38 + 18 + 52 = 133.

???????????????????????????????Left to right—Sue Grafton, Charlaine Harris, Sara Paretsky, J.A. Jance.

They are on the panel, dubbed “A Conversation Among Authors.”

It should be called “A Conversation Among Crank Monsters.”

I mean, holy cow that’s a lot of books represented up there and the 133 doesn’t include short stories, non-fiction and other books and anthologies the four have helped edit.

I’m at Bouchercon in Long Beach at the Convention Center. It’s 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon (Nov. 14) and the huge room is filling up well before the start time. The room buzzes with a rock concert vibe. Bouchercon has a special energy (this was my first) in part because the whole place is teeming with both writers and readers.

???????????????????????????????So at the panel, the fan fest flavor is in full effect. The room takes a few minutes to settle down. People are standing to take pictures as this quartet of mystery masters take their seats on the panel and start taking questions from moderator Clare Toohey.

As a writer in the crowd, I wonder:

Is it all about volume?

I know the answer:

Of course not.

The quality has to be there, too. Right?

In order to ride up escalator into the echelon of dependable writers with large audiences and sizable contracts, the quality has to be there also.

Right?

I’m going to come out and say that none of these four are exactly my cup of mystery or suspense prose. I tend to like my stories darker than Grafton and Jance produce (from what I know, at least) and Harris (most famous for all the paranormal themes that ended up in the True Blood television series.). I have read—and liked—a few of the Paretsky novels featuring V.I. Warshawski.

But even the least productive of these four has written 18 novels! That’s a mountain of words and writing experience. They are certainly testament to the number one tip you here for up-and-coming writers: keep writing.

More writing is more practice. Practice makes you better. Etc.

If Grafton pulled up stakes after A is for Alibi was first published in 1982, would she be here?

I think we know the answer.

J.A. Jance? What a career. Prolific and clearly imaginative—she juggles a multitude of series and even a quick glance through her works and you think, what would it take to keep up that kind of sheer productivity and storytelling energy for the course of 52 books?

Jance didn’t even get published until she was 41, if my math is accurate. She was born in 1944 and didn’t get published until 1985, according to Wikipedia.

So maybe it’s quality and productivity. Readers (the audience) clearly enjoy having a whole shelf full of books to explore once they latch onto a writer.

So as the hour-long panel drew to a close, the moderator gave audience members a chance to pose a few questions. One asked: “what would you do differently?”

Well, what would you do differently if you were a rock star mystery writer who could sign books all day and still not sign enough to keep the fans happy?

I loved the answer given by Charlaine Harris: “Take more risks.”

Yeah, that’s it. Keep writing and take more risks.

As good a recipe as any I can conjure up.

Kudos to the four writers for long and healthy writing careers: even if it’s not your precise shade of darkness, an inspiration for sure.

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, was published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

A Few Bad Habits

By Mark Stevens

You brush your teeth. You comb your hair. You make a pot of coffee.

You’re on auto pilot, right? Not much brainpower required.

Your head is busy elsewhere, thinking ahead. Or something.

You sit down to write.

Man oh man, that first sentence of your new bestseller is going to be carved and shaped and chiseled to perfection. That first paragraph, too. Hey, go for it, the whole first page.

Then you get into the meat of the story and, well, not every image sizzles. Not every scrap of dialogue sparkles.

Your writing brain (okay, I’m taking about myself here) goes back into teeth-brushing mode.

Relaxed. Unfocused. Drifting.

And stupid.

I recently wrapped up a new manuscript. Two editors worked it over. Seven beta readers took it out for a spin. And before I hit “send” to the publisher, I decided to search deep, down in the muck of the narrative.

Not a pretty picture.

Those “weasel” words. The crutches, the lazy crap. (I wrote about this issue a couple months ago in recommending a tool called Visual Thesaurus; obviously I’m obsessed.)

To the manuscript: I did a search for the word “few.”

Stevens_FewThe bottom line?

Out of 100,000 words, 154 of those were the word “few.” In other words, .15 percent of all the words I used (out of the 1 million plus available at my fingertips) was the word f-e-w.

Even though this word is meaningless, blah, imprecise, blurry and out of focus, my slack writer brain had reached for it—over and over and over—like a strung-out junkie looking for a fix. Stare at the word for a minute and you’ll see how pointless it is. I’ll wait here….

Funny—neither of my editors’ noticed the overuse of this crutch word. None of the beta readers, either.

But there it was, this fuzzy bit of gunk dragging down all those sentences and my question is this: how do I let this happen when I’m writing that first draft? Does the brain go slack? To sleep? Into auto-pilot mode?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s just part of getting out that first version.

Maybe. It scares me to think that my writing brain doesn’t note when it’s being a lazy ______. If I’m willing to put that word on the page, what other slop is creeping in?

By the time I’d hit “send” to my editor, only seven instances of “few” remained in my manuscript. Each of the other 147 sentences were fortified with a better, more precise word choice that (I hope) leaves the story on more solid foundation.

Is this part of the process of editing and refinement?

Or does my sloppy style the first time around mean I wasn’t really seeing, listening and actively writing?

It’s a question I’d rather not answer.

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Pen and Paper? Are You Kidding Me????

By Mark Stevens

I recently sparked a flutter on Twitter.

I mentioned that I write by hand.

Yes, full novels—start to finish.

By hand.

I mentioned this on Twitter and I could hear virtual jaws dropping from coast to coast.

Okay, in reality, I had five or six comments along these lines: “Are you KIDDING ME??????”

I also found a few like-minded souls.

Soon, we had a club forming. Men and women of the Pen & Paper Brigade will only listen to vinyl, take pictures with film and write books by hand.

It’s the only way to go.

First, a notebook is so damn portable. No hunts for electrical outlets in the coffee shops. Trains, planes, automobiles, canoes, rocket ships. Doesn’t matter. Got a place to sit down in the woods? In the park? A mountain cabin off the grid? You’re set.

Second, that sound. I’m addicted. That faint, dull scrape of ink going on a page. It’s visceral. It’s real.

Third, less time staring at a computer screen. Don’t we all need less? And no worries about outdoor reflections, moving around so the sun is just right. When you write by hand, it’s a non-issue. Have you ever headed to the computer and waited ten minutes while updates are installed? Non-factor.

Fourth, the process slows me down. My storytelling head is slow. Fresh copy goes on the right side and then the left is open and available for inserts and new ideas.

Fifth? Well, this is kind of a stupid reason but I dig seeing the notebooks stack up. I shoot for 500 words a day. That’s it, that’s all. I try to get in five days a week of writing. It never works out exactly. Some weeks fail, others get in a groove. But I recently finished a novel in about 14 months, including uploading the darn thing to a computer. Yes, at some point there is computer involved but then it’s a solid second draft.

Here are my tools.

  1.  College-ruled, 1-subject notebooks with perforated pages, 11 inch by 8 inch. I like 100 sheets per notebook. I’m not super fussy about my notebooks, but you get the idea.
  2.  A uni ball VISION ELITE. (I think the lower-case uni ball is official and I don’t want to be disrespectful so I’m going with it.) I prefer the “bold” tip. I like blue. Black is okay. I’ve tried many other options. Nothing comes close. (Dear uni ball folks: One case may be shipped to my home address in exchange for this endorsement. Email mstevens@ecentral.com for shipping particulars.)

Any downsides? None that I know of, other than trying to decipher that gnarled-up penmanship. Man, that’s some wild stuff.

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Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Crush the Crutches

By Mark Stevens

Do you have “crutch” words?

Words you inject into your prose without thinking?

I mean, they are such great freaking words that you when you ask a reader to plow through your latest incredible best-selling novel, she comes back and says:

“Well, not bad. But did you know you used the word ethereal 187 times?”

Or (fill in the blank for your go-to word)?

Me?

Guilty as charged. I’ve got a few. They change from one piece of writing to the next.

They are words my inner brain fell in love with, most likely, decades ago.

I pull them out of the dust-covered brain cells that are my word filing system and I drop into the prose without really thinking.

(Question: Why can’t my ability-to-edit brain see the heavy repetition of my crutch words? When I read manuscripts by other writers, their crutch words jump out at me like something from Sharknado. “Did you mean to use the color ‘salmon’ on page four and page 196?”)

Which brings me to Visual Thesaurus. (http://www.visualthesaurus.com/)

Stevens_Visual ThesaurusIf you are looking, occasionally, for that little spark to kick a sentence or a paragraph in the butt—a way to give your writing voice a little inspiration—check it out.

It’s a word lover’s daily jolt of caffeine.

First, take your crutch word and enter it in the search engine. VT will give you a visual rendering of the universe in which your word lives—all its relatives, close and distant.

If you want to tweak your favorite plum word in one direction, you click on that word within the sphere (Do mean “hot” as blistering or “hot” as spicy?) Suddenly, you are charging down another path looking for the right word.

Plus, VT has daily columns about word derivations and interesting takes on word usage. A recent column looked at “anxious” versus “eager.” Knowing the difference is the kind of distinction that might give your prose more accuracy.

If you subscribe ($25 per year), you get a daily ‘word of the day’ in your email and lots of nifty/nerdy info to go with it.

As I write this, today’s word is ‘theurgy.’ (“Magic performed with the help of one—or more.”) Recent words were cheroot, caliphate and hypernym. As Visual Thesaurus says: Dog, for example, is a hypernym for dachshund, Chihuahua, and poodle. Some folks call ‘em generic terms or superordinates.

In fact, Visual Thesaurus will help you avoid hypernyms (and your damn crutches) and be as precise and fresh as possible.

Every day.

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Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Here Comes the Judge

By Mark Stevens

Who am I to judge? No, really?

I’ve judged the Colorado Gold contest for many years. I take on five or six entries each time around. That’s not many pieces to rate. Some judges handle dozens—and more.

Five or six entries take time—twenty pages of each novel and a three or four-page synopsis to go with it. First, I read each entry straight through and then I embed comments on the second pass.

Then, the real work: filling out the score sheet.

Is the “emotional content” a five or six?

Is the “scene craft” a four or a five?

The totals add up. The contest is designed to find unpublished writers who are worthy of the spotlight. (And, yes, years ago I entered the contest a few times. I was crushed when my scores didn’t add up.)

This year, alas, I struggled to connect. With anything. I shipped back a whole lot of misery for contestants to absorb. (I am very glad each entry receives scoring from at least two judges; I am not alone.)

So I’m here with a few humble suggestions.

  •  Keep it simple.
  •  Give me one character with a strong point of view.
  •  Show me that character’s attitude about one thing.
  •  Don’t give me blah.
  •  Or ordinary.
  •  Give me edge; risk.
  •  Convince me that the story starts on this day.
  •  Rivet me with a colorful detail. Or two.
  •  Decide why I want to spend a few hundred pages with your main character and give me one reason to engage in the first few pages.
  •  Help me see, taste, smell, touch. Make it sensory.
  •  Avoid using dialogue that is only designed to fill readers in on the background lives of the characters. (Just don’t!) This is dialogue as “info dump.” It’s deadly.
  •  But, mostly, keep it simple.
  •  Really simple.
  •  No, really.

www.writermarkstevens.com
https://www.facebook.com/AllisonCoil
@writerstevens
https://www.facebook.com/theasphaltwarrior

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Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Raising the Bar

By Shannon Baker
Photos by Mark Stevens

I am overwhelmed with gratitude to be named Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers 2014 Writer of the Year. See how many times Writer is used in that title? That means it’s an award for a writer voted on by writers. And for this one moment in time—well a whole freaking year!—I get to be The Writer of the Year. That probably sounds self-promoting and egotistical, but I’m throwing manners out the window and, in fact, might actually shout it out that same window. I get to be the Writer of the Year!

Shannon Baker WOTY2It was such a thrill to be nominated with Christine Jorgenson and Terry Wright. Christine has penned two series and this year was nominated for the Colorado Book Awards. She also received the Writer of the Year honor in 1995. She’s not only an accomplished writer but is the nicest woman on the planet. Terry has his own publishing company and is a legend creating book trailers. Even his name is all about writing.

We writers can be a funny lot, or as the man I live with says, crazy. At least, I can. Among other issues, I have what I call Raising the Bar Syndrome. It goes something like this: I get a glimpse of something I want to achieve, I set a goal. I work really hard toward that goal. If I finally get there, I spend about 1.5 seconds of happiness and then see that I’m nowhere near successful because if I were a real writer, I’d be (points finger into the distance) there.

I came to my first Colorado Gold conference somewhere around 1994, toting my second completed manuscript, sure it was brilliant. It wasn’t. A very New York editor pointed out to me just how far from brilliant it was. I was smart enough to believe him. I needed to learn a ton just to know the basics of why it failed, let alone how to go about fixing it. At that conference, I sat at the banquet and watched as the contest winners were announced. Wow, I thought. If I could only win the contest, I’d know I was a real writer.

I set about the painful task of learning to write. I hate to say that for me, as it is for many, it’s a slow process and one that will never end. I can improve, and improve, and still, there is room for improvement. But after a couple of years, I did win the contest. Twice. That’s a thrill and a milestone and should be celebrated. It means a writer has reached a certain level and should be congratulated.

But self-congrats were soon replaced with a new goal. Look at those writers getting their Pen Awards, RMFW’s acknowledgement of a first sale. If I got one of those I’d be a real writer. I kept at my craft. I worked hard. I sent out hundreds of query letters. I tweaked and revised and rewrote. After a very long time, I finally joined the ranks of the traditionally published and took home my Pen Award.

But that contract wasn’t all I’d hoped and I wasn’t satisfied. I told my husband, “If I can get a contract for three books with a decent press, I’ll be happy. I can say I’m a real writer and will never have to write another book.” And guess what? After a few more years, that’s exactly what happened. Two books of that contract are on the shelves with the third due next spring.

But I’m a nobody in the grand scheme of publishing. I know some big deals in that world and I can tell you, I’m small potatoes. I’ve just finished the first book in a new series and maybe if I sell it and it takes off I’ll really be a writer. Raising the Bar Syndrome is in full flower.

Shannon Baker WOTY1But here’s a twist. This summer, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers honored me with Writer of the Year. That’s as high as the bar goes. For twenty years I’ve seen that title awarded to the creamiest crème de la crème. This is a rare time in my writerly journey when I will pause and let myself revel. For once I’ll make no excuses or justifications or downplay it. I’m going to be a big, fat, obnoxious self-centered peacock. Further, I’ll frame the certificate and display it proudly and go to it whenever I feel like a failure or a poseur. It is my proof that I AM a writer. My writer tribe told me so.

Thank you, RMFW. Thank you very much.

Please join 2013 Writer of the Year Linda Joffe Hull and this year’s nominees, Christine Jorgenson, Terry Wright, and me at the Tattered Cover on Colfax August 14th at 7:00 PM as we rev up for the Colorado Gold Conference. One free conference will be given away, as well as lunch with lunch with J. Ellen Smith, publisher of Champagne Book Group, lunch with Raelene Gorlinsky, publisher at Elora’s Cave and lunch with NYT Bestselling author William Kent Krueger.

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Shannon Baker writes the Nora Abbott Mystery Series, a fast-paced mix of murder, environmental issues and Hopi Indians published by Midnight Ink. Tainted Mountain, the first in the series is set in Flagstaff, AZ and is a New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards finalist. Broken Trust, book two of the series, takes place in Boulder, CO and was released in March. She serves on the board of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and is nominated for 2104 Writer of the Year. She is a member of SinC and MWA. Visit Shannon at www.Shannon-Baker.com.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield: A Review

Review by Mark Stevens

the-war-of-art_for Mark Stevens postResistance is invisible, internal, implacable, impersonal, infallible and insidious.

Resistance, as Steven Pressfield points out in The War of Art, never sleeps.

“Henry Fonda was still throwing up before each stage performance, even when he was seventy-five,” writes Pressfield. “In other words, fear doesn’t go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”

If you don’t know it, The War of Art is a must-read. (Of course, reading it might be an act of resistance in itself. You should be writing, don’t you know.)

The War of Art breaks down the interaction with your art. It encourages you to picture yourself as a soldier in the fight against, what else? Resistance.

Pressfield first defines the enemy (resistance), then encourages you to fight by “turning pro” and finally, in the third section, he shows you how to find inspiration in the “higher realm.”

The battle, Pressfield asserts, involves dedication and daily action. Some of his arguments have too many biblical metaphors for my tastes but the essence of his argument is hard to refute: get busy, show up, do the work, stick to it, make it routine, make it a habit, don’t give in.

You will understand the creative process a bit better—and even understand why you feel compelled to tell stories and to produce art.

• “The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome.”

• “When we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set in motion by which, inevitably, and infallibly heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.”

• “What I call Professionalism someone else might call the Artist’s Code or the Warrior’s Way. It’s an attitude of egolessness and service.”

Pressfield’s most convincing point, at least to me, is that if we have something to say, we are obligated to say it.

We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the world. He calls creating art a private insurrection.

“As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls. In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of advertising, movies, video games, magazines, TV and MTV by which we have been hypnotized from the cradle. We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work.”

The War of Art delivers a blow against resistance and will get you fired up. It’s a battle out there. Strike a blow, if you can, every day.

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Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Death Becomes You: What Will Your Legacy Be?

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

I’m going blind.

The eye doctor told me this a few weeks ago. I have diabetic retinopathy which is basically uncontrolled bleeding behind my eyes from half a lifetime of having type 1 diabetes. Retinopathy leads to blindness. It might take a year, it might be five, ten, or twenty years.

There is no cure.

I will go blind.

(I’m not looking for sympathy, many others have it far worse. I’d like nothing more than to for you to read on because I feel like there’s a bigger point to be made).

Sadly, my first thought was, my career is over before it really started (I lie and say I’m an optimist when asked, but I come from a long line of Pollyanna-like pessimists).

And if my fate ends with not being able to write anymore (which it won’t since I plan to teach my seeing-eye dog how to type, so forgive me for any future novels begging for bones), what sort of legacy will my works leave?

What do my books say about me?

Better yet, what do your books say about you?

Scary thought, right?

Don’t get me wrong. I am proud of every book I’ve put into the world. I’ll freely admit some are better than others. Some suffered from my learning my craft. Some suffered from thinking I knew too much. Hell, in one book, and I won’t say which, I believed that using ‘said’, thanks to a bad critique group, was akin to publishing suicide. I only used it 939 times in 76 thousand word novel (Don’t try this at home; it will result in severe trauma). The book is published and available in ebook and trade paperback. I dare you to figure out which one it is.

But I’m talking less about craft and grammatical insanity than content. I wonder what sort of legacy my words leave in the world because there is immortality in your work. Even if you never publish a single word, it is forever alive.

As much as a part of me wishes to leave behind a legacy like Maya Angelou, who recently departed did, I know better. I am a genre writer, sometimes a good one, and sometimes bad. I love writing romance. I love writing mysteries. I loved writing F***ed Up Fairytales.

But I’m no Angelou.

I’m me.

And I will own my legacy.

And if we’re lucky, after we’re gone, we will have someone like Mark Stevens to convey our uniqueness with the rest of the world like Mark is doing with writer Gary Reilly. Also like RMFW does at every Colorado Gold conference when they honor Rick Hanson’s life’s work with contest where first place is usually a haiku’s using the word sphincter.

I think I’ll end this post here.

But I’d love to hear what sort of legacy you see for yourself, and what you wish your legacy could be? And if you could use the word sphincter, that would be great.

What’s Your Reason for Writing?

By Mark Stevens

No doubt soon you’ll be walking around your house knee-deep in royalty checks.

At some point, you’ll probably stop reading the reviews.

Even the good ones.

Yawn. Another rave.

Until then, why are you on this ride? Are you driven? Just because? Is it art to you?

Or commerce?

I watched two documentaries recently.

One was “Finding Vivian Maier” about a unique street photographer whose work has exploded after her death. Vivian Maier was completely overlooked during her lifetime. She never promoted her work. Her possessions and an enormous stash of her photographs (the negatives) were bought—cheaply—at an auction of stuff in Chicago. The stash included uncashed social security checks. She wasn’t in it for the money. Clearly. Now, the world is studying her work. And marveling.

I highly recommend the film (which itself is very well put together).

The other documentary was about famous back-up singers. Is that an oxymoron? Probably. That’s the point. They are back-up singers. If you like music, “20 Feet from Stardom” is must-see. The portraits are fascinating—Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer. And others. They probably sang on hundreds of songs you know by heart. They sing the key licks, the little juicy bits you hum along with.

Also recommended.

Talent? By the truckload.

Artists? In every way, shape and form.

Some try to step up to the limelight, become the lead. Others hang back on purpose. They are fine with the shadows, but every bit as integral to the lead singer (and the act) but fine with the supporting role. They are, in fact, highly sought-after artists in their supporting roles.

Is there a heartbreak? Yes. Dashed hopes? Yes. But the overall message is they are in it for the moment—the expression. Every one of them had (has) pride in their accomplishments.

Moral of the story?

With Vivian Maier, she followed nobody’s script and nobody’s expectations for what constituted a “good” photograph. She took pictures of small moments, odd people, strange situations and left her view of the world for the rest of us to enjoy.

With the back-up singers, they were told what words to sing, what notes to hit. They brought their skills to the studio or the live stage and accepted (in varying degrees) their roles.

What’s your reason for writing? Are you okay with doing it—just because?

Are you doing your own thing? Listening to your own voice? Or are you a back-up, following someone else’s vision and script?

(I think there is good in both approaches.)

Me? I hope I do a little of both.

Reilly_The Enlisted Men's ClubFinal note: A bit of blatant self-promotion for my pal Gary Reilly, whom I’ve written about before. Gary wrote 25 novels with no encouragement from “the industry.” He died in 2011 and left those 25 novels behind, just because. His sixth posthumous book launches at 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 14 at the Tattered Cover in Denver. The Enlisted Men’s Club is the first of his Vietnam-era novels following the publication of five comic novels about a Denver taxi driver (including two Colorado Book Award nominees). The tone of the war-era novel, of course, is very different. But the mark of the artist is the same. An artist at work. Just because.

 

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Getting the Details Right

By Mark Stevens

If I had to pick a favorite prose stylist, it might be John Updike.

(I don’t have to pick, do I?)

Some think his stuff is over-written. I happen to think he was a poet whether he was writing fiction or criticism. Or poetry.

In fact, Updike published eight volumes of poetry in addition to everything else—novels, short stories, and reams of art and literary criticism. Updike died at age 76 and, one of many fascinating tidbits I gleaned from reading Adam Begley’s new biography of the man (Updike), he even wrote his last poem about four weeks before he died.

Prolific? To say the least. David Foster Wallace once asked: “Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?” (I’ve seen that quote without attribution, too. Was it Wallace?)

Updike wrote three hours a day come hell or high water. He was widely hailed for his style and for his ability to elevate ordinary days and ordinary feelings, layered with human depth. He was jaded, wicked, heartfelt, crude, raunchy. And elegant, too.

But he couldn’t rely purely on his imagination. One thing Begley makes clear in his lengthy and highly enjoyable portrait is that John Updike believed in research. Nearly thirty years after he started writing for The New Yorker magazine, after worldwide success and a Pulitzer Prize (the first of two), John Updike still believed in getting the details right.

Stevens_rabbitrichPreparing to to write the third book in his “Rabbit” tetralogy (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest), Updike decided to give his hero Harry Angstrom a new job, running a Toyota dealership in Pennsylvania. For the most part, Updike drew stories from the people and situations that were close at hand—either right down the street or at least familiar social circles. (His critics hate this about him.) As such, he knew nothing about car dealerships.

Updike, writes Begley, “rolled up his sleeves and went to work.” He hired help to untangle the “arcane protocols” of automobile finances and the corporate structure of a dealership—how salesmen are compensated, how many support staff work in the back office, and paperwork involved in importing cars and more. He visited dealerships in the Boston area. “He aimed for, and achieved, a degree of detail so convincing that the publisher felt obliged to append to the legal boilerplate on the copyright page a specific disclaimer: ‘No actual Toyota agency in southeastern Pennsylvania is known to the author or in any way depicted herein.’ ”

Credibility.

As George Saunders talks about (see this March 4 post by Mark), it’s about making the moments on the page “undeniable.” Even with his flashy style and a vocabulary that seemed like it knew no bounds, Updike started with getting the details right.

Rabbit is Rich, by the way, won another Pulitzer.

Final thought: I wish I had the kind of time a full-time writer would have to do this kind of research, but I recently spent a full day driving around Rio Blanco County with Deputy Sheriff John Scott. We drove for hours talking about life and crime around Meeker and upriver toward the Flat Tops Wilderness. I left with a fresh load of powerful details and many ways to (try and) give my new story another chance to be undeniable.
Stevens_Deputy John Scott (800x600)
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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014.