Try to Write Like Fred MacMurray

Whenever I watch Double Indemnity I'm reminded of what a great actor Fred MacMurray was.

MacMurray was a guy with boy-next-door looks who became a steady leading man in Hollywood. Best known as the warm-hearted dad in the sitcom My Three Sons, MacMurray was equally at home in comedy, drama and film noir, adept in both movies and TV.

How good was he? Think about
Double Indemnity. He plays a slick talking insurance man who teams up with a dame to knock off her husband. A murderer! Yet, by the middle of the film, we find ourselves pulling for him. I don't know many actors who could make that happen.

And I don't think, outside of Robert Mitchum, there's ever been a better deliverer of rat-a-tat film noir lines, like these:

"That's a honey of an anklet you're wearing."

"How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?"

"I wonder if a little rum would get this up on its feet."

Inexplicably, he was never nominated for an Academy Award. Outrage! He was absolutely robbed when Barry Fitzgerald was somehow nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor
for the same role (Going My Way). MacMurray should have been given the Actor slot (Fitzgerald won for Support). Bing Crosby won Actor that year (again, for Going My Way) and while the old crooner was fine, he didn't do one tenth the acting MacMurray does in Double Indemnity.

Though MacMurray is remembered today mostly for his light comedy (e.g.,
The Absent Minded Professor), for my money his best roles were as lowlifes, in Double Indemnity, The Caine Mutiny, and The Apartment. He could have won Oscars for all three.

In other words he was a true actor, doing his job and doing it well. He never tried to show off or chew scenery. He blended into the role and served the greater purpose of the movie.

Which is what I like in writers, too. Getting the tone just right, not showing off in terms of style, but doing what serves the purpose of the story. Even Chandler, who has flights of style that soar, never tried to transcend his plot. He didn't want to. He was a real writer weaving a fictive dream.

I can think of a few writers like that, who are reliable, book after book. Someone like Donald Westlake (aka Richard Stark). Or John D. MacDonald.

Try to do the same.
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One of My Heroes

I want to be this: 96 years old and still writing, still being read.

Herman Wouk, four years short of a century,
has landed another book deal.

I love this!

Wouk is one of our national treasures, the author of numerous great “middlebrow” books.

Middlebrow is something we’ve lost pretty much in our culture, to our great detriment. These were the sort of books that transcended pulp yet were not so highbrow as to be inaccessible.

Wouk majored in such works. Here are a few:

The Caine Mutiny (winner of the Pulitzer Prize)

Marjorie Morningstar

Youngblood Hawke

The Winds of War (his masterpiece, IMO)

War and Remembrance

And these weren’t short books, either. Wouk is a master storyteller. And where did he learn his craft? From radio! He wrote for the legendary radio comedian Fred Allen, and I’m sure that’s how he learned conflict, character and structure. You can’t write sketch comedy without them. Or a successful novel.

The Caine Mutiny proved to be so popular it became the basis of both a film and a play. It is considered one of the best portrayals of Navy life and is stellar courtroom drama. If you’ve never read it or seen the film, do yourself a favor and go for both.

So Mr. Wouk, Godspeed. You are an inspiration. I want to be just like you when I’m looking over the fence at my approaching century mark.

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First Person Boring

First Person Boring

I love a good First Person POV novel. I love writing FP myself. But there are perils, and if you're thinking of trying your hand at it you're going to need be aware of them.

One of these is the "I'm so interesting" opening that is anything but.

Recently I read a couple of novels in FP that had this problem. They began with the narrator telling us his name and giving us a chapter of backstory. By the time I finished the opening chapter I was thinking, Why am I even listening to you?

Let me illustrate. You go to a party and see a guy standing off to the side, you nod and introduce yourself, and he says, "Hi. My name is Chaddington Flesch. Most people call me Cutty, because my grandfather, Bill Flesch, refused to call me anything else. He liked Cutty Sark, you see, and thought this name would make a man out of me. All through school I had to explain why I was called Cutty. Growing up in Brooklyn, that wasn't always easy. Even today, at my job, which happens to be as an accountant, I . . ."

Yadda yadda yadda. And you're standing there at this party thinking, Dude, I'm sorry, but I don't especially care about your history. I have a history, everybody at this party has a history. Nice meeting you, but . . .

But what if you introduce yourself to the guy and he says, "Did you avoid the cops outside?"

You look confused.

"Because I got stopped by a cop right out there on the street. He tells me to hit the sidewalk, face down, and then proceeds to kick me in the ribs. I say, 'There's been a mistake.' He gets down in my face and says, 'You're the mistake. I'm the correction.'"

What are you thinking then? Either:
Am I talking to a criminal? Or, What happened to this poor guy?

What your reaction
isn't is bored.

You are hooked on what
happened to him. And that's the key to opening with FP. Open with the narrator describing action and not dumping a pile of backstory.

Save that stuff for later.

Open with movement, with action.

I got off the plane at Maguire, and sent a telegram to my dad from the terminal before they loaded us into buses. Two days later, the Air Force made me a civilian, and I walked toward the gate in my own clothes, a suitcase in each hand.

I was a mess.

[361 by Donald Westlake]

The girl's name was Jean Dahl. That was all the information Miss Dennison had been able to pry out of her. Miss Dennison had finally come back to my office and advised me to talk to her. "She's very determined," my secretary said. "I just can't seem to get rid of her."

Then Miss Dennison winked. It was a dry, spinsterish, somewhat evil wink.

[Blackmailer by George Axelrod]

The nun hit me in the mouth and said, "Get out of my house."

[Try Darkness by James Scott Bell]

Now I realize I've used hardboiled examples here, and some of you favor more literary writing. There's a lot of debate on just how you define "literary," but let me suggest that literary does not mean
leisurely. You can still open with a character in motion in a literary novel, and I guarantee you your chances of hooking an agent or editor, not to mention a reader, will go way up without any other effort at all.

One of my biggest tips to new writers is the "Chapter 2 Switcheroo." I can't tell you how many times I've looked at a manuscript and suggested that Chapter 1 be thrown out and Chapter 2 take over as the new opening. I would say, conservatively, that 90% of the time it makes all the difference, because the characters are moving. There's action. Something is happening. And truly important backstory can be dribbled in later. Readers will always wait patiently for backstory if your frontstory is moving.
Try it and see.

This writing tip is from
Writing Fiction For All You’re Worth
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My Dad and What He Cared About

I only remember seeing my dad cry twice.

The first time was during the funeral of Robert F Kennedy. I was thirteen and sitting in our living room reading a book. My dad came in and turned on the TV and sat down in front of the live coverage.

I was just becoming politically aware, though basketball and girls were at the top of my priority list. But like many of my generation I responded to Bobby Kennedy. So did my dad, a Depression-era, FDR-inspired Democrat.

Soon, my mom came into the living room to watch what was going on. I don't remember which newscaster narrated the events. Probably Walter Cronkite, who at the time was the most watched and most trusted of TV news anchors. I do remember a train carrying Kennedy's body, and hundreds of people lined along the tracks. Some held flags, some saluted, some simply stood with hands over hearts.

And then, all of a sudden, my dad turned to my mom and started weeping into her chest.

The sight absolutely stunned me. My dad was a big, strong World War II vet. He was my rock. To see him so vulnerable moved me in ways I could not, as a young teenager, even begin to express.

Many years later, when I was in law school, I went to a criminal law convention where my dad was speaking. He was the leading expert on the law of search and seizure in California, highly respected by his peers. The ballroom was packed. I was proud to be his son, hearing the warm reception he got.
Art Bell, lawyer, 1963

He began to speak about the Fourth Amendment, and a particular case in Los Angeles. The police had gone into a neighborhood with a tank-like battering ram and just plowed down a house suspected of being a drug hub. A house wherein there were children eating ice cream.

When he got to the part about the kids and the ice cream he choked up. My dad was not a knee-jerk anything. He didn't dislike cops. But he loved the Constitution most of all, and the injustice of the event touched him to the core.

Again, I was profoundly moved. Why? Because it was so unlike my dad's "normal" self? Perhaps a little. But it was much more than that. It was seeing how much Dad valued justice under law. It made me want to dig deeper into my own core.

Dad believed that lawyers should do more than make a living; he thought they should actually make people's lives and society better (lawyer jokes to the contrary notwithstanding!) He was especially concerned with the weak and vulnerable.

These memories came rushing back to me the other day when an interviewer asked me a question about my Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law series (written as K. Bennett). Mallory is a criminal lawyer in Los Angeles who just happens to be one of the walking dead. Hey, nobody's perfect.

The interviewer asked how much of me was in Mallory. And as I started to think about it, it hit me that Mallory is not based on me, but on my dad. She is a lawyer who represents the outcasts in LA (like vampires and werewolves). She is passionate about the law and the Constitution. And she is a great trial lawyer.

My dad was all those things. And his desire for justice was transferred to me, by his inspiration, and I can see now how it permeates all my writing. It's like
Rumpole's Golden Thread, running through my novels and stories.

For his example I am truly grateful.

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Meeting Some Writer Friends at Starbucks

I collect quotes from writers on all aspects of the writing life. They open up little windows in my mind and help me see things I might miss on my own. I like to review these quotes from time to time. It makes me feel I'm in on a big conversation about my profession, with a bunch of very cool and experienced people. The only thing missing is the Starbucks.

Actually not, as I'm typing this right now at my favorite table at my favorite Starbucks. I'll just pretend it was Ray Bradbury who bought me that first cup, as he sits down with me and says,

"I do a first draft as passionately and as quickly as I can. I believe a story is only valid when it is immediate and passionate, when it dances out of your subconscious. If you interfere in any way, you destroy it.... Let your characters have their way. Let your secret life be lived. Then at your leisure, in the succeeding weeks, months or years, you let the story cool off and then, instead of rewriting, you RELIVE IT. If you try to rewrite, which is a cold exercise, you'll wind up with all kinds of Band-Aids on your story, which people can see."

Thanks, Ray. When I read your work that's exactly the impression I get, that your incredible imagination has been frolicking around in the fields and having fun. And by the way, thank you for
The Illustrated Man, which was one of those life changing books for me. When I read it in junior high, I thought, Man, to be able to write that way someday…

Ah, I see that Henry David Thoreau, looking awfully good for a dead guy, has joined us. First thing out of his mouth is,

"How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live."

Right on, Hank. If there's nothing of value inside the writer, how can there be anything of value for the reader? And you can't buy value, like vowels on
Wheel of Fortune. You have to earn it by living. Reminds me of something I heard once, that a writer really doesn't have much to write about until he's 40. That may be a bit high, but there's something to it, I think. Live first, write second.

Here's Barnaby Conrad, the man who started the famous Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and a terrific writer himself. As he drags a chair over, he says,

"Remember, almost no writer had it easy when starting out. If they did, everyone would be a bestselling author. The ones who make it are the stubborn, persistent people who develop a thick skin, defy the rejection, and keep the material out there, trolling."

Boy, is that ever true, Barnaby. When I wrote my first screenplay, I thought it was a work of pure, natural genius. The first industry friend who read it said, "You don't have it." I first thought she meant I didn't have any talent (as some of my former criminal clients have averred). But she explained I didn't have it ON THE PAGE. I realized I had a big learning curve ahead of me.

I wrote six full length screenplays over the next two years or so, before I landed with a Hollywood agent and began getting anywhere. Before that, I almost broke a knuckle knocking on doors and getting them slammed in my puss.

Which is why Andre Dubus, who has brought his latte to our table, interjects,

"Don't quit. It's very easy to quit during the first ten years."

That catches the ear of the ghost hanging out with Thoreau, George Bernau, who wrote
Promises to Keep and other novels. He was a practicing attorney when he got into a car accident and almost died. In the hospital he took stock of his life, and, as he reminds us,

"I decided that I would continue to write as long as I lived, even if I never sold one thing, because that was what I wanted out of my life."

If you have the desire to write, then make the decision now that you'll write – strongly, passionately, with a commitment to your craft – no matter what.

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