Telling Lies for Fun Profit by Lawrence Block
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Crime writer Lawrence Block's book on writing is one of the best I've ever read. By being specific and giving practical advice from long experience, it's much more helpful than many others.
Telling Lies for Fun & Profit is like a 47 chapter course on how to write like a pro...well, hold up! It doesn't propose to turn you into the great American writer. You won't necessarily become a rich and famous novelist because of this book. What I mean is, Block gives you a career's worth of tips on how to hone your craft after you've mastered the basics. Quite literally, you must be able to arrange your nouns and verbs in the right order before a book like this will be of any use to you. Sound simple enough? Well, you'd think so...
Having read a dozen or more how-to-write books from established writers, I found that Telling Lies for Fun & Profit treads on some familiar territory now and then. But even when it did, I still garnered some useful knowledge just from Block's unique take on a subject. Even if it wasn't completely unique, it would at least have a fresh angle to its approach.
One of my favorite parts was when Block admitted that he essentially hates writing. Here's the whole excerpt. I'll underline the specific part, but as a whole it makes more sense:
...writing’s not much fun.
I really wonder why that is...It’s been my observation that painters, both professional and amateur, love to paint. They get genuine enjoyment out of the physical act of smearing paint on canvas. Sometimes they’re blocked, sometimes they’re frustrated, but when they’re painting the very process of creation is a joy to them.
Same thing certainly holds true for musicians. They only seem to feel alive when they’re performing. The jazz musicians I’ve known spend their afternoons practicing scales and such, work all night performing, then jam for free at an after-hours joint until dawn, just for the sheer pleasure of it.
In sharp contrast, almost every writer I know will go to great lengths to avoid being in the same room with his typewriter. Those of us who are driven to produce great quantities of manuscript don’t necessarily get any real pleasure out of the act; it’s just that we feel worse when we don’t write. It’s not the carrot but the stick that gets most of us moving.
I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no positive pleasure connected with writing. I enjoy getting ideas, for example—both the initial plot germs and the ideas that develop in the course of extended work on a novel. And I very much enjoy having written; the satisfaction of having completed a taxing piece of work can be monumental.
This latter pleasure, come to think of it, is a negative one, isn’t it? When I’m delirious with joy over having finished something, my joy stems in large part from the fact that I do not have to work on it any more, that the dratted thing is over and done with. So it’s nice being about to write, and it’s nice to have written. But is there no way to enjoy writing while it’s going on?
One thing that impedes enjoyment, I would think, is that writing’s hard work. Painters and musicians work hard, too, but there’s a difference. You can’t really relax and go with the flow while you’re writing—at least I can’t, and if anyone can show me how, I’ll be delighted to learn. Writing demands all of my attention and focuses me entirely in the present. I can’t let my mind wander, and if my mind wanders in spite of itself I find I can’t write, and when I want to write and can’t write I find myself possessed of murderous rage.
When a painting doesn’t go well the artist can keep on painting and cover it up. When a musician’s not at his best, the notes he plays float off on the air and he can forget about them. When I’m off my form, the garbage I’ve written just sits there on the page and thumbs its nose at me. And when it gets into print that way, it’s there for all the world to see, forever.
Painters and musicians would probably quibble over a few points there, but from a writer's perspective, it was nice to hear this sort of stuff from a seasoned professional.
From the standpoint of a fan of Block's fiction, this was also fun to read, because it was written in the early '80s. By then he'd published countless books and even completed a series or two. At the time though, he was just getting back into the flow of working on his Scudder detective series, the one that most Block fans seem to regard as his best work. To hear him talk about it with uncertainty provided a nice, autobiographical insight.
Highly recommended to writers, as well as to Block's fans!
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