Recently I had the opportunity to listen to best selling thriller authors, David Morrell and John Sandford discuss their approaches to writing at the annual Tony Hillerman Conference in Santa Fe. It is a small conference, no more than 200 people and those who attend get the opportunity to spend three days in workshops with some great writers. This year was no exception. It was my second year attending and it won’t be my last. I’m already making plans to go back next year.
The best part of attending a small conference like this one is that it provides aspiring writers the opportunity every so often for some one-on-one discussions. Imagine my surprise when I went over and approached David Morrell to tell him that I often use a conversation I had with him last year about short stories in my various classes and to thank him for his words of wisdom. Instead of simply accepting the thanks and moving on, he stopped to ask, “What did I say?”
I mentioned that he had told me and another attendee who happened to be one of my students that short stories were a great learning tool because they helped writers work on the basics of storytelling. He also said they helped teach how to be more focused because every words counts so the writing becomes sharper. He nodded and then began to expand on that old discussion, telling me how important it is to study the basics and to constantly study writing techniques. We should always be in the learning process as writers, he said. Then we began discussing first books and his beginnings as a writer. Another woman joined us and asked him about how he got the idea for his signature character, Rambo. It's a questions he's probably had many times, but instead of excusing himself and rushing off to breakfast, he took the time to stop and talk to us about how he had come up with that iconic figure.
Morrell told us he was at Penn State in the 60s, a hotbed for student unrest, and he kept seeing men coming back from the Viet Nam war with psychological problems. He recalled actor Audi Murphy who became a popular movie star after being a war hero in World War II, but Murphy had a lot of problems with rage and was always being arrested. Morrell said he began studying the problems (in those days no one had heard of PTSD) and found himself writing a story based on that. The result was Rambo.Later that day I got a chance to pose the same sort of question to thriller author, John Sandford. I’ve been a great fan of his and of his signature character, Detective Lucas Davenport, since I picked up Rules of Prey in the supermarket back when it first came out. I mentioned that to him and asked how he had gotten started. He was a newspaper reporter known as John Camp working in Minneapolis at the time and had just won a Pulitzer Prize. But all it got him was a minor raise. He had written two nonfiction books and dabbled in fiction and was looking for a way to increase his earnings. He had a family to raise and was looking at fiction writing as a possible way to get extra cash. Like so many writers he had always wanted to write fiction--ever since he was in junior high. He told me he spent months walking the inside walkways of downtown Minneapolis in the winter and working out the first Davenport book in his head.
What an inspirational thrill it was to hear those stories directly from both mega-successful authors. They struggled, just like the rest of us. They came up with an idea and they didn’t just sit down and bestsellers sprang from them like magic. They both stressed that they had to work at their writing and their stories. Endless hours of research and writing and re-writing were all part of the package.Later the two sat down for a chat together for the whole group and their comments were much the same. But I got to hear it directly (and first!) But the one thing that I came away with from their main discussion was the importance of writing every day and continuing to study the craft. As a newspaper reporter, Sandford/Camp says he would write stories of at least 750 words a day. He said if you write that much every day, you should be able to get a novel done in just a few months. That struck a chord with me as a journalist. I was writing every day when I worked in television newsrooms. It might not be fiction, but it was steady writing and it had to get done. Both men agreed that is how to look at your writing. If we want to be writers, we need to constantly work at it. Bosses don't accept the excuse of not feeling like you don't want to write. As a writer you're the boss and shouldn't accept that excuse either.
Wise words from some wise men with a history of 100 books and short stories between them. It certainly made me think, and even as I finish this up, I see I have 750 words written. Now to write another 750 on my next book.