John Morgan Wilson’s first novel, Simple Justice, which launched his Benjamin Justice series, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel for its year of publication, 1996. Three other novels in the eight-book Justice series received Lambda Literary Awards. John also coauthored two whodunit novels with bandleader Peter Duchin. His first short story for EQMM appeared in 2003, and he has contributed half a dozen stories to our magazine since then. The latest, “Dial M for Marsha,” will appear towards the end of this year. Other stories by the West Hollywood author have appeared in AHMM and various anthologies. John’s versatility as a writer adds weight to the view he expresses in this post about rules and fiction-writing.—Janet Hutchings
In a world with no shortage of writers to tell you how it should be done, Ross Thomas was more inclined to let you find your own way.
I met him briefly in 1995, when he was making a rare public appearance through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where I taught an occasional nonfiction class. At the time, I was working furiously on my first novel and figured some advice from Mr. Thomas wouldn’t hurt.
Why Ross Thomas? Among other honors, he’d been awarded two Edgars—for Best Novel (Briarpatch, 1984) and Best First Novel (The Cold War Swap, 1966)—and had about two dozen mysteries, thrillers, and spy novels in print. His assured voice, graceful style, and wicked wit distinguished his work from the more conventional. He was also a pro, through and through.
“He was always at the top of his game,” his friend Lawrence Block recalled a few years ago in Mystery Scene, “and never wrote a bad sentence or a lifeless page, never created an unengaging character.”
That evening at UCLA, he made two comments that especially resonated with me as someone who’d always tottered on a tightrope between insecurity and confidence.
Asked about the importance of talent in achieving success, he replied that all an aspiring writer needed was “the ability to write a simple declarative sentence,” implying that it was more about what one did with his or her talent that mattered—finding the imagination, discipline, perseverance and chutzpah to make a go of it.
“Write what you want to write,” Ross Thomas said. “There are no rules, absolutely none.”
My mother, a high school English teacher, often stayed up late marking up her students’ papers with her fearsome red lead pencil, from which no spelling, punctuation, or grammatical error was safe.
She slashed away at my assignments as well, highlighting problem areas without specifying the actual mistakes, demanding that I correct and retype the papers before I went to bed, no matter how late the hour or how exhausted I was. She also made me take a typing class during summer school—summer school!—then repeat it in the second session until I could type forty words a minute, with minimal errors. (Commas always bedeviled me and still do, something a psychiatrist might explain.) I was never the brightest student, but I managed to turn in essays and reports that were orderly, grammatically correct, and dutifully dull.
I didn’t fully appreciate her dictates until I was nineteen, a college dropout at loose ends in the cultural tumult of the 1960s. Almost by chance, I got the opportunity to cover sports for my local newspaper, where the gruff but good-hearted sports editor seemed stunned that a wayward teenager could type, let alone produce clean copy.
With the appearance of my first byline, I knew I wanted to write for a living. But I also realized how much I had to learn—and unlearn. That started with breaking some of the rules my mother and other well-meaning English teachers had drilled into me.
My new lessons came quickly:
“Kid, this is what we call an inverted pyramid—most important facts at the top, descending in order, because we trim for space from the bottom.”
“Cut the fancy wordplay, get into your story fast.”
“I don’t mind a sentence fragment now and then, if it works.”
“Tighten it up, punch it up, give it some life.”
A few months later, I returned to college as a journalism major, paying my way by writing for small newspapers and magazines, which had their own mandates about form, style, and content.
I eventually added an English minor, enrolling in two short-fiction classes. One was unabashedly commercial in approach, taught by a prolific pulp writer who set down inviolable rules about what qualified as acceptable storytelling in a checklist of sixty-seven dos and don’ts. The other instructor, warmer and more supportive, encouraged us to read widely, explore creatively, and not restrict ourselves to any one type or category of writing.
I finished several stories in each class—all unpublished—and gleaned useful ideas from both. But it was in the second course that I felt like someone had opened the cage and let me fly.
My first novel, completed in ’95, took the form of a traditional mystery, but went against the grain in other ways. The protagonist, unapologetically gay, was angry and abrasive, and given to discursive rants and disturbing bouts of violence. The specter of AIDS and grief hung heavily over the story. The final chapter, rather than being shorter and propulsive, was the longest in the novel, with three characters sitting at a table, talking.
A close friend, an aspiring mystery writer herself, warned me that my novel would never appeal to mainstream tastes.
“You’ll never make any money from a book like that,” she said.
What surprised me was not her frankness, but that she assumed I’d written my first novel concerned with how much money it would make. Surely many writers do, which is fine, but that was barely on my radar. My novel was dark, impolite, and certainly flawed, but it was good enough to get me a multi-book deal with Doubleday, and a start as a published fiction writer.
More importantly, it was the novel I wanted to write—the novel I needed to write—not one designed to meet someone else’s expectations.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott put it this way: “Write as if your parents are dead.”
A decade or so ago, I found myself on a crime-writing panel with two determinably best-selling authors to my right and, on my left, two newbies who’d written critically praised first novels more in a literary vein.
The author on my immediate right, a promotional dynamo, was ticking off the requirements for a bestseller—likeable hero or heroine, arch villain, shocking twists and turns, breathless pace, justice always served in the end, etc. The words “should” and “must” issued forth like bullets from a Tommy gun in a Mickey Spillane hard-boiler.
When it came my turn to speak, I suggested that not all writers are wired to follow formulas, or consider bestseller lists to be the Holy Grail. We each write for different reasons, I said, finding our rewards in different ways. Nor does everyone measure success by sales figures, I added, though it’s always nice when one’s book finds readers and makes some money.
I also pointed out that it’s possible to succeed commercially without fitting neatly into a genre mold. As an example, I cited Patricia Highsmith and The Talented Mr. Ripley, an “inverted” mystery featuring a fascinating psychopath who gets away with murder in the end.
I could just as well have mentioned other authors who’d written crime fiction with an individualistic stamp, and done quite well: Josephine Tey, Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, Harper Lee, G.K. Chesterton, Ross Macdonald, Ruth Rendell, James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, Joyce Carol Oates, Joseph Wambaugh, Robert Bolaño, Jane Smiley, Jack Finney, Alice Sebold, Keigo Higashino, and countless more.
Oh, yes, and Ross Thomas.
By 2002, I was producing nearly a book a year, plus the occasional article and many hours of fact-based TV writing. I was making a living, but slipping badly into a creative rut.
So, thirty-five years after I wrote my first short story in college, I took a break and wrote another one.
Published in EQMM, it leaned heavily on L.A. noir tropes, and broke no new ground. But it was fun to write, and challenging, the compressed form demanding keen attention to every line, every word.
It was also liberating. When most of us sit down to write short fiction, there’s no contract, no deadline, no fiats about form, content, tone, type. Even in genre publications like EQMM or AHMM, which set certain boundaries regarding subject matter, the range of expression is remarkably broad. Since that breakthrough in EQMM, my short pieces there and elsewhere have ranged from light to dark, and some so personal and wrenching that I wept while writing them. Others were so offbeat for me they felt like an unexpected adventure in a strange land. That includes my latest for EQMM, a double murder mystery—or is it?—so deviously plotted that it took me weeks of revision to get it right.
That’s a lot of time to spend on a story of only a few thousand words.
Ah, but what a good time I had!
“Write what you want to write,” Ross Thomas said that night at UCLA, months before lung cancer ended his life when he was sixty-nine. “There are no rules, absolutely none.”