Previously, most of the posts we’ve had on this site pertaining to writing have been from a writer’s point of view. Kevin Mims—an essayist, short-story writer, and prolific reader whose posts have appeared here a number of times before—has decided to turn that around and give us a post about writing from a reader’s perspective. Here is his list of ten tips from a dedicated reader! —Janet Hutchings
Elmore Leonard famously laid down ten helpful rules of writing. They are as follows:
- Never open a book with weather
- Avoid prologues
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialog
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”
- Keep your exclamation points under control
- Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip
Elmore Leonard was a great crime writer, and so you have every reason to heed his advice on writing. I am not a great writer of any variety, but I am pretty darn good reader. I’ve been hooked on fiction—high-, low-, and middlebrow—since I first learned how to read it, and I have written about it prolifically (some might say promiscuously) for a wide variety of venues, from this very blog you are reading to the New York Times Book Review. For ten years I wrote a monthly column for a now-defunct online magazine called The Vocabula Review, the brainchild of Robert Hartwell Fiske, the late great author of such excellent style guides as The Dictionary of Concise Writing and The Dictionary of Unendurable English. Most of the columns I wrote for Robert were deep dives into various aspects of reading fiction. If our culture celebrated individual readers as lavishly as it does individual writers, I might not be able to walk down a public street without being besieged by adoring fans pleading for my autograph. Alas, we don’t live in such a fantasyland, and so I remain unmolested whenever I walk down a public street. C’est la vie. Undaunted by my complete lack of cultural prominence, I have come up with my own list of ten rules for writing. I offer these not as a celebrated practitioner of the writer’s trade, but as lifelong consumer of fiction, primarily good, solid works of popular fiction such as the kind produced by the late Mr. Leonard. You have no doubt seen most, if not all, of these rules before in various handbooks of the writer’s craft and other how-to tomes. I don’t claim that my list is highly original. Rather, it is a distillation of hundreds of other lists, culled down to what I think are the ten most important things a writer of popular fiction ought to consider when writing for avid consumers of said fiction.
- No dreams, please. Supposedly it was Henry James who first said: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” Billy Collins once wrote a poem called “On Reading In The Morning Paper That Dreams May Be Only Nonsense.” “You hit the pillow and moments later,” he wrote, “your mother appears to you as a llama, shouting at you in another language.” That’s pretty typical of the kind of nonsense I dream. There may actually be people whose dreams provide brilliant insights into their character or provide clever solutions to problems that eluded them during their waking hours. But I’ve never met anyone like that. Any time a friend of mine begins recalling a dream for me, I begin mentally scrolling through my Netflix queue trying to decide what I’ll watch on TV after dinner that evening. My wife and I have been married for thirty-nine years, and during that time we’ve each shaken the other person to waken him/her from a dream that was causing shouting or wailing or thrashing of the bedsheets a fair number of times. Invariably, once awakened, the dreamer will either not recall the dream that had caused such turbulence or, more often, report that the dream was about something completely absurd. One night, about twenty-five years ago, my wife began howling so terrifyingly in her sleep that I feared she must be reliving some horrible childhood tragedy in a nightmare. She thrashed and screamed like someone in a movie about exorcism. When I shook her awake and asked what was wrong, she told me, “I dreamt that a squirrel ran up the leg of my pants.” I have never encountered a dream sequence in a novel that struck me as anything other than a literary contrivance. Fiction-writing is a specific kind of imaginative act and dreaming is an entirely different kind of imaginative act. No dreamer ever dreams a great novel and no writer ever writes a great dream. Writing about dreams is like dancing about architecture. The two artistic forms are too distinct to be successfully blended. Leave your characters’ dreams in their heads and off your pages. Describe their characteristics and actions thoroughly enough, and we’ll probably be able to intuit their dreams. And mostly those dreams will be nonsense, just like all dreams are.
- Throw out most of your research. Please. I appreciate the fact that it takes a great deal of research to write believably from the point of view of an archeologist or a trader on the Tokyo stock exchange. But I have known both archeologists and traders on the Tokyo stock exchange for years and I’ve never learned much about either of those professions from them. People are not their professions. I have a friend who owns a company that sells high-end automobile wheels to businesses and individuals all over the world. I’ve known this friend for fifteen years. We are members of the same pub-trivia team and we sit together convivially once a week in a pub and talk for hours on end. Yesterday, I met this friend at a Sacramento pub called Old Ironsides and had lunch with him. Five hours later we met at another pub, The Fox & Goose, for the weekly trivia quiz. I probably exchange thousands of words with him every week, both in person and via text messages. I know that he loves The Great British Baking Show. I know that he is a Taiwanese American who loathes the Chinese government. I even know that when he was a little boy his mother caught him eating Hostess Sno Balls when he wasn’t supposed to and forced him to consume an entire package of them, after which he vomited and, as a result, to this day, he loathes both marshmallows and coconut flakes. I know a million facts about this friend but I have learned almost nothing about high-end automobile wheels from him. Recently he mentioned that President Trump’s trade war with China has been pinching his company’s bottom line. But that’s about all he’s ever said to me about the wheel business. In novels, archeologists seem to talk about nothing but archeology. They can’t sit down to a cup of coffee and a croissant in a French bistro without musing on the history of human food consumption. This type of monomania allows an author to shoehorn every last bit of archeology research he has uncovered into his novel. But when I encounter that kind of character in a novel, my mind generally starts to wander. I know that what I am reading is not the musings of a flesh-and-blood archeologist but rather some clever novelist’s contrived notion of what an archeologist must be like. Some authors can get away with this. Michael Crichton’s bestsellers are full of regurgitated research. I, like millions of other pop-fiction junkies, am a big fan of Crichton’s oeuvre. But in Crichton’s novels the research is the star. He goes out and accumulates fascinating facts about, say, cloning or nanotechnology or airplane crashes and then he puts these facts into the mouths of characters who are little more than cardboard cutouts. Nobody turns to Crichton for the depth of his characters or the deftness of his prose. We want to read about dinosaurs running amok at a contemporary island amusement park. Another fact about Crichton’s novels that fans like me hate to admit is that, because of all this research, they don’t age well. I recently reread his 1992 thriller Rising Sun, an alarmist screed about how the Japanese economy is on the verge of overtaking America’s economy as the biggest and most powerful in all the world (in reality, in 1992 Japan was on the verge of a decades-long financial lull and currently accounts for 5.7 percent of global economic activity, well behind the U.S., which accounts for about a quarter of the global economy). Not only is Crichton’s economic research now largely worthless (and thus boring to read), he also spends a lot of pages describing once-cutting-edge technologies that are now dead or dying (a loooong description of how an image on a VHS tape can be digitally manipulated is excruciating to read in this day and age, when anyone with access to Photoshop can do things a thousand times more interesting with video imagery than the stuff Crichton’s cardboard characters were doing with VHS tape). By all means, dear fiction writer, do all the research that you must in order to write believably about neurosurgery or hydraulic dam construction. But throw most of it out and use only that which is absolutely essential to your novel’s plot.
- Be wary of using addiction as a plot device. Sadly, dangerous addictions—to drugs, to gambling, to alcohol, to sex, etc.—are a fact of human life. It would be nearly impossible to write about contemporary life in America without writing about someone who has an opioid addiction or a hoarding problem or who spends hours a day staring at a smartphone screen. Sometimes it seems as if everyone in America is addicted to something. Writers shouldn’t try to avoid this fact. But they need to be aware of a fact about addiction that often goes unacknowledged in the media: it’s excruciatingly dull to the outsider. If you know someone who is addicted to his smartphone, you’re probably aware of just how boring it is to be around him. If you go to Las Vegas with a gambling addict, you are not likely to have a good time. If you want to take in a show or dine at a fancy restaurant, you’ll probably have to do it alone. Your “companion” is likely to spend all his time at the craps tables giving his money away to strangers. Drug addiction and alcohol addiction are terrible problems, but they also tend to make the addict’s life an excruciatingly dull quest for the next injection or the next shot of vodka. In movies and popular fiction this fact about addiction is generally ignored or glossed over. Instead we are shown the alcoholic having a great time at a nightclub as he imbibes shot after shot of whiskey, engages in witty banter with the bartender, flirts with beautiful women, and buys several rounds for everyone in his orbit. Next we see him waking up in a cheap hotel room at noon. He is hungover and there is a naked person in bed with him whose name he can’t remember. This type of storytelling tends to depict addiction as a series of highs and lows. And that may be how it feels to the alcoholic. But to those living with the alcoholic, it’s mainly just a long tedious slog as he repeatedly surrenders to his addiction and then suffers the consequences. Rarely does it involve witty banter and wild sex. The old Thin Man movies are difficult for me to watch because they romanticize reckless alcohol consumption and gloss over the wages of such activity. The films, of course, are redeemed by the sparkling performances by William Powell and Myrna Loy, but no one would consider them realistic portraits of recognizable human beings. The man whose literary works inspired the films was a serious alcoholic whose career and personal life suffered greatly because of it. To write about addiction honestly requires acknowledging just how tedious it is, something only extremely gifted writers are able to do in a way that is interesting or compelling. To write about addiction dishonestly is to exacerbate the problem by romanticizing something that isn’t in the least bit romantic. How often have we seen movies in which the alcoholic or drug addict or gambling addict kicks his habit and turns his life around simply because his thirteen-year-old daughter or his wife or his teammates have come to him and said some version of, “Please, we need you sober tonight. You’ve got to come through for us. We know you can do it if you try.” At the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey’s drunken Uncle Billy, whose alcoholism precipitated George’s downfall as a building-and-loan operator, is welcomed back into the fold and is singing “Auld Lang Syne” with the rest of the family, leaving the viewer to intuit that all is now well with old Uncle Billy. In reality, Uncle Billy would go on being a huge burden to his family until he received serious medical attention for what is in fact not a quirk of character but an actual illness. Addiction is an extremely difficult thing to write about honestly and accurately. Unless you are truly up to the challenge, you shouldn’t attempt it.
- Writing about psychopaths can be as tricky as writing about addicts. Crime fiction is awash in psychopaths whose crimes are aggressively thematic—i.e., they kill every year on the anniversary of the high-school prom at which they were humiliated, or they kill only recently divorced women with one child who remind them of their own mothers, or they leave behind some unusual calling card at the crime scene (an ancient Roman coin, say, or a leopard’s tooth). This stuff can be interesting and entertaining, of course, but it has also been done to death. When Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon was published in late 1981, the Kirkus Review’s assessment of the novel began with these words: “It seems as if two out of every three suspense novels in recent years have featured psychopathic mass murderers . . .” That was nearly forty years ago, and the trend has yet to abate. In fact, it was ignited by Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho and its 1960 film adaptation from director Alfred Hitchcock. In 1959, plenty of science-fiction writers were still producing novels that featured little green men on the planet Mars. Nowadays no serious sci-fi novelist would produce a novel about little green Martians. Science has shown us that they don’t exist. While psychopaths do, alas, exist, real-life psychopaths almost never take the form that they assume in most novels. How many times have you picked up a newspaper and seen a headline that read “Arbor Day Killer Strikes Again! Tree Fetishist Claims 16th Victim in 16 years, all of them Killed on the Last Friday of April. Police Still Stumped!” How many times have you read about a serial killer who leaves small jade elephants at the site of all of his murders? How many times have you read about a killer who is mowing down, one by one, all the surviving cast members of a cult 1970s TV series? Yes, there is the odd Zodiac Killer or Son of Sam, who captures the public’s attention because of the cinematic nature of his crime spree. But the vast majority of murders are still committed for old-fashioned reasons. One spouse kills another in a flash of anger. A convenience-store clerk is shot in a botched holdup. A lone female hitchhiker is raped and murdered by an opportunistic motorist with an evil heart. Even our psychopaths are generally lazy misanthropes who don’t kill 16 people over the course of 16 Arbor Days but rather walk into a crowded theatre with an assault weapon and kill 20 people in ten seconds. I’m not arguing that crime fiction always needs to be brutally realistic. I’m just pointing out that the rigidly thematic and disciplined serial killer who targets only a certain type of victim (female volleyball players, say) on only a certain type of day (full moon, Arbor Day, the victim’s 18th birthday, etc) employing an unusual weapon (an ancient Etruscan broadsword) and actually signs his handiwork with a signature (“The Etruscan Volleyball Killer!”) that he affixes to the numerous notes he taunts the police with is very nearly as nonexistent as the little green Martian. Science-fiction writers have moved on since 1959, but too many crime writers seem to be stuck in the 1960s and 1970s when it seemed as if attention-seeking nutjobs such as Charles Manson, the Zodiac Killer, and David Berkowitz might be the wave of the future. But that kind of killer remains largely the stuff of preposterous fictions. During my many years as a bookstore clerk, I met a lot of crime-fiction fans who devoured serial-killer novels of the Arbor-Day variety and who congratulated themselves on their love of gritty realistic crime dramas while looking down their noses at the kind of mystery fans who read “cozy mysteries” about little old ladies who solve murders with the help of their knitting-circle buddies and their preternaturally sensitive cats. I was too polite (and too concerned about keeping my job) to point out that Arbor-Day-style serial killers are about as rare as crime-busting knitting circles. But it’s the truth. (My wife has been a member of a Sacramento knitting group for years and they have yet to solve their first murder; I don’t know what’s wrong with those ladies.) If you were watching a crime drama on TV back in the 1970s and a character was introduced as a Vietnam War veteran, you could bet your life savings that he would turn out to be the killer. Service in Vietnam was the lazy TV scriptwriter’s explanation for all kinds of antisocial behavior. While it’s true that plenty of Vietnam veterans suffered physical, mental, and emotional damage as a result of their service, few of them came back to the states and went on a killing spree. If you have a background in mental health and you know the difference between pscychopathy, sociopathy, and all the other pathies, feel free to create a complex killer whose mental-health issues are at the root of his crimes. But if you’re just a lazy writer who uses mental-health issues as a convenient pretext for explaining your murderer’s behavior, much as many lazy TV writers of the 1970s used service in Vietnam to explain their murderers’ behavior, please cease and desist immediately.
- A word of advice about stream-of-consciousness writing—just don’t do it. Stream-of-consciousness writing never sounds like any consciousness that I’m familiar with. It isn’t daring and edgy and experimental, and it hasn’t been since about 1927. It is a tired and hackneyed literary device. I can tolerate a few italicized sentence fragments connected by ellipses: Gotta reach the campsite before dark . . . gotta warn Mary and the kids . . . legs growing tired . . . cold . . . cold . . . why is it so cold . . . I can barely feel my feet any more. . . . But that’s about it. If you give me paragraph upon paragraph of stream-of-consciousness writing (or, even worse, page upon page of the stuff) I’m going to fling your book aside and look for someone who knows how to write in full sentences. Just . . . don’t . . . do . . . it. . . .
- I’m not a prude. I want my fictional characters to have healthy sex lives. Hell, I want them to commit adultery, meet in sleazy hotels, and plot to kill each other’s spouses. I’m okay with all of that—and more. But, please, just don’t give me all the anatomical details. That kind of stuff hasn’t titillated me since I was about thirteen (and thought the word “titillate” was hilariously racy). Even the masters of the genre fall down on this score. Back in the Swinging Sixties serious literary writers like John Updike (see Couples) began trying to infuse their fictions with accurate depictions of, well, coupling. Most of these, including Updike’s, were embarrassing to read. Inspired by the likes of Updike and Mailer, genre writers like John D. MacDonald began including graphic depictions of very athletic sexual shenanigans in their books. I don’t blame them for this. It makes sense that a man like Travis McGee—a tall, good-looking ex-NFL player-turned-beach-bum/private-detective—would have a very active sex life. He lived on a boat in South Florida, for godsakes. A man like that was bound to be awash with hot babes. I get it. I like it. I want it to happen. But when Travis takes one of these sultry stewardesses or pouty paralegals or naughty nurses into the bedroom, I’d prefer that he slam the door shut on old John D. and his typewriter. John D. was a master at describing booze, broads, boats, beaches, and beatings, but bedsheet Twister really wasn’t his specialty. You’re lucky that I can’t find my copy of The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper just now or else I would expose you to some of MacDonald’s cringe-worthy sex writing. Mind you, I am not singling out MacDonald. Almost no writer does this stuff well. The smart ones don’t even try. In an introduction to his novel Kahawa, Donald E. Westlake wrote, “If a word, one single word, distracts the reader from the story I’m trying to tell, out with it. Since both sex and violence can be distracting, I usually depict them sparingly, trying mostly to get my effects by allusion and implication.” To which I say, “Amen, brother!” There are certain human bodily functions (defecation, urination, menstruation, farting, nose-picking) that don’t require a great deal of detail in a work of fiction. We know that our fictional characters have to defecate about once a day or so, but we don’t need our noses rubbed in the fact (sorry). I enjoy erotic thrillers. I like to watch the mating dance, the call-and-response of two lusty people trying to make a physical connection with one another. I like the sexy banter, the foreplay, the innuendo. When they finally do it, I want to know if it happened on her yacht or in his law office. I want to know who was the aggressor and who played coy. I want to know if they were mutually satisfied or if one of them felt used afterwards. All of this, and much more, can be very interesting and helpful in filling out our understanding of the characters and their relationship. But, unless it’s going to serve as a clue later on, I don’t need to know exactly where the bodily fluids ended up, what odd parts of his anatomy she left her lipstick on, every last word she cried out as she experienced her climax, the condition of his phallus as he walked to the shower afterwards, and so forth. If you are a writer and you find yourself about to describe a sexual encounter in detail, ask yourself, “When was the last time I read a really great graphic sex scene?” It probably happened back around the time you saw that newspaper headline that screamed: “Arbor Day Killer Strikes Again!” That should tell you something about how difficult it is to write a sex scene that isn’t laughably awful.
- Illogical wealth. If your protagonist is an unmarried preschool teacher who lives in a Pasadena mansion, you’ve got some ’splaining to do. This might sound obvious to you, but apparently it wasn’t obvious to writer/director Gary David Goldberg when he made the film Must Love Dogs, in which Diane Lane portrays an unmarried preschool teacher who lives by herself in a massive Pasadena home. We know she didn’t inherit wealth from her family, because we meet her family and they are not rich. She didn’t win a big divorce settlement from her ex-husband because he is a fireman not a hedge-fund manager. This same problem crops up in the 1998 crime drama A Perfect Murder (a remake of Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder), in which Viggo Mortensen plays a struggling artist living in a massive Manhattan loft reachable by its own private service elevator. Digs like that would probably have rented for about $50,000 a month even back in 1998. Anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Friends has probably asked herself, “How do an unemployed actor [Joey] and a midlevel office worker [Chandler] afford such a commodious New York apartment? And for that matter, how does Phoebe, a masseuse and coffeehouse chanteuse, afford her lovely apartment? In the early seasons, Monica was a restaurant chef and Rachel was a waitress. How the hell did they afford a massive apartment with a romantic balcony?” In real life, the house that Michael Connelly’s fictional LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch lives in is probably worth somewhere around $10 million. Connelly, to his credit, has provided a (not entirely satisfactory) explanation of this fact: A Hollywood studio paid Bosch a massive amount of money for the film rights to one of his investigative exploits (yeah, right, whatever). And how does Adrian Monk, who works as a seldom-paid consultant to the San Francisco Police Department, afford a beautiful home and beautiful full-time assistant in one of the nation’s most expensive cities? If you are producing pleasant lightweight fluff like Must Love Dogs, Monk, or Friends, I suppose you should feel as free to ignore the laws of economics as the makers of The Flying Nun felt to ignore the laws of gravity (or, for that matter, as the makers of the film Gravity did). If you are aspiring to produce the kind of grittily realistic crime dramas that Michael Connelly writes, I think you should resist the urge to give your LAPD detective a ten-million-dollar pad. At the very least it suggests that he might be on the take. Having been a freelance writer for my entire adult life, I am always bemused whenever I see a freelance writer portrayed on television or film or in a novel. “How can he afford that Cape Cod beach house?” I’ll scream at my long-suffering wife. I know a ton of freelance writers and almost none of them survive on their freelance work. They work in bookstores. They teach at community colleges. They drive for Uber or Lyft. They have working spouses. And none of them live in expensive lofts in Brooklyn or Manhattan the way that so many freelancers on TV do. This may seem like sour grapes or petty nitpicking, but I advise serious writers to take it seriously. If you don’t want to destroy your credibility as a chronicler of real American life, don’t give your coffeehouse waitress a nice little bungalow in Palo Alto or a beach house in Malibu. I’ve read crime novels in which the forensic details seemed fairly well researched and believable, and yet I had to wonder if they were trustworthy because the private detective who is combing over these details charges $400 a day for his services and lives in a detached house in the Marina District of San Francisco. I may not be an expert in forensics or anthropology, but, like most pop-fiction fans (I would imagine), I know what working-class life in America is like. If your small-town cop goes off to his cabin on the Marin County coast for his vacations, you need to explain to me how he happens to own such an extravagance. Otherwise, I’m not going to believe a word you write.
- Dumb luck. Intuitive leaps. Yeah, I know that these things happen in real life, but they come across as either laziness or a failure of the imagination (or perhaps both) in a work of mystery fiction. Few things are more annoying in a mystery novel (or film, TV series, etc.) than wading through scene after scene of detection and investigation only to have the big break come as the result of someone’s preternaturally insightful dream (see Rule No. 1 above), or the result of a conversation one accidentally overhears in a bus or a restaurant, or a scrap of evidence that just sort of falls into the detective’s lap rather than something he earns with hard work and lots of shoe leather. If the detective was destined to get a huge lucky break at the end of the investigation that cracks the case wide open, why bother showing us all the procedural steps that precede the lucky break? All of that procedural work wasn’t what led to the capture of the perpetrator, so why bother with it? I don’t know why Aaron Sorkin had Tom Cruise and Demi Moore do so much detective work over the course of A Few Good Men if he was just planning on having the culprit take to the witness stand at the end of the film and shout out “You’re goddamn right I did it!” It’s like reading a story about a couple that work hard and make numerous sacrifices in order to try to buy a home of their own only to win a big lottery jackpot at the end rendering their hard work unnecessary. Even if this is a happy outcome it’s a frustrating ending for the reader. In a realistic story, we want things to proceed logically from scene to scene. We don’t want a deus ex machina to show up in the final act and render everything that preceded that final act largely a waste of time.
- Unbelievably convenient skills. Last night at the abovementioned meeting of my pub-trivia team, several of us were talking about pocketknives (I brought up the subject because when reporting for jury duty recently I forgot to remove the tiny pocketknife from my keychain and the security guards at the entrance to the courthouse relieved me of it). One of my teammates, a thirty-something woman named Alison reached into her pocket and said, “I don’t carry a pocketknife, but I carry this,” whereupon she withdrew a set of lock-picking tools from her jeans (I swear I’m not making this up). The other five members of the team, myself included, were amused by this. Alison is not a professional locksmith. By day she works as a waitress in the very pub where we compete at trivia. She is also a semiprofessional roller-derby competitor (again, not making this up). She explained to us that she had a neighbor who was forever locking herself out of her apartment, so Alison went online and ordered a perfectly legal set of lock-picking tools, after which she watched YouTube videos and read websites about lock picking until she had taught herself how to pick fairly simple door locks. If this scene had taken place in a novel or a film, you could be fairly certain that Alison’s lock-picking skills would come in handy before the end of the story. But I have lost track of how many times I have encountered a fictional scene wherein our main characters are locked in or out of some room and, voila, one of them pulls a paperclip or hairpin out of her pocket and picks the lock. This simply beggars belief. I doubt if one in 100,000 people have the skills necessary to pick a door lock even with actual lock-picking tools like Alison’s. Even a professional locksmith would probably have trouble opening most locks with a hairpin. So why are so many fictional characters able to lock-pick their way out of trouble? The answer, of course, is that they shouldn’t be able to. But if you are planning to have a character in your novel demonstrate the ability to pick a lock in chapter twenty-five, you had better establish the fact that she possesses this skill somewhere around chapter five. I can’t stand it when, during some critical scene of a novel, the protagonist finds himself in need of someone who can (take your pick) read lips or perform an emergency tracheotomy or understand a clue written in ancient Sanskrit or hotwire a snowplow and, sure enough, as if by magic, someone in the scene will announce that he possesses just that particular skill. This is lazy writing. If you insist on having a character possess an improbably convenient skill just when said skill is needed, you should at least give us this information from the outset. Otherwise it’s just another deus ex machina.
- Don’t have your protagonist constantly searching the internet for answers. Yes, the internet is a marvelous invention. But it has also become a crutch for lazy writers. Recently I was reading a delightfully cheesy romantic thriller from the 1970s called Always, by Trevor Meldal-Johnsen. The book’s protagonist becomes infatuated with a beautiful Hollywood starlet who died in a mysterious house fire back in 1949 just as her acting career was taking flight. Our protagonist, a young screenwriter named Gregory Thomas, longs to know more about Brooke Ashley, the starlet. The story takes place in 1979, so Gregory can’t just Google Brooke Ashley. To find out more about her he actually has to get off his ass and do some detective work. Here’s how Meldal-Johnsen begins the scene in which Gregory goes out searching for information about Brooke:
The Larry Edmonds Cinema and Theatre Book Shop on Hollywood Boulevard has a well-deserved reputation as a reliable source for anything written on the film industry. From the outside, the bookshop looks slightly decrepit, but inside is collected the written history of America’s most glamorous business. The shelves are stuffed to the ceilings with books, some long out of print; books running the gamut from glossy photographic paeans to dry sociological studies. Something for everyone.
A page later, he writes:
Gregory climbed up an ancient foot ladder that creaked below him, and thumbed the titles. Harlow, Cukor, Leslie Howard, Carole Lombard, Swanson . . . the glory that once was Hollywood in a musty corner . . . there! Brooke Ashley.
If you share my love of musty old bookshops and out-of-print manuscripts, a scene like that probably draws you in like a barker at a carnival, just as it drew me in. If Meldal-Johnsen were writing that book today, he might be tempted to have Gregory simply do a Google search for information about Brooke. But that would be a shame. The internet can be a fascinating place, but computers are rather cold and sterile devices and incapable of summoning up the same kind of heart-thrilling excitement a book lover finds in an old bookstore. If you are writing a mystery novel (or screenplay) I advise you to do your level best not to have your characters rely too heavily on the internet for information. These days, if Ted wants information about Sarah, the cute girl who sits next to him in his college English class, he can probably find her Facebook page, her Instagram account, her Twitter account, and learn nearly everything he wants to know about her: her political opinions, the size of her family, the names of her pets, what she looks like in a bikini. It’s an inescapable fact of modern life than many people are willing to give away every ounce of their privacy on internet social-networking sites. This may make things easy for real-life detectives, but, at the very least, it complicates things for crime and mystery writers. Nobody wants to sit and read about a detective who spends all day at his desk, Googling suspects on his computer. The internet is the ultimate deus ex machina. Can’t remember the name of that old movie in which Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh spend Christmas together? Do what I just did and Google “Robert Mitchum Janet Leigh Christmas movie” and you’ll instantly have your answer (Holiday Affair, 1949). This is great for old men like me with bad memories. But it presents real challenges for the crime writer. And you need to rise to that challenge. Do what you have to do to prevent your detective character from learning all he needs to know on the internet. Have him discover that the clue he needs is buried in an old trunk in the basement of an abandoned train station outside of a small town in southern England. Sure, in Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey’s detective Alan Grant is able to solve a centuries-old mystery without leaving his hospital bed, and the novel still manages to be gripping. But Daughter of Time is the exception to the rule. For the most part we want our characters to get up and out of bed, to step away from their computers and go out into the world and delve into the messy world of nonvirtual crime-solving. If our detective gets his nose punched in along the way, so much the better. Every time a character in a mystery novel sits down at his computer, I’m reminded of the smartphone in my pocket, and I’m tempted to take it out and look up the latest news headlines or play a game of solitaire. It’s never a good thing for a writer to remind the reader of a device that might be able to compete with a book for the reader’s attention. Get your detective off the internet and out into the world. Otherwise I might just choose to play solitaire.