The Dumbing Down of an Author

When I hear about writer’s block, this one and that one, f**k off!  Stop writing, for Christ’s sake; plenty more where you came from.”

~ Gore Vidal


Following my last post, I received an extraordinary number of comments . . . or perhaps not so extraordinary considering the subject matter.  I pretty much announced my retirement from the writing life.  It’s a sad event to see something I’ve loved pass into history, but these things happen, and here, it seems, we are . . . but for those comments.

And a very fine lot of friends I have, I must say.  I expected resentment from the people who have enjoyed my work over the years, and indifference from those who haven’t.  But to my surprise, I’ve received nothing but support, from advice to do what my heart desires, to “get well soon.”  But not one word of negativity.  Such friends are better than I deserve, and I now apologize publicly for doubting they would support me.

But now comes a new matter, another one of those currents in the magma that hold the potential to change the world above.  I decided that having stopped producing new material, I would post nearly all of my old stuff for my friends and followers to read for free, and I am in the process of doing that, with two chapters of Chameleon posted to date.  I imagined that besides entertaining my handful of readers, it would provide a record of the journey of someone who has learned to write by doing.  But even on so straightforward an endeavor, things have taken an unexpected turn.

I always date the beginning of my writing career to 1958, when my 5th-grade teacher, Mrs. Warner, opened my eyes to the joy to be found in writing to entertain others, and while it is true that I wrote almost non-stop in the intervening years, I didn’t finish a novel until 1996, when Temple of Exile reached completion.  Temple was “pantsed,” as my writing friends would say, written on the fly by an author who had no formal training in what went into the structure of a novel.  Then, like most new authors who have finished their first book, I took it for granted that Barnes & Noble would soon be clearing out their front window to make room for the next big blockbuster.  It didn’t take long for reality to intervene.  An agent agreed to take a look at it, an event whose rarity I didn’t appreciate at the time, and returned a lengthy critique, an event of even greater rarity and great generosity.  The bottom line: while the story and mechanics were decent, it needed structure and discipline.  I set out to acquire these things.

I spent the next year reading a raft of how-to-write-books books, absorbing the advice of successful authors, editors, and agents on the subject of crafting a quality story.  The Writer’s Digest library was a big help, as were those of several university presses, but the greatest aid to my eventual success was a singular work by a New York superagent, Evan Marshall, who placed at my disposal The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing.  This book of charts, tables, templates, and explanations brought solid structure and discipline to my free-soaring style, and I credit it for everything I’ve accomplished since.

Chameleon was the first book I completed after absorbing the principles of The Marshall Plan and all those others.  It is the story of Colleen O’Reilly, a young woman whose life from early childhood has been devoted to the IRA, and who has risen to prominence as one of their leading “soldiers.”  In young adulthood, she has developed a conscience, remorse for her actions, and fled the Army, hiding behind a wall of aliases and disguises as she uses the only skill she knows, violence, to be a paladin for the oppressed, a court of last resort for those without hope.

That is the basic synopsis, and the plot may or may not interest you; if it does, click the tab above and start reading.  But the subject here was an errant current in the magma that has the potential to change everything, and I’ll now get to what that is:  For want of a better word, I’ll call it “richness.”  You see, in transcribing Chameleon word-by-word, I’ve come to realize that the physical world in which Miss O’Reilly plies her trade is infinitely more detailed and compelling than the world of Slayer of Darkness, my latest work chronologically.  Doesn’t it seem to you that my last book should be the best, given that I’m supposedly learning lessons and improving all the time?  But not so much the case, and that magma current is a seductive little voice whispering I could write like this again.

In casting about for reasons for this decline, I keep getting back to the modern world’s demands for minimalism.  Shorten it, tighten the prose, lose the adverbs, get to the point, keep it brief, and a thousand similar maxims bombard the amateur writer from every writing site, writers’ group, and critique forum out there, until the richness has been beaten out of your product and it’s like an old pair of yoga pants that have been washed too many times, and hang, shapeless, like a pair of sweats.  It staggers me how much better Chameleon is than Slayer, and that little voice keeps whispering, I could write like this again.

Is there a chance?  Of course.  There is no possible way for a writer to say “never again,” because it’s just too easy.  If I raced hot rods, and meant to get out of it, I would be selling a million dollars worth of shop equipment, cars, transporters, the works.  It would be permanent, with no easy way to go back.  All I have to do to start writing again is pick up a pen.  Whether I will cannot be foreseen at this time.  What I am going to do is get my backlist posted here for all to read, and when that lengthy project is done, we’ll see what feelings have stirred themselves in my story-telling soul, but here is one thing I must never lose sight of again:

I have built what tiny bit of fame and popularity I own by writing an old style of “boys-own” story that had its heyday in the 1930s, and had faded into oblivion by 1960.  I grew up following those steely-eyed heroes on their white-knuckle adventures into lands that couldn’t possibly exist, and I have missed them terribly, like old friends who have left the neighborhood, never to be seen again.  I determined that if no one else was going to write them, I would do it myself, and when I offered them for my friends and coworkers to read, they embraced them like they’d never seen them before.  If I do return some day to ply the great uncharted seas of adventure, I must never again stray into that modern Sargasso of brevity.  That isn’t what made those stories great, and it isn’t what those who read them today want.

So I’m thinking, always a risky proposition, but I’m just thinking.  Meanwhile, read Chameleon and the stories that come after, enjoy the adventure, and stop and say hello once in a while; I may not be active as a writer anymore, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still love your company!

Interesting Read . . .


Oriental Vagabonds by Richard Regan.  This looks interesting to me because I sailed the Orient on the deck of an aging oil tanker in 1969, and the synopsis hints strongly at that boys-own adventure that I so love:

The eve of World War 2.  Hitler is finalising his plans for the conquest of Europe and flexing his muscles in Spain, while the Japanese are poised to invade China, and eyeing the resources of the East Indies and Indochina to fuel their war machine.  Dangerous times, but there are still profits to be made by men like hard-bitten Skipper Bill Rowden and his vagabond crew, as they work their aging tramp steamer around the treacherous waters of the Far East.  Uncharted reefs, tropical storms, corrupt officials, smuggling and piracy are all in a day’s work to Rowden and his crew, which includes an embittered hard drinking aristocrat, a knife wielding Welshman and a hot-headed, hard-fisted Australian.  On what begins as a routine voyage to New Guinea, Rowden discovers an illegal shipment of arms concealed in his ship, setting off a chain of increasingly dangerous events that drag him unwittingly into the centre of Nazi, Soviet and British attempts to gain the upper hand, before war finally breaks out.  Entangled with Chinese warlords, triads, and a beautiful Russian adventuress, Rowden narrowly escapes Shanghai before the bombs start to fall, but his enemies are closing in.  Deep in the Pacific, on a remote coral fringed lagoon, Rowden and his crew face a violent and explosive confrontation, with little more than fists and wits to keep them alive.  Free on Kindle.

And that’s 30 for today.  I’m still trying to hold to my four-day schedule.  That may be a little ambitious, given what’s going on in my life, but check back Thursday and see what I have for you.  In any case, Chameleon will keep going up daily, so read well, and write better!  See you around the stacks . . .

7 thoughts on “The Dumbing Down of an Author

  1. Hehe. It’s good to take a step back to see what is actually happening.

    I’m a big fan of what you call richness – but I have learned to make it serve many purposes in the story: plot, characterization, theme. It doesn’t just get to sit there as a lump of description. I write long, and full, and can justify, in the sense of STORY, every word. No info dumps, no narrator, and nothing the character wouldn’t do if the writer didn’t force her to.

    It takes a lot of work to do that. Most people won’t bother. But the right readers only know that they like something a lot, and never call it padded or long.

    Readers with a limited reading experience may find it hard to follow, because they’re not used to having their intelligence appealed to, and it is out of their comfort zone.

    The farthest thing from what I write is the end of the literary spectrum that seems to play with language for the heck of it; those books have no story, and I won’t read them. Literary with service to story? Dunno.

    But story is primary. Otherwise you’re ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Alicia, otherwise you’re Temple of Exile! All I see is that Chameleon “feels” like it’s taking place on an expensive movie set while Slayer’s backdrop looks more like the cutout scenery of a high school play. I know I can do better. Chameleon proves it, and if I write again, I will!


  2. I don’t know what will happen when I finish the Pride’s Children trilogy, but I’m committed to a total of about a half-million words in the same style I published the first volume, and I won’t dumb it down to finish faster (I have a horrible rough draft that covers ‘knowing the story’ nicely, and will be let out in public only if I don’t make it).

    Because I can afford to do it right, and to keep to my own standards. It is a little like comparing apples to people trying to sell a lot of Orange Nehi, making up by quantity the abysmal lack of quality, and hoping nobody notices. Or cares. I am not writing as a business (something I’d be and have proven to be not very good at) because I am fortunate enough not to have to earn to support myself or my family.

    Which gives me the ability to aim for the ages, which is what I’m doing. It took me a long time to admit that, but with my illness and disabilities, nothing else is worth the effort. It would be ridiculous of me to write fluff: so many younger and faster writers already do that fine for the markets that are out there, open to indies by sheer volume. Oh, no. I had to be different.

    Writing ‘better’ is a moving target – trust your own standards: that’s what you should be writing for if you go back to it. What gives you the feeling of being unique. What only you can do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry… My first completed novel, a miles-oversized mish mash of scenes and genres, a twice-too-long novel of archaeologists who discover a temple an ancient tribe used to exile undesirables. When they enter to explore, they find it is a one-way temple to a dangerous world, and the novel is the story of their attempts to return. It was a good exercise for a novice writer, and clearly demonstrated the fallacy of exploring every dog hole and rabbit run along the journey’s path.


  3. Reading your journey is:
    1. It’s own boys adventure in the Orient of the Craft.
    2. Probing my own mind’s ups and downs, but graphed out on the Web.
    Excellent self awareness, brother. I must make time for this new/old tale of yours.
    Also, I agree. Too many factory writers processing the “How To” of writing, which really just strips away the fun stuff. We should have EVERY tool in the language at our disposal to do our job, adverbs, fragments…whatever.
    Keep on rocking in the free world, Jack! Enjoy the ride.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s good for writers who came before to share the things that made them successful. What is incumbent on us, their followers, is to recognize that there is no one right way to do it, and what worked for our idol might not work for us. Part of the learning we have to do is to learn what meshes with our own individual styles, and that might be the hardest part of all. I hope you do get acquainted with my good friend Colleen, and I hope you find her both entertaining and enlightening. She was tremendous fun to write, and my prototypical brash and capable young ingenue.

      It is less important to know all the answers than it is to understand the questions . . .

      Liked by 1 person

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