Thursday, November 18, 2010

Living with Writing

Our guest today is Clark Lohr, mystery author of the book, Devil's Kitchen, soon to be released by Oak Tree Press, Welcome!

Our art won’t save us from addictions or failing brain chemistry. Get professional help for those; however, writing, like exercise, becomes its own kind of high. ~Clark Lohr

In my senior year in high school I asked a classmate what she was going to do for a living. She said she was going to be a harpist. Okay, I thought, that’s weird. There ain’t a lot of call for harpists out there. She became a harpist. They paid her to play a harp. I myself wanted to be a tough guy. I went to Vietnam. Oops. I’m still not a tough guy.

Years later, I’m reading Julia Cameron and doing what she suggests. I’m starting to write a novel. I fix on a quote from The Artist’s Way which is better known now: “Leap and the net will appear.”

So, I start, and my novel gets done and redone. Eventually, I get lucky. At least that’s what Sunny Frazier, crime writer and acquisitions editor for Oak Tree Press, told me when I asked her why she picked my novel out of the slush pile. Frazier said it was luck. Kismet.

If getting published all depends on luck, why write? One answer: Because we have to write. We have to express ourselves.

The authors of The Artists Way note few persons getting college art degrees continue to make art after graduation. Not many of your college art friends kept at it after graduation, either. You can bet it’s about the same with those who receive creative writing degrees.

Another gem from Art and Fear is a story about perfectionism stalling the work. A pottery teacher told one section of his class that their grade depended on one perfect pot. He told another section of students that their grade depended on the number of pots they made—on quantity, not quality. At the end of the course the quantity people had learned to make great pots. The quality people were still living in fear. Stories like that illuminate our predicaments. They help show us what to do to cope, to keep on, to see the scope of the task all artists experience.

If you’re considering college and thinking about a creative writing degree, I’d say go for a journalism degree instead. Journalism teaches fluency. Journalism teaches you how to write fast. You’ll also have company, and more likely will be writing in a classroom with a lot of other people who will instill you with energy.

I have a creative writing degree. It taught me neither true fluency in writing nor how to cope with the problems of being a writer while surviving the challenges of ordinary life. Most of the working writer friends I know and know about have either journalism degrees or degrees in something else altogether. My author friend Susan Cummins Miller is a geologist. Rocks. Well, she’s also written a string of crime fiction novels using her heroine, Frankie McFarlane, who is both a geologist and a detective.

About writing workshops: I’d say use them. Even if you’re still in high school, pay for workshops and go to them. Adult learners want information that’s to the point. Good writing workshops tend to be intense and focused. They’re also short. You learn a lot in one weekend. Your college creative writing professor has to string it all out over a semester. The people who teach writing workshops don’t.

I started my crime novel (Devil’s Kitchen, soon to be published by Oak Tree Press) in a writing workshop taught at a YMCA by Paul Fouliard, an ex-Marine and a novelist. He told us to, effectively, take the hill. He said he wanted us to have a novel underway by the next class meeting and he was talking about writing whole chapters. I just started writing.

Along the way, Fouliard mentioned that comparatively few people under forty years of age write a novel successfully. He cited lack of life experience, not ability.

If you’re under forty, don’t worry about it. Google legendary young novelists on the internet. You’ll find that literary fiction writers tend to be in their thirties and they have MFAs. Not every young writer goes that route. Google Susan Eloise Hinton or Arthur Rimbaud.

How do you piece a novel together? William Faulkner said that writing a novel is like trying to build a chicken coop in a hurricane. What does the structure of a successful story look like? It’s damn sure more complicated than Acts I, II and III.

Syd Field, in his book on Screenplay (cited below this article) gave us a model, step-by-step, for making a story that works. Today, writers will tell you there can be a problem with that: Everyone tries to write to Syd’s model and the writing lacks originality. Yes, but originality happens. You can veer off in the right direction and come up with a unique structure that works.

I suggest you look at Fields’ book, then play some films, use your pause button, and start watching how the writer makes it work, bit by bit. For example: In White Heat (classic noir, 1949, stars James Cagney) there’s a plot point where the good guy gets outed as an undercover cop by a gang member who has just come on the scene. The gang leader, James Cagney, a sociopath who’s already killed a couple of people in this movie, points a 12-gauge shotgun at the good guy. Hit the pause button. Ask yourself: What’s going to save the good guy? Hit the play button and find out. Then start thinking how you’ll adapt it to your own writing. Maybe you’ll decide to write a screenplay instead of a novel. Why not?

Good luck.

Clark Lohr

My Books for Learning About and Crafting Your Writing:

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. This novelist and writing teacher published her book in the 1930’s. She has a strong writing voice and good ideas. I came to believe that, if I put a picture of Dorothea Brande on my wall, her eyes would follow me around the room. She’s decisive. She’s tough. She knows who writers are. You don’t want Dorothea Brande chasing you down the street. She’s faced the blank page and won. She’s viable today. She lives through her words. Hear and act on Dorothea Brande’s advice. Things will get better.

The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron with Mark Bryan. This is a workbook for “discovering and recovering your creative self.” Published in the 1990’s, this book is about transforming yourself into someone who can and will create. Cameron inventories the expectations the world puts on us. Did your parents encourage you to make fiction writing your first priority in life? No? Neither did mine. Cameron gives us strategies for beating our own sloth, apathy and despair.

Art and Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. This is a thin but deep book about making art of all kinds. Although it’s concerned primarily with the visual arts, writers will recognize the problems and gain perspective.

In Film: Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. We all want our book to go to movie. Syd Field wrote the granddaddy of how-to books about screenwriting. What does this have to do with novel writing? Syd Field teaches story and story structure. I don’t know any creative writers who don’t watch a lot of films. Films and books run together. They feed each other. We feed on them both.

On Crime: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript. James N. Frey is the author. He favors a Five-Act story structure. Frey claims that using the tools he explains and writing full time can get you a finished mystery novel in three to five months. I don’t doubt it.


  1. I tried to comment earlier and will try again now. I taught Creative Writing, Expository Writing and Technical Writing at the university level. Creative Writing was probably the least practical course of the three, but it gave the students much personal satisfaction.

  2. I can understand why. Both you and Clark have made sound arguments for and against it. It was something I'd never considered.
    Thanks, Jacquie!

  3. To clarify, kismet and luck was a factor of in finding Clark's book for publication. I came in as acquisitions editor for Oak Tree and faced a stack of unanswered queries. I rejected many--and then I found Clark. It was simply the right editor stumbling across the right manuscript at the right time. He put his "luck" into play by writing a terrific mystery with compelling characters in a setting I was interested in (the Southwest).

    I, too, started out as a journalist. Creative writing certainly has its place, but for dealing with the real world of writing as a business, nothing beats being a reporter. Low pay, the occasional kick-in-the-teeth by the public, criticism by the editor--yep, it prepares you for the world of publishing!

    Very worthwhile interview, Clark. Welcome to the Oak Tree family. And Bobbye, again, thank you for hosting authors so graciously.

  4. I am an MFA, and I teach creative writing at the college and university level. What I’ve found in myself and my students is that if you want to write, you will. You’ll keep it up and keep writing. It’s true what he says about having to string out lessons over an entire semester. Clever students can learn in five weeks what is often taught in sixteen or eighteen weeks, so most college level instructors, if they’re good, turn the last ten to twelve weeks into work. Students need to write and a good teacher will do one on one instruction.

    Most of my students have not gone on to be writers. Almost no one in my graduating MFA class did either, but mostly this is caused by the fact that they were young, and weren’t sure what they wanted to do. They tried writing and then tried something else. Maybe some time in the future, they’ll come back to writing.

    I love what Mr. Lohr says about the practicality of journalistic writing. That’s the lesson just about every writer needs to learn. I love the advice that you’ve given here, Mr. Lohr, all the way through. The one that I like the most is the story about the pots. There’s only so much that a writing student can get out of a class. In the end, he or she needs to just write and write a lot.

    Thanks for the blog,
    John Brantingham

  5. Hi Clark,

    You make your own luck. In this case you did it by writing a great manuscript. Sunny was the net that appeared after you jumped.

    Welcome to Oak Tree.

    Mike Orenduff

  6. Clark,

    In all honesty, this is one of the most interesting articles I've read in some time. Your comment, "If getting published all depends on luck, why write? One answer: Because we have to write. We have to express ourselves," sums it up for me.

    I never had the opportunity to go to college, but I think I would have enjoyed the discussions and work that you outline here.

    Thank you for sharing, and welcome to Oak Tree.

    Marja McGraw

  7. I don't think it matters how you got there, as long as you continue to improve your craft by whatever means necessary. I studied theater directing, acting and playwriting in college, and then went to Law School, became an ADA, then quit and wrote my first novel. It took a very long time, I will say.

    After I wrote a first draft, I took an online writer's workshop that I credit with my eventually getting published. I also take screenwriting courses online, (I also write screenplays), and have found these courses have tremendously helped my novel writing. While the immediate goal of the two mediums is different, the bigger picture of the end result is the exact same, wanting to write an exceptional story.

    Good luck doesn't hurt, though.

    Holli Castillo
    Gumbo Justice

  8. I found your article most informative and it underlines the point that one is never too old to learn.