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Alone in a Room

Jan 28, 2011 in Guest Posts, Writing

Not long ago I found myself alone in San Francisco with some of the most famous paintings in the western world. One entire room was devoted to Van Gogh: Starry Night Over The Rhone, The Bedroom at Arles, Portrait Of The Artist, some of Van Gogh’s most famous works. Paul Gauguin’s self portrait (right), was also on display. And I have to admit, it reminded me of myself, his defensive expression — OK, I’ve been known to wear it, and probably for the same reasons!

I’d seen some of these paintings before, in Europe, but as they are always mobbed by the public they are hard to really experience, in the way the artists intended. But that night, because of a fluke, I got to see them up close and alone. I had a strange sense of intimacy, as if Van Gogh were standing next to me wondering what I thought. It was an unbelievable experience, and quite a moving one.

That night reaffirmed something I already knew. Art, whether in the form of paintings, music, or novels, doesn’t rely on money-worth to be valuable to humanity. In fact, Van Gogh’s work would not have reached my generation if not for his brother Theo’s intervention and love of art. It bears repeating: Van Gogh’s paintings had no market to speak of. They were worth zero francs at the time of his death, as gallery owners in Paris were unwilling to hang work they considered ugly, and certainly not fashionable.

The “Marketplace” held in such high esteem today, the Marketplace that has been elevated to the right side of God in importance, failed humanity in the most serious way in the case of Van Gogh. It has failed us before (the slave trade), and most certainly is failing humanity again as millions of people are unable to find jobs because bankers were profligate and now need our help to insure their future… blah, blah, blah. How many great works of art have been lost because they had no “cash value,” tossed into the trash by indifferent landlords looking for the real loot? Van Gogh gave the world something beautiful and important, which he could never “monetize.” Now, ironically, his work is priceless. The Marketplace is, of course, a false God, which I was reminded of that evening.

Every morning I wake up, pour my coffee, turn on my computer and get set to work. More often than not, I find an email solicitation from a well-known company in Los Angeles that sells stuff to writers. Below is an example. (I’m not sure they are your friend, by the way, as they claim in their ad.)

A new year brings a fresh start, so now’s the time to get your creative plan in motion. Fortunately, fill in the blank Store has the experience and the services you need to help you achieve your artistic aspirations. From the top screenwriting tools like (fill in the blank) to novelist’s programs like (fill in the blank), there’s something to ignite every imagination. Another great way to get those creative juices flowing in the New Year is through a writing course. Our current line-up of classes covers a vast amount of interests, and many are available to take in-store, or online for our friends who live outside of Los Angeles.

This store is part of a huge industry that preys on young writers — and older writers, for that matter — and it bothers me. Most of the stuff they sell is not going to help you with problems you’ll face when starting out as a writer of novels or screenplays. Writing novels or screenplays is not about the size of your hard drive!

TypewriterNot too long ago, a company asked me to write an essay to be sold to writers. I turned the job down because I couldn’t bring myself to charge people for this information. Why? Because I believe that the arts are sacred, and that creating a grubby industry that hustles people, taking advantage of their insecurities and fears, abuses the sanctity of the call to art and the profound human need for art and artists in our lives. The whole industry is not evil, but much of it is.

A long time ago I refused a job writing porn. When the porn guy called me, I was young, had just published my first novel, and didn’t have a dime, as I had quickly spent my small advance. The conversation went something like this:

Bob: Hi my name is Bob Schmuck I’m an editor at Hardcore Books and I read Dark Ride and it really turned me on… (breathless) We would love to have you write something for us. We’ve got some ideas…

Kent: Really? What ideas would those be, pray tell?

Bob: (Ignoring me) Our books are read by over …

Kent: What kind of things do you publish? The lives of saints, perhaps? (I already smelled a rat.)

Bob: … We call it Erotica.

Kent: Really… (What would everyone else call it, Bob?)

Bob: We’re located in Los Angeles.

Kent: (Figures.)

Bob: … We pay pretty good. … (holds off for effect.) …Two cents a line!

I told Bob no thanks, I wasn’t that interested in writing for the onanisticly active; how could I beat Playboy? But I would certainly call if I ever went stark raving mad. And then I hung up on Bob and his two-cent offer, and on a whole way of life. It was as if Hugh Hefner had invited Jane Austen’s Elisabeth Bennett to the Playboy Mansion. (Sometimes I do feel like Elisabeth, I have to admit, just watching the crazy American culture spinning and acting the fool from the front door of my house.)

I don’t like people who take advantage of innocence, never have — or mean people, either. I’m writing this to help novice writers avoid being taken advantage of, as Bob Schmuck wanted to take advantage of me, because they are innocent, as I was when I was starting out.

Like a lot of people I fell prey to this industry, giving them money for things I didn’t need and I could have used to pay the rent. I sent S— M— (a famous manuscript reviewing service of its day) my manuscript for a novel – my first. Months later I got back a letter saying that the novel was no good, but with no real explanation of why. Years later, I learned from a friend who had worked at S— M— at the time, that it was all a sham. I suppose they never really read my manuscript. I don’t know. I do remember feeling that the criticism was imperious and certainly contained nothing practical I could use to become a better writer. S— M— had made five hundred dollars, a fortune to me at the time, and I’d been made a fool. I’ve never forgotten it.

Quill & Ink - B&WI know there are very earnest young people who want to write novels and should write novels, but have no confidence or help as they don’t come from that kind of background or zip code. I surely had not. I grew up in a world as far removed from the world of art and letters as you could get. So I know how daunting it feels to consider writing a novel for the first time. Of course the idea of buying something to help you, a book or program that will teach you all about it, is seductive. But believe me, most of the things they want to sell are not worth buying. Honest.

I’ve been writing novels, and later screenplays, since I was 25 years old; that’s over 30 years. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I first read Ernest Hemingway’s short stories at 13. (I still have the book.) I thought, boy, that’s the life for me—Africa! Good-looking girls! Charging rhinos! (I failed to realize that Hemingway’s wife – his second, I think – was independently wealthy, and that was how he’d gotten to Africa. My bad.) My reputation as a novelist, if I have one at all, is that of an outsider who has the goods. I spent most of my career quite happily being published by Dennis McMillan Publications (DMP) because Dennis leaves his writers alone and never asks stupid questions, or makes requests (like some others) that you pander to the fashionable. Oh yes, and he was the only one that would publish me – did I mention that? His interest has always been in novels the public might enjoy regardless of whether they might be politically incorrect, or on some level outré. Mainstream publishers considered Dia De Los Muertos both — but now you can find it in book shops around the world, and a movie is in the works. DMP’s list of writers is one I’m proud to be included in: George Pelecanos, Kent Anderson, Michael Connelly, Jim Thompson to name but a few.

Like a lot of novelists, I kept at it over the years. Woody Allen says that 90 percent of success is showing up. I showed up everyday and somehow made a small life for myself, successful by my definition of the term. On occasion I’ve worked in Hollywood; I love movies and quality TV shows, and wanted to write them too. My novel work brought me that opportunity. (Not unusual, by the way, for novelists to end up working in Hollywood; that has been going on for almost 100 years!)

I want to share what I’ve learned about writing, and the best part is that it won’t take long.

Writing, like any skill, or art form, requires a long apprenticeship. It’s that way for doctors, or carpenters, or teachers, and no doubt rodeo clowns. It’s certainly that way for novelists, or any kind of serious artist. If you want to get to be a journeyman, it will take a lot of hard work (even for the street artist Banksy, apparently!). No computer program or book can replace that everyday seat-of-the pants-work experience. You will never be able to fake that experience, or buy it, as it cannot be purchased. It is hard-won, like combat experience or someone’s respect.

So below are my suggestions — call them tips for writers — based on 30 years of doing this work.

1. Do not confuse the call of art with the call to art. You love to read novels, or enjoy movies. Wonderful. That does not mean you can or should write them. This is the first and most important tip I can offer. I am not trying to be harsh, but to save you a great deal of pain. In my own case, yes, I may have had a little talent — but I probably should not have become a writer. A startling confession, but there you have it. (I realized this too late, of course.)

2. Writing novels, screenplays, plays, or musicals is a bourgeois occupation. It may not appear that way in Hollywood films, but it is. What I mean is this: You have to get up and work at it everyday. Not just on Sunday afternoons. That means a commitment and living a working person’s lifestyle. It also means that you cannot drink too much, or smoke too much dope, or party too much. You have to be sober in the morning when you face the page. And you will have to sacrifice a lot—and I don’t mean trivial things

In the Bin

3. There is no such thing as a wasted day writing. No matter how disastrous the day’s results seem, every day is a worthwhile exercise, and like going to the gym, will make you stronger. I’ve been lifting weights for years and I’m physically stronger now than when I was 25. It’s the same way with the arts. Do it consistently and you get stronger, I promise you.

4. You will feel lonely. There is no way out of that. Writing novels, especially, is a lonely occupation. Personally I can take it. When I am with family and friends, I enjoy my time with them that much more. But some people can’t take that kind of loneliness, and it makes them nuts. Writing novels is not a group activity. Screenplay writers, although they can work in teams, still face this problem. If you can’t stand working alone, do not become a writer!

5. How to face the first page: start typing. Do not expect perfection during the first draft of anything. This quest for perfection at the beginning may be the novice’s biggest stumbling block. Of course as you type you are thinking: Wait, this is wrong, and that isn’t quite right … Jesus! Why can’t this come out better? It doesn’t matter. lay the pipe first.

I got a job one summer working for a plumber who was refitting gas stations all over the state. He gave me a five-minute lesson on cutting and gluing pipe. He said we were going to pipe several gas stations that day. I looked at him as if he were crazy, as I’d never laid pipe in my life. I’ll never forget what he said:

“Don’t sweat the small shit, kid; it’s just plastic pipe, you can always cut a new piece.” So lay the pipe — your story — and then you can come back and reglue any sections that were not right or are leaking. The important thing is to finish the first draft. It should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like your first love affair did.

6. Disappear into the page. Let the characters speak. Let them do whatever it is they are going to do. Get out of their way. To be completely “in the moment,” take yourself out of it. The harder you try to “write,” the less you’ll write. In fact, I would say that blocks usually come about because people are “writing.” Don’t write. Rather, witness what the characters are doing and follow them. They will show you the way if you let them.

7. There is no perfect place or perfect time to write. I’ve written novels outside on the street in East Oakland, stone broke, wondering how I was going to pay the rent next month, while being shot at by gangsters. (I wrote Dark Ride on a clipboard in and around East 14th street.) And I’ve worked in some of the most expensive and luxurious hotel rooms in the world with killer views and room service to die for, with a full bank account. It made no difference. It’s always hard work. In fact, I wrote Dia De Los Muertos in a rather ugly basement room that leaked in the winter and was cold. Some people think that if they can just find the perfect place, or they can just get ahead financially . . . or if they can stumble on the perfect time in their lives . . . they will produce a great book, screenplay etc. Forget perfection. It does not exist. Not in relationships, not in politics, and certainly not in the making of art.

8. On writer’s blocks: They’ll come . . . and they’ll go. You have to work through them. Some last longer than others. They are part of the job, like stopping armed felons for a cop. It’s something you have to deal with. What I do is move to a different part of the project and work there. If it’s really bad and everything I do seems to just lie there like a dead horse, I’ll take a break, a day or two at most, then come back and try again. Don’t confuse a bad book with a block; they are two different things.

9. There is no formula to writing a novel or a screenplay, there are just forms. Respect them. The novel obviously has a long history and comes from the Greek drama via long epic poems such as Chanson de Roland. English scholars, please forgive me: I know of no basic rules for the novel. However, there are important conventions. We are given a protagonist and her problem, and go from there: Pride and Prejudice is a good example of a brilliant but “conventional” novel. Now that the conventions of movies and TV and most recently video games have dwarfed the novel in importance, the novel has lost some scope and certainly weight. Language in novels is becoming less dense, as novelists no longer need to paint a picture as they did before TV, movies etc. (Check out DH Lawrence’s sentences and picture painting skills!) My guess is that is why the first person style is so popular today. It’s easier to produce. The third person requires more craftsmanship and experience.

The entertainment “novels” of today that fill the supermarket shelves (and in some cases are not even written by the author whose name appears on the cover) are bad television, at worst, and at best only echoes of a real novel. A real novel is one man or woman’s emotional take on the world. The depth of that person’s vision is what makes it important — or not important.

A good novel can be a crime novel, a thriller, a chick lit coming-of-age story, or any mixture of those. Genre does not determine whether a novel is good or bad. Genre snobs are just that. What is important is honesty on the part of the writer. Le Carre said it best: “I’m expert in one thing—myself.”

Pride and Prejudice is a great example of what the novel can aspire to, and proof that art and great entertainment can co-exist. Right now the Marketplace thinks otherwise. A fear of profundity grips the entertainment business. But we still see profundity emerge, as in the TV show “Breaking Bad.” The power of that show comes from dealing truthfully with the failure of the health care system in America; the show is popular in every sense of the word.

10. Choose a genre you enjoy and are good at. If you enjoy Westerns, write Westerns. You will be spending lots of hours by yourself, so don’t do anything you don’t enjoy writing, or it won’t work. If you are young and just starting out, choose an author you relate to and copy him or her. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s why students go to museums and copy famous paintings. That is what I did. I wanted to write like Hemingway, and literally copied down his sentences in longhand one summer in Mexico. It helped me understand the importance of just one sentence. You will acquire your own voice, probably right away, no matter who influenced you. I never did write like Hemingway. I wrote — thank god — like Kent Harrington.

11. Act like a professional and people will treat you like one. In Hollywood this is important, as writers and actors can be abused by producers, agents and others. (Which is why the WGA and the Actors Guild were started.) I’ve always considered myself valuable. I’ve walked away from situations where I felt others didn’t value me, or when I thought they were plain ignorant of what I was trying to do. My loyalty is to the work, not a paycheck. I’ve lost jobs and opportunities because of this attitude. But the phone always rings anyway, I’ve found. In short, if you act like a prostitute, believe me, they’ll treat you like one. Bob Schmuck is always waiting in the restaurant’s parking lot, darlings.

12. Do not show your work during the first draft. Tough it out, and get your vision down on paper first. I don’t talk about a work in progress with anyone during the first draft. No one: not my priest, my wife, my agent. No one. Mum’s the word.

Select only a few people you trust to read your first draft. Make sure it’s a person who, on some level, is qualified to judge what you’ve done. Your grandmother may be a saint, and love you very much, but she might not be the person you should share the first draft of your coming-of-age sex novel with. Then again, she might be. Choose your readers carefully. If you do find a few people qualified, and can trust them to be honest with you, then listen to what they say and consider their opinion once you’ve asked for it. You can reject their criticism, of course, but give it some objective thought first.

13. You will be typecast. As soon as you have been published, you will be pigeonholed. “She’s the girl who writes those funny horror vampire things and now she’s gone and written a roman a clef about her days in the Army and ruined her career. How can we sell that?” It’s the way the market works now, and you will have to fight it if you want to write other kinds of books. I urge you to fight it, as it is beyond simpleminded, and again a failure of the Marketplace. I’ve never understood it. Imagine someone telling Shakespeare he should stick to dramas.

14. Try to have other artists in your life to talk to. Civilians often will not understand what you’re going through. Don’t expect them to. It’s good therapy to talk to people with the same job. Look at it this way: a garbage man wants to talk to other garbage men about how bad route #7 is in the winter time – not to you, who has never ridden on a truck. We need people who face the same things at work to talk to.

Shinjuku ChopperI’ve probably left important things out. For example, you will go crazy at least once. I did; it’s the nature of the work. With luck you will have people around who love you and tell you,“Hey you’ve gone nuts.” Thank god I did, and was able to claw my way back to sanity. (Another reason I felt close to Van Gogh that night.) As Sonny Barger famously said,“You buys your motorcycle and you takes your chances.”

If you are young and starting out, I want you to know that what you’re doing is important, no matter how hard or cold the world seems towards you and your work. You will be told a thousand times you are no good, by agents, publishers, and others. You have to push through that to succeed. If your definition of success in life as a writer, or anything else, is solely the acquisition of money, good luck with that. It’s a hole you will never fill. In fact, it might be the definition of Hell.

Without art in our lives, we cannot be full human beings. And you, the young artist, are therefore responsible in some real ways for the direction of our humanity. It’s a big job and a thankless one, by and large, if you live here in America. I wish I could say otherwise, but I have to tell you the truth about the way it is. I sincerely hope this is of some help. Last, I want you to know that, despite it all, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed, or loved anything more, than writing novels. I hope it’s the same for you.

Good luck!

Kent Harrington is the author of  THE AMERICAN BOYS, RED JUNGLE, DIA DE LOS MUERTOS, and DARK RIDE. He lives in North Califonia.

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15 Responses »

  1. Terrific essay. As a fan of Harrington’s novels I expected no less. It’s shameful that this author hasn’t received more notice here in the U.S, but must go abroad to find a well deserved audience.

  2. Hi Kent,

    Thank you, what a wonderful article. The best part being you didn’t say DON’T. So many people judge and the best advice I have been given since I started this crazy journey was; “Books are like Marmite – you love them or you hate them.” So I take most stuff on the chin.

    Georgia

  3. A powerful and thought provoking essay. Kent Harrington has things to say, important things. I’m amazed to this day that he not more widely known, not only for his excellent stories but more importantly for his voice. You never read a Kent Harrington story, you experience it. Once the you’re finished with the book, the experience stays with you for a long time.

    Harrington in this piece offers great insight to writer as artist and not as the commerical success. Be true to yourself and your art and it will speak for itself. My only wish is that writers like Harrington are discovered in their lifetime.

  4. “A good novel can be a crime novel, a thriller, a chick lit coming-of-age story, or any mixture of those. Genre does not determine whether a novel is good or bad. Genre snobs are just that. What is important is honesty on the part of the writer.”

    Thanks for this. I’ve read it twice. I’ve heard this kind of writing advice before, but I was drawn in by your voice, your humanity, and, of course, your Van Gogh moment. That, especially.

  5. Excellent! Thanks for the uplifting advice and the common sense approach.

  6. Really thoughtful, heartfelt piece. Arguably, the pink elephant in the room of this piece is the MFA program. I’d be curious if Kent Harrington viewed MFA programs as similarly predatory.

  7. For this practical knowledge and inspiration, thanks Kent. Words to learn by.

  8. Really thoughtful, heartfelt piece. Arguably, the pink elephant in the room of this piece is the MFA program. I’d be curious if Kent Harrington viewed MFA programs as similarly predatory.

  9. Thank you for this delightful inspiration!

  10. That was a tremendous post and one that I will refer to often. Thanks so much!

  11. #12 Really hit home for me as I’m in the early stages of “laying the pipe” down on my first novel and I recently decided to tell someone (my mother) about it. Big mistake I didn’t even get half way through telling her what it was about when she started telling me ways to change the whole plot along with the main characters name… I hadn’t even shown her what I’d writen yet and suddenly I needed to change everything. Just hearing what she said made me doubt all the work I’ve been doing and question things I’m excited about. So from now on when I finish a few pages and I’m so excited and feel the need to share it with someone I’m just going to suck it up untill I’ve got the first draft done like you said. So even though I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing I’m still going to write everyday and practice, practice, practice!

    Thank you Darren Shan for your twitter post that lead me to this article.

  12. Thanks for this! I’m not a young writer anymore, but it still does me good to read thoughts like this now and then.

  13. Thanks, Kent, for your wise words and gentle advice. Though I, too, have been writing for fifty years, I just joined a writers group, albeit not without hesitation. Any thoughts or guidelines on the subject?

  14. Kent Harrington is pragmatic and realistic. Writing and art are a vocation, a calling and a passion. Harrington’s word are applicable to just about anything one believes in. These are words that speak to the brain, the heart and passion of us all. Bravo!

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