A Writer Prepares by Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block wasn’t always Lawrence Block. I mean that figuratively and literally. He wasn’t always a Grand Master of the mystery genre, and he wrote an incredible number of novels under secret pen names before ever putting his own name on a book. A WRITER PREPARES is a memoir of Block’s start, from his earliest writing attempts in high school and college up to the publication of the first novel under his own name.

In the late 1950s, while he was still in college, Block had a job writing rejection letters for the Scott Meredith Agency. It was a fee-charging agency that was very bad for writers but kind of great for Block, since it got him connected to his next job, which was writing short erotic novels. He had contracts with two publishers to deliver a book a month, for which he was paid a flat fee, and he continued doing that for a decade, during which time he got married and had two daughters. He took day jobs here and there, but still wrote erotica on the side until 1966, when he finally started writing crime novels in earnest, starting with The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep.

A WRITER PREPARES is incredibly smooth reading, written in Block’s conversational style. It’s also funny. I kept stopping to read parts of it out loud to my family, because they wanted to know why I was giggling my way through a memoir. Even the parts that were horrifying, such as the terrible treatment of writers by the Scott Meredith Agency, were hilarious in that whole “laugh so I don’t cry” way. Block puts a light spin on everything, reminding us that writing truly is the best job in the world.

A WRITER PREPARES might seem like an odd choice for this blog. I’m all about how-to books after all. But Block is a natural teacher, and he’s always giving writing lessons, whether he means to or not. I learned so much from this book—more than I can put in a review—but here’s a small taste.

Agents don’t care about writers or writers’ careers. They care about their own bottom line. The Scott Meredith Agency was particularly scammy, charging authors a reading fee, never sending work out, and lying to authors about their submissions. But are modern agents much better? To agents, writers are interchangeable. It’s not worth going to bat for one writer when there are plenty of others to fleece represent.

Write to market. Block learned this lesson early and well. He wrote his school compositions based on what he thought his teachers wanted, and won an eighth-grade essay contest by extolling the virtues of “Americanism” because he knew the judges were patriotic. His erotic novels were always the exact length and heat level the publisher wanted. He read every back issue of Manhunt he could find to understand what the editor was looking for when he sent them stories. When Block had the idea for The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep, he sat on it until he was sure he had all the elements for a complete story that would appeal to mystery readers. There is nothing wrong with having original ideas that are wild and fun, but keeping the audience in mind is how a writer gets read.

Practice is never wasted. Block happily admits that he spent his twenties writing crap. All of it was under pen names for low-budget publishers and most of the time, he never saw a copy. But this served as a risk-free apprenticeship that made him the writer he is today. It allowed him to experiment, to pick up new skills, and to practice writing to a deadline. Writing a whole lot of bad fiction is a great way for a writer to learn to write good fiction.

Treat it like a job. Block may have written terrible fiction when he was just starting out, but he wrote a lot of it. He wrote while taking college classes, he wrote while editing the college newspaper, he wrote while working full time at a literary agency. Before he ever sold a word of fiction, he still wrote every day while rejection letters piled up. When he had to quit school and move back home for a semester, he wrote in his childhood bedroom. Block wasn’t a professional. He wasn’t getting paid. He wrote anyway.

Community is important. Block did his best work when surrounded by writers and publishing people. In New York, Block hung out with Donald Westlake, Hal Dresner and Robert Silverberg, and their shoptalk was vital to his success. At one point, Block moved his family to Buffalo to be near his aging mother, and his writing suffered. Pre-internet, a writer had to either live near other writers or write a whole lot of letters. Block tried the latter, but was happier with the former, and moved back to New York as soon as he could.

The book world has changed a lot since the 1950s. Or has it? There are still plenty of very bad literary agents out there, and new writers are strung along by empty promises every day. Writing erotica is different now, but with Kindle Unlimited, there are once again authors serving apprenticeships by publishing a short erotic novel each month. Writing to market is still important, as is not holding too tightly to early work. And no matter what, surrounding yourself with like-minded writers is still the best path to happiness and success.

Reading a writer’s memoir is always inspirational, but A WRITER PREPARES is both inspiring and instructive. It’s a delightful look back in time filled with lessons for the present day.

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A WRITER PREPARES can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

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