David Corbett discusses the oft and widely lamented decline in our country’s writing skills, his personal approach to marketing, writing to the market vs. writing to the passion, and more in this week’s 5 On interview.
David Corbett (@DavidCorbett_CA) is a recovering Catholic, ex-PI, and onetime bar band gypsy who’s written five novels, numerous stories, multiple scripts, and far too many poems. One novel was a New York Times Notable Book, another an Edgar nominee. The latest, The Mercy of the Night, was published in April 2015. Two of his stories have been selected for Best American Mystery Stories and his book on craft, The Art of Character, has been called “a writer’s bible.” He lives with his adorable wife and insane dog in Vallejo, California, which really, truly isn’t the hellhole it’s cracked up to be.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: You’re eleven years old and someone happens upon you (where would you be? bedroom? dining room table? tree house?) reading. What are you likely to be reading, and what book or author (or TV show/play/film) first made you want to write?
DAVID CORBETT: By age eleven I’d pretty much read all the Hardy Boy offerings then available as well as most of the We Were There books, a young adult series of historical novels I devoured, with each one placing young teens at historically significant events: We Were There at the Battle of the Bulge, We Were There on the Oregon Trail, We Were There at the Opening of the Erie Canal, etc. Also around this time I was either transitioning out of or into a series of young adult sports novels (primarily football, my passion) written by Sports Illustrated legend Tex Maule.
If I’m not mistaken, I’d moved on to the Random House Landmark series by then—histories for young readers—and I remember in particular loving the books on Wild Bill Hickok, the Pony Express, the battles of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima (and a more general history of the Marine Corps), and the French Foreign Legion. I also developed an interest in the Civil War (and a particular obsession with John Singleton Mosby, the “Gray Ghost”), as well as World War II, and read just about anything I could get my hands on about either. I was, after all, a boy.
But then, in sixth grade, a new kid moved into our parish and enrolled at Our Lady of Peace, the parochial school I attended. His name was Mike Enright, he became my best friend, and we bonded in particular over books. He turned me on to Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and H.P. Lovecraft (and later would be responsible for introducing me to Tolkein, Kafka, Wallace Stevens, and John Hawkes).
I also remember both of us in sixth grade slogging unhappily through Treasure Island, which for whatever reason failed to appeal to me then. Now it’s one of my fondest reading experiences, but perhaps I wasn’t yet ready at eleven for a real prose stylist like Stevenson. An embarrassing admission, but …
I didn’t seriously begin reading crime fiction until I began working as a private investigator in my thirties. I watched a lot of crime-related films, but my understanding of the genre was woefully limited until then.
As for where you’d find me reading at age eleven: virtually anywhere. My brother, who was not much of a reader, resented how often I had my face planted in a book, especially during long car trips, because it meant he had no one to talk to.
You ask readers in your book The Art of Character to think about who they identify as their ideal reader when they want to feel inspired to do their best work. Who is (are) yours these days?
I tend to write as though one of several of my favorite writers might be reading. Specifically Richard Price, Pete Dexter, Kate Atkinson, and/or Martha Gellhorn (unfairly known primarily as Hemingway’s wife, but a brilliant writer who deserves wider acclaim). I think if I tried to envision my historical idols—Kafka, Conrad, Austen, Stendahl—I’d never be able to write a word. So my advice comes with a caveat.
With all the details you load into your three-dimensional characters, how do you track them all, and how do you keep their images, their Selves, clear in your mind? Do you keep notes in a spiral? Have an Excel spreadsheet?
I write out extensive biographies of my characters that are largely composed not of information but scene sketches: moments in their lives when they turned one way or the other at a juncture between the promise of life and the pain of life. I often try to identify a piece of music that, for me, captures the deepest yearning in their soul: the kind of person they want to be, the way of life they want to live. The rest emerges through the writing, and I think I just have a good memory for details, because I don’t keep a log or (shudder) a spreadsheet.
Rushworth M. Kidder asks in a 1983 Christian Science Monitor article whether computers will “reverse the decline in students’ writing skills” blamed at the time on TV or a “collapse of school discipline.”
If computers did fix anything, that work has apparently been undone by today’s culprits, which (depending on who you ask) are texting and Twitter—both of which encourage minimal characters for maximum message—or, as Natalie Wexler argues in “Why Americans Can’t Write,” the fact that schools simply aren’t teaching writing the way they used to.
What skills trend are you seeing as a writing instructor and as an editor under your book-doctor services? Is the writing getting noticeably worse? And if fundamental writing skills aren’t being taught in middle and high school, how much can reasonably be taught later in life? Are we going to be short good writers and well-written stories, or will there just be a lot more work out there for editors?
I’m fortunate in that many of my students and clients are reasonably educated and self-motivated. That said, I see a great many of the common mistakes—dangling participles, incorrect punctuation (semicolons—don’t get me started), improper use of pronouns, mangled syntax, etc.—but the major mistakes I encounter can’t be blamed on computers, though they might be blamed on the general lowering of educational standards, reading and writing in particular: how to stage conflict, how to plot, how to write credible dialogue, how to create engaging characters.
Yes, I do believe editing (both developmental and copyediting) is a growth industry, especially with so many writers thinking that self-publishing is a painless way to fame and fortune.
What subject matter is most emotionally challenging for you to write, even if only a scene, and what will you absolutely not write about (barring a future change of mind)? How do you work your way through the challenging scenes?
I don’t think it’s subject matter that daunts me as I face a scene. Rather, it’s the understanding that to make the scene truly engaging I have to makes matters far worse than I’d like them to be. I’d prefer to let my characters (and myself) off the hook, but that’s not the game. I have to ruin my character’s life, and I have to make that ruination believable, engaging, satisfying, and surprising.
A friend of mine, Mark Haskell Smith, once said he begins every scene asking himself What’s the worst that can happen? I think that’s brilliant, but it forces you to go through the meat grinder with your characters, which can be harrowing.
5 on Publishing
You said this: “You write what you can write. You try to do as well as you can. And you will find readers. You might not find the audience that a multi-million seller does, but that’s not your job. Your job is to be as honest and true to what you can write as possible.”
This is an inspiring and encouraging thought (really) I think many writers have tried to convince themselves is true beyond the short week they’re actually able to believe it. But inevitably the agent or publisher rejections arrive as other, arguably less-good books continue to be churned out, or the Amazon ranking for a self-published author hovers somewhere around 1.3 million, and the writer clenches his jaw or closes her eyes and, through clenched teeth, recites, “What matters is that I’m creating something honest, something valuable, and that I’m doing my best. What matters is that I’m creating something honest, something valuable …”
How much time passed between the day you decided to write novels and the day you started getting a paycheck for the work? Were you fortunate enough to automatically write what sells, or was there some trial and error involved, some study of and adherence to what more than a few (precious, but still, few) readers wanted, some period of wondering whether—if you never found a solid readership—just being true to yourself would be enough?
First, I stand by my advice. You can’t write somebody else’s book. You are, due to circumstances beyond your control, obliged to write your own. This is why I often compare reading to dating: you can’t make someone fall in love with you. Trying to be what someone else wants seldom ends well, and if by some quirk of fate it doesn’t end badly, whatever good does emerge seldom lasts.
This leads to another important point: you can’t control what you can’t control.
Now, this doesn’t mean ignoring market demands or the simple fact that publishing is a business. You need to have some idea of how your work fits into the larger picture of contemporary publishing, so you understand which kinds of readers may want your book, and how to “give them what they want in a way they don’t expect,” the core goal of every piece of writing.
It probably took me fifteen years before I started writing a novel and had it published. I learned how to write in those fifteen years. This gig is hard. There’s a lot to know.
But I’ve also been told (by people in publishing) that, despite my excellent command of craft, I am “too male” or “belong to a branch of American literature that’s died out” (the literary crime novel, for lack of a better term, with a lineage that includes Newton Thornburg, Kem Nunn, Don Carpenter). I’ve had my share of rejections—and they’ve come mid-career. Not fun, I assure you. But I’ve adjusted course without either throwing in the towel or wholly reinventing myself, and things seem to be trending better. We shall see.
But what I learned was exactly what I said above: you have to own your own artistic vision and accept the consequences. There are no guarantees.
I tend to write a pretty clean manuscript, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some serious post-submission work to be done. In two of my novels there was some rearranging of material that needed to be done—in particular, at the opening of each book, to get things rolling quicker, sooner.
As for copyediting, I have a very distinct voice and use punctuation somewhat inventively at times. This tends to drive copyeditors to despair. We usually work things out, and I’ve learned to choose my battles.
What in a review of one of your books will most please you, and what in a review will most bother you (by that I mean what is the one thing a reviewer might say about your writing that would hurt a little bit)?
The thing that pleases me most is simply when a reviewer “gets” the book, i.e., recognizes what I’m trying to do. I don’t think I’ve ever been hurt by a review. Angered? Oh yeah. Frustrated? Sure. But these are almost always when the book has been criticized for failing to do something I never intended (or would want to intend), or when I’ve been personally criticized. “Them’s fightin’ words,” as Popeye was known to say, and even men who shave their heads can get their dander up.
Authors market their work in any number of ways: trying to be conversational on social media, giving readings and signings, contributing to known blogs or publications, showing up on Reddit. When it comes to marketing, what’s hardest for you or feels the least natural, and what do you enjoy or have the easiest time with? Has one thing, whether or not you enjoy it, proven to be more effective, sales-wise, than another?
I’ve come to a decision about all this, and it’s similar to the decision I made about my work. I realized I just wasn’t comfortable shilling my books like a shoe salesman (a job I had in high school), so I had to find a way to get my name out there in a manner that conformed to both my ambition and my personal sense of dignity.
The most important men in my life were my father, my high school football coach, and my math professors (I majored in mathematics in college). I decided I did not want to do anything that would betray the respect I wanted from these men, and so I’ve decided to work hard and to write nothing I’m not totally proud of. Once one novel is finished I begin the next, and I turn down almost no offers to write an article or story, since I consider those shorter pieces a form of advertising. I also focus on teaching as conscientiously (and as often) as I can, being generous to other writers, and on occasion joining the Facebook or Twitter banter among my writer friends. I limit my self-promotion to letting people know about an upcoming class, publication, or special offer.
What was your professional goal when you began selling novels, and what’s your goal now?
When I started, I was happy to get published. Now, I want to be recognized as one of the most widely respected writers of crime fiction in America.
Thank you, David.