William Lashner FAQHow do you come up with your ideas?
How do you turn an idea into a novel?
Do you write on computer?
What writers have had the most influence on you?
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write?
Q: How do you come up with your ideas?
A: Ideas are easy to come by, they tumble out of the newspaper, they fall out of the sky. Almost every day I get an idea for a story. The trick is finding an idea that can sustain a year of more of work, that can grow and mutate into something compelling enough to be the center of a novel. So the real question is, how do I know if an idea is worth working on for a couple months to see if I might want to use if for a book? That's not so easily answered. The idea has to speak to me somehow, it has to contain within it the characters that can bring it to life, and it has to embody a pair of contrasting ideas that can fight it out over the course of the story. This last bit is crucial. Every story has a main idea and a counter idea. Both ideas should be strong and have merit and the way they battle through the course of the book is what gives the novel its power. In FATAL FLAW, the ideas that were fighting it out through the book involved love, and whether love alone can save your life.
Q: How do you turn an idea into a novel?
A: For me it's a three-part process. First I work with the idea, build it into a story, outline as much as I can. I don't really do any of the hard work of writing until I have a beginning and an ending. Endings are important; they tell which of the contrasting ideas came out the winner or if the two ideas battle it out to a draw. In that way, they contain the ultimate meaning of the work. I don't start the actual writing until I know the ending, even though the ending most often changes before I get there.
Once I have the basic outline, I begin the hard part, the first draft. I have kids and I spend the weekends with them, but five days a week I'm in my office, outlining and writing. I like to do between four and six pages a day. If I do much more, the writing is usually flabby. If I do much less, there's no momentum to the pages. It is slower in the beginning, it speeds up at the end, but pretty much four to six pages, and I try to write them as well as I can. I don't figure I'll pretty it up in the rewrite. The major unit of prose writing, I think, is the paragraph so I spend a lot of time on each paragraph, keeping it taut and interesting and trying to find the humor it in. Four to six pages a day. And on each page I try to have a gem or two, something in the dialogue, a turn of phrase, something funny. Sometimes I sit around and nothing gets done, but the key is that I'm there, putting in the time. Often, after a day of nothing, I get so frustrated with myself I start banging out stuff at the end and its pretty good because I've been thinking about it all day.
After the first draft comes the most crucial part, the rewrite. I take what I have and then I imagine it all over again. What if this happens? What if that happens? How can I make it stronger, more structured, more interesting? It's like I'm back to the first part, the outlining part, but this time I have a lump of prose to work with. When I figure out how to make the changes, then I go through it again and again until it works. HOSTILE WITNESS took ten rewrites, but I had never written a mystery before and so I left out some crucial stuff the first time through, stuff like suspects.
Q: Do you write on computer?
A: I'm not sure why this question comes up so much. Every writer has to figure out his own process and so you should end up doing what works for you. I write on a computer because I rewrite as I write, rearranging sentences, chopping clauses, and it makes the process go more smoothly. Also, I can type almost as fast I can think and that helps getting out ideas when I'm in the flow.
The interesting thing about process, however, is that the tools you use to get the words down do make a difference. When I write in longhand my sentences are sharper, terser. Maybe that is why I write a lot of dialogue out longhand. On the other hand, the ease of writing on computer gives my sentences a rhythm and tone that I don't get writing longhand.
Q: What writers have had the most influence on you?
A: One of the best ways for a young writer to get a hold on their own style is to start by writing like the authors they most admire. It's an amazing thing, you start out by sounding like someone else but as the words pile up something slowly changes and after a couple of hundred thousand words you end up sounding like yourself. It's a lot of work, and a lot of words, but it is worth it. By the time I started HOSTILE WITNESS, my first published novel, I had written close to half a million words of unpublished stuff and so by then I had a sense of my own style, but before then there were a number of writers I had spent time copying.
Everyone seems to try, at least for a time, to write like Hemingway. His prose is so taut and spare, he makes it looks so easy. His story, "Hills Like White Elephants" seems so simple, I figured even I could do it. But the story is a masterpiece and my pale imitation of his style was a disaster. Then I discovered Kerouac and for a couple years wrote like him, long flowing sentences filled with exclamations of joy and sadness. Then for a time I tried to write like the American minimalists, Raymond Carver, Joy Williams, and I got pretty good at that. The thing about writing flat emotionless prose is that it sounds writerly. That was the prose that got me into writing school, but I wasn't happy with it. It sounded like someone, but it didn't sound like me.
I decided to write a first person novel and so I read all the first person books I could get my hands on. I remember A SUMMONS TO MEMPHIS had a big effect on me, and FAREWELL MY LOVELY, but the novel that caught me most completely was ALL THE KING'S MEN, by Robert Penn Warren. His language was gorgeous, of course, thick with metaphor and simile, but the thing that struck me was the streak of self-flagellation in Jack Burden's prose. That seemed perfect for what I was trying to do and so I spent a lot of time trying to write like that. It got so bad I even read my stuff back in a Southern accent, but I consider that book one of the greatest American novels and its influence on my writing has been profound.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to write?
A: You have to do two things and you have to do them a lot. First you have to read as much as you can, and not just the type of book you want to write. It's not enough, if you want to write mysteries, to read only mysteries. Read everything, romance, comedy, high literature, fast paced thrillers, science fiction. Read Martin Amis because he's funny as hell, read Toni Morrison because of her clear eyed vision of America, read Dashiell Hammett because he's so sharp, read Moby Dick because Melville broke all the rules, read any comic book by Frank Miller because he gets right to the point. Whenever anyone tells me she wants to write I always ask what she reads and I get a pretty good idea right there of her chances. And if you find something you really like, outline it, so that you can see how it works. Remember, now you're reading like a writer, not just a reader, and that's a whole different thing.
Second, you have to write. A lot. There's no way around it. At the start it is really hard and it comes out lousy and you just have to keep doing it. My first novel was so bad I wouldn't even show it to my mother. My mother. Some of my things she put up on the refrigerator were brutal, yet still I wouldn't show her this. But it's four hundred pages of prose, which is a lot of words. I learned so much writing those four hundred pages of bad prose, stuff you can't learn from reading books about writing. The only way to find your voice is to write your way into it. But the great thing about writing is that you don't need anybody's permission. To make a movie you need someone to give you money. To act, you need to be cast. But to write, all you need to do is say, "I want to write," and no one can stop you.