Writer’s Wednesday: Award-winning, Best-selling Author Lawrence Block

I’ve been a fan of Lawrence Block’s writing for several years. I first discovered his short stories while I was working for Marty Greenberg. Then, I discovered his novels…and I’ve been hooked ever since! Because he has written such inspirational non-fiction on the craft of writing, we’ve also included an excerpt from his book, Spider, Spin Me a Web that we thought you would you enjoy!  Please welcome Lawrence Block to The Editing Essentials!

Lawrence Block has been writing award-winning mystery and suspense fiction for half a century.  His most recent novels are HIT ME, featuring Keller, and A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, featuring Matthew Scudder.  Several of his books have been filmed, although not terribly well.  He’s well known for his books for writers, including the classic TELLING LIES FOR FUN & PROFIT, and THE LIAR’S BIBLE.  In addition to prose works, he has written episodic television (TILT!) and the Wong Kar-wai film, MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS.  He is a modest and humble fellow, although you would never guess as much from this biographical note.  www.lawrenceblock.com

WD: How did you discover writing fiction?

LB: When I was around 15, I discovered reading fiction—Steinbeck, Farrell, Wolfe, etc. And I decided this was what I wanted to be when I grew up.
WD: Was there someone in your life that supported or influenced your writing early in your career?
LB: I got some encouragement from a high school teacher.
WD: Has your family always supported your writing?
LB: Yes, always.
WD: You’ve written a lot of award-winning books. Do you have a formula? Or, are you just lucky? 🙂

LB: Just lucky.

WD: What’s one tip you’d give to every new writer out there just starting their career as a writer?

LB: Don’t expect too much. “Each writer has to find his own way to write his own story. Each writer is a stranger in his own strange land; how then can I presume to guide you through a country I myself have not visited?

The writer of fiction is a spider. Drawing upon his inner resources and shaping them with his craft, he spins out his guts to trap his dinner. There are no blueprints for the novel, for the short story. However well the spider may serve as a totem animal for fictioneers, there are fundamental differences between the weaving of webs and the spinning of tales.

…Writers, whatever they write, are apt to find the spider an apt totem. Indeed, I’ve learned that writers of all sorts have far more in common than one might suppose. And, too, the distinction between fiction and nonfiction has never been that clear-cut, and has grown increasingly blurry over the years.

In fiction, traditionally, the writer wants us to believe that he has made the whole thing up. In nonfiction, he wants us to believe that he hasn’t. Both weave much the same sort of web, and out of the same inner stuff.

I think it takes courage for any writer, novice or veteran, to begin a piece of work. Every time I start a book or story, every time I spoil a clean white paper with my own poor words, I am performing an act of faith. I’m hoping and trusting that my ability will be equal to the task at hand, or at least that it will not strand me unpublishably short of my goal.
I’m also hoping and trusting that my inspiration will not fail me. I never have the entire work in mind when I begin writing. Books and stories grown on the page, plots and characters are born in the process of writing. No matter how well I prepare, no matter how detailed an outline I draw up in advance, every book will be a happening, a spontaneous event. And I can’t change this. I can’t open the parachute until I’ve stepped out of the plane, and if it won’t open–well, all I can do is pull the cord and pray.
It takes courage, I believe, to do the very best one can do–at writing or at anything else.”
Excerpt from the Preface and Chapter 29: Take Courage of Spider, Spin Me a Web. Reprinted with permission by the author. Copyright © 1988 by Lawrence Block.

Thank you for being here today, Mr. Block. If you have any questions or comments for him, we’ll be sure to pass them on. Thank you! We hope you enjoyed it. 🙂

Reader Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Reader Review: Reading non-fiction can be just as entertaining as fiction.

Title:                 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author:             Rebecca Skloot

Version:            Paperback

Genre:              Nonfiction

Publisher:         Crown Publishing

Reviewer:         Stewart

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a nonfiction book that engages the reader as grippingly as a good novel. Skloot was sixteen when she heard about HeLa cells, which in 1951 had been grown from the cancer of a woman named Henrietta Lacks. The cells had the unexplained ability to replicate in tissue culture “forever,” and they provided the basis for thousands of important scientific studies during the following decades. Yet nothing was known of Henrietta Lacks. This story stayed with Skloot through college and graduate school and led to her 10-year research for this book–the story not only of Henrietta and her family, but also of the doctors who treated her, the scientists who developed and used her cells, the journalists who, during the 1970’s, sensationalized her story without regard to the privacy or feelings of the family, and the impact of all of this on family members.

Henrietta and her family were poor and black, deprived of education, work, and other opportunities in Baltimore, where Jim Crow in the 1950’s was still strong. Most hospitals did not offer care to black patients, and Henrietta received “charity” care in the “colored” sections of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Medical care was primitive by today’s standards and medical research was even more so. Communication between doctors and patients was governed by the notion that the all-powerful doctor was obliged to tell patients only what he felt was in the patient’s interest. “Informed consent” did not cross the minds of early clinical researchers, who conducted many potentially harmful studies on patients without their knowledge. Henrietta received standard radiation treatment (with severe side effects) and died 6 months after her diagnosis. Her medical care was not unusual; it was an example of how bad care was for everyone, especially poor people.

But Skloot doesn’t stop there. She describes medical progress (through the lens of HeLa cellular research) during the following years, as well as the efforts to improve communication with patients and their families, including Henrietta’s family.

The stories are complicated, but Skloot writes with feeling and an eye for detail that keeps the different narratives lively and connected. For me the book was a page-turner.

WD’s Editorial Tip: This is a good example of a nice balance of medical research and storyline so the reader learns about the topic at hand, but can also take away the hard lessons learned about the people in the story.