One of the greatest pleasures of writing for a living is necessary flip side of the coin: plentiful reading. Don’t have to twist my arm on that one: I’ve been a bookworm since I started reading before kindergarten. San Diego Union-Tribune sports columnist Nick Canepa gave me this sage advice more than 30 years ago, while we were covering a Chargers game: “Good writers read good writing.”
Sometimes, that good writing takes twists and turns away from the normal subjects and genres – and in so doing, points us directly to areas that make us better readers and writers while providing endless entertainment. Which is why the Winter of 2012-13 has been like no other for me.
It began in October. My friend and client, Tim Martin, emailed me the first half of a crime mystery he’s writing. The manuscript grabbed me with its storyline and Tim’s fun, punchy writing style – then left me hanging as I edited it. I’m still hanging, because I’m eagerly awaiting the second half of the book … and not just as an editor. Instead, as crime fiction’s newest addicted fan.
I never would have imagined myself a fan of crime fiction and mystery, though I’ll race through an Elmore Leonard novel anytime you hand it to me. My reading always tended to memoir, literary fiction, poetry, spiritual titles and books on subjects like music, the environment, travel, indigenous and ancient history, and sports … nothing about crime there (unless you take into account what our forebears did to the Native Americans, but that’s another story).
However, Tim’s novel-in-progress lit a fire. Since October, I’ve read more than 30 thrillers, mysteries, spy and crime novels by authors like Leonard, Stephen J. Cannell, W.E.B. Griffin, Clive Cussler, James Ellroy, John LeCarre, Robert Ludlum, J.A. Jance and the queen herself, Agatha Christie. Hardboiled, L.A. noir, patrolmen, rubber-sole sleuthing, every crime in the book … and even a wonderful hard-hitter, Black & White, written by my friend Wes Albers, director of the Southern California Writers Conference.
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been hooked on a writing genre like this. I’ve had so much fun with my latest finds from Oceanside Library, or bookstores, that quick bedtime reading sessions have turned into eye-burning immersion into these contrived environments. The locations, twists, turns, amazing elasticity of the soul and mind – in both directions – have given me the same reading thrills I had when losing myself in adventure and sci-fi novels as a kid.
Through it all, though, I saw something else: plot and narrative pacing at its finest, delivering maximum impact with few words. This appeals greatly to me as both a writer and editor, because I’m always advising my clients to edit and polish, whittle and trim, boil down sentences to their most essential cores. Crime fiction also offers another treasure for writers: great dialogue. If you want to learn how to bury yourself so deeply into your characters that their spoken voices, not yours, lands on the printed page, read Elmore Leonard. Or Cannell. Or J.A. Jance. Their attention to rhythm, tone, vernacular and slang is so good, and so true to their characters, that these characters come to life without physical description. Of all fiction genres, crime and mystery belong in the forefront when it comes to dialogue.
So when the impulse to change your reading material hits you, go for it. It might be time to find genres that will re-ignite the thrill of reading. Or, if you are a writer, it could be your Muse, tapping you on the brain and saying, “Let’s go on a new journey, one that will enrich your storytelling as we move forward.”
But when you do, don’t leave any clues. The little sleuth who now inhabits me may find them.