- Choose a strong title.
Some of the early Parker novels have titles so terse that they don’t really stick in the memory: “The Score,” “The Outfit,” “The Seventh,” “The Hunter.” I have trouble keeping track of them in my head. But after a 24-year break from writing about Parker, Stark brought him back in “Comeback.” Which was followed by “Backflash.” Followed by “Flashfire,” “Firebreak” and “Breakout.” The titles are down to one word, but they’re evocative and the progression from one to the next is clever without being distracting.
- Waste no time getting the story started.
In the early books, the first sentence always started with “When…”
When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed. He heard the plop of a silencer behind him as he rolled, and the bullet punched the pillow where his head had been. — “The Outfit”
When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in. – “The Split”Even without that gimmick, the openings are always active and compelling.
Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and a packet of explosive in the other. — “Slayground”
These aren’t books that begin with long ruminations about the weather. There’s action on the very first page.
- Understand structure.
Many of the Parker books are organized around a four-part structure. The first two parts are from Parker’s perspective. The third offers multiple viewpoints of a critical plot turn. The final portion wraps things up, again from inside Parker’s head.It’s a particularly effective technique. The third-person limited perspective keeps everything focused and leaves little room for extraneous business. The late-in-the-game breakout from the protagonist’s perspective allows the author to ramp up the suspense by dramatising conflicts that Parker can’t foresee.
- Don’t be afraid to change your style. Westlake has said that he once grew frustrated with a draft in which Parker kept losing the thing he was trying to steal. Rather than bull his way through a book that wasn’t working, Westlake decided to turn it into a comedy, thereby creating his long-running character John Dortmunder, who first appeared in “The Hot Rock.”
- If you don’t work to avoid obsolescence, you may wind up having to kill someone to keep working. Although not published with the Stark pen-name, “The Axe” is one of the bleakest novels Westlake has ever written. The tale of a middle-aged middle-manager who strikes back against downsizing by killing off his competitors, “The Ax” is cautionary tale for anyone who has become too complacent about their job security.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Lessons from Westlake
Michael Berry, the science fiction columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, has posted a list of 5 writing lessons he's learned from the work of Donald Westlake (aka Richard Stark). It seemed like a strong list to me, so I figured I'd share them here and see what you folks make of them.
Posted by Chris Roberson at 5:52 AM