Monday, January 04, 2010

5 Writing Lessons Learned from Donald Westlake

I wrote this a few years ago for a blog that died a-borning. I'm re-printing it here as part of an effort to tidy up the various facets of my online presence, and also because Westlake has been on my mind recently. He passed away unexpectedly on New Year's 2009.


Donald Westlake, screenwriter of “The Grifters, author of “The Hot Rock,” “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” and many other novels, is one of my favorite thriller writers. Pick up any of his books at random, and you can learn something valuable from it, as well as be guaranteed hours of first-rate entertainment.

Under the pseudonym Richard Stark, Westlake also writes about no-nonsense thief Parker. The character has appeared, always with a different name, in a handful of movies, some of them good (”Point Blank”) and some of them not (”Slayground”). There are currently 23 Parker novels, and many of them epitomize what their author does best. They’re fast, lean, gripping and darkly, darkly funny.

Here are five lessons I’ve learned from Westlake/Stark:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.

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