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Sunday, 29 July 2018


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Writing with the intention of attracting an audience, and selling books, is no different than making photographs with the intention of attracting an audience, and selling pictures. You have to know the audience, what people will buy, and how to write/photograph in that style. It's tough slogging indeed if you don't really love and understand the format you're working in.

Know well that which you will write about sounds like good advice to me. You know photography. Photography books are non-fiction, just saying. What needs to be said in photography that you can say well?

Be an essayist, doing much what you do at the moment.

I enjoy writing longish (relative to many) Internet posts, but the thought of making myself willing prisoner to something just isn't in my mindset.

If it's for the money, I suppose the same advice that people give photographers holds true for writers: many get the calling but few make anything of it.

It's also said that if you haven't made it by forty, forget it. Whatever "it" may be.

I like to eat. That does not mean I am, or I would be, a good cook.
My wife likes to cook. She is a good cook. That does not mean she would do well if she opened her own restaurant.
They need different skills. It is not easy.

I have the same problem and I have nothing to add of any use and can only spit out what comes into my head.

Shakespeare's audiences were acquainted with the historical dramas - they knew the outcomes. What kept them interested was the portrayal of the interactions between the people.

Could you take a thriller you know and 'copy' it down - just write it down and retell it in five pages? I take this bit of wisdom from copywriters who tell students to write out copy they like and write it out by hand, longhand, until they get the flavour - which only the long boring exercise can give them.

Maybe you need to write something almost true. Something like Stephen King's 11/22/63

Maybe about some fantasy you have. William Goldman's Hey Kid, how good are you? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UcqFzVtEcNM is a fantasy of many men.

Ganbatte! Michael. (transliterated from Japanese: words of encouragement: do your best!)

Bless. Godspeed.

BTW, this thing about you not liking non-data seems to fit with you (and other writers) having the viewpoint that the main point about photographing is *what* to photograph, while for me that’s the least important aspect of a picture, and indeed I’m the opposite, facts, in most senses of the word, are trivial to me, I am drawn to inventions, artifact, abstractions, speculations, philosophy...

(Wow that one ran on.)

You can't make yourself what you aren't, no matter how hard you try.
----It's good advice.
Being successful an anything is difficult, being successful at something in which you have little interest and no passion strikes me as just about impossible.
It also seems to me, to be really ill advised.
Anyone who reads these pages knows you can write; so well, in fact that I often find myself re-reading a sentence or paragraph because it so well done, -beautiful even.
You write from your heart, about things you care about and have spent a lifetime forming your opinions.
Think of all the time you have spent on the project, and ask what the outcome might have been if you channeled it into something you were actually passionate about.
Knowing when you are on the wrong track, and doing what is necessary to get off it, is a difficult and courageous thing.
Persisting, as you say, would no doubt be counter productive.

As for writing long form, I have no doubt you could do that. Your autobiographical project is something only you know, and something you are passionate about.
I would be very interested in what is a great story.

When someone asked Sen. Strom Thurmond what he would do about Vietnam, he answered, "I would declare Victory, and Leave"
Good advice too

You may find the Periodic Table of Storytelling to be useful for designing the flow of your work. (Click on any element in the table to see the details, also see the story "molecules" below the table). At the very least, it can be an entertaining waste of time.

That story about your kid has to get told.

Unlike you, I read a lot of crime and spy thrillers and I have come to the conclusion that the plot is the least difficult part of achieving success in those genres.
The story needs to be gripping and that takes planning and ingenuity on the part of the writer but given time and application many writers will get there.
But what makes for success is a really original, interesting, admirable, protagonist. And getting all three of those in a believable hero is probably quite a challenge. Think of George Smiley, Jack Reacher, or Lisbeth Salander. Three memorable characters and three outstandingly successful authors.

When it comes to writing novels, you probably don't want to persist, unless you are enjoying the process of struggling with it. I quite enjoy struggling with the various events and the many characters in my current work in progress. Some days their world is substantially more interesting than mine. So why not pick a topic and write non-fiction? This way you can deal with true data.

I'm not sure which novel it was but Robert Ludlum basically outlined his methods in one of them. Pretty detailed too if I remember correctly. Maybe someone else can chime in on which novel it was.


Having contemplated the "simpler" task of a photobook I feel your pain. I have attended many lectures over the years by successful authors and it seems they mostly write from something they know or have encountered in their life. So why not construct a docu-thriller novel revolving around photography (perhaps out of control technology?) Best of luck.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. And if your heart ain't in it, well, not all dreams are meant to be realized.

I always liked Steinbeck's earlier novels. A technique I heard of, and tried, is to take some work from a writer you like, and copy it, word for word. I did that for a few weeks, allotting 15-20 minutes each morning. I learned a lot about how Steinbeck structured sentences, his word choices, etc. I also learned that it wasn't for me.

A thriller? I thought you were trying to write a memoir?

"I really only like stories if they make some truth more clear or vivid."

Hmmm...so is it not possible to bring clarity to the truth by telling a fictional story? Maybe you've just not found the truth you want to bring to light through the telling of your tale.

What you you say, Mike, to someone who told you they wanted to create a photo book and have it published by a major house, and, by the way, they never look at photos?

If you don't enjoy novels you will not enjoy writing one. Is like a photographer trying to do fashion when he o she prefers photojournalism or documentary. The most natural is do what you like. Nothing good will end without some pleasure doing it.

Mike, how far along are you on this novel? Are you over 50% done with the first draft? I think you should just pump out that first draft and then do the real crafting of the book in the rewrites and editing, of which you have a real talent. Redoing it will be easier once you get it on your computer.
As for the advice about reading lots of thriller novels in order to write one, I do not think that applies to everyone. No offense to John but if you have read one of his novels you have read them all. I should note I have bought a couple of his novels and read and enjoyed them but thriller novels tend to follow the same format. You do not need to become an expert. Maybe you need a new mentor.
As for your aversion to making up false data, you need to find a way to make the false data real or real to you. You might be able to convince yourself that “it could happen” somewhere some time in some universe and therefore it is not false.
I am like you in having problems finishing projects. I think giving up will not help your self-confidence on future book projects. I don’t mean to lecture you but to give you encouragement and support.

Perhaps the thriller genre just isn’t for you. It sounds like something in the Garrison Keillor style might fit you better.

Maybe writing is like athletics, with different disciplines requiring different psychology and physiology. Which leads me to imagining Usain Bolt in the hammer throwing finals, or trying to keep up with Mo Salah in the 10,000 metres.

Or is it like the Olympics? Usain Bolt in the synchronised swimming competition, and Mo Salah doing Ice dancing?

Mike, me and you are both in the second half of our life span, and by now our skill sets are probably fairly set. Sadly my 10,000 hours of beneficial practice are probably in goofing off, low quality snapshooting and playing board and video games. And at 70 years of age my point of view on gaming won't be relevant to most gamers.

But you already have a vast collection of articles, published and in your mind, so why not publish a "Best of MJ" collection? I would buy it, and I am sure many others would too.

Maybe you should be writing non-fiction if that's what you read?

A few years ago, a top script editor commented that aspiring script writers don't read enough scripts. Perhaps this is also a problem?

I also get the sense that you don't really love what you're writing. You've got to have that connection with your project to get you through the moments of doubt.

Apart from that, it's a piece of cake. Ahem.


As a guy who has made a living writing short non-fiction for nearly 5 decades, but who never made a dime writing fiction, your post struck several chords.

In the 1990s, I wrote a direct mail package for a course being offered by Sol Stein, former editor of Jack Higgins and many others. He made the point that the very best thrillers are character-based. Basically, the author makes you care about the protagonist and then put them in peril. As a result, you -- the reader -- want to read on to find out how they escape the trouble. John Buchan's "The 39 Steps" is perhaps the first example of this and remains a classic to this day.

The plot ought to walk right along the edge of "it could be true." Frederick Forsythe's "The Odessa File" is a classic example of that. In fact, to this day I wonder if it wasn't a true story, thinly disguised as fiction.

Finally, I think the fact that you, by your admission, vastly prefer non-fiction really is a problem. I could be wrong, but I think you have to love thrillers to want to write the next one. I'm sure your mentor has lots of good advice.

In the meantime, perhaps a way to prime the pump would be to look at where you are in the plot and then ask yourself: "What would happen if . . . "

Cheers, Jock

I've preferred fantasy to reality since I was a wee tyke and have never understood why the "truth" was better than fiction.

however it appears that you do.

so why not write your thriller as reportage or nonfiction.

you have read historians (especially) that imbue what could be a scratchy, dry recounting of facts with drama and suspense.

think of it this way. tom Clancy's first novels were inhabited by cardboard mockups of human beings drowning in data. he eventually got it.

or tell your novel you need some space and you'll get back to it when the passion returns.

I think it was Frederick Forsyth (Day of the Jackal and many others) who said that writing a good novel is about blending the truth with fiction so that the reader can't see the join. His example opening line was something like:

"As Big Ben struck 12 to ring in the New Year a shadowy figure walked across the station platform".

So you mix something that is definitely true (Big Ben ringing in the New Year) with something that is plausibly true (the figure walking across the station platform). And that's how you write a good thriller. And he should know!

I am a big fan of Wright Morris who as you know was a terrific photographer, essayist and novelist. You may find a couple of his books helpful. One of the photo texts along with a novel may help jump start your creative engine.
I recommend The Home Place for a photo text and Love Among the Cannibals or Plains song for a novel.
Feeling blocked or stumped is a natural part of any creative process. Being discouraged is also part of the deal. Sailors who have never weathered a storm don't appreciate smooth water.
For what it's worth a couple of quotes about fiction writing that as a reader, not a writer, I find interesting are from Philip Roth who said "don't write, remember" and Nabakov who said a novelist needs to be an enchanter. He also said a well read person is someone who really knows twelve books.
I kind of understand where you are at right now. My problem is that I have bouts of depression so I am never sure if I am having some kind of creative crisis or the black dog has come to visit again. In any case good luck and all the best in this.

I’m in the same place you are. I’m walking away from a couple of things that I pursued with persistence for decades. Photography is one. After owning dozens of cameras and lenses and taking thousands of photos I think I’m done. No more hopes of doing the OCOLOY exercise to become a better photographer. It’s not in me anymore. Havent’ touched my camera in two months now, going on three.

The other is writing fiction. That’s the tough one becuase I’ve always thought of myself as a writer and I like fiction so I’ve tried to write something for most of my adult life. When I’m not writing I’m thinking about writing. I read all the time with writing in mind. But I’ve produced nothing but scraps of things precious only to me.

It surprised me to read your post. I’m curretly rereading Herriot. Maybe I should focus on little pieces about my life, I thought. But I’ve been in a cubicle most of my life and it’s tough to find anything there.

We’re about the same age. What you have written here is so much like my own thinking right now. I’m sort of in morning, realizing I hitched my wagon to the wrong star.

I haven’t yet left these things behind completely, but I’m close. If I only knew what to do next.

I don't know anything about writing novels, but I do know that the low point in any long term project tends to come somewhere in the middle, when you wonder why on earth you got into this and if it can ever end. At those times it is usually best just to keep on doing the 'work' without demanding that it be accompanied by inspiration every day. When it is finally done, you will know if you want to do it again, and if so how to make improvements.

One thing to keep in mind – you certainly are a writer and a good one! You do that every day after all. So whatever your first long form publication is: novel, family history, photography, I (and many others) will buy a copy. Guaranteed!

Mike, Your realisation that thrillers are not you is a positive thing. Sticking to what you are actually good at will save a lot of time and frustration. I'm sure the personal book you're working on will be excellent and, branching out, how about trying fact-based entertaining books a la Bill Bryson? The glass museum you occasionally mention or your Amish neighbours might be possible subjects. Some aspect of photographic history...


What about penning short stories? Certainly the form has its own "rules"different from the novel, but it could take only days or weeks to complete each one rather than months/years. Reading up on example works would also take much less time than boning up on thrillers.

Your obvious talents in writing blog-length essays might serve you well in working in the condensed format.

Just a thought....

Cheers, Dick

P.S.: if it's any help with your depression Mike, we are all rooting very hard for you. You mean a lot to us.

The bad news, of course, is that few novelists can publish their first effort, so what you're probably writing is your practice book, or your learning book, where you learn how to do it. I was a longtime thriller reader when I first started trying to write them, and I wrote three before I sold one.

I was a journalist before I started writing thrillers (that's very common among thriller writers) but when I switched forms, I had to *learn* how to write novels. Because it was a struggle, that used up a large amount of time and energy and damaged my first marriage, I convinced myself that anyone who was a fluent writer could learn how to do it. I still think that's true, but I also think that a long course of thriller *reading* is important -- it's where you internalize the more subtle aspects of the genre. (A tiny example -- a good guy never sneers. And you have to know stuff like that.)

Honestly, the thing about you (Mike) that's always sort of baffled me is that you're probably one of the best-known and respected writers on photography in the country and maybe the world, you have read widely in the photographic literature, and apparently extensively in general non-fiction, and yet you refuse to write a non-fiction book on photography.

For me, that's a serious head-scratcher. While there are quite a few excellent books *of* photographs, there are damn few well-written and insightful books *on* photography. (I can only think of one, and it's neither Sontag nor Barthes, both of whom write like bricklayers.) You could do that. You're a terrific writer, and you have things to say. So why don't you quit f***in' around with something you don't like and write something you do?

I wonder if the 10,000 hours rule would apply to your endeavor: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/peak/

I would say the rule of 10,000 hours applies. You are not a master at any particular pursuit until you have accumulated at least 10,000 hours directly related to that pursuit.

If put in terms of full-time work, that's 5 years of 40-hour work weeks.

I've found myself impatient to master new things, because I figure that I'm somehow smart enough to just make a go of it without putting in all the homework. It just doesn't work. There really are no shortcuts to the 10,000 rule.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy -- you make future decisions based on the amount of emotional investment already made, and it becomes difficult to know when to cut your losses and move on.

Mike, this blog is the long form of writing that you’re good at. How many words do write a week, a year? And they’re all worth reading. TOP is a huge undertaking which you add to almost every day. Don’t fret about writing novels, this is where your talent lies.

It wasn't Strom Thurmond who made that statement, it was George Aiken, Senator from Vermont. He said, "declare victory and get out."

Please persist. You’ll find it. It sounds like you’re ready to follow your heart and leave the things you should write for another day. I found the quote below that seems to apply.

“…When a writer leaves monuments on the different steps of his life, it is chiefly important that he should have an innate foundation and good will; that he should, at each step, have seen and felt clearly, and that, without any secondary aims, he should have said distinctly and truly what has passed in his mind. Then will his writings, if they were right at the step where they originated, remain always right, however the writer may develop or alter himself in the after times.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Writing crime novels is simple* so long as you remember “... if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” ;-)

As others have said, there is a lot of realism in crime/thriller novels other than in the plot and in the ones I like (Hammett, Chandler, Leonard) a lot of humour.

*The Simple Art of Murder”, Raymond Chandler.

Your posts about getting to work writing a book got me to dust off some files from 15 years ago and put together a book I've been wanting to do but put aside while I did a bunch of technical books. Now we're editing the files to get ready to publish.
My original intent was to post a comment to encourage you, but as I write this I'm thinking that my book, a tongue-in-cheek book on stupid management I've seen in companies, has a chapter that basically says "when you reach the point that failure is clear, stop putting resources into it and more on."
Are you there yet?

To Bill Mitchel,
Your idea was done in 1969, Naked Came The Stranger, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naked_Came_the_Stranger

Stephen King has a book on writing.
It is half autobiography and half very good advise on writing.

One of the benefits of trying your hand at something Sisyphean is that you won't feel bad when you fail. It practically ensures failure - and maybe that was the attraction in the first place.

On the other hand, it's important to stretch. How far and for how long is a serious question. But if you are anywhere close to a first draft, consider finishing it. You won't be the first person - or the last - to write a bad thriller. What did you expect on your first outing?

If the point of this exercise was to move from the short blog form to something longer, that would also be a good reason to finish. And then afterward learn from what works and what doesn't.

It's sometimes very difficult to tell when you are out of your comfort zone and when you are wasting your time. If you have other work to do in the span of time that would otherwise be spent on the thriller, then maybe you should move on. But if you are going to use the new free time to consider what to do next, then maybe you should just work through the discomfort.

If at first you don't succeed...forget it*.

* Disclaimers
If you're over 55 years old, don't have time or true ability to master some formidable new line of expertise, or just don't see any real reward for success. "Try, try again" is for children ... or old fools who've never heard that a definition of insanity is to expect new results from the same circumstances.

'...Michael had a strong background in science. And he had a keen eye, or nose, for cutting-edge areas of science—and, later, sociology—that could be used as material for thrillers while cleverly popularizing the hard stuff for the general public. You got a lesson while you were being scared.

'What Michael wasn’t was a very good writer....'

Isaac Asimov was all of these, and more. Try some of his short stories. I especially recommend 'The Last Question' and 'Jokester'. I've always felt that anyone who doesn't read science fiction is missing out on a lot. BTW, 'To Build a Fire' is one of my favorite Jack London stories...

Please do persist in your fiction writing. Maybe your project is not a thriller. You are obviously a writer, so you know well about the tribulations of the work. We know the long forms are different, but not different enough that the project should be abandoned because you can’t (at present) see your way through the middle. You’re a story teller, and I think that’s the most important quality for a writer of fiction. You say you have a problem with making stuff up, that the truth must be told. We write and read fiction because it tells us a truth that can’t be told by journalism, a truth about the interior states of people and the motivations for relationships between people and their environments. Maybe what you’re writing is a “drawer novel,” but as has been said many times, writing is rewriting. You have to get to the end of the first draft to find out where the work needs adjustment. Abandonment doesn't add to your knowledge. Perseverance furthers.

Mike, (definitely not trying to be mean) Why do you want to write a novel, if you don’t particularly like reading them?0

Combine your interests. Write a thriller as if it was nonfiction.

As a photographer, I enjoy reading writing advice blogs - particularly Chuck Wendig’s blog. Even if not directly applicable to the work I do, there's something about the cross pollination of ideas that I find motivating and inspiring. Full disclosure- my sister is his agent/editor and Chuck occasionally uses some mild profanity to make his points. Three essays by Chuck “Write Unafraid Without Fear of Failure” “Digging Ditches or Casting Spells… “Go Big, Go Weird, Go You…” I also have gotten a lot from an article in The Guardian, George Saunders: what writers really do when they write.

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