Sunday, November 27, 2011

My Lunch With Larry

Every writer needs a mentor. Or at least someone to offer encouraging words during those dark, dismal days of doubt (like when you use too much alliteration and wonder if you'll ever get this writing thing right).

Many writers had an English teacher or creative writing instructor in school who gave them encouragement. I had the good fortune of taking creative writing from Mrs. Marjorie Bruce at good old Taft High. She saw something in me when all I saw was a jock who wanted to play college hoops. She really got me going and believing in myself as a writer, and I kept in touch with her for the rest of her life, until she passed into that great classroom in the sky at the age of 90.

I went to college where they undid some of Mrs. Bruce's good work. There I was told: Writers are born, not made. You can't really learn this stuff. You either have it or you don't. And I certainly didn't have it. I thought writers just sat down and plots and great characters burst out of their fingertips without any effort whatsoever. And I couldn't do that.

So life went on, I did other things, got married, went to law school. But one day I woke up and realized I still wanted to write, that the desire had never gone away. So I set out to try to learn what they said couldn't be learned.

And one of the first people I found who helped me along was Lawrence Block. I read his book, Writing the Novel, and knew at last I had found the encouraging mentor I was looking for. I subscribed to Writer's Digest and read Larry's fiction column every month. I still have big binders on my shelf full of old copies of the magazine, with his columns copiously underlined.

He seemed so able to communicate what it feels like to be a writer, and how a writer thinks. I never read any column of his where I didn't nod my head at least a couple of times, thinking here is a guy who really gets it. And he's generous enough to give it to others.

But it wasn't just his instruction, it was his fiction. The first novel of his I read was Eight Million Ways to Die. It blew me away. I consider it one of the classics of the crime genre. It motivated me. I wanted to be able to write a book someday that packed that kind of punch.  

Years later, when I was offered the fiction column at Writer's Digest, I felt like some junior prophet who was taking over the sacred page from Moses. It was a privilege, and I tried my best every month to give readers what Larry had given me.

So it was great to catch up with Moses a week ago at the annual Men of Mystery gathering. Authors and fans of mystery and suspense fiction were there to have table talks and lunch, with Larry as the keynote speaker. His riffs on how he writes, how he stumbled into series, how he picked up one series after a quarter-of-a-century gap––these once again took us into the mind of a consummate pro.

Lawrence Block has won all the mystery awards, some several times, and has a publishing record that is among the top in the field. And he still takes time to go out and encourage writers and talk to fans.


So who has been your mentor, or encourager? What did that person give to you that you needed to hear?


  1. I can't say I've had a writing mentor in the strictest sense of the word but I've had several encouragers, from grade school & high school teachers who encouraged me to persist, to folks I regularly come in contact with in the writing community.

    Writers are a giving lot and nearly always willing to share of their time and knowledge to help move other writers forward on their career journey.

  2. Mentors:
    Margaret Lawson, English & Theater teacher at Pickerington High School

    John Long, Choir Director at same

    Several of the writers here at TKZ

    First and foremost my wife & kids, then my muses, who are thus perhaps without even realising it.

  3. For me, it was authors Dean Wesley Smith & Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
    In 2003 I attended a two week long master class writing seminar at their home with twelve other very talented writers. It was a writers boot camp on steroids, two of the most intense weeks of learning craft, writing exercises and exposure to the business and working life of writing. It is a time I will cherish forever and one that kick started and focused the burning desire I had to be a writer.
    Dean and Kris continue to give to writers today, in the form of weekend and week long seminars and through their business and craft focused writing blogs -- &
    They are two of the most generous people on the planet, whom I am deeply grateful to have met.
    David DeLee
    Fatal Destiny - a Grace deHaviland novel

  4. Mentors: too many to mention--a bunch of established writers who were my teachers at various writing conferences, and who still stay in touch.

    Mentor/Encourager: no question there. There's this recovering lawyer from California named Bell, to whom I owe a great deal. Maybe someday I'll post a picture on my blog of the two of us at lunch: you with a beard, me with a receding hairline. (Oh, wait. I already have that).

    Thanks for sharing, Jim.

  5. Ah, Doctor, how nice of you to refer to "Buford" as a "beard."

    Thanks for the kind word. I note that it is an equal encouragement when a mentor sees someone he's had the privilege to help a bit, go on to score success, because said author has followed up with hard work and persistence.

    So back atcha.

  6. Jim, what a generous post! FWIW, I'm sure I've learned more by writing about writing than any of y'all ever learned from me.

  7. I was blessed all of my life with encouragement. My mother was the first, who encouraged reading, driving me to the library several times a week when I was four and five years old and first discovered books. Then Sister Theresa Mary, my fifth grade teacher who encouraged my writing ability, and also instilled the "one-third" rule in me: read a book at least a third of the way through before you give up on it. And then there was William D. Plant III, who at 13 told me, "You should write." Ironically, he is one of the absolute best, and has never been published. But he helped to get me there.

    Great story about meeting Lawrence Block, James. Moses, indeed. I'd put him even higher on the ladder, if you know what I mean.

  8. Larry, thanks so much for dropping by Kill Zone. I would venture to guess that every single one of us has read something you wrote about writing or one or more of your novels.

    I'd also advise readers to go to their Kindle or Nook store and delve into the vast treasury of Lawrence Block's backlist.

  9. Joe, ain't it the truth about libraries? I remember as a kid when a local branch of the L.A. system went up in my 'burb. All those books I could check out! About ten years ago the branch underwent massive re-construction. A big crowd was there for the grand re-opening. I rushed in and grabbed the first book I saw and got to the counter so I could be the first person to check out a book from the new building. It just seemed fitting that I should, somehow.

    Some time later Ray Bradbury came to speak at the branch, and I met and chatted with him there. He is a great supporter of libraries, and talks about his similar love of them as a child.

    Libraries still move me whenever I walk into one.

  10. One of my mentors was Lynn Stimer, a writer, editor, and teacher. I began the manuscript for the first novel under my own name during her class at UCLA Extension (before that, I'd written four books under a pseudonym). Lynn gave me constant encouragement during that class and later on, through her writing group.

    Many years earlier, I received encouragement from a professor at Wellesley College--I took a writing class from poet Robert Pinsky, who later became Poet Laureate. His comments gave me the first clue that I could write fiction. Unfortunately, back then I thought fiction writing wasn't a "real" job, so I went into journalism instead.

  11. I don't have a mentor as such but the person who really pushed me to be a write, and who encourages me still is my brother's ex girlfriend. Perhaps they weren't meant to be together but I'm so happy for the friend that my brother brought in to my life! Funny the way things turn out!

  12. No one specific mentor, but people who have pointed me in the right direction, sometimes with a foot in my backside along the way:

    Dottie Francis - In 5th grade we had our choice of a small library and had to read and report on a book at least once a month during the year. Like most, I went for easy books. One day she plunked a copy of "Gone With The Wind" in my hand and said, "no more easy for you."

    The TKZ's own John Gilstrap who told me that most of my first five pages sucked . . .

    A literary agent who runs contests on her blog. The competition is hot and rugged and I've gotten to where I get a shoutout almost every time. No win yet, but I've moved up the ranks.

    My own group of blog mates (we write humor at and a monthly deadline that keeps me coming back for more.

    A group of dedicated friends in a closed group on Facebook who alternately hold hands and kick butts, depending on the need.

    A friend who I've watched self-pub a half dozen books. No literary stardom, but a small dedicated following. She earns a few bucks every month and it makes her really happy.

    And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.


  13. If you scroll half way down this page you'll see my mentor and several others at Mt.Hermon in 2006.
    Scroll to the bottom and there he is again, that James Scott Bell guy and I. :)

    I do believe 4 of us were published after these pics were taken. I've had LOTS of encouragement along the way from many others, but none like Jim. I appreciate the way you didn't make me feel like a major dork as I tried to figure out why I wasn't getting published. And because LB is your mentor, Jim I feel that weird connection. I love the way you guys pay it forward. So what's the best advice you got from Larry that you haven't mentioned?

    I am such a craft junkie. REALLY. Now I'm looking at The Liars Bible by LB. Click. :)

  14. Jillian, that's easy, as my Lawrence Block books are heavily annotated by me. In Spider, Spin Me a Web, on page 9, he says to "sow seeds" from your writer's mind that you have no idea how to connect, and trust that the connection will later be made. It's feeing and creative and makes for many a twist.

  15. OMG--Lawrence Block at the KILL ZONE. Amazing! I'm such a fan of his. Great post, Jim!

    I've been blessed with many mentors along the way, but the one that has stayed forever in my heart is Sharon Sala who took a risk to recommend me to her publisher and her agent after she read my debut book - NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM. We really have some great & generous people in this industry/community of ours. And many can be found on this blog.

    Thanks for the fun post on a long Sunday, Jim. Great picture too.

  16. My Mama,

    I remember her always sticking a book in my face, taking me to the library, subscribing to Reader's Digest (Word Power), and doing crossword puzzles, asking me for this word and that word. The endless Scrabble games.

    She nourished my vocabulary.

    I'll always be grateful for that and wish, above all else, that she was still here to read my novels. She would have loved them.

    And all you folks at TKZ. You constitute such a wonderful sense of community. You may not realize how important you all are as mentors, but if the shoe fits...

    Thanks Everybody.

  17. Paula, parent reading to children is one of the greatest gifts they can give. I hear that all the time, from writers AND people who love to read. Thanks for the good word.

  18. A friend who I've watched self-pub a half dozen books. No literary stardom, but a small dedicated following. She earns a few bucks every month and it makes her really happy.

    Terri, that may be the new paradigm of success in the future.

  19. I have found craft books and blogs to be my best mentors. The writers who offered to do it in the past rarely were able to continue doing it, despite great intentions.

  20. Shawneda, I love my bookshelf dedicated to writing books. I think of it as a neighborhood of mentors, who are there whenever I need them.

  21. I am blessed with many talented author friends who brainstorm and tutor me, but hands down, Heather Graham has been the finest friend and mentor this author has known. I love Heather, dearly.