As an avid, lifetime reader of Wall Street Journal, I pay attention when they do a front page article about an author named Russell Blake. Especially when the article states that he writes 7-10,000 words a day and that he works 12-15 hour days.
I can’t even stay awake that long.
The first question I had was: Hemingway or pulp fiction*? So I picked up his book JET. Within a few pages I agreed with Mr. Blake’s self-assessment, “…what I’m writing is not going to be taught in high school English class or gazed upon fondly by literature professors. It’s entertainment…” I just finished the book and I was entertained beyond my highest expectations (review is coming). I became a huge fan of his intelligent, succinct, comprehensive characters and story.
I believe you will too.
So I sent him twelve questions. Twenty minutes later, he sent me his answers.
Seeley James: With your prolific 25 books in 30 months, how has your writing changed since you started out?
Russell Blake: I’d say it’s gotten more descriptive over time. If you read my earliest work, you’ll find it’s sparser on atmospheric flourishes, more plot driven. Over time, I’ve gotten comfortable with a more ambitious style that delves deeper into the quirks of the characters, and strives to put the reader more into the scene through effective use of description. What I’ve wound up with is something that’s often referred to as being cinematic – sweeping in scope. So the books are more lushly fleshed out than before, which is not to say they were spare, but rather that I’ve shot for a more literary approach to what is pure action/adventure or thriller genre fiction. Whatever it is, it seems to work. Thank God.
SJ: With so many successful books, do you use story editors or get feedback from close friends/family on your early drafts?
RB: Not really. I have one beta reader who suffers through em after third draft, but the first 18 or so novels, it was just me, and whatever I sent to the editor was more for copy edits than developmental work. I’m usually pretty hard on myself in terms of continuity and ensuring the plots make sense and flow well, so there’s not a lot of tinkering with the story once I’ve written it. Everyone’s got an opinion, and I’ve found that, while there are people whose opinions I trust, generally speaking, I trust my gut the most, so will go with that 99% of the time.
SJ: How do you structure your books before starting?
RB: I’ll write a few paragraphs laying out the broad strokes of the story – what it’s about. Then I’ll write the first fifteen chapter descriptions, which are single sentence blurbs to remind me what’s happening to whom in each chapter. Then I start writing. By the end of chapter fifteen, I have a good idea of where the next fifteen will go, so I then do single sentence descriptions for those. I don’t really do elaborate outlines.
SJ: Do you spend a lot of time conjuring up character motivation or does it flow organically as you write?
RB: Completely organically.
SJ: How do you like to convey a character’s interior thoughts/feelings about a situation?
RB: I try to avoid inner dialogue to the extent possible, and instead offer the reader hints about how the characters are thinking/feeling through whatever’s observable – actions, facial tics, tone, word choice, a pause or hesitation or speaking too fast, that sort of thing. That’s one of the places I think showing versus telling pays off. To me it’s just lazy to inform the reader of a character’s reactions explicitly. Better to give them hints and trust them to figure it out. Although I’m not afraid to chuck that out the window if it’s more satisfying to the story to let the reader know through exposition or inner dialogue. Sometimes it’s more expedient to tell the reader, “fear radiated from him as he ran” than trying to spend half a page letting the reader know the character was terrified. I just don’t prefer that method.
SJ: When you write a new scene in a fresh location, how do you set the stage for the reader?
RB: I’ll generally try to immerse them into the atmosphere with a paragraph or two that puts them there. I’ll focus on all the senses – what the place looks like, smells like, the temp, humidity, sounds, etc. If I’ve done my job right, it should be palpable by the time they’re through with those sentences.
SJ: How do you write dialogue? Does it flow onto the page or do you script goals first?
RB:I don’t script anything. Too structured for my liking. I just write what the characters would say. Dialogue’s fast and easy for me.
SJ: You said, “I strive to balance the sheer, unbridled joy of an over-the-top action romp with a certain literary flair, particularly in the vocabulary and the descriptions.” Could you tell us how and where you draw the line between “purple prose and evocative language”?
RB: That’s one of those, you know it when you see it, things. To me, purple prose is evocative language executed poorly. It’s an attempt to evoke that goes overboard and falls flat, usually because the author is so wrapped up in proving they’re clever or smart that they lose sight of the reader. But it can also be subjective. Look at someone like James Lee Burke. The man’s a master of evocative language, and yet I’ve read reviews that claim he’s purple. Obviously I disagree. But there are a lot of readers out there who are also authors, or budding authors, and they’ll judge work based on some set of rules they believe represent the truth. The problem becomes when those guidelines, or preferences, become dogma. One person’s overwriting or purple prose is another’s satisfying literary experience. Some think adverbs are a sign of lack of craft. Others feel the same way about adjectives. Depending on the author, those are both wrong, or right. Generally speaking, if the prose pulls you out of the story, that would be bad. However, some prose is deliberately written to make you think, and occasionally, to be read more than once, so I don’t hesitate to use long, complex sentences if that’s what the effect I’m going for warrants.
SJ: How much attention do you pay to reviews?
RB: Very little any more. In the beginning they mattered to me a great deal – every one was like a personal slight, and I’d remember one negative one versus twenty positive ones. I think everyone goes through that. But as I collected thousands, a funny thing happened: I realized that no matter how well you do something, there will always be a percentage that think you suck. For myriad reasons, including that they don’t get it, or misunderstood you, or hate your name/gender/race/attitude/whatever, or your approach to writing, or they just woke up on the wrong side of the bed, or they’re frustrated authors looking for a platform to show the world how relevant they are by trashing you. Whatever. Just about every bestseller is going to have 10-20% of their reviews saying the author is a no-talent hack. Goes with the territory. Put simply, one out of every five to ten are going to hate you on sight, often for reasons that make no sense. I’m happy if I have lots of positive reviews, purely because it tells me that most of my readership is enjoying what I do. My counsel is to pay serious attention if you’re being called on editing issues (because they just might be right), but not to get too hung up on the rest. Your sales will tell you whether you’re doing it right or not.
SJ: What are your pet peeves or clichés in thrillers?
RB: Boy. Where do I start? I don’t like when the plot bogs down after the first 15%, which seems to be fairly common. I also kind of hate when characters are two dimensional, or the plot requires smart people to behave stupidly, or out of character. And while it’s impossible not to be somewhat formulaic over the course of dozens of novels, through finding what really works well and sticking to it, when it seems like the author is going through the motions, sort of writing what I think of as a “cartoon” thriller, where the bad guys are REEEEAALLY bad, the good guys are REEEAALLY good, and there’s about as much subtlety as a Nancy Drew novel…well, let’s just ay it loses me as a reader, because the world’s complex, and few things are ever purely black and white. It strikes me as lazy when the author paints a polarized world where everyone is an extreme, and the plot devolves into some kind of sophomoric morality play.
SJ: What part of being an author do you find the most difficult?
RB: Sitting and doing it 12-15 hours a day.
SJ: What book have you read recently that blew you away?
RB: Hmm. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Oh, and Purple Cane Road (James Lee Burke). It’s getting pretty hard to blow me away these days, but both of those did so, for different reasons. Can’t say as I’ve been that impressed with many of the thrillers or mysteries I’ve read recently, which is a little depressing. There are no David Foster Wallace moments from my recent past, unfortunately.
Thank you Mr. Blake!
* Don’t scrunch up your nose at pulp fiction, Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler among other great writers were called pulp in their day.