Dark and, at times, amusing fiction from award-winning author Dave Zeltserman

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches

I'm going to be publishing these lessons learned every Wednesday, and it will be a regurgitation of everything I’ve gone through over the last 16 years since I started taking writing seriously. Maybe new writers will learn from my mistakes and get some inspiration from my successes. Everything is going to be laid out there—warts and all. I’m hoping that this ends up being interactive, with people feeling free to leave comments. Who knows, maybe when I’m done with these notes (and there are going to be at least a years worth), I’ll end up with a book that can be useful to new writers.

Finding my voice.

Right off the bat I’ll admit that I was about as unlikely a person to ever end up a writer as you’re going to find. While I always read a lot, and at different times in my life would be drawn to writing fiction, through school my focus was math and my passion was computer programming. In college I was an engineering student with an Applied Math and Computer Science major, and the path was laid out pretty early for me to go into software development. I loved that life and was damn good at it—leading complex projects very early in my career. So writing always seemed like a lark, something that would never be real. How many software engineers do you find writing crime fiction?

Early on I was a big fan of Ross MacDonald, and my first serious attempt to write a crime story was a really bad imitation of MacDonald. To say it was awful is doing a disservice to the word “awful”. Years later I rewrote this mess of a story as “The Dover Affair”, which was later published on Thrilling Detective, as a challenge to see if I could turn this story into something halfway decent. But at least early on I had what’s probably the most critical skill that a writer needs—honestly being able to evaluate your own work. I knew what I wrote sucked, and I never bothered sending it out.

Everything changed when I discovered Jim Thompson. Reading “Hell of a Woman” was like a religious experience for me. It wasn’t so much trying to copy him as learning from him. It was so unbelievably liberating seeing how rules can be broken if you have the guts to do it. It opened my eyes to what writing could be. And that’s when I started writing my first novel, which was originally titled “In His Shadow” but would be published years later as “Fast Lane”. And that’s when I first felt like I was understanding what I was doing. This was 1991.


John McFetridge said...

Nice post, Dave. I'm looking forward to more lessons learned.

I think finding your voice is really the most important part of writing.

I'd always thought this was an Elmore Leonard quote, but here, interviewing his son Peter about Peter's debut novel, QUIVER, coming out next week Elmore says:

"John D. McDonald said you have to write a million words before you
know what you’re doing, have real control over your sound that you’re
consistent with what you want your prose to sound like."

So, I guess it was John D. I did hear Elmore say once, though, that you can start selling before the million word mark ;)

The whole interview is here:

Dave Zeltserman said...

John, thanks, and congrats on your upcoming book (as well as a certain web-zine story ;)) I'm sure over the years you've collected more than your share of battle scars, and I hope you end up sharing them here!

John McFetridge said...

Thanks, Dave. Yeah, I'm very excited about that web-zine, when is it due, by the way?

Battle scars? Oh a few ;) I've really learned the virtue of hanging in there. Over twenty years ago when I wrote my first novel an agent told me it slipped between the cracks - not literary enough for hardcover and not pulp enough for PBO.

I used up most of my million words trying to figure out how to go in one or the other direction, failing quite a few times in both.

I still don't know which way I went.

Iain Rowan said...

Dave, am looking forward to reading all of these.

It's a great feeling when one particular writer's work hits you like that - I can clearly remember two or three books that made me think man, yes, *this* is what I want to do.

Did you feel that you had to work hard to write inspired-by rather than pastiche-of? I know that it can be tricky sometimes not to let a style you really admire creep in to your own writing - fantastic if it informs it, not so good if it colours it. Did you have to watch yourself, or did the inspiration you took from Thompson just trigger off your own unique style?

Dave Zeltserman said...

Hi Iain, nice to see you here.

I think with my early writing, there was definitely a lot pastiche-of with Ross Macdonald. With In His Shadow, I was studying Jim Thompson to see how he did certain things--structure, transitions, etc., and some of that might've rubbed off with In His Shadow--I know there's one scene from Killer Inside Me that I subconsciously influenced by which a few critics later made note of, but I'd say 90% of that book was finding my voice and inspired-by. When I was later editing the book for Point Blank, I was able to remove the 10% of the Thompson-pastiche that had been in there.

Keith Rawson said...


Do you ever really completely rid yourself of the intial influnence and the real question is do you really want to be rid of it?

Keith Rawson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave Zeltserman said...


That's a tough call. Maybe there are elements of story structure, pacing and characterization that stick with you. And there could be any number of subconscious influences. For myself, it could be all the countless hours wasted watching old movies, Twilight Zones, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Popeye cartoons, etc., as well as all the 1000s of Mad Magazines and comic books, and other pulp, sci-fi, and crime books that I read. It's so hard to tell. But I did feel as if I had fully discovered my voice by the time I was writing my second book. But is it possible my work is a distillation of 1000s of other influences? Maybe.

Keith Rawson said...


How long did it take for you to develop an eye for editing your own work? Did you know what you were writing was crap when you were working on the first draft, or was it upon the 2nd or 3rd reading that you were able to spot your missteps? Also, does rewriting get any easier with time and experience?

Dave Zeltserman said...


For me, stuff reads differently on the screen than on paper, and I have to print it out to get serious editing done. I think like everything else, your editing improves over time, especially if you're dedicated to studying it--such as reading books like John Gardner's "Art of Fiction".

I think I'm pretty fast at recognizing when my writing is working and when it isn't, but I really don't do different drafts as much as constant editing--when I'm writing a book I'm always going back to the past chapter and doing online editing on it before I start writing anything new, and after every 40 pages or so, I print it out and do another round of editing. I doubt this is the most effective way of doing things but it seems to work for me. Outside of my first two books, revisions have tended to be minor and pretty easy for me, and really haven't done much rewriting as constant editing. For most of my books I've written detailed outlines before starting, and I htink that has helped a lot.