Block’s Plots

At a book signing, Lawrence Block, the prolific mystery writer, offered a strategy for plotting a novel. “I do my best to get lost.”

Block has written somewhere close to 100 novels, under his own name and ten pseudonyms. Two of his mystery series, that of the recovering alcoholic Matthew Scudder and the “gentleman” thief Bernie Rhodenbarr, are considered genre classics (both have been filmed). Add to this screenplays, a book on writing, a memoir and who knows what else.

I began reading Lawrence Block when I discovered that my first published novel would be a police procedural set in Atlantic City. The police procedural is a mystery subgenre. I was never much of a mystery fan, so I decided to read a few to learn what I could from what, beyond Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, has gone before.

I visited a mystery bookstore in Philadelphia called Whodunit. The proprietor, Art Bourgeau was a mystery writer, mystery book collector and judo black belt. Art also had a shelf of science fiction. I had a few years of aikido and was on my way to a shotokhan karate black belt. We got along.

Art loaded me up with a stack of books, most of them by genre masters that, because I lived in the spaceships-and-robots section of bookstores, I did not know. Among them were Joseph Wambaugh (the cop turned novelist), James Elroy, Ed McBain (whose 87th Precinct series, in my opinion, constitutes the best police procedural ever written), Nero Wolfe, Dorothy L. Sayers, Robert Wright Campbell, P.D. James, Sue Grafton, several others and Lawrence Block’s Eight Million Ways to Die, a Matthew Scudder book.

Among Block’s many superlatives are his outsider heroes. Ever since Sherlock Holmes, the crime solving detective has been typically an outsider, whose personality, inclinations, eccentricities, physical or mental difficulties deny him the busy turmoil of a normal life (or regular employment in law enforcement). As an outsider, he or she is better able to see things that others miss. Also, outsiders tend not to be plugged into a steady job, so they have the time to go down dark alleys, knock on doors and visit suspects in their lair.

Because the fictional Scudder is a recovering alcoholic, he can hang out in bars but not drink. He also inhabits the hidden world of Alcoholics Anonymous, which Block describes with a fascinating mix of compassion and intrigue: we do SO want to find out who some of these people are. (According to a persistent rumor, Scudder’s experiences are somewhat autobiographical: Block has hinted about boozing in his past).

What I found fascinating about this book, and others I read by Block (including the superbly suspenseful short stories in Block’s Hit Man series) was not just Scudder himself, who is everyone’s friend, feels everyone’s pain and, unlike the rest of us, can’t drown his sorrows in drink–but the plotting. Block’s has a way of leading your attention and expectations down a straight forward path until–they go astray, or something comes from an unanticipated corner. The surprise is almost always a thrill.

Plot, of course, is the flow of events in a story, and we all have read stories with wonderful characters in interesting settings, that we put down unfinished because we stop caring what happens. In Block’s stories, you can’t guess the ending because–as he has said–he has no idea where the story is going when he begins to write.

Plenty of writers work from outlines. They sit down and, in one quick burst, go from alpha to omega, and stick to that outline. Others see the end first, and chart events that make the ending meaningful. Both may be tempted to wander away from their planned plot, and sometimes they will give in and see where inspiration leads.

But most stick to their outlines because it makes writing a long project easier. It’s more likely that you’ll finish around the time of your deadline. If some readers claim that you “telegraphed” the ending, that is, set up situations so readers could guess the ending accurately, well, you just hope they like the next one better.

I’ve never been able to stick to an outline, no matter how much I’ve promised myself I will. One reason is that I love the process of discovery that happens when you follow the flow of your writing. Another is that, after a few pages, I notice that what I want to happen in the outline may not be appropriate, or even possible, given what I’ve written before. I spend more time on the book than I planned and, instead of cranking ’em out as Block and so many others have done, I’m grateful if I can finish a novel in a year or so.

Block has said that he not only doesn’t know where a book is going when he begins to write, he deliberately “gets lost” somewhere in the middle: he creates a situation in which he has absolutely no idea what will happen next.

Then he always finds his way back. How he does this is part of the mystery of imaginative labor.  You can be sure that Block won’t telegraph an ending that he himself didn’t know when he began writing.

Block also employs an unusual technique: though he has lived in New York City for many years, he tends to travel when he writes. I can only guess where he goes, though the anonymous roadside motels that the hit man Keller inhabits are rendered with excellent detail.

He insists that his writing must be finished when he returns.

I have tried writing while traveling and it doesn’t work as well as I’d like. For me, traveling is a vacation, a deliberate movement away from home to a place of scenic splendor, great restaurants, excellent museums, theater and concerts, cozy (if a little swanky) hotels. After so much civilized stimulation, picking up that hotel pen and scrawling a few lines is…difficult.

What I admire about Block’s writing, and what I’ve heard about his methods, narrows down to one point: an extraordinary faith in himself as a storyteller that, no matter where he is, or how deep a hole he digs himself into, he has the confidence in his ability to see his work to the end.

Frankly, I could use more of that, because, when I write myself into a hole, I panic. But I’ve learned that the panic leads to one understanding: it doesn’t matter how I pull myself out, only that I know I’ll do it.

Thanks, Mr. Block, for that, and so much more.

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