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Book Review

Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing
By David Morrell

Reviewed By Peggy Kurilla

© 2002, Peggy Kurilla

David Morrell has written more than 20 books during his writing career—19 of them suspense fiction.  One of his books, First Blood, became the first of three movies starring Sylvester Stallone as Rambo.  Another novel, The Brotherhood of the Rose, was made into a TV movie starring Robert Mitchum.

Morrell’s most recent work is a guide for writers, appropriately titled Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing (Writer’s Digest Books, 2002, ISBN 1-58297-143-9).  In 236 pages, he reveals much about how he works and why he works the way he does.

For instance, unlike many writers, he does not use an outline.  Instead, he has conversations with himself on paper about the book.  He likes these conversations on paper for several reasons.  First, they’re much less dull than a typical outline or scene listing.  Second, they’re to writers what finger exercises are to piano players—a way to keep the muscles loose and limber.  Third, they help him keep the excitement over the initial idea fresh.  He says he can reread his early conversations and recapture the initial spark that drew him to the story in the first place.  And finally, these conversations are a great antidote to writer’s block.  Whenever he feels stuck on something, he has a conversation with himself about why it’s not working.

In his chapter on plot, Morrell reduces all the plots to one.  Just one.  It is this: a person (group or entity) wants something.  Another person (group or entity) “throws up every barrier imaginable” to prevent the goal from being achieved.  Morrell should know—he was a literature professor until the demands of both that and full-time writing forced him to stop teaching.

Besides an in-depth look at structure and character, Morrell also dives into point of view (POV) more thoroughly than most writers do.  He even devotes an entire chapter to a dissection of the first person POV and why it’s not always good—and frequently can be truly horrible.  To prove his point, he quotes several long paragraphs from one of his first-person novels.  He sums up his reaction to them by saying, “The best thing I can say about these paragraphs is that only three sentences begin with ‘I.’  Some of you might say, ‘I don’t get it.  What’s wrong with them?’  If so, I recommend that you stay away from the first person.  What’s wrong is that nothing is happening here.”

For those of us who still enjoy dabbling with the first person, he does quote the finished version of the same scene a couple of pages later and provides some suggestions for using first person to its best advantage.

Additionally, Morrell discusses the business of writing, drawing heavily on his own experiences—including a truly bizarre tale of a book signing gone…er…puffy.  His publisher had provided the bookstore with funds to buy sodas and pizzas to have at the signing, but the bookstore manager got more creative than that.  He hired a folk singer cousin to perform “Puff, the Magic Dragon” during the signing—and neglected to tell said cousin about the signing.  Just reading Morrell’s account of this was enough to make me vow never, ever, to do a signing when the bookstore manager is given a discretionary budget. Anecdotes such as this are the strength of his discussion on “Getting Published and the Business of Writing.”  The weakness is that the rest of the chapter consists of general information and referrals to other books, some published by Writer’s Digest Books, for more detailed information.

Perhaps the most valuable section of Lessons is the penultimate section, “Rambo and the Movies.”  Who knew that when Hollywood buys the movie rights to your novel, they also want the print rights?  I sure didn’t—and now I know that if I keep those print rights, there won’t be any cheap “novelizations” of my work.  They’ll have to come to me for any book adaptations of sequels.  But besides that little gem, Morrell discusses every aspect of the movies that he’s been involved with—including spending a morning in a producer’s office just observing what really goes on behind closed doors in Hollywood.

Unfortunately, Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing is, as of this writing, only available in hardcover at US$22.99.  This may price it out of reach of some readers who could benefit from the information in it. 

If this book whets your appetite for reading some of David Morrell’s fiction, I recommend you start with The Brotherhood of the Rose and its sequels, The Fraternity of the Stone and The League of Night and Fog.  They are not a trilogy in the conventional sense, but they do all tie together in a coherent whole.