By Allison Leotta
Author of Discretion
George Pelecanos is an author at the top of his game. When he’s not writing bestselling crime novels, he’s creating some of America’s finest TV dramas: shows like The Wire and Treme. Stephen King called him “perhaps America’s greatest living crime writer”; Esquire anointed him “the poet laureate of D.C. crime fiction”; Dennis Lehane said, “The guy’s a national treasure.” So how can a new writer capture a little bit of that magic?
George’s answer surprised me. I recently sat down with him for lunch, and that question was at the top of my mind. My debut novel Law of Attraction generated positive reviews and some nice buzz–but no one’s calling me “a national treasure.” I’ve read George’s earliest books, written before he was nationally treasured himself. They showcase considerable raw talent, but they’re unrefined and inconsistent. Like the evolution of mobile technology, George’s writing has developed from an interesting conversation piece to a body of work so smart and sophisticated, it makes you shake your head with wonder. I wanted to know: how do I make that happen to my own writing?
None of the above, George answered. To be a good writer, be a good person. That’s not exactly what he said–more on the specifics below–but that’s what it boiled down to.
It wasn’t the advice I expected from this author. If you’ve read his novels, you know George Pelecanos creates worlds that are dark, testosterone charged, and dangerous. King Suckerman opens with a disgruntled employee using a shotgun to blow a hole through his boss. In The Sweet Forever, one man proves his love for another by brutally murdering a rival. Drama City features a female probation officer who’s straight-laced by day and driven to risky one-night stands by night. George’s novels are full of violence and retribution, the grimmest side of humanity, and plenty of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.
But his advice on how to create these worlds is akin to what a thoughtful father might advise his daughter on the larger question of how to live her life. The melding of these dark worlds with more wholesome introspection may be what makes his novels so finely textured and morally complex.
Here is George Pelecanos’ advice for becoming a great writer:
1. Be friendly. Talk to people. Get to know them, where they’re coming from, and what makes them tick. Then use what you’ve learned to create your characters and make them real.
2. Put yourself out of your comfort zone. This is related to #1. Talk to folks you wouldn’t normally approach, people who might intimidate you. Have the guts to ask questions. You’ll widen your horizons, and may be surprised by what you learn.
3. Be respectful. People are more likely to open up. And it’s the right thing to do.
4. Listen. Really listen. Don’t just be formulating your next answer for when it’s your turn.
5. Write organically. There are two schools of thought when it comes to how to write a novel: authors who outline and those who write organically. George is in the latter. He suggests knowing your characters inside and out, then putting them in tough situations, and seeing what they do. If you know your characters well enough, George suggests, they’ll do a lot of the heavy lifting themselves.
6. Exercise. You wouldn’t think this relates to writing, but George says his mind is sharper if he writes in the morning, then exercises in the afternoon. He bikes, kayaks, and plays basketball with his kids. Turns out, his method is backed by scientific research, which says that people who exercise regularly have sharper minds.
7. Know your city. Not just the parts you’d see on a bus tour. Go behind the scenes. Touch the pavement and see the streets you’re writing about. George does, and the results show in his books, which are so geographically authentic that future historians might use them to map out what D.C. looked like today.
8. Be brave, you’ll be fine. This is a corollary to #7. When researching his novels, George bikes through some of the roughest neighborhoods of D.C., places that, as a former prosecutor, I only went to with armed police officers. When I fretted about this, he shrugged it off. No one’s ever messed with him. Maybe that relates to No. 3.
9. Get involved in your community. George sends his books to local prisons, then goes there and talks to the inmates about them. Not only does this help steer troubled young men into better decision-making, he gets great material to work into later books.
10. Help others and be generous. Actually, George didn’t say this, but it was the very reason I got to have lunch with him in the first place. He’s well known for supporting up-and-coming novelists. Every D.C. writer I meet talks about the lunch they had with Pelecanos and the assistance he gave them. I don’t know if this actually helps with his writing, but it has certainly enriched the community of writers around him. (He also picked up the check, and left a huge tip. Good karma can’t hurt, either.)
George Pelecanos’s latest novel What It Was came out this month. The New York Times called it “a sleek, fast-paced crime tale.”
Allison Leotta is a former federal sex-crimes prosecutor and the author of the legal thrillers Law of Attraction and Discretion. Her blog The Prime-Time Crime Review was named one of America’s best legal blogs by the ABA.
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