James Crumley’s Unofficial Rules for Writing

From a post on crimereads.com by Dwyer Murphy headlined “James Crumley’s Unofficial Rules for Writing”:

1. Focus on the language itself.
“If the language isn’t any fun, there’s no sense in writing the book. Stories come and stories go, but good language lasts forever.”

2. Aim for something that’s better than sex and drugs.
“Someone once told me that you know it’s good if it raises hackles on the back of your neck. If it doesn’t do that, I don’t keep it. No matter how funny or smart or incisive the descriptions and the dialogue. But when it works, it’s better than sex, it’s better than—well, it’s better than everything. That’s why people write, because it’s the best goddamn drug there is.”

3. Quit for the day just before you go crazy.
“There’s nothing going on—there’s no temptations; there’s just you and the paper or you and the computer screen, or whatever it is you write with…I try not to write too long at a setting because I get crazy. If I can get four or five hours a night in, that’s good.”

4. You might not like your own writing for a decade or so.
“To tell you the truth, when I sent [The Final Country] off I didn’t much like it, but I never much like anything I write. Ten or 15 years from now if I’m still alive I’ll read it again.”

5. Always tell strangers you sued the telephone company.
“For years I wouldn’t tell anyone in a bar that I was a writer. I would tell them that the telephone company had run over my foot and I had gotten a big settlement and I was living off that. It was a wonderful way to begin a conversation because everyone has had trouble with the telephone company in one way or another and they’re always happy to see someone who’s engaged them and won. So they start that and you get the stories without them having to turn to you and say ‘you’re a writer, huh, boy you could make a novel out of my life,’ which is the worst way to get a story.”

6. You don’t need to know what your books are about.
“I never know what books are about until I get there. It’s not like I know what’s going on. I always thought my life would be different if I knew what was going on.”

7. Before turning the page, check in with your moral compass.
“You can tell when a book’s not working. It doesn’t seem right to go on.”

8. Give every line a Chandler-tight grip.
“I always introduce my work by explaining that I am a bastard child of Raymond Chandler…—Line by line by line, image by image, he always has hold of the reader.

9. Know your characters better than you know your spouse.
“[I]f you write seriously, and you take it seriously, and even if you fail, you will walk differently the rest of your life. And if you have any luck you will know those people in your head better than you know your mother and father, your sister, children, wife. Those people live in your head.”

10. You have one hundred pages to decide who’s narrating the thing
“I write a hundred pages without really knowing whose novel it’s going to be. I let the material tell me which detective to use.”



  1. Doris Geenen Graf says

    My brother, Dave, would have enjoyed reading this author’s work. Wish I could ask him if he was a fan.

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