Writing Tips — Put Your Butt in the Chair

Paul Levine author of the Jake Lassiter series

Novelist Paul Levine has some writing tips. Why is “write what you know” bad advice? What does Stephen King say about rewriting? How does Paul find so much humor in court? And why does he pay homage to John D. MacDonald?

Q: Paul, you frequently speak to aspiring authors. Any writing tips you want to share?

A: Read! If you’re still in school, study history and literature and the social sciences. Everyone should read newspaper every day. Not just blogs and social media. And read both fiction and non-fiction.

Q: And when you’re ready to write?

A: Put your butt in the chair and keep it there. Write! Don’t dream about writing. Don’t talk about writing. Just write.

Q: Do you do a lot of re-writing or are you a first draft kind of guy?

A: Someone said all writing is rewriting. I do at least a dozen drafts. Sometimes way more.

Q: Do you recommend any books with writing tips?

stephen king writing tips
Writing Tips: Read Stephen King’s “On Writing”

A: Stephen King’s “On Writing.” King says your first draft is where you tell yourself the story. Then, when you rewrite, you take out all the junk that doesn’t belong in the story. Good advice.

Q: You write legal thrillers, but your lawyer-protagonists, Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord in one series, Jake Lassiter in another, don’t spend that much time in court. Why is that?

A: Where would you rather be, in a stuffy courtroom, or on a beach in Key West?

Q: Which brings us to “The Deep Blue Alibi.” In the opening scene, a yacht crashes onto a beach, one man has a spear in his chest, the other is a shady real estate developer. Solomon and Lord have a tough murder trial to defend, but they seem to argue as much with each other as with the prosecutor.

A: I used to be a trial lawyer. My wife, Marcia Silvers, is a criminal defense lawyer, and we frequently banter about cases. Hopefully, the scenes I write are as funny as the ones I live.

Q: Is it true that you based “Bum Rap,” your most recent novel, on a criminal case your wife handled?

A: Yes, the Miami Beach bar girls trial. Marcia keeps asking for royalties.

Q: So Solomon and Lord are Paul and Marcia, not Tracy and Hepburn?

A: It’s a classic genre. Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew.” Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate.” Hammett’s “The Thin Man.” TV’s “Moonlighting.” Two people love each other, but they also love to argue.

Q: Harlan Coben described your books as: “Carl Hiaasen meets John Grisham in the court of last retort.” Fair assessment?

A: I’ve long said Harlan is a genius. Yes, I bring humor to the legal system because I see so much that’s absolutely nutty there.

writing tips homage
Writing Tips: Author Pays Homage to John D. MacDonald

Q: In “The Deep Blue Alibi,” there’s a chapter at a Florida nudist resort. Is it fair to ask how you researched the scene?

A: Like Tom Cruise, I do my own stunts.

Q: Is the title of the book an homage John D. MacDonald’s “The Deep Blue Good-By?”

A: “Homage?” That’s French for “cheese”, isn’t it?

Q: Now, you’re being facetious.

A: That’s what they pay me for. “The Deep Blue Good-By” was the first of MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. His writing deeply influenced me. You want more writing tips for thrillers? Read JDM’s “The End of the Night.”

Q: You and MacDonald are both Florida writers. Did you ever meet?

A: He passed away four years before my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,” was published in 1990. But one of my first fan letters was from Maynard MacDonald, John’s son.

jdm writing tips
Writing Tips: Read John D. MacDonald

Q: Why do the judges in your books all seem a little wacky and the lawyers crooked, or at least somewhat flexible in their ethics?

A: Even though the “Jake Lassiter” series and “Solomon vs. Lord” series are fiction, real events and real people inspire the work. I practiced law in front of curmudgeonly judges, and I knew lawyers who could shake your hand and pick your pocket at the same time.

Q: You wrote 20 episodes of the CBS show “JAG.” and co-created the Supreme Court show “First Monday.” Any writing tips when working for television or features?

A: The great difficulty in writing for network television is the time constraint. Forty-three minutes to tell a main story and a B-story. You have to “write tight” and use the visual aspect of the medium.

Q: Any writing tips for those who want to break into Hollywood?

A: Marry a blood relative of Les Moonves or J.J. Abrams.

Q: Lacking that, when aspiring screenwriters sit down at the computer, what should they be writing?

A: Ransom notes, maybe. Look, it’s really hard to break into the business. Some people suggest writing a spec script. Be advised, though, how difficult it is to sell a script. Long ago, Elmore Leonard said, “Writing a script and sending it to Hollywood is like drawing a picture of a car and sending it to Detroit.”

Q: Any final writing tips?

A: Some people say to “write what you know.” But what you know is probably boring. You can always research something new. You can always travel to a new place. My advice is to “write what you love.” Because if you don’t love it, no one else will.

Carl Hiaasen Tricked Me Into a New Career

Carl Hiaasen novel

By Paul Levine

I blame Carl Hiaasen.

Let me explain.

It was 1986. I was a partner in the Miami office of a mammoth law firm with offices from Philadelphia to Tokyo. I specialized in “complex civil litigation.” Upside: Financial security. Downside: Boring work.

Even worse than the daily tedium, I’d abandoned my true self. Exhibit A: In college during Vietnam, I protested against Dow Chemical, manufacturer of napalm. Now, the law firm put me in charge of all asbestos cases. Defending the manufacturer, a company with a nasty habit of hiding evidence.

I was a wreck, filled with self-loathing. Then I read Hiaasen’s “Tourist Season.” In his first solo novel, Hiaasen told a hilarious story with powerful underlying themes about greed, the environment, and the destruction of Florida.

Carl Hiaasen and Tourist Season
“Tourist Season” by Carl Hiaasen Changed My Life

I knew Hiaasen’s work from his Miami Herald column where he roasted public officials for their idiotic behavior. And now this! A satiric, darkly comedic novel in which a deranged newspaper columnist kills tourists in bizarre ways in order to stem runaway population growth and the and condo-ization of Florida. (Actually, I doubt that Hiaasen considered the columnist deranged. Heroic, maybe.)

I loved “Tourist Season” and decided I wanted to write novels. What gave me the confidence to even try?

Because Carl Hiaasen made it look so damn easy!

The pages flowed as naturally as a mountain stream over polished rocks. You never saw the puppeteer’s wires maneuvering the characters. You never heard the writer’s keyboard clacking behind the dialogue. I was reminded of Spencer Tracy’s line: “Never let them catch you acting.” Carl Hiaasen never let you catch him writing.

So, I said, “I can do that.” After all, I was an expert at complex litigation. How hard could it be to tell a simple story? Obviously, I knew nothing of three-act structure, point-of-view, plotting, plot twists, and dialogue. I’d never taken a writing course or de-constructed a novel to see how the magic came to be.

Thankfully, I had read a bit.

Chandler, Hammett, and MacDonald

Raymond Chandler knocked me sideways with his hard-boiled wordplay. “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”

Dashiell Hammett’s dialogue taught me about sturdy protagonists: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.”

And John D. MacDonald showed that a protagonist can be flawed: “There are no hundred percent heroes.”

Soon, I discovered that Hiaasen had tricked me. It wasn’t easy!

Still, in 1988, two years after reading “Tourist Season,” I sold my first novel, “To Speak for the Dead,” which introduced Jake Lassiter, a linebacker-turned-lawyer with a hard bark and a tender heart. Lassiter owes a debt to Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald…and Hiaasen.

I Quit the Law; Carl Hiaasen is to Blame!

I resigned my law firm partnership. No more long lunches of rare tenderloin and stone crabs at the Banker’s Club. I was a full-time writer. Except for a detour to Hollywood to write for CBS, I’ve made my life as a novelist ever since.

Carl Hiaasen 2015
Paul Levine and Carl Hiaasen, 2015

I’ve lived through the giddy days of sizable hardcover runs and dandy foreign deals, then the consolidation and shrinkage of mainstream publishing. I’ve written books on spec that didn’t sell and suffered the sleepless nights that accompany fear of failure. Then came electronic publishing and the miraculous resurrection of my long out-of-print work, including “To Speak for the Dead.” This month marks the 25th anniversary of the book’s hardcover publication. Amazingly, “…Dead” has been one of the top five bestselling legal thrillers all summer, at one point hitting number two in the Amazon Kindle Store, behind only my latest, “Bum Rap.”

There Should Be a Pulitzer Prize for Titles

I still read Carl Hiaasen. Even his titles make me smile. “Bad Monkey.” “Sick Puppy.” “Strip Tease.” “Skinny Dip.”

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen
“Skinny Dip” by Carl Hiaasen

I continue to hone my craft. I take my time, paring down my chapters, my paragraphs, my sentences, producing a book every two years. That’s right, Carl Hiaasen. I’m still slogging away, working hard to make it look easy. And I don’t miss those Banker’s Club lunches. But just the same, you tricked me…into a career I love.

Paul Levine

“Bum Rap” is available in trade paperback, ebook and audio.

(This originally appeared in “The Third Degree,” a publication of the Mystery Writers of America).

Best Books Ever…My List or Yours?

"Rabbit, Run" tops my best book list

By Paul Levine

A “Best Books” list is inherently flawed.  Just as with “best teams” or “best movies” or “best pizza,” beauty is in the eye of the blogger.

A meme has been spreading through Facebook — as memes are inclined to do — asking people to name the ten best books they’ve ever read.  Or the ten “most influential.”  Or the ten that have “stayed with you.”

Using those standards, two of my choices were easy. Without these books — both Florida novels I’ll discuss below — I never would have become a writer. I wouldn’t have sneaked home from the law office to secretly write a spec manuscript that became “To Speak for the Dead.” That’s right. I’d still be wearing fancy suits, billing time at enormous rates, and eating stone crabs at the Banker’s Club instead of working in my underwear all day at home with a can of tuna for lunch!

Let’s admit it.  Any best books list is intensely personal and changes over time. When I was a teenager, I was mesmerized by “The Fires of Spring,” by James A. Michener, a coming-of-age novel based on the author’s impoverished childhood. I haven’t gone back to the book, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t find a spot on my best books list. And in fact…it hasn’t. Instead, I chose “Back Roads” by Tawni O’Dell, the least known author on my list. It’s a heartrending coming-of-age novel set in the slag heap poverty of rural Pennsylvania.

My Best Books List

To ease the task of compiling my best books list, I chose only fiction. Even then, I could only pare the titles to an even dozen.

1. RABBIT, RUN by John Updike.
2. FAREWELL, MY LOVELY by Raymond Chandler
5. BACK ROADS by Tawni O’Dell
6. MISERY by Stephen King
7. ANATOMY OF A MURDER by Robert Traver (John Voelker)
8. THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck
9. THE LOCK ARTIST by Steve Hamilton
10. GORKY PARK by Martin Cruz Smith
11. TOURIST SEASON by Carl Hiaasen
12. THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY by John D. MacDonald

Breaking Down the Best Books List

I was in my 20’s when I read “Rabbit, Run” about the angst of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who was my age and living not far from my hometown. Updike, Michener, and I were all raised in small Eastern Pennsylvania towns.  (That is the only time you will see us mentioned in the same sentence. Tawni O’Dell and John D. MacDonald were raised in western Pennsylvania, but I swear I have no geographical bias!)

I could just as easily have chosen two later books chronicling the older Angstrom. “Rabbit is Rich,” and “Rabbit at Rest.” After all, both won Pulitzer Prizes, but I’m sticking with the first of the series.

On the theory that every list should include one book of “Required Reading,” there’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”  Why not “To Kill a Mockingbird?”  It was listed by too many Facebook friends! But for fans of courtroom fiction — and yes, I know, “Mockingbird” is far more than that — I have three other choices. “Presumed Innocent” and “Anatomy of a Murder” are splendid murder trial sagas, and “Bonfire of the Vanities” has some of the most spectacular and hilarious courtroom scenes ever written.

Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Voelker brought realism (and skepticism) to the legal thriller in “Anatomy” while Scott Turow’s “Innocent” and Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire” are works by master wordsmiths.  Yes, I’m giving away my biases, as we do when we create lists. I’m a former trial lawyer and the author of legal thrillers, so you have to give me a pass on all the courtroom tales.

My Best Books List Must Include Noir

I’m also an admirer of noir crime fiction, so there had to be a Raymond Chandler novel featuring hard-boiled P.I. Philip Marlowe. That’s where “Farewell, My Lovely” comes in.  I could have chosen “The Big Sleep” or “The Long Goodbye.”  All three are classics.  Who could forget this ditty from “Farewell…?”

“It was a blonde.  A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”

best books, Philip Marlowe
Humphrey Bogart portrayed Philip Marlowe on the screen.

My last two choices, “The Deep Blue Good-By” and “Tourist Season” had profound influence on my life. I never would have written “To Speak for the Dead,” my first novel, without them. John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, a self-described “beach bum” and “salvage consultant,” furnished the inspiration for my “Jake Lassiter” character, an “ex-football player, ex-public defender, ex-a-lot-of-things.” Carl Hiaasen’s ability to bring humor to Florida crime fiction was a revelation. His deceiving ability to make the writing look easy also suckered me into writing that first book.

That’s my list. What’s yours?

Paul Levine

How I Killed The Miami Herald’s Tropic Magazine

The Miami Herald building

By Paul Levine

The official story: there just weren’t enough ads for maternity jeans.

I’m talking about the death of Tropic Magazine, which appeared every Sunday in The Miami Herald from October 1967 to December 1998. The magazine won three Pulitzers, published Dave Barry, John Katzenbach, and Carl Hiaasen, among others, and invented Miami’s strangest event, the “Tropic Hunt.”

The Miami Herald
The Miami Herald’s Tropic Magazine invented the world’s most insane scavenger hunt.

Who Really Killed The Miami Herald’s Tropic Magazine?

I wrote a piece in the September 13, 1998 issue and then the cover article on October 25.  Six weeks later, The Miami Herald killed the magazine.  The word around the newsroom was that Tropic wasn’t making money as a stand-alone magazine.  No kidding.  But it certainly added value with some of the best writing (both journalism and fiction)  in the newspaper over those 31 years.

(Full disclosure: I was a Miami Herald reporter who once worked at Tropic in 1970, shortly before going to law school).

For the last 15 years, I’ve been happy to let The Miami Herald take the rap for terminating that wonderful little magazine. But my guilty conscience compels me to cop a plea.  Or at least raise the question: did my two articles lead to Tropic’s surprising demise?

The cover story on September 13, 1998 was titled “On Being Beautiful,”  a series of essays commissioned by Editor Tom Shroder on physical beauty.  A 24-year-old woman wrote the lead article entitled “Don’t Hate Me For Being Beautiful.”  A young male model wrote a piece about putting on unwanted weight when working in Paris.  “What is happening?” his agent  asked.  “You look like a giant croissant.”

Oh, the humanity!

I wrote “In Defense of Wrinkles.”  Yep.  And this was more than 15 years ago!  Miami Herald photographer Charlie Trainor, Jr. took a photo about three inches from my face and then had some fun with it.

Miami Herald Tropic
No plastic surgery for me. I earned my wrinkles.

The Miami Herald: A Plastic Surgeon Ruins My Day

Here’s my little piece, which ran adjacent to an ad for $16.99 maternity jeans:

Just when I was getting used to my looks, when life had bestowed the dubious blessing of crinkly eyes and a furrowed brow, when it might be said that my face had acquired character, a plastic surgeon suggested he could take 10 years off my appearance by drilling holes in my head, slicing some muscles, yanking up my forehead, and fastening it to my skull with metal pins.

I received this heartening offer while standing in the gym near the bench press, having lifted a respectable amount of iron for a lanky fellow whose work requires mere mental gymnastics while seated in a cushioned chair.

“Look at that vertical crevice between your eyes,” the sawbones said with the same awe Spanish conquistadors must have expressed upon seeing the Grand Canyon.

“I know,” I replied. “It looks as if Lizzie Borden hit me with an ax.”

“We can get rid of it,” he promised. “And while we’re at it, we’ll take out some muscles to keep you from frowning or raising your eyebrows.”

“I need to raise my eyebrows to express irony,” I said, raising my eyebrows.

“Wrinkles!” he shouted. “It causes wrinkles.”

Smoothing out my forehead and plucking the fat from beneath my eyes, he promised, would leave me with a youthful demeanor reminiscent of my bar mitzvah photos.

“If you don’t do it,” Doc Hollywood warned me in solemn tones, “with gravity and aging, your forehead will slide even lower and eventually cut down your vision.”

“OK, so I’ll give up my dream of landing an F-14 on the deck of a carrier.”

But his words cut even deeper than his scalpel. I pictured myself as a beady-eyed Chinese Shar-pei, peering out from under a corrugated brow. Rushing to the mirror, I saw that he was right. Just when had my forehead slipped south? Most men aren’t aware of such subtle changes. As a man ages, I once read, his genitalia shrinks. Now, that we would notice.

“If you’re afraid of the surgery,” the surgeon continued, “I could simply inject Botox into your forehead. It’s derived from botulism and will paralyze the muscles and smooth out the wrinkles.”

“So would a ball peen hammer,” I replied.

I sometimes think that every crease and crevice can be attached to a specific trauma, so now I chart my face as a botanist might the rings of a giant Redwood. Aha, there’s the year of my career change, my divorce, my father’s death.

My past is littered with youthful humiliations, including being dateless for the junior prom. Adolescence began with huge black eyeglasses and a four-inch-high dirty blond flat-top that resembled an Iowa wheat field.

I did, however, have a sparkling personality and a deadly wit that I mistakenly believed could convince a girl — once sprawled across the front seat of my ’56 Ford at the drive-in theater — to shed her blouse. This strategy failed, notwithstanding soaking my turquoise vinyl upholstery with English Leather, which I understood to be a powerful aphrodisiac.

Later, with anti-war rebellion in the late ’60s, I let my hair grow long and bushy until it must have appeared that a muskrat was sleeping on my head. But now, three decades later, with a decent haircut and having grown accustomed to my face, I do not want to be reminded that the downhill slide may be even more painful than my awkward adolescence.

Aging means more than sagging jowls and a wrinkled brow, of course. In the past three years, I have had knee surgery, two hernia operations, and my first colonoscopy . . . clean as a whistle, thank you very much. I have bone spurs in both thumbs; I have trouble with the small-print on menus in darkened restaurants; and I get whipped in wind sprints by my 17-year-old son.

When I turned 50 earlier this year, I began receiving mail from the American Association of Retired Persons and a men’s health magazine that promises sturdy erections into my 90s if I would only buy a variety of food supplements favored by ancient Indian tribes from Peru.

I Am the Sum of My Aging Parts

Oh, Botox, schmotox! No plastic surgery. I don’t want an eye job, a chin implant, or penile enlargement. Keep your liposuction, collagen injections, and endoscopic forehead lifts. I know men are doing these things, but it’s all too trendy for me, a guy as up-to-date as a Ban-Lon shirt. I don’t carry a pager or a purse or wear suspenders, cuff links, or even a watch.

I don’t have an earring or a tattoo, and I don’t smoke cigars or wax melodic over the smoky essence of single-malt Scotch. I’m not in touch with either my feminine side or my inner child. I’m not a man of the ’90s, much less the millennium. OK, OK, I’m a throwback. So sue me . . . but don’t slice me.

It’s not that I am unconcerned about my appearance. I will swim my laps and hoist my weights in vain efforts to stave off gravity and the passage of time. I will eat low-fat foods with an occasional timeout for an oversize steak at Morton’s. I will drink gallons of water, hide from the sun, and imbibe martinis only in moderation. I will be the sum of my aging parts, and the wrinkles will bother me not a whit. After all, I earned them.

Paul Levine
Formerly of The Miami Herald

(Much has been written about the agonizing death of newspapers. Locally, the Miami News died in 1988, Tropic in 1998. The Miami Herald building, pictured above, is being demolished, and the newspaper now resides in the Everglades. Well, actually the burg of Doral, FL. Nonetheless, the newspaper’s staff, stretched thin, continues to l produce excellent journalism. I still read the newspaper and always will).