Playing for the Cheap Seats
Updated: Feb 21
Written by Elias McClellan
This guest post by Elias McClellan is something I see a lot of debate about among writers. I agree with Elias. For me, it's about writing what makes you happy, complete, and fulfilled.
In 1968, the world lost a six-string genius named Wes Montgomery. Even if you don’t know Jazz—or his masterpiece, Bumpin’ on Sunset—you know Wes’ music from easy-listening radio. A consummate artist and seminal Jazzman, Wes blazed a path through the post-Bebop landscape.
Yet even if you know the music, you may not know Wes Montgomery. He hit his stride as the Jazz form was in decline and guitars were associated more with little English boys sporting ugly haircuts. Ironically, Wes’ best-known recordings, (in this country) were covers of Lennon-McCarthy’s Day In the Life, Daniel Flores’ Tequila, and The Association’s syrupy-sweet Wendy. He could sellout 1000-seat halls in Europe, but in the states, Wes played tiny nightclubs and worked Indiana factories during the day.
“So, what does this have to do with writing?” you ask.
In the wake of the latest round of pitch contests, I’m reminded, again, that what many of us write isn’t in fashion (currently). This isn’t a humble-brag or a down-nose at what anyone else is doing. Quite the opposite, I want you (and me) to write what our hearts desire to read.
So, no, I’m not writing literature. Like most of you, I write genre. And, like many of you, I’ve repeatedly polished up my little ditty and put it out there only to be met with crickets from panels, agents, and publishers.
I wanted to be a Beatle. But I couldn’t be a Beatle because I’m Ozzy Osborne.–himself
The temptation to write sparkly vampires, or post-apocalyptic Mary Sues, or a Mr. Darcy stand-in who fiddles around with butt plugs and gag balls has nudged me, too. Um, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But as perfectly fine as those stories are, they don’t “do it” for me. I write crime with Louisiana accents, big New Mexico vistas, and Texas savagery. My guys seldom “get” the girl. Far from damsels in distress or villainous vixens, my dames are head-knockers, showstoppers, and bosses. But that’s not how I started.
After years of reading Ludlum and Le Carré, my first attempt at a novel was a spy story. I think I hashed over the same 25K words for two years before I dropped it in the trash. But I also read a lot of Ed McBain, so next I tried a police procedural. I made, maybe, 12K words. A decade of reading Robert B. Parker and Mickey Spillane inspired me to try my hand at a PI. I doubt that I made 2500 words on my gumshoe.
For a long time, I wrote nothing except term papers and essays. When I finished school, it was difficult to catch my stride. The upside was identifying my lack of drafting follow-through: interest.
We can ignore our interest just like we ignore bad breath but, just like the yuck-mouth, it’s still there. See, after reading real details of real CIA intrigues through the ’70s and ’80s, I couldn’t muster up the interest to write spies like the ones I’d read. McBain’s po-po didn’t reconcile with my family history—we’re from that side of the tracks. PIs? I once met famed Houston private investigator, Clyde Wilson. It took me two days to get the smell of bullshit out of my nose.
Of course, reality wouldn’t preclude anyone from writing a traditional protagonist in those genres. Nor, for that matter, would a lack of interest. Follow-through is still possible. One only need look up the myriad scribblers who write for hire. Me, I have a job that pays the bills. Writing is my escape from all of that.
Whatever you read, whatever you write, remember, it’s supposed to be fun. –Walter Mosley
Reading the late-great Elmore Leonard and dear-departed Donald Westlake, (aka Richard Stark) planted the seed of other takes on other stories. But it was Walter Mosley—speaking of finding his voice against higher obstacles than I’ll ever face—that sparked my epiphany. I left that author signing on a cloud of inspiration and started writing the same night.
It took me less than six months to complete a 60K word crime story featuring a codeine-addicted car thief. I’ve spent something-something years since then learning how to actually craft that story into something resembling a novel. In that time, I’ve had some near misses with representation and publication.
I’ve also gotten more than my fair share of “what’s really hot is…” and “I don’t know if a twenty-something publishing rep will get it…” and my favorite, “I love it, but we need to change everything to make it more like movie X…” lines. Every year there is the temptation to attempt a more “marketable” kind of story—werewolf space opera, sword-and-sandwich cozy, drag-queen gunfighters—personally interesting or not. Then I hear a Wes Montgomery tune and my thief is sitting right beside me.
In the years since his death, Wes Montgomery’s original compositions have enjoyed a renaissance. His work has been covered by everyone from Earl Klugh to Pat Metheny. Still, I can only wonder at the music we might’ve had if not for label pressure to cover pop tunes.
As writers, we spend years cough*decades*cough finding and developing our voice and writing our stories. We must be uncompromising in our vision.
Write your stories. Write with the voice that resonates with you. Otherwise, why write it at all?