Sunday, March 27, 2016

The "Re-reads" Group

                                                                    Milton C. Toby photograph
By Milton C. Toby

I tend to lump fiction into four very general categories:
  • "Re-reads," the books that I return to from time to time;
  • "One-timers," the books from favorite authors, books that I wait for, devour, and then set aside;
  • "Airport" books, those that I pick up at airport bookstores because I need something to read during a layover and usually leave in a hotel room;
  • And, finally, the "short-stops," those books that I start with great expectation, but give up on because they cannot hold my interest beyond the first few chapters.
Heading the list of my "re-read" authors is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Every two or three years I start with A Study in Scarlet (the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1887) and work my way through the novels and short stories to The Adventure of Shoscombe Place (the last story, published in 1927). For readers unfamiliar with the Holmes canon, horses turn up from time to time, notably in Silver Blaze, in which Holmes and Watson thwart a scheme to kidnap a prominent Thoroughbred and use him as a ringer in an important race.

Author Robert Ludlum
Running a close second to Arthur Conan Doyle is the late Robert Ludlum, whose thrillers have sold millions of copies. Ludlum passed away a few years ago, but his writing franchise is going strong, operating under the byline "Robert Ludlum's  (insert book title here)." I don't return to the franchise books often, but I take one of the Ludlum originals off the shelf whenever I need a dose of international intrigue and conspiracy theories.

A few days ago, by accident, I came across a couple of radio interviews Ludlum did in the mid-1980s with Don Swain. Swain hosted "Book Beat" on CBS Radio for over a decade and his program attracted many of the best writers around in those days.

Ludlum's first book, written after he turned 40, was The Scarlatti Inheritance, an immediate bestseller that made him an international sensation. That first book was easy, Ludlum told Swain, but then things changed: "It's the hardest thing in the world to write the second book. The first one was easy. We've all got a story to tell. But writing the second book, that's the difference between being a professional and not being a professional."

Ludlum had this to say about the necessary elements of good fiction:

  • Theme. He was not talking about a theme for a writer's book in progress, but instead an overarching theme for a writer's work. For Ludlum, that theme was a general distrust of international financiers and a love of conspiracy theories.
  • Characters. Ludlum typically wrote stand-alone thrillers, with a new cast of characters each time. He did not like the idea of a series, because of the risk that an author might get comfortable with a character and not put much effort into development. He acknowledged, though, that his best known character, Jason Bourne, appeared in a three-book series.
  • Plot. Ludlum's books have extremely complex plots. For a good book, he said, the path from Point A to Point B is never a straight line.
  • Pace. Ludlum's early work was in theater, as an actor and not as a writer. He recognized the importance of pacing as a companion to plot, however. You've got to structure the first act so people will stay for the second act, he explained, and the second act so people will stay until the end.    
Bill Straus photograph
Swain's interviews with Ludlum, and a host of other prominent writers, are archived here.

On a personal note, this will be my last post at Horse Crossings. Best of luck to my colleagues in their writing endeavors. It's been fun!


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