Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On Becoming an Artful Writer by Robert W. Walker

Robert W. Walker is a graduate of Northwestern University and NU’s Graduate School of Education; he holds a master’s degree in English, and has recently turned his 1972 dissertation into a novel entitled Children of Salem.

His novel Dead On was released last year by Five Star Books. Rob is the author of the 11-book Dr. Jessica Coran Instinct Series, the 4-book Detective Lucas Stonecoat Edge Series, and the historical trilogy featuring Inspector Alastair Ransom in City for Ransom, Shadows in the White City, and City of the Absent.

Rob has published over forty novels and has recently begun publishing in ebook format as well.

While he grew up in Chicago and was born in Corinth, MS., Rob now lives with his wife, Miranda, and their four children in Charleston, WV. To learn more about Rob or to get his help on your next story, as he is an accomplished editor as well, visit him online at:,

On Becoming an Artful Writer

by Robert W. Walker

Martin Scorscese was awarded a special life’s work Golden Globe award for directing films, and his acceptance speech was a long eulogy to all those who came before him, all those he learned from and built upon. Ever watch a young artist at work? Go to any museum and you will find a young painter at an easel set up before one of the Masters—Van Gogh, Renoir, Picasso, Rembrandt. A look over the student’s shoulder shows that she’s not painting just anything, but rather she is attempting to duplicate the master artist’s method, trying to determine precisely how the artist in question used line, shape, light, shadow, brush stroke, color, medium, pick, pencil, charcoal—the whole of it. A student of art learns skills, tools, and techniques via mimicry and imitation, or if you prefer stealing—focusing so closely on how Renoir did it to learn it and own it. The how and why of the masters has to be harnessed. Even if one doesn’t care for Picasso’s art, one needs to know how he pulled it off.

Writers do the same, but they do so via voracious reading. As a writer reads, so shall he reap. Learning the art of establishing shots, openings, dialogue, settings, character, plot, props, symbols, metaphor, simile, texture, depth, color, tone and the marriage of all the parts amounts to working on a PhD in Letters. Steinbeck liked to say, “I’m just a storyteller” and that’s all well and good, but he was also an artist to learn from—a writer’s writer in other words.

Writers who succeed in finding their own brush stroke(s) or style do so by closely examining and trying their hand at crafting words in the “voice” of various writing masters—either consciously or unconsciously. All artists in all fields build on the backs of those who came before. Even the genius Shakespeare built upon playwrights who came before. For the struggling, thrashing young writer mimicry and imitation is the wisest form of flattery if one is to eventually learn from the masters and succeed. This success is measured in how far the young writer then moves on to find his own voice.

In short, read it, study it, steal it, own it, and use it. As a crime writer, thievery comes easy. Look at E.B. White’s description of the barn and later the rope in Charlotte’s Web. The method he uses—simple, straightforward, making a singsong of the verb WAS—has become for me a tool I use when called for. I read those depictions and studied White. I can now move others with a simple description when I need it, where I need it in my own work. Does it harm White that I stole his method for my purposes? No, not at all, and I have no reason to apologize. My first novel was to be the sequel to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and I never looked back.

Whether you plan to write literature or genre fiction, it behooves one to challenge oneself to learn the tools and skills of the masterful hand at work. The student writer has to set up his easel before the master, be it Dickens, Dumas, Austen or Dean R. Koontz, and put that understanding into actual practice—as in writing a chapter of Twain or Hemmingway, or Faulkner, trying out all the various ranges from simplicity to complexity and back again: the serpentine sentence to the hammer blow of a two-word declaration. Try out the extremes. Test and challenge oneself with the two-step of an O’Henry or the beauty of a Chekov. If it’s Stephen King you wish to unseat, you do a chapter of King. It’s your story in Kingly style. The point is any struggling writer can and should learn from the classics and the masters just as painters, sculptors, poets, and film directors learn. I for one am still learning, but thanks to those who came before me, I have learned a great deal, and I owe homage to them all.

Thanks and do leave a comment, and find my 8 Free chapters of Children of Salem at and Dead On at a bookstore near you.



Vicki Lane said...

Excellent post, Rob! All so true. I'm amazed at folks who turn up in my writing classes but say they don't read for entertainment. How can they possibly write?

I like to listen to audio books -- especially Patrick O'Brians's Aubrey/Maturin series -- to learn more about writing. I read so fast that I tend to miss the structure -- listening forces me to slow down and pay attention to it.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Rob. So glad you weighed in on the subject. Reading good mystery books is the best schooling I've found. I even saved one book that was so bad I kept it as an example of how NOT to write a mystery.

Love your photo. Gee, you're a handsome devil! (-:

Pat Browning

Morgan Mandel said...

I'm just getting back into the reading game. I'm sneaking reading in again whenever I can. I was so busy for a while, I thought I didn't have time. Then I decided to make time.

Rob's right. You need models to perfect your craft.

Morgan Mandel

Earl Staggs said...

Very well done, Rob. Everything you said makes perfect sense, not only to new writers, but to those of us who might have forgotten the basics of learning to write.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I love reading...I only wish I could spend more time each day doing it! I fit it in as best I can, and around the writing.

Mystery Writing is Murder
Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

Lesa said...

Thanks, Rob. Always interested in your comments.

And, Kaye? I've presented you with an award. I hope you stop by and pick it up. Lesa -

Rob said...

Thanks everyone, and yes, listening is a lost art so listening to audio books is another great way to pick up on author techniques and tools of the trade. I keep learning, and I think we writers do a service, keeping the human condition in focus and sometimes we even manage to change a few minds and lead the way. I'll check back later and again thanks everyone for your kind comments. Earl, good to hear from ye....

jenny milchman said...

When I was young(er), any book I read became the story I was telling during all my free moments--slightly altered. I can remember having a long walk to take, and filling it with the story of Nora and Cary, two little pioneer girls going west. Or five sisters--names changed in this same way--growing up on the lower east side during the beginning of the last century. I was basically doing what you say painters do--copying Laura Ingalls' voice and Sidney Taylor's and a whole host of others. You're right, it's essential training. Only by first learning other voices can we one day find our own.

Rob Walker said...

Jenny - enjoyed your story here; I think every writer has a spiritual mentor in an author who has passed away -- mine is Mark Twain. Thanks for adding your VOICE here. And I so agree and teach my students that to find their voice, they must study the voices of other authors and study them closely. That is READ like a writer.

Karen said...

Rob, I had never thought about attempting the conscious imitation of classic master writers, though I do try to read the kind of books I'd like to write. Voracious is not a problem for me, a person who's always devoured books. Loved your comparison of the writer to the young painter--I'm going to experiment with this idea. I edit the weekly newsletter for the Chattanooga Writers Guild and plan to post the link to your entry in an upcoming issue.

Rob said...

Karen -- thanks for your comment as well, and yes by all means if you can find room for the article, go right ahead. Be happy to discuss it with you. reach me at inkwalk at sbcglobla dot net