I just finished reading a crime fiction book that made me want to write something really good. The language was rich, the story solid and a little scary, and the characters deeply human. But what really grabbed me was that the book had depth and soul. It had at heart a sense of morality.
I was thinking about what inspires me not just to write, but to write a better book, like that one, to reach inside to what I really think is important and mix it into a story in such a way that makes me proud of what I’ve written.
For years all I wanted was to tell a story good enough to get published. Now I realize that I was not being true to myself and certainly not working to my highest aspirations. There’s a huge gulf between “good enough” and “good.” More and more I think about how to bridge that gulf.
I’ve read and enjoyed plenty of books that were good enough. I don’t require that every book I read be the best example of art and craft in its category. So what is it that gets into me and makes me want to go beyond what I think of as simple entertainment and to write an inspired book?
I don’t think it’s the desire to be famous, or rich. There are plenty of rich and famous authors whose books I don’t admire at all. And some little known authors whose work I have tremendous respect for. Also, I don’t always feel the drive to step it up. Sometimes just writing a good, solid book is fine.
Does the drive come from competition? I doubt that as well. For some reason anytime I read Truman Capote, I feel the inspiration to do better. But imagining that I could compete with him would be plain foolish.
I think in some way it has to do with the reason we write to begin with—the desire to connect. I want to write stories that make people recognize their world in my prose—to recognize themselves and people they know, and to recognize the dilemmas we all face , whether we do it with courage or cowardice. I want readers to feel that the time they spend reading my books is not throwaway time, but hours well spent. I want them to remember little bits of things and recognize the human condition common to all of us.
John Gardiner wrote an entire book, On Moral Fiction, in which he addressed some of what I’m talking about. I fear that he would have sneered at my desire to write “moral” crime fiction. His was a more high-fallutin’ world. But when I read the work of some of the best crime writers I know that the best writing transcends genre—and inspires me to do the same.