Enough Rope by Lawrence Block

imgres“I’d rather be carried by 6 than judged by 12.”

Enough Rope is a gargantuan collection of one hundred short stories by Lawrence Block, spanning over 40 years’ worth of material. Many have previously been released in magazines or other compilations or online, but near to the end of the book, there are also some unpublished pieces for those who’ve read all of his older work.

In any case, Enough Rope is currently the most complete gathering of his stories, and a must-have for any Block fan. Out of the 100 stories, about ten percent are duds, which is an amazing ratio, giving you nine classics out of ten. Some stories you’ll guess the twist near the beginning; others you won’t see it coming, even if you’re looking for it. Not all of the stories end with a twist, but many do. Either way, each piece pulls the reader in. Block has such an easy, fluid writing style, making his stories a pleasure to read. And each one offers something new.

However, the collection does slow down about halfway through.

This is because Block sections off the book with the “regulars” — short stories based on regular characters from his novels — and although some of them are interesting, the Martin EhrenGraff stories are especially repetitive and predictable, and you’d be forgiven for skipping them. Five or six stories later, the collection picks up pace again.

The creativity and imagination to produce so many unique works is astounding. Block has managed to keep his writing inventive and gripping for over four decades. The man is a writing machine; a well-oiled, productive, over-functioning member of the writing elite. This book is a testament to his hard work, and a celebration of his talent.

If you enjoy the short-story format, or you’re a fan, you’ll love this collection.

Pick it up, read it, and don’t stop until the final twist spins your mind backwards.


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imagesYou Don't Need A Writing Teacher
(But They CAN Help)

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

~ Flannery O’Connor

For many aspiring writers, the allure of a writing course can be hard to resist. It seems perfect: they not only have someone to constantly validate their work, but they also get a certificate at the end which they can wave around, proclaiming they’re writers now because their teacher told them so. But do these courses actually help?

It depends what your intentions are, and what you hope to gain from the course. If you sign up to a creative writing class or seminar in order to be handed a secret get-rich-quick formula, you’ll be wasting your time. They don’t exist. And if someone tells you they do, they’re lying. There are certainly tricks and tips that you can implement to improve your work and make it more saleable, but that doesn’t mean you can write a bestseller based on a four-point process. That might work with a screenplay, but novels are a different animal. There’s no universally accepted blueprint to writing a bestselling book.

I once read a story about an agent who rejected an author’s work and received a letter back telling the agent he was wrong to disregard it. The writer argued that he’d read and broken down every bestseller on the market and pinpointed the formula — the highs and lows, the fight scenes, the love story, etc. — and constructed his novel to match those moments. His book was practically a carbon copy of those thrillers, so how could his novel possibly fail? But it’s not that simple.

Novels are vast landscapes, and there’s so much that goes on below the surface. Characterisation, theme, prose, subplots, emotion, dialogue, interaction, scene pacing. This can’t be torn down and turned into bullet points. You may build something resembling a bestseller on the surface level, but everything else will be wrong under the hood. That’s where your talent and hard work comes into play.

And teachers can help you with that . . .

Or they can destroy your talent.


“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

~ William Arthur Ward


There are plenty of amazing writing teachers in the world. But for every great teacher, there are thirteen terrible ones whose advice could derail your ambitions and interrupt your learning process. Not purposely: the majority of people who enter the teaching profession have good intentions, but that doesn’t mean they’re always correct. Depending on who you get as a teacher, he or she may pass their bad habits on to you. They may stamp out your flourishes of talent (marking those sections of prose as excessive or needless) and gear you toward something more mundane.

Each teacher approaches his job with in-built biases: he or she will have certain likes and dislikes that might go against your own preferences. You may love genre fiction, but your teacher thinks genre writing is trash. Or vice versa. She might be a genre fan and find all classics turgid and boring — which is fine, unless you happen to love them and be planning to write a book in a similar vein. In this instance, the teacher will inhibit you by pushing you away from the style you’re naturally inclined to write in.

Having said that, there are teachers out there who are able to shove their likes to the side and not encroach on a writer’s unique style — these are the great teachers, the ones who nurture and suggest but never enforce their opinion on an author. They steer and guide, but also acknowledge they don’t know everything.

A bad teacher, however, will try to mould your work in their own vision and insist on changes they believe will improve your story. But what’s good and interesting to your teacher might not be so interesting to you. Teachers are fallible; they’re human; they’re learning, just like us. Soak in their advice, but don’t take it as gospel. If it feels right, and sounds right, and you can realise or understand its benefit, then take it on board.

But if you’re skeptical, hold back for a while. Remember it, write it down, then check with other authors. Look online. Read some books. If you keep seeing the same advice crop up, it’s probably useful. If not, that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful, but it could simply be an idiosyncrasy of the teacher: an odd like or dislike he’s picked up over the years.

Open your ears and pay attention, but don’t conform for the sake of it. 


“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.”

~ Aristotle


Do your research before joining a class. If possible, find out who the teacher is and ask a few questions. Does he or she have anything published? If the answer’s yes, ask if you can read it. Then you can make a judgement on their writing. Is it any good? Or do you think the teacher writes with the skill of a fish? Pass it to a few friends to make sure. If everyone thinks he can’t write, maybe he isn’t the best person to teach you. Look beyond the words: does the teacher understand structure? Characterisation? Dialogue? Again, if you’re not sure, ask around and see what the general consensus is.

What if he doesn’t have anything published? That doesn’t automatically make him a hack. Ask him about his favourite books and authors. If they’re writers you hate, you might not get along together. Ask him or her what type of prose they’re inclined to read: lyrical or pared down or fancy or whatever. Again, if their likes don’t jibe with yours, maybe this is the wrong class for you. Express those concerns and see what the teacher says; maybe she’ll allay your fears and explain a little about how she likes to teach. If she’s laid back and prefers to guide you on your own path, to let you make your own mistakes and learn through experience, that’s good. If she’s able to critique your work from a structural point of view without allowing her biases to affect her judgement, that’s good too.

You want a teacher who will say, This scene didn’t have enough tension. Or This scene had no relevance to your plot or This character’s actions contradict his earlier statements. What you don’t want is a teacher who writes This character is unlikable just because he or she doesn’t like the character. Or This dialogue is terrible without explaining why, because he or she isn’t a fan of that type of dialogue. That will only inhibit you.

So pick your teacher or course carefully.


“In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.”

~ Phil Collins


In my early twenties I joined an amateur writing class. The teacher, an unpublished pensioner, thought he knew everything about writing — he didn’t acknowledge that he was still learning, or that, ultimately, no one can fully know the ins and outs because there are infinite variables. In his world, everything he said or did was right. Admittedly, at the time, I was less likely to listen to advice anyway. I was arrogant and young; a self-proclaimed prodigy who came for the validation, not to be told I was doing it wrong.

Even still, this teacher tried to stamp his own way of doing things onto the students. He tried to shoehorn us all into the same box, so that we’d end up as clones of himself. I suppose that was down to his insecurities: if we wrote like him, and he enjoyed the writing, that would validate his own craft. I don’t know. Either way, I saw a lot of the class taking his ideas to heart — shredding work that I thought was great, just because he’d said otherwise. He clearly had certain preferences. And although he liked my work, I didn’t feel comfortable in his class. I felt like I was being forced to write in a particular style, and I didn’t want to conform to his expectations just to please him.

The one positive aspect, above all else, was that I wrote a lot.

A writing class gives you assignments, and that forces you to get off your lazy rump, stop making excuses, sit down at your computer and actually write some stuff.

And that can only be a good thing. No matter what you’re writing.


“You cannot teach a man anything,

you can only help him find it within himself.”

~ Galileo Galilei


In short, it’s a bit of a crapshoot: you may get a great teacher who transforms your writing from gold to diamond; a lifelong mentor who will steer you down the path of success. Either that, or you’ll be stuck with a bitter, unpublished old hack who hates everything and everyone and just wants to mould an army of clones. It’s a hard choice.

If it gets you writing, though, maybe that’s what you need. Maybe you find it hard to be disciplined without a deadline hanging over your head. In that case, go for it, sign up. Just be aware of what they’re telling you: listen, learn, and adapt — only when necessary. Don’t get defensive or argue, just take it all in. You can always ignore it later.

And most likely, at the beginning, you won’t ignore much.

But as the weeks tick on and your confidence grows, you’ll start to realise what you like and dislike, and what you disagree with. And later still, you’ll begin to master your craft. And that’s great.

But whatever you do: never stop learning. It’s essential.

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ca597c827972533ef024671902fd2f6ae4b8f33b8db3003c4ed541c407dd970aYou’re Too Dumb To Be A Writer
(Or So You’ve Been Told)

“Imagination is intelligence with an erection.”

~ Victor Hugo

My mother once said to me: “You’re not smart enough to be a writer.”

When she saw the look on my face, she clarified. “I didn’t mean it like that. You’re a very intelligent boy. But there are plenty of people out there smarter than you.”

She believed, like many other people, that intelligence equates to good writing. She was wrong. Clearly, you need a modicum of brains: someone with an IQ of 50 will barely be able to tie up their shoelaces let alone construct a 500-page novel. But in a wider sense, you don’t need to be Einstein to write a classic — so if you can’t work out X or Y in an algebraic equation and don’t know about bio-nuclear science or marine biology, it’s okay.

Unless you’re a particularly ambitious novelist, the majority of you won’t be writing anything overly complex — smart and intricate, maybe, but not mind-boggling. If your work is to be accessible to the average person, you can’t write your book like it’s some kind of paradigm-shifting brain-twisting puzzle that no one will understand. Your book will need to connect to an audience. Your plot can be intelligent without being pretentious. 

Either way, if you can write, you can write. Brains don’t mean anything.

It’s a common fallacy: people assume published authors are geniuses. And I guess some of them are. But there are many idiots, too. So if you’re using your lack of education or your mediocre brain power as an excuse not to write, then stop it. Slap yourself.

If you can read these words and understand them? You’re smart enough.


“If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson


Stephen Fry is considered to be a genius. He’s written a number of published novels, but his intelligence doesn’t necessarily translate into an enjoyable reading experience. I suspect that his fame lead to his book deal rather than his writing skills. I’ve attempted a couple of his books and never been gripped by his work. Others might love his style — entertainment is pretty subjective after all — but I don’t see it.

The point is that he’s not internationally recognised as a novelist. His name isn’t synonymous with books. His career has a wide-range of functions, and he’s a man of many talents. However, in my opinion he’s a mid-level writer at best. His intellect amounts to nothing in the reading world. It’s certainly not a handicap, but it isn’t much of a boost either.

If a graph were to be taken of all the bestselling authors in the world, I suppose most of them would have above-average IQs. Most writers are readers and deep thinkers, which naturally adds to intellectual capabilities and aids in the processing functions of our brains. The more we tinker with novels, changing structures and sentence fragments, learning our craft to a sub-molecular level, the more our brains are working and growing. In that case, most writers may have a certain level of innate or developed intelligence.

But that doesn’t mean all writers are geniuses with IQs off the chart. Someone with Einstein’s brain has no better chance of writing a great novel as anyone else. A writer’s toolbox is filled with so many disparate elements: experience, insight, wisdom, information, sense of humour, darkness, lightness, morality — there’s a large spectrum to be tapped into. A humourless man with a genius IQ will be missing something. As would a hilarious man with the brain of a fish. It’s all about finding a good balance and a unique style. Why is your writing different? What makes you stand out? What’s so special about you?

That’s the important thing. Not your ability to solve mathematical equations, but the way you use your thoughts to infuse your work with tension, gravitas, and emotion.

You don’t need to be book smart or street smart or emotionally smart.

You need to be writer smart — and that entails observation.


“I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”

~ Oscar Wilde


novelist doesn’t need to know how to build a rocket. He does, however, need to know how to build (at least on the page) a realistic human being. He needs to know how to manipulate emotion in the readers; how to build tension in his scenes; how to raise the stakes of his plot; how to weave together multiple elements and plot lines towards a satisfying climax. All of this requires observation: of the outside world, of the people around him, and also of the books he reads (learn more about this here). He must keep aware of his surroundings, and remain open-minded to everything around him (or her).

If you can do that — if you can soak in that knowledge — it doesn’t matter whether or not you can add two-plus-two, you’ll be fine. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. 

If you complete a novel, you’re a fucking genius.


“The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.” ~ Albert Einstein


Sometimes people think they can’t write because they were never good at English in school. They see this as a mountain they can’t climb. But that’s bullshit. It’s another excuse to not put any effort in.

I’ve always had a natural ability in English — my reading level as a child was the highest in the class, years ahead of my friends, and my spelling is impeccable. And yet I scraped by in my English GCSEs with a C, and that’s after my mother wrote all of my coursework. If I’d bothered to do it myself, I probably would have failed. 

Even now, with the millions of words I’ve written over the years, I still don’t know what a split-infinitive is, or a dangling participle. No matter how many times I read up about it, for some reason it never sticks. And yet, when I look at the page, I know where words go and where they shouldn’t. I see it like code: to everyone it might seem like gobbledegook, but I instinctively know where to place a comma or semi-colon or em-dash and it all flows properly. This wasn’t achieved overnight. It took years of practice and refinement. Not only did I pay attention to how everything was set out in the books I read, I also researched grammar in numerous guides, such as Writing With Style by John R. Trimble and The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B White. These helped immensely in the early days.

For a long time I worked on structuring my scenes properly. Then I toyed about with sentence construction. I’d end some sentences with semi-colons, some with colons, others with full stops, and I’d experiment with all the different grammatical techniques, using the books as a guide to help me find my own way. It took a lot of effort at the start — and looking back a lot of my work was grammatically destitute — but eventually, I was able to shape my writing naturally. My grammar skills improved. Like with anything, I learned the right thing to do and the wrong thing by just doing it.

So if you’re currently unable to differentiate between a comma and a colon, don’t worry. You have plenty of time to learn. And that’s from someone who’s been writing for over fifteen years and still barely knows what a noun is. I just know how to use them.

Pick up a guide and start practicing today. In months, you’ll master it.

Learn the rules and then you can break them (read more about this here).


“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” ~ Stephen Hawking


Having said all that, being a grammar expert doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll write well. There are plenty of grammatical kings who can’t pen anything worth reading. They lack something: personality, passion, whatever. This is the same in any field: people who are proficient but don’t have the cutting edge. Freestyle footballers are a perfect example: they can do unimaginable things with a football — it seems attached to their feet. They loop it over their ankles, around their back, on their neck; they balance it when it seems impossible for the ball not to have hit the floor. And yet, you hardly ever see them playing for a big football team. They have the innate skills, but nothing else. There’s no point doing backflips with the ball on a pitch if you can’t do anything substantial.

Ronaldo, one of the greatest footballers on the planet, learned this the hard way. When he first arrived at Manchester United, he was a rough version of what we see now; he was full of trickery and youthful inexperience. Over time he moulded himself: he stepped past the technical stuff and added to his game — power, pace, vision — and now he’s one of the best to ever play. You need to do the same with your writing skills.

Learn grammar, then learn how to adapt it with your unique style. Add more to your writing repertoire. Grammar is the foundation for you to build your novel. You need walls, a roof, windows, a heater, an interior. You need it all.

This is just step one. But it’s the most important: without a foundation, everything else will crumble around it.

And once you have that foundation in place, you’ll be in a position to build whatever you want.


“There are some ideas so wrong

that only a very intelligent person could believe in them.”

~ George Orwell


So remember: don’t let anyone tell you you’re not smart enough to be a writer. You don’t need to be a genius; you don’t need to be super smart. You need to work hard. You need to learn the craft. You need to constantly add to what you know: grow, learn, soak in knowledge of writing, and one day it’ll become second nature and flow from your tap.

And that’s when it feels magical. When the words talk through your fingers.

Just try not to be like me: I’m over here still wondering what a verb is.


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