John D. MacDonald on Words and Writing (2)

Recently, I came across an in-depth article on John D. MacDonald from around the time of the movie adaptation of Darker Than Amber. "The man who writes those Travis McGee stories: A look at John D. MacDonald" was written by Mike Baxter and was published in The Washington Post Times Herald on Feb 1, 1970. It was a fairly lengthy article, but below are excerpts of some of the most insightful parts:
[Mickey] Spillane visits [John D.] MacDonald's home at intervals, and both write mysteries. As craftsmen, however, they are as close as Eldridge Cleaver and Sam Spade. Even Spillane can recognize the gulf. "I am a writer; you are an author," The Mick once told MacDonald. There is more in that than semantic nonsense.

MacDonald writes on a beige IBM Selectric as if Doom were about to unplug it in the last great denouement…He devotes a business-like seven-to-nine hours a day writing, doing it until the lunch hour, then doing it again until the cocktail hour. Fast subtraction shows that this leaves "too little time, dammit" for other pursuits.


MacDonald can pension McGee off without affecting his workload. While completing McGee No. 12, he is working on three other novels in his unorthodox way, moving from one to another at the first outbreak of boredom.

He writes without outlining, weaving intricate plots and large casts into the empty middle separating a known beginning and a known climax.

He writes on expensive 25-pound bond paper. "I think the same situation is involved as with painting and sculpture. If you use the best materials you can afford, somehow you have more respect for what you do to it."

He seldom edits with pencil. "I rewrite by throwing away a page, a chapter, half a book, or go right back to the beginning and start again."

He is also a happy writer, another unorthodoxy. "I enjoy the hell out of writing," he said, "because of the rare times when it really works good. It's like an East egg hunt. Here's 50 pages, and you say, 'Oh, Christ, where is it?' Then on the 51st page, it'll work. Just the way you wanted it to, a little better than anything in that same area ever worked before. You say 'Wow! This is worth the price of admission'."


  1. I've always thought of MacDonald as the consummate professional of crime fiction. You can always rely on him to show up and tell a kick-ass story that forces you to blaze through it, especially his non-McGee stuff. Structure, pacing, action, the whole works.

  2. This is very good. Very unorthodox writer indeed. I like that he developed his own method.

  3. so nice to hear of a writer who openly loved writing. and who respected the importance of the cocktail hour within the process. a great find.

  4. On the back cover of the UK hardback of The Damned is this quote about MacDonald from Lawrence Block: "He took enormous artistic chances, and did his readers the ultimate service of writing always what he most wanted to write and striving always to please himself." Wouldn't it be great if we all had the courage to do the same?

  5. After all these years, I still miss a new Travis McGee on the horizon. I wish Mr. MacDonald were still around. I had the pleeasure of meeting him in Florida a few times. He was a very nice person, a class act. Posted by Ron Head


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