Arrive Late / Leave Early

One of the best pieces of advice the bestselling writer Walter Mosley gave me was to “arrive late and leave early.” What did he mean?

Well, we both write psychological mystery thrillers. And to keep a story interesting, you don’t need a lot of extraneous detail in the beginning or at the end. So, no need to say, “The detective’s car pulls up to the curve, he straightens his hat, he opens the door, he walks up the sidewalk, he climbs the steps, and he knocks on the door.” Better that he arrives and knocks on the door or, better yet simply appears in the living room, notepad in hand.

Arrive Late Charles levin

You will see this all the time on Law and Order. The two detectives just show up at the murder scene. They’re inside the house. We don’t care how they got there.

Why does this matter? Because all that extra stuff is boring and may lead to the writer’s worst nightmare: you will put down his or her book and never pick it up again. The goal of all writing, and particularly thrillers, is to be so engaging that the reader has to turn the page and keep reading. If we as writers cannot do that, it doesn’t matter whether we’re telling a story or writing a political essay or a memoir or a romance novel. If you, as the reader aren’t absorbed enough to turn the page, it’s game over.

OK, this arrive late and leave early writing instruction is fine, but maybe it has broader implications.

As a writer, I arrived late in my writing career. I started writing my first thriller, Not So Dead, in my late 50s. I arrived late. I skipped those first 50 plus years to find my true professional passion in life. The first book took me 10 years to write but the three sequels each came one year apart after that. Now I have a gang of author friends. One of them who started in his 70s says, “I wish I had started sooner.”

But to tell you the truth, I think I started at just the right time. I believe to write interesting, authentic, and sometimes deeply emotional stories requires a lifetime full of experiences, pain, disappointment, and great joy. Revelations, relationships, observations, I could go on. From these experiences, combined with a sense of adventure and curiosity, I can make characters come to life; share their frustrations and moral quandaries that we all face; and, sometimes, bring them back from the dead. Someday, you’ll wish you could pull off that trick too.

For me, arriving late to this crazy endeavor of writing was exactly the right time. I hope my readers reflect and enjoy the details and characters and emotions that come through in my six books. My goal is not to merely create a story, but to elevate reading my books to an experience. I want my readers to take the setbacks and triumphs of my characters personally. To share their sense of danger but not to be in danger.

Understood, but what about leaving early? Hmm, I’m not planning on that personally. But in a story, it means don’t drag it out. If you said what you wanted to say, you’ve reached the climax, now it’s time to leave the party. Unfortunately, many famous writers like Hemingway and Foster-Wallace took the idea of leaving early to heart and did away with themselves. That is the ultimate act of leaving early. Not recommended.

Now, what about you? Do you arrive late or early? And when do you plan to leave? I guess that story is still being written by both of us. If you share your arrive late and  leave early story in the Comments below, I promise to share the next chapter(s) of my story too. Stay tuned.

Postscript. There are certain things in life where arrive late and leave early certainly does not apply. Movies, weddings (especially your own), your child’s graduations, court dates, restaurant reservations, surgery readily come to mind. I’m sure there are more examples, but you get the idea. With these types of things, showing up and showing up on time are important, but not when it comes to telling stories. Not when it comes to turning the page.

Now it’s your turn. Knock on the door and let yourself in. What’s your story?


Catch up on my original fast-paced thriller NOT SO DEAD and the Sam Sunborn Series They are available on Amazon and
If you like short reads you can really finish, grab a copy of my short story collections: The Last Appointment: 30 Collected Short Stories
Or my children’s adventure book: Nougo and His Basketball.

And read for FREE some of Charles Levin’s short stories:

I’m Processing
Books Unread
Nora Delivers the Package
The Permission Slip
10 Life Lessons I Learned from Playing Poker
Missing the Ghost in the Palace Theater
Moon Landing Memories
Word Drunk

Oh, and please do join the Mailing List for future stories and posts

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