by Stephen Jay Schwartz


The first rule about writing a blog about Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.

The second rule about writing a blog about Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.

Therefore, this blog has nothing to do with Fight Club.

Let’s start at the beginning. Not the wee beginning, but a more recent beginning. A beginning that began just before I read Fight Club for the sixth time. (I thought this wasn’t about Fight Club?) Let’s start after I finished my novel, BEAT, and was preparing for whatever my next book would be. This was, I don’t know, a year and a half ago. The mistake I made is that I didn’t read Fight Club again, immediately, after writing BEAT.

When I wrote my very, very first blog for Murderati, which was also my very first blog ever, I called myself The Newcomer. As part of that blog I said I would check in from time to time to document the journey of my debut year. When I wrote that first blog I was three months away from pub date for my first novel, BOULEVARD.

Since that time I’ve gone through an incredible rite of passage – from being unpublished to being published. I blogged about the excitement of going to my first Bouchercon, then to Thrillerfest, then Left Coast Crime, then RT, then Bouchercon again…meeting hundreds of published authors, soon-to-be published authors, readers, book-sellers and the ilk. I had an amazing debut year.

I really didn’t have much trouble going from the first to the second book. I had a two-book deal with Forge and I had deadlines to meet. And, although writing that second book was a bitch, it was also quite doable, as it was a sequel. I didn’t have to create a new world or write a new protagonist from scratch.

But things change. And I don’t think I’d be doing my job as a Murderati if I didn’t tell the story. Because everyone’s story is different, and everyone’s story should be told. Not necessarily as a map, but as a guide. I’m not writing this for the folks who have written three books or more. I’m writing it for the folks who haven’t been published yet, or who have published a book or two, like me. I don’t know if it’s a cautionary tale, but it is a tale of caution. The caution being that one must not think that getting published opens all doors immediately. There’s a saying in the film business: “You’re an overnight success, twenty years in the making.” After having two books published I find that I am still “in the making,” and perhaps will be for quite some time. That’s okay, it’s part of the process. I’m good with it.

So, BEAT was in production at Forge and it was time for me to think of book number three. I was getting the impression from my agent that Forge might not want another Hayden Glass book, so he suggested I write a proposal for a standalone. I was eager and excited to try something new. But I’d never had to write a proposal before. I sold BOULEVARD as a completed novel and, in the publishing deal, my commitment for the second book was simply written as, “Hayden goes to San Francisco.” My editor didn’t see any portion of BEAT until I turned it in. And he was good with that. How lucky I was!

But now I had to write a proposal. I came up with a cool idea and jumped into the research, which took me a couple solid months. I did a ride-along on a fire-boat in the L.A. Harbor and a four-hour, top-to-bottom tour of a container ship, escorted by the captain himself. I did interviews and read books and got enough to know what the story would be. I wrote the proposal, sent it to my agent, and he promptly killed it. He didn’t feel it would sell. So, I tried again. Had an idea, spent less time on research, wrote the proposal and, again, he shot it down. Then he suggested that maybe my editor would in fact be interested in another Hayden Glass novel. We talked over some ideas—he suggested I make the story bigger, broader, international.

About this time my editor suggested that I write a short story tie-in that could introduce readers to the world of Hayden Glass and help sell both books. So, I took about two months to write CROSSING THE LINE, which was a prequel short story to BOULEVARD. It introduces a younger Hayden Glass, just one year into his job at the LAPD, getting an opportunity to work the Vice Squad. He ends up arresting a prostitute and, while bringing her in, crosses the line. It’s marks the moment his sex addiction first appears. This is a story we gave away as a free ebook on Kindle. It was a nice little detour, but a detour just the same.

Now, months had passed and I still wasn’t writing another book. It took a while to perfect the proposal for the Hayden novel and when I gave it to my agent he loved it. But we thought I should have a back-up, standalone proposal, so I wrote the same Hayden proposal as a standalone with different characters and a few different twists and turns.

My editor loved the Hayden proposal and pushed for it, but Forge didn’t bite. I asked my agent if we should submit the standalone proposal and he told me just to write the book without a contract and we’ll sell it (“for a million dollars!”) when it’s done.

By this point about six months had passed. And suddenly I was writing without a contract.

Most people say the second book is hardest to write. For me it’s the third. And maybe that’s because it’s a standalone. And it’s a tough one. It takes place mostly overseas and involves FBI characters with very specific character traits and job specializations. It has required a ton of reading as well as “boots on the ground” research. For many months I floundered, trying to find a path to the characters, trying to justify story points. Struggle, struggle, struggle.

I wrote the first fifty pages two or three times and completely threw them out. My wife, a wonderful story editor, was relentless in her attempts to keep me on track, to follow that “one-book-a-year” schedule. But she wasn’t seeing the magic on the page.

As 2010 came to a close I got the opportunity to meet for a screenwriting assignment on a 3D, zombie action film. I read the draft of the project they had and I knew what needed to be done to get it working. I met with the producers and director a number of times and then the gig was mine. I realized I couldn’t hold down a full-time day job, write a novel a year and write the screenplay, so my wife and I decided I would quit the day job.

I began writing full-time in January. I knew I’d be juggling the screenplay and the novel, but I still felt I’d get the novel done by June. I tried juggling, but the screenplay took precedence. And I just wasn’t feeling the new story for the novel. Which was frustrating as hell, since I’d spent a good deal of time beating out a detailed treatment for the book, and there’s a ton of cool action and some deep, intriguing psychological twists. It’s a book I want to write, a story I’d like to read. But I just wasn’t feeling it, and my writing reflected that. I didn’t have my mojo on.

So now it’s June. This is when I was supposed to be delivering the book to my agent, according to my “quit the day job” schedule.

I’ve been writing the first ten pages over and over for the past two months.

It wasn’t passing the wife-test.

And then she asked the magic question – “Why don’t you read Fight Club again?”

Yes, why don’t I. It seems I need it.

Didn’t I say this would come back to Fight Club?

I started re-reading Fight Club and I was about a third of the way in when I saw through the mist. I saw the rhythm. The wit. The bite. The grit.

My wife had an interesting idea. “Would you be able to capture your character if the book were written in first person?” Fight Club is written in first person.

“Yeah,” I said. “I think I might.” I was having a real hard time getting inside the head of this character, because he’s new, he’s FBI, he has a very obscure field of specialization. First person would force me to make some decisions.

I took those first ten pages and rewrote them in first person. Hmmm. This seems to be working. I was forced to take chances, to make some shit up. But something was still missing.

“I think I’ll write it in present tense,” I said. Fight Club is written in present tense. I’ve written eleven feature screenplays, and screenplays are written in present tense. I “get” present tense. In fact, it was hell getting my head into past tense for my first two novels. Once I figured it out I didn’t want to touch present tense again for fear I’d lose my sense of the past.

I went back and rewrote those first ten pages as present tense, first person, and…there it was. My voice. I found it again.

That was about a week ago and I’m up to page 35, which I’ve already polished. The wife read it last night and said it felt like a novel. Finally, it’s there.

I figure if I can write fifty pages a week I’ll have a strong first draft in three months. That’s seven pages a day, seven days a week. Ugh. Yes, I know, there are those of you out there who can cut that time in half. However, I still have another draft of the zombie movie to deliver. And then I’ve got another one or two screenwriting opportunities on the horizon and I hope to get at least one of them going in the next month or so. So, it is what it is.

The point is, I found my voice again. And I’m indebted to Fight Club for helping track it down. As I said, this was my sixth time reading Fight Club. I read it once a long time ago, then twice while I was writing BOULEVARD, then twice while I was writing BEAT. Whenever I’m lost and banging into walls I read Fight Club.

This is not to say that I’ve stolen Chuck Palahniuk’s voice. That is really not possible. I would never try to become, nor would I succeed at being, a Chuck Palahniuk imitator. But reading Fight Club helps me find my voice, which sometimes gets buried in the muck of everything that mucks us up in life. I get a similar boost from reading Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac.

I think it’s really interesting that I have a touchstone. Something that shakes me to the core, “reboots” my creative self so that I can continue working at my peak performance.

Fight Club is the plumber’s snake that unclogs my drain.

Does anyone else have a “touchstone?” Is there a book or an object you can count on to keep you centered, to keep you writing at your creative peak? Shout it out, baby.

36 thoughts on “FIGHT CLUB

  1. Shizuka

    I dip into Janet Fitch's White Oleander, Robert Eversz's Zero to the Bone, and Donna Tartt's A Secret History when my writing mojo's low. It doesn't always help the writing, but the emotions running through all three books remind me why I write.

  2. JB Lynn

    Great post! Thanks for sharing your story! I'm in the habit of reading my favorite childhood book Two Colors by Glenn Balch…not a "classic" and nothing like what I write, but still inspiring) whenever I'm about to start a new project because it reminds me of how much I enjoy good storytelling.

    IMHO your wife is brilliant.

  3. Alafair Burke

    Damn, I might need a touchstone. Maybe I'd be done with my book by now. Congrats on getting back into the zone. Amazing how a light switch goes on and suddenly you're there again.

  4. Piper Danes

    Whenever I'm feeling stuck, I read Dean Koontz's FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE. The lyricism and specificity of the prose put me in a great mood to write, and they inspire me to look for better word choice and phrasing.

  5. Jake Nantz

    Crais's The Monkey's Raincoat or Lehane's A Drink Before the War. Maybe Killing Floor by Child if I need to get a little more grit into my character. That's unless I'm working on my YA, and then anything by Jim Butcher or (yeah, I admit it) one of the Harry Potters. I like to stick with people's first work, because I think their voice is closer to what mine is right now as an unpublished writer. Then again, I may be doing myself a disservice, but I like to do it this way. It also gets me more in the mindset of the "new character, new setting/world" kind of writing that unpublished writers need to be ready for, because I figure your first published work is less likely to be the thrid book in a planned series, or something like that. 'Course I could be wrong about that as well.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    That's a great way to put it – touchstones. I have a lot of them; They rotate. I tend to go on reading binges when I feel stuck. I'll go back to early Stephen King, and Thomas Harris. Right now I'm compelled to reread all of Nicci French's psychological thrillers, and once I read a few I realized I was looking for guidance on how to go back and forth between two POVs, which I'm struggling with in my new thriller. Sometimes what looks like procrastination is actually you, the writer, or me, the writer, looking for help.

    And the present tense/past tense thing – I think I may have the opposite problem – I need to take the present tense parts of my story and make it past again. Ugh.

  7. billie

    I have a whole shelf or two of touchstones! I use them so much at this point I can usually just read the first sentence and that's all I need.

    There are also very specific passages of music (and entire songs) that do the same thing for me.

    It's funny – one of the things I always put into my writing workshops is that when you get stuck, or not even stuck, but just off the track, take a nice notebook or lined pad and your favorite pen and go somewhere and write the same scene you're stuck in – but in a different person/tense. It is amazing how well this works. It's the writing equivalent of turning something over and over in your hand in the sunlight, looking at it from every angle.

    It's also a touchstone to read this post – so thank you!

  8. JT Ellison

    Stephen, don't you love it when you find some internal insight that was just there for the discovery? I have several touchstone books I use. When its plot I'm stuck on, John Connolly is my go to, the early Charlie Parker books get me back into the twisty world. If it's lushness I'm after, I go for Diana Gabaldon's Outlanders series. If writing has stopped being fun I read Harry Potter. I had a bunch of touchstone books growing up, too, most importantly Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. basically, it necessary to just get out of your own head and out of your own way. Sounds like you've got that well in hand. Now get writing!

    Oh, and to save time, I usually wait to do the research,no ore that reading a book for plausibility. That way if it gets shot down you haven't lost too much time, and momentum.

  9. Debbie

    I write from the subconcious, so when I was writing recently and my character suddenly said that he was waiting for Godot I thought, 'Huh? What is that supposed to mean?' I mentioned this oddity on FB and somebody told me to go read the play. Got some things worked out in the reading but now I'm afraid to trust the mews incase the book meanders . I think the message was, 'Girl, you have no direction.'

  10. David Corbett


    I read your penultimate line as: Fight Club is the plumber's snake that unclogs my brain.

    If I get stuck while writing I always pull down Serge Lang's brilliant DIFFERENTIAL AND REIMANN MANIFOLDS: AN INTRODUCTION TO CURVATURE.


    Whenever I hear writers say, "I never read fiction when I'm writing my novels," I think of things like this. I always read fiction when I'm writing. It inspires me, as FIGHT CLUB inspires you. I need a literary companion, or coach, constantly urging me to raise my game. If your own voice is unique enough the whole contamination issue is just a canard.

    I think your wife and your agent are great sidekicks — and I mean that big time — but in the end it always seems to be another writer or writers who trigger that creative impulse. We write because we read.

    Having a paying gig that allows you to write — rather than, say, teach or sell shoes — is also a great boon. I'm sure you know that, but it bears saying anyway. The transition from novel to screenplay is not so jarring as from sales floor to novel. Teaching ain't bad — I enjoy it — but it feeds the analytical side of the process, not the creative side.

    This was a great post, SJS, and it spilled out the way your writing usually does, with an energy driven by honesty and passion, anxiety and uncertainty, with a relentless search for clarity.

    Get back to those pages.


    P.S. My touchstone: GOD'S POCKET, Pete Dexter. Still astonishes. Every time.

  11. Allison Davis

    Ok, ok, making a list of all these good suugestions. How about my collection of Nancy Drew, where I retreat, to remind myself of my childhood passion for reading and writing to bring me out of my cynical, rational, you can't possibly do this kind of attitude? Also, music helps (I know people don't read fiction or listen to music while they write…well, I do) — Bill Evans in particular greases the wheels, and in particular the trio at the Village Vanguard.

    Best, though is how you kept at is, turning the prose this way and that until it sounded true to you. To trust yourself to do that — to keep rewriting and trying until it works, that is the real lesson. What a gift you have in Alissa. She tells you the truth.

    This is all very encouraging. I now feel I am on the right track, as crooked and circuitous as it might be.

  12. EB Snyder

    I get that same reenergizing feeling when I read a good blog post I can connect to – this one is one of them. Chuck Palahniuk does it for me as well as Chuck Hogan, Marcus Sakey, and George V. Higgins. It only takes me a few pages before I'm throwing down the book and running to the computer. I've read other authors downing this approach because there are afraid it 'influences' them, but I've always felt it was the most efficient way to cure a case of writer's block. Thanks for the post!

  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    JD – yes, Elmore Leonard. I need to read more of him. I think OUT OF SIGHT is genius. It's amazing how he creates a sense of character through dialogue.

    Shizuka – good recommendations. My TBR pile is growing…

    JB – exactly – I am so inspired by great story-telling. Whether it be in writing or film. Much of my life is spent looking for that spark of inspiration.

    Sarah – Robert B. Parker…I need to read more of him. I also read different authors for different reasons. Updike for his imagination and his inventive use of allegory, Hempel for brevity, Jim Thompson for his tight control and use of first person. I find all of that, and grounding, in Fight Club, however. It just speaks to me.

    Alafair – I've got a touchstone and I ain't near done with my book! If you don't have a touchstone, you definitely have SOMETHING, girl. You're definitely finding a way to get it done, and that's impressive.

    Piper – thanks for that recommendation. I've been wanting to read Koontz but I didn't know where to start.

    Jake – I love Lehane but haven't read “A Drink Before the War.” Another good recommendation. And I'm absolutely amazed by the imagination of writers like JK Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkein. They create worlds within worlds. I love getting lost in that, but I'd go crazy trying to write it.

    Alex – my big fear is if that I'll end up writing the entire book in first person present tense, just so I can get the voice, and then, for some reason or another, feel like I need to go back and change it all to third person past tense.

    Billie – it sounds like I need to take one of your writing workshops. I love the exercise you mentioned.

    JT – I must read John Connolly. I had the greatest time watching him drink and tell stories when we were at Bouchercon, SF. He's an amazingly vibrant story-teller. Oh, and I would spend less time on research if it wasn't such a great procrastination excuse.

    Debbie – you definitely write from the subconscious if you referenced Waiting for Godot and hadn't read it yet. I need to tap into that a bit myself.

  14. Louise Ure

    I love this post, Stephen. Here's to Fight Club and your astoundingly insightful wife!

  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    David – Jeez, man, thank you for those wonderful, beautifully kind words about my blog. I want to frame that sentence of yours – “an energy driven with an honesty and passion, anxiety and uncertainty, with a relentless search for clarity.” Man, I want that to be the blurb that accompanies everything I write from this point forward.

    I also read fiction as I write. I read for specific instruction and inspiration. That's why it's very difficult for me to read new works to write blurbs – I want to, but it takes me out of that focused search for guidance that I need from reading or re-reading the great works that inspire me.

    I also get that about teaching, how it pushes the analytical side of the process. I love teaching, in short spurts, or working with someone individually. But I don't know if I could do it full-time, as a career. I think the screenwriting fits pretty well because it keeps me thinking all the time, solving problems, trying to remain creative. And I don't take it as personally as I do with writing a novel. I'm well aware that film is a collaborative medium and my job is to give the director the tool he needs to make the best film he can. And, God, how it does beat being a salesman! I hope I'm done with that forever.

    By the way – I should have consulted with you before I wrote the line about the plumber's snake. I like your line much better. I'm stealing it.

    Now I've got to pick up God's Pocket.

  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Allison – the track is always crooked and circuitous. If that's the way it looks from your seat, then you're on the right one. And you can't do wrong with Bill Evans. Funny that you should mention jazz – I picked up the sax yesterday, finally, after almost fifteen years of dormancy, after getting it re-padded and fixed up a few weeks ago. I jumped right in – played along with The Crusaders, Ronnie Laws and Ritchie Cole. Then I picked up my book of Charlie Parker solos and practiced “Anthropology.” Then I put my classical brain in gear and played Mozart and Bach. It all came back!

  17. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    EB – yea! Another Chuck fan. I waited in line for almost two hours to get his autograph when he was on his last book tour. I spent about ten minutes talking to him afterward and I gave him a copy of Boulevard. He's such an inspiration. I'm also a Marcus Sakey fan – I love his writing. Marcus is also someone who has become a friend.

    Louise – yes, here's to Fight Club and the gal who leads me there!

  18. Chuck

    Great post today SJS. Thanks for the sobering facts, too. JT has told me, more than once, to enjoy the entire process. My agent and I are <groan> still seeking an editor. She also told me it's not all roses once my name is in print, so I've saved your entry as a reminder for later.

    I'm glad to know someone else rereads books like I do. I probably reread every fourth book, on average. I read a good deal of Follett for his heroines and ease of writing. I like Carsten Stroud for description. Ira Levin has killer inner dialog. James Jones for his meanderings. Frederick Forsyth for his precision and authority. And I love Dan Simmons for his characters.

    Just think, by now, somewhere, someone is using BOULEVARD as their touchstone. Of that I have no doubt.


  19. Reine

    There is a stick in a Seneca elder's closet. When I was 45 I went back to school. She reminded me it was there. I must work hard. When I do not, I will remember the stick. She said that even when she dies, the closet and the stick will still be there. I will remember them, and I will work hard again. She was right. She is gone now, but the stick lives in the circle of time.

  20. David Corbett

    BTW: I was once told by an editor I was working with that it was better to read and reread a few great books you found particularly inspiring than to be more broadly read. That, combined with Updike's adviso that one has to decide whether to be a reader or a writer, you can't do both, and I think you come down to just a handful of works that become central to you, your own personal canon.

  21. Debbie

    David 'Your own personal canon.' That phrase resonates with me, thanks. And, Stephen, I read Waiting For Godot in HS, but I doubt I understood any of it. The subconcious part is that my mind recalled it to the surface and when I reread it, it was without difficulty, with understanding, with a perspective different from the typical analysis and most importantly, with a message about my current MS. How absurd eh‽

  22. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Chuck – that's a great reference list for me, thanks. You've got an agent, so that's step number one. Hopefully an editor will sign on soon. But with ebooks…it's a different world now. There are new ways to publish, as you know. And thanks for your kind words – I think it would be great if someone saw that in Boulevard. I recently discovered that it is being used in a local high school English class about L.A. Noir. Gotta dig that.

    Reine – oiy, that stick would give me nightmares. How kind of her to tell you that the stick would follow you even after she dies.

    David – You're spot-on with that Updike comment. I couldn't agree more. And I love the idea of having my own, personal canon.

    Debbie – it's truly magical. It's the way the world works, I believe. I'm amazed that my brain is able to recall a life's worth of tiny details – little things always surprise me, and they always inform my work.

  23. Pari Noskin

    I've got to think about this, Stephen. There are certainly writers that I return to again and again — and some of their books bring me home. But I'm not sure I read them for writing inspiration as much as for my psychic well being . . .

  24. KDJames

    I read a lot. Probably too much. But I can't stand to re-read fiction, it just makes me crazy. So I guess I don't have any books that are touchstones. There are books on craft that I occasionally go back to and re-absorb the wisdom and advice.

    When I read a really good book, one that is significantly above and beyond others in its genre, it tends to demoralize more than inspire me. In a sort of, "I suck and will never be able to write anything this good" kind of way. It's the really horrid books, the ones where I see all the mistakes and lack of proficiency or writing knowledge, that make me think, "Well at least I'm not still this awful. At least I've learned enough not to make those mistakes." And I feel like maybe I can do this after all.

    But what really keeps me going are the kind words that wander into my life from time to time. I wrote a silly/funny blog post about imaginary friends a week or so ago and someone I don't know came over and commented, "Damn, I love writers." I think it might be the most awesome blog comment Ive ever read. That's the kind of thing, the idea that someone out there enjoys my writing, that helps the most when I feel stuck or uninspired or talentless.

  25. Reine

    Well, yeah – you know . . . it's a cultural thing. You should have heard her when she found out that my main student job was at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology AND that I lived in the dorm across the road where I could see into the museum from my room. Obviously I had a purpose there! Was I scared? Uh huh. Yup.

  26. PD Martin

    I don't have a touchstone book…do I need one?? Mmm…maybe I do! And I'm a writer who doesn't read when writing a first draft of a novel (well, sometimes I read, but I always make sure it's a totally different genre).

    I've also just written a complete book without a contract, but it's for different reasons. I've moved away from my series and into a slightly different genre, but as I was doing that my agent passed away. I tried a few agents with a proposal and first four chapters, but they felt in the current marketplace they needed to see the whole book. So I wrote, and now I'm shopping for a new agent. Horrible stuff!!!

    On your timings…have you ever heard of something called a 10K day? There's an article about it here People worry the writing will be crap, but what I've found is it initiates stream of consciousness writing (not as wanky as it sounds) and you end up adding to what you've written and refining, editing it. Great for moving your plot forward, fantastic for dialogue. Then you go back and add in descriptions, etc. I usually try to do one a month but you could do more frequently!

  27. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks for that link, Phillipa! I've never tried the fast and furious huge word-count draft. Which is odd, since I'm a Kerouac fan and that's how ON THE ROAD and THE SUBTERRANEANS was written. I can see how that would be good for dialogue work, too.
    I'm so sorry about your agent. That must have been traumatic. I hope you find someone who really sees you.
    I think it's probably a blessing in disguise, to write another book without a contract. It puts us in the best position to negotiate when we're done. Maybe we'll both end up in bidding wars!

  28. JJ

    Crais, Michael Connelly, early T. Jefferson Parker, or a classic action film like Die Hard. Any of these get me kickstarted.

  29. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    Great post, and I'm so glad you've got your brain drain sorted!

    I'm ashamed to admit I've never read FIGHT CLUB, but will seek it out. For present tense narrative, though, I always turn to Don Winslow's CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE. I love Robert B Parker's work, and I can always re-read Lee Child any time.

  30. Reine

    Zoë – yes – Robert B Parker's books. I had a lifelong intimacy with Spenser's Boston and Cambridge and Jesse Stone's Paradise/Marblehead. His stories rose up around me, something words never quite manage alone. Words in space can float your mind away.

  31. Eve

    Thank you, Stephen. This was a very instructive post. Curiously for me that touch stone is Dean Koontz. I have no idea why because I write young adult mystery which is nothing like Koontz's work, but somehow reading his work makes my words flow.

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