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Johnny Shaw In The House (Old Church)



Once a month on the first Tuesday, Willamette Writers meet in Portland, Oregon.

The Old Church near Portland State plays host.

Eleven times a year a guest speaker takes the stage. The missing month is August because of the Conference.

Johnny Shaw, author of Dove Season, spoke to the gathering for September.

One part industry insider, one part stand-up, he delivered like FedEx: right on time.

The man who took the stage is the same guy you might see in an hot LA restaurant making block-buster movie deals.

His medium long hair and dark beard gave the Hollywood screenwriter look of being in the room where good pitches find a studio home.

The only thing missing was a baseball hat.

Johnny used the microphone to say he wasn’t using the mic, then gave the audience a timeless take on story structure.

The man is used to classrooms of college students. This was a night for adult education and he didn’t miss a beat.

Was his the best presentation of the year? The best of all time?

Johnny said he was in the Hard Boiled genre. Big plus. The crime and violence in his stories lead him to working-class characters with less to lose when they act out. Natural fit.

Instead of a suburban tiff in John Cheever country where guests slink from the pool party with hurt feelings, you know Johnny’s people would leave with a hearty “F-OFF” and a slammed door followed by a beer bottle shattering against it.

If you like the sound of broken glass, broken dreams, and broken people on the page, you’ll love Blood And Tacos. It’s a gift basket of badass for baby boomers.

From B&T: “There was a time when paperback racks were full of men’s adventure series. Next to the Louis L’Amours, one could find the adventures of The Executioner, the Destroyer, the Death Merchant, and many more action heroes that were hell-bent on bringing America back from the brink. That time was the 1970s & ’80s. A bygone era filled with wide-eyed innocence and mustaches.”

Listening to Johnny reminded me of the book on my desk by Joe Queenan. In One For The Books Queenan writes about his book life, why he reads and doesn’t read the books he collects, and what they mean to him. He would enjoy knowing I won’t finish his book.

There’s a big difference between reading a book and reading a book about reading books. Would you rather read about a writer’s favorite books, or buy books from a writer’s own used book store? Who has their own bookstore?

Johnny Shaw comes to the rescue of writers everywhere by explaining how to write readable books. He made it sound easy. While not a new thought, it was felt new coming from him.

  • Get a cat up a tree, throw rocks at it, then bring it down or let it fall.

Cat lovers might want to substitute another animal, but the idea is the same: A sweet, cuddly character falls into dangerous times and either makes their way out on their own, or gets help.

Shaw drove the point of the three act format even further with, “Some students say they need to use a five act structure and I say sure, just make sure it has three acts.”

This is the mother’s milk of writing that can’t be denied. Keep it simple and push the story momentum. One good sentence leads to the next, one good paragraph to the next, one good chapter…you know the rest.

Somewhere between the beginning and end of his talk, Johnny explained the difference between LIFE and DRAMA.

Life is one thing happening AFTER another. Drama is one thing happening BECAUSE of the other. As long as the one thing happening because of another builds on the AUTHENTICITY of the story, you’re on the right track.

Before Johnny left the stage for the author’s room to sign books he threw one more idea to shatter against the audience.

The biggest secret to good writing? Finish stuff.

Hearing those words nearly brought me to tears, hard boiled tears.














About David Gillaspie
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