Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Write Descriptions like Raymond Chandler

Lately I have been reading Raymond Chandler again, specifically Farewell, My Lovely. For those who are not familiar with Mr. Chandler and his work, he writes what is called the “hard-boiled” detective stories. In fact, Raymond Chandler and his colleague Dashiell Hammett, pretty much invented the genre. Hammett had Sam Spade, of The Maltese Falcon fame, and Chandler had Philip Marlowe. Both are cynical, world-weary detectives without a tract of romanticism between the two of them.

But even if you don’t particularly like the hard-boiled detective genre, Raymond Chandler is still worth reading, just because he is so good at what he does. He’s a very good writer who is often overlooked by those who don’t consider him a “serious” writer.

Why do I consider Chandler so good? Because of the prose he produced. Yes, it might have been pulp fiction and is still considered (by those who spend way too much time sorting novels into particular boxes) “genre” fiction. And yes it is genre fiction, but it is very good genre fiction. There are a couple of reasons for this.

His description is uniquely interesting.

Part of the tradition in hard-boiled detective fiction is that the narrative is told in the first person, ostensibly by the detective. In Raymond Chandler’s case, Philip Marlowe. Part of that narrative is to portray the detective as jaded, cynical, and world weary, reflecting the detective’s low expectations of the world around him. Chandler does this better than anyone else and does it with nearly every single word he puts on the page.

Consider his description of a showgirl:

From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away. (The High Window)

Or a building:

The Belfont Building was eight stories of nothing in particular… (The High Window)

The very descriptions give the impression of a narrator who is more than a bit of a smart ass and not impressed by much anymore.

Another building, this time a mansion:

The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building. (Farewell, My Lovely)

As a person who enjoys sarcasm myself, this is someone I would enjoy spending some time with. Chandler uses sarcasm to great effect, as well as understatement, and exaggeration. Each working double duty, telling us what is going on as well as Marlowe’s attitude towards what is going on.

Perhaps Chandler’s greatest gift though, is in the use of similes. They are unique, surprising, and yet perfectly in character. When describing the aftereffects of being knocked out:

My stomach took a whirl. I clamped my teeth tight and just managed to keep it down my throat. Cold sweat stood out in lumps on my forehead, but I shivered just the same. I got up on one foot, then on both feet, straightened up, wobbling a little. I felt like an amputated leg. (Farewell, My Lovely) (the bold is my own)

The passage not only conveys what is happening, it conveys the narrator’s attitude toward what is happening with a wonderful economy of language. The narrator reports what is happening in a unique voice, then comments on it in a way that intensifies the characterization.

And he does this throughout the novel, with impressive consistency.

A man in a striped vest and gilt buttons opened the door, bowed, took my hat and was through for the day. (Farewell, My Lovely)

There was a cornflower in the lapel of his white coat and his pale blue eyes looked faded out by comparison…he had the general appearance of a lad who would wear a white flannel suit with a violet scarf around his neck and a cornflower in his lapel. (Farewell, My Lovely)

And this is all fine and dandy for those who are writing hard-boiled detective fiction, where the narrator or main character is supposed to be cynical, expecting the worst from humanity because that’s usually what he sees. But I’m writing a romance, or a historical family drama; how does this help me?

Because every scene you write, is written from someone’s point of view. It is narrated in someone’s voice, usually the voice of the main character. Having that voice obviously change as the point of view changes goes a great way toward showing your reader the character.

A room described by a Marine Corps Gunnery Sargent is going to be different than that same room as described by a twenty-year-old kindergarten teacher and animal rights activist. They will each notice different things. Their vocabularies will be different. The aggression (or lack thereof) will be different. It’s an extreme example, but the principle is there. Use your description to help create the character’s voice.

Reading Raymond Chandler’s novel is one way to see just how a master does that and does it well.

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writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Registration Now Open For the South Coast Writers Conference

One of the many hats I am prone to wear (other than writer of fiction and blogger) is that of a member of the organizing committee of the South Coast Writers Conference, an annual event we hold in my hometown of Gold Beach, Oregon on the Presidents’ Day holiday weekend. It is in that role that I am pleased to announce the lineup for the 2015 Conference, February 13-14, 2015.

The Presenters are:

Kim Griswell (keynote):
Developmental editor of children’s books for Portable Press and former coordinating editor at Highlights for Children.

Workshops:

Hey, Kid! Have I got a Story for You!— the craft of narrative nonfiction.
It’s All About Character—characterization

Stevan Allred:
Author of A Simplified Map of the World.

Workshops:

Exploring Point of View—Friday intensive workshop
Dixon Ticonderoga—pencils as inspiration
Creating Convincing Characters Across Gender—characterization of those not like us.

Mark Bennion:
Teaches at Brigham Young University-Idaho. Author of two poetry collections: Psalm and Selah, and Forsythia.

Workshops:

Close Observation and Resonant Sources (twice)

Dan Berne:
Author of The Gods of Second Chances, his debut novel.

Workshops:

Market Trends You Need to know About
Build Your Marketing Plan

Mark Graham:
Musician who has performed at The Newport Folk Festival and The Prairie Home Companion.

Workshop:

Art of Satiric and Comic Song

Nina Kiriki Hoffman:
Stoker and Nebula Award winning author of fiction.

Workshops:

Find Magic in Your Own Backyard
Setting is Character is Setting

Elena Passarello:
Her debut collection Let Me Clear My Throat won the Independent Publishers Association Gold Medal for non-fiction and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She teaches at Oregon State University.

Workshops:

Research in Literary Prose
The Ol’ Collage Try
—collage story telling

Liz Prato:
The author of Baby’s On Fire: Stories.

Workshops:

Perfect Your First Two Pages—Friday intensive workshop
Master Your Point of View
The Ins and Outs of Publishing in Lit Journals

Jeffrey Schultz:
The author of the National Poetry Series Selection: What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other. He is the Interim Director of the Creative Writing Program at Pepperdine University.

Workshops:

Voice, Personality, and Perspective
Metonymy and Experience
—alternate literary devices

Tess Thompson:
Bestselling author of romantic suspense.

Workshops:

Conquering Dialogue—Friday intensive workshop
Dialogue for Page-turning Fiction–(condensed version of the Friday workshop)

Once again, we have invited some of the best writers of the Pacific Northwest to guide you in an exploration and celebration of the many facets of writing. Participation in workshops is limited to 25 students for each of the three, intensive, Friday workshops and to 30 for the Saturday workshops. Participants are urged to register early to secure a seat in the workshops they want.

The South Coast Writers Conference. Gold Beach, Oregon, United States. Friday February 13, Saturday February 14, 2015.

For more information on the conference, contact the Gold Beach Center of Southwestern Oregon Community College at 541-247-2741 or visit the conference website at http://www.socc.edu/scwriters.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

An Exercise in Point-of-View

Most of us who have spent some time at this avocation called fiction writing are familiar with the most common aspect of point-of-view: first person, second person, and the many variations of third person (omniscient, limited omniscient, absolute, etc.). Odds are we have tried several of them in various works at one time or another. Through experimentation and experience, we have learned that each has its particular advantages and limitations.

That isn’t what I want to talk about today. Today I’m going to discuss a different aspect of the point-of-view question: which character exactly do you choose to tell the story?

Any psychologist or cop will tell us (and common sense confirms) that any time several people witness an event, they will report just as many different experiences of the same event. This is because we all view the events around us through the filter of our individual experiences. Our personal history colors everything.

The same holds true for our characters. The story told by character A will not be the same story as that told by character B, even if they are both involved in the events. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we make an informed, conscious decision when we choose our work’s central character.

A perfect example of this is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald could have chosen many different characters as the point-of-view character: Gatsby himself, Daisy, Daisy’s husband, as well as Nick. Each would be a legitimate central character; but the story would be different than the one Fitzgerald finally chose. So why did he choose Nick? Probably because Nick was the social outsider, a semi-objective observer of the social excesses and Gatsby’s doomed love. His distance from the drama made it all the more dramatic. None of the other characters could provide this distance.

So the exercise:

Write a short scene, just a page, or so, of a young family around the dinner table for their evening meal. The parents are in the middle of a disagreement, not a terrible fight, but feelings have been hurt. Despite the disagreement, they are trying (only partially successfully) to present a picture of normalcy for their eight-year-old son. Write the scene first from the viewpoint of one of the parents. Now write the same scene with the same dialogue from the other parent. Finally, write the scene, again using the same dialogue as the first two scenes, but now from the viewpoint of the eight-year-old son.

Do the three scenes become three different stories? Does the wants and needs of each of the characters inform how they perceive the action? If you did it right, it should.

I think we have a tendency to stay within our comfort level when we write. I know I do. I am an adult American male. Most of my main characters are adult American males. A couple are juvenile males. Virtually none are female of any kind. (Though I do have several scenes in Deception Island written from the point-of-view of female characters).

Perhaps by occasionally switching to a different main character we can find a better story than the one we originally envisioned.

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