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

One of a Kind

There’s a saying among people who say such things that there are no original stories. They do have a point. Human beings have been telling stories to each other stories for about 10,000 years so I tend to agree with them about the originality angle. Though the trappings change over time, from ferocious animals to space ships and computers, the basic human stories are the same. The basic human stories are universal.

In my college days, there was an apocryphal theory (I’ve never researched its validity) going around that in all of literature, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Star Wars, there are only two real stories: Jack, The Giant Killer, and Cinderella. According to this theory, everything is simply a variation of one of those two templates: The underdog is victorious against all odds (or isn’t); and the person goes from rags to riches (or doesn’t).

I’m not sure how valid the theory is. But I have always thought it interesting and possible.

The biggest lesson I take from the “Two Stories” theory is the inarguable fact that none of us can write a truly original story because all the original stories have been told already and several times. If we wait to find an original story to write, we will never write. It can’t be done.

That isn’t to say that we can’t be original. We can. But the difference is that while we will never be able to write an original story—that is impossible—we are more than able to tell an existing story in a new way. We can set it in an original place (Star Wars is an old fashioned western set in space). We can show it from a different point of view. We can tell the story in a different (such as a nonlinear) form. We can turn a work of fiction into a poem; a poem into a work of prose.

Most of all, we can use our own, original voice and perceptions, to make a familiar story new. Each of us is a unique individual. We each have a unique set of skills and values and relationship with the world around us. It is that which, when we properly harness it, creates the originality we seek in all art.

The originality isn’t in the story itself; it’s in how we tell the story.

Trust your skill. Trust your instinct and vision. Most of all trust yourself and be yourself. It is only through trusting yourself and your voice that you can truly write original work.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Say It Like You Mean It

This week at the critique group I attend an interesting topic came up. It appeared as the group was critiquing the submission of one of our members. He (in the interests of back story) is a newer member of our group, both in terms of attendance and writing experience. He is a novice and has no pretensions of being anything more. As such, we are all more than willing to help.

The particular issue in this writing sample was a marked tendency he has to qualify his statements in his writing. To his credit, he’s writing a genealogy, so there is a great deal of murkiness surrounding the historical data he’s working with. Yet, as the author of this genealogy—or any work—(we told him), he needs to cut back on the qualifiers accompanying his statements.

Why?

There are a few reasons. First, it detracts from the power of the prose. “The car drove down the road.” Is a much more powerful statement than, “A car, or maybe it was a truck, but the evidence points to it being a car, drove down the road.” It dilutes the message of the statement: that a vehicle drove down the road. In the English language simple is powerful.

Second, it makes the prose overly complicated. Take the second example from the previous paragraph: “A car, or maybe it was a truck, but the evidence points to it being a car, drove down the road.” Now imagine reading a paragraph composed of four or five sentences like that. It will have two immediate effects, none of them good. It will bring the pace of the narrative (even in nonfiction there is a story being told) to a full stop. It risks confusing the reader.

Perhaps most important of all, it damages the author’s authority. If our authority as authors is lost, we have lost our readers. It’s over. Might as well hang up our word processor and play solitaire.

Why is this so important? Because the reader of our works needs to believe the author of the book (or article, story, or poem) is more knowledgeable about the subject than they are.

Think about it. How often do you go to the bookstore or library for a book about something you already know? How many times have you bought a book by someone who has no qualifications to write it? Probably not often. I know I seek out books that either increase my knowledge, provide new experiences, or both. I’m looking for experts. I’m looking for authorities on the subject matter, whatever it is.

I think it’s pretty much universal. (It’s one of the reasons new and self-published authors have so much trouble selling their books, no matter how good they might be; they have not established themselves as experts).

All writers need to be authorities on whatever they’re writing about. They need to be experts and their writing needs to reflect this. They need to write with authority. They need to write like they know what they’re talking about.

This is true for fiction writers as much as nonfiction. I have personally had to fight this (which I take as a manifestation as self-doubt) myself, most often in description. Often in first drafts I will find myself using two or three similes to describe something, like I wasn’t sure the first one was effective and added a second for insurance. It isn’t that I doubt the readers’ ability to understand my simile; I doubt my ability to effectively communicate with the simile, so I play the odds and add another, or maybe two.

This only makes the writing weaker. As an author, I have to be the ultimate authority. If I choose to use a simile, I need to use the best one I can devise to communicate the idea and then go with it. The reader—whatever image the simile conjures in their imaginations—will assume that is the image the writer wanted.

And we can live with that.

Because there is a little secret you need to know. Most devout readers would really like to be authors themselves, but either don’t have the talent, or haven’t put in the work needed to become one. So they already admire you. Write like you deserve that admiration.

You have something to say. You’ve worked hard on the skills you need to give your ideas form and structure. Now take what you have to say and say it like you mean it.

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