I need to read more Raymond Chandler.

The Big Sleep cover

Two weeks ago I went away with my wife for a weekend at a nearby bed-and-breakfast, and I took along a copy of Carver’s The Big Sleep that I had picked up from a friend. I knew Carver only by reputation, as a sort of godfather of the mystery genre, someone that many people spoke highly of. I had heard the name Philip Marlowe, and I had the vague impression that his books all took place in smoky film noir settings full of sultry dames, bootleggers, wise guys with pistols tucked into their pants, and dirty cops.

These things all turned out to be true.

However, The Big Sleep wasn’t nearly as pulpy as I expected it to be, nor as pulpy as my summary above might suggest. Chandler wasn’t much for spectacle, and he plays down the more lurid aspects of his work rather than playing them up for titillation. What I expected the least, though, was how brisk and exacting the prose was. Chandler’s style eschews florid detail and "literary" ostentation, and instead lays out his scenes and arranges his words with crisp, punchy directness. Take the opening paragraph:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

I love this line: I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. Here we’ve got setting, tone, character, and the first note of the plot, all in just a few sentences. The presentation of the first-person protagonist, Phillip Marlowe, is especially deft. We get no direct characterization of Marlowe at all, and no expansive inner monologues or deep explorations of his inner life. But this doesn’t mean that Marlowe is a cipher; on the contrary, by the end of the book you know him very well, but you know him by virtue of his actions and, more importantly, by observing the world through his eyes, noticing what he notices, and feeling the effect of the words he chooses to describe it. This is marvellously effective. The plot never slows down to reveal the characters, yet we never have to wonder about who the characters are.

The plot construction, too, is excellent, especially in the opening chapters. We get a series of questions, and then a trickle of answers, each of which brings with it new questions. There is a constant sense of progress, but never a plateau or a moment where there is nothing to keep driving us forward. By chapters:

  1. Q: Why is General Sternwood hiring Marlowe? Q: What is up with his daughter Carmen?
  2. A: Sternwood is being blackmailed by A.G. Geiger, who claims to have information about Carmen. Q: What does Geiger know?
  3. Q: What is up with Victoria Sternwood? Q: What does Rusty Regan have to do with all this?
  4. Q: What sort of business is Geiger really running out of his "bookstore"?
  5. A: Geiger lends pornographic books. Q: What’s the connection to Carmen?
  6. Q: Who killed Geiger? And what does it mean for the Sternwood?

Chapter 6 is where things really pick up, as the sleepy little blackmail case suddenly becomes a murder case, and solving the murder requires Marlowe to untangle the rest of the questions posed in those first six chapters, as well as other questions posed thereafter. Then, about halfway through, things seem to wrap up… but following the last few loose ends (including things foreshadowed in those very first chapters) leads to another, deeper layer of mystery whose resolution is more difficult and more chilling.

The internets tell me that this was Chandler’s first Marlowe book, but that it was stitched together from previously published short stories. Knowing the book’s hybrid nature, one can make out some seams here and there, but overall this is a remarkably coherent and remarkably good early novel. I’ll be coming back to Chandler.

Last night, I plotted.

Plot has always bedevilled me, especially when writing novels. I find short stories to be simple to plot out: the action is (usually) straightforward, and the number of threads, events, and characters fit easily into my head. They have to fit into my head, because if I can’t keep track of everything that’s going on in a short story, then my poor reader has no chance.

Novels, however, are an entirely different matter.

I was able to plot out the entirety of The Taint (see link at left) in my head, but that story is only about 75 pages long, and even it pushed the limit of what I could reasonably handle without needing an external crutch. I got as far as I did because The Taint is structurally more like a short story: there is only one protagonist who always has POV, the cast of secondary characters is limited, and there weren’t very many cases where offscreen or backgrounded actions by secondary characters were crucial to the plot. I could plan out that novella by simply following my protag around, without needing to coordinate a tangle of related subplots and secondary characters.

My current WIP is another beast entirely. I have three protagonists and three POVs—something that I haven’t attempted before—and managing the interactions and intersections between them was driving me, frankly, nuts. The sketchy outline I had held in my head only brought the protagonists together in a few key places, and the movements of the characters between those pivot points was vague and undefined. When I began to fill in the blank spaces in my outline, I discovered I had enormous plot problems. Two of the protags were sidelined for a big chunk of the middle of the book while a third got all of the action; later developments required one character to be in two places at once in order for the timing to work out; the third protag’s character development hit a brick wall at one point; and I spent entirely too long getting the pieces into place for the finale.

My mechanism for finding this out, by the way, is very low-tech: I write a one-sentence summary of a scene or chapterlet on a notecard, and then spread the notecards around on a big flat surface in something vaguely resembling chronological order. To keep track of POVs, I write the first letter of the POV character for that scene in the corner of the card in huge print. (I’ve also heard of people using different colored inks or notecards for this purpose.) At the end, I can see everything that’s planned for the book in a easy-to-digest visual layout format, with gaps, omissions, and digressions clearly called out.

And this made it clear that my plot was a mess. It was a very familiar mess, though, as I had a lot of the same problems with my last novel attempt. In particular, I had a large number of scenes where I had written, basically “Something happens here.” For pacing reasons I realized that I needed to break up two events with a lull, but I didn’t have anything actually planned to fill in that space. Last time I tried to do this, the chapters in which “something happened” were the first ones to get cut since they were BORING. Instead, this time I played with ordering, bringing some events into the lulls and out of the climaxes so that the whole construction was less lopsided. I discovered some excellent places to have characters’ actions impinge on each other–one protag’s actions precipitate a crisis for the other protag in the next chapter, though without either of them knowing it–which really knits the plotlines together. And so on, working alone at night at the kitchen table until the whole thing began to hang together.

It’s done now. I have a thick stack of notecards sitting next to my laptop, just waiting to be turned into one chapter apiece. And to my delight, when I actually counted the chapterlets alotted to each character, I found that I had divided them up 10/10/11, meaning that the balance between protags is as perfect as it can be, and all without me having to distort the plot to get it that way. And when I read the chapters leading up to the climax, I can feel the rising tension and eucatastrophic catharsis, even though all I’m going on is one-sentence summaries scribbled on scraps of paper. This suggests that I’m getting it right.

Now all that remains is to actually write it all.

Meme time! As suggested by csinman, here’s a brief rundown of the way that I write.

I usually start with something so small that it can’t even be called an idea. Sometimes it’s a title. (My most recent short story, The Typographer’s Dream began that way.) Sometimes it’s an image (“an old woman weeping over a river”), or a theme (“something about forgiveness”), or a more typical what-if (“what if someone stole your ability to sleep?”). These kernels by themselves are never enough for a story. I have a file where I sometimes write down my kernels, but honestly I rarely use it. Usually the kernels just sit in my head and wait to germinate.

Kernels germinate either by combining with each other, or by latching on to some snippet of plot, something I read in the news, another story I read, etc. Here I’m helped by the fact that I have a Giant Fantasy World which is vast in imagined geography and history, and which almost any kernel can find a place in. (For example, my unpublished novel An Inheritance of Stars and my recent short story The Last Free Bear are both set in the Giant Fantasy World, despite the fact that they’re very different stories with no visible connections between them.)

Once the kernel has sprouted a plot, I’m ready to think about starting to prepare to consider what I’m going to anticipate writing. This takes a long time. Even after the plot has sprouted, I’m not ready to start cultivating a story in earnest. I have to let the plot stretch and unfurl and grow some more detail. I need to know at least 75% of what happens before I sit down to write; the last 25% can come in as I’m writing. If I have less than that, the story tends wither as I get stuck not knowing what to do. (This was the fate of the last novel I started, now trunked.)

Once all of that’s in place, it’s time to sit down and write. I write my stories in plain text. Yes, the kind you can read with Notepad. Once I wrote in WordPerfect, but then I lost my WordPerfect install CD, moved to a different computer, and found I couldn’t open any of my stories. Never Again. Text is universal and eternal. However, it’s not exactly “plain” text: I actually write everything as LaTeX, with the help of the sffms LaTeX package. LaTeX and sffms are both open-source, which means that even if they did go away someday, I’m free to use and modify the versions that I have squirreled away all over my hard drives. Oh, and my text editor is Vim. I use a makefile to generate txt, rtf, html, and pdf versions from the LaTeX source, and I have Vim set up to do all that with just two keystrokes.

(This is by far the nerdiest writing setup I’ve ever heard of, but I like it.)

I usually write on the bus to and from work. My goal is 1000 words a day, but I’m happy as long as I get more than 500. I would like to write more, but my time on the bus is the only writing time I can count on getting, and that’s less than two hours per day. I figure that at 500-1000 words per day, in 6 months I can finish a novel. (That hasn’t worked out in practice, so far, but we’ll see how things go in the future.)

Once a first draft is done, I wait a little while then make a first editing pass. This is just looking for mechanical errors or really egregious writing sins. After that, I put it up on OWW and/or send it to my flesh-and-blood readers. Then I start working on something else. A few weeks (for a short story) or a few months (for a novel) later, I’ll take all the comments I got and do a really thorough edit. This is when I’ll make serious changes like removing characters, changing the order of scenes, or reworking the plot. After this, I may send it out to one or two people that I know and trust for final comments. I brush up any last issues they see—then it’s off to the cruel world.

I picked up Stephen King’s On Writing for four bucks the other day at the bookstore. This has to be one of the funnest writing books I’ve ever read, full of interesting digressions and snappy prescriptions. Even when writing about grammar, King’s writing is taut and yummy.

But then there’s this:

With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.

The advice is fine, but: passive tense? Passive TENSE? This error occurs not once, but twice on the same page, yet the correct “passive voice” occurs twice on the next page. The only conclusion is that King doesn’t know the difference between tense and voice, or doesn’t consider the difference important enough to bother with. And neither did any of his copy editors.

Dear Mr. King and Editors: if you are going to lecture me about grammar, you should at least understand the difference between tense, and voice. Furthermore, this difference should be so basic to you that errors of this sort leap off the page like angry toads. And while you’re at it, you might add the words mood and aspect to your vocabulary, so that you can intelligently talk about sentences like She would have been shot without flopping around like a wet fish.

This proves: most people don’t know anything about grammar, and most of the ones who claim to know something about grammar don’t know very much. They should all just read Language Log.

This is a reaction of a sort to this story by Lisa Mantchev. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead and do so, then briefly peruse the comments.

The comments section is the really interesting thing. (Unlike most of the commenters there, I didn’t like the story itself that much–it was cute but not all that memorable, and I couldn’t figure out what the point was of making the horrible, spiteful little girl grow up into a horrible, spiteful adult.) The entire argument in the comment thread revolved around whether the story was racist for including the idea of “peddlers” (i.e. gypsies or Romani) buying a child. There were a few commenters of Romani ancestry complaining that it was, along with a group of like-minded supporters. Across the aisle were others that thought the story was fine and leapt to its defense with a variety of arguments. Some of these arguments were pretty stupid (“it’s a free country!”), while some were legitimate (“nothing in the story suggests that the peddlers are gypsies”).

It’s this last argument that I’m interested in pursuing. Nothing identifies the peddlers as gypsies except for the fact that they’re peddlers, and the child-buying is not what the story was about. The author herself appears in the comments and explains the explicit efforts she made to dissociate the peddlers from the stereotypes about Romani. This seems like a good-faith attempt to avoid perpetuating destructive stereotypes without gutting the story, so my sympathies lie with the author. What else is she supposed to do?

“Don’t write stories about selling children,” one commenter suggested with a straight face. This makes an extraordinary claim about the responsibilities of an author when dealing with racial stereotypes: the author can never mention them or even use things that resemble them at all unless specifically to repudiate them. The appearance of any character or situation that smacks of stereotype is automatically disallowed.

I find this alarming, and not just because it limits the sorts of stories that authors are “allowed” to tell. The real problem is that this discourages authors from using non-mainstream non-privileged characters at all. In this case the author explicitly tried to remove the racial implications, and still fell under the opprobrium of the offended. What option is there but to avoid the non-mainstream entirely? I don’t just say this hypothetically: I’ve had stories that I wanted to write, but hesitated because I was afraid of potentially racist interpretations. The solution is often to make the character white, or male, or mainstream, because at least no one can then accuse you of stereotype.

This hardly seems like a victory. For anyone.

First, a big public thanks to Sän and Eva, who helped me wring the horrible parts out of my synopsis.

Second, I really need to pass forward this page of synopsis advice that I got from Sän. I recommend that you read it and study it. Then click on every single link and study the more in-depth advice given therein. They’re all worth it. Even the one with the horrible background music.