Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned From Crime (Fiction) - Part 2: Strong Verbs

Strong verbs solve so many problems. They slay adjectives and adverbs, colour otherwise bland narration, and show the reader you know what you’re doing.

Crime writers are masters of the strong verb. Hardboiled prose requires crisp, clear narration. Even when we’re in the detective’s head the narration stays tight. Sure the private dick might spend a couple of paragraphs describing the other patrons at the dive bar he or she’s at, but even when the story digresses from the main plot the writing itself still stays lean and sharp.

My favourite writer for this is Charles Willeford. Just look at the opening paragraph to his novel ‘Pick-Up:’

‘It must have been around a quarter to eleven. A sailor came in and ordered a chili dog and coffee. I sliced a bun, jerked a frank out of the boiling water, nested it, poured a half-dipper of chili over the frank and sprinkled it liberally with chopped onions. I scribbled a check and put it by his plate. I wouldn't have recommended the unpalatable mess to a starving animal. The sailor was the only customer, and after he ate his dog he left.’

Now let’s look at it again, only this time I’m going to highlight the verbs.

‘It must have been around a quarter to eleven. A sailor came in and ordered a chili dog and coffee. I sliced a bun, jerked a frank out of the boiling water, nested it, poured a half-dipper of chili over the frank and sprinkled it liberally with chopped onions. I scribbled a check and put it by his plate. I wouldn't have recommended the unpalatable mess to a starving animal. The sailor was the only customer, and after he ate his dog he left.’

Now of course not all of these verbs are super exciting, but I love the strong verbs used to describe how the protagonist gets the hot dog together: sliced, jerked, nested. Such interesting actions for such a mundane task. But the words aren’t just there for razzle-dazzle: through the main character’s quick but sure movements (poured, sprinkled, scribbled) we get the sense that he’s been doing this for a long time, that he’s spent many a quarter to eleven dishing up disgusting food to strangers and that he’s tired of it. On a large scale all of this is setting up the rest of the novel. On a smaller scale it’s setting up the very next line:

‘That was the exact moment she entered.’

Ah yes, we can see now that things are about to change, that maybe this night is the last night our protagonist is going to spend slopping together chili dogs for drunken sailors. But is his life going to change for the better or worse? Well, that would be spoiling the novel.

Next week: Part 3: Lingo

Friday, March 23, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned From Crime (Fiction) - Part 1: Opening Sentences

I love crime stories. Heists, long-cons, murder gone wrong, detective stories, police procedurals, I love them all. I love crime as a genre because it is both escapism - the life of a criminal mastermind is pretty far-removed from my own law-abiding, mundane existence- yet at the same time crime manages to worm its way into everyday existence. But I also like crime stories just because I like the style of writing. Hardboiled novels have a bit of a bad rap thanks to all the noir parodies out there (i.e. “She came to the door with nothing on but the radio.”*) but there is a lot to learn from crime fiction, no matter what genre you write in. Over the next few weeks I plan to go through several of the things that crime fiction in particular has helped me with.

Part 1: Opening Sentences

Dashiell Hammett was one of the pioneers of the hardboiled detective novel. His 1929 novel Red Harvest is a particular favourite of mine, in part because of the opening sentence:

“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte.”

This opening sentence tells us several things. One, the story’s point of view is a first person narrator who likes to include lots of incidental details in his telling (do we need to know that he heard the nickname in Montana, and the name of the bar he was in? Maybe not, but this kind of detail soon became a trademark of hardboilded fiction). Also, we can see that the author has a gift for names. I mean, Hickey Dewey? A name like that is a good tip that this novel is going to be filled with over the top characters with colourful names (ironically, the protagonist is never named). Most important of all, it tells us what this book is about: not a person, not a thing, but a place. A place that has an officially friendly, welcoming name (‘Personville’) but it more commonly known as a place of moral rot and decay, a poisoned town.

(On a more meta level, it also hints that Hammett isn’t talking about a fictional place at all, but at taking a swipe at Butte, Montana.)

Phew, that’s a lot of heavy lifting for one sentence to do. But I love it. An opening sentence is like firing a bullet from a gun. The rest of the novel should follow naturally, like the trajectory of a bullet until it embeds itself in the back cover of the book.

Next up: Part Two: The Use of Strong Verbs

*Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a fun movie and an affectionate parody of the hardboiled detective genre.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Books I've read (so far) in 2012 - Part 1

'You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After Their Breakup' - If you ever want to become disillusioned about artists you admire, read a book about them. Especially one that focuses on one of the most turbulent periods in their lives, like when they all hate each other and are taking each other to court. The author does a good job of laying out the financial and legal aspects of The Beatles dissolving, while at the same time still keeping the people involved and the human drama at the forefront.

The Kingdom of the Gods
- I feel like I can never accurately judge N.K. Jemisin's books: I just have too much fun reading them to pick them apart. The book, the third in a trilogy, takes a supporting character from the previous two books and puts him in the lead. I like Sieh, but I think I like him better when there's a little more mystery to him- aka, when he's not narrating the whole book.

Let the Right One In - Sometimes you pick up a novel and after a few pages you just know that you're reading your new favourite book. That's what happened with me and Let the Right One In. The book is funny, dark, scary, violent and sweet- often all at once. It is probably my second favourite book featuring a pedophile as a main character (it would be number 1, but Lolita is a tough book to top).

The Prestige - One of the cases where the movie is better than the book. Someone had described the book to me in a way that made it sound really weird - 'Dueling magicians! And one of them turns into a ghost and haunts the others descendants!' But the book is nowhere near as wacky as I had hoped it would be. It's a fine enough novel, but I think it could have used a little more razzle-dazzle.

The Devil Wears Prada - I was on vacation, and I was just looking for something light to read, and I got it in this book.

Currently reading: Servant of The Underworld by Aliette De Bodard as part of the Absolute Write SF/F book club. If you want to take part, check out the thread here.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Schopenhauer, Music, and Writing

Sorry for the no-show post last week, I was on vacation.

German philosophers have a reputation for being depressing, and it’s easy see why when they’ve got a nihilistic heavy-weight like Nietzsche on their team. But while pretty much anyone can quote Nietzsche (sometimes without even realizing it) not as many people know Arthur Schopenhauer. A 19th century writer, Schopenhauer did nothing to break the ‘German-philosophers-sure-make-you-want-to-cut-open-a-vein’ stereotype: his philosophy was a purely pessimistic one, purporting that desire could never be fulfilled, only negated.

But everybody’s got to have something that makes them happy, even a sourpuss like Schopenhauer. For him it was music. Not opera, not folk songs, but just pure instrumental music. To Schopy music in its ‘purest form’ represented the purest expression of ideas, the closest the external world could get to expressing man’s abstract inner thoughts.

As a writer, I often think about Schopenhauer’s take on music. I often listen to music as I write. Sometimes I do this for very base reasons, like to get my blood pumping and psych myself up for another round of writing (the Mortal Kombat theme is my go-to song for this. In fact I’m listening to it as I write this blog post). But more often than not it’s because the song has meaning to me and relates to the story in my mind. It’s not as simple as say, listening to a song about cowboys while writing a western. For me it’s more about how the mood of the song captures something that I’m trying to express in my work. For example, I recently finished a novella that was largely inspired by the sense of unease I get when I listen to ‘I Am The Walrus.’ Lately I’ve been listening to MGMT’s song ‘Electric Feel’ on repeat as I try to find a way to translate the smooth elation I feel whenever I hear that song. Often I will get an idea from a specific lyric, but more often it’s the music itself that gets to me. I like it when a song can make me feel something so deeply that in turn I want to figure out how to express that same feeling through a totally different medium.

And with that note, I should get back to writing.