Posts Tagged ‘James M. Cain’
Writing is like a contact sport, like football. Why do kids play football? They can get hurt on any play, can’t they? Yet they can’t wait until Saturday comes around so they can play on the high-school team, or the college team, and get smashed around. Writing is like that. You can get hurt, but you enjoy it.
Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy. There are problems to be solved. It’s not all inspirational.
Writing a novel is like living next door to a family that has just moved in. At first you just see the people coming and going, in and out of their house. After a while their habits become more familiar, and then one day you go in for coffee.
Writing a novel is like walking from Vladivostok to Madrid on your knees.
—Attributed to William Styron
Writing a novel is like living in a house. You rummage around in the cellar and the attic, and you can afford to screw up a couple of rooms because there are always others that will be better.
Writing a novel is like taking an examination on which your whole future depends.
Writing is like driving sheep down a road. If there is any gate open to the left or the right the readers will most certainly go into it.
Writing is like wrestling crocodiles. The better you do it, the easier it looks.
Writing is like being a boxer. If you don’t want to get knocked down, you shouldn’t be in the game.
Writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.
Writing is like diarrhea: it pipes off the things that are in a ferment.
Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for money.
I’m a pretty good writer. At least, I’d like to think so. There are certainly things I’d change about my career if I could, and I’ve taken plenty of wrong turns, but I’ve still managed to sell a couple of novels, a fair amount of short fiction, and occasional freelance work, not to mention my daily grind on this blog. I’ve also thought a great deal about the process of writing itself, and I’d like to believe that I know a good piece of work when I see one, even if I don’t always live up to my own standards. Yet there are always ways in which I could do better. Writers are inevitably plagued by doubt—to the point where the phrase “frustrated novelist” strikes me as redundant—and we tend to question ourselves, and our choice of vocation, on a daily basis. But it’s also important to stand back every now and then and ask ourselves how we could take our fiction to the next level, even as we’re tempted to stick with what works. My own list of resolutions is lengthy and constantly evolving, but as of today, at a time when I’m taking a break between projects, these are my top three goals for my own writing:
1. Learn to be simple. This is the big one. As I’ve said many times before, I love complexity, and part of the fun of writing a novel is seeing how far I can push the envelope in terms of density and intricacy of plot. All the same, I also see this as a limitation, which is one point on which my occasional critics and I can agree. There’s a sense in which complexity can be a form of timidity, a flight from the sort of exposure that simplicity brings, when there aren’t any tricks or gimmicks to cover up a writer’s real shortcomings. As much as I’m drawn to complicated plots and structures in the books I read, many of my favorite novels—the works of James M. Cain, for instance—are marked by rigorous focus and economy, even as they open into ever greater depths. That’s the mark of a truly gifted writer, and it often takes far more effort to achieve than a plot in which the wheels are constantly turning. A few of my short stories, like “Ernesto,” have something of this straightforward quality, but it’s something I haven’t yet had the courage to explore at greater length. And I’m not sure when I will.
2. Get more quickly out of the gate. Here, again, Cain is my great example: Tom Wolfe has justly praised his famous momentum, the sense that the action begins at the first line and never relents, which is something I don’t always see in my own stories. I do my best to hook the reader, of course, and each of my published novels opens with a pretty good opening scene, but I still can’t shake the sense that they take longer to ramp up than they should. To my eyes, both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles are at least interesting from the start, and I hope that their opening chapters at least encourage the reader to keep going, but in both books, things don’t really get cooking until after the first hundred pages. Part of this is due to the structural complexity I mentioned above: both novels have a lot of moving parts and parallel plot threads that need to be set in motion before they can interlock in a satisfying way, and if nothing else, I’d like to believe that they ultimately reward a reader’s patience. But I’d love to write a book that moved so quickly that this wasn’t an issue at all.
3. Focus more on voice. I’ve spoken a lot about how I value clean, transparent prose, which I still think is the right call. If nothing else, it means that I can read the stories I wrote in my late twenties without wanting to go back in time and intercept them on the way to the post office. Yet voice is one of the most powerful tools available to a writer, even if it’s been abused and made suspect by authors who don’t seem to care about anything else. In some ways, this is the trickiest resolution of all: I still believe that clarity and lucidity are the obvious choice for the kinds of stories I write, and any attempt to experiment with voice could easily backfire. Still, I envy writers, like David Mitchell, who take clear pleasure in their acts of narrative ventriloquism, and it would be interesting, if nothing else, to try to write an extended narrative in a voice that wasn’t my own. This sort of experimentation is best done in private, and it’s likely, even probable, that the results would never see the light of day. I wouldn’t do it without a good narrative reason. But it’s still something to keep in mind.
A novel is something that has to be endured by the writer. Anybody who can’t go back for the fourteenth and fifteenth revision with freshness and enthusiasm ought to get out of the business.
Most of us, from the moment we start writing seriously, are told that all good writing comes from character. Whether we’re writing a literary novel or a hard-boiled mystery, it seems obvious that the protagonist should drive the story through his own objectives and behavior, that he should succeed or fail based on the choices he makes, and that the resolution of the plot should come about as a direct consequence of his own actions. This is good, sound advice. I’ve given it here before. And yet as we continue to write and experience other works of art, it becomes increasingly clear that character isn’t the whole answer. Because when we consider the absolute heights of literature, from Oedipus Rex to King Lear, or even the best of genre fiction, like the novels of James M. Cain, it’s hard to shake the feeling that what we’re being shown is somehow more than character, while also derived from it, and closer to a true representation of how the world really works.
Years ago, after seeing Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, I reflected that one reason I admire but don’t love Leigh’s movies is that they’re character-driven in the purest way: the stories are derived from a long process of improvisation with a team of actors, and as a result, there’s nearly nothing in his films that doesn’t emerge from character. This is obviously admirable—and Leigh is one of the most consistently engaging directors around—but it also means that his movies are curiously limited. Events in real life, after all, doesn’t always come directly from character: we’re often asked to deal with things that are out of our control, or the control of those around us. Life can be uncanny, shocking, or arbitrary—but often in ways that seem strangely appropriate. And that’s why works of fiction that resolve their themes on an allegorical level, rather than a purely rational one, tend to shake us far more deeply than works that scrupulously follow through on the implications of character alone.
As a result, many of my favorite works of art, ranging from Vertigo and The Red Shoes to The Magus and Disgrace, are almost cosmically unfair. What happens to the the characters in these stories, while superficially the consequence of their own actions, is also the result of a playful, dangerous, or unfathomable universe, which takes their actions and magnifies them to the scale of tragedy. And sometimes genre fiction—horror, in particular—understands this better than anything else. I respond to the terribly unfair fates of characters in Stephen King, for instance, because they justify my suspicion that in real life, what happens to us is not always the result of our own character, but of some higher capriciousness or malevolence. And this sort of narrative perversion is inherently factored out of works of pure character, like Leigh’s films, while remaining accessible to artists like Brian De Palma, the master of the unfair conclusion.
In all honesty, though, I’m not sure what my advice is here. Character is still hugely important. And the strategy of cosmic unfairness, if pursued too closely, can only result in a victim story. (One unfair act of fate is generally enough.) As a general rule, the protagonist’s actions and objectives are what drive the plot moment by moment—this is one of the first things that any good novelist needs to internalize. But it’s more a question of craft than of philosophy. And once this rule has been fully absorbed, the novelist can move past it, or undermine it, just as life itself often undermines our best intentions. Best of all, as in Vertigo, an artist can begin with pure character, then fulfill it with a twist of fate that seems inevitable, but in ways that can’t be rationally explained. But such stories are only possible when the writer already knows the importance of character itself—and when to move beyond it.
While every novelist should strive to be a perfect writing machine, equally at home in all aspects of the craft, there’s no doubt that every writer has particular weaknesses. For me, at least to my own ears, it’s dialogue. Dialogue in my novels and short stories tends to be purely functional, and while I do my best to make it natural, clear, and concise, I doubt I’ll ever be able to write dialogue like James M. Cain. Yet I find myself writing dialogue all the time: it’s still the most economical way of advancing a story, and since it’s so central to the suspense genre, I’m constantly striving to make my own efforts more readable and appealing. And while the best way to write good dialogue is to study the novelists or dramatists whose work you admire (my own favorites include Cain, Updike, and, in small doses, Mamet), I can still suggest a few general guidelines.
The first point to remember is that dialogue is like any other aspect of fiction: it’s only meaningful as a part of the whole. If a clever line draws attention to itself at the expense of the fictional dream, it probably needs to be cut. Samuel Johnson’s famous advice—”Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out”—applies doubly so to dialogue, where an awkward or precious exchange can pull the reader out of the story immediately. This is true of even very good novels, like The Time Traveler’s Wife, where the dialogue, especially between male characters, occasionally strays into preciousness, and it can particularly be a problem in genre fiction, where writers sometimes feel the need to fill the entire page with banter. A page of nondescript but serviceable dialogue is always better than a page of clanging repartee.
Another point is that dialogue doesn’t need to be realistic in order to read well, or to serve its purpose within the story. On the most basic level, nearly all fictional conversations need to be more direct and concise than the way we talk in real life: characters in a novel tend to be very good at getting directly to the point. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a book like Foucault’s Pendulum is full of conversations and dialogue that, with their density of allusion and information, could never occur in real life, which strikes me as perfectly fine (though Salman Rushdie would disagree). Still, this is a slippery slope: I find the endless expository passages in Dan Brown’s novels unbearable, for instance, and since thrillers are especially prone to this sort of thing, I’m constantly working to make sure that my own fiction doesn’t suffer from the same problem.
In the end, every writer finds rhythms of dialogue that work within the context of the story, which is the only context that matters. And a writer shouldn’t hesitate to violate conventions of accuracy or realism in the pursuit of greater clarity. Writing dialogue for characters speaking in a foreign language, for instance, often requires navigating the requirements of clarity and plausibility at the cost of technical accuracy. I’ve always loved Eco’s description of how he approached this problem in The Name of the Rose, much of which is in Latin:
I have eliminated excesses, but I have retained a certain amount. And I fear that I have imitated those bad novelists who, introducing a French character, make him exclaim “Parbleu!” and “La femme, ah! la femme!”
All the same, a certain amount of artificiality is sometimes necessary. Critics have pointed out that much of the dialogue in For Whom The Bell Tolls, which purports to render Spanish conversations in English, actually results in nonsense when translated back into Spanish: Hemingway wasn’t going for literal fidelity, but a formal, archaic tone appropriate to the mood he’s trying to create. The needs of the story, in other words, trump everything else. Which is exactly how it should be.
For a writer, there’s nothing more terrifying than a blank page—especially when you know that this page is only the first of three hundred or so that need to be filled. This gives a novel’s first sentence, whatever form it takes, a particularly talismanic quality. As Joan Didion points out, once you write that opening line, doors are already closing. Where once the possibilities seemed limitless, now you’re locking yourself down. So that first sentence had better be damned good.
Or so you tell yourself. In reality, it’s unlikely that the first version of a novel’s opening lines will bear any resemblance to their appearance in the final draft. Like all sentences, they will be polished, edited, even cut altogether. With Kamera, which was far from my first novel—though it will be the first to be published—it took me months of fiddling before I came up with an opening that I liked, and even then, I had my doubts. Here’s what it looked like in the end:
Andrey was nearly at the border when he ran into the thieves. By then, he had been on the road for three days. As a rule, he was a careful driver, but at some point in the past hour, his mind had wandered, and as he was coming over a low rise, he almost collided with two cars that were parked in the road ahead.
Now, this opening may never top the American Book Review list, but for what it is, I think it works. When I wrote it, as usual, James M. Cain was at the back of my mind: I wanted to get the reader into the story quickly, cleanly, and without a lot of fuss. And I didn’t want to overwhelm the reader with information. Note, for instance, that I don’t say where the border is. In my first draft, I mentioned that Andrey was “ten kilometers north of the Ukrainian border, just outside Shebekino,” but I eventually decided that too many specifics would only slow the opening of the story down. I hoped that the name “Andrey” by itself would evoke a location, and that the word “thieves” would have resonances of its own. And above all, I hoped that the initial situation was interesting enough that the reader would go on to the next paragraph.
For a short story, the challenges are slightly different. Just as the opening moments of a television show need to grab the viewer’s attention in a way that those of a movie do not, a short story generally needs to begin with more of a narrative hook. Usually, this hook can take the form of implied—which is more interesting than overt—action or violence; an unusual detail; or a striking line of dialogue. And it’s best not to appear to try too hard. An author who plants his narrative hooks too blatantly can seem like a college freshman pawing artlessly at a gidle, when, as John Gardner says, he should be more like a magician effortlessly forcing cards into his victim’s hand. Here’s how I opened “The Last Resort,” a novelette that appeared in the September 2009 issue of Analog:
The shotgun was not aimed directly at Helki, but its barrel was pointed in her direction, which was more than enough for her to take it personally.
Reading this sentence again now, it strikes me that maybe I was, in fact, trying a little too hard. In any case, though, the story sold, which is more than I can say for many others, and readers seemed to like it well enough. Here, the narrative hook is the threat of implied violence, or at least aggression, and perhaps—or so I’d like to think—a hint of the main character’s personality. Given the choice, though, I prefer to open with something incrementally more subtle. Here’s what I wrote for “Kawataro,” which is scheduled to appear in Analog in June:
The kawataro stood at the side of the road. Hakaru saw it for the first time as he was trudging along the highway, suitcase rolling behind him in the rain. It had been half a mile by foot from the train station, and although he had been looking for the turnoff to the village, it was so narrow, less than six paces wide, that he was on the point of walking past it entirely when the statue caught his eye.
Here, the narrative hook rests solely on the word “kawataro,” which I assume is unfamiliar to most readers, who would hopefully read onward to discover what a kawataro was. (Note that it’s important not to be too coy about this. I explain what a kawataro is, sort of, in the following paragraph. A writer who refuses to explain important details for an extended run of pages, solely for the purpose of prolonging the suspense, is only going to annoy the reader.) Ideally, the hint of an unusual setting, which turns out to be a small fishing village in Japan, works as a hook as well.
As for the last kind of narrative hook, dialogue, it’s what I use at the opening of “The Boneless One,” which I expect will appear in Analog by the end of the year:
“Before we go on deck, I should make one thing clear,” Ray Wiley said. “We’re nowhere near the Bermuda Triangle.”
A little cute, maybe, but I think it works. As with everything else in writing, such things are a matter of taste, and every writer ends up developing his or her own personal approach to the problem. In the end, with practice, there’s something a little mechanical about writing good first sentences—which is why even the best opening lines, if too carefully calibrated to arouse the reader’s interest, can seem like something of an exercise. Much less mechanical is the question of where to begin the story itself, which I’ll be discussing in more detail tomorrow.
Now that I’ve already looked at the problem of endings in possibly excessive detail, it’s time to turn to the even greater challenge of beginnings. The first sentence of a novel is, obviously, the most visible; it’s under the maximum amount of pressure to be interesting and graceful; and it can be fetishized and scrutinized out of all proportion to its actual importance. As a result, many first sentences have an air of desperation. (American Book Review’s list of the hundred “best” first sentences, read consecutively, makes for oddly depressing reading.) That said, I can only begin by quoting my own favorite opening, from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice:
They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.
No desperation there—just a clean headlong plunge into story. I don’t want to analyze this opening too much, except to say that it beautifully exemplifies the quality of momentum that Tom Wolfe, among others, has praised in Cain’s work: no other novelist has ever been faster at coming out of his corner. Cain was the most impressive stylist in the history of the suspense form—even Edmund Wilson, no fan of the genre, was an admirer of Cain—and he did it with language that was clean, direct, and surprisingly subtle. (And the wording is more nuanced than it looks. Changing “hay truck” to “fruit truck,” for instance, would alter the entire mood of the opening.)
The crucial quality of an opening sentence or paragraph, of course, is that it keeps the reader going. Most writers try to do this with action, often violent or melodramatic, but it can also be done with character, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does in The Sign of the Four:
Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.
Any story that begins with the words “Sherlock Holmes…” is interesting in itself, so it’s useful to note that this is only the second Holmes novel ever published, written when Conan Doyle was barely thirty, but already a master at seizing the reader’s attention. (Perhaps too much of a master: his depiction of Holmes using cocaine was still controversial enough, nearly a century later, that the above paragraph was cut entirely from The Boy’s Sherlock Holmes, which was the edition I read growing up.)
The examples I’ve mentioned so far come from genre novels, but even a literary novel with a more leisurely pace benefits from a good, clean opening. For sheer magic and confidence, it’s hard to top the first sentence of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale:
There was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood.
But not every great novel has a great opening sentence. It’s difficult to imagine a more snooze-inducing opening line than this one:
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.
This is from The Once and Future King, and I can only assure you that it gets a lot better from there. (It’s likely that T.H. White was deliberately trying to convey an air of boredom in the first sentence, in order to contrast the young Arthur’s conventional schooling with his much more exciting educational experiences to come. This, needless to say, is a strategy that most novelists would be advised to avoid, at least at first.)
What I’ve said before about closing sentences applies equally well to their opening counterparts: there are as many different kinds as there are novels. If there’s one rule that I’d encourage writers to follow, though, it’s not to try too hard. A novel isn’t a newspaper article; not every relevant detail of time, place, and circumstance needs to be crammed into the first sentence. Many suspense novelists, in particular, seem so terrified that the reader will read the first sentence and nothing else that they overload their openings like a fishing line strung with multiple flies. The result is often a sentence like this:
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.
This particular opening, with its infamous “renowned curator,” has been so thoroughly eviscerated elsewhere (notably here and here) that no further commentary would seem necessary. And yet the sentence does work: millions of people, for better or worse, kept reading. Which suggests, as I’ve already said, that it’s hard to lay down any definitive rules, only examples. Tomorrow, then, I’ll be looking at the openings of some of my own stories, and talking about what at least one writer is thinking when he stares at that first, terrifyingly blank page.
Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.
—Hannibal Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs
Yesterday I mentioned The Silence of the Lambs as a book that any aspiring writer might want to study to see how, exactly, it works, and with good reason: it’s possibly the most perfect thriller ever written. One could also read, with profit, the two earliest novels by Thomas Harris: Black Sunday is a fine, underrated book, and Red Dragon, though it has some structural problems, is still astonishing. Yet Hannibal, his fourth novel, should be approached with caution, and Hannibal Rising should best be avoided altogether. And the story of how Harris went from being the finest suspense novelist in the world to a shadow of his former self is an instructive cautionary tale.
Harris began his career as a crime writer for the Associated Press, and his background in journalism—like that of Frederick Forsyth, my other favorite suspense novelist—is evident in his earliest novels. Black Sunday is full of fascinating reportage, while Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs are virtual textbooks on forensic profiling and criminal investigation. (While I was writing The Icon Thief, I was almost always rereading one of those three books, along with the best of Forsyth and James M. Cain.) Harris’s writing could be baroque, but he also had a nice ear for technical jargon, and a sense of how smart cops and FBI agents might talk among themselves.
None of these things would have made so great an impact, however, if Harris hadn’t also created Hannibal Lecter, the most vivid and enduring fictional character of the past thirty years. And the really impressive thing is that Lecter originally appeared in only a handful of chapters in Red Dragon and perhaps a quarter of the pages in The Silence of the Lambs. (Anthony Hopkins’s performance in the movie version of the latter consists of only eighteen minutes of screen time.) We don’t learn much about Lecter, we see him only briefly, but we—and the other characters—spend a lot of time thinking and talking about him when he isn’t onstage. And this is crucial to his character’s appeal.
Why? Here’s the big secret: when you shine a spotlight on Hannibal Lecter, he disappears. He’s unbelievable. He’s omniscient, infallible, unfailingly one step ahead of his adversaries. Aside from being utterly insane, he’s perfect. The fact that he’s embedded within a novel that is otherwise incredibly convincing and plausible, down to the smallest details of police procedure, blinds us to the fact that Lecter is a fantasy. And that’s fine. Nearly all the great heroes of popular fiction—and Lecter is a hero, cannibal or not—are fantasies as well, and they don’t hold up to scrutiny. WIlliam Goldman, in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, does a nice job of explaining why, in reference to a very different character:
The character of Rick [in Casablanca], of course, is very old—he’s the Byronic hero, the tall dark handsome man with a past.
Most movie stars—actors, not comedians—have essentially all played that same role. And they have to always face front, never turn sideways—
Because, you see, there’s nothing to them. Try and make them full, try and make them real, and guess what? They disappear.
…Hollywood heroes must have mystery.
Which applies just as much to Lecter, if not more so. It also applies to many of the most popular characters in fiction, who exist entirely in the moment. For all the valiant efforts of Sherlockians, we know almost nothing about the past of Sherlock Holmes. Forsyth’s Jackal doesn’t even have a name. And while it isn’t necessary for every novelist to go so far, remember this: backstory can be deadly. The primary interest of a fictional character comes from what he does, or doesn’t do, in the story itself, not from what happened to him before the story began. Character comes from action. If you’ve written a compelling character, of course, readers are naturally going to want more backstory, which is great—but that doesn’t mean you should give it to them.
Which is precisely where Harris went wrong. In Hannibal, and even more so with Hannibal Rising, Harris forgot that his most famous character absolutely needed to remain a mystery. Lecter was the breakout star of the series, after all, and readers clearly wanted to see more of him. So Harris turned Lecter into the lead, rather than a key supporting character, gave him a massive backstory involving Nazis, cannibalism, and a castle in Lithuania, and finally made him, in Hannibal Rising, almost entirely admirable and heroic. To use Martin Amis’s memorable phrase, Harris had “gone gay” for Lecter. And the series never recovered.
I still hope that Harris comes back and writes another amazing novel. I really do. Even Hannibal, for all its problems, has remarkable moments (although Hannibal Rising is almost entirely worthless). All the same, it’s been four years since we saw a new book from Harris, a notoriously slow and methodical writer, and there hasn’t been a whisper of another project. And the pressure to write another Hannibal Lecter novel must be tremendous. But I hope he resists it. Because an ambitious new thriller by Harris without Lecter would be the literary event of the year, maybe the decade. While another Lecter novel would be thin gruel indeed.