December 27th, 2006


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Raymond Chandler’s Little-Bitty Page

March 11th, 2007

Shenzen, China — A notebook full of alphabetized names of people living and dead. Descriptions of clothing, obviously jotted on the fly. Slang expressions. Cryptic titles.

It sounds like a clue in a detective novel, but it’s actually a clue to the working habits of the greatest writer of detective novels in history.

In his terrific biography of Raymond Chandler, Tom Hiney puts a lot of effort into describing the ways in which Chandler taught himself his craft. This is especially interesting to me, because, like everybody who writes, I’m looking for ways to get better. Also, like everybody who writes detective stories, I’ve been inspired by (okay, I’ve stolen from) Chandler. So when I find a new way to steal from him, I find myself on full alert.

And Chandler wouldn’t mind. He stole himself silly.

Chandler came to writing late in life, at a time when the pulps were in full flower – magazines full of detective stories, printed on cheap paper. There were dozens of them, meaning that lots of writers were getting published every month. Chandler – like a million writers before and since – must have looked at these stories and thought, “Jeez, I could write better than this.” Unlike most of those writers, though, he sat down and did it.

He began by stealing. Stealing has an illustrious history in the creative arts. Everybody steals from everybody, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. Chandler did it consciously. He took the stories he liked best, and rewrote them from scratch: new characters, a new McGuffin, new action scenes. He did it over and over again, until he saw how the stories worked, and then he wrote some of his own.

(A McGuffin, if you don’t already know, was Alfred Hitchcock’s term for the thing everybody in a story wants: a secret, a wine bottle full of uranium, whatever.)

He sold some stories. Suddenly, he wasn’t unemployed any more. When he took the next step and decided to write a novel, he stole different stuff. He must have figured he was already good with characters and dialog, but he didn’t know much about structure. He chose Erle Stanley Gardner, whose Perry Mason novels are models of structure, and rewrote him. When he had done that a few times, he wrote his first novel, The Big Sleep, and pretty much set the tone of private-eye fiction forever after.

I already knew most of this. I’m repeating it here mostly because I think it might interest you, especially if you’re a writer.

But here’s something I didn’t know, something that stopped me in my tracks. And he didn’t steal it. As far as I know, this idea began with, and ended with, Raymond Chandler.

He wrote on small pieces of paper.

Your reaction is probably, “So?” But listen. He worked on paper that was roughly the size of a paperback book laid on its side. He put each sheet his typewriter sideways, meaning that his page was only about four inches long. Then he made the effort, as Hiney says, “to put ‘a bit of magic’ on to each small sheet; be it an image, description, or wisecrack.”

This is a prodigious commitment. Magic on demand. No long, paralyzing stretches of exposition, no inert descriptions of settings or character, no dialog dull enough to be between a couple of fish. Magic. On every page. On every little-bitty page.


If you have the guts, try it. Redefine the page size on your computer so it’s, say, a 4”x5” card, and get some magic on it. And on the next one. And the one after that. If you do, you’re braver than I am.

Chandler also stole from real life. He kept notebooks, line the one described at the top of this blog. He knew that the world throws you material all the time, and that the writer’s job is to catch it. And he stole from himself, braiding two or more of his earlier stories into a longer, more complex plot. He cannibalized himself pretty thoroughly.

But that little-bitty page. That takes cojones.

(To read more about Chandler’s writing habits, look at the piece called Work Habits in the Writers’ Resources area of this site.)

This entry was posted on Sunday, March 11th, 2007 at 2:33 am and is filed under All Blogs, Writing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

The Only Beard in Shenzhen

March 27th, 2007

Shenzhen, China – I’m beginning to think I have the only beard in Shenzhen. I get a lot of attention in the street, most of it focused on my chin. Occasionally men (and women, too) finger their own chins thoughtfully as they pass me. A couple of people have pointed and said, “Waaaah.” But they say it cheerfully, and that’s the big difference.

The last time I was in China was in 1985, and I hated it. It was dirty and dour. People wore shapeless clothes designed specifically to suppress any attractive physical qualities they may have had. It was very effective camouflage, considering that the Chinese are a beautiful people. I can’t recall looking twice at anyone.

No one met your eyes. Service was almost nonexistent, and on the rare occasion when you got any, it was sullen and slow. Everyone resented everything. Every question you asked, every item you tried to buy, every room you attempted to check into, every plane and train you boarded – it was all a personal inconvenience for the person who was supposed to be helping you. I can’t recall getting a single smile the whole three weeks I was here.

Well, welcome to the new China.

If I had been put into a sealed box and mailed here without knowing my destination, just unwrapped on some sidewalk somewhere, I would never have guessed I was in China. Glacially slow 22 years ago, the entire country now seems to be mainlining Red Bull. The sour expressions are gone, replaced by smiles and the occasional beard-stroke or “Hello” from some perfect stranger in the street. Hair is long and lustrous – not only on females – and it’s dyed every color of the rainbow. There’s probably a photo book here for an enterprising stylist, The Haircuts of China. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve seen punk spikes, Mohawks, Beatles bangs, loose surfer locks, lounge-lizard grease-backs, buzz cuts, tight poodle perms, Afros, Dutch boys, schoolgirl chops, even a mullet or two. Middle-age ladies seem to favor the Imelda Marcos look, discreet waves and lots of shellac, while businessmen still part it and paste it down, with the occasional mild attempt at sideburns.

While it’s nice to see the hairstyles as expressions of personal freedom, they’re not always an improvement. Some examples:

The Socket: This look is achieved by dipping the entire head into a bucket of battery acid until every single hair stands alone, then mixing up a bunch of bottles of food coloring, carefully avoiding looking at the resulting mix, and pouring it unevenly over the head. The hair is then cut at random in a very dark room.

The Metal Detector: First, the hair is aggressively curled. Then it is saturated in Elmer’s Glue and pasted tightly to the head in several hundred spitcurls. A bright nickel-plated barrette is carefully placed dead-center on every spitcurl, to hold it in place for life. This is in spite of the fact that it wouldn’t move in a wind tunnel.

Spanish Moss: This is a variant on the Socket, in which only the bottom four inches or so of someone’s long, beautiful black hair is dipped into the battery acid. The resulting clumps of frizz are dangled into food coloring (or maybe ketchup) and secured with rubber bands. The overall effect is that the hair is dying from the tips up.

The clothes match the hair. On young people, there’s lots of leather (or vinyl) with studs everywhere. Flowing gunslinger coats, tight jeans, wide belts, and boots, always boots Someone here is making a fortune on girls’ boots: You see them everywhere. Mid-calf, knee-high, sporting chains and padlocks and rough hemp strings, even little built-in clocks, and most of them red. Shoes are definitely yesterday’s China. They’re in the attic of history, along with Mao jackets, which are now hopelessly retro, and quilted coats.

Cities dazzle at night, lights blinking and morphing through the entire visible spectrum everywhere. Every third place is a restaurant, and they’re all full. Rock music booms raggedly from blown speakers set at eleven, Spinal-Tap style, in the doorways of clothing stores. This place is in full boom mode.

Still, this being Asia, there are some idiosyncrasies. One of them, of course, is traffic. In Bangkok or Phnom Penh, if you step in front of a moving vehicle, the universal Asian traffic law that says More Mass = Right of Way will apply, and you’ll instantly be run over. Here, the drivers are more thoughtful. They honk at you and then they run you over. This courtesy gives you a last moment to review your life before it ends.

And while most English here is either nonexistent or relatively good, someone should talk to the sanitation department. Sidewalk trash cans are carefully divided into two compartment and labeled. One side says RECYCLED and the other side says ORGANISMS. Most of the trash cans are empty and surrounded by mounds of litter, apparently dropped by people who couldn’t choose a category. Whatever it was they wanted to throw away, it was neither recycled nor an organism. Or perhaps it was a recycled organism. You can see the potential for confusion.

But if I ever need a new haircut or have an organism to dispose of, I know where to go.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 27th, 2007 at 7:59 pm and is filed under All Blogs, Asia, Odz & Endz. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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