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' onto 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 guts.