I admit: I'm not much of a sports fan. I enjoy going to a few Giants games with my wife each season. Recently I tagged along when The San Francisco Chronicle hosted an evening with three of its sports writers.
Susan Slusser is the beat writer for the Oaland A's and also writes about hockey. In 2012 she became the only woman to be elected president of the Baseball Writers Association of America in its 111-year history.
Al Saracevic is the Chronicle's sports editor and he writes a weekly column in the sports section. In the past, he has covered major stories in business such as the dot-com bust of 2000 and the recent financial crisis.
Henry Schulman has covered the San Francisco Giants since 1988. He has seen it all: the "Earthquake World Series" in 1989, the era of Barry Bonds, and the World Series championships of 2010, 2012, and 2014.
The hundred-or-so baseball fans gathered to hear this trio were a wonky bunch. Most of the questions about trades, free agents, and contracts were over my head, but I could feel the energy in the room as the writers geeked out for the crowd.
I also learned some lessons about writing. Saracevic said with pride that the Chronicle does not run formulaic reports such as, "The Giants won in the ___ inning when ___ hit a home run with __ men on base."
Slusser and Schulman recalled with joy interviewing players, teasing out the story behind the game, and writing in real time as the innings go by.
And then there was this: Schulman said the story is written from the bottom up. Intuitively I get that. You write down the thing that amazes you about the event, and then you lead the reader to discover it.
But I wish I'd had time to geek out with Schulman about how he does it.
Successful writers seem to agree that to be a writer you must be a reader. For me, this becomes more urgent as I write more. Even re-reading an old favorite yields revelations. "So that's how she does it!"
Usually I read what I write, mystery and suspense, but a friend recommended this book (Thanks, Doug!). It's full title is Colorless Tsukuru Takazi and his years of pilgrimage.. I think it's fair to call it literary fiction as opposed to genre fiction (mystery, suspense, thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, etc).
Opinions vary on what makes a novel literary or genre. I got my definitions from an article by Laura Miller, book critic at Slate. Here's my summary of her discussion. In literary fiction, the action is like real life: mostly things happen to people. In genre fiction, the action is what life would be like if we had control over our lives.
In this novel, things happen to the title character. The first half of the novel describes the things that happen from the time he is in high school until he is in his mid-30s. At that point, he discovers something that changes his and the reader's understanding of the earlier part of his life.
If this were a suspense novel, it would start with this discovery. Tazaki now has what one genre writer calls a story question. What really happened when he was in high school?
In the second half of the novel, he talks to his friends from high school and comes to understand what really happened, just as the hero of a suspense novel would do. But he does so while continuing to accumulate experiences, as he did in the first half.
The author, Haruki Murakami, has an impressive list of published novels and awards. Clearly people enjoy his books. Those people might find a suspense novel too focused on action. Readers of suspense might find this book too leisurely in its descriptions. We all get to like different things.
I admire Murakami's writing, though I can't see myself writing what he writes. And, by the way, the English translation by Phillip Gabriel is a pleasure to read.
Reading this autobiography of Samuel Fuller, I met a man who lived a remarkable life and became a remarkable artist. He grew up poor, became a crime reporter while still in high school, wrote novels, fought in World War II, and succeeded as a screenwriter and director in Hollywood.
I'll be absorbing the lessons to be learned from this book for a while, but for now I'm focused on two ways in which Fuller exemplifies Stephen King's approach to writing as described in his memoir, On Writing.
King says the "Great Commandment" is "Read a lot, and write a lot." Fuller certainly wrote a lot: 42 produced screenplays, 11 novels, and 19 unproduced screenplays over a period of sixty years. Since he also directed the films made from most of those screenplays, his accomplishment is even more impressive.
Apparently he also read a lot since he often refers to ancient and modern works of literature as inspiration for characters and plot devices in his screenplays.
King also earnestly advises writers to write truthfully about their subjects. Fuller returns to this theme again and again, especially in reference to his movies about the Second World War: The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, and others, including The Big Red One.
Producers, Pentagon officials, and J. Edgar Hoover all pressured him to portray American troops as heroes, dedicated to fighting for liberty. In each instance, he refused.
As a soldier in the First Infantry Division (the Big Red One), Fuller survived amphibious assaults in Northern Africa, Sicily, and Normandy. He was one of those who liberated concentration camps and fought all the way to Berlin. He knew there was nothing heroic about war. He portrayed it as chaotic and terrifying.
Sometimes he got to make the movie he wanted to make, sometimes his project was cancelled. He never compromised.
Fuller made other kinds of films, notably Pickup on South Street (1953), a cold-war espionage thriller and Shock Corridor (1963), set inside a mental hospital. I'm ready to see some of his films.
When James M. Cain published The Butterfly in 1946, he added a preface. Perhaps he did so because it was a novella, about half the length of a novel, and he needed to bulk up the book.
Whatever the reason, this preface gives us glimpses into his life as a writer.
He talks about his travels in Harlan County, Kentucky and how meeting people and working alongside them in the mines and elsewhere gave him the desire to write a story about them. This sounds more like immersion than research.
He says writing for newspapers prepared him to approach a subject this way, and he praises other forms of writing as useful to becoming a novelist.
He disagrees with critics who compared him to Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway, and goes on at some length to distinguish his writing from theirs.
Most surprisingly, he distances himself from "the picture business," denying accusations that he writes with adaptation for movies in mind. Coming from the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, this is surprising, especially since several other works were adapted and he worked for a time as a screenwriter.
I've blogged about books by novelists that mix practical writing advice with memoir: Patricia Highsmith, Lawrence Block, Stephen King. I enjoy these because they teach me not only how they wrote, but what it was like to live through it. This preface by Cain is a miniature version of those books.
SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss one aspect of this very suspenseful book, leaving out as much detail as possible.
Stephen King’s The Outsider starts out as a heck of a murder mystery. He convinces us the murder suspect and the man who arrests him are bitter enemies and makes us care about both. We find ourselves pulling for both sides in a struggle for justice. This is a remarkable accomplishment.
In doing so, it seems to me, King demonstrates the power of focusing on situation rather than plot. This is an approach he describes in On Writing: a memoir of the craft. Rather than outlining, he suggests the writer develop a detailed description of the situation the characters are in at the beginning of the book.
As an example, he shows how a news story about a man getting out of prison can be turned into something more intriguing. What if it’s a woman getting out of prison? What if she escapes? What if her husband doesn’t know she has escaped?
Once the enhanced situation is in hand, King suggests the writer begin with what the main character would do to get out of a painful situation and then imagine what new obstacle the character would face as a result. The writer then repeats the process until the main issue set up at the beginning has been resolved.
Working this way lets the writer discover possibilities that are not obvious when developing a simple cause-and-effect outline. That’s what King has done in The Outsider. It is nothing like a routine police procedural.
Reading that brief online biography of Jim Thompson by Patrick Deese prompted me to seek out the book-length biography by Robert Polito, Savage Art, published in 1995. It is 500 pages of detailed research, served up in easy-to-read prose.
Among its revelations is the idea that Thompson never set out to be a writer of crime fiction. In 1931, he majored in Agricultural Journalism at the University of Nebraska. While there he wrote and published nonfiction except for one detective story in Nebraska Farmer.
During the 1940s, he published Now and on Earth and Heed the Thunder, novels based on his years working on the farms of Nebraska and Oklahoma and in the oil fields of West Texas. He seemed on the way to a career comparable to that of his contemporary, John Steinbeck.
Thompson turned to crime---crime-writing that is---out of necessity. His mainstream novels would not pay the bills. In 1949, at the age of 42, he published his first crime novel, Nothing More than Murder.
Thanks to the introduction of paperback originals in the 1950s, a lucrative market for genre fiction opened up, and publishers called out for writers to supply it. Thompson went on to produce what some call the greatest American crime novels.
In the biography by Patrick Deese I quoted in my last post, I found not only a good illustration of how Jim Thompson learned to write crime stories but also an indication of how different things are today for writers starting out.
Deese says, "Thompson made ends meet for a few years by writing pieces for true crime magazines . . . ." Today, I doubt anyone is making ends meet by writing for any kind of magazine. I haven't tried it, but from what I hear the best one can do is pick up a little side money.
To prove his point, Deese says, "At the height of their popularity, in the 1930's, these magazines (with titles like True Detective, Master Detective, and Intimate Detective) paid very, very well, $250 for a 6000 word article, the exact rate they now offer in the 1990's."
Without doing the arithmetic, I think it's obvious that $250 was a good week's income in the 1930's, and was still worth something in the 1990s. Yet I doubt there are many magazines paying $250 for any kind of short story in 2018.
It seems as if this entry-level income is no longer available to writers getting their start. These days, the writer's apprenticeship, like so many others, is unpaid.
Reading through the references on Jim Thompson's Wikipedia page, I enjoyed this biography by Patrick Deese. In particular, Deese offers this insight into how Thompson learned to write crime stories:
"Thompson made ends meet for a few years [in the early 1930s] by writing pieces for true crime magazines . . . His wife and sister would comb the newspaper archives, looking for murders, which Thompson would then rewrite into a popular set of first-person view point articles. It was here that Thompson cut his teeth and honed his sinister style. "
When Deese says "first person view point" he refers to the way these magazines presented crimes stories "as told to" a writer by the detective who solved them. If Thompson and other writers worked from news stories, the detective may have done no more than endorse the story as written.
Re-writing news stories from the point of view of someone involved sounds like a great writing exercise. Thompson would have developed an ability to make a story sound like it was being told by a big-city homicide detective, a small-town chief of police, or other law officer.
This facility for writing in the first person served Thompson well. Many critics think his best novels are those written in the first person---The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, Savage Night, and others. Arguably no one has done first person better than Thompson.