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.
At my library the other day, I was working on publication of the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery (more on that later this month). I needed to be sure about the physical dimensions of the book, but I hadn't brought a copy with me.
Then I remembered the library has a copy in its collection, so I went downstairs to the second floor where fiction is shelved alphabetically by author. After scanning past "Hoffman" and "Holmes," I came to where "Homan" should be and found . . . "Hopper."
After wondering why my book wasn't on the shelf, I ran to the catalogue, looked up "Dark Mural," and discovered it is "Due 01-18-19." It's checked out. Someone is reading it. The first Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, published last September and placed in the collection shortly after, continues to attract readers.
I know this is what we expect books in libraries to do, but this was the first time I became aware of my book doing it.
Last fall I was thrilled every time someone emailed a photo of paperback copies of Dark Mural and Dark Exhibit, along with the padded envelope they arrived in.
I've been thrilled every time someone tells me they got the ebooks.
I've been over the moon when someone says they stayed up late to finish one of the books so they could find out who done it.
Compliments and favorable reviews on Amazon are great, and it's nice to sell copies. But the real thrill is just knowing that people are reading them.
Recently I saw a description of The File on Thelma Jordan that called Barbara Stanwyck "the Queen of Noir." Her performance in Double Indemnity opposite Fred MacMurray alone would nominate her for that title.
A few days later, walking through the library, I saw this biography propped up, facing out. Unlike the many private eyes who say, "I don't believe in coincidence," I do. This book is proving to be a revelation.
As Wikipedia succinctly puts it, "Orphaned at the age of four, and partially raised in foster homes, by 1944 [at age 37], Stanwyck had become the highest-paid woman in the United States." She made eighty-four theatrically released films in thirty-eight years, playing the lead in all but three, and went on to a long and distinguished career in television.
According to Callahan, Stanwyck's acting was so expressive that in Ladies They Talk About (1933), her character was "a three-dimensional, finally unknowable person, even in the confines of a movie that can only claim to be a first-class, churn-them-out entertainment. Stanwyck dominates the whole film, and it's a classic case of the star as auteur (this picture had two credited directors and a lot of writers)."
This is why I'm putting this post on an actress in the "Writing" category of my blog. Her acting told the story.
And then there's this detail. Stanwyck made five films with director William Wellman, whose "best-known film is probably the first official version of A Star is Born (1937), a property that was based on the embattled marriage between Stanwyck and Frank Faye, a union that Wellman was able to witness firsthand during the filming of the first three movies he made with her." Thus, while making movies with Stanwyck, Wellman also made a movie about her, starring Janet Gaynor.
As the current version of A Star is Born, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, wins awards, the press is full of comparisons with the previous three film versions. So far, I've seen only one other reference to the real-life story that probably started the phenomenon.
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.
The Three works collected in this volume are Serenade (1937), Love's Lovely Counterfeit (1942), and The Butterfly (1947). They illustrate what a great writer James M. Cain was, and also why he is little appreciated beyond his first two works of fiction, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), and Double Indemnity (1936).
Serenade is about an opera singer whose career ends when he is seduced by a gay man from high society. Love's Lovely Counterfeit is about a driver for a mob boss who becomes the boss in a corrupt city. The Butterfly is about a moonshiner in Kentucky whose long lost daughter shows up to live with him.
Not only does Cain treat widely different subjects in these stories from the 1930s and 1940s, he does so in distinct voices. Love's Lovely Counterfeit is told in gangland slang. The Butterfly captures the stark poetry of Appalachian speech.
No one would say Cain should have continued writing about a man plotting with a woman to kill her husband, which is the subject of his first two books. But he might have stayed closer to his original material.
Instead, Cain seems to have set out to prove he could write in different styles about different worlds. He challenges his readers to try new experiences, but many readers want more of the same.
The three stories in this book have one thing in common with "Postman" and Double Indemnity. Each centers on a man trapped by his own compulsions. Cain's wrote consistently in the tradition of the naturalistic novel, but he strayed from the sub-category called noir.
"Where Bush Street roofed Stockton before slipping downhill into Chinatown, Spade paid his fare and left the taxicab." This is Dashiell Hammett's description of Sam Spade arriving at the scene where the body of his partner, Miles Archer, has been found in The Maltese Falcon.
In this photo, we are looking north on Stockton Street, through the tunnel. Bush Street runs across what looks like a bridge. Thus "Bush Street roofed Stockton."
Before the tunnel was opened in 1914, Stockton street rose steeply up one side of Nob Hill and ran down the other side. The part of Stockton the crests the hill can still be seen at the top of the photo. The original purpose of the tunnel was to create a level roadway for street cars.
The scene continues: "Spade crossed the sidewalk . . . went to the parapet, and resting his hands on the damp coping, looked down into Stockton Street." Sam Spade would have been standing at what looks like a stone fence on the bridge, facing in our direction, looking down.
"An automobile popped out of the tunnel beneath him, with a roaring swish, as if it had been blown out, and ran away." The white van in the photo did what Hammett is describing seconds before I snapped the shutter.
The scene changes as, "Spade turned from the parapet and walked up Bush Street to the alley where men were grouped.." That is, he walked to the left, as we view the scene. Today, at the mouth of that alley there is a brass plaque marking it as the place where, "______ shot Miles Archer." The plaque actually names the murderer. I refuse to do so.
The pages describing Spade's actions at the murder scene give much more detail about stairways, railings, buildings, and other details of this intersection. Obviously, Dashiell Hammett, who lived in San Francisco when he wrote The Maltese Falcon, walked this intersection and took detailed notes for this scene.
Somewhere I read that Elmore Leonard said, "I write about Detroit because I live in Detroit. If I lived in Buffalo, I'd write about Buffalo." Lessons from the masters.
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.
I grew up going to a library and taking notes for my school reports. I thought I was doing this simply to gather information, but there was something else going on.
Coin-operated photocopy machines showed up when I was in college. Instead of taking notes, I made copies and highlighted them. I thought this was more efficient.
The World-Wide Web came along, and I started cutting-and-pasting and downloading. Later I started bookmarking web pages. This seemed like a super-efficient way to gather information.
As my browser's list of bookmarks got longer, I had lots of information at my fingertips, but I found it harder and harder to use it.
Recently I decided to slow down the information-gathering and take notes . . . longhand . . . in a notebook.
I'm finding this very satisfying. It takes time and effort to read a blog post, for instance, and decide which parts to write down verbatim, which parts to summarize, and which to ignore. I become very selective because It takes even more time and effort to write the note or quotation in my notebook.
When I take notes, I not only gather information, I also think about it. I move some of it from short-term memory into long-term memory, and somewhere in my brain I must be connecting the new information with things I already know. Now I'm ready to use it when I want to write something new.
I see now that all that photocopying, highlighting, cutting-and-pasting, downloading, and bookmarking was only postponing this process. Some things you just can't automate.
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.
This place cracks me up. The words over the door say, "The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute." It is a serious institution in that field. But then there are those oval windows above the entrance.
I've wondered if the institute just happened to buy or lease a building with that eccentric, but strangely appropriate, feature. Or whether they had this one built and went along with a whimsical gesture by the architect.
The history on their website refers generally to raising funds for buildings since its founding in 1959, but makes no mention of this particular building. However, they do use an image of the windows in the background of their header.
Accidental or deliberate, this is another of those instances in which reality is not believable. If any novelist set a scene at an eye research facility and described it as having a pair of oval windows, most readers would say, "Do you expect me to believe that?"
Last weekend we went to our favorite place for breakfast. When I was done eating, I looked across the street and noticed the morning light was beautiful on the buildings and the tree.
I started snapping, noticed people were walking by, and managed to catch the woman in the baseball cap in front of the red doorway.
When I got this picture up on my computer screen, I noticed there was a second woman just stepping out of the shadows on the right. She wears a headscarf and carries a yoga mat.
Baseball Cap is wearing yoga pants, so maybe she is walking to a class at the place Headscarf has just left. But Baseball Cap doesn't have a yoga mat. Maybe she's going to another kind of exercise class.
Of course, Headscarf could be carrying that yoga mat as a distraction. She might have been hiding in that dark doorway, waiting for Baseball Cap to walk by, intent on attacking her.
If so, she has a problem. Again, when I got the photo up on my computer, I noticed Baseball Cap is not alone. Look just behind her front foot and you'll see another foot. Someone is walking next to her.
Did Baseball Cap get word that headscarf was laying for her and bring backup?
As Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."
I saw this stairway and liked it so much I had to take its picture.
It's in the Metreon, a building in downtown San Francisco where Ann and I had gone to see a movie. The wall of green outside the windows is the edge of Yerba Buena Gardens, a lovely place to linger if you're ever in town.
It reminds me of the one in the Museum of the African Diaspora, which (come to think of it) is only one block away.
Stairways like this are not hard to like especially for a guy who prefers to take the stairs and counts himself lucky in being able to do so.
But for me, they are more than just pretty. They are somehow theatrical. When walking on them, I see people outside the building and they can see me. I feel exposed, but somehow aloof at the same time.
Such a stairway might serve well for an important scene in a story. A pursuer (sleuth or assassin) might spot the pursued. The pursued might feel safe from the pursuer, but only if he can get to a higher floor and hide.
Hmm . . .
Recently I discovered that reading my book in Kindle Direct Publishing's ebook previewer taught me some lessons I hadn't learned by reading and re-reading my book in a word processor and on paper. Specifically I learned to use paragraph breaks in a new way for e-publishing.
Preparing my book for publication as a paperback has yielded still more lessons. Perhaps because throughout my life I've done most of my reading on single-spaced, facing pages, I never had to think of how the eye and the mind work together to turn those ink-blots into images and thoughts.
I've been over Dark Mural so many times in the past two years, I have parts of it memorized. Yet, when I saw it in the familiar form of a printed book, it looked different and read different. I became aware how parts of a scene fit together and raised questions that would be answered on the following page. In a few instances, I saw how the scene could be better built, and I've made changes.
Of course, most writers say they always want to change things, even after a book is published. So perhaps this was just one more opportunity for me to see such things. But I really don't think I would have seen them without reading it in book form.
As previously reported here, I have seized the opportunity attend a trial in criminal court as research for a book about a guy who reports for jury duty. I figured if I was going to write about it, I needed to make notes on the nuts and bolts of the process of conducting a trial.
So far I have watched as the judge and attorneys question potential jurors regarding their fitness to serve in this particular case. The process is called voir dire, a French term meaning, "speak the truth."
This is an important part of any trial, and I am glad to be reminded of how it works, but I'm learning much more about how it feels to be one of those called for jury duty. For however long it takes, your life is not your own.
On the whole, the judge is considerate of jurors' comfort, never remaining in session more than an hour and fifteen minutes. Beyond that, anything can happen: a fifteen-minute break can last twenty-five minutes; the session no sooner begins than the judge and attorneys withdraw for five minutes (stand and stretch, but don't leave the room); an attorney can spend twenty minutes questioning one juror, five minutes questioning another, and excuse both. Or neither.
Having no choice but to comply with orders that are unpredictable and seemingly arbitrary is stressful. The only thing keeping me in the room was curiosity, and I still felt trapped.
Perhaps the title of this blog post should be, "Writer Gets More Than He Bargained For."
Several years ago, I was called for jury duty, selected, and served on a jury in a case of sexual assault. We deliberated and returned a verdict of guilty.
For the first few days, I tapped out a description of each day's courtroom proceedings, so I would have the research done if ever wanted to write a story about a juror. But I stopped because I didn't think I ever would.
Big mistake. Let all us writers resolve never to repeat it.
Recently I returned to my notes and I saw how I could turn it into a story, but I would need the nuts and bolts of the trial process for my hero to work with.
So I emailed a writer friend with some background in law, and asked how I could find out when a criminal case was going trial so I could be there at the beginning and take notes. My generous friend wrote me a long email about how that is public information, but difficult to track down . . . databases, incompatible systems, etc.
Then, just last Thursday, a neighbor said she had to report for jury duty today for a murder case.
And here I am, taking notes.