Hello, My Lovely

Unusually, I didn’t receive any books for Christmas just gone. It’s a welcome fallback present for anyone stuck for a gift for me, as I’ll pretty much read anything. Obviously I hadn’t been a good boy in 2014 and Santa left me empty of reading material. Having had a few days off work I was desperate for something to pass the hours, so I was forced to dig into my collection and dust off some old tomes.
Which, as often happens, led me to Raymond Chandler.
I’ve written a bit about the great man already on this blog, as he is a massive influence on me as both writer and man. This holiday was the first in ages that I have gone back and read any of his books straight through (this time it was Farewell My Lovely and my favourite, The Long Goodbye) and the pleasure I get from it is as strong as ever. I read his books with a smile on my face and every time I finish the desire to write is overwhelming.
I think the reason for this is that Chandler’s writing style seems so easy, so effortless. He was a master of writing dialogue and had a way with similes that will never be surpassed, in my opinion. Here’s a couple of my favourites, just for the hell of it:

‘He had a heart as big as one of Mae West’s hips’
‘He looked at me like a horse looking over a fence’
‘It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.’

(That last one not strictly speaking a simile but I can’t help but add it – one of my favourite pieces of writing anywhere, ever). What I love about all of these is not just their originality but how fun they are. I read work like this and it seems so easy to emulate, sending me rushing for the computer to try. Of course genius like this is impossible to replicate, which is probably why the vast hordes of pulp fiction that have sprung up since Chandler began in the 1930s has paled in comparison.
What’s most incredible to me is that Chandler began writing pulp almost to order. He only decided to get into writing fiction after losing his job with an oil company during the Great Depression (unfortunately his love of booze was also a contributory factor). He wrote to Erle Stanley Gardner:

I learned to write a novelette on one of yours about a man named Rex Kane…I simply made an extremely detailed synopsis of your story and from that rewrote it and then compared what I had with yours, and then went back and rewrote it some more, and so on. It looked pretty good.

I find it extraordinary that a man so talented who has become an all-time literary great started essentially plagiarising someone else’s work. But his writing method, particularly in the early years, was not one of free-flowing imagination. A number of his novels were almost completely rewritten and the first of them, The Big Sleep was an amalgamation of earlier, published short stories.
His expert use of dialogue can be found also in his screenplays, most notably in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. I remember a friend of my father’s recommending the film to me as a teenager and I sat through it, spellbound. The way Chandler ramps up the tension scene by scene is thrilling, and the chemistry between the two leads is mostly underpinned by the superb dialogue that Chandler wrote.
The one that really hit me hard though was The Long Goodbye. I think the opening few pages where we first meet Terry Lennox and his showpiece wife are among the finest every written. Full of humour, pitch-perfect dialogue, expertly drawn characters and suspense. The plot is incredibly complex from then on but Chandler never loses grip on it, even though the novel runs to nearly 250,000 words. His portrayal of the alcoholic Roger Wade is utterly convincing (based in part on Chandler himself) and flavoured with a hint of sadness that sends chills through me on every reading. In his later years Chandler was an unhappy guy, crippled by alcoholism and the failing health and subsequent death of his wife and this sense of sorrow really comes through in the novel. I really believe it’s a masterpiece and that Phillip Marlowe remains the quintessential private eye and spawn of a whole new genre.

The Complexities of Story

There are occasions in my life where I become completely immersed in a book or a TV show to the extent where I’m almost drowning in it – I think about the storylines between episodes or chapters, dream about the characters, and so on. I remember Stephen King saying about a favourite novel of his that the feeling was akin to being married to the book, which I can relate to.

Currently, I’m feeling this with Breaking Bad. I’m currently midway through Season 4 and I’m stunned by the quality of the writing and the constant edge-of-the-seat cliffhangers that happen in every episode.  My girlfriend and I spend more time discussing theories on future developments in the show than we do about important stuff like bills and in my case, finding employment!

And we rarely find common ground in our conversations, either. Which I think highlights the sheer complexity of the plotlines in the show. I marvel at how the writer on Breaking Bad manage to keep a handle on what’s going on, where the stories have developed from and how they are going to be resolved.  I felt the same when watching The Wire, too.  The creative stimulation that these shows give me is like a shot of adrenalin. And it does help to inspire.  But the overriding feeling I get is that this type of complex storylines are beyond me as a writer. Such feelings should act as a spur to try, but for me it isn’t currently working that way. I don’t think my imagination could cope with multiple storylines that criss-cross each other constantly. Just having to remember who said what 50,000 words earlier. Or having to sort out what a character knows at a certain point in time, and what they think they know. Juggling so many balls in the air is something I’ve never felt I’ve been able to do in my own writing, which is another segment of the fear that stops me putting pen to paper again.

I know I shouldn’t let it dishearten me. It has been said that Raymond Chandler, a master of fiendish and labyrinthine plots, once forgot about an entire character when writing The Big Sleep. He admitted that he forgot about the butler (although Chandler was a fan of the sauce which may explain things). Another story I read somewhere concerning Alfred Hitchcock: After the first private screening of Psycho, Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville said to him, ‘You can’t send it out like that’.  There was stunned silence. When Hitch asked why not, she responded, ‘Janet Leigh swallows when she is supposed to be dead.’ And it was true.

So it can happen to the best of them. And if I’m being honest, there is more than one writing voice on a show like Breaking Bad. Having a team of writers all contributing ideas to the show must make it easy to spark the creative juices and come up with imaginative storyboards for future episodes.  Besides, big holes in the plot of a manuscript is what the rewrite is for. Once I had a character send a text message in 1985! And I never saw it until the rewrite.

So I know that anyone, even the greatest writers, can have problems with the complexities of story.  But it’s another layer that is holding me back.

Oh well, might be time to watch another episode…