While I was finishing Specials my fictional brain started to break, so I decided to take some time off from narrative. Fortunately, a collection of letters written by the great hard-boiled writer Raymond Chandler leapt from the depths of my Sydney storage unit and into my hands.
Chandler’s technique for writing letters was to stay up at night drinking and talking into a tape recorder (a wire recorder in those days, actually). The next day his secretary would type up his rantings and send them in the mail. This led to many a drunken tongue-lashing, and a fair amount of solid writing advice, being preserved for posterity.
As I re-read the letters, I realized that I’ve stolen a lot of Chandler’s writing techniques over the years, especially his “four-hour rule” (see below), which I’ve expounded to many a writing class. So I figured it was time to ‘fess up and show all of you the source material.
So here is the unalloyed Raymond Chandler on the subject of writing:
1. Letter to Frederick Lewis Allen, editor of Harper’s Magazine
7 May 1948
My theory was that [the readers] just thought they cared about . . . the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things that they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain of his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock at the door. That damn paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just wouldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.
That paper clip image is very goosepimple-making, a classic noir example of the crumpled little guy facing oblivion. Of course, we all know that a guy trying to pick up a paper clip on a hoverboard would be cooler. And like, especially if the paper clip exploded . . .
This next motivational technique is one I always tell aspiring writers to try:
2. Letter to Alex Barris, an interview by mail
18 March 1949
The important thing is that there should be a space of time, say four hours a day at least, when a professional writer doesn’t do anything else but write. He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor. But he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks. Write or nothing. It’s the same principle as keeping order in a school. If you make the pupils behave, they will learn something just to keep from being bored. I find it works. Two very simple rules, a. you don’t have to write. B. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.
Put those two rules on your refrigerator and you’ll have a novel within a year. Or at least someone else who uses your refrigerator will.
The letter below reminds me of something Kingsley Amis said: “Sometimes the hardest part of writing is getting the characters out of the pub and into the cab.” Writers don’t just get stuck at the earth-shattering, life-changing decisions that our characters make; the little details of reality management are actually quite tricky and frustrating. Never assume youâ€™re a crap writer just because you can’t get someone across a room—it happens to all of us.
3. Letter to Paul Brooks, a publisher working on a Chandler collection
19 July 1949
When I started out to write fiction I had the great disadvantage of having absolutely no talent for it. I couldn’t get the characters in and out of rooms. They lost their hats and so did I. If more than two people were on scene I couldn’t keep one of them alive. Give me two people snotting at each other across a desk and I am happy. A crowded canvas just bewilders me.
This letter to Alfred Hitchcock contains fantastic advice for writers as well as film-makers. Just substitute the words “wicked-cool sentence” or “scintillating simile” for “camera shot.”
4. 6 December 1950
As a friend and well-wisher, I urge you just once in your long and distinguished career . . . to get a sound and sinewy story into the script and sacrifice no part of its soundness for an interesting camera shot. Sacrifice a camera shot if necessary. There will always be another camera shot just as good. There is never another motivation just as good.
Beyond his anti-Agatha Christie snark, there is an excellent point below about the difference between novels and short stories. A lot of writers who excel at the story level don’t think to “turn the corner” when attempting the longer form.
5. Letter to Dorothy Gardner, secretary of the Mystery Writers Association
The trouble with most English mystery writers, however well known in their world, is that they can’t turn a corner. About halfway through a book they start fooling with alibis, analyzing bits and pieces of evidence and so on. The story dies on them. Any book which is any good has to turn the corner. You get to the point where everything implicit in the original situation has been developed or explored, and then a new element has to introduced which is not implied from the beginning but which is seen to be part of the situation when it shows up.
Speaking of snark . . . bet you didn’t know that Raymond Chandler’s brief foray into science fiction actually predicted the rise of Google as an information search service. Check this out:
6. Letter to H.N Swanson
14 March 1953
Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It’s written like this: “I checked out with K19 on Abadabaran III, and stepped out through the crummaliote hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Bryllis ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was icecold against the rust-colored mountains. The Bryllis shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.”
They pay brisk money for this crap?
Yes, Mr. Chandler, they do.
You can buy the collection, edited by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane, right here.