Nano Tip #7: Stealing from Chandler

Just got back from a wonderful mini-tour in Canada. Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, and I had a great time, and Keith Thompson enjoyed a warm welcome into the world of bookstore appearances. I think he will do more!

But now I am SLEEPY. So I’m cheating and pulling another old writing advice out of the e-drawer. It’s from January 10, 2006, so only you old-school blog-stalkers will have read it before.

I promise to do a fresh one for Monday! And don’t forget Justine’s excellent advice from yesterday.

Take it away, me from three and a half years ago:


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 youÒ€ℒre 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
January 1956
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, from Amazon, B&N, or Indie Bound, or from your bricks-and-mortar local bookstore.

28 thoughts on “Nano Tip #7: Stealing from Chandler

  1. Ooh, I was first! Bubbly!
    Now I have to get back to work on actually writing my NaNoWriMo novel, not learning how to write it.
    Your tips are very helpful, Scott-la. Can you do one on ending a story? Because that’s where I am now, and I am stuck on if I should end it or not.

  2. I especially liked the one about having a “writing or nothing” time. I totally got the school analogy: you’re stuck there anyways, so why not actually do something? The only problem with this approach is I find I don’t have 4 hours a day in which to writhe around on the floor…. πŸ™‚

  3. I can totally picture myself trying to pick up a paperclip and being so intensely concentrated that I don’t notice a murderer sneaking up behind me. I can also picture myself writhing on the floor for four hours out of boredom. Sounds like what I do in math class. In my head, of course. And only for fifty minutes a day. But the analogy makes sense. This Chandler guy seems pretty psychic if he predicted Google in the fifties. Maybe the part about peoples’ breath freezing into pink pretzels will also come true. I want to see that!

  4. omg papperclips ROCK!!
    i loved that, i couldn’t stop laughing!!!!
    maybe they named google Google because of him Kelsey-wa….
    OH AND…
    if you were actually able to read that, you pwn all.
    i was the one sitting on the balcony with 4 friends!
    …..and then the penguins killed them all.

  5. I’ve heard the “write or nothing” advice from many places, but never knew where it was from.

    For some reason I am deeply, deeply amused by Chandler’s writing methods. You wouldn’t think he’d be quite so coherent. Most people’s inebriatedness doesn’t translate to others very well unless said others are also at least slightly inebriated. (Kind of like how things that are funny at 2am are significantly less funny at 10 am, which is why you shouldn’t write e-mails in the wee hours of the morning no matter how late your candy buzz keeps you awake. Even your best friends may struggle to see the humor in an inside joke you had with yourself that even you don’t get.)


  6. I enjoyed seeing you here in Canada :]
    …Though, now that I’ve read Leviathan, I have absolutely NO idea how I’m going to be able to wait for Behemoth.

  7. It just struck me that I have actually been stalking this blog long enough to have read this the first time. I’m also pretty sure I did have this post printed out and on my refrigerator at one point before I ever had finished a novel. So it must work πŸ™‚

    I’d forgotten where that from the pub to the cab quote came from though, and that’s one of my favorites, because it’s SO TRUE. I’ve spent the last three days of NaNo trying to get my characters from the sewers to the eye doctor, and they just keep getting off track. I’m hoping to get there today, though…

  8. I agree with the statement that it’s the ordinary moments that are harder to write than the exciting ones. I can get the major plot points across just fine, but the moments leading up to them kill me. It’s like my characters turn into bumbling idiots every time they have to transition. XD

  9. unfortunately, as a mom of 2 little kids, i rarely have 4 hours of time to devote to anything, unless i just don’t sleep (although, considering it’s 1230 in the morning and i have to get up at 7, maybe that IS a possibility). however, i’ve found that the best time for me to write is in the evening after my kids are in bed for the night. sure, there are occasional interruptions (hubby asking me questions, laundry, etc.), but i do my best to avoid them or take care of housework during the day. the husband is pretty understanding when i tell him i’m writing and to leave me alone, which is nice.

    thanks for the tips, keep them coming! i’ve never written anything more than a few pages before, so this is a totally new experience for me. i’m loving EVERY SECOND of it though. . . πŸ™‚

  10. Thanx again Scott-la this is great advice. My nanowrimo is going great so far. Already up to 14,400 words on day 8! Thanx for all the advice it is much appreciated. πŸ™‚

  11. Laurie – That was my thought too! Even at school, I am perfectly able to have my mind wandering the entire hour, and it’ll look like I’m behaving perfectly. It helps if I take notes, but sometimes having a pen and paper is even more distracting.

    Still, thanks for the advice, Scott!

  12. Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House is an exception to that ‘English mystery writer’ rule, I think. Try it.

  13. Wow this stuff is interesting!
    I just got finished with Leviathan. Worth the twenty bucks? Um, yes!
    I’m so excited for Behemoth! and I kind of totally love Volger. (Please don’t let him hook up with dr.Barlow, though. That’s just EW. I’m totally adding her to my ‘List of girls I want to be like when I grow up, though. She’s awesome, too.

  14. My mother used to tell me and my brother (or any child she looked after) that we didn’t have to go to sleep. We just had to stay in bed. We could be as awake as we wanted to be, we just had to STAY IN BED. We were ever so happy, because we got to stay up, right? Usually we were asleep within 5 minutes.

    So I have to agree with point no. 2. You don’t HAVE to write, but you can’t do anything else either. You’ll be writing faster than you thought was possible, and it won’t feel like a chore.

  15. Usually I don’t read article on blogs, however I would like to say that this write-up very compelled me to try and do so! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thank you, very nice article.

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