Letting It Rip

boxers3Mostly I let it rip. At least when it comes to my subscription series. Coming up with three, old-school detective stories every month doesn’t leave a whole lot of options.

These yarns don’t write themselves, so I let it rip. And I mean rip. Month in, month out. I’ve been getting away with that in short form writing. To date, I’ve gotten away with it to the tune of 45 yarns. That’s more than 235,000 words, for those of you keeping count.

While we’re at it, let’s put that in perspective. A short mystery novel these days runs from 60,000 to 70,000 words. I’ve cranked out three books’ worth in fourteen months. I’m not saying that makes them good or bad—I’m just saying.

I guess that achievement will impress some people. But that accomplishment doesn’t mean anything it itself. It proves squat. That claim’s neither here nor there when it comes to quality. It doesn’t mean I’ve got anything worth reading, let alone publishing. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

So I keep grinding. The very best I can. One story at a time. You’ve got about four weeks in a month. That gives me one week per story, and one week to final edit and polish. Such as it is. That leaves no time for looking over the shoulder or rearview mirrors. That barely allows time for making coffee, for chrissake. No time for sightseeing. No daydreaming. No dilettante, diva dance steps.

Give me a hook and I’m off to the races. A colorful character, a pointed situation, a splashy opening line. That kicks it off and I wing it from there.

Have you ever planned a murder?
Johnny Shin was gassed.
Five whores, an infant child, and a flask of gin.

Evocative stuff. Catchy. Three different openings to three different stories. I had no clue where each was going. I typed the words and took it from there.

How crazy is that? Does that make me nuts? I fancy I’m creating in the grand tradition of golden age pulp writers. It takes a strong work ethic, sure. No waiting around for muses. No tap dancing until inspiration strikes. You give it your best shot. And another. And still another.

I’m picturing a boxing ring. Writing as the fight game. You train, you work out, you shadowbox until you’re so bleary you don’t recognize your own shadow. Then the bell sounds. You come out swinging. You’re up, you’re down, you’re up again. Put up your dukes and don’t let them drop. Not until that first tale’s in the bag. Then the second. Then the third. Fight fair, fight clean, and never throw in the towel. Sure.

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Hooray for Hollywood Narrative

You want a crescendo, don’t you? That splashy finish? An ending to end all endings?

You’ve seen it more times than you can count. Think about classic Hollywood and you’ll recall a string of examples.

  • The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.
  • After all, tomorrow is another day.
  • He used to be a big shot.
  • Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
  • Oh, Auntie Em—there’s no place like home.

They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Sure. Whether you’re rolling your eyes or not, those are classic examples of ending on a high point. And the same idea works throughout the rest of those features, scene after scene after scene.

Somewhere along the line, especially with the influence of European new wave filmmakers, scenes became flatter. Narrative language and traditions changed. And that’s swell. More is more. More artistic language, more options, more devices, more techniques, more etcetera. There’s no right or wrong in story telling. The bottom line is making it play.

But I miss the old Hollywood construction. The approach was basic, solid, classic. In it’s time, it established an approach that served melodramas and comedies alike. The form can be applied to any art form, including my indulgences with the written word.

Creating top-drawer quality is never easy—a look at most flicks, books or TV shows is proof of that. But the idea behind this old-style story telling is simple enough. It’s plenty obvious, too, but we don’t always think about it. Plenty of authors go on about editing. They talk about cutting out the extraneous, creating dialogue, giving voice. There’s lots of attention given to creating characters and their arcs, how the protagonist has to go through personal change.

That’s a bunch of moving parts to contend with. Continually. Nonstop. They feed each other, affect each other, overlap like crazy. And they can all fit into one, repeated pattern until you reach your boffo crescendo.

That big bang ending still holds true today, most of the time. Once upon a time in Tinsel Town, however, they worked it scene by scene, beat by beat. The accepted standard was that a scene should rise in pitch until its high point, then cut! If you can’t contrive that climax, toss in a comedic character actor, set up a good joke, and go out on that high point.

You wind up with a series of scenes that start quiet or slow, catch fire, and ignite in a flash. One after the other, over and over.  If you do it right, the overall story line, it’s drama or conflict, spirals at the same time until you reach that biggest daddy high point of them all.

Simple, isn’t it? To put it another way, every chapter or section is a mini-version of the whole work. You’ve got a beginning, middle and an end. From A to B to C. From once upon a time to they lived happily after ever. Or not so happily if you’re writing noir. Scene by scene by scene.

The approach is a tough nut in the short story form. And maybe it’s not foremost in my thoughts while I’m working. But I’m pre-wired that way. I like that rise and bang! I want that. I dig that. Pulling it off is like creating a beautiful friendship. Sure.

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Updating the Writer’s Slugfest

“What the hell is going on?”

Not one for subtle openers, my inquisitive writer continued. “You took your father’s razor. You don’t write. No calls. Not so much as a cable or email. What’s the latest, hard boiled-wise?”

I suppose I am due for an update. It’s been a while since I posted any sort of “latest and greatest” report. I’ll make it short and sweet.

In January 2013, I walked out on my nine to five after nearly twenty years of service. I launched my online subscription series, “The Hard-Boiled Detective,” the following month. Ain’t timing funny? Or grand? It certainly keeps astrologers and pathologists busy. I hadn’t planned things that way, but there it is.

I’ve been plugging out three yarns a month ever since. And struggling to keep my head above water, too. The whole experience feels like maintaining a fistfight in a riptide. Very up and down. In and out. Seemingly by its own accord. Sure.

The series reached its first anniversary in February. That’s got to be some kind of achievement. Maybe nothing so noble, but I’m proud of the small, loyal following my nameless detective has developed.

Progress is slow, but there have been signs. Kevin Burton Smith kindly published my fictional interview with Raymond Chandler over at his thrillingdetective.com. The third story in the series has been accepted for Jochem Vandersteen’s upcoming anthology, “Shamus Sampler 2.” Then there’s Kings River Life Magazine’s plans to publish my eighteenth story this spring. I’ve also begun editing a batch of “The Hard-Boiled Detective” adventures, preparing it as a collection in book form.

If only the writing went faster. If only the hours stretched longer. I don’t know about other unknowns, but I can’t imagine this type of undertaking is a rational choice for anyone. Some days I’ve got enough piss and vinegar to fill Lake Michigan. On other days, the words and characters and plots read flat, voiceless. The next monthly deadline looms. I grind on, grind it out, and move on. The stuff of detective fiction and series create its own bloody inertia.

I hadn’t planned things this way. But there it is. And that’s probably just as well. There’s only so much time for so many things, especially when you’ve painted the next story into the proverbial corner. Sure.

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Fiction is Just Plain Naked

It doesn’t get any starker than the written word. Via Gutenberg or der Kindle, the printed page is plain and raw and naked. No razzle-dazzle about it. Nothing frilly. From Homer to Dickens to Twain to Wolfe, you get the same flat page, the same gray effect. The jumble of Arabic characters plays the same from one to the next. A page is a page is a page. Like any other.

All that makes writing one damn pure form. It’s an art form in plain brown wrapper. The very nature of the medium itself is generic. Newsprint is newsprint and 20 pound bond is 20 pound bond. Fonts may vary, sure. But Baby Ray Chandler has no more hold on Arial or Times Roman than Dr. Seuss. “Green Eggs and Murder” would look the same no matter who wrote it.

Maybe it’s not the greatest revelation since Poe discovered the detective story, but this purity struck while catching an old, British cop series. I’ve been watching a lot of these shows, and it hit me how they get away with murder, art-wise. There’s a gazillion things going on while I’m viewing these inspector detectors. There’s the meal I’m shoving into my mouth. There’s construction noise that blots out dialogue and sound effects. There’s a host of distractions that block the sound and pulls my eyes away from the screen.

But I keep watching. Maybe the characters have sucked me in. Or maybe I’m weary enough to blank out and keep watching as a way to filter out the rest of my day. There’s so much going on at one time to keep you lazily engaged. It’s so damn easy. It doesn’t necessarily take a lot to make the program good enough. It takes a lot less commitment to plow through 30, 60 or 90-minute chunks at a time.

But a book. It’s just you and the words. The pages are all the same. The words are all the same. And that’s all the author’s got. You can draw parallels between cinematography and direction and the writer’s techniques, but they don’t play the same. The author’s got those black and white hieroglyphics and nothing more.

I’m not trying to make a case for one art form as any better or worse than any other. The simplicity of writing just gets me. My keyboard’s no better or worse than Little Stevie King’s keyboard. My pen and paper is just as good as Joyce’s. My typewriter’s no less significant than Nabokov’s.

The bare-bones nature of this medium staggers me. Vonnegut’s blank page has got nothing on mine. Sure.


Hard-Boiled Thought of the Day: Collection #3

A hard-boiled detective yarn takes plenty of snap, crackle, pop. Especially the old-school, throwback kind I crank out for my monthly series. Whether it’s a pointed simile or jaunty dialogue, the pressure’s always on to keep up the pepper. But it can also be a blast. Put a bunch together, and you’ve got some kind of shorthand philosophy, an abbreviated treatise on life and death seen through a pulpified  lens.

  • Blackmail is a bad taste you can never spit out.
  • Bang bang! Right out of the blocks. No time to think. No time to breathe. No stopping for blowing your nose or adjusting your cuffs. Just duck and roll and pray, if praying’s your idea of getting things done.
  • The hole blown into his back could’ve been from a .38. It didn’t matter to him. Corpses aren’t choosey about things like that.
  • But somebody put the squeeze on you. Or on someone you’re close to. Or maybe you just need the money like Howard Hughes needs a crash helmet.
  • His words sealed my fate, but he made it sound like he was forgiving my sins.
  • Don’t go around taking funerals for granted. That last one’s a pip.
  • Janus Piquant couldn’t put it over. Nothing more than a rookie, he was. Whatever league he normally played in, he’d been caught up in something well beyond him. And he couldn’t sell me.
  • “Don’t touch it,” I said.
    She said, “Not for all the ice in Iceland.”
  • Some things can’t be helped any more than a stiff can help being anti-social.
  • The monkey suit clung to him like a bad skin-grafting job.
  • She was as forthcoming as a monk with laryngitis.
  • She gave me one of those pained grins, the kind you spot on loan officers and morgue attendants.
  • He looked about as enthused as a desk sergeant getting a hot tip about a vicious jaywalker.
  • As big as he was, Donovan Creel looked weaker than a blade of grass. He couldn’t sell a pardon to a lifer.
  • You can’t un-pull a trigger.
  • Even though five thousand’s a lot of dough, it won’t necessarily buy you peace of mind. It does make for an awful nice down payment.
  • The sounds of Massin’s flight receded. I eased over to the door and glanced down the alley. Quiet. Emptier than a dead man’s dreams.
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Any Damn Thing You Like

It can be any damn thing you like. That’s at the heart of it. The people, their faces, their voices. The places and smells and colors. The themes and morals and tone and voice. It’s any damn thing you like. I’ll never get over that.

When you come down to it, an author can write any damn thing he likes. Whatever floats her boat. No handcuffs in this racket. The sky’s the limit. It’s just you. You and your brain and your gut and the blank page. That should be anything but daunting.

I’ve seen kids get lost. Give a fledgling a piece of video and an editing program, and don’ t expect to hear anything for a long, long time. They’ll crank through limitless adjustments, tweaks, experiments, checking out every last effect at their fingertips. Sure. If only they knew what they wanted.

If you’ve got something inside you that’s got to come out, you’ve got no headaches where that blank page is concerned. If you know what you want, all you have to do is work on getting there. Arriving’s no easy matter, but that shouldn’t stop you. What do you have to say? Let your passion run free. You’ve got that opening line, or that hook in mind, or a twist. Maybe you’ve been writing an outline in your head for a week. Maybe you’ve got a character whose story is itching to bust out. Put it down on the page.

The blank page should never be daunting. It’s freedom in rectangular form. Have at it. Tickle it, slap it, nudge it, punish it. Play with it until you’re spent. You’ve got something inside you and you’ve got something to say. Let it explode.

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Did Raymond Chandler Fake It

I’ve been pounding out three short stories every month for more than a year now. Between that and scratching my way through the other aspects of this here life, I’ve barely given a thought to writing a novel. When I do give it a thought, it sounds like a big one. Daunting, even. But then you come across Raymond Chandler’s letters.

Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler

Get it straight: I’m no Chandler scholar. Not even an expert. So I’ve got to take his musings with a grain of salt the size of a Marathon Cab. Still, I’ve got to wonder if he actually meandered his way through his larger works. If he winged it, faked it. When it came to plotting out plot points, Chandler actually claimed he was clueless.

Raymond Chandler had arrived by 1951. He’d published five novels beginning with “The Big Sleep” in 1939. “The Long Goodbye” was in the works. So it threw me for a loop to catch this bit from a letter to his agent, Carl Brandt:

I am having a hard time with the book. Have enough paper written to make it complete, but must do all over again. I just didn’t know where I was going and when I got there I saw that I had come to the wrong place. That’s the hell of being the kind of writer who cannot plan anything, but has to make it up as he goes along and then try to make sense out of it. If you gave me the best plot in the world all worked out I could not write it. It would be dead for me.

Mr. Chandler, are you kidding me? Are you trying to tell me that regarding plots and outlines, you didn’t know what you were doing any more than I do? That’s some kind of kick to the head. To think he’d take on a 60,000 or 70,000-word work no different than I approach a 5,000-word yarn. Go figure.

This is the point where I really get to show off. I can’t help but brag about this. More and more I write myself into a corner. Usually within 1,000—1,500 words. Sometimes I can completely handcuff my narrative direction in as little as 500 words. And to think that Chandler took on an entire novel in a similar way.

Then again, he was Raymond Chandler, after all. He proved that great talent can overcome plenty. If Chandler worked blind, then that must mean I’m working blinder.

I’m working in the dark, all right. And it turns out there’s more levels to that than levels of hell. Sure.

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Once upon a time
Upstart underdogs struggled
Now we’ve Mac attacks

Siri-ous business
When I’m chewing on my food
Can you hear me now?

The five-year-old girl
An iPad power user
Still forgets to flush

Leopard, Snow Leopard
Mountain Lion, Maverick
What’s up next, Snow Jobs?

iSpy iCandy
iTunes, YouTube, me Jane
What is in a name?

Leader of the pack
Silicon cyber supreme
Wall Street in the cloud

With Google, Facebook,
YouTube, Pinterest, how does
One paper train dogs?

If politicians
Were more Apple-like
They’d be popular

We are all artists
We’re all photojournalists
Thank Steven Paul Jobs

Every daily race
To win our hearts and our minds
Takes third-party apps

Bluetooth addiction
In the car or the crapper
He’s making phone calls

If Descartes still lived
Would he rework his best work
iThink therefore iAm?

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The Beat Goes On: Year Two

I’ve just posted the lastest yarns in  “The Hard-Boiled Detective” series online. This new trio of tales kicks off the second year for this old-school, retro-detective, publishing effort. An effort and something of an experiment, too.

For the curiously uninformed, subscribers to the series get access to three new adventures every month. They download the stories in whichever electronic format floats their boat—ePub, mobi or PDF. The stories are what they sound like, a throwback to the days of the “Black Mask” boys, inspired by the likes of Chandler, Hammett and Spillane. As the website’s tagline goes, “Old-school detective fiction.” Sure.

I’ve always considered myself egotistical. Plenty arrogant. I admit I’m far and away my favorite subject. But maverick? I never gave that attribute much thought, but I’ve still never seen anyone trying out anything like this. Hard-boiled fiction short stories? By the month? On the installment plan? I simply figured it was the most natural thing in the world, as natural as Chandler dropping a simile, or Mike Hammer cracking open a skull. Sure.

Plenty of folks give me with the mouth dropped open when I tell them what I’ve got going. They act all impressed and bowled over and downright stupefied at my Herculean effort. I get a kick out of the reactions, even. Yeah, it’s somewhat humbling for my writing to make such an impression on people before they’ve even read one word.

The funny thing is, despite having cranked out 39 stories and more than 200,000 words, it feels to me like I write awful slow. There’s never enough time, never enough distance, and plenty of times the deadlines approach like a head-on collision. I always wish I could do more, do better. Maybe that’s the nature of writing. Maybe that means I’m still progressing. Or maybe that means I’m not good enough. Lucky for me I don’t have time to dwell on it.

Coming up with three yarns a month doesn’t leave for hardly any kind of dwelling time. I’ve got this terrific core of subscribers, but the series is by no means a rousing, commercial success. But there’s no time to worry about that. Right now I’m more concerned with the latest plot corner I’ve painted myself into. And then there’s the first collection I’m starting to edit and put into book form.

You can drive yourself over a cliff worrying about this and that and the other thing. Taking such a nose dive isn’t the kind of clear sailing that interests me. Besides, I haven’t enough time as it is. All I can do is what I have to do, what I need to do. All I can do is my best and let the rest take care of itself.


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Picasso in Heaven

Three Musicians, 1921

Three Musicians, 1921

If there’s a heaven, I wonder if it might be done up in oils. Or maybe gouache or watercolors. I wonder if Picasso holds court in some outdoor café where they serve bottomless, eternal cups of espresso.

I can see Mr. Picasso talking and laughing as he sips his brew. Getting reacquainted with Matisse and debating artistic principles with Miro. Imagine him paying tribute to Leonardo and Rembrandt, cajoling with the likes of Hemmingway and Gertrude Stein, exchanging critiques with Velazquez and Van Gogh.

I can think up dozens of questions for the master. Hundreds. But there’d be no need. I wouldn’t say a word. I would simply relish the company, the atmosphere, the dialogue. I’d rest my face on my palm and drink it all in, along with my demitasse.

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