About Writers, reading, writing technique

Firsts: Fists, Flirtations and Befuddlement

This could, I hope, become an ongoing series, but not all written by me. Anyone can take a turn, and it will be more interesting for the variety. It springs from Mimi’s recent suggestion that someone should post  some first paragraphs from novels or short stories.  Discussion, consideration, ratings and arguments could follow after in the comments section. It sounded like fun to me.  As an extra-added attraction, I’m not going to name the author or the book. Of course, some you (or some of you) will know instantly. Others may puzzle. They all come from books I enjoy or admire. Some are rather plain, others audaciously unconventional.

The title of the post is just me goofing around.  After all, a good first paragraphs can knock us on our ass.  It can seduce into opening an unknown door.  It can dazzle and baffle in a way that makes going forward our only choice.

Those are, of course, only three possibilities.

 

1:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

(break)

I begin with an unbeginning. Or maybe with an unfinished ending. The confusion of the first three lines could seem to some as mere artsiness for its own sake, just fancy word-flinging, but that’s too easy a dismissal. This massive books creeps in from the mist and the smoke, entering our consciousness like some misshapen beast. During its 800 pages, it will find and lose solid footing in reality a dozen times.  The “All I know, you know” paragraph lays out themes and images that echo throughout the rest of the text. The semantic twists of this obscure list knock us off stride before we even begin, but that is only too appropriate for a novel that will never stop lurching and turning (careening and grinding) all the way through to the

2:

First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.

HERE IS A SMALL FACT.  You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

(break)

Another appealingly unconventional beginning. This was actually a very popular novel a few years ago, which only goes to show that you can begin a novel any way at all and still succeed in engaging the reader’s attention, as long as you know and trust your craft.

3:

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

First, picture a forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

(break)

Such juicy writing!  They say don’t begin with description. This book rarely stops describing things. There’s very little dialogue. The story is told from multiple points of view, but the main character is the one seen here at the beginning—the forest itself. The last sentence could be a motto for the whole novel.

 

4:

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are know for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him. 

(break)

So quiet. So simple. So ominous.  In very few lines, two characters have already been given weight, contour, and personality.  I particularly like the language, which is at once idiosyncratic, arcane and lovely.

 

5:

I had been sick for a long time. When the day came for me to leave the hospital, I barely knew how to walk anymore, could barely remember who I was supposed to be. Make an effort, the doctor said, and in three of four months you’ll be back in the swing of things. I didn’t believe him, but I followed his advice anyway. They had given me up for dead, and now that I had confounded their predictions and mysteriously failed to die, what choice did I have but to live as though a future life were waiting for me?

(break)

I particularly like the notion of failing to die, almost as if something monstrous had happened.  This was a quirky and troubling little novel. I think the opening does a nice job of setting the reader ill at ease.  (Question: Why “were waiting for me” instead of “was waiting for me”? Some foreshadowing that his future life is somehow plural?)

6:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky,
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

(break)

Yes, this a novel—a novel that happens to begin with 99 lines worth of heroic couplets.  The rest of the novel is several hundred pages of commentary by one of the least reliable narrators you will ever meet. The poem itself is marvelous, playful, and heart rending. The commentary is a whacky tale of political intrigue by a madman who uses an academic exercise as an excuse to tell his own (perhaps) delusional tale.

All right. Enough from me.  Can anyone identify the openings? More to the point, how do these work for you? What thoughts do they inspire?

 

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About Writers, writing technique

First Paragraphs/ Damn Those Torpedoes.

51nNw+HN4VL.jpg“It isn’t the most striking beginning to a novel. It won’t ever be anthologised alongside Orwell’s clocks striking 13, or Anthony Burgess’ catamite and archbishop. But the fact that it is unshowy doesn’t mean it isn’t impressive writing. That assured understatement is a sign of an author in control. And an author who is going to mess you around in most delightful and unsettling ways.

The Bottle Factory Outing more than delivers on that initial promise. Its sentences remain so masterfully restrained that you barely notice the barb until you’ve taken a few steps on – and find yourself hooked back.”

– Sam Jordison (I think. Hard to pin it down.)

Sam (or whoever) also said: “Tell me again why she hasn’t won the Booker . . .” Well, she has won it, finally.

“The tobacco overtook her, when they gave her the Booker she was dead in her grave.”

Mark Knopfler, from his song Beryl. Which is where I first heard the name, and said to myself, who is this person? I have to check her out.

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The advice these days for an opening paragraph is along the lines of: jump straight into an active scene, personality, conflict, dialogue, drama.

The Art and Craft of Fiction, A Writer’s Guide, gives us an encouraging step-by-step.

Inform and convince / Spark curiosity / Set the stakes

This is in reference to a first chapter. It’s a tall order for a first paragraph, in which you need to choose a direction. I appreciate, in recreational reading, lush scene setting. (In Sly, I save that for chapter two, having heeded (or tried to heed) that go-active advice.

I prefer old style foundational description, including, yes, including the amazing opener to The Princess Casamassima by Henry James, which will leave many a today reader behind fast. This quirky ramble says to me, this story will poke its nose into every corner of life on the flimsiest of excuses and will deal with every stray matter to an extreme degree. And so, though this scene is not grab-me-by-the-throat, I foresee great fun ahead. I have lessons here in punctuation, and in language (a fluttered wish, love it) and I find permission to ramble in my own thing. For me, it’s an all-round good time. Here we go:

“Oh yes, I daresay I can find the child, if you would like to see him,” Miss Punsent said; she had a fluttered wish to assent to every suggestion made by her visitor, whom she regarded as a high and rather terrible personage. To look for the little boy she came out of her small parlour, which she had been ashamed to exhibit is so untidy a state, with paper “patterns” lying about on the furniture and snippings of stuff scattered over the carpet – she came out of this somewhat stuffy sanctuary, dedicated at once to social intercourse and to the ingenious art to which her life had been devoted, and, opening the house-door, turned her eyes up and down the little street. It would presently be tea-time, and she knew that at that solemn hour Hyacinth narrowed the circle of his wanderings. She was anxious and impatient and in a fever of excitement and complacency, and not wanting to keep Mrs. Bowerbank waiting, though she sat there, heavily and consideringly, as if she meant to stay; and wondering not a little whether the object of her quest would have a dirty face. Mr. Bowerbank had intimated so definitely that she thought it remarkable on Miss Pynsent’s part to have taken care of him gratuitously for so many years, that the humble dressmaker, whose imagination took flights about every one but herself and who had never been conscious of an exemplary benevolence, suddenly aspired to appear, throughout, as devoted to the child as she had truck her large, grave guest as being, and felt how much she should like him to come in fresh and frank and looking as pretty as he sometimes did.

This is less than half of the paragraph. (!) I see, thumbing through the book, that James is given to very long paragraphs. I like long paragraphs. You can say interesting things, in interesting ways, in long paragraphs. (Not so terribly catchy here, but that’s the theology I live by.) Henry James is my kind of guy.

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First person is by definition more immediate. I see first person as a leg up in any story. Richard Henry Dana, in Two Years Before the Mast, covers all bases, story to style, in an economical, thoroughly enjoyable manner:

The fourteenth of August was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the brig Pilgrim, on her voyage from Boston, round Cape Horn, to the western coast of North America. As she was to get underway early in the afternoon, I made my appearance on board at twelve o’clock, in full sea-rig, with my shest containing an outfit for a two or three years’ voyage, which I had undertaken from a determination to cure, if possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books, with plenty of hard work, plain food, and open air, a weakness in the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my studies, and which no medical aid seemed likely to remedy.

__________________________________________

Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing, also gives us an overview, in an easier, more contemporary vein, also with lovely flow:

When they came south out of Grant County Boyd was not much more than a baby and the newly formed county they’d named Hidalgo was itself little older than the child. In the country they’d quit lay the bones of a sister and the bones of his maternal grandmother. The new country was rich and wild. You could ride clear to Mexico and not strike a crossfence. He’d carried Boyd before him in the bow of the saddle and named to him features of the landscape and birds and animals in both Spanish and English. In the new house they slept in the room off the kitchen and he would lie awake at night and listen to his brother’s breathing in the dark and he would whisper half aloud to him as he slept his plans for them and the life they would have.

Again, the reputation drives my interest, but there is enough style here to tempt me and I already understand a good bit about who this fellow is.

_________________________________________

Let’s sample A Confederacy of Dunces:

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grow in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black mustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

Whoa! Glorious, humorous complexity, a real delight. We’re in for a rollicking good time. I’m in on this one, wholeheartedly. (Until I’m not, of course. It’s only one paragraph. And it may become too much of a good thing.) But, maybe not. It won something big. Was it the Pulitzer?

_________________________________________

What do all these examples have in Common? A touch of the poetic, some of it over-the-rainbow, some of it try-our-patience, some of it common-man.

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Maltese Falcon? Broad, but lovely, setting a definite tone:

Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down-from high flat temples-in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a bond satan.

_________________________________________

This is interesting. Beryl Bainbridge, from The Bottle Factory Outing:

The hearse stood outside the block of flats, waiting for the old lady. Freda was crying. There were some children and a dog running in and out of the line of bare black trees planted in the pavement.

“I don’t know why you’re crying, said Brenda. “You didn’t know her.”

This is very Beryl. The story comes at you on little cat feet. We don’t learn much here except that we are probably in a shabby, transient  neighborhood in which neighbors don’t know each other. And it’s told plain-Jane, no verbal hijinks.

I said to myself, this stuff won her the Booker Prize? But loopy detail upon loopy detail finally reached a critical mass. Half way in I surrendered to her charm. From her reputation, I was looking to be knocked off my feet. Something flashy. Beryl is not flashy. Don’t look for it, you won’t find it.

One reviewer wrote: “Beryl Bainbridge manages plots of escalating comedy and grotesqueness with consummate skill. She is brilliant at scattering humour over seemingly gruesome terrain”. Key word here, escalating. Absolutely!

________________________________________

Then (sigh) there’s Danielle Steele, The Sins of the Mother:

Olivia Grayson sat in the chairman’s seat at the board meeting, listening intently to the presentations, her intense blue eyes taking in each member of the board. Her eyes were quick and sharp. She was totally still, wearing a well-cut navy blue pantsuit, and a string of pearls around her neck. Her hair was a sleek bob, cut to the level of her jawbone just below the ear. It was the same snow-white color it had been since her early thirties. She was one of those striking women you would notice in any room. She was timeless, ageless, with high cheekbones and an angular face, and elegant hands as she held a pen poised above her notepad. She always took notes at the meetings, and had a flawless memory of what went on, in what order, and everything that was said. Her keen mind and sharp business sense had won her the reputation for being brilliant, but more than anything she was practical and had an innate, unfailing sense of what was right for her company. She had turned the profitable hardware store her mother had inherited years before into a model for international operations on a mammoth scale.

This is as unappealing a passage as I have ever read. This woman is a million-plus best seller? This is pap. It tells us nothing that makes us interested in this creature, the characterization is stale (and tasteless) as day-old French bread, and it repeats ideas. I might be wrong but, isn’t an international operation by definition on a mammoth scale?

A woman chairman. Of when? Let me check. Copyright 2012. Amazing. The approach feels so Jacqueline Susann/retro. Not that I’ve read any Jacqueline Susann. That’s my no-evidence-to-back-it-up half-assed pronouncement. Somebody clue me in.

I don’t give a damn about timeless/ageless/pearls/pantsuits. Any one of us could draw a thumbnail sketch in a far tastier fashion. For me, this is off to a very bad start. I doubtless bought this thing for research, to see how the other half writes. Probably paid fifty cents at a library sale. Into the trash with it.

________________________________________

This is like eating potato chips. I can’t stop.

Summertime, and the living is sleazy: Tobacco Road. I love this book. I’m looking for it, can’t find it. I’ll add it in later.

Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis. “The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist . . .” This first line grabs me because it sounds very Amanda McKittrick Ros. (He’s not at all A-McK-R, of course, but the thought tickles me nonetheless.)

From an excerpt (which is all I have of it) of her Irene Iddesleigh:

“The month preceding Irene’s wedding was one of merriment at Dilworth Castle, Lord and Lady Dilworth extending the social hand of fashionable folly on four different occasions. They seemed drunk with delight that Irene, whom they looked upon as their own daughter, should carry off the palm of purity, whilst affluence, position, and title were for years waiting with restless pride to triumph at its grasp.”

This bit is great fun, but a whole book of it wears you down fast. What keeps you reading? To discover a gem, like southern necessary, her term for a pair of pants. Priceless! This is why she’s still read (by looney-tunes like me) a century later.

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What does all this tell us? Not a lot, but I had fun writing it.

My conclusion: After a level of competence has been reached, we must please ourselves. Dig deep, find your authentic voice, and tell a story that you would enjoy reading. Don’t second-guess the market, that’s a fool’s errand.

I think the job of a first paragraph is to establish a personality. It’s the personality that pulls me in. Not the plot. Never the plot. (Beryl Bainbridge being the exception, with her you get no plot, and no personality. You persist on a wing and a prayer until her brilliance begins to sink in.) OK, Mark Knopfler has given her a powerful recommendation. Anyone Marks likes, I give extra time for the audition. He knows a thing or two about words.

What’s my point here?

Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. I’ll meet you at the bottom of the cold, cruel sea that is Amazon. Yo-ho, kids. Bring plenty of rum. My gut tells me we’re gonna need it.

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About Writers

Twenty-Three Rules for Writers

The muse babbles, as she usually does. Crouched on my kitchen table, she scrapes a long crumpled feather smooth, then clacks the stony hinge of her beak.

I retrieve a pair of mismatched tumblers from the drainboard and crack open a bottle of J.T.S. Brown. Straight up, no ice. She never takes ice. I wait, sipping, while she slurps, her black tongue lapping in noisy swipes. Once, I would’ve waited with pen clicked, notebook ready. Now I just wait, knowing better.

These late night sessions used to be more frequent. It seemed I could almost conjure her appearance by act of will. But they were never what I thought they ought to be. Like a lot of writers, I always imagined the muse dictating stories in my ear, using me as a vehicle for her divine inspiration. Only my muse isn’t like that. I have to be the one who, between drinks, coaxes her back to the table and gets her talking again. But nothing she says ever really makes sense. Her stories are tangled skeins; her language is an obscure bramble. Half the time, it’s pure gibbering. I’m never entirely sure that she isn’t just yanking my chain.

And that’s the problem with divine beings. To her, you are the illusion, you are the dream. It’s no certainty that she’s even noticed you.

So I don’t hope for stories or sense anymore. I don’t take notes. I don’t toil long into the night after she leaves, burning with vision. Maybe, days later, I’ll remember some phrase, some notion which seems to have no point of origin, no history. Maybe she didn’t even say it, but it had to come from somewhere. I only know it might be important because I can’t quite put it out of my mind.

So I thought I’d share a few here, in this pleasant purgatory. Frangible axioms of dubious origin. Inscrutable proverbs. I collect them, doncha know. I figure they might prove useful one day, when I’m beating my head against some stubborn hedge of verbiage, or trying to thread an impossible prosodic needle.

Apply at your own risk.

Twenty-Three Rules for Writing:

1. Holes. It needs more holes.
2. Time is an exquisite, aching mirage.
3. Celebrate evanescent things.
4. It is, just maybe, possible.
5. Hew doggedly to the wrong path.
6. Make mouths in the wall so it can speak more light.
7. All desire is holy—and indecent.
8. Jump off the cliff.
9. Admit nothing.
10. Crack the door open; don’t go in.
11. Only details.
12. Defend the indefensible.
13. Sneak out the back door; re-enter through the skylight, shattering.
14. You don’t have to give them anything.
15. You have to give them everything.
16. Words will waste you, pal.
17. Gather tiny miracles.
18. It’s already broken. You can’t make it any more broken.
19. Add clutter.
20. Vamp for a while.
21. Sing into the handsome demon’s mouth.
22. Dream in the face of oblivion.
23. End it here. End it now.

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About Writers, blogging, book promotion

Facebook Street Cafe

My first two weeks:
The humanity cascading down my Facebook page needs filtering, of course. I want to learn from other authors. They get invites. **Purged are the space-wasters – haters, fanatics, scammers and whores may have their story but I am not here to write it. Everyone else is appreciated. Well, I occasionally knock off the loudly ignorant, the maudlin, the chanters of feel-good gibberish, a proselytizer or two, even the emotional yo-yos when they don’t know when to stop. Still, I have over 1400 “Friends.” Some are generous authors happy to share what they know while others would kill your mother for a Popsicle if they were hungry.
But what else should one expect from the crowds on Main Street, Earth?

I am not here to sell books. Happy as I am to see the hits jump on my book’s webpage, I came to see today’s authors and the books they are writing. Posting my book is just flashing my badge.
Most authors seem like myself. They like to write, they like being authors, they don’t sell many books but two out of three keeps them writing. Granted, I’m not friended with James Patterson, Steven King or JK Rowlings but I ‘could’ be chatting up a future Rowlings, King or Patterson. That thought keeps me respectful.

Social media, by its nature, skews the sample towards social people and social themes. There are more women authors on Facebook than men authors. Facebook authors are usually outgoing, happy to share books or thoughts on genres, plots, characters, publishing, marketing or any topic related to life as a writer.
I like them. I learn from them.

It’s a humbling experience. So many people who know more about any topic than do I are happy to set me straight. My reference to the War Powers Act was expanded in a reply from a judge who kindly explained why I was right but …not really on target. My comment in another discussion was labeled a “red herring” by someone who knew.

True, some here have unusual kinks in their DNA helix and always remember that you are talking with faceless strangers even when they put a face to the talk. I received a friend request from an active duty soldier. The photo showed a wholesome young woman in US Army uniform at her desk. Her account page said she was born in NYC, currently living in Damascus, Syria. Right.
Y’gotta love Humans.
**Addendum. Note: Do not use the word “purged” or the phrase “knock off.” My use of those elicited a happily rabid response from a fanatic agreeing on the necessity for “culling the rat fuck bastards” who can “be erased with the push of a button on a suicide vest.”
Apparently, word choice can be critical here.

Writing at my desk with Facebook but a click away is like writing while sitting in a sidewalk cafe where one only has to look up to engage people going by. Talking with people having similar interests is a refreshing break. So if you’re a lover of books, please send me a friend request. I’m in front of Ducky Smith’s SciFi Roundtable cafe. I’ll hold a chair for you.
+++– GD Deckard

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About Writers

Bring Me the Head of Philip K. Dick!

AI-Robot -- PKD

http://www.hansonrobotics.com/robot/philip-k-dick-android/ 

…A human being without the proper empathy or feeling is the same as an android built so as to lack it, either by design or mistake. We mean, basically, someone who does not care about the fate which his fellow living creatures fall victim to; he stands detached, a spectator, acting out by his indifference John Donne’s theorem that “No man is an island,” but giving that theorem a twist: that which is a mental and moral island is not a man.

Philip K. Dick, “Man, Android and Machine”

The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.

—Philip K. Dick

It is amazing that when someone else spouts the nonsense you yourself believe you can readily perceive it as nonsense.  

—PHILIP K. DICK, Valis

This is a mournful discovery:

(1) those who agree with you are insane

(2) those who do not agree with you are in power.

—PHILIP K. DICK, Valis

If you or I ever really accepted the moral responsibility for what we’ve done in our lifetime—we’d drop dead or go mad. Living creatures weren’t made to understand what they do.

—PHILIP K. DICK, Now Wait For Last Year

The appropriate response to reality is to go insane.

—PHILIP K. DICK

………………………………………….

Are you aware that “they” once built an android of Philip K. Dick?

This mechanoid simulacrum was no mere mannequin, robot or cheap A.I. computer program powering a ventriloquist’s dummy but a seemingly sentient creature whose camera eyes focused on your own as you talked. An android so advanced that its eyes would track you if you got up and moved about the room; that listened attentively to your speech, pondered, and then responded in kind. Whose face could display every shade of emotion known to man, and who in turn could read the emotion on your own face.

The android had the corpus of P.K.D.’s works and interviews programmed into its advanced artificial intelligence in order to draw upon this vast repository of Phil Dickian thought to answer questions put to it in near real time. Yet the one question its makers dreaded interviewers asking it above all others was, “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” Because if confronted with this particular dystopian sci-fi interrogative Phil would begin to talk . . . and elaborate . . . and baroquely ornament its answer with references drawn from the entire corpus of human knowledge and divers academic/esoteric disciplines (psychology, sociology, philosophy, religion, history, engineering, physics, astronomy, myth, magic and mysticism, et. al.) until infinity—or its makers pulled the plug.

And I do mean infinity. When programmers examined the queued-up data logs compiled from Phil’s prepared response to this question they found themselves marveling with equal parts rueful humor and bemused horror at the discovery that the android was prepared to discourse on this particular subject . . . forever. Literally—forever: until the end of time. The only way they could get faux-P.K.D. to stop talking about androids dreaming of electric sheep was to wipe its memory clean and start over with a different question.

Came the day one of the principals involved in chaperoning the android to a new convention fell asleep on a plane. Upon arrival at the airport this man woke up, grabbed his personal effects and left the aircraft in a groggy state only to belatedly realize that he’d left the android’s head behind.

It was never seen again.

Run, Dick, run.

…………………………………………..

http://www.memphisflyer.com/memphis/bring-me-the-head-of-philip-k-dick/Content?oid=3191917 

http://www.philipkdickfans.com/literary-criticism/frank-views-archive/philip-k-dicks-final-interview/

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About Writers

Midnight in Paris

Midnight_in_Paris_PosterIf you’ve seen this 2011 movie, then you know it’s about writers. Owen Wilson stars as an American writer in Paris from the year 2010 who stumbles into the roaring 20s to meet the Fitzgeralds, Zelda and Scott; Ernest Hemingway; Gertrude Stein & cohorts. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, the Golden Globe Awards for Best Screenplay and was nominated for three other Academy Awards. Setting aside the astonishing photography, the fun, believable scenes with great writers and artists of the time and the award winning writing, we come to the heart of the story: Everybody believes that the Golden Age of writing is in the past. They missed it and they long for it.

Are we like that? Do we tend to believe that the best 20th Century writers are better than anyone out there today? Are none of the 11 million books on Amazon worthy of future veneration? This is, of course, a matter of perception and we may someday find a book from the last 16 years that went unnoticed at publication but is reprinted for generations because it says something no other book says so well.

As writers, we should be able to say -now- what such a book would be like. I think it would have to tell readers things about their own lives that they don’t understand because they are too close but that a writer, being on the outside looking in, can.

What do you think a new book destined to be reprinted for generations would have to be like?

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About Writers, reading, writing technique

Orson Welles With His Mouth Full of Crackers

The other day, someone on Facebook posted this challenge: “Quick, without thinking about it too hard, what’s the first, most memorable piece of character description that comes to your mind?”

I didn’t think about it too hard. What popped into my mind was: “He had a voice like Orson Welles with a mouthful of crackers.”

I knew it was from Raymond Chandler. It pretty much had to be. After a little digging through the dusty paperbacks, I found it: The Little Sister, Chapter 15.

If you’ve never read The Little Sister, I envy you a little. (Also, why the hell not?) It was Chandler’s fifth novel, and he was at the peak of his form. It may not have been his most elegantly written or most cleverly plotted, but that thing is bursting with gonzo energy.

It is, in modern parlance, cray.

It was Chandler’s Hollywood novel—swimming pools, movie stars, a guy running around sticking icepicks into people. Typical stuff. But this is Chandler. What matters is the writing, specifically the dialogue. Most specifically, the dialogue between Phillip Marlowe and Orfamay Quest, the prim, mousy girl from Manhattan, Kansas, who has come to Los Angeles to find her brother, Orrin. Everything about the case seems wrong to Marlowe, but he doesn’t have anything else to do. After much back and forth, he manages to pry a 20-dollar retainer from her tight little fist and sets off to find her brother.

I don’t want to give you any more of the story than that. Instead, I want to look at one chapter, number 15 to be exact. I could just say “go here and read it” but that wouldn’t make much of a post. For no other goddamned good reason other than my own self-indulgence, I present the entire chapter (Canadian Public Domain version) only slightly annotated. I hope you enjoy it:

Chapter Fifteen
She came in briskly enough this time. Her motions were small and quick and determined. There was one of those thin little, bright little smiles on her face. She put her bag down firmly, settled herself in the customer’s chair and went on smiling.

(I love the energy of this description. We’ve met Orfamay already, way back in Chapter One, but we don’t know what to make of her yet. The tumble of adjectives—small, quick, determined—and especially the wonderful cluster “thin little, bright little”—puts us on our guard. They are sharp and bristly. Orfamay is not to be trifled with, no matter how innocuous and innocent she may pretend to be.)

“It’s nice of you to wait for me,” she said. “I bet you haven’t had your dinner yet, either.”

“Wrong,” I said. “I have had my dinner. I am now drinking whiskey. You don’t approve of whiskey-drinking do you?” (Marlowe is ready to spar.)

“I certainly do not.” (So is she.)

“That’s just dandy,” I said. “I hoped you hadn’t changed your mind.” I put the bottle up on the desk and poured myself another slug. I drank a little of it and gave her a leer above the glass. (There is a game going on. It is not the game Orfamay thinks it is. Ultimately, it isn’t quite what Marlowe thinks it is either.)

“If you keep on with that you won’t be in any condition to listen to what I have to say,” she snapped.

“About this murder,” I said. “Anybody I know? I can see you’re not murdered—yet.”

“Please don’t be unnecessarily horrid. It’s not my fault. You doubted me over the telephone so I had to convince you. Orrin did call me up. But he wouldn’t tell me where he was or what he was doing. I don’t know why.”

“He wanted you to find out for yourself,” I said. “He’s building your character.”

“That’s not funny. It’s not even smart.”

“But you’ve got to admit it’s nasty,” I said. “Who was murdered? Or is that a secret too?”

She fiddled a little with her bag, not enough to overcome her embarrassment, because she wasn’t embarrassed. But enough to needle me into taking another drink. (The nimbleness of Chandler’s prose is awe-inspiring. He establishes character with such quick strokes.)

“That horrid man in the rooming house was murdered. Mr.—Mr.—I forget his name.”

“Let’s both forget it,” I said. “Let’s do something together for once.” I dropped the whiskey bottle into the desk drawer and stood up. “Look, Orfamay, I’m not asking you how you know all this. Or rather how Orrin knows it all. Or if he does know it. You’ve found him. That’s what you wanted me to do. Or he’s found you, which comes to the same thing.”

“It’s not the same thing,” she cried. “I haven’t really found him. He wouldn’t tell me where he was living.” (This is important to the bigger plot. Orfamay has presented herself as the caring sister, tracking down the wild brother who really needs to just come back to Kansas and be nurtured in the bosom of his loving family. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her insistence that “he wouldn’t tell me anything,” hints deftly at her real reason for being there.)

“Well if it is anything like the last place, I don’t blame him.”

She set her lips in a firm line of distaste. “He wouldn’t tell me anything really.”

“Just about murders,” I said. “Trifles like that.”

She laughed bubblingly. “I just said that to scare you. I don’t really mean anybody was murdered, Mr. Marlowe. You sounded so cold and distant. I thought you wouldn’t help me any more. And—well, I just made it up.” (A nice feint from Orfamay, but Marlowe isn’t buying.)

I took a couple of deep breaths and looked down at my hands. I straightened out the fingers slowly. Then I stood up. I didn’t say anything. (The drama of the sentences is understated and yet perfectly clear. No explication. No internal monologue.)

“Are you mad at me?” she asked timidly, making a little circle on the desk with the point of a finger. (Still dancing.)

“I ought to slap your face off,” I said. “And quit acting innocent. Or it mightn’t be your face I’d slap.”

Her breath caught with a jerk. “Why, how dare you!” (Her favorite counter-punch, but even she knows it’s a not a haymaker. She’s just playing for time.)

“You used that line,” I said. “You used it too often. Shut up and get the hell out of here. Do you think I enjoy being dared to death? Oh—there’s this.” I yanked a drawer open, got out her twenty dollars and threw them down in front of her. “Take this money away. Endow a hospital or a research laboratory with it. It makes me nervous having it around.” (Love that bit.  Even in 1940, twenty bucks wasn’t a real retainer, certainly not for the amount of time he’s already put into the case. But the dirty secrets of the Quest family have everything to do with money, and Marlowe’s hip to that already.)

Her hand reached automatically for the money. Her eyes behind the cheaters were round and wondering. “Goodness,” she said, assembling her handbag with a nice dignity.  (Assembling. Nice.)  “I’m sure I didn’t know you scared that easy. I thought you were tough.”

“That’s just an act,” I growled, moving around the desk. She leaned back in her chair away from me. “I’m only tough with little girls like you that don’t let their fingernails grow too long. I’m all mush inside.” I took hold of her arm and yanked her to her feet. Her head went back. Her lips parted. I was hell with the women that day. (Classic Chandler.)

“But you will find Orrin for me, won’t you?” she whispered. “It was all a lie. Everything I’ve told you was a lie. He didn’t call me up. I—I don’t know anything.” (Even when she’s leveling with him, she’s still playing him.)

“Perfume,” I said sniffing. “Why, you little darling. You put perfume behind your ears—and all for me!”

She nodded her little chin half an inch. Her eyes were melting. “Take my glasses off,” she whispered, “Philip. I don’t mind if you take a little whiskey once in a while. Really I don’t.”

Our faces were about six inches apart. I was afraid to take her glasses off. I might have socked her on the nose.  (Fantastic. Marlowe was such a perfect confusion of tough, cynical veneer and soft, almost prudish, interior. Humanity tends to disappoint him, but he’s too much of a romantic to ever truly give up on it.)

“Yes,” I said in a voice that sounded like Orson Welles with his mouth full of crackers. “I’ll find him for you, honey, if he’s still alive. And for free. Not a dime of expense involved. I only ask one thing.”

“What, Philip?” she asked softly and opened her lips a little wider.

“Who was the black sheep in your family?” (Finally. Marlowe is not the know-it-all, smart guy, love-em-and leave-em detective. He’s actually is a nice guy. We’ve know him for four novels now. If he’s sparring with Orfamay, it’s because he knows that she’s more dangerous than she appears. Not that there isn’t some genuine feeling when she says “Take my glasses off… I don’t mind if you take a little whiskey once in a while.” In some ways, she really is the innocent, at least about matters of the heart. She really does want Marlowe to kiss her. But she’s also running a different game, and Marlowe knows it. He’s just not sure what it is.)
She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me. (Also a classic Chandlerism.) She stared at me stony-faced.

“You said Orrin wasn’t the black sheep in your family. Remember? With a very peculiar emphasis. And when you mentioned your sister Leila, you sort of passed on quickly as if the subject was distasteful.”

“I—I don’t remember saying anything like that,” she said very slowly.

“So I was wondering,” I said. “What name does your sister Leila use in pictures?”

“Pictures?” she sounded vague. “Oh you mean motion pictures? Why I never said she was in pictures. I never said anything about her like that.”

I gave her my big homely lopsided grin. She suddenly flew into a rage.

“Mind your own business about my sister Leila,” she spit at me. “You leave my sister Leila out of your dirty remarks.”

“What dirty remarks?” I asked. “Or should I try to guess?”

“All you think about is liquor and women,” she screamed. “I hate you!” She rushed to the door and yanked it open and went out. She practically ran down the hall.

I went back around my desk and slumped into the chair. A very strange little girl. Very strange indeed. (That’s an understatement. In spite of everything, Orfamay intrigues him. He’s even a little touched by her. He’s in shopworn Galahad mode again, only this time around, the damsel isn’t really in distress.)

After a while the phone started ringing again, as it would. On the fourth ring I leaned my head on my hand and groped for it, fumbled it to my face.  (Love that.)

“Utter McKinley Funeral Parlors,” I said.

A female voice said: “Wha-a-t?” and went off into a shriek of laughter. That one was a riot at the police smoker in 1921. What a wit. Like a hummingbird’s beak. I put the lights out and went home.

(I always thought this was just a nonsense joke but Utter McKinley Mortuaries still exist, a fair number of them, around the Southern California area.)

And THAT is the entire chapter. I urge you to go read the whole book. You won’t be sorry you did.

Meanwhile, what’s the first, most memorable piece of character description that comes to your mind?

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