Sep 022010

In this post, I’m going to address in my own special way one of the recurring problems of a writer’s life. Many of us find that while we’re in a writing phase, we can’t seem to read. It’s not just about time, it’s about attention.

For what it’s worth, I’m going to argue that you gotta. Ignore me at your peril, but then, listen to me at your peril. Do what works for you, because when it comes right down to it, I don’t know shit.

All I’m trying to do is remind you — or maybe remind myself — why you sat down in that stupid chair to begin with. We all began writing because at some point writing something down seemed like a better idea than doing the dishes or emptying the litter box. Locked up in the problems of fiction, it’s way too easy to forget why it ever did.

Anyway, here’s the story:

Recently, while lost in a finger-gallop reverie in the virtual pages of my newest tender romance between a half-clothed young socialite and the crew of the HMS Bon Vivant, I realized something strange and wonderful.

All my recent first-drafts evince a familiar narrative rhythm — one I was completely unaware of during the writing of a considerable number of words.

The novels open with a conversation or interpersonal conflict that leads to an action sequence for which there’s clearly backstory that the reader doesn’t know, so that the resounding “WTF?” in the reader’s mind both intrigues them and troubles them.

The novel then proceeds to a chapter of backstory from the perspective of a single character, which tells you part of why the action sequence in Chapter 1 matters and what in the hell the characters were talking about.

Following that, there’s another conversation and another action sequence that both illuminates the events of Chapter 1, but you still don’t quite know WTF is going on.

You as the reader are more illuminated after the subsequent round of backstory, again from another character’s perspective — often a different character than the first backstory.

So on and so on — through about six or eight chapters, until roughly the midpoint of the book. After that, the narrative proceeds more or less unchecked as a series of conversations and actions sequences, to an ending that’s either a suckerpunch or a bitch-slap, depending.

Let me say here that structuring novels has always bothered me. I don’t do it naturally, which is why I’ve been more successful writing short stories. But as I wrote this round of longer works — about five of them since June — it all came to me as easily as a Cleveland drama teacher who’s mistaken me for Robert Mitchum. And for a time, I didn’t have the faintest idea why it was suddenly so natural.

Then I picked up a Jim Thompson novel, my tenth in a few months, and I realized I was aping  Thompson’s formulaic structure.

James Meyers Thompson, 1906-1977,  in case you don’t know your tough-guy literature, was one of the codifiers of redneck noir, and more importantly of the overall hard-boiled esthetic in the postwar crime thriller — and here I’m talking really hard-boiled, not the saxophone-drenched diaries of some trenchcoat-wearing wisecracker who handwashes his delicates and jots his crime scene notes in a cute little spiral notebook with unicorn appliqués and a glue-glitter “Detective Jake Fist’s Notebook” on the cover, and dots the I’s in “high-velocity impact splatter” with little pink hearts.

Jim Thompson, much like Hitchcock and Cornell Woolrich, raised misanthropy in the thriller to a high art — but, most importantly, Thompson was a consummate plotter. His books pound the pavement (or West Texas alkali dust) so tight and fast Raymond Chandler curls up in his grave and weeps, “Uncle.”

Many of Thompson’s short, to-the-point suckerpunch thrillers follow exactly the structure I mention above — some don’t, sure, but the commercial crime novels he sat down and cranked out while slamming down liquor in the ’50s and ’60s all follow a similar pattern. Thompson sure as hell didn’t invent it — really, the structure’s pretty standard. But you tend not to see it quite as evidently nowadays in category crime fiction, which today is thoroughly dominated by 400-page P.I. books and lawyers from Sausalito. With the stripped-down, 60,000-word structure in 12 or 15 or 20 chapters, it’s easier to see the moving parts.

And as far as I’m concerned, the structure works.

I don’t mean it works from a writer’s perspective — who gives a shit about writers? I mean it works for the reader. Remember them? That is to say, it works for me — I love reading it. Add to that predictable an enveloping sense of atmosphere, vivid characters, wonderful narrative language and an ear for dialect, and I’m as happy as a pig in shit as long as no one tries to talk to me while I’m reading.

With Thompson, specifically, he can stuff my peepers with an endless parade of corrupt Texas oilmen, L.A. grifters, slowly-coming-unhinged small-town sheriffs and St. Louis bellboys plotting the perfect murder of a corrupt politician’s cocaine-addled wife; I’ll always be convinced I’m reading a new book, even though I’m actually reading the same damn book over and over again.

That’s probably why I read about ten of Thompson’s novels in couple months — immediately before I started writing in exactly that structure, without even really meaning to do it.

Having found the style fantastically satisfying as a reader, I started pumping it out as a writer despite the fact that at the moment I’m not writing anything even remotely resembling crime novels. The supremely satisfying framework imprinted itself so thoroughly on me that I utilized it without even knowing it — after years of not quite “getting” novel structure.

What’s the point? You are what you eat. You have to read to write. If you are writing novels, you need to read novels; if you are writing short stories, you need to read short stories; if you are writing deconstructive poetry in Georgian — well, you get the point. And you need to read a lot of it, because the structural conventions of the genre you work in need to seem so completely natural to you that you can not only make it your own but make it your own without even knowing you’re doing it.

For years I have been telling people they need to write to write — and there ain’t a damn thing wrong with that assertion, either. But you also have to know what a work of art feels like to be able to do it with a depth of instinct that allows you to make it your own.

I should say that I’ve been somewhat inaccurate for the sake of clarity above; you actually don’t need to read obsessively in the genre or genre you’re writing in. You need to read in the genre(s) you’re most influenced by. In the same way that I”m influenced by Jim Thompson in writing erotica (an improbable marriage if ever there was one), you might be influenced by Robert A. Heinlein in writing gay werewolf romances.

Mazel Tov! The more unlikely your influences, the more likely you can bring a new voice to a given genre, to which — assuming you learn to do it well, or well enough — your readers will say “Thank you, Ma’am and/or Sir, may I have another?”

Now, please don’t take that as an engraved invitation from me (like you need one?) to write “A multigenerational epic fantasy inspired by The Daily Show.” Wacky ideas are one thing. But as a cynical son of a bitch who has heard — seriously — just about every undercooked idea possible come out of writers’ mouths, nothing’s more tedious than writers who intentionally look for improbable concepts in order to impress you with how “original” they are (Hot Tub Time Machine, anyone?), I’m telling you to keep your self-satisfied precocious inventiveness down to a dull roar and leave the truly contrived mash-ups to people with absolutely bloody well nothing of their own to say. The point is not to blow people’s minds with your half-assed ideas, but to blow their minds with the vividness, genuineness and personal flavor of your writing.

You want to give readers That Barton Fink Feeling, for the simple reason that if you don’t, no one else can. How do you do that? You give them what you love — what you really love, not just what you pat yourself on the back for having come up with a sentence-long summary for.

What I’m trying to get at here is that a writer must find what books he or she enjoys reading — or, preferably, LOVES reading with a passion that makes her or him sacrifice sleep and risk life and limb to squeeze in a few extra pages while walking down the street.

I discovered that in spades this year. I spent a decade or more of being sort of lukewarm on all the fiction I read. Therefore, I didn’t read nearly as much of it as I should have. Then I started reading fiction aggressively, and I realized that the experience of reading a book that blows you away is what all this ludicrous self-torture is about.

You do have to write to write — that fact is as unassailable as the meaning of the word is being, well, “is.”

But you are what you eat — so go read something that reminds you why you ever sat your ass down in that stupid chair to begin with.