Tag Archives: sol stein

Raymond Chandler Breaks All of the Rules


Today I learned that there are no public domain photographs of Raymond Chandler in existence. Zero! Seems odd for a guy who was born in the year 1888. Anyways, I love me some Chandler, especially his 1940 classic Farewell, My Lovely. It’s one of the very best crime books ever written. But he does some odd things here and there that sometimes fly in the face of commonly accepted writing advice. I previously wrote about his clever strategy for breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule. Later on in the same novel, he does something highly unusual in the middle of a fight scene. Chandler’s detective Phillip Marlowe is investigating a lead when he falls in with some rough people and finds himself in a fistfight:

I tried to yell, for no reason at all. Breath panted in my throat and couldn’t get out. The Indian threw me sideways and got a body scissors on me as I fell. He had me in a barrel. His hands went to my neck. Sometimes I wake up in the night. I feel them there and I smell the smell of him. I feel the breath fighting and losing and the greasy fingers digging in. Then I get up and take a drink and turn the radio on. I was just about gone when the light flared on again…

Did you catch that? Chandler inserted a flash forward right in the middle of an action sequence. This is strange for two reasons. First, it breaks the flow of the action. In Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel, crime writer Hallie Ephron warns against doing that:

If you find yourself taking a pause in the middle of an action sequence to explain something, be aware that you are slowing the forward momentum… Don’t dump information into an action sequence.

So, he’s blatantly disregarded some core tenants of a fight scene. But, moreover, this flash-forward ruins the suspense. The author is telling you, right then and there, that the main character’s going to be just fine. Not only will he survive this fight, but it sounds like he’ll survive the events of the novel as well. What’s the use of putting your character in danger if the reader knows he’ll survive? Sol Stein addresses the dilemma in his essential guidebook On Writing:

A point sometimes overlooked by beginners is that if a story centers on the narrator’s ability to survive life-threatening dangers, some suspense will be lost in the first person because the character will have to survive to finish the story.

I can’t help but think that Chandler is having some fun with the confines of first-person narration here. He’s blatantly announcing to the reader “OF COURSE HE LIVES! WHAT ARE YOU, STUPID?” It’s a story told in first-person, dummy. And before you dismiss this as the over-analysis of an English professor, consider that Chandler routinely inserts meta-commentary on writing and literature into his novels, including in Farewell, My Lovely, when he takes a dig at his contemporary Ernest Hemingway. Marlowe meets a dumb brawny cop and decides to nickname him Hemingway (much to the cop’s confusion). Then they have this exchange:

“Who is this Hemingway person at all?”

“A guy that keeps saying the same thing over and over until you begin to believe it must be good.”

Dang, Ray. That’s savage. I don’t pretend to understand his beef with Hemingway (I think Hemingway’s pretty great!). But Chandler was a writer of enormous talent and great wit who liked having fun now and again with the conventions of literature. I can’t help feeling that’s what he’s doing here, and I love it.

How to be Taken Seriously as a Writer

I’ve been reading a ton of author blogs these past couple weeks, both established and emerging literary voices, the self-published and the unpublished, memoirists, poets and playwrights, short story authors with 25 years’ experience and creative writing students still in high school. Some of these bloggers offer advice to the aspiring masses; others reflect on the ever-evolving journey or a writerly life. A bit of this sort of thing too:


That’s okay! That’s me, most of the time. My goal with this research is too learn new things and to network, but mainly to try and get a sense of what kind of brand identity I’d like to bring to my own blog. A common theme I see repeated on many writers’ blogs is a desire to be taken seriously. We all want to be respected. And it’s easy, with all those rejection letters piling up against the backdrop of a crowded internet’s mad scramble for attention, to feel discredited in advance, like a dish returned to the kitchen before the diner so much as takes a bite.


The underlying question here regards the nature of expertise. When do I get to call myself an expert? If I’m Stephen King, I can dole out advice off the top of my head and be taken seriously. I am not Stephen King. Writers are treated notoriously poorly, well, just about everywhere. So what can you do about it, at least until you are Stephen King? I’d argue two things can help tremendously:

  1. Back up what you’re saying by citing sources
  2. Provide examples from the work of successful authors

I’m currently reading through the wonderful guide Writing the Breakout Novel by longtime literary agent Donald Maass. Its first chapter, in which Maass debunks common myths about succeeding as a novelist, was particularly revelatory (spoiler alert: a promotion campaign is not what will make your book a success). Early on, Maass establishes his credibility:

The principles and techniques I describe I have learned from years of analyzing breakout fiction. My teachers have been our era’s greatest authors. Applying these techniques has yielded dynamic and profitable results for me and for my clients.

Okay, Mr. Maass, you have my undivided attention. He could ramble stray thoughts off the top of his head and I would accept his lessons as gospel. But he doesn’t. On almost every page, he cites examples and quotes established authors who have used these techniques. Flipping through the chapters you get the sense that, contrary to the book’s premise, it is NOT his business to dispense original advice. Rather, Maass carefully studies successful books and attempts to work backwards, drilling down what formula made the story work and then seeing how its component parts can be rearranged to suit a writer’s needs. Too often I see bloggers work in the opposite direction. “I’m not successful yet, but here’s what I do, and if you do it too, you’ll be successful.” Well, when you say it like that…


In a previous post, I wrote about Sol Stein’s “actor’s studio” method discussed in his great writing guide Stein on Writing. It’s a great technique to add instant drama to a scene. I linked to the (credible) source where I learned about it, then found an example of the technique used in the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Don DeLillo, then wrapped by showing how I attempted to integrate it into my own writing. Not to sound like the grumpy English teacher that I am, but I think that if we all cited sources a little more often, it might make headway towards establishing credibility. At least, of course, until we’re Stephen King.