Cold Cases: Thinking Out Loud

Okay, to start with, Michael Moorcock talks about the genesis of the Dorian Hawkmoon books over at the Tor site. I mean, seriously, why are you still here?

Also, Twelfth Planet Press has released the guidelines for their forthcoming Speakeasy anthology full of urban fantasy stories set in the 1920s.  I totally dig the idea of this anthology, but I’ll admit that all of my initial ideas will be bloody hard to pare down to short story lengths (unless, of course, I finally break down and write the 1920’s zombie story set in Tahiti I’ve been threatening to write for four years now, but Alisa at TPP is quite adamant in her hatred of zombies so it’s probably not the best starting point).

Okay, fair warning, the following entry is rambling and scattered while I think through a specific problem related to the project du jour. If you have no real interest in writers thinking out loud, I suggest going back and following the Moorcock link above. I mean, it’s Michael frickin’ Moocock. The man is awesome.

I still have my right molar, freshly canaled after Wednesday’s trip to the dentist, and for the time-being I am free of the antibiotics and anti-inflammatories that induced last fortnight’s lethargy (although my gum’s still infected, and they may return). The rental inspection is over, I’m slowly coming to terms with my decision to stay in the flat rather than move when my lease is done. I’ve fretted about the various ways I can make enough money to not die over the coming months, although I’ve yet to come up with a solution beyond “write more, apply for more jobs, and pray.” I have considered doing the washing up and decided against it. I’ve read a bunch of things. I’ve talked myself out of three separate projects that have absolutely nothing to do with getting Cold Cases finished, nor getting Black Candy finished after that. I’ve finally sent off submissions to all the places I’ve said I’d send submission too. I’ve re-watched an entire season of the Gilmore Girls while scribbling notes on scrap paper. I have been scolded by the spokesbear. I have argued against his scolding. I have lost the argument.

I think I am, officially, out of distractions.

Which probably explains why the Cold Cases rewrite is officially underway after rebuilding the opening scene yesterday. It only amounts to a thousand words all-up, but my original aim was only three paragraphs and there’s a lot of alternative openings there should I need them in a few scenes time.

I’ve been thinking about openings quite a bit for the last few months. Personally, I blame Samuel Delany’s On Writing, in which there’s a strong argument for openings that follow a location/situation-and-action/affect structure. Fiction isn’t a film, Delany says, and the tendency to open stories with action – say, a character opening a canteen and pouring out the water – lacks impact when it’s unsupported by setting elements that give a context to that action. Setting enhances the data a reader has to work with, making each action more definitive and meaningful, but more and more people start with the action because we’re learning the structure of a story from film and television where the setting details are signified automatically as part of the medium. It’s near impossible *not* to betray setting elements when you point a camera at something, so the focus can go on the action; prose hasn’t got that ability, so the context comes first.

And to be honest, I can’t really argue with that. It’s remarkably solid advice from someone who is far smarter than me when it comes to the field of writing. And that scared the ever-loving crap out of me, because every time I sat down to work on something and I didn’t follow the setting-through-affect structure my subconscious has another tool to batter me with and make me give up. My subconscious is good at picking up on things like that, and if ever that was a writing rule worth learning it’s this: all writing advice becomes counter-productive when it gets in the way of getting stuff done.

Part of the reason this has been bugging me in relation to Cold Cases is the way it reflects Raymond Chandler’s preferred approach to an opening passage. I ransacked the small pile of his work that seems to have taken up occupancy on my bedside table last night and ran through the first paragraph of each, taking them apart in an effort to figure out what it is I liked about them and why they worked. The random sampling I came up with was pretty setting-intensive:

It was one of the mixed blocks over on Central Avenue, the blocks that are not yet all negro. I had just come out of a three-chair barber shop where an agency thought a relief barber named Dimitrios Aledis might be working. It was a small matter. His wife said she was willing to spend a little money to have him come home. (Farewell, My Lovely; Raymond Chandler)

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars (The Big Sleep; Raymond Chandler)

The housewas on Dresden Avenue in the Oak Knoll section of Pasadena, a big solid cool-looking house with burgundy brick walls, a terra-cotta tile roof, and a white stone trim. The front windows were leading downstairs. Upstairs windows were of the cottage type and had a lot of rococo imitation stonework trimming them. (The High Window; Raymond Chandler)

The Treloar Building was, and is, on Olive Street, near Sixth, on the west side. The sidewalk in front of it had been built of black and white rubber blocks. They were taking them up now to give to the government, and a hatless pale man with a face like a building superintendent was watching the work and looking as if it was breaking his heart. (The Lady in the Lake; Raymond Chandler)

Moreover, when you start reading a whole bunch of Raymond Chandler openings in a row you start to notice a series of scene-setting tricks coming out again and again. The locking-in of time, season and weather that occurs in the opening paragraph of The Big Sleep tends to occur within the first four paragraphs of most Raymond Chandler books; ditto the kind of assumed local knowledge that occurs in Farewell, My Lovely. Only once in six openings did Chandler open with a character rather than a location, and even then the location is still mentioned by the end of the first line:

 The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lenox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and no other. (The Long Good-Bye; Raymond Chandler)

To be fair, there’s a good reason for Chandler to break his pattern in this one. The first chapter of The Long Goodbye is essentially one long set-up for the rest of the book, establishing the friendship between Marlowe and Lennox that’ll provide a stronger context for the action when the mystery kicks off in Chapter Two. I spent a lot of time pondering that yesterday, prior to writing, and I’m pretty sure it contains the kernel of thought I needed to get out of the drafting-paralysis that set in after reading Delany’s book. Because once I slotted context into the tripartite structure he advocates instead of setting, things start to become a little clearer.

The opening paragraphs to the first Aster book, Horn, is almost pure context without any real setting details included. It largely gets away from it by being a riff on the more obvious Chandler-esque traits I noticed back when I first started reading hardboiled fiction:

The phone call came at three am, about a half-hour after the body arrived at the morgue. It didn’t wake me. I don’t sleep well, not anymore. I used to work Homicide back when my life made sense and insomnia’s one of those bad habits I picked up on the job, right up there with the cigarettes and the tendency towards one glass of gin too many. It’s just another little twitch to remind me that my body doesn’t pay attention to the lies I tell myself about the past. (Horn; Me; You can still buy it over here if you’re interested)

I suspect I get away with this kind of white-room set-up of the story because Horn is shamelessly meta-textual in its approach. At it’s core the book assumes a kind of familiarity with hardboiled/noir tropes and the tropes of unicorn fiction, and I didn’t necessarily want people to be starting with a clear image of the setting so much as a clear idea of which genre the story was situation in. It’s an easy narrative trick to pull (easy enough that I probably wasn’t conscious of it when I wrote Horn), and it probably explains why I keep getting into discussions with people about whether Horn is set in an American or an Australian setting*. Without situating the reader within the reading expectations associated with the Hardboiled genre the revelation of what killed Sally Crown at the end of Chapter One doesn’t have the same effect.

Cold Cases is a different book to Horn in a lot of ways, but the biggest is that it doesn’t revolve around the kind of bait-and-switch of genre traits that defined the first book. It’s still merging fantasy and hardboiled, but that merger isn’t the driving force that makes me want to finish the story the way it was in Horn. Which is probably just as well, since I doubt it’d work a second time (primarily because I tried, back when I made my first attempt at the sequel, and it fell flat). This time around the backdrop that’s providing a context to the action is largely Aster’s backstory and that’s a lot harder to set-up.

Yesterday was a day of experimenting with that. Still not sure I got it right, but at the very least I’ve got an idea of how to determine whether it’s doing the wrong thing once the rest of the manuscript forms up. And that’s as far as this train of thought goes before my head starts hurting and the spokesbear cracks the whip once more.

*Australian, for the record, albeit filtered through a noir lens with names changed to protect the city I based it on.

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