Monday, August 15, 2011

What you can learn about writing from a lungful of smoke and a gun to the head

Started reading a mystery novel that I downloaded on ebook library loan, and I hate it already. I won't name names, because I may get to like it more, but here are my reasons for hating it so far..

In the first sentence, someone points a gun at the hero's head. This is not bad in itself. Raymond Chandler said that whenever he started to run out of ideas, he'd have someone come busting through a door with a gun in his hand. This is very good advice -- often metaphorically -- and I've cited it more than once. But maybe you shouldn't have run out of ideas before the first sentence? But OK -- gun to his head. Then we have a couple of pages of flashback to the previous 15 minutes, then back to the gun to the head. So this makes it feel like a really cheesy device. If your flashback is only going to cover 15 minutes, why not just start the story 15 minutes earlier?

In the gun-to-head sentence, we get the character's name, which sounds like a retread name from the 40s. Well, people have more or less the same range of names they did in the 40s, but if you're dangerously flirting with 40s private eye cliches anyway, maybe a little more work on the name?

And if you're flirting with 40s private eye cliches, why have the character smoking Luckies? Are they making a comeback? Or are we really channeling Mike Hammer?

And what does he do with the Luckies? He inhales a lungful of smoke. There are two things almost guaranteed to make me lose all respect for a writer: telling us that a character chewed and swallowed something, or that he/she inhaled a lungful of smoke. This is stuff we could have figured out for ourselves.

Sue Grafton, a terrific mystery writer, has one annoying little tic -- unnecessarily specific action. Kinsey Millhone (not a 40s name), her detective, is always sticking keys into ignitions or turning the handles of doors. But she's good enough that she can get away with it.

The writer of this novel does advance beyond 40s cliches at one point, to an 80s cliche -- the bad guys wearing masks of presidents of the US. He shows some restraint here, though. Only one is wearing a George Bush mask. The others are a gorilla, a vampire, and a death's head. Clinton, Nixon and Reagan?

Well, back to reading.

1 comment:

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