Showing posts with label The Big Sleep. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Big Sleep. Show all posts

13 November 2018

To Read or Not to Read: the Reviews of Your Books

by Paul D. Marks 

From the truth in advertising department: I did this piece a few years ago at a different blog. I think it’s worth repeating. But the main reason I’m doing that is because I’m having major computer issues and it’s hard to work on my computer. I hope we have these issues worked out over the next few days. Believe me, I’m ready to CENSORED.

And I want to say that I hope everyone had a good Veterans Day and that we actually stopped to remember what it was for.

So, how do I react to negative reviews? 

I call up my friends in the Mossad and tell them to seek out and destroy all negative reviewers in the shank of a dark and stormy night. Oh wait, no, that’s what a producer said he was going to do to me when we got in an argument about a script.

Take 2:

Some people say never to read reviews and that’s probably good advice, and probably what one should do. But it’s hard not to. Why? Because, I’m sure, we all want to have our egos stroked. And we’re looking for the positive reinforcement that says we haven’t wasted our lives working on something that nobody likes. So our expectation—our hope—is to get good reviews for that and other reasons. When we don’t our egos are shattered. And those who say it doesn’t affect them, well, let’s just say I think they’re most likely doing that stiff upper lip thing.

I’ve been gratified by most reviews, whether by professional reviewers or consumers on Amazon and the like. But every once in a while...

Even big stars like to check their reviews. I was on the Warner Brothers lot (though it may have been called The Burbank Studios at the time, now it’s back to Warner Brothers [long story]) one day and saw Bill Murray leaning against a car reading a review of his version of “The Razor’s Edge” (1984) that had just come out (and based on my tied for favorite book along with The Count of Monte Cristo). It wasn’t getting rave reviews to say the least, but as I say above, we all want to be validated and maybe also get some constructive criticism as to what went wrong. And I remember thinking even Bill Murray, with all his popularity from “Ghostbusters,” etc. still must feel the sting of a bad review like everyone else.

Hell, even Bob Dylan doesn’t like the sting of being booed, as when he first went electric and rock from strictly acoustic folk music. Check out this YouTube clip. It’s less than a minute long:

So let’s focus on Amazon reviews because they’re there, for good or ill. I don’t like reading negative reviews, but how I react depends on the review. Not everybody can like everything. I get that. Of course, one is tempted to remind some reviewers what their mommies told them, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” But that isn’t the real world, is it? So for me, it depends on what the reviewer says. Does it seem like they actually read the book? Do they have an axe to grind? Are they offering constructive comments about what worked or didn’t for them or are they just off on some kind of tangent? Did they get what I was trying to say and, if not, is that my fault or theirs?

I got a couple of one star reviews for my short story collection “LA Late @ Night”. And they did piss me off. I had gotten some lukewarm reviews on “White Heat” and lived with them. But these two reviews for “LA Late @ Night” just didn’t make sense to me. These two reviewers, who seemed cut from the same cloth (literally), both hated the book and the stories in it. But their comments made little sense.

One said: “Uninteresting, choppy writing. No plots. I wouldn't waste my time reading this series of books as they are rambling writings.”

Where do I start? With the fact that it’s not a series. Uninteresting, well, that’s your opinion. Choppy, well that’s my style on some things. But each story had previously been published in a magazine or anthology, so somebody found them interesting. No plots, see previous response. Bottom line, I wonder if they even knew what book they were reviewing—But Wait: There’s More. The Kicker is yet to come. But First:

The other crappy review:

“Not that great of stories and the writing is stilted...I didn't even finish them all!”

Oh, where to begin: How ’bout them criticizing my writing as being stilted when their sentence is grammatically incorrect? So maybe someone who doesn’t know proper grammar criticizing my grammar is actually a compliment.

Okay, here it comes. Hold your breath. The Kicker:

Being a glutton for punishment, I of course had to check each person’s profile to see why they hated my book so much. What I saw were reviews for muffin pans, muck boots, kitchen gadgets, children’s books, religious/inspirational books and very few mystery books, and no noir or hardboiled books. So I wondered why they even bought my book…if they really did? Judging from their other reviews I could have told them they wouldn’t like it and would have saved them the time, aggravation and money.

It made no sense to me why they would even read a book like mine. So I had to assume there was an agenda going on. I called this to Amazon’s attention, asking them to remove these reviews, which they wouldn’t. I still think there was some kind of agenda happening here, though I couldn’t say exactly what the motivation is and these are the kind of reviews, totally baseless, that really piss me off. And I know authors are not supposed to say that, we’re not supposed have emotions or respond, but hey, we do.

And here are some other One Star Amazon reviews for your entertainment pleasure, only the names have been removed to protect the guilty.

Reviews from Amazon – yellow highlights and purple comments have been added by me.

Reviews of The Big Sleep: 

One Star, boring 
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase

"The book is a big sleep." (Paul’s comment: Well, some of us who liked this book must just be insomniacs.) 

One Star 
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase


Reviews of Crime and Punishment: 

One Star 
By Amazon Customer
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

"Very slow & plodding." (Paul’s comment: That damn Raskolnikov, why didn’t he just get it over and confess? On “Law & Order” Briscoe and Curtis would have had him spilling all in 2 minutes flat.)

Too long 
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

"Long and pretty boring I don't like the old timely language they use in this book I know it's translated from German or Russian maybe but I was bored to tears and there was never any payoff really just goes on and on."

Reviews of 1984: 

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I love a good dystopian but this was just such a ... 
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Format: Mass Market Paperback Verified Purchase

"I have always heard about 1984 being the father of all dystopian novels... I love a good dystopian but this was just such a hard book to read because in the entire story, there is no room for hope." (Paul’s comment: Maybe Katniss from “Hunger Games” should show up and rescue Winston and Julia from O’Brien.) 

0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
...must be a book only an English teacher would like. I classify this a worse than "Catcher and ... 
By XXX/Reviewer’s Name Removed
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

"This must be a book only an English teacher would like. I classify this a worse than 'Catcher and the Rye'" (Paul’s comment: Is that a new book, Catcher and the Rye, or is that something you get at Canter’s Deli (or Katniss’ Deli) – or maybe Canter’s and the Rye, or maybe Ham on Rye – h/t Chinaski.) 


Damn! I’m hungry now. So, overall, you have to take both the good and the bad with a grain of seasoned salt, a quesadilla and some damn good and spicy hot sauce.


And now for the usual BSP:

I’m honored and thrilled – more than I can say – that my story Windward appears in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, edited by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler, which just came out this week. I wrote a blog on that on SleuthSayers if you want to check it out: .

I’m doubly thrilled to say that Windward won the Macavity Award at Bouchercon a few weeks ago. Wow! And thank you to everyone who voted for it.

And I’m even more thrilled by the great reviews that Broken Windows has been receiving. Here’s a small sampling:

Betty Webb, Mystery Scene Magazine:  "Broken Windows is extraordinary."

Kristin Centorcelli, Criminal Element"Although it’s set in 1994, it’s eerie how timely this story is. There’s an undeniable feeling of unease that threads through the narrative, which virtually oozes with the grit, glitz, and attitude of L.A. in the ‘90s. I’m an ecstatic new fan of Duke’s."

"Duke and company practically beg for their own TV show."

John Dwaine McKenna, Mysterious Book Report:  "This electrifying novel will jolt your sensibilities, stir your conscience and give every reader plenty of ammunition for the next mixed group where the I [immigration] -word is spoken!"

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website

03 October 2018

Following in Marlowe's Footnotes

Courtesy Western Libraries
by Robert Lopresti

I don't review a lot of books but I would like to take a moment to recommend you read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

Oh,  you already have?

I'm not surprised.  But I suggest you should read the new annotated version, edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto.  I have been having a heck of a good time with it.

One reason to pick it up is presented by Otto Penzler in a blurb: "What a great excuse to read this masterpiece again!"  That reminds me:  I should say that if you have not read this classic private eye novel, you should not start with this edition.  The editors, quite reasonably, are not shy about pointing out when something in Chapter 4 is foreshadowing an event in Chapter 14.

So what do the annotations bring to Chandler's text?

* Literary context. We tend to talk about Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the same breath, almost as if they shared an office.  Actually they only met once and at that point Hammett was the champeen and Chandler  (although six years older) was a rookie.  But more to the point, The Big Sleep was published in 1939, ten years after Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, and the annotated edition points out how much Chandler borrowed from it.  (More about that later.)  The book also has passages from Chandler's earlier stories which he "cannibilized" for the novel, showing how he modified them.

* Geographic context.  The book provides maps and photographs of the places detective Phillip Marlowe visits (and when they are fictional, points that out as well). At one point Marlowe arranges to meet someone at the Bullocks Wilshire.  The editors provide a photograph and explain that this was the first department store built with its main entrance in the back, facing the parking lot.  It was a "temple to the automobile."

* Language.  What is a pinseal wallet?  What is flash gambling?  Is it a good or bad thing to step off for it?  The editors explain these and many more.

* Symbolism.  In literary criticism one always has to wonder whether the interpreters are finding more than the author intended, but let me give you an example of what we find here.  In the opening chapter Carmen Sternwood asks the narrator his name and he replies "Doghouse Reilly."  Of course, this turns out to be false, but does it mean anything?  The editors point out that it is the sort of nickname given to Irish boxers (and Carmen then asks if he is a prizefighter.)  They also note that "Doghouse" suggests someone who is constantly in trouble, true enough of Marlowe.

But let's go deeper.  The Big Sleep is famous for its knight symbolism.  (A stained glass window featuring one appears on the first page, for example.)  The editors note that "In the great heroic epics, the hero's true name and character often remain hidden until revealed by a distinctive sign or work."  Is that what Chandler had in mind?

* Movie connection.  The editors point out how the book was changed for the Bogart classic.  And of course they discuss the famous issue of "Who killed the chauffeur?"

I'd like to point out one way in which the annotated book broadened my thinking about something quite removed from Chandler.  The editors compare Marlowe's violent encounter with the gay man Carol, to Sam Spade's reaction to gay Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon.  They suggest that both are examples of  "homosexual panic."

Well, I had heard that term before, but what does it mean exactly? The editors don't find it necessary to explain.

According to Wikipedia "Homosexual Panic Disorder" was a psychological condition coined in 1920 and no longer recognized by the APA.  It referred to "panic due to the pressure of uncontrollable perverse sexual cravings," and usually included passivity, not aggression.  This does not seem to apply to Marlowe or Spade.

There is a separate entry for "Homosexual Panic Defense," now usually called "Gay Panic Defense," in which an attacker claims he suffered temporary insanity after receiving unwanted approaches by a gay man.   That doesn't seem to apply to the two novels either; neither Carol nor Wilmer were putting the moves on the PIs.

A medical dictionary gives a definition closer to what I have always thought it meant, and what I think the editors had in mind: "an acute, severe attack of anxiety based on unconscious conflicts regarding homosexuality."  In other words, someone attacks a gay man because his very existence makes them question their own sexuality.

And you could well make the case that that is what happens with Marlowe and Carol.  But does it apply to Spade and Wilmer?  Here is Spade's outburst: "Keep that gunsel away from me while you make up your mind.  I'll kill him.  I don't like him.  He makes me nervous.  I'll kill him the first time he gets in my way."

Homosexual panic?  Maybe.  But, you see, I don't believe Spade means it.  I realize now that I think everything Spade says to Guttman (and to most of the other characters) is an act.  Of course, we see Spade through a third person narration so, unlike Marlowe (or Hammett's own Continental Op), we never get inside his head.  One of the reason his speech at the end of the book is so moving is that for the first time, I think, he actually tells us why he is doing what he does.

Feel free to disagree.
Decatur Street Car Barn, now a bus barn.  Photo by Volcycle.

Speaking of which, one of the joys of a book like The Annotated Big Sleep is quarreling with the authors. especially about what they choose to annotate.  Why explain bacardi but not pony glass?  Why does jalopy require a footnote but car barn doesn't?   Since Marlowe is comparing the size of a house to a car barn, it is important that the reader knows he is talking about a building big enough to store street cars in.

I also wish they had commented on Chandler's frequent use of the adverbs savagely and viciously, most famously at the end of Chapter  24.

But those are minor gripes and, as I said, part of the fun.  The book is a job well done.

27 June 2018

The Big Sleep

David Edgerley Gates

If not the most celebrated of noir private dick pictures, The Big Sleep is a pretty tall stick on the way there. Right from the get-go, you know what country you're in, the leads in silhouette, Bogart lighting Bacall's cigarette, behind the titles, the foreboding Max Steiner score. The mansion, the butler, Carmen with her up-from-under look, the general in the hothouse full of orchids, "nasty things, the flesh of men." Not a lot of wasted motion.

It was shot in 1945, right after To Have and Have Not, but Warners didn't release it until '46. In the meantime, they did some reshoots - the famous horse-racing exchange, for one - and Hawks re-cut the picture. The first edit actually makes more sense, and there isn't much difference in the run-times, but the finished product is paced so fast you never get a chance to catch your breath.

People complain the story's too hard to follow. Fair enough. Did the Sternwood chauffeur drive himself off the pier or was it staged? It's a dropped stitch, there's more than one, and nobody gets that worked up over it. Some of this is because of the Production Code. There was stuff they were never going to get away with. The biggest for instance is that Carmen can't have killed anybody, at least not and walk away, so they have to blame it on Eddie Mars. (In the book, Eddie lives to fight another day, and Marlowe even respects him on certain levels.) The book dealer, Geiger, sells pornography to a very select client list that he also blackmails, and the Lundgren kid is his boy-toy. That didn't make it into the picture. Big sister Vivian of course wants to help Carmen out of a jam, but she's not an accessory to murder. And so on. The problem being that if you subtract a key piece, the puzzle falls apart.

On the other hand, it mostly doesn't matter. The movie's all misdirection. It's character, and dialogue. How many pictures have so many amazing bits of business? The script is credited to William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, with an uncredited assist from Philip Epstein. More than a little comes straight out of Chandler. Can you beat it?

The cop, Bernie Ohls, describing Sean Regan: "The ex-legger Sternwood hired to do his drinking for him."

"I don't like your manners."
"I don't like 'em, either. I grieve over them, long winter evenings."

"Is he as cute as you are?"
"Nobody is."

"You know what he'll do when he comes back? [Canino] Beat my teeth out, then kick me in the stomach for mumbling."

"You're a mess."
"I'm not very tall, either."

Hawks later said the picture proved something he'd already suspected, that with enough foreground razzle-dazzle, you didn't have to worry about narrative logic. "I never figured out what was going on," he told an interviewer, and at the end of the day, nobody else could, either.

Bacall gets the last word, right before the fade-out, after Bogart hangs up on the cops.
"You've forgotten one thing," she says. "Me."
He looks at her. "What's wrong with you?" he asks.
"Nothing you can't fix," she tells him.

24 January 2018

To Have and Have Not

David Edgerley Gates

Hemingway published To Have and Have Not in 1937, the picture was released in 1944. The book isn't unreadable, but the movie's a lot better. Watching it again, I'm reminded of a couple of things. Bogart and Bacall falling in love. Howard Hawks never shot a scene that dragged in his entire career. William Faulkner was one hell of a script doctor, drunk as a skunk or otherwise.

The story Hawks tells is that he was out on a hunting trip with Hemingway. Hemingway starts bitching about how Hollywood can't get his books right. Hawks says he's selling his books to the wrong people. "Hell," Hawks says to him, "I could take your worst book and make a terrific picture." We can imagine the long, stony pause. "Yeah?" Hemingway says. "What is my worst book?"

Going in, it's obvious they won't get past the censors, and Faulkner isn't even convinced there's a movie in it. What if, Hawks suggests, we wind the clock back and tell the story that led up to the book? They bring Jules Furthman on board. Furthman's got what, a hundred credits, give or take? According to Hawks, they come up with enough back story for a whole other picture (actually made in 1950, The Breaking Point, with Garfield).

Betty Bacall was eighteen when she made the cover of Harper's Bazaar, and her picture caught the attention of Hawks' wife Slim. It was Hawks who wanted her voice to be lower in register, and it became her trademark, a smoky, throaty purr. "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve?" Bogart rolled over and paddled his paws in the air.

The echoes of Casablanca weren't accidental.  It's wartime Martinique, but it's still Vichy. Bogart throws in reluctantly with the Resistance. His common sense isn't blunted by sentiment. When de Bursac's wife loses her temper and snaps at him, it's Frenchy who apologizes. "Forgive her," he says, "she's not herself." Bogart shoots him a look. "Oh?" he asks. "Who is she?"

Another common Hawks signature: the apparent throwaway scene, which is integral to character - character being everything, in Hawks. Here, the musical numbers, Bacall and Hoagy Carmichael, "How Little We Know" (which signals what we've already guessed from her body English) and "Am I Blue?" Seriously, you have to ask? It might put you in mind of Rio Bravo, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan on harmonica. The drunk, the kid, the gimp, each of them missing a piece, you might say. And then John Wayne, self-sufficient and contained. Or you make a different calculation, that Chance is not only set apart, but isolated. The other three have a vulnerability, a soft spot he doesn't get to show. Or share.

I saw The Big Sleep first, before To Have and Have Not, and The Big Sleep has a lot of the sexual dynamic, not to mention a better score by Max Steiner, but it doesn't have quite the same energy. It doesn't have the invention, or the novelty. The way the two of them look at each other. There's nothing contrived about it. It ain't the lighting, or the soft focus. Bogart and Bacall are there.

Movies are an artifice, a construction. The camera catches reflections. The images have already been decided, and they're waiting to be arranged. But as with all things, we have to allow for happy accident. Accidentally, To Have and Have Not is a document. We watch two people get lucky. You learn how to whistle.

18 July 2017

Bestseller Metrics with Editor & Author Elaine Ash

by Paul D. Marks

Today I’d like to welcome Elaine Ash, editor, writer and friend. Elaine was born and grew up in eastern Canada, but calls L.A. home these days. Under the pen name “Anonymous-9,” Elaine’s crime fiction is included in numerous “Best of” lists every year. Anonymous-9 was invented as a blind for her hard-hitting, experimental short stories. Her work has been praised by T. Jefferson Parker, Ray Garton, Johnny Shaw, Douglas Lindsay, Josh Stallings, Robert Randisi and many others.

But Elaine also edits fiction writers, from established authors to emerging talent. As the former editor-at-large for Beat to a Pulp webzine, Elaine worked directly with writers of all genres to develop stories for publication. Some of those writers went on to fame and fortune such as recent Edgar nominee Patti Abbott (Polis), Jay Stringer (Thomas and Mercer), Chris F. Holm (Mulholland), S.W Lauden (Rare Bird), Kieran Shea (Titan), Hilary Davidson (Macmillan) Sophie Littlefield (Minotaur, Delacorte) and many more.

Today, she works with private clients, helping them shape manuscripts, acquire agents and land publishing deals. She also ghostwrites and edits for industry clients.

Elaine has a new book out called BESTSELLER METRICS. It’s a different approach to writing novels so I thought it might be of interest to people here and I asked her some questions about it:

Paul: What made you decide to write Bestseller Metrics?

Elaine: I saw that if writers could get novel structure right before hiring an editor, everybody would win. Well-structured stories attract bigger agents and land better publishing deals. That might sound like a sales pitch, but it’s the truth. 

How did you develop it and how did you figure out what it takes to have Bestseller Metrics?

I developed it over years of editing novel manuscripts. In my view, people who give hard-earned money for an editor’s opinion deserve proof that the changes will move them closer to publication. I had metrics in my head for many years before I wrote them down. The key here (that you may not know about) is based on my personality type. The Myers-Briggs personality scale reveals that I’m an INTJ, “Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging personality. There are 16 types and INTJ females make up 0.8% of the population. Males make up 2% of the population ( We are called “The Architects” and our brains never stop categorizing and creating systems out of information. For kicks. Really. Don’t I sound like a fun date? A colleague of yours and mine, the indubitable Dana King says I “put into words what’s been sitting in plain sight.” Metrics patterns have been showing up in books for a hundred years at least. Nobody was oddball enough to document them in terms of novel structure until I came along. 

I understand that you’ve trademarked your plan, what is so different about it that it deserves a trademark?

The system has registered patent pending status from the US Patent Office, which is different than a trademark. That may be changing, however, after my conversation with Dr. Gregory Benford, a physicist and professor at UC Irvine, also a Nebula Award winner for his science fiction. He told me about a genetics testing company that operated under trade-secret law. It’s nothing strange or new—the Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe is a trade secret. So I came up with a plan. I’ve released the initial part of the system to the general public in the book, while other parts are being developed as publishing industry software that will operate as a business trade secret. It sounds great, but as Dr. Bentham said as he walked away from me, “Just remember, every mook with a gat thinks he’s a tough guy.” So we’ll see if the plan actually works in the real world. 

What one thing holds back most unpublished manuscripts?

Structure. There so little information for aspiring authors. For decades, I’ve seen manuscripts with sparkling prose, 3-D characters and great premise ideas fail solely on structure. It’s not because writers don’t want to learn—they’re paying for books, classes, conferences and workshops. They’re breaking their fingernails to get it right. But structure is rarely taught, or it’s taught in a way that is not accessible to large numbers of learners. My greatest wish is that educators will pick up this book and start teaching it. On my to-do list is to create teacher-support materials for use in classrooms. I’ll work with any teacher who contacts me.

You talk about “Imaginary Memory.” What is that and how does it affect writers and their writing.

The Imaginary Memory tricks a writer into thinking details are on the page that aren’t really there, or are only partly there. As an author reads his or her own writing, a parade of stored memories and images flood the mind, filling in missing plot points and smoothing over missing descriptions. A cold reader can tell something’s missing immediately, but the writer feels like everything’s complete. Imaginary Memory is a trickster. That’s why a writer can be convinced they’ve just turned in a tremendously vivid piece of work to a writers’ group, and reaction falls flat. I invented tests to help short-circuit IM and give the writer clear indicators of what’s missing.

How is Bestseller Metrics different from the average how-to book on writing fiction?

It’s a window on the creation of novels. It offers a series of tests for writers of every genre to find how close they are to the metrics of bestsellers. If you can count from 1 to 10 you know enough math to do the tests. The book has crystal-clear diagrams, cartoon line drawings, detailed analyses, and a sprinkling of humor and encouragement so it stays interesting and entertaining.

You talk a lot about numbers of characters in best-selling novelscan you tell us a little about that. Character countingwhat is that? And why is it important?

Too often, good manuscripts are flawed by a carousel of characters dropping into a chapter and then vanishing, never to be seen again. Too many characters create confusion and complicate the plot. Successful novels have basic and measurable numbers of characters that track from beginning to end. Key information a writer needs is, “What’s the right amount of characters?” I’m talking about average-sized novels around 100,000 words or less. Epics and sagas with huge word counts like A Game of Thrones have their own metrics, and there are separate chapters on that.

Leaving the literary leviathans aside, there is a predictable amount of characters that appear in the first quarter of the books I examined. The first quarter of a story is golden—it’s the time when readers get to know the main character and “the world.” Inside the books on my list, in every genre, between 25 and 53 characters appear in the first quarter, no matter if the book is 62,000 words (The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett) or  146,000 words (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn). Flip to the last quarter of each book and you’ll find a range between 4 and 22 characters that made it through to the climax and ending. Will you find novels that don’t match these metrics? Of course! Art isn’t set in stone. But for the beginning novelist, trying to craft a manuscript for sale, these guidelines are tried and true. They will help you create a story that works. Like I say in the book: “Learn the rules, land a publishing deal, and then break all the rules you want.” 

You talk about discovering the secrets of best-selling books like— 

Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding, The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler, Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn, The Color of Magic - Terry Pratchett, Interview with the Vampire - Anne Rice, A Game of Thrones - George R. R. Martin, Harry Potter - J.K. Rowling, A Confederacy of Dunces -John Kennedy Toole, The Shining - Stephen King, Lady Chatterley’s Lover - D. H. Lawrence, The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins, The Devil Wears Prada - Lauren Weisberger, The Lincoln Lawyer -Michael Connelly, Monster Hunter International -Larry Correia, The Other Side of Midnight - Sydney Sheldon, Kill Shot - Vince Flynn 

—what are those secrets?

I examine each cast of characters and their relationships to one another. I provide simplified outlines for some books and point out the major plot elements. Nailing the first and second act plot twists can be tricky, and as far as I know, no book has distilled this information before. Hollywood does these breakdowns for films all day long, but nobody’s done it for novels. This is the kind of information I longed for and searched everywhere for as a first-time writer. A career novelist email me yesterday and said, “If I’d had this book 20 years ago, I could have saved a lot of time.” That was a pretty big compliment.

Anything else that you’d like to say?

Friend me on Facebook and ask any questions you like. Visit me at You can email me there, too. Look inside the book at FYI, there is no e-book and there likely won’t be one. This is a full-size workbook meant to be written in.

Thank you for joining us, Elaine.


And now for the usual BSP:

My short story “Blood Moon” will be coming out in Day of the Dark (Stories of the Eclipse). Edited by Kaye George. Releasing July 21, 2017, one month before the big solar eclipse on August 21st. From Wildside Press. Available for Pre-Order on Amazon:

19 March 2015


By Brian Thornton

"Mighty oaks from little acorns grow." 

                                                            - Fourteenth century English proverb

 "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."                                                                     

                                                                                       - Laozi, Tao Te Ching

"'The cat sat on the mat' is not the beginning of a story, but 'the cat sat on the dog’s mat' is."
                                                                                              - John LeCarre

Last week I had both the honor and the pleasure of attending Left Coast Crime just down I-5 in Portland, Oregon ("Crimelandia"). While I was there I crossed paths with many old friends, and made some new ones. Attended some panels. Moderated one on novellas.

Learned a lot.

Had some fun.

Experienced one of the luckiest days of my life (behind, of course, the day that my wife agreed to marry me and the one when my son was born). Cleaned up at poker (got cleaned OUT the next night) and won a signed, inscribed copy of Steven Saylor's latest book!

You know, like you do.

One guy I ran into at this year's LCC Vancouver native Sam Wiebe. We originally met at last year's Bouchercon, and I liked him, so I picked up a copy of his novel Last of the Independents.With this, his debut novel Sam has penned one of the truly unforgettable opening paragraphs in modern crime fiction. It is by turns profane (and potentially offensive) and uproariously funny, which in turn also renders it completely subversive.

If you're interested in reading it, take a look at the sample offered here. And then do yourself a favor and BUY HIS BOOK!

Talking with Sam and a host of other friends/authors in (would you believe it?) the event bar about favorite books and the ones that pack an opening gate wallop like Last of the Independents does got me to thinking about beginnings. Specifically, about openings, and about how a story opens.

With all of the current emphasis on pacing, plot, character and a whizz-bang ending, the need for a solid opening scene for today's attention-challenged literary audience sometimes gets short shrift. And while I can recall terrific ending lines from some of my favorite novels, ("And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." comes to mind.), I can recall a lot more great openers.

(Note that distinguished between "opener" and "opening line" here. More on that in a bit.)

Take this one, for example:

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.

Most people who read and write crime fiction recognize that opener right away. It is, of course, from The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler's first novel, which introduces his famous private detective, Phillip Marlowe.

Chandler had a way with openers. Take this other one from his short story "Red Wind":

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Now that is what I call a "table-setter"!

Your opening paragraphs are your first, best and really, only chance to set the scene, establish character/tone/setting, and do it all quick, before your reader loses interest. Looking at The Big Sleep again, it's readily apparent that Chandler does all of this with two short paragraphs. The first one quoted above, in which he memorably establishes his protagonist's personality and voice, and in the next one, where he sets the scene:

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying.

And just like that your scene is set, complete with a stained-glass window that serves as a ready-made metaphor for the book's action that is obvious, without hitting you over the head.

So good it's been imitated a million times since, up to and past the point of parody.

How about you? Feel free to scroll down to the comments section and use it weigh in with your favorite opening lines/paragraphs/scenes, and what makes the special for you!

31 May 2013

How 2 Big Sleeps Taught Me Magic

by Dixon Hill

When Last We Met . . . 

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that I’d seen the “pre-release” of The Big Sleep.

The film classic The Big Sleep was released by Warner Brothers in August of 1946. However, an earlier, slightly different version of this same film was completed about a year before that. This earlier “pre-release” was granted limited distribution for USO use in the Pacific Theater as WWII wound down. Virtually no one would see it again, though, for over a half-century.

Warner sat on that original version of The Big Sleep because they wanted to unload a back-log of WWII films before they became passé, and because Lauren Bacall’s agent wanted to change elements of his client’s performance in The Big Sleep, in order to counter negative reviews she’d received in a recent film.

Thus: Warner re-edited the movie, including about 20 minutes of new footage shot during the film’s year-long hiatus, before releasing the final version -- which is the classic we all (or, at least, many of us) know and love. Meanwhile, that original “pre-release” version -- long believed lost -- was found, late in the 1990’s, sitting in the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Almost immediately, funds were raised for restoration, and a re-release was planned for the “pre-release,” which finally came out on video in 2000.

Which is how I happened to stumble across it one night, on a DVD, when I myself was feeling a bit cross-eyed from lack of rest. And, how I realized that a comparison of the two films served to illustrate an important facet of writing for me.

The Not-So-Femme Fatal 

In honor of the multi-layered-mystery element that (imho) helped propel The Big Sleep to greatness, I’ll begin my dissertation by invoking a different famous mystery film, which also starred Humphrey Bogart.

If memory serves me right: In The Maltese Falcon, while Peter Lorre’s character, Joel Cairo, is supposedly cooling his heels outside Sam Spade’s office door, Bogart (Spade) lifts Cairo’s card to his nose and sniffs. A humorous expression instantly explodes across Bogart’s face as he exclaims, “Gardenias!” He turns to his secretary and tells her, “Quick, darling, in with him!” (Or words to that effect.)

The way this scene is played out, a viewer is left with little question concerning Joel Cairo’s sexual preferences. Or, so it seems to me.

A similarly telling scene from the pre-release of The Big Sleep was cut from the 1946 version. At the same time, Marlowe’s search of Geiger’s bungalow -- where Carmen Sternwood (played by Martha Vickers) has been drugged and photographed -- is considerably shortened.

In commenting on my last post, David Edgerley Gates mentioned that the Hayes code (a sort of de facto censorship in operation at the time) made it necessary to change the film’s ending. He also helped explain why the changes in the Geiger bungalow scene were made, when he wrote: …[T]hey already had enough problems with the Martha Vickers character, trying to skirt the implication she was a nympho, not to mention a dope fiend.

I think David's very right. While the book makes it plain that Carmen is photographed in the nude, for instance, Martha Vickers is clothed in both versions of the film. All be it, she’s clothed in a Chinese-looking garment, which -- given social nuances then in vogue -- may have been construed as indicating her photo session involved sexual deviancy. But, there’s more sexual obfuscation than this going on.

After first reading this scene in the book, there was no question in my mind that Geiger was gay. Chandler’s description of Geiger’s bedroom clearly indicated its owner had a strong feminine side, at the very least. And, I’m pretty sure Chandler just about came right out and stated the fact when Marlowe described what the place felt like.

The final cut of the film, however, seems largely to gloss-over this idea. Though, I believe an argument could be made that love would be about the only motivation for Geiger’s assistant to go on his murderous rampage at Joe Brody’s apartment.

But, in the pre-release it’s a different story. After Marlowe finds the drugged Carmen Sternwood, he searches Geiger’s bungalow pretty thoroughly before he manages to discover the lockbox with Geiger’s sucker code. We even see where Marlowe finds the key to that box (a scene that I believe is missing from the final release). And, he goes to greater lengths, when it comes to covering up evidence that the girl had been in the bungalow.

During all this, we get a very good look at the feminine side of Geiger’s bedroom. The femininity is not overdone, but many of the book details do seem to be there. I believe this element, combined with the Chinese or Asian decorative influence, would have connoted the Geiger’s leanings fairly plainly to an audience of 1945. And, for anybody who somehow still missed the implications, the knowing smile on Bogart’s face, when he sniffs one of Geiger’s handkerchiefs, which he finds in that bedroom, would probably open the dimmest eyes.

Yet, almost none of this appears in the general release. Most of it wound up on the cutting room floor during final editing. And, while conforming with the Hayes code may well have played a part in deciding to make these cuts, I suspect another reasoning was also at work.

At first blush, Marlowe’s longer search made a lot of sense to me. To my way of thinking, mysteries are all too often replete with detectives who find what they’re searching for far too easily. So, it was refreshing to see Marlowe search for awhile before locating any valuable clues. Additionally, I remember thinking, “So THAT’S where it came from!” when he found the key to the lockbox, because the origin of this key had never seemed clear to me when watching the general release.

But, my excitement soon waned. I began to notice how long that search seemed to drag on. And, how such a lengthy search slowed the movie’s pace. Before long, I found myself changing my mind. I decided the editor had been wise to cut it -- even if the results left me puzzled about where Marlowe got that lockbox key.

A moment later, icy dread washed down through me.

I’d made similar mistakes in some of my own writing. Seeking to ensure verisimilitude, I’d been guilty of letting details stretch scenes too long. During rewrite, I’d noticed a resulting loss of tension, but my understanding of the mechanism involved was pretty sketchy. Watching this scene, however, and comparing it to the original film in mind, I was struck by a clear and concrete comprehension of the problem.

The solution, though, was still difficult to grasp. How to balance verisimilitude with the need to avoid slowing the action? Another difference between the two films would provide a key.

The Other Office 

There’s a scene in the pre-release that I believe runs about five minutes, and I don’t think it’s in the ’46 release at all -- though there may be a short minute or two that was re-shot to condense it. The stuff that wound up on the cutting room floor was replaced with a new scene, in which Bogart and Bacall enjoy a bit of a tête-à-tête in a restaurant (left), helping to establish a romantic rapport that serves to support the re-edited ending.

In the deleted scene (below) Marlowe meets with his cop buddy, the DA and some other guys, in the DA’s office. There, the PI has to explain why his actions, and letting him remain involved in the case (so he can continue to pursue those actions) would further the interests of justice, and the DA’s reelection. This scene was evidently intended to function as a thinly-veiled attempt to ensure that viewers understood the implications of what had transpired on-screen before it. This mid-film review, however, serves to bring the film’s brisk pace to a near screeching halt. And, it’s much worse than the lengthy search scene above, because there’s nothing new here; it’s all a rehash.

While I’m sure there are those who would appreciate this opportunity to gain a better understanding of the complicated double-or-triple-mystery unfolding before them: For me, the confusion created by unexpected occurrences within the film, is exactly what sucks me into the vortex of the plot’s wildly spinning fabric. In my view, this “review” scene provides such a vast breath of calm, still air, the film’s whirling vortex shatters against it, dissipating. Wildly careening plot elements flutter free and drift down to flop dead upon the ground.

Eventually, I came to see this scene as being somewhat akin to a magician stopping mid-act to say, “Okay. Now see, this is what I’ve really been doing.” When a magician reveals the slight of hand behind the trick, all the magic goes out of the thing. It dies.

Which is why I’m glad I saw this, because there's enough dead writing in this world; I don't need to kill more of it. But, I’m a guy who drives himself nearly crazy, ensuring that ta reader can understand why my characters are motivated to do what they’re doing, because I don’t want folks getting lost, or tossing down a book or story because they think I’ve got a character doing something s/he wouldn’t. On the other hand, I also know it’s important to keep a reader in the dark sometimes, and this why I found this scene so useful.

It serves as a clear reminder that the line between what I can tell and what I have to keep up my sleeve is clearly demarcated by the question, “Will knowing this shatter the magic?” At the same time, I realized this was also the answer to the question: How to balance verisimilitude with the need to avoid slowing the action?

The answer -- for me, at least -- is to keep my eye on the magic. If the magic thrives throughout the action, it’s fine. If it dies, or even just dies-down, I know it’s time to cut.

The trick in both cases is: Keep my eye on the magic. This phrase might not seem terribly concrete to you. Or, perhaps you’re not the sort of writer who needs to bear it in mind. But, for me: The simplicity of that phrase is something my mind can grasp and hang onto deeply. It’s a tool I can carry with me anywhere I go

Keep your eye on the magic! That’s what I learned from watching two versions of The Big Sleep..

See you in two weeks,

17 May 2013

The Big Pre-Release

by Dixon Hill

I turned 50 a couple weeks back.

On May 1st to be more precise.

Yes, God’s little joke is that I -- a rabid capitalist -- was born on May Day!

I don’t resent the date, however; I like May 1st. It’s a Spring day, and the desert sky overhead is nearly always bright blue on my birthday. In fact, I can’t remember it ever raining on May 1st, no matter where I lived at the time. Though I’m sure it was raining somewhere else in the world, the sky over my head was clear -- at least in my memory, if not reality.

Hitting the half-century mark, however, naturally tends to put a person’s mind through a series of retrospective gymnastics. And, Terence Faherty’s blog post, on Monday, about vintage detective films, reminded me of a surprising event I enjoyed two or three months ago.

The Setup

You remember that Calgon commercial from the 1970’s?

You DON’T!?! Well, that probably just means you’re younger than I am. (Or, that your mind is going. lol)

In the ad, a frazzled woman, driven to near-bursting from the anxiety created by traffic jams, her yelling boss, crying baby and overheated dog, would invoke the magic words: “Calgon, take me away…!” At which point, she’d be transported to a bubble bath in what resembled a mountain-top Greek temple, and transformed from a burnt-out working mom to a completely relaxed woman of luxurious leisure … all by using Calgon products in her bath.

A nice trick.

I’ve never used Calgon, myself (Certainly, this surprises you.), but a few things that do have this “Calgon Effect” on me are barbequing (beer and cigar being as important as charcoal and lighter fluid, here), or watching either The Big Sleep (Bogart-Bacall version) or Casablanca. For some reason, each of these films, or meat burning over coals, seems to exude an essence that calms and refreshes me.

When I really need to let my hair down, I burn a steak on the grill, then swill the charred-rare meat with a couple beers while wallowing in one film after the other, sometimes decanting a little Fonseca Tawny Porto during my “visit” to Rick’s Café Americain. (Blowing cigar smoke into a glass of port does something to the port that’s worth experiencing, in my opinion -- even if I can’t explain just what that “something” is.)

The McGuffin

The event I mentioned earlier -- the one Terence Faherty’s blog post reminded me of -- occurred while my dad was undergoing radiation treatment for his cancer, so I was in hectic “jump here, jump there, jump over to that place” mode, trying to balance the needs of different family members. My dad needed oversight as his energy levels dwindled and finally all but fizzled-out; my daughter needed me to explain Geometry to her, so she could pass a required class for graduation in mid-May; and my youngest son needed constant monitoring, simply because he’s a wild man. Which means, my sleeping hours got hacked away while my body and my gray cells took a pretty serious beating.

I needed a break, so when I finally got the chance I snagged The Big Sleep DVD off the shelf at our local library.

As I mentioned earlier, I was a bit addle-brained at the time. Consequently -- though I spotted something odd about the film, fairly early on – it took me a while to figure out what I was actually looking at.

And, frankly, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, until I saw the scene in which Lauren Bacall, playing Vivian Rutledge, wears that veil when visiting Bogart’s character, Marlowe, in his office. You can see a shot of that scene on the left. If you don’t recognize it, that’s probably because you’ve only watched the version of the movie that was released in August of 1946.

An earlier version, called a “pre-release” was supposedly sent out to be screened by soldiers and sailors in the Pacific fairly early in 1945. But, Warner Brothers didn’t release the film to state-side theaters at the time, because certain concerns had been voiced.

For one thing, Warner had a back log of WWII films they wanted to trot out before they became passé to the movie-going public, now that the war was winding down. So, they decided to keep The Big Sleep in the big tin can for awhile, to give those other films a chance to make money while they could.

Additionally, Lauren Bacall’s agent, Charles Feldman, was concerned, because Bacall had received some negative reviews for her role in the recently released Confidential Agent. Feldman was bent on ensuring that The Big Sleep would present Bacall in a way that would highlight her talents and help cement his client’s reputation as a rising star. However, several things about the movie worried him, including that veil Baccal wore in the pic I posted above, left.

So, while the film was waiting to be released, Warner Brothers rounded up most of the talent and re-shot what would wind up being about twenty minutes worth of the final movie. The film was re-edited, and the revised version -- the one most of us know and love -- was released to theaters on August 23rd of 1946.

The Switch

This August 23rd, 1946 release was the one I thought I’d borrowed from my local library. In fact, I’d borrowed it from the library several times before, and knew that they had two copies in stock. One copy held the film, plus a copy of an original theater trailer advertising it, as well as a version of the film that had somebody’s comments imposed over the soundtrack.

The other copy held the film, the trailer, the comment version, and a documentary about the original version of The Big Sleep -- that 1945 “pre-release” supposedly shown only for a short period of time, to soldiers and sailors in the Pacific, which most people had never seen. This fascinating documentary had clips of the pre-release version, which it stated was being restored for potential release. It was here that I initially saw Bacall wearing that tell-tale veil.

And, when I saw it again, I finally knew what I was watching.

The Office

As previously mentioned, Bacall’s agent, Charles Feldman, didn’t like the veil his client wore in the office scene with Bogart. He felt it hid her beauty, while also distancing her character from Bogart’s. Both he and the studio wanted to capitalize on the on-screen chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, which movie-goers had claimed to clearly feel while watching the pair in To Have and Have Not. These weren’t stupid guys; they knew that the promise of more fireworks like that would draw movie-goers in droves. So, they literally got the intervening veil out of the way on the re-shoot, and parked a saucy beret on Bacall’s head (pic on right).

They also cut, re-wrote and re-shot to draw Bogart and Bacall into closer on-screen proximity, in order to splash those fireworks as high and wide as the censors would permit. Lines were added, including sexually suggestive banter about a racehorse. And, I think (though I can’t be sure) this is how my favorite line in all of movie lore was born.

After the bereted Bacall hops up on Bogart’s desk, she rubs the fabric of her skirt just above the knee, and Bogart’s character says, “Go ahead and scratch.”

"Go ahead and scratch."
I love that line. Scratching an itch: an activity not often mentioned in film or print because it’s so common. A suggestion that seems innocent on its surface, but which prompts Bacall’s character to hitch up her skirt, revealing some of her long legs in good light, so she can scratch. The jerking down of her hem line again, almost immediately, as if to tell Bogart’s Marlowe, “I know what I’ve got; I’m not afraid to flaunt it; but, you’re not getting close to it unless you play this game my way.”

A common act. Perhaps a common line. An explosion of unspoken sexual innuendo and tension.

Plus -- it’s funny: A man telling a woman to “Go ahead and scratch.” The laugh that bubbles up when it’s heard, but that can’t quite get out before the actual scratch, breaks tension at the crucial moment, serving to super-charge the ensuing sexual tension of the next moment to an otherwise improbable height.

And, a woman of the 40’s exerts her own power, to influence a business concern and possibly protect her family. We of the 21st Century may not like what she has to do, in order to level the playing field against that male PI, but we can understand that in 1945 and ’46 many women lacked even this opportunity to avoid having their concerns dismissed with a simple pat on the head. Bacall’s character, in this scene, is playing hardball. That’s a fact we can’t ignore.

Four simple words. A seemingly mundane line of dialogue. TRULY great writing.

Powerful stage business that caries the scene through future decades.

Well, I’ve run on long enough for one post. However, I’ll be back in two weeks with some additional differences between the films, which I found valuable in a writing sense.

See you in two weeks!