Friday, April 18, 2008

The Performing Flea and Me

Friday + Blog = Charles

So Debby heard Ray Bradbury speak (see below). Nice. I would have liked that. Now that I go to mystery conventions, I hear a lot of big names give talks, most are good, some outstanding and only a very few not worth traveling to hear. Me, for one.

The first Big Name mystery author I ever heard speak was Carl Hiaasen and he remains one of the best. The first author to ever give me (and when I say me, I mean the entire audience of 500) advice on writing was Fran Lebowitz, author of Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, but is perhaps best known for not writing. Her honest comments about her struggles as a writer were both hilarious and frightening. ‘You think writing is hard? Try not writing. Once you start, don’t ever stop. You’ll never start again and it’ll kill you.’ Okay, it’s paraphrased and it was twenty years ago, but I know what I heard, whether she said it or not.

P.G. Wodehouse – who titled one volume of his autobiography/letters The Performing Flea – wrote some of my favorite books and some of my favorite quotes/advice about writing:

“Nobody is more alive than myself to the fact that going by the book of rules, I do everything all wrong. I never have a theme, and I work from plot to characters and not from characters to plot, which as everybody knows is the done thing. The men up top, so they tell us, start with a group of characters and then sit back and let them do what they feel like doing. And the catch in that is – suppose they don’t do anything.”*

How good is that? Maybe not advice wise, but it sure takes the pressure off the rest of us. I mean if The Master went at it all wrong, there’s hope for the rest of us. I’m a character-first writer but I know where everything is going before I start. Take the new book(s) I’m working on. One reason that I’m only up to page 30 is that I’m busy crossing Ts that won’t come up for 50,000 words. That’s my way and I’m sticking to it.

Wodehouse was a major rewriter. He would plan like crazy, then write a 30,000 word ‘narrative’ that he’d build on, usually producing three full top-to-bottom revisions. I plow through one page at a time, getting it just right before I move on. My revision process is minimal – typos, a few lines here and there. Again, it’s slow, clunky and arduous but that’s how I do it.

“I find the best way to get my type of story is to think of something very bizarre and then make it plausible. I remember in Full Moon I started with a picture in my mind of a man crawling along the ledge outside a house, seeing a man through the window and gesturing to him to let him in, and the man inside giving him a cold look and walking out of the room, leaving him on the ledge. I find that, given time, I can explain the weirdest situations.”

Hey, that's me! Not the guy on the ledge or the guy in the house. The author guy. Really, that’s sort of the way I do it. I know my character, then imagine strange situations, the weirder the better. It’s just that Wodehouse thought up all the really good ones first. And he was better at explaining them in less time (his books average 65,000 words). But still!

The best, however, has to be this note Wodehouse wrote to himself while working on Jeeves in the Offing:


(1) X wants to marry Y, gets B. to say he is engd. to Y. Formidable mother.

(2) something happens to queer X with Y and Y continues to be engd. to B.

(3) Z, another man, is in love with Y. She wants to marry him but somehow mother is obstacle.

(4) Jeeves somehow works it that Bertie gets in bad with Mother at same time Mother gets matey with Z.

THIS IS SOMETHING TO WORK ON. Z. might have a girl A. Then X. wed pair off with A and Z with Y.

Of course! It’s so freakin’ obvious when he puts it like that.


(A sad note of passing. Our Jeep Wrangler – which has been our tried and true companion for 17 years – has taken us for our last ride. Details next blog.)

*All the Wodehouse quotes come from the fabulous exegesis, Wooster Proposes, Jeeves Disposes – or Le Mot Juste, by Kristin Thompson, Heineman Press, NY 1992.


Rick Blechta said...

Charles, as always, a delightful post. You de man!

Jared said...

Strictly awesome...

Rick Blechta said...

That's definitely better than strictly ballroom, Jared...

It's a little known fact that our Charles is a dance floor gigolo of the first water. He's unbeatable at the foxtrot, two step, but his specialité is the tango. Women have been known to swoon in his arms.