Sunday, April 17, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Ed McBain or Evan Hunter's Detective Fiction

Cover of "Blackboard Jungle"Cover of Blackboard Jungle

Writer and writers:

Ed McBain was born and bred in New York City.

During World War II he served in the US Navy, and then attended City College. After teaching high school for a while, he went to work for a literary agency in New York.

How to become a writer

Whatever little spare time he had, he dedicated to writing. In the beginning he was your night and weekend novelist.

His published the novel The Blackboard Jungle (1954) under his pseudonym Evan Hunter; the novel drew on his experience as a teacher in the NYC system. What helped to solidify McBain’s reputation as a writer was the resounding success of the Hollywood film that bored the same name as the novel, and iin which Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier starred.

After more than 85 novels, many screenplays, he developed a following that devoured his novels as soon as they were placed on the bookstores shelves. All in all, he sold more than 90 million copies.

 Absolute Phrases from The Gutter and the Grave:

In my estimation, what accounts for McBain’s success is his mastery of ‘Absolutes phrases.’  For a full discussion of this feature of the English language (Absolutes phrases), see Mary Duffy’s Toolbox for Writers. Here is a sampling from his novel The Gutter and the Grave:

I guess Johnny Bridges saw the initials at the same time I did because he let out a short sharp scream and then whirled onto me, his eyes with terror (p. 27).

And so now, coming back into the living room, she sat with her back stiff and the big bosom thrust forward high and proud, her knees and feet close together, her chin lifted, the fine bones of her face glistening wetly (p.46).

Her throat swept sharply to her rising breasts, caught in a cheap white sweater; a narrow waist pulled in abruptly, bound constrictingly with a black leather belt; the hips flaring below that, childbirth hips covered with a black skirt taut cover firms thighs and good legs (p. 48).

“You wouldn’t know a voice from hears,” Laraine said angrily, her eyes blazing (p. 129)

“It’s not so little,” she said, the black eyebrows raising archly over the brown eyes (p. 150).

No one should be deceived by the simple and apparently inelegant prose that McBain employs in his detective fiction. What I see is a writer who is thoroughly familiar with the tools of grammar, syntax, and rhetoric.

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's
Sentence Openers. To write fiction I consult Toolbox for Writers.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How to Become a Writer: James Joyce's Ulysses

Marilyn Monroe Reading James JoyceImage by I, Puzzled via Flickr

Writer and Writers: Brief biographical notes

James Joyce (1882-1941), Irish catholic novelist was born in Dublin to a poor family. His early education was much influenced by the Jesuits. After college he worked as a teacher, journalist, and other odd jobs to make ends meet.  

Throughout his life, Joyce suffered from glaucoma, which rendered him almost legally blind. And like the Argentinian writer Borges, he forged ahead to overcome and conquer his illness. Some commentators have noted that since Homer was a blind itinerant poet, Joyce mimicked him in both his travels and writing.

How to become a writer

Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man appeared in 1916, which is a brief autobiographical novel. The novel focuses on the life of the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, from childhood towards maturity. Two major preoccupations crowd the narrative: the problem of Irish nationalism and Catholicism. At one point he event toyed with the idea of entering a seminary.


Ulysses —published in 1922—is a novel that many readers pick up only to put it down after a few pages. Hermetic, impenetrable, and frustrating, the novel is worth reading, but not like a conventional novel. One must take human bites and then chew and digest them slowly. And like all experimental novels one must be prepared to make allowances for the many innovations and technical leaps.
One chapter — The Rocks— is narrated in what was then new: the stream of consciousness form. But the work contains much more: symbolism, mythology, history, puns, play on words, and even a plethora of neologisms, all of which adumbrated his later work Finnegans Wake.
Despite its apparent meandering, shapeless form, Ulysses is a well-structured novel, which is often described as an Irish symphony, or an ‘Un-Divine’ Comedy. It contains allusions and references to Greek and Roman writers, and many contemporary European writers.  Because Joyce knew Latin, he could insert his own translations from great writers. In fact, he translated Aquinas’ model of beauty Integritas, consonantia, and claritas as Wholeness, balance, and radiance.

Other works

His other major works are Dubliners (1914), A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man (1916), and Finnegans Wake ( 1939).
To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past

First galley proof of A la recherche du temps ...Image via Wikipedia






Writer and Writers :Brief biographical notes

Marcel Proust (1913 – 1927) was born in Auteuil, near Paris, to a wealthy family. Later this cities —Auteuil and Illiers— Proust transformed them into the Combray of Remembrance of Things Past. Beset by asthma during his childhood and other complications, he found solace and respite in reading and writing.

Proust studied law at the famous Sorbonne at the École des Sciences Politiques, contributing at the same time articles to Parisian magazines. Despite his neurotic displays he was good company and many people in society sought him out, frequenting with regularity the salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, the wealthy and aristocratic area of Paris. His critics —especially those on the left—often accuse him of being a homosexual, an elitist, a detestable snob, and a shameless social climber. After his mother died in 1905, he withdrew from the salons.

In 1896 his first books were published: Portraits De Peintres and Les Plaisirs Et Les Jours, illustrated by his friend Madeleine Lemaire. During this period he also wrote Jean Santeuil and Contre-Sainte Beuve, but both went unpublished until discovered in the 1950s.

From 1910 he seldom left his bedroom, which he had corked to cut off the din and daylight from the streets. While Paris slept, he wrote through the night, managing to sleep during the day. So that by 1912 he completed the first volume of his seven-part major work: À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past).

 How to become a writer

To overcome his health and psychological problems, Proust dedicated himself almost exclusively to reading and writing. If he wasn’t writing, he was reading, and vice versa, declaring once: “So, the great writers, during those hours when they are not in direct communication with their thought, delight in the society of books.”

Gifted as a fluid writer —not one to suffer from writer’s block— he filled notebook upon notebook with his own scribblings. One can just imagine the voluminous arrays of notebooks that he accumulated to produce the massive 3,000 pages of Remembrance of Things Past. Yet he was a perfectionist, for he took delight in revising his work continuously.

Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time)

Whether it was professional envy or personal dislike, writer Andre Gide recommended to the publisher that Du côté de chez Swann (Swann's Way), be rejected. E.M. Forster —another famous writer— thought Proust’s work “chaotic, ill constructed, it has and will have no external shape; and yet it hangs together because it is stitched internally, because it contains rhythm."

The novel is an autobiographical novel narrated in a stream-of-consciousness style. It pieces together a constellation of remembrances from the narrator’s childhood. The multitude of the events narrated emanate from an apparently insignificant and mundane act as the taste of a madeleine cake. In Proust the senses trigger memory recollections, not reason, or deliberately cogitation.

For Proust the continuum time-space is useless unless evocated by memory. It is memory within time and space what is of importance to humanity—to social interaction. The indefatigable narrator writer —Marcel— travels in time to make sense in the present of events that formed him, that made him what he is, that shaped his persona.

Not always is he successful in his analysis, for memory fails and it is often untrustworthy; yet, that is all humans have. It is those moments of “involuntary memory” that flashes anew into our lives that account for much of our fleeting happiness and joy in the present. Through Marcel’s evocations the reader can see in procession the faithless cocotte Odette, Swann’s eventual wife, the homosexual Baron de Charlus, Dutchess, Mme de Villeparisis, Robert Saint-Loup, and Marcel's great love Albertine, who is perhaps lesbian and who dies in a riding accident (a character that was partly based on Alfred Agostinelli, Proust's chauffeur, secretary and live-in companion).

Remembrance of Things Past does not have a plot line. In this context, the novel mirrors life, for life isn’t contrived but a concatenation of inexorable events from beginning to end. And in the very end —at his deathbed— Proust found himself endlessly correcting the manuscript of Remembrances of Things Past.

Other works

Les Plaisirs Et Les Jours, 1896 - Pleasures and Regrets (tr. by Louise Varèse, 1948) - Päivällisvieras ja muita kertomuksia (suom. Annikki Suni, 1983); Pastiches et Mélanges, 1919; Chroniques, 1892-1921; Jean Santeuil, 1927 (unfinished) - Jean Santeuil (transl. by Gerard Hopkins); Morceaux Choisis, 1928 ; Comment Parut "Du Côte De Chez Swann, 1930 (repub. as Proust et la strategie littéraire, 1954); Correspondance Générale, 1930-36 (6 vols.) - Letters (selection, ed. by Mina Curtiss, 1950)

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's
Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How to Become a Writer: Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf

Cover of "Steppenwolf: A Novel"Cover of Steppenwolf: A Novel

Brief biographical notes

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) was a German-born Swiss poet, novelist, and painter. Born to a household of Swabian Pietism, he grew up with conflicting issues about his identity. His autobiography contains anecdotal evidence about his troublesome, rebellious, and picturesque childhood.
His grandfather —a doctor of philosophy and fluent in multiple languages— encouraged him to read widely across the disciplines, but in particular works of literature. In contrast, his father had less influence on him, as Hesse says of him: “he always seemed like a very polite, very foreign, lonely, little-understood guest."
Although he was a weak child —weak eyes, nerve disorders, and migraines— not only did he overcome his deficiencies, but augmented his determination not to be inhibited in his freedom to move around. In fact he became a traveller. Having lived in several countries, Herman Hesse considered himself a citizen of the world: he lived at different times in Estonia, Switzerland (where he went to high school and attended Evangelical Theological Seminary), Germany, Italy, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.
Before he became successful as a writer, he earned a living as a mechanic and book seller (in Basel). In that book shop he met many intellectuals who fostered his spirit of inquiry, study, and expression. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in literature.

How to become a writer

An essential element of a writer’s formation is undoubtedly passion for reading. As a bookseller, Herman Hesse developed an early passion for books and reading. Despite the long hours he spent in the shop, he would keep the company of books rather than friends. He read voraciously the works of Goethe, Lessing and Schiller, and classical texts on Greek mythology. Later, he studied the German Romantics’ works such as the poems of Novalis and Holderlin.
Another element that enriches a writer’s production is the experience of other cultures. When Hesse’s first novel Peter Camenzind was published in 1904, it became a success, he became financially independent, and he started travelling to different countries.


What is interesting about Steppenwolf is the protagonist Harry Haller, who is really the embodiment of two personalities: the rational and the irrational; two forces vying —intellect and instinct, spirit and desire— for supremacy.
Of all the conflictive forces, what is becomes clear to Haller is his discovery that "every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms ... " As such, he lives to experience the world within and the world without: sexuality, music ( jazz), dance, and all types of social interaction.  
In effect one can say that Steppenwolf is an experiment in self-discovery and an attempt to understand the surroundings (society, in particular) in which the individual functions.

Other works

As Hesse says in his autobiography: “My most characteristic books in my view are the poems (collected edition, Zürich, 1942), the stories Knulp (1915), Demian (1919), Siddhartha (1922), Der Steppenwolf (1927) [Steppenwolf], Narziss und Goldmund. (1930), Die Morgenlandfahrt (1932) [The Journey to the East], and Das Glasperlenspiel (1943) [Magister Ludi]. The volume Gedenkblätter (1937, enlarged ed. 1962) [Reminiscences] contains a good many autobiographical things. My essays on political topics have recently been published in Zürich under the title Krieg und Frieden (1946) [War and Peace].”

To become a writer I write essays every day. Since English is my second language, in writing essays I consult Mary Duffy's Sentence Openers. When I write fiction --or fiction writing of novels and short stories-- I consult Toolbox for Writers.
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