Sunday, August 17, 2014
Trouble Is Your Business
Another entry from the journal of legendary pulp writer William "Wild Bill" Armbrewster. Of its origins, see here.
Benny Wannabe charged up to my table at Musso's and said, "I did it!"
I took my fingers off the Underwood keys. My normally productive digits weren't doing me any good at the moment. I was stuck on a scene. The smiling mug of my young pupil was good for a break.
"Sit down." I leaned back and reached for a cigar. "Now, what is it you did?"
"Started my story! And it felt great. I told myself I was gonna write great today, just like you told me to. And I did!"
"Nice going, kid. Getting words on paper is every day is the golden rule. You have a plot?"
"I sure do!"
"Tell it to me."
"Well, it's about a young man who wants to become a writer and uses all his money to buy a train ticket to Los Angeles."
"And?" I said.
"What happens to him?"
"Um, he gets to Los Angeles, where he meets a famous writer."
"Uh-huh. That famous writer better be handsome, brilliant and witty."
"Problem is," I said, "that's not a plot."
"You're just telling your own story, right?"
"How'd you know?"
"Wild guess," I said. "Listen, all new writers think the have an autobiographical story inside them, and that's a great place to keep it. You, you need a plot."
"But I felt great. You told me I have to write like I couldn't fail."
"That doesn't mean you don't have to learn how to write. Write as if it were impossible to fail, then clear your decks and look at what you've done and figure out how to make it better. Or find somebody who knows his stuff to help you along."
"Like you, Mr. Armbrewster?"
"You lucky kid. Now let's get down to basics. What's a plot?"
"It's what the story's about."
I shook my head. "Your Aunt Mabel's flowers is 'about something.' Or some kid coming west. For you to have a plot you've got to have trouble."
"Write this down. Trouble is your business. A plot without a trouble is like a Duesenberg without gas. Pretty to look at but going nowhere. Readers read in order to have an extended experience of worrying about what happens to somebody. So make 'em worry."
"Get your character up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Have lightning hit the tree and set it on fire. Then get your character down. That's a plot."
"So let's take your young writer. Make him so he's not you."
"Make him older or younger. Make him from a town without pity, or a runaway."
Benny took out a little notebook and a pencil and started scribbling. "This is good stuff!"
"You're talking to Armbrewster! Here's another one. Make the character not a man, but a woman."
Benny looked at me, pie-eyed. "But I can't. I'm not one."
"Dammit, boy, you're a writer! There's no can't in your vocabulary."
"But somebody told me once you have to write what you know."
"Hooey! Write what you burn with, and then find out what you need to know to write it."
"But I've never been a woman."
"And I've never been a gangster or a gumshoe! Is that going to stop me? No! Do some research! Go see a Bette Davis movie. There's one playing at the Chinese called The Great Lie. Mary Astor's in it, too. Earn the trust of a waitress and ask her questions. And then learn to listen. Half the problems in this world are because men don't know how to listen to women."
"She's on a train coming west, right?"
"What happens on the train?"
"Um, she has dinner and a good, long sleep."
I stuck the cigar in my maw so I could rub my head with both hands.
"No," I said. "She's in her sleeper when a guy with a gun breaks in and covers her mouth."
"Figure it out! That's your job, kid. Bad stuff happens. Your character fights against the bad stuff, because if she doesn't, she's gonna lose something important, maybe even her own life. That's plot and story and the name of this game all rolled into one. When in doubt, when your fingers are frozen over the keys, just bring in a guy with a gun. I said that to Chandler once, and look at him now."
"No, Homer Chandler the delivery boy. Of course Raymond Chandler!"
"But what if I want to write a quiet story about a character, and how he––I mean, she––becomes a better person."
"Ah, you mean you want to be one of the literary boys?"
"Doesn't matter. Instead of a guy with a gun, your bring in someone who has a psychological gun. Who has power to crush the spirit."
"Personally, I prefer the rod. But you get to choose, Benny. Just make sure it's real bad trouble."
"That does it!" Benny said. "I'm making her a woman, and bad stuff's going to happen to her."
"That's the ticket. Now go back to your room and start writing. In the first paragraph I want to see a disturbance."
"Am I speaking Chinese here? A disturbance! I don't want to see a florid description or a character who is sleepwalking through life. I want to know that there's a change or challenge happening to your character right from the jump."
"Like a train wreck maybe?"
"It doesn't have to be big, remember that. It can be anything that's disturbing, from a late night shadow outside a window to a knock on a hermit's door. It can even be some tense dialogue. Just don't warm up your engines! So get to your typewriter and bring me the first three pages when you're done with 'em."
"This is gold, Mr. Armbrewster, gold! I can't thank—"
"It's all right, Benny—"
"—you enough. I'm so excited I'm going to write to my ma and pa and tell 'em—"
"—what a great and wonderful—"
"If you don't go and start writing now, something disturbing is going to happen to you."
"Got it!" He rushed out.
I was looking forward to what the kid was going to show me next. A young writer's enthusiasm, if it's mixed with a desire to grow in the craft, always pleases me.
I went back to the scene I was stuck on. Where was I going to go? And then I found myself typing: A guy with a gun walked in.
[NOTE: I'm once again in travel and teaching mode. So talk about how you put trouble in your books. Is there enough? What do you do when a scene is dull?]