Thursday, February 11, 2010

Guest in Progress: Russell Atwood, on Adding Action to the First Person POV

I’m ignoring the piles of snow (and dripping icicles that threaten to leak into the house through the aptly named “ice damns”) and am turning my attention to matters of writing. Russell Atwood is here to remind us that:

A) Writing well requires study of those who have gone before us
B) Studying the masters benefits our work immensely.

You can learn more about A below, and I can personally vouch for B: I loved Russell’s new book, Losers Live Longer, which is a rapidly paced, twisty-turny trip through the Lower East Side of New York City, led by a master storyteller who can also make this reader laugh out loud.

(Russell previously wrote on the blog here: “How to Write in 5 Easy* Steps. And you can read a sample chapter of Losers Live Longer here.)

Essence d' Eye Private
By Russell Atwood

Over the course of writing my private eye novel, LOSERS LIVE LONGER, I read and studied the work of much better authors in the field, trying to learn some of the nuances of their craft. Specifically I read authors who wrote in the first-person voice made most famous by Raymond Chandler. One of these authors, a latter-day successor to Chandler and Hammett, was Dennis Lynds, who wrote a mystery series under the name Michael Collins, about a one-armed Manhattan private eye named Dan Fortune (formerly Fortunowski, but changed when his family came to the "new country" from Poland a generation back).

I did an experiment while reading one of the Dan Fortune novels, THE SILENT SCREAM, jotting down the first occurrences of action verbs in the book, as a way of making myself more aware of how a first-person narrator can "act" in a novel. (I found myself too often weakly saying things in my own writing like, "I was walking down the street, when..." or "I thought I better answer the door before he beat it down..." rather than more powerful and potent direct verbs. "I sprang forward," for instance.)

It was an interesting exercise, and very useful. I might've forgotten all about doing it though, except recently I came across the sheet of notepaper marking a page in a book. What struck me on rediscovering and rereading the result, is how strong just this ersatz-rendering stands out. Whether by instinct or design, Dennis Lynds really knew what he was about. It shows how something as subtle as the choice and order-of-use of words in a book can create a sublime dramatic build-up. In many ways this extract represents the distilled essence of "private eye." One person who has read it suggested it is a bit of "found poetry," while another felt it was like an entire novel all in a capsule. All I can say about it for sure is, whether read for lesson or leisure, it's powerful. Enjoy.

"From Dennis Lynds"

I used
I opened
I sat
I ran
I dialed
I watched
I ordered
I put
I nodded
I took
I picked
I waited
I left
I hid
I followed
I headed
I went
I held
I ignored
I gave
I heard
I got up
I checked
I smelled
I tried
I shook
I leaned
I knocked
I dropped
I tackled
I knew.

[Note: Read more about Russell’s examination of Freak, by Collins/Lynds:]

About: Russell Atwood is the author of two mystery novels about NYC private investigator Payton Sherwood, 1999's EAST OF A and the recent Hard Case Crime paperback LOSERS LIVE LONGER (both now available in Kindle editions). He's worked as Managing Editor of ELLERY QUEEN'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE and staff writer and assistant editor for BIOGRAPHY magazine. In addition to serving for a time as a house manager in several off-Broadway theaters, for two years he also worked at the award-winning independent bookstore, The Black Orchid Bookshop before its closing in 2008. Currently he is unemployed and taking freelance work while writing his new novel, a horror/ghost story. His most recent fiction is also an adult horror novel, published under a pen-name and currently only available (for under a dollar) as a Kindle eBook: "eRoTiKiLL" by Nikola Lecter.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.