Saturday, October 25, 2008

A return to more about Noir Mysteries

Modern noir mysteries anchor the genre in its 70+ year history with the temper of emotion mentioned in the first post regarding this style of writing. Which is this: the mood of good noir mystery fiction should be set in the first page, paragraph, or in the first sentence. The mood must be dark, emotional, and command my attention, make me desire to know more.

Previously, I posted first sentence examples of writers from 50+ years ago. The modern writers I've selected may need more than one sentence. The opening in each provides a hook, a lead-in that carries the reader's mind onward until the he gets a feel for the plot.

I'll start with J.D. Robb AKA Nora Roberts. The first book in her "Death" series is titled: Naked in Death.

She woke in the dark. Through the slats of the window shades, the first murky hint of dawn slipped, slanting shadowy bars over the bed. It was like waking in a cell.

The first sentence is too short to pull me in, but does make me wonder why, and who is she? By the end of the paragraph, I was ready to read the story.

Next, James Lee Burke's first noir mystery The Neon Rain uses a different style first sentence.

The evening sky was streaked with purple, the color of torn plums, and a light rain had started to fall when I came to the end of the blacktop road that cut through twenty miles of thick, almost impenetrable scrub oak and pine and stopped at the front gate of Angola Penitentiary.

Yes, that’s one sentence. Filled with imagery that even rouses taste sensation. Importantly, Burke totally captured my attention. His character, unknown to me at the time I first read this, had the perceptions of a man who saw life around him in a way I did not, could not. I wanted to know why, who he might be, and why he confronted a penitentiary.

Next John Sandford's first noir mystery Rules of Prey reverts to old style set up.

A rooftop billboard cast a flickering blue light through the studio windows. The light ricocheted off glass and stainless steel: an empty crystal bud vase rimmed with dust, a pencil sharpener, a microwave oven, peanut-butter jars filled with colored drawing pencils, paintbrushes and crayons. An ashtray filled with pennies and paper clips. Jars of poster paint. Knives.

Sandford began with images straight out of early 1950s noir, built on it, and pulled the reader visually through succeeding decades and landed him in place where he stared at knives. He needed a paragraph, but it works.

And last, Larry Schliessmann's first noir mystery Beholden is set in 1950. This demands a different style of plot buildup. Almost the reverse of the Sandford example.

466 people died on the nations highways over the four-day Fourth of July weekend.
A teenage kid playing a quarter of a mile from the Polo Grounds in a park on the Bronx side of the Harlem River, fired a .45 automatic into the air in celebration of Independence Day. One of the rounds came back to earth and snuffed out the life of an innocent bystander William Boyle several blocks away.
And GIs died again but this time in a place across the globe named Pohang Falls, Korea.
The calendar in my Flatiron Building second floor office remained on June 1950. I noticed it before I turned away from the only death that occurred during the long weekend that directly affected me.

Took a little longer, but the build up was intended to bring the reader to a time and place most of us never knew. The irony of the kid shooting and killing an unknown victim sets a tone of opinion expressed by the protagonist, and actually happened as described back in 1950. And of course, the Korean War had begun, and the protagonist's concern over the conflict indicates he might be a veteran himself. By this point, the reader has a preliminary grasp on the current events of the time, knowledge of location, and in the end the awareness that a different death demands the protagonist's interest, the one in his office. Might the corpse be a message?

Above are four distinctly different styles of modern noir mystery fiction. Each writer sets a tone, a mood, adds the emotional darkness noir demands, and leads the reader to a point where he wants to know more.

I'll dig in deeper in my next post.

In the words of the immortal Alfred Hitchcock: "Good Evening."

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Monday, October 13, 2008

2 Novel Query Letters - How effective are they?

Number 1

Dear M,

The anguish he felt when learning of his fiancée's death left Marlowe Black stricken with a need for revenge. New York police ruled it suicide and closed the case. Black believed it was murder and determined to find her killer. The gunman, a serial killer, did not hide his bloodlust and dueled with Marlowe Black using the lives of Black's friends like chips in roulette. His weakness, a woman he trusted, led Marlowe along the twisted path of the irrational until, after forcing her to reveal the killer's identity, the two men faced each other for a final duel over the life of yet another innocent victim.

Sunset Orange Water is a 68,000-word noir murder mystery set in New York City, 1951.

I am a winner in the 2004 L. Ron, Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. My winning story Cancilleri's Law was published in WOTF's volume 20 (Galaxy Press). I've participated in several book signings, and speaking engagements (radio and TV).

I would be pleased to email a partial or the full manuscript of Sunset Orange Water for your consideration.


Larry Schliessmann

Number 2
Dear M,

Ten-year old Emma Walker survived a crash that took her father's life, when a mysterious opening in the car's roof directly above Emma provided a rescuer access to her. Strange frightening dreams haunted her for the next four years, until she discovered an ancient book about a Templar pirate and his dragon-tooth sword at the local library. Folded between its pages, she discovered a printed map of a walled garden. On the reverse, she read a hand-written cryptic clue as to the pirate sword's location. Determined to find the blade, she and her best friend Joan began a harrowing search. When she grasped its hilt, she was hurtled backward in time to meet and befriend a dragon, overcome deadly traps, and fight the pirate's magic to survive and return home.

The Path Between Yesterday and Tomorrow is a 58,000-word YA novel with two young teenage girl protagonists. They discover courage and powers in themselves and achieve goals neither girl dreamed possible a few weeks earlier.

I am a winner in the 2004 L. Ron, Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. My winning story Cancilleri's Law was published in WOTF's volume 20 (Galaxy Press). I've participated in several book signings, and speaking engagements (radio and TV).

I would be pleased to email a partial or the full manuscript of The Path Between Yesterday and Tomorrow for your consideration.

Larry Schliessmann

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Why do you want to be a writer?

This is what I think of as a trick question. When this question is presented to a group of people in environments only writers or wannabe writers will be found in, the question can be profoundly difficult to grasp and answer.

My first response is Why do you ask? Why do you want to know why I want to be a writer? Maybe a better question for the presenter is What do you think a writer is? Do you believe that a writer is a person who writes with the singular goal of building a career? Is it a person who desires to convey ideas to others? Is it person who wants to entertain others with fiction? Is it a person who believes himself or herself superior knowledge-wise, and qualified to dictate directions for other people to follow?

In other words, must a writer have a goal? A destination he can verbalize into a capitalist gain?

Why do you want to be a writer? Why take on a craft, and writing is a craft, that is solitary and fraught with disappointment and rejection?

Each of us has a unique reason. Those that do not, those of us who respond with a stock answer such as "I want to be like Stephen King," do not understand writing.

Writing is, to me, different from being a writer. I write because I want to, have wanted to since I was a young teenager. Writing lets me go places in my mind I cannot go outside my mind. Writing lets me meet people I'd like to meet and know, and some I'd rather not meet and know, that I won’t have the opportunity to meet out in the "real" world.

Writing lets me work out and express frustration, joy, loneliness, sorrow, anger, and love. My characters walk paths I put them on to accomplish goals I set that should prove too difficult for the average man or woman.

My characters meet villains, heroes, and average people from all walks of life, males, and females, young and old. Writing is about life, about interacting and coexisting on a planet where there is no escape from life except through death, as far as we know.

No, the question to be asked is not why do you want to be a writer. The question that should be asked is why do you write?

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

More about Writer's Block

More about writer's block.

This is my third entry regarding writer's block. Now, I find it is time to grind away at the supercilious among us. You see, I do not really believe that writer's block, as an affliction, exists.

I wrote about cause and effect as a way of reaching this point. If you truly love writing, then nothing on Earth will stop you, not critics, not editors, not the lack of publication. Only you can create an atmosphere within your mind and life that causes you to stumble.

If you love writing, then write for God's sake! If you say to yourself I want to write a best selling novel and become rich and famous, you DO NOT love writing! You love the idea that you could become rich and famous.

During a writers conference, a participant asked the mystery author Mickey Spillane how to become a successful writer. Mickey's reply was eloquently simple. He smiled and said quietly, "Become a brain surgeon, it is easier."

In some ways, writers are brain surgeons, which I believe was Mickey's point. A writer needs to peel away the layers of thought that hide, or camouflage plot and characterization. Occasionally, a writer must do so at the most inopportune moments. The key here is that it must be done.

I have deviated slightly from writer's block, but indirectly. A writer is always writing even when no keyboard or pen, is present. A writer who loves the craft for the sake of the craft, has part of his mind tuned into his surroundings and thereby allowing observation to hone the skill.

There is no excuse for not doing this. Train your mind. Pay attention to the way strangers express themselves verbally and physically. Pay attention to the sounds in nature, birdcalls, and the wind blowing through a cluster of pine trees. Engage all five senses and think about what you see, touch, hear, smell, and taste. At the next opportunity, write about what you recall regarding all you have learned regarding the environment in which you co-exist.

Now, you see, writer's block is gone! If you do not believe me, comment regarding this entry. Tell me how it made you feel. Tell me what it feels like to tap the keys as you write. What are you smelling now? Describe what you see, what you hear.

The most important advice to a person, who loves writing, is write about any damn thing! It is okay if you only jot down twenty words. It is NOT okay if you quit for even one day longer than circumstances demand.

Sorry, no more plot freebees. It's your turn.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

How to cope with Writer's Block

In my previous post, I mentioned cause and effect and stated that the cause of writer's block is emotional. This assumption is rooted in experience.

However, you might remove the emotional blockage by writing about what triggered the feelings. You might pen an essay, or a blog post, or write a short story allowing your protagonist to shoulder the emotional burden you feel but cannot release.

On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with taking a break from writing. If you truly love the craft, you'll suddenly feel the need and resume pounding the keys in the middle of the night or whenever.

The effect of writer's block should be a DUH Moment. Duh, I'm not writing. Duh, the monitor is blank, and the cursor is torturing me. The block is causing me to desire to do horrible things to the keyboard, or the goddamn mouse (always did hate those things; I'd like to meet the inventor in a dark alley).

Oh, look, writer's block unblocked long enough to blast out a plot, albeit weak, but it has possibilities. Hmm, maybe there is hope.

Perhaps, just maybe, boredom caused your writer's block. Same cause and effect, but needs a different solution, I think.

The solution to the pervious paragraph: Write about a subject you never thought you would find interesting.

The only solution that ever worked for me was simply this: I wrote whatever came off my fingertips as they bled self-pity on the keyboard. What do I mean? Write! Write anything. Write about writer's block, but put words out where you can read them aloud when you finish.


More plot freebees:

Our male Siamese woke at five in the morning growing, fur puffed out, tail twitching as loud footsteps slammed up the front steps and a fist pounded on the front door hard enough to rattle window glass.

When her hand brushed hair off my cheek, I turned my head enough to kiss her palm. I had known her for years, but never before that moment, had either of us expressed a lover's tenderness.

She was really pissed. For the fifth time that morning, the computer locked up. She cursed every programmer and computer engineer alive today, and then slammed her fist on the center of the keyboard. The keyboard sagged and bent, jamming the Y H N B and G keys together, and the escape key flew off and disappeared between the back of the desk and the wall.
At least one of us knew it was time to escape, I thought, with a chuckle and left to refill my coffee mug.

Until next time, guys!

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

More about Noir Mysteries

More on Noir Mysteries as I understand them

Here are the first sentences included in the previous post along with the authors and book titles.

It was like coming back from death. Chinese Nightmare by Hugh Pentecost

He lay there in a silk-lined casket looking very waxy, but it was eight to five that he looked no more waxy than me. Slab Happy by Richard S. Prather

We could see the low bone-white hotel now, its wings curving toward the sea like the base of a sun-bleached skull. Dead Man's Walk by Richard S. Prather

The guy was dead as hell. Vengeance is Mine by Mickey Spillane

It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick walk. The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett

The man and the girl walked slowly, close together, past a dim stencil sign that said: Surprise Hotel. Pick-Up on Noon Street by Raymond Chandler

Rain. It washed the two men, slid down their raincoated bodies, and made a sea of mud at the open graves at their feet. The Plastic Man by David J. Gerrity

The father of PI Noir fiction was Carroll John Daly. He wrote the first Noir Mystery. While he, like Mickey Spillane a couple of decades later, was vastly popular with readers, critics did not regard either man as serious a writer.

An interesting fact is that books written by both writers are easily available today online.

What I want to do now is quote my personal favorite opening paragraph, which made me want to read this book. Although the first sentence is terrific, the entire paragraph is better.

From One Lonely Night by Mickey Spillane.

Nobody ever walked across the bridge, not on a night like this. The rain was misty enough to be almost fog-like, a cold gray curtain that separated me from the pale ovals of white that were faces locked behind the steamed-up windows of the cars that hissed by. Even the brilliance that was Manhattan by night was reduced to a few sleepy, yellow lights off in the distance.

The second paragraph is as good, maybe a little better.

The significance of all of the above has to do with setting a mood, tugging on an emotion that lies just beneath one's mental flesh. The transition from reader, to a person who is suddenly part of the story as a vicarious bystander tagging along after the protagonist, is subtle yet quite effective if done successfully.

The technique is based on knowing how to find that small opening behind a reader's eyes where words are inserted, and transformed into a scene that expresses what the protagonist feels as the reader steps into the page with him.

Perhaps it is learned, or maybe finding it requires only a good level of self-awareness. What makes me as a writer tick? If I write a sentence to open a story, do I feel something as I write, or after?

Many writers delete their original opening paragraphs or just the first sentence because when they reread it later, the words do not accomplish the act of involving the reader.

Next we'll look at some modern writers of Noir.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

How to deal with Writer's Block

Writer's Block removal 101

Cause and effect. The cause may be emotional issues. Emotions are distractions. Or are they? Yes, but no, if you turn it around.

Stuck in traffic? Does it piss you off? Write down why it pisses you off while you're stuck behind that idiot developing paralysis of the thumb by text messaging who the hell knows about what to whomever. ERG!

Now that you can read why it pisses you off, twist your anger into revenge. Use whatever devise your mind creates to move traffic. Go to extremes. A death ray that disintegrates matter! A narrow focus electronic beam you can aim that drains car batteries, causes flat tires.


Stuck sitting in a cubicle 8 hours a day entering data, or answering questions via phone or Internet? What could happen that would break the spell created by boredom?

A computer virus that melts only the letter "a" from all your documents?

How about the grime on your keyboard? What virus might inhabit the gaps, or cohabit with your fingertips?

Your boss stands at the entrance to your space watching you type as if he/she knows by being there you'll make errors.

What would you like to do about that? Accidentally spill coffee on him/her? Not enough?

Ask him/her to help you loosen the jammed escape key, you know, the key pad with the thickest layer of bacteria waiting to invade and disable the first finger to tap it hard enough to dislodge the little creeps.


Now, for some freebee plots.

There’s this dog barking outside; it's three in the morning. You look out the window and see a Rottweiler standing with its front paws on the windowsill, its face inches from your face. The huge beast is snarling as it tries to claw through the glass.

The car won't start but the battery is brand new. You run to catch the bus to work, and witness a meteorite burning through the sunrise, exploding above the house across the street.

You get out of bed and discover blood in the bathroom sink, but you're not injured.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

What is a Noir Mystery?

Originally, I planned to start this series with examples of modern authors who I feel write Noir Mysteries.

However, the longer I dug through my pulp fiction collection the more I knew that my decision would prove itself incorrect.

Running backwards creates blind spots, so I've altered my approach, and or direction. With that straightened out, I'll begin with early Noir writers instead.

For me, the mood of a good Noir fiction mystery should be set in the first paragraph, preferably in the first sentence. And the mood needs to be dark, emotional, and command my attention, make me desire to know more.

Nothing like: The lollipop stuck to his tongue, not until he attempted to peel it off did he realize his mistake.

Okay, maybe that wouldn't be so bad. I'd like to know more.

With that in mind, here are a few first sentence examples from early Noir writers.

It was like coming back from death.

He lay there in a silk-lined casket looking very waxy, but it was eight to five that he looked no more waxy than me.

We could see the low bone-white hotel now, its wings curving toward the sea like the base of a sun-bleached skull.

The guy was dead as hell.

It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick walk.

The man and the girl walked slowly, close together, past a dim stencil sign that said: Surprise Hotel.

Rain. It washed the two men, slid down their raincoated bodies, and made a sea of mud at the open graves at their feet.

What stories are these from and who wrote them? Answers in the next entry, and I will include first paragraph examples. Some will be from these authors and some not.

I'm ending this with a Noir author quiz:

Who was William Irish?

Comments are welcome.

I am Noirmystery at Twitter.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What is Cold Justice?

When PI Marlowe Black hears that is fiancée killed herself, he knows otherwise. She was murdered. The cop assigned to the case informs him her death was suicide, but the killer proves him wrong when he continues shooting Black’s friends and the cop too.
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