Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Close Reading 3

Zestful Blog Post #177

Welcome to the third installment of Close Reading, where I analyze examples of published writing and discuss how and why they work or don’t.

I’m a come-lately reader to Jim Harrison, author of the novella Legends of the Fall (made into a big movie with Brad Pitt in 1994), the highly praised novels Sundog and Dalva, and numerous other fiction and collections of poetry. He also wrote journalism and occasional pieces for various magazines. Jim died this year, and I’ve been thinking about him, having met him a few times, twenty-plus years ago. (I ran a bookstore where he did a couple of signings, and a friend of mine became his assistant in Montana.) I never read his work because I didn’t like him personally, which was probably unfair, and because he wrote stuff about how horrible Hollywood was AFTER he’d made his two million dollars there, but whatever. Not long ago I came across a collection of his nonfiction called Just Before Dark in a used-bookstore and decided to give him a try.

I have an acute sense of when an author’s being pretentious, and I saw a few instances of that in this collection, such as here, from an article about fly fishing (“Guiding Light in the Keys”), originally published in Sports Illustrated. The passage describes a professional fishing guide:

[excerpt begins]
At home in the evenings, Sexton exercises his casting arm—which looks like an oak club—by going through all the motions with a twelve-pound sledgehammer with a foreshortened handle.
[excerpt ends]

While the arm looking like an oak club is great, the pretentious part is ‘foreshortened.’ The hammer’s handle was shortened. Foreshortened is an art term, and perhaps because of that it sounds more intellectual than simply shortened. So I mark Harrison—and whoever his editor at Sports Illustrated was—down for that. Do not do shit like that in your writing.

However, one should not throw a one-eyed, two-hundred-fifty-pound baby out with the bathwater, so here is a passage from another piece. This one, I think, is wonderful. It’s a complete paragraph from an article called “Don’t Fence Me In,” originally published by Conde Nast Traveler. The article is about taking automobile trips for the hell of it.

[excerpt begins]
This sort of driving can be a fabulous restorative. Unlike in an airplane, you can stop, turn right or left, on a whim. Driving into emptiness keeps you at least a few miles ahead of your neuroses, and by the time they catch up to you when you bed down in the evening, you are too tired to pay any attention to them. This past year I had a great deal of leisure time, so I drove 42,000 miles around the United States, avoiding the interstates whenever possible. Driving offers peace solitude, inaccessibility, and the freedom and adventure that allow me to think up new novels and rest from the last one. Your whimsicality returns; you’ve already driven to Arizona—why not continue on down to San Carlos, Mexico and hike out the Seri Indian territory on the coast of the Sea of Cortes? And there, camped out on a mountain ridge under a glorious full moon, you throw the wrong kind of porous log on the fire and then dance a new tune as a dozen angry scorpions shoot out, a fresh brand of reality pudding. The trip was a mere seven thousand miles but without a single moment of boredom, the brain once again rippling like a smooth underground river.
[excerpt ends]

The first cool thing about this paragraph is the “few miles ahead of your neuroses,” which is frank and blunt, and because of that, bleakly funny. A dull mind would not think of putting it that way, so as a reader, you can relax and know you’re likely to get some more good stuff.


[Cover of Just Before Dark; artwork by Russell Chatham, who was a friend of Harrison’s. A Chatham lithograph hangs in the background on my office wall. (Another story.)]

Apart from the mildly interesting fact that Harrison can think better while moving along in a car, we also get the exotic mention of Mexico and an impromptu hike. Then the passionate bit about the mountain ridge and the moon, and you think that’s nice but is he about to turn purple on me?, but no, he gives you the mistake, the log, the scorpions, the dance, and you can laugh because he certainly expects you to. And again, the moment is funnier because it comes after this serious stuff about the awesome beauty of the world. Juxtaposition can be your friend.

Technical note on first and second person here. You’ll notice that the writer skips around from second person “…you can stop, turn…” to first “I had a great deal of leisure time…” and back to second again “Your whimsicality returns…” and it works. Why? Because this is an informal piece, not a term paper, and shifting from first to second person is conversational. Most people do it all the time while talking, not really aware of making any grammatical shifts at all. And it sounds fine; it sounds real. I encourage you to experiment with this in your own writing.

The closing image of the “brain once again rippling like a smooth underground river” is just topping, isn’t it? Power, ease, movement—all of that is suggested. And because of the “once again,” we understand that something lost has been regained. The attentive reader goes home happy.

Final note: This is just one paragraph in the middle of a long essay of thousands of words. Yet the graph has a structure of its own. Study it over again: There’s a beginning that serves as an introduction, a little story in the middle, and a very satisfying ending. Not every graph Harrison wrote was structured this way, and that’s OK, of course; not every graph he ever wrote is that perfect, and that’s OK too.

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Solid Tips: Grabbing a Live Audience

Zestful Blog Post #176

Hi! Yes, vacation was great; gorgeous vistas and happy times with old friends; more or less relevant snapshot to follow.

I’ve never been an audio-books person, preferring to listen to music in the car, or while exercising or doing chores. Just habit. But when my Lillian Byrd novels got produced by Audible this year, of course I had to start listening.

The narrator, Dina Pearlman, and I had a phone meeting before she got to work, which went well. I felt good about her voice and personality. Next I recorded for her a series of names, place names, and any idiosyncratic words and pronunciations that I thought would help her sound authentic.

Then she got to work, and a few months later the recordings were done. As I started listening to the first in the series, Holy Hell, I was struck forcefully by Dina’s competence as a vocal actress. I know most professional narrators can make just about any prose sound way better than an untrained person can, but I’d never paid all that much attention before. Having done a tiny bit of acting in community theater and as a host for corporate audios and videos, I knew basics like don’t talk too fast, and keep your gestures smooth.

But I’d never noticed so much about the technique of good reading until listening closely to Dina reading fiction I’d written. I kept thinking wow, yeah, I wouldn’t have thought to do that like this, or this like that. All this in spite of the fact that I’d read my own work aloud to audiences countless times.


[The most awesome thing about this glacier (the Dawes in Alaska) was its sound. As the thing moves, it gives off sudden huge booms and cracks, like artillery and rifle shots. Never knew about that before. Never had an opportunity to listen to that before.]

Knowing that I had a reading coming up at the Ringling College, I decided to try to fix a few things in my mind, practice them, and execute them at my reading. For your benefit, here they are:

- Go way slower, overall, than you think you should.

- Don’t rush the first couple of words in sentences, which most nonprofessionals tend to do. This alone will transform your reading-aloud performance.

- When an abrupt change happens, such as an interruption, stop cold at the em dash before going on, unhurriedly, to the next words. Like here:
            “So I think we should have a meal before we—”
            A shot rang out. [Do a real pause after that em dash.]

- Vary your cadence. Here’s the great benefit of keeping your ordinary cadence, or pace, fairly slow and deliberate: You can shift gears! When you shift up to a faster cadence, as Dina subtly but hilariously did when Lillian describes her stove-cleaning routine, you catch hold of the listener’s attention and bring their heart rate up a little bit. Then when you downshift, they keep paying attention.

- Take care to enunciate. If the word is important enough to be there, well by gosh give it its due. Pay attention especially to the ends of words, which tend to get swallowed in everyday speech. For instance, that last word, speech, should almost sound like a syllable and a half: spee-ch. See what I mean?

- Vary your tone, of course. This is especially helpful in passages of dialogue, to help make clear who’s talking. Dina was able to produce a wide variety of tones and vocal styles for different characters. For the rest of us, simply raising or lowering your pitch a little bit between characters will work.

When I gave my reading at the college, I put most of those things into practice. Tried to read as if I were making a recording, which I actually was; the film students were making a video of my gig. It was like magic, I swear to you. I read chapter one of The Extra, which concerns Rita Farmer in police costume during a movie shoot. (She wanders off set and gets drawn into a real crime scene.) The audience was a nice group to begin with—a mix of students, faculty, and members of the public—but man, they really enjoyed that reading. I tell you this not to boast of the material, but of my new and improved delivery. I’ve had audiences like my readings before, but never to this extent. They chuckled, gasped, murmured in alarm—everything you could want. I couldn’t believe how well those techniques worked.

So: TL;DR: Listen to a professional, then do like they do.

Have you an interesting experience reading aloud? Tell us about it!
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Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Value of Looking Like an Idiot

Zestful Blog Post #175

Quick note: I’ll be skipping the next two Thursdays, doing some vacay. Our 250-pound housesitter and his two pit bulls will be keeping things nice and safe while we’re away.

OK, today’s post.

A writer turned to me for counsel recently, saying that he was kind of frightened to plunge into the book he wanted to write, because, well, maybe it won’t be any good and he’ll look like an idiot.

You can imagine my reaction.

The whole point of life, let alone writing, is to be OK with looking like an idiot. For three reasons:

One, nobody gets it perfect the first time;
Two, only if you risk idiocy will you have a shot at success; and
Three, so many people don’t even try, that you’ll stand out if you do.

As it happens, I’ve been making myself look like an idiot a lot at the YMCA pool where I swim. After learning a decent freestyle stroke, I’d been wanting to learn the flip turn. You know, where you swim up to the wall, curl-tuck-flip, and push off from the wall underwater. It’s smooth, it’s hard to do right, and it looks totally badass.


Every fitness swimmer wishes they could do a flip turn. But because it takes all this flailing and failing and sinuses full of stinging chlorine water while you learn (while everybody else keeps swimming calmly along in the adjoining lanes, checking out your progress with furtive glances), few make the effort. Every public pool is full of fitness swimmers who swim regularly for decades, stopping at every wall, turning around, and pushing off again.

But of course I’m like, what’s life for but challenges? For months I tried to achieve the basic, crux move, the underwater somersault, but just couldn’t get all the way around. As soon as my head pointed at the bottom I freaked out and had to go back the way I came. Finally I approached one of the swim instructors and offered her any amount of money to teach me the flip turn. Susan smiled and was like, You really want to do this? No charge, baby.

In fifteen minutes she had me doing the somersault with the assistance of a foam noodle, then a couple of foam blocks in my hands. Over the course of weeks, I practiced and practiced, and with Susan’s occasional guidance gradually started to put together the rest of the turn, which looks so smooth and fast but is actually a series of precision moves and micro-decisions all along the way.

You have to be OK with scraping your shoulder on the bottom, with ramming your butt into the wall by mistake, with running out of air, with flailing to the surface and gasping like a trout. I’ve heard that little kids can learn this much faster than adults, which is no surprise, because they haven’t had enough life experience to obsess about looking like an idiot.

Once I succeeded in the somersault, there was no way I was going to give up. And son of a bitch if I haven’t more or less gotten the hang of it. I don’t look like Katie Ledecky—my arms still aren’t well streamlined as I’m pushing off, and sometimes my air doesn’t last through the whole pushoff and I get a little water in my nose—but hell, I feel great. I know I’ll keep getting better at it. I swagger back to the showers like I just won gold.

And that’s the point of looking like an idiot.

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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Memorable Minor Characters

Zestful Blog Post #174

Hi! Two newsies first:

Newsie 1:

Last week I mentioned that I’ll be appearing at the Ringling College of Art and Design soon but didn’t have complete info. My gig will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday, August 23 in the Academic Center, Rm. 209. Local friends, I hope to see you there! Here’s more about the series, including the lineup and ridiculously easy parking instructions:
To support the new degree in Creative Writing, Ringling College of Art + Design has launched the Visiting Writers Forum. Each event will feature authors sharing their work, followed by a robust Q&A session with audience members. 
Every Visiting Writers Forum event is free and open to the public. All events will take place on the Ringling College of Art + Design campus. While the Robert Olen Butler reading will also be free, it will be a ticketed event.

Where do I park? All of the events take place at the Academic Center. [Download a campus map from this link.] Parking is a breeze--anywhere you find an open spot is a valid option. Handicapped parking right in front of the building is also available if you have appropriate signage.

Tuesday, August 23--Elizabeth Sims
Tuesday, September 6--Patricia Corbus
Tuesday, September 27--Heather Butler
Tuesday, October 11--E.A.A. Wilson
Tuesday, October 25--Monica McFawn
Tuesday, November 1--Rod Sanders
Thursday, November 17--Robert Olen Butler

Newsie 2:

My friend Deni Starr, a former trial attorney and now author, has a new book out! Below the Belt goes like this:

Sean O'Connor, retired boxer, is asked by Maybelle Preacher to check out the boxing gym her grandson joined. Doing a quick check, Sean agrees that the place feels wrong. To find out exactly what, he contacts the professional private investigator Cindy Matasar, who helped him out in the past. While they begin their investigation together (quickly developing a romantic interest), they soon learn that their efforts are not appreciated by well-placed political figures. When boxers end up murdered, Sean and Cindy find themselves targets of a well-organized criminal enterprise with political clout. Just when they think they know who is behind it all, they find their prime suspect has been dead for years. Now it’s a race against time to uncover the killer before he strikes any closer to home.

Now for today’s post:

The September issue of Writer’s Digest magazine published a feature by yours truly on how important the little things are in fiction writing.


[Wow, lookit alla them little switches and gauges inside this space capsule! One gets the feeling each one serves a purpose.]

Here’s one of my favorite parts of the article, on how to make even minor characters memorable:

[excerpt begins:]

It’s easy to hotfoot it over a minor character, or person, whether in fiction or narrative nonfiction. But if the character is important enough to exist in the world of your story, let your readers picture that existence.

Pick a detail, any detail.
How would you describe the last guy who bagged your groceries? Did you see him? What about the friend of a friend you met the other night? Or the baby held by the distant cousin who showed up at that family funeral?

Being observant in your own life helps when the time comes to characterize someone. For a minor character, select just about anything, as long as you use something.

The knock-kneed cheerleader pointed and screamed.

Better still, pick two details.

The boss’s wife smelled like Jack Daniel’s and drove a red Ferrari.
Timmy’s chin quivered, but he gripped his bear tightly and kept quiet.

Spare no one.
Even a character who appears only in passing should exist in the reader’s eye. For a literally glancing description, make it visual.

The tram operator’s filthy hands worked the levers, and we were off.
The buxom croupier sticked the dice over.

Pan the crowd, then zoom in.
Describing groups of people can be challenging, but you cannot get away with such say-nothing generalities as:

The people at the party had on a multitude of different outfits.

Instead, give one or two overall details, then zoom in on one person as a representative.

Guests in classic Hyannisport gear—sweaters thrown over shoulders, loafers without socks—crowded into the refreshment tent. “Where’s the champers?” demanded a sunburned young woman in a tight white tennis dress.

[end of excerpt]

There you go. It's easy when you realize you can use specific techniques to create art!

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Dog Days Blog Chat

Zestful Blog Post #173

The few times a year I send out full-on Newschats, I always make them my blog for that week. As always, apologies for the double if you’re subscribed both there and here. If you’re one of my blog friends, you’ve been the first to see some of these announcements and links below—but not all! Got a freebie going, and other new stuff. Thanks for skimming down. Oh, and to join my news group, pop over here.

Dog Days Newschat begins:

Dearest Correspondent,

The dog days are upon us—that is, the hottest part of the year (in the northern hemi): when Sirius, or the Dog Star, positions itself behind the sun in the summer sky. The star doesn’t make it extra hot—we remember that correlation does not necessarily equal causation—but psychologically, I think there’s something there.

Anyway, a dog days giveaway is at the top of my newschat today!

The second in the Rita Farmer series, The Extra, is free on Amazon Kindle right now, through the weekend. The Extra opens with Rita in police costume on a movie shoot near the Los Angeles river. She wanders away from the set to find something better to eat than the roachy sandwiches the low-budget production company provides, and winds up getting taken for a real cop and drawn into a real crime scene. The ensuing mystery concerns a runaway show beagle (so, like yeah, dog days), an inner-city charity mission with major secrets, and a creepy old crone up in Bakersfield. Nab yourself one!

All five Lillian Byrd crime novels are now available on Audible Books! They all have individual links, but here’s the one for Holy Hell to get you going. The narrator, Dina Pearlman, did a fabulous job. Here’s a little something about her:

“Dina Pearlman was born in New Jersey and raised in the fair hamlet of Teaneck, home of the Isley Brothers. After 4 years at Carnegie Mellon University, she came to New York to pursue acting professionally. She languished in sorrow and Fritos for a year and half, enduring a steady stream of rejection, broken occasionally by an appearance in a sparsely attended showcase production of an obscure play, somewhere obscure. One day, after having received a particularly painful rejection, she decided to get up off her tuchis and head down to Gladys' Comedy Room to try her hand at stand-up comedy. She wrote her act on the 2nd avenue bus whilst travelling between 81st and 53rd streets, had two gin and tonics, got up on the stage, and killed. She then decided that while acting would always be her first love, stand-up was a way to get her performing jones out in the meantime. Shortly thereafter, she landed a sketch comedy pilot on ABC, followed by some regional theater, followed by a Spike Lee movie, followed by more theater and TV, and so it went. Somehow or another, this ol' goofus from New Jersey had herself an acting career.”

Dina especially gets the humor of Lillian right: She doesn’t ham it up, and you have to be a good sharp listener yourself to get it.

New novel? Crimes in a Second Language? Yes, I’ve dangled it before you, but where the hell is it? Short answer: I’m dicking around with it. Do stay tuned.

Meanwhile, a new short story! Sarasota’s SCENE magazine has just published my newest in its August issue. “Go-Go Day” is about a woman past her prime, her dangerous backyard, and the perils of an unexamined life. You can read it for free online. Page 83.


Writer’s Digest Books honored me by including four chapters by me in their latest book on writing, Crafting Dynamic Dialogue: The Complete Guide to Speaking, Conversing, Arguing, and Thinking in Fiction. Other top writing authors in the book: Jeff Gerke, James Scott Bell, and Gloria Kempton.

Speaking of Writer’s Digest, check out a couple of issues on the newsstand now: The September issue includes my feature on getting the little stuff right in fiction (“It’s the Little Things.”) Because little stuff, if it’s good, can mean a lot! Also, see my piece “Revise Like a Pro” in WD’s current Novel Writing Yearbook. That was an especially fun one, because I excerpted before-and-after material from my own novels.

I might add, I’ll have articles in the upcoming January and February issues of the magazine as well.

To hear me talk about my career, check out this recent radio interview with Bradenton’s own Dona Lee Gould on RadioEar network. Dona Lee’s skillful editing makes me sound so much less muddled than in real life…

The rumor is true that I’m not taking on any new coaching/editing clients. I love the work, but it was just taking up too much of my time. I have some new initiatives that I hope will help me help more writers than working one-on-one. I’ll be focusing a lot more on new writing, as well.

Upcoming appearances:

I’ll be kicking off this year’s Visiting Writers Forum at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota at 7 p.m. on August 23. The event is open to all, and I’m pretty sure it’s free. I’ll read a little bit, discuss the craft of writing, and do Q&A. Information as to venue and parking will be posted on my blog when I get it.

And hey, consider joining me at the following upcoming conferences, where I’ll be a presenter:

Sleuthfest on Saturday, put on by the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America on October 8.

Florida Writers Association annual conference, October 20-23.

I’ve joined Novelists, Inc., a selective organization of serious authors. I’ll be attending the upcoming annual conference next month in St. Petersburg, Fla. and will report about it in my blog.

Zestful Writing, speaking of blogs, continues to cook along, my once-a-week, idiosyncratic posting of my best ideas on writing and my experiences as a writer and learner. A couple of weeks ago it popped up as #94 on Feedspot’s top 100 writing blogs.

OK, that’s more than enough for now!

Love,
Elizabeth

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Thursday, August 4, 2016

Simply Mine and Yours

Zestful Blog Post #172

The other day I was surprised to see that Zestful Writing inched into Feedspot’s list of top 100 writing blogs. The list uses web metrics rather than somebody’s subjective judgment to rank the blogs. It gets updated once a week. (At the moment, Zestful Writing is #94.) Feedspot is essentially an RSS aggregator.

I was surprised because my subscriber base numbers in the hundreds, not the thousands (though the blog gets more visits from nonsubscribers), I have relatively few Twitter followers, and this blog doesn’t have its own Facebook page.

Moreover, I’m a little surprised my blog gets much attention at all, because I don’t do two key things bloggers these days are supposed to do for health, wealth, and ever more subscribers:

1)     Have guest bloggers write posts, and
2)     Repurpose other people’s material by quoting from their articles, books, and blog posts.

Oh, and as far as writers’ blogs go, I also avoid focusing on how to make money from your writing. This is a huge difference between me and many others.

I’ve been asked to guest post here and there, and have always said yes. And my writing has been excerpted in other blogs, and I’m fine with that, when proper credit is given, of course. Was downright honored to have some of my stuff excerpted in a high profile writing blog recently.

But Zestful Writing is an old-style blog. Isn’t it insane to even use the word old when speaking of a blog? But yeah, to me, your web log, or blog, is supposed to be written by you, not other people. It’s supposed to be your take on things, your reportage of your activities vis-à-vis your subject. I’m missing out on the networky advantages that come to you when you vigorously exchange guest posts with other bloggers and when you aggregate other people’s material. So be it. Exposure, publicity, marketing! So be it.


[Graffiti on a stall wall in the women's room at John King Books in Detroit this year.]

I always lose interest when a blogger I’ve been following starts publishing guest posts. Because I want to learn about THAT person, not his friends. HER ideas, not her friends’. Is it nitpicky for me to say, “Well, then, don’t call it a blog, call it a newsletter.”?

This blog is idiosyncratic. It’s mine, and I alone write it for you. I write about my best ideas on how to write well and freely—with zest. I write about stuff that interests me as a writer and reader, I write about my life as a writer, and I especially like to write about stuff I learn—and how that relates to living the life of a zestful writer. Also, I almost always use my own photographs/images to illustrate this blog.

When I post things about my blog on my personal Facebook page (which is also my author and blogger Facebook page (come friend me)), I usually put up an excerpt from it and a reference to the blog. But not a link to the blog, because FB puts links lower in the feed, and I want to share my material, not necessarily get you to click through to the blog at all costs.

If you like reading this blog, you’re my friend. We are in synch. I have the best readers. Thank you.
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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Close Reading 2

Zestful Blog Post #171

Welcome to the second installment of Close Reading!

I’m writing an article for Writer’s Digest magazine about pivot points in story development. While skimming around my bookshelves for examples last night, I found myself absorbed in rereading passages from James M. Cain’s novel Double Indemnity (first published serially in Liberty magazine in 1936). Now, the passage I’ll quote below is not an example of a pivot point. I’ll discuss those in a future post, after the article is in the can. But this passage just grabbed me, and I want to show it to you and talk about it. If you haven’t read the book (or seen the excellent movie, 1944), the protagonist is an insurance salesman, and he’s just entered into a plot with a woman to kill her husband, share the insurance payout, and live happily ever after.

[begin quote]
All right, I’m an agent. I’m a croupier in that game. I know all their tricks, I lie awake nights thinking up tricks, so I’ll be ready for them when they come at me. And then one night I think up a trick, and get to thinking I could crook the wheel myself if I could only put a plant out there to put down my bet. That’s all. When I met Phyllis I met my plant. If that seems funny to you, that I would kill a man just to pick up a stack of chips, it might not seem so funny if you were back of that wheel, instead of out front. I had seen so many houses burned down, so many cars wrecked, so many corpses with blue holes in their temples, so many awful things that people had pulled to crook the wheel, that that stuff didn’t seem real to me any more. If you don’t understand that, go to Monte Carlo or some other place where there’s a big casino, sit at a table, and watch the face of the man that spins the little ivory ball. After you’ve watched it a while, ask yourself how much he would care if you went out and plugged yourself in the head. His eyes might drop when he heard the shot, but it wouldn’t be from worry whether you lived or died. It would be to make sure you didn’t leave a bet on the table, that he would have to cash for your estate. No, he wouldn’t care. Not that baby.
[end quote]

That is a single paragraph, and it ends chapter 2 (of 14). This brilliant graph is an example of powerful narrative, and of strong character voice.


Of particular interest to me is Cain’s choice of the word [that] instead of [who] in this instance: ‘…watch the face of the man that spins the little ivory ball.’ Of course [who] would be correct. We are talking about a man, not a thing. If you were writing a term paper or literary essay, you would naturally write: [the quicksand that swallowed the hunter], but you wouldn’t necessarily write [the hunter that fell into the quicksand]. No, you’d write [the hunter who fell into the quicksand]. But Cain wrote the book in the first-person voice of his main character, Walter Huff (changed to Neff in the movie). And he shows us here, very quickly and subtly, that Huff is a smart man without much formal education. A guy who doesn’t care a lot about niceties.

What else does the reader learn in this passage? We learn from Huff that he sees life as a game—a deadly serious one, but a game just the same. We learn that he’s thought about committing insurance fraud for a long time, and he describes how that came to be: First he was doing his job, trying to think of scams to stay ahead of the crooks who kept trying to cheat his employer. To stymie crooks, it helps to think like a crook. Then, the progression kept going, almost-sorta-kinda naturally: He started to imagine himself being a crook—a successful one, not a loser, given what he knows from the inside. But that was just a fantasy at first, the kind of fantasy practically everybody can relate to. Then, however, the fantasy took hold and became a more realistic theory. Then, the right circumstances presented themselves, and now he’s got a solid plan that involves murder.

The way Cain constructed the graph is partly responsible for its impact. Huff drones on in the first few lines, then hits us with […that I would kill a man just to pick up a stack of chips…] which practically serves as a bullet itself. Then we get to […so many corpses with blue holes in their temples…] The starkness of that, the blunt, cold frankness, all told in the same steady cadence!

And we learn how Huff rationalizes the evil he’s about to commit. He hasn’t got a soul, not anymore, he tries to explain; he’s seen so much evil he’s jaded. And then Huff paints a picture of the roulette croupier, he tells a little hypothetical story, and it’s so real even we hear the gunshot when it comes.

If there’s a paragraph in all of literature that portrays self-interested cynicism better, while at the same time ingratiating the character with the reader by appealing to the reader's logic and intelligence—I don’t know of it. The reader is meant to identify with Huff, and we do, we pull for him, because we appreciate his raw intelligence, his ambition, his drive to do a complicated, dangerous job properly. Elsewhere in the story we’re invited to dislike Phyllis’s husband and to fear Phyllis’s treacherousness. We hope Huff won’t come out of this too badly. This is the embodiment of noir fiction: The story of someone who commits evil and with whom we empathize.

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