Friday, September 28, 2012

Richard Lupoff: Writing Backwards

Today I welcome Richard A. Lupoff, writer emeritus, of mystery, science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction. Read a summary bibliography HERE.  

Dick Lupoff (born February 21, 1935 in Brooklyn, New York) is a science fiction and mystery author, who has also written humor, satire, non-fiction and reviews. In addition to his two dozen novels and more than 40 short stories, he has also edited science-fantasy anthologies. Dick is also an expert on the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs and  H. P. Lovecraft. Don't miss his Hobart Lindsey/Marvia Plum mystery series. Following Dick tells Mystery Fanfare more about his writing process and history and his new mystery Rookie Blues (Dark Sun Press). Thanks, Dick, for stopping by.

Richard A. Lupoff: 

 Imagine a row of six small wooden chairs on a stage, facing an audience of a couple of hundred kids ranging from five or so, up through high school age. It was a summer camp, and this was part of the evening’s entertainment.

There were seven-year-old campers sitting in those chairs and they were divided into teams. Chairs one, three, and five were Green. Chairs two, four, and six were Gray.

A counselor read the first few paragraphs of a spooky story aloud. The six kids were then allowed two minutes apiece to continue the story. A panel of judges would award points to each team, depending on how well each contestant did at extemporaneous storytelling. A poor job would receive no points, a fair job would receive one point, a good job would receive two points. The three scores for each team would be added up to determine the winner.

There was probably a prize for the winning team, but I don’t remember what it was. Probably something on the order of a Tootsie Roll or a comic book.

I can still remember my feeling of terror as the contest began. I was a painfully shy child and I had no experience in extemporaneous storytelling. But I listened carefully as the counselor read the set-up paragraphs and as the other contestants continued the story. When my turn came I just took a deep breath and did my best, and hoped that I wouldn’t get a zero for my team.

The six contestants presented their parts of the story, the judges conferred, and the emcee-counselor announced which campers received a one and which received a two. Nobody got a zero. Then came my name, and the emcee said that because one camper had done an outstanding job, the judges had decided to award him three points.

Yes! I had scored a three-pointer.

The judges probably didn’t intend to choose a career for me, but the fact is that they did.

Segue a decade or so into the future, and I’m loafing my way through high school, ignoring chemistry and trigonometry and teaching myself to be a writer. I edited the school paper, worked as a sports reporter, operated a clandestine and totally illegal business ghost-writing book reports for my customers (twenty-five cents a page), turned out a few short stories and started a novel that I got about a page and a half into before quitting. And I read literary theory.

I came across the statement, attributed to Poe, that mystery stories were written backwards. That was a real head-scratcher. I thought Poe meant that he’d written “The Gold Bug” this way:

“?tell shall who—dozen a required it perhaps; pit the in busy were coadjutors his while , sufficient were mattock a with blows of couple a Perhaps”

It took me an embarrassingly long time to understand that “writing backwards” was a sort of metaphor. Poe’s idea was that the author knew the solution to the mystery before he wrote his story. With this solution in mind, the author would actually plan backwards (not literally write backwards) toward the beginning of the story, planting clues along the way so as to make the solution of the mystery inevitable.

Well, a few more decades slide past. I’ve already established a career for myself as a science fiction writer, packed that one in, started over writing mysteries, and scored a few credits in my new field. British anthologist Mike Ashley asks me for an original story for a book of historical mysteries. Well, I am not much of an historian, and would probably have Julius Caesar assassinated with a Tommy gun if I tried to write such a story, but I’m old enough and have a good enough memory to recall much of the 1940s, so I write a story set in August, 1946. Mike is delighted with it and I am happy to cash his check.

My protagonist is an ex-cop, recently discharged from the US Army after serving in World War Two, and I find that once the story is written I can’t keep this guy out of my mind. I want to know more about him. So the next time I’m asked for a story, I bring back Nick Train—that’s his name—and set the action earlier in the same year. I learned a little more about Nick, but I was not satisfied.

So I wrote another story, digging back into his past, and set it in 1942, while he’s taking Basic Training at Fort Benning, Georgia—just as I would a dozen years later. Now I know more, now I understand more, but still I am unsatisfied. So I start what I believe will be the last Nick Train short story. It’s set in 1938. Nick is a high school grad, an unsuccessful boxer—as I would eventually be—and becomes a rookie cop, mainly because he’s bored and broke and it’s a job.

Now I’m generally a committed outliner when I write stories, and when I write mysteries I “write backwards” the same way Poe did. But this story, I believe, is going to be pretty short and pretty easy to write so I skip over the outlining task and just start to write. I figure the story is going to be about 4,000 words in length.

A few nights later my Beloved Spouse asks me, over the sautéed eggplant, how the story is coming along. I tell her it’s coming along just fine but it will probably be a little longer than I’d anticipated. More like 5,000 words. Maybe 5,500.

A few nights later my Beloved Spouse asks me, over the chicken fricassee, how the story is coming along. I tell her it’s coming along just fine but it will probably be a little longer than I’d anticipated. More like 7,500 words. Maybe 8,000.

A few nights later my Beloved Spouse asks me, over the linguini and mushroom sauce, how the story is coming along. I tell her that it’s coming along just fine but that, well, I guess it’s a novelette. Gonna run maybe 12,000 words.

And so it goes. Once I’ve left 20,000 words behind me and there’s no end in sight, I finally admit that, Okay, you win, it’s a novel. And it is a novel. It’s called Rookie Blues.

For about thirty years, until his tragic demise, my friend Bill Reinka read all my novels and many of my short stories and commented on them. He was most intrigued by their structure. He always found it astonishing that I brought in so many characters and themes and made them all fit together and come out even at the end. No holes. No loose ends. Everything neat and tidy.

The answer is, it’s no secret, it’s just a matter of following Poe’s dictum and writing the story backwards. I knew the way it had to end. I just had to work back toward the beginning and plant my clues.

But I had no outline for Rookie Blues!

The thing just grew organically, and when I was stuck for a turn of plot I moved from Baltimore to Los Angeles, and followed Raymond Chandler’s dictum: “If you don’t know what happens next, just bring somebody through the door with a gun in his hand!”

Somehow the book got done, and it’s now in print from a fine new East Coast publisher called Dark Sun Press. The three Nick Train short stories are also included, as a kind of bonus to the reader.

Rookie Blues feels different to me than anything else I’ve ever written. Instead of the tight structure of, for instance, my Lindsey and Plum novels or my Chase and Delacroix novelettes, it has a kind of quirky, organic structure to it.

The world isn’t neatly and efficiently organized. Things happen unexpectedly. Events take weird and unanticipated turns. As Hammett said, a beam falls and it misses you by a couple of inches and you realize how fragile is your tenure on this planet, and instead of going back to your desk after lunch you change your whole life.

So far, nobody has complained about the loose structure of Rookie Blues. Early reviews and reader comments have been unanimously favorable. It’s getting close to time for me to start another novel and I’m wondering whether to take my lead from Poe—or from Chandler.


vallerose said...

That's a wonderful essay. I enjoyed Rookie Blues and hope to encourage dick to write more about Nick Train.

Priscilla said...

Even this short piece is a lesson in master storytelling. Many thanks!

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, Janet, for hosting this. Now, if only Dark Sun had gotten this book into the market...even its website seems to be down.

Todd Mason said...