Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

My Photo
Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Pulp diction

Now pay attention, kittens and bo's, there's a quiz at the end of this one.

I was an art major in college. This was before I figured out I couldn't make a living at this. Unless I planned to teach, but I was scared of kids. (Not a good character trait in teachers).

I was always pretty good at art. I can draw and paint and was cruising through my art classes with a B average. Then I hit a class called Three Dimensional Design. I was terrible. Evidence of my ineptitude was my "final exam" sculpture, which I called Nude With A Paper Cup Head. So titled because I couldn't get my figure's face right so I finally just filled a Dixie cup with wet plaster and stuck it on top. I got a D.

I just didn't get it. Ask me to paint on canvas, I was Rembrandt. Ask me to sculpt, I might as well have been Rambo. I couldn't think outside the two-dimensional box. Finally, my instructor told me I had to stop seeing the world in POSITIVES and start seeing it in NEGATIVES. In other words, I was so hung up on adding things, I was missing the beauty of subtracting. "Learn how to leave things out," he told me.

Lightning bolt! Paradigm shift! Well, doh!

I ended up abandoning art for writing. But I think that little piece of advice must have lodged deep in my brain cells because it is something subconsciously I have always tried to apply to my fiction writing.

Subconsciously I say because until recently, I hadn't even thought about that quote. Maybe I am thinking about it now because of the book I am reading. No, not Elmore Leonard, though he's the one who coined the famous writers axoim "Leave out the parts that no one wants to read."

My bedside reading is The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, which I got for Christmas.

Handsome book...a compiliation of the best crime stories from the "golden age" of pulp crime fiction -- the 20s through the 40s. It's about the size of the Fort Lauderdale phone book. And to be really honest, parts of it read about as well.

Many of these guys were dismissed as the hacks of their day, churning out their stories for cheaply printed magazines like "Black Mask" and "Dime Detective." Yeah, they were lurid, the syntax cringe-worthy, the plots thin or nonsensical. But they tapped into a popular need for a new kind of human hero. The most memorable of the heroes became the prototypes for much of what we are seeing in our crime fiction today -- lone wolves fighting for justice against all odds but always on their own different-beat terms. Would we have Harry Bosch without the Continental Op? Jack Reacher without Simon Templar? Doubtful...

To be sure, not all the stories have aged well. The slang sounds vaguely silly now, the sexism and racism we can explain away as anachronistic attitudes. But the armature these writers created is still sturdy.

Especially in pure writing style. That is the biggest thing I am getting out of these stories, an appreciation for that streamlined locomotive style that propells these stories along their tracks. I read these stories now -- discovering most of these writers for the first time -- with a smile on my face and a highligher in my fist. There are lessons to be learned for us all, and you can almost hear James M. Cain whispering: "I'm not going to dazzle you with my writing. I'm going to tell you a helluva story."

These guys sure knew what to leave out.

Let me give you one little passage from Paul Cain's "One Two Three":

I said: "Sure -- we'll both go.

Gard didn't go for that very big, but I told him that my having been such a pal of Healy's made it all right.

We went.

Not: And then we left the apartment and got in my roadster and set out. We took Mulholland Drive out of the canyon and arrived just before dusk.

Just: We went.

How can you read that and not smile?

I heartily recommend the Big Book of Pulps. And speaking of art, check out some of the best pulp cover artists of the day at Rex Parker's terrific vintage paperback blog Pop Sensation. (I lifted that great Henry Kane cover at the top of this blog entry from his site.)

And now, in honor of our pulp forefathers, I am offering up this little quiz of pulp diction slang for your amusement. Answers at the end. And don't chance the chisel for a cheap bulge, bo. We Jake?

1. Ameche
2. Kicking the gong around
3. Wooden kimono
4. cheaters
5. Gasper
6. Hammer and saws
7. Orphan papers
8. Wikiup
9. Bangtails
10. Can-opener

11. I had been ranking the Loogan for an hour and could see he was a right gee. It was all silk so far.

12. I stared down at the stiff. The bim hadn't been chilled off. Definitely a pro skirt who had pulled the Dutch act.

13. I got a croaker ribbed up to get the wire.

14. By the time we got to the drum the droppers had lammed off. Another trip for biscuits...

1. telephone
2. taking opium
3. coffin
4. sunglasses
5. cigarette
6. Police
7. Bad checks
8. Home
9. Horses
10. Safecracker
11. I had been watching the man with the gun for an hour and could tell he was an okay guy. Everything was cool so far.
12. I stared at the body. The woman hadn't been murdered. She was definitely a prostitute who had committed suicide.
13. I have arranged for a doctor to get the information.
14. By the time we got to the speakeasy, the hired killers had left. Just another trip for nothing...


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Love it, Kris. I try to approach fiction like a sculptor too: Start with the dictionary and delete everything that ain't Story.

10:23 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

If you've ever seen the movie "Wonder Boys"--I've read the book as well, but don't remember if this was in there so succinctly--toward the end, the Katie Holmes character tells Michael Douglas (Tripp) of his 3000+ page novel manuscript: "You're always telling us that writing is about making choices, but this novel is like you didn't make any."

I tend to think what you leave out is just as important as what you put in.

And I love the "Wooden Kimono." Sounds like the title of Robert Crais' next Elvis Cole novel, doesn't it? Maybe it'll be a sequel to "The Monkey's Raincoat."

9:06 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...


Perfect! I had forgotten that line from "Wonder Boys" (one of my favorite writer movies.) Kelly and I often say in our workshops that writing is merely making choices. I'll have to remember that scene.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Another great line from Wonder Boys:

"That's a big trunk. It fits a tuba, a suitcase, a dead dog, and a garment bag almost perfectly."

Love that movie!

12:13 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home