Raymond Chandler's Advice to Writers

Writing is one of those things that looks easy but isn’t. Or at least just about everyone can write, but few can write in ways that people actually want to read. This explains the huge number of writers, agents, and editors offering free advice about writing on their blogs and websites. Free advice is fine. It’s certainly interesting to hear how other people work. I think proper mentoring and good editing are probably more useful, but nothing will help if the student’s attitude is all wrong.

Writers are a strange group of people. It takes a certain arrogance to assume that people will want to spend their valuable time reading what you have written. On the other hand writers also need to be able to see where they are failing, realise their weaknesses, and understand when they need to change what they are doing. Arrogance with a topping of humility and self-doubt. Imagine strawberry and Marmite ice-cream and you get an idea of how that works in practice.

I’ve been re-reading Raymond Chandler over the past few weeks as I do more or less annually and I came across this great writing advice in a letter he wrote on December 3rd 1957 to Wesley Hartley, a schoolteacher in California. Chandler wrote thousands of letters, using them in much the same way as many writers in 2009 use their blogs. Here’s what he has to say about learning to write fiction anyway. By the time he wrote this Chandler was a highly successful and famous writer, but he published his first full-length novel in 1939, aged 51. The interesting part for me is what he has to say about the writers he had advised in the past:

“… [As a young man] I couldn’t write fiction to save my life. I couldn’t get a character in or out of a room. I couldn’t even get his hat off. I learned to write fiction by a method which I have recommended to other young struggling writers I tried to help, but no soap. Everything they did had to be for sale. What I did was take a novelette, I think it was by [Erle Stanley] Gardner, and make a detailed synopsis of it. From this synopsis I wrote the story, then compared it with the original to see where he, Gardner, had got an effect and I had got nothing. I did this over and over with the same story. I think I did learn a great deal that way. My first novelette for Black Mask took me five months to write and I got $180 for it. …”

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