Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What I'm working on

So I'm writing this here novella. Ordering the letters, words, sentences and paragraphs to go in a certain order--you know, that nonsense writers do.

Anyway, here's the first chapter. It's turning out to be a tale of nihilistic noir. Any thoughts are me.

By Chris Rhatigan


I bowled with Mackey and Slade Wednesday nights. It started because we had all worked at the Pump ’N Munch together. Now I was the only who worked there.

Slade was the best bowler. Usually rolled 200-plus. Could put spin on the ball, make it curlicue. I don’t know why he bowled with us instead of in a league. Mackey and I rarely broke 150.

After we’d bowl, we’d go to the bowling alley’s bar and drink a few pitchers of beer. That’s what we were doing this particular night.

The bar was empty, and the bartender clearly wanted to go home. His elbows were on the bar, hand propping up his head, which looked like it could fall off at any moment, start rolling around on the brown tile floor. His droopy eyes were affixed to a touch-screen game of Keno.

I talked work, Slade talked women, Mackey talked the price of cigarettes, we all talked nostalgia.

We cycled through those topics quickly. Each one felt staler than the previous. We were not drunk enough.

Mackey polished off his glass of beer and poured a refill. He wiped a bit of foam off his mustache. “I break into houses,” he said. “Used to be once in a while, but now it’s a habit. Do it at least once a week.”

Slade said, “So what do you take? Jewelry, electronics, that kind of stuff?”

“No, I don’t take anything. I watch people sleep.”

“So, what, like attractive women?”

“Anyone, really. I like to see the rhythm of their breath. The way couples fight for the covers. How they get up in the middle of the night to take a leak and walk right past me.”

“How do you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Break into houses.”

Mackey cracked his knuckles one by one. “I’ve gotten good at picking deadbolts. But usually I don’t even bother—people leave side doors and windows open.”

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” played over the speakers. Fucking terrible song. Must have been the fourth time it played that night. I don’t know why places do that. There must be a million songs they could play, but goddamned “Born to Run” is somehow deemed better than all of them on four separate occasions.

A muscular guy with a mullet on lane 24 rolled a strike. His skanky girlfriend in a garbage bag mini-skirt pranced over and embraced him. Good for them.

“I murdered a stranger,” I said. “About five years ago.”

 Mackey said, “How’d you do it?”

“Waited behind a dumpster in that alleyway between First and Jefferson. Some tall guy in a brown suede jacket and jeans passed by. I snuck up behind him. Beat him with a tire iron. Found out later that his name was Rudolph Penscott.”

“That’s a terrible name.”

“I agree.”

Slade ordered another pitcher. The bartender grunted. Managed to tear himself away from his game. I thought another pitcher was pointless—none of us were going to get drunk.  

Slade popped peanuts out of their shells and into his mouth. “I was driving home one time. I was pretty lit. A kid was crossing the street, a boy, no idea why he was out that late or what the fuck he was doing. I mean, where are the parents these days?” He stacked the shells in an obscene little pile. “Anyway, I hit him. He smacked the windshield hard, rolled off. I kept going. Then I put it in reverse and backed up over his body. I thought it would make a crunching sound, but it didn’t.”

Springsteen mercifully stopped singing. Only sound was the low whine of the ceiling fan. The couple on lane 24 had left. I wondered if they were banging in the parking lot. I hoped so. I wanted a look. The bartender had returned to his game.

The three of us stared at the patterns on the casino green rug, poster of some Nascar guy we could have cared less about, the flashing lights on the pinball machine.

We had a smoke outside on the sidewalk. Quiet night. Hot and muggy. Air hung around like it was waiting for a bus.

We went our separate ways.


  1. He man, dig it. Just wondering (this is not an improvement or non-improvement suggestion, just a thought) have you considered loosening up the clip a little bit, just to see how the flow feels? Same words, but make longer, compound scenes into single "run on sentences" (a term with no place in literature, I use it for fun). Like for example:

    "I bowled with Mackey and Slade Wednesday nights, it started because we had all worked at the Pump ’N Munch together, now I was the only who worked there. Slade was the best bowler, usually rolled 200-plus, could put spin on the ball, make it curlicue. I don’t know why he bowled with us instead of in a league, Mackey and I rarely broke 150."


    "The bar was empty, and the bartender clearly wanted to go home--elbows were on the bar, hand propping up his head, which looked like it could fall off at any moment, start rolling around on the brown tile floor, droopy eyes were affixed to a touch-screen game of Keno."

    It seems you have the instinct to do this at times, so other times the clipped pace comes off (not a bad thing) as a bit of a tick, a stall to the voice I don't know carries the naturalism and flow the best. Like the looser flow would be the natural flow, chopping the statements a kind of generalized noir-ish affectation that, I think, steals a bit form the uniqueness.

    Just a thought--put it here, publicly, thinking maybe it'd get some thoughts going.

  2. Chris, have you considered changing the story to present tense?

    You wrote: I bowled with Mackey and Slade Wednesday nights. It started because we had all worked at the Pump ’N Munch together. Now I was the only who worked there.

    This feels okay until you hit that last sentence and it turns the whole paragraph awkward. Consider, "Now I'm the only one who works there." And maybe shift into present tense from there.

    Their confessions are interesting, but you need to give them something to do. They finish their beer, have a smoke, and leave. That's it. Where is the conflict? No conflict equals no tension.

    Thanks for sharing this with us. It takes guts to put a first draft out there for people to critique. Keep at it.

  3. Hi Chris (and Mark, cheers)

    Not in an argumentative way, Mark, I say this mostly based a bit on an interview I did with Chris recently where we touched on this aspect of "openings to stories":

    I'm sure there will come tension, but what I very much like about this opening, especially for noir, is that there is no rush to conflict--this is only...1000 words, if that? Enough atmosphere and interest is built here that "an event" or "introduction of specific tension" might be somewhat...forced sounding.

    Chris had mentioned in our interview that his general technique of selecting material as an editor was to (I simplify) ask himself after the 1st page, the 2nd "What's happened so far, what's this about?" and if there is not a clear answer to not take the piece. This opening is the perfect example of why he says he's flexible about that, though, and is also something I'd like to see more of in contemporary noir--it's everywhere in classic noir--a slow build, a movement through personality so that conflict seems a Result, an organic result rather than an immediate showpiece or even a Cause. Keep the reader interested without "the thing" happening for as long as possible (this works great for horror as well) so that the intrusion of the darker elements have a gravity to them, don't just seem like "I had something happen because I figure if I don't do that right away everyone will put the book down."

    I feel a bit in the minority with these remarks though and I totally get where Mark is coming from--were this just a "guys sitting around talking" story, yeah, I'd say "get to it" but especially in the novella form--long, but not too long--using the majority of the piece as build-up can really multiply the eventual impact, unlike in a novel where too much build can seem...filler, or where so many things happen they kind of become wallpaper.

    I will stop now, because I am blathering.

  4. I like the leisurely beginning too. I grow tired of stories that start at a high pitch and never let up. This feels just fine to me. Especially for a longer piece. Why can't we take some time to get into it. Get a feel of the people, the place. And bowling really evokes a mood.

  5. Thanks for reading and for your comments. Helpful stuff.

    Pablo, interesting that you mention "loosening up the clip." I actually made a conscious decision to alter my sentences more than I normally do. Most of my stories go with that very tight modern crime writing style and I wanted to get away from that here--but, as you note, I could push it more.

    This style might better fit the storyline, which, as you note, is more of a slow burn.

  6. Chris,

    If this is the first chapter, I can't wait to see where it goes from here. I mean, this chapter is stand-alone outstanding and would be just fine as a short story.

    As for the style, I think it reads just fine. Past tense, slow burn, all of that. Not for nothing but I think a lot of modern crime (and I'm certainly guilty of that but, then again, all I seem to write are flash-style stories, at least in the crime genre) is going for the slam-bang-right-now-take-no-prisoners approach.

    Something like a novella has to be slow burn, just by definition. Even slower if it were a novel.

    But that's just my two cents. Everyone else's mileage may vary.

  7. Hey Chris. Man that's a lot of great advice from folks who know what they're doing. Agree with the, I love where it seems to be heading, statements. I'm thinking that old "bullet points instead of organic growth" thing we've talked about before. Maybe the bang- bang-bang, jump-cutting format could be softened without slowing the pace by including some more, kind of unfocused, desultory, beer talk dialogue to fuzz the sharp edges of the linear style until the reveals start to get revealed?

  8. Thanks for reading, fellas. I appreciate it.

  9. Chris, I think it's cool you posted this story, and it shows people care about your writing when they take time away from their own work to offer advice.

    As with all advice, consider it in context, and then follow your own instincts. Thanks to you and the other folks here for taking my comments in the constructive way they were meant.

    Mark Boss