Saturday, September 18, 2010

Don't go changing to try to please me

We're supposed to rewrite a classic this week, but unfortunately I can't participate. I have a new resolution. I will not try to change anyone else's book ever again.  I'm about to start teaching Mystery Writing at UVA in one short week, and I will have 15 students who will all be bringing me their manuscripts or stories to read. I am allowed to identify problems. That's my job. But I can't offer concrete suggestions for fixing a broken plot.

"Why?" you might ask. "Why not help them if I have ideas?" Well, it's like this. I fell into that trap the last time I taught writing, and it was a mistake. A big mistake. I offered a few students some ideas on where to take their stories, just to help them see how they could up the stakes. And when they attempted to adapt the ideas I threw out on the spur of the moment, it was not good. The ideas hadn't come from them, so they had no idea what to do with them. It would have been better to just let them come up with their own ideas (bad or good) and keep my mouth shut.

I'm not sure if I need to extend my new resolution to the classics, though. Hmm. I doubt many writers who reach classic status need a lot of help with their plots, and they certainly won't be showing up in my class.

So here goes. I am in the middle of re-reading THE MALTESE FALCON, and I have to say there are definitely places it could be updated and improved.  I'm having a hard time distinguishing the women in the novel. They all sound like hard dames and none of them has a particularly unique personality. And there seem to be a lot of fat bad guys. Can't one be thin? Or a different ethnic group? It would be helpful.

Sam Spade is also not very sympathetic. He hasn't pet a puppy yet, and he's not very nice to the women in the novel. He also just slept with Bridget, who is clearly unhinged. I think it would have been a better move to steer her towards a good detox program, as well as a little counseling. Okay, so maybe that would have destroyed his bad boy image, but I really didn't even feel a twinge of regret when one of the fat bad guys kicked the sh*t out of him a few pages ago. It was described so clinically that it had all the drama of a dental exam. And afterwards, he was so manly about the beating, I didn't feel his pain.

Then finally the bird arrives after much anticipation, and the plot starts to chug along a little better. Sam gets to show how clever he is by negotiating with the bad guys. Although locking a girl up in jail isn't the most romantic move, or setting up the boy for a fall. Hmm. Will he end up with the secretary in the end? I'm thinking that's a bit too stereotypical.

Anyway, I don't disagree that The Maltese Falcon is groundbreaking, and comes out of its time period (when men had to be tough in order to survive on the mean streets). I wonder how Dashiell Hammett would have reacted to my constructive criticism. After reading his autobiography, I don't think very well. I just hope my students will take it okay.


Gabi said...

Fat bad guys are definitely in short supply. I don't think they hit their hey day until the Sopranos.

I think your students will be lucky to learn from you even if you're biting your tongue to keep from offering a concrete plot fix.

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks Gabi! I'm guessing that my new resolution will last at least past the first couple of weeks of class...

Gabi said...

I don't know...I'm picturing you very professionally advising a student, showing them to the door, pulling the blind and stuffing your hand into your mouth so your scream of point of view, point of view isn't heard in the hallowed halls.

Maybe you should keep some duct tape handy so you can't chase a student who hasn't checked his forensics or includes a Kennedy assassination magic bullet trajectory. You remember what it was like when we fell into every hole?

Rebecca Cantrell said...

I, too, think you'll be very professional and grind your teeth while smiling. Now, point of view, that's something you really should teach them.

If Kelli sees your Dashiell Hammet remake, beware!