Raymond Chandler on the value of copying

13 January 2012

This has stuck with me for much of the end of last year. I copied it out to email it to someone, and thought it worth keeping.

Raymond Chandler writing to Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, 5th May 1939:

“When we were talking about the old Action Detective magazine I forgot to tell you that I learned to write a novelette on one of yours about a man named Rex Kane, who was an alter ego of Ed Jenkins and got mixed up with some flowery dame in a hilltop house in Hollywood who was running an anti-blackmail organization. You wouldn’t remember. It’s probably in your file No. 54276-84. The idea, probably not at all original to me, was so good that I tried to work it out on another tyro later on, but he couldn’t see the point of putting the effort into something he knew he couldn’t sell, preferring to put the effort into nineteen things he thought he could sell and couldn’t. I simply made an extremely detailed synopsis of your story and from that rewrote it and then compared what I had with yours, and then went back and rewrote it some more, and so on. It looked pretty good. Incidentally, I found out that the trickiest part of your technique was the ability to put over situations which verged on the implausible but which in the reading seemed quite real. I hope you understand I mean this as a compliment. I have never even come near to doing it myself. Dumas had this quality in very strong degree. Also Dickens. It’s probably the fundamental of all rapid work, because naturally rapid work has a large measure of improvisation, and to make an improvised scene seem inevitable is quite a trick.

And here I am at 2:40am writing about technique, in spite of a strong convinction that the moment a man begins to talk about technique, that’s proof he is fresh out of ideas.”

from The Chandler Paper: Selected Letters and Non Fiction 1909-1959