Sunday, March 30, 2008

Literary Love

This New York Times article got me thinking. How important is taste in reading?

A love of story is central to my life. Books, comics, even those paintings I'm drawn to have a strong narrative element. I can't imagine a relationship without a shared affection for stories.

But how closely shared?

In my checkered past, I kept company with women across the social spectrum, from doctoral candidates to former teen runaways. Levels of formal education varied widely, but two things were constant: I've always gravitated to smart women, and to women who read.

And it goes both ways.

First eye contact with the Tiny Dynamo, my world slid a little bit sideways. Second time we met was our first chance to talk. She was smart, scary smart. Our third meeting, I compelled her into a reluctant (very reluctant) first date.

Did I mention reluctant? I'm unlike anyone the Dynamo ever dated: Foreign. Fashion-challenged. Funny-looking. But I do have certain Secret Powers, and before she knew what she was doing, she found herself sitting across a table from me.

I can thank the contents of my backpack for our second date. And the last several years. In my pack was a novel she'd read, an ashcan of Serina and my sketchbook diary.

We started talking about books, and the Tiny Dynamo realized that 'unlike anyone she ever dated' might just be a good thing.

So I reckon I can understand a bit of a literary acid-test. But to reject someone for reading Proust? Or not reading Proust?

That I don't get. The Dynamo and my tastes overlap, but they also widely differ. She likes the classics. She likes Victorian sensation novels. She likes those girly Shopaholic-type stories. That's cool.

She doesn't get my love of comics. She doesn't respond to the 'over-macho' voices of John D. MacDonald or James Lee Burke. Covers with half-naked women holding guns have kept her from discovering the fine writing coming out of Hard Case Crime. And that's cool.

We still have plenty of tastes in common. And (to me, the point of dating a fellow reader) plenty to talk about. And our reading sometimes comes closer. I turned her on to Dickens and Du Maurier, Sarah Gran and Donna Tartt. She gave me Wilkie Collins, Marian Keyes, Bryce Courtenay and (oddly enough) Dennis Lehane. If either of us had been too fussy about the other's taste in books, we would have missed out on all of these new favorites.

And one hell of a lot of fun!

What about y'all? How important is taste in books to your relationships?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Shady Pasts and Fifty-Three Tangled Blue Words

We live in an age of economical storytelling. Wherever you can, let your readers fill in the gaps. Instead of pausing each character in front of a mirror (*shudder*), just tell us he's tall and dark, she's short, with gray eyes. And for heaven's sakes, give us as little history as possible!

I've seen this a fair bit recently in my reading, and I've been ruthlessly pruning it in my editing: characters with a compulsion to provide detailed histories upon introduction. Sure, it's customary in opera, Elizabethan theatre and superhero comics for a new hero or villain to take a moment, leave the action, step down to the front of the stage and wax eloquent about their origins, hopes, dreams and how they came to be in this place at this time.

And in those stylized, hermetic worlds, this works. Kinda.

Modern storytelling? Not so much.

I put three books down this week because they introduced a dark and mysterious protagonist, only to have him/her spill their whole history before page fifty. Oddly, it dimished the heroes and heroines in my eyes: the pasts on the page weren't as interesting as the pasts I'd imagined!

Take two great mysterious strangers: Shane and Rick the American.

Shane's just passing through. The man's trouble, and he looks it. The boy's dad runs him off at gunpoint, and the rancher's thugs don't dare mess with him. And this is *before* he pulls his sidearm out of storage!

What do we know about Shane? He's a restless man, always on the move. He's a gunslinger, disenchanted by the violent nature that's always so close to the surface of his actions. He's got the hots for the boy's mom but respects the boy's dad. And he knows there's no place in their peaceful world for men like him.

These four facts drive a great story. Jack Schaefer's prose is lean and hard. In the face of the boy's (and our) questions, Shane's silence about his own history makes him compelling.

Rick doesn't even have a last name. He's just Rick the American, owner of a North African nightclub and a man who 'sticks his neck out for no one'. His past is shady and mysterious: all we get from the Gestapo's file is that he was a gunrunner who backed the good guys, even when they lost.

We don't need Rick's history. We need his present. If you ask me, Casablanca would be even better without that damn Paris flashback: it stops the action dead to tell us what we already know. When Ilsa walks into that bar, Rick's reaction is all the history we need.

Now imagine alternate drafts of those two stories.

Imagine Shane casually mentioning (a sequel told over some farmwork-y stage business) that he grew up on a little farm Back East, but that he ran away at sixteen to join the Marines. He served tours in Okinawa and the Phillipinnes, learned a little judo or karate (he uses oriental martial arts in the novel), won a few medals for marksmanship. After he mustered out, he spent a few years signing on for whoever paid. After a bad experience, he put that life behind him. Now he's wandering West, maybe to homestead a little place outside of Spokane, etc. etc. etc.

Or Rick, chatting to Louis about how he's from Ohio. Used to sell insurance, until he caught his wife cheating on him. After that the Spanish Civil War looked good, but a bad bout of influenza kept him out of action. He could still serve by running guns, though...

Two. Dead. Characters.

Those sequels, no matter how well written, add nothing to the story at hand. They actually take away from it! You've turned your exotic strangers with the mysterious pasts into a couple of schlubs! And it's not just the action/thrillers, either.

The Breakup dies right at the opening. 'Meet cute' in the baseball stadium, photo montage of the relationship, open with That Fateful Night. The dinner and its leadup where written well. The photos were inoffensive. But the meet? Not cute enough. And unnecessary. Too much history. Without that scene, we would have imagined something LOTS better.

You can pull this stunt and get published. The three books I dropped this week are proof of that. Thing is, your story will be better if you concentrate on the story. Not the events leading up to the story, but the story itself. Where you do need the past (and let's face it, you do need some past), be as economical as possible.

Take a cue from master storyteller Bob Dylan:

She was married when we first met, soon to be divorced.
I helped her out of a jam I guess, but I used a little too much force.
We drove that car as far as we could, abandoned it out west...
Split up on the docks that night, both agreeing it was best.

A whole novel's worth of story. Romance. Violence. Fugitives on the open road. The sorrow of loss.

Told in four lines. Fifty-three words.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Grappling Character

I write with a tight cast. I'm facinated by personalities driven into conflict with each other. When it works, hero and villain crash into each other at the end of an inevitable and ever-accelerating rocket-slide into their own personal hells.

I find myself driven to explore even the lowest-level henchman. Even if the information doesn't make it to the page, I need to know *why* they're on this adventure. Why don't the guards quit? Or call the cops or something? Why do those damn stormtroopers just stand in that hallway?

When one of my characters stays wooden on the page? The whole story lies dead.

Dead, dead, dead. Dead.

This becomes... upsetting.

For me, character is like grappling. Punching and kicking, the shot lands or it doesn't. That's like scene construction. The scene works, or it doesn't. Grappling is fluid: winner and loser can change in the blink of an eye, and everything's up in the air until a definitive hold locks on.

With Poison Door, my problem was my hero. Sarah Crane, my tough cop, notices runaways and street kids going missing. Pulling that thread unravels her life. I had a good grip on the villain and the street kid who acts as the bridge between the two, but Sarah, she just kind of showed up on time and said her lines, you know? No spark.

Two thirds of the way through the book, I was sweating bullets. Sarah was the damn hero, and she bored the hell out of me! One day, riding my bike in the city, I was humming a little tune in my head, One Hundred Punks Rule, by Generation X. Rolling past a couple of young'uns, plaid and piercings and colored mohawks, I had the usual whistful thought that my days in the mosh pit are behind me. For one thing, I'm not as keen as I once was. And even if I *was*, there's nothing creepier than the really old guy at the kids' party.

BAM! The arm-bar shot home, and I had my grip on Sarah. I went back through her sequels and wrote from the heart about the invisible and irrevocable membrane that seperates us from our youthful selves. Bits of her character began to dovetail, and by the time I got back to the point I'd left off, she was barrelling forward on greased rails.

Now, with Crossroad Blues, my problem was Jack Terrabonne. Jack's my Minor Bastard, a vain and selfish man whose ego makes the Major Bastard's evil possible. Jack's a washed-up country music star, putting off his eventual sunset in Las Vegas or Branson, Missouri and pretending to the vigour of his lost youth, living in the glories of his past and blind to his evils in his present.

Problem was, Jack was a little bit cardboard. Part of my problem was that I'm in a very different place in my life, and on a very different trajectory. Part of it is that I simply do not like this asshole. If Jack wasn't so self-involved, a lot of lives might have been saved.

So how do I write him? Where's my hold?

Well, I start with two articles of faith: 1) My subconscious has a reason for putting him in the story. 2) This guy's dog thinks he's pretty cool. That is, somewhere in this guy's life, he gives and receives love and and acceptance.

So I've been grappling with Jack, jumping from hold to hold, trying to find one that locks on. I've written a bit about Jack's few genuine relationships, and a bit more about his efforts to revive his recording career.

But I still don't like him. Jack is isolated, deluded and monstrously selfish. He's....


Jack Terrabonne is the unbridled artistic ego. He's the natural result of Picasso's quote to the effect that 'an artist would rather see his kids on the street and his wife in a whorehouse than go without paints and brushes.' Jack is a big spoiled baby. A talented spoiled baby.

And just like that, I see Jack's great conflict in his life. It's with his own past: all anyone wants to hear are the classic hits from his past (the Branson/Vegas fate), but Jack's ego won't accept that his best days are behind him. He keeps trying to record new material, and it's godawful.

This, I can understand. I could be making a very comfortable living tattooing full-time. I could make better than that if I opened my own studio again. The world is happy to reward the art of my youth. But creatively, I've moved on, and that's an uphill battle.

I've got my grip. I still don't like the guy, but he's mine now...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Parties and Scenes

The secret to success in either:

Enter late. Leave Early.

You're sitting at your keyboard/typewriter/quill pen/whatever. Ready for the day's writing session. Carol suspects Bob's cheating. Something she found in his sock drawer, perhaps. At any rate, Carol is plenty mad.

Do you start writing....

A) When Carol opens Bob's sock drawer? Perhaps dutifully putting away his laundry, perhaps trying to teach Bob a lesson by shoving the dirty socks he leaves all over the house back in the drawer, or maybe just plain snooping?

B) With Carol, alone in their apartment, drinking and clenching her jaw as afternoon shadows slide across the wall?

C) With Bob entering the apartment, beige walls in the purple twilight, a dark and bristling shape in the center of the room?

D) Somewhere in the middle of dinner: a tense and silent meal punctuated by the clicking of fork on plate?

The only right answer is, as late as possible.

In part, that depends a little on Bob's fidelity. If he's an innocent man accused, you'll want to spend more time building up Carol's fury. We'll get a bigger charge when it's cleared up. Or isn't. Comedy or tragedy, I'd probably start with (B).

If Bob's a cheating dog finally exposed, the emotional flashpoint will be the revelation and Carol's aftermath. Depending on Carol's character (tempestuous or calculating), I'd go (C) or (D).

Notice I wouldn't choose (A). We don't need that setup. If how Carol finds the MacGuffin in Bob's sock drawer is important, let's bring it out in dialogue. After all, innocent or guilty, you can bet Bob will fire back with a few counteraccusations of his own.

Or will he? It's your story.

Do we leave the scene on...

(A) Bob's initial reaction?

(B) That loud slamming door?

(C) Bob's long and lonely night on the couch?

(D) Carol's first breakfast alone in the apartment and the painful, silent hole of Bob's absence?

Again, depends. If Bob's guilty as hell, or Carol just won't believe him, take (A). Yes, that's one very short scene, maybe only a few lines. Bob comes home. Carol's standing there with the McGuffin. Bob's jaw drops open. Carol sees his face and knows.

Notice I used entry (C) there? Part of that is, I'm pretty straight-ahead myself. I understand direct confrontation better than keeping my wrath bottled until halfway through dinner. If Carol is the type to do that, well, that's another story...

But if there's still some hope for this fight, if Carol kind of secretly hopes Bob has a good explanation, or Bob desperately believes his lies might work, or if the MacGuffin that's come out isn't the one Bob *really* fears, we need to stay. We need to stay with that fight.

But AS SOON AS Bob or Carol has what they need from the scene, we. Are. Out of there! No need to stay all the way through the last bitter insult.
For that matter, our entire story should be joined as late as possible, and left as early as practical. The Lord of the Rings has been done; we don't need any more 200+ page denouments.

It works for parties, too. Last night was a Gathering of Clan Dynamo, in celebration of the birthday of Papa Dynamo. A little late, we missed the ceremonial goat-throwing.

And after Elderly Aunt Agatha Dynamo drank that third shandy and decided it would be fun to lift that police car, we knew it was time to go!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Fan Factor

This is one of those best/worst days: four, five drafts down the road, sitting down with a printed copy of the new manuscript and actually reading the damn thing.

Sure, I make notes here and there. I'm still trying to iron out the weather and make sure nobody's name changes too much, but that's all little stuff. The literary equivalent of 'mom-cleaning', the saliva-drenched thumb scrubbing vigorously across the child's face in the moments before they're turned loose.

The big stuff is Suction. Does the story draw me in? Can I forget that I wrote this story and just enjoy it? Would I feel good about buying this book? Does this story make me a fan?

You see, I'm my hardest reader. I always see something I might have done differently, maybe a little better. Same with paintings, drawing, everything. Sooner or later you have to let go and move on, but the urge remains. And the urge is to fix those 'horrible' mistakes.

So far, this one is pretty promising. I keep finding myself worried less about my own techniques and more about what's going on with these people, all of them on the cusp of the worst day of their lives.

But rest assured, there's still plenty of technique to worry about...

Little more on that next time!

PS. As always, I have that odd sense of amused wonder: I *know* there were days I HATED writing and was sure I sucked. And days where I LOVED writing and was sure I ROCKED. But reading through the manuscript. I can't find those spots!

Feelings about work are impostors. The work itself is true.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Three Readers

Further in the questions of style: There are three distinct ways of relating to the written word. As writers, our style will be affected by our own reading style and the way our readers take in our work.

A quick overview:

1. The Motor Reader: These readers are still quite closely bound to our roots in oral storytelling. They read by physically modulating the sounds they see on the page. That is, their lips move.

Slowest reading style, but also the most thorough. Not so common today, but a hundred-odd years ago this style was the norm, enough so that those few who read *without* moving their lips were noteworthy.

Motor readers experience books as a form of spoken word. They respond to dialogue that echoes the rhythms of real speech and don't mind long descriptive paragraphs. The fiction of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Sir Walter Scott, Daniel Defoe, Robert Louis Stevenson and L. Frank Baum were all created for an audience of motor readers.

2. The Aural Reader: The majority of modern readers 'hear' the sounds of the printed word in their heads. They read at the speed of the spoken word and experience their fiction as a sort of disembodied 'sound'.

These readers still echo the experience of the spoken word, but it's like the voice in their heads is going really, really fast. Verbal tricks, beautiful words and poetic techniques of meter and rhyme go over a treat. For examples, look at your favorite fiction of the 20th century!

3. The Visual Reader: A minority of readers see the printed page for what it 'is': squidgy black shapes on a pale ground. A quick scan of the shapes of the words assembles itself in their heads. For them, there is no similarity between 'knows' and 'nose'-- the shapes are too different.

This small but growing minority are the fastest group of readers. With a bit of training, a visual reader can learn to take in 'blocks of text', 2-4 lines of text at a time, left side, then right. The pieces assimilate in rough order.

So far, advertising and comics seem to be the only folks catering to this crowd. Advertising, because they know that you're going to look at a print ad for a second or two at most. They *have* to use clever shapes to draw your eye across the words. Comics for a similar reason: graceless clumps of words are a turnoff.

Two 'visual' writers come to mind: Elmore Leonard and James Patterson. Both came out of advertising. Both are aware that readers initially 'look' at a page, and that big blocks of dense black print make the reader's eyes glaze over. The average reader: the working stiff spending a few minutes with a book before bed, on their lunch break, or on an airline flight.

It's no coincidence these two writers love dialogue. Or that they break description up into smaller paragraphs. Or that, when nothing but a big old paragraph will do, they pepper their sentences with exciting, powerful words. You may not want to spend three of your fifteen minute reading-time days forging your way through a boring info-dump, but you'll bravely forge ahead to find out why you saw the words 'hammer' and 'blood'.

So what's a writer to do?

We can't change the ways people read, but we can be conscious of them. Looking at your work from a different reader's perspective can help point out areas need strengthening.

Me, I write visually. My first drafts are a relentless chase from image to image, using words to show the pictures playing in my head.

In a later draft, I scan through looking at the shapes of dialogue and paragraph, making sure nothing is too dense, or too 'wordy'.

Another draft, I actually read the book out loud to myself. Quietly and under my breath, but out loud. *Really* helps prune the dead wood.

Just one more way of trying to tell a better story.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Striking Language

From one thing, know ten thousand things.

-Zen Proverb

Growing up, two of my favorite martial arts were Kali and Muay Thai kickboxing. Both worked the fundamentals of angle, distance and velocity, but their philosophy of approach was fundamentally different.

The kalistas wove beautiful rhythms with their strikes, throwing 8-, 10- and 16-shot combinations that were horribly difficult to defend against. Individual strikes are not all that powerful, but there are A LOT of them, and they fly thick and fast and from unpredictable angles.

The Thai fighters threw bombs, virtually every punch a heavy knockout blow. It was a style about as graceful as a claw hammer and every bit as devastating.

This week I came across 'Araby' by James Joyce and started Duma Key, Stephen King's newest. A little lightbulb went on over my head.

A few short sentences from Araby's third paragraph:

When the short days of winter came, dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinner. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of the sky above us was the color of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played til our bodies glowed.

Winter. Dusk. Fell. Sombre. Space. Color. Violet. Lamps-Lifted-Lanterns. Cold. Stung. Played. Glowed.

Power words, one after the other: BAM, BAM, BAM. BAM. And of course, there's that triple-tap combo of alliteration: Lamps-Lifted-Lanterns.

I had always heard of Joyce as one given to dizzying raptures of language. What I see here is a clever fighter, filing every open space with a powerful shot. Small wonder I found myself sucked in and woozy, and put the story down with a sense of wonder.

Stephen King writes with the Kali approach. Where Joyce smashes a channel through to the unconscious with power words, King works the rhythm.

I find myself sucked into his work just as surely, but in a more subtle way: The narrative voice establishes a clean, easy rhythm. Language is used to capture the feel of informal spoken word, usually that of a common, relatable, likeable protagonist. Ten pages into Duma Key, I noticed I'd been pulled into this guy's Midwestern normalcy. It's a subtle, subtle trick, involving the clever use of fragments, prepostional phrases and hanging prepositions. No one word is too vivid. This isn't the time.

Of course, this trick is one of the great keys to horror. To scare the reader later, you MUST lull them now. Create an air of normalcy. Horror authors know this, but few use the rhythms of language to such great affect.

Oddly, one of the best writers I've found at creating horror is one of the least appreciated for this. She uses deceptively mild language moderated through the rhythm and cadence of sentence structure to create an atmosphere of real dread. I say oddly, because Lauren Graham/Joyce Carol Oates isn't even considered a horror writer.

To be sure, there are infinite ways of blending those blinding rhythms and power shots on the page. James Lee Burke loves his power shots, especially toward the end of a chapter, but he's mightily adept at letting the rhythm of the language take over too. Especially in those passages that bring us closest to Dave or Billybob.

Another of my favorites, John D MacDonald, is heavier to the rhythm end of the spectrum. For the most part he prefers a cascade of 'lightweight words', but when he does go for the power shot, it's a doozy. The image of that poor girl lashed to a tree trunk, the baling wire cutting into her throat, her features frozen in a long lavender look, over twenty years after I first read it, that image still haunts me.

When do you favor your tools, and why?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Desperately Seeking Candy

Well, maybe not so desperately, but those three words sure do look cool together, don'tcha think? :-)

I am, however, a bit worried about the way CS Harris' blog has gone down the last few days. Anybody out there know what's up? Charles, I'm looking at you...

Real post tomorrow, after my mind is put at rest.