Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

The one man most responsible for making me dedicate myself to writing is Ray Bradbury.

I grew up as a bookworm in a strict Baptist household. Our twice-monthly pilgrimages to the local library inevitably ended with my straining to carry a tall stack of books from our beat-up Opel to my bedroom.

My dad scanned each title before I checked books out. Acceptable fare included lots of folk tales and fables, tame classics such as The Secret Garden, every Hardy Boys book, and an amusing series about Freddy the Pig.

By age 12, I had devoured every book in the juvenile section of the library. I wandered into the adult stacks, where I found a book entitled Something Wicked This Way Comes. Raised on stolid but innocuous fare, I felt dark shivers from the title alone. I had no idea this was actually a young adult book – to me, it represented all the thrills forbidden to my young religious eyes. I snuck it into the middle of that visit’s book harvest, certain it would fail to pass inspection. Somehow, it arrived home with me.

Bradbury’s ideas and writing voice blew my budding mind. I thrilled to Jim Nightshade’s struggle against Mr. Dark’s deceptions. I creeped out as Mr. Dark rode a gothic merry-go-round backwards to turn himself into an evil boy my age. The colorful prose seared itself into my brain pan.

As soon as I finished the book, I went, Who is this author? How dare the universe fail to tell me about him sooner? I went on a Bradbury tear, devouring Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles, The October Country (and other short story collections) and, though it exceeded my intellectual prowess, Fahrenheit 451. In school, every author you’re pointed to – Twain, Eliot, Hemingway, et al – is dead. I felt delirious when I learned Bradbury was still alive and was still writing.

Compelled to become the next Bradbury, in seventh grade I attempted my first novel, a spy thriller unencumbered by any knowledge of how the world works. (Bradbury influenced me, but so did The Man from U.N.C.L.E., John Steed, and Mrs. Peel.) I gave it what I thought was a very ironically adult title: See the Corpse Run. When my dad gave me a big blank hardcover (the result of a publisher’s paper-and-binding experiment), I laboriously hunt-and-pecked my novel on a manual typewriter, then glued the pages into the hardcover so that I made a “real book.” I finished it in ninth grade, 97 proud pages long. My reading audience was my dad.

By age 15 I had sold seven or eight articles to very minor publications, but I thought I was king of the world because I got paid $25 for each of those articles. (One periodical even profiled me as “teen with a typewriter.”) I began high school and due to my published status, got put in a senior composition class.

This class required me to turn in a new story every Friday. The teacher kept encouraging us each to find our “unique voice.” That was the first time I’d heard that. I had no idea what my “voice” was. And I didn’t have time to find “my voice” – I was too busy expressing the million ideas in my head! So I copied Bradbury’s voice. I adopted entirely techniques I had subconsciously learned from him, such as setting atmosphere by personifying inanimate objects and giving them intentions. I wrote ironic flights of fancy very much in line with Ray’s (but a paltry echo of the master). By emulating Ray week after week, I aced the class. And I learned writing the same way he did: by writing.

Ray’s world seemed more vivid to me than the real world. Immersed in the Martian Chronicles, I remember watching America’s moon landing in 1969 and thinking, “Big deal. We’ll be on Mars in no time.”
I see Ray reflected today in other writers who draw no boundaries between fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Would Stephen King be the brand he is today had there been no Bradbury? Would there have been Star Trek? Star Wars? The whole body of work by J. J. Abrams?

In writing this, I wanted to consult some of Bradbury’s works. I’m startled to see I no longer own any. But at the end of Fahrenheit 451, people have become books. To fool the censors, they have memorized entire works. A woman could tell you, “I am The Old Man and the Sea.” A teen could say, “I am The Odyssey.” In that same sense, I absorbed Ray Bradbury. He is in me: laced as an integral shining vein through my imaginings; a hand that touched the pottery wheel of my creative impulses. I never met him, but in the pages of his words, he met me — and set me alight.

“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
― Ray Bradbury

For the comments: What did you make of Ray? Or what other writer fired your imagination?

Some random musings on a Sunday morning with coffee. Thinking about TV shows that succeed and those that don’t; wondering why.

I’m slightly surprised at how fast my prediction about The Playboy Club proved true. At the end of this article, one of the actresses on the show says The Playboy Club deserved more time because they had “best cast, best crew.”

Has anyone on earth ever watched a TV show and thought, “The characters are awful and every line is a cliche, but — I’m going to DVR and watch every episode because wow, what a crew!”Give people a character they love and the “great crew” will remain employed for years.This is the secret that gives otherwise “uncool” shows such as Matlock, Murder, She Wrote, and Monk such long legs. It looks to me like Castle is the example du juor, but time will tell.

For occasional and wanna-be producers like me, this is a cautionary reminder that a fact so basic and obvious can get completely buried in the complexities and politics of production. We’ll see several more Fall TV series collapse in the next few weeks because studios rely on bankable stars or trendy premises (hello, paranormal everything!), while forgetting: It all starts with the writing.

A fresh take on police procedurals. Is premise alone enough to guarantee success?

Speaking of premises, “trendy” can sometimes help, but your concept also needs your own fresh spin. Just as the success of Mad Men inspired the networks to try other 60’s-era dramas, the success of True Blood and The Walking Dead has triggered a fresh wave of paranormal dramas. Without having seen any of these coming shows, I can only assess them conceptually. On paper Grimm has a strong premise. It’s a police procedural — always popular, but as the waning of the franchise Law and Order shows, a stale genre, right? The hook is that one of the detectives descends from the Brothers Grimm, and thus can see into the world of monsters and fairy tales that the rest of us cannot. He uses this power to solve crimes, but has to be careful about it so that his “normie” co-workers don’t think he’s nuts. To me, that’s fresh: a tantalizing fusion of genres, with an engine for drama and conflict built right in.

Cast of Terra Nova: "Tell me again how we differ from Jurassic Park?"

Slipping genres a bit just to make my point — production-wise, Terra Nova is the most expensive episodic show to date. I’ve downloaded the pilot but haven’t watched it yet. Even sight unseen, the show’s fate radiates danger when no one I’ve talked to or read can articulate how it differs from the once-innovative, now-tired Jurassic Park.

Reminder to self: to succeed, fiction needs a likable but flawed protagonist, and a strong original premise. Without those as foundation, you can spend a ton of money, get the best special effects, or (more realistic for me and my readers) invest several years writing and rewriting and re-rewriting your novel…but a castle without a foundation will much sooner turn into rubble.

Anne Perry essentially invented her own genre. When she began pitching her first Inspector Pitt book in the 1970s, publisher after publisher rejected it. The conventional wisdom — proven wisdom, in the minds of booksellers — was that detective fiction readers hated period fiction, and period fiction readers hated crime stories. Her premise put a detective in Victorian London, aided by a smart woman in an era when women were to be seen more than heard. Once she sold her first novel in 1979, audiences gobbled it up. Her two related series have produced more than three dozen titles, spawned a host of imitators, and across the 1980s made “Victorian detectives” the trendy premise to copy.

Let’s you and I shoot for similar originality. I’m feeling less stupid about working on Hellephant! — at least the premise is not overdone! If I get my novel out in 2012, who knows? Maybe I’ll start a trend and 2013 will become “the year of hard-boiled men of action swapping bodies with animals.” (So likely.)

NBC promoted The Playboy Club as if they had a winner. What’s not to like? Sexy women in naughty outfits, a murder, the cool retro 60s, lots of double-crosses…

I’ll tell you what’s not to like: the writing. But as writers, we can learn as much from a train wreck as we can from a masterpiece. So let’s deconstruct The Playboy Club‘s problems.

Avoid Cliches Like the Plague

The dialog showed that the writers don’t know the difference between convention and cliche. Conventions are the things that the genre requires in order to be that genre. Romances need star-crossed lovers, noir needs a guy with a sordid past (and the story needs a downbeat ending), a fantasy quest needs a protagonist with room to grow and a “golden fleece” type of goal. These are conventions because a romance without lovers is not a romance; a mystery where the guy has no sordid past is not noir; and so on. Fans of those genres turn to them because they like the conventions. An action fan rarely explodes, “Not another car chase!”

Cliches, on the other hand, arise from executing the conventions exactly the same way loads of predecessors have done it. For instance, The Playboy Club follows a seeming naif named Maureen who runs afoul of The Mob, and this exact conversation occurs:

Maureen: “I’m not going anywhere. I can take care of myself.”
Studly guy: “You have no idea what these people are capable of!”

These lines have occurred, word for word, in countless previous movies. It’s just one of many examples where Playboy Club failed to bring a spark of newness to the screen.

“Who Cares?” Is Not Rhetorical

The unforgivable sin that is going to get Playboy Club canceled before the season ends is that the writers gave us no one to root for.

Perhaps the writers thought they had offered a bonanza of fascinating viewing, because in the first episode, every character either has a disgraceful secret, or implies one for future episodes. But if everyone is a backstabber, a traitor, compromised, or a tattle-tale, why would we care about any of them? Who do we relate to?

We’re intended to care about Maureen. The problem is that as written, as directed, as acted, she is stupid.  Annoyingly stupid. An accident in the first few minutes plunges her into deadly trouble if anyone finds out what she unintentionally did. (So far, so good.) Maureen then makes two choices: first, when given the chance to flee, she refuses to (even though she’s new in town!). Second, although her job as a Playboy bunny is to enliven the party, she mopes dramatically everywhere she goes, telegraphing her trouble. When conversation gets near her “secret topic,” she looks desperate and holds her breath. Basically, she is as good at keeping secrets and masking her expression as the average toddler. Even more taxing for our suspension of disbelief: nobody notices.

What I Learned at the Playboy Mansion

What can we learn from a drama that cost millions to produce, yet can hardly be tolerated for one episode? Well, lots, but two BIG take-aways for me were:

1) Your protagonist has to be proactive and make reasonable choices. Maureen not only does nothing to solve her problem; she does less than the average person would. A much better story would have her immediately attempt to flee town, then find a compelling reason why she can’t. Or, she would decide to stay because she has already demonstrated that she is a master of deception. Whatever your choice, the last thing you want is for your viewpoint character to stand around letting things happen to her, having no particular response.

2) Commercial fiction requires someone to root for. Karl Iglesias, in his superb Writing for Emotional Impact, provides a priceless list of 51 traits that give a character “rooting power.” I won’t list them all, but they fall into three categories: victims (characters we feel sorry for), Samaritans (characters with humanistic qualities), and idols (characters with desirable qualities). We get on the side of someone who is being unfairly laughed at, snubbed, or passed over. We root for someone who helps the less fortunate, defends the defenseless, or changes her heart and forgives. We care about characters of courage, charisma, awesome skill, or winsome playfulness.

I predict a short life for The Playboy Club. It debuted to about three million viewers, which is a smaller audience than some cable shows command (and a distant third place behind its network rivals). To avoid a similar lack of attention for your own work, bring your own unique inventiveness to the conventions of your genre, let your characters drive the action, and give us a reason to care. C’mon, any dumb bunny can do it.

Just as the hills of Austria will ever be alive with the sound of music, the web will ever echo with George Lucas causing more fan protests.

The latest hyperventilating arises from dozens of tweaks Lucas has made to all six of his Star Wars films, in preparation for their Blu-Ray release on September 16. Several sites chronicle all the changes.

In short, they’re ridiculous. In a scene where R2-D2 hides, Lucas has added a couple of digital rocks. In a scene with a Jawa, Lucas has made him blink. In another scene, he has added an unappealing merchant character to the crowd of extras in the background. In a climactic scene from Return of the Jedi, he has overdubbed Darth Vader yelling, “Nooooo!” And so on.

George knows what you're thinking: "Needs more rocks!"

By the standards of Lucas’ most rabid fans, these changes do not enhance the movies, but rather make them worse. But I propose to you that these changes are not worth making because they are too inconsequential to add or subtract from the overall experience. Seriously, did you ever watch Star Wars: A New Hope and think, “This scene would be great if only it had two more rocks”? Lucas’ odd obsession seems to have turned him into a modern-day Sisyphus, endlessly rolling digital boulders up the hill yet in his own mind, never reaching the top.

The bigger tragedy to me is that the later movies — paradoxically numbered 1, 2, and 3 — feature leaden, horribly-directed dialog, and possibly the worst “love story” ever committed to film. I seriously question the point of changing, let’s say, one thousand battle droids to one thousand and ten, while in the foreground the “love story” is making you roll your eyes and gag on your popcorn.

In spirit, though, I have been guilty of exactly the same thing. My recent experience with NaNoWriMo continues to resonate inside me, and right now I’m as fanatical about the dangers of over-revising as a recently-quit smoker is about second-hand smoke.

For your first draft, let this guy out.

Yes: the process should be, whether in fiction, non-fiction, or marketing communications, that on your first draft, you let your inner madman or child take over, and you write down every crazy idea you can, with little regard for quality. And yes, in a second pass, you invite Mr. Spock to take a cold, hard, Vulcan look at what’s there, and fix it.

Second draft: let this guy out.

The hard part for some of us is, And then you stop. So you can publish.

A saying attributed to various originators says, “A book is never finished, only abandoned.” At the time my first two novels were published, I felt that way. There was always one more sentence I could smooth out; one more adverb I could select more accurately.

But today I feel nothing but regret for the hours wasted on deliberations such as, “Is ‘glad’ the word I mean here? Or should I change it to ‘happy’?” Leaving poetry out of the discussion, these “glad/happy” changes are exactly like Lucas’s two extra rocks. They don’t make a difference.

You know why Lucas has time for such self-involved fiddling? Because he no longer needs to earn a living. Since you and I cannot say the same, we don’t have time for pointless tweaking. If you want to write full time, you need to think like a TV writer: make it as good as you can, as fast as you can. It’s a craft, not the ultimate artistic expression of your soul.

Each writer has to judge for herself or himself how much to revise, before reaching the point of overworking the text. Right now, I spend my days as a bureaucrat. If given the choice between writing one epic perfect work that takes my whole life, or writing a dozen really good books that let me quit the world of suits, committees, and fearful group-think, I’m going for the dozen.

In one of Lucas’ most derided revisions, he changed a key scene in A New Hope so that instead of Han Solo shooting first, Greedo shoots first. This one change sands off the rough edges that makes Han Solo’s character multi-faceted. It also ruins the arc at the end, where the smuggler we believe to be hopelessly self-interested and cynical has a change of heart and returns to help the Rebellion. Compared to the theatrical version, on the disc versions Han Solo is sarcastic but cuddly. Thus, second-guessing yourself may in fact turn your bold first instincts into dumbed-down conformity.

In my first marketing job, I was staying late one night to fine-tune our corporate newsletter to graphical perfection. My boss happened by and asked what I was doing. Thinking I was earning big brownie points, I said, “I’m staying late to make sure this page spread looks just right.” He looked puzzled for a second, then said, “Do you really think those extra hours will sell even one extra unit of our product? Because that’s all that matters.” I laugh now at how much that perspective blindsided me. I realized right then that, involved in my work, I had completely lost sight of what my audience cared about.

So as you write, what is your goal? Keep it firmly in mind as you revise. Do the revisions you’re making really matter? If your goal is to regularly knock out solid pro-level work, so you can earn a living, you’ll know when you’ve done enough. Ship it! If your goal is to endlessly indulge your obsessive and perfectionist side, well… knock yourself out rolling those digital rocks up the hill.

My last entry spotlighted Christopher Moore’s humorous wordplay as an example of a stand-out voice. This entry spotlights an author whose voice stands out for other reasons entirely.

Years ago, a friend of mine visited the Holocaust Museum. The experience moved her deeply. She tried to capture her emotions in writing, but she just couldn’t do it. Finally she sent her essay to me in hopes I would tell her what to fix. Her piece listed what her class had done: they had touched artifacts used in the concentration camps, and they had stared at picture after picture of detainees. The piece finished, “It made us feel really sad.”

Of course the piece didn’t work. My friend had stumbled onto a foundational rule in writing fiction: you can’t generate an emotion in your reader simply by naming it.

Yet you must generate emotion. People read fiction in order to feel. So how do you make feelings contagious?

Helen Simonson’s jaw-droppingly good debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, shows how. In this opening scene, Major Pettigrew has forgotten to leave the newspaper boy’s money under the door mat, and is explaining why to a local shopkeeper at his door, a Pakistani woman he barely knows.

She was already turning away when he was seized with an urgent need to explain.

“My brother died,” he said. She turned back. “My brother died,” he repeated. “I got the call this morning. I didn’t have time.” The dawn chorus had still been chattering in the giant yew against the west wall of his cottage, the sky pink, when the phone rang. The Major, who had been up early to do his weekly housecleaning, now realized he had been sitting in a daze ever since. He gestured helplessly at his strange outfit and wiped a hand across his face. Quite suddenly his knees felt loose and he could sense the blood leaving his head. He felt his shoulders meet the doorpost unexpectedly and Mrs. Ali, quicker than his eye could follow, was somehow at his side propping him upright.

“I think we’d better get you indoors and sitting down,” she said, her voice soft with concern. “If you will allow me, I will fetch you some water.” Since most of the feeling seemed to have left his extremities, the Major had no choice but to comply. Mrs. Ali guided him across the narrow, uneven stone floor of the hallway and deposited him in the wing chair tucked just inside the door of the bright, book-lined living room. It was his least favorite chair, lumpy cushioned and with a hard ridge of wood at just the wrong place on the back of his head, but he was in no position to complain.

“I found the glass on the draining board,” said Mrs. Ali, presenting him with the thick tumbler in which he soaked his partial bridgework at night. The faint hint of spearmint made him gag. “Are you feeling any better?”

If you’ve read attentively, you realize viscerally that poor Major Pettigrew is in shock. Yet he never says so, and neither does Mrs. Ali, and neither does Helen Simonson. We learn it from his body.

Another example: which version makes you feel this character’s tension? First: “Waiting for his job interview, he felt nervous.” Second: “He rubbed his palms on his slacks, and they left moist spots. Looking at them, he felt his heart lurch faster. The room had no air.”

Don’t say, “She felt embarrassed.” Say, “Her face turned hot.” She feels it. Let us feel it. Then we take the hint, and we feel the emotion.

Express emotion by putting it in the character’s body. And I mean in the character’s body. In the example above, if you say “She blushed,” it doesn’t work as well as “Her face turned hot.” That’s because when we’re nervous, we don’t usually see ourselves redden. If we merely see her blush, that is a step less intimate, less visceral, than being inside her body and feeling the blush.

Simonson’s mastery of the Telling Detail staggers me. I love “he felt his shoulders meet the doorpost unexpectedly” because shock feels just like that: you don’t sense Up or Down or Sideways; gravity surprises you. The detail of the lumpy wing chair tells us something about Major Pettigrew: he will keep non-useful objects in his life for show, or because they seem proper. And finally, the bit about drinking from his dental glass just slays me. Who hasn’t told a neighbor “Make yourself at home,” only to watch them violate an unwritten household rule you didn’t realize you had? Simonson keeps the keenly observed details coming, page after page.

Okay. All gushing aside, I have two points in this entry. First, by comparing Christopher Moore and Helen Simonson, two very different writers, I hope I’ve illustrated that you can have a unique voice regardless of your preferred genre or style. Second, if you want to depict a character’s emotions so that your readers feel them, too, express them from inside the viewpoint character’s body. Tuck this technique into your bag of tricks, but somewhere convenient – you should reach for it often. If you don’t, it will make us really sad.

I don’t love many of the authors whose names persist on the fiction best-seller lists, because so many of them write in a generic voice. Most writers understand that a novel needs complex, realistic characters and a well-structured plot. Why do so many miss the concept of distinguishing themselves through voice?

Bite Me: A Love Story

Lately, Christopher Moore’s style has captured my attention. He writes urban fantasy (or sometimes horror, loosely defined) with a highly comedic touch. In his latest vampire novel, Bite Me: A Love Story, he describes a Goth emo teenager this way: “[Jared] was six foot two, very thin, and paler than Death shagging a snowman.”

For me, this really works. Maybe it helps if you live in Seattle, but I can certainly picture Jared’s pallor and his type.

In another passage from Bite Me, Moore shows a diary entry from a teen Goth girl who considers her name Allison a “day-slave name” and prefers to go by Abby Normal. Abby tries to squirm out of a confrontation with a cop by throwing him a crapload of snarkey attitude:

“Pervy and redundant, don’t you think?” I asked the big gay cop, who wouldn’t know a va-jay-jay if it bounced up to him and sang the “Star-Spangled Banner.” (You ever notice that hardly anything besides the “Star-Spangled Banner” is spangled? There’s no, like, the Raisin-Spangled Scone, or the Flea-Spangled Beagle. I’m just saying.)

I realize this wordplay doesn’t move the story ahead. You could call it gratuitous. But after reading seven novels in a row of stock prose (“The detective nodded and got in the car,” utterly lacking life or inventiveness) I admire this compulsive creativity. And we certainly get a feel for Abby Normal’s character via word choices such as “va-jay-jay” and (later in the passage) “tights put the PG-13 on my no-no place.”

In another passage, Moore refers to an old Chinese lady’s agitated rant as sounding like “a chicken being beat to death by a banjo.” (If you’re curious about Christopher Moore, some of his novels require you to read his previous novels. To dip into his oeuvre for a test drive, I recommend starting with A Dirty Job.)

I am not saying that every writer must use shock humor and crazy metaphors and similes. What I mean to convey is that all the infinite possibilities of expression and vocabulary are available to you. Why not use them as one more way to rock your reader’s world, and to stand out in your niche? Moore excels at humorous wordplay. What is your strength?

To misappropriate a metaphor from another unique stylist, David Foster Wallace: If you believe that communicating professionally requires you to write bland, careful prose, that’s a theory shakier than a canoe full of chihuahuas. As a reflection of the opinions and passions you strongly feel, passive sentences laboring under colorless verbs make your voice seem paler than Death shagging a snowman. Choose to let your unique creativity emerge in your style. Otherwise, your work comes off like “me too.” Be heard, or be herded.

To punch up how real and visceral your fiction seems, your descriptions should employ all of the five senses. Not necessarily in every scene, but certainly across your entire story, we want to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell your unique world.

Perhaps the sense authors omit most often is smell. What a missed opportunity! In the same way a single password can grant access to all of the data a company possesses, a single aroma can evoke a powerful flood of associations and feelings. Sometimes your fiction should stink.

I first noticed this in the 80s, when Steven King’s meteoric rise still generated controversy in literary circles. King likes to name specific products in his descriptions. The Old Guard condemned the technique as tacky. Yet 25 years after reading King’s scene where the viewpoint character discovers a murdered relative in the laundry room, I recall how realistic the scene felt to me, because the room reeked of Lemon Pledge. I knew that smell. I could imagine it. I got it.

Look at how easy it is to conjure up an entire setting when you imagine a single aroma: Baked apple cinnamon. Spent gunpowder. Night-blooming jasmine. Chlorine bleach. Hot, sun-parched asphalt. Lavender soap. Raw sewage, stinking so strong you can taste it on the back of your tongue.

Living in the Pacific Northwest, I rarely have an opportunity for fun in the sun. But I grew up in SoCal. When I recall the smell of Coppertone, that olfactory password unlocks a vault filled with associations: fresh-from-the-bonfire hot dogs, slightly gritty when you chew them. The way your skin tingles with sunburn, simply from the touch of the air. The clammy feel of a cold wet swimsuit as you chase your friends to the snack shack.

Depending on the effect you’re going for, you can save yourself dozens of words simply by dialing up a single password: the appropriate aroma.

Aromas tie to emotions powerfully, because they bypass the conscious mind. They don’t require the same kind of mental decoding process that seeing and hearing often do. For readers, emotion turns the page. Don’t miss the opportunity to put them in the scene and dial up emotions, using a smell.

Of course, you can overdo it. We don’t want your novel to read like a literary scratch ‘n’ sniff card. Sometimes we’ll follow you more willingly if you lay some information between the lines. But occasionally, to really get us to go with you, you need to lead us by the nose.