In my last post, I listed a number of authors I envy for possessing traits and qualities (or adorable pets) I cannot claim, at least to any great degree. None of the traits or qualities I referred to related to the actual process of writing (generosity, self-confidence, honesty, etc.), so an obvious follow-up post would be one in which I list authors I am equally envious of for reasons solely technical in nature (Author A’s dialogue, Author B’s characters, C’s plotting…).
But I’m not going to write that post today.
Instead, I’m going to revisit my last one, and discuss yet another non-technical gift that some authors have been blessed with that I, as of yet, have not been:
The ability to write well with relative haste. To write a paragraph, six lines one right after another, without having to stop and rewrite four of them because they’re total and unmitigated crap. To see an entire chapter with the forward vision of a world-class chess player, all twelve steps at once, and write it exactly that way.
Some people got it, and some people don’t. I’m one of the don’ts. Here’s why:
My mind just doesn’t work that way. I may eventually construct a functional, occasionally brilliant sentence or two, but it takes me fifteen false starts to do so. No line worth a damn has ever emerged from my brain fully formed. Everything with me is two steps forward and one step back, making turn-of-phrase a sometimes interminable adventure in trial and error.
I’m a perfectionist. Try as I might, I just can’t move on to the next line of anything until I’m satisfied the last one was as good as I’m capable of producing. “Close enough” won’t do, even in a first draft. Gods knows I’d probably feed my family a lot better and with more regularity if I were less concerned with art and more concerned with commerce, but I just can’t bring myself to prioritize that way. So I obsess over every goddamn word and pray I live long enough to write at least half of the books I’d like to write before I go.
(Note, BTW, that I’m not suggesting I ever actually achieve “perfection” — that’s for others to decide, not me. But perfection as I perceive it is my constant goal, and I spend [waste?] a lot of time re-inventing the wheel trying to get there.)
I have no patience for multiple drafts. As I’ve mentioned here on numerous occasions, the very idea of a second, third, or sixth draft of something sends chills up my spine; when I get to the end of a manuscript, I need to know that all — and I mean all — the heavy lifting is done. To make sure that’s the case, I bust my ass writing a first draft that will, to all extents and purposes, be my last. That kind of anal retentiveness takes time.
I’m incapable of writing in shorthand. Remember when Ken Bruen was a regular Muderati contributor, and how short and concise the sentences in all his posts were? Man, I used to marvel at that, and wish I could write precisely that way. But I can’t. I just can’t. I start out writing bare-boned sentences, only to have all the ensuing ones morph, slowly but surely, into long, compound ones. I don’t know why.
This is problematic enough when I’m writing prose, but it’s a huge pain in the ass when I’m screenwriting, because lean and mean is what writing for film or television is all about. In the outline or beat-sheet stage, in particular, one’s ability to state the purpose of a scene with a minimum of verbiage is vital — and I struggle mightily with that.
This is partly because:
I ask — and feel compelled to answer — too many questions. When you write crime fiction, especially mysteries, asking yourself all the questions your reader is likely to ask about the story you’re telling is imperative, as is answering most of those questions in a logical, satisfactory manner. But trying to predict every question your reader might ask, and then incorporating an answer to each one in your manuscript, is over-thinking things, and this is a habit I fall into that adds hours of unnecessary writing time to my every project.
All these things combined conspire to make everything I write — this blog post included — one great slog. If the end product turns out well, that’s some consolation, to be sure. But I still wish I could just rip through what I write like the proverbial hot knife through butter and worry about the details — and perfection — just a little bit less.
Questions for the class:Writers: Are you happy with your own rate of output? Readers: Beside the obvious (typos, misspellings, etc.), what are the tip-offs to a book written too quickly? Do you sometimes wish your favorite author would take a little more time to write each new book?
And, except for those of us lucky enough to be even better looking, we would all like to have this guy’s face:
(Yes, even the ladies. He’s that pretty.)
But enough about the superficial. The objects of envy I want to post about today are those that go beyond the obvious. Sure, I covet the way some authors write dialogue or craft plot, tell a story or create character — but these are all skills of the trade I could conceivably develop over time. The things I want most that other writers have have little or nothing to do with writing, per se. For the most part, they are intangible. They cannot be bought or sold. They are lines on an unwritten resume that, in my mind, help make certain authors unique. And since I can’t claim these things for myself, I am envious of those who can.
Here are the specific traits and possessions I’m referring to:
Okay, show of hands: How many people out there have asked Lee Child for something — a blurb, a signature, a few minutes of his time — and been turned away? Nobody? Anybody?
I didn’t think so.
If anyone in our business can afford to be less than gracious to others, it’s Mr. Child, but that kind of behavior just isn’t in his DNA. He lends an all new, respectable heft to the otherwise lightweight term “nice guy.”
Anyone who’s ever heard Sophie describe how she got her first book, A BAD DAY FOR SORRY, sold knows it wasn’t a particularly easy road to hoe. Because not every editor who read the manuscript was charmed by some of the language she likes to use. She was encouraged on several occasions, in fact, to tone it down, if not eliminate it altogether.
But Sophie held her ground. Her voice was her voice, and hell if she was going to change it just to get published.
Aren’t those of us who’ve read her work thankful she had that kind of faith in herself?
I don’t want the angry squint, nor the imposing, Sumo-like form factor. He can keep his booming laugh and signature porkpie hat. I just want Phillips’s trademark speaking voice. With that voice, I could do readings to make grown men weep and women swoon. I could moderate panels with the authority of Zeus and stop a convention bar fight with a single call to “Cease!”
Never heard Gary speak, you say? Well, it’s sort of like this, only more powerful:
Let’s face it, when you’re trying to build a readership and every live, book-buying body counts, honesty isn’t always the best policy. Saying the wrong thing, to fans and fellow authors alike, can have consequences, regardless of how much truth is in the telling.
Incredibly, Goldberg has managed to build a leviathan-like career, both in television and mystery fiction, saying what he feels needs to be said while staring any possible repercussions square in the face. He offends and he ruffles feathers, but he always tells it like he sees it, without malice aforethought.
I’ve been on the receiving end of his Searing Blade of Truth myself at least once, so I know how much it can sting. Still, there’s something to be said for a man in our business, in which discretion almost always pays better than being frank, who consistently answers a question with what he really thinks, rather than what the questioner would most like to hear.
Being prolific is one thing. Being prolific and damn good, time and time again, is quite another. Over a career spanning more than fifty years and multiple genres, Block’s been churning out novels and short stories the way McDonald’s makes hamburgers. With that kind of production, you’d think he’d turn out a dud or two. But no. Quality plus quantity is how this Mystery Writers of America Grand Master rolls, and that’s what makes his vast body of work so impressive.
Neither Allison Pearson’s 2002 book I DON’T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT, nor its recent film adaptation, has anything to do with Laura Lippman, as far as I know, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking of her every time I hear that title. Because in addition to writing some ungodly number of words towards her next New York Times bestseller, her daily regimen also seems to include supervising home repairs, tracking down the world’s best citrus butter cookies, composing open letters to JetBlue, putting younger women to shame at the gym, and informing a growing mob of fans and followers of all the above, as it happens, via every social networking platform yet known to Man.
If all her tweets and posts read like those of some (“Just brushed my teeth. Next up, flossing.” Or: “Will be signing Sunday at Harriet’s Pickles & More, would love to see you there.”), this last wouldn’t be so amazing. But Ms. Lippman’s missives are always cute, clever, and just goofy enough to be entertaining.
While others wield the power of social networking like a club with which to beat potential readers into submission, Laura makes a party invite of it, and to far greater effect.
Okay, this one I admit is a little creepy. But readers love pets, and nothing makes them happier than knowing that their favorite author is a pet lover, too. Do some writers use this knowledge to their advantage? Yes. And do some even go so far as to pimp their dog or cat just to steer readers in their direction? Absolutely. Is Alafair Burke one of those writers? No.
But goddamnit, the Duffer is cute. And if an author has to have an animal best friend in order to maximize their sales potential these days, then it may as well be a canine as handsome as this guy. Woof!
Question for the class: What does your “Author’s Envy” list look like?
As I write this, my daughter Maya and son Jackson, eleven and nine, respectively, are sitting in the den, listening to an audio book: HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN. They are enthralled and amused, falling silent when things get scary and laughing hysterically when something funny happens. To listen to them, you’d think they were having the time of their lives.
And I swear to God, this has to be the 463rd time they’ve listened to this book.
They’ve listened to all the other Harry Potter audio books just as often, finding each no less consistently entertaining. And they re-read the actual Potter books just as zealously. Clearly, J.K. Rowling’s writing (and Jim Dale’s reading) loses nothing in the way of impact the second, third, or 265th time around.
This strikes me as incredible, because I am a devout one-time-only reader. I never re-read anything. God knows I’ve read enough books deserving of a second or third read — a lack of worthy titles isn’t the problem. So what is?
Time. Every minute you spend re-reading a book you’ve already had the pleasure of knowing is a minute you can’t devote to something new and possibly just as remarkable. That motto booksellers like to put on T-shirts — SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME — rings all too true for me. I live in constant fear of missing out on a genuinely fantastic, undiscovered read somewhere, and I don’t want to blow it by giving CHILDHOOD’S END a second look, especially if, ultimately, that second look only serves to prove that one should have been enough.
Which leads me to my next reason for avoiding second reads. . .
Dashed expectations. Almost thirty years ago, I read Elmore Leonard’s novel STICK and loved it. It changed my life. My memory of it is that of a masterpiece, a how-to in crime writing. But is it really? If I re-read the book today and found it to be something short of all that, I’d be heartbroken. Disillusioned.
As I’ve aged and matured, I’ve become a more discerning reader. Harder to please and dazzle. Turns of phrase that I used to find mesmerizing irk me now as false and dissonant. My standards for genius have been raised considerably.
Granted, in this particular example, because it’s Elmore Leonard we’re talking about, it’s possible I’d find STICK to be even better than I originally thought. It’s for sure I’d still enjoy it. But why take the risk? Why mess with perfection, even if it’s a perfection based solely on the vagaries of memory? Wouldn’t my time be better spent seeking out the next Elmore Leonard, wherever he or she may be, instead?
Speed. Sadly, regardless of whether I’m doing it for business or for pleasure, I read the same way I write: at a snail’s pace. Even when a book grabs me, I take it in slooooowly. So the amount of time I invest in a book usually runs somewhere between a week to thirty days. That’s just the way I roll. If I could read something and enjoy it in two or three days, tops, maybe I could afford to do more re-reading. But I can’t. So I don’t.
Needless to say, not every reader has the same aversion to re-reading that I do. Some think life is too short NOT to re-read, depending on the book or books in question. Why deny yourself the pleasure of a great read, these people ask, just because it’s not entirely new to you? Surely, some novels are not only up to the challenge of re-examination, they can in fact only be fully appreciated that way. Just as some films require multiple viewings to be completely understood, some works of fiction demand multiple reads before all their surprises and nuances can be perceived and savored.
Hmmm. That’s a pretty convincing argument, even if I had to make it myself. Convincing enough that I find myself wondering if it isn’t time to reconsider my hard-and-fast position on this question. Maybe I’d see things in a second reading of STICK that I missed the first time; things that would suggest, not that the novel is less than I’ve always thought it was, but more.
Because I remain dubious — okay, I’m a chickenshit — I’m going to enter into this re-reading business very carefully. Tentatively. So I’ll be limiting my re-reads to three titles to start. These are the books I’ve always been tempted to re-experience, having had them blow me away the first time, that I most suspect will not disappoint under the merciless glare of a highly anticipated second read. In no particular order, they are:
IN COLD BLOOD – Truman Capote
I was only fourteen when I originally read this, so my impression of it as a work of literary genius could be colored by the naïveté of youth. But I doubt it. What I know for sure is that this was the first book I could not put down once I started it, and when it was over, I knew I had just read something that was on a completely different level from all I had read before.
DARKER THAN AMBER – John D. MacDonald
This was my first Travis McGee novel, and I only sought it out because it served as the basis for a movie of the same name, starring Rod Taylor, that I enjoyed quite a bit back in the late sixties. Little could I have guessed how much better than the film the book would turn out to be, and that I would go on to devour every other McGee title by MacDonald I could get my hands on.
I’ve never heard this particular title described as one of the best in the series, so it may ultimately disappoint, but I’m curious to see how much of MacDonald’s brilliance I actually got a glimpse of by reading this McGee first.
THE HORSE LATITUDES – Robert Ferrigno
I remember this as a terrific read overall, an Elmore Leonard-esque tour de force with an LSD twist, and I have always believed its first two paragraphs make for the greatest opening to a thriller I have ever read. Check this out:
It didn’t take much to set him off these days — laughter from the apartment below, a flash of blond hair out of the corner of his eye. Or, late at night, the sound of two car doors slamming in quick succession. Especially that. He imagined them walking to his place or her place, both of them eager but trying not to let it show, holding hands, tentatively at first, then the man slipping his arm around her waist while she smiled and laid her head on his shoulder.
There were nights when Danny missed Lauren so bad that he wanted to take a fat man and throw him through a plate-glass window. Just for the sound of it. Instead, he went swimming in the bay.
I don’t know when I’ll get around to these re-reads, exactly, but I plan to do a follow-up blog post on my reactions as soon as I do. So stay tuned. In the meantime:
Questions for the class: Do you re-read, and if so, how often? Do some books disappoint on re-examination, or do they always live up to your time-held reverence for them? If you don’t re-read, what are your reasons for abstaining? And if you could only re-read three books out of all those you’ve read in your lifetime, what would they be?
One Final Word: Look, I know I’ve been beating the subject of bland and unimaginative titles to death lately, and you’ve got to be sick and tired of hearing me gripe about it, so rather than write any more long Dumb Ass Title diatribes, I’ve decided to vent my spleen with the occasional addendum to posts on other subjects, an addendum I’ll call:
TITLES FIT FOR A MORON
Today’s winner: The upcoming Eddie Murphy/Ben Stiller Oceans 11/12/13 knock-off, Tower Heist.
Several months ago, I wrote a guest post for Timothy Hallinan’s fine blog regarding the “writer’s process.” Those last two words are in quotation marks because, as all of us here clearly know, there’s no such thing as a singular “writer’s process.” Every writer’s process — his way of getting words on paper so that they form a publishable manuscript — is different. Asking me to describe “the” writer’s process is like asking all the Iron Chefs how to make a soufflé with the expectation of getting only one answer.
Anyway, one of the areas I touched upon in my post for Tim’s blog (Tim’s one hell of a writer, by the way; his novel THE QUEEN OF PATPONG is not to be missed) was where we writers get our ideas. Big surprise that, huh? Because that’s always the first thing readers and others who don’t write for a living want to know: Where the hell do we find all those incredible stories?
The question is usually posed as if the answer must be some deep, dark secret. I think what the people who pose it are generally envisioning is a vast network of hidden depositories — lockboxes that only we writers know exist — in which Great Ideas are kept. We surf to the Great Ideas website, login using our writers-only password, find a lockbox nearby and then slink off under cover of night to open the box and withdraw the Great Idea inside.
Voila! Our next book is practically in the can!
(Oh, if it were only that simple. . .)
Naturally, there is no such network of lockboxes. There are no hidden Great Ideas. All our Great Ideas are right there out in the open for anyone and everyone to see. Here’s how I explained what I mean in my post for Tim’s blog:
A Non-Writer and a Writer are walking down the street. Both take note of a mismatched pair of running shoes dangling from their bound laces over the back of a vacant bus bench.
The Non-Writer thinks (if he or she thinks anything at all):
“Hmm. That’s funny. I wonder what that’s about?”
The Writer thinks:
“An all-clear sign left by one criminal conspirator for another.”
“A poor man training for his last marathon before cancer takes his life has just boarded a bus and left his only pair of running shoes behind.”
“A grifter’s wife, throwing his worthless ass out again, has just tossed his clothes out of the window of their fourth-floor apartment, starting with shoes she’s been careful to tie up in mismatched pairs just to twist the knife.”
You see? And none of this is particularly deliberate. It just happens. It’s how our minds work. We see or read something that piques our curiosity and runaway extrapolation occurs. Mind you, it isn’t always great extrapolation (as the three examples above probably indicate), but every now and then, something genuinely wonderful results from it.
So where do I get my ideas? Everywhere. The thing is, they’re only “ideas” because, as a writer, I’m able to perceive them as such; what the Non-Writer dismisses as mere background noise I latch onto as seedlings that could grow stories in a hundred different directions.
I was thinking about all this yesterday during my thrice-weekly bike ride to the gym, because I caught myself finding Great Ideas in damn near everything and everyone I encountered. Such as:
Two police cars, one unmarked, the other a black-and-white, splitting off to cruise my ‘hood in two different directions.
My first thought: Watch one of them pull me over. On my bike. Always trying to keep the Black Man down.
(Well, okay, this wasn’t a Great Idea, it was just paranoia. And no, neither cop gave me a second look.)
But my NEXT first thought was:
They’re after the wrong guy. Somebody’s called in a false report, claiming they’ve witnessed a crime that never actually occurred, because. . .
A long line of cars waiting at a Metro line rail crossing for a train that, it seems, is never going to come.
My first thought: Persons unknown have hacked into the Metro transit system, and this harmless traffic snarl is just a dry run for. . .
Two old men, one at least twenty years older than the other, circling a car for sale sitting in a dry cleaner’s parking lot: a classic, perfectly restored ’64 Chevy Malibu.
My first thought: They’re father and son, and the son intends to gift the car to the old man because it reminds them both of the son’s mother, who. . .
A homeless man stretched out on the sidewalk, unkempt but totally coherent, lighting a cigarette with theatrical flair.
My first thought: This is a goddamn shame. Exactly how and when did homelessness become something undeserving of America’s outrage?
(But I digress.)
My NEXT first thought: He learned to light a cigarette like that in Europe as a young man, when he served as a valet to. . .
A pair of ornate, wrought-iron gates, flanking a quiet residential street; open now but clearly once intended to close off the sidewalk on both sides to unwanted visitors.
My first thought: Those gates weren’t meant to keep people out. They were meant to keep people in. During World War II, this street led to a private hospital, where a former surgeon in the U.S. Navy was conducting secret experiments on. . .
And that’s how it goes for me, all day, every day. Springboards for stories are everywhere. My wife sees a car at the curb, coated with dust and sporting a windshield crawling with parking tickets; I see the corpse going to rot in the back seat, behind the tinted windows that only days ago had served as a curtain for the last sex act the deceased will ever know.
Most of these Great Ideas of mine are anything but, and I forget about them as quickly as they come to me. But some stick. They grow and gather momentum, almost of their own volition, until I’m too drawn in to do anything but massage them into a full-blown narrative or die trying.
So there you have it: My answer to the dreaded “Where do you get your ideas?” question. I don’t go looking for them; I just stumble upon them, my writer’s intuition (think of Superman’s X-ray vision) enabling me, countless times a day, to see beyond the hard outer shell of something ordinary to the infinite and extraordinary possibilities lurking within.
But hey — if anybody wants to create that secret network of idea lockboxes? Sign me the hell up.
Questions for the class: Readers, what’s the best answer to the “Where do you get your ideas?” question you’ve ever heard? And writers, I’m not going to ask where and how you get your ideas — that would be too easy. But I am curious to know how often you come up with one too good not to keep. Once a day? Twice a month? Exactly how efficient is your own personal idea-generating mechanism?
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I am a hopeless romantic. This isn’t something I make a habit of admitting because hardboiled crime writers aren’t supposed to have a heart, and if word gets out I’ve got one, it could ruin me forever (if I’m not in fact ruined already).
All but a few of my favorite books and movies are really just love stories in disguise. They wear the trappings of crime fiction, but at their very core they are Romeo and Juliet, with the emphasis placed on the former. Most involve a man, brave and strong and ostensibly indestructible, in love with one woman so deeply that his world has no meaning without her. Her loss renders his surface masculinity — the perception others have of him as impenetrable and without weakness — a sham.
Take this scene from CASABLANCA, for instance:
Damn. That was Humphrey Friggin’ Bogart bawling like that. Over a woman. (Granted, the woman is Ingrid Bergman, but still . . .)
Is this what love is supposed to feel like? Like someone’s tearing your guts out with a baling hook?
Yes. I think it is. And I’ve come to this opinion, in no small part, by way of such cultural influences as the classic movie mentioned above. I’ve always been a pie-in-the-sky idealist, and knew from a very early age that, whatever love was, there had to be more to it than what I was seeing at home. My parents were loving, don’t get me wrong — when my mother wasn’t throwing Dad’s clothes out on the front lawn, anyway. But there was nothing overt or effusive about their affection for each other, and I couldn’t imagine myself ever being happy in that kind of muted relationship. The brand of love I wanted for myself was big and bold and irrepressible, and in my search for it, I looked to contemporary art — literature, film, music — to paint its description for me, so that I might know it when I found it.
Needless to say, this is an approach fraught with danger. Depending on taste, in trusting the people who make movies and write pop songs to shape his view of romance, a man could wind up taking his cues from such world-renowned experts on affairs of the heart as Jon Landis and Barry Manilow.
While I didn’t make that grave mistake, what I did do was fall hard for material that celebrates love not as a prelude to a fairy tale, but as a double-edged sword that cuts like a goddamn Ginsu knife when it goes wrong. In the films, books and ballads I gravitated to most, love isn’t about pain, but pain is most definitely part of the bargain, and anything calling itself “love” that does not involve the risk of emotional evisceration is a mere imitation.
I know. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
Oh, I can appreciate the occasional ode to love that has nothing but wonderful things to say about it, sure, but my obsession is with those that tell the sad tale of love found and then tragically, often stupidly, lost. Because such tales are never told from the perspective of some giddy, delirious soul who merely thinks he’s in love, but rather someone who knows he is and has the open wounds to prove it. For me, it’s a simple matter of credibility.
Curiously, I’m not of the school that believes “true” love only comes around once. That’s too pessimistic a take for me. I believe you can replicate true love with various partners, though in each case, it will look and feel somewhat different.
How this somewhat backwards view of love has informed my writing is not easily explained, for I barely understand it myself. What I can say with any degree of certainty is that I treat romantic love with deathly seriousness, and I’ve never created a protagonist who was immune to it or, more importantly, lived in denial of it. The truth I think I’m always trying to get at in my writing is that we are all at our most human when we are willing to accept both our need for love and our moral obligation to share it with others. How near or how far a character is to finding that acceptance is what separates good men from bad in my fictional universe.
So now you know my deep, dark secret: I’m a closeted romantic, just like these two guys:
But before you threaten to take my Man Card away, remember that my idea of a great love story involves all the stuff hardboiled noirs are generally made of: pain, regret and lots of insufferable longing. As evidence, I present the following, some of my favorite melancholy ruminations on the subject of love lost, found, and on its way out the door. They’re all sad, to be sure, until you stop to realize that, before a man can hurt this bad, a woman (or a man, as the case may be) has to first make him feel better than he has ever felt in his life.
YOU ARE EVERYTHING – The Stylistics
This song kills me every time I hear it. The title says it all. Everywhere this poor bastard looks, he sees the woman he loves — and she’s gone. She’s walked out and she’s not coming back, leaving him to pine for a past he can never, ever recapture.
WARNING SIGN – Coldplay
Yeah, I know. Coldplay isn’t for everybody. In fact, there are as many people who think their stuff is lightweight crap as there are those who find it incredibly moving. Right or wrong, I fall into the latter camp, and this song is Exhibit A in my defense. This time, the poor bastard in question has lost the love of his life because he foolishly let her walk, and he’s only now figured out what a tragic mistake that was. But maybe there’s hope for the big dope yet; he’s offering her a sincere mea culpa and inviting himself into her open arms, and if she’s willing to give him another chance. . .
(You can write the ending any way you like. I choose to believe she forgives the fool and they make a spectacular go of it the second time around.)
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN – Something to Remember Jack By
If I were a) a raging homophobe; b) a misguided Christian fundamentalist; or c) a block of stone, I probably wouldn’t give a damn for BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. But as I’m none of these things, I consider Ang Lee’s movie to be one of the greatest romances ever filmed, and this scene tears my heart out. So sue me.
INCEPTION – Letting Mal Go
All right, let’s get this out of the way right now: I’ve drunk from the INCEPTION Kool-Aid vat and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I love this film, and I think Leo D did a yeoman’s job in the lead role. While most of the discussion about INCEPTION has generally centered around its complex sci-fi plot and groundbreaking CGI, it’s the love story between Leo’s Cobb and Cobb’s late wife Mal (a breathtakingly beautiful Marion Cotillard) that makes this film work for me. Cobb wants to get back to their children, yes, but what drives him more than anything is the desperate need to preserve Mal’s memory, to cheat death by holding onto and reliving every second of his time with her, over and over again.
Whether Cobb really reclaims his children at the end or not is almost immaterial. That he finds a way to reconcile with Mal, to earn the right to go on loving her without guilt, is all the closure any viewer should require. (Sorry, the video can’t be embedded — you’ve gotta click on the link to view it.)
Corny? Sure. Dated? No doubt. Heartbreaking? Damn straight.
VERTIGO – Madeleine Reborn
Just like Coldplay, Hitchcock isn’t for everybody. As evidenced here, one man’s cinematic masterpiece is another’s sacred cow in desperate need of a good goring. But I grew up on Hitchcock, and VERTIGO served as one of my earliest lessons in love as maddening, debilitating obsession. When the only way a man can think to survive a woman’s death is to RECREATE her — man, that’s one brokenhearted sonofabitch. What Jimmy Stewart does here at around the 3:05 mark, when his Scotty thinks his beloved Madeleine has all but risen from the grave to return to him, is sheer genius. And if you can’t feel all the emotions he’s going through, you might know a thing or two about love, but you don’t know jack about LOVE.
500 DAYS OF SUMMER – The Final Day
I suppose there’s an outside chance that, were it possible to watch this movie and NOT fall madly in love with Zooey Deschanel, it wouldn’t pack the emotional punch it does. But me, I’ve got it bad for Zooey, so this ending hurt me to the bone. In part because I’ve been there, done that, and don’t ever want to go there again. Unrequited love is the coldest bitch of all, ain’t it?
DIARY – Bread
Ladies, let this song serve as a warning to you: If you must fall in love with someone other than your present partner, and feel compelled to write all about it in your diary, PLEASE don’t leave the goddamn thing where your husband/boyfriend can find it. And fellas: If you spot your woman’s unlocked diary lying carelessly around the crib, under a tree or anywhere else — walk away. Just walk away. Because believe me, you don’t want to know what the lady’s thinking. Ever.
SOMEWHERE IN TIME – Mourning Elise
Picture this: You’ve finally found the one woman in the world you could ever really love, and discover she’s dead, having been born at the turn of the twentieth century. But that’s not the bad news. The bad news is, you’ve figured out how to travel back in time to be with this woman, only to have fate snatch you back to the present, where she’s out of your reach forever. Cold blooded, right? Now imagine the woman in question looks like Jane Seymour.
You’d want to just lie down and die, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s more or less what poor Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) does here.
Okay, enough is enough. I think I’ve embarrassed myself as much as I’m going to today. If I expose one more inch of my hard-shell exterior’s soft, pink underbelly, I’ll run the risk of saying something kind about Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and whatever respect you have left for me will be gone for sure.
Luckily, it’s Sunday, so for a much-needed infusion of testosterone, I’m going to go watch some football, drink a beer and read some Mickey Spillane. While I’m busy doing that, please consider the following. . .
Questions for the Class: What’s your personal concept of romantic love, and how is it manifested in your work? What songs or films would you list as representative of romance as you perceive it?
Quick: What do the following upcoming films and television shows all have in common?
If you said they all feature poster art suitable for the Louvre, you’re wrong. And you’re blind.
If you said they all feature A-list talent whose work you never miss, well . . . I don’t quite know what to say about that. Though the expression “get a life” does spring to mind. (Taylor Lautner??)
If, however, you said all four are burdened by an incredibly unimaginative and dumb-as-a-stick title, you nailed it. And therein lies the tale of this Murderati post.
Several months ago on my own blog, I wrote a post describing how much it mystifies me when creative people consciously decide to attach a one-word, generic title to something they’ve spent months, sometimes years to produce. This is what I wrote in part:
“Now, I know not every writer cares to spend a thousand sleepless nights trying to come up with a title for their book or film that’s as fresh and original as it is memorable. It’s a pain in the ass process and, sometimes, it hardly seems worth the effort. . .
“But here’s where I’m coming from with all this: A writer busts his ass for months, maybe even years, to write a novel or a screenplay. He puts his heart and soul into the work, trying with all he’s got to make it something special, something different, something he and he alone could have written.
“After all that, why on earth would he want to give the work a generic, overused, blatantly obvious title that anybody with a fifth-grade education could have come up with?
“I don’t get it.”
I was careful to point out in that post that this sort of thing happens far more often in the realms of film and television because the creative process in Hollywood, as Alex and Stephen know far better than I, is almost designed to produce something ridiculously simplistic at every turn, so as not to confuse our feeble minds when it comes time to turn on our TV or buy a ticket at the box office:
“Hollywood has a long tradition of treating the movie-going public like a herd of mindless cows that would forget how to chew cud if you gave them anything other than grass to think about. And its penchant for dumbing down titles to their most obvious and uninspiring form is only getting worse.”
And every published novelist knows that the title his book winds up with is not always the one he chose for it, because publishers make the final call on such things. So my gripe is not with authors in any medium who are forced to live with a Dumb-Ass-Title (hereafter referred to as a DAT) by forces beyond their control. Authors who go with a DAT by choice are the ones with whom I take issue.
What, in my opinion, constitutes a DAT in the literary world? The following trifecta of death, “death” in this case being no interest from me whatsoever in reading the book so afflicted:
A length of one word (or two, if you include a preceding and pointless “the”). Think about it — the entire scope and breadth of your novel can be reduced to ONE WORD? What kind of message is that to be sending to potential readers?
Ubiquity. If the word you choose for your title is as commonplace and ordinary as sliced bread, why should anyone expect your writing to be any different?
And most importantly:
Predictability. “Detective” is a nice word, and it really comes in handy when you write crime fiction, but I think we can all agree that it’s rather lacking in multiple meanings, yes? Chances are, if the title of a book is DETECTIVE, its storyline involves someone who could most accurately be described as. . . well, a detective! Big surprise, huh? Yet another way to appeal to potential readers — announce by way of your book’s title not to expect anything unexpected.
To really qualify as a DAT, a title has to meet all three of the criteria above. For instance, BEAT may only be one word (yeah, Schwartz, I’m talking about you), but is that word particularly ubiquitous? And does BOULEVARD immediately suggest what the book is about? The answer in both cases is no, so these titles don’t make my DAT cut. (Okay, Stephen, you can exhale now.)
In the comments to my original post, I engaged in a rather lively debate with a crime writer who objected to my assertion that he’d given his latest book a DAT. He argued that the title he’d chosen was in fact an ingenious one because, as readers of the book would discover in the end, it had a secret meaning. I won’t rehash all the ways I debunked that argument here, except to say that the cleverness of a title with a “secret” or double meaning is completely lost on somebody who hasn’t yet read the associated book — i.e., somebody cruising the shelves at their local book store looking for something great to read. Like a duck, if it looks like a DAT, sounds like a DAT, and smells like a DAT, people are going to be inclined to assume that it is a DAT, and won’t grant you 389 pages to disabuse them of that notion. The time to impress potential readers with your capacity to surprise is at the start of your book, not the end of it, and that start — even before page 1 — is your title.
If you’re beginning to get the idea I could go on and on about DATs if left to my own devices, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. This phenomenon doesn’t just confound me, it saddens me a little, in the same way that all avoidable, self-destructive behaviors we humans sometimes engage in do. However, as I’ve beaten this poor, dead horse into the ground online once already, and don’t particularly feel like being the negatron I usually am, what I’d like to do today is turn my old post on its head and devote the rest of this one to singling out some relatively recent crime novel titles that I think are the polar opposite of a DAT. The following are Kick-Ass Titles (KATs), the kind a reader can’t help but notice and be drawn to, and in my estimation, all are no less exceptional and creative than the fine novels — and authors — they represent.
(As an added bonus, I’m including an Alternative DAT for each, just to demonstrate what might have been, had the gods not smiled upon us all.)
This title has blown me away since the moment I first heard it. Its primary message is immediately and abundantly clear: Somebody in Littlefield’s terrific book is about to suffer the effects of a full can of whup-ass. And seriously, what more should the title of a crime novel ever need to say?
Shit. This title ticks me the hell off, and always has, because I wish to God I’d thought of it first. It makes all the jacket copy for Stroby’s debut noir thoroughly unnecessary, as everything you need to know about his story is right there: Love; pain; sex; betrayal. No title in the tradition of Chandler and Ross Macdonald could be a more a fitting homage to the masters than this one.
All of Block’s titles for his Matthew Scudder novels are memorable — A DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE, TIME TO MURDER AND CREATE, etc. — but this one, I think, is his best. Some reference to death in the title of a mystery or crime novel is a no-brainer, but it’s hard as hell to work it in in a way that isn’t blatantly obvious or unoriginal. Block managed that trick here.
Blondes are a fixture in classic crime fiction, and concrete is often used as a metaphor for the cold, hard city. Put these two things together and you have a title that promises nothing but trouble for a beautiful woman — and by extension, Connelly’s homicide detective Harry Bosch.
One thing a great title does, even as it’s offering hints as to what kind of book it belongs to, is raise questions. Note that Child didn’t title this Reacher novel 24 HOURS, or 48 HOURS — it’s 61 HOURS. And what in the hell can happen in exactly 61 hours? You have to read the book to find out, and Child is counting on you becoming curious enough to do just that. Clever. Very clever.
Lehane’s another author whose book titles all tend to stick in the mind — MYSTIC RIVER is a prime example — but this one, for his second Kenzie-Gennaro mystery, which deals with a serial killer who targets children, is my favorite. It alludes to the temptation evil sometimes holds over us all, and what could be a more ominous intro to a crime novel than that?
Nothing conveys life-altering heartache quite like the expression “cut to the bone,” and Sakey’s title for his debut novel evokes this experience brilliantly. Could there be any doubt that this is a noirish thriller with serious attitude? None whatsoever.
Though Swierczynski is capable of dropping a DAT of his own every now and then — THE BLONDE? Really? — more than a few of his titles hit the Kick-Ass Title sweetspot for me. It’s a toss-up which title I like better — this one or POINT & SHOOT — but they both speak volumes about Swierczynski’s old school, pulp-era sensibilities, and the emphasis he places on entertainment above all else.
Actually, my appreciation for this title to Mosley’s 2006 Fearless Jones/Paris Minton novel is entirely selfish, because it immediately reminds me of a debut novel near and dear to my heart that was published 19 years earlier:
Remember what I said earlier about THE BARBED-WIRE KISS being an homage to Chandler and Ross Macdonald? Well, that’s got to be what this was, right? An homage to me? So I’m flattered. Really. I swear to God.
Alternative DAT: SPOOKED
One last word before I sign out: There’s another level to the moronic-title descent into hell that I call “Just Plain Stupid.” JPSTs can be of any length, yet still manage to be even more obvious and devoid of originality than DATs, and the reason I chose this subject for today’s post is a JPST that’s been all over billboards lately that makes me want to tear my hair out, rather than shave it cleanly from my scalp:
Hmmm. You think maybe this film has something to do with horrible bosses? Talk about a title that requires zero brainpower to interpret. The only mystery in it is just how long the geniuses behind it took to come up with it: four seconds or a whopping fourteen?
Questions for the class: How about you, my fellow ‘Ratis? Do DATs make the top of your head come off the way they do mine? If so, name a few that really bent you out of shape. Or conversely, name some titles that you think qualify as KATs instead.
When I was just a wee lad, fully expecting to become a published author before my eighteenth birthday (I was only off by about a decade), I used to do all my writing in my mother’s kitchen. I’d set my Smith-Corona electric up on the counter, plug that bad boy in, and hammer away at one sci-fi short story after another, working as my mother toiled over a hot stove making breakfast, lunch or dinner for a family of five. I don’t know how either of us ever got anything accomplished, but we managed to co-exist in that little kitchen quite nicely, even if her cooking was always exceptional and my writing uniformly unpublishable.
Every now and then, however, Barbara Jean Haywood would break the unspoken peace accord we’d reached to evict me from the room, the meal of the moment requiring more uncluttered counter space than my typewriter and scattered manuscript pages would allow. On these occasions I’d grudgingly move to the dining room, where the light and ambiance were nowhere near as conducive to my flow, and issue a dire warning:
“One day,” I’d tell my mother, “I’m going to be a famous author. And when I’m asked if my parents encouraged me to write, I’m going to tell people how you used to throw me and my typewriter out of the kitchen every time I tried.”
We both used to get a big kick out of that.
I never made good on my threat, of course. In her own way, before she passed eighteen years ago, my mother was just as responsible for my becoming a published author as my father (more on him at a later date), and I will always be thankful I had such an incredible woman in my life. Still, for all her pride in my work, my mother never quite understood my fascination with genre, and in fact pestered me constantly to write non-fiction instead. Specifically, she wanted me to write about our family. Its highs, its lows, its ugly warts.
I had zero interest.
First, because I was always certain there was no “there” there. Contrary to what my mother thought, the trials and tribulations of the Haywood clan, even extended out to our Lugo/Bordenave cousins, would not have made for much more than a mildly amusing read. We had our moments of high drama and hilarity, sure, but for the most part — and I feel incredibly blessed to be able to say this — much of the heart-rending tragedy that most bestselling family sagas are made of — sudden death, serious illness, financial hardship — was absent from our lives. None of us were famous or wealthy, or particularly inclined toward a life of crime. In short, we were a multi-cultural Brady Bunch with an edge, and it was beyond me how any author could make an engrossing book out of that.
Second, writing was a release for me, a way to escape my somewhat sheltered and — if not exactly unhappy — occasionally uncomfortable existence, and it could only serve that purpose if I was writing fiction. Stories of my own invention whose outcome was entirely within my control.
My third and primary disincentive for writing about me and mine, however, was that I didn’t want to air our dirty laundry — no matter how innocuous it may have seemed by most standards — in public.
And that’s the whole point of a good autobiography, isn’t it? Telling all the stories about yourself and the people you care about that most reveal your greatest strengths and weaknesses? Your brightest and darkest hours? All the good stuff alone won’t do; you’ve got to offer up the dirt, too. The lies and betrayals; the extra-marital affairs and disastrous, bumbling, humiliating mistakes. The promises broken and dark secrets kept. And last but not least, the author’s true, inner-most feelings about it all, regardless of who might get hurt in the revealing.
No thanks, Mom, I thought. I’ll pass.
So that whole “keeping a journal” thing we writers are supposed to do? I never bothered with it. I always found the concept rather self-indulgent: “My thoughts and life experiences are so extraordinary, I must write them down for posterity.” I understood the value of keeping a journal as a technical exercise; any activity that requires one to write every day can’t be bad. But self-reflection? Who needed it? Growing up, my focus was rarely if ever on what was real; it was instead on what could be. The worlds and people I could create to do my own bidding. Why waste time writing about an actual, ordinary day when you could write about a fictional, exciting one instead?
(I must admit that I was clueless about the therapeutic potential of keeping a journal, which obviously cannot be denied. In the absence of a good therapist — and I’ve been lucky enough to know a few — writing a daily journal requires a level of introspection that can sometimes be as curative as it is revelatory.)
Needless to say, since those early days in my mother’s kitchen, I’ve learned to better appreciate stories taken from real people’s lives, and the incredible courage it often takes to write them. History was never my favorite subject in school — in what possible way could things that happened to others in years past be relevant to my present or future? — but as most adults eventually do, I’ve come to understand history’s import and, yes, its myriad connections to my own existence. I’ve even come around to reading — and thoroughly enjoying — a history tome or two.
And yet the business of writing about my private life, aside from those experiences that relate to my writing, remains a difficult chore for me, and I continue to wonder why anyone should care to read about it. The theory behind social networking as a marketing tool is that the more readers know about you as a person, the more curious they’re likely to be about what you write, but I remain unconvinced that this is true. I think what really breeds such curiosity is not the baring of an author’s soul, but a consistent production of smart/funny/thought-provoking material via every platform one decides to take advantage of. What you choose to write about is almost irrelevant.
Certainly, establishing one’s credentials as a decent, compassionate human being who’s suffered pain and loss like all the rest of us can’t hurt an author’s chances of building a substantial readership. Readers may not need to like the people they read but most prefer to think those people are real and not imaginary, and maybe even deserving of their patronage in some small way. But how much personal information is enough to create that connection and how much is too much? In order to win readers over in large numbers, is it really incumbent upon a writer to treat them like members of his most intimate family?
For instance, if I based my next Murderati post on my divorce from my first wife, delving into the depths of depression that experience put me through, while making only the slightest effort to draw a connection between it and my writing at the time, would that make you any more or less inclined to read me? Would knowing the details of how alcohol and crack cocaine have fucked with my family over the years somehow enhance your interest in my fiction?
As a reader, it’s never worked that way for me. I’ve always put the writing before the writer, caring very little to know the life stories of the people I read. Lawrence Block, Martin Cruz Smith, Elmore Leonard . . . Ask me one question about their private lives and I’d only be able to shrug. I don’t know what injustices they’ve suffered and I don’t give a damn. That’s their business. What they write and how well they write it is mine.
But I fear I’m a dying breed. In this age of Facebook and Twitter, in which sharing all you have to share with perfect strangers is rapidly becoming the whole point of the online exercise, it may no longer be enough for a reader to be simply that: a reader. Maybe now, potential fans expect more from the reader/author contract than just a good read. They expect — they demand — a ticket to his inner circle, as well.
For writers capable of opening their lives up to that kind of public scrutiny, at least on occasion — especially those who can do it as effortlessly and brilliantly as my fellow ‘Rati Stephen Jay Schwartz and David Corbett have in recent weeks here — lending such added value to their fiction will not be too much to ask, and they’ll reap the benefits of their candor. But for others like me, hopeless introverts who can’t so much as crack the window onto their personal lives without feeling naked, that task will be all but impossible.
Were she here, my mother would no doubt be disappointed to see I’m as reluctant as ever to tell my family’s stories.
But I suspect she’d read my next book anyway.
Questions for the class: For the readers among you, how much do you need to know about an author’s personal life before he or she strikes you as worthy of a read? And authors, where do you draw the line between what you’re comfortable sharing with your readers and what you aren’t?
I’m presently reading an espionage thriller by a bestselling author I’ve never read before and I’ve really been enjoying it. Or at least, I had been up until page 184.
Prior to page 184, I had been thrilled — no pun intended — to discover that the writer in question is quite good at just about everything I think is important. He knows his subject — international terrorism and the associated U.S. political backbiting — backwards and forwards, yet he never burdens the reader with more detailed info than is necessary. His book’s general premise is intriguing and relatively plausible. And his dialogue, for the most part, rings with just the right balance of drama and authenticity.
Don’t get me wrong — this guy’s no le Carre. (Not that anybody other than John le Carre himself really is.) His requisite villain — a professional assassin with a code name plucked from the animal kingdom — is as standard issue as they come: brilliant, unfeeling, feared by all who know him, capable of killing a man with nothing more than the feather pulled from a down pillow, blah blah blah. When his generally fine dialogue does take an occasional dip for the worse — usually during a lover’s quarrel unrelated to matters of national security — it tends to hit bottom with a real thud. And his protagonist — a CIA desk jockey with limited field experience — couldn’t be a more obvious stand-in for Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan were he to enter every scene whistling the end title music from Patriot Games.
(I know what you must be thinking right about now: This was a book you were enjoying, Gar?)
Still, for all the annoyances noted above, the author’s overall writing was solid enough, and the story he was telling sufficiently compelling, that I was happy to go right on riding the train he was piloting.
Until I hit the dreaded WTF moment at page 184.
For those unable to guess what I mean when I refer to a “WTF moment,” I’m talking about the specific place in some books where the wheels come flying off. Not just one or two wheels but all four, bringing what had been a perfectly enjoyable journey of the mind to a rude and unexpected halt. Because the author has just done something too dumb, or lazy, or transparently manipulative, for you, the reader, to forgive. The trust you had in him to tell his tale with skill and precision has been broken, and there’s no getting it back.
That’s the WTF moment.
On occasion, this insult comes with the added injury of malice aforethought. Not only has the book’s author abruptly yanked you out of his story, he’s done so by way of underestimating your intelligence. He’s tried to get an elephant-sized plot device out of the room right under your very nose, preferring sleight-of-hand to fixing something he knows damn good and well is broken, and he’s counting on you to be too dim-witted to notice. Or, if you do notice, that you’ll be too mesmerized by his genius in general to give a damn.
Most WTF moments aren’t quite as sinister as all that, however. They’re just innocent mistakes. Giant, momentum killing errors in judgment that a good editor should have caught but didn’t. WTF moments of this kind aren’t infuriating, they’re simply deflating, because they’re indicative of either a breakdown in the system or a writer who’s not quite as good as you were hoping he’d turn out to be.
Let’s take pages 184 thru 187 of the spy novel I’ve been reading as a prime example. Here’s the set-up:
A female newspaper Reporter in Washington, D.C., as headstrong as she is beautiful, is about to turn a story in to her editor that will blow the lid off a huge conspiracy involving members of White House staff. Naturally, said members want all copies of her story destroyed before her editor or anyone else can read it, so a Thug For Hire (TFH) is ordered to break into her apartment and steal/erase all her computer files while she’s out on her nightly run with her trusted dog Bruno.
Unfortunately for her, the Reporter twists an ankle badly at the start of her run and returns to her apartment sooner than expected, while the Thug For Hire is still up in the study on the second floor.
Okay, people, let’s pause for a moment to think this through. Assuming killing the Reporter is not part of the TFH’s assignment — and it isn’t —what’s the most logical sequence of events at this point? I’ll give you a few seconds to consider the question . . .
Ready? All right, the following is how things actually go down in the book:
The Reporter closes the apartment’s front door behind her, sits down on the living room couch to remove her shoes and inspect her tender ankle. She hobbles into the kitchen, fills a freezer bag with ice, and grabs a beer from the fridge. Now she limps upstairs to the bathroom, removes some pain reliever from the medicine cabinet, washes a couple pills down with the beer, and closes the cabinet’s mirrored door — revealing the reflection of the Thug For Hire, suddenly standing in the bathroom’s open doorway behind her!
She starts to scream but the TFH grabs her, clamps a hand over her mouth and uses very impolite language to tell her to keep quiet or she’s dead.
The Reporter (as headstrong as she is beautiful, remember) heel strikes the TFH’s shin, then whirls to drive an elbow into his cheek, forcing him to release her. She flees into the hallway, then the study, noticing as she enters the latter that the intruder has been screwing around with her MacBook. She grabs the phone, picks up the receiver, starts to dial 9-1-1 . . .
. . . but the Thug For Hire reappears in the doorway to point a gun directly at her face. He drops some more impolite language to demand she put down the phone.
“Who are you?” the Reporter wants to know.
The TFH tells her again to hang up the phone and promises not to hurt her if she complies.
Bruno — who hasn’t been mentioned once since he and the Reporter returned home — barrels up the stairs to the rescue, barking like the house is on fire. But barking is all the big guy’s up for, apparently, because upon reaching the staircase landing, he stops to flash his teeth and bark some more at the man in the hallway threatening his master with a gun. The TFH promptly shoots the animal dead.
“You asshole!” the Reporter screams, then just for good measure, issues the insult again with some impolite language of her own tacked onto the end. Still holding the phone, she goes on to ask the TFH twice if (Name of Evil White House Staff Person) sent him. (He did.) “Answer me, goddamnit!” she cries. (He doesn’t.)
Instead, the TFH orders her one more time to put down the phone. “Now!”
Headstrong as ever, the Reporter presses on with her call to 911. The Thug For Hire shoots her in the head. He moves in to finish her off. She begs him not to shoot her in the face. “Please, God, anywhere but in the face!” His angry scowl softens and he grants her wish, firing two silenced rounds into her chest before leaving her apartment for good.
Riiiiiight . . .
If nothing about what you’ve just read had you thinking “What The F?”, nothing ever will, and you may feel free to exit this blog post, stage left, to spare yourself another minute of my ridiculous nitpicking. On the other hand, if you, like me, hardly know where to begin to list all the jaw-dropping missteps our bestselling thriller writer made in the scene above, let’s just give it a try anyway, shall we?
Why the hell didn’t the Thug For Hire slip out of the apartment while the Reporter was a) massaging her ankle in the living room; b) refrigerator-diving for ice and beer in the kitchen; or c) downing some aspirin with her back turned to the bathroom door? Or better yet, why didn’t he just knock her unconscious so as to finish his work in her home undisturbed? As he wasn’t wearing a mask, choosing to reveal himself to her instead all but guaranteed he would have to kill her, which wasn’t part of his employer’s instructions.
When the Reporter breaks free from the TFH in the bathroom, she can’t make it downstairs to the front door on that bad ankle, but shouldn’t she at least start screaming her head off? Or try locking the study door behind her to buy some time while she calls for help?
Looking down the barrel of a silenced handgun, why does the Reporter choose to subject the TFH aiming it at her to a Q & A, rather than put down the phone as instructed? What makes her think this guy won’t pull the trigger if she doesn’t do what he says?
Exactly what kind of golden retriever is Bruno, anyway? The olfactory-challenged kind that abhors violence? It takes him what feels like forty minutes to realize an intruder is in the Reporter’s home, and when he finally does, he roars up the stairs only to stop in the hallway to bark at his master’s assailant from a distance, as if he hates to bury his teeth in a man pointing a gun at his owner until such nastiness becomes absolutely, positively necessary.
Does the Reporter have a death wish we haven’t been told about? The TFH has just killed her dog in cold blood, proving he is indeed capable of using the weapon he’s threatening her with. And not only is she still not ready to put down the phone as directed, she wants to call the guy an asshole to his face and continue grilling him: Who are you, who sent you, answer me, goddamnit!
If the thought of getting shot in the face was so terrifying to the Reporter, why didn’t she put the friggin’ phone down when a man aiming a gun at her face ordered her to — THREE TIMES???
Do Thugs For Hire generally grant a victim’s final request to be shot in the body part of his or her choice? Or is this particular TFH, beneath all the foul language and propensity for violence, just a really nice guy?
Needless to say, all these WTF moments rolled into one has seriously dampened my enthusiasm for this book. Which is a real shame because I’d been thinking it was a great read up to this point.
But was it really?
One of the things that happens when I hit the wall of a WTF moment is that I begin to wonder what other, similarly egregious flaws in a book I might have missed earlier. So I go back to look, scanning the pages with a more critical eye this time, and lo and behold, more often than not, I find even more things amiss. Suddenly, a fine but imperfect read has just become an ordinary one, and a writer I was beginning to think could be a new favorite of mine has instead been reduced to just another piker.
As an author myself, I understand how and why most WTF moments happen. The writer has a plan for his characters and he needs things to go down for them according to that plan. The reason Bruno didn’t fly up the stairs immediately upon the Reporter’s return to her apartment to attack the intruder within, like almost any dog with a working nose would have, is that, had he done so, none of what followed could have reasonably occurred. So Bruno had to stay downstairs, silent and invisible, until his owner could discover the intruder herself and engage in a little suspenseful hand-to-hand combat with him. The TFH remained in her apartment, rather than slink out unnoticed while he had the chance, for the very same reason, logic be damned.
Whether the thriller writer in question resorted to such a series of cheats consciously or not, he lost me as a reader for good at page 184, and that’s really all that counts. So let this be a lesson to you, my friends. To hell with typos and misspellings — scour every line of your next novel, first and foremost, for WTF moments — those scenes in which you’ve written something that defies all common sense — and eliminate them. Because your editor might not notice them, “editing” being what it is today, but a discerning reader most likely will.
And it’s your reputation that will take the hit.
Questions for the class: Am I being overly critical here, or do you suffer WTF moments as unkindly as I do? What’s the biggest WTF moment you’ve ever encountered as a reader, and what’s the biggest one you’ve ever caught in your own writing prior to its publication?
Because then-President Ronald Reagan made it famous by appropriating it for a “no new taxes” speech to the American Business Conference in 1985, most people think . . .
. . . is the greatest line Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Police Department ever uttered.
But I beg to differ.
Clint Eastwood has snarled a lot a memorable things over the course of the five films in which he’s played the iconic Dirty Harry (DIRTY HARRY, MAGNUM FORCE, THE ENFORCER, SUDDEN IMPACT and THE DEAD POOL), but in my opinion, as meaningful snippets of film dialogue go, his “make my day” line doesn’t hold a candle to the one he dropped, more than once, in MAGNUM FORCE:
“A man’s got to know his limitations.”
While the “man” Harry was talking about was his two-faced supervising lieutenant (played to hair-raising perfection by Hal Holbrook), his statement could have applied just as easily to writers as policemen. Because the writer who’s constantly working beyond his limitations — which is to say, outside the boundaries of his innate strengths — is probably not writing very well.
“Limitations?” you say. “I don’t believe in limitations!”
And that’s understandable, of course. Who among us wants to think that there are things we would like to write that we can’t? Things, in fact, that we may be ill-suited to ever write particularly well? Such ideas run counter to everything we’ve ever learned about the power of positive thinking and the indomitable creative spirit.
Still, I think there’s something to Dirty Harry’s declaration.
One of the most common fears we professional writers have is that an unpublished novel from out of our past will someday be discovered and published, to great critical abuse, after we’re dead. Something we’ve determined should die unborn will instead be dredged from the depths of our effects and made public the moment we’ve been lowered into the ground. It’s a terrible thought, isn’t it? And yet, I don’t happen to have this particular concern. I don’t have it because none of the dozen or so novels I attempted to write, prior to finally publishing FEAR OF THE DARK, would add up to 200 pages. FEAR OF THE DARK was the first novel-length manuscript I ever completed; all the others petered out and died after two or three chapters. (And this is a very good thing, people, believe me. They were all dreadful.)
There were many reasons for all the false starts: lack of skill, preparation and commitment chief among them. But one of the main reasons most of these novels died on the vine was that, in each case, the realization inevitably dawned on me that I was trying to write a book I was not equipped to write. It was not my book. Instead, it was a book outside my realm of competence: too big, too complex, too far removed from my particular life experience.
I loved spy novels, so I tried to write spy novels. I enjoyed comic westerns, so I tried to write a comic western. Science fiction, horror, coming-of-age melodramas — if I read it and loved it, I tried to write it, and almost always with the same disappointing result: an unreadable, unconvincing manuscript. Only when I set my sights on FEAR OF THE DARK — a classic, hardboiled private eye novel that fit right in the groove of my interests and skill set at the time — did I write and finish a book that felt like my very own.
Did I do the right thing in pulling the plug on all those other manuscripts, rather than soldier on to each one’s ultimate conclusion? I think I did. I could have done a ton of research to fake my way to the very end of one or two, sure, but I don’t think that would have accomplished much, because it wasn’t just an insufficient knowledge of the material involved that made me the wrong person to be writing these particular books. It was the fact that I had little or no personal perspective on them; I was a foreigner trying to write a book only a local could really do justice to.
I know this all sounds like an argument for that tired, age-old piece of advice that says a writer should only write what he knows, but that’s not what I’m suggesting at all. What I am suggesting is that, just because you can learn all there is to know about something and then write a book about it, that doesn’t mean you should. How well suited you are to write a given book doesn’t begin and end with how well informed you are about its subject matter. There are other qualifications to consider as well, such as:
What insight, based upon your own personal or professional experiences, do you have into the material? Will you be writing from the inside looking out, or from the less advantageous perspective of an outsider trying to peer in?
What reasons do you have to be passionate about this book? What makes it one you need to write, rather than one you’d simply like to write?
Have you decided to write this particular book because it appeals to you artistically, or are you simply chasing the dime? Would this still be your project of choice if all commercial considerations were set aside?
Is this a book you can write with a level of confidence the reader can actually feel? Or will your self-doubts regarding your command of the material, regardless of how much research you’ve done, be noticeable on every page?
The Fun Quotient
Yes, writing is work, and it’s not supposed to be all fun and games, but a book that’s well-suited to your talents and interests should, on some level, be enjoyable to write. If, instead, you find writing it feels like a daily stint on the San Quentin rock pile, you may very well be writing somebody else’s novel, not yours.
In baseball, they call the area around the plate in which a pitched ball is most likely to be pounded by a given batter his “wheelhouse,” and I believe all writers have wheelhouses of their own. That’s where your best work lies. Over time, as you grow as a writer, your wheelhouse grows naturally right along with you, broadening the range of material you can write reasonably well. But unless you’re one of those rare genetic mutations who are capable of writing anything they choose with equal brilliance, there will always be books that reside outside your wheelhouse, and those are the ones you’d be better off leaving alone. Taking a swing at them instead — to run with my baseball metaphor just a little while longer — is more likely to earn you a strikeout than a homerun.
There’s a published author of my very casual, online acquaintance who does a great deal of crowing about the diversity of his work and his determination to write in and across all genres. It seems he’s intent on writing any book, for any market, that suits his fancy. From an artistic point of view, this sort of blind ambition may be admirable, but as a business plan, I think it’s a disaster, because it’s based upon a rather vain assumption of professional infallibility that few, if any of us, can honestly claim. Anyone less than a literary phenom, in fact, following this guy’s formula, is going to write some books that work and a lot more that don’t, and surely life is too short to be wasting time writing the latter just to flaunt one’s disdain for boundaries.
Let me state for the record that none of this is meant to imply that a writer shouldn’t always try to stretch himself, or make a constant effort to avoid being pigeonholed. Versatility is a wonderful thing. I am, however, suggesting that smart authors assess their strengths, weaknesses and comfort level with certain types of material, honestly and accurately, and prioritize the things they write accordingly, for their best possible chance of success.
And they don’t much care how much credit they’re given for being someone who can write anything they damn well please.
Questions for the class: Name an author you love to read, but wouldn’t dare attempt to imitate, for the reasons I’ve stated above. Or instead, make an argument for why you think no kind of book should be off-limits to you.
(FINAL NOTE: The title for this post is another favorite outtake of mine from one of the Dirty Harry movies, this one from the titular DIRTY HARRY. It’s Harry’s answer when he’s asked to explain how he came to get his nickname: Because he always seems to catch “every dirty job that comes along.” Which, if I were a cynic, I might say is often the writer’s lot in life, too.)
(We interrupt our regularly scheduled blog post to announce that I’m in New York attending the Thrillerfest conference this weekend, and I’ve just witnessed our own J.T. Ellison receive the 2011 Thriller Award for Best Paperback Original [THE COLD ROOM]. And she was speechless. No, really, she was speechless — poor baby has a cold and has almost no voice. You go, J.T.!)
Most of you may not know this, but my last Murderati post was not technically my first. Way back in March, 2007, I wrote a guest blog here at the invitation of the late, great Elaine Flinn. (God, I miss that woman.)
The subject of that initial post was a partial WIP I loved to death but couldn’t sell. I referred to it as my MIaD, or “Manuscript In a Drawer.” If you’d care to read the whole post, the link above will take you to it in the archives, but here’s the only part of it that’s really relevant to what’s on my mind today:
(My) MIaD is 140 pages of a standalone thriller that has never found a reader who didn’t prove to be indifferent to it. My agent didn’t get it; my former editor passed on it without breaking a sweat; and the two or three other people to whom I’ve shown it over the years have all responded to it with a collective shrug.
It’s gotta suck, right?
I still can’t wrap my head around the idea that it might. It is going on seven years old, and the idea from which it sprang is much, much older than that, but here I am, as convinced as ever that this is one great book.
Well, it turns out I was right. ASSUME NOTHING — the MIaD I was referring to — will be published by Severn House in December, and it is indeed (in my most humble opinion) a great book.
What’s the “finally” mean, you ask? It means that, while I was right to have the faith in the book that I did back in March, 2007, I was also dead wrong to think that it didn’t suck. Because at that time, it did. I was just too in love with the material — and frankly, lazy — to see it.
Sure, I’d read and re-read the manuscript numerous times over the years. I’d even re-written large chunks of it on occasion. But at some point, I’d grown so familiar with it — and so tired of looking at it — that I just couldn’t read it with anything resembling an objective eye anymore. I didn’t have that kind of patience for it. So you know what I did, at least once, perhaps even twice? I did the unforgivable.
I sent it out for people to read without having really read the damn thing in months myself. Can you believe that?
(An email has just appeared in my Inbox from Corbett, asking for my Murderati membership card back. DELETE!)
Well, you can probably guess what happened. The book went back into the drawer, unloved and unsold, until a little over a year ago, when Severn House asked for a follow-up to CEMETERY ROAD and that old itch to see ASSUME NOTHING in print started demanding to be scratched again. So right back out of the drawer the manuscript came. Only this time, before I let even my new agent see it (my last one hated it, remember?), I set a full day aside, sat down in a comfortable chair with a cup of joe, and read the whole thing. Twice.
ARGGHHHHHHHH!!! It was dreck! I’d shipped this piece of crap to an editor I greatly admire at a house I’d kill to have publish me?
My Constitutional right to bear arms notwithstanding, I don’t own a gun, which is the only reason I didn’t blow my brains out at that very moment.
Oh, the premise I had so much undying faith in was there to be found, all right, as were a handful of great characters and set pieces. And the prologue, overall, was a fine piece of kickass writing. But the dialogue and narrative throughout? They were an embarrassment. Far below my usual standards, or at least, the standards I’d established since graduating high school.
Needless to say, I got started on a full re-write immediately, and didn’t send the reworked manuscript out to my agent, let alone my editor at Severn House, until I’d read and re-read the damn thing a dozen times. Each and every page.
Now it was “one great book.”
Great enough, anyway, that both my agent and Severn House loved it, and the rest, as they say, is history. Here’s what the book will look like in December:
So what exactly is the lesson to be learned from all this? I think there are several:
Shut up, sit down, and read that manuscript again.
Yes, I know you’re sick and tired of looking at it. You’ve been working on this frigging book now for what feels like half your life, and as fond of it as you are, you are absolutely sure you will hurl all over your Macbook if you have to read so much as one more paragraph of it. But do it anyway, because maybe, just maybe, it’s not all you thought it was the last time, and one more good, hard look might make all the difference between a manuscript you can sell and be proud of, and one that needs to stay in a drawer. A locked drawer.
You’re a better and more critical editor now than you were six months ago.
Because you’re also a better writer. Your expectations for your work should be rising right in line with your skills, so any manuscript you last read half-a-year ago or longer, while it may have struck you as utterly flawless then, is probably inferior to what you would find acceptable today. Never assume that something you read and found worthy of your name in February will pass muster with you in August. Your editorial judgment is constantly evolving, and you owe every word you send out into the world the benefit of its most recent — and discriminating — incarnation.
Enough lousy narrative and dialogue can (and probably will) make a no-sale out of any manuscript, no matter how great its general premise might be.
Nevermind an editor or an agent — don’t even think about letting your mailman read that book until you’ve followed my advice in Bullet Point 1 above.
There’s a reason so much is posted here at Murderati about the agony of receiving a copyedited manuscript from one’s publisher: We don’t want to read the goddamn thing ever again! Our minds are already busy formulating not only our next book, but our next three, so the last thing we want to do is revisit, with any real level of concentration, a book we’ve already written, re-written, read and re-read at least a dozen times. Does that sound like fun to you?
Fun or no, however, reading and re-reading your own stuff — slowly and deliberately — is part of the gig. And the author who tries to work around that part does so at his own peril.
Questions for the class: How many times can you read something you’ve written without wanting to scream? And for the published authors among us, do you ever go back and read your own books once they’re in print?