Tuesday, January 31, 2006

"Blog" is a Dirty Word

I came across a number of references to a site called CrimeSpot.net which acts as something of a portal for many writing and writing related blog sites. Kinda sorta at random I went to a site written by a gentleman whom I know nothing about but whose name I'd seen in various places.

The post on his particular blog said that the entry I was reading would be his last. The gist of it was he said that his blog, like most of the blogosphere (who comes up with these names?) is really a waste and that he'd rather spend his time writing something he'd get paid for (he's a television writer in his real life (that's not an oxymoron is it?)).

This depressed me and in a way, I felt rather diminished for spending time on this little blog here. When I started this, my specific goal was to learn how to write in this format well, and secondly, simply to write in a medium conducive to my child raising and health recuperating schedule. Because of the kids, I haven't even spent the time on this that I'd like; getting more than forty five seconds of uninterrupted time is a rarity and with that kind of shattered concentration, it's hard to do anything well.

I understand where carving out the time to write something worth writing for a mere blog can be difficult and of course if he no longer wants to do it he be all means should quit. But it doesn't sit right when he says that most of the blogs out there are a waste of time, although I'm sure he's right. So who am I to argue that his isn't one of them?

At the bottome of his post were a number of comments from his readers wishing him well in the future as they wished he weren't going. This means he had READERS.

We all write because we want to be read. We want to do it well, we want other people to enjoy it and agree we do it well, and we want to be recognized, at least on some level, for doing it at all. The fact that he had READERS, however many, meant that to them, at least, his words on that blog were something other than a waste.

The decision of whether or not he has the time to continue writing it is his alone to make, of course. It's entirely up to him. When I poke around his personal web site as well as some of his earlier blog postings, he comes across as a knowledgable, humorous, and capable writer (at least of those things). Because he has READERS, others must agree. In a significant and real way, the fact that someone reads something gives it a certain validity and I don't think it should be scoffed at no matter what the intention may be.

It's easy in some circles to disparage people who read chest bearing, pulse throbbing, Fabio covered romance novels, or comic books, and even Martha Stewart magazines and horoscope predictions but AT LEAST THEY'RE READING. And that's the important thing.

So I'm sorry that this gentleman has decided to quit blogging, and I'm really sorry that he considers the remaining bloggers mostly wasters of effort, but I'm still writing this one in the hopes that one day, I may have READERS, and they may find at least in some small measure, that they've been interested in something I've said. Even if it doesn't include a lusty lord, a stable, and a buxom chambermaid. But who knows, tomorrow is another day...

Sunday, January 29, 2006

How To Write More

A few posts ago I wrote about writing advice and what it may or may not be worth. While I could write my own book (that no one would buy), there are still more things I'd like to say. No one's going to teach you how to write. As I've said earlier, I believe you either have the talent or you don't. Having it, though, doesn't mean you'll be successful, either as someone who completes a single, poor, unpublished novel or someone who actually sells something somewhere. You have to learn the craft, learn how to actually build a novel, and then you have to do it to achieve the kind of fluency you want in order to produce something you can be proud of. And then you have to be damned persistent and do it all over again. And again and again.

Unless you're a hack, and you don't aspire to quality, or to something unique or filled with your own style or voice. Then you just need luck, a good contact, a good book doctor, or something.

You won't be really good unless you try to be really good. Chances are this won't happen right off the bat, of course, it rarely does in the course of any pursuit. But there's no substitute for the learning process. Which is why purported "rules" are harmful: more often than not, rather than keep you on the right path, they dictate directions for you to follow that may not have been what your own talent would have wanted. They stifle, they suppress. The only real rule should be to do what works for you. The trick is in finding it.

Not too long ago I was at a conference where two established woman writers were dishing out a number of these juicy nuggets, buoyed by the eager questions of the mostly geriatric crowd. No, I wanted to shout, don't listen. Follow your own gut as a writer (if you really are one), don't let this poison you. I walked out after the second point, which was a difficult thing for me to do. It's one thing to rant to friends or on a blog site without readers, but it's another to get up from the second row of a crowded room and abandon a presentation.

Rudeness aside, the point they had just made, or rule of law they laid down, had to do with the age of your protagonist (I forgot what it was they actually said, my steam had already risen to the point where I was building the courage to walk out). When a woman raised her hand and said that the hero of her book was a fifty year old woman, both authors shook their heads no and one of them immediately said something like, "No. That won't work, you'll have to change it."

Amazing advice given by someone whose only knowledge of the work in question was the age of the main character. They didn't know what her background was supposed to be, what the plot was, nothing of the sort. Perhaps the story was a mystery come to light after a woman loses her adult family through a tragic accident at sea. Or whatever. The point is that this woman could have been a truly gifted writer with a unique, heart rending character and situation worthy of the next Pulitzer Prize. But not according to the two presenters whose point of view they justified as having an appeal to the younger generation of editors found at most publishing houses.

My only solace was that if this woman were actually the next big writing thing, she would have gotten out of her seat and left a thousand times over before raising her hand and laying out for these two ladies. Her writer's gut would have made it so.

So there's a point about rules, here's one about the actual writing life. Years ago, at a writer's retreat in the Everglades, I met both Randy Wayne White and Peter Mattiessen. I'll write about this another time as it was a seminal point in my writing development but the point I want to make here is how Randy told me he structures his writing day.

Until about halfway through the book, he says that he begins each morning by reading everything he's written thus far before doing any new writing. He said that was how he got into the narrative flow each day and allowed him to pick up where he had left off.

This method makes a lot of sense to me and is something I'd recommend people try. I can't do it now, however, and I may never be able to. When I read what I've previously written, I get so hung up on every conceivable flaw or doubt as to what I'm doing that I can't climb out of the resulting depression in time to be productive. So you see why this would be another lousy rule: it simply can't work for everybody.

I found that for me, I had to continue to write the book I thought I had in my head. That book wasn't so flawed that I'd have to stop, drop and rewrite before I could write another sentence. That book reads the way I'd intended in my mind, no matter how I may have botched it on actual paper. And that way I could get through the book.

A lot of this has to do with the confidence you have in your own writing. You're told your whole life that writing a book is damned hard, that few people can do it, and what makes you think you're one of them. On top of that are all the unvocalized self-doubts you bring to the table: what does make me think I can do this? Who the hell am I, anyway?

Name any established book-a-year author that's been around for a while. Imagine what they're thinking as they're writing the next installment in their bestselling series. Are they wondering if what they're writing will be published? Nah, they're already under contract. Think how freeing that must be. That's why following your gut and learning the craft of writing is so important: so that you can develop for yourself the talent of having confidence in what you write. How could you possibly write well without that?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Harlan Ellison and the Death of IT

A number of times in my life I have been called "picky." The first few times it was difficult from thinking of the term as a pejorative but I gradually came to terms with it. First of all, it was never said with intent to injure (that's what I tell myself, anyway). Secondly, I realized that if one weren't "picky," a "perfectionist," or something similar, how the hell would you ever do anything excellent? I'd much rather be picky than careless or haphazard. The trick is in not letting your own personal value system turn into the basis for which you judge others.

Harlan Ellison blew that for me.

There are very few writers who I would recommend to the world as writers, as opposed to recommending certain books by writers. For instance, Ridley Pearson's "Undercurrents" is a superb mystery/thriller but unfortunately, in my opinion, he doesn't maintain that standard. I could say the same about all of the "two good books and they're out" people I've mentioned in previous posts. If I recommend a particular author and you pick up one of their turkeys, then nobody wins.

Ellison is a short story writer, a critic and an essayist of the first order. Especially in his non-fiction work, when Ellison writes something it's like he's injecting his words directly into the cognitive centers of your brain. You know exactly what he's trying to say as if he were sitting next to you and spelling it out. He puts his words together in combinations so right you marvel. I can't read anything by Ellison or James Lee Burke before I write myself because I find myself subconsciously mimicking their talents. Losing proposition.

Anyway, Ellison has a story about when he was a young and struggling writer in, I believe, New York City. At some point he decides he needs to find a "real" job and the next morning bright and early hits the pavement. He lucks into an office that happens to have an opening and he's given the job on the spot. On his way out of the office, he sees that it's filled with applicants for that same job; an ad had appeared in that morning's paper and work was hard to find. Anyway, after a morning's worth of menial office work, a co-worker told him to slow down, he was making the rest of them look bad and he'd only make the bosses expect more out of them all. That did it for Ellison. He threw the work up in the air and stomped off, unwilling to work in that kind of compromising situation. It didn't meet the standards by which he wanted to live his life.

Sadly, I took that as some kind of permission to do the same thing.

I used to work in the IT industry. It used to be a good gig but something happened to it along the way and many, many of the good people have gotten out of it. My real estate agent is an ex-IBMer. My wife and I had a dance instructor in Atlanta who was an ex-systems administrator. And on and on and on. When I began way back when at about the time the personal computer came out, the field was filled with many different kinds of people but most had one thing in common: they were good with the technology. They had to be; the industry was so new there were damn few experts. You couldn't afford to screw up too much; you had to be your own safety net.

As time went on, the industry matured and computers became indispensable to businesses of all types and sizes, demand for IT workers exploded. This caused many people to be attracted to the field; employment rates and salary levels were excellent and projected to be so indefinitely. Unfortnuately many of these people either had no real talent for the work itself (despite their academic background), or they came into it with a surface understanding and a conceited attitude.

IT is now so filled with the wrong people that it may never recover. Instead of people who truly understand the technology, it's inundated with people who are impressed with their own web pages or ability to get to the thirtieth level of some video game. There are exceptions, of course; there always are. But in my experience over the years they've become more and more the minority.

Here are three examples taken from my last couple of jobs. Most recently, I was in charge of the databases for a software services company. One of the developers created an application that would require two copies of the data to be stored and maintained, a nightmare to keep in sync. In a better world, he would have communicated with me first. When I pointed out the problem, he agreed but simply put up his hands and said, "I work for David." Meaning: I don't care if it's wrong, I just do what I'm told. (I had to go to the boss, argue with him until he saw the flaws and the ease of the correction, and then go back and make it right.)

At another, I was replacing a supervisor on a job that was way over budget and two weeks from deadline. My time at the job site was limited and there was simply no way I could come up to speed on the year long project in time to be of material use. I asked the client how he felt about the job and he told me he was nervous as hell; the program HAD to be working in two weeks and he didn't see how that was going to happen. I asked him what if anything would make him feel better and he requested the presence of one of the developers who had worked on a key portion of the program. I spoke to my boss and arranged for that individual to be taken off his current assignment and sent to this one. I was later maligned for getting myself off of a paying assignment (never mind the client's concerns or the fact that they were over 300% over budget for the project).

On the last one, I was again sent to replace someone on a job that was two weeks away from a completed installation. Rather than complete the job, shake out the bugs, and then turn it over, I was thrown into the fire. When problems came up during the program testing, I was very limited at what I could do. I didn't have the client specific knowledge, gleaned by my predecessor over the previous year, to know which numbers should be added, subtracted, divided or multiplied on which of the dozens of reports. The client didn't understand why they should have to break me in, especially at that stage of the project, when the last guy could be made available. I agreed with them. It's called common sense, I think. They told my boss they didn't want me, they wanted the first guy. Surprise.

I couldn't take it anymore. I thought about having to wallow through this same slime pit for another twenty some years before I could retire and I was reduced to tears. I didn't want to be a dance instructor or a real estate agent but I did want to be a writer. So I quit IT.

One weekend I completely cleaned out my office. I didn't know if anyone would notice or not but I thought that if they did, it would send a good signal. Later that week I tried to force the less than honest people I worked for to be honest and truthful and they wouldn't. So I said let's just call it quits. They then had the grace to suggest that if I ever tried to access their servers they'd prosecute me. Cute. After two plus years, that's how much they knew me. I didn't wish them harm, I just wished me out. They'll seek their own level and if there's any cosmic justice (there isn't), they'll sink on their own good time.

See, what Harlan Ellison showed me was how the individual can compromise and be corrupted by people not worthy of doing that to you. Reading his story allowed me to sow the seeds of my own discontent. I also realized that I didn't get along very well with the pretentious people who had found their way over to IT. And while all this makes for some difficult times, eyebrow raising from relatives, and a major adjustment in lifestyle, it is all worthwhile. It has to be, unless I don't follow my passion and rise above the underachieving chaff of my former life.

Thank you, Mr. Ellison.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

How To Write

I think that until you can walk into your local Barnes & Noble or Borders and buy a pile of my well reviewed, highly regarded works, any advice on writing I would have to give would be difficult to justify. I did write one complete novel (see the link at the top right of the page) that I didn't sell; I didn't try very hard but the last editor who saw it said that it was publishable, she just didn't care for the main character. Neither do I, so I find it's tough to push a book after your own belief falters. I then wrote most of another one and although it was very different than the first, I found I was recreating the same problems from the first book so I stopped short of writing the ending in favor of the next big effort.

Sadly, I let that become derailed with a temporary move to a new city and a new job that demanded so much time (and paid with a commensurate level of stress) and before I new it, a number of years had passed without the production of a new novel. The ambition and desire never decreased, and if anything the studying increased, and now that I have been battling chronic illnesses for several years, the 43 thousand word start that I have now languishes in the desk drawer. Now I'm out of my old career in IT and we're taking steps to getting me to a place where I can begin writing again.

But enough of me. What I wanted to write about here was a general thought on some of the writing advice that's out there. Notice I said some, because this can be a huge topic. Also, I think anybody who asserts the existence of any de facto rules should be seriously questioned.

As one of many, many people who have always felt the need to write, I never felt I knew just how to go about it. I started writing short stories because for some reason lost to history I thought it would be easier than writing books. I was never sure what people meant when they said that most writers could write one or the other well, but usually not both. I think that short stories are easier from the standpoint that the writer can hold the entire concept in their mind as opposed to a novel, where it's simply too big for that. That being said, today I have no idea how to write a short story. The idea mystifies me and I'll save that discussion for another time.

Whenever I tried to begin a novel, I realized quite clearly how difficult it was when I couldn't make it go anywhere or do the things that I wanted. Like many people, I tried to find sources of information, advice that could make me figure out just what the hell these people were able to do that I wasn't. I never believed that it was something that I couldn't do, just something I didn't know how to do.

The two most common pieces of advice I came across were the notion of writing every day, and write as fast as you can. Just get it on paper, you can always edit it later. While this may be sage for some, it added to my bewilderment. If I didn't know how to go about writing, writing every day wasn't going to help me. If I wrote just to get it all down on paper, well, I found that garbage begets garbage and just putting down deficient pages with the idea of fixing it later bogged down in a hurry. If page 2 is built on page 1, and page 3 is built on the heels of page2, the worse the text became as the dilution progressed. Very quickly it had to stop.

Writing every day is probably the best possible advice but only once you find out how to actually produce a novel. After paging through book after book by published writers, the advice therein overwhelmingly not helpful (did they really write like this themselves? I could never quite believe it.), I came across one by Lawrence Block, "Telling Lies for Fun & Profit." Hallelujah, the key has been found.

Block couldn't tell me how to write a book, which is entirely appropriate, but he could tell me how to figure it out for myself. His advice (this is from my foggy memory but it should be close enough) is to read three novels straight through. Then reread each one and after each chapter write a few hundred words about what happened. Then reread them again and write a couple of sentences about why it happened, or how it moved the story along. Aha! For the first time I could begin to see the structure of different novels, identify the individual pieces and the bricks that the story is built upon.

He also talks about how he himself has to write well each page, and not quick. He would do some editing after the book is finished but each page has to be as close to final draft quality as possible, otherwise he ends up with a pile of trash. Again I'm paraphrasing but this was exactly the way I felt about writing.

So suddenly I was on my way. Writing every day could be a good thing at last, and I could begin learning the actual craft of writing. I believe that millions of people out there can write beautiful sentences. A small subset of those can write beautiful paragraphs, and fewer still can write quality paragraphs or pages. And then there's the dialogue and the pacing, the style and originality, all the intangible things that identify a work as that of a truly gifted writer.

On the other hand, there is a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program at a university in South Florida that actually teaches its students to "copy" a book (their word) in order to learn how to write. They say to find a book that you like and rewrite it with your own characters and (hopefully) plot. This shocks me. Where Block's advice helps you discern the structure of a book and thereby learn its nature, this latter advice simply rips it off. Sure, the writer should end up learning something about it, but only by sacrificing a spark of creativity, the learning of the craft of writing, and, I think, one's integrity. It may be a subtle distinction but I don't think so. This program has produced a number of published writers, including a bestselling one and a few who do fairly well.

My summation is that before you can write a book, you need to figure out what makes up a book. This won't make up for poor grammar, a dearth of originality, a banal style and just a lack of talent. But if you at least have the abiltiy to produce a finished work, it should get you started. Writing is another matter entirely and guess what? Not even copying will help you there, even if an editor somewhere finds the result publishable.

Friday, January 06, 2006

There's A Point in Here, Somewhere

Usually it's a mistake if you begin writing without a clear idea of your message, what the point is that you're trying to make. Sometimes, though, trying to focus on a complex thought can either distill it to something less than its whole or else leave you with something else entirely. But, as a comic book writer once said, "Some mistakes are too tempting not to repeat." I love that line, so here goes.

Many adults who are voracious or avid readers began by devouring the juvenile fiction of the day. In my case there was the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series, chiefly written by Robert Arthur, The Hardy Boys, of course, and a bunch of mysteries by a woman writer who may or may not have been Mary Roberts Rinehart. We can't forget Encyclopedia Brown and the books about Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary, either. Today, of course, it would the Harry Potter books, perhaps Lemony Snicket, hopefully Robert Cormier. New editions of some of the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators books are in print only with Alfred Hitchcock himself edited out of both titles and content.

But after these books were satisfactorily absorbed, many of us (apparently the male ones anyway) moved on to science fiction. This lasted throughout my school days and into early adulthood where mysteries, thrillers, bestsellers and some of the classics struck my fancy as being more adult fare. Now that I've found that this was not a unique progression and I spend time reflecting upon it, it dawns on me quite strongly that all too often the more "adult" we get, the worse the writing.

Sadly, I can't read "modern" science fiction: intergalactic wars, Star Wars ripoffs, evil empires and other cliches seem to have doomed it for me. This also seems to be true for the people who followed this same path. (Robert Charles Wilson is an exception for me, but I don't enjoy him so much as the oldies, and he's nowhere near as popular as he probably should be.)

As for modern thrillers and mystery novels, far too many are the same old thing, poor shadows of some well worn original concept. Isn't this a shame? Aren't we always on the lookout for new writers to like? Shouldn't we be more disappointed when the talented ones start out well and then fade into their own brand of complacency (the two book rule I keep ranting about)?

Kind of the point I'm trying to bring into focus has to do with how the old science fiction writers we grew up on had to work harder for less success than the blockbuster writers of today. Guys like Jack Vance, Larry Niven, Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov and many others simply couldn't pull a deus ex machina out of a hat and be taken seriously in the science fiction world. More was expected of them; they would have looked silly. Yet we excuse it in many of the works of today's bestselling mystery and thriller writers.

Consider Larry Niven who once said that you can't imagine the automobile without also imagining the traffic jam. Clearly there's a level of thought and consideration, of uniqueness, that he puts into not only an individual book but infuses as an element of his craft. When's the last time you were blown away by dialogue in a mystery/thriller novel? Clever wordplay (and I mean beyond the level of a pun)? In a short story Jack Vance created dialogue like this for a ship captain berating his shocked crew members into action: "Gentlemen, you hesitate. You fail to exert yourselves, you luxuriate in sloth." (That's from memory because I can't remember the name of the story itself.)

These are perhaps poor examples; I'm still drifting in a vagueness here. Do writers writing well in a particular field have to write better in genres with lesser status than others? Now that I think about it, it seems likely. So what if today's mystery/thriller writers learned from this? What if they pushed themselves to extrapolate their own universes to the degree of seeing cars and traffic jams, what if they wrote dialogue that inspired rather than disguised itself in cuss words and slang? Could we help break away from the rule of two-good-books-before-lower-standards for our current "stars?"

Here's another perspective. In the current issue of the literary magazine Granta, there is a story about a sightseeing couple who pick up a hitchhiker just prior to seeing road signs alerting drivers to the presence of numerous detention facilities in the area. Once they see the signs and pass the prisons, the mood in the car has shifted severely, and does so again when the passenger calmly states that he's not inclined to leave the car. There's another one with a shifting perspective that makes it difficult until the end to see which of the characters are really alive and which ones are ghosts. Sounds like Alfred Hitchcock territory, doesn't it?

Why are these literary stories and not genre ones? The writing itself doesn't hold a candle to say, the prose of James Lee Burke. The concepts and themes aren't revolutionary, either. In fact, I'd be tempted to say the writing itself, while okay, is the thinnest part of the stories. Is that their quality? Do the most literary stories not only have the weakest writing, must they have? In more trivial categorizations such as the science fiction and mystery genres, do we forge better writers as a necessary part of taking their work seriously?

That's not to say that literary writers can't write well; I'm merely implying a distribution (bell shaped curve?) rather than a hierarchical classification. But likewise genre writers aren't by definition inferior ones.

People who don't try to write well suck; it doesn't matter what kinds of books they write or how well they sell. People who try but fail are still okay. Let's just hope they work hard and try to get better. That's the key, isn't it? When we mistake sales figures for quality, when publishers and authors assume approval of this state of things because mediocre books sell well, we're missing an opportunity to look at our entire literary heritage and possibly evolve into something new and better.

So what's my point? We should be more genre inclusive in our reading tastes? Can we look at the best works across all of fiction and learn and improve our mastery of the craft? Is this enough babbling?

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Hard Case King and Others

Coincidentally to reading his "'Salem's Lot," next up for me from Hard Case Crime happened to be his "The Colorado Kid." As I've mentioned before, Hard Case Crime is a paperback publisher, about a year old now, who is doing a brilliant job of bringing out Gold Medal type reprints, most long out of print, as well as original novels written in the same tradition.

In their first year, they've published books from somewhat forgotten heroes of old like Wade Miller and Day Keene, and grandmasters Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake (Richard Stark, too). Out of a number of award nominations, Domenic Stansberry won the Edgar for "The Confession" and Max Phillips won a Shamus for "Fade to Blonde." The covers of their books all feature newly commissioned art, again straight from the hard boiled style of the past.

This month their sixteenth book is being released. They seem to be averaging about one title per month and naturally I buy them all; I can't help it, they're actually numbered on the spines. One of the good things they do, and this harkens back to my point about the price of mass market paperbacks versus trade paperbacks, is list their books at a price of $6.99. This help keeps them accessible, especially when compared with some of the other houses admirably rediscovering "lost" authors but in trade paperback format with a sticker of more than double Hard Case's.

Anyway, apparently in response to a request for King to write an intro to one of Hard Case's forthcoming books, he offered to actually write a novel instead. What a boon to a small publisher fighting to make a mark on the reading public. And once more, they released it last October with a price of $5.99. I have no idea what their sales figures are, but I would imagine them to be significant.

The problem, though, is that the book is neither hard boiled nor noir. It is not a mystery, though it describes one. It is not a thriller; it is merely a discussion between two old small town newspapermen and their summer intern. While they describe the facts they've unearthed the past twenty five years regarding the appearance of a corpse on the beach, there is no crime and also no resolution. In short, it's something of an odd duck, a big name from a small press with a book outside the expected parameters.

King actually provided an afterword in the book and he states that since life itself rarely has a tidy ending, he didn't feel his story did, either. Okay, that helps to explain, sort of, why he wrote what he wrote, but the fact that he felt he needed to actually state it in an afterword is a mite peculiar. I'm glad it's there, and it helped me to read it, but what does it say about the work itself if even the author thinks it needs to be explained? Shouldn't that happen in the book itself?

I didn't mind the book itself; it's very short, and King's style is so quick to read that it's almost like devouring a short story. The tone is light and conversational throughout and if anything, upbeat and life affirming. It sticks out as cute in the sea of tough guy existentailist plots and characters of the rest of the line. King does something that I find annoying here (he does it often in other works, as well) by incorporating pop music of the seventies as props. Get off the Cat Stevens references, please. Usually when any author uses pop music lyrics, songs, album names, whatever, it causes a break in the narrative flow either because we get it, it's really not that clever, and it never has joy for the reader in the same way it does for the writer.

King completists will want it by definition, Hard Case Crime completists will buy it (it's those damn numbers on the side), and they deserve the exposure King has brought them, including a feature on CBS's "Sunday Morning" show. Being the book that it is, I wish we could see what this all means. Though the King name will sell "The Colorado Kid," are those fans more or less likely to purchase other Hard Case Crime titles? Do they even notice the publisher and what it is they're about? Would those that didn't care for the book not buy other Hard Case titles because of that, or would those that like it be disappointed in the others?

The reason I mentioned the two categories of completists is that I think those tendencies skew or warp interpretations of the actual figures. For instance, Hard Case Crime has already published one book by Max Alan Collins, a writer whose knowledge and passion I admire but whose writing I do not, with another one scheduled for 2006. Not only did I buy the book with the presumption that I probably would not like it, I actually read it, confirming my fears. It was tough going but it's that completist instinct again. I will almost certainly buy the forthcoming title but I will fight any impluse to actually read the darn thing.

On the Rara-Avis list, someone who seemed to have similiar opinions posted a comment about the Collins book. Hard Case Crime's publisher actually replied that the sales figures for that book were comparable to the sales for the other titles, which is my point. We bought it for the publisher's imprint, to have a complete series, to support the effort to bring out the work in general. It's just difficult to identify the lemons based on straight sales. Presumably "The Colorado Kid" outsold all the other Hard Case titles but it certainly doesn't mean it's the best book of the series; it's not even a representative sample.

I really wonder what King could do if he wrote a hard boiled or noirish novel. This would have been a perfect opportunity to reach a knowledgable fan base outside his normal following but he did something else instead (a commercial?) The bottom line for me is that the price of the book as well as its brevity make it such a minimal investment to read that it doesn't really disappoint; it's just over too quickly. It's just an odd duck, a brief out of focus moment for a worthwhile publisher, but it's also a missed opportunity. Hats off to everyone involved for making this book happen, I just wish it had turned out a bit differently.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

King of Literature, part II

Reviewing books is a tricky thing. John Irving says that to do it right, you'd need to read all of an author's work so that you can see all that he's done, see his growth, get a sense of what he's trying to be about, etc. (I'm probably paraphrasing somewhat). This makes a lot of sense but would limit the pool of reviewers to a more knowledgable group, probably decimating the ranks of reader reviews at Amazon.com. Oh, darn.

That being said, I wanted to follow up my post on the definition of literature and Stephen King with some thoughts on his second novel, "'Salem's Lot." No, I haven't read all of King's books (I just can't do it) but I have read maybe half a dozen of his novels, a number of short stories, and a few novellas. I'm not an expert by any means but I do feel that while we're all unique as individual humans, if something bothers or excites me, it's likely to bother or excite many others, as well. Many writers and artists make their careers between those lines, and that's a good thing. If my own quality meter were the only gateway to publishing today there'd be damn few books out there.

Anyway, in my on again, off again effort to at least partially understand Stephen King, I wanted to read one of his earliest books. I was very pleasantly surprised but there were two main things I had to overcome and they both sadly took away from my enjoyment.

Normally I won't watch a movie or television event based on a book that I'd think I'd like to someday read. That being said, I've watched both TV miniseries based on "'Salem's Lot" and oddly enough, cracked the door to giving King another shot. The events of the miniseries are so faithfully modelled on the book (a good thing really) that I wasn't able to be surprised when I read it. Unfortunate it worked out that way.

But the other problem I had was brought on by the reactions I've had toward King's other work that I've read. These are the same things by and large that make it difficult for me to ever be a fan. For instance, there's just an occasional hint of King's politics and opinions of Nixon. What is there is worked into the context of the story and not thrown out as unwanted diatribe, as he's done in other pieces.

Another thing that is done with a light touch here is the use of nursery rhyme-like phrases or turns that in future works are done repetitively and with a heavy hand. Here his treatment of children strikes me as accurate and nearly dead on with how I feel kids in my time really spoke and really acted. The portrayals here are not caricatures or cartoonish.

When compared to the later books I've read (or tried to but put down) "'Salem's Lot" reads as if King had a sharp editor working for him or else a tighter control of his own narrative instincts. One of his books that I couldn't get through, "Desperation," suffers from a verbal diarrhea where seemingly every word or phrase that pops into King's mind makes the printed page.

In everything that King writes, his style is deceptively clear and easy to read. But when he his younger characters quote too many movie or TV phrases or when his characters' dialogue is too cartoonish or they use bizarre choices to phrase ordinary sentences, the reader is taken out of this flow. The writing takes you out of the narrative and that should never happen, especially when it appears gimmicky or self-indulgent.

None of this is so in "'Salem's Lot." I loved how the book is structured: the focus changes from character to character and then to the town, or the minor characters that live there. The story unfolds swiftly, surely, but subtly, and without the landmines that blow me out of much of his later work ("Misery" is at least one exception). The plot ties together well without relying on unplanned coincidence that tramples on the readers' willing suspension of disbelief. It is a complex tale told simply and told well. If it weren't for my earlier exposure to the TV movies or for the hints of the bad things he'd do in his later novels, it would have scared the pants off me.

I'd love to compare this book to Dan Simmons "Summer of Night" but for the reasons just stated I'm not sure that I can. The writing is probably better in King's book but the scenes of small town horror in rural Illinois in "Night" bring back every terrifying moment from the Creature Feature movies I used to see as a kid, the books I read, and the creepy feelings I'd get at night crossing the local cemetery as a short cut to the ball fields in Connecticut. These are done better here but I'm let down by the end; again, not so in King's book.

("Summer of Night" and its sequel, "A Winter Haunting" (an absolutely brilliant psychological horror story - did "Summer of Night" really happen?) are apparently in the process of being made into a movie.)

I have a friend who, if not an expert, is much more of a King fan and expert than I will likely ever be. He recommended to me King's book on the craft of writing called "On Writing." Although King's would have been among the last of such books that I'd ever seek out, I picked up a copy out of respect for my friend and will try to get through it in the future (note the uncertainty). In the Second Foreword of the edition that I have, King himself quotes the immortal Strunk and White work, "The Elements of Style." He cites the principle "Omit needless words" and says that he will try to do that there. I don't know yet if he succeeds; he did in "'Salem's Lot," not so in "Desperation" and others. I find this ironic.

So I'm left not knowing where I stand on King personally. Does my King-as-future-Literature argument still stand? Absolutely. Can I ever be a fan? Of individual books, certainly, but not of his oeuvre. Even on my most pessimistic days, I felt that King could write and write well, if he really tried to. Did he, in his earlier works (did he become a member of the write two excellent books than lapse into your own formula club - talked about in an earlier post), and change his mind later? Did he have an assertive editor, was he experimenting, was he writing for market? Personally I really wonder if he just wasn't writing too damn much and too damn fast. I think that quality must suffer at a certain speed.

I still don't know. I don't know the man and if I ever met him and asked him this stuff he'd probably be justified in pouring his martini down my shirt. I want to like him, though. As I said in the first post, he's done a lot of good things for writers and other little guys and clearly has a love and respect for books and literature. So while he may not have a lasting affect on my bookshelf, I still believe he will on others in a far future time. Would that we all could rest in such peace.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Where Did All the Ushers Go?

I know I'm not alone when I list my wife and I as folks who not only no longer go to movies as much as we used to, we no longer go at all. The curious thing is that of all the people that I know in this group, we still love the things. There are a number of reasons for not going and I think the biggest has a lot in common with what I said in an earlier post about publishers missing the boat with mass market paperback: the cost of movies has crept up past the point of easy forgiveness when the movies themselves are mostly muck. In other words, drop the prices and make better movies, and we'll all flock back to the theaters.

Well, almost. The single BIGGEST problem, to me, is that just sitting in the theater is an exercise in frustration. Everyone talks. To each other, to their cell phones, to the movie itself. When this plague first reached epidemic proportions, I thought the reasons were probably twofold. First, the omnipresence of VCRs had brought movies into our living rooms where we could jabber, poke fun and yell at the dog while the movies played on the small screen. Second, the rise of multiplexes, or sixteen screens where there used to be one, necessitated a reduction of the sound of the movie. When I was a kid, the sheer volume drowned out conversation and made it impractical to be so discourteous for all but a few. And we had ushers, kids with flashlights that made their way down the aisles asking those few to keep it quiet and the rest of us to keep our feet off the backs of the chairs in front of us.

Now I wonder if there's a different reason underlying this behavior. After innumerable ruined screenings and proposed altercations from fellow patrons after I politely asked them to be quiet, I've decided people are just plain rude. Kids, adults, seniors, all of us. Just look at the way we drive on the roads. When did they take the requirements for using turn signals off the drivers license tests?

People will always want to go to the movies. Rather than pony up twenty bucks for two tickets and a small popcorn and soda to share with my wife, we'll pay that for the DVD version and watch it at home. We can be our own distractions, thank you. This isn't necessarily bad news for the studios, either. They make more from a DVD sale than they do on a movie ticket. Of course we'd all like to see good films sweeping across a giant screen with incredible sound systems broadcasting from all sides. They have home theater systems for that, too, but that's another story.

So, Hollywood: to get us back to the theaters, bring back the ushers! Drop your prices! Make better movies! Just in case that doesn't sound easy enough, here are a few of the things people I know would like to elimiate from the Hollywood style book once and for all. They're overdone, repetitive, intelligence-insulting, and take away from the value of your art.

Way back when, I was an extra in the film "Purple Rain." That was when I became aware of the nearly ubiquitous trick of hosing down the streets to give the wet look to all the outdoor shots, especially in the city. It didn't rain. The cars are dry, the people aren't wearing raincoats or carrying umbrellas. It's just supposed to look good for the cameras. A really absurd example is in the Will Smith/Gene Hackman movie "Enemy of the State," but this is done ALL the time. Stop it.

Speaking of that movie (and too many others), the ability exists in movieland to take a grainy image and "enhance" it to a fine level of detail. Sorry, you can clean up images to a degree but not to the point of filling in information that was simply never captured in the first place. Or aren't we supposed to notice?

Who are these computer hackers who can find their way into any computer or network in the world, all from the convenient all-powerful laptops they carry with them wherever they go? EVERYONE has firewalls, encryption and other innovations that disallow exactly this kind of attack. And I'd be with you as far as guessing the occasional password of someone you have a personal relationship with, but not that of a complete stranger. "Did you try their birthday?" "Okay, I'm in." No, you're not.

And what's up with all these scenes where hapless victims find their way in the path of oncoming cars and trucks? Time after time, these vehicles have ample time to mash down on their horns but they never think of actually taking their foot off the gas, actually stepping on the brake, or even swerving out of their lanes. And the people they're going to hit have all the time in the world to look horrified, frozen in the moment of their destiny, possibly even throwing an arm across their eyes to fend off this certain doom. Um, step out of the way, already. It would be time better spent.

Get rid of the stupid one liners like those popularized in (especially Roger Moore's) James Bond movies, later ripped off and multiplied (in quantity and poor effect) by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude van Damme. Stop outrunning machine gun fire. You can't really do it, and those railings can't keep catching all of the bullets.

How about working the slide on an already loaded semi-automatic pistol before going into the dark warehouse or the held up bank? Um, once the clip is inserted, the slide is worked to put a round in the chamber. Without that, it can't be fired. They should be taking off the safety, not working the slide every time they pull their guns. And that metal on metal racking noise that it makes: this is not appropriate in those scenes where the bad guys (or good ones, I guess) simply point their guns at a new target. You pointed, you didn't break down and reload your guns. Cheap sound effect. By the same token not a knife or a sword can be drawn without that delectable metal on metal scraping sound. No leather sheaths for these people.

But the number one most annoying movie practice is the overuse of CGI, or Computer Generated Images. "King Kong" is enjoying moderate success in the box office right now but it will make its money back on foreign rights and DVD sales. I still won't see it, though. I gave up on all Hollywood remakes and seventies TV show adaptations a long time ago. If you can't even come up with new ideas, people... I saw the original "Kong," and it is a classic. What the hell are you going to do it now, make a better classic? Oh, right, you can use CGI effects to create a fake gorilla, a fake city, and fake airplanes firing fake-- Well, you get the idea. Bottom line is that I felt bad for the big fella the first time around and I still wish they'd just leave him alone.

Movie magic has always been about fantasy and showing us things that make us believe we're seeing what we really aren't. But if I want CGI, I'll play a video game, because that's all it is. It ain't the movies I know and love, but those don't play in theaters anymore. And neither do I or many of my friends. Good luck, movie theater land. Hollywood may not need you much longer, either.