Friday, October 26, 2007

Novel Endings

I've always wondered why it is that people don't seem able to recall the actual endings of books they read, even ones they really enjoy. This goes for me, too.

Endings are tough to write, though. Real tough. Even mega-bestselling authors frequently end with turkeys but hopefully the ride there was enough fun to overlook them. (They never are, not really, but I'll be kind. I didn't even name names today! I must be mellowing...)

A reason occurred to me why this might be so, in genre fiction especially. In a crime novel, almost all of the time the good guy triumphs over the bad; the criminal goes to jail, gets the chair, or has his brains splattered over a nearby wall. Sure there are the minority cases where the bad guy gets away to fight in a later book in the series, and on really rare occasions actually blow away the hero. None of this is a surprise.

That good must (kind of) triumph over evil in crime fiction is as constraining as it is expected. How on earth does a writer do it and bring something (hopefully) fresh to the table? Is it even possible?

To me, a good book has its own style, its own voice. The ending may not have to be unique, but it has to be consistent with the style/voice that got me there. And it can't be something out of the blue. It may be inevitable from a convention standpoint, but it needs to make logical sense and hopefully, have aspects that are unpredictable yet copacetic with all that had come before. The actual ending "event" may not be a shock, but you should be surprised at something to do with how you got there.

Nothing's more disappointing than reading an exciting, edge of your seat potboiler and having it end with a sudden and single shot from the hero's gun when that surprise element is lacking. In a hugely popular book and as depicted in a hugely popular movie, the hero is floundering in a dark basement, the serial killer trapped and lurking nearby. A noise, a shot: the killer's dead. We're deprived even of a skillful shot, a quick draw, or a bait/trap scenario. We don't even get a ricochet. We get the next thing to pure dumb luck.

Does it tarnish the enjoyment I got from the book leading up to that point? You bet. Will most people even remember how it ended? Probably not. That's probably too bad.

I think I fall in the "if the author doesn't know how the book will end, how can the reader?" camp, as opposed to the "know the ending first" kind of writer. On the other hand, if I were freed from the traps of my own earlier chapters, I could maybe come up with something unique and then write towards it. But then I'm constraining all of the writing that comes before the end...

I think the only real answer is to write well, don't compromise or settle, and above all make the ending consistent with everything that brings the reader there. Dance with what brung ya. But that goes with so many things, and like most of them, is easier said then done.

(Clearly I'll forget how I closed this entry momentarily.)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Just Wondering

So I've been wondering about something, and I haven't really been able to think of examples to come up with a working answer to the question, which is: How accurate a predictor is a writer's first book to the body of work that follows?

Put another way, if an author's first book is a mediocre read, how many "improve" and produce excellent ones? I know of many that work the other way around (as I've blogged on and on about), where their first book or two are wonderful and then they slide into a continual repetition of their own formula.

At conferences I've heard it said that in the good old days, the average writer's first published novel is actually the second or third they've written. Nowadays it's supposedly their fifth or sixth, the point being that publishers aren't as willing to take on new talent and nurture it as they once did. Does this have an effect on the question?

So I leave this to anyone who may stumble across this and humbly ask for comments. What do you think? And do you have any examples?

Monday, October 22, 2007

So Wrong

Last week I got a call, completely out of the blue, from my doctor's office. The message was that they wanted me to come in for some more blood tests. Huh? A month or so ago they took blood to check my B vitamin and folic acid levels, and that was followed up by a letter saying those were all normal. So what's with the cold call? Slow day in medicine, need to drum up a bit of extra business? You want fries with that injection?

I call them back, leave a message, and hear nothing for twenty seven hours. Now they call back with a detailed request but with only minimal explanation. They want me in for an IPEP and an SPEP test, the voice says, and the diagnosis is anemia.

What diagnosis? When did this happen? Why was I not informed?

In any case, Ricky has an existing appointment this afternoon for a vaccination so I'm piggybacking my own blood giving on his time. I'm really hoping someone will come and talk to me and explain the why's and wherefore's. But maybe they're just going to take my blood and send me on my way. I'm a vegetarian so an iron deficiency wouldn't seem unlikely although there is iron in the multi-vitamin I take each morning.

Are there more nefarious causes of anemia? I don't know if I want to know yet. If they're happy keeping me uninformed, who am I to argue?

So I don't know if this frame of mind (it's been going on all weekend) has something to do with this, but I can't keep from laughing at the weekend's tragedy in New Delhi. Clearly we have a cultural bias wholly inappropriate to world culture where simians are concerned. In other words, I keep seeing how the poor vice mayor of New Delhi was attacked and killed by wild monkeys.

Why some deaths are contemplated more lightly than others I do not know. The same day I was hiking this weekend a recently married couple were hiking in another part of the mountains. They sat on a tree trunk to eat their lunch and it somehow broke, and then rolled over them after they fell. The wife was dead at the scene and the husband walked away.

This is sad. This is tragic. No grins, smiles, or winks are in danger of deforming my features. But a gang of wild monkeys attacking a grown man and tossing off his balcony to land on his head? I'm going to hell, I know, but I'm smiling as I type this and damn it I'm trying not to. The only defense I have is that I openly admit that a gang of rhesus macaques would likely kick my ass, too, and that possibly, just possibly, anemia affects the mind as well as the red blood cells.

Note that I'm staying away from all banana jokes for at least a week.

Monday, October 08, 2007


I used to watch Newt Gingrich's televised college lectures on obscure cable channels years ago, some time after he dropped out of elected office. I was incredibly impressed by his knowledge of history, government, and how and why politics works. This included the things that work well and the things that don't work so well. The really eye opening stuff came when he described why this was all so.

Anyway, he strikes me as being smart and incredibly knowledgeable, especially for a man whose choices in private life have made him all but un-electable. I came across these recent quotes of his on and they've done nothing to change my opinion:

"These aren't debates. This is a cross between [TV shows] 'The Bachelor,' 'American Idol' and 'Who's Smarter than a Fifth-Grader.'"

"What's the job of the candidate in this world? The job of the candidate is to raise the money to hire the consultants to do the focus groups to figure out the 30-second answers to be memorized by the candidate. This is stunningly dangerous."

There's no way he'll run but I think I'll give him my official endorsement right now.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Cure for the Common

As a boyhood comics fan, I was really excited to see the spate of movies based on Marvel Comics characters. The first X-Men was okay, and the second one a bit better. I was disappointed in Spider-Man because, despite what Stan Lee says, Tobey Maguire does not seem like the Peter Parker I used to read about. At all. The worst thing, though, is the ridiculously poor motion attributed to the Spider-Man character when he's onscreen doing his fight scenes.

I first thought his movements had the same (lack of) quality of a poor video game. Today I saw a trailer for an actual video game, "Spider-Man: Friend or Foe." Why, oh why, can't the producers of three major motion pictures do CGI animation as well as the Jolt Cola junkies working on a video game? The movements of the characters in the trailer were astounding compared to what was in the movies. It befuddles me.

Movies like The Punisher and the Blade franchise don't do much for me, probably because the characters never made an impression on me in the actual comics. Ghost Rider should have been cool but apparently wasn't. When a movie is that widely seen and that universally panned, I'll wait until a late night showing on the SciFi channel in five or six years. The commercials will give me an excuse to flip away.

I thought I wanted to see the first Fantastic Four movie. I missed it in the theaters and wondered if I'd missed out on something despite the reviews. Then I saw the second one and it cured me from the desire to see the first one. Even if Jessica Alba could act well enough to pull off the hokey poses and the uninspired, cliched dialog, the movie would still, um, suck.

The quality of Marvel's four animated features (two Avengers, Iron Man, and Doctor Strange) are, except for the crappy near anime style animation, is far and above better than all the live action pictures. I'm not sure what this means. My guess is that the answer is simple and that the crew behind the animated movies simply have higher standards. Not being mainstream Hollywood, I'm sure this is a much easier state of bliss to achieve.

On the other hand, their next release is going to be a kiddie Avengers flick. That will be a huge mistake. Muppet babies, anyone? But next summer, the John Favreau helmed Iron Man movie will be out. The trailer for that looks awesome, and gives hope to comics fans that a movie may finally do justice to the original comic books.