Tag Archives: Fiction

Learning from Stephen King

If you read this blog with any kind of regularity you know I’m a Stephen King fan. Not so much of his recent works—Duma Key is one I have a hard time remembering the title, let alone the story, and Under the Dome was something of a disappointment as well—but when it comes to his older stuff… well, that’s where my heart is.

The-Stand-Book-CoverFirst off, there’s The Stand, probably his magnum opus, at least in my opinion. It is a close second, and a novel I love to revisit on occasion. And ’Salem’s Lot will always hold a special place in my heart as it’s the first Stephen King novel I ever read—after seeing the second half of the miniseries back in the day and wanting to know what happened in the first half. In our book-poor county, I had a heck of a time finding a copy, but once I’d read it I was hooked.

There’s no way I can count up the pleasurable hours I’ve spent lost in Mr. King’s worlds, from his Dark Tower series, to The Dark Half and his short story collections (he’s one of the few authors I’ll read when it comes to shorts), his words played a big part in my decision to be a writer.

Now, whatever you may think of Mr. King and his works, I think we can agree on one thing: he’s a good benchmark when it comes to a writer’s dreams of success. He’s a regular bestseller, and even he has lamented on more than one occasion that he could probably publish his laundry list and it’d be a hit.

Mr. King is good for inspiration, and I won’t dissuade you from reading him. He knows how to string words together in a way that usually makes you want to keep reading (I’m in the middle of Finders Keepers, his newest, as I write this, and it has me reluctant to put it down), andfinders keepers his nonfiction On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is pretty much at the top of my list when it comes to recommending books, well, on writing.

But you don’t want to follow Mr. King’s methods too closely.

As Inigo Montoya said, let me ’splain.

Stephen King began his writing career in a day when the standards were different. For instance, author intrusion was an accepted way of storytelling that it would be hard to get away with today. The literary landscape has changed, and I won’t get into an argument as to whether it’s for the better or not, because I can see it from both sides (note to self: this might make a good post in the future).

Back in the seventies, when Mr. King and his contemporaries such as Dean Koontz and Peter Straub (neither of which I’ve ever been able to get into nearly as much as I did Mr. King) started their careers, author intrusion was normal, even expected. Let me give you an example from page 126 of Finders Keepers:

Pete lay awake for a long time that night. Not long after, he made the biggest mistake of his life.

It’s that last sentence I want you to pay attention to, because it breaks deep POV, and that’s a no-no these days. Writers like Mr. King can get away with it for a few reasons. His readers expect it. It’s how he learned to write, and he became a bestselling author writing that way, so why fix what ain’t broke? And probably most important, see the aforementioned reference to his laundry list. It don’t matter what the boy writes, his fans is gonna buy it.

Why change?

But I have a news flash: You’re not Stephen King. Or Dean Koontz. Or Peter Straub. You don’t have decades of bestselling books on your résumé. Your name isn’t a virtual guarantee of being on the bestseller list.

You don’t got clout, man.

foreshadowingI know, too, why Stephen King does things like he did in the example above. It’s a form of foreshadowing that heightens the tension a bit. You’re given a tidbit that bodes ill for the character, and that’s why we read books, isn’t it? To see what happens to these poor people and how they deal with it. And we really want Mr. King’s characters to get out of their predicaments because his strength is in his characters. Story is almost second in importance in a Stephen King book. We care about the characters because Mr. King rounds them out so well we can’t help but care about them—even the bad guys, in a lot of cases.

But in today’s publishing atmosphere, if this was his debut novel, an editor would tell Mr. King to go back and find another way to tell us that foreshadowing detail, one that doesn’t tell us something Pete couldn’t possibly know. Because, as much as that little detail heightens the tension, Pete can’t know it, so you can’t tell it to us that way. Mr. King can, because he got that clout I mentioned above.

The clout you ain’t got none of.

And that means you can’t get away with it, unless you find some old-school editor, and I think there must be a lot of them out there, from what I’m seeing in some published works.

And here’s the thing: if you use deep POV properly, the fact Pete doesn’t know he’s about to make the biggest mistake of his life can be used to heighten tension just as much as Mr. King’s little snippet of author intrusion does. One method might be to drop little hints, small clues, that the character (and, by extension, the reader) would see as signs of danger if only he were paying enough attention. And even if the reader sees these things and Pete doesn’t, it still heightens the tension because the reader is screaming at him to wake up and pay attention already!

There are some other authors who break these rules as well—James Clavell and Mario Puzo come to mind, as they do what is commonly called head-hopping, a huge no-noShogun these days—but you’ll notice they, too, are from the seventies.

I’m not suggesting you can’t learn anything from these authors. You can learn from any author, and there’s some merit to the argument you can learn more from a bad author than from a good one (if you can get through the book, that is), because a good one makes fewer mistakes. But you don’t want to mimic them too closely (for one, that would be plagiarism) or you’ll be making mistakes that won’t fly with most publishers these days.

And, hey, like I said, Finders Keepers is a good book so far. Last thing you want to do is ignore pleasurable reading, and there are a lot of good things you can learn from Mr. King. Such as excellent characterization.

Just don’t follow in their footsteps exactly.

Later,
Gil

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Short Stories

I’m posing a question to you this week: what do you think of short stories?

Of course, by posing that question, that means I’m gonna give you my answer, and it’ll make for a good subject because it’s not a simple answer.

Short stories are hard for me, most of the time, though I’ve become much more tolerant of them in that last few years. Maybe because I’ve actually been able to write a few, an ability that mostly eludes me. I get too involved with the story, the ideas, and the characters, to want to give them up in only four thousand words or so. It seems like I’m just getting to know them, really get involved in the story, when it abruptly comes to an end.

And that goes for writing the damn things as much as it does for reading them.

In fact, I’m not sure which is more frustrating.

Thing is, I understand that shorts can help you break into the publishing business. Sell some to regional and/or national magazines—and I include such modern things as ezines in that term—and somebody out there is bound to notice. And even if they don’t, it looks good in that final paragraph of a query letter. If somebody else has already taken a chance on you, that big-name agent/editor you’re trying to hook might be more willing to give you a better than even chance. Publishing credits make you stand out from the crowd.

But they’re so…short.

I think I’ve mentioned this.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve read some short stories I truly enjoyed. And was jealous/envious that Author A could do them so well.

It helped some when I read somewhere that you use ideas to write short stories, while you develop full concepts for novels. Sure, novels usually start with ideas, but you can’t sustain 80,000+ words on a single idea. You have to blow it up into a complete plot, using whatever method you write with.

But short stories are a single idea. You ask yourself “What if…?” and then you answer the question. In as few words as possible. A novel is a long string of what-ifs, whereas a short story is a single idea. You flesh it out and let it stand on its own, without much in the way of a supporting cast. I mean, sure, it can have thousands of characters, even if most of them are background scenery. But it’s a single idea, and you leave it at that.

For me, that can be unsatisfying. And very hard to write. I have more abandoned short stories than I do novels (okay, maybe not, but it’s close).

But getting a couple published sure helped me get noticed, that’s for sure. I came very close to snagging a major agent.

So what do you think? Do you like short stories? Hate them? Somewhere in between? Let me know.

Later,

Gil

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Start Shooting

Black, white, brown, or yellow, on Chicago’s South Side, your neighborhood is your surname. Put on a gun belt, a suit, or a nun’s habit, and all you did was accessorize.

For those of you exiting the ’L near Eighteenth and Laflin in the Four Corners, the etiquette is: grab a length of rebar, scratch a cross in the concrete, set both feet solid in the quadrant that best fits your skin tone, lean back, and start shooting. Welcome to Chicago, the “2016 Olympic City.” We’re glad you’re here.

Thus begins Start Shooting, the new—and second—novel by Charlie Newton. And it’s a great read. There. That’s mySTRAIGHT SHOT Set against the backdrop of corrupt Chicago, Newton's two protagonists navigate the dangerous world of crime review in a nutshell. It’s not perfect, of course, but what book is? I’ve seen novels reviewed as perfect and, when I read them, found all kinds of problems.

Critics. Go figure.

Start Shooting is the story of Bobby Vargas and Arleen Brennan, who grew up in the Four Corners. Bobby is a gang cop. Arleen is a waitress/actress and the twin sister of Coleen Brennan, who was murdered twenty-nine years ago at the age of thirteen. Mr. Newton tells us their story in alternating first-person narratives that have very distinct voices, which is no small feat in and of itself.

Here’s the basic plot: twenty-nine years ago, Bobby and Arleen were next door neighbors. This was before the further segregation of the hood and the current war between the Twenty-Treys and Latin Kings. Booby and Arleen’s sister Coleen were boyfriend/girlfriend in that innocent way young kids can be. They had held hands and kissed, but all this had to be done in secret, since Coleen was Irish and Bobby Mexican American.

Then Coleen was raped and murdered. A year later, her mother died, and  twin sister Arleen disappeared. As the book progresses, we learn that Arleen hopped a bus to LA and tried to become an actress there, but all she ever got was tantalizingly close. So now she’s back in Chicago, waiting tables and still hoping for her big break.

Bobby, meanwhile, grew up and became a cop, as did his older brother Ruben, who is a homicide detective. One night while staging a drug buy, a new female member of the gang team Bobby works on is killed. Everything goes downhill from there.

A front-page exposé in the Herald brings back Coleen’s murder and implicates Bobby and Ruben. As the story progresses, the accusations deepen to the point Bobby is accused of being a child molester and murderer. In short, he starts feeling as if he’s being blamed for every crime that’s happened since Cain killed Abel.

The story is gritty and real, and you come away from it feeling some of the grime of Chicago’s South Side streets and corrupt political machine—not to mention a bit of dirt from the federal government thrown in. I say that last to tantalize you, because if I tell you more along that line, it’ll spoil it for you.

If I have issues with this, it’s more on the personalities of Bobby and Arleen. Both start realizing there’s some kind of conspiracy going on (and I don’t mean in the Grassy Knoll sense but in the more common criminal conspiracy), and it turns out that Ruben is at the center of it. For Arleen, this means she is constantly doing what I thought were stupid things in order to break free of Ruben’s control. For Bobby, it’s his stubborn refusal, despite almost twenty years of being a street cop in Chicago, of all places, that his brother might be corrupt.

It’s understandable. When you step back and look at it, these two have to have hang-ups. It makes them human, for one. And for another, they’re the kind of people who would fight the system. Part of the reason Arleen returned to Chicago was that she realized she couldn’t beat the Hollywood system, no matter how many “favors” she did for movie and casting directors. For Bobby, it’s seeing what’s happened to his neighborhood and fighting for recognition as a second-generation Mexican American who insists that other Hispanics speak to him in English.

There are plot twists aplenty, such as the truth about Coleen and Bobby, which isn’t sinister but adds depth to the story, as well as the corruption that Ruben is involved in and just how wrong it is. All the characters, no matter how long they’re onstage, are fully realized individuals with distinct personalities. Some of them you want to backhand and tell ’em to wake the hell up, others you want to hug and tell them the world isn’t all the way you’ve experienced it. You become involved in their lives because they become friends you care about or enemies you want to see—well, at least caught, if not killed.

And the vast majority of it takes place in the space of six days. Six long days for the participants, in which they seem to seldom sleep or even get a chance to clean up, must less stop for a moment to regroup and reassess.

It’s a story where the past not only haunts the present, but figures into it in a major way. It interweaves with the present like threads in a tapestry. And like a master weaver, Charlie Newton brings all those threads together into a satisfying picture that, while not perfect—and this time I mean in the sense of Disney movie happily ever after—brings everyone a measure of closure, maybe even happiness. In other words, it doesn’t have a Hollywood ending, but it does have a good one that makes sense in the real world.

So if you’re in the market for a gritty, street-real read, pick up a copy of Start Shooting by Charlie Newton. It’s worth the time.

Later,

Gil

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Political Correctness Invades the Writers Group

“‘They looked down at the body for a moment, and then Rory took Glenda in his arms and kissed her passionately. Yes, there would be the police to deal with, but he knew in his heart of hearts that this was the end of the matter, and that he and Glenda would have a wonderful life together.’”

The silence stretched out for some time after Paul finished. He’d been reading his novel to the group for months, and he felt the feedback had helped him immensely. But the ending was the important thing. Had he wrapped it up right? Would it put paid to the rest of the story?

Jackie cleared her throat. “Um, well, Paul, that was certainly an interesting novel.” She stared down at her copy of the manuscript. “I mean, um, the way you kept the plot confused right through the ending really kept me, um, guessing at what was gonna happen next, you know? And, uh, I really like that you leave the ultimate conclusion up to the reader instead of forcing the reader into your idea of how it should end.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Terry said. “I’m still not sure who really did these things, even though Marty died at the end. I mean, he could have done it, sure. All the signs seemed to point at him in the beginning. But then you took the plot line in an entirely new direction maybe a quarter of the way through it. It was like, um, two books in one, maybe even three, with that twist close to the end. Well, maybe that made it two books and a novella, but you see what I mean. Jeez, man, when you brought in that guy we’d not met yet and made him seem to be the bad guy…that was, um, great. Totally unexpected.”

That made Paul feel good. As the founders of the writers group—as well as being published authors—Jackie and Terry always got to speak first. Once they were finished, the others could add anything they wanted. It was all part of the critique—what the group preferred to call the finessing—of the story. Having both Jackie and Terry like his work was gratifying.

“Anybody else having anything for Paul?” Jackie said, finally looking up.

“Um, yeah,” Derek said. He was a younger guy, and it showed in his writing. Not many in the group liked his profanity or his graphic violence. His stories seemed so…mainstream. “I gotta wonder about pulling this one dude out at the last minute. I mean, it was cool and all, ya know? But, like, maybe you should go back and foreshadow him or something? Right now, it feels like you put him in because you needed a worse bad guy than—what was his name? Oh, yeah, Marty—a worse bad guy than Marty.”

“Are you sure that’s fair?” Jackie said. “Unexpected plot turns are part of the genre, aren’t they? Don’t you see that kind of thing in Michael Connelly’s novels? I’ve never read one, but I understand he does that a lot.”

“Well, sure,” Derek said. “But he plants clues that let you look back at the end and realize it was all laid out for you. Connelly just plays cat and mouse with you, making you think one thing when it turns out you’re interpreting the evidence the wrong way. That’s how he gets his surprise endings.”

Michael Connelly? Who was that? Did he write about crime, too? Paul jotted the name down, thinking he should look the man up. He couldn’t be too serious a writer, though. Probably had a book or two out, just breaking into the business.

“But, that’s the kind of thing you’d expect from a mainstream, commercial writer,” Terry said. “What about symbolism? What about being all-inclusive? Paul does that with his story. He’s got someone from every culture represented—well, except, perhaps, for persons of reduced stature—and the characters are all so tolerant. Even Marty ends up changing his opinions about African Americans before he dies. And since we don’t know for sure if he killed all those people or if it was this other guy, that makes it all worthwhile. And I like that you left this other bad guy nameless. That way no one is really to blame.” He chuckled at his pun.

To think that, when Paul started this novel, he wanted it to be a real whodunit, like the ones he saw on the bookshelves. How hard could it be, after all? Just put in a supposed crime, then have the protagonist find who did it. But under coaching from this group, he’d started including symbolism and socially conscious discussions in the text, all of which helped him cloud the main issue further. By the time he finished the book, even he wasn’t sure who’d done it, or even if anything had happened.

But he’d finished the novel, and without one of those pesky outlines. Planning anything when you were being creative was so restricting, after all. And using all those repeated words and confusing paragraph structuring just gave the story an avante-garde feel, maybe even a Bohemian bent. Wasn’t that what every writer wanted? What was bestseller status beside that?

He glanced at Derek, but the man wasn’t saying anything, just staring around at the rest of the group with a look of…was that disgust? Amazing. Especially considering the stuff he brought to read. It was offensive, really. Characters actually used racial slurs. How did that reflect on Derek as a person? You had to hold those kinds of beliefs to write them, no matter how much Derek denied it.

“I love it,” Moira said in her soft voice. She was the shy one. Paul didn’t understand her poetry, but it was beautiful anyway. “I think you should maintain its integrity and self-publish it, Paul. Don’t subject yourself to the competitiveness of the markets. If you self-publish, you’ll know that everyone who buys your book will really want to read it instead of wondering if they bought just to go along with the masses.”

There was a general chorus of agreement.

“Anybody else?” Jackie said.

No one said anything.

“All right. Next up is Adam with his existential science fiction story. Adam?”

***

I know that’s not very good. Satire isn’t my strong suit, at least not in any extended way. I can make satirical comments, but I think good satire requires more planning than I usually do. In fact, the above is a good example of how a scene can turn out entirely different than what you originally pictured. 

But that’s okay. This isn’t about the real quality of the story so much as it is an attempt to make a point: I hate political correctness, and it seems to me that a good writers group is one of the last places where you can get an honest opinion these days. I hoped to show that in a more humorous way, but I have trouble taking PCness in that vein. It pisses me off too much.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should be impolite. God knows criticism can be hard enough to take at times, even when it’s couched in good manners. Sometimes we can’t help but be offended when we think no one else gets what we’re doing. But, the key to that is giving yourself time to cool off and think about it rationally. After all, if no one else gets what you’re doing, that probably means you’re doing it wrong.

No amount of political correctness will help you, um, correct that.

I just hope that PCness never invades writers groups. If it does, we won’t be reading stories anymore. We’ll read existentialism gone wild. And how entertaining could that be?

No political correctness

No political correctness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Later,

 Gil

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Storytelling

Though I don’t know this for sure, I believe most of the people who read this blog are also writers. Yeah, that’s probably a grand total of like four people (I know I have three who subscribe, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they actually read the posts), but still…you take fame where you can get it. Or, in my case, maybe it’s notoriety.

Anyway, the point being, I don’t have to tell you how hard writing can be. Some days, you sit down at the keyboard (or take pen in hand) and it comes easy. It’s like dictation, or being a court reporter: the characters speak for themselves, and you don’t have to figure out what they’re gonna do next cause they do it for you. All you have to do is manage to keep up and get it all written down (the major reason why I don’t use pen and paper; I have enough trouble keeping up when I’m typing).

But then…there are those other days. The days when you pound your head on the desk—for starters—stare at the blank monitor/paper (or monitor that looks kinda like paper, if you use Word like I do. Thank God I don’t have to feed real paper into a roller anymore. I never could get them straight first time), and wonder what the hell you were thinking.

Write? A novel?

What a laugh! You can’t even string two words together, unless it’s some version of I go. And even that feels like you’re pushing it and brain cells might well catch on fire if you keep it up. You think and think, you try out different things in your mind, you consider just giving up on the current story and moving on to something new and maybe even entirely different. (That’s not always a bad thing. It’s basically how I got started writing crime fiction.)

Maybe you even consider trying to invent something like Ex-Lax for writers: something that’ll make the thoughts come out a lot easier (isn’t that a tasty visual?).

But nothing works. The page taunts you, and when you think about the 4,000 words you wrote the day before, the frustration level goes into the red. Something’s gotta give or, in the immortal words of Montgomery Scott: “I can’t hold her together, Kepten. She’s givin’ all she’s got!”

Water boarding? Puh-lease. Bring it. That ain’t nothin’ compared to sitting in front of a demanding blank canvas. You wanna see some renditions to object to, bring your bad self over here and partake in this.

So, why do we do it?

Well, I can’t answer for anyone but myself. That’s not me being PC, it’s just the honest-to-God truth. Different people do it for different reasons, but I suspect that it all boils down to this: we can’t help it.

What that means for me is that, if I go for a while without writing, I literally can’t go to sleep at night.

Oh, sure, I do eventually. But I toss and turn with sentences and even snapshots of scenes running through my mind. It’s the creative urge, and I suspect it’s why cavemen started scaring the crap out of each other around the campfire at night: good ol’ Ug, he’s just gotta tell us the one about the mammoth that got away. Again.

Okay. Same old story, told for the umpteenth time. Ug’s audience could probably recite the thing word-for-word. Ug saw this, decided to tell about the time he escaped a saber-tooth tiger. Voila! A series is born! Centered around a man of action, even if that action was to run screaming from the big, toothy kitty-cat until it happened to fall in a nearby tar pit.

That’s storytelling, man! The fire gleams in his eyes as he tells it, and he has a captive audience. Of course he does. They’re not going out there in the dark. That cat has cousins.

Of course, not everybody liked it, and you gotta wonder if Ug killed the first critic. Maybe that’s how critique groups got started: killing the critic gets even worse reviews from other critics, so let’s polish that sucker up before we tell it again.

And stop repeating some of those words. It sounds…um…repetitive.

We’ve been telling stories probably for about as long as we could, well, string two words together. Maybe the first one was the original Quest for Fire: “We go. Get hot thing.”

Okay. Maybe that one’s got too much description and needs a little editing, but you gotta start somewhere.

Sometimes it didn’t work out so well, but Ug kept at it, because he had to. Cave floors aren’t that comfortable to being with, even when you throw down a couple of animal skins, so anything that kept him from going to sleep had to be taken care of.

That meant a new story.

It’s not different today. Well, a little. We have to wrestle with a larger vocabulary, but it really doesn’t change things. Sure, we know more words, but stringing them together the right way is still a bitch.

There’s also the fascination with your subject matter. The last thing in the world I want to do is lead a criminal life, but the mindset of someone who does is fascinating to me. Partly, it’s in that rubbernecking, car wreck kind of way, where you know you won’t like what you see, but you gotta look anyway. I get that with the serial killers, a subject I’ve followed for years.

But I don’t truly know what spurs someone to live outside the law, so the character I write best is Lyle Villines. He’s pretty much a criminal against his will. He started out just for some extra cash, but once he was drawn in, he discovered it’s kinda like stepping off into quicksand: the harder you try to get out, the deeper in you sink. That’s what’s happening to him in the third novel (which I wasn’t sure I would ever write, but I think I’ve got enough of an idea to go to a fourth novel with him, and a good Ledbetter novel to boot): something that was a subplot in the first book has now come back to bite him in the ass. And he’s gotta do something about it.

I tell stories because I have to. No, nobody’s holding a gun to my head or even twisting my arm. At least, not anyone external. But, if I don’t tell my stories, it drives me nuts, and I lay there in bed at night wondering if I’ll ever get to sleep.

I guess it’s the adult version of having a story read to you when you were a kid, except in this case, I have to tell myself stories so I can conk out. And, despite how tortuous it is when the words won’t come, those sessions when I’m getting finger cramps from trying to keep up make it worth it.

Later,

Gil

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Settings

NPR has an occasional series where they take a look at movies whose settings are practically a character. For instance, In Bruges, which tells the story of two Irish hitmen who are hiding out after a job in the town of Bruges, Belgium (I hope I’m remembering the right country). Bruges is a beautiful medieval city, with Gothic cathedrals, a canal and who knows what else. Sometimes it’s hard to follow the action because you’re looking at the scenery. It’s a real town, and if I become a world-famous author, I just might have to take a trip there to see it for myself.

On the other hand, the movie War Eagle, Arkansas uses the real community of War Eagle, but builds it up into a town, rather than a rural community. They did it by using settings in various towns in the area: the high school baseball diamond at Fayetteville, several scenes on the square in Huntsville, plus some others filmed in Berryville and some rural settings. They took a collage of real towns and formed it into the fictional town of War Eagle, all to tell a story based on something that actually happened in Little Rock. It’s a good movie, if you haven’t seen it.

Books do the same thing with settings. Stephen King inserted an entire county—Castle County—in Maine for his characters to gallivant around in. It included the towns of Jerusalem’s Lot (I think, but don’t quote me on that one), Derry and Castle Rock, and, in Under the Dome, Chester’s Mill. Plus a whole slew of rural settings. Derry, the big setting for the book It, had features from Portland and Bangor, such as the huge fifty-foot statue of Paul Bunyan.

Ben Rehder, who writes the Blanco County mysteries, set in—of course—Blanco County, Texas, uses the real towns in the largely rural county, though how much invention he uses, and how much he changes things, I can’t say.

I bring all this up because I’m always curious just how “real” the setting is in any novel I happen to be reading. Of course, when I pick up a sf/f book, chances are pretty good the setting is entirely fictional. There are always exceptions, of course, such as in urban fantasies like Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series, set in Los Angeles. And, of course, there are sf ideas such as the future San Francisco, where Star Fleet is headquartered in Star Trek.

 In his novel The Shimmer, David Morrell—the man who wrote First Blood—uses real phenomenon—unexplained glowing lights—that occurs outside the town of Marfa, Texas, but puts it in the town of Rostov. I haven’t checked, but I suspect Rostov is a fictional town.

There are advantages to doing this kind of thing. For one, you can arrange the town any way you want it. Stephen King goes into quite a bit of detail about Derry. And, of course, it allowed him to virtually destroy Castle Rock in Needful Things. Sure, people destroy real towns in books and movies all the time, but it’s easier to destroy a fictional town. No consequences. No throwing the readers out because they know New York City is still standing. It’s not cordoned off as it was in the movie Cloverfield. (No, I’m not name-dropping for the sake of it. These are examples I’m familiar with.)

One of the authors in our group, Claire Croxton, has novels set in such diverse locales as Greece, Japan and Alaska. As I understand it, these are places she’s lived. How much of the real details she uses, I can’t say. I’ve never been to Greece, Japan or Alaska.

My Pipeline duology is set largely in Northwest Arkansas, where I live. I’ve said this before, but I set it here because of an editorial I read in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that told of how we’re part of the pipeline for Mexican drugs making their way north and east. I took that idea and ran with it.

I think it might be one of the reasons I was able to write the novels in something like five months: I didn’t have to do much invention when it came to my setting. Yeah, there are times when he goes other places, such as Tennessee. I based those scenes on memories of trips across I-40 in the late 80s and extrapolated. As for Lyle’s trips to Mexico, well, there are probably Mexicans who will laugh at me, because I had little choice but to base my settings on things I’ve read or seen in movies and documentaries. And I may have done parts of Texas a great disservice, too.

 On the other hand, the novel I’m working on now, Spree, is set all along I-10, and I’m having to more or less make things up out of whole cloth. The only parts of I-10 I’ve ever been on were the stretch between the Louisiana state line and Houston and—maybe—the stretch between Lake Charles and New Orleans. And that was back in the mid 80s—a long time ago, and I’ve slept several times since then. The trip to New Orleans, for the 1984 World’s Fair, only happened once. The trips to Houston were a little more frequent. I saw several concerts in Houston. But, what did you do when you went to heavy metal concerts in the 80s? You partied. Tends to muddle up your memories.

Besides, I wasn’t driving.

To be honest, I don’t really like to alter locations. In small ways, I don’t mind. For instance, Lyle finds an abandoned house in the first Pipeline. The house is real. It’s one I discovered last year while working the Census, and I’ve described the location pretty much as it really is (or was at that time). But I moved it from a remote location in Madison County to one in Washington County. I wanted Lyle to be leery of Madison County, though he really has little reason, these days, to be so. Likewise, the large house Lyle builds throughout the latter parts of the story is fictional, based on something I’d like to live in. I’m never specific about the location, except to say it’s in a remote part of Washington County, and I excuse this by having  keeping its location secret for Lyle’s safety. He’s made a lot of enemies, after all.

But, see, when I was getting into reading, for a long time I read only sf/f. Not a big deal as far as location. You make ’em up. But then I got into Louis L’Amour, and one of the things he’s known for is putting real settings in his novels. He explored a lot of the West and the landscape inspired his writing.

That set a standard for me. I gave thought to trying my hand at a Western. I like that pioneer spirit, the sense of being on the frontier, all that. Yes, in a lot of ways, L’Amour’s  West is a mythical West, and he probably makes his good guys gooder and bad guys badder than either really was. People are complex, after all, and the Ming the Merciless bad guy, who does evil for the pure sake of being evil, won’t fly these days. For good reason. Not even Hitler thought he was doing wrong . L’Amour’s characters weren’t that extreme, of course, but he needed larger than life people in his stories. And, I think, he had a basic belief in the human spirit that I don’t. Probably why I’ve chosen to write crime novels.

Spree starts in LA, goes through—so far—Phoenix, then on through Tucson (though I don’t have any incidents there), then takes a side trip up to Roswell (partly to throw law enforcement off), then back down to the 10 across Texas, where things start really heating up. And not just because they’re crossing Texas in the summer.

I’ve never seen any of these places, so I’ve fictionalized them for my own purposes. I don’t much like this—I’d prefer using real locales—but since I don’t have access to Google Earth, and don’t have the money to go following I-10 across the country, with the requisite side trips, I don’t have much choice.

I suspect this kind of things happens a lot. Even when we use real locales, we adapt them to our fictional needs. The story is all, you know. When Lyle takes his trip to Santa Monica, I set the action mostly on the 3rd Street Promenade—because I’ve been there. I left the names of most of the stores vague because there were simply too many to remember. The ones I did, such as Johnny Rocket’s, I tried to locate where they really are. But it’s been almost four years since I was there, and although I was very close (just up on 5th Street), I didn’t go down there very much. What little I did, I went to the Barnes & Noble on the corner of 3rd and Wilshire to pick up coffee at the Starbucks. And to browse books in the store, of course. I used the Starbucks as a meeting place for Lyle to meet Joaquín Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, because I knew the store.

I won’t even dive off into the subject of using real people in novels. I will say that I was careful to portray El Chapo as being very human, even sympathetic. Yes, he’s a drug lord, and he’s probably more ruthless than I portray him. But I had to make him my Joaquín Guzmán, not the real life one. I hope he likes it. I’d hate to have Sinaloa sicarios coming after me.

Nor will I even talk about the prospect of historical novels. Setting a gang novel in modern-day LA is one thing. But what about, say, a post-war novel in 1948? I understand LA was a lot smaller in those days. Guess you could go read a Raymond Chandler novel. But I’d hate to do the research it would take to get one to be authentic.

I could go on and on about settings I’ve read or seen, but I think you get the idea. This  post wanders around a little more than usual because, to be honest, I’m low on inspiration this week. I’ve been busy critiquing my daughter’s YA novel (if you don’t buy it when it gets published, I’ll hunt you down and kill you) and dealing with a bout of insomnia brought on by chest congestion. I’ve finished the critique, and the congestion seems to be clearing up finally, so maybe I can get creative again in few days.

I didn’t mind the critique—I’m probably Jesi’s biggest fan and always will be—but I could have done without the chest congestion.

Hopefully I’ll be more coherent next week. In the meantime, you can read my daughter’s blog at jesimarie.blogspot.com (it’s in my links), and Claire’s site is clairecroxtonromanceauthor.wordpress.com.

Later,

Gil

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Keep it Moving, Just Not too Much

I complained once about flash fiction. I don’t remember which post it was, except to say it hasn’t been all that long ago. Call me old-fashioned, but I like a story that I can invest in. Since flash fiction is so short—generally less than a thousand words—I feel like I’m just getting settled in and figuring the character(s) out when it’s over.

Reminds me of eating cotton candy when I was a kid: it looks so sumptuous, but then you take a bite that feels like flavored air, and it melts in your mouth and is gone before you really taste it.

Fluff.

But there’s something to be said for flash fiction: it moves.

I bring this up because of two books I’ve encountered this past week and the realization they brought with them: a story needs to move, but please oh please don’t tell me every movement it makes.

Let’s start with making the story move.

I’m trying out a British author (there’s a clue for ya) named China Miéville, and the book, which I’ve just started, is Perdido Street Station. It shows promise, if you’re into speculative fiction. I’m only to chapter four, but it looks to be a grab bag from sf and fantasy: there are several different races of beings, steampunk is present, along with science, chemistry (which he spells chymistry) and God knows what else.

Let’s make this clear at the outset: I realize it’s unfair to judge a book after reading three chapters. I’ve read some that looked absolutely crappy at that point in the story, but kept at them and, by the end, I was glad I’d read them. Miéville’s prose is good, if a bit thick, so it could get better. Story is very important, and it is a long book—the kind I prefer, as a rule. I’ll have lots of time to get invested in the characters. No flash fiction here.

And I’d probably enjoy it thoroughly if not for the fact I’ve read crime fiction, and I’m aware of the kinds of things readers want these days. In both cases, it’s better to stay somewhat sparse on details. Let the reader fill in the details. Just give ’em a good idea of setting and let their imagination supply the rest.

Here’s a paragraph of description of a being from Perdido Street Station: The great creature stood more than six feet tall, on cruel clawed feet that poked out from under a dirty cloak. The ragged cloth dangled down almost to the ground, draped loosely over every inch of flesh, obscuring the details of physiognomy and musculature, all but the garuda’s head. And that great inscrutable bird face gazed down at Isaac with what looked like imperiosity. Its sharply curved beak was something between a kestrel’s and an owl’s. Sleek feathers faded subtly from ochre to dun to dappled brown. Deep black eyes stared at his own, the iris only a fine mottling at the very edge of the dark. Those eyes were set in orbits which gave the garuda face a permanent sneer, a proud furrow.

Whew!

Well, at least we have a full picture of this garuda being. In fact, he goes on for another paragraph talking about the huge wings the garuda has hidden under the cloak and the descriptions of them Isaac has read. It’s not as long a paragraph, and it leaves you with the unmistakable picture of a sentient bird of prey.

This is the kind of thing sf, and British sf in particular, is known for: long descriptions. On the one hand, they’re somewhat necessary. The author has to give the reader a good picture of beings he’s never seen in real life and likely never will. In most cases, he also needs to convey the alienness (I know, that’s not a real word, but it is a concept, so bear with me here) of the being in question. As a reader, you’re becoming acquainted with something that might never have occurred to you.

British authors are more descriptive than American writers. I think it’s the difference between English and American (we do not speak English here. English and American are all but two different languages). It may also be that English authors are still unduly influenced by the likes of Dickens and Shakespeare. Nothing wrong with that per se, but there is a difference in writing styles. Many American Victorian era authors write the same way. I once tried to read The House of Seven Gables, but gave up when Nathaniel Hawthorne spent the first chapter describing the damned house, leaving me wondering when the story was gonna start.

In short, the story itself doesn’t move very fast. I remember reading a review of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, in which the reviewer (and I wish I could remember who it was to give credit) said that one of the things The Hunger Games did that every novel should was introduce the main plot by the end of the Chapter 1. In fact, this might not have been so much a review as an example in a How-To on writing. I’ll say more about The Hunger Games in a bit.

The next book up for consideration is The Buntline Special by Mike Resnick.

The Buntline Special is a Weird Western, and Mike Resnick is an old hand at sf. I learned of him back in the ’90s with his book Paradise, a novel of an Africa-like planet and its exploitation. Mr. Resnick is, as a rule, the kind of author who starts right out with action, and The Buntline Special is no exception. The central character is Doc Holliday, who is traveling to Tombstone at the behest of his friend Wyatt Earp. In this alternate reality, the US stops at the Mississippi River due to the strength of the Indians’ magic, and because of Geronimo and Hook Nose, a Cheyenne medicine man, in particular. Both are exceptionally strong, though they have yet to join forces.

It turns out that Tombstone is the only country in the world to have electric lighting, thanks to Thomas Edison. However, it seems that Geronimo is afraid Edison will find a way to counter his magic, so he has put Edison’s life in danger by motivating the Clanton gang, called the Cowboys, to kill him. The Earps have called in Holliday and Bat Masterson to help them, but Masterson ends up being a liability when Geronimo puts a curse on him.

It’s an interesting concept. Weird West tales are gaining in popularity, and I picked up this book partly because I’d like to write a Weird Western, partly because I’m a Resnick fan.

Unlike Perdido Street Station, The Buntline Special (yes, Ned Buntline is also in the book, but I didn’t want to get too detailed in my synopsis) moves. Description is sparse, just enough to give you the setting without weighing you down with details. Until, that is, the author starts telling you what his characters are doing. Time after time, we’re told in detail what they’re doing. Here’s a short example: Morgan got up, walked to an adjoining room, and returned a moment later with a chair.

Isn’t that nice?

I hate to be sarcastic, especially toward an author who’s won numerous awards and been in the business longer than I’ve been alive. But couldn’t he just say Morgan got a chair from another room or Morgan went to the next room over and retrieved a chair, something like that? Why do you have to tell me he got up, walked to the other room and returned with the chair? Isn’t that implied in my renderings? I realize mine are rough because I composed them on the fly, but they get the point across.

If this was the only or one of the few times Mr. Resnick does this in his book, I wouldn’t complain, but he does it numerous times, telling me in one instance that a character walks through the kitchen, out through the parlor, and onto the street. Why not just tell me he went out to the street? I’m smart enough to know he has to go through the kitchen (the room he was already in, by the way), across the parlor and out the door to get to the street. I’ve left a house, too, you know.

I mentioned before that long description—and lets’ face it, Mr. Resnick’s are long descriptions, even if they’re short sentences—is a forte of sf. I think many sf readers revel in the stuff, and since I’ve started reading crime, I’ve become somewhat impatient with it. One thing to keep in mind is the different conventions genres use. What’s acceptable in one will never fly in another.

The Hunger Games finds a comfortable niche in between these two books. In fact, it argues for some sf authors maybe taking some lessons from YA writers. Hunger Games is Young Adult but, like the Harry Potter books, is appropriate for adults. It doesn’t weigh you down with description, and you’ve got a good idea of the world and the plot by the end of the first chapter, as I’ve mentioned. You don’t know all the details, of course. If you did, the rest of the novel would be a waste of time.

The Hunger Games takes me back to what I consider good science fiction: an intriguing setting that lends itself to the story, rather than a weak story that’s there just to take me through loving descriptions of the setting. Unlike the paragraph I quoted above. Ms. Collins doesn’t use 124 words to describe a single character. She gets on with the story.

And isn’t that why we read in the first place? Isn’t that why authors should write, to tell the story? Why get wrapped up in words? If you want to do that, go write poetry. That’s what poetry’s all about, in a way.

Make your story move, just don’t tell me every move it makes.

Later,

Gil

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