Tag Archives: Michael Connelly

The Burning Room

I’m a big Michael Connelly fan, so when I had a chance to enter a contest to win a free copy of his newest Harry Bosch book, The Burning Room, I jumped at it, neverburning room figuring I’d actually win.

But I did.

About a week ago, I received my ARC of the book, I was in the middle of another book at the time and had to finish it first (an excellent fantasy called Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan, which you need to read if you like fantasy…or maybe even if you don’t). But as good as Promise of Blood was, I became a little impatient to finish it so I could start on The Burning Room.

For me, Christmas tends to come in November these days, because that’s about the time Mr. Connelly and Robert Crais release their new books (both have new ones out this year).

But, to be honest, the last couple of Harry Bosch books haven’t quite been up to par for me. They were still good, but not great, if you get my meaning, so I was a little leery of his latest. To be fair, his Mickey Haller books, on the other hand, have maintained their quality, if not gotten better with each installment, so it balances out.

But with The Burning Room, Mr. Connelly has returned to form and then some. This book was hard to put down, to say the least.

Harry Bosch is getting closer and closer to mandatory retirement, and he’s been teamed up with a young woman named Lucia “Lucy” Soto, a brand new detective. The idea the brass has is to team up veterans to rookies in order for the veterans to impart their experience to the newcomers.

Their case is a unique one to say the least. Though the crime was committed ten years earlier, the victim has only died in the last couple of days, and his body contains the critical piece of evidence: the bullet. It’s been lodged in his spine all these years in such a way that removing it posed a danger to his life. That life hasn’t been good. He’s lost both legs and an arm to complications from being shot.

Just as interesting as the case is the developing relationship between Harry and Lucy. Harry is leery of her at first, but she proves to be as dedicated to doing her job as he is, and by the end of the book he sees her as something of a protégé, and certainly as his partner, possibly the best one he’s had in his career.

All in all, The Burning Room was hard to put down and, as I neared the end, I didn’t want it to be over while I still wanted to see how the case turned out. For me, that’s the sign of a good book, and this is the best Harry Bosch in a couple of years. And the end will definitely leave you wondering what’s next for the detective.

Go out and get it when it’s released November 4. You won’t be disappointed.

Later,
Gil

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Edits Are Done

Well, not to put too fine a line on it, but the edits are done (is there an echo in here somewhere?).

I expected this to be a somewhat long, drawn out process, which I dreaded because I’m also in the middle of finals, but it turned out to be an easy job. According to my editor, that’s because I’m a good writer. I’ll take his word for it, since I respect his opinion. Bottom line for me is, I write. I do it mostly to entertain myself—and to get some sleep at night. Otherwise, the stories keep me awake.

Anyway, there were no major plot changes to make. Pretty much everything had to do with typos of one sort or another (and we know us writers never do that!). He did add the idea of my cops getting some information from a CI (that’s confidential informant for your non-crime people out there) rather than arriving at it all via brilliant deduction. In a way, I wasn’t sure about this change. I mean, I liked having one of my cops make  brilliant deductions. The writing I did for the scenes with cops was heavily influenced by Michael Connelly, and Harry Bosch does some pretty amazing deductions during his investigations. But, if you look at it closely, he makes these deductions based on information he’s gathered. He doesn’t make them up out of thin air, which was more or less what my cop was doing when I revisited the scene.

So that’s it. I think it’s off to the printer now for galleys, or will be soon. I realize that’s not much to say for this part of the process, but I don’t think you want a play-by-play of me editing.

I’ll let you know what happens next…though a big part of that, now that the semester is over, will be working on my current novel in progress.

Later,

Gil

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Prequels and Sequels

I have a friend who doesn’t like the idea of a series of books. I’ve seen him, time after time, buy a book that’s maybe number two of a series. He doesn’t care that there’ll be back story he won’t know. It doesn’t bother him that, after he reads the book, no matter the ending, he won’t find out what else happens to the characters.

I’m not sure how he does it.

He also has no desire to write a series. That’s more understandable. I mean, sure, if you pick up a book that’s part of a series and it turns out to be crappy, it’s a pretty good bet you’re not gonna finish it. I read the first two books of the The Strain trilogy by Guillermo del Torro and Chuck Logan. I liked the first two but couldn’t get into the third. I think I just wasn’t in the mood for it at the time. That, and so much time passed between readings that I felt a little lost when I should have had a better idea of what was happening.

Regardless, I can understand not wanting to write a series. It can be easy to get tired of a setting and/or characters—usually both—and pass on to something else next time around. That’s what my friend says his problem is: once he’s done with a story, he’s done with the setting and characters.

On the other hand, because I’m writing a series, I can speak to both sides of the argument. I like being able to settle back into my Rural Empires setting, with Lyle and the Higginses and Ledbetters. I also like introducing some new background characters from time to time. New challenges, but all within a familiar setting.

In that, a series is a lot like real life. These days, I’m not constantly meeting new people. Sure, it happens occasionally, but for the most part, I’m settled into my group of friends and acquaintances and I’m comfortable there. No big desire to meet hordes of new people. Most people are that way, and it’s probably why the series is so popular these days—and maybe always was.

I cut my teeth on the series, especially the trilogy. Fantasy and sf both are rife with them. I’m not sure if it’s a subconscious desire to emulate pioneers such as JRR Tolkien and Isaac Asimov, or if it’s just that fantasy/sf writers tend to paint on a larger canvas. Most of these stories are big and involve a lot of characters. Some of them, such as The Foundation Trilogy—though it has in the years since become more of a series—cover great gulfs of time as well.

All of this predisposes me toward the series. I admit there was a time there when I couldn’t stand a long book involving the same characters, much less a series. We all go through phases in our reading tastes, and for a while mine meant that I could barely finish a book before I was eager to embark on another one with entirely new characters and situations.

I’ve gradually come out of that, though, and gone back to reading series. I’ve finally finished all of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books, at least until the new one comes out later this year. I’ve also finished his two books about Jack McEvoy, the reporter, and I plan to next take in all the Mickey Haller books. He’s the Lincoln Lawyer.

As for the publishing world in general, I recently read somewhere that publishers prefer a series these days, probably because that’s what readers want. You have a better chance of being published if you can show that you have an idea for sustaining a cast of characters that readers can visit and revisit over the years and multiple books.

I hadn’t originally planned that with my Rural Empires setting. The Pipeline books were to introduce the setting, but I was going to move on from Lyle and tell other stories in the same setting. In other words, the setting was going to be the only real common link. Sure, characters would appear in multiple novels—it’s a sorta small world there, after all—but the actual stories would be told from different POVs every time.

That ended up not working. I couldn’t seem to get anything going from any other character’s POV. I’d get good ideas, but I could sustain them. Maybe I can still work them into short stories. I still like the idea of telling stories from POVs other than Lyle’s. And, who knows? I might end up with a few novels as well.

But I finally decided that the majority of the stories will be told by Lyle. It’s the prevailing way of doing things these days, so it will hopefully increase my odds of being published. After all, I’ll have the prequel (when I get it written, which is getting closer to happening) as my free ebook, and I have at least three full-length books toward the series.

On the other hand, other than an oblique reference to my Rural Empires setting, Spree is a stand-alone novel. It has totally different characters, and it’s very unlikely they’ll show up in any of the Rural Empires books, or in a sequel. And it felt good to write that book. I’d finished Pipeline and was working on the edit when I wrote Spree. Because I was doing two things at once, Spree took some time to get together, partly because the story came to me slower, partly because it took a little more preplanning than Pipeline did.

So you can see why I can see both sides of the story. I’ve written on both sides of it.

What’s your opinion? What do you think of a series versus stand-alone novels? I’m talking about from the same author, of course.

Let me know.

Later,

Gil

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The Learning Curve

I think it was not long before his death that Louis L’Amour, speaking at a writing conference, said that he felt he was just beginning to learn his craft.

Think about that. He was a bestselling author and had been for years. Probably the bestselling Western author of his day. Now, we can argue all day long about the quality of his writing. I’m a fan, and I’ll say so without any embarrassment. I know I’m not alone. Maybe his Westerns were romanticized, but so what? He told a good story, and isn’t that what we all want to do?

And yet, he felt that, after fifty years in the business, he was just beginning to learn his craft. If you’re a fan, you get an idea what he was talking about. His last few books were departures from the material he’d been writing for years. The Haunted Mesa was as much an urban fantasy as it was a Western, and The Last of the Breed is an action novel that takes place in modern Siberia. I think he always meant to write a sequel but was unable to before he died. I haven’t read or heard anything to support this, but it ends on something of a cliffhanger.

If you follow any writer and read his books in the order they were published, you’ll see a growth curve in practically every one of them. If you like Mac Bolan novels, well, maybe not. I can’t say for sure, as I’ve never read any of the series. But, like Harlequin romances, the men’s adventure books—The Executioner, The Destroyer and others like them—are formula books. I’m sure that writer gets better at what he’s doing, but I’m not sure if you can see it, since he has to basically write the same story repeatedly.

Writing has a learning curve, just like anything else. Any writer can tell you that if they go back and look at some of their early stuff—the stuff they probably wouldn’t let see the light of day—it’s almost embarrassing to think you ever wrote like that. It’s usually overly dramatic, while being short on something or other that’s actually important to writing. Maybe the description is lacking, or the dialogue sounds like a hack wrote it, something like Rambo saying, “I’m your worst fucking nightmare.” Stuff that sounds like a computer wrote it.

I’ve never been good at description of surroundings. Sometimes, I see the scene fully realized, but mostly, I have to agonize over what the setting is. I think it’s because of how I read. When I’m reading a book, I tend to kind of skim over the descriptions of the surroundings, unless it’s important like a murder scene. Why do I care? Sure, it’s supposed to ground me to the place, but I guess I assume that I’m already there and don’t really need to know what it looks like. It’s a place. Who cares what it looks like?

Obviously, I’m an exception to the rule. But, because I’m that way, I have trouble coming up with any kind of specific details about surroundings. Which is why the current trend toward painting the scene in broad brush strokes works for me. Let the reader fill in the details. Doesn’t bother me a bit. Frees me up to concentrate on what’s happening, which is the important part to me. I can paint the picture in broad strokes because that’s how I usually see it, unless setting is intrinsic to the scene, another character, as it were.

Following an author can impart some of his writing tricks to you, too. A good writer is like a sponge: he/she absorbs lessons learned from successful writers. It’s one of the reasons you’re encouraged to read as much as possible. It’s good as long as you don’t take it too far, as a friend of mine seems to have done (in my opinion, anyway). I once remarked to him that he didn’t seem to enjoy anything that he read, and he replied that he didn’t read for entertainment. He read for education.

That’s great if you’re reading nonfiction and/or doing research. But he was talking about fiction. Reading fiction to learn writing techniques is well and good, but he’s totally left out the idea of reading for fun.

Anyway, a case in point for me is Don Winslow. I’ve mentioned him before, but his case is a very good example of what I’m talking about. Mr. Winslow’s early books are good, but the writing style is extremely different from what’s he’s writing now. Down on the High Lonesome is the only early one I’ve been able to read, but if it’s any example—and I’m sure it is—of his initial books, it’s like a different man wrote them. Long paragraphs written in a fairly formal tone. Very writerly, to use a word I read once. It’s good writing, and the story was good, but it’s nothing like what he’s doing now.

Starting with The Death and Life of Bobby Z, Mr. Winslow took on a very informal tone, and a lot of the books are in present tense. They’re full of slang, incomplete sentences, and lots of everyday type humor. His novels have lots of white space in them, and not a lot of exposition. They move forward and never stop, even when “nothing” is happening. He even shows us backstory rather than lecturing us about it, to the point we don’t really realize he’s doing backstory and character development at all.

I have no idea what spurred him to change his writing style like that. Maybe he felt some need—as I did after I read one of his books—to break out of that stodgy mold he’d set up for himself. He can even do a hybrid of it, as he did in The Power of the Dog. If you haven’t read that book, you’re missing out. I’m tempted to go back and read it again.

Mr. Winslow’s work was an epiphany of sorts to me. He showed me that I don’t have to have what I think of as “that voice.” You know the one I’m talking about, because it’s in so many books. It brought home to me a technique Elmore Leonard uses. He said that he writes his book, then goes back through and takes out everything that sounds like a writer.

I’m still learning how to do that, but I’m getting there. I write more formally here on my blog, but even here I sometimes let little bits of my writing style show through.

Some of that has to do with the character, though. For instance, I’m trying to write a Western short story about a Pinkerton agent. Since it’s the Old West and people wrote and probably thought more formally back then, the prose comes across as more formal than some of my other work. I think it fits the character. But it’s not as easy for me to write that way anymore. It feels stiff and unnatural.

Michael Connelly’s writing is teaching me to make my plots more intricate. His mysteries are so multilayered that you’re never sure till you turn the last page that you’ve seen all the layers. Reading one of his books is like peeling an onion—except it doesn’t make you cry. I’m watching his stuff carefully to learn how to plant subtleties in my stories that don’t pay off till further down the road a piece. It’s something new I’m learning, so I’m not at all sure how well I’m doing at it, but at least I’m trying.

Robert Crais’s writing shows me how to take my crime stories outside the box by inserting elements that go beyond the formula. His latest novels—especially from L.A. Requiem forward—examine parts of life that I haven’t seen in very many other crime novels. Friendship, loyalty, and the damage that life can invoke on these things are themes he’s examining, all under the setting of criminal doings. Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are seeing more of the dark side of the criminal world, and you can’t witness all this and not have some of it rub off on you. These two men don’t see the world the same way we do, and their unique backgrounds prepared them to handle these revelations better than you and I might be able to.

I could go on and on about how I’ve learned from various authors, but I think you get the picture. So don’t neglect your reading. Find something that interests you. You can pull things from other genres—I love the idea of doing some mashups—that other authors in the field might not have used. Yeah, it’s sorta risky if you’re unpublished, but I’m convinced that voice means as much as correct technique to agents/editors. You’ve got to make yourself stand out from the crowd to get noticed, and using something in a new twist will do that, as long as you do it right.

But you’ve got to know the rules to break them effectively, and that’s where reading what’s already out there comes in.

Later,

Gil

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Learning From the Masters

One common thread that runs through most, if not all, of the writing how-to books and articles is the admonishment to read a lot. Of course, there are several reasons

for this. I tend to gain inspiration from the really good writers, and I get ideas, too. Something that’s a toss-off concept in one of their novels might spark a scene in mine. Take it, alter it, make it my own. Maybe it’s just a line of dialogue that makes me ask what if? Maybe it’s a scene in their novel that helps me handle part of my own, even if neither scene seems to have much to do with one another.

What it all amounts to, though, is that you pick up stuff by reading other writers’ works. And, if you’re like me, a lot of times you pick up more than you realize till one day it just sorta seems to show up in your own writing.

For instance, I love foreshadowing. I like throwing things at the reader that seem unimportant or even puzzling, only to have them show up later as having importance and making sense. Maybe it’s something minor, just a meeting with a character who shows up later as a key witness (so to speak), or an event that foretells a major plot development. I’m still learning how to do these things, and up until now, I’ve generally had to work that kind of thing in on my edit.

But I’m learning how to put them in on my first draft, and it’s exciting.

I’m picking this kind of thing up from reading Michael Connelly. He’s probably the best I’ve ever seen at it. You can’t discount anything in his novels, and I mean not the least little thing. If the main character buys hot dogs from a streetside stand, you better pay attention. The vendor might turn out to be an important part of the case.

Of course, it’s a basic principle that everything in your story is supposed to contribute in some way, whether it’s sense of place items, such as watching a car drive by outside the house, or character development, such as getting in an argument with another character. Ever good writer puts these kinds of things in his story, even if he sometimes needs outside help to do it (“This is a good scene, but I have no idea where we’re at here.”)

But with Michael Connelly, sense of place and character development more often than not contribute to the plot itself.

For instance, in Angels Flight,a prominent attorney who made his rep by suing the LAPD for civil rights infractions, beginning about the time of the Rodney King riots, is murdered in downtown LA, not far from his office. Because of the

Cover of "Angels Flight (Harry Bosch)"

Cover of Angels Flight (Harry Bosch)

scandals the department has been going through lately, and because the nature of the murder shows that it was somebody intimately familiar with marksmanship with a pistol, a good part of the LAPD can be counted as suspects. The lawyer had taken a lot of cops to trial.

Eventually, a detective in Robbery-Homicide Division (RHD), the elite squad that works out of headquarters and takes on the really tough cases, is arrested for the murder, then cleared. For Harry Bosch, the main character, it smells of politics and using the other cop as a scapegoat. Harry worked with the suspect in the past and knows he’s a good cop. Thanks to the atmosphere in the city, though, Harry offers to take the other cop—I can’t remember his name, so we’ll call him Jack—and let Jack stay in Harry’s house. They drop by Jack’s house so he can grab some clothes and Harry stays outside in the car. It’s night, and he notices a car pull to the curb down the street and shut off its headlights. He watches for a few minutes, but when he doesn’t see anything else, decides it was probably someone who lived down there. It’s only toward the end of the book—when you’ve already all but forgotten the incident—that it’s revealed it was the bad guy, and he was following them.

I was only starting to realize how important details can be in Mr. Connelly’s books when I read this, so I chalked it off to sense of place, but did keep it in mind. And when it wasn’t mentioned again—the scene happens early in the book—I decided it was a sense of place thing: Harry’s not just sitting there in a vacuum. He’s in a living, breathing city, and there’s gonna be traffic on the streets. And Mr. Connelly could have easily left it at that: a minor thing that rooted you in the scene.

But he doesn’t do that. He makes it integral to the plot while still getting sense-of-place mileage out of it. I can’t think of a better example of economy of writing, of making everything count.

I recently wrote a scene in my tentative rewrite—and I do mean rewrite—of the first Lyle Villines novel. He’s had his meth lab blown up and has to find materials to build a new one, so he starts out by stopping at a farmer’s co-op store to see if they have empty five-gallon buckets, the kind farmers would buy their hydraulic fluid for their tractors in. Lyle passes it off as he needs them to store odds and end in, though, to be honest, using buckets that big for nuts and bolts—he specifically names these as some of the things he wants to put in them—is a little silly. A five-gallon bucket of nuts and bolts would be heavy.

Anyway, the kid who’s working the counter goes to the back to “look” for the buckets, but really tells the manager what’s going on. To me, it makes sense that they’d be on the lookout for that kind of thing, since they’re good material for a lab. While the manager makes sure he knows what Lyle wants, the kid goes out into the store.

Lyle doesn’t pay him much attention, and what he doesn’t know, but will figure out later, is that the kid was getting his license plate number. To Lyle, it’ll look as though the kid wasn’t sure how to take care of his request and got the manager, who then helped Lyle out. Once he leaves the store, the manager will call the cops and report what happened.

All of this will play into him being pulled over later—by the same cop who originally arrested him for cooking meth in the backseat of his car. This cop will be a sheriff’s deputy who takes his job seriously. He’s a good cop, but in this case he’s causing complications for Lyle. And since Lyle is working undercover for the task force, he can’t just tell the deputy what he’s up to, and the cop will keep a lookout for him through a lot of the rest of the book, maybe even through all the books. Since I write seat-of-the-pants, I can’t say for sure. I doubt I’ll use it through all the books because it’ll get stale after a while.

Now, is this on a par with Mr. Connelly? Not really. Not in my mind, at least. But it’s getting there. The kid going out into the store looks like sense of place. It is sense of place. But it’s also part of a developing subplot.

So, while I’m not making any claims to being as good as Michael Connelly, I am learning from him and hope to get close. I can’t pull off some of the things he does, because I’m not writing mysteries, where minute clues are more important than in a straight-up crime novel.

But I’m going to do my best to take his methods and adapt them, because I want my books to be more than just garden variety crime novels. I want you to care for the characters, for them to have real issues outside of the plotline, things that will get you involved in their lives for more than just the stuff they pull off through the course of the story. That I picked up from reading Robert Crais. Working minute details is something I’m soaking up from Michael Connelly.

So, even though in a way it seems like a guilty pleasure, don’t neglect your reading, because you never know what you’ll get out of it. And be able to put into your own stories.

Later,

Gil

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That Irritating Guy

There’s this guy—and it usually is a guy—who shows up in fiction from time to time that I call that irritating guy.

He’s not a constant, but he’s there enough that you recognize him when you see him. He’s not the bad guy, per se, but if you’re like me, there’s times you’d rather see him get it long before the bad guy does.

Irritating Guy and the protagonist do not get along, and usually it’s because of a personality clash.

For example: I just read a book called Dead and Not So Buried by John L. Conway. It’s billed as a Gideon Kincaid novel. Gideon is ex-LAPD, currently a PI, in Hollywood. He’s also divorced, and his ex is an LAPD detective. So naturally, when Gideon gets involved in a high profile case that ends up involving dead bodies, his ex is the cop who gets the case on the official side. To complicate things, she’s romantically involved with her partner, a guy named Irving Piccolo.

Piccolo is the Irritating Guy in the story. He hates Gideon, and Gideon’s not exactly ready to have an after work beer with Piccolo. Part of it’s the typical he’s-your-ex-husband-so-he’s-gotta-be-a-dick syndrome. It clouds Piccolo’s judgment, convinces him that Gideon is the one actually guilty of all this mayhem that’s going on. And, of course, Stacy, the ex, doesn’t exactly stand up for Gideon, even if she does try to hold Piccolo off sometimes.

In Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, at least in two or three of them, Irritating Guy is an Internal Affairs Division detective named Chastain. I think John was his first name, but that’s beside the point.

If you know anything about cops, you know the guys in IAD aren’t exactly on everybody else’s Christmas list. The one thing that’s not supposed to happen is cops betraying cops, and that’s how they all view IAD: traitors. They’re the ones who police the police, and naturally they’re resented.

Chastain becomes convinced that Harry is a rogue cop who goes around killing and gets away with because the assistant chief sticks up for him. Every chance he gets, he throws a monkey wrench in Harry’s investigations, tossing out theories that Harry is the true culprit, or at least is covering up for the true culprit. Of course, we know that’s not true.

Or do we?

See, there’s an open case in the LAPD that involves another Irritating Guy, Harry’s former lieutenant at Hollywood Division, “Ninety-eight” Pounds. Pounds was a paper pusher who also gave Harry hell because Harry isn’t always strictly by the book—and sticking exactly to the book is what matters to Pounds. He likes to throw his official weight around every chance he gets, and he especially likes to throw it in Harry’s direction.

Pounds ended up getting killed, and the case is open because they never found the killer. Harry knows who the killer is, but he can’t say because he was on suspension at the time and stole Pounds’s badge and used his name to investigate an old cold case. The bad guys thought Pounds was onto them and killed him. Harry knows it’s his fault, and he knows that he’d have to reveal that he did some illegal things at the time, so he keeps his mouth shut and lives with it.

Irritating Guy is that guy you love to hate. He doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever. I mean, we can get pissed at the antagonist, but we know we’re supposed to get pissed at him. That’s why he’s there.

But Irritating Guy…well, he’s a special case. There’s nothing good about him. He’s a jerk, and he usually doesn’t have the guts to be a real bad guy. He hides behind rules and regulations and finds ways to twist them to his own uses, all to make the protagonist’s life as difficult as possible. We don’t like Irritating Guy because he doesn’t like our hero, and if the story’s written right, we’re rooting for our hero, no matter what he does.

Harry Bosch does things that are illegal and unethical, all in the name of solving the case. On the redeeming side of that, he doesn’t care about the politics of a case. If you’re guilty, Harry doesn’t care if you’re a Hollywood celebrity, the mayor of LA, or even the president, he’ll nail you and call you guilty. The downside of that is he’s not above bending and/or breaking the rules to achieve that end.

The nice part is, he always pays a price for it, in the end, in one way or another. Harry’s personal life is a mess. He’s in his forties (at the point in the series where I’m at, anyway), and his one marriage is on the rocks before the first year is out. He’s not divorced yet, but he doesn’t know where his wife is, either, and he keeps hoping she’ll show up again, even as he faces reality and figures she probably won’t.

Anyway, I’d have to say a story doesn’t suffer for lack of an Irritating Guy, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have him in there, either. We’re supposed to torture our heroes. They have to suffer to achieve their goals, and having Irritating Guy there just adds to the whole idea. As if it’s not enough to have to put up with the stuff Sauron is doing, we have to suffer through Saruman’s machinations as well. And Saruman is really worse, in a way, because he used to be one of the good guys: the White Wizard, head of the Grey Council.

I haven’t put Irritating Guy in any of my stories yet, and maybe I should. Everybody around Lyle seems to like him, or at least tolerates him without complaint, and maybe that’s making things a bit too smooth for him. I’m not sure if I can work one into the current novel I’m working on. The characters are pretty much set for it, and it may be a little late to bring one onstage. But, with how I write, who knows what’ll happen?

So how about you? Do you like—so to speak—Irritating Guy? Or would you rather not see him in the story? Have you used Irritating Guy as a plot device? Or has he just not popped up yet, like with my stories?

Or am I being Irritating Guy by bringing him up?

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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