Saturday, March 13, 2010
Why Do Pulp Heroes Fade...and Then Return?
Scott D. Parker
Two articles online this week merged with a feeling I was beginning to have about Jack Bauer, the pulp hero of “24”: I’m not sure I care about him anymore.
Let’s state the obvious: Jack Bauer is a pulp hero. He’s a modern-day Doc Savage, James Bond, Tarzan, what have you. Jack gets himself in a tight spot, you know he’s getting out. He may get himself beaten or tortured (just about every season) but he’ll bounce back. Don’t worry.
With the Olympics this year, I found myself recording two episodes of “24” to watch after the Olympics. When it came time to watch these taped episodes, my wife and I looked at each other and asked the same question: do we care?
The plot lines this season haven’t been stellar. Frankly, they have a distinct tinge of “we’ve already seen this before.” You could make similar cases for previous seasons with the exceptions of seasons one and four. The first season was good because of the then-new concept of a ‘real time’ show and the fact that the writers killed off Jack’s wife in the final minutes of the finale. Season four was just all sorts of good, with lots of twists and turns and culpability that ended in the White House. The narratives threads this year, however, have paled in comparison. It’s like a soap opera with guns. There are story arcs that I just don’t care about. My wife and I agreed that we’d be happy with a retitled show called “12” and just show Bauer’s story.
Our disenchantment with “24” got me to thinking about classic pulp heroes and stories. I’m still reading Doc Savage #2 but the template is apparent. Doc and his team get themselves into a dire situation and emerge mostly unscathed. Repeat the next month. Same for Tarzan’s books, Sherlock Holmes, comic books, etc. Modern police TV shows and series characters in novels are not immune. Shows like “CSI: Miami” are less police procedurals than visual comfort food.
How was it, then, that pulp characters like Doc Savage and The Shadow and Perry Mason lasted so long with essentially the same format? Were readers back in the 1930s and 1940s less sophisticated than we are? Is it that we have more choices?
In a recent article, Charles Ardai, co-founder of Hard Case Crime, asks whether or not the pulp fiction stock market is set up for another crash. He cites that in the years since the pulp fiction heyday, periodic revivals have emerged, with his being the most high-profile in recent years.
My main question here is this: why does pulp fiction return? Why does the appetite of readers start to hunger for shorter novels with punchy characters? Good question. One reason I’ll posit is that pulp fiction revivals are a reaction to the dark and gritty material that is, at times, too dark and too violent.
Over at io9, there is a rant against “superhero tragedy porn” in comic books and why it’s bad for the industry. Right off the bat, author Cyriaque Lamar criticizes comic book writers for dark and gritty stories that attempt to make these stories more adult merely by injecting violence in the tales. The problem with comics, however, is the capacity to overindulge the violence. “24” does this, as well, with the inevitable torture sequence either by Jack of of Jack.
In the DC Comics world, there now seems to be a trend of lighter fare, of a return to some of the glory days of comic books before the dark times--the mid-1980s onward, the post-Watchmen, post-Dark Knight Returns era. Perhaps DC is seeing something the reading public is craving: pure, fun, escapist stories. The thing is that this kind of storytelling does get repetitive and boring, too.
I’m not saying that dark material is bad, in comics or elsewhere. It has it’s place and it is powerful when used correctly and judiciously. But there has to be some sort of middle ground. We can’t have overly dark stories all the time but we tire of stories with characters that never change and never face anything dark.
Is the fading of pulp heroes and the rise of darker material just a natural trend that ebbs and flows with the passing decades? I think so. But I’d like to get your take, too.
Friday, March 12, 2010
A Day in the Life
In a unique experiment in transparency, Russel is proud prevent his diaries from one day of writing. This is an accurate record of his activities except for those parts where he goes to the toilet.
But he does mention his shower.
Trust us, its important.
We hope this will demonstrate once and for all that the life of a writer is lived, not doing exciting things, but rather spending much of his time in a state of semi-comatose, coffee-fuelled insanity and finding excuses to do anything other than write.
Intended to sleep in since day off. But feel like should be catching up on deadlines. Up. Think about shower.
Not showered. Drinking coffee and watching morning telly. Thinking about writing. But mostly getting annoyed at the eejits who email breakfast telly shows with their “opinions”. Surprised most of them can work a keyboard, but not surprised at their lack of spelling abilities.
At computer, finally. Still in dressing gown and unshowered. Ready to write. But first catch up on emails. Oooo…. Lots of articles from the book trade. Let’s read ‘em and probably get righteously angry at something.
And I do. And I write a blog entry on it. Which I promptly delete. Why?
Its bollocks, that’s why.
Another coffee. Reading other people’s blogs, now. Depressed at their natural ability and their often very funny voices.
Honestly planning to write soon. Maybe watch a DVD first. Currently in the midst of box set of Battle Star Galactica.
Post! Someone loves me! Oh, its only bills. Think in my next book I might kill a postie who doesn’t deliver exciting things.
Watching Galactica, saw someone brutally killed by a cylon warrior. Think this is what agent Al will do to me if I don’t start writing. Fire up Word and kick off the day’s writing. After replying to another couple of emails. And checking the twitter feed. Agent Al cannot get annoyed at me for this. He was the one who convinced me to go on Twitter in the first place.
Get up and start walking around, muttering to myself. This is not because I am crazy but because I am seeing how the dialogue sounds. Yes, I am the crazy writer who tries out dialogue before committing it. Especially in important scenes. It’s a good feeling, and it helps me figure out how to write down the dialogue, what to make it look like on the page so that it will have the same effect as my recitation.
Shower, finally. And lunch. Lunch is scraped together from what bacon I have left, some beans and toast. Maybe I need to pop to the shop. And think about tonight’s tea.
Thinking about tonight’s tea. Head out to get supplies. Remember to get properly dressed first. Panic that I have locked myself out when the door shuts on the snib. Keys are in the wrong pocket, thankfully.
More writing. The piece I am working on is a redraft and I am not feeling the confidence. The voice needs to sound right. Start thinking about a characters medical condition. Wind up wasting time on Google learning about internal bleeding. Its all rather interesting.
Start swearing at spell check. I know I’m spelling these words right. Realise for some reason the bloody thing is set to US spelling.
Swear even more.
Have a strange panic. Think I should be at the day job. Double and then triple check rota to assure myself that I am not. Assure myself they would have called and yelled before me.
To calm myself, I make more coffee. As strong as I can. The spoon stands upright in the cup with no outside help. I add more coffee. Breathe in the fumes. Hallucinate just a little bit with the sheer joy of that smell.
This is the third time I have tried to redraft the last third of the book. Every time, a new idea hits and I have to adjust the pieces. I am already behind schedule. Another book is writing itself in my head. I need to get a move on with this one because I do like the basic idea and some of the characters. Even that one who’s going to have half his lines cut because all he does is whinge.
Want to double check something on internal bleeding. And people keep sending me emails. Some of them look interesting. Many of them are from Jay Stringer. I decide music will help me write. Wind up singing along instead of actually writing (outside, people look up at my window and wonder who it is that’s being murdered in there).
Resist twitter feed until I see the green box that means someone’s talking about me. Oh, ego, why won’t you ignore such things?
DVD break. Wind up watching Alien3 (special edition) and eating the steak pie I bought earlier in the day. Feel guilty throughout the whole experience and know that when Al reads this diary he will hunt me down and whip me.
Back to the computer. More emails? Ignore them and write. Write like the wind! Actually getting a good groove on. Its one of those scenes I love when I get to taunt my characters with something they really want and then take it away.
A google alert distracts me. I fine an online review that says I swear too much and am horribly violent. I feel midway between angry and depressed. But it is still better than when I was accused by email of being part of a “left wing fascist-liberal conspiracy”.
Wish I was part of a conspiracy. Maybe then I’d have something to do on a Saturday night.
Have written a rant intended for this blog. Deleted it all. One word is repeated in various forms throughout the rant. Some of it makes me chuckle. I am reminded of the advice I once gave to another writer: “have a thick skin. We need it in this gig”.
Think about watching telly. Think about what Agent Al can do with a baseball bat and how I’d really like to get paid at some point. Make my decision.
I am back at the day job tomorrow. But there is time enough to keep writing. Just a few more pages. Another coffee? No, must have some sleep. But by now I am wide awake. And I can see my way to the end of the book… just need to push. Who needs sleep?
Quick bit of reading (Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker is my drug of choice). And finally, sleee….
I was thinking of taking a wordcount for the day but if we included all deleted words it would be a lot. Also, since I’m editing, the count is hard because the manuscript changes size so often. But trust me, I get quite a lot done once I’m in the zone. I reckon I’m a sprint writer. Have to keep taking breaks, but once I get going, I’m fast and focussed.
But this is pretty typical of a day off from the day job. Sometimes I do go out and meet people of course, but mostly I’m catching up on all the writing I didn’t do because I was too tired from work. Like I said before, you have to take the time you can get to write. And focus. It’s not glamorous and its plagued with distractions and doubt, but when I’m in the zone, there’s nothing else in the world I’d rather be doing.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
This is my favorite time of year sports-wise. (And it'd be even better if my team every gave it more than a one game appearance in the conference tournament and made a run for once. FOR ONCE!)
The best thing about March Madness is the madness. Tons of games, tons of teams, players you've never heard of. Teams down and out getting up off the mat to win. Huge upsets. Back and forth battle.
It's like a great thriller.
I mean, isn't that what we want in our crime fiction? You want the wild unpredictability. You want the hero and the villain. You want a wicked twist in the second half that puts everything in doubt. Even if you're a seasoned reader, you want to be surprised.
My favorite moments in a thriller are usually the craziest moments in a game. I love when the hero is down and out. Beaten, emotionally shattered, about to lose his grip on sanity. The villain has his hands on the timer and is going to end the world, or kill their target, or steal all the money and escape to Virginia.
And the hero gets up. Fights back one more time.
It reminds me of March Madness. Your team (or whatever team I choose to root for that year because my team is never in it. NEVER IN IT.) is down ten points late in the second half. They could just roll over and go on spring break.
But they hit a three. They get some life and they crawl back.
Nuts, isn't it? Gets your blood pumping.
Thrills are great.
What's your favorite part of a thriller?
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Getting to Know You
When my Entertainment Weekly magazine arrived this week hailing The Good Wife as the best show on TV, I thought, “Ha, I was right,” (hey, I’m shocked, too) and then I wondered about the way TV shows now build an audience the way movies once did.
Nowadays sometimes a movie plays in a few theatres in New York and LA just before the end of the year if the producers are trying to get Academy Awards nominations. Once in a while an art film might get a limited release, or a documentary, but for the most part these days movies open wide, thousands of screens at once. They’ve usually been running ads for weeks so everyone knows about the movie long before it’s in theatres.
Opening weekend is everything and box office usually goes down every week after that.
I remember when there was a huge build up to the new TV season, when all the new shows – on all three networks – started the same week. Some we were looking forward to, some we were going to avoid, but we knew about all of them. The key for new show was to keep its opening night ratings through the whole season.
Now it seems like a show can start with low ratings and see them grow over a season.
It seems like movies and TV shows have switched positions on this.
Then yesterday I saw an article in Variety about crime novels being adapted into movies (or rather, not adapted) that said, “A powerful lit agent suggests that the very qualities that help make these novels so popular may work against them in film adaptations. Relatable everyman or woman characters appeal to readers but may not be considered sexy or mysterious enough to carry a film. The modern day equivalents of Agatha Christie whodunits and Dashiell Hammett detective stories tend to appear on the smallscreen these days.”
I’m not sure it’s so much, “Relatable everyman or everywoman characters,” as much as it is simply character-driven stories.
Then the article quoted Janet Evanovich about the trouble getting her Stephanie Plum series made into a movie, "It seems like a no brainer -- there have been all these shows about bounty hunters -- but my poor little project just has never gotten off the ground," and again I thought, yeah, TV show, not movie.
And her comment about the bounty hunter shows made me think of a recent blog by a Canadian TV writer, Denis McGrath, who said when pitching a TV show imagine it as a reality show. He says, “Desperate Housewives spawned the Real Housewives of... The O.C. gave us The Hills...” and he could have said, “Cop shows gave us Cops...”
So, what’s this got to do with writing crime fiction novels?
It seems to me that these days people are all talking about writing ‘stand-alones’ that are very plot-driven, they’re trying to write movies.
But for me, series is where it’s at – TV series and book series. Big complicated plots and lots of characters that take some time to develop. Not necessarily the same main character everytime, but a real developed universe.
A place where you can really get to know the characters.
Sometimes it seems like the series is the unwanted child of publishing. Everyone seems to be looking for the big score, the great hook, the single sentence that can sell the book.
But the steady sales of the series seems to be the foundation everything else stands on, the support that allows the stand-alone risks.
The best shows on TV are the long-arc, complicated, lots of character shows - shows tht take some time to develop.
So maybe it’s not a bad idea to try and create some characters you could imagine spending a few books with – maybe you’ll never get a movie deal, but you might get a TV deal and that might even be better.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
PAYBACK was written and directed by the guy who wrote the screenplay for L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. It’s based on the novel THE HUNTER, which was also adapted into the stone classic POINT BLANK starring Lee Marvin.
Brian Helgeland, the writer/director, set out to make a film that paid homage to a
different era of crime film. The hero is a bastard who kills in cold blood, and there is violence to women and unarmed men. Because the world is violent to women and unarmed men. There was a dog in it, and unfortunately for lassie fans everywhere, the dog wasn't going to survive.
After seeing the finished version, Gibson and the studio baulked. It seems that when they set out to fund a dark and violent crime film, they had actually hoped it would turn out to be Sesame Street. It was decided, perhaps correctly, that the public didn't want that version of Mel Gibson anymore than they wanted him to be drunken or anti semitic. They’d had a decade of seeing him in palatable action adventures, of being the 'loveable rogue' and, as Russel has said, the schoolboys idea of a tough guy. There was also the feeling that cinema should reflect its time, and you couldn’t release a 70’s crime film in the late 90’s. I don’t agree, but I wasn’t the demographic the studio was chasing.
The director was removed, a hip blue colour filter was added on and a comedic voiceover was crammed on. Most crucially, the film was given new first and third acts, and a whole new antagonist was created. The new third act included such bullshit Hollywood ideas as an 'ending'.
The released version wasn't awful. It doesn't belong up there with Transformers 2 or Bram Stoker's Dracula. But the problem was, it wasn't very good, either. It was that odd hollywood enigma; a property that has been brought and filmed to not resemble the source material at all. It aimed at 'wacky' and failed by some margin. It was just another processed cheese crime movie, with a beginning, middle and end (all in the right order.) It belongs on the shelf with all the other 'quirky crime films' that quickly vanish from the mind and never need to be re-watched.
The directors’ cut was made available on DVD a few years back, though i think it's vanishing pretty quickly. And it wasn't just a simple case of throwing in a few deleted scenes, this was a blank slate process. The avid tapes no longer existed, which is a technical term for "oooops." Because of this, the new version was even more of a homage to a bygone era; it was edited direct from the film prints. Yes from film. That crazy substance that most filmmakers wouldn't even know to look at anymore, let alone edit with.
It starts with Gibson’s PORTER walking into the city across a bridge. Nothing to his name, we see him stealing money from a blind man (in the ‘Gibson cut’ the blind man was only pretending to be blind, here he is the real deal). He steals a wallet, gets some clothes and a meal, and starts his revenge spree. Pretty soon we see him beating the shit out of his wife. It’s a brutal scene, with no attempt to show any context or to justify the scene. It just is. Later on, through flashback, we do see why he’s doing it. And on the documentary, both of the actors involved (Gibson and Deborah Unger) talk about it in good detail.
-Gibson; “If he didn’t care about her, he wouldn’t have visited.’
-Unger; "She deserved the beating."
Porter’s moral code in the new cut is far more believable than any attempt to sanitize the character. He may beat the crap out of his wife for crossing him, but he also kills an unarmed man for insulting a woman. Not exactly a date film, eh?
One nice exchange;
-“What is this, some kind of principle?”
-“No, I just want my money back”
A dog gets killed, did i mention that? Lots of people die with little warning and no romance. Violence is shown for what it is. When people complain about these films, complain that they glorify violence and crime, they’ve clearly never watched them. These are the most responsible films; they show that violence and crime happen. They show that neither are pretty. They give both of them consequences.
The final third of the film, one of the many things the studio refused to accept a decade ago, is wonderful. A lot happens, and nothing happens, all at once. It's over in a flash, with no heroism. The film ends in a deliberate nod to the opening. Just as we came into the story partway through, we leave before the end.
Monday, March 8, 2010
Nancy Granger and the Riddle of the Dragon
So I saw a woman at a soccer match reading a book. A thick one. I was surprised. I thought maybe she was reading Infinite Jest or an annotated Ulysses. Just shake your head surprised, ya know? Then I felt bad for thinking it was unusual, worked up a little "book by its cover joke" and turned back to the game.
So I walked around until I could see what book she was reading. It wasn't Infinite Jest. No, this 50-year-old woman was reading Twilight, the novel about how some 104-year-old dude seduces a teenage girl. This book was popular with teenage girls of all ages.
Look, I don't have a thing at all against Ms. Meyer, who wrote the book and has gobs of money and influence and probably lawyers of substantial skill. She wrote a book that people love, a book people love to defend. Fantastic. Kinda reminds me of the Harry Potter craze, in which seemingly intelligent grown-ups read about how this little boy was doing in his potions class and whether teenage love-birds Ron and Hermione were going to make out in the shrieking shack. Great. Sell a billion books, Ms. Rowling.
OK, it's hard to have this conversation without sounding as if I'm begrudging them their success. I'm not. (Methinks the lady doth protest too much. Aw, shaddup.)
My concern isn't with the writers; I worry about the readers.
Depending upon which studies I make up, between 83 and 98 percent of those adults who read Twilight read only Twilight-related books during whatever year it came out. I'm not here to whine about that. Heck, I'm not even here to bury Caesar. I want to know why.
Why are those books so popular? Why do 40-year-old women rush home after work to see whether the 104-year-old Edward Cullen and the teenage Bella Swan are goosing each other in his coffin. (Um, I'm the only one who finds it disturbing that a dude 100 years old is scammin on some teenage girl? You know those Disney movies in which the grown-up gets thrown into a high schooler's body -- Freaky Friday, that one with that Chandler dude from Friends, etc? If that guy then takes a teenage girl to his van, folks would flip. Why is it OK if this dude with the Jonas Brothers eyebrows does it? Because he's impossibly beautiful? I dunno. Just seems awful.)
And it ain't just the dames. The dudes are reading children's books, too. Harry Potter, for sure. I can name a few grown men who waited in line to buy the Harry Potter books at midnight. Men who don't even have kids. Or even a girlfriend. The Onion did a hilarious piece on adults reading kids' books. John mentioned that item in one of his recent posts.
OK. So here's where we are. This is a crime fiction blog. So what does this have to do with crime fiction? Nothing. Dang it. That's the problem. We need to band together as the crime fiction community and say we're not writing adult books anymore. No. We want to hit the best seller lists. We want movie deals. We want to go to premieres and red carpet things and eat whatever it is the fancy people take off of those silver trays in the movies. Let's stop worrying about writing books and start focusing on selling books.
A teenager. A boy? Girl? Don't know. Let's say a girl. OK. We're gonna hafta throw in some supernatural stuff. We have to kill the kid's parents, especially if we want this to be a Disney movie. Probably we should follow Nemo, Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast and kill the mom. Yeah. OK. So the little girl has a dead mom. And a father who is overwhelmed. Oh, Nancy Drew. Wasn't her mom dead? I don't know. I think she was in the movie. OK. So the girl is going about her life, but it isn't going too well. She's cute, of course, because she's our lead. But she's librarian-cute, not cheerleader-cute. And she's, what? Fourteen? Fifteen? Maybe tomboyish. So something weird happens. Her dad loses his job, maybe. Yells at her. She runs into the attic. Hides. And she stumbles across something, something that shows her that her mother's death wasn't an accident and/or that she's the lost princess of Genovia or some place like that. Oh, and dragons. Another world. That's it. She's the lost princess of Hogwart's or Narnia or something. Crappy life here. Great life there. And she has to solve her mother's murder to bring balance to the force. Oh, wait. The bad people are ruling Narnia or whatever we call it. So she has to solve her mother's murder to show that they're imposters.
And in so doing she gains self-confidence and helps her father and finds grandparents she never knew she had. Crud. I forgot the boyfriend. Ugh. OK. I can't do all this on my own, people.
We want a supernatural murder mystery written for children. But adults have to read it, so don't make it challenging.
OK. I was kinda messing around but this could be fun.
Who's with me? Ready? Go.
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Splits, Hits, and Chips
As I'm writing this it's cold and snowy. By the time you read this I will be in Florida where it will be warm(ish) and sunny without snow. Going on vacation has me thinking about locations. While I'm not one who spends a whopping amount of time describing scenery in my fiction, I am always inspired by cool locations. Any time I find myself some place new, or interesting, my brain immediately begins piecing together stories that would work for the place.
Sometime they don’t always come right away, like a story I wanted to write after I came back from visiting Las Vegas for the first time, but they always come. Sometimes I have a story idea floating in my heading waiting for the right location, and other times I have a great location that is searching for a story.
But one location that has fascinated me for years but hasn't really fed much into my fiction is the casino. I always enjoyed movies and books about Las Vegas and I loved heist stories set in Vegas, but I grew up in a family that wasn't really into gambling so I never went to one until I was in my twenties. Even then, I was in Canada with a buddy of mine and we ate a restaurant with a casino attached so on a lark we both went in and put a couple quarters in a slot machine and that was the end of it.
But when I started dating Becky, we were going downtown Detroit a lot for football games and restaurants and such and the easiest and cheapest place to park was the Greektown Casino. You can park in their garage and take the People Mover to any other location downtown and then at the end of the night you just have to go into the casino to a machine to validate the parking ticket. It was great and she, who had been to several casinos by this point, talked me into visiting them and I loved it. I can't stand slots, but I love to play Blackjack. Now I'm the one who drags her to the casinos.
So we've been to all three Detroit casinos, the Caesar's Casino in Windsor, Soaring Eagle up by Central Michigan University, some sketchy backyard casino in the Upper Pennisula, two casinos in Niagra Falls, one in Arizona, and about six in Las Vegas. But so far I've only written two stories with casino settings, and even those are just peripheral scenes. I've never written a casino story and I can't figure out why. It seems like a setting ripe for fiction. And I've never turned away from writing about a place just because it's been written about so many times (how many friggin' strip club stories have I written??) so I don’t know what the answer is.
I suspect it has to do with my desire to write a big, fat, romping, heist novel at some point and I don’t want to spoil any of the magic. I also suspect it has to do with the research that would be required to write a good casino story. While all of the stuff on the floor is neat to see and think about, so much of what makes a casino a cool location for fiction is behind the scenes. Any of the characters: dealers, bartenders, waitresses, even janitors, do their job differently at a casino than they would anywhere else because of the security issues and to write them true I'd have to know more than I do.
So how about you all out there, what's a location you have a lot of exposure to but have never used in fiction? And for the readers, what are your thoughts on casinos and casinos in fiction?