Saturday, June 26, 2010
It's About People. All Kinds
Scott D. Parker
After another hellacious week in the day job, I finally got to see “Toy Story 3” yesterday. This was also the week in which I lived in semi-dread that my son, who saw the film with his grandparents last weekend, was going to spoil something. I shouldn’t have feared. He kept his silence and allowed my wife and I (with him along for a second viewing, this time, in 3D) to be completely and utterly blown away by this special movie.
For those of you who have seen “Toy Story 3,” you know the emotional wallop this film evokes. And, to be honest to myself and this essay, I’m going to have to write about specifics. So, if you haven’t seen the movie--why not?!--get thee to a movie theater and do it. Then, come back here and we’ll chat. So, spoilers ahead. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
As we drove home yesterday, my voice still cracking under the emotional aftermath, I commented that Pixar has the golden touch. Their worst film--I’ll leave that to your own discretion--is better than almost every other movie released in a given year. For all the high concept shenanigans of a rat that can cook, a fish that wants to find his son, or a robot who falls in love, Pixar’s fundamental truth of storytelling is something we writers should never forget. That fundamental truth is: people matter. Take “Finding Nemo.” It’s not enough to have Marlin swimming across the Pacific, dodging all obstacles, on his way to Sydney and his son, Nemo. The plot of “Finding Nemo” isn’t about how Marlin evades the shark. It’s the emotion behind his quest that is the difference. As parents, we know exactly the feeling Marlin has and can sympathize with his unswerving drive. The reunion at the end is that much sweeter knowing the emotional baggage behind it.
The same is true with “Toy Story 3.” Looking at the trailers and reading the reviews, I knew the story was going to be about a mix-up that landed our heroes in a day care center and their fight to return to Andy, even if that meant that he would leave for college and they’d stay home, likely in the attic. For most of the movie, that is the driving plot device and laughter, danger, and grand adventure ensued. What carried the movie along was the characters, not their hijinks or antics. These toys cared for and loved each other with an emotion so pure, it’s something you want to capture in a bottle and preserve forever. It wasn’t a quest to kill something or destroy an evil enemy. It was the drive to survive, to mean something for someone else.
The first part that got me tearing up was when the toys were falling into the inferno. They realized there was no escape. The antics ended right then and there. It was a scene without humor. What they decided to do was hold hands and die together. These are toys. Toys! And they got me. I’m not ashamed to say that tears flowed. Their escape was perfect, but that only set up the mother of all emotional waves at the end.
Woody, the one toy Andy chose to travel with him to college, took his fate in his own hands and chose to remain with his family, and, truth be told, to remain true to his one calling. With a note, he convinced the eighteen-year-old Andy to give his toys to young Bonnie, a girl with an imagination as active as Andy’s was in the first Toy Story movie. This Andy does, but not before introducing each toy (like a curtain call) to Bonnie on her front lawn. One more round of play with Andy, his toys, and Bonnie follows. At this point, I’m all but bawling, the tears blurring my 3D vision. My only wish was for my son not to notice, stick his face in my face, lift up my glasses, and say “Are you crying, Dad?” Thankfully, I was able to have my valedictory moments with these wonderful characters to myself.
It’s not the adventures these toys endured that will last forever in my imagination. It’s their love for each other. And, in their own way, their love for me, my wife, my son, and anyone else whose lives they have touched these past fifteen years. When push comes to shove, these characters choose to take actions that help others rather than themselves. Their purity of love is exquisite. It helps me to remember that, for all the plots I can dream up for any characters I create, if I can’t make a reader love them, I’ve only half won.
Storytelling. It’s all about people. All kinds. Even plastic ones.
Friday, June 25, 2010
(please excuse any grumpiness this week, Russel's dealing with the trauma of leaving his twenties behind as of the beginning of next week)
Two things caught my attention this week.
#1 was egotistical, a review of THE GOOD SON on The Drowning Machine. A nice review, but here’s the line that caught my attention:
One of the things I most like about this book is that the author doesn't get in the way of his story. He knows when to shut up.
Its that last part. Knows when to shut up. Believe me when I say that’s a huge compliment.
And it brings me to #2.
Over on twitter, I’m following the supremely talented Anthony Neil Smith (once you’re done here, do yourself a favour and go buy his books. And while you’re waiting on them, go read his incredible zine, Plots With Guns). Now, Smith’s clearly a guy who’s shy with his opinons, so it was interesting to read his reactions to THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO:
Tried reading DRAGON TATTOO. Bored myself silly for 130 pages. Gave up and shook my head at the world's collective bad taste.
It brought me back to something I’ve always said about that book: It doesn’t start for at least 100 pages.
Larsson is of course a publishing phenomenon. And I have said some nice things about the books. But with more time to reflect, I have come to realise that for all the intriguing stuff going on, by God, those books could have been edited down. I couldn’t quote you a line of dialogue from any of them, although I could tell you that I liked the character of Lisbeth Salander a lot, and it was really her that kept me going through the books.
Both of these things – the review and ANS’s reaction to GWTDT reminded me of that rule of Elmore Leonard’s I keep telling people:
Leave out the parts the reader tends to skip.
I am a huge believer in that rule. I find I love it as a reader, and as a writer it disciplines me to get straight to the point, to say what needs to be said. And no, its not about attention span, its about clarity. Not simply of prose but of purpose. A story doesn’t need to trap itself in purple prose and overlong explanatory passages. It needs to punch the reader, to get them to sit up and pay attention. To really focus on the words by making each one as important as the last.
Otherwise, we’re bulking up the story so that readers can drift in and out. So that they don’t have to pay attention. So that they can be spoonfed.
I remember – although I can’t find it – an interview with David Simon in The Guardian where he talked about how the audience had to watch every scene to get the pay off, how they couldn’t leave the room to make coffee or chat on the phone for five minutes, how he wanted to change the way we watch television.
To work with the show. Not passively observe on a surface level.
This is how it should be with stories. The reader should do some lifting, because in the end the real reward we get from a book comes not from the passive act of reading but from the way we engage – emotionally and intellectually – with the text. And if we’re skipping swathes of text or reading them so they can fill in the parts we didn’t want to work to understand, then are we really just wasting time with these things?
So what’s the lesson today?
Make every word count.
Don’t lose your reader because they feel they can drift in or out.
In the end, if it’s a good story, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve written one hundred thousand or one hundred and fifty pages. If every word counted, your readers will thank you.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
How Important is Grammar?
There are often conversations going on regarding someone's pet peeves of incorrect grammar. Everybody has one. Mine is people saying "I could care less" when they mean "I couldn't care less." But I have another argument as well.
Grammar is not important.
Well, I'll back off of that... simple grammar is something everyone should learn young and grasp. But after that, who really cares?
What is important, and what I stress when I teach, is meaning. A student has to be able to put together an argument or a storyline or a sentence that has meaning. They have to learn how to put together a logical progression and THEN you can go back and fix grammar.
Hell, look at a lot of writing in books these days. People break grammar rules all the time, whether to sound colloquial or to create effect. I understand that you have to understand grammar to break the rules, but grammar should still not be the end all be all of writing.
It should be the least important thing.
National tests these days do not grade on grammar and spelling. They let most errors go as long as it does not affect meaning. Hence, meaning is where we should focus. That's what I work on.
If a story starts:
"Me and you went to the store. Your a giraffe and heads spilld across the road."
I am not going to sit there and help fix the "me and you" and the correct "your" first. I'm going to ask why is there a giraffe in this story, why were there head's spilling across the road, and what does that have to do with the store you went to.
I want to get to the point where someone will write "Me and you went to the store. You bought skittles and I bought a soda."
Then we can go back and fix grammar.
I think people worry about grammar because it's easy to fix. You can--when you edit someone's piece--say well this is wrong and this is wrong and it's easier than saying, but there's a plot hole here on page 202 and I don't know how you can fix it. That involves a back and forth and a conversation.
I'm always willing to talk about writing, be it with students or with other writers. I'm always willing to brainstorm plot ideas and why a paragraph works as a thought. But folks, what it comes down to is this: Whether you are in 8th grade or writing for ten years, most grammatical errors can be fixed by just reading your sentence out loud.
Meaning, however, takes work.
What do you think?
FOR THE RECORD: This is in no way an attempt to trash teachers. I am a teacher and I believe in teachers. All teachers want to make students smarter and more well rounded young men and woman.
However, I think there is an old fashioned thinking vs. a new type of thinking among all citizens of the United States on whether or not grammar should be the key to good writing.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
There’s a fine line between marketing and being annoying as shit.
And it seems like it’s one we better learn because we’ve all accepted the idea that writers have to do a lot of marketing themselves – whether they’re any good at it or not.
Here’s a story to demonstrate how bad I am at marketing. I found a website all about the escort business in Toronto – a review site, actually, that started out with men reviewing the escorts they had been with (like restaurant reviews) and after a while the escorts themselves started taking out ads on the site and then even joining in the discussions. Like most online discussions the site had a fairly lively “off-topic” section; books, movies, sports, politics, where to buy electronic products, the best cell phone plans, local crime – all kind of stuff.
In one of my books a character, an escort, mentions the site and the reviews she’s received. Her friend asks if it’s like Amazon and can she give herself great reviews the way writers do?
So, when the book came out I thought some of the people on the escort site might be interested in it – it takes place in their city, mentioned their site (not in a bad way) and had fictionalized some of the real crimes they’d discussed.
I joined the site and posted a very polite note about the book, with a link to a pretty good review in a local paper.
They called me a shill and told me to get lost.
A site with nothing but ads for prostitutes and discussions of the best deals on “massages with happy endings,” called out my timid attempt at marketing.
So, whenever I see articles about, “Book Marketing in Social Media,” I wonder if it can really work. They say things like, “The most important rule of social media is: be human and be yourself. People don't want to ‘friend’ a marketing campaign, they want to connect with a real person and many at least hope for the occasional two-way communication.”
Occasional two-way communication? Really, they have to explain that to someone who’s trying to sell a book.
I’ve mentioned a couple of times that the guy who started Soft Skull Press is now working on something he calls, “Cursor,” but he isn’t giving out much info. Other than, “Cursor is a social approach to publishing that focuses on the establishment of powerful, self-reinforcing online membership communities made up of professional authors, reader members, and emerging writers.” I don’t know, it sounds like “reader members and emerging writers,” will pay to be part of an online community that includes, “professional authors.”
Hey, at least that hooker website didn’t charge me to join before running me out as a shill.
Of course, you’re thinking, “But wait a minute, John, this Do Some Damage blog is just marketing.” And you’re right, the idea here is to try and get a little more exposure and maybe sell a few books but we’d never think about charging for this. Just like I wouldn’t expect there to be a charge to join a Facebook discussion or a place like Crimespace, which has a pretty clear disclaimer on the front page that says: Note that the forum is for discussion only, not for blatant self promotion (BSP). There’s even a TLA (three letter acronym) so that means it’s official.
So, maybe that line between marketing and annoying people isn’t all that thin. Maybe if you want to advertise your books you should pay for an ad and not join a “social media” site to engage in, “occasional two-way communication,” with people you have “friended” with the sole purpose of selling them something.
Through my writing I’ve met a lot of great people and been exposed to a lot of good writing I wouldn’t otherwise have found. Some of that writing has been online and some has been books I’ve bought and some has been books that people have given me.
I hope that this has been a “two-way” street.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
By Jay Stringer
One of the two-part blogs today. A mini-review and then a mini-rant.
I finished reading McFet’s Let It Ride (which translates as Swap, somehow, in Canadian) recently. If you’ve already read Dirty Sweet and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, then you’re on familiar ground. The third book in the loose series expands on what you’ve already been reading. If you haven’t read those first two, then I’m afraid we have a problem. A you and me problem. An intervention from the men in black problem.
Anyway. I know I’m not the only one who makes The Wire comparison to John’s books, and I also know it’s a slightly misleading one. No, you’re not entering into the world of low rises and desperation in inner city America. This is literally a whole different country. You’re not going to see an Omar, or a Barksdale, or a McNulty.
When I make the comparison, I’m meaning something else. Each story has taken us further, deeper and higher into the world. We see not just the crime of the streets, but the cops who chase it down, we see the business deals that lead to the crime, we see the high power meetings and the civilians throwing money around on the edges of the underworld. Basically we see that crime, like everything else, is a class system. There’s both the blue collar and the white collar.
If we could say that Dirty Sweet was season one; it gave us a few characters to follow, and showed us the edges of the world. Everybody Knows was season two; it delved deeper, it started to show that Lester Freamon was right; following the money is where the real story is. We started to see where the drugs were coming from and where they were going to, and we saw a major power shift in the rival gangs. To follow all of that Let It Swap gives us season 3, which I would call the “shit just got real” season. Nobody trusts anybody, people are fucking up left right and centre, and everybody is after a piece of the pie. The cast has expanded now to take in a whole city in one novel. I’ve seen few novels try and tackle this many characters, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work.
I don’t read McFet’s books because I know him; I read them because they’re some of the best crime fiction out there. You want books with wit, and scope and ambition, that still manage to be easy to read? Get the book, get all three of them, I'll wait right here.
The second part of today's blog is either a rant or a question, depending on whether you're standing downwind of me.
Peoples expectations seem to be in a strange place right now. Even with McFet's book, I noticed both how ambitious it was and how rare that seems to be. Here on DSD we’ve questioned the myth of the attention span many times, both on the blog and in the podcast. We’re always told that peoples attention spans have gone. Did we ever really have one? And if so, is it really worse now?
A lot of the early praise for The Wire stated how like a novel it was, with its long form story telling. Things were not apparent after one or two episodes, but things were crystal clear after ten or twelve of them. But it does interest me that, while TV is becoming more ambitious and more willing to take risks, the reading market seems to be more and more risk averse.
Do we want something new? Do we want ambition? And following The Wire are we in a golden age of TV? Not really. The show was one of the exceptions, it seems, not the rule.
And it’s not just about novels or TV. People’s expectations in general seem to be in a strange place. I was talking at work recently about Transformers 2, and I ventured the opinion that it's one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. I started to lay into the writing and somebody said, “Did you expect anymore from a film about giant robots?” I was met with stunned silence when I said that everybody should expect more from the film. A well written film about fighting robots is preferable to a badly written one, right?
I mean, The Dark Knight was a film about men in silly costumes fighting on rooftops, but they still dared to put in the hard work and actually write it. But would we rather walk into the cinema and play down ten quid to see a badly written film that’s over in a flash than sit and invest in something that’s well written and interesting? And surely we should demand that even escapism is still well written? Should we really set our sights any lower than that in the name of fun? Is it that our attention spans have reduced, or have we simply started to value our attention spans so little that we don’t see the need to use them?
It could be that its me who's off base. I don't judge different things by different standards. I want saturday evening family escapism to be as well written as the latest film, and both to have the same care and thought as a novel thats going to be worth my time to read. I'm not going to let anything off lighter than anything else, or hand out any free passes.
These are the sorts of questions that set my brain spinning for hours at a time. Do we value content? Do we want ambition? Would The Wire have gathered so much love if it fell in the forest when nobody was around? Are films, books and TV set into the simple blockbuster mentality because that's what the industry presents to us, or is it because that's how we want it? And where do writers fit into the equation?
Monday, June 21, 2010
Stuff to see and do
Hey, I'm offering a FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY. Tell you about it in a minute.
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Fathers and Crime
Happy Father’s Day to all the Dads out there in Do Some Damage land. Because it is Father’s Day, I started thinking about what great father characters exist in crime fiction. I think my favorite is Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird…most people probably consider this LITERATURE now instead of crime fiction, but look at the themes in the book and you’ll see the crime part. Atticus was a solid man and a good dad. His desire to see his children unscathed by events was admirable and heroic – not always the stuff great crime stories are made of, but totally the stuff great dads are.
This is the second Father’s Day since my dad passed away from cancer. (Yes, I just segued into the sappy part of my post. I’m a chick so I’m allowed to make you get out your hankies.) I won’t say that Dad and I always had a fabulous relationship. He was an alcoholic for much of my youth and young adulthood. Alcohol makes for some interesting story conflicts, but not great parent/child communication. He was also a big smoker. Between the drinking and the smoking, my father would have made a fabulous character in one of my fellow bloggers books.
My dad kicked the alcohol when I was in my mid-twenties and cigarette smoking the next year. Cold turkey on both. Amazing! Can you tell he had a stubborn streak? If you think you know stubborn think again. My dad took it to a whole new level. He had things he wanted to get done and nothing, no matter how important, was going to get in the way. Want an example?
While he was battling cancer, Dad had an episode in which he started to bleed and needed to be taken to the hospital. The paramedics loaded him into the ambulance and were ready to go. Only my father wouldn’t let them. The bleeding made it hard to talk, so he pointed to my mother and then down to the edge of the driveway. My mother knew exactly what he wanted and told him no. They were going to the hospital – now. My dad wouldn’t agree. He pointed again. Finally the paramedic asked what Dad wanted. Turns out it was garbage day. The garbage had been collected and Dad was prepared to bleed until the cans had been brought up to their proper position next to house. Baffled, the medic dutifully fulfilled my father’s wish so he could get my father the treatment he needed. Point scored for Dad.
Yep. Stubborn. And he passed it along to me. Okay, I’m not stubborn about my garbage cans, but I did learn an important lesson from my father that has helped me in my publishing adventure. Never take NO for an answer. Keep knocking on doors until someone says yes. Even when it looks like no one will, keep knocking. When you least expect it, someone will finally open the door and let you walk in. It happened to me and it was because of Dad’s example that I kept trying. Thanks Dad. Happy Father’s Day. I hope I do you proud.
***picture is from 8th grade graduation - gotta love the '80s***