Saturday, March 31, 2012

Playing in Different Sandboxes

Scott D. Parker

For the past two months or so, I’ve been in an adventurous mood, reading-wise. It started with the lead-up to the John Carter movie and the re-reading of the initial trilogy from the eleven-book series. I have since gone on to read books 4 and 5. As much fun as those books are, I wanted to maintain my enjoyment of the Barsoomian universe by giving myself a little break. Besides, it’s pretty obvious that Edgar Rice Burroughs had one go-to plot—kidnap female; have male chase kidnappers; prevent wedding—and, well, I needed a break.

Taking a cue from one of the film’s writers, I segued over to Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road. This is his homage to adventure tales and swashbuckling stories of the past. He name drops Michael Moorcock, Fritz Lieber, Alexander Dumas, and George MacDonald Fraser as inspirations. Chabon’s story follows two partners in the 10th Century Middle East and their exploits along their circuitous journey.

Chabon has gone on record as lamenting how genre stories—what, with their focus on simple things like, you know, plot and fun—often get ostracized when compared to the more staid, “important” field of literary fiction. One of the obvious differences is writing style. When you pick up a Chandler detective novel or an Asimov space opera, you know very quickly what you are reading. In the same manner, if you pick up a literary novel, the word choice alone will indicate the type of book. Nothing wrong with this, of course, but it is a distinct difference.

But what about those books where the lines are blurred? Gentlemen of the Road has some action, sword fights, and other fun set pieces. Were this novel written by another person, the style and manner of telling would be quite different, natch. But Chabon is the writer and, as such, you have a man whose natural tendency towards “literary” writing is actually crafting an action tale. Does it work?

For me, yes, partially. When the characters talk, they talk in the high style typical of a Chabon work or, to be honest, like Burroughs. Not necessarily all “thees” and “thous” but speech with flourish. Chabon’s style works great for this. Some of the action scenes, however, tend not to have the immediacy of a more dedicated genre writer. Where someone like Hammett would revert to shorter sentences to punch you in the gut with the visceral action, Chabon maintains his whimsical style. The language is still pretty, but the action is a bit hazy.

All of this got me to thinking and wondering: are certain writes better at certain types of writing? The obvious answer is yes. You take any random sample of pulp authors—modern or classic—and they might be hard pressed to write a languid tale of a young person’s coming of age in the claustrophobic climate of 1950s America. You give them a dude with a pistol or a hero with a ray gun and you are going to be flat-out entertained. You take a group of literary writers and ask them to write a mystery story or a fantasy, and you might end up with a mess.

Yes, some genres call for certain writing styles, but can you mix them? Think of this: remember when you are play acting or talking with friends and you adopt a different accent to make a joke or something? You adopt the accent, say your words, and then revert back to your normal self. Can writers do the same? Can someone mimic Hammett without resorting to pastiche? Can someone mimic Chabon without a reader seeing through the veil?

More importantly, can different types of writing be applied for different types of story? If so, what are some examples? I'd like to know.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Idea

By Russel D McLean

One of the most common questions writers are asked when they attend events is “where do you get your ideas from?” Oh, sure, some people try and dress the question up, but more often than not it’s the same question with fancier words.

And most writers I know hate answering it.

It’s one of those questions that you wind up not thinking about when you’re in the process of writing or of searching for the next novel. It’s like asking how someone knows when to breathe. It’s a combination of circumstances that leads to something else. In retrospect, perhaps, a writer can claim to “have had idea x at moment y” but in truth, that realisation comes too long after the fact for it to matter and they rarely can say why those two moments intersected in the way they did.
When people ask the question, of course, it is not to deliberately flummox writers. It is a genuine inquiry, an attempt to understand the unique alchemy of the creative mind.

The problem is that the creative mind often does not know why it is creative. Which is why there remains a gap between the creative and the critical. In a recent interview with the author Iain McEwan, Mr McEwan pointed out that, for his A-Levels, his son had to study the novel Enduring Love, one of McEwan Sr’s more famous novels. The son, of course, got low marks because his father gave him a few pointers. "I think quite wrongly. His tutor thought the stalker carried the authorial moral centre. Whereas I thought he was a complete madman.” Which plainly shows the gap that occurs between author and reader, between intent and actuality.

Of course, I’m drifting here from my intent, which was to talk about the moment of The Idea, not the gap between author and reader/critic, which is a whole other post for a whole other philosophically inclined day. But be warned that I can’t tell you how to find The Idea, I can only describe the moments in which it happens, the idea that a confluence of events spark something in my brain.

Often its just a moment of conversation; an overheard nugget or a moment that passes in front of my eyes. It sticks in my brain, starts to twist. If you want to write, I think you have to be the kind of who used to play “consequences” and could see the connection between the unconnected things that people would write on that folded piece of paper.

Pedro Paul – one of my favourite of the early short stories, and published in the great anthology EXPLETIVE DELETED – came about because of an overheard conversation; two old women concerned about “aw they pedrophiles on the news”. The phrase wouldn’t leave me alone, and I started to wonder about how they saw these “pedrophiles”, if they really understood what they were and, if they didn’t, then what that might mean. The story that emerged – one of horrific misunderstanding – is one of the darkest of the shorts to be published, and one that I remain hugely proud of to this day.

I’ve talked enough about the ideas for both of the published novels, but its strange how one thing can change the direction a narrative takes. THE LOST SISTER was struggling, trying to find its way as a narrative, and I realised it was because we were missing a truly unnerving protagonist. Then someone said to me, “You should write a character who’s a psychopathic version of Actor X”. Oddly, it was precisely the push I needed. The first push of the character parodied Actor X’s known traits, but on subsequent drafts became more and more of its own thing before finally becoming one of the most unsettling characters I’ve had to write. Again, it was a confluence of circumstance that allowed me to create this character. It was not just “psychopathic verion of Actor X”, but that couple with so many other moments and the needs of the story that resulted in a fresh creation.

You cannot just look at writing and dissect it coldly. A novel or a short story or any piece of writing is the result of a countless number of tiny processes coming together in exactly the right way. In retrospect, perhaps, we can look back and say where idea Y came from, but we cannot coldly and calmly recreate that process time and time again. Which is part of the excitement of writing. If the creative process were merely a formula – and I know so many people wish it was – then everyone would be able to do it and do it well. Which is clearly – and thankfully – not the case. Put simply, every author gets their ideas from different places, all of which are unique to that individual. If you want to get “good ideas”, you need to get to know yourself and the way your mind works. Which is not an answer you want to hear maybe but its as close to the truth as I think I can get.

Or, you know, maybe I should just be like a few other writers I’ve heard, and gently joke that I pick up all my ideas from “Ideas R Us”.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Boy With The X-Ray Specs

By Jay Stringer

I made a point of writing about dyslexia on here last year. It's been interesting lately to have a father contacting me to ask for advice about his young daughter, and for me to be in a position to try and give someone the kind of road map that I never had. So, whilst I'll never feel qualified to be an expert in anything, I decided to hold to my decision to talk about this issue more often, and to give advice when I can.

I'd been hearing for a few years now about colorimetry. It seemed that wearing tinted glasses could help dyslexics to read. I dismissed it every time it came up. I mean, I'd always liked wearing sunglasses, and none of them had made me any better at reading, right? But the more I listened, the more it made sense. My own experience told me that a lot of my problems came when the page turned into something like a magic eye puzzle; the black print on a white page would turn into black shapes fighting with white shapes, and often the white was winning. It's not just with white, but that's the biggest problem. The tint would reduce this and add definition to the shapes, making the black sit still and behave as printed words.

There was no universal fix-all tint. It seemed that everyone had their own, and that they could change over time. I started to play around. I began changing the settings on my computer at work and home, and quickly found that some colours did make an instant difference.

After a year of fiddling around with the local dyslexia charity, and trying to get in contact with specialists who would carry out the tests for free, I found out which high-street optician would do it and booked in with them. It meant paying -and it was one of the pricier high-street stores- but I figured this was one test worth taking. Early on in the test - a fun experience that basically involved sticking my head in a metal box and reading a lot- I figured out how to cheat it. It would have been simple to give the right answers to lead to a really cool looking colour, one that I wouldn't feel like an idiot wearing. But I'm old enough now to know that kind of cheating is pointless.

The test was leading us toward some very bold colours; yellow was working best for me, and both red and blue showed good results. From there, my optician did me the favour of trying to find the least obtrusive combinations of colours that would work, to try and soften the tint of my glasses. The end result is a kind of amber.

I could try and get away with only wearing them when I'm sat at a computer or reading a book. And, when I have more money, I may well get a 'normal' pair for the slight prescription that I now need (as dyslexia wasn't the only eye test I'd been putting off for too long.) But people take for granted the amount of reading they do in day to day life. Anyone who's lived with me -and especially my long suffering wife- will attest to the lengths I go to not to show how much I can struggle sometimes when reading labels in the supermarket, or trying to read maps in a hurry, or any of the small things people do without thinking. So, whilst I may get that 'normal' pair of glasses at some point, I'm going to have to get used to wearing the tinted ones so I may as well force myself to do that first.

That 'getting used to' thing is the downside. I guess in some children you could convince them they were getting to wear super cool sunglasses, but for a great many others they will be getting one more thing to be self conscious about. For me, as a thirty-something, wearing glasses in and of itself is just another thing to add to the list of new problems. Past a certain age you accept these things, along with not being able to fit into that jacket you loved so much, or checking your hair line in the shower. Maybe it's the creaks in your knees when you bend down. Whatever. But even with this, the tint is proving a challenge. For the first couple of days I couldn't help but feel like an idiot, especially since I was wearing glasses that looked suspiciously like something Bono might be pictured with, and had to deal with a lot of jokes from work colleagues who wanted to decide which pretentious rock star I was copying.

(None of them would have guessed Paul Westerberg)

So; Tinted glasses for dyslexics. It's a challenge. It's tough for adults to get used to, and probably even more difficult for children. But all that fades away the first time you sit down and read a book and realise that you're simply reading the fuck out of that page. No going over the same line 33 times, no looking away then looking back in the hope the words have got bored of moving. I imagine my tint will change over time. My next prescription will likely be one of the much bolder colours that we worked hard to dodge this time, but by that point I won't care. So, if you know someone who's struggling, whatever their age, find out which opticians near you can do the colorimetry test and jump in with both feet.

What was I reading, I hear you ask? Why, Tumblin' Dice by John McFetridge, of course. You don;t need coloured glasses to enjoy the hell out of McFet's writing, you just need taste.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Noam Pikelny, Writing Then Counting

By Steve Weddle

Last week I got the latest issue of Banjo Newsletter, which has a fantastic interview with Noam Pikelny (Leftover Salmon, Punch Brothers).

About the shifting time signature in "Jim Thompson's Horse," Pikelny says 
the feel is still a strong duple meter. When it's in three, it doesn't really become a waltz time. It's an interesting thing. I'll write that song and have that melody fully formed to the first part and then afterwards is when I go back and have to start counting.
How like our own writing that is. Well, mine. Maybe yours. He has an idea in his head, follows that then later goes back to start counting.

I find it interesting to consider this when I'm reading a review in the New York Times in which the reviewer seems to find all these connections, perhaps superimposing (it's like imposing, but with a leotard) the reviewer's ideas on the book. Or maybe it's the reviewer seeing various levels in the novel.  You know what I mean? Like when the reviewer will take part of a scene on page 17 and a character's name later in the book and show how it suggests the moral code of the book? Yeah. maybe that's there. And maybe the writer, like Pikelny, gets on a tear and just starts writing out the melody of the scenes and then works in the harmony of each section going along and then afterwards looks back on it and says, "Well, heck. I think this part is in 3/4 and this part is in 4/4. How about that?"

What's telling, at least to me, is the interviewer's question, that the songs "come out with complex rhythmic changes because that's the way you hear the music, not so much because you set out to write something with shifting time signatures."

As Pikelny says, "Exactly."

You see the story, the characters. You follow along with the song you're writing -- whether it's literary fiction or a murder mystery or a short story about aardvarks.

As writers, sometimes we just hang on and see where the writing takes us. The way I describe it is that I'm watching a movie in my head, with characters I've thought up when I wasn't paying attention. At least, when things are working right, that's what happens. But I like the musical idea, too.

How about you folks? You ever get cruising along on a story, only to look back and notice you've "shifted time signatures" in some way?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Writing Again

I started a new piece of writing last week.

Right there, Chapter 1.  Got a plot, got a character, got a hook.  Got going.

There are several reasons I did this.  Number 1 was the idea.  The idea had been gnawing at me.  There in the corner of my brain for well over six months.  Probably since the summer.  No matter what I did, I couldn’t get rid of it.  No matter how many times I tried to focus on my revisions, this idea would float there in front of me.  

What is this story I see before me?

So, finally, after getting settled in the new house, I decided it was time to get back to writing.  Time to sit down and start clacking away at the keys again.  Time to start something new.  So, I did.  Started over.  Started writing.  Don’t know where the story’s going to take me, don’t know how it’s going to end.  Just know it’s there, and is being backed by a flash of energy.  A feeling I haven’t had in a while.

It feels good.  Feels like I made the right choice.

But at the same time, I’m feeling really guilty.  I abandoned a piece of writing I’ve been working on for a long time.  It’s an idea I’ve had since… 2004, 2005?  It’s a book I spent a year drafting, struggling through a draft just to get the ideas on paper.  A book I’ve already worked through 3 and a half drafts of.  If you’ve followed my ramblings though, you’ll know that in the past few months I hit the skids.  The ideas stopped coming.  The book is a mess, in the middle of a draft, without much direction.  I’ve tried all the tricks—outlining, Scrivner, just flat out re-writing—and it wasn’t working.

So, I’m finally putting it down.  Despite all the writing advice you see.  All those writers telling prospective writers to finish something.  You’re not a writer until you finish something.

Well, guess what?  For right now, I’m not finishing this draft.  I’m stuck and I can’t get unstuck.  The book is such a mess right now; I can’t even show it to someone for ideas.  

Which is the other reason I’m starting something new.  I’m trying to get my brain away from the mess.  Maybe while I’m focusing on this new book, something will be unlocked in my brain and the revision will come flowing out of me.Maybe it won’t.  

But until then, at least I’m writing.  

I feel like I can exhale.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What books do you want to read but can't?

This week I was going to continue writing about why I decided to publish the Snubnose stories and books that have come so far. But I was thinking about something else yesterday and decided to write about that instead. So I'll continue with the other posts next week.

I like exploring blogs and publications that take me to books that are completely new to me. It's a bit rare and as I've said before can be a little like panning for gold.

One such occurrence happened to me yesterday. I came across a book being mentioned. After tracking down more info about it I feel like I HAVE to read Young Blood by African novelist Sifiso Mzobe.

Here's a quick synopsis:

“Sipho lives in Umlazi, Durban - he is seventeen, has dropped out of school and helps out at his father's mechanic shop. But odd jobs do not provide the lifestyle his friend Musa has, with his BMW and designer clothes. Soon Sipho's love for fast cars and money leads him into a life of crime that brings him close to drugs, death and prison time."

But here's the thing, the book isn't readily available. It's an African book that, as far as I know, hasn't found a US publisher yet. It looks like it is available on the Nook, but I don't have a Nook. (But I can get a Nook app for my phone....)

Recently I read about a book, first published in Japan in 1935, called Dogra Magra that had me excited too. As far as I can tell it is not available in English but there was a French version that came out a few years ago. The idea that a book with what sounds like noir qualities was released in Japan and in 1935 is interesting.

"Describing the premise for Dogra Magra will illustrate the problems reviewers have had in attempting to distill its essence in a few pithy comments. Ichiro, the protagonist, wakes up one day suffering from amnesia. He is in a psychiatric ward. He comes to learn, through the eponymous "Dogra Magra," that he has attempted to kill his fiancée. Yet there is much more to this than just a psychological portrait of what leads one to kill what one loves. Turns out that much of the writing in the middle section is in the form of psychiatric reports written by two doctors who may or may not be characters in Ichiro's narrative. Furthermore, the narrative fractures into an exploration of Buddhist concepts surrounding karma, particularly how it applies to Japanese culture in the period immediately following World War I, two generations removed from the beginning of the Meiji Restoration and Japan's rapid industrialization. And if this does not sound complicated enough, Ichiro and a female character may or may not be reincarnated souls that are experiencing the memories and mental anguish of their ancestors."

"It is in the latter half of Dogra Magra where this sense of surrealness occurs most often. Before this midpoint, the story does resemble in form and structure a detective novel, albeit one that is odd in that the protagonist seems to be either truly amnesiac or insane. Once the reader manages to process the contents of the psychiatric reports, one begins to question as to whether or not everything is as it seems. Yumeno's digressions into the ancestral memories, into the repetitive nature of certain memorable (and perhaps infamous) actions, causes the narrative to careen sharply away from earlier reader expectations and toward something that is inexplicable for the reader. Furthermore, there are hints that even those reporting on Ichiro may not be what they seem. This results in a conclusion that loops back, creating what appears to be an infinite loop that alters slightly at its end what it had begun narrating."

I remember a few years ago hearing about the Australian book Graphic by Shane Briant but had been unwilling to pay the shipping costs to have it sent to the states. [Graphic was published by Marburg Press in January 2012.]

Speaking of Australian books Andrew Nette has written some blog posts about Australian pulp fiction books that sound great too.

So yesterday on Twitter I asked if there were other books that people wanted to read but didn't have access to. I find it a fascinating subject, especially in this internet age. It requires a reader to be open to new suggestions and in many cases go actively hunting for books.

Peter Rozovsky from Detectives Beyond Borders responded "I'd like to read more Harri Nykänen and Jean-Patrick Manchette than is currently available in English."

And he's right because Manchette is a great example. Readers in the U.S. are told that Manchette is a noir god and yet as much as 70% of his work remains untranslated.

I think the mystery/crime genre has a good track record of bringing translated and international fiction to Anglophone/Western audiences. I hope that some enterprising publisher will put in the work looking at these markets and make some of this fiction more readily available.

So what book would you like to read but can't?

The latest Snubnose Press book is out. Nothing Matters is a 20k word noir poem by Steve Finbow (a prose/novella version is included as well so readers can chose which they prefer to read).

Currently reading: Still picking my way through a few different titles and I've mainly been reading submissions for Snubnose.

Currently Listening: Go To Blazes was one of my favorite bands in the 90's. Originally from DC before relocating to Philly. I loved these guys but they never seemed to make it nationally. Accordingly their music had been hard to find. Someone uploaded a bunch of their songs to Youtube. Here's their ode to Sam Peckinpah.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Does the movie ever do the book justice?

By: Joelle Charbonneau

Happy Hunger Games everyone. I will admit that today is an exciting day for me. Due to my strange schedule of writer/mom/voice teacher/wife/whatever I have not walked into a movie theater in over a year. The last was for Harry Potter 7 part 1. Today, I’m going to see another film based on a book—The Hunger Games.

While I’m thrilled to be seeing the movie, I admit I’m a bit nervous since the majority of books I’ve read and loved and were eventually turned into movies…well….sucked. Take Absolute Power by David Baldacci. What a great thriller. The book grabbed me by the throat and pulled me along for a fast-paced, powerful ride. The movie…not so much. By the halfway point, the movie took a sharp left turn from the book and never recovered. While the casting was good (especially Gene Hackman’s brilliant portrayal of the murdering President), the movie left me longing to throttle the folks behind butchering the book. Sigh.

And that isn’t the only example of poor book adaptations. The Lost World (Jurassic Park #2) by Michael Crichton wasn’t my favorite book ever. In fact, I thought it came up far short of the excitement of the first novel. But the movie??? Yikes! I guess it bore a loose resemblance to the bound text since there were dinosaurs in the film. The rest was unrecognizable. Other bad adaptations (in my humble opinion) One for the Money, The Firm, Under The Tuscan Sun, Pet Cemetery, Contact, The Scarlet Letter (Demi Moore version), Flowers in the Attic –the list goes on and on.

Not to say there aren’t good if not excellent movies made from books. Misery is a wonderful movie. Seabiscuit was fabulous. The first three Harry Potter films captured the book and created the world that lived in our imaginations. The Bone Collector was strong. The Green Mile blew me away.

So I guess today, I am hoping that the odds are in my favor and that The Hunger Games belongs on the “good adaptation” list. In a couple of hours, I’ll find out. In the meantime, I’m curious. What are you favorite movie adaptations of books? Which ones left you cold?