Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Ending Comes First: John Irving's Writing Process

Scott D. Parker

I was listening to the What It Takes* podcast yesterday. The latest installment features John Irving. Now, he’s an author whose name I know but I’ve never read any of his books. And I’ve only watched one of his movies (“The Cider House Rules”). I think. Maybe more.

Anyway, a couple of things stood out in the interview. One, Irving considers himself to be in the tradition of the 19th Century novelist. He prefers novels with lots of details, intricate plots, and—this is very cool—where the passage of time is like another character. He name-dropped Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. Having never read an Irving novel, that immediately got my attention. I may have to check out one of Irving’s novels. Anyone have any suggestions?

Perhaps the strangest thing Irving mentioned was how he writes his novels. He said he writes the last sentence(s) first. Why? Because he wants to know how the novel feels at the end of the story so he can drive every sentence to that end. That floored me, to be honest. While I may have an ending before I start a book—i.e., the events—I don’t have a sense of how the ending will feel or how the characters may change from the get-go. I journey through the book with my characters, even when I know the road map. That enables me to have a good understanding of the true ending.

Have y’all heard about Irving’s process? Do any of y’all do the same thing?

*What It Takes is a part of the Academy of Achievement website and group. You can subscribe from there. Definitely check it out.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Literal Gorilla, Literally Eats Poop (and other thoughts).

I chaperoned a first grade field trip to the zoo today, and at one point we watched a mother gorilla take a shit, wipe her ass with her hand, then clean her hand in a pile of grass she then decided to eat.

It sounds like I'm commenting on the election, but it really happened, I swear. The kids loved it.

Not pictured: the poop
But damn, it does sound like the perfect metaphor for this election. I know this is a crime fiction blog, and I've tried to keep my thoughts on the election to a minimum on my social media - and haven't talked about it here at all - it's a catch 22. I'm so tired of thinking about it, talking about it, reading about it - but it's all I can think about.

I've said many times, to many people, that as dark and sometimes disgusting as crime fiction can be, crime fiction writers are the nicest, friendliest bunch of people you would ever hope to meet. It's like we get all our darkness out on the page and it allows us to be a bunch of jovial motherfuckers who like to have a good time. The last week or so, I've wondered if seeing the dark and disgusting play out on a national stage - and having it flood our social media, media, and conversations is draining me. It's less fun to write about criminals and madmen when we're watching criminals and madmen gaslight us on television every night.

I've put a moratorium on the news. I don't normally watch TV news anyway, but my other half likes to watch. Even he, used to the sensationalism and fear mongering, has had enough. I'd like to think we're going to wake up November 9th and the madness will have ended,  but I don't believe that.

I've talked to a lot of my favorite crime writers about how crime fiction is really an exercise in empathy - writing or reading it. To write it, you have to empathize with the criminals you're putting on the page. When done well, it requires the reader to go places and spend time with people we'd often rather ignore. But what do you do when you feel like your body is a big, raw nerve, and the world is just poking it? How do you exercise that necessary empathy, then?

I don't have a solution or a suggestion - this week's blog is more an exploration of what's been draining me and poking my raw nerves. The big elephant in every room, whether you're sitting with likeminded people, people you can't relate to, or even just alone by yourself. Maybe the biggest problem is, regardless of your political leanings/opinions/experiences, there is a lot to be angry about. There's a lot to drain you of empathy, a lot to make you fall back on numbness or anger.

Is the answer to escape into reading and writing? I'd like to think so. Maybe for readers & writers that's the best bet. A trip to the zoo with a bunch of happy kids doesn't hurt, either.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Should book bloggers charge for reviews?

A while back, Shannon over at the wonderful River City Reading opened up a discussion about book blogging and an ongoing concern about value and the work done.

This is not work. This is not a job. I am not assigned a task by a publicist with a due date, nor am I required to promote a product. While I certainly respect everyone involved and feel thankful that I’m able to read well ahead of publication, a book for review is not a contract—something I’m very clear about in my review policy. More>>

Her post was in response to a former book blogger who had suggested charging for reviews, as time is money.

I started charging for reviews before I left the book blogging world. I started charging $50 per review and there was no guarantee the review would be favorable. I was still selling myself cheap at a rate of $5 per hour (again, assuming a 10-hour investment). Considering I almost always tweet quotes from a book while I’m reading it and talk about the book on social media it was pretty obvious the book was going to get exposure. Everyone balked. There was backlash from the book blogging community and people in the publishing industry were upset.
I eventually left book blogging. More>>
If you're promoting a book you've written, would you pay for an advert? Would you pay for a review?

If you're interested in the discussion, head on over to RCR and jump in on the comment thread.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Stiff Upper Lip

That's the name of a later AC/DC album after they lost their mojo. I think it follows Ballbreaker. By then they couldn't even bother to come up with good innuendo, and their last tour had Axl Rose with a broken leg subbing in for lead singer Brian Johnson, whose hearing loss was so bad he couldn't safely perform onstage.

But the stiff upper lip is the important thing. It's not innuendo, but the "mustn't grumble" steadfastness of those from the isles off the northeast of Europe, whence Brian Johnson (a Geordie through and through) hails. And it's a characteristic a writer must cultivate, because the profession is a daunting one.

I'm not one to complain about the act of writing or editing. "Look at a blank page until your head bleeds," really? We're not moving furniture with our minds. If you haven't been daydreaming your story before you sit down, and expect to conjure it between farts in your favorite chair, maybe it is like bleeding. No, the business side, the promotion, the nagging doubts about whether you're good enough or whether your current project will mean anything to anyone but yourself, those bother me more than a tough night of editing messy pages.

That's where the stiff upper lip comes in. Mustn't grumble. They really aren't the same, I know. But they go hand in hand, or lip in lip (also not innuendo). This is a tough career whether you go at it with or without a day job. One will have you scrabbling for freelance work, the other will have you fighting for writing time. So what's a writer to do?

A monthly get-together with likeminded writers will help. With Skype and Google Hangouts, the miles don't matter. You can get together and kvetch and commiserate and pat each other on the back. It's good to know you're not alone in the struggle. But that alone can lead to doubts? Why in hell are we doing this to ourselves? Well hopefully, because you love writing. You'd do it anyway, so you might as well put in the extra work and get paid for it.

Another way is to keep abreast (no innuendo)  of publishing news. This can also be a downer, reading Publisher's Lunch Deluxe every morning and seeing how many writers who are not you getting significant deals. But that's the half empty view. The half full view is that books are bought and sold every day. One might remind you of what you're working on, and give you hope that there are readers out there who will love it. Can't afford the $25 a month for a Publisher's Marketplace subscription? Read the right blogs.

Publishing...and Other Forms of Insanity is a good one that covers all genres including literary and commercial fiction. Sandra Seaman's blog lists anthology calls and keeps track of genre publishers, tending toward crime fiction. It's a must for short story writers. What I'd advise against, is reading social media all day. While this might feel like a great way to stay in touch, because of the nature of promotion, it can feel like a whirlwind of ad copy devouring you, like Tuttle's demise in Terry Gilliam's Brazil. I find it draining rather than energizing. The monthly writer chats energize me, going to readings and book signings energizes me, seeing my friends succeed energizes me.

Power Lloyd, my assault on the world begins now.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Surgeons, Birds, Sorcerors and Ghosts

It's October, the month to indulge in horror fiction, so I figured I'd take a little breather from crime fiction related conversation. I love the horror genre also, and I thought it might be fun to list some horror books that are favorites of mine but that I don't see mentioned all that often.  Each one of these books, for my money, combines fright with elegance in a way I find very appealing.

Finishing Touches by Thomas Tessier (1986)
A young American doctor in London in the 1980’s meets a strange plastic surgeon and his beautiful assistant and the American gets drawn into an increasingly bizarre and sensual world where sex and medical horror mingle and all morals and inhibitions fall away. This is a superb non-supernatural horror novel that charts how quickly the barriers between the tolerable and the once intolerable can dissolve.  Tessier has a smooth, readable style, and he never overwrites or overstates things as events become more and more horrifying.  I found it to be a brisk read that once started is extremely difficult to put down.

The Cormorant by Stephen Gregory (1986)
This one is creepy and gorgeously written. It’s set in Wales and is about a man, a teacher, who moves with his wife and young son to a rural cottage he has inherited from his uncle.  To take the cottage, though, he has to accept with his inheritance his dead uncle’s pet cormorant.  He does, thinking the inheritance request strange but not much more than that, and afterwards, slowly and insidiously, the cormorant casts a malignant influence over the entire family.  It’s an unnerving psychological horror story that has a feeling of looming disaster throughout. I read The Cormorant years ago and it has stuck with me like few books do. 

Master of the Day of Judgment by Leo Perutz (1921)
Perutz was an Austrian novelist, born in Prague, who was a master of the fantastic.  Master of the Day of Judgment is a great weird tale about a rash of mysterious suicides in Vienna.  None of the people who committed suicide had any apparent reason to do so, but they all die with horror etched on their faces. Why?  It’s a scary, weird masterpiece, and the answer to the riddle is as good as the riddle itself. 

Throat Sprockets by Tim Lucas (1994)
Tim Lucas is a prolific and insightful film writer and the creator of the magazine Video Watchdog.  He does a lot of DVD/Blu Ray commentary tracks as well, and he's basically a walking encyclopedia of film.  In line with that, this is a book about obsession with cinema and its images.  A guy comes across a disturbing X-rated film called Throat Sprockets and his obsession with the film and finding the “complete” version of the film, which seems to exist in many variants, takes over his life.  You could say it's a sort of ultimate book about the power of film to hook and seduce a person.  It’s told from the point of view of the guy obsessed and unwinds in an unpredictable and suspenseful way.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Along with Henry James, M.R. James and a few others, Edith Wharton was one of the great practictioners of the classic ghost story. This collection has 11 dense but compelling tales about all manner of sinister settings, haunted people, and ghostly visitors.  Wharton is a master at evoking creepiness through atmosphere and suggestion, and like her friend Henry James, she is remarkably good at evoking psychological ambiguity. But she's just a bit more direct than James, and The Turn of the Screw aside, I think her ghost stories are more compelling than his.  My favorite stories from this collection are "Bewitched" and "The Triumph of Night" - both of which take place in stark, East Coast snowy environments - and "Afterward", among the all time best ghost stories, a tale that has a slow and circuituous build to a chilling finale.

The White Hands and Other Weird Tales by Mark Samuels (2003)

Nine truly weird tales make up this collection from an unjustly obscure British writer.  It's obvious that Samuels is well read because his stories bear the influence of everyone from Arthur Machen to Franz Kafka to H.P. Lovecraft to Jorge Luis Borges to Thomas Ligotti, but like all writers of vision, he uses his influences to forge stories that are definitively his own. His writing is polished but quite crisp, and the stories read quickly.  He's good at creating strange nightmare scenarios where the line between what is real and what may not be real is blurred, and he excels at evoking a sense of the uncanny in modern urban environments.  Each one of the stories in this book is rich in mystery and a feeling of the otherwordly. 

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle (2016)

This book is recent, and there is nothing overlooked about it.  But I just wanted to mention it because I like it so much.  Victor Lavalle, who's from Queens, New York, sets this novella about sorcery and monsters in Jazz Age New York City, and it works as a brilliant subversion of H.P. Lovecraft's fiction, specifically "The Horror at Red Hook".  The racism prevalent in Lovecraft, especially early Lovecraft, is inverted in LaValle's tale about Charles Thomas Tester, a black musician and sorceror who uses his power to summon Lovecraft's Old Ones in Red Hook for his own righteous reasons. Lavalle, in effect, channels Lovecraft in a way and for a purpose that would have made the man from Providence roll in his grave.  Yet what makes this incisive examination of the Lovecraft universe work so well is the author's clear admiration and liking for Lovecraft's work, racial hang-ups and all.  The Ballad of Black Tom functions as both a critique of Lovecraft and a respectful acknowledgment of his influence, and that Lavalle can accomplish these two things at the same time is impressive. One of my favorites reads this year.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Jane Got a Gun - review

Jane Got a Gun is a western from earlier this year.

A woman asks her ex-lover for help in order to save her outlaw husband from a gang out to kill him.

The Good - The middle section of the movie is pretty strong. Dan, Jane, and Bill are under siege. They have to prepare the homestead for battle, then defend it when it happens. Tough talk and gun play is on display here. And even if it all feels a little familiar, it all works nicely. 

The Bad - The film utilizes a simple flashback structure to flesh out the parts of the story that you need.  The flashbacks serve to tell us more about the Dan and Bill characters; and since Jane is connected to both of them, we learn more about her too.

The first Dan/Jane flashback works because it establishes, briefly, the foundation of their relationship in an economical way. The rest of Dan's journey is told in the present and augmented by flashbacks. These Dan only flashbacks serve the story well. The additional Dan/Jane flashbacks doesn't really add much more to the story that we already know. The flashback basically serves as setup for a line later in the movie and both scenes fall a little flat and don't land the way that they were probably intended to.

The beginning is too rushed. I understand that an in medias res start was desired but this one was too rushed.Since we know nothing of the Bill character from the moment we meet him, and he is bed ridden and recovering from being shot in the entire present timeline, his flashbacks come off really well and give us VERY necessary character development and relationship development.

The Weird - There are two things that, historically, have shot well in westerns: landscapes and men's faces. Both are on full display here. Jane Got a Gun was shot in New Mexico and the exterior shots are gorgeous. The scope, scale, and beauty are are all wonderfully captured.

The second quality of westerns, one that rarely gets discussed, is how westerns are great showcases for men's faces. This about some of your  favorite westerns over the years, some of the best westerns over the years. Now think about those faces. Weather beaten faces with crooks, crags, crevasses. Unshaven faces with scruff, mustaches, and beards. From John Wayne and Ben Johnson to Robert Ryan and Woody Strode to countless others. When you think of the best character actors of all-time the list will be dominated by western actors. The western is so kind to the male face that it even does wonders for non-traditional faces like Jack Elam. There are tons of modern equivalents too: Sam Elliott, Jim Beaver, Clint Eastwood, Sam Shepard. Jane gives us two good male faces. Noah Emmerich has a pockmarked face meant for the rough living conditions of the western and Joel Edgerton has an interesting face and a full natural beard ( I hate fake beards).

Conclusion - The first 15 minutes or so of the film are rocky, the middle siege section is strong, the end is a little to pat. Jane Got a Gun is streaming on Netflix and is recommended.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Change Is Hell

I updated the operating system for my phone this week. And regretted it immediately. I had to spend an hour figuring out all the new “features.” I don’t have a spare hour to be fiddling around with my phone. And I resent that a certain company thinks I do.
Why do companies think they need to go and change things? I was nice and comfortable before. I would have continued to be nice and comfortable had this particular company not harassed me with constant reminders that popped up and delayed me when I wanted to use my phone. Which is why I bought it in the first place. To use it.
The same goes for other businesses who change things (I’m looking at you, warehouse clubs) just to change them. For the record, customers want to be able to find their enormous boxes of cereal in the same aisle every time they come. It is not fun to search through row after row in a cavernous space just to find the Cheerios. So, yes, you’ve forced me to go down several other aisles in the hopes I’ll pick up more merchandise than I would have otherwise. But you’ve also annoyed me. A lot.
Same with a certain phone maker. Don’t force new options on me. If you want to provide them, fine. But let your customers put them where they want them or delete them if they don’t want them at all. Because some of your customers (like me) are curmudgeonly old coots who don’t like change. You need to cater to them, too.