Saturday, February 18, 2017

Chekhov’s and Chandler’s Corollary: Character

Scott D. Parker

A writer’s trope, attributed to famed playwright Anton Chekhov, goes something like this: if you show a gun on the mantle in chapter 1, then that gun better go off in some future chapter. It’s the art of foreshadowing.

Another trope, likely attributed to some nameless pulp writer, is that if your story is mired down, have a guy show up in a room with guns blazing. Then your characters have to react to the gunslinger. Okay, so I just looked that up and the quote is attributed to Raymond Chandler. The official quote is this: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” Some websites call this Chandler’s Law.

Well, I think the two authors might be interested in knowing a new corollary might now exist: Chekhov’s and Chandler’s Character. I could go with CCC but that reminds this historian too much of the Civilian Conservation Corps from the 1930s.

You see, earlier this week—on Valentine’s Day no less—I was hitting a wall. I was in a necessary exposition chapter, but as I’m writing this novel with my pants on, I wasn’t too sure what would happen next. If I followed Chandler’s Law, I’d have a gunman enter the room. My novel is a western so that’s not too difficult. Instead, however, I created a brand-new character. She walked into the scene—literally—and she solved everything.

In one fell swoop, I had a new character with whom my two railroad detectives could interact. Because she’s a lady, my titular hero, Calvin Carter, a ladies man if there ever was one, suddenly had to make sure his tie was straight and his charm offensive in place. Having Carter charm the ladies is one of the great pleasures of writing the character.

Most importantly, however, Aurora Ashe was able to link the story Carter had experienced up to that chapter and the rest of the story. (I have a decent idea of the ending, but nothing close to 100%.) Her presence unlocked the door that allowed me to walk through it, fingers flying across the keyboard, words magically appearing on the screen. It was rather liberating. The word count reflected the change, too. On Monday, I only eeked out 1274 words. Valentine’s Day was 1591. The 15th saw 2456. With her on stage, I was again on the fast track to the end of the book.

Have y’all ever had that happen in your writing, when a brand-new character you never saw coming suddenly takes over and clears the cobwebs for you?

Friday, February 17, 2017

San Diego Comic Fest!

On Sunday I'm going to be at San Diego Comic Fest to promote Black Sails, Disco Inferno while participating in a fun panel alongside fellow San Diego area writers Tone Milazzo, Indy Quillen, Chad Stroup, Israel Finn, and Lara Campbell McGehee. If you've got a pass, you can come hang out at the Kirby Cafe with us and listen to us discuss the business of writing as authors who, like most people, aren't cashing James Patterson checks.

I've never been on a live panel before, so it'll be a lot of fun. More info on Comic Fest here.

I've been working on my notes for the panel, and I obviously can't get into it here, two days before the real thing, so I'm going to leave you with this video of the band I'm seeing tonight and wish you a happy weekend. Hope to see you Sunday!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

George Saunders

from Steve Weddle

Perhaps George Saunders is a writer more talked about than read, as the saying goes. David Foster Wallace.Virginia Woolf. Thomas Pynchon.

Saunders's shorts have won many awards. Hell, maybe all the awards. And now his debut novel is out, and it hardly seems as if he's a debut novelist. He's already been the literati's poster boy for years, and I've enjoyed many of his stories so far. Nice to see LINCOLN IN THE BARDO getting love.

The AV Club liked the book

Vulture liked the book and talked to Saunders

My Goodreads friend Faith liked it

NPR said it was bizzare

UPDATE: Keith Rawson said a thing

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

That's Entertainment

It is the writer's first duty to entertain.

But that doesn't mean you have to entertain everybody. I found James Joyce's Ulysses incredibly entertaining, because I am a lit nerd and recognized more of the references than some. It drives plenty of people away, and there's nothing wrong with that, them, or Ulysses for that matter. I'm sure writing it entertained the hell out of Mr. Joyce.

If the book doesn't entertain you, how can you expect it to entertain anyone else?

I like to learn. So the books I enjoy most introduce me to new discoveries, concepts, people, cultures, history, and so on. Crime fiction introduced me to the underworld, to New Orleans, to the rough living made by ship-scrappers on the coasts of Africa, and so many other new experiences. And this is how I learned to write; to share my own experiences, the little things I have learned about the world and the weird creatures on it called people, and the inexplicable actions they take every day.

In Blade of Dishonor I researched the Devil's Brigade, the First Special Service Force, a joint command between the US and Canada during World War II whose exploits were never, in my opinion, properly told. Tarantino references them in Inglourious Basterds and there was a forgettable movie in the '60s, but these were commandos who struck terror into the hearts of the SS. So I made the centerpiece of my book about them, and one daring soldier chosen to embark on a suicide mission.... well, for the rest, read the book. You'll be entertained.

I heard an amusing story from my sister, about when she worked for an animal welfare charity, about The Neuter Scooter. And that became "The Big Snip," which Lawrence Block chose for his Dark City Lights collection, and Kristine K. Rusch selected for her Year's Best Crime & Mystery Stories 2016

For Bad Boy Boogie I needed to do much more research. I watched fights from security cameras in New Jersey's Eastern State Prison (aka "Rahway"). I read the Louisiana State prison newspaper, The Angolite, to learn about work programs. I found that the American with the most mechanical repair certifications is currently serving a life sentence in Angola prison. I didn't need to research the daily operations down at the Newark docks, because I worked there for eight years, and the stories I told always fascinated people. So the docks are in the book. I worked next to relatives of Vincent "the Chin" Gigante and Lefty Ruggiero during that time. It was... entertaining. 

And I bet reading about it will be, too...

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

When Attention Returns to Movies

Writer and Broken River Books publisher James David Osborne guest blogs today, talking about his rediscovered appreciation for the movie watching experience.   


               For a time I couldn’t even watch movies. I’d click over to Netflix and look at all the preview images and think “where do I even start?” Then I’d click out of it and head over to Facebook for a nice helping of bite-sized chunks of dog shit.
            Attention is difficult to control. We all do it. Most of us are good at hiding it. Be real for a second, though: it’s hard to pay attention now. Especially with that phone dinging, with the e-mail marching into your inbox, and with the flood of new stuff that all looks so good.
            Maybe “looking good” was the problem. Maybe I liked it all in theory. I liked the movies when they were synopses that couldn’t disappoint me.
            Spending two hours staring at a screen, screens that have trained me to click away from this over to that, to learn as much as I can as fast as I can, well, that made my chest hurt. Add onto that the possibility that the movie might not be any good? Deep breaths, David.
            Didn’t have a problem with books, oddly enough. I could still get into those. In that spirit, I reevaluated my relationship to film. Didn’t I read some bad books? Didn’t I read some great ones? More often than not, though, didn’t I take something away from each experience, good or bad?
            I started a job that afforded me a lot of free time, including the opportunity to watch about two movies per shift. My books called to me from my backpack, but no, I was going to sit down and watch some movies. At that point, I’d seen a handful of films in the past year: Green Room, Elle, Ju-On, and Yakuza Apocalypse.

             I went over to Jedidiah Ayre’s “Hardboiled Wonderland” blog and added his recommendations into my Netflix queue. Overlap: he mentioned Too Late, and William Boyle had also mentioned that one when I talked to him for my podcast. Shot in five long takes and arranged in a non-linear fashion, it’s a neo-noir detective film and if there’s gonna be a movie that makes me like movies again, maybe this would be it. I clicked the play button. Bill had warned me that the first twenty minutes almost made him turn it off. He wasn’t lying.
            Everything I disliked about film came flooding back to me. The dissonance between what was on the page (in this case the screenplay) and how it came out of the actors’ mouths set my teeth on edge. That guy with the pompadour tawkin’ in that fake Suthin accent…make it stop. The hyperreal dialogue and why did they get Rider Strong and NONE OF THIS IS COMPELLING OR MAKES SENSE… Sure, it looked pretty. But goddamn. My finger hovered over the X in the corner. Ready to blow the escape hatch and barrel roll out.
            No. Wait.
            I sat through the whole thing. I hated about half of it. But, look: strokes of genius! How great is John Hawkes? Every second he’s on the screen, it’s worth watching. And look: when he meets the troubled dead woman from the first scene in a flashback, all of a sudden she’s acting fantastically. How interesting, that actors can vibe and play off of each other in that way. Can’t get that with a book. And that musical number at the end of part three. That was great. The whole “redneck boxing” thing: hilarious. Hmm.
            Enough to get me interested, at least.

            I queued up De Palma next. What better way to reignite interest in a medium than to watch a documentary about one of its masters? Did not disappoint. There’s tons of fantastic information, and I loved his uncompromising attitude, and his “so it goes” mentality when it came to his duds and his successes. That one really got me fired up. I had to get a meta-look at the whole thing.

            The Trust followed. I loved the shit out of that one. It moves so smoothly, and Nicolas Cage is so good in it playing every stepdad in history, only psychotic and murderous (which, I mean, maybe still stepdad qualities? Mileage may vary). Once the actual heist kicked in, however, I started losing interest. The tension built nicely, sure, but we know where these things are going. Throw a monkey wrench in it. Okay, there’s a woman in the apartment above the safe they’re trying to crack. We see where this is going, right? One of them is going to catch feelings and it’ll be their undoing. No spoilers here, but come on. We know.
            The whole thing wraps up nicely, though. It’s been my favorite so far. The dialogue is crisp and well-delivered. Some of those shots are things of beauty (the garish tiki bar, the inside of the safe), but we’re touching on what drove me away from film in the first place: the predictability. The fact that story is boiled down to an A, B, and C, and it’s up to the filmmaker to make that interesting. I don’t like the A, B, and C. I want to jump over to Z and work back, skipping all the bullshit letters along the way.

       Which brings me to Dog Eat Dog, a film that pretty much does exactly that. More a series of vignettes than a proper film, I loved the insanity of this flick from beginning to end. It starts off with basically a short film about a psycho looking for a place to stay. The opening ends ugly. And the movie stays ugly. We’re introduced to the band of lowlifes plotting one last score.  Not a moment spent on character development. Well, maybe one. The final scenes, the fog and reds and blues shifting, Cage doing Bogart…it’s all maniacal brilliance. Okay. I’m back to liking movies again.
            What does it say, though, that even though I claim to prefer wild, reckless structure to straightforward plotting, that I liked The Trust better than Dog Eat Dog?
            I’m dipping my toes back in, and I’m not sure what I think anymore. Which is what I like about art in general: it’s ability to make me feel two things at once, to be proved wrong over and over, and occasionally, to utterly disappoint me.
            There are now 25 movies in my Netflix queue. I no longer fear the heavy click.


Monday, February 13, 2017

The Case For Intelligent Entertainment

It's no secret in this house that I'm not a huge fan of comedies. Oh, don't get me wrong. When a comedy is great, it's brilliant. But all too often, comedies are simplistic and reductive, and they are feeding into a cultural mindset that's led to a political perspective that devalues intelligence.

Many months ago, I stumbled across a headline about a popular TV show. The column, How a TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization, was written by David Hopkins. He dissects the underlying premise of a very popular show, and it's anything but funny when you consider the points he's making.

Hopkins expands on why Ross is a victim in the show, and the way that he's treated by his so-called friends.

...the characters of the show were pitted against him from the beginning (consider episode 1, when Joey says of Ross: “This guy says hello, I wanna kill myself.”) In fact, any time Ross would say anything about his interests, his studies, his ideas, whenever he was mid-sentence, one of his “friends” was sure to groan and say how boring Ross was, how stupid it is to be smart, and that nobody cares. Cue the laughter of the live studio audience.
Hopkins isn't alone in some negative assessment of the show.

Love it or hate it, there's no denying that EVERYBODY of a certain generation has probably seen an episode of Friends in their time - which makes the obvious sexism, homophobia and all round lack of diversity all the more interesting 20 years later.
Those are some harsh criticisms, but when you stop and think about the fat-shaming of Monica, the fact that Ross has a problem with his son playing with "girls' toys", the gender stereotyping and the way that Joey objectifies women - not to mention that lack of racial diversity on the show - you start to see an underlying philosophy that is startling.

And not all that different from the type of people who would accept alt facts and an administration that bucks scrutiny, says it's their way or nothing, levels accusations without evidence, and undermines the judicial system.

Hopkins' words got me thinking.

He was right. That show, along with others, had contributed to the decline of western culture. Perhaps one might argue that it reflects changes that were already underway. That may be true also, but the problem is that when those views are reflected through the lens of humor the audience is conditioned to accept them and become comfortable with them, to laugh at them.

I'm not going to say there weren't times I watched Friends and laughed. There were. Just as there were times I laughed at Seinfield, Frasier and many other comedy classics. I might be the only That 70's Show fan in the house.

But as I've been on the "family-must-watch-the-same-fricking-show-every-single-time-and-never-try-new-shows-and-sure-as-hell-never-watch-a-drama-with-an-ounce-of-intelligence" journey through the latest selected comedy, I've had moments where it's really grated on me. There are moments with the current show (not Friends) that I've been appalled at the sexism, the stupidity, and I've noted in this show the same tendency that Hopkins accused Friends of. It isn't cool to be smart. And how boring do things get when people actually enter a committed relationship. What's fun is the pursuit of the one-night stand and the playbook for how to trick some tits and ass into bed with you; women aren't people, they're objects.

Should I be surprised that a lot of women across this country were not bothered by Pussygate and donned shirts consenting to Trump grabbing their pussy?

That's really how stupid we are, and comedies have contributed to establishing a norm that conditions people into thinking that this is acceptable.

Now, I've been re-watching CSI. I started when we got Scout. I had a lot of sleepless nights doing the puppy training, and I always pick a show I can just let run and don't worry about falling asleep to. Say what you want about formula. As a procedural junkie I know it doesn't follow procedure properly. But it had at it's core a character who was smart. He was not emotional and did not find it easy to navigate personal relationships. The show's core centered on a scientist who valued intelligence and process over intuition and acting like a cowboy. While Grissom's departure from the show may have shifted that focus a little bit, even in season 13 the team is admonished constantly not to get ahead of the evidence. Not to let emotions override logic. Not to go rogue and be out of control.

Imagine that.

I've been thinking about this a lot since the election. One of the things I've seen mentioned a number of times on social media is to lament how so many seemingly intelligent people can ignore facts that are right in front of them.

I don't think it's quite that simple. Everyone has their agenda. I think a lot of people held their nose while they voted, on both sides of the aisle. But I do think that the culture of stupidity is something that's being woven into our society, and that it's contributed to a political and intellectual blindness that is dangerous.

So I'm here today to make the case for intelligent entertainment. I see post after post about "what can we do?" to safeguard the rights people have fought for decades for - gay marriage, a woman's right to choose - and talk about donating to organizations. I completely agree with that, and with supporting good news organizations. We've added subscriptions ourselves.

But there is something else we can all do. We can all invest our consumer voice into supporting intelligent entertainment. I'm not saying never watch a comedy. But we need shows that resonate with intellect, that don't treat women like sex objects, that don't ridicule the smartest guy or girl in the room because they have a brain and can use it.

We need to make choices that reflect a desire for substance, and part of how we do that is with our consumer voice.

Lately, we've been watching The Newsroom. Sorkin was genius with The West Wing, and he's genius with The Newsroom too.

What feels like a lifetime ago, I studied communication theory. One of the books I read back then was Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death. I've referenced it before, and I've quoted from it elsewhere online over the years.

Postman establishes how television has contributed the decline of intelligent discourse. Maybe it's just because they're at a certain age that I hear it all the time from my stepkids, but they don't want an explanation when a question is asked. When they suspect it'll take more than 10 seconds to hear the answer they back down from whatever the question was. To be raised in a home filled with books, to be rewarded for doing the summer reading program, to be encouraged to study and to explore and discover and be given intelligent toys that could open the door to so many possibilities... And to be so indifferent to actually learning something. Year after year it's not the process they want to learn so they can do the math homework. It's just enough so they can get this sheet done and forget about it.

And how many times have I heard a serious statement uttered that, once addressed, is dismissed as a joke? Except so many of the things said have nothing funny about them at all. That was the substance of four years I spent working in hell.

Some might say I'm overreacting where the teenagers are concerned. I look at the current state of American society, the fact that the outcome of the election has emboldened bullies to take to the halls of the schools, has somehow allowed the teachers at their school to make racist comments without fear of reprisal, and I don't think it's possible to overreact.

Postman said, "The assumption that a new medium is only an extension or amplification of an older one; that an automobile, for example, is only a fast horse, or an electric light a powerful candle... To make such a mistake in the matter at hand is to misconstrue entirely how television redefines the meaning of public discourse. Television does not expand or amplify literate culture. It attacks it."

He goes on to demonstrate how television has influenced politics, has begun to celebrate the appearance over the intellect, and how this is reshaping culture.

He talks about how it's reduced the attention span of audiences, how it reduced news to a paragraph. It's only gotten worse with the internet and click bait and twitter.

We may have pulled the plug on our cable, but we still watch plenty of television. I'm not going to be responsible for the elimination of televisions across the country. We have Hulu, Amazon and Netflix, and we may expand slightly if there's quality programming that we can sink our teeth into.

This is the one thing that the US still manufactures and exports. Entertainment. Movies and television shows that seek to engage audiences. And one way that we can all help redefine how the world sees the US, and what the youth of American are raised to value, is by building a base of support for intelligent entertainment.

Look, I'm not saying that if we all watch smart TV shows that Democrats will win elections. I'm not even saying they should. Whoever you vote for, do it from a place of knowledge instead of fear. Be informed on the issues and the ramifications and weigh your values against the policies. Make sure that what you endorse with your vote is what you want to see happen. But between the elections, arm yourself with information. Don't trust the news? Don't ever rely on one news source. Nobody is well informed if they're only taking coverage from one source, whether it's CNN or Fox. Take news from several sources. Balance out the facts of what's being said and the sources. Make sure the reporters back up their claims with evidence, not alt facts. Don't just rely on national news; go to the BBC, the Globe and Mail, and other international news sources and see what they're reporting. Make sure you don't buy into fear and soundbites. Arm yourself with knowledge, and show the world that Americans are worthy of respect because they are intelligent and knowledgeable and make informed decisions. Celebrate intelligence, and your values. I'm sorry, you can save all the unborn but if you let them be born to a planet that's dying because we destroy the environment what good have you done? To be a one issue voter is reductive, and we all owe it to our children to be better than that. Trump's son isn't in a private school because he wants him to be poorly educated. You should be aspiring to have the same level of education for yourself and your own children, and demanding the government invest in that. But at home, the one thing you can do is model a standard of behavior that celebrates knowledge, and try to make a difference by raising a generation of discerning and informed thinkers. The great inventors and philosophers and discoverers didn't gain their place in history by turning off their brain and doing what they were told. They engaged the world around them, they tested theories and explored, and invented the lightbulb and the printing press and they changed people's lives.

So, if you're still reading this and you know of some great, intelligent shows that convey the values we should be embracing in our society, toss a suggestion into the comments. Maybe we can't all donate to every organization, or buy every newspaper. But one thing almost all of us can do right now without cost to us is to consider our entertainment, and put our support behind shows and books of substance, and to cry out when intelligence, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, dumbed down spineless boys who have to act cool are what audiences are conditioned to not just accept but embrace.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Comfort of Familiarity

It’s the middle of winter. There’ve been snowstorms in the Northeast, downpours in California, and plenty of gray sky most everyplace else. So today, I feel like hunkering down under a blanket and ignoring the world for as many hours as I can. Comfort food in the Crockpot, comfort blaze in the fireplace, comfort book in my hand.
And what makes a book the written equivalent of homemade chicken noodle soup? For me, it’s familiarity. Give me a series character, someone I know from previous books, and I’m happy.
I know what I’m going to get when I sit down to read, and I’m not disappointed. I might be shocked, or saddened, or horrified by what happens in the story. But I’m not let down because my old friend the character is there, just as I’ve come to expect.
When I open up a Miss Marple novel, I know exactly what I’ll get – a nosy old lady who isn’t taken seriously until she solves the murder. Same with a Jack Reacher thriller – he’s a loner with a strong moral code who constantly finds himself in dangerous situations. Marple doesn’t start bare-knuckle street brawls, and Reacher doesn’t go sniffing around garden parties. And I know that, because I know them as characters.
What characters do you know well and have followed from book to book? Who's your favorite?
Some I would wholeheartedly recommend are, in no particular order:
Wounded WWI vet Ian Rutledge, by Charles Todd
Forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway, by Elly Griffiths
Ghanaian police Inspector Darko Dawson, by Kwei Quartey
Kick-ass P.I. Tess Monaghan, by Laura Lippman
Quebec chief of homicide (ret.) Armand Gamache, by Louise Penny
LAPD detective Elouise “Lou” Norton, by Rachel Howzell Hall
Twelfth-century British monk Brother Cadfael, by Ellis Peters
Newspaper police reporter Gabriella Giovanni, by Kristi Belcamino
Ex-special forces trainee and close-protection agent Charlie Fox, by Zoe Sharp