Monday, February 28, 2011

Helping My 104-Year Old Grandmother Move

Okay, so this will make me sound nerdy, but I'll go for it.  I am super-excited to write even more because I have two old-fashioned ledgers now, after helping move my 104-year old grandmother (yes, 104) move into a new, smaller assisted-living room.  As the elder will do, she was very intent on getting rid of everything.  I mean, anything at all, big or small, she just wanted to get rid of.  It seems as if the more they have, the more they don't want it.  By the time we finish moving her into her new room, she'll have fewer things than Thoreau had on Walden Pond.  (Though her living space is bigger than his shack was.)

But I digress.  So these ledgers date back aways.  Maybe the fifties.  Completely unused.  They have a space for the date, a wider space for a brief description of what writing I've done, and a smaller space for the number of words, maybe, and one more small space for something--but it's close to the binding, so I probably won't write anything there.  There's about 200 or so empty pages in each one, maybe more.  Certainly enough for a novel or two.  How could I have done without these before?

On a similar, nerdy/writerly note, I am also happy that I got to keep in the family this wooden table with his and her magazine racks built into the sides.  It looks like it was made for a married couple who slept in different beds (Did that really happen back in the day?  Or was that just a jittery television executive's version of married reality fit for tv?) who now had a rack to put their books or magazine in that they were reading before they went to sleep.  I can see Mr. and Mrs. Brady using this before they turned out the lights.  Anyway, my uncles said they remember having that thing in their home growing up--and that was at least 75 years ago.  They said they were under the impression that it was there for at least 25 years before that.  So this thing is at least 100 years old.  Maybe the Bradys wouldn't have used it after all.  I'm glad anyway that I was able to keep it in the family.  There's a chair I like a lot less, that might just be as old and ornate.  The curved and designed wood on the back is apparently vintage, or something.  Maybe I should put it on Antique Roadshow.

The moving of my grandmother and the decline in health of my father, plus the research I have been doing for the new novel, has all made for a jarring, melancholy time.  It's going to happen to all of us, sometime.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mysteries of My Friends

Shockingly, there are other good writers out there on the internet besides me.  While I don't want you to forget about me, I thought it'd be a good idea to, every now and then, group the central mysteries embedded in the works of my e-friends, and to link you to their sites.  If you find one of their ideas interesting, go check it out!

Why did my wife cheat on me?---Boyd Lemon,

What happens when we stop talking to one another face-to-face and rely on artificial intelligence to rule the world? And why does artificial intelligence seem bent on destroying its creators?---Jack Shaw

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Graves and Gravediggers

Photo: Crypt, in West Greenwich Cemetery #2, where bodies were placed until the ground thawed.

Please click on the Flickr link above to see 75 photos (many of them creepy) I took to go look at for locals, descriptions, and just the overall feel for some scenes in The Gravediggers.  Of particular interest, and use for the story, is the crypt you'll see from a distance and close-up.

I made sure not to stand directly in front of any stone, so that I wasn't standing directly over somebody.  And any graves knocked over, or etched into, or otherwise defaced were not done so by me.  I take particular care with such things.  I am seriously offended when I see defaced or knocked-over graves.  This happened in a little cemetery on my father's street.  The descendants of the buried people had giant hedges planted in front of the cemetery, thereby hiding it from the little side street.  Sure enough, local teens entered, knocked them all down, piled them all in one or two corners, and used it as a pot den.  If I ever catch any of the ones who did that...

The work on the WIP is coming along really well.  I've decided that it's to be epistolary: third-person shifting POVs, past, present, diaries, journals, newspaper articles, etc.  I'm very excited about this work.  I've done a ton of research, with more to do, but it's coming along well in concept and in actuality.  (They don't always.  First, yes; latter, no so much.)  I look forward to working, editing, writing, researching, or reading about this project every day.  It's been a long time since I could say that about a novel.  And for those of you who read this blog consistently, you know I'm never at a loss for novel ideas.  But following one all the way through...

A shout out to Joe who helped with the pictures, and to Bry and Erika who helped with some reading and critiquing.  I'll put you all on the acknowledgements page...

No, really.  I will.

Gotta be positive.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Exeter, 1888

Okay, so this is a (very) rough draft of Chapter One (maybe) of The Gravediggers, the title of which comes from a famous Nietzsche quote, about God being dead, which I'll cite for you when I feel like it.  Well, okay, here it is:

“…Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God?  Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?  Gods, too, decompose…”
      --Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

You can look up the rest, if you're so inclined.  Just put in keywords NIETZSCHE, GRAVEDIGGERS, THE MADMAN  and GOD IS DEAD and you'll see the entire passage.  And he didn't mean literally that God was dead, but more or less meant that all man-made foundations were inherently nothingness, just a creation to protect us from the horror of the void.  Such umbrella terms include Society, Propriety, Family Values (he didn't mention that one, but he would today; love that one); such thought patterns include "Because I was raised that way," "Because that's what ---- do(es)," and, yes, organized religion.  Anything that ignores the fact that every single thought and action is the sole responsibility of the individual.  In other words, it is Bad Faith to say, "I believe so because that's what it says in the Bible," but it is good faith to say, "I believe so because I have chosen to believe that that's what it says in the Bible."  And I imagine that Good Faith and Bad Faith would be Nietzschean umbrella terms (traditional morality) as well.  But what're you gonna do?

I knew my philosophy degree would come in handy someday.  So, anyway, here's the fragment/draft/chapter.  I won't be including too many (if any more at all) of these, because why would an agent want to represent me if my stuff is free on the internet?  So here you are, and sorry for the above sidetrack---

Exeter, Rhode Island.  April 21st, 1888

Snuffy Stukeley would not have dug up his children had it not been for his neighbors.  Adam Wilcox, Mark Reynolds, John Whitford, the Mooneys, the Gardners, all of them wanted him to dig up his daughters.  They men of each family were with him now, in the burial plot behind his backyard, about twenty feet into the woods.  Their breath a mist in front of their mouths, they all dug at the softening earth of Anna’s, his youngest daughter’s, grave.  The rest of the men did not show that they heard his whimpers as they dug.  Shovel and spade sifted through the now-black soil.  The men grunted.

Edwin Mooney stood and stretched his back, his hands to both hips.  The oldest of them all, at forty-three, he looked at the darkening sky, the slow moving clouds, and wonders at the blasphemy of this.  Melissa Mooney, his eldest daughter—now nineteen herself, the same age as Snuffy’s daughter, Sarah, had been when she’d died—had wanted him to help dig, to help burn the bodies, if necessary.

“Sarah will come for me next!” she often wailed.  “Do you want me to die, too?”

Mary, his wife, had also asked him to help with the bodies.  “At least,” she said to him in bed one night, under flickering candlelight, “it will quiet Missy down.”  Mary had always been logical, he knew.  Very strong.  When he was uncertain, which was often, she was not.

He dug.

“I want it to be recorded somewhere that I want no part of this,” Dr. Harold Metcalf intoned, standing on the backyard doorstep of Snuffy’s home.  “This is a violence against God and good decency.”

“As you’ve been sayin’, Doctor Metcalf,” gasped Mark Reynolds between swings of the spade into the earth.  “As you’ve been sayin’.”

“Jus’ wait, Doctor Metcalf,” Adam Wilcox grunted, heaving shovelfuls of dirt to his left, into the woods behind Snuffy’s plot.  “Wait.  We’ll show you.  One of them’s to blame.  We’ll find ’er for ya, sure enough.”

“It’s just the Consumption, I tell you.”  Metcalf was angry and horrified.  The small town of Exeter, Rhode Island, was turned on its ear, and being led by the likes of Wilcox and Whitford.  Though not as base as Stukeley, they were worse because they were ignorant.  Stukeley, barely more than an idiot—though a great farmer, Metcalf had to admit—wasn’t expected to know any better.  But these men could.  And Reynolds and Gardner, too.  Otherwise good men led by their wives and daughters.  And superstition.

“Tell that to my Hannah,” whimpered Snuffy.  “Tell that to ’er after she’s done tellin’ you how Sarah’s been sittin’ on ’er, and drainin’ ’er.  Tell that to my wife, who says the same.”

Metcalf went to him and placed a hand on one of Snuffy’s shoulders.  Snuffy had stopped digging and stood there, sobbing.

“It’s the fever, Snuffy.  The starvation.  They’re just repeating what they’ve heard.  They’re seeing what’s been told to them.”

Snuffy turned then, and looked at him.  Bloodshot eyes leaked tears that ran his stubbled, cratered cheeks.  “Anna said the same!  Anna said the same and I didn’t listen to ’er!”

Doctor Metcalf removed his hand and stood back.  The others stopped their work.

“I didn’t listen to ’er and look what happened!  Six of ’em gone!  Six!  And now my son’s struck, and my wife!  And Hannah!”  Snuffy slid a soiled and shriven coatsleeve over his flowing eyes, then the back of a gloved hand over his running nose.

“I got six more, countin’ Hannah and my son.  I’m gonna lose my only son,” he wailed.  “He’s due to be married in a month.  I lose him, I lose my name.  Haven’t I lost enough?”

Metcalf calmed himself and offered a hand as he stepped forward.  “Snuffy, I’m sorry.  We’re all sorry that you—”

Stukeley batted away his hand.  “Haven’t I lost enough, now?”

The men stood around them, silent.  After a moment, Mary, his family’s young servant from Wakefield, appeared in the back doorway, clutching a shawl around her neck, sobbing.

Edwin Mooney, still rubbing his lower back, said: “What is it, child?”

She sniffled and hiccupped but finally got it out.  “It’s Hannah.  She’s—she’s gone!”

Snuffy gave Metcalf a last hard, yet weary, stare, then turned, walked slowly past the small headstones in the plot behind his yard, and entered his home.

“Jus’ leave yer good doctor’s hands in yer pockets,” drawled Wilcox.  “Let us work at it.  We’ll find the Devil yet.”

Metcalf, who thought of Wilcox as a common criminal, ignored him.

An hour later, Reynolds’ spade struck the coffin, damaging it.  He swore.  Carefully they slid strong ropes beneath the wood; then, four to a side, with Snuffy at the head and Dr. Metcalf—against his own judgment—at the foot, they hoisted it out and placed it carefully on the rocky ground.  The men offered the crowbar to Snuffy, but he couldn’t do it, so finally Adam Wilcox pried the top of the thin, wooden coffin.  Soon the nails gave, and they lifted it up.  Reynolds, Mooney and Gardner shown their lights.

Anna Stukeley lay in a state of advanced decomposition.  Strands of light brown hair lay scattered upon the red and pink pillow, upon her skull and on both shoulders.  Flecks of browning skin were attached still to the right jawbone and cheekbone, both otherwise the skeleton was bare.  The white and pink dress and black shoes they had buried her in had faded somewhat, and her skeletal hands lay, crossed, upon her chest.  She’d been dead for two years, and she’d obviously never risen.

Reynolds swore again.  The other men murmured as Snuffy covered his face and sobbed.  The doctor walked him into his house while the others replaced the coffin and began to fill in the hole.

When finished, they agreed, they would return home and meet again at eleven to work on the next grave.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Manuscript Info. Garnered from More Free Stuff

Okay, for this as of yet untitled ms.--maybe The Gravediggers?--we'll start with the exhumation of 6 or 7 bodies in 1888 RI, as the father of these people had had a disturbing dream, that he'd had an orchard (which he had) but that half of the trees in his orchard would soon die.  He recognizes this as an extended dream-metaphor, thank you, Freud, and this makes him listen more to his family's eerie complaints.  His wife has been getting sick, and 5 or 6 of their children had already died.  Sarah had been the first, about 19 years old; another daughter was next, though this daughter complains of seeing Sarah, at night, sitting with her (on her?) in bed, causing her pain.  This daughter dies, another gets sick, and has the same complaint.  The last straw comes when the mother gets sick, and a son, who is of age and about to marry a girl in a neighboring town.  The mother complains of the same thing about Sarah.  So all of the bodies are exhumed, and all have their hearts burned on a nearby rock in the family cemetary, and all the problems stop. The mother recovers, but the son, after marrying the girl in that neighboring town and becoming a promising young farmer, dies. 

Nothing is ever recorded about his death, so, ah ha!, that's how "it" spreads.  Vampires, consumption (tb), or plague, I don't know.  But I'm hoping for all three.  Other isolated cases (one family member) will be mentioned also, but only in the form of consumption, to highlight the panic, but to also show how the panic and ignorance of others hides the true demon.

This all sounds like the hokey local superstition and folklore that it is, but I can make this work in fiction.  I'm pretty sure.

This summary of information was obtained through the materials gathered from the free e-books in my free e-Google.  Though I understand that Google may one day soon take over the world--the entire company would make a decent James Bond villain--I have to admit that it is incredibly convenient and useful.  I've got a couple of emails, my other blog site, and my free books all there.  And when I write, I save that writing to a flashdrive, to my emails, to my harddrive, to my Scrivener, and to my free Google documents storage.  I do not work for Google, I swear.  Not only did I get the above composite information from those free books, but I can also get the clothing, speech, beliefs, etc. from the very old books that I saved for free there, too.  My goodness is this convenient and useful.  I repeat: I do not work for Google.

So this is the beginning of yet another new work.  Wish me well, everyone, as I have a tendency to start new stuff with really good ideas and then stop them cold when I get bored with them.  This stuff here, for example, is the root of WIP 7, all novel-length.  I hope to do some combining and shuffling, but, boy, I don't know.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ideas and Libraries and Free Stuff!

Ideas came at me hot and heavy today.  Love that.  Even better is that I've had a little time to actually work with them, which is even more rare than having them to begin with.

To work with them, I did a bit of research and came upon a true gift of this writer's writing life: free e-Google books.  Stuff that's so old, the copyrights have given out, and you can save them to your Google stash.  Not only does this save trips to local libraries, college libraries and bookstores, but it also saves lots of money I'd have to spend on the gas and books themselves.  And, as if that weren't cool enough, I can also save these books (28 and counting) to my Google site so I don't even have to take up hard drive, flashdrive, or CD space.  How cool is that?  Also, since not every page of these books is necessary, I can print out only the ones that I need.

Second very awesome thing discovered today: HeritageQuest Online, a great research and resource tool that allows you to access tons of books for no cost.  Most of the books themselves are free, if you're researching something before the last 75 years or so, so you can do what I described above.  But you can also access the database free via your local library account, so you don't even have to pay for the access!  (Normally it's a substantial amount.)  Again, free is good.

The last very awesome thing discovered today: Local library access.  Turns out, there are 4 branches in my town, and five more in neighboring towns, all within a 10 to 15 mile radius of me.  So I can go to any of them either after work or after I visit a family member in a nearby facility, and I can stay at one of these libraries for at least a couple of hours, either researching or getting writing done.  (I've practically given up trying to write at home.  No one's fault but mine, but I can't seem to focus there to get anything done.  But I can research, read, and do other writing business from there.)  Anyway, all of these libraries have free WiFi access, too, so I can write, read, research, check out HeritageQuest, or read any of my free e-Google books--free!

Three important, helpful and interesting things--all free!  What else can a writer ask for?

As for the actual writing, plopping into the historical record, using actual and made-up names, and all of their POVs, and maybe shifting between eras is what's gonna happen.  (It'll be better than it sounds, I promise.)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Terror

Photo: Cover of the novel's first edition, from its Wikipedia page

I've beat the Dan Simmons drum before, with the recently-read Drood.  That book had been very good; for a look at my review on this blog, go here.  But now, let's talk about The Terror.

This book is much longer, and much more brilliant.  At 955 very thin, paperback pages, the most brilliant thing about The Terror is that, with the resolution not in doubt--the back, and associated blurbs, tell you that the whole of Sir John Franklin's expedition died while looking for the non-existent Northwest Passage.  If you don't read the backs of books, you probably Google interesting things, and no one will read 955 pages in one sitting.  So you Google it, or go to Wikipedia, and you find out that all of the men aboard died of scurvy, starvation, frostbite, gangrene, and poisoning from the ill-prepared cans of food, and that most of the bodies were never found.  You know that Franklin's spirited wife, Lady Jane Franklin, who had more money than he did, sent expeditions herself looking for his, all of which mostly failed.  You know that there were some graves found later, and some information in cairns, and the Erebus burned and sank at a given spot, and the Terror burned and sank at a spot about 90 miles from where it should've been, and that one man was found frozen on a small boat in the ice--and that's all you know.  But the fact that all the men perish is known from the outset.

So, the brilliance of The Terror is that all 955 pages are still compulsively read.  It's a rare thing that you're reading a page-turner even though you know how it all ends.  But such is the case.  Part of its greatness is that it works a metaphor that combines the fact that life itself is a non-winning struggle ("No one here gets out alive," Jim Morrison once intoned), and that the lives of the men is a non-winning struggle, and that the reading of the book itself is in many ways that same struggle.  We all know how all three of them end, and it's not for the best, and yet you read on like you fight on, because reading can be addictive like life itself, and what else are you gonna do?

Like all good historical fiction, it makes you want to read about the real thing.  When I do, I'll bet that I'll find that Dan Simmons exhaustively researched the real thing--his acknowledgements and souce listings are extensive, though in paragraph format and not in bibliography--and then creatively connected the dots as he went through the real thing.  A fictional connect-the-dots of the documented evidence, and of the most learned research and the most educated guesses.

The title itself refers to many things: the main ship itself, of course; the struggle of this existence (referenced many times); death, or Death, and the afterlife, if any; and, most menacingly, a real/mythical super-powerful creature that's basically Predator-on-ice--a gigantic creature with impossible strength that blends in with its surroundings so well you don't see it until it's upon you (or until you see its black, little beady eyes, like a camouflaged octopus).  Simmons is smart enough to know that you can't have a novel surviving on just this creature alone, especially when you're reconstructing actual events (and there's no mention of this creature, of course, in the actual events).

The writing is therefore smart as well.  It jumps between a dozen or so POVs, sometimes the same one in consecutive chapters.  It creates mysterious characters and things--Lady Silence (who the readers, especially the males, will find mysteriously awesome); Crozier's dreams; foreshadowings and almost-prophecies; and the creature, and a mythical/mystical/existential story and belief system that surrounds it--and allows one to live with it.  (I'm not sure I buy this last part--the last 20 pages or so of the novel--but it is effective and interesting.)  Simmons creates tension with simple bad guys, the elements, the creature, starvation, the accidental poisoning of the cans (and the Royal Navy's cheapness that allows for the instant rotting of much of the canned food), the social atmosphere of the time, the life of seamen in Her Majesty's Service, the whiteout conditions and screwy weather of the area.  And, of course, the ice.  Oh, my, the ice.  The wind.  The cold.  You'll believe you're there, in the ice, wind and cold--and if you live in Canada or New England this winter (or, from what I understand, in Oklahoma and much of the Plains for a week or so this winter), you almost were there.  But these men dealt with -100 degree (yes) weather almost every day.  Often it was -30.  Towards the end, it approached 0 and it felt like a heat wave.

Did you know that your own clothing could freeze to you if you sweat from exertion, and then it got very cold?  Or even if you sweat from exertion or fever while it was very cold?  Did you know that you can freeze to death and yet get sunburned at the same time?  Amazing.

Read this book.  It is impressive.  If you're a mystery writer, it is so good that you'll want to emulate it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Second Rate Spillane--Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm

An odd combination of Mike Hammer and James Bond, with, strangely, more sexism than both combined (and that's saying something), Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm series was a very long and profitable one, stretching from the 50s through the 80s, maybe seeping into the 90s, but I don't think so.  It's hard for me to tell why I read them all--and there are many more of them than there are from Spillane--and it's even harder to tell why I liked them.  They started as Bond and Hammer rip-offs, and pulpy, and grew into a slightly more sophisticated series by the 80s--and longer books, too--and they never seemed to grow tired, even when they didn't have anything new to say.  I guess the best thing to say is that he found new ways to do the same things, but doesn't every writer of many books, from Hamilton to King?

So what was good?  The action was good, not great; the mystery, as it was, was interesting for a teen, but may not hold up now; the settings were very well described.  I remember what I liked best were the very occasional off-hand insights into truth and human nature that were actually very well-done.  Women were handled as tolerable misfits, and the 1st person tone towards them was clearly condescending.  Helm seemed to think they generally got in the way, and were middling, but were worth to have around as pets, sort of.  And love interests, of course, who just as surely were killed, usually accidentally, at the end.  They also existed to show how cold and ruthless Helm was, though he had to say so so many times that you were made to wonder.  Often it came down to getting the villain, or saving the girl (not woman), and most of the time he chose to get the villain.  Orders are orders, after all, and he was always fighting for what today would be called national security.

A professor at URI had massive distaste for Helm--which is certainly understandable--though she'd based her opinion solely on the movies and hadn't read any of the books.  I'd read all of the books and seen none of the movies, but from what I gather, those were Dean Martin's uncontrollably drunk days, and he would basically leer and wink at the camera, and grab a starlet, and say something excessively sexist, and then collect his paycheck.  After 2 or 3 films, the series was done, and it all seemed like a waste of time and money, except for Martin, who must've been paid well, and then drank it all away.  I'd tried to explain that the books weren't as bad as the movies she described, but as I write about them now, no intelligent guy over 21 (or even 17 or 18, which I was at the time) would be able to stand the sexist condescension.

This latter bothers me a little more than Spillane's blatant sexploitation and violence, and I can't really understand why.  Maybe because his books were all clearly just that, without pretense, and the Helm books were surprisingly unsexy, just winking and butt-grabbing, and verbal and tonal condescension.  Which is all more annoying than anything else.  The scenery and world-traveling and violence were well-done, and you sort of skimmed through the moralizing and speeches and winks to get to more of the scenery and violence.

The first one, titled Murderer's Row, I think, was actually rather good, and a bit acclaimed (for the genre) and basically told the story of how Helm, retired and living happily with his wife and family, loses said wife and family to the bad guys, and re-enters the covert-ops arena, thus beginning the series, which degenerated very slowly after that, with a pick-me-up in the 80s before oblivion.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

My Teenage Mysteries--Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer

When I was a teenager I was a voracious reader of all things Stephen King, Peter Straub--and Mickey Spillane.  Donald Hamilton, too, but the Matt Helm series wasn't as much of a (questionable) influence upon me as the Mike Hammer series.

Spillane was the best-selling author of anything English throughout all of the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s.  You can look it up.  It wasn't close, and it may--or may not--surprise you that the larger percentage of his readers was female.  Particularly, bored housewives who wanted a bit more spice in their lives.  Mike Hammer was particularly cartoonish and unbelievable, but the cool thing about the books was that you really didn't think about them as you read them.  My favorite example of this--and I recognized this when I was a teeanger (and I'm talkin' 12 years old here)--was when he would say unbelievably outlandish things when a friend died, or rant and rage in front of a reporter, or not know someone on page 20, but then say he knew that character later on (this happened in I, the Jury, which Spillane supposedly wrote in about a week or two, maybe less).

And the sex and violence was incredible, in an eye-popping way.  I seriously expected every voluptuous, sex-crazed woman to still be a virgin into her thirties, and I was a little surprised when I didn't see women literally throwing themselves at guys.  My favorite Spillane title was The Erection Set; my favorite ending is when the guy beds this jaw-dropping walking sex-bomb, who happens to be a virgin into her thirties because she'd been waiting for the guy her whole life (they were childhood friends), and it turns out that she was an undercover (pun intended) cop and he was an undercover CIA operative, or something.  And as they're having sex, the bad guy opens the door, and says something like, "Nice.  Very nice," but he said a little too much, because by that time the hero had grabbed the gun off the nighttable and shot the bad guy's arm completely off, and as he's screaming and blood's pumping everywhere, the main character shoots the guy a few more times and kills him.  While the cordite's still in the air, and the blood's seeping into the carpeting and running through the floorboards, the woman says, "Now f--- me, like a dog," or something shocking like that, and of course he does.

Whew!!!  The fact that tens of millions of people, most of them female, apparently, would read this was shocking, but only until I read them, at which point the sex and violence was so cartoonish that it was entertaining.  (I know this isn't politically correct, but that's the way it was for me and tens of millions of others.)  The mysteries were not mysterious; the women weren't exactly femme fatales (except maybe for Charlotte in I, the Jury), and the writing wasn't exactly Raymond Chandler.  And yet there was a New York City feel, and there was tons of atmosphere, and overall the unreality was grounded into some sort of reality.  And, somehow, it all worked.  As you can see.  I remember all of these things, no problem (including Pat Chambers, his best friend), and I haven't read any of them since I was maybe 18.  (I still have all of them in a box in the garage, along with all the Matt Helms and, I think, Hardy Boyses and Nancy Drews.  I'm seriously jonesing reading some of them again; maybe during vacation.)

Plus, there were the Miller Lite (and Gillette, I think) commercials, of course, and the 80s tv show with Stacy Keach and Verna Bloom (I think; one of my first crushes!).  In my novel, Cursing the Darkness, Foster's secretary, Colleen, certainly has a Velda feel to her, so much so that the 1st person narration references Mike Hammer and Velda.  I'd be lying if I said that they weren't both influences.  The series would make GREAT graphic novels today, if anybody could secure the rights to do that.

I would both urge teenage readers to read them, and yet frown upon it at the same time.  I'm sure I got the exact same reactions from my 11th and 12th grade English teacher (same woman); I can see them now, as I did read a few, including The Erection Set, while in her classes.  My parents weren't thrilled at these books, either, though, if I remember right, I read the first few because my mother had them, thereby backing up the female readership statement earlier.

I remember that Spillane tried to keep the series going in the 80s and 90s, and that Max Collins, I think, finished a couple--one called The Goliath Bone, I think--but Spillane had lost a lot of breathless steam by then, and they didn't quite feel right anymore.  He tried to tone them down a lot, and Mike Hammer and Velda got married, which was like Philip Marlowe getting married, but even less believable.  It was like he was trying to recreate his bad writing, thereby proving that you can't write badly if you're trying to.  Or something.  Anyway, they weren't ridiculously breathless anymore, and that's what really drove them to begin with.

Needless to say, the series couldn't be written today.  I can't decide if I think that's a shame or not, just like I can't decide whether I'd recommend them for teeange readers or not.  Ultimately I'd say that it is a shame, and that I'd recommend them, but it goes to show you that I'm just as much a product of my time as Mike Hammer and Mickey Spillane were a product of theirs.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Very Important and Well-written Historical Fiction--The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Genius on every page, one of those classics that will live forever in those who read it.  The first historical fiction I read; made me want to do it myself.  Gets you caught up in Roger Bacon, etc., whether you're normally nerdy like that or not.  Total immersion in the time.  The mystery itself is well-told, as well.  The best thing about it is that the core of the mystery is inherent on the era, the beliefs, and the superstitions of the people alive at the time.  Some very strong things to say about freedom, censorship, and the importance of BOOKS!  Yes!  And not just the reading of them, which anyone with a screen of any kind can do today.  The impetus here is on ownership, on the freedom to read, to know for oneself.  There are so many good, fundamental issues covered here that I cannot go into them all without seeming like a blubbering fool, but suffice it to say that it covers the issues of its time in a very non-preachy way, and the reader understands that the issues addressed are not just for that time, but for all times.

Books.  Ideas.  Freedom.  Access to knowledge.  (Remember that back then only those involved with the Church could read at all, and only the churches, monasteries and universities had access to books--outside of the very rich, of course.)  The right to learn.  The right to know.  The right to learn on your own, because only those with the books and the ability to read them have access to information, and only those people could dispense that information--as they saw fit--to everyone else.

Very important book.  Superior wit, intelligence and skill on every page.  Read this one, no matter what genre you normally like.  If any of the above issues are important to you--or if you just like a very intelligent read--you owe it to yourself to get this book and read it.  It'll stay with you.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Historical (Mystery) Fiction Done Well--Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost

An Instance of the Fingerpost

Before this, the only historical fiction I'd read was Eco's The Name of the Rose--also a great book.  This one is slightly better: It made me feel like I was physically in every scene.  Really immerses you into the time.  The four different POVs are also ingenuously used.  This one made me want to write an historical novel--a task I am not yet up for.  Maybe someday...Actually, I'm trying to do a couple now.

An ingenuously written book that has much to teach writers--or would-be writers--of the genre.

1.  Totally immerse your reader into the time by describing everything to the point where the reader feels he's in every scene, as mentioned above.  This is impossibly difficult because you don't want to bog the reader down with detail, detail, detail; that'll stop the plot from moving foreward and bore your reader.  Yet, you can't sustain the suspension of disbelief for over 700 pages if you don't.  So how does one toe that line?  I don't know, but I DO know that the answer is in this book.  I'd have to read it again, with the eye of a writer this time.

2.  The time described has to be made interesting, in of itself.  Otherwise, why get immersed in it?  The era here is fascinating: England, Protestants vs. Catholics.  The Papists.  The monarchy.  The spies.  The battle between the starkly divided social classes.  It's all here.

3.  The mystery has to be riveting enough to continue reading about.  Immersion takes work for the reader, too.  The writer has to prove to the reader that it'll be worth his while.  This one is simple: What happened to the girl?  Some guys love her; some guys hate her.  The latter actually hate her because they love her, and the power she has over them.

4.  The writing itself has to be very good, and very interesting.  This one is told from 4 different POVs, each one taking up hundreds of pages, each one an interesting charcater, each one variously unreliable.  You care about each one, even the very unlikeable one.  And the Truth that shuffles them all together is exemplified by the final narrator, in the final pages--with a last, lasting mystery on the last page.

Once again I am seeing more and more that I should be learning from what I'm reading, and not just enjoying what I'm reading.  The Name of the Rose sort of gave birth to Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost, and it's difficult--and perhaps unnecessary--to tell which one is better.  They're both great.

Next post will be on Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone, and don't forget to check out my previously unpublished short story, and the prologue and Chapter One of my own mystery novel, at my website.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Javier Sierra--The Secret Supper and The Lady in Blue

Photo:  The incorrupt body of Venerable María de Jesús de Ágreda in the Church of the Conceptionists Convent (in Ágreda, Spain).  Photo taken from Maria de Jesus de Agreda's Wikipedia page.

Javier Sierra is probably one of the more successful authors, world-wide, who you've never heard of.  I've only read two of his works; they may be the only two of his translated into English.  They're reviewed below.

The Secret Supper

No Da Vinci Code redux, as a commenter inside says, and it's true.  Very good book about everything associated to its time.  A bestseller in 35 countries, this book delves into the characters more than Code, with just as much suspense and with just as many cliffhangers.  And the added bonus of historical accuracy and a You-Are-There feel.  Sierra has yet to repeat this success, unlike Brown and Angels and Demons (which might be better than Code).  This is a worthwhile book and intelligent escapism.

The Lady in Blue

Disappointing, but not terrible.  Made me want to see images of the nun who, though in her crypt, still looks alive.  Very, very creepy.  Interesting question about how the true Americans knew the religion beforehand, though I can think of other, more plausible, answers.  Very second-rate compared to Sierra's own The Secret Supper, and sometimes kinda bland.  He'll do better.  Very successful book, translated into 23 languages, as was The Secret Supper

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden and Jonbenet Ramsay--Books by Profiler John Douglas, with Mark Ohlshaker

The Cases that Haunt Us

One of my all-time favorite books, and definitely not for the squeamish.  The authors cover--in unbelievably great detail and depth--the crimes, aftereffects, motives, evidence and suspects involved in the periphery of the Jack the Ripper killings in Whitechapel in 1888, the Jonbenet Ramsay trial, the Lizzie Borden case, the Zodiac Killer, The Black Dahlia (see the James Ellroy blog entry below this one) and a few others.  The writing about these cases is inspired, impressive, thorough and intense.  They are also, especially when writing about 1888 Whitechapel (Jack the Ripper) and 1950s L.A. (The Black Dahlia), historically accurate and extremely fascinating.  I have re-read this book a few times now, and, like a true classic, I get a new thing out of it each time.  John Douglas's take on Jack the Ripper, especially, is definitive, and obliterates the efforts of Patricia Cornwell and others who have tackled and been derailed by the topic.  For Ripper enthusiasts, this is the one to read.


Gruesomely fascinating, as usual.  Very good writer, and it's amazing how he's been able to keep his sanity, considering all of the insanity he's seen.


Well-written, as usual, and memorable for both the writing and the content.  I wrote in a journal: "It reinforces that Epicurus quote for me: 'If God listened to the prayer of men, all men would quickly have perished: for they are for ever praying for evil against one another.'"

Friday, February 11, 2011

James Ellroy--L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia

Based on the infamous case of Elizabeth Short, who Ellroy later claimed to be his mother.  Almost as brilliant as Ellroy's L.A. Confidential, and in some ways it's superior.  The time, the pitch, the pace, the plot, the dialogue and characterization--all among The Mad Dog's best.  As with L.A. Confidential--perhaps even more so--by the time you're done reading it, you'd swear that every member of the L.A. force was hopped up on something, boozing, brawling, sleeping around, or just plain going crazy in the 50s.  (Turns out, it was just the author.  You've got to be feelin' it like that to write like this consistently.  This wasn't great editing; it was a mindset.)  Ellroy's lost a little steam over the years--Who could keep it up?--but he's probably healthier after his breakdown.  L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia are probably the high water marks of this kind of thing in the latter 20th Century.  And if you don't believe me, just ask Ellroy himself.  He'll tell ya.

L.A. Confidential

In terms of perfection, I give this one a slight nod over The Black Dahlia, and the only reason I can give you is that I got that feeling as I was reading it.  You just get this strong sensation that you are reading something great, something unique that will stand as the best of its type.  Perhaps some of it is in retrospect, as I finished this long ago, and certainly the excellent movie helps the idea.  (The movie is perhaps a classic of its type as well.)

To give you an idea of how complex the plot is, the movie based on it was dumbed down in a severe way, and those I watched the movie with in the theatre said it was one of the more complicated films they'd ever seen.  I don't know about that--Chinatown also seemed a bit convoluted to me--but these people were not morons by any means.  The kitchen scene with Spacey and James Cromwell was too simplistic for me, but what else can you do to get the Rollo Tomassi thing out there?  The plot as in the book certainly had to get watered down.  No complaints here about that, and I usually will harp on that.

And casting James Cromwell, the farmer from the (very good) talking-pig movie Babe, was inspired casting.

Ellroy's other books pale in comparison to L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia, but in this genre, whose wouldn't?  Though it is slightly disturbing to admit that his writing was more...energetic, lucid, inspired, and, yet, fluent...while he was spiraling out of control.  Life inspires art, right?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Quick, Random Reviews of Four Spenser Novels by Robert B. Parker

Cold Service

Very good, better than many in the series. Maybe a little too much back and forth comparing Spenser/Susan with Hawk and his temporary girlfriend, and the way it finally went down in Marshport wasn't very satisfying, and the off-stage ending with Hawk was also a little strange...but the story wasn't really about that final confrontation, and there was no doubt of the outcome, so the story was about Spenser and Vinnie being there. Didn't like how Vinnie was sort of treated as the loser of the group...but overall it all worked, anyway, despite its flaws, as is also typical.

Painted Ladies

I'd forgotten to post a review when I'd first read this in October 2010, but as I look at the cover now and try to remember what it was about, I find that I cannot do it.  Which doesn't mean the book was bad, per se, as I don't believe I ever read a bad Spenser book.  But it does mean that there was nothing in it to separate it from the rest, and while that's not terrible, it's not good, either.

Rough Weather

Read this one already, as I have every Parker book, but I read something about The Grey Man, so I thought I'd give this another shot.  Better than I remembered, but not one of his best. You would think Rugar would have killed him right away, esp. to protect his daughter.  Since Rugar knew he was tough to kill, as he mentions in Small Vices, he would have done it himself.  But everything good about the series is evident here.  All minor characters from the series make an appearance here.  Overall, very good and, as usual, addictive reading.

Small Vices

Read this one already, as I have every Parker book, but I read something about The Grey Man, so I thought I'd give this another shot.  Better than I remembered, but not one of his best. The time passing seems oddly handled, and you would think Rugar would find him immediately again once he got his apartment back.  Fairly long for Spenser/Parker, but everything good about the series is evident here.  All minor characters from the series make an appearance here.  Overall, very good and, as usual, addictive reading.

My similar reviews of these past two books tell you how similar the last two books were!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Few Mystery- or Crime-related Epigrams

Monk, first panel: Remember, it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
Hagar, second panel: But I enjoy cursing the darkness!

                        ---Chris Browne, Hagar, the Horrible

One can see only what one observes, and one observes only things which are already in the mind.

                        ---Alphonse Bertillon, French criminologist.

Mr. and Mrs. America you are wrong.  I am not the King of the Jews, nor am I a hippie cult leader.  I am what you have made of me and the mad dog devil killer fiend leper is a reflection of your society…Whatever the outcome of this madness that you call a fair trial or Christian justice, you can know this: In my mind's eye, my thoughts light fires in your cities.

                        ---Charles Manson.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, roughly one-third of all homicides become cold.

                        ---Marilyn vos Savant,
                        Parade, Oct. 7, 2007

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Three Quick Reviews--A Death in Belmont, Peeper and Timeline

A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger

Very, very well-written.  I'm not always a fan of Junger, but this one was exceptionally well-done, and creepy because he was around DeSalvo when at a defenseless age.  And how was his mom to know?  I'm going to pick up his WAR at some point soon.

Peeper by Loren D. Estelman

Amusingly acerbic and depressing.  Often laugh-out-loud funny, though you'll be ashamed of yourself afterward.  Good writing and good mystery.  One of the first of the true loser anti-heroes of the genre, someone you actually like, not one of Cain's sociopaths.  Made me want to read more from writers like Elmore Leonard and Crumley, which led me to Robert B. Parker.

Timeline by Michael Crichton

As usual, a quick read, cardboard characters that are just names, and solid research that allows him to paint that world vividly.  Moustache-twirling villains are getting annoying.  Pure story, story, story.  Like King and Brown and a few others, Crichton gives the American Reader what he wants--not writing, but story.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Mistaken Premise--ADHD America

I mentioned in a Red Room comment to someone that I'll bet that Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe would not be successful characters in today's publishing world.  Not as they were initially created.  The reason I gave was that the American public is seen as too ADHD, too hyper, too bent on immediate gratification, to accept a work that takes a while to build its characters and crimes.  Chandler's novels are, first and foremost, about Philip Marlowe (and, one suspects, Raymond Chandler at the same time) and about the L.A. of the time.  The crimes and plots are so secondary that the novels often seem plotless, actually.  In fact, the plots were stitched together from many of Chandler's short stories, published in pulps like Black Mask, and they often don't hold up very well as plots.

But the novels, taken in their entirety, work very well, mostly due to the Chandler style and Marlowe's Voice (which are practically the same, but not completely).  Could such a work do well today?  Can a mystery noir be first about character, secondly about writing style, and thirdly about plot and actual mystery?  I thought so, which is why my ms. works the same way, but I can tell you that agents--and, perhaps, the entire publishing business--does not think so.  At all.  Readers don't have the patience.  Crime on page one.  All mysteries up front, with more to follow consistently.  Suspense on every page.  Crime, mystery, suspense, repeat.

Character and setting?  Writing style and Voice?  Fine, they'd say, but first: crime, mystery, suspense.

The publishing business isn't the only one to feel this way.  The education business does, too, I assure you.  The teaching colleges push the law of entertaining lessons so hard today that you'd swear they expect their teachers to be singers and dancers, too.  They really believe that if the lesson is super-duper-interesting, the teacher will never have a behavior problem, and everyone will love learning, and everything's rosy.  I've seen a lot of student teachers crash-and-burn because they believed this to the bitter end, only to learn---

But I digress.  Or do I?  Are the American Readers--and the American Youth--that ADHD, that hyper, that demanding, that needy for immediate gratification?  Are they, or does everyone think that they are?  Which came first, the supposed ADHD American Reader, or the publishing industry that's based on the model of immediate gratification for its readers?  You can ask the same about the education industry.

I propose that the whole thing's a mess.  With the state of both industries today, someone needs to step back and re-think this initial premise.  It's a chicken-and-egg scenario that did not exist in my student and first-reading days.  I don't know when it started, but what if the whole concept is a mistake?  I don't know about the publishing industry, but I can tell you that it's a disservice to many students, and that it's actually insulting and offensive to many of them.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Faceless Killers--Henning Mankell

Mankell is a writer of Swedish noir; he inspired Stieg Larsson, and, perhaps, me.  I've been purposely trying to learn as I read these days.  Not in an academic way--at least until I take my next Masters class--but in a way that I understand writing better so that my writing is also better.  I wrote a recent blog about this, using Dan Simmons' Drood as a primer, so I won't do that again here.

In short, here's what I liked about Faceless Killers (besides the title).  The thing that struck me first, by about page 20, was that if Raymond Carver wrote Swedish noir, it would turn out like this.  Carver was a writer of more depth than this novel, appropriately, shows, but the type of writing is the same.  Both writers make the very ordinary seem very important.  Carver would write, "He placed the bottle of champagne on the table," in exactly the same way several times in the same 12-page short story, and it would carry weight each time.  (I still don't understand how he was able to do that.)  Mankell does the same here, but, again, without the strange depth.  His words and sentences do have depth, just not the same emotional (or emotionless) as Carver's did.

Secondly, Mankell's Kurt Wallander has very real, gritty problems, shown in very gritty sentences.  For example, and pardon the lack of etiquette here, but Wallender has this gastro-intestinal problem--a combination of bad eating habits and lots of stress, caused by his job and his recent marriage break-up--and the novel shows twice that he eats a hotdog, or a pizza, too fast and has to rush to the bathroom with diarrhea.  And I'm not paraphrasing or inferring here.  It says that he ate too fast, that he had to run to the bathroom, and that he had diarrhea.  The first time, it also says that he realizes he has to change his underwear.  Now that's intense.  The short, clipped, Carver-esque sentences create a dreamy, distant, slowly re-awakening feeling in the character that really is what the novel is about.  That, and what is going wrong with Sweden in those days.  The two-headed theme is: What went wrong with my marriage?--and--What went wrong with Sweden?  They go hand-in-hand here.  The setting, as you'd might expect from Sweden, is a character in of itself in the same way that the same type of weather was for Fargo and Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Anyway, this novel got me to consider ditching the 1st person narration of one of my "finished" mystery mss. and allowing my writing style to show the main character's traits in ways that I thought only 1st person could.  And it also made me realize that although the mystery starts right away in my novel, the actual crime isn't shown until midway.  (Other crimes, including murders and other cases the character takes on, are shown much earlier, all starting on page 1.)  But this was a real eye-opener for me in that it shows that maybe the packaging of my novel is all wrong.

We'll see.  Anyway, Faceless Killers is highly recommended.  I just bought most of the Wallender series a few hours ago.  The supposed last one, A Troubled Man, comes out very soon, the first Wallender book in 10 years.  Mankell says it's definitely the last, but I'll bet he also said that 10 years ago.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Red Room and Author's Den

I'm not one for unabashed advertising.  In fact, (right) before I changed the format of this blog, I promised some good folks that I would somehow incorportate their blogs or sites onto mine, in an unabashed show of e-friendship and writerly patriotism.  I've done that for a few, not for all, and I feel sorta bad for it.  I apologize to them again; I promise to do what I can.

But I pause here now to tell all the writers who read this blog that they should consider getting an account on Red Room and/or Author's Den.  There are many reasons for this, all beneficial to a writer:

1.  You'll get noticed.  Already more people have seen my Red Room page--in just a couple of days--then there would be people noticing me here over a longer length of time.

2.  Other professional authors have such accounts and pages.  I'm talkin' Salman Rushdie here.  (I saw his.)

3.  They're considered a professional portfolio addition kind of thing.

4.  You can post your published (or, for many, self-published) titles on there, as well as the webpages you're selling them on.  Very convenient.

5.  You can put your announcements on there, too, which can range from "I just sold a short story," to "I just finished a new novel and it's ready for representation."  Of course, you can put much bigger literary news up there, too.  Like, "I just agreed to a contract with an agency."  If you're going to a convention, or booksigning, or anything else, you can announce that, too.

6.  You can publish previously unpublished works, like I did with "Shadows" here.  Of course, you cannot publish previously published works there, or anywhere else, unless it's been long enough for the rights to come back to you.

7.  You can publish previously unpublished articles, poems, etc. as well.  See disclaimer above.

8.  Red Room gives you a free blog, too.  Author's Den makes you upgrade (reads: pay) for one.

9.  Writers and readers who take writing and reading seriously are on there, not just web-surfers.

10.  The most important reason: My stuff is there!  See my links at the top of this page.  Check 'em out!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Isolation--New Fragment

Photo: A Kansas Barn.  Fits this fragment well.

[This is a rough draft, done today.  This is geared towards one of the plague works; don't know where.  I'm going for an isolated, beginning-to-panic, doomed feel here.  Let me know if you think I've reached it.  This writer/character has been quarantined, either in the house, or the whole town, or both.  I have a heavy 1800s to early 1900s feeling for it.]

I watch the abandoned house down the way.  Sky-blue paint has faded and peeled off in small sheets, most of which still hang from the wood on the side facing me.  It has cracked and fallen in many spots, like a ruptured, leprous face, damaged by the elements.  Knotty branches stand as blunt testimony behind it; the grey, unmoving clouds have formed a blanket of shrouded misery, a backdrop of forever, stark against the solid brown-that-seems-black of the naked trees and desolate homes.  I find myself fascinated with the house closest to me, on the other side of the lane.  The angle of the pointed roof, very straight, very even.  Very exact.  Crusty snow, perfect whiteness, not the mushy clotted black of the road snow, pushed aside for the carriages.  The snow on the house isn’t clumpy; just one sheen coat, the rest blown off by the relentless wind.  This wind blows wisps of snow across the top; it floats away like smoke, first towards me and the window, then to the right, across the perfectly straight layers, then away from me, floating away into darkness and distance.  Odd how the snow wisps away in the wind, but the trees beyond the house do not sway.  Nor does the small tree in between this house, and mine.  It’s as if the breeze is only at house level, not in the air itself.  It effects what is closest to me and ignores the largest things, the older, more permanent things.

I can feel and hear the wind forcing its way into the cracks I cannot see in my window casing.  I can’t tell if it’s really happening, or in my distant, cold mind.  I think I can hear it, but that can’t be.  I believe I can feel it against my face, glancing off my cheeks.  A quick iciness, then it’s warmed away.  But my mind, my imagination, doesn’t thaw.  The cold sits on my bones and hunkers down.  I shiver and move a few steps away from the window.  I can’t take my eyes off the house.  I think I see a sliver of blue paint slide off the face and fall out of my view.  I cannot imagine it lying on the ground, destroying the perfectly smooth layer of crusted whiteness with its chipped, bluish angularity.

There is no one outside.  Everything is dark.  I see no one with carrying a flickering candlelight in a faraway window.  It seems like there’s no one left alive in all of my experience.  Maybe there isn’t.  I want to go out, despite the cold.  I want to walk around in the darkness.  I want to open my front door.  What will happen if I walk out?  Will anyone see?  What will happen when I open the door?  What will I let in?

The small tree in front of me sways now.  The wind has picked up.  It’s come closer.  I wonder what it brings with it.  I wonder if it will shriek, this wind.  I wonder if it will wail.  I no longer want to open the front door.  I want to curl up into a little ball in the bedroom, on the floor, against the wall, and bury my head within myself, and wait for spring.  I wonder, if I survive, how I will know it’s all right to go outside.  Will someone let me know?  Will somebody come to my door?  Is there anyone left alive to do that?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Mystery Solved--Loving Someone A Lot Will Make You Epically Fail

Photo: Pilot Ejecting from the Crashing Jet.  This is the epitome of an epic fail.

I break the aforementioned pattern of blog posts today, for a reason that will be obvious as you read.  Or, if you will, consider this a mystery solved.  It isn't a mystery with a crime, or with any suspects.  It's a mystery about growing up, I suppose.  About human nature.  About what it is to be a loving, caring person.

I used to think that my father's gift to me one year, when I was a kid, was the worst I'd ever gotten.  The problem was that it was a large present, and big to a kid means awesome.  My mother watched from her ever-constant chair, wearing a little frown, but my father watched with glee as I attacked the wrapping.  I remember saying, "It'''s..." as I came closer to undressing the present.  Finally, holding the large gift in hand, I said:

"It''s...a giant box of Corn Flakes."

And it was.  A giant box of Corn Flakes.  With a red plastic handle at the top.  Inside this box were TWO large boxes of Corn Flakes.  Two.  Corn Flakes.  For Christmas.

"I told you he wasn't going to like it," my mother said.

"But he loves Corn Flakes," my father protested, bewildered at what today's teens would call "an epic fail."

For the following 30 or so years I'd considered that the worst Christmas gift--the worst anything gift--ever.

Now I know better.  My mother has been dead for over 10 years now, and my father has been diagnosed with cancer in more than 5 different areas of his body, including both legs, a lung, and his skull.  And I've had several epic fails of my own since that Christmas, over 30 years ago.

What I take from it now--what I couldn't take from it then--was the totality of well-meaning ridiculousness that caring will drive you to.  It'll make you buy a humongous box of Corn Flakes that actually contains two very large boxes of Corn Flakes, and it'll make you believe that your 9-year old son will actually want that for Christmas.  Loving someone a lot will make you epically fail.

The gift now is that epic failure.  Other people have parents who do not epically fail.  Primarily this is because they do not care enough to fall off the cliff to begin with.  My father did, he always has, he does now.  His paramount caring will be his everlasting monument to us.  He cared enough to fail, and oh my goodness did he ever, at times.

I remember those times now with joy.  I care about someone enough now to make incredibly stupid judgments.  I've bought my own share of Corn Flakes.  She's not a kid, so she appreciates those plummets off the cliff for what they really are: Such a huge amount of caring that I'm willing to look like an idiot for her.

And do I ever.  Just like my Dad did.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Editing = Style

A quick word about editing:

All writers are wordy in drafts.  You edit.  You slice.  You nip and tuck.  Sometimes you bludgeon and take out whole paragraphs.  But I've come across some writers lately who forgot, maybe, why you do this.

1.  Well, because you have to omit needless words.  Period.  Wordiness creates passivity; it turns off readers--and agents.  It's the first sign of a bad writer--and it's the easiest thing to fix and control.

2.  But writers sometimes forget that wordiness needs editing because it is in the editing that writers create their style.  Editing writing is like editing film; that's where the style is.  Without it--if you have too many words--you don't just have an avalanche of unnecessary words, you also lack the style your narration needs to tell the story.

3.  Finally, unless you're Shakespeare writing the Nurse's lines--unless your character or narrator is necessarily wordy--you should not be writing too many words.  This is especially true for dialogue.  Most real people do not speak too much.  When they do, they're treated just like the writings such unrealistic characters will inhabit: they're ignored.  Just as in narration, the first sign of a bad writer is bad dialogue--which is created by stilted or overwordy speakers.

So don't forget to edit.  And don't forget that you're not just editing to get rid of unnecessary words.