Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Good versus Evil – Cain and Able in Writing

The Joker

Every protagonist needs an antagonist. This is fundamental to almost every form of literature and most especially the suspense/thriller/mystery genres. The historical basis for this form extends back to Homer and the classics. For the protagonist (the hero) to succeed the antagonist (anti-hero) needs to be vanquished. Good over evil, success over failure, obstacles overcome. The Bible itself is a series of short stories that advance the good (as perceived by the authors) over the evil doers of their times. And even if evil gains a temporary win, it will eventually lose. Literature shows no mercy to the faux winner.

But who is the enemy? Every age develops both their own antagonists to be put in the way of the hero and his quest. In certain times and places it was the Southern plantation owner, the Indian, the evil landowner, the cattleman, the industrialist, the communist, the capitalist, and even the society and land itself – all fighting to overwhelm and defeat the protagonist and hero. There are trends in writing based on the times. The dynamic cop/detective fighting the mob/politics in the 1920s and 1930s, Captain America and the evil Axis of Germany and Japan. Hitler and his minions, Tojo, Mussolini all were grist for writers and Hollywood during the late 1930s and into World War II itself (The Lord of the Rings). In the 1950s it was the communists yet Joseph McCarthy as the farcical enemy of communism became an antagonist himself. We had the fear of the atomic bomb which spawned mutant ants, grasshoppers, and a thing called the Blob (more than once). And who can forget The Day the Earth Stood Still (not the 2008 remake) where then enemy became us not Michael Rennie.

To say that antagonists are fashionable is an understatement. The selection of the evil doer is as much a finger on the pulse of society as it is creative fiction. Through the 60s and 70s there were dozens if not hundreds of books on the Cold War. John le Carre, Ian Fleming, novelists such as Leon Uris and Herman Wouk wrote in the era of spies and the great fear of the Soviet Union. The movie, The Manchurian Candidate, was based on Richard Condon’s 1959 novel where the great enemy was North Korea and the Soviet Union training captured American soldiers to become assassins. It was then a time of larger than life enemies and antagonists. To create a character that can instill honest fear and mortal danger to not just the hero but to a nation is worthy of our reading.

But trends can get old and even stale. Wars end, international crises pass, real enemies are defeated, and even the readers themselves get bored. And if there is one critical aspect to writing is that you never bore your reader. Even today almost every major thriller writer (Nelson DeMille, Steven Coonts, Brad Thor, John Clancy, Thomas Harris, Vince Flynn, Daniel Silva, et al) writes the same book: flawed but invincible hero (rogue American/or other westerner) confronts the evil Islamic terrorist (even worse than the governments themselves) and destroys him (unless there is the chance for a sequel). They are all well-crafted, character driven, and great reads. These writers and many others of the genre understand their audience: paranoid and fearful all wanting a savior to smite the enemy and reaffirm the Western future. I know that is a harsh statement but there is some truth to it. And it was the same truth in 1939 (pre-WWII), 1948 (Cold War), 1951 (Korea), 1962 (Cuban missile crisis), 1972 (Watergate), 1973 (Yom Kippur War), 1980s (Afghanistan/Russia), through to September 11, 2001. Every era creates real enemies and so does every writer.

More Later . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) – Ten Rules

Elmore Leonard
Next to my writing desk and within the left column of floor to ceiling shelves (five in all) in my library are two middle shelves 39 inches long. Bookending these two shelves of books on writing, editing, composition, punctuation, and a dictionary too heavy and dangerous to use, are two books, On Writing by Stephen King and 10 Rules of Writing by Elmore Leonard. The filler between these two is interesting and at times helpful. But if there is one simple and direct tome that tells a writer how best to write it’s Leonard’s 10.

Elmore Leonard died yesterday, he was 87. For those in the craft of writing he was a god-like character with all the usual Olympian foibles and charm. His craggy face and his craggy writing walked the same alleys and swamps as his characters. His shelf is almost fifty novels, all sharp tongued, witty, twisted, and crisp. He remarked that his hero, when he was young, was Hemingway, but later discovered that old Ernest hadn’t a humorous bone in his body – if there is one trait to Leonard’s work it is his humor (as dark and melancholy as it is). You know his books, and the movies, and the TV shows, I won’t list them – do this yourself. But he did leave us 10 rules, none original but succinct, to the point, and so Elmorian.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing:
1.  Never open a book with weather.
2.  Avoid prologues.
3.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue (he channeled S. King here).
4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.” (Adverbs are the mortal sins of writers). 
5.  Keep your exclamation points under control!!!!!
6.  Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters (your reader does have an imagination).
9.  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things (see 8 above).
10.  Try to leave out the part(s) that readers tend to skip.

I won’t even try to add to these. 

In every class and seminar on writing mysteries and thrillers, Mr. Leonard’s style comes up. In reverent tones his use of the language (much he created himself) is demonstrated and discussed. Few achieve the level of sophisticated unsophistication he consistently achieved in his work. Read his books, study the lingo, understand the characters, immerse yourself in his worlds – then see your analyst.

 Chili Wants His Coat
From Get Shorty

More later . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

An Interesting Dilemma

After meeting with a number of potential agents about my new manuscript Wars Amongst Lovers I was surprised to learn, (after all their nice comments about the characters, story line, pacing and even story structure) that it is too long. Not just a little too long but maybe 60,000 to 70,000 words too long. Now I have recently bought a lot of books that are in this word count range and many are even longer (pick up any Follett or Cussler and you know what I mean). Their point was they are they and you are well, nobody. I of course answered, not yet!

The discussion of how long a book should is as old as the printed page. The simple answer is “as long as the story takes.” But the real answer is really a couple of answers. The first is, What is the market buying? – not what’s being offered but what’s selling. In our time of 140 character lives one might assume that shorter is better, given our short attention spans and universal ADHD. The second reason is economics, a three hundred page book versus a 500/600 page book – both story’s being equal. The market doesn’t accept a 50 percent increase in the price due to additional printing and shipping costs. In fact shipping can literally increase by more than 50% - bigger/thicker = more weight = more $$$$$. So unless you have a proven track record not many publishers will want to pick up that big first novel.

What to do? Well, not being unreasonable, I suggested instead of beating the thing up and cutting away 45% of the story (and to be honest it is already quite efficient) why not make the book into two books. It also gives me a good reason to do a trilogy. Expand the time frame and also expand the hero’s story.

It’s a fabulous historical fiction piece that begins before World War II and now can include the period from the late 1940s and into the early 1950s. So there you are, from one book comes three, all reasonable in length and doesn’t everyone just love sequels?

And regarding ebooks none of the above applies, page count is irrelevant. 

RE Sharon O’Mara: She’s still hard at work getting the bad guys. Kevin Bryan landed a job in London, and Basil, well he’s just lying in the sun waiting for his next bone. Story is slowly coming together, but no promises on publishing dates.

More Later . . . . . . .

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

What Drives Writing?

I stumbled on a few very good videos that concern writing and the future of publishing, take a few minutes and enjoy.

Stephen King – Where is writing headed?

Stephen King on e-books (remember this was three years ago)

John Hodgman – How to make it as a writer - he was in the commercial - PC vs. Apple.

John Irving – for aspiring writers

An overview of 10 writing rules – whatever. This is so New Yorkish it makes your toes curl!

So there you are; all the answers in one place. To paraphrase the great baseball movie, Bull Durham:

You write the book, 
you sell the book, 
you read the book.

Here’s it is:

That’s it, ain’t the writer’s life easy!.

More later . . . . . . . .