Wednesday, January 17, 2018

When the hero is an a-hole.

Or more precisely, the moment I turn against a character and therefore an author.

I'm not talking anti-heroes here. Or even outright villains. I've read any number of books were characters are less than admirable, even despicable, or at the very least unreliable narrators.

That's fine. I get it. I don't normally apply ethics to whether I enjoy a story.

In fact, the examples below of when I did turn on a hero are in some cases pretty minor offenses in the scheme of things.

But they were the moment when something turned off inside me and made me not like either the book or the writer.

First example is a pretty well known mystery writer with a female antagonist. The hero solves the crime and does her thing and that's all good, but toward the end of the book, she goes in and messes with the finances and credit ratings of her boyfriend's ex-wife.

Now this ex-wife is never portrayed as anything more than just shallow and annoying.

The 'hero" and boyfriend chortle at how they've screw up her life. In my eyes, at that moment the hero turned from a savvy, diligent detective to a malignant narcissist. What's more, I get the distinct impression from the specificity of the story that it is what the author wishes she could do, or worse, may have done.

The 'crime' in the second example is even less substantial, and yet I may never read the author again. Because the crime completely offended me.

So this character is a secondary character, but almost as important as the main character--in fact, a case could be made he is the main character. So we know he's a thief and liar and murderer, and all that I accept without questioning.

Near the end of the book, the two main characters are talking and at the end of the conversation, the guy throws his beer bottle over his shoulder and it shatters into some rocks.

I turn against the bastard right then and there.

Who does that on your own property? But more, who does that at all?

I walk in the woods every day for an hour. No matter where I go, someone has dumped trash, vandalized, littered, graffitied and...broken grass. It pisses me off every time I see it.

So I immediately question whether the author thinks this is ok? Don't laugh, but at least murder and robbery have reasonable motivations, but vandalism and littering and tail-gating? Fuck those guys!

The third example I'm pretty sure everyone will disagree with, because it's a well-loved book; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Now this is a great book in almost every way, and yet---I came away not liking it or the author.

This is my memory from reading it as a teenager, which means it might be slightly unreliable, but also remarkable that it has stuck with me all this time.

Actually, there are two examples here.

The first is that female narrator has a ner'-do-well uncle who at one point in the book is so defeated by life he takes to his bed and won't leave.

The scorn and ridicule that is rained down on this character's head was distasteful to me at the time. When, less than five years later, I have a bout of severe clinical depression myself, where I can't seem to get out of bed, well, I hated the anecdote even more.

The second example is when the protagonist goes to work in a mill and is ostracized and picked on. Another character at the mill, who is a real sad sack, befriends her.

But the hero isn't accepted by the others until she not only rejects the sad sack, but does it in a way that seems cruel to me.

That stuck will me, all these years. To be fair, one of the themes of the book is how hard the life of an immigrant is and how you can't afford to be a whiner or malinger or a loser. But still...

I guess you never know what thing is going to turn an author into someone I never want to read again, but there it is.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Over the twelve years I've been doing this blog, I've rarely done reviews, though that would have been a natural thing to do.

For one thing, to do it well requires more work than I'm willing to do. It doesn't help anyone for me to just say, "I like this" or "I don't like this."

Anyway, my only New Year's resolution was to pick up the pace on reading. I'm trying for one book a week. In doing so, I've also decided to look at each book from a "writerly" point of view. So reviews, of a sort.

I just finished "Jaguar," by T. Jefferson Parker. I already mentioned the "Crocodiles." I finished the book and there were a few other weird things. One of the major characters looks like he's in big trouble, and then the next scene whatever the trouble was seems to have disappeared. That's a good trick. I do think the reader makes the leap usually, fills in the blanks.

I really like how in a regular thriller, the author has managed to stick in a purely supernatural element that is totally intriguing, leaving a backdoor so that the supernatural can be denied, if you wish.

The other thing I noticed is the style is very Hemingway-esqe, though without the deep resonance. Still, it's an attractive style. Very few commas, I also noticed, which is a reminder to me to try to restrain myself.

This "writerly" viewpoint is carrying over to some of the stuff I'm watching, too.

I watched an 6 part French murder mystery called the "Frozen Dead." (I already mentioned that absolutely no one smiles in the entire series...)


It was very effective in atmospherics. Set in the mountains, the cold and wet is conveyed very nicely.
But it was unsatisfying in the end. Could see it coming and sure enough...

The main problem I had with it was the lead character. I think he was supposed to be a tortured fellow, and they added in a subplot about his failing health and his getting his partner's wife pregnant, and that had absolutely nothing to do with anything. Just there to make him interesting, I suppose.

But he was the stupidest detective I've ever seen. Clues go flying over his head, he goes after red-herrings, in fact he spends most of the show running around in a red Fiat. The main bad guy is supposed to be a mastermind, manipulating behind the scenes, and the detective goes and interviews him, asks one question, or makes one statement, and then walks away--multiple times.


Toward the end, he goes to visit the mastermind, who's been established as having contacts inside the prison/hospital, and tells him that the cops are on the way to arrest the final suspect. Of course, the final suspect gets away.

I mean, who does that?

So atmospherics and gloomy characterization and a stupid and meandering plot.

Linda and I watched "Girl on the Train" last night. Besides the fact that there suddenly seem to be hundreds of books that are copying "Gone Girl" this wasn't a world I recognize. Actually, however, I thought the motivations made more sense in this movie, and it was saved by Emily Blunt's all-out performance.

Nothing, however, is more boring to me than middle-class suburban existential crisis. None of these characters were likeable.

Time to pick my third book of the year.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

So far, I've enjoyed this new story. It's all over the place, because I'm allowing lots of changes early in the book. This is dangerous, it could be a problem--so much so, that over the last five years I've had a rule against it.

Finish the first draft,  has always been my rule. No major changes until that is done.

Most of the time, this has worked out, but in trying to write thrillers I've run into problems. See, I discover plot by writing. Over the last couple of books, I felt like I meandered perhaps a little too much in the first first half of the books before the stories truly kicked in. When I came back two months later, I was able to correct some of this, but by that time I'd already sent off the books.

New rule--two months minimum of waiting before a final rewrite.

Anyway, I think what is happening in this new book is that I am totally into the first person narrator. He's me, only...

He's not the me that is a mundane, risk-averse, rule following Loner.

He's the me that is a bold, risk-taking, law-breaking Loner.

It is basically a form of power fantasy.

I've always wondered if I could pull off a heist, if I could get away with murder, if I could disappear as a fugitive.

Doesn't everyone? I asked Linda and she said "No" to the heist and getting away with murder, but yes to the disappearing, so maybe I'm just weird.

Anyway, I'm just indulging fully in this fantasy of being a tough guy. I've often said I don't like doing first-person because it is almost invariably me, and that always seems amorphous, but in this case, I've got a pretty good sense of who this guy is. Plus, I need it to be first-person for my twist to have any chance of working.

It's me in a fantasy world, a Noir, Hard-boiled, Gothic thriller.

Yes, it's set in the real world, and yes I want it to feel real, but that isn't the main reason for doing it. The main reason is to inhabit this bad-ass persona and enjoy the power fantasy.

My main task in the first half of the book, which I've mostly thought through, is to get enough action and intrigue to keep the reader interested until the twist happens. Hopefully the twist will keep them engaged for the second half of the book, which will be mostly action.

So I'm adding Crocodiles, as many Crocodiles as I can dream up. Complications that ramp up the pressure on the protagonist, then..BAMM!...the twist, which will hopefully blow their minds.

So my main entrance to the story everyday is to lay down, try to inhabit the main character, and then just let him talk.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

After 35 years, my two early 80's fantasy novels reprinted in one volume, with their awesome Romas covers. Very nostalgic for me. It's so cool to be able to get these back in print!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Don't Forget to Add the Crocodiles!

I'm reading books with a writer's eye this year.

One: I'm reading books. I'm going to read every night, at least for a little bit. I'm hoping to read a book every week or so. I read so few books last year I'm ashamed.

The second book of the year is by T. Jefferson Parker: "The Jaguar."


So he has this character who is delivering a ransom to a cartel leader in Mexico. He's carrying around a million dollars in a suitcase. The competing cartel is trying to kill him, (gun fight!) as well as random crooks (gun fight!) and corrupt cops (gun fight!). Along comes a hurricane, and the warning that 200 crocodiles from upriver have escaped.

So the hurricane arrives, and the building he's in crumbles, and he rides the suitcase, (meanwhile saving an 8 year old boy) and the danger just keeps ramping up, but finally he lands in swamp.

He's in a clearing with a line of logs and then one of the logs moves: CROCODILES!

Adding the crocodiles was a little funny to me. Like turning the dial up to 11.

OK. So the rule is--anytime you have a chance, you add action.

So that's going to be my code phrase from now on.


Didn't write yesterday and had no good reason.

Didn't walk yesterday; it was raining.

Today, no excuses. What's really happening here is that I've decided that writing only on my walks means that I'm going to miss too many days, because of cold, snow or moisture. But working at home is a little problematic too. Linda is home most of the time nowadays, and that's thrown me off. I didn't realize that her working 5 days a week had given me a lot of psychic room.

But she is fully retired, so I have to work around it.

I have an office, but I spend most of my time with my computer at the dining room table. I really need to change that.

So I'm going to concentrate on writing in my office. I don't know how long it will take to get a new routine installed, but it needs to be done. The writing while walking will be extra, instead of the main impetus. If I can get my office to be the creative trigger, than I'll be set.

I figure it will be 3 steps forward and 2 steps back for awhile. Yesterday I closed the office door and then played solitaire for hours. I lay back on the couch trying to think of ideas and fell asleep.

But I think it needs to be done. I have a whole office that isn't being used. I have books I want to write. I need to merge the two. 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Oh, yeah. The supernatural twist in the WIP makes the story much more interesting and fun. I told Linda about the twist and her eyes lit up and she started spinning off scenarios. (I'm not above taking suggestions.)

It's going to require a lot of rewriting of the first 8000 words, but it also becomes a much more straightforward progression. Instead of jumping back and forth, I'm going to make the story sequential, except for the first chapter which is a flash-forward. That makes the book better.

I'm going to have to think up some action sequences, but that usually isn't too difficult.

I'm reading "Takeover" all the way through at writer's group. It's amazing how dialogue heavy it is.

Over the last few days, I've been editing the scans of Star Axe and Snowcastles. It's clear to me that I was avoiding dialogue as much as was possible when I started. It's mostly narrative. Chapters are 20 pages long. I'm not sure I was thinking in terms of "scenes." The whole writing thing was still pretty amorphous to me, despite having taken classes in writing from Dwight Newton and reading a bunch of "how-to" books.

Somehow the process became much clearer to me this time around. Now my books are made up of scenes with a few transitions, and there is almost always dialogue unless it's an action scene. Still don't know if my dialogue is any good, but I'm no longer afraid of using it to fill out the characters and advance the plot. 

Once again, now that I'm into a book, I realize that I don't tend to second-guess myself when I'm writing. When I'm writing, I'm confident. It's when I'm not writing that I tend to start to have doubts. I just immerse myself in the story at hand.

It also reminds me that when I'm writing a book, I'm doing the best I can and that I don't release books until I think they are good. That is, when I'm finished, I really like what I've done.

But after I finish book, I tend to move on, and over time, little doubts start to set in. I think this is just because I'm removed from the book. It's much like when I'm not writing--doubts begin to assail me.

What I have to remember is that at the time I put the book out, I really liked it, I really thought it was good, and I think I need to hold to that notion and not let time and distance create doubts.

Really, when you're writing you realize that this is what you're capable of--this is what you do. Every book is a bit of a crapshoot. Sometimes the plots and characters just come together, sometimes you have to struggle, sometimes there are intrinsic problems that can't be solved but aren't so bad that they completely negate the book.

Rarely does it all come together: the great premise, the writing, the plot.

Each time I start a book, is a chance to get it right.