Is “Bad” Writing Required For Massive Bestsellers?

“Bad” is in quotes because what makes something good or bad boils down to personal taste. For example, I loved the movie Deep Rising, yet the awesome B-movie adventure probably fell way short of what constitutes a “good” movie for most viewers.

But what about books? I would like to take a few minutes to analyze the popularity vs. perceived literary value of four mega-popular book series, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Before we get to the fun stuff, we need to talk about what qualifies someone to say something negative about an author’s work. How do we, as a literary society, endow someone with the special mandate to go out into the world and find stinky prose? What gives the guy writing for the New York Times more of a right to slam a popular novel than anyone else?

The answers are simple: we don’t, and nothing. Continue reading

Screenplay vs. Novel

Writing a novel is much different than writing a screenplay. With a book, you have to actually describe the world for the reader, inserting crucial details along the way to create a sense of place; this makes it easier to imagine the world your characters inhabit.

A screenplay allows you to breeze over all that mumbo-jumbo with pointed little descriptions like “dark room” or “big guy”. It’s up to other creative personnel involved with the film to bring the writer’s world to the screen. If you’re lucky they won’t change too much (spoiler alert: everyone’s unlucky in this regard).

There are bonuses and drawbacks to writing in either form. Screenplays are definitely faster since you’re not messing with all those pesky words. However, you run the risk of improperly conveying your ideas to a producer or director if too much is left out. It’s a tough balancing act that a lot of people tip one way or the other, resulting in a rejection. Novels let you build a world into which readers can escape from their everyday lives. They are a commitment: screenplays can be read in 1-2 hours, but novels take longer, forcing you to stay inside the pages for days or even weeks.

Movie audiences are also looking for different things than novel readers. It is sometimes okay to get through 100 pages of a book with no huge action as long as the world is so richly detailed you forget you’re bored. Movie patrons would have left their seats after half an hour.

Both formats are fun for their own reasons. I prefer novels at the moment because I just finished writing one and it’s a blast. Now I get to take a break and help a friend write a screenplay, so I’ll get to experience the best of both worlds; the long and short of it, so to speak.

There Are Two Types of People

There are two types of people in this world (I’ll explain them in a bit). I will illustrate the difference between them by discussing how they react to a very particular ending to a specific kind of story.

In this type of story, the big question of the entire book/movie/tale hinges on the sanity of the main character. Are all of the events a figment of his or her imagination? Are we, the audience, watching a downward spiral into madness through the eyes of the protagonist, or is our story-guide the only one in the fictional universe who can see the coming danger?

Pulling off this technique until the end requires skill, because the writer/director/creator must dole out enough information to make it interesting but not enough to give away the answer.

Let’s look at an example. Continue reading

Beyond the Veil

Yesterday I finished reading my first story by Robert E. Howard. He’s the guy who created Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane, among many other memorable characters. The story I read was called People of the Black Circle, a pulpy action yarn wherein much blood is spilled.

I was surprised by the (unfortunate) era-appropriate sexism on rampant display, the descriptions of bloodshed toward the end (the book was written in the early 1930s), and by the author’s vivid imagery. As to the imagery, it turns out Howard spent a good deal of time yearning to be a poet, but gave it up when he realized the slim odds of turning a profit. So he went off and invented the genre known today as Sword and Sorcery. He was a huge devotee of H.P. Lovecraft and I’m sure after I have exhausted my repertoire of Conan stories, I’ll move right along to the father of Cthulhu. There’s something weird in their books that I’ve been unconsciously toying with in mine and I’m digging the similarities. Continue reading

Raymond Chandler on the Detective Archetype

“In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.”

(From “The Simple Art of Murder” by Raymond Chandler, 1950 – Full Essay Here)

Nightmare Poem

Here’s something NOT to read your kid before bedtime. I found this in one of my old journals…must have had some bad dreams recently.

Nightmare Poem

Now I lay me down to dream

I pray to God I do not scream

For when the monsters come to eat

I will have safely tucked my feet

Beneath the blankets, safe and warm;

Protection from the coming swarm.

And when their teeth extend to bite

I’ll do my best to try and fight

Although I know they’ll drag me down

Under the bed without a sound.

Write Better Dialogue

A big complaint I’ve seen in the reviews for a lot of books is that the dialogue seems unrealistic (for any number of reasons) and therefore takes away from the pleasure of reading the story.

I remember having this same thought years ago when I actually had the time to consume mass market paperbacks by the pound. These were bestselling novels from popular authors, but it sounded like all the characters had been swapped for robots. I guess if they can get away with it, there’s no reason to complain. Just keep on truckin’ and don’t stop to improve your dialogue, right?

Wrong.

Continue reading

Hank Buckley Gets a Chapter

Meet Hank.

In my horror novel, Hello Darkness, Hank is a mild-mannered, God-fearing hardware store owner in the small town of Falling Rock. Hank is not one of the book’s main characters and is only mentioned a few times (and seen once) before his moment in the spotlight.

So why does he get even a little bit of the story? The reason is because there’s a lot going on in Falling Rock—evil is nesting in the woods just outside town, and most of the main characters are still unaware of its existence. However, the reader needs that little peek behind the curtain so they aren’t asking the same question for a hundred pages. Asking questions is good (essential, even) but a question that evolves over the course of a novel is even better.

Enter Hank Buckley.

He stumbles into a little bit of bad luck that provides a great opportunity to widen the view about what’s going on in the book. Through Hank’s eyes I am able to give the reader one more piece of the puzzle that everyone else in the story is still trying to figure out. It’s not exactly a spoiler, but it’s enough of a reveal to let the reader know there is something huge going on—something deadly. Hopefully, it creates a little bit of suspense throughout the rest of the book. The reader knows what lies in wait for the good people of Falling Rock even if the characters don’t.

I don’t think there should be any hard and fast rules when it comes to Point-Of-View (POV) in a story. As long as you aren’t head-hopping and ripping people out of the moment, do whatever you need to further the narrative. That’s why the characters exist in the first place—to help tell your story. Use ’em. Toss ’em. Make new ones. Whatever enhances the reader’s experience should be a writer’s first priority.

On Revising

When I initially set out to write my first novel, I was expecting to hit a brick wall of tedium when it came time to revise the first draft. Who wants to edit what they’ve already written? I thought nothing could be more empowering than pulling words from the ether and mashing them together to form sentences. It turns out that making those sentences even better is just as gratifying.

There are two different ways a writing session can go: either you feel the flow and the words mostly write themselves, or you have to force yourself to hammer out a chapter so you can meet your word count for the day (if that’s how you set your goal). For me, the first draft of ASHES was about 60/40, respectively. At the time I was hoping it would have been more like 80/20 (or even higher), but it turns out that when you’re just trying to get into the habit of writing every single day, keeping the flow going can be difficult.

What happened as a result is that I ended up with a book of which 60% I was really pleased and 40% I vehemently denied ever writing. So, fearing the worst, I sat down to work on my second draft. It was magical. Stubby, blunt little sentences transformed into descriptive paragraphs that not only painted a better picture of what my characters were going through physically, but also emotionally. The revision process helped fortify a flimsy world into a solid entity that (I hope) is much easier to imagine. My characters are more genuine, the dialogue is more realistic, and the world as a whole is more believable.

I guess the bottom line is that no one should be afraid to revisit their work, even if they believe it to be of the highest quality. Every time I look at a passage from ASHES I see something I can adjust to make it better. To me, this is the essence of writing: not the initial creation stage as it stands alone, but the process as a whole, revisions and all. It is both extremely fascinating and satisfying, and I hope others have experienced it as well.