While I’m a supporter of National Pride and I think it’s a sentiment that is often ignorantly cast aside in favor of popular (or at least more vocal) opinion, I still have little interest in the Winter Olympics. On display are disciplined athletes performing at a higher level than most could ever hope to achieve, yet I’m still kind of peeved that it postpones the small handful of television shows I watch by several weeks. Shame on you, over-achievers, for not making it easy to indulge bad habits.
This got me thinking about the various cultures surrounding “things”. Many people have a “thing”, be it football, stamp collecting, painting, etc. Each of these things is a world unto itself, wherein there are heroes, villains, outcasts…stories. Worlds within worlds; branches leading to smaller branches, all growing from the never-ending tree trunk of life. What may look superficial at first glance is actually a culture steeped in tradition, often dating back hundreds of years. With the Winter Olympics, there isn’t just one sport to hold your attention. You could learn everything there was to know about bobsledding and yet know nothing about the history of the snowboard. There are endless worlds within our own, and they are each being explored by someone out there.
This, in turn, got me thinking about books. Every book is a world waiting to be explored. Think how many libraries are bursting with texts, each one a universe unto itself. It boggles my mind, and it throws so many layers of depth beneath an existence which is already satisfyingly deep. Enriching. That’s the word I’m looking for, I think.
So you winter athletes keep doing your thing, and you football players keep doing your thing, and you writers keep doing YOUR thing. Someone out there lives in your world. Who knows how many countless others will stumble in?
“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
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 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
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
“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)
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.
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.
Great visual aid for when you are preparing your story for submission to online magazines or agents.
It probably translates to novel-length manuscripts as well, so I thought I would post this little gem I just stumbled across.
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.