Thursday, August 21, 2014

Difficult Men

Difficult Men is Brett Martin’s brilliant and entertaining look behind the key shows of what he calls the Third Golden Age of television, a period spearheaded by HBO with the prison drama Oz laying the foundation from which The Sopranos would become a phenomenon.

The title has double meaning. The programs that make up the core of Martin’s third golden age focus largely on the lives of forty-ish men in crisis: Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Walter White, Don Draper, and several cops, politicians, and drug dealers in The Wire. Those are the guys the public saw. The men responsible for their creation were forty-ish themselves, and they were, by and large, the truly difficult men.

The biggest takeaway, for me, was, “Why would anyone want to write for television?” Even if you overcome innumerable hurdles and are lucky enough to get on a first-rate show, you may get to work for a David Chase, a David Milch, or a Mathew Weiner. Chase never got over the idea he was too good for television. Weiner comes off as an arrogant an asshole ever to draw breath. Milch is such a whack job he makes James Ellroy look as eccentric as Jimmy Carter.

The stories of how all these men achieved their positions are fascinating. How events, timing, critical masses of people, and the pure luck of pitching the right idea to the right network at the right time came together to create something special. How HBO owned the franchise until it got a little complacent and FX leadership decided maybe that network didn’t have to be an afterthought at Fox, after all. AMC’s good fortune when looking for a program with gravitas, but not a crime show, which had done the heavy lifting to that point. Martin talked to a lot of people in position to know, and what they told him was too good to have been made up.

Not all the showrunners were off the rails. David Simon comes across as argumentative, but fair, and extremely loyal to both his people and his vision, which could cause friction. Shawn Ryan (The Shield) called in personal favors from friends for his pilot and to keep the cast together—casting his wife as Vic Mackey’s wife because “I know I can get you back”—and using the guerilla film tactics born of budget necessity to create something special both onscreen and off. Vince Gilligan appears to be a mensch. So, no, one does not have to be a neurotic asshole to be a big success, though it doesn’t seem to hurt.

Difficult Men is a great read for any fans of any of the shows cited, and for anyone curious about how shows get made—or, more often, don’t get made—in Hollywood. A quick read, written by Martin in an engaging manner with the perfect distance from the subject matter. Not so distant he looks down on his subjects, yet not so close he fails to recognize the lunacy. This is pretty much a pitch perfect tale.

One last thing. Despite giving David Chase every opportunity to justify the ending of The Sopranos, when all is said and done, it was still chickenshit.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

The Interwebs have had their knickers in knots for the past few weeks over allegations Nic Pizzolatto plagiarized Thomas Ligotti for Rust Cohle’s dialog in the HBO series True Detective. Jon Padgett, founder of the Thomas Ligotti Online website, certainly thinks so, as he said to Mike Davis in The Lovecraft eZine:

“It is a fact that (in that crucial, character-defining scene) almost every one of Rust’s infamous lines is either taken word for word or is a paraphrase of Ligotti’s distinctive prose and ideas from The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.”

Padgett also cites what he calls “ample evidence” that is “unmistakably evident,” providing eight comments by character Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), along with examples from Ligotti’s work. (You can read the entire article at the link above. I’m going to cherry-pick a little, in the interest of space.)

COHLE: We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from
itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.

Ligotti: “We know that nature has veered into the supernatural by fabricating a creature that cannot and should not exist by natural law, and yet does.” (Emphasis in original.)

Another example:

COHLE: So my daughter, she spared me from the sin of being a father.

Ligotti: “…non-coital existence… the surest path to redemption for the sin of being congregants of this world.”

Padgett goes on to say, “Are we truly expected to believe that all of the above is pure coincidence?”

No, not at all. It’s also not plagiarism.

In the second example, by Padgett’s reasoning, anyone who uses the phrase “the sin of being” is a plagiarist. We start looking at examples that small for plagiarists, no one is safe.

I once had two detectives eat lunch in a Chinese joint named Lee Ho Fuk’s. I got the name from Warren Zevon’s song, “Werewolves of London.” Is that plagiarism? No. it’s what I call an Easter Egg, something people who get the joke will smile at, and those who don’t haven’t missed anything. The restaurant has to be named something.

Ligotti is clearly a major influence on Pizzolatto’s work. No one disputes that. To be fair, he could have cut all of this off at the pass by writing a few lines of dialog before Rust Cohle says a nihilistic word to Marty Hart:

Cohle: You ever hear of a writer named Thomas Ligotti, Marty?
Hart: Uh-uh.
Cohle: Well, he says…

From there you can do about what you want.

The Lovecraft article created a furor I think is dying down a little. (I admit I’m late to the party again, but I have other things to do. Just be happy I’m not a fireman.) With all the bits and bytes that have been consumed, one thing seems more evident now than ever before: fantasy/sci-fi/horror fans are the most thin-skinned and self-important assholes of the reading world.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Movies I've Seen Since the Last Time I Wrote About Movies

12 Years a Slave (2013). I made a conscious decision not to see 12 Years a Slave when it came out, figuring it wouldn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know, and there was nothing I could do about it, anyway, except to be vigilant against any national backsliding, which I already do. I’m too old to spend discretionary time and money to do something I know I’m not going to enjoy going in. The Beloved Spouse and I were visiting my parents, this was the movie they’d received from Netflix, so we watched it with them, and I was right the first time.

I’ll probably catch hell for this, but 12 Years a Slave strikes me as the kind of movie that
wins awards because people are ashamed to be seen as voting against the subject matter. The acting is excellent, it’s beautifully photographed, but there’s no story there. It’s a series of agonizing anecdotes that leads to Solomon Northup finally finding the one man in a position to help him who will do so, and then people come for him and restore him to his home. While I have no doubt that what actually happened—especially from Northup’s perspective—that’s not really storytelling.

Director Steve McQueen shows a disconcerting knack for not knowing when to get out of a scene, resulting in episodes that might be criticized as borderline torture porn in a less elevated film. Northup’s near hanging and the whipping of Patsy are good examples. The scenes needed to be drawn out to make the point, no argument there. There comes a time when the point has been made and the scene continuation becomes overkill, with the paradoxical effect of lessening the effect. McQueen received kudos for his willingness to stay on shots of a single person’s face as emotions wash over it, sometimes for over a minute. (Which could come to seem like half an hour.) While I appreciate the point he wanted to make—and it’s a valid point, describing one of this country’s Three Great Shames—the concept of “less is more” could well have been applied.

If you’ve done more than superficial study of American slavery as an institution, or have spent time wondering what it must be like to be sold as chattel, separated from your family, and beaten or killed indiscriminately, you don’t need to see12 Years a Slave. If none of the above conditions applies, you should. It should be compulsory for about 80% of the Tea Party.

Grudge Match (2013) I put this in the queue because we both like DeNiro, Stallone, and Arkin and it might be a nice, meaningless way to pass two hours. It was much better than either The Beloved Spouse or I had expected. Fun more than funny, but it was a lot of fun. Stallone was asked to do what he does well, and DeNiro let the lines and situations provide his humor, instead of trying to sell it as he is prone to do. As always, Alan Arkin steals the movie. There’s a little lazy writing when some effort would have allowed the plot to move just as well or better, but there are also some subtexts you don’t often get in comedic fluff. Well worth a couple of hours.

The Running Man (1987) Jesus Christ, is this a shitty movie. Almost without a doubt one of the ten worst movies I have ever seen.

Marlowe (1969) Turner Classic ended its James Garner retrospective with this adaptation of
Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister. All said, not a bad effort. Garner is a good Marlowe, and the story is adhered to as well as any other Marlowe movie. At its core, this is an attempt to update Marlowe from the 40s to the 60s, and it succeeds far better at that than does Robert Altman’s effort to update him to the 70s, The Long Goodbye. Stirling Silliphant’s screenplay is true to the moral center Chandler established, and Garner has the right amount of fun with him. This could have been the definitive Marlowe flick had not the production itself been so mired in the 60s. Made a couple of years later, after The French Conneciton showed what could be done with some realism and grit, this could have been great.

The World’s End (2013) Another in the Simon Pegg-Nick Frost films, this one about a loser’s (Pegg) attempts to get his old school mates together for a legendary pub crawl they tried, and failed, twenty years ago. Pegg and Frost are spot on, as always, and the writing (by Pegg and director Edgar Wright) skewers some contemporary cultural practices while showing Pegg’s character isn’t as cool as he thinks he is. The ending gets a little out of control, but that’s a quibble. This is two hours of great fun.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Blog Hop

Last week, John McFetridge tagged me as one of his two authors to participate in a blog hop. Here’s how it works: each participating author tags two other authors until the Internet crashes and writers can get back to writing, as they will have lost all venues for whining about Amazon-Hachette, why they can’t make any money, or why writing is the most difficult occupation in the history of man, and getting harder by the day.

Info on the authors I tagged can be found below my answers. Thanks to John for thinking of me.

What am I working on?
Right now, nothing. (Ha!) Over the weekend I finished polishing and formatting a Nick Forte PI novel that had been sitting on my hard drive for several years, ready to send to the agent or self-publish. After Labor Day I’ll get to work on the edits for the fourth Penns River novel, which has been left to ferment over the summer. For the remainder of August I’m reading and watching a lot of baseball.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
It’s written by me. Remember, I’m unique, just like everybody else.

The Penns River novels are police procedurals, so they owe a great debt to Ed McBain. Where I think they are different from most is the setting: a small, economically depressed town. What I guess would be called an exurban setting; where the suburbs change into rural areas, with a small, decaying downtown. This gives me the opportunity to write a little urban, a little rural, and whatever other kind of setting and crime I care to indulge.

The Nick Forte PI novels are pretty traditional, with, I hope, an interesting twist. He’s a divorced father with a daughter he adores. He and Caroline have a couple of scenes in each book that serve to ground Forte, and to, hopefully, humanize him for the reader as his character becomes darker from book to book. I’ll start the fifth Forte book over the winter, and the violence he’s faced—and committed—will have worn him down to the point he’s clinging to Caroline as his life preserver, which even he recognizes it’s too great a burden for a twelve-year-old girl. As she grows, he also becomes more aware, and involved in, family and women’s issues cases.

Why do I write what I do?
These are the kinds of stories I like to read, and feel most comfortable telling. Especially now, that I have established this universe—Forte and the main character in the Penns River books are cousins, and there is some cross-pollination, especially in Grind Joint—I tend to come up with ideas that fit into one or the other’s established world. I have an idea for them to cross over again sometime in the future.

How does my writing process work?
I’m a little OCD. (The Beloved Spouse just gave me That Look.) Okay, I’m a lot OCD. Not like I’m a Matchstick Man, or anything.

When drafting, I have to write one single-spaced page a day on workdays, two on days off. I read and clean up the previous day’s work before moving on, and read each chapter to The Beloved Spouse as it is finished. Then I leave the book alone for a few months before reading it start to finish and taking notes. Then comes what are usually two drafts: one to make sure the series of chapters make a unified novel (adding or removing chapters, subplots, or characters), and another to make them good. (Tightening everything, adjusting for flow, making sure each character has his or her own voice, etc.). Then it sits for another month or so before I do a word frequency search and remove some of the worst offenders. After that comes the final polish, which has a routine of its own:
Day One: Read Chapters 1 & 2. Just read them. Nothing else.
Day Two: Read Chapters 1 & 2 sotto voce from the screen and edit. Read Chapters 3 & 4.
Day Three: Print, read aloud, and edit from the hard copy Chapters 1 & 2; when this pass is finished, they’re done. Period. Read Chapters 3 & 4 sotto voce from the screen and edit. Read Chapters 5 & 6.
Day Four etc.: Repeat until finished. Weekends get an extra chapter a day.

When this process is complete, I’m allowed to type THE END at the bottom, and I’ll mean it, unless the agent or an editor wants some specific changes.

Now it’s my turn to tag two authors, both of whom are favorites of mine.

Charlie Stella is the Godfather of mob fiction today. He has a gift of showing life from the underside of organized crime. Not necessarily the bosses, but what it’s like in the trenches. His dialog and situations feel as true as anything written by George V. Higgins. You can read Charlie’s answers next week on his excellent and frequently updated blog, Temporary Knucksline.

Jack Getze is the author of the Austin Carr series of “Big” novels. (Big Numbers, Big Money, and the soon to be released Big Mojo.) As a Famous Author, he may not have time to answer on his blog, The Crimes of Austin Carr, but Austin is pretty reliable, regardless of how people think of him in the books, and he’ll post something if Jack is busy.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Whose Responsible This?

Conventional wisdom seems to be moving toward advising all aspiring authors to hire an editor, even before sending the book to an agent. I may not be wise, but I’m often unconventional: I think this is bullshit.

Whose book is it? Do you have a vision for it? If so, stick by it. If not, why are you showing it around? Is the editor supposed to provide that, too? What do you do when the editor differs about how something should go? Roll over? Look for another editor and go best two-of-three? Or stick to your guns, in which case you wasted your money on the editor.

This is not to say editors do not serve a valuable role, but it is best played after a relationship has been developed. Per-page editors may be good, and they may want the best for you and your book, but they cannot have the same investment you have. They edit your book, send the bill, and move onto the next author. That’s their job.

Editors also disagree. My first story submission went to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, a short story about a man who may, or may not, have killed his wife. We don’t know, as the story is told through him talking to what we learn at the end is the priest who accompanies him to the death chamber. Hitchcock declined, but I did receive a note: it needed another character, if just for a second, to provide context.

I added a couple of brief paragraphs where the narrator speaks with a guard and sent that one to Ellery Queen. (The Hitchcock editor did not invite a resubmission. I probably should have tried again, but I was a virgin.) Ellery Queen also passed. Told me to lose the guard, he wasn’t needed. What I lost was interest.

Have I never been helped by an editor? Au contraire. (I like to throw in the occasional bit of French for The Sole Heir, so she knows I pay attention.) My first two agents were enormously helpful as editors, mainly by teaching me what to look for and how to fix things myself. Pam Strickler sent me copious notes on how to tighten my prose and, in retrospect, leave out the parts people tend to skip at a micro level. Barbara Braun provided tips on story structure that help me keep god as far away from my machines as possible.

My success with a purely editorial editor was with Todd Robinson. I submitted a short story to the original Thuglit, and he returned it with notes about the ending, and said he’d look at it again if I wanted to resubmit. (I’m paraphrasing. This is Big Daddy Thug we’re talking about. I’m pretty sure “fuck” was in there a few times.) I thought it over, re-crafted the ending, resubmitted, and—boom!—I had my first sale, and a tee shirt I wear to this day. Todd also picked “Green Gables” for one of the anthologies, thus providing my first paycheck as a writer. (And people wonder why I worship at the Church of Thug.)

The difference, to me, is to show your best effort around, then get editorial assistance if needed. No offense is meant to my many editor friends. Their best assistance may come when an agent or publisher has told you they like the book, but it needs work, and then you’re not sure what to do. Give the editor specifics. (“I can resubmit, but I need to punch up the dialog.” Or, “I’ve been told the setting is weak. What can I do?”) Don’t just send them a book, allegedly your book, and say, “Fix this.” If all you’re getting are generic rejections, your writing may well need more than an editor.

But you’re a fledgling writer, adrift in a sea of uncertainty. Where to start? What do to? What do you want to write, and in what style? The answer is a lot easier than you think, and a lot harder than it sounds: read. All the time. Every spare moment, and make time to have those spare moments. That half an hour a day you spend watching television to wind down? Read instead. Which is more important today: weeding the garden or reading? That depends on which is more important to you, gardening or writing, if today’s schedule demands choosing one or the other? There is no wrong answer, but you can’t learn to write on your knees pulling things out of the dirt.

All good writers are good readers, and by that I don’t just mean copious readers. They know how to read. Don’t read to fall asleep on the beach. Read to learn how writers who are good or great at what you want to write get it done. Need help with dialog? Read Elmore Leonard and George V. Higgins. Want a more staccato, edgier writing style? James Ellroy. You’d like to be more poetic, yet not overly wordy? James Lee Burke or John Connolly. Not saying you have to write like them—you can’t, they’re geniuses—but pay attention to see how they get the effects you like and experiment with those techniques in your own fiction.

My dream was always to be a professional musician. I couldn’t make a living at it, and had to give it up. It broke my heart at the time, but the recovery was quick, because I knew I’d done everything I could. I’d wrung every last drop of talent out of myself, and it wasn’t enough. There’s honor in that; any shame would have come from less than a full effort.

That’s how writing is. You’re going to own whatever success you gain, though, to be sure, you’ll appreciate and acknowledge whatever help you had along the way. (Unless you’re a complete asshole, in which case get away from my blog.) Be prepared to own any failures as well. The way to do that is to be true to your vision of your work, and to give your best effort all the time. Your best effort. Don’t claim your well has run dry when you haven’t yet dug it deep enough. I can live with rejection. What I wouldn’t be able to live with is wondering if what I had written in the first place would have been good enough, when what I submitted was not.

Monday, August 4, 2014

July's Reads

A couple of books stood out in July.

The Burning Soul, John Connolly. Connolly has long been the only writer who could entice me into books with supernatural aspects. The Lovers and The Whisperers left me a little flat, and I almost gave up on him, thinking to re-read some old favorites. Good thing I gave him another chance. The Burning Soul has all the things I like about Connolly, and hardly any of the things that had created the doubts. The poetry of his writing rivals James Lee Burke, and Charlie Parker has grown into a man many first-person authors should take notice of: haunted by his demons, not controlled by them. There’s a coincidence in the denouement that’s a little convenient, but by then it didn’t matter. He’d kept me up well into the morning of a work day. Top shelf stuff.

Late Rain, Lyn Kostoff. Kostoff expertly handles a multi-POV story with well-developed characters and a sense of place, all while propelling the story and its sub-plots with perfect pacing. There’s a coincidence here, too, that I may have missed the explanation for, but, it’s a piddly bit that does not weaken the resolution. Late Rain is professional crime fiction suitable to be broken down by authors who want to know how to keep multiple balls in the air, and make the reader think it’s easy.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Writing as a Career

The recurring topic of making a living as a writer has bubbled up in several locations over the past couple of weeks, prompting occasionally heated discussions in social media. Not that anyone cares what I think—nor am I saying you should care; this might all be a waste of valuable time you could have spent watching the Reince Preibus viral porn video—but a thought came to mind, and what are blogs for except as places for writers to vomit up thoughts?

The gist of these articles is that it’s hard to make a decent living as a writer of any kind, and getting harder. To which I say: get over it. That’s probably as it should be.

No one is owed a career in their chosen profession, be it writing, music, dance, sports, database management, accounting, law, space flight, or medicine. (Though it is sincerely to be hoped The Sole Heir’s medical ambitions come to fruition, as I’m getting old and some free medical advice will come in handy.) It’s a tough world, and jobs doing what people may consider to be fun are even harder, because everyone who suspects they have an iota of talent in that direction wants to do it.

The hard truth is, the world does not need more writers. If authors stopped writing tomorrow, life would go on pretty much as it does now. People who love to read would have no shortage of books to enjoy. More books have already been published than humankind as a species will ever have time to read. Readers will miss their preferred authors for a while, but they’ll find someone else, and will always have the pleasure or re-reading favorites.

This is not to say new literature is not important; it is. What it isn’t, is necessary. Air, water, food, and shelter are necessary; everything else falls into the category of “nice to have.” The point is, more people want to be writers than can be accommodated economically; this has always been true. It’s funny how freshly-minted authors seem to have forgetten the traditional notion of the starving writer working in an unheated garret.

No one makes us write. If the economic prospects seem overly daunting to you, find another line of work and write in your spare time. What’s that? Speak up. Oh. “I couldn’t not write. The desire consumes my soul and I could never be happy doing anything that steals time from my Muse.” Then shut the fuck up and write. Whining steals time from the Muse, as well.

There’s another thing to consider, the hoary axiom to “be careful what you ask for.” Doing something you love for a living is not at all the same as doing it for the love of it. I tried to build a career as a musician into my mid-thirties before I accepted reality. I returned to play in a community band about ten years later, and couldn’t remember the last time I’d enjoyed playing so much, even though my skills had atrophied. Playing had been satisfying, even rewarding at times, but not fun. It wears on one to be told when to play, what to play, how to play it, what to wear, which door to use, and to be a sideshow to the main event when you’ve dedicated your life to doing it. Sucks the joy right out of it.

So here’s my advice if you know anyone who’s thinking of becoming a writer, musician, dancer, athlete, or any number of other highly competitive professions: talk them out of it. If you succeed, they had no chance. If they do it anyway, they may likely still fall short, but they knew the risks and gave it their best shot. Both your consciences will be clear.