Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Charlie Stella, MFA

By far the best thing to have happened to me as a result of becoming involved in the community of crime writers is the people I have met. More friendly acquaintances than I can name here, and a large handful I hope I am not flattering myself to refer to as friends. I mean no disrespect to any of them when I single out Charlie Stella today.

Those active in the crime fiction community—readers or writers—know about Charlie. Critically acclaimed, not infrequently compared to George V. Higgins, Charlie is the gold standard for organized crime fiction. What those who have not been fortunate enough to get to know him are unaware of is, in a community as close-knit and supportive as crime fiction writers, no one is more supportive and genuinely happy about the success of others as Charlie Stella. His blog (Temporary Knucksline) is filled with political musings, reviews, opera excerpts, rants about the Buffalo Bills and New York Rangers, and tireless encouragement and recognition of other writers, from crime fiction stalwarts to his fellow writers at Southern New Hampshire University’s limited residency MFA program. It is no exaggeration to say I would not have a book contract had it not been for Charlie’s intervention.

It’s the MFA bit that is of interest today. Charlie graduated over the weekend, and was selected by his peers to deliver the graduation address. Middle fifties, with eight critically acclaimed novels under his belt, Charlie Stella went back to school while keeping his day job to get a degree. That, amici, takes stugotts.

Congratulations, mio amico, for having done what few would contemplate; of those who do consider it, far fewer will make the attempt. Your considerable gifts as a writer pale in comparison to your enthusiasm and generosity of spirit. Thanks and congratulations are also in order for the Principessa, Ann Marie, the resident Muse at Casa Stella.

Everyone who knows you is happy today, not just because of what you have done, but who you are. I’d pay money to be a fly on the wall of the first class you teach. I don’t care who they are or what they think they know, they ain’t ready.

Friday, June 14, 2013

To Their Own Selves Be True

The Beloved Spouse and I recently watched the second of Robert Downey’s Sherlock Holmes films, A Game of Shadows. I kind of liked the first Downey/Holmes effort, but this was bad. Transformers bad. Full of frenetic action that served no evident purpose other than to disguise holes in the plot, at its end the movie made no sense. Say what one will about the original stories by Conan Doyle, they made sense in the universe he created.

This got me to wondering about why this film so offended me, and I think I have the answer. The character played by Robert Downey is not Sherlock Holmes. He has a few of the elements Holmes possesses—superior powers of ratiocination, Victorian England, a restless and probing mind—but none of his personality. Doyle’s Holmes is very much a lazy man, who can rarely be roused from his flat unless the game is afoot. He would not kiss a woman on the mouth in public—not even Irene Adler—and invite her to dinner. He is not a raconteur. He is not Chuck Norris, beating half a dozen armed men into submission at a time. Sherlock Holmes lives very much in his mind. The external world exists, to him, as a trough from which he may feed that ever-hungry mind when so inclined.

The major fault here is a death of creativity, and an excess of sloth. Why take a character who has come to be so real in many minds people often ask to be shown 221B Baker Street when touring London (there is no such address) and change him to fit your desire to make a action film? I thought of two options in the car within five minutes, both of which provide space for Sherlock Holmes and Watson to play important roles: the new lead can be Holmes’s cousin; or, even better, the new protagonist is Holmes’s father’s unacknowledged bastard, who has Holmes’s gifts but none of his reserve. Opportunities for crime solving, action, and conflict with Holmes abound, but no. Too much like work, I guess.

(The same weekend we also watched The Other Guys, with Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell. This was at least as stupid as A Game of Shadows, but I laughed my ass off. In retrospect, The Other Guys made it clear from the title sequence this was a satire of the kind of movie it purported to be. Everything was established as a caricature of what it represented, and they pulled it off.)

The corruption of the Holmes character reminds me of what I find so distasteful in Robert Altman’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s masterpiece, The Long Goodbye. I can live with Altman’s different context, disparaging Chandler’s idea of the hero. Hell, even Marlowe knows he’s a man out of his time. What I can’t forgive is the ending, where Marlowe goes to Mexico, finds Terry Lennox, and kills him. Up till then, Altman and Elliot Gould’s portrayal of Marlowe is a depiction of where someone of Marlowe’s code of ethics often ends up: disillusioned, broke, more or less going through the motions. The ending is a repudiation not just of Chandler’s vision—which is fine; reasonable men may differ—but of Marlowe’s character. The point Altman tried to make is well taken and valid; why not create a different, similar, character to do it?

I understand movies are a different storytelling medium. I’d never consider converting anything I’d written into a screenplay because I don’t understand the mechanics well enough. Still, what successful adaptations do best is capture character. I once spent a weekend watching Get Shorty, then immediately reading the book because I was so taken with how closely Scott Frank followed the novel. Boy howdy, was I surprised. Lots of changes. What he got right were the people: Chili, Harry Zimm, Karen Flores, Ray Barboni, all, dead on. That’s why the movie worked.

If you want to change the character, change the name. Don’t pass him or her off as someone else. Aside from the fact it doesn’t work very well, you owe it to the author as a creative artist yourself. Characters like Holmes and Marlowe (and even Chili Palmer) occupy a unique space, less than real, more than fictional. Respect that. Working around it isn’t that difficult.

(Don’t even get me started on this whole “vampires walking around in broad daylight” business.)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Another Use For Blogs

Readers discover authors all different ways. Word of mouth is always good, as advice from a friend is far more trustworthy than promotional material written by a stranger with a financial interest in getting you to buy the book. Critics may have axes to grind. (They often think of them as crosses to bear, which is just as bad.) The Internet has opened up a new avenue for readers to become familiar with writers: blogs.

Blogs introduce readers to writers two ways: as a reference—not unlike the old word of mouth method—and directly. Let’s look at both.

It’s safe to say this is not the only blog you read. (Christ, I hope not.) If you are a regular reader of any blog, you come to develop a rapport with the writer (or writers, if it’s a collaborative blog.) This doesn’t have to be a one-way street. I’ve developed several acquaintances with blog contributors after becoming known to them through comments I’ve left. Over time, you’ll get to know what they look for in a book, who they read, and which books they recommend. Once you trust them, you’re more likely to have faith in their recommendations. If they read Lee Child, you might like to try him. Whoever. They become a trusted source.

The other way blogs can help you is through direct contact. I’ve lost track of how many writers I read, and enjoyed, because I came across them on a blog. Their blog posts were entertaining and intelligent. They weren’t relentless self-promoters, but supporters of reading and writing in general. I liked how they used the language, what they talked about, how they described their writing and process. Basically, it occurred to me, if I like what they’re writing here so much, I bet I’ll like their book. Rarely have I been wrong.

You’re aware of social media. Pay attention to who writes what, and how. You never know what you’ll find out there.

What about you? Have you discovered writers new to you after reading their posts in a blog?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Opening the Drawer

May was spent on graduations. The Sole Heir graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland; Niece the Younger from Green Mountain High School in Colorado. Now it’s June. Coffee break’s over, back on my head.

I’ve taken summers off from writing the past couple of years. It’s a great way to recharge batteries by reading, watching baseball, and letting ideas ferment. The current project (working title: Resurrection Mall) is on hiatus, but I’ll keep my hand in on other projects.

Chicago PI Nick Forte plays a pivotal supporting role in Grind Joint, which comes out next spring from Stark House. Forte was not created for Grind Joint. I’ve written stories featuring him, off and on, for almost twenty years. He is my original character, originally conceived tongue-in-cheek, who gradually took on a life of his own. Four Nick Forte novels have moldered on my hard drive for several years, not counting a couple that qualify as the experimental attempts at novels most writers have and will never allow to see the light of day.

Since Forte makes an appearance in Grind Joint, I thought it would be nice to bring the character back in my next book. I tried after completing Grind Joint, but I’d been away from him too long, and the voice had left me. Still, I wanted something of him to be available when Grind Joint appears in 2014, so I’m spending the summer polishing some of his original stories for Kindle release. The first, A Small Sacrifice, will be out sometime this summer.

Sacrifice received several encouraging rejections when an agent circulated it about five years ago. It’s interesting to see how things have held up in my opinion, some far better than others. The biggest difference—aside from the first person narrator—is in how my current writing is much tighter, even though the books are longer. A Small Sacrifice is close to 76,000 words; I doubt the Kindle version will be 75,000. Things I now trust the reader to understand, minor redundancies, and things I can live without are being excised a word, sentence, or paragraph at a time. It’s a good writing exercise.

I hope to have all four existing Forte manuscripts available by the time I’m ready to start the novel that will follow Resurrection Mall. The current plan is for it to be a Forte story; we’ll see. The next couple of summers getting back into his head should tell me where I want to take the series, even if it’s into retirement. I may not have this summer as off as I usually do, but at least I’ll be efficient enough to kill two birds with one stone.