The Next Project

I have put Progeny aside and let it stew. Some folks are checking it out for me and while I’m waiting for some feedback, I’m starting the next book. It’s based on a screenplay that I wrote 15 years ago. I’ve always thought it would be a better book or comic book series than a movie, but I found screenwriting a more comfortable format. I think the bare structure of a screenplay is just how I’ve trained myself to think all these years. Part of that is because I’ve come at writing as a filmmaker, but also because I get impatient when writing. I want to say the guy is in the room and here’s what he said so I can get on to the next plot point instead of providing heavy description of the guy and the room. But that’s movies. A picture is worth a thousand words and I’m leaving out 990 of them. So with this next project, I’m going to relax and write as much as possible to reset the habit in my brain.

Here’s something I realized as I’ve been reading: when I read a book I like, I read slowly and when I read something I don’t like, I skim. I read Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and loved it. It has a few mini tells in the middle that give away the ending (granted, I’m cursed with figuring out the endings of jokes, stories, and movies before most), but it was really well put together and fun to read even when I knew how it was going to end. I read it in two days, but that was because I couldn’t put it down. I caught every word and read my favorite parts twice. Before and since, I read some self-published sci fi that wasn’t strong. The pieces were highly reviewed on Amazon and I thought even if the writing isn’t great, the storytelling or ideas might be interesting. I got impatient with them almost immediately. The description was either pointless, predictable, or both. The stories had unnecessary characters or the main character knew too much without being privy to the information. Worst of all, the ideas were gimmicky and everything hinged on a wafer thin concept.

When I first saw The Matrix, I was floored by how many great ideas were packed into the story. I thought even one small element – like deja vu indicates lag in the matrix – could be its own story. You could harvest dozens of movies, books, comics, or games using that one movie as a source. These three or four self-pubbed ebooks I read prove that you couldn’t and shouldn’t. A small idea with no depth isn’t enough to sustain a novel. As a result, I flew through the pages hoping to find some kernel of awesome to make reading these books worth the effort. And didn’t find any.

So herein lies the rub. I believe Progeny reads the way it does because I was impatient with it. The story didn’t have the substance and depth I wanted as a reader. Since I was reading as I was writing, I literally skimmed the writing. I knew the idea was thin and the best part would be the ending so I cranked past all the development and skipped the meat that can make a simple story great. In other posts, I blamed it on my experience as a screenwriter, but now I realize it’s because the quality of writing and the strength of the idea didn’t satisfy my experience as a reader.

This next project will take much longer. I’m determined to write and enjoy the process of reading as I’m putting the words down. I know you’re supposed to always work to get to the end of the story, but I’ll take the slow road this time.

The Terror by Dan Simmons & Dan Simmons, The Terror

First off, my apologies for the month-long blog hiatus. Not sure what happened. I haven’t been on the video games. I haven’t been watching TV. I guess my time has been just reading, writing (not blogging), and the day job. In the past month, I’ve read The Windup Girl, Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, a novella called Wool, and The Terror by Dan Simmons. It’s this last book that I’d like to talk about.

I’m not a huge buff of nautical themes, but I always appreciate a book that integrates research into the story. The key word there being intergrates! I’m not a Tom Clancy guy who enjoys chapters and chapters that read like a military technology manual. The Terror is a great example of how the writer’s research is actually part of the story and not just the surrounding environment. The story is a fictional account of what happened during the ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin back in 1845, but the theme is how technology and preparation can be absurdly off-base. Simmons doesn’t merely talk about the cold and the ice, but the clothing and the supplies and how much crap they carry around when they try to move across the ice. If that weren’t enough, he deftly contrasts the over-loaded English operation whose men are freezing and starving with the Inuit tribe who live almost comfortably in the same environment. It’s great stuff. A highly recommended book for pretty much anyone. Literary-grade historical genre fiction.

But don’t judge the creator by the creation.

Throughout my life, I’ve had the privilege of meeting a lot of artists, filmmakers, and writers. It’s great when you love a book, meet the author, and they turn out to be really cool. Examples? Comic book writer Ed Brubaker is a good guy. Happy to chat and not in that fake-y, “buy my books” kind of way. Terry Brooks handled the crowd at his signing with charm and patience. In fact, I don’t even fault writers like Greg Rucka or Neal Stephenson when they get impatient with fans who ask a lot of crazy questions. Or when people are just plain crazy like David Peoples who I met briefly at a screening at the San Rafael Film Center back in 2000. He was really, really out to lunch. Remember this, kids: drugs are bad for you.

Anytime I take an interest in the writer, I like to find out more about them as people. I’m pleasantly surprised more often than I’m let down. I’m a left-leaner when it comes to politics, but I don’t usually come up swinging against mainstream republicans. I take the “to each his own” approach. However, fringe crackpots on either end of the spectrum really bug me. Dan Simmons is pretty much Glenn Beck who writes horror and sci fi. Here’s the difference, I truly believe Glenn Beck is an act like Andy Kaufman or Joaquin Phoenix. He may be around the bend, but it’s only for the attention and the paycheck. Dan Simmons really believes this stuff. He lives in a cabin in the mountains and believes he’ll be in the better position when Obama destroys the world. So he’s a nutcase hater, but can I ignore that and still like his books? I’m not the only one who wonders about this. And this guy says the same thing.

My problem is that once I know a media creator is a dick, I can’t look at the work the same way. I was in the room when Michael Bay screamed profanities at one of the assistant editors over a nothing issue. As a result, I relished his Pearl Harbor failure. Now when I think back on The Terror, a novel I respected for its research, I wonder if all Simmons did was watch the Russell Crowe movie Master and Commander. I’ve seen the movie a half dozen times and as I read The Terror, I noticed a lot of similarities. When I was indifferent toward Simmons, I thought, “Of course there are similarities, how different can English nautical adventures be?” But after learning all this annoying stuff about the author, I think, “He lifted all this stuff from that movie and/or O’Brien’s series of novels.” And seriously, every little moment in M&C is mimicked in The Terror. A guy gets shot, make sure you get the piece of shirt out. Doctor is hurt, he better operate on himself. Guy gets smashed in the head, make a metal plate out of a coin for the hole in his skull. The list goes on. And don’t even get me started on Simmons’ Hyperion series which is lifted directly from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

The question is, why does finding out about the author’s political fanaticism spoil my reading experience? It’s because reading a book or watching a movie feels like a connection with the person or people who made it. When they’re making the work, they’re thinking like me to make it appeal to people like me, and when I consume it, I know how they were thinking when they made it. It’s like we’re thinking the same things! So when I enjoy or respect a Dan Simmons book, and I know he’s not just crazy, but mean and crazy, I don’t want to know that on some level we think the same way.

Maybe that’s a short-coming on my part, but lucky for me, there are plenty of books by nice folks out there to read. Check out anything by Mary Roach if you’re a non-fiction fan or the Criminal series of graphic novels by Ed Brubaker or sci fi by Richard K. Morgan and William Gibson. With the exception of Mary Roach, I’ve met these folks. And I like to know they think like I do.

Dissecting Envy

In few of my posts, I refer to other writers and their work habits. I’ve been reading quite a few first novels to get a feel of where I fit in when it comes to first-time novelists. I feel like I can write better than a lot of the first-timer indie books going up on Kindle, but I can’t get a feel for where I stand among published authors. There are some award-winning books out there that I liked reading, but didn’t think the writing was anything special. Then there are books like The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and King Rat by China Mielville. These are first novels, but the level of writing is nearly mind-blowing. Description is fulfilling and not oppressive. Dialog is punchy and does more than one thing. And my personal favorite, every scene moves the plot forward.

To sum up in advance, I wish I had written these books.

When I spent all my time thinking about making movies, I would see something like Moon or Brick or Being John Malkovich or Delicatessen or District 9 and end up as much depressed as I was inspired. I wish I had made these movies. I realize that none of these filmmakers (with the possible exception of Rian Jonnson of Brick) appeared out of nowhere. It’s not like Neill Blomkamp just got off his couch and made District 9. But he sure made it look easy.

It’s this creator envy that sometimes makes me want to quit. If I can’t be China Melville or Dashiell Hammett and just blast out genius on the page, why try? The thing is, it’s not like these guys are classical literary masters like Joyce or Faulkner, they started writing because they loved it and they got better over time. Like the filmmakers I mentioned, these writers banged away for years and years with no way of knowing how it would shake out. They powered past doubt. Their career paths and work habits are a source of inspiration for me. When you read their books, you feel like the world is a good place and and good work finds its way to its audience.

Now there’s self-publishing and anyone can put a book out for sale. While I love the idea of doing away with the filtering layer that publishers perform, I find myself envious all over again. But in this situation there is no silver lining. Lower quality books are selling by the millions. I don’t begrudge their authors, not one bit, but I can still be jealous. Here are people who aren’t at the upper end of writing ability, not even over the average mark, but they’re selling. The easy answer is, “Fine then. Write a book and sell it.” I have the “write it” part figured out, but I’ve never been good with the “sell it.” People who do well with any kind of sales are all about the marketing. Again, I’m not saying that cheapens their accomplishments, but it still makes me green. I’m missing some quality that makes a good self-promoter.

In thinking about all this, I remembered a bar fight I witnessed many years ago. This is going to be kind of a long story, but it has a point… When I was of the age that I spent weekends in bars, I saw a huge guy get in a fight with a bouncer. This guy started swinging at the bouncer who easily dodged the guy’s swings. The big guy was drunk, but he looked like a brawler. Instead of the crowd bursting out in jeers and cheers, it got really really quiet. Nothing but the bar music. There were about 30 people surrounding the scene, and I think we were worried for the bouncer. The bouncer, whose name I later found out was Earnest (not joking), started out by trying to calm the guy down, but after two attempts, he figured out that wasn’t going to work. Then his whole demeanor changed. Earnest’s face went completely calm. Like a Buddhist monk. He stood in a very slight crouch with his hands ready, but he was steady, not bouncing or shifting. This big drunk dude was raging and threatening to clean the floor with the bouncer (yes, he said “clean the floor”). Earnest didn’t respond at all, he just watched the guy. Suddenly, the big guy charged Earnest for a waist tackle and though drunk, he was deceptively quick. Earnest did the wrestler’s sprawl like it was second nature. Then spun and took the guy’s back and choked him out with some kind of nelson-style head lock. The whole time, his face never strained, never changed. When the big guy was unconscious, Earnest set him carefully on the floor and stood up straight. Nobody said a word. We all just kind of filed out of that part of the bar.

The party talk picked back up and people were recapping the altercation. Everyone agreed Earnest was a bad ass. Serious super hero stuff. But I wasn’t struck with his wrestling ability, it was his utter confidence in his ability that amazed me. My friends kept talking about his sprawl and choke hold, but I argued the key moment was when his face went calm. That was the moment he took control of the situation. That was the moment he decided this was over. He took charge inside his mind and at that instant, he was ready for anything. Man! Gives me chills just remembering it.

How does this relate to my writing situation? I have to apply my appreciation of the bouncer to my envy of successful amateur writers (and old pros, too). See, I actually witnessed the very second Earnest took over his situation, but when it comes to successful self-pubbed writers, I only see the results. Imagine if I walked up and saw the bouncer in the middle of his choke hold. I would say, “That was easy.” Watching a great movie or reading a great book (or looking up a terrible book’s sales numbers) is like only seeing the choke hold. What about everything that it took to get there? Earnest’s moment was a second or two, but I didn’t see all the years of practice that led up to that moment. I never saw how many times Earnest had his ass kicked in his life. How many fights do you think he went through to forge his supremacy against the big guy?

I can’t be jealous of somebody for knowing the choke hold! I have to track back to the moment of control. I have to remember that the choke hold is useless without experience and practice and self-confidence. I need to channel Earnest the bouncer. I can’t focus on the final results. I need to take over this situation, and be ready for whatever comes.