Thursday, July 31, 2008
I think every author would benefit by reading their story aloud, preferably in front of someone else. The best reason is to improve dialogue. Sometimes, as I write dialogue, I hear it in my head. But when I hear it for real, with my ears, dialogue that sounded true in my head is revealed to be false to my ears. Just last night, I realized "There is no way folks would talk that way, even in 1944."
The reason you should do it to another person is to pick up on their cues, whether physical or if they interrupt you. As I read aloud to my writing group, I can see them marking something on their copy at a certain place. I make a mental note (or a literal one on my own copy) to come back to that place and see what troubled them. When I read to my wife, she interrupts me if something bothers her. It's not always something she can explain. But, if it bothered her, it will bother a reader I don't know. So, I fix it.
Sometimes, as I'm reading aloud, my brain and mouth will actually fill in some gaps with words not on the printed page. I pay special attention to those times and actually mark my copy with the words I just spoke. If I say something that feels natural in my mouth, then I should have my characters speak that way, too.
This one may sound corny but it comes from my long association with audiobooks: change your voice. Not every author has a voice good enough to read his/her own work as an audiobook. But when it's just you and a small group or a spouse, go ahead and change your voice. Sure, men will sound funny trying to make their female characters talk but changing your voice will get you into those characters better. If you're making an effort to make, say, a Texas character sound like a Texan, give him an accent. Then, as you write the Texan's later scenes, you'll be able to 'hear' how he sounds and write truer dialogue. I do, at least. And then, after you've established that the Texan sounds a certain way, give some clues in your prose to the way the character sounds. That is, have one character comment/think about how the Texan sounds. It'll liven up the voice in a reader's head.
Lastly, if you don't have anyone to read to, record yourself. You may cringe at your own voice but you will be able to hear your story from a source that is not your own brain. It helps. I've done it.
- Read aloud to improve dialogue
- Read to someone and pick up on their reactions
- Record yourself reading your story and study how your voice flows over passages
- Make notes on your draft if you find yourself filling in words that are not on the printed page
- Change your voice to match the characters
There are some good quotes in the Writer's Almanac piece. Here are two of my favorites (italics are mine):
What struck me is the planning part. As I mentioned in last week's post on writing, I outlined my entire first book before I started writing. And, even though I manipulated certain segments along the way, I still mapped everything before I wrote those new segments. I wrote the book in less than ten months. As of tomorrow, I will have officially spent two years NOT writing my second book. Thus, I'm going back to that which I know: outlining. I'll save the experimentation for book three or later.
She planned out the entire Harry Potter series before she wrote the first book, and she says: "I wrote the story I meant to write. If I lost readers along the way, so be it, but I still told my story. The one I wanted. Without permitting it to sound too corny, that's what I owe to my characters. That we won't be deflected, either by adoration or by criticism."
And she says, "You have to resign yourself to wasting lots of trees before you write anything really good."
I like his conclusions...and his final prediction. Check it out.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Today comes a wonderful piece (with links aplenty) from The Rap Sheet. Pay special attention to the link, from Britain's Observer, about Pelecanos's career.
I bought Pelecanos's latest, The Turnaround, this past Saturday. The review will be forthcoming. In the meantime, visit The Rap Sheet.
With the publication of Nixonland by Rick Perlstein, Nixon was on my mind. Since it is not yet available in audio, I came around to Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Post-War America by Chris Matthews. Yes, he is the same guy from MSNBC that hosts Hardball and is caricatured on SNL.
Historians sometimes like to propose a theory and then find facts that support only that theory. One could argue that Matthews did that here. It is interesting, however, to view post-war American history through only one lens. Sure, other facts are removed and only a simplified perspective emerges but that doesn’t mean the facts are wrong.
I found many of Matthews anecdotes interesting and, frankly, learned a few things. I knew that Nixon and Kennedy both came to Congress in the same year, 1947. They landed on the same committee in the House, a mixed-up pair that had many of the same ideas, outlooks, and ambitions. They both saw communism as the global threat it was back in the early days of the Cold War. They conversed in each other’s offices, as they were across the hall from each other, even when Nixon was VP and Kennedy in the Senate. During Nixon’s 1950 run for the U. S. Senate, JFK hand delivered a check from Joe Kennedy, Sr., an incident JFK denied in his 1960 presidential race.
So wrapped up in their intertwined stories that the 1960 presidential race that pitted the two men against each seemed almost destined by fate. Two friends, two allies, fighting for the same chair. Matthews describes the presidential debates of 1960 in fine detail. What I failed to realize was that there were four debates that year but it is the first that everyone remembers. A sad fact that emerges in the 1960 race was the friendship that died. JFK was first to brush off Nixon’s friendship and it was Nixon who followed suit, years later. Ironically, during that first debate, Nixon was reticent to attack JFK, even being couched not to do so. This from the man who, in 1946 and 1950, unleashed some underhanded tactics of his own. The third debate was unique in format. Nixon was on the west coast, JFK on the east, both men sitting in a television studio, not even able to see the other man. I can’t help but wonder how that even made it off the ground. But, in 1960, presidential debates were something new. So devastating were the effects of that first debate (Nixon ‘won’ the other three), seen by an estimated 9 our of 10 households that owned a television, that it was sixteen years before another presidential debate occurred. LBJ, in 1964, learned the lesson of Nixon’s failings in 1960s and, you know, in 1968 and 1972, Nixon would never debate. (For a nice overview of presidential debates, go to the website "The Great Debate and Beyond: The History of Televised Presidential Debates" with photos and footage.)
As the story progresses, irony begins to emerge. The way Matthews presents this history, it’s somewhat difficult to see how the Nixon hatred emerged. Sure, Matthews takes pains to note Nixonian tactics in 1946 and 1950 as paving the way for Nixon vitriol from the press as well as the man’s own animosity right back at them that crystallized in his having to give the 1952 “Checkers” speech. But this hostility seems just seems to emerge. It’s certainly a cause for further research. Moreover, it was amusing to read about the college-prank-like tricks played on Nixon by various Democratic operatives. One involved a guy who managed to join Nixon’s team and sabotaged a Nixon speaking engagement at a local California college. The operative managed to reserve a huge room but invited no one. The pictures made many laugh, including JFK back in Washington.
And it’s true that JFK employed similar shenanigans, mainly involving his father’s money. But, once both JFK and Nixon became president and had the power of the Oval Office behind them, pranks become something more. Both men welded that power but Nixon was the one who took it over the top and got caught. JFK, LBJ, and Nixon all had tapes recording conversations in the White House. And, I assume, every president since has had some way of recording the day-to-day activities of their administration. It’s great for historians but somewhat damning for the occupants for they and their operatives cannot gloss over cold hard facts.
I listened to the audio version of this book, read by Nelson Runger. Runger is one of the best readers of non-fiction out there. In an amusing way to enliven the recording, Runger affects a Kennedy or Nixon accent whenever Matthews quoted directly from either man. It’s not distracting and, actually, helped the reading. It was interesting, however, to see how the Massachusetts accent changed from John to Robert to Edward Kennedy. Runger also read John Adams as well as Founding Brothers. His rich voice really brings these historical figures to life. Runger is to the point now where I’ll listen to almost anything he reads.
Many academics lambaste works like Matthews book as popular history. Some even criticize him for using only one frame of reference and throwing out extraneous details that don’t conform to the set frame. These would be the academics who write impenetrable books that only other academics read and review. The American populace has, in many ways, lost its sense of history. Too many gym teachers who ‘teach’ history as merely a series of dates have driven the life from history and truly made it the boring story of dead people. Popular histories like Kennedy and Nixon strive to bring these dead people alive again for a new generation of readers. True, the book reads like a novel but aren’t some of the best stories ever told those accounts of real-life heroes? If it takes a popular work of non-fiction like Kennedy and Nixon or an HBO miniseries on John Adams to get people to learn about history, so be it. At least history and the spirit of those that came before will emerge—the good and the bad, the triumphs and the mistakes—and, hopefully, say something to future generations.
Monday, July 28, 2008
Now comes Stephen King's crack at the market. Stephen King's "N" is a animated comic story being distributed via cell phones and the web. Click the link for a preview and the first episode. One 2-minute episode will appear at that site every weekday until 29 August.
Guess you know what I'll be doing every Monday morning...
Still, this foray by a giant of the printed word into a new realm reiterates the changing nature of writing and distribution. Like Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message." And, as one who is open to new things, this new King venture is exciting both as a reader and a writer. And it underscores another thing: content is (pardon me) king. Sure, folks will turn out to read something by Stephen King even if it's delivered in a new way. But the doors that Mr. King opens by means of his name is a passage that other writers, including myself, can go through. Ditto with podcasting and folks like Scott Sigler and Seth Harwood. It's just up to every author to write things that folks want to read. That is the challenge. And I, and all the other unpublished authors out there, will take up the gauntlet.
Just not for two minutes every weekday until Labor Day. I'll be busy.
Thanks Mr. King.
Come June 2008, the CD was released and, via, iTunes, I gave it a listen. Let me put it this way: I listened to the 30-second previews of all these songs...and bought the album. This CD was my first introduction to Escovedo's work and I don't think it'll be the last. Tony Visconti, producer of some of David Bowie's best material as well as T.Rex, produced Escovedo's CD and many of Visconti's influences show up.
Sonically "Golden Bear" seems like an outtake from Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes" complete with drip-drop sound effects. Being unused to Escovedo's vocal stylings, "Chelsea Hotel '78" evokes early Elvis Costello who sang that he didn't want to go to Chelsea. The very next track, ""Sister Lost Soul," suddenly hearkens back to 1960s guitar-driven balladry. No sooner did we imagine dancing with a girl to "Sister Lost Soul" than Escovedo fast-forwards to the late 70s punk movement with "Smoke," whose guitar frenzy drives the song.
I did some research about Escovedo after I purchased the CD. One of his favorite musical accompaniments is a string quartet. Ironically, the first Elvis Costello CD I ever purchases was his foray into classical music, The Juliet Letters, with the Brodsky Quartet. That interest, in turn, spurned my interest in string quartets of which The Turtle Island Quartet's tribute to John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, is but my latest love. All this is to say that Escovedo's "Hollywood Hills," a song with his string quartet, is one of the best tracks on Real Animal. For someone like me, who cherishes the eclectic in music, this CD is wonderful.
But the music is only half the story. Escovedo's lyrics provide this CD with its emotional foundation. Even knowing nothing about the man, I can listen to this CD and learn a lot about the graying rocker who joined Springsteen on stage in Houston. This is a work of autobiography via the music of America. It is a history of America for the past 30+ years as seen by a troubadour who constantly tours and has a unique vision to what this nation has become. At times mournful, at times jubilant, at times angry, this collection of songs is one of the best I've heard in a long time.
I think for long-time fans of Escovedo, this CD is a love letter to the times, events, concerts--the promise of youth crashing headlong with the broken reality of adulthood--of the past 30 years. You might even make the case that it's a thank-you letter as well.
But for folks like me, being introduced to Escovedo in 2008, this acts as an introduction. It is Escovedo saying to newcomers: "This is who I am. This is where I've been. This is my sound. I hope you like what you hear. If you do, join me. I've still got more roads to travel."
Count me in. Just give me a map.
Dave Marsh, a longtime Springsteen fan and journalist, has an excellent article via the Alejandrdo Escovedo website.
For Escovedo's recollections of his performance with Springsteen, check out a snippet of his interview at Backstreets.com, nothing less than the best fan site/publication devoted to Bruce Springsteen. (NOTE: you'll have to page down a bit or search using these words: "I HAD NO IDEA WHAT WE WERE WALKING INTO...")
Escovedo will be on the David Letterman show on 7 August 2008 (via his website). For any Houstonians out there, Escovedo will be playing at Bend Studio on 22 August 2008. (all tour dates via his website)
To see Escovedo with Springsteen from the Houston show, Columbia has released "Magic Tour Highlights," a show digital compilation of four songs from the recently US swing of the the Magic tour. Along with Escovedo's song is "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," the late Danny Federici's last performance. Check Bruce Springsteen's website for the iTunes link.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Over at Crime Fiction Dossier yesterday, David J. Montgomery posted a link from the UK publication, The Independent, listing 80 locations around the world and the best crime fiction books to read about those locations. On his blog, Montgomery lists four of his favorite locales. He also links to his own list of various locations and books/authors to read.
The Independent listed no Texas cities. In Montgomery's longer list, he mentions only "Texas" and puts forth Joe R. Lansdale and Jay Brandon. Nothing wrong with those guys (and the list is a few years old and, thus, does not include Harry Hunsicker's Lee Henry Oswald novels) but this highlights what I'd like to do with my fiction: put Houston on the crime fiction map. I would be vain to think I could do it alone. I mean, I'm not even published yet. But I'd like to join the list of authors people think of when they think of Texas crime fiction. Who knows? One day, I might just get myself on those lists.
For those of you coming in late, please read Chapter 1 (reboot) and Chapter 2 (reboot). You can read my explanation of the reboot here.
Part of this feature will also be on the topic of how to write a novel. First up: Outlining.
On my first novel, Treason at Hanford, I outlined everything using 4x6 index cards on a bulletin board. Treason at Hanford is a third-person, multiple-POV story. To make sure certain characters were not gone long from the stage, I color-coded each card. I was able to see, at a glance, that my Japanese submariners had not been on the main stage for 4 or 5 chapters and could shift things around.
The best thing about this approach was avoiding the blank-page syndrome. Since I had mapped out every in advance, when it came time for me to write, I merely picked up the next note card, read my few notes, and start writing. I never had to wonder what I was going to write. I just wrote that scene.
Some may think that spontaneity is lost in this method. To some degree, it was. My spontaneity was sitting at my desk, a stack of blank note cards, seeing the 'movie' in my head and writing it all out, scene by scene, on the cards. But that didn't mean that certain things and characters couldn't have their say in my book. There were a couple of characters that I had in the book merely to move the plot forward. During the writing of their scenes, little nuances appeared that gave them depth and, on one occasion, veered me off into a small tangent. The nice thing about that tangent is the good feedback I've received by those who have read the novel. What I wrote as throwaway scenes are among the favorite scenes from the readers.
Another fear that some people have of outlining seems to be character development. That is, if you focus on plot, one's characters might become more cardboard and less human. I found the opposite happened. Harry Truman is a known quantity. But within the confines of certain scenes, Truman and the other characters started to live and breathe and took on a life of their own. In fact, the trajectory of one character completely changed during the process of writing the first draft. I expected that character to do one thing and he did the complete opposite. It was a surprise to me...and I was the author.
Fatigue is a constant challenge for any writer. I suffered from it, I'll admit. I always wrote at 10pm and there were certain evenings where I didn't feel creative at all. The best thing about an advanced outline is that you don't really need to *be* creative. Just write the scene on the next card and be done with it. Having that note card staring at me was good incentive. It blew the blank-page syndrome out of the water. I *knew* exactly what I needed to write that night. Most evenings, I fired up the Powerbook and wrote the scene-of-the-day. Some of those scenes were merely first drafts. But one scene in particular took on a life of its own, showing me a certain aspect of a character that I had not, to that time, known.
Here is the greatest case (for me, personally) that outlining helps produce a book. I wrote the first draft of Treason at Hanford from July 2005 to June 2006 minus a three-month hiatus in the fall of 2005. I added up the weeks and it amounted to 9-10 months to write a 114,000 word first draft.
I started thinking about my current book in August 2006. We are now one week shy of August 2008...and I don't have a completed first draft. Granted, the book's focus changed as well as its protagonists but those are mere excuses. I intentionally started writing this second book using a different method than I did when I wrote my first book. In retrospect, that was probably a mistake. But, the good thing about mistakes: we can correct them.
In summary: judging from two novels, outlining seems to be the best route for me to complete a novel. It may not work for you. The best recommendation I can give is to try any method to get that first draft complete. After that, take stock of the method you used to produce a novel and determine if it was a good method. Try something different because you just have to. You're going to want to know if there are better or worse methods to create stories. But don't be afraid to throw up your hands and go back to what works. No matter what, get that writing done. Editing can be a pain but without a first draft, you can't edit anything.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
In Shooting Star, Mark Clayton is the PI (pirate?) who has a PI license and takes odd jobs whenever his job as an agent is slow. Clayton is asked by a friend to clear the name of one Dick Ryan, cowboy movie star, now murdered. You see, Clayton's friend, Harry Bannock, bought the rights to the films and is prepping them for television distribution. The only problem is that pot was found with Ryan, sullying the name of the once-clean star and Bannock's future profits.
This is the first Robert Bloch book I have ever read. I knew his name because of the novel, and later movie, Psycho. Honestly, there were parts of this story that slowed me down, trudging along. The topic was never too bad, it was the pace. It all goes back to expectations: when you get a Hard Case Crime novel, you expect fast paced material. Bloch's prose was slower, delving into the minds of the characters more than standard pulp fiction.
The best thing about Shooting Star was the ending where the culprit is revealed and I didn't really see it coming.
The flip side of this twofer is Spiderweb (1954) and this one hooked me right off the bat. Eddie Haines is about to kill himself when a C-note slides under the door. Before he knows it, he is in collusion with Professor Otto Hermann, con-man to the stars (this book is also set in Hollywood). Hermann gives Haines an alias under which Haines helps reel in suckers and relieve them of their money. But the desperate man Hermann lured away from death has a soul, and a conscience. And it is here where the story gets really interesting because Hermann has the goods on Haines and blackmails him. It's what Haines does next that provides the book its soul.
I enjoyed both books mainly because of their historical peek into 1950s Hollywood. Shooting Star, with its character Bannock and his transitioning to television, was pretty interesting to read. You got to hand it to Bloch: he had Bannock see the future pretty clearly. The ending of Star is much better than the ending of Web but Web is, I think, a more entertaining read. Bloch, I've read, loved Hollywood and wrote about it often. It shows. He has a knowledge only insiders have and it infuses both books with life.
What I Learned as a Writer: The one thing that did shine in both books is Bloch's prose. It's typical pulp prose, strong and muscular. Professor Hermann did come across a bit over-the-top but that's part of his charm. Bloch's use of action verbs and sentence fragments keeps the reader on edge and propels him forward. Characters never 'walked', they strode or paced.
Another aspect of Bloch's writing is his limited use of attributions like 'said' or 'asked.' He wrote his paragraphs in such a way that you don't need them to follow what's going on. It keeps the author out of the way and allows the characters to speak for themselves.
One of my favorite passages is this paragraph from Shooting Star:
This was Broadway. Not Broadway, New York. Broadway in L.A.; just a knife's throw from Main and a blind stagger from Olive. Bumway. Skidway. Wrongway. The kind of a street you find in every big city. Even in that nice eastern city where the newspaper doesn't want to contaminate its readers with sordid stories of unpleasant people.
I can just see the old grainy black-and-white film with a tough guy voiceover.
There's a quote from Stephen King inside the front cover of Spiderweb: "Perhaps the finest psychological horror writer." On the flip side, Peter Straub writes "Robert Bloch is one of the all-time masters." These quotes are obviously true but I'm guessing King and Straub were not referring to these books when they wrote those quotes. What these quotes, along with these good, but not great, crime novels tell me is that I need to read Psycho and other horror novels by Robert Bloch and find out what all the fuss is about.
P.S. (to Charles Ardai): please let this not be the last Hard Case Crime double novel.
Monday, July 21, 2008
What I Learned As a Writer from The Dark Knight
To paraphrase the 1992 Clinton campaign, It's the Characters, Stupid.
TDK blows stuff up with the best of them. In re-watching Batman Begins and all through TDK, I was surprised how damaging Batman is to, say, malls, garbage cans, monorail systems, windows, etc. There is a whole of of destruction going on here.
But that's not what makes these movies tick. It's the people. And TDK picks up where Begins left off: with the people. If we wanted just a movie vehicle where stuff gets blown up, there are other movies that fill that prescription. But Nolan and company make us care about the people in these films and makes even a billionaire accessible to us small-timers.
Little nuances throughout the film zero in on character traits, flaws and all. The character of Harvey Dent (warning: for those who don't know his fate and want to be surprised, stop reading now until you've watched the film)....
is quite interesting as portrayed by Aaron Eckhart and written by Nolan and his brother. Some critics have cited Dent's fall as not believeable. I think it is. When faced with a loved one being hurt, Dent digs deep into that which most of us have: a darker interior. Eckhart relishes these scenes and he delivers a shocking performance, especially considering we've only seen the public Dent and some of the love-struck Dent with Rachel. Nolan had established Dent's character as unflappable but with a strong streak of good at all costs. He was willing to be arrested, didn't care that a thug tried to kill him. He was out for the mob's blood and he didn't seem to care that his might also be spilt. And these character traits Dent revealed through action: he punched out the thug; he rode in the armored car as the Joker blasted the truck with a bazooka. Dent was scared, yes, but he kept going because he thought the cause right. He gave little mini speeches but they were merely butressing up what he had already demonstrated with action.
Katie's Holmes's Rachel said it best in Batman Begins: But it's not who you are underneath, it's what you do that defines you.
To paraphrase: It's not the prose that defines a character, it's the characters actions.
Make the actions believeable, the reader will accept and follow. If you have to write a whole bunch of prose to try and instill in the reader who your character is, the reader will stop reading. That is the challenge for all writers and creative artists.
And, I got to thinking, why not me?
So, I'm introducing some regular features to this blog, based on the day of the week. I will post a book review every Tuesday. Mainly these books will be a catalog of my ongoing self-education into crime fiction and pulp fiction but I'll leave myself open to other works as well. I'll start that tomorrow.
First up will be Movie/Music Mondays. It'll likely be whatever I recently watched or what I am currently listening to. Unlike the book reviews, these will probably be all over the place. And I jumped the gun by posting my Dark Knight review this past weekend. Guess I should have waited.
But content is the key and I'll continue posting chapters of my current novel, Justice in H-Town, over at my other blog, Texas Pulp Writer. And, I'll likely start posting some material from my first award-winning manuscript, Treason at Hanford: A Harry Truman Mystery. My critique group meets on Wednesday nights and they almost always have good suggestions for me to do. As such, Thursdays will be my Chapter Posting Day. I'll also give tips I have learned on writing and things I learned in the critique group.
I have not figured out what Wednesdays and Fridays will be about. I'll leave them open for now. And I'll still post whenever I feel like it on the topics of crime fiction or whatever else.
I hope that some of you will enjoy the items I write and come back regularly.
Regardless, you need to read Gary Westfahl's review of The Dark Knight. Very in-depth analysis of this year's biggest film and proof that a summer blockbuster can ask deep questions of its audience that are not answered by the time the credits roll. They are answered by each person, individually, and that those answers might say more about America in 2008 than any recent film.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
The year 2008 brings us new novels by both men. And the first is Pelecanos's The Turnaround. And today, in the Washington Post's Sunday Magazine comes this in-depth article and interview. I cannot recommend Pelecanos high enough. While I have not read everything yet, my favorites are Hard Revolution and Drama City. I suggest you read the Derek Strange PI-Trilogy first (Right as Rain, Hell to Pay, Soul Circus) before you read Hard Revolution as it speaks to Strange's character and personal history. And, if you're into audiobooks, get Hard Revolution in audio. "The Wire's" Lance Reddick reads the book. Drama City is a nice stand-alone novel about an ex-con and his female parole officer that goes not where you'd expect it to go.
Anyway, if you have never read George Pelecanos, find a bookstore and start. Today. You will be enriched, entertained, and enthralled.
Enough about my credentials as a Bat-geek. The film will literally knock your socks off. Some observations about the filmgoers on a Friday afternoon. Every type of person seemed to be represented: couples, youngsters (too young in my honest opinion), teenagers of both genders, geek boys (like me). Heck, there were even a couple of women, not young, coming to see the film. And, yes, it’s probably because Heath Ledger died earlier this year. But still: this is a superhero movie and everyone is coming to see it.
But this film is more than a superhero film. It’s a crime saga with a costumed hero and villain. In leading up to the film, I read very few reviews because I didn’t want to get influenced by anyone. I wanted my thoughts and experiences as pure as could be. Afterward, I read all the sites I regularly visit. The geek sites were ecstatic. The mainstream media was ecstatic. I was ecstatic. My wife loved the film and uttered the words I certainly wanted to hear: “I want to see it again.”
Many sources have linked TDK with the Michael Mann movie, “Heat.” I watched it for the second time in my life the day after I saw TDK. I see why the two movies are mentioned in the same breath. But the scope of TDK is bigger, broader. Heat is really about two men and their immediate groups. TDK is about a city and, ultimately, about us in 2008. TDK could not have been written or filmed pre-9/11. It’s post-9/11 is its outlook and soul. Joker finally gets a nom de guerre that truly represents what he is: a terrorist.
In the mad rush to compare the incomparable TDK, movies like “Heat” and “The Departed” are mentioned. But Devin Faraci, over at CHUD.com, hit the nail on the head when he compared TDK with HBO’s “The Wire.” Just like The Wire is a story about Baltimore, TDK is a story about Gotham City. GC came alive in this film. It lived, breathed, got beaten, knocked down, got up, and kept walking.
The reason that the Spider-man movies and Batman Begins work so well is that they are films about Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne. These two characters are interesting. You just want to keep digging into their psyche. There’s an everyman quality to these movies (even though Wayne is a billionaire) that gets to the hearts of the viewers. And it’s regular citizens stood up and shone, too. As much as Batman and the Joker occupy the center of this film, Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent provide the everyman soul for this movie. It was the scenes that did not contain explosions that I relished just as much as when the two costumed foes faced off against one another. In the review over at Christianity Today, the author has some questions to ponder including the nature of evil and how good, normal people—folks without capes, cowls, and gadgets (or guns?)—cope when faced with evil. TDK answered those questions. Some will endure. Some will fall. We’re just lucky enough if we never have to find out what we really are at those times.
This is the first Batman movie where you honestly see Bruce Wayne being the famous detective he is. He is constantly behind the curve in this film, reacting instead of acting. Bruce finally takes an action that gets him more up-to-speed but then a character, having learned what Bruce did, asks a fundamental post-9/11 question: at what cost?
One of the best things about Batman’s villains is their scale. Most of them want to rule Gotham or rob banks or screw with the police or Batman’s mind. Sure, there are times when Batman travels abroad or has a villain (Ra’s al Ghul) with some global scheme but the bulk of Batman’s foes just want to keep it local. That’s what was great about Batman Begins and the same applies here for TDK. Joker doesn’t want to rule the world, he just wants to destroy Gotham. You see crime bosses at odds with each other, double-dealing, scheming. It’s what links TDK with The Wire. One of the things I’d love to see is a TV version of Gotham Central, the series of comics that focuses on the GCPD. But, to do that, filmmakers would have to top The Wire and that’s a tall order.
Speaking of topping things, I have to admit something: there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to see a third Batman film from Christopher Nolan. This film, for its flaws, is so near-perfect that to top it, Nolan may have to make choices he’d rather not make (Spider-Man 3 anyone?). However, come 2011, you know a third film will likely be here merely for the fact of how TDK ends. But how do you top Heath Ledger’s Joker? Simply put, you can’t and they shouldn’t even try. It was sublime, funny, poignant, scary, over-the-top, sadistic, unforgettable. I think a nomination is a lock.
But I have faith. Back a few years ago, when the news that Nolan cast Ledger, I was skeptical. However, knowing what Nolan did with Batman Begins, I deferred to him. Perhaps he saw something in Ledger that I didn’t. Boy did he ever. So I’ll trust Nolan to make his third film and make it like he wants to. And now that TDK has joined The Empire Strikes Back, Spider-Man 2, Star Trek II, and Godfather II in the ranks of superb sequels, I now lay down the mantle of third film flops (Return of the Jedi, Godfather III, Spider-Man 3, Superman 3, Star Trek 3, etc.) at his feet. If anyone can make a third film fantastic, I leave it to Christopher Nolan.
But, really, Chris, you don’t have to. You got it all right with this film. You said all that really needs to be said about Batman and Bruce Wayne. You and Ledger brought us the ultimate Joker. You brought us the ultimate crime drama with superheroes. It’s all been said and done. There’s nothing more to say.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
There were always three films on my summer To Do list (Iron Man was a happy and quite entertaining surprise). Wall-E spoke to my kid heart; Indiana Jones 4 spoke to my teenager heart; and The Dark Knight spoke to my adult, crime fiction heart. But, of the three, if forced to choose just one to watch, Batman would win.
Now, today, I offer you this story in Scientific American: "Why Batman Could Exist--But not for long" (hat tip to David Louis Edelman via Lou Anders). In this interview, E. Paul Zehr, a professor of kinesiology, describes the real-world version of a Batman. It's leading up to his book, Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero, published in October. You can tell Zehr has done his research: just click on some of the link. Quite enjoyable and it might help you pass the time until Friday.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Also, you will find a link to Seth's website, where you can enjoy the adventures of Jack Palms.
And, I have to add, getting one of my stories at this site is now another goal on my writing goal sheet.
New York (July 14, 2008) – Charles Ardai, Edgar Award-winning author and creator of the acclaimed pulp mystery series Hard Case Crime, today announced a new series of pulp novels scheduled to debut in the summer of 2009: The Adventures of Gabriel Hunt. Featuring painted covers in the grand pulp tradition by artist Glen Orbik, the series will chronicle the travels and travails of modern-day explorer Gabriel Hunt, who scours the globe in pursuit of precious artifacts, lost civilizations, and secrets that could save the world…or destroy it.
(click on the above link for the full press release.)
Then, go on over to The Rap Sheet for additional tidbits and a link to Hard Case Crime's "50th Anniversary Celebration."
(Checking watch. Dang! Only ten more months.)
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Lately, I'm jamming to live recordings from the early days, specifically concerts from 1968-72 where the band's passion and energy is palpable, mistakes and all.
Now comes this video, via none other than Robert Lamm. Talk about energy. I don't know the guitarist (Tomoyasu Hotei from Japan) but I think I may have to find some of his CDs after hearing this cut. And, for a band that used to do covers, it's kinda neat to hear them do something new, even if it isn't their own material (It's "Battle Without Honor or Humanity" from Kill Bill, Vol. 1). Anyway, check out the video and be sure to read Lamm's comments.
Another note: some of the comments remark on the differences between Hotei and Chicago's original guitarist, Terry Kath. While Kath is one-of-a-kind, when I hear Hotei's playing, I am reminded most of DaWayne Bailey, guitarist for Chicago from 1986-1994. These were the years when I started attending Chicago concerts. And this were the years when hair metal ruled the airwaves. Bailey brought back the edge to Chicago concerts. The farther away the Bailey years get, the more and more I appreciate them. This is taking nothing away from Dacus, Pinnick, or Howland, but Bailey was Chicago's second best guitar player. And I don't think Mr. Bailey would mind me saying that, either.
For those of you who have read the original version of chapter 2, you will notice a few differences. More than one judge and some of my fellow reviewers said that they wanted to see Anne Chambers in a more likable situation. The funny thing about being the writer: I know all the ins and outs of this character...I just need to clue the readers in, too.
A second idea that I had was that I wanted the mess Anne found herself in at the end of chapter 2 to be more dire in the reboot than in the original. I hope you like it.
Friday, July 11, 2008
Over at Solar Flare (a great news site for all things SF), there is a discussion started about "Where Star Wars Went (and keeps going) Wrong". I certainly have my take and it jives with the general thesis of the author. But I make a few points about my own memories. Take a look.
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
I have 17 chapters written and most of chapters 4-17 I can reuse. I just needed to reset the trajectory of the book. 95% of the book and the story are the same. I just felt like there needed to be more dire circumstances in the beginning. And more than one person told me that my chapter 1 didn't deliver the emotional impact I wanted it to. Thus, I added a secondary scene in chapter 1, which I am posting today. And I'm leaving the original there, too, for comparison.
So, click on over to Texas Pulp Writer for the rebooted Justice in H-Town's Chapter 1. Chapter 2 will follow shortly, after I've let the critique group have a go at it.
Monday, July 7, 2008
I had never seen either film until this weekend. Majestyk is a typical revenge film. And, with its protagonist, pre-dates First Blood's Rambo by at least five years. Interestingly, Majestyk is never really threatened, almost always having the upper hand. The only real threat is from the police and that's just jail time. The bad guy who wants to kill Majestyk never lays a hand on him. Bronson is carrying on cowboy-loner-leave-the-past-behind-me theme of countless stories, be they westerns or crime or SF. In later incarnations of this kind of movie, the hero has to suffer. Majestyk doesn't, except for, perhaps, the bumps and bruises he gets while riding in the back of the pick-up.
Foxy Brown, on the other hand, suffers quite a bit. And it's all for the viewer's benefit. Pam Grier looked fantastic in the film, which is precisely the point. She uses her sexiness to her own advantage to get what she wants: revenge for the people who killed her boyfriend. But, unlike Majestyk, she gets plenty hurt along the way. As I am writing a novel with a female protagonist, I'll remember Foxy's acceptance of certain things that happen to her. You don't want it to happen, but it does. And that says more, to me, than Majestyk's scrape-free escape.
The vibe Foxy Brown exudes is tres cool. The characters really do come to life. Some quick research on the web told me that this is one of the more famous blaxploitation films but there are quite a few things to like and take away from this film. One of which is the score. For those of you who like 70s soul and funk, Willie Hutch's music is fantastic. I'm going to have to hunt it down.
But the stereotypes aside, Foxy Brown revels in the strong woman. And that's what makes this film important, to me and to film history. I'll certainly be channeling some of Foxy Brown as I flesh out my hero.
And this Friday's Grindhouse offering on IFC is "Coffy." Can't wait.
Watching these two movies from the vantage point of 2008 is interesting. In one scene, Majestyk makes a call from a pay phone. On the wall behind him is a poster instructing the gas station owners how to cope with the gas shortages. Are those days returning? Let's hope not. If they do, I'll probably have to open a Netflix account and I'll be sure to put these films and other 1970s gems on my list.
*This is my 100th post, 72 of which are from 2008. Thus, I have fulfilled one of my New Year's resolutions: blog at least 52 times.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Don't believe me? Take a look at this video from the Houston Chronicle. Oh, and I'm in it, in the background. And check out their website for addition video and pictures.
Best thing I got out of the event was an explanation of the name of the magazine and the philosophy of the magazine. Check out the first video for the answer. I hope to be published in there someday.
Vanessa has recently joined forces with a fellow artist, Jan Locander, a glass artist. The finished pieces are beautiful. In June, Vanessa was the featured artist at our old church here in Houston. And, sometime this year, she will be on HGTV's "That's Clever" show. Check out her website for some great jewelry and, of course, the definition of the word "Betoj." You'll laugh. Believe me.
Late last year, I bought Otto Penzler’s excellent The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. (Go to NPR for a great interview with Penzler.) and Cain is represented in, of course, the Villains section. But Audible.com had an audiobook of The Postman Always Rings Twice (TPART) so I started there. Oh, and for as bad as the reader was for The Switch, it was a 180-degree turn with Cain’s book. None other than Stanley Tucci read this book and it’s a testament to the power of a good reader. Tucci could have read the phone book and I’d listen.
In good pulp tradition, TPART starts right off with Frank, the handsome drifter, being thrown off a truck on which he had been sleeping. This was 1934, the depths of the Depression, and Frank was coming back to
(Side note: In this modern world of ours, especially in the aftermath of 9/11 where we can be overly suspicious of anyone, I marvel at the fact that Nick hired Frank on the spot. I know the 1930s were a different time but holy cow! Nick didn’t know a thing about Frank. Guess Nick should have asked for some references.)
Soon, Frank and Cora get together and the inevitable happens. Two things surprised me as I went along with Tucci’s wonder reading. One, after Frank and Cora are arrested, Cain has a defense lawyer go to great lengths to get them out of jail. It happens and Cain describes it in intricate detail. This type of legal hair-splitting is foreshadowing for Double Indemnity. But the book was only 2/3 finished. What, I thought, could come next?
On the dust jacket, it reads that TPART ‘shocked and riveted the American public’ back in 1934. I have to confess that it shocked me, too, here in 2008. There is a death scene and you don’t see it coming. Sure, you might guess that it’s likely, but not from the source. And the graphic details of the death scene are pretty shocking: dripping blood that one character first mistakes for rain. Shoot! That’s graphic imagery.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Postman Always Rings Twice. And I look forward to reading more Cain, especially the shorter work scattered around. The hunt for these stories will be fun.
What I Learned As A Writer: The story is told in first person, like all good classic pulp crime novels. You really get inside the character’s head and thoughts. There’s an immediacy to it that I like. But, by the end, you actually get the fourth wall knocked down. You realize that the character actually ‘wrote’ the book. Those endings are cool.
Second, the death scene, especially the ‘raining blood’ image. In looking at the printed page, the death scene is only one paragraph. Cain does not go on and on with graphic details. He is terse almost to a fault. But he allows the reader to fill in the gaps. Too often, I think modern writing spends too much time filling in those gaps. I am a fan of allowing the reader to complete the writer’s images. Cain does it very well. I hope I can come close.
As many regular readers have come to notice, this blog has somewhat evolved into my self-education into the world of crime fiction. One of the giants of that field is Elmore Leonard. As weird as some of you may think this is, I have only started reading Leonard in the last decade. As such, I have nearly an entire oeuvre to read. And it’s an enticing thought.
Up until now, the bulk of my Leonard readings have been with the Webster family. I read Cuba Libre out of the blue soon after it first came out. Good story but I didn’t pursue any other books. I knew who Leonard was, of course. Get Shorty was a great movie as was Out of Sight. Didn’t like Jackie Brown when it came out because I wanted from Quentin Tarrentino Pulp Fiction 2. That was not what Jackie Brown was about.
Jump to earlier this year—when I have become more interested in Leonard’s works—and I learned that the author himself thinks Jackie Brown one of the best adaptations of one of his novels. Hmm, I thought, better give the movie another chance. I did, liked it much better this time around. And I also learned about the earlier novel The Switch which was an earlier adventure with Ordell and Louis. (BTW, I think Leonard’s penchant for going back and writing new adventures with old characters is quite cool.) It was easy to envision Samuel L. Jackson, Robert DeNiro, and Bridget Fonda in these earlier roles.
The Switch (1979) doesn’t suffer too much from its age. Sure, characters have to use pay phones with stacks of quarters for long-distance calls, but mainly, it could have taken place in 2008. As I have mentioned in other reviews, I couldn’t help but come to The Switch with some expectations and pre-conceived notions. The chief one was “Oh, this is an Elmore Leonard crime novel. Bet it’ll be funny.” Nope. Someone else will have to let me know when Leonard went from what I think of as straight crime novels to the funnier, hipper ones of his later career. The Switch was not one of those.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t bad. It was good, just not great. The book started off really slow and the reader didn’t help. In fact, the reader nearly made me not want to read the book at all. I found a paperback copy and picked it up just in case the reader was too insufferable. He was close.
By the end of the story (giving away nothing because, hey, the same folks show up in Rum Punch, the novel on which Jackie Brown was based) I liked how certain characters reacted to each other. And the ending was something foretold by the cover art on the audiobook. I’ll admit I liked the book, didn’t love it though. In fact, of the Leonard books I have read to date (
But the best thing about coming to an author who has written around forty books or so is that I have so many more to get to. I know Leonard’s next book will have come characters from earlier books so next up on my Leonard reading list will be those books. But I’ll be reading a few other things first.
Question #1 for anyone who knows: does Mickey show up in a later book?
Question #2 for anyone who knows: when did Elmore Leonard shift to the more comedic books he is now known for?
What I Learned As A Writer: I appreciate Leonard’s multiple POV structure. It really helps the reader along by giving us just the pieces we need to move the story forward. That structure also propels the reader to want to read more, always a good thing. But what I personally didn’t like was multiple-POV switches within the same scene. It’s a bit jarring. I prefer to stick with one POV in a scene, have a break, then you can switch. To me, it’s easier for the reader...and isn't that why we write books anyway?
But expect more frequent posts from now on. And I thank your continued patience.