Saturday, August 21, 2021

Two Observations on Storytelling: Stephen King and “Unforgotten”

Two things struck me this week about the power of storytelling and the ability to weave a good tale. The first is not spoilerific—I haven’t finished the novel yet—while the second is very spoiler-heavy. Be warned.

Stephen King’s Billy Summers

I started King’s new novel this week. I’m listening to the audiobook from my local library via the awesome Libby app (y’all’ve got that app, right?). I was an avid reader of King’s novels from about 1987 (when I graduated from high school and entered college) all the way through the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. If he wrote a book, I read it or listened to it.

Somewhen over the 2010s, however, I started slowing. He didn’t, but I did. Don’t really have a reason. It just happened. In fact, the last King book I can remember listening to was Joyland. 

When Billy Summers was published, I decided to give it a try. In the story, Billy Summers is a former sniper now hired killer. He poses as a writer and, knowing those folks who hired him are monitoring his activity on the MacBook they supplied him, Billy begins to write his memoirs.

As soon as I heard that, I rolled my eyes. “Yet another story within a story thing from Stephen King? Really?”


It’s a thing King has done more than once. It’s particularly effective in Misery, but there are other examples. In that book, the font changed to indicate the story-within-the-story. In the audio of Billy Summers, narrator Paul Sparks slightly changes his voice so you can tell what part of the novel you are listening to.

Being an audiobook, yes, I can fast-forward but I would have no way of knowing when the ‘autobiography’ part stopped and the ‘Billy Summers’ part began. So, I did what the author wanted me to do: I listened.

And dang if the story-within-the-story part became almost as compelling as the main novel. There are whole sections of the story-within-the-story and I found myself really getting into that part. Then it would stop and I’d be reminded about the main story.

As if anyone ever needed any more examples of how good a storyteller Stephen King is, I’ll go ahead and submit this one into evidence. Like his stories or not, think they might be too long or not, you cannot dispute Stephen King is a modern master of the writing craft. I have known that ever since I read my first King novel—Pet Semetary—but I just needed a reminder. I got one this week.

The Ending of Unforgotten, Season 4

[Spoilers, folks]

Here in American, Masterpiece aired episode 6, the finale of Unforgotten, season 4, last Sunday. I’ve written about this BBC series before (how season 4’s opening episode instantly grabbed me) but season 4 did a couple of remarkable things for me.

One involved actor Andy Nyman. Before Unforgotten, I only knew Nyman as the comedic actor he is in Death at a Funeral. He is hilarious in that 2007 Frank Oz film and it took a little bit of time in episode 1 not to think of that funny character every time he appeared on screen. 

But by the finale, I earned a whole new respect for his acting prowess. He was wonderful, nuanced, and my favorite actor outside of the core group.

Speaking of the core group, Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaska play partner who solve cold cases. I’ve written about how much they are a breath of fresh air in detective shows. They’re not raging alcoholics or any of the usual tropes we see in TV cop shows. They are just normal people doing a dirty job the best that they can. They respect each other, but there’s not a hint of “will they or won’t they?’ in their relationship. They are friends and partners who deeply care for a love one another.

So it came as quite a shock to my wife and I as we watched the final moments of episode 5 when Walker’s character, Cassie Stuart, was driving and someone broadsided her car. In the previews of episode 6, we saw her in a hospital bed and all the other characters reacting to the news. We looked at each other and, other than wondering which of the suspects did the deed, wondered how Cassie was going to recover.

Spoiler alert: she didn’t. The character died. 

For older shows (Unforgotten aired on the BBC earlier this year), I do not do any research while I’m watching for the first time. News items can ruin big things that way. So I had no way of knowing what was coming.

It’s not every day when a main character is killed off on a popular TV show. I don’t know the ins and outs of Walker’s contract or any behind-the-scenes stuff so I don’t know why she left. But her leaving enabled a show that features normal people doing a troubling job the opportunity to show how those same normal character deal with the death of a friend and partner and commanding officer. It was stellar. 

The director also made a nice storytelling technique as well: for almost the entire last episode, Walker only appeared in the hospital bed. Only toward the end did we get to see Cassie leave the voice mail her father listens to over and over again, giving us viewers one last look at a beloved character.

And we also got a moving soliloquy from Bhaska’s Sunny. Just as the shock of Cassie’s passing took my breath away, Sunny’s little speech opened the waterworks.

Great storytelling.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Working Out and Writing: The Obvious Revelation

Today, my wife and I turn twenty-two and we have reached that stage in a marriage when we get joint gifts. 

My wife is an accomplished jewelry artist (her website) so from the jump, store-bought jewelry was off the table, a thing that's both more a blessing than a curse since she can dream up anything she wants and just make it. Moreover, we are blessed with my full-time day job so we really lack for nothing. 

So we opted for a joint gift this year: a rowing machine. It's a svelte little ditty that sits adjacent to our entertainment armoire in the TV room. It folds up with not in use, and there is room right in front of it for me to put my Chromebook in easy viewing range so I can follow along with the YouTube workouts I'm following.

For me this week, I've been doing my rowing exercises first thing in the morning. I wake, put on the workout clothes, and hop on the machine. Having never really worked out on a rowing machine before, this is Week 1 so I'm doing one of those beginner workouts. It's challenging enough to leave a thin sheet of sweat on me as I fold it back up and head on over to the kitchen table and bring up the latest novel-in-progress. With hot coffee next to me, I start writing.

And boy what a surprise I got this week.

Those ten minutes on the rowing machine not only woke me up way better than coffee, but it did so by getting my heart pumping and the blood flowing. Look, I know that's obvious, but before this week, I've never done a workout and a writing session back-to-back. It's an eye-opener.

With my body fully awake and ready for more--I'll be doing a longer workout next week after I get used to the technique of rowing--the only outlet I have is the imagination of writing. And the creativity pours into me and onto the screen.

As the anecdotal evidence was revealed to me this week, I remembered one of the DVD extras on season 1 of Castle. Stephen J. Cannell took actor Nathan Fillion through what a normal day for Cannell the Writer is like. A key part of his daily routine is working out. 

I pump iron and do push-ups and pull-ups everyday, but it's the cardio workout right before a writing session that really enlightened me. I rarely need any outside prompt to sit at the keyboard and create stories, but I certainly have a new process I'm excited to keep trying. I can also imagine that day when the story isn't flowing as seamlessly as it should that I jump on the rowing machine and let the body do the heavy lifting and get the blood flowing while the brain rests. I suspect it'll clear the cobwebs pretty darn well.

How about you? Do you combine a workout and writing session?

Monday, August 9, 2021

What Is Your MVWC?

How do you keep going?  On anything. 

If you're a runner, you lace up the shoes, don your favorite running clothes, maybe grab your phone for some music, and head out the door. If you're a student, you keep studying. If you're lawyer or doctor or just about anything, you just keep doing the thing you either trained to do or are getting paid to do.

So why do we writers and other creative types fall off the wagon? 

There are countless posts--like this one--talking about how we writers get thrown off our game. Sometimes the forces are external and uncontrollable. Often, however, they are self-inflicted. We sleep in and miss that 5am writing time. We might always write at night, but the day job took everything out of us and we'd rather just watch TV or do nothing. No brain use tonight, thank you very much.

It happens. It always happens. It's like Houston summers, New York winters, and rain in London. The thing you expect always, always happens. 

What To Do About It?

Okay, so it happens. We writers lose our mojo for whatever reason. How do you get it back when you've been thrown off the horse. Get back on the horse. 

Ah, but that's easier said than done. Why? 

One reason might be that we remember how the mojo felt on our last project. Remember that feeling, when everything was aligned and your fingers could barely keep up with the images in your brain? I've had that feeling and it is like a drug. It's intoxicating. What we always forget about that project were the slow times, the beginning, the part where you had to pause and sort out plot points, and when you struggled with that one stupid chapter.

But you got your mojo back and sailed across the finish line to The End. And, most likely, we celebrated with something bubbly and decided to take a break. 

That's not what I'm talking about today. I think breaks are a necessary part of the creative life. Angel said the same thing on Wednesday. What I'm talking about is getting back your mojo. And that brings me to MVWC.

What is MVWC?

I think we're all familiar with the concept of a Minimum Viable Product. It's the phase in the development of a product or service where the inventor can start selling the thing even though all the bugs are not yet ironed out. The MVP can also be called the 1.0 Version. Early adopters love this stuff because you can say "I  was there when X was just out." Same is true for the early careers of actors, musicians, writers, and other creatives.

When it comes to us writers, we can use the same concept. What is the minimum word count I need to get back my mojo?

[Keep this bookmark right here in mind. You'll need it at the end of this post.]

The Minimum Viable Word Count, the MVWC, is the word count you can easily achieve without even breaking a sweat. The kind you can type in fifteen minutes or thirty or an hour each day you are working on a project. Because, as we all know, words on a page are words out of your head. We can fix them later, but forward progress was made and the momentum builds. When that happens, we have our mojo back and we can soar through the clouds and get to The End.

I think the MVWC is a key metric you'll need when you get back on the writing horse or after a break or when a project's really thrown you for a loop. You're irritated, you don't know where the story's going, you don't really know how to begin. So you reach for your MVWC and do the bare minimum. It is forward progress. You will feel better. And, soon, the MVWC will rise and grow and the mojo takes over and you hold on for the ride.

But the MVWC itself. That's what you have to find for yourself. For some, it might be 250 words. Maybe 500. If you do NaNoWriMo in November, that daily word count is 1,667 words per day to achieve 50,000 in a month.

A lot of times for me, it's 1,000 words per day. I often keep track of a story's progress by using a spreadsheet. I have it coded with a baseline number and it automatically color codes the numbers green (if I achieve my goal) or red (if I fall short).

That’s all well and good for when you are in the groove, however. What about getting started? Ah, that’s for you to determine. What’s your MVWC you need to reach each day you’re writing a story so that you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment? 

Whatever that number is, make it reasonable, easily achievable, and sustainable. Some writers might up their MVWC to a higher number, a goal they can’t reach consistently unless everything goes right. And, come on: how many days do we live through that are perfect? 

Keep the MVWC sustainable or you’ll burn out and then you’ll start back behind square one.

Remember that bookmark earlier in this post? I wrote the start of this post on my lunch break, in a conference room, with just me and my Chromebook. I was time-limited after eating so I set a stopwatch and timed myself. In 15 minutes, I wrote 477 words, give or take. So roughly 500 words in 15 minutes. One could extrapolate from there.

Now, when I’m getting back on the writing wagon, it’s always slow going. And I’m almost always time-limited be it part of the 5am writing session or the lunch hour one. I rarely have a long stretch of dedicated writing time so I have to adjust my MVWC.

Now that I’ve been writing this piece, I think my MVWC is around 500. That’s easily achievable in 30 minutes or less. I can blow way past it when I’m flying yet I can struggle to get there when the story’s mired in molasses. But it is consistently achievable and sustainable. When I log off at 5:55am or after lunch, I can always walk a little taller and with a smile on my face when I’ve hit my MVWC.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Fan Backlash in the Mystery Community

Last week, I watched the first five episode of Masters of the Universe: Revelation. Kevin Smith served as the showrunner. He’s a (seemingly) beloved member of the geek community who made movies lots of geek boys and girls enjoyed, but the reaction (among some) to the new MOTU (as the cool kids refer to Masters of the Universe) series was, um, over the top?

I had never seen any of Smith’s films until 2019 when I watched them all. Having been introduced to his style of filmmaking and immensely enjoying the banter between Smith and co-host Marc Bernardin on the Fatman Beyond podcast, I was going to give MOTU: Revelation a look. I had never seen anything MOTU in its forty-year life, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

But that got me thinking about the mystery community and if there were any properties, characters, or franchises that generated that kind of vitriol. Honestly, I could think of few if any. Well, until a month ago.

Sherlock Holmes

Two of the biggest reactions that come to mind involves Sherlock Holmes. Back in 2009 when the Robert Downey, Jr. film came out, folks had a few things to say about Downey’s interpretation of the famed detective. As I wrote in my review of the movie, Downey merely went back to the original source material—A Study in Scarlet—to get his inspiration. Don’t blame him. Blame Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for not following up on concepts he originally wrote in 1887.

Cut to ELEMENTARY, the CBS TV show that dared to gender swap Watson. If Jeremy Brett’s version of Holmes is my favorite traditional version of the character, then Johnny Lee Miller’s interpretation is my favorite non-traditional version. And Lucy Liu as Watson more than held her own. In this show, both characters were allowed to grow and evolve, something the original Doyle version didn’t do.

The Shadow

Perhaps the closest in terms of reactions to MOTU is fans of The Shadow.

I’m not sure if you knew this or not but James Patterson has written a new Shadow novel and die-hard fans of the character are losing their minds. Granted, I’ve not read it yet, but fans are chastising Patterson’s choices at just about every turn. I’ll reserve final judgement until I’ve actually read the novel, but I always hang my hat on a standard thought: if The New Thing (which might not be 100% accurate to the original) gets new readers/viewers interested in the Original Thing and go back and read/watch the original, is that a bad thing?

Other Mystery Properties

I know of but haven’t read any of the Ace Atkins-penned continuations of the Spencer novels originally written by Robert B. Parker. Still, I can’t remember any blogger or YouTuber going out into the world and bitching about it.

I know Max Allen Collins continued Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer stories, but Collins was specifically selected by the late Spillane to continue the work. I can’t remember anyone complaining. It’s more Mike Hammer!

I think, but can’t confirm, that there’s a Hercule Poirot continuation.

Did anyone complain when John Gardner started writing new James Bond novels? 

There might be more, but I think you get the point. By and large, and to the best of my knowledge, mystery fans don’t have a cow when a new person carries on the legacy of an established property. 

No Ruining of Our Respective Childhoods


Well, possibly it’s because many of these beloved characters we discovered are first read as adults, Holmes being the likely exception. There’s no danger of someone like Garnder “ruining our childhoods” by making Bond do something different than original author Ian Fleming. Heck, the movies already did that. 

I’m pretty sure mystery fans loved their characters just as much as geek boys and gals love MOTU or Star Wars, so why isn’t there an outcry when an old property is given new life?

I don’t have the answer, but what are your thoughts?