Okay, so the third thing I thought I might write about here is my influences. Barb’s written at least one where she talked about Shirley Jackson (and, I imagine, Jane Eyre, because boy is that an influence on her, too), so I thought I might do the same.
Okay, time to find out what Barb and I have been doing for entertainment and to try to relax lately– In general, we like streaming old movies.
–Maigret Sets a Trap: First, we lost our wi-fi connection. So, we watched a blu-ray we own of a movie we hadn’t seen in a while: Maigret Sets a Trap from 1958 with Jean Gabin as French detective Maigret. In fact, he’s the Chief Inspector of all of France’s Quai des Orfèvres– a bit like their Scotland Yard. A serial killer is stalking women in Paris, and Maigret must put a stop to it. A brilliant and exciting film with the excellent Jean Gabin (who used to have a relationship with Marlene Dietrich). And around the time the blu-ray was over, the wi-fi was back!
–Down Three Dark Streets: 1954, with Broderick Crawford and Ruth Roman. An FBI man’s partner is killed in the line of duty– but which of the three cases that he was working on at the time was it that got him killed? Written by a husband-wife team called The Gordons, this film really satisfied, with a great last line that suggested everything you need to know to extrapolate what life is going to be like for the two lead characters after the movie’s done. And Mr. Gordon really was an FBI man for a few years! In fact, J. Edgar Hoover wanted to block this film at first (until we calmed him down) because he was afraid we’d give away all the FBI’s secret crime-solving techniques to criminals!
Okay, here we go, with Barb’s final picks for her (written-years-ago) movie list (now with added CRAFT sections for extra educational-ness):
Jane Fonda’s performance is one for the books. Anger, pain, hurt… she’s just so damned good in this neo-noir.
CRAFT: Seriously, look at Fonda and Sutherland’s performances. She’s a wild creature, hurt and wounded. He’s a stoic rock, ready for her waves to constantly crash against all she needs to crash– but he’s hardly unfeeling. They’re two great performances– but hers is much harder, and nonetheless greater, even if we factor out any bonus points for her having the harder job of it.
Interesting, original, and always entertaining Asian film. Almost impossible to categorize.
CRAFT: Look at the pacing! Look how they keep you interested at all times in what’s basically (kind of? basically?) a legal story!
A first. A contemporary feminist werewolf film. Scary, funny, and original.
CRAFT: Wow, such good acting from Bridget’s actress. But try to get the version where you get to watch the deleted scene where the girls’ mom is driving the car and reacts (to Bridget) about how Mom thinks that her daughters have been killing people (in a non-supernatural way, I mean) and that Mom still loves them and is determined to cover up for them. It’s maybe the best piece of acting in the movie, and that is saying a lot.
Tony Perkins’ best mental-issues-challenged character. Tuesday Weld is just plain evil (and hot as a furnace) in this film!
CRAFT: Seriously, the script is so good. And Weld is so good at acting it, and so is Perkins. They’re both scary believable and Perkins makes his character so likeable… and he’s so in over his head….
Strange French science fiction detective film from the 1960s. Neat.
CRAFT: Look at that cinematography!
Beautiful, sad, funny film about childhood. Unblinkingly honest in tone.
CRAFT: Look at that cinematography!
CRAFT: Look at the special effects! The light! The… I dunno, the color palette! They were like “we need to make people believe that this is what it might look like if you could get inside the inner reality of a computer program, so it needs to look and feel really different” and sure enough, thanks to technical wizardry, they pulled that off. It’s amazing that they did that, that well, in those days.
I’m an Auntie Mame nut. What more can I say?
CRAFT: Okay: look at the writing! Look at the writing! And then, more specifically, look at the characterization! What does this film say about snobs? About motherhood? About bigotry? About small-minded people? But it’s also so funny!
Cook and Moore do the Faust legend. Hilarious comedy by two former University lads…and you can tell. Clever clever and clever.
CRAFT: Look at the writing! But also, specifically, look at what it says about religion! Well, Christianity, especially… And, I suppose, also, about human nature… But I think the hardest job might be Dudley. His transition from the little underdog guy to the sophisticated smooth talker…!
—Band Of Outsiders
Idiosyncratic French neo-noir. Joyful instead of cynical, which is weird for a noir. Anna Karina is lovely as a rose in all of her films.
CRAFT: Look at that cinematography! But also, look how this film uses narration, how it breaks “the rules…”
Elaine May’s script, Williams and Lane, a nice message about tolerance. Sweet.
CRAFT: Look at the pacing! But better yet, look at the characterization! Okay, mostly just look at the loving couple at the heart of it all. It’s seldom that one sees that kind of portrayal of a couple who’ve been together that long. It’s quite different from a couple who’ve only known each other for a short while. But wow, acting-wise, the comedy that Williams and Lane also pull off…!
—Curse of the Demon
Mature, sophisticated British horror with a tip of the hat to Val Lewton horror films.
CRAFT: I guess the biggest piece of craft in this, to me, is that they have to sell you on an impossible idea, and how they do it… how they commit to it.
—David and Lisa
Mental patients in love. Deeply affecting, very watchable.
CRAFT: Oh, so lovable. Both our boy and girl do a very good job acting. Thematically so much in common with Pretty Poison, or so you’d think, but it’s really so, so different..
Bizarre film. I guess it’s in the suspense category, as it’s a nail-biter. Unique.
CRAFT: Good cinematography, good selling you a world where… the rules are just a little different…
—Freaky Friday (original)
Yeah, yeah, a Disney farce. But Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster are great in this film!
CRAFT: The best thing craft-wise is the acting. You forget that these two actresses’ characters have not really swapped minds. That’s hard! And they both really commit to it– although Jodie Foster was so emotionally mature at that age, I think Barbara Harris has the harder job.
—Grace of My Heart
John Turturro and Illeana Douglas make a flawed but interesting film into something great. They’re both incredible.
CRAFT: It’s good writing, and good acting! Probably especially on Illeana Douglas’ part.
—Love at First Bite
Slight, silly, but truly funny vampire farce.
CRAFT: Yeah it’s very silly, but it’s still kind of romantic and touching! The sillier it is, the harder it is to make it also romantic and touching, but they pull it off (enough)!
Robert Preston! He brings up the quality of anything he’s in.
CRAFT: Look at Robert Preston act! Okay, maybe he’s not acting, exactly. That’s just kind of what Robert Preston seems to really be like. But look at Alex Karras acting, as the bodyguard! He’s doing the most acting, I think, and he does a really good job of it.
Lovely liberal values! Great film. Hard to stop watching.
CRAFT: The pacing is good (though it’s easy to stop watching in the short time before Don Knotts shows up at the house). But Tobey McGuire does a good job, and Joan Allen does a very nice job as the mom.
—To Wong Foo: Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar
I can’t help it. I like this film. I can’t explain why, just that I like the characters, in spite of myself.
CRAFT: Talk about writing that gives you a lot of what you want. The shining(est) star, though, I think, has just got to be Patrick Swayze. Man, he’s good.
—What’s Love Got to Do with It?
One of the all time great bio-pics.
CRAFT: Wow, look at her act. That’s acting. Look at her. Seldom in the history of films has someone so yelled at the screen when a woman is finally pushed to fight back: “YEAH GET ‘IM, GET ‘IM, GET ‘IM AGAIN! GET ‘IM, GIRL!”
—What’s Up Doc?
On an objective level, this film is probably just failed neo-screwball comedy, but it was the first one I ever saw and I laughed a lot. If I hadn’t seen it, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into classic screwball comedies. Besides, I still watch it when it’s on TV.
CRAFT: Look at that writing! Look at the speed! This is another movie where trying to watch it at 1.5 would be too fast, and I don’t feel that way about most movies. And man, say what you will about him, but O’Neal has a very hard job of playing this straight man as stone-faced, and he does it very well…
—3:10 To Yuma (original)
This film is perfect and something a little different: a film noir Western with a villain you like as much (if not more) than the hero, in spite of his evil ways. Basically, it’s a psychological showdown between lawful good and lawful evil with a nice “will there be a shoot out or not” climatic scene. Great stuff.
CRAFT: The acting! The writing! It’s subtle! It’s powerful! Both the acting and the writing, I mean!
—The Brady Bunch Movie
—The Wedding Singer
Sure, neither of these films are likely to win any awards, but they’re both funny, sweet little pieces of pop culture that make me smile every time I see them. After all, this is a favorite movie list, not a best-films-I’ve-ever-seen list.
CRAFT: Okay first, it’s bizarre that Carol Brady turns out to be a role that Shelley Winters was born to play, but here we are. Same goes for Mr. Brady and Marcia’s actress. But also, the writing of both movies! And finally, wow, I find Drew Barrymore lovable, but she manages to be extra-lovable in this. It’s romantic! It encourages me to feel things, instead of trying to manipulate me into feeling what the movie wants me to feel! And the weird-period-piece elements of each film just… somehow never get tired?! Amazing!
Barb, asking about the three-part list you have just read: “…What’s on that old list, anyway?”
Park: (I take a deep breath and read every title really fast)
Barb: “…Wow, that was 2007. Half those things would be replaced by other things now.”
Park: “Wanna make a new list?”
Barb: “Ugh, I don’t have the energy. Maybe someday… I mean… there’s no giallo films! No Mexican horror! No Let The Right One In! No Trollhunter!”
Park: “You change a lot every year. You practically become a new person all the time.”
Barb: “Well I guess so!“
Okay, that’s it for now! Come back someday for Barb’s new-and-improved updated list!
We’re back, with more of Barb’s favorite films (from a list she made years ago, anyway. She’s working on an updated list), with CRAFT sections about each!
–Wild in The Streets
Bizarre American exploitation with the astounding song “Shape of Things to Come” in it. As my thesaurus puts it about another subject, this film is blatantly guilty of “showing a quantum characteristic of strangeness…”
CRAFT: Look at what this film is saying about youth, about society, about authority, about human rights.
One of the best rock films ever. Also one of the most disturbing (along with Wild in the Streets)
CRAFT: Look at what this film is saying about religion, and fame, and being a cult figure. But mostly religion…
–Something Wicked This Way Comes
Not the greatest film ever made, but a serviceable version of Bradbury’s best foray into horror. Imagination and the theme of the transience of childhood, regret, and growing older. I’m a sucker for scary carnival films. Which leads to…
CRAFT: Look at Jonathan Pryce’s big speech to Jason Robards. God, just look at it. Look at what he’s doing and how he’s doing it. Look. Listen. Wow.
–Nightmare Alley (the original)
Con games, film noir, fake psychics, circus geeks. One bizarre film.
CRAFT: What does this film say about corruption, about power, about self-fulfilling destinies? (Bonus: DOES the main character have any psychic gifts, really, maybe?)
–X-Men II: X-Men United
The best superhero movie ever. Great acting, very good plot, very good dialog, neat thematic concerns. And Nightcrawler at his most Nightcrawler-est.
CRAFT: Look at what this film says about found families, as opposed to the family one just happens to born into. What does this film say about the concept of “being who you truly are”?
—Star Trek IV
I was a Star Trek fan as a kid. This entry into the franchise is funny in the ways that my favorite episodes of the show were. Plus, they saved the whales!
CRAFT: What does this film say about friendship, about the environment, about the future? Why is this funny? Why do people traditionally see Star Treks I, III, and V as failures, and II, this one, and VI as successes? What’s going right here, and why, and how?
–Leon: The Professional
Jean Reno breaks your heart in this one. He’s good, he’s noble, and he’s the best hitman I’ve seen onscreen. It has plenty of sick, violent moments, done incredibly well, too.
CRAFT: What does this film say about found families, as opposed to the family one just happens to born into? What does it say about violence, about revenge, about mourning?
Called “the first Freudian Western.” That just about sums it up.
CRAFT: What does this film say about fathers and sons, and the meaning of masculinity? When is it time for a father to let go and let a son start making his own decisions?
—My Darling Clementine
John Ford sure directs him some durned pretty Westerns, don’t he?
CRAFT: What does this film say about society, about civilization, about laws?
–The Crying Game
I like the characters. Sure, Mona Lisa or The Long Good Friday might be better examples of British neo-noir, but this one’s definitely the most personable.
CRAFT: What does this film say about love, about gender, about what’s important? What does it say about human nature?
–To Have and Have Not
Plot: Bogie and Baby would like to get it on, but the French resistance keeps interrupting them. Plus, we get to hear “How Little We Know.” Sexy.
CRAFT: Look at how this film maintains suspense. Look at how it’s always clear which side the characters should be on. What does this film say about taking sides– and not taking sides?
—Shadow of a Doubt
Hitchcock’s best psychopath. Perhaps his best film.
CRAFT: What does this film say about society? About good and evil? What does it say about small communities, and about the larger world? What are we supposed to think of Hume Cronyn’s character’s and the father’s delight in murder mysteries?
Weird, way-way-way-over-the-top horror with plenty of nutty twists and turns.
CRAFT: Wow, look at how reality shifts in this film. Look at how many times Jack glances at the camera. What does this film say about the past?
–The Adventures of Robin Hood
—The Sea Hawk
Errol Flynn is a joy to watch.
CRAFT: Look at what these films say about right and wrong. Look at how Errol Flynn wins over everyone good in these films. I don’t just mean “wow look how pretty and charming he is” –I mean, someone wrote every word he’s saying! Look how they made us think these two characters are super, super cool…
—A Fish Called Wanda
The 1980s answer to the Ealing Brothers. John Cleese is strangely sexy and sympatric. Jamie Lee Curtis is, well, just plain sexy.
CRAFT: What is this film saying about attraction, about romance, about love? Why is Wanda attracted (cough cough “attracted” ahem) by foreign languages?
—The Nutty Professor (original)
You watch this enough times you’ll start seeing what the French see in Jerry Lewis. Crazy comedy with an unexpected hipness factor.
CRAFT: Holy cow, look at Jerry impersonating the Rat Pack. Sure, Dean, but even more than Dean, Sinatra. Jerry understands exactly why this is sophisticated and cool and sexy and he nonetheless hates it. What does this film say about the concept of “being who you truly are”? And yeah, I just implied a double-feature of X-Men 2 and The Nutty Professor, so sue me.
—All The President’s Men
The two reigning champions of the ’70s paranoia film.
CRAFT: What are these films saying about the United States government? About power? About secrets? About uncovering secrets? About corruption? About truth?
Well, I did mention that I like Star Trek…
CRAFT: What does it mean to be regarded as a hero– to one person, or to a lot of people? How does this movie talk about what it means to feel you should try to live up to someone else’s ideal? (That’s right: My Favorite Year/Galaxy Quest double feature. I’m as surprised as you people.)
—Addams Family Values
More quotable lines per square inch than any film since The Producers. The one about the Aristotelian unities is one I haul out when I particularly hate a comic or a movie.
CRAFT: What does this film say about conforming to societal expectations? Whatever the answer is, it is saying it a LOT.
—Don’t Look Now
Scared me as a kid, scares me as an adult.
CRAFT: What is this film saying about grief… and moving on?
—The Parent Trap (the original)
Hayley Mills fascinates me. Few child actors are as natural, yet professional as she was. She acts like a real kid.
CRAFT: What is each movie saying about childhood? About adults? About hope?
—Curse of the Cat People
Strange little fantasy horror film. Oddest looking little blonde girl heroine I’ve ever seen. She’s as scary as her imaginary friend.
CRAFT: Wow oh wow, what is this movie saying about belief and trust?
—Grosse Pointe Blank
John Cusack, when he does films he really believes in, is a wonder to behold. I like both films equally. Grosse Point Blank has a slight edge because it’s a black comedy with some really great ultraviolence.
CRAFT: What is each movie saying about adulthood?
Judy Holliday was sweet, funny, incredibly smart (something like a 165 IQ)…and, supposedly, a lesbian. She’s just the most glorious actress, so loveable. She died young, sadly.
CRAFT: What is this movie saying about the United States? About corruption? About education? About being smart?
—The Major and The Minor
Ginger Rogers was an excellent comedian. This comedy has lots of nice dirty moments, too.
CRAFT: What is this movie saying about being gullible? About how humans see what they expect to see? Okay, maybe it’s pretty clear what it’s saying in regard to those things, but dang, look at the craft of how they’re saying it?
—Portrait of Jennie
Supernatural romance that always leaves me in tears.
CRAFT: What is this movie saying about love? About destiny? Okay, never mind those– look how actress Jennifer Jones works hard to portray a character growing from a young girl to an adult. She makes it look at least a little easier than it really is…
CRAFT: Look how the story is written to make us okay with two kids running off to explore Europe together! And look how the two young people are written, too. So many mistakes regarding how to write young people are avoided…
Soap opera as horror, maybe? Intense.
CRAFT: What is this film saying about emotional abuse? What does it say about trust? About dysfunctional families? Look at how subtle this script is… Look at how it always shows instead of tells.
Okay, that’s it for this time– come back soon for the rest of the list (and, sooner or later, an updated, better-than-ever list)!
Okay, it’s my turn to do one of these… Barb suggested that I write about what I call TAGCRAFT.
What, you might very naturally ask, is tagcraft? Well, it’s about the writerly art and science of doing the tags.
Ah yes, the tags, you say, nodding, reaching for a phone book to call me a team of mental health experts.
Yeah, I say, taking the phone book away from you. “Tags” are the term I came up with to describe the stuff that’s happening in prose fiction that isn’t the dialogue, the descriptions, nor the narration as such. (I invented the term after saying “Wait, they carried this back-and-forth dialogue too long, the reader’s gonna lose track of who’s saying what– they need to tag the spoken words more ofren with who said them.”) It’s stuff that counts as narration, but it’s not what we normally think of as narration. What we normally think of as narration is:
The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t help but feel there was something fishy about Thorvaldson’s story, in spite of my gut telling me I was right when I’d first had him figured for a very honest guy. Could he be covering up for someone? Or could he be wrong? Like, his cheap watch had stopped, and it wasn’t really 2 o’clock when he’d seen the blonde at all? No, he would’ve mentioned something like that, if he was really honest. Liars usually try to push the lie, but Thorvaldson had seemed very casual about everything, like he had nothing to prove.
See? Like that, in a big block. But there’s a more subtle kind of narration, the kind that mortars the little stones of dialogue in place. Let’s see, I just made up that stuff with Thorvaldson off the top of my head, but let’s go to Hammett’s The Thin Man— no, tell you what, better go with something I know is in the public domain, just entered a year or two ago, The Great Gatsby:
A subdued impassioned murmur was audible in the room beyond, and Miss Baker leaned forward unashamed, trying to hear. The murmur trembled on the verge of coherence, sank down, mounted excitedly, and then ceased altogether.
“This Mr. Gatsby you spoke of is my neighbour—” I began.
“Don’t talk. I want to hear what happens.”
“Is something happening?” I inquired innocently.
“You mean to say you don’t know?” said Miss Baker, honestly surprised. “I thought everybody knew.”
“Why—” she said hesitantly. “Tom’s got some woman in New York.”
“Got some woman?” I repeated blankly.
Miss Baker nodded.
“She might have the decency not to telephone him at dinner time. Don’t you think?”
Almost before I had grasped her meaning there was the flutter of a dress and the crunch of leather boots, and Tom and Daisy were back at the table.
“It couldn’t be helped!” cried Daisy with tense gaiety.
She sat down, glanced searchingly at Miss Baker and then at me, and continued: “I looked outdoors for a minute, and it’s very romantic outdoors. There’s a bird on the lawn that I think must be a nightingale come over on the Cunard or White Star Line. He’s singing away—” Her voice sang: “It’s romantic, isn’t it, Tom?”
“Very romantic,” he said, and then miserably to me: “If it’s light enough after dinner, I want to take you down to the stables.”
The telephone rang inside, startlingly, and as Daisy shook her head decisively at Tom the subject of the stables, in fact all subjects, vanished into air.
It’s no Hammett, I admit, but look at that stuff. You know how a teenager would write that stuff? Like this:
“This Mr. Gatsby you spoke of is my neighbour—” I said.
“Don’t talk. I want to hear what happens.”
“Is something happening?” I asked.
“You mean to say you don’t know? I thought everybody knew,” said Miss Baker.
“Why, Tom’s got some woman in New York.”
“Got some woman?” I said.
Miss Baker nodded.
Now go back up and look at the difference. It’s not like a screenplay, but it fills in stuff for you. “My neighbour—” I began. I inquired innocently. Honestly surprised. She said hesitantly. I repeated blankly. It shows you how to read it, how to hear it in your head. And that’s just in that early part. I call those tags, because they’re attached to the dialogue, innocuously fluttering in the breeze, except there is no breeze, so you don’t notice them nor think about them half the time. But they’re important, those tags. It takes good work for you to not notice them. Sometimes, as with said Miss Baker, honestly surprised, the tag comes in the middle of the line. And there’s an art and science (which, again, I call tagcraft) to how you can drop all tags in an intense conversation between two people– you can’t pull it with a third person there, or the reader has no idea who’s speaking, it has to be two people taking turns– the art and science is how long you can pull the lack of tags off and just let the dialogue greyhounds run down the track by themselves.
And look at all the adverbs! Excitedly, innocently, blankly, searchingly— anybody who goes by most people’s writerly advice on the internet in the 21st century would have F. Scott Fitzgerald taken out behind the barn and shot.
Look, “never use adverbs” is Stan Hates Green Covers. One day, someone at Marvel Comics (I think it was Jim Steranko?) wanted to do a mostly-green cover, but they were told “Stan hates green covers.” So the artist went to Stan and showed him what he wanted to do, and Stan loved it. “That’s great!” said Stan. “Really makes it stand out!”
“Um, they told me you hate green covers.”
“Yeah? Oh, well, yeah, I told them that because they were doing it wrong, and it was an eyesore, and it was easier to get ’em to stop by just telling ‘em I hated green covers than to sit ‘em down and give a long explanation why what they were doing wasn’t working. But THIS that you’re doing HERE is great, go do it!”
It’s certainly possible to overuse adverbs, trying to think of a clever alternative to SAID every time. So yeah, don’t do that. But look at Ol’ F. Scott up there. As long as you don’t do it more than him, you’ll be okay– IF you know what you’re doing.
Adverbs are not a crime, fellows and girls and other compatriots. Ol’ F. Scott puts ’em on every page he feels like it, and based on the above, he apparently thinks they’re necessary on almost every page.
When I started editing for my wife Barbara, she’d get in such a cat-pounding-away-at-keyboard-meme frenzy, she was turning prose out at such speed that she just let me worry about the tagcraft for her, because she could go even faster that way, because her strong suit is pure dialogue (and plot, but that’s a whole other story). When she saw my tagcraft, she approved, and we just entered into full symbiosis from there. So I’ve had at least a million words of practice, I’ve lost count, probably two by now, especially tagcrafting my own prose, let alone the stuff that comes straight from her. Tags matter.
“Well, since you asked,” he said, “I guess I’m saying I have a problem with you holding hands with my wife like that.”
Okay, now, look at this. Look what you can do:
“Well, since you asked,” he said drunkenly, slurring his words a bit on “since” and “asked–” –they became “shinsh” and “ashked–” “–I guess I’m saying I have a problem with you holding hands with my wife like that.”
“Well,” he said, very slowly and quietly, “since you asked, I guess I’m saying I have a problem with you holding hands with my wife like that.”
“Well, since you asked,” he snarled, “I guess I’m saying I have a problem with you holding hands with my wife like that.”
“Well, since you asked,” he chuckled, “I guess I’m saying I have a problem with you holding hands with my wife like that.”
“Well, since you asked,” he said, his hands twitching, his eyes darting about the room for a blunt instrument, “I guess I’m saying I have a problem with you holding hands with my wife like that.”
“Well, since you asked,” he sighed, “I guess I’m saying I have a problem with you holding hands with my wife like that.”
See what I mean? Tags matter–and I constantly see people who tagcraft like amateurs, and so I weep with joy when I see someone who’s mastered the art of doing them right yet keeping them from stealing attention from the rest of the prose, or better yet someone who knows how to make the tags as good as the rest of it.
So give a thought to your tags, when you write, and don’t be afraid of an adverb now and then. Treat them kindly and gently, and they’ll treat you accordingly.
One of the pleasures and challenges concerning writing my novel Song to the Siren was that the book took place over several years. The main character, cult rock figure, Reed Sinclair, started out as a gifted eight-year-old. The book then took him through his teenage years, his young adult years, and well into adulthood.
The challenge was to make Reed a charismatic but realistically-written gifted child, then a rebellious teenager who may or may not have had mental problems, then a young adult musician, and then the adult who became a legend in rock-snob circles for not only his music, but his wild behavior. Reed had to remain Reed throughout the whole book, yet he had to mature with age.
Now, the main problem with such an undertaking is keeping the character not only in character, but also keeping the character not just recognizable, but also likeable.
Too often in such undertakings, I see authors who make their characters quite compelling when the characters are younger, but totally depressing messes as adults.
For instance, take the novel Brideshead Revisited. One of the characters, Cordelia Flyte, was a serious, religious child, but one who was quite likeable because of her childlike faith. As Cordelia aged, she was the same person without a bit more maturity or humor, and she was no longer likeable. In fact, the book showed her to be, ultimately, a tragic character. The same thing happened to every character in the book. Everyone was so likeable at first, even though they were flawed beyond belief. By the time the book was done, I hated everyone in it. Is life really so fatalistically tragic that not a single character had a ray of hope in them? Apparently not. The book became a slog for me to read. But apparently, it became a classic because every ray of hope was extinguished?
I ended up feeling pretty depressed by the end of the book, because people I’d grown to like turned into people I couldn’t stand.
So, when I was writing Reed Sinclair, I said, “Keep him likeable. Keep a little bit of hope alive, even though there’s tragedy. Don’t depress the reader. Depressing them will make them slog through the book instead of turning the pages eagerly.”
How did I keep hope alive? Simple. Reed had one big, redeeming quality, even when his career hit the skids and he started having substance abuse problems. He had the capacity to love others, especially his friends, and especiallythe young woman he’d loved since he was a child.
Even in tragedies, a ray of light shows the characters’ humanity. Hell, in the last act of Hamlet, even Hamlet had time to show some pluck, humor, and cleverness.
Song to the Siren was a modern-age bildungsroman, which is just a fancy term for, to quote Wikipedia:
a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from childhood to adulthood (coming of age), in which character change is important. The term comes from the German words Bildung (“education”, alternatively “forming”) and Roman (“novel”).
I like that: character change is important, whether it’s a period of years or months. All characters change over time. But the audience has to keep liking the character over time. If a character in a series of novels becomes a nothing but a bitter jerk without hope, at a certain point, the character loses the audience.
It’s like that with all human relationships. We’ve all had that friend that we liked a lot when we were younger, but how they ended up as adults was so depressing, we left that person behind, because we had no way to relate to them.
Don’t let your character be that friend the audience has to leave behind because the friend painted themselves into a corner and has no capacity for change or growth or making things better for themselves.
But it’s also important that the character does change and grow up. Without change, the character can become boring.
That’s not always true. Sherlock Holmes didn’t change, except he kicked cocaine and his roommate, Dr. Watson, got married and left 221B Baker Street. Oh, and Holmes “died,” but that didn’t last long, because the audience wouldn’t stand for it. But Holmes is an icon more than a human being, so let’s say he’s an exception to the rule.
I remember reading a detective series where I liked the detective a lot. Apparently, the author did too, as she refused to let him change and grow. Six novels in, I realized that I could come back to the series, and nothing would change except who was murdered. When I realized that, I stopped reading the otherwise-enjoyable series.
Years later, I picked up the most recent volume of the series. I was right– nothing had changed at all. I laughed, then put the book back on the shelf, because every book was still the same: the same characters doing the same things, telling the same jokes, trotting out the same trite catchphrases, and so on.
They were stuck in time, while I had moved forward, and away from those books.
Evolve your characters over time, but never forget to add the qualities that make them likeable.
A lot of writerly advice tells you, “Just write! It doesn’t matter if you have a good idea, just write!”
Personally, I think this is bad advice.
In my opinion, writing without a good idea is like that joke about the kid who went to the horse stalls and started shoveling horse shit. When someone asked the kid why, the kid said, “With all this shit in here, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere.”
You have to have the pony first, or else all the shit you’re shoveling is sweaty, smelly effort for no purpose.
Now, when you’re first starting out as a writer, shit-shoveling builds your writerly muscles. You gain experience, and as I always say, “Only experience makes a writer a writer.” But here’s the deal. That shit you’re shoveling is practice, not art. The art of professional writing takes time, patience, and a dedication to honing your skills.
I don’t know what it’s like in the rest of the world, but in America, there is a strange idea that hard work—nothing more, necessarily, just hard work all by itself, entitles you to success. People write their first novel, and put in the work. They’ve written their eighty-or-so-thousand words. So, they expect success.
Not so fast. Just because you worked hard on something doesn’t mean it’s any good. Yeah, you wrote a rough draft, but where’s the editing and the proofreading? Even if you do those things, too, it doesn’t mean that you’re ready to be a professional author.
You need a product that people like.
The first step to writing a work that people like is a good, inspired idea.
It amazes me how many professional writers deride the concept of inspiration. Just look up “Waiting for Inspiration to Strike” on Google and you’ll find article after article about going ahead anyway, soldiering through, even if you only have a crappy idea, or no idea at all.
I think writers think that if you’re sitting around “waiting for the gift of sound and vision,” to quote David Bowie, you’re not really writing. They must think that novice writers are just sitting around all day, drinking coffee in a coffee shop, procrastinating, pretending to be writers, never accomplishing anything, and never getting a word down on paper. Yeah, I admit, this does happen to some people. But the answer isn’t to make the writerly life into an assembly line of words, day after day, typing yet another 1000 words, even if those words are uninspired crap.
Remember the old saying, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
A lot of modern writers tell you that writing is one hundred percent perspiration.
No wonder so many books are boring, uninspired affairs.
You need a good idea. That’s the foundation of your novel. Yes, it’ll take months of dedicated effort to make that idea into a reality, but you need that germ of inspiration if you’re going to do something worth publishing.
So, take the time to find that good idea. And when it finally comes to you, work like a mofo to make it a reality. Otherwise, it’s all shit-shoveling and no pony.
My husband and I have a saying that comes from a Mitch Hedberg comedy routine: Don’t force the trip.
Mitch Hedberg said:
I was in Ireland. I got to drink absinthe in Ireland. Absinthe is a liquor that they outlaw. It’s supposed to make you trip hallucinogenic-ally. So, I got excited, because I like to hallucinate. So, I started drinking lots of shots of it. But really, it’s just a liquor, so really, I was just getting f****d up. I wasn’t even remotely tripping. After 10 shots, I fell to the ground. I was trying to force the trip. “Why is the floor as low as I can go?” I was just faking it, you know.
He wanted inspiration. Instead, he just got f****d up.
I’ve learned, over time, that when I’m trying to find inspiration, I’ve sometimes tried selling my husband on an iffy story idea. He just smiles and blinks, as opposed to getting excited about the idea. When that happens, I say, “I’m forcing the trip, aren’t I?” He just nods at me. Whenever it’s obvious to both of us that I’m just faking it, I dump the idea and wait for the “trip” to happen.
When the right idea comes along, I get excited, and I push myself to my utmost to write the rough draft, sometimes writing three thousand words a day, because the idea is pushing me to make it a reality. It feels good, like a legal high. And when I get that excitement in my brain, I know that I’ve found a good idea. The writing flows, and when I’m done with it, I know I’ve written something inspired.
When you’re lucky enough to have one of those ideas, you feel like you’ve got the world’s greatest job. Nothing is more joyful, more honest, more exhilarating than making that idea come to life.
So, yeah, waiting on that great idea does take time, and it requires faith, but it feels a lot better than sweating my ass off in a stable, looking for a pony, but only ending up shoveling shit and saying “Look at how hard I’m working as a writer.”
I talked in an interview once about how to deal with writer’s block… and the interviewer seemed shocked by my advice.
Most writers, when they talk about dealing with writer’s block, tell you to sit at your computer and stare at the screen until an idea comes to you.
To me, that’s a not a good idea because:
1/ Staring at the computer screen makes a person feel panicked. That white screen feels like a reproach, as if it’s saying, “You’re no writer. If you were, you’d be typing instead of staring at the screen.”
2/ In a state of panic, you grab the first idea that comes into your head, even if it’s not a great idea. You grab it because it’s better than staring at the screen. That bad idea might tank a good story.
3/ Then, the next time you have writer’s block, you feel even more panicked, which causes more writer’s block.
4/ During all of this, your inner critic is yelling and screaming at you that you’re not really a good writer, that you’re just a hopeless dreamer, and so on. Inner critics can be your worst enemy, so don’t let the inner critic live rent-free in your head.
So, my advice is to stop looking at the computer screen, save your file, and go do mindless housework.
When you do a basic task such as unloading the dishwasher, you’re calming yourself down, which gives the subconscious mind a chance to mull over the scene you’re stuck on.
Make sure that the task is mindless, though. If you do your taxes, for instance, you are focusing on mental work instead of letting your subconscious mind do its work. Don’t listen to music, unless it’s something without words such as classical music. If you listen to music with words, then the song’ll get into your head, and instead of an idea, your brain gets stuck singing “Hooked on a Feeling” or whatever all day.
When you’re doing mindless housework—which after all has to be done at some point—you’re telling your inner critic, “I am accomplishing something, even if it isn’t writing, so lay off.”
It’s like when people study for a test. At a certain point, they can’t look at the book or notes any longer, so they do something else. Doing something else refreshes the brain. Don’t do something like playing a video game, because your inner critic will say that you’re just procrastinating. Also, video games require a lot of focus and concentration.
Doing housework doesn’t require that kind of focus and concentration. As a side note, don’t do anything that requires operating heavy machinery or a hammer or a saw or anything else you could accidentally injure yourself with. When your mind is working on a story, your attention is half on the task, half on the story—and you don’t want to end up in the ER because you picked the wrong task.
If that doesn’t work, take a walk or have a nice lie-down. I’m a big believer in “a change is as good as a rest.”
If none of these things work, express your frustration to someone who cares about you. Articulating your problem out loud can sometimes be the key to solving your problem.
Writer’s block happens to all of us, so like the Guide in The Hitchhiker’s Guide says: Don’t panic.
In a previous post, I decried how many modern novels start with an in media res start to things—that is, they start the story already mid-plot and expect the audience to catch up, which is not just confusing to the reader, but may also alienate the reader, because it means they’ll have no idea who the action is happening to.
But literary agents, being busy people, only want to see the first chapter of your novel. So, people work to make their first chapter the mother of all first chapters, because they simply must capture the agent’s attention.
It’s gotten to the point where, if you don’t have a start to a novel that’s what I call a Crash Boom Bam (CBB) first chapter, agents may turn down your manuscript.
Now, you may ask, what’s so bad about a CBB first chapter? Don’t they draw the reader in?
While I get your point, CBB chapters are—among other problems—ruining slow-burn suspense novels. See, I love finding authors who know how to do a slow burn well, especially those who write in the horror or suspense genres. When you have a CBB first chapter, though, you destroy that slow-burn gradual building-up of suspense.
I’ll give you two examples of the beginnings of novels that I love, but modern agents would turn down flat.
The first novel is called Bedelia, by Vera Caspary, also the author of Laura, which was later turned into the classiest film noir ever. In Bedelia, the whole first chapter is a staid affair, talking about an ideal marriage between Charlie and Bedelia. Charlie considers himself to be “the luckiest man in the world.” And from all indications in the first chapter, he well might be.
Then, at the beginning of the second chapter, all hell starts breaking loose. Every page after that is a real nail-biter. I was hooked like a fish on a, uh, hook.
But if Vera Caspary had sent in that first chapter to a modern agent, without being able to send in the second chapter, her book never would’ve been published, because every agent in the world would say: “That’s boring. Why aren’t you giving me action?”
Well, the reason why there’s no action in the first chapter is to lull the reader into a quiet complacency and a false sense of security. But when the second chapter starts reeling the fish in, it’s too late for the fish to struggle. If the book started out with CBB instead, then some people might have said, “Nah, I’m not into this.” Luring the reader requires time and patience, but it works at least as well—maybe even better than—the CBB first chapter.
My second example is a book I read on a whim during the initial pandemic lockdown. I’d seen the movie the book was adapted from, and it wasn’t quite my sort of thing. But once the pandemic started, I was grabbing for any book that looked interesting.
Anyway, the book started out in a cozy little way. A young actor and his wife had just signed a contract to rent an apartment that they weren’t exactly keen on. But then, the apartment that they wanted had a vacancy, so the husband managed to wriggle out of the contract, and the couple rented the first apartment. They met their neighbors, who seemed very friendly. Heck, the apartment and the neighbors seemed so nice that anyone would jump at a chance to live there.
Sounds kind of boring, doesn’t it?
Well, wonder if I told you that the wife’s name was Rosemary Woods and that she and her husband wanted to have a baby? Yeah, that’s right: I just described the start of Rosemary’s Baby.
The book deliberately takes its time warming up. It is a slow burn. But three or four chapters in, I couldn’t put the book down. It’d hooked me because the author turned the heat up slowly, as opposed to quickly.
I’ve read horror novels that turned up the heat faster, and I didn’t finish a lot of them, because I wasn’t lured into the book—I wasn’t given breadcrumbs to follow. Instead, I was given CBB, and it was a turn-off for me.
Yet if Ira Levin had just turned in the first chapter of Rosemary’s Baby, the world would never know that Rosemary’s baby would have his father’s eyes.
As someone who’s written a few slow burn novels, it’s frustrating that agents need instant gratification first chapters. They seem to think that a slow burn first chapter means that you don’t know how to write a chapter that will “draw the reader in.” Unlike readers, who are understanding (as long as the writer knows how to write), agents seem to lack that kind of forbearance. And—I get why! Agents are busy! But the world needs slow burn novels, and we’re not getting enough of them, because writers can’t write them and write for a busy agent, too.
I don’t know what the solution is, but it’s a problem, as well as a sad state of affairs.
If you’re a typical novice writer, then you’re obsessed with doing things the way a professional writer does things. So when a pithy piece of writerly advice comes along, you probably follow that suggestion like it’s one of the Ten Commandments.
Sadly, this gung-ho attitude is sometimes taken to ridiculous extremes by novice writers.
Take the pithy saying, “Kill your darlings.”
Now, what this is supposed to mean is that if a sentence, subplot, or supporting character doesn’t work, even if it’s something you worked hard on and like, you should cut it out “for the good of the story.”
Consider the source for this advice. Yes, Stephen King said it, but the guy who popularized the saying first was William Faulkner.
Think about Faulkner for a bit. This is the guy who decided to do the most self-indulgent thing I can imagine—writing one sentence that went on for pages—and he’s telling you not to be self-indulgent. And yet people remember Faulkner for taking this artistic risk. But he’s telling you not to take similar artistic risks?
Novice writers are so young and enthusiastic, that they often take writerly advice to an illogical extreme.
So, you have novice writers prowling around their prose like they’re Elmer Fudd, saying, “Be wery wery qwiet, I’m killing my darlings!”
They do the same thing with adverbs, the words “very” and “slightly,” and so forth, but my husband recently covered that one.
The point is that I’m starting to suspect that novice writers are overdoing it, because modern books are often very boring, and there’s an appalling lack of individual writing styles out there.
Now, I believe that you have to be willing to cut what doesn’t work. But I don’t believe that you should be actively hunting down every line of writing that you like and killing it.
“But it’s for the good of the story!” a novice writer will probably argue.
No, dear novice, it’s not for the good of the story, it’s for the good of the plot.
Plot does not equal story.
Plot is like the Wikipedia entry for a book. You read the bare bones of what a book is about, but you don’t get setting, dialogue, narrative style, nor character development. Only a whole book can give you those things.
A story is everything that a story is. A plot is simply what happens to the characters.
A story, in addition to a plot, has to have a setting, three-dimensional characters, good dialogue, an interesting narrative style, and an interesting writerly style.
Let’s talk about writerly style for a minute. Every writer should have their own style of writing. Yes, when you’re starting out, you’ll stand on the shoulders of your influences, but eventually, you’ll have to stand on your own. If you don’t have a writerly style, your prose suffers. As Shirley Jackson once said, writing isn’t the same thing as reporting the events that happen to your characters. There has to be a living, breathing soul behind your writing, or else it’s dry, lifeless stuff.
Nowadays, I see too much faceless, unindividuated prose out there. Oh, it’s professional enough, but it feels like an AI wrote it instead of a human being.
If I showed you a page of Dorothy Parker’s work, a page of P.G. Wodehouse’s work, a page of James Thurber’s work, etc., you would see that all of these writers have a unique way of seeing the world and writing about it. Yes, they’re all humorists, but they’re each funny in their own way—they’re each off-beat and quirky in their own way.
And I think they’re that way because they didn’t get Faulkner’s memo to kill their darlings.
That line or subplot or character that you’re killing off may be what gives your story zest and individuation. So, that line doesn’t advance the plot—it may do something more important, such as advance the readers’ understanding of a character, or help suspend the audience’s disbelief, or make the audience like/identify with a character.
Talk Sherlock Holmes. Technically, Holmes doesn’t need a pipe, or his “seven-percent solution,” or his lectures to Dr. Watson about Holmes’ methods, or Holmes’ criticisms of Dr. Watson’s writing style, or Holmes’ violin. None of these things contribute to the plot of a Holmes story. But they do contribute to what makes Sherlock Holmes who and what he is.
Maybe the quirks are the reason why we remember Sherlock Holmes and don’t remember, say, “The Old Man in the Chair,” a nameless detective contemporary of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is quirky as can be, and, therefore, memorable.
Have you ever thought that maybe that line that you’re so eager to kill, far from being an annoyance that’s slowing down your plot, might be the very thing that makes you fascinating as a writer? Novice writers are told about all the ways that they can draw the reader into a story, but they’re told to kill any writerly quirks too, which seems illogical to me.
After all, the best way to attract anyone into your life is to be totally, uniquely yourself.
Maybe, just maybe, by killing something you love in your story, you may be killing off something that might make the reader remember and like your prose.
So, have your weapon at the ready to kill your darlings if they’re a threat to your story, but don’t go hunting them down—because if you’re kill-crazy concerning your prose, you may be giving yourself a self-inflicted wound instead of doing yourself a favor.