Friday, April 15, 2016

If You Want to Send a Message – Call Western Union

Tell us which conferences are your favorites and why you like to attend them.

by Paul D. Marks

Well, since I’ve pretty much answered this week’s question before, let me put up a link to the previous post on that: http://7criminalminds.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-egg-and-i.html . Everything’s pretty much the same as I talk about there, except that I’ve been to an additional Bouchercon in Raleigh, which was great fun. And, we loved the local food.

So instead, I’d like to answer the question from two weeks ago instead. That question was:

Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?

Well, there’s messages and there’s messages. Sam Goldwyn—the G in M-G-M/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer— is famously rumored to have said “Pictures are entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union” or, depending on where you find it, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

That said, of course there’s some themes and/or underlying messages that come across in my work.  And though my novels are noir-thriller-mysteries there’s usually something of an underlying theme. And some of those themes I’ve revisited in several projects.

One of those recurring themes is people out of time. And I don’t mean in a sci-fi way. But “dinosaurs,” people that time has passed by one way or another and who would be better living in an earlier era. While Jack, the sidekick in White Heat, is in some ways a modern man, he also has some very unPC attitudes that might have served him better in previous eras. I was a little concerned about him before the book came out, but people seem to really like him. He says things that other people think but are afraid to say. On the other hand, he always does the right thing, even when he’s saying the wrong thing. And, as I say, more people have told me they like him than I ever could have imagined, people from all walks of life and backgrounds. Another character who’s living in the wrong era is Tom Holland in the story Angels Flight. He’s something of an old-fashioned cop, not quite ready to partner up with a black, female woman from the mayor’s office and her unusual crime-solving techniques.

Another theme I seem to go back to a lot is that of broken dreams, people whose aspirations are greater than their achievements.  Along with this is the theme of Los Angeles as the last stop on the West Coast before everything tumbles into the Pacific—after all, Route 66 ends right about where the Santa Monica Pier is. And L.A. is both a theme and character in my writing in the sense that it is the last stop for many. In the short story Free Fall Rick comes to L.A., finding himself at the end of Route 66, hoping for a new start on life…and he gets it. In fact, he gets much more than he bargained for when he meets Gloria, who asks a favor of him that causes him to go into a tailspinning free fall.



In another story, Endless Vacation, a young woman comes to L.A. with stars in her eyes, expecting to find the streets of Hollywood paved with gold. Instead she finds that Hollywood is the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, paved with heroin instead of gold.

Howling at the Moon is a story about honoring the past and paying attention to tradition. It’s also about a returning war vet who reconnects with his American Indian roots in a dangerous way.

But with all that, my number one goal in all of these, and others, is to entertain. To bring the reader on a roller coaster ride that’s thrilling and fun. And I have to go back to Sam Goldwyn’s line about Western Union. At the very least, messages shouldn’t be heavy handed. And the prime purpose for your story should be to entertain. Which brings me to the great Preston Sturges movie Sullivan’s Travels, with Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. McCrea plays a movie director who makes trifles like Ants in Your Plants of 1939, but he wants to make a serious, ponderous movie called Oh Brother Where Art Thou that the studio is against. He sets out to see what life is like for the down and out, getting much more than he bargained for. But ultimately what he finds is that those who are really down and out don’t want stories about that, they want to laugh—to be entertained. And that’s our number one job to entertain.

When I was judging for a short story award a while back I read every story word for word to the end because I wanted to be fair to the writers. But there was one exception. And why did I stop reading that one a few pages in: because it was nothing but a preachy didactic political diatribe. What happened to the story, what happened to the characters? This was just the author ranting on in the voice of the character or narrator. It brought the story to a dead halt and I halted with it.

So if we’re going to have a “message,” keep it low. Let the characters be who they are and not some cardboard fill in for your rants. And most of all be entertaining.

And that’s my 9 cents (increased for inflation) on the subject.

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6 comments:

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Paul D. Marks said...

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GBPool said...

Maybe it's age, but the older I get, the fewer messages I want to read in stories. If a TV show goes totally political, I stop watching. A good story can have a point, but not delivered with an sledge hammer. And a great writer can tell a story with a message and the reader will never know he has been educated.

Paul D. Marks said...

I agree with you 100%, Gayle. And it doesn't matter whether I agree or disagree with the message. If it's too heavy-handed it just stops the action and I stop with it.

Art Taylor said...

Nice post, Paul! I appreciated some reflections on the themes that hold your story together--alongside that emphasis that the storytelling/entertainment comes first. Hope you're doing well—and look forward to seeing you at the NEXT Bouchercon!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Art! Always appreciate your comments. I'm doing pretty well, hope you are too. And definitely: Bouchercon!