Friday, February 28, 2014

The Good, The Bad and The Bookly!

Is it true that bad books make good movies and good books make bad ones?

There's no hard and fast rule about whether good books make bad movies or bad books make good ones. There's only about a million factors involved, from the screenwriters to the director, the producer, cast and probably even down to the crafts services personnel. And let's not forget the source material.

Books and movies by their natures are very different beasts and require different aesthetics and elements. Movies have to convey a lot of information in a small amount of time, so overly complicated story lines can drag a movie down. Books can handle information in a more leisurely manner, description of places and people are more important, and you can get more into the heads of the characters, examine their thoughts and feelings. A book has to wrap you up inside itself because it can’t rely on a visual picture to get across the look and feel of the characters and settings. And a movie should grab the essence of the book, without necessarily being true to every detail of it (see LA Confidential below). These changes can – on occasion – make the movie better than the book.

So, some good books make good movies and some good books make bad movies. And some bad books make good movies and some make bad movies. Well, of course, nothing is true all the time. And I wouldn't venture a generality, but it works both ways.

It's hard to narrow it down to a few examples as there's so many choices of each combination. And it's also hard to distill down the essence of why this worked and that didn’t, as each one that I've chosen could stand an entire essay on that subject. Here's a sampling, though I'm sure not everyone will agree with my assessments. And I'm sure I'll offend somebody with each one, but here goes (in no particular order):

Spoilers ahead:

In a Lonely Place (Dorothy B. Hughes): Good book, great movie. This is tied for my second favorite movie after Casablanca. I like it for a lot of reasons, but especially the story of the angry and alienated screenwriter. And I know I may offend some people here, Dorothy B. Hughes fans in particular, but for me the movie version is a huge improvement over the book, and I liked the book, but I didn't love it. The book, as I recall it, is a pretty straight-forward serial killer story. The movie takes the basics of the book and adds an ambiguity that leads to a much more bittersweet and poignant story and ending than in the book. So this is a case where the filmmakers did change a certain essence of the story, but it works out for the better. And if you want to hear a really good song based on this movie check out the Smithereens' "In a Lonely Place," which even cops a couple of the film’s most famous lines:

The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown): Bad book, bad movie. Sometimes bad books make bad movies. I know a lot of people like this, but in my maybe not so humble opinion, the book was very poorly written. It's a prime example of a great idea poorly executed. And the movie didn’t try to break out of the cardboard characters created in the book. It concentrated on remaining relatively faithful to the plot and didn’t stray so the movie remained as weak as the book.

Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe): Great book, horrendously horrible, piece of garbage movie: Why? Because, if I recall, as it's been a long time since I've seen it and I won't punish myself with wasting two hours of my life again, the producers didn't have the courage to do the book. The book is filled with various sensitive and controversial elements that deal with race and our perceptions of justice in society and the producers didn't have the courage to do that on the screen, so they turned it into a lame parody of what the book was trying to convey. And the movie was bad on every possible level.

1039199-g1 The Godfather (Mario Puzo): Okay book, a fun and quick read, great movie. In fact, one of the greatest American movies of all time. The movie, through great acting, directing, cinematography, a haunting sound track and a terrific screenplay, took a pulpy story about gangsters and made it a saga about family honor, tradition, a way of life and the struggle for the American Dream.  

LA Confidential (James Ellroy): Good book, great movie: Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland took Ellroy's sprawling novel, condensed it, pureed it and simplified it, making a tight, cohesive and powerful movie out of it, while still keeping the essence of the novel intact.

Mildred Pierce (James M. Cain): Good, maybe just okay book, good movie (the 1946 version w/ J. Crawford). Here the screenwriters and director took a major liberty with the book. SPOILER AHEAD: In the book the Monte character (Mildred's second husband) does not get murdered. In the movie he does. And this brings more tension, drama and mystery to the movie, without, IMO, messing with the basic integrity of the story line. And while the Kate Winslett mini-series follows the book more closely, to me it was more plodding and in a word, boring. Though I guess I'm in the minority here as on IMDB the Winslett version gets 7.7 out of 10 stars, and the Crawford version 8. So almost a neck and neck tie. Oh well.

high_tower (1) w photo attribute The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler) – Great book, wretched movie. Okay, I know a lot of people love this movie, think it's some kind of cult classic, etc. To me the only really good thing about it is the location of Marlowe's apartment, the Hightower Apartments in Hollywood, where I once looked into renting a place. Really cool building. But Elliot Gould's Marlowe, despite what some say is a Marlowe for the times (the 1970s), is not Chandler's Marlowe by a long shot. And Chandler was, and probably still is, rolling over in his grave at this one. And now that I've pissed off a bunch of people, I've got the Kevlar helmet and flak jacket ready to take the incoming.

And now for a little BSP: in addition to my novel WHITE HEAT, just out is LA LATE @ NIGHT, a collection of noir and mystery short stories. So far available on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback. And other venues shortly too.

LA Late @ Night ebook Cover FD1   White Heat cover -- new pix batch -- D26--small

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lights! Camera! Problem!


Well, leaving aside To Kill A Mockingbird, a slew of Chandlers, I Capture The Castle, and Atonement, yes.  And Harry Potter. But broadly speaking.  And The Great Gatsby. Quite broadly. Trainspotting.

So maybe no.

Sometimes the problem with a beloved book being made into a movie is that so much is lost. Nothing's missing from the film - the film's fine - but all you can think of as you sit there with a fistful of popcorn halfway to your open mouth are the purged characters, edited out like Trotsky.

Perhaps that's why short stories can make such successful films even for their fans: they start the right size.  Brokeback Mountain for instance is wonderful in both forms (unlike The Shipping News) and (Rita Hayworth and) The Shawshank Redemption too.  Whereas, when John Irving tried to turn the  - admittedly sizeable - Cider House Rules into a movie, the script had a running time of over eight hours.

Killing other people's darlings must be easier. Emma Thompson pulled off a near miracle when she adapted Sense And Sensibility. She took a wonderful book and made it better; removing characters no one misses (Lady Middleton and her four children? Who cares?) and giving purpose to dull characters too. Margaret Dashwood adds nothing to the world of the novel whatsoever but in the film she's funny, she reveals Edward's character through his relationship with her and the little actress playing her manages to steal scenes from Kate Winslet, no less.

When I was beginning to think about writing, I never daydreamed having written the books I was reading, but I quite often daydreamed the book that a movie I was watching would have been before its adaptation.  I still do.  (And if anyone else does, feel free to admit it and not leave me hanging, eh?) Some films made terrible imaginary books - Groundhog Day, for instance (RIP Harold Ramis), where short chapters could never capture the quick cuts of the days when Phil is getting into his repetitive groove.
Moonstruck on the other hand, I could never believe hadn't been a book. Its plot is perfect, its characters delightful, its world fully imagined. I wish I'd written it - even though I might have killed myself when they took my book and cast Nicholas Cage.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Devil, The Wizard & The Blogger

by Clare O'Donohue
Susan and Robin have answered the question of the week beautifully, and I admit that batting third, I have little to add. Some books, such as The Lovely Bones, are so internal that no movie can possibly reach the same depths. Others, like The Devil Wears Prada, are so light that a movie (particularly one with Meryl Streep) can add weight and dimension where none existed before.
Moves and books, as Meredith Cole has already pointed out, are two very different beasts. But sometimes they come together spectacularly. I think in those cases where the movie lives up to the book it's because, in part, the writer's style is cinematic to begin with. Oddly, the example that came to mind immediately was Harry Potter.
I say oddly because of the flap over author Lynn Shepherd's Huffington Post blog in which she berated JK Rowling for continuing to write, since she's already made tons of money and sold lots of books. Her suggestion is that Rowling stop writing for the adult market and either focus herself on YA novels, or stop publishing altogether. Her argument is that people who are spending their money on Rowling's work would instead spend it on Shepherd's.
Yes, you read that correctly and no, you are not missing the logic. There is none.
Many, including our own Catriona McPherson, have written very well on this subject over the past few days and I'm (once again) in a position of adding to a topic already so well covered. But I guess I don't follow in Shepherd's footsteps as I think there is room for all of us at the table, so here is what I will say on this.
My guess is that Shepherd felt delighted with herself a week ago as she typed up her blog, imagining the publicity she would receive from such a controversial topic. She must have anticipated a few arrows, but mostly (I'm guessing) she saw herself booked on some chat show, a write up in The Times, and maybe some US papers - her books getting a mention with each article. She wasn't (again, my guess) really planning to diss JK Rowling, so much as ride her coattails. Much the same way that the women who slept with Tiger Woods parlayed that into Playboy spreads, I think Shepherd wanted to use Rowling's fame to add to her own. And she was not above showing us her naked jealousy to do it.
And, in a way, it worked. I'd never heard of her before. Probably a lot of people hadn't. Midlist authors (and I speak with lots of authority on this) have a tough time getting their names out into the reading world.
But she badly miscalculated the tight bond most writers and readers feel with one another. Perhaps she has not become part of a writing community, and doesn't realize such a thing exists. That is her loss.
Since my first book came out in 2008, I've made many friends who are writers, and they, like no one else in my life, understand what goes on in my mind. They know how crowded it can feel when a book full of characters follows me around, waiting for the scene I have imagined but not yet written. They know the joy of getting a yes from a publisher, and the frustration of getting a no. They understand that writing a tenth novel is no easier than writing a first, and they know what it feels like to worry about sales, awards, reviews, and contracts. Without the writing community, I probably would have given up, but I am energized and motivated by this amazing group of talented, kind, and supportive people.
Shepherd's amazon rankings have burst with one star reviews this past week, as readers have weighed in on her mean-spirited blog. Other authors, including Anne Rice, have offered their comments. But in case Shepherd is once again missing the point, let me make it clear. The readers and writers offering their opinions, mine included, are jumping to Rowling's defense not because of her sales, or her charity, or even her talent. But because she is one of us. She is a writer. She does what she loves and does it well. She could have rested on her Harry Potter glory, but she jumped into something new. She could have used her name to make millions but she chose another name and took her chances. She is writing because she loves it, and we are all the richer for it. (I speak as someone who has read all the Harry Potters and A Casual Vacancy, unlike Shepherd).
I would ask Shepherd to stop calculating ways to get herself on the bestseller list, if for no other reason than because she is so very bad at it. Focus yourself on the community of writers, Ms. Shepherd. You are a published author - an amazing accomplishment that many struggling as-yet-unpublished authors would envy.
Instead of looking at the long list of more successful writers, why not turn your attention those who are trying to climb to your rung of the ladder, and offer your advice and support to them?
Instead of being jealous of Rowling's sales, if you must be jealous, be jealous of her ability to craft a great sentence or create such memorable characters. Then let it inspire you to be a better writer.
Instead of being annoyed when she jumps from one genre to another, use it as proof that you can do the same should the muse send you from your self-described "literary mysteries" to thriller, or romance, or even young adult. 
Instead of putting another writer down for succeeding, compete only with yourself. Let your passion, your discipline, and your talent take you where ever it will - and be open to the joyous, unlimited, adventure that is life. 
I promise you, it will feel a whole lot better than cheap, back-firing, publicity stunts.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Princess Bride

Question of the Week: Is it true that bad books make good movies and good books make bad ones?

Maybe generally. 

Susan Shea wrote a well-argued post yesterday in favor of the truth of this statement. She highlighted the Stephanie Plum, Jack Reacher, and Inspector Lynley series and showed why the movies and TV series not only didn't rep the books well, but didn't suck her in on their own merit either.

In the comment section, Meredith Cole made an interesting point: that the ingredients that make great reading and great watching are entirely different. A great book gets behind the eyes of the characters for emotional depth. A great movie is more action than reaction; more doing than analysing.

The exception to the rule is (for me) The Princess Bride by William Goldman. The book and the movie sucked me in equally. Characters aren't particularly deep (okay, they're downright stereotypical!) but the action in the book is compelling, and the dialogue is quick, fun, and unique enough to pique my interest in a literary way. The movie rocked. Pure and simple. For the same reasons the book did—it was fast-paced and compelling, and original in its farcical sterotypes.

And what's most interesting of all (to me): William Goldman wrote both the book and the movie. Turns out, he's a bit like Criminal Minds' Meredith Cole: he knows the ingredients that keep us flipping pages, and he knows the ingredients that keep us glued to the screen.

I read another book of his, Boys and Girls Together, and I loved it. But it was longer, slower and deeper, and I don't think I would have loved it as a movie.

Oh, and totally irrelevant aside, for just because: Robin Wright plays the lead in The Princess Bride in her
very first role onscreen, and she's also the female lead (Claire Underwood) in Netflix's House of Cards, to which I am completely addicted.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Two Thumbs Way...

So, is it true that bad books make good movies, and good books make bad movies?

In my head, a list of good movies (and TV series – I’m arbitrarily expanding the question) flits by and, yes, I’d have to say at least a few came from dogs of books. But it would be unkind and impolitic to identify the books I think were awful enough to make this list. I will offer one: The Frost detective series on British TV was created from the late R.D. Wingfield’s handful of books. I saw the series first and liked it more than the books, which were depressingly misogynistic in tone.

I have fewer friends in the film industry than in the author community, so for the next list, yes, some books and series I have loved just didn’t fly when translated to the screen and I’ll name names. V.I. Warshawski’s conscience-driven exploits didn’t take off even though Kathleen Turner’s a fine actor. Reacher doesn’t work for me played by a short guy who grins and grimaces for hours, even though – or perhaps because – he does many of his own stunts. The pert blonde who tried to sound like Stephanie Plum was so very wrong for the part of someone who grew up in Trenton. The only actor who could have done her right was Cher 30 years ago. Inspector Lynley on TV didn’t cut it for me and the wonderful actress who played Barbara Havers was way too attractive. I like my Havers lumpy, thank you. Some of this is casting and directing, but a lot of it is the scripts, usually “based on” rather than close to the originals and for good reason, i.e. 42 minutes or 109 minutes or whatever the convention is. The stories don’t get to unfold properly, there’s no character arc unless it’s in a TV series, and for some reason, there’s no suspense.

Exceptions to the rule: French crime drama in film. Why I don’t know but, man, do they do it well. But I’m wandering off topic since I have no idea if they were books first.

The question didn’t ask what good books made good movies – Val McDermid, Ann Cleeves, and Kate Atkinson come to mind immediately. Good storytelling, good translations to screen, and excellent casting. So all of you with optioned books, don’t lose heart. There’s hope!

Meanwhile, what about you, fellow Criminal Minds? Disagree with me completely? Have more to add to the lists?

- Susan C Shea

Friday, February 21, 2014

Patchwork, Pastiche, and Possibilities

By Art Taylor

This week's question is "If you could choose different aspects of famous writers, who would you use to construct your ideal writer?" and trying to patch together my own "Franken-author," as Meredith termed it on Monday, has sent me in a number of different directions—including one less focused on craft than on production and profitability: Erle Stanley Gardner's writing speed (a book a week!), Stephen King's bank account, Tana French's overnight success, etc.

From a craft angle, I first tried to browse my own shelves and see which books and authors both struck me on initial readings and have then stuck with me over this years, and from there I started to think about the white-hot energy of James Ellroy's writing and the coolly controlled intensity of Donna Tartt's, of the stylistic texture of Philip Roth's novels and the experimental structures of Mario Vargas Llosa's books, of the style and texture and structure of Ian McEwan's novels, of how full-blooded Scott Turow's characters seem and, since I've been rereading some Chandler lately, how there's something about the tone of The Long Goodbye that gets me every time.... and in the end, I didn't end up with a sense of what that collective author might be, but instead just realized that the books that have stuck with me are usually really long—and this from a short story writer. (So should I then think about short story writers? How about the combination of breadth and efficiency in Alice Munro, the wit and irony of Stanley Ellin (and those beautiful sentences!), the toughness of Grace Paley, the lyricism and humanity of Stuart Dybek, the mood and atmosphere of Poe, or any of about a zillion things from Chekhov?)

I think most of us, when we first try to write, start out from a point not just of inspiration but of imitation. Most of us (not all) are avid readers first; we recognize how we've been impacted by a book and an author, and so maybe we set out to build something similar ourselves, make that same impact on someone else. And the first step is that is a kind of mimicry of what we've read. I remember as a teenager being blown away by Ken Follett's The Eye of the Needle and Triple and The Key to Rebecca—and then setting out to write a spy novel myself, echoing the mood and the moves and the dialogue and.... well, echoing is about all I could do, since what did I really know about espionage or history or much of anything at that point?

But while such imitation may be the sincerest (if not the most successful) form of flattery, I've learned that it can also be foundational in developing and honing craft. In more recent years, in more formal writing programs at N.C. State University and then at George Mason, we aspiring writers were occasionally assigned to write pastiches: a page on such-and-such topic in the style of Chekhov or the style of Henry James or the style of Hemingway or whomever. Once—on my own initiative—I typed out the opening passages of Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in The Cathedral, then used a variety of different colored highlighters to mark the various moves I saw: exposition or summary, physical description, indirect dialogue, direct dialogue, interior monologue, etc. And then as a next step, I took the story I was writing and tried to write a short passage of my own that matched exactly the moves that Vargas Llosa made: the first sentence is a brief description of scene from the main character's point-of-view; the second sentence jumps inside of his head; the third moves to more objective description; and so on and so on. What resulted wasn't a good product but it did provide a deeper look at how stylistic texture is constructed, and while I don't at all write now in that style myself, I expanded my awareness of the kinds of possibilities available—looking at a text like that not just as a reader but as a writer.

It's worth remembering here, of course, that Harry Crews claimed he learned to write by dissecting Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair, purportedly even ripping out pages and arranging them on the floor to see them better. As he said:
I've read Graham Greene very closely with the conscious idea of seeing how in the hell he did things.... So I took one of his novels and reduced it to numbers: how many characters; how many days did the novel take; how many cities were involved; how far into the novel did I understand the climax to take place; where did the action turn; how many men, women, children, room. Then I sat down and tried to write a novel using that skeleton.... Needless to say, the novel that resulted from this was an abominable piece of work—arbitrary, mechanical, uninteresting. At the same time, I think I learned a great deal from that exercise....
Unlike Crews, I don't think I'll ever be able to point to one book or even one author which taught me style and structure and character and plotting, and I don't think I could even parse out which groups of authors influenced the writer I am—anymore, of course, than I might be able to put together a conglomeration of authors that I'd like to be. Too many influences and possibilities to count, too much out there to draw from, and still so very very much to learn.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dream Team

By Alan

If you could choose different aspects of famous writers, who would you use to construct your ideal writer (ie, plotting from James Patterson, characters from Carl Hiaasen, setting from Charles Dickens, etc)?

Here’s my dream team:

Plot – Michael Connelly
Characters – Tom Wolfe
Setting – J.K. Rowling
Pacing – John Gilstrap
Prose – Dennis Lehane
Hook/Premise – Michael Crichton
Plot twists – Jeffery Deaver
Humor – John R. Powers (go look him up!)
Emotional heft – Reed Farrel Coleman
Storytelling – Stephen King
Ka-Chingability – James Patterson

Feel free to agree/disagree/add your own choices in the comments!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

It’s Been Fun

By Vicki Delany

But… time to move on.

Life is about comings and goings, and it’s time for me to go.  I’ve been with the 7 Criminal Minds Gang since 2011, when I was invited by Kelli Stanley.

I’ve loved the format of question of the week.  It has definitely got me thinking about new things and about old things in a new way.

I am delighted to know that the blog will be carrying on in good hands, both new and old. I have invited my good friend Robin Harlick, who writes as R.J. Harlick, to take my seat at the panel table. I know she’ll do a great job.

I am going back to my old stomping blog of Type M for Murder.  Way back when the Internet was a new and exciting thing and people said, “What’s that?” when they heard the word blog, Rick Blechta, Charles Benoit, and I decided to try one.  Charles came up with the name, I did all the work, and Rick… well Rick has been carrying the load ever since I left.  I have been lured back with promises of chocolate and champagne. (Not really, but I can hope.)  After your daily reading of 7 Minds, pop over to see what the Typists have to say:

I can not leave you without a burst of blatant self-promotion.  I will have TWO new books out on April 1stUnder Cold Stone is the 7th Constable Molly Smith novel from Poisoned Pen Press and Juba Good is my newest from the Rapid Reads line of Orca Press, meaning a fast-paced exciting novella. If you like to travel, Under Cold Stone sees Molly et al leaving Trafalgar for the first time and heading off to Banff, for a stay at the famous, luxurious Banff Springs Hotel.  Juba Good is set in South Sudan, where you know I have spent some time, and is about an RCMP officer serving there with the UN. Orca is asking that this book be the start of a series.  Tragically, I don’t think I can continue to set a book in South Sudan unless the country settles back down. I think some travel might be in Sergeant Ray Robertson’s future.

Both books are now available for pre-order at all the usual places. Note that there is no-pre-order for the e-books, but they will be available as of release date.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Building the perfect Franken-author

If you could choose different aspects of famous writers, who would you use to construct your ideal writer (ie, plotting from James Patterson, characters from Carl Hiaasen, setting from Charles Dickens, etc)?

by Meredith Cole

It sounds like a diabolical experiment: building the perfect author. And kind of funny, too. I can't even imagine what a Patterson/Hiassen/Dickens writer might sound like. But I think the combo author would lose the unique flavor of each writer as they were added to the mix, and that would be a shame.

Here's what I do know:

I would love to write mysteries as funny as Timothy Hallinan's Junior Bender series.

I'd love to be able to write beautiful descriptions like Reed Farrel Coleman.

I would love to write a painful coming of age mystery story like William Kent Krueger.

I would love to be able to write fight scenes like Lee Child.

I would like to be able to write a complex politically charged mystery like Sara Paretsky.

I would love to write a well researched historical mystery like Anne Perry.

And I could go on and on... Because I am both a reader and a writer.

And for a very funny post by a very funny author, see Lawrence Block's "author merger" piece from last week. If authors were corporations...

Friday, February 14, 2014

My Bloody Valentine

(And now for something completely different...)
by Paul D. MarksMiserable_Facts_About_St_Valentine’s_Day_1
Hmm, is there a classic love story I'd like to improve with a nice messy murder? Well, let's see. 
Aren't I the lucky one falling right on Valentine's Day itself. So for that special occasion, a special love story. Well, the kind of love story you might find running 24/7 on the Discovery ID channel.

So, as cleanup hitter for this week's question here's my Valentine's paean to love and death and some stories that could be improved with a murder or two in them:
In an alternate universe Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice and other stories morph into stories the Discovery ID Channel would be proud to air. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth strikes a blow for freedom and goes on a killing spree, murdering the condescending Mr. Darcy first. She then sends a text through time and space to a woman named Lizzie B. "borrow ur axe, pls?"
Lizzie replies "sry, already loaned 2 A Karenina."
Swish Pan: Volga River, Moscow. A young girl comes upon a man's body bloating in the river. Police are summoned. They pull him out.
He's dressed like an aristocrat.
"Count Vronsky," the lieutenant says.
"There's an axe in his back," his partner says, counting. "Forty whacks."
"Who would have wanted to kill Count Vronsky?"
"Let's check with his wife, Anna K."
They go to Anna's house. She is nowhere to be seen.
"What's that?" the lieutenant says.
They stare at some glittering crystals that soon disappear as A Karenina time shifts to a place called Sporks, Washington, USA. Golden hour is dying, twilight is fast upon her.
"Holy Guacamole," Anna says, in Russian, of course. "This place is filled with vampires and werewolves. I must off them all."
She finds a vampire named Bella, er, Kristen Stewart.
"Who-are-yoKristen Stewart moodsu?" Kristen S says.
"Oy!" Anna says, in Russian, of course. "You are one lousy actress."
She throws Lizzie B.'s silver-plated axe at Kristen cutting her head off.
"Ah! I have saved the world," Anna says, in Russian, of course.
Magically Kristen's head returns to her body. It's a little off kilter, but not so bad. Nobody can tell.
"Holy Cow," Anna says, in Russian, of course. "I thought I killed you."
"Your axe was only made with cheap nickel-plated silver, which, as we all know, is not silver at all. Ha! You can't kill me with that."
"Can I kill you  with a bad review?" Anna says, in Russian, of course.
"No, that can't kill me either."
"All is lost," Anna says, in Russian, of course. "This Putin guy is insane – I cannot go home again."
She takes Lizzie B.'s cheaply plated silver axe and whacks off her own head.
And everybody died happily ever after.
Happy Bloody Valentine's Day Everyone!
(Pass me my meds, please.)
The End
(This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, real or fictional persons, real or fictional actors, rivers, cities, aristocrats, axes, Russians, actors, sporks or actual events is purely coincidental.)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Reader, I strangled him.

<3 Which classic love story would be enlivened by a nice messy murder? <3

Buh-bye, Humbert Humbert. Let's get that little bit of housekeeping out of the way.

Then perhaps Shade No.51: post-mortem grey.

And how about if the widow Karenina was discovered in chapter one, quickly unhooking the piano wire from the top of the stairs while Karenin lay dead and broken at the bottom? Okay the book would be shorter (and possibly unpublished) but I thought this when I was thirteen and I think it now: it's not love if you end up under a train.

That's pretty much my problem with so-called love stories all-round. I've never gone for the idea that love hurts.

And hurt - or at least conflict - is what makes a story. Empathy and Open-Mindedness by Jane Austen? I don't think so. Happy Valley by Emily Bronte? Perhaps not. Brokeback Mountain II: Ennis and Jack attend Wyoming Pride by Annie Proulx? If only.

Thankfully, my favourite literary love story already has the murders in it.  Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane meet when she is on trial for offing her lover in Strong Poison. They flirt over a stranger with his throat cut in Have His Carcass. They fall in love during a weekend of torrid psychological threats and general headwreck in Gaudy Night and then trip over a corpse in their (Busman's) Honeymoon cottage, hours after their wedding.

And woven through the four books, there's more genuine romance than in many murder-free novels.  Harriet, on remand in prison, rejects Peter's first proposal with the words: "If anyone does marry you it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle" but it's not piffle he's talking when, hitched at last in the final book, he says: "What do all the great words come to in the end but that? I love you, I am at rest with you, I have come home."

Then they open the cellar door and it all goes a bit pear-shaped.  But that's not love - that's a story.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


By Clare O'Donohue
I have to admit this question has me stumped. What love story could be improved by a murder? I'm not thrown by the "improved by murder" part - as much as the love story part.
I'm not much for classic love stories. I read Wuthering Heights and wanted to kill of Heathcliff and Catherine pretty much from the beginning. Ditto Romeo and Juliet. Their deaths didn't come a moment too soon. Anything by Jane Austen annoys me. (Send hate mail to See also Little Women.
It's not that I'm not a romantic. I was just as pathetic as anyone early on, rambling on about how he did this or said this, or blinked in the most adorable way on earth... But I'm a romantic about real romance - long-haul - and that's rarely the stage that's written about.
Romance in its early stages is either "He/She smiled and the world seems brighter" or "He/She did not smile and I'm filled with dread" It's a lot of staring into each other's eyes, followed by agonizing, worrying and obstacles thrown in the way of THE ONE TRUE LOVE IN ALL THE UNIVERSE until they either get on with it or die trying.
I spent years as a teenage girl, and as a woman in her 20s, so I've listened to this over and over (and said it a few times) in my own life. I'm not that excited to read about it - even expertly done - unless there's another reason to be there. Unless, while they are agonizing, worrying, staring into each other's eyes etc... they are actually doing something. Stepping over a body, for example. Running away from a man with an ax. Trying to figure out who was poisoned. (I could go on but you get the idea)
So, my answer to what classic love story could be improved by a murder? All of them.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sense, Sensibility, and Sleuthing

This week's question (a special for Valentine's Week): Is there a classic love story you'd like to improve with a nice messy murder?

There sure is. Sense and Sensibility almost held my interest. I liked Jane Austen's observations about human nature, social status and money. I think she had an interesting premise and characters with a lot of potential.

But the book dragged for me. There was too much talking about the situation and not enough situation. The characters didn't convince me that they lived in three dimensions. When I set the story down, I wasn't keen to pick it up again.

Imagine the same love stories, the same social commentary, but with a murder near the beginning. Imagine the love interests as suspects, the Dashwood sisters as amateur sleuths. The love stories would come to a climax just as the murderer was revealed. I think that would give Sense and Sensibility just the right amount of spice to be up there in a league with Austen's later works.

And it was Austen's first novel, so I mean, props to her for it being a classic despite its boringness to me.

Monday, February 10, 2014

All the News That’s Fit to Imagine

"What was the first moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?"

This is one of the questions writers get most often and it’s fun to hear the answers. I wonder, though, how many are apocryphal. I mean, how many four-year olds think about the process and think of it as FUN? It’s not like ballet or space walking or basketball. There’s not much to see, nothing glorious in action, no applause, no costumes. In fact, if we had a clue about the realities of being writers, we might run screaming, or at least retreat to law school or reality show stardom.

But something happens to a blessed number of kids, and it’s real. Some of us are writing plays, stories, whole newspapers (me), poems, graphic novels – also called comic books – by the age of seven or eight. And the passion sticks with us. By high school, we’re the student paper, yearbook, and drama club crews. We’re winning essay contests and scholarships, and writing letters to the editors about social issues. We’re readers, the ones who take out the maximum number of books every week from the library, who weep reading Louisa May Alcott, who read every ad in the subway car. We can’t help it. We’ve been hooked by the power of the word and we crave it.

The earliest I recall consciously wishing to write was when reading, probably for the fourth or fifth times, Mary Poppins and Stuart Little. The characters and the warm and ultimately protective universe in which they lived was one I wanted to create myself. That must have been when I was six or seven. I know that I was publishing a newspaper (multiples made with carbon paper, fully laid out and illustrated) when I was eight. Rather interesting considering my parents were drinking heavily by then and any newspaper reporting truthfully on our family life would have included reports of yelling and plate throwing. I think the “Wolff Weekly” reported on life as I wanted it to be, as it was in the Banks’ and the Little’s households.  

When I was in high school, it was generally thought by other kids that boys (it was always boys then) who wrote about their sports teams for the school paper were would-be athletes who weren’t good enough to play varsity. Girls who worked on the paper were never going to be popular enough to have lots of dates, so this kind of geeky activity was a consolation prize. Boy, were they wrong! We were the lucky ones who wielded the power to shape the news, to influence others, to give or withhold praise and glory…well, maybe it went to our heads a bit.

Later, I became a reporter and magazine writer, then went into college communications and marketing, speechwriting, and fundraising (creative writing). I didn’t take up fiction (acknowledged creative writing) until late in my career. But I’ve always been on the path I stepped onto with the first issue of the “Wolff Weekly.”


Friday, February 7, 2014

Just a trim? Or a completely new ’do?

As the resident short story writer on the panel here—one who’s never written published a novel—I don’t usually think in terms of chapters but of scenes. But when has lack of experience ever kept someone from chiming in with advice, right?

Seriously, though, when I saw the first part of this week’s question—"How do you know where one chapter ends and another begins?"—two things jumped to mind, and I hope they’ll be useful for folks thinking about craft.

Years ago, when I was a student in the MFA program at George Mason University, I came across a bit of half-joking advice about shaping short stories—and it’s one that I always pass along to my own students now that I’m teaching workshops at Mason: Once you’ve finished your draft, go back and delete the last paragraph. And while you're at it, cut the first one too.

Certainly that advice shouldn’t always be taken too literally, but the idea behind it has time and again proven sound guidance. Too often, an opening paragraph (sometimes even an opening scene) turns out to be prep work for the real story, and the writer who clears away all that and jumps right into the drama often finds a stronger opening—not letting "setting the scene" get in the way of the scene itself. As for a story’s ending, my own problem is often trying to spell out too much—making sure the reader doesn’t miss whatever it is I’m trying to get across, whether some explanation of what happened or some added emotional resonance—and though I always work hardest at the rhythm of closing lines, to make sure the language as well as the plot serves to the story to a bigger finale, sometimes that work can end up sounding overworked. Efforts to enhance an ending often just dull or diffuse the impact, and trimming back can help in those cases too. Removing the last few beats of my own writing often seem to provide room for the reader to engage with the story in a bigger way: filling in the emotion that was held back, reaching that a-ha moment in their own time, or just dodging those darlings we writers are so regularly reminded to kill.

And those guidelines aren't just good for the first and last paragraphs of short stories but for the beginnings and endings of scenes with  as well—and, I'd imagine, for chapters too. 

Scott Turow
The second thing that popped into my mind was a profile of Scott Turow from Poets & Writers a few years back, which included some commentary on Turow’s chapter endings and a term that has stuck with me: “the dying fall.” Here’s an excerpt:

Where other writers in his putative peer group are addicted to cliff-hanger chapter endings in the manner of the movie serials of the 1930s, Turow generally eschews such devices. Instead, he’s a master of the dying fall, passing up the chance to manipulate the reader into turning the page in favor of finishing off a chapter with quiet finality and poignancy. And while what his characters do is important, so is why it’s done—what past events led to it, and how personal histories keep rippling concentrically into the present. The ripples often manifest themselves as a series of ethical quandaries that pose complex, morally ambiguous, ultimately existential questions.

That phrase “putative peer group” seems more than a little snarky, of course, but otherwise the commentary resonated with me, and the approach here is something that I’ve noted more carefully in my reading and criticism and also taken to heart as I craft scenes for my own stories. I’ve read those books, of course—haven’t we all?—where each chapter ends perched on the edge of the some urgent unknown: the door waiting to be opened, the encounter just around the corner, the shocking revelation that desperately needs explaining, the gun that went off… but oh, no! Who got shot?

In such circumstances, I find myself doing what everyone else likely does: turning the page quickly to discover “What next?” And often I really do love the momentum of books like that. But I also recognize how too many cliffhanger chapter endings ultimately just flatten out the overall experience. We know it’s coming, we know the trick, we yearn for some variety. And the books I really find myself drawn more deeply into are ones—like Turow’s—that have a greater richness of texture, both in the closing of chapters and the opening of scenes and really at all points throughout.

I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying what Alan said yesterday when he wrote, “I try to use a fair number of cliffhangers (but not TOO many). Sometimes I end my chapter at the end of a scene, but often I’ll end the chapter in the middle of a scene.” I don’t imagine that Alan or others think, “Oh, I should try a dying fall here at the end of Chapter 7,” but I know from his work how well he balances action with introspection, suspense with a side of soul-searching, and I firmly believe that the best writers are the ones who recognize that keeping readers turning the page may not be as important as keeping their attention and emotions engrossed page after page, and scene after scene, and line after line.

As for the second part of this week's question—"What is a chapter?"—I'm thrilled to say that I have the perfect answer for it, one that will not only enlighten and entertain but also ultimately change the way that everyone who reads this blog post will look at novels in the future. Fundamentally, essentially, a chapter is—


Art Taylor