Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Writer's Corner: a close look at The Deep-Blue Goodbye, by John D. MacDonald

An inexcusably pulpy cover
John D. MacDonald was a very successful crime writer from the 1950's through the 1980's. He's best known now for the Travis McGee series, which starred an observant, cynical houseboat beach-bum in Lauderdale, Florida. MacDonald also wrote more hard-boiled fiction such as the novel The Executioners, which was twice filmed under the title Cape Fear. But Travis McGee, the blue-collar James Bond who took on cases where he can recover money and take half as the fee, was his most enduring creation.

His first McGee novel, The Deep Blue Goodbye, appeared in 1964, and while it seemed to ride on the coattails of James Bond's runaway success, there's a lot more to it than that. Strange as it seems, the McGee books were part of a thriving culture known as 'books for men,' in an age when men - mainstream, actual men - read books. Books on war, books about cowboys, books about private detectives. Pulp writers like Zane Grey pumped out western after western, and war titles were also numerous. Somewhere along the line, (I'd say about 1980) men stopped reading, and mysteries almost died out with them, until Sue Grafton and Sara Paretzky came along with female leads to save the genre. But that's another post.

Approaching the McGee novel's from a writer's perspective, there's an awful lot to learn from the success of one of America's great mid-list genre authors. So let's tear into one specific passage, looking at its key strengths and weaknesses, to answer the one question every author needs to ask: Why should my reader keep turning the page?

This passage occurs on the second page, after McGee introduces that he's on his boat, The Busted Flush, and the location is Lauderdale, Florida.

Chookie McCall was choreographing some fool thing. She had come over because I had the privacy and enough room. She had shoved the furniture out of the way, set up a couple of mirrors from the master stateroom, and set up her rackety little metronome. She wore a faded old rust-red leotard, mended with black thread in a couple of places. She had her black hair tied into a scarf.  
She was working hard. She would go over a sequence time and time again, changing it a little each time, and when she was satisfied, she would hurry over to the table and make the proper notations on her clip board. 
Dancers work as hard as coal miners used to work. She stomped and huffed and contorted her splendid and perfectly proportioned body. In spite of the air conditioning, she had filled the lounge with a faint sharp-sweet odor of large overheated girl. She was a pleasant distraction. In the lounge lights there was a highlighted gleam of perspiration on the long round legs and arms.

There's nothing fancy here, it's just clean simple prose, a bunch of facts with only a few moments of inspired writing. But for a moment, let's just soak in that first sentence: Chookie McCall was choreographing some fool thing. Here are my reactions to that sentence:

1. What kind of name is that? It's great, a mix of hard consonants ending with a soft l; it speaks of a mind tuned to whimsy and seriousness in equal measure.

2. We know Chookie's a dancer, but not just any dancer, she's one who does choreography. In 1964, most men would be happy to date a dancer, but Trav has met a woman who goes one better - she 'writes' dance.

3. From 'some fool thing' we know all sorts of things. First, we know Trav doesn't know or appreciate much about dance. Second, we know that even if he doesn't care about dance, he cares enough about Chookie to let her do her job on his houseboat.

That's pretty cool, that he can pack all that information into one short sentence.

Overall this scene is a great indication of the compassion Trav feels for women. As it turns out, Trav and Chookie aren't sleeping together. As the book develops, Trav's feelings for women separate into a strange mishmash of 60's paternal chauvinist condescension with a fig leaf of equality-of-sexes neo-enlightenment. This little bit here on the boat, where Trav is both patron and companion is a great bit of foreshadowing.

The paragraph continues with a bunch of things they tell you not to do in writing school, namely start four consecutive sentences with the pronoun She. There's a lot of descriptive tour-guiding with one stellar phrase (rackety little metronome), and I'm willing to let MacDonald break a workshop 101 rule because he's given me enough confidence from the opening of the book and his 'some fool thing' line that I move along the bridge of description till we get to the payoff: 'Dancers work as hard as coal miners used to work.' Here we get a sense of Trav's appreciation for Chookie and her career even if he knows nothing about it. He's a guy with some insights. In other words, he's a voice worth listening to.

Then he spends a few sentences of pure 'male gaze,' reducing Chookie to her body and its smells and the pleasure he gets from them. It's really kind of piggy, and justified only because she's a dancer, and dancers are a reduction of body to art, but it's still a male privilege thing, which, while offensive, plays to MacDonald's audience. Which is another measure of MacDonald's talent. You can reduce McGee to sexist pig, or you can try to rationalize it by saying MacDonald created actual empowered women - and he does have a lot of strong female characters - but - and this is not a small point - you still trust McGee as a narrator. McGee is self-aware, confident, and reliable. This goes a long way in securing the trust of a reader.

You may think MacDonald wasn't smart enough to think through all these issues of gender and patrician attitudes, but later passages, where McGee thinks of himself as a modern knight errant, saving damsels and feeling guilty for bedding the women he saves, would prove you wrong. These are exactly the kinds of things writers think about, and when he was on, MacDonald was in tune with everything he was doing, and with his core audience.

And so, let's reduce everything to one rule: Find your audience, and give them a reason to keep turning the pages. Everything after that is gravy.

And that's enough for now.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Emma Straub: Other People we Married, a Review

Blah cover, good book.
Short stories, as I've said before, make for odd books. There's the problem of the stories having already appeared before, as is the case with popular writers like Alice Munro or George Saunders, whose stories show up in The New Yorker and Best American series several times before appearing under their own name.

Emma Straub present another problem of the Short Story collection: voice fatigue. Straub is a good writer, with a clever eye and a great wit. She writes about quirky people on the inner edges of sanity. People flirting with the idea of changing their lives forever by running away or getting a divorce. She writes about it very well, and writes about it a lot.

But, you know: Voice fatigue. The feeling that you just read this story. That you met some characters, found a theme, and reached a satisfying conclusion. And then, another story. Similar characters, similar themes, another satisfying conclusion. The law of diminishing returns sets in. Do you continue? In this case, I did, and I'm glad.

In the opening story, Some People Must Really Fall in Love, a young creative writing teacher develops a crush on a student. To compensate, she jumps into a relationship with a man she doesn't love, then is left wondering what could have been when she sees her student at the mall and stalks him. It's a dubious opener for my tastes: stories about creative writing teachers are among my least favorites, the crutch of embittered faculty writers stuck in a creative rut. Luckily, this is the only story that stays on campus.

The best of these stories is probably Abraham's Enchanted Forest, about a teenage girl who lives with her parents at a fairy tale village/roadside attraction. Her father, Abraham, is a large-personalitied man who impersonates Walt Whitman for the local high school. It's a witty story that encapsulates the best of Straub's fascination with the idea of change as an internal force that never manifests itself in reality. You get the characters longing to be somewhere else, to be different people; their sense of being permanent oddballs at the mercy of mainstream sensibilities, and their ultimate resignation to the fact that you can't ever run from your problems: you are the problem.

It's a theme that stays rich but whose shelf life doesn't quite fill the entire book. Puttanesca, about a mis-matched pair of widowed New Yorkers in Rome, mines territories of grief and healing. Orient Point is a poignant vignette about an accidental couple driving out to Long Island in a heat wave. Hot Springs Eternal is about a mis-matched gay couple on vacation, on the edge of breaking up. You get the pattern.

Luckily there are some great stories here. One other star of this collection, Fly-over State, is about a stay-at home faculty wife stuck in Wisconsin, who strikes up a dangerous friendship with the neighbor's 28-year old redneck kid. She thinks his name is Mud, and he doesn't bother to correct her. There's a strong undercurrent in this story about how depressing it is not to live in New York City, something bordering on condescension, even, that made me want to not like it - another snooty Brooklynite hating on places without authentic hipsters. But the NYC longing is really something else - the character's own deficiency at connecting with reality, her entrenched rootlessness, her inability to understand what is real about human connections and what is artifice. I get the feeling she'd have been just as lost back home.

There's not much you can do about voice fatigue in the end - you have to have enough material to fill a book, after all. And when the voice is Emma Straub's, and you're willing to pace yourself, you can enjoy the ride while it lasts.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Star Wars De-specialized

This is the Jabba you should never have seen.
A "despecialized edition" of the original Star Wars is now available for (quasi-legal) download.

I've been longing to see the original 1977 theatrical release ever since George Lucas slapped Part IV: A New Hope before the crawl for the 1981re-release. Part IV, what was that, we wondered around the junior high school lunch table. We felt a little cheated that four years earlier, we'd walked in on the middle of the story. We didn't know this was just the first of George Lucas's tinkerings. By the mid 2000's, he'd made edits so that Han doesn't shoot first, thrown in a bunch of new aliens, added digital Jabbas to unused footage, and re-shot battle sequences.

Countless touch-ups later, the movie is now more the lynchpin of Lucasfilm mind games and pawn of Lucas's megalomania than it is a piece of filmed entertainment. Consider that Lucas refuses to let the original releases of the trilogy be viewed or released. He recalls 35mm prints of the original whenever they come up, and says the originals are but 'drafts' of the movies now available and 'enhanced' through his digital re-editing. All well and good, except...

The original Star Wars is a monumental achievement. It's probably the most sophisticated piece of pre-digital special effects work ever put to film. With 1970's technology - basically plastic and rubber - Lucas created an entire world of spaceships and aliens, and with each sequel he upped the bar. I have no idea why Lucas is ashamed of these movies. You, sir, kicked ass. These are seminal works of American history.

But he refuses to let anyone see these movies - his best work - in their original, un-tampered versions. It's baffling. Lucas should be proud of these masterpieces. He should be hosting retrospectives and receiving awards, not hiding them away from some churlish sense of shame.

Enter the 'De-specialized' version, created by a team of dedicated graphic wizards around the world. These are some serious restorationists and digital ninjas themselves, cobbling together a 1977 'original' from what Disney/Lucasfilm has dumped on the world - a travesty of poor color correction and technical flaws - and those few original prints not yet under his control.

Here: this video gives a great sense of the amount of work involved, and the variety of source materials used:

Pretty cool? Pretty cool.

Okay, yeah, I know. The past is gone. The Har Mar Cinema, where I watched the original, was gutted in a renovation in the 90's, then turned into a Cub Foods fifteen years later. I no longer fit into my Superman underoos. You can't go back to Tatooine. The restoration will never be the original.

But I could indulge my inner ten-year old and watch a grey-market release of Lucas's masterpiece. If only it were legal, I'd do it... right... now...

For more information on the legacy of Lucas's tinkerings, visit SaveStarWars.com

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Sometimes a Fantasy: Billy Joel's forgotten masterpiece

I sometimes forget that back when I was a kid, Billy Joel was my favorite singer. Maybe I repress that memory, but that's another story. 52nd Street and The Stranger were my go-to albums for a quiet night at home, reading in the big green chair. Which is odd, because at the time, Glass Houses was his big album. He'd jut turned the corner from somewhat obscure, kinda respected singer/songwriter/balladeer to badass rock star and whipping boy for Springsteen's fanboys, and let's face it, he probably deserved it.

Because Billy Joel, for all the macho posturing of his megahit phase, was also always a schmuck at heart. Obsessive, depressive, angry, but always too willing to yield to his heart of schmalz. There's a certain machismo that can only be measured by when the guy who wrote "She's always a woman to me" later tries to pass off "You May be Right" or "Only the Good Die Young" as bad-boy rebel anthems. I always felt as though if he ever met up with a genuine tough guy, with a Bruce Springsteen or one of those bastards from a heavy metal band, he'd go down before the second punch.

Which only made his pathos that much more interesting. I'm just gonna say it: Billy Joel was every nerd's go-to macho surrogate. I didn't know this when I was a kid, but I sensed it.

Looking back on his hits now, I think Sometimes a Fantasy might just sum up his whole life. Because, man, this video, I just don't know.

It starts with a phone call, one of those ancient push-button things, and Billy calling some girl. He's in a run-down squatter's place, squirming on a bed, Vacant sign flashing outside his window, all bug-eyed with desperate love. He starts singing into the phone when the woman answers. She's all elegant, dressed in a white gown, striding indignantly about her posh all-white apartment. She clearly hates Joel but for some reason won't hang up. Probably she's got tons of money and can't stand that Billy's a poor artist whose lithium prescription ran out.

Here's Nervous Billy on the phone:

And here's his lady, having none of it:

Nervous Billy doesn't quit, though. She's on the phone, and that means there's hope. Nervous Billy didn't get a zillion platinum albums by hearing no and taking it. No, Nervous Billy, when he's desperate for action, he has a guiding spirit he can consult, a suave bastard who knows how to handle guff. So every once in a while Nervous Billy looks at this other Billy Joel who's apparently in the room with him. This is Cool Billy, with his hair slicked back and a big old sexy... beard? Cool Billy nods and smokes, and encourages Nervous Billy to just keep singing. But things don't go well, until Nervous Billy hands the phone over to Cool Billy. And all he does, see, is hold it up to his ear and raise an eyebrow. 


 And then she's all:

And, oh, yeah....

Suddenly the chick is all hot for Nervous Billy. And even though he's singing the same crap song, now it's all syrup and honey to that uptight rich ice queen. There's some more lyrics about phone sex, and they get all hot, and there's shots of feet clenching and loins quivering in quick cuts, and then a split-screen of them like they're in the same bed... and then it's all over, and the video cuts to a ringing phone that isn't answered at all. Sometimes a Fantasy, it turns out, was only a fantasy.

This is like the ultimate coked-up genius video. If there were MacArthur genius grants for things that seemed cool when you were totally cranked on coke, this video would have earned Joel a zillion bucks. It's also a glimpse into the nervous psyche of Joel himself, a man who despite selling all those albums, despite sold out shows and marrying Christy Brinkley, could never quite see himself as anything but a schlub from Long Island, screaming into a microphone for people who would never appreciate him for himself, but always fell for the suave bastard he wanted them to think he was.

I'm kind of over Billy Joel, and so is he, actually. He stopped writing songs after 1993 and got bored with singing his greatest hits over and over. He lately made a splash with a once-a-month stand at Madison Square gardens, but before that he'd seemingly resigned himself to living kind of a quiet life on Long Island with his fourth wife. But every once in a while, he can still make a splash, like he did in 2012 for the hurricane Sandy relief concert. If you want a better run-down of what he's up to, check out this Grantland piece, or this question and answer thing in the New York Times, which shows that he's settled down a bit, but probably isn't above riding his motorcycle in the rain, if that's what it takes.

You can watch the whole twitchy, wtf-y masterpiece of Sometimes a Fantasy here:

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Field-goal kicking mules and stubborn authors

Time for a Round-up!
A semi-regular feature in which, having nothing important to say, I point out a few things that happened on the web, then make a few half-thought-out observations on them for your amusement.

Short Story: Calm by Clare Needham
I've been interested in smaller magazines, those in orbit to the Tin Houses and McSweeney's of the world, and found a little gem called Bodega. Here you can find smaller pieces with great impact like Clare Neeham's Calm, a story of a woman, a man, a road trip, and the kind of joy you can only achieve through denial. Enjoy!

Tournament of Books controversy:
The LA Times follows a (non) story about Scott McClanahan, author of Hill William, who allegedly tried to withdraw his book from The Morning News's Tournament of Books. There was no author reaction included, which I find strange. This didn't stop the article, or the commentariat of the tourney from typing furious comments on the matter: he was ripped for being ungrateful, a money grabber, and other sad things. All for a single Facebook post he never followed through on. It's a tempest in a teapot, of course, a single ill-advised post being exploited for clicks, though I'd love to hear Scott McClanahan's take on it. I kind of want to root for him now that he's been lynched in the comments section, but that would bust my bracket.  Sorry, Scott!

You can read the thread here, at the bottom of the play-in judging round.

Retro-movie due for a remake: Gus
Don Knotts and Gus.
Why the long face?

I had a few beers the other day and was reading a story about how the NFL is considering moving field goals to the 25 yard line because they're so easy. So I immediately thought of Gus, the field goal kicking mule from the 1976 Disney sports-sploitation movie. I even tracked it down and watched ten minutes of it, and realized that Gus sits at the nexus of so many movie genres it should be the subject of a much longer critical essay.

It's an animals do sports movie. It's got an all-star cast (Don Knotts, Ed Asner, Tim Conway) slumming for paychecks. Most intriguingly, it's among the last of the Disney studio's cash-strapped post-Walt pre-Eisner slump films (The Apple Dumpling Gang! The Love Bug!). Did I mention it's about a goddamn field-goal kicking mule?

And it sits in the heart of my childhood, released in that golden summer of 1976. Ah, childhood. Nothing else could make this movie sound good except that I watched when I was eight. So, seriously - is Gus any good? Nope, not really. Even Roger Ebert didn't like it. Here's his original review from 1976.

But seriously, NFL, why not consider mules?

Movie trailer of the week: 
And the award for best use of "Hooked on a Feeling" since the Ally McBeal dancing video baby craze of 1997 goes to: Guardians of the Galaxy:

Monday, February 10, 2014

Quick Take: Long Division by Kiese Laymon

Quick Take: Long Division by Keise Laymon
I came to Long Division with a certain amount of hesitancy. I'd never heard of Kiese Laymon, and books involving time travel, race, coming-of-age, and the deep south are mostly outside my comfort zone. (Which makes it sound like I have a pretty narrow comfort zone. Not true!) In fact to be honest there were two reasons I read this: 1) It's on the Morning News Tournament of Books shortlist and 2) It was free on Kindle at the time.

But I am happy to report I was sucked into this book by Layman's voice and his uncanny sense of insight. Page after page, City, the teenage narrator, speaks with a naive authority that made me nod my head in agreement. City is a happy blend of Holden Caulfield and Huck Finn, and the plot is a hectic mix-up of time travel, racial tension, teenage romance, and US history. Hopeful, acerbic, dark, and joyous, eternally ambivalent about its own purpose and intent, purposefully murky in its conclusion(s), Long Division was a beautiful book and a great find.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Writing tip: Just, Scrivener, and me

I'm starting a new feature: Writing tips! Yes I hear you saying: Aren't there enough bad writing tips from under-published novelists out there? Why are you adding to the noise?

The answer it: I don't know. Except that I haven't seen this tip before, and I think it will help people.

But, before we get to our writing tip, let's start with a plug for Scrivener, the best app for writing novels I've ever used. Throw away MS Word, get yourself into Scrivener. It has tons of tools for the way writers build things - outlining, chapters, word targets, and ways to store research material on characters, settings, and locations. Plus when you're done you can export to dozens of formats including several varieties of e-Book. It's the best 40 bucks you'll ever spend.

Anyway, I was using Scrivener's word count feature, which is awesome. It's under Project -- Text Statistics. Here, you get a rundown of every word you used in your manuscript, and their frequency. I was wondering if there were any words I overused, and wow was I.

It turns out I have a nasty habit of over-using the word 'just.' It's my fault, absolutely. But just has so many meanings, I end up using it as shorthand for about ten different phrases. In all, I'd used just 180 times in a 90,000 word manuscript. (that's 0.2% of the words in my manuscript. Well over the legal limit.)

What's so weird about this is I almost never use the word in its most prominent definition: "based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair." Just is, as you probably know, the root of the word justice. But not for me! I only go for the five or six below that, which break down to: exactly, recently, barely, simply, really, or positively. With so many meanings, I also apparently use it as filler, whenever I think a sentence needs a pause. And with all those meanings, the justs pile up fast:

"He was just fifteen when he met her. She was just on the edge of the dance floor. The last song had just ended and the light hit her face just right, and he was in love. Just like that. He walked to her, just because, like he had nothing better to do. But what did he want from her. Just to dance? He didn't think so."

So I've lost all trust in this word. It's a dull word that instead of carving meaning out, smears it around.

My penance was to do a find and replace on the entire manuscript, weeding out the unJUSTified justs.

What I found was that in many cases all I had to do was delete it. It was sitting there like a speedbump in the sentence. Which is obvious. When in all your writing classes did anyone say: "Put a just in there. I think this sentence would be stronger with a fudge word." Nope. You never heard that advice.

Here are sample sentences for the many meanings of just, and the replacements you might want to use

exactly:  He knew just what she meant.
precisely: The cat stopped at just the moment his feet hit the floor.
in the same way: I did it just how you told me to.
simply: They just wanted a cup of sugar.
only: There was just one minute to go.
might as well: So he figured he should just go to the movies
barely: There was just enough toothpaste for one brushing of the teeth.
nothing more than: It was just a passing fancy, not love at all.

Some are harder to replace, of course:
in the recent past: I was just there five minutes ago.
(colloquially for a certain way): He tucked in his feet just so.

Anyway, I did a vigorous just-weeding. After half an hour, I'd reduced my justs from 180 down to an acceptable 80 or so (in the ballpark with 'make' and 'can't'. Because sometimes, frankly it's just the right word for the job!

Let's condense all this to the Writing Tip: Be careful about overusing words, especially in clusters. I sometimes go through first drafts and see six Justs sitting there in one paragraph. And it isn't always the word just, either. It could be any word: Gotta, or said, or a color - I once had two characters with a gravelly laugh within 5 pages of each other, for instance.

So, What words do you overuse? How do you weed them out? Comments are welcome.

PS: I'm not alone in overusing this word. Check out the Google chart on nGram. For the past fifty years, just has been taking over the English lexicon:

Here's a better link to that chart for all you stat-heads out there.