Archive for May, 2010

New York: Day 2

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Today’s plan: go to bookstores and sign stock. I’m in Harlem right now, so I’m going to work my south and hit some of the major stores that have been recommended to me: the B&N in Lincoln Square, Books of Wonder, the B&N right next to Books of Wonder, and The Strand. Somewhere in there I’m going to stop by Tor and sync up with my publicist, Alexis, and if I’m lucky I can get lunch at Katz. Dinner tonight will be Oyster Bar with Moshe, and then we’re going to hit Tor’s Steampunk Salon put together by Liz Gorinsky.

I know, I know, I’m here for BEA, but all my stuff is scheduled for tomorrow. Plus, I’m terrified that if I go early I’ll just see too much stuff I want to buy. I wanted to buy everything I saw at the Leipzig book fair, too, and those I couldn’t even read. BEA is going to kill me.

New York: Day 1

Monday, May 24th, 2010

I was going to call this “BEA: Day 1,” but then I realized that BEA doesn’t actually start until tomorrow. So why am I going a day early? Because I love New York.

Here are some of the things I plan to do:
1. Be homeless. I don’t actually have a place to stay tonight, since I was an idiot and didn’t schedule a hotel until it was too late; I have one for Tuesday and Wednesday, but tonight I’m a free man. The cool thing is, being homeless in New York is it’s own reward–I could sleep on the subway, or hang out in a bar, or any number of stupid, ill-advised things. This will be awesome!
2. Crash with a friend. Just kidding, I have plenty of places to stay tonight. It’s just that none of them are hotels, and I wanted to sound edgy.
3. Go to Katz’s Deli. They’ve got incredible food, sure–they make their own corned beef, for crying out loud–but the thing that makes me truly love them is this malt thing they make, kind of like a carbonated chocolate shake. It’s seriously so awesome.
4. Eat some pizza. I really love New York style pizza.
5. Visit the Hello Deli. Last time I went to New York I stayed just a half a block from the Hello Deli, and even walked past it once, but I never went in, and I regretted it. Last night I talked to my Mom, who demanded I bring her a souvenir from my trip, and when I asked what she immediately said, “something from the Hello Deli.” We’re kind of big Letterman fans in our family.
6. Visit my publisher. Not only do I love all the people I work with at Tor, I have a lot to talk to them about. I still need to give my publicist a ton of receipts from my US book tour, plus I need to talk about the upcoming tour for Mr. Monster. plus I’m almost finished with the Strawberry Fields revision, and it’s time to really pitch it hard to my editor.
7. Meet my agent. I’ve been working with Sara for years now, and she’s awesome, and I talk to her all the time on the phone, but I’ve never actually met her in person. We have a lunch scheduled for Wednesday, and I’m very excited.
8. Oh yeah, BEA. BEA itself is going to be great; I have a signing and some kind of podcast interview, and I’m really looking forward to it. Huzzah! If you’re there, come by and say hi.

Other than that, my schedule is pretty open. I’ll keep my eyes out for awesome stuff to do, but first it’s snowing and I suspect my plane will get delayed leaving Salt Lake City. Weather is so weird.

Literary Mash-ups

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Last week on Writing Excuses we talked about stealing: specifically, we talked about how to incorporate ideas and tropes that influence you without plagiarizing the sources you drew them from. At one point late in the podcast we touched very briefly on the concept of musical sampling, and whether or not that’s a legitimate artistic practice, and under what circumstances it can be good or bad.

That got me thinking about mash-ups, which are one of my very favorite kinds of music. The concept of a mash-up is simple: you take two or more songs and combine them to create a new song. One of the basic tricks you’ll see is to combine the instrumental track from one song with the vocal track of another; one of my favorite examples of this is “Tricky Wipeout,” a straightforward but awesome song using the music from The Surfaris “Wipeout” and the vocals from Run DMC’s “Tricky.” It’s super awesome. Other mash-ups get much more complex, such as “United State of Pop 2009,” which samples from all 25 of the Billboard Top Hits from 2009. The artist who did that one, DJ Earworm, is one of my favorites, and turns the songs he works with into all-new works of art above and beyond the disparate pieces he started with. The page I linked to has a bunch of songs on the side bar; I especially recommend “Love and Wonder” and “Over the Confluence of Giants.”

The big thing that separates a mash-up from a typical piece of sampled music is that (in most cases) no part of the mash-up is original; the artistry comes from the way the pieces are combined, not the pieces themselves. Think of it as a sort of musical collage. It’s also important to point out that this also means that mash-up artists don’t typically get paid for their work, since they don’t own the pieces they work with. Back in the early days (which were, admittedly, just a few years ago) it was seen as a form of plagiarism, but these days most artists don’t mind having their work mashed up, and some even seek it out. It’s a great way to spread your work to new audiences, and it makes people like you.

So anyway, thinking about mash-ups in the context of our podcast discussion got me thinking about the idea of literary mash-ups: combining two or more literary works into a new, unified whole. Many of you are thinking about Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, but that’s not a mash-up because half or more of the text is created new; Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is the “Ice Ice Baby” of the book world, except in this metaphor Queen has been dead for 200 years and nobody sues Vanilla Ice. No, I’m talking about a true mash-up–combining Pride & Prejudice with, say, Conan the Destroyer. I don’t know if that one would even work, I’m just throwing out examples here. The Age of Innocence and The Heart of Darkness? Silence of the Lambs and The Scarlet Letter? The Name of the Rose and The Canticle of Leibowitz?

So that’s what I want to see: different novels or short stories combined in awesome and fascinating ways, producing new works of art. Is there stuff like this already out there? Is this a new field entirely? Because it sounds awesome, and you should totally do it.

The German cover for Book 3 is horrifically awesome

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Get a load of this sweet baby:

You know, for kids.

Titles in general, and the Book 3 title in particular

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

So: Book 3 in the John Cleaver series has an official title: I Don’t Want to Kill You. Can I put two colons in a single sentence? Yes I can. The book has been finished for months, and is in fact already in production in three markets, but none of my editors really liked the original title, Full of Holes. Well, I take that back: it’s not so much that they “didn’t really like” the original title, it’s that they “hated it.” It was kind of inevitable that it would change, but I fought long and hard to keep it.

You see, the thing about “Full of Holes” is that even though it doesn’t make sense out of context, people who have read the book almost always look back and say, “wow, that’s a really great title.” I love it as a title. But the title of a book is not really there so that people who’ve already read it can appreciate it in hindsight–a title is there so that people who haven’t read it will pick it up off a bookshelf and want to read it. I didn’t fully understand the importance of this until my book tour, where I saw first hand that 80% of the people who picked up the first book did so because of the title (the other 20% were Writing Excuses listeners). Book 1 has a really cool, catchy title that grabs your attention, and when people read it they instantly want to know more about it.

Interesting Trivia: “I Am Not a Serial Killer” was the working title of my manuscript when I ran it through my writing group, and I never intended to keep it. They all loved it so much that I kept it, hoping I could talk my editor into it when I finally sold it, and of course the editor loved it. Huzzah!

So my book tour convinced me that I need something more “mating plumage-y” for the Book 3 title. Book 2 was already out in the UK at this point, so we couldn’t change that one, but thankfully Mr. Monster is already pretty awesome, and everybody liked it. In the words of my UK editor, Hannah Sheppard, the conjunction of Mr. and Monster “civilizes the uncivilizable,” which is a pretty awesome description of the story itself, so hooray for that. That’s why she’s such a great editor. Mr. Monster is also, plotwise, incredibly appropriate for Book 2, so there was never any talk of changing it.

Book 3, on the other hand, needed a change. In Germany they just changed it without asking, to Ich Will Dich Nicht Toten, which translates to, more or less, “I choose not to kill you.” This was pretty cool, but it didn’t work exactly the way we wanted in English. I suggested a line from the book’s epigram, taken from the ee cummings poem “who knows if the moon’s,” but it didn’t have the right kind of “pick this up right now” kind of feel that we wanted.” I went back and forth for weeks with my US editor, Moshe Feder, and we eventually settled on a variant of the German title: “I don’t want to kill you.” Not only did this mirror the first book title in a lot of ways, but it reflects the third book’s story very well, so we really liked it. Moshe presented it to Tor and they loved it, and the UK liked it as well, so it became official.

Now I only have on dilemma: what do I use as shorthand? I Am Not a Serial Killer, while awesome, is too long for constant use, so I frequently shorten it to Serial Killer or the anagram IANASK. I Don’t Want To Kill You is going to have a similar problem, but without an obvious nickname; even the anagram, IDWTKY, is unpronounceable. At this point I still call it Book 3 (or, honestly, Full of Holes, because I haven’t trained my mind off of that one yet). I suppose that will have to do for now.

BEA Ahoy!

Monday, May 17th, 2010

One week from today I fly to New York for BEA. I’ve never been before, so I’m excited to see what it’s like. I have a signing on Wednesday at 11:30, at Table 13, so if you’re there please come by and say hi. I promise I won’t fixate on you dangerously and take secret pictures of you to hang in my basement.

I come home Thursday night, ready for CONduit the next morning; my schedule for that is as follows:
Friday, noon — Writing Moods: Evoking atmosphere in your writing
Friday, 3:30pm — Reading
Saturday, 10am — Riding the Rocket: How to handle the career blast-off
Saturday, 2pm — Writing Excuses Live (2 hours!)

First look at the US cover for MR. MONSTER

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Last week I got a big shiny box from Tor–shiny not in the literal sense, but in the deeper, more meaningful imaginary sense. What should it contain within but a big stack of advance copies of my first sequel, Mr. Monster! This was my first look at the cover design, and I have to say that it is AWESOME.

What do you think?

The hardest part of satire is not chickening out

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

I love satire. Satire shines a light on something, exposing its flaws, and the best satires manage to do this while saying something important AND being hilarious. Dr. Strangelove is a brilliant satire on the Cold War, and the mindset of “us vs. them” that very nearly destroyed the world. The Colbert Report is a satire of self-righteous political pundits, which are becoming increasingly common and extreme on both sides of the political aisle. Even Huckleberry Finn could be considered a satire of early American values, placing Huck in a society so backward that he thinks freeing a slave will send him to hell.

The thing that these and other satires have in common is their unflinching gaze–they don’t just point and laugh at the issues they expose, they bite down hard and really show how deep those issues go. A satire that pulls its punches is nothing but a comedy, and often a weak one at that.

Let’s consider a counter-example. The recent movie The Invention of Lying is one half brilliant, scathing satire and one half stupid waste of everyone’s time. Why? Because it presents some incredible ideas and then chickens out, and doesn’t do anything with them. The story takes place in a world where lying, and in fact the very concept of deception, does not exist. It’s our world, just…relentlessly honest. The movie begins by plunging us straight into the most awkward situation such a world could produce: a date. The main character goes out with a gorgeous woman who’s obviously out of his league, and she says so, and the date goes downhill from there. The movie is using very dark humor to show how lies or deception are vital to the function of our society, especially “good” lies such as tact and (in some cases) silence.

The movie takes this concept and runs with it, as the shlubby man from the first scene realizes he can say things that aren’t true. One side effect of this ability to lie is that he can now have anything he wants, because if he says he’s supposed to have it everyone naturally believes him. But this is aside from the main point, which is to show that the ability to lie smooths things over and makes life easier to deal with. In one early scene the hero walks down a street passing disaster after disaster: people who are angry, people who are breaking up, people who are horribly depressed. Once he gains the ability to lie he goes back to each one of them, whispers something in their ear, and they cheer up. Lying, even in the form of self-deception, can be a form of hope, and allows us to keep going even when things are terrible.

So far the movie’s been clever, but it’s about to take the next step into brilliant. SPOILER WARNING. The hero’s mother is dying, and she’s terrified; she thinks she’s headed into nothingness, and you realizes with a start that the people in this world have no concept of an afterlife or even religion. Now we’re getting interesting–is deceit a vital aspect of religion? It’s a touchy subject, but the best satire is. Stay with me here. The hero comforts his mother by telling her that death is not nothingness, but a wonderful place full of all your favorite things and all the people you love, and she feels peace before she dies, but meanwhile all the doctors and nurses have overheard this description and become enthralled: they’ve never heard of an afterlife before, or anything this hopeful, and it is without question the most wonderful thing anyone in this world has ever heard. The hero becomes revered as a prophet, and the entire world hangs on his every word, asking more questions about the afterlife and “the Man in the Sky” and the meaning of life. These are incredibly deep topics, and the movie bites into them with vigor, showing the hero struggle desperately to present a simple, cohesive belief system that is almost instantly over-analyzed apart by his relentlessly logical listeners. If God is all powerful, is he responsible for evil? How many bad things can we do and still get into heaven? If the answer is two, does that mean we get a free pass on two sins? If we’ve already committed three sins, should we just be as horrible as possible since we’re not getting into heaven anyway? Are some sins worse than others, and how can we tell? Why don’t we just kill ourselves and go straight to heaven right now?

The movie has taken a very simple concept–a world without untruth–and followed it step by step to a logical, terrifying place…and then it does nothing. It asks these questions about religion and God, and our reaction to them, and the purpose they serve in our society and our lives, and then instead of answering them it just goes to sleep, and the second half of the movie is about the hero trying to get that girl from the first scene to fall in love with him. It doesn’t work. It is a horrible cheat. A good satire goes all the way, shining its light and never turning away, but this one blinks and chickens out, and loses all the edge and interest that made it so fascinating.

I’m currently writing a satire, and it’s a very fun but very tricky genre. I’m doing my best not to chicken out.

Media Dan Has Consumed

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Time for another list of things I think are awesome. Why are there no books on this list? Pipe down, you’ll get a book review soon.

A Touch of Evil
I like Citizen Kane, and I love The Third Man, but I think A Touch of Evil has just taken my “favorite Orson Welles Movie” slot. It’s super awesome. It starts with one of the most famous opening shots in movie history, with a single tracking shot that lasts about 5-7 minutes, as we watch a man plant a bomb in a car and then follow the car, and its unwitting occupants, through a busy Mexican street. Waiting for that bomb to go off is an incredible example of how to build tension in a scene. The rest of the story is about an American cop (Orson Welles), a Mexican cop (Charlton Heston, for some reason), the Mexican cop’s American wife (Janet Leigh), and a gang of criminals spanning both sides of the border. It’s a very famous old movie, but I was genuinely surprised at how well it holds up today, and I think most modern audiences would still love it.

Children of Men
If we’re talking about movies with long, unbroken shots, Children of Men is the gold medal winner. The premise is simple and horrifying: sometime in the near future mankind loses the ability to reproduce. One of the characters was a midwife when it happened, and gives a chilling speech about how their clinic had 5 miscarriages one week, then 10 the next, then more and more until finally the entire schedule was clear–there were no pregnant women left. The movie starts with a news story about how the youngest human being, an 18-year-old kid, was killed in a riot. The world is falling apart, because without children there is literally no future. For its ideas alone it’s one of the best SF movies in recent memory, but what makes it really stand out (at least for me) is the stunning work of the director, Alfonso Cuaron, particularly in the realm of long, long, very long takes. I love long takes because they make a movie more immediate, drawing you instead of pushing you away with constant cuts, and Cuaron uses that immediacy to incredible effect. The crowning achievement is an epic battle scene filmed in a single unbroken shot nearly 18 minutes long–I’m not kidding, it’s unbelievable–culminating in one of the most touching, heartrending things I’ve ever seen in a movie. This is a very dark movie, which some people find incredibly depressing, but for me it was cathartic and hopeful. I highly recommend it.

Yet another selection from TMC’s Oscar-winner marathon from way back in February (yeah, I’m way behind on my DVR). Morituri is a WWII movie from 1965, starring Yul Bryner as a German freighter captain and Marlon Brando as a German expatriate blackmailed by the British to infiltrate the freighter in preparation for an attack at sea. The next two hours are one of the tensest thrillers I have EVER SEEN, including a transfer of American prisoners, a surprise visit from the SS high command, and a band of mutinous German criminals led by Hans Christian Blech. Nobody trusts anybody else, loyalties shift like the wind, and the tiny ship becomes a pressure cooker of lies and secrets and treachery. Janet Margolin shows up halfway through as a beautiful Jewish woman haunted by the past and terrified of the future; it’s one of cinema’s most tragic roles. It’s a very dark movie (the title is Latin for “we who are about to die”), but it’s awesome.

(500) Days of Summer
I talked about this in yesterday’s post, but I need a happy movie for this list, so here it is again. And as happy movies go, it’s an odd choice: it’s a story about love that begins with the line “this is not a love story,” and then immediately shows the two main characters breaking up. The rest of the movie shows the course of their relationship, each day numbered yet remembered out of order (the break-up happens around 290 or so), allowing us to see every stage of love: the first sight, the distant yearning, the shy attempts to strike up a conversation, the exuberant confirmation of love, and then the downward spiral as the relationship slowly falls apart and our hero, Tom, finds himself unable to deal with it. How can such a movie possibly be happy? Because as you watch it you realize it’s not a story about this love in particular, but about love in general, and how Tom learns to deal with heartbreak and move on. The final lines of the movie, and the final graphic, are as inevitable as they are wonderful. Plus, the movie has one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a long time. Do yourself a favor and see this one.

Sherlock Holmes
Another recent movie (to make up for the two black & whites I threw at you earlier), this was kind of a blockbuster so most of you have probably already seen it. The performances are great (though Rachel McAdams felt like an afterthought), the production design is salivatingly gorgeous, and the ideas are clever, but what I liked the most about it was the portrayal of Holmes as a man literally too brilliant to function in society. It’s so hard to bring anything new to Holmes (especially with Rathbone’s characterization looming so large in the cultural subconscious) but this was a Holmes I’ve never seen before: cold, misanthropic, childish, and unapproachable by almost everybody simply because he thinks on a completely different plane. Very cool stuff. I’d like to see more reimaginings of classic characters if this kind of thought and care is put into them.

The Philadelphia Story
Now I’ve pandered to you enough, and it’s time for another black & white. The good news is, this is a hilarious comedy of manners starring Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and the funniest child actress I’ve ever seen, a girl named Virgina Weidler. The dialogue is quick and snappy, the jokes are subtle, and the very first scene has Grant clocking Hepburn right in the jaw, so you know it’s going to be awesome. But as the movie goes on you start to see a lot of drama under the comedy, and the characters, especially Hepburn, have a surprisingly strong arc of growth for a story pretending to be so fluffy. I watch a lot of movies late at night, but this is the one that made my wife come in from the other room to ask what I kept laughing at. Very good stuff.

Character Introductions

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Last night my wife and I watched the movie (500) Days of Summer, and it is taking all of my willpower not to immediately add it to my list of all-time favorites. I like to let movies simmer in my mind and watch them a couple of times before taking that step, but wow–I really, really loved it.

In short, it’s a story about what happens when she’s the The One for you but you’re not The One for her. A narrator opens the film with a quick description of the two leads, and describes the woman, Summer, with three short, brilliant sentences: “Since the disintegration of her parent’s marriage she’d only loved two things. The first was her long dark hair. The second was how easily she could cut it off and not feel a thing.” That introduction tells you everything about her character: wounded by love, thrilled by life, and all too ready to destroy the attachments to that life before they wound her again. It’s beautiful and sad and a brilliant set-up for the story we’re about to watch.

Tom and Summer

This really got me thinking about character introductions, and the ones that have really impressed me over the years. Another movie filled with amazing introductions is The Silence of the Lambs, beginning with the very first shot of Clarice Starling, sweaty and haggard, running through a forest. At this point we have no idea what she’s running from, or why, and as she comes up the hill toward the camera we get a kind of unexplained dread–this is a woman who will spend the movie desperate, confused, and small.

Clarice Starling

But the act of running, instead of screaming or crying, also serves to reinforce her strength–this is a woman who will spend the movie moving forward, facing all obstacles and never giving up. After a few moments we learn why she’s running: she’s taking a physical test, essentially an obstacle course, for the FBI. After the test she steps into an elevator, where she is surrounded by men: all bigger, taller, and very masculine. This introduces in a single shot Clarice’s quest to excel in a position usually reserved for men–a key part of the movie’s central theme of gender-switching. We haven’t had a single line of dialogue, and yet we already know who Clarice is, what she’s like, what she’s going to face, and what the movie is about. It’s an incredible opening.

Hannibal Lecter’s introduction is one of the most famous in movie history. Before we get to see him, we walk with the chief psychiatrist as he explains to Clarice all of the horrible things Lecter is capable of. He shows her a picture of a mauled nurse (we don’t get to see it) demonstrating Lecter’s ferocity, stating that he did that to the nurse in just a matter of seconds, an adding the key detail that “his pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue.”

Hannibal Lecter

Then he starts to lead Clarice down a series of staircases and through a series of doors, one after another, locks and clicking and bolts slamming, each one reinforcing the danger Lecter represents. The psychiatrist enumerates a list of strict, almost ridiculous security measures: don’t get close to the glass, don’t give him anything but soft paper, don’t accept anything he tries to give you. In a ingenious twist on “Show, don’t tell,” the movie shows us not what Lecter has done but what the characters have to do in order to protect themselves from in. How could getting close to the glass possibly be dangerous? How could he hurt you through a solid sheet of unbreakable glass? We don’t know, and the movie never tells us, but the implied danger makes him all the more terrifying as our imagination fills in the gaps.

The third major character of the story is Buffalo Bill, the killer Clarice is hunting, who is introduced to us in the simplest way of all: through someone else’s story. We see a blond woman come home to her apartment late at night, where she sees a man with a broken arm trying to load a chair into a van. She offers to help, get’s stuck in the van, and he knocks her unconscious with his fake cast. Not only is this a direct reference to Ted Bundy (who used a similar method to trap some of his victims), but it is a succinct lesson in how the world sees Buffalo Bill: not as a killer, but as a bland, almost faceless bystander, weak and helpless. He is impossible to catch because he is impossible to recognize, and the things we think we know about him are lies.

Buffalo Bill

Not every character in every story needs an introduction as sophisticated as these, but good introductions are wonderful ways to tell us important things about a character without just blurting them out. Where is the character the first time we see her? What is she doing, and why? What do other people think of her? Strong introductions go a long way toward turning a good story into a great one.