Archive for June, 2010

Superheroes

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

I love superheroes. I’m a fan of comicbooks as well, but my first love is the heroes in them, and I love them in every medium: comicbooks, normal books, movies, TV, games, action figures, and so on and so on and so on. This love comes out in my writing even when I’m not writing anything remotely related to the superhero genre–my two favorite superheroes, Hellboy and Green Lantern, both show up in I Am Not a Serial Killer, though the mentions are brief and you may not even have noticed them.

Superheroes are a really interesting phenomenon to me, and another example of what I consider to be a primarily American mindset. We love heroes in general, especially iconic heroes, and yet we don’t have the really iconic hero figures you find in other countries with more history: the knight, the samurai, the robin hood type, the kung fu master, the musketeer. The closest we get is the cowboy, but as Americans we’re surprisingly embarrassed of our own kitsch, and the popularity of the cowboy swings in and out of favor almost at random (it’s on the upswing now, and I’m interested to see how far it goes this time). The strict battle lines between people who love and hate country music probably has a lot to do with the popularity of the cowboy as well.

And so we don’t have the kind of cultural heroes that we admire in other cultures, and in the early years of the last century we started inventing our own. The early superheroes were people like Popeye, who had amazing powers but used them mostly as jokes or funny stories. Superman was created, according to interviews with the creators, as an attempt to take a Popeye figure and treat him seriously, actually using his powers to right wrongs and make the world a better place. As the first official superhero, Superman also brought the genre a subtle religious grounding, using the Moses archetype to bring faith/myth/grandeur to a culture that didn’t have enough of it. The modern superhero is greatly changed form its early days, but it still has that original vibe, if nothing else, of homemade mythic heroism.

Superstars Writing Seminar

Monday, June 28th, 2010

My sister is in town today, so I’m saying “screw you, work!” and playing with her and her kids instead. But I don’t want to leave you blogless (especially after almost a full week of bloglessness), so here’s a quick post about an awesome writing resource I was recently made aware of: The Superstars Writing Seminar.

This is a yearly thing where an elite crew of awesome writers gives talks and workshops to help aspiring writers learn all the tricks of the trade. This year the elite crew was really impressive: Kevin J. Anderson, David Farland, Eric Flint, Rebecca Moesta, and a handsome young man named Brandon Sanderson. The seminar is already over and done for 2010, but you can buy some or all of the DVDs. These recordings were made by the same guy who recorded my Story Structure presentation at LTUE, and the quality looks like it’s even better. If you want to learn at the feet of the masters, you could do a lot worse than these guys.

Tomorrow: superheroes!

Wouldn’t it be great if I had something to talk about today?

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Because I totally don’t. I’d like to talk about writing, maybe, but I just finished one book and I’m still getting back into the other one, so I don’t really have anything on my mind either way. I just turned in a big book proposal, but it’s kind of a secret project so I don’t know if I could productively talk about it in terms of brainstorming or story creation or anything else. And then, of course, the US is playing in the World Cup this morning, so my brain is gone anyway.

Sorry. Maybe I’ll be interesting tomorrow.

Media Dan Has Consumed: Part N

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Time for another round of me talking about stuff I’ve read, watched, etc.

Dark City
I talked about this on Friday, but only briefly, and it deserves a deeper look. The movie starts–literally the opening narration–by telling you what’s going on, which is a weird choice; I think it’s kind of effective, but not fully. Anyway, the opening narration more or less tells you that aliens who can control reality are conducting experiments on humans, which as openings go is a pretty high-stakes whammy. The next thing we see is a man waking up with essentially no memory; people remember him, but he doesn’t remember anything. he stumbles through an incredible neo-noir city, trying to figure out who he is, what’s going on, and why there was a dead hooker in the room where he woke up. Is he a killer? Is he innocent? As a thriller the story was ineffective for me–he’s being chased by the cops, and the aliens, and a weird little doctor guy, but he had somehow gained the aliens’ power to control reality and this let him off the hook too easily in too many situations. As a mind-bender it worked a little better, but only partly because I already knew about the aliens. I can’t help but think the story would have worked better if it hadn’t given away its biggest mystery in the opening sentence. Yet there were still plenty of other mysteries (where his memory went, why can’t we leave the city, etc.) that were appropriately mind-bending, and I was pleased enough. The main recommendation for the movie comes from its visuals: the SF noir skyline was cool enough already, but in a magnificent scene in the middle it changes and warps, buildings growing up from nowhere like curled flowers, rooms shrinking or growing, facades changing, and it’s awesome. And of course there’s the scene I mentioned before, where the characters break through the wall and learn the truth about the city. I just wish the story had been a little stronger.

Chinatown
Another noir, this time with no SF elements. This is an older movie–Jack Nicholson’s first major starring role, in fact, and watching it you can see why he became such a big star, because he’s absolutely perfect. Nicholson, playing a private detective named Jake Gittes, is in every single scene, giving the expansive story a surprisingly claustrophobic feel–you don’t know anything unless he knows it, and sometimes this bond becomes so close (and the acting so good) that you know exactly what he’s thinking even though he never says it out loud. The crime being investigated is both massive (a plot to steal the water rights for all of Los Angeles) and personal (a mysterious woman, first assumed to be peripheral, who eventually ends up at the heart of a stunningly tragic story). The classic noir style is very dark, stemming from its origins in black and white, but I loved the bright yellows and the washed out heat that permeates every scene–LA’s in the middle of a drought, and no one has enough water until suddenly, without cause or explanation, a torrent will roar out of the darkness, startling or slamming or even killing someone. “Worst drought in our history and the director of the water department drowns,” says the coroner. “Only in LA.”

Rot & Ruin
This is not a movie but a book–a YA zombie novel by Jonathan Maberry, a fantastic horror writer who is tangentially responsible for helping me find my agent. It’s based on a short story he wrote called “The Family Business,” which he’s since expanded into a novel which I snagged a preview copy of at BEA. The story takes place 15 years after the zombie apocalypse, when civilization has more or less stabilized and humankind is struggling to build a new life in the everpresent shadow of undeath. All of the zombie tropes are here, but what impressed me the most was the style itself–Maberry claims to be selling us a horror novel, and it is, but under the surface it’s pure Western, and I have to admire that kind of audacity. It didn’t end as abysmally as I wanted it too (about 3/4 of the way in I thought of the most deliciously horrible ending), but that’s probably a good thing, and as a YA adventure that forces you to think about zombies in an entirely new way it was a blast to read. If you’ve never read Maberry, do yourself a favor and pick one up ASAP; the man’s amazingly readable, with fastpaced stories and characters you can’t help but like, seasoned with just enough horror to really spice things up. Rot & Ruin comes out in a few months, so keep your eyes open.

“Going On”
I talk about old movies all the time, but somehow talking about a two-year old music video seems more egregious. Anyway. “Going On” is a Gnarls Barkley song, nominated for a grammy, and the video is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. It’s the story of several kids in Jamaica who have discovered, of all things, a door to another world, and their journey to travel through it is both simple and somehow profound, plus it has ingenious costume design and some absolutely incredible dancing. I especially love the use of text and titles; the ending uses the text to create some poignant and perfect.

Into the West
An Irish movie about two little boys, their useless father, and a horse that may or may not be magic, and may or may not have an agenda of its own. Their mother died several years ago, just precisely long enough for the youngest boy to have no memory of her. They lived as Travelers at the time, Irish gypsies, but their father couldn’t bear the loss and took them to a wretched tenement complex in Dublin. The horse arrives like a whirlwind, hellbent on tearing the family out of its stifling, drunken complacency and back into the real world, leading the children on a journey that starts hilarious and becomes increasingly more meaningful as it goes on. At last it leads them to a grave by the sea, and the younger boy asks his brother one of the most heartbreaking questions I’ve ever heard in a movie: “Why is my birthday on that stone?” Into the West has one of the best brother stories, one of the best father stories, and one of the best supernatural redemption stories you’ll ever see, all in one place.

Follow-through

Friday, June 18th, 2010

I recently watched the movie Dark City, a mind-bending noir fantasy that I’ve been hearing about for years. There were parts of it that I really enjoyed, and parts that I thought didn’t work very well; in brief, the visuals were awesome and the ending didn’t work for me. There was one part, though, that I thought was an absolute home run: they presented an interesting mystery, and then when they revealed the answer it was even more bizarre and amazing than I had ever guessed. They made a promise to the viewer, and then they followed through with a stunning delivery.

Follow-through, in the sports world, is used when you swing something, like a golf club or a baseball bat. You hit something by pulling your club all the way back, then swinging it forward as fast as you can; many people have the natural tendency to stop their swing when the club hits the ball, but the more effective way is to keep swinging, bringing the club around in a full circle. This follow-through makes the ball go farther, and gives you more control over it.

In fiction, I think the same principle applies. Setting up a situation or a mystery is like swinging at a ball, and offering a weak payoff is only half a swing. To really follow through, you need to give the reader everything they expected, and then you need to keep swinging and give them even more. Let me illustrate by spoiling Dark City for everyone who hasn’t seen it: the movie begins by telling us that a dying alien race has begun experimenting on humans, which is a pretty big way to start, and you wonder where it’s going from there. As the story progresses we see the aliens kidnap some people, kill others, alter memories, and even alter reality, changing the size and shape of buildings and roads and anything else. We also realize that it’s always night, and no one has ever seen the sun or left the city; the roads just wind around each other, and the only train that ever leaves town is the express, which doesn’t seem to ever stop at a station you can reach. What could possibly be happening? How is the movie going to follow through on this mystery with something more interesting than we expect?

Three characters push past all of the boundaries to reach the edge of the city, which turns out to be a giant brick wall. They bash through it with hammers, desperate to learn the truth, and finally succeed in breaking open a hole–to nothing. One of the characters is pushed out in a fight and floats away, looking back at the city to see it floating in space–not on a planet, not in a spaceship, just floating by itself, with some clouds above it and a creepy alien machine growing out of the bottom. It answers the mystery perfectly, shows us something we’ve never seen before, and goes further than the audience ever expected. It’s one of the most stunning follow-throughs I’ve ever seen.

Third US Cover Revealed!

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

The US cover for I Am Not a Serial Killer was an interesting experiment–a kind of YA-ish cover for what is being marketed as an adult thriller. I like it a lot, and I like it more every time I see it. I consider that experiment: successful.

My only concern about the first cover was that I had no idea how they would follow it up–how they would manage to be different and new while still following the same style. The basic elements were very, very basic: plain white background, big block letters, and the title in big block letters. How do you do that again, while still managing to do something different? Tor designer Peter Lutjen did it via “being awesome.”

The Mr. Monster cover took all of the basic elements and made them simpler and starker. Instead of a lined notebook page we have a plain white piece of paper; instead of a jagged gouge we have sharp slices; instead of a fat, round pencil we have a thin, deadly pocketknife. The result is both cleaner and more frightening, with just enough shadow and texture to pop off the page and look really incredible.

So what about the third book? I recently announced the official title as I Don’t Want to Kill You, but I hadn’t seen the cover until today. Tor.com put up an article, written by Peter Lutjen himself, detailing the clever, tactile, violent process of creating the covers, including a series of process shots and sample ideas for book 3. I found his process fascinating; he really got into the spirit of the books, stepping away from the computer to pull out the weapons and get his hands dirty. His design article includes phrases like “I spent some time digging a trench with an X-Acto knife,” and “I temporarily disabled the smoke detector.” This is a man after my own heart.

The article flirts with a couple of spoilers, but doesn’t actually spoil anything real; if anything, his vague hints about the different manners of death in Book 3 will only tantalize you further. The mock-up sample with blood running into a drain made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The cover they chose, though, of a piece of paper scorched and blackened, was absolutely perfect. Even if you think you know what it means, I guarantee that you don’t.

What is the difference between an indie and a chain?

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

In one of the independent bookstores I visited on my west coast tour, I listened in as two employees stocked the shelves. They put up several new titles, commenting on which ones looked good, and one of them said, “I need to read this. I haven’t actually finished a book in over a month.” The other one laughed and said, “You sound like a Barnes & Noble employee.”

Most of the readers I talk to don’t care where they buy their books, but industry insiders tend to love independent stores and hate chains, and that stereotype is the reason: indies are full of people who love books, and chains are full of people who only applied because they couldn’t get a job at Subway. In my experience this just doesn’t hold up–chains tend to have a higher percentage of clueless clockpunchers, yes, but indies have their fair share as well, and both kinds are usually full of employees who love their jobs and read like crazy.

When I went to BEA a few weeks ago, I took an extra day to run around Manhattan and sign books in every bookstore I could find. Most of these were Borders and Barnes & Noble, which ranged all the way from “what kind of store is this again?” to “totally awesome.” I recommend two in particular, both right in the heart of Midtown and both, actually, Barnes & Noble:

Barnes & Noble, 122 5th Avenue:
One of the great things about this bookstore is that it looks like an indie, with winding stacks and hardwood floors and none of the franchise vibe that makes so many bookstores indistinguishable. My book was almost sold out, but I signed the one copy they had left, gave the manager some buttons, and he promised to not only order more but to display them on a central table when they came in. I browsed for a minute, and on my way out saw two of the staff already wearing my buttons. Everyone there was smart, knowledgeable, and friendly.

Barnes & Noble, Union Square, 33 East 17th Street:
If you’ve been to Manhattan, you knew I was going to mention this one. This is one of the biggest bookstores I’ve ever seen, with four or five cavernous levels all stuffed full of books. The woman who ran the fiction/literature section had just bought my book as part of her huge weekly stack (it was a very big stack), and was delighted when I gave her an advance Mr. Monster to read. She was a perfect example of the ideal bookseller, always reading, always looking for new stuff, with a comprehensive knowledge of the genre and the industry that would make some publishers look like noobs.

The one area where I think the indies are demonstrably “better” than chains is in their level of local control; they don’t have a corporate entity telling them where and how to shelve their books, so they can do pretty much anything they want, and a perfect example of that is Partners & Crime, a mystery-themed indie that became almost instantly one of my favorite bookstores in the world. It was a very personal love, too, not just a “nice bookstore” but a “I want to be a part of this community so I can shop here all the time.” It’s small and cozy, but without that “labyrinth” claustrophobia that plagues a lot of indies. There was a nice open space at the back with big comfy chairs, and the books were laid out in some very cool groupings. There’s the main shelves, obviously, and the new shelves, and then two or three shelves with almost humorously frank labels: “Our Favorites,” “100 Best,” and “Weird.”

They had another little shelf right by the cash register reserved for popular, commonly requested books, to keep them close at hand when customers asked about them, and I was delighted to find that this is where they had shelved me. My book was popular enough in that part of the city, in fact, that they had special-ordered several UK copies, and asked me to sign those as well. I gave them a copy of Mr. Monster and a bunch of buttons, and we talked about maybe trying to do a signing there when Mr. Monster comes out in the fall. They were incredible nice, knew everything about the crime and mystery genres, and when I tried to stump them with an obscure title I hadn’t been able to find anywhere they not only knew it, they pulled it off the shelf for me.

Great service comes from booksellers, not bookstores, and you can find it in indies and chains alike. I think, in the end, that the reason people love indies is the sense of ownership and community that you can’t get in a corporate environment. A good indie feels like a neighbor, like a store you can know personally, and that knows you back. The store is laid out in a certain way because the booksellers want it that way, and not because it needs to match the other locations in Idaho and Wisconsin and Florida. The smiling face that greets you is not only a bookseller but often the owner, and in the best stores also a friend.

Your homework assignment today: what are your favorite bookstores, and why?

Emotional Contrast

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

The more I read and watch and experience art, the more I realize that the scenes I really love are the ones that make you feel two different, contradictory emotions at once. The Glee scene I talked about last week is a great example: the scene is happy and sad at once; a mother and daughter are singing together for the first time and the last time. This emotional contrast lends the story a lot of depth and texture that it wouldn’t have if the two emotions were split up over different scenes.

Another great example is from another musical, one of my favorites: Gypsy, the story of a driven stage mother who forces her daughter into a life of theater. She’s very obsessed and hard to live with, and at the end of the first act the daughter runs away and the act falls apart. This is devastating, but the mother grits her teeth and determines to build a new act with her other daughter, singing a joyful and triumphant song about how the future’s even brighter, and the new act will be better than the old one. It’s all very thrilling and triumphant, until you realize that the other daughter doesn’t want to act–she thought this was her chance to leave the theater and live a normal life, but instead she sees her mother’s obsession now focused on her. The scene becomes wrenching and heartbreaking–and yet thrilling and triumphant at the same time. One character is bravely rebuilding a horrible life that the other character doesn’t want. The powerful mix of contradictory emotions make it one of my favorites scenes of any play or movie.

Another good blend is the death of Eponine in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (book or musical; it happens similarly in both if I remember correctly). Eponine has been in love with Marius for years, but he doesn’t love her back. During the violence of the French Revolution she attempts to win him back by helping carry a message through the war-torn city, and ends up getting shot just outside of his barricade. He pulls her to safety and tries to save her, but the wound is too grave and she dies in his arms–thoroughly convinced by circumstance that Marius has finally come to love her. We get the happiness of love and the sadness of death, all in one scene, PLUS the added dimension of knowing that the thing making her happy is completely false, PLUS the mix of responsibility and guilt from Marius. He doesn’t want to lie to her, but she’s dying and he doesn’t want to disillusion her either, and we feel horrible that she’s dying and horrible that’s she’s misunderstanding the situation, but we feel glad that at least she’s dying happy, and the whole scene starts folding back on itself in a self-consuming paradox where we can’t decide how to feel. We’re good and bad and joyful and tragic all at once. It’s incredible.

This is one of the things I’ve tried to do with the John Cleaver books, building scenes that make you feel happy and sad at the same time, or thrilled and disgusted, or laughing and scared. I won’t mention any by name, both for spoiler reasons and because I’d feel stupid if I thought a scene worked in one way and it turns out it doesn’t actually work that way at all. We artists are very self-conscious that way. What i would like to hear, though, are other examples of the same thing that you’ve come across in other books and movies and such. Are there any great ones we should be aware of?

Poetry is expensive

Monday, June 14th, 2010

All three of the John Cleaver books have a poem quote as an epigram, and all three used to have poems in the body of the novel. The epigrams are, in order:

Book 1:
“I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling on the floors of silent seas.” –The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot

Book 2:
“Since childhood’s hour I have not been as others were, I have not seen as others saw.” –Alone, Edgar Allen Poe

Book 3:
“Where always it’s Spring, and everyone’s in love, and flowers pick themselves.” –who knows if the moon’s, ee cummings

Each poem says something different, and relates to its book in a specific way. Each of them is also one of my favorites; who knows if the moon’s is my favorite ee cummings poem, and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is my favorite poem ever.

The poems in the main body of the book are more complicated. In book 1, one of the characters recites a section of Tyger, Tyger by William Blake, and it works really well, and I’m very pleased with it. In book 2 a different character recited a section of “The Stolen Child, by William Butler Yeats, but I eventually had to take it out–not for permissions reasons or anything like that, but because I just couldn’t make it fit. I love poetry, arguably too much, but I don’t want to just cram it in where it doesn’t belong.

In book 3, one of the characters recites not a section but the entire text of, again, who knows if the moon’s by ee cummings. It’s an awesome poem, and has a special significance for the novel. But the thing is, ee cummings, like T.S. Eliot, is not public domain. I could get the other poems for free, because they’re old, but T. S. Eliot I had to pay about $300 dollars for, worldwide, and I was happy to do it because I thought it added significant value to the book. I was expecting to pay the same for ee cummings, but Norton (the publisher who owns the rights) wants a full $4000. Ouch. I’ve asked them if we can deal, and I’m still waiting to hear back (they are rather amazingly slow in their correspondence), but I don’t have high hopes. This morning I made the very painful decision to cut the poem out of the body of the novel, and just use the piece of it in the epigram, which will be much cheaper.

If worse comes to worst, I can chop out the epigram altogether and substitute the Yeats quote, which still fits the novel quite well (thought not as well as it fits book 2). I really don’t want to do that, though.

As a final note, i also have a piece of poetry as the epigram of my next book, the infamous Strawberry Fields, now titled Pain of Glass. That epigram, fortunately, comes from an Emily Bronte poem, and as such is fully in the public domain.

My Shameful Secret

Friday, June 11th, 2010

I am not what you would call a sports guy, by which I mean that I have active disinterest in playing or watching any game that requires legs. Is your favorite team playing somewhere? I don’t care, and am probably unaware, even if that game is taking place in my own city. This is because sports are boring. Also: sports fans are annoying. You know that guy who’s always taunting you because your college’s football team is blah blah whatever? Cocking your head to the side and saying “oh, was there a game?” tends to shut him down pretty solidly.

However.

Every four years, under the light of a full moon, I become a raging sports fan. And by “full moon” I of course mean “World Cup soccer ball.” Yes, I am a soccer fan, though I don’t really have the time or patience to be a soccer fan full time; we have a major league soccer team right here in Utah, for crying out loud–a really good one, too–and I’ve only seen one of their games. But World Cup soccer is different. It has the same international vibe as the Olympics, for one thing, except that the coverage involves actual games instead of just newscasters. There’s also the fact that the games are attended by massive crowds of rabid fans instead of just, well, newscasters. There’s something very iconic about rooting for a country, instead of just a team.

I was exposed to World Cup mania twelve years ago (ie, three World Cups ago) when I lived in Mexico. Growing up in the US, of course, nobody cared about soccer (though I was on some local kiddie teams for a few years), but in Mexico everybody cared. I had several people tell me that Mexico’s economic viability was tied to their World Cup performance, and that as soon as they won the World Cup they would rise up as a major world superpower. I can certainly believe that their national self-esteem is tied to the World Cup, because the games were literally national parties: business would halt, traffic would stop, and everyone would watch the games wherever they were and however they could. It was electric and exciting and contagious. I caught one game while sitting in the airport: Mexico vs. Germany. Even if you weren’t near a TV you could tell when Mexico was close to the goal, because the entire airport would start to murmur and chant and pray, and the noise would get louder and louder until they were cheering and screaming in a single, unified roar. When Mexico scored a goal, I swear the entire airport became instantly and magically drunk, via some kind of cultural osmosis. And when Germany ended up winning, the airport was quiet and sad for a solid hour.

Living in the US, or as some people call it “the only country in the world that doesn’t care about soccer,” we have no frame of reference for just how much the rest of the world does care about soccer. We have football fans, and basketball fans, and baseball fans, but no single game, not even the superbowl, gets the kind of all-encompassing attention that a big soccer game will get anywhere else in the world. Watch a soccer game in Mexico, or Germany, or England, or anywhere else, and you are part of a massive collective consciousness; a nationwide–or worldwide–entity that is wholly embedded in a single event, sometimes a single moment. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we don’t love soccer here: we’re too devoutly individualist, too aggressively non-conformist, to appreciate something on that same, unified level.

As I type this, I’m watching the first game of the 2010 World Cup with my children: South Africa, the host nation, vs. Mexico, which I consider to be my second home. I’ll feel bad if South Africa loses, but of course I’m rooting for Mexico anyway. My son is with me, because he does everything I do without question, and my daughter is against me, because that is apparently what my daughter does. The score is tied at 1 and 1. The game is tense and thrilling; the players are some of the best in the world. How can anyone not like this game? I have no idea.