Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Helicopter Must Crash

I’m reading a book by Benjamin Percy, called Thrill Me (Essays on Fiction) and so far it’s, well, thrilling me (thanks for the recommendation Nicola). Although I own several of his books like Red Moon and The Dead Lands in my literally eight-foot tall reading stack (the place where good books go to be buried until an undisclosed future time when I’ll actually read them), I haven’t read much of his work (he also writes comics, too). But, what I’ve read so far in Thrill Me is really connecting with me on a personal level. Part of this connection is that I like to read and write horror—and many specific examples in Percy’s book are about writing by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Cormack McCarthy—all favorites of mine.
But, a particular section of his book made me light up, and it’s all about this quote: “If a story does not contain an exploding helicopter, an editor will not publish it, no matter how pretty its sentences and orgasmic its epiphany may be.” He also goes on to say “…helicopter is an inclusive term that may refer but is not limited to giant sharks, robots with laser eyes, pirates, poltergeists, were-kittens….” [Gratuitous helicopter explosion]
Of course, my book Sunlight (still in second revision, headed to a third) contains, you guessed it, an exploding helicopter, with lots of fire, shrieking monsters, and gunfire. Conclusion: There is commercial hope for my writing yet. I’m also thinking about a were-kitten trilogy, FYI.
In one of my recent grad school writing classes I was assigned the book After Dark by Haruki Murakami. This book takes place on one evening, between midnight and seven a.m., and has a sometimes surreal and dreamlike quality. It mostly focuses on a girl main character (Mari) who hangs out at a Denny’s and gets involved with some other characters whose world is the night: prostitutes, Chinese gangsters, young rock musicians, etc. There are a lot of things I liked about this book: style of prose, commentary and deep thoughts about the human condition (so intellectually stimulating), likeable characters (my favorite was a female ex-wrestler), and at times some very cool, surreal moments.


What it didn’t have, for my personal sensibilities as a reader and writer, was a driving plot or explicit action. This book had a lot of great things to say, the writing was superb, but specifically there was a plot that I expected (based on the commercial books I read, the movies I watch) that never unfolded. In the story there is a phone that belongs to a man who beats up a Chinese prostitute… and other characters in the book end up with this phone… and there is plenty of danger implied. Having the phone could be construed (by the Chinese gangsters who manage the beaten prostitute) as a direct connection to the beating—so in my mind I was expecting a danger filled plot, where mistaken identity puts the main character(s) in danger, running for their lives. But that never happened. In other words, there was no helicopter, and it certainly did not explode.
I guess what I’m really exploring here is the difference between commercial and literary fiction. Although I read some literary fiction, and appreciate, admire and strive for high quality prose writing, my true heart as a reader and writer defaults to plot-driven (commercial/genre) fiction. I want something to happen, or a bunch of somethings, something to keep the pages turning for the reader, wondering what happens next.
One of the inspirations for my book Sunlight was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (and it makes me happy when some of my “test” readers so far have pointed out some similarities to McCarthy's book.) In particular, after reading The Road—a book I could not put down for how well it was structured, how beautifully it was written, how suspenseful—I asked “but where were the monsters?” And thus started my desire to write a similar story, but with monsters brought prominently forward, where they deserve to be.
For you as a reader, if you had to choose a book with either: strong, wonderful writing where not much happens--or an exciting, page flipping plot—which would it be? And do the two have to be exclusive?
For you writers out there, I ask, does your story have a helicopter crash? A fifty-story tall monster stomping on military tanks? A kick-ass unicorn battling cave trolls? Maybe it should.

Mark
@manowords

For your gratification, here are more helicopter explosions: Get to the Choppa!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Character Assassination

Post originally published on Finding the Yummy.

What can ruin a good story for you?
For me, if I don't care about the characters, I won't care about the story. I felt that way while watching the film Public Enemies - John Dillinger was a horrible person, and I couldn't invest any energy in caring whether he was caught or betrayed or killed. His charisma wasn't enough to make me care, the cat-and-mouse game he was playing with the Feds wasn't enough to make me care, his Johnny Depp-ness wasn't enough to make me care. I was completely detached from the film, just waiting for it to end. (And trying to spot my friends Bill and Shannon Butler, who were swing dancing extras in the movie - the only thing that made watching it worthwhile.)
Femme-Nikita_2
Likewise, I have a friend who hated La Femme Nikita, because the title character murders a cop in cold blood at the beginning of the film, and he couldn't forgive her for that. Never mind that the story was about transformation and redemption - and about how society says it's okay to be a monster, as long as you're a monster on the right side of the law.  (Yeah, I loved it. But I get why he didn't. )
We all have sins we consider unforgivable.
I just finished reading Menfreya in the Morning, by Victoria Holt. It was written in the 1960s - a Daphnie du Maurier-style Gothic romance, set in the early 20th century.
I was liking it a lot, the style is spot on: sweeping rocky coasts, a glorious old manor gone to seed, horseback riding accidents, political scandals, rumors of a ghost in the east wing - the whole Gothicky works. The main character, Harriet, is likable: a lonely, odd, smart girl with a despised limp, who ends up capturing the heart of Bevil, the man she's been in love with since she was 10 and he was 20. He's a gorgeous Lothario, and the most eligible bachelor in all of Cornwall. Even after they get married about half way through the book, she can't really believe that he wants her - he's had a lot of affairs in the past and still flirts with women more beautiful than Harriet.
Menfreya
The marriage happens early on, because the rest of the the story is tres Rebecca: what with the dark suspicions about her husband's infidelity, the ghost in the east wing, the sinister governess and all. So, although they have an ideal honeymoon, when they get back, those little dreads begin to take hold. One night they have a major disagreement over Harriet's best friend, who is also Bevil's sister. After the argument, Harriet is furious with him, and announces that she's going to sleep in the other bedchamber. He says no, he wants her there with him. She refuses.
Aaaaannnnnd he rapes her. It isn't spelled out as such, but it's pretty clear what happens... her arms and back are covered in bruises the next day, and she describes it as "the most soul-shattering experience of her life."
Okay, I thought. Do I put the book down now? But Holt doesn't pull her punches. She takes care to express the rage, humiliation and fear Harriet feels, and especially the loss of her autonomy, the realization that whatever she wants, he's stronger, he's her husband, and she has no way of fighting back.
Meanwhile, there's a kind young man lurking vaguely in the background, and I started wondering whether Harriet was going to ultimately end up with him. Would her husband die? Then I thought, wow. This is a totally different book than I thought it was going to be.
EXCEPT IT'S NOT. Harriet makes excuses for her husband, and eventually learns that she was wrong about the sister, and he was right, and all her suspicions about Bevil's infidelities were unfounded, and he really just loves only her and she loves only him and those two crazy kids work it out, by gum.
Fuck you, 1966.
What story was ruined for you by a character's actions?

-Q



Friday, January 27, 2017

Next stop, Riverdale High

Hey all! Agent Q here. Check out my latest post over at Finding the Yummy, where I talk about the CW's new show, Riverdale, and the dos and don'ts in adapting a beloved comic.

ARCHIE AND THE GANG GET CWED




Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Lovely Way to Start 2017!

Firefly By Bruce Marlin
Own work http://www.cirrusimage.com/beetle_firefly_Photuris_lucicrescens.htm,
CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1536654
Lisa's first publication has hit the interwebs! Scrapie's Trap, one of the stories in her Insect Cycle, has been published in the on-line journal Kaleidotrope. And, appropriately, the art for the edition is a tech-spider.

The world in the story has a train that is part animal, part vegetable and looks like a giant caterpillar. The train only has a minor role in this story; it is the lightning bug that has the major role. The story opens thus:
Lampyridae: Firefly. Female Photuris fireflies will mimic the mating flashes of other subfamilies of firefly, such as Photinus, in order to draw their males as prey. The mating behavior of the male Photuris includes their mimicking the flashes of the males of the Photinus subfamily, the prey that the female Photuris attempts to capture with her own mimicry. In this way predator and “prey” may find in each other a mate.
Fireflies are wicked cool. In the story you will also meet two goats, Tinus and Turis, and a girl named Scrapie.

Here's the Table of Contents: 
Fiction
"The Song of the Whistling Crab" by Michael McGlade
"One Thousand Paper Cranes" by Julie C. Day
"The Big Reveal" by David Stevens
"Scrapie’s Trap" by Lisa Bergin (That's me!)
"The Last Seven Eternities of Dr. Julian Slade, PhD" by Joshua Kamin
Poetry
"Ship of Jinn" by Holly Lyn Walrath
"From the Dictionary of Nonexistent Words, A Sampler" by Kathrin Köhler 
"The Last Word" by Gwynne Garfinkle

Artwork
Cesar Valtierra 

I've read the edition - if you like a bit of horror and humor and speculation and the unknown, you will like these stories and poems. Also, there are horrific/humorous horoscopes!

And even better: in the same issue, my dear friend Kathrin has an amazing poem for word-lovers and dictionary-lovers. Please go read it! 

For me the end of 2016 had a bitter taste of loss and estrangement, and I'd spent the last days of December with a whiff of dread for the coming year. And then this issue came out with me and Kat bound up in cyberspace together. I needed that reminder from the universe.

So: here's to 2017. Here's to hope. Here's to writers (and plumbers and mail carriers and philosophers and geeks and teachers and parents and friends and sweethearts and kids and...) doing our work well, with generosity and curiosity for what lies beyond. Here's to readers and listeners. Here's to you and here's to me and here's to exploring what lies in the in-between.

Monday, October 17, 2016

New blog


Hey there, friends of the Scribblerati!

Long time no see, huh? Our blog has been silent lately, but we aim to change that! Claudia posted last week about Two Sentence Horror Stories, and now I've got a post up all about where I am with my writing. The trick is, though, the post is over at my personal blog.

So, if you're interested, click on over.

I hope you enjoy it,
Jon

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Two Sentence Horror Stories: A Challenge!

In honor of Halloween, I've been looking at Two Sentence Horror Stories.
There are tons of them out there on the interwebs. Some are amusing:




 a few are quite good: 



but most are predictable: 


 


And very few are complete stories:


Think about it. You can imagine that entire short story, fleshed (pun intended) out, beginning, middle, and end. Would it be worth writing out in full? Probably not, unless the author was exceedingly clever in their execution. Again, too predictable. But, as a Two Sentence Horror Story, well done. 

But wait! Before I get all judgy in my judgebox - maybe I should try it myself. 

*some time later*

Oh, crud.

Not easy. 

But here's my attempt. 


Martha knew Janey's secret: the ever-growing belly she tried to hide under layers of boys' shirts and baggy sweaters.

As they walked deeper into the woods, Martha had a secret hidden beneath her clothes as well: their daddy's biggest hog knife. 

Cons: Not a complete story. Maybe too wordy? (Always my bugaboo.)
Pros: I think this raises a lot of questions, and gives readers room to speculate. I flatter myself to think all the possibilities are pretty creepy. 

Whatever you think of the results, it's a terrific writing exercise. You have to be concise, and you have to be very specific. With such limited space, I found myself carefully choosing every word to paint a picture of who these characters are, and what motivates them.
Imagine approaching every line in your novel with such care. Somewhat exhausting, but I imagine the results would be worth the effort.

So then. If you dare, post your Two Sentence Horror Story below. Let the games begin! 
This is hard, but fun. No one will judge you harshly. Give it a whirl!

-Q

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Story Ingredients: What Makes a Story Great?

As some of you may know, I’m currently a Creative Writing grad student. In the last class I attended, the focus (and indeed the title of the class) was “The Successful Story.”

The professor of this class and my fellow students were all fabulous and throughout the course had some great insights and commentary about what makes (or breaks) a good story. During this class I also had the opportunity to read more than 80+ short stories—some by established/published authors, some by fellow classmates, some by aspiring writers hoping to get published—and discuss what strengths and/or concerns each of those stories had.
Fist Full O' Short Stories

One of the key learnings for me from this class—and this quantity of short story reading—is that it is a rare thing indeed for a story to be perfect, to not have a concern or two, no matter how well written or thought out. Likewise, it is also rare to have a story with absolutely no merit—that even if there are certain glaring problems with a story—often there are good things going on in the writing as well.

Another take-away for me is that not all readers (or editors/publishers) have the same criteria for what might make them love a story vs. hate it. For instance, for some readers having grammatical problems in the prose is a “deal breaker.” For me, as a reader, I’m not as concerned about that (and can forgive it to an extent), but if I don’t feel some emotional response to the story, or like at least one of the characters, in the end I probably will not like the story—if I finish reading it at all.

Following is a list of key story components (some from my scrawled class notes) that might help make—or break—a story.

Plot structure
-           Scenario
-           En media res (start in action)
-           Strong first line, paragraph, page  (I heard author Joe Hill say recently that your most important thing that happens in the story should probably happen on page 1)
-           Strong ending? (Endings seem to be hard to get right)
-           Clear conflict? Problems stated up front to help move the story (Hook!)
-           Back-story
-           Flashbacks
-           Layering (complexity—more than one thing going on)
-           Timing
-           Twists?
-           Promises fulfilled (character earns the reward)
-           Ambitions of story achieved
-           Climax (involving key players)
Characterization
-           Character change (or lack of change) during story
-           New insight or understanding by character
-           Motivation – is it clear immediately what the character wants?
-           Flawed, interesting characters
-           Indirect characterization
-           Seeing how main character interprets other characters (relationships)
-           POV (point of view)
-           Convincing dialogue
-           Empathetic characters (give me someone to care about)
Beautiful writing/prose/craft
-           Vivid, sensory details, descriptions
-           Given only details that matter
-           Strong syntax (sentences, imagery)
-           Realism or surrealism
-           Showing in writing (vs. telling)
-           Letting reader conclude what is going on (don’t over-explain)
-           Does the story take risks? Stylistic or thematic
-           What’s unique about the story?
-           Strong voice (umph! not bland)
-           NOT passive voice, vague details
-           Mastery of language, unity of purpose
World Building
-           Setting (details)
-           Strong sense of time
-           Strong sense of place
Pacing
-           A reason to keep turning the pages
-           “Cliff hangers”
-           Character motivation and goals
Emotional Response
-           Menace/danger/tension
-           Good times and bad times for character
-           Does the story have deeper meanings? Does it say something about the human condition or society?
-           Is the story memorable?

So there you have it—over 40 components that an author could consider and labor over in a great story. Did I miss any?

For you as a reader or writer, what’s the most important writing component to include—or get right—in a story?

Do you have a “deal breaker(s)” where you will stop reading if the author gets it wrong?

Mark

@ManOwords