Friday, February 29, 2008

Now Serving Egg MacGuffins

At first I assumed it was some sort of unhealthy breakfast fast food. But soon after I started writing novels, I discovered a "MacGuffin" was in fact a well-known term for a story element, especially in thrillers and mysteries. The term was invented by either Alfred Hitchcock or his screenwriter pal Angus MacPhail.(who penned Spellbound and The Wrong Man). In an interview, Hitchcock explained:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?" And the other answers, "Oh that's a McGuffin." The first one asks "What's a McGuffin?" "Well," the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands." The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," and the other one answers "Well, then that's no McGuffin!" So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

In the strictest interpretation, a MacGuffin is an object or item the pursuit of which drives the plot, but which has no real impact on the story. The maltese falcon in The Maltese Falcon is a classic MacGuffin: it serves solely to motivate the characters. Some cite the stolen “letters of transit” in Casablanca as another classic MacGuffin, but by the narrow definition of MacGuffin, they aren’t: the letters of transit allow two people to leave Casablanca, and two people leaving Casablanca is vital to how the whole movie evolves and reaches its climax.

The broader interpretation of MacGuffin allows the object to have more significance in the story. The MacGuffin in such cases may be laden with symbolism, or emotional significance to the characters, and may actually play a pivotal role in the course of the plot. George Lucas has claimed that R2-D2 is the MacGuffin of Star Wars. In the narrow sense, he’s wrong, as R2-D2 is a character whose actions profoundly influence the story; and the plans that are stored inside his memory are what allows the Rebel Alliance to destroy the Death Star. That’s hardly hardly having little real impact on the story other than acting as a motivator!

The narrow use of MacGuffin implies interchangeability. The maltese falcon could have been a jewel or a rare book or the blueprint for a rocket without altering the characters or the way the story unfolds; you could sit down and alter the novel or the screenplay without having to change the scenes or even much of the wording.

In the expanded use of MacGuffin, as used by Lucas, the MacGuffin is an integral part of the premise of the story, and if you change your MacGuffin you dramatically change the shape of the story. Change R2-D2 to a secret formula or a a jeweled crown, and you will find that Star Wars requires quite a rewrite—and may not, in fact, be workable as a story.

At the risk of being accused of objectifying women, I could argue (and in fact shall) that in the expanded sense of MacGuffin, Mary is the MacGuffin of There’s Something About Mary. (Come to think of it, I didn’t write the screenplay, and if there’s objectification going on it would be in the script, not in my comments here. So stop raising your eyebrows at me.) Mary is the motivator for everyone’s behavior, and the structure of her life and personality affect the course of the story—replace her with a very dissimilar love interest, and the story changes. Replace her with a money-filled suitcase, and the whole story vanishes.

Why am I talking about this? Because I’m having MacGuffin problems—MacGuffin being in the expanded sense of the term. (I rather doubt that I’ll ever write a story that employs a MacGuffin in the narrowest sense of the word.) And so I’m musing about it in public.

I suppose the plural is simply MacGuffins. But I prefer to think of them in Gollum-speak. How many MacGuffinses does your story have, precious?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Skull on the Shelf

After his thought-provoking discussion of the futility of self-promotion, I was afraid we might not hear much again from Roger Morris on his plog. I'm pleased to report that he followed up almost immediately with a post on the kinds of writing we face: works we are contractually obligated to write, works we would enjoy writing, works that are just too good an opportunity to pass up...

And those books we feel compelled to write, but fear. And postpone. And redraft...

John Gardner thought that important book you fear was an unexpected sort of asset:

I myself have kept myself going for years by avoiding the one serious novel I mean to write someday. There it sits, five hundred rough-draft pages of it, watching me from its shelf like a skull. Nothing else I do is significant, by comparison, at least in my own mind. I am free to scatter words as an October wind scatters leaves.

Of course, Gardner died in a motorcycle accident before the preceeding quote was published, so his "one serious novel" never saw the light of day.

Do you have a skull on the shelf, either in rough draft, or half-completed, or perhaps only in your mind? (I certainly do. One-and-a-half of them, in fact.)

Monday, February 25, 2008

More Sex

After reading Emma Darwin’s excellent comments on my previous post, I think I need to clarify things a bit: I don't think sex being messy or awkward precludes it being wonderful or romantic. But, in my experience--maybe I'm just unusually clumsy--very few couplings move like a Cirque du Soleil act. Outside the world of the circus, I think most couples move from one position to another a little less deftly. (The verb “clamber” occurs to me.)

I suppose my main problem is that if something is only wonderful and romantic, I can't figure out how to tell it as a story, or even make it an interesting scene. I like nothing better than a perfect day at the beach, but I can't figure out a way to turn a perfect day into a scene. And I note that in movies where the couple is first falling in love, the filmakers usually put in a song and show a montage of them walking, holding hands, talking and laughing...but you can't hear the dialogue. Why? Because the filmmakers can't figure out how to make "then they had a perfect time for a month" into a scene either.

Passion can make up for a lot of awkwardness--otherwise no one would ever have sex in a car--but when I see, say, a sex scene in a car and everything moves like a ballet, it makes me cry foul. On the other hand, if the POV character in the car finds the buckle of the seat belt bruising his/her thigh or the door handle jabbing into his/her shoulderblade, it anchors me in the scene. I think one of the few really good sex scenes in the movies is in Fatal Attraction when Michael Douglas lifts Glenn Close and carries her to the kitchen counter—with his slacks around his ankles. It’s the awkwardness that sells me on the frantic passion.

I’m not arguing that every scene need be awkward and/or messy. I’m saying awkwardness is something to be embraced when it presents itself, rather than viewed as a threat to the scene. You might or might not decide to include the details of someone pulling off their pantyhose, or, as Emma mentions, jeans—either of which are awkward to the point of verging on comedy. Writing is always a matter of selecting which details to present. But I think too often awkward moments are excluded for fear of ruining some idealized tone when awkwardness is usually an opportunity.

To take a really minor example, say in the throes of passion our POV character rolls over onto the little toy fire engine some toddler left on the bed. That can be played as comedy, but it can also be played for character (or both). Does our character call a halt to everything and stop the moment, or does he/she try to unobtrusively wriggle off the poky little truck, or does he/she try and ignore it, or does he/she unobtrusively manage to get hold of it and drop it off the bed, or does he/she embrace their partner tighter and roll them both the other direction, or—well, you know the drill. I like it when stories reveal character by how the players deal with obstacles, and that’s what awkwardness is—an intimate obstacle.

Of course, I'm not talking only about physical awkwardness. I include extraneous thoughts, or noticing something incongruous, or, of course, the POV character’s self-consciousness in all its myriad forms.

As to messy--well, in poorly written sex scenes, everything's gleaming and smooth and glossy and firm and muscular. From the first moment, everyone smells…well, poetic (might be musk, might be new-mown hay). No one’s hair gets so drenched with sweat that it stands up in a lopsided Mohawk. And nobody ever needs to run off to the bathroom. Certainly not during. Usually not even after it's over.

And, speaking of being over, Emma points out that the post-coupling moments, and whatever scenes follow, are often done very badly—if not simply ignored. That’s an important observation. If you have a sex scene and nothing is changed afterwards, you have to question the existence of the scene.

Hollywood usually handles this by having the couple wake up together the next morning, give each other a long, luxurious kiss--and then the woman walks off with all the covers wrapped around her.

Apparently in Hollywood people's mouths taste good after eight hours of sleep. Wish mine did.

And do people really get out of bed and walk off wrapped in the covers? Weird.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Down on Century Boulevard, not far from Los Angeles International Airport, there is a huge marquee which, as long as I can remember (and, no, that's really longer than last week) , has announced that within, for a certain fee, we might behold upon the premises (pause for intake of breath from the audience) LIVE NUDE GIRLS.

My late aunt, Bernie Child, was fond of observing that this ought to be a concept universally appealing, at least if it were contrasted to the opportunity to see DEAD NUDE GIRLS.

But, then, my aunt was a nutjob. Clearly a relative. I miss her deeply.

But that’s a little off-topic. What I hoped to respond to was the whole issue of sex scenes. This has come up (no pun intended, and that little editorial remark suggests why this is a major issue in self-conscious modern writing) in the immediate blogosphere...mentioned by writers ranging from Tim Stretton, to Emma Darwin, to Ms. Susan Hill herself. So it’s a (shit, here we go again with double entendres), umm, hot topic with writers. Even if they fear it. In a time of sexual freedom, many writers have gone frigid (though not necessarily the three aforementioned sex kittens. Or sex toms, if Tim prefers.)

Me, I love sex scenes, simply because they are the ultimate high-wire act. You instantly have everyone’s attention. Okay, ya big jerk--how you gonna to play it? I've always loved having sweaty palms.

The problem is that in sex scenes most writers seem to forget everything they ever learned about writing. They romp off into abstractions, or get overly clinical. Writers who choose words with precision suddenly fall back on cliché. And the rules that even the most reluctant observer of rules will admit have validity—interest, tension, originality—suddenly fly out the window. Hemingway, who, whatever you think of his prose overall, was certainly a breaker of rules, wrote sex scenes that wouldn’t pass muster in a 1950s confessions magazine (“Did the earth move for you, too?” Umm, well, frankly, not so much.)

I’m hardly one to be lecturing. My first published novel. Shock and Awe, only has one real sex scene, and certainly not one of my favorites. It's not a sexy book. I couldn’t have crammed in a second sex scene, even if publication would have depended on it (and, luckily, it didn’t). And the scene I included involved a man having sex with a woman who was probably as strong, physically, as he was, and who was certainly a hell of a lot more centered than he was…all of this giving it a certain homoerotic overtone—and, one hopes, making it interesting to the reader.

But the rest of my books are far more sex-laden. (I like to think it’s because it was appropriate. But maybe it’s just, well…you know, an issue I need to deal with. But, as St. Anthony prayed, Lord, give me chastity…but don’t give it now.) My soon-to-be-published novel Tomorrowville. which was written far before Shock and Awe, has more sex: because it is demanded by the story line, and because it’s (I think) funny, too—futuristic, bio-augmented sex, sometimes accompanied by unexpected impotence, plus sex affected by the medications one of the participants has been prescribed. Part of the story? You betcha. Fun to write? You betcha. Effective? Hey, buy the book next year, ya slackers.

I had a novel, A Map of the Edge, (told from the POV of a 15-year-old boy) which was praised yet rejected by several agents, one of whom commented, “…but just too much sex and drugs…” even though the sex-drenched first three chapters were what led him to request the full manuscript. Well, I don’t think it was sex or drugs that caused the problem. If you didn’t like the sex or drugs, you wouldn’t have requested the manuscript. Oh, sure, I admit the story might have totally run off the rails. Mea effing culpa. But the sex had you holding the pages in one hand. C’mon, admit it… the problem was my general incompetence. Don’t blame the sex.

What’s my point, other than this self-aggrandizing claptrap? Okay, here’s a few points about how I think sex scenes ought to be written. Feel free to tell me I ought to go…well, blow myself.

1) Don’t unintentionally let diction drift. Use whatever terminology the POV character would use. Don’t shift from “his flaccid penis” to “his throbbing manhood” just because we’ve, umm, finally got wet. Unless you’re making a point.

2) Don’t forget the basics. Tension, pacing, avoidance of cliché, and all the rest, still play their roles (unless you’ve earned the cliché, but that applies to all writing. And, incidentally, fuck you very much if you’ve had the brilliance to earn it. An earned cliché is mastery and usually immortality.) In general, don’t suddenly go all romance-novel unless you’re writing, erm, a romance novel.

3) Stay in close POV. This is intimate stuff. Don’t go all cinematic. This is writing, not film, and we shouldn’t necessarily see the whole galaxy. The stain on the pillowcase or the broken shoelace beside the bed is more evocative than the globular cluster in Omega Centauri. Sticky, Icky. Live with it. We’re all kinda leaky. “Did you feel the earth move?” “I dunno. Did you feel the sheets stick to your thighs?”

4) Stay in close POV…except when you shouldn’t. The middle of a sex scene is the most wonderful moment to pull back into either a bird’s-eye view or a cosmic view or an internal monologue (no matter how that conflicts with my previous point.) It’s a perfect time to surprise the reader, or hold the moment in suspense, or introduce a new thread, while the reader wonders what the hell you’re doing when the important action is somewhere, umm, south of what you’re yammering on about. It’s a glorious opportunity.

5) Embrace awkwardness. Except for perhaps the fiftieth fuck between exclusive partners, sex, no matter how exciting, is awkward. (Too big, too small, too fast, too slow, too smelly, too dry, too purple, too Manichean, too whatever.) And even after #50, invariably a bit messy. And the earth doesn’t move, except by coincidence, incompetence, or divine intervention, any of which need to be detailed in the prose. A stand-up comic (by some accounts Gary Shandling, by others Richard Lewis) asserted that a realistic sex manual would be entitled Ouch, You’re On My Hair! Embrace awkwardness—any reader is bound to identify. Women usually understand this point instantly, though they aren’t always willing to write it honestly. Men usually understand this point instantly…and are almost never willing to write it at all, honestly or otherwise. In some matters, guys are just, well…pussies.

6) “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Or so Robert Frost asserted. If you aren’t—ahem, (send the kiddies into the next room for a minute)—hard or wet or both (as befits you), or at least amused or shocked (as befits your story) when you’ve written a sex scene and re-read it….well, question it. And consider the next point.

7) "The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.” Arthur Miller, one of history’s finest playwrights, mentioned that in an interview. All I can do is doff my hat, with the exception of expanding the masculine to include the feminine. I think this is the most important point in this somewhat silly post. If the writer isn’t in such an intimate, exposed place in working with the scene that it touches some edges, then the scene probably needs to be cut.

One odd detail I've gleaned from having many folks (roughly 60:40 female:male) read my stuff over the course of 5 1/2 novels is that graphic sex really doesn't bother most women. They're sturdy. It's inauthentic sex that tends to make them want to strangle the writer.

On the other hand, portrayal of authentic, messy, unidealized sex makes many of the boys intensely uncomfortable.

It's one of those role-reversal things, and maybe one of you readers can explain it. But my uneducated theory is, if we ain't uncomfortable, we ain't really writing. And if it ain't a little uncomfortable and awkward, heck, it ain't sex, either.

But that might just be my throbbing manhood speaking. Or perhaps some nearby orifice.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Crucible Problems, II

In Part I of this post, I think I may have dwelt too much on the issue of designing a crucible for the protagonist. The fact is, everybody in the story needs to be contained in the crucible, including the antagonist, and all the spear carriers, and the love interest, and tous les ballons de Paris.

The parameters controlling the antagonist are aften the worst-defined: Because he's evil or crazy or foreign or all three seems to be enough. (Though, come to think of it, at the end of The Red Balloon, I find the bullies believable, but I'm not sure I understand the motivation of all the other balloons.)

Actually, I think the typical parameters are what make most books in the thriller genre so damn dull. Usually it's a case of someone, often square-jawed, whose job it is to prevent someone evil and/or crazy and/or foreign from doing something utterly shocking, like...yawn...killing the President. Or there's a formula for, umm, lessee here, yeah, a mind-control drug, that in the wrong hands (which, as far as I can see, would be any hands--with the possible exception of mine), and, with this formula, the bad guys could....ummm......sorry. I fell asleep for a minute there.

Watch out now, I'm going to whine. You're warned. (You were forewarned in Part I, Neil.)

The book in which I'm presently buried--and I use that verb in the most Edgar-Allen-Poe sense--is turning into a crucible nightmare. There's so many options; there's so much wiggle room. There's no MacGuffin. (By which I mean there's no neatly defined object/objective which everyone is seeking or seeking to destroy/avert. For Hitchcock purists, we can delay for another time whether a MacGuffin can actually cover that much turf, or whether a MacGuffin by definition must not have much real meaning to the story other than as a motivator.)

I'm happier when at least some of the characters in my story are stuffed into a physically confined situation. But I'm walking into a situation with this book where the scope is rather unconfined, with big forces in big spaces--and plenty of opportunities, to return to the crucible, for the characters to hang up their hats and go do something sensible. The plot of the book is turning into an inverted Heart of Darkness, but it's spilling onto a War and Peace scale of canvas, and it's really beginning to unnerve me. (I have grown beards at various times, but Tolstoy I'm not. At least he had the crucible of historical movements of military forces to do some of his work for him. Slacker.)

And has anyone noticed how the advent of mobile phones and satellite phones has really screwed up storytelling? So many stories consist of someone needing to convey information to someone and racing against time to do so (gloriously unsucessfully in the case of the Peter Weir film Gallipoli). I mean, where would we be if, after the Battle of Marathon, the fabled Greek runner could have just flipped open his cell phone and let everybody know the outcome? (Of course, when he finished his legendary run, he managed to gasp out his message and then died, which makes me wonder why anyone ever ran a marathon since. It's hardly an auspicious start to the tradition.)

I'm rambling. The point is, this book is killing me. (They usually do.) But I'm not even sure it's a thriller, which is what I set out to write.

The good news is that wrestling with this book has made two other thrillers half-plot themselves in my head, which is 100% more plot than I usually have when I start. If this one doesn't start co-operating, I'm going to write one of the other two.

That'll show it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tomorrowville II: The Europeans

I try not to get my undies overly knotted about the state of justice in Islamic countries west of Malaysia. (From Malaysia on east, they tend to be a little less whacko.) I've spent a lot of time in Islamic countries, from sensible places like Indonesia to out-of-their-frigging-minds places like--well, you name it. And I try to keep my head down and not offend local custom.

I assume that by now pretty much everyone has heard about the American woman arrested in the Starbucks in Saudi Arabia for sitting--gasp--with unrelated male work colleagues while working on their laptops. Although she was wearing robes, a headscarf, and the rest of that medieval claptrap. she was, according to her account, jailed for five hours, strip-searched, humilated, and threatened. I don't see why the international press is making such a huge deal out of it.

Get a little perspective. It was just a woman. Plus, according to the Saudis, it was all in accord with Sharia law, and who are we to impose our imperialist view of human rights on a sovereign nation?

This sort of thing goes on all the time in the Mideast; the only reason this relatively mild case caught international attention is that the woman was an American citizen.

And the only reason it caught my personal attention, really, was that it was so closely timed with the Archbishop of Canterbury's suggestions that Sharia law needs to be accomodated in the UK. (Keep me posted on this, will you? No matter what I hear, I plan to be damn careful where I sit when I next buy coffee in London.)

Sharia law as enforced under traditional practice makes perfect sense. If a woman is raped, for example, I think it only logical that her relatives should murder her so as to expunge the stain on their honor. And I also think it stands to reason that anyone who criticizes the murder of such rape and murder victims--as Theo Van Gogh was so rash to do--should also be murdered. As should cartoonists who dare to point out the hypocrisy of the whole situation. In addition, I admit it's only right that anyone who refers to how Sharia actually works in practice in most of the world should be condemned by European and American Muslims for providing a distorted view of Islam, which is, as we all know, a religion of peace. A tolerant, progressive society needs to make room for these alternative views of morality, right?

My novel Tomorrowville is a nasty little comedy about the United States in 2088--an increasingly totalitarian, self-indulgent country powered by industries run on prison labor and controlled by a massive Homeland Security infrastructure. Economic growth has slowed, and relations with Europe have been all but severed; there are even two separate internets, and almost no transatlantic travel. The closest ally of the US is China. But some people in the United States maintain romantic notions about Europe...

This is the first occasion I've felt the urge to write a sequel to a novel. And this time round--thanks be to the Archbishop!--I suspect my main characters will be escaping from the US and visiting Europe. (Come to think of it, by the end of Tomorrowville, one of them has already left for Paris...)

The Day After Tomorrowville. I have a couple of other books to write first, but this one sounds like fun.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Crucible Problems, I

No, I don’t mean the art center and fire-oriented performance venue in Oakland— though we have a good friend who is leaning to spin fiery torches there. Instead, I mean one of those writing concepts that has no agreed-upon name. Someone—I forget whom—once talked about the problem as a “crucible,” so we’ll use that for the moment, though I might also call it "the box," which is the term I tend to use when talking to writer pals.

Bear with me here. (Ack! Why do you have a bear with you?) I’m still thinking this through. Ineptly. (If anyone can help me become more ept on this topic, please pitch in.)

Stories by their nature involve tension and conflict. But in real life, we aren’t that fond of tension and conflict; most of us tend to avoid it or takes steps to minimize it, and we also usually edge away from those who are conflict-seeking. Good stories usually involve people whose options for moving away from conflict are limited. Sensible people run from tension and conflict, which is why in the connect-the-dots Hollywood version of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the protagonist gets the Call to Adventure, and promptly engages in a Refusal of the Call. That’s because Campbellian Heroes aren’t complete idiots, and when summoned to go on some crazy quest, at first they logically say, nope, sorry, awfully busy right now. Try next door. (cf. the opening of The Hobbit.)

The “crucible” is the usually invisible box that prevents characters from doing something sensible and eliminating the need for the story to go on. There’s a whole world of options out there—why are your characters trapped inside the box of your story? The crucible is what helps frame the problem, and prevents people from:

* Leaving the horrible relationship
* Just ringing up the authorities
* Moving out of the haunted house
* Saying to heck with this crap and moving to the Bahamas
* Realizing it isn’t your job to get in the middle of this insane situation
* Noticing that this incredibly alluring man/woman is completely bonkers

The simplest crucibles are stories of someone doing their job. Why does the detective need to catch the robber, the soldier need to take that hill? Because somebody in power told them to go do it--or, in the case of the private detective, hired them to do it. But cops don’t always solve their cases, and soldiers can be a little lackluster in their assaults, and a private detective can always throw up his hands and maybe refund some of the retainer. In which case the novel stops somewhere in the middle, because the driving character has done something sensible. That’s why an additional parameter is usually introduced in these stories—a backstory that makes the present event echo the protagonist’s key struggle in life, or something to jack up the stakes.

Crucibles can be imposed by outside constraints. Generically, these might be called “lifeboat” stories: a group of unlike people literally trapped in a situation together, such as The Poseidon Adventure, or, well, Lifeboat; or stuffed into a room together by the law, as in 12 Angry Men. (By the way, when do we get the sequel, 12 Angry Women?)

Crucibles can be imposed by character. Harking back to the detective problem mentioned above, the best detective stories tend to hinge not only on the job, but on character traits that keep driving the protagonist. This has been the case from the earliest days: Sherlock Holmes seems like a cliché nowadays, but he is in fact an inscrutable obsessive who slumps into drug abuse and mentally ill behavior when he isn’t pursuing a case—and we never really discover what drives him. (Though Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Percent Solution offers some entertaining propositions.) But the amateur-detective world in particular is filled with folks who really ought to give it up and go home, yet don’t—and if the story works, it’s only because the writer has convinced us that, because of a sense of justice, or a desperate curiosity, or just plain gormlesseness or boredom, that they will persist in their quest.

Fantasy and science-fiction novels, to the extent that they are innovative and well-written, are especially fascinating crucibles. If they aren't merely Westerns in Space or The Feudal Period By Other Names With a Little Magic, the way the new worlds work are additonal walls on the box (unfortunately sometimes overshadowing the human aspects of the problems).

The more mainstream/literary the novel, the more subtle the constraints tend to be. Genre novels tend to slap up a few huge girders and ornament them, but outside the genres the box tends to be constructed of many, many sticks all nailed together. Indeed, any larger-than-life character would look around, flex her (or his) muscles, and immediately smash the crucible of your average literary novel--which might explain why so many literary novels are about relatively timid professors at venerable instituions of learning.

And the number of the people confined in the box varies. I think most literary novels tend towards the model of someone in conflict with themself in an uncomfortable crucible, while genre novels tend to involve larger boxes confining a number of characters in conflict (with the author gleefully shaking the box).

This probably isn't making much sense. And is far longer than I'd expected. I was mostly planning on whining about the problems I'm having in my current novel...and here I am, still trying to define terms.

I'll whine tomorrow. (Good book title there: I'll Whine Tomorrow. Or perhaps I'm thinking of Don't Whine for Me, Argentina.) You're forewarned.

(Elsewhere Neil Ayres has asked, quite reasonably, what the hell is the distinction between "warned" and "forewarned" [apart from the waste of a perfectly good syllable]? Well, now we know. Forewarned is when I warn you I'll be whining in tomorrow's post. Warned is when I tell you I'm going to whine in the post you're already reading.)

Forewarned is four-armed. Also four-armed is goddess Durga. Kali can have even more arms than that. Don't mess with her.

On to Part II

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Some Dumb Nationalist Jokes (but ones I still like)

A comment from Usman on my previous post raises an interesting question. He wonders if US convicts sent to Iraq will be able to return to the US, or if I'm proposing something like the system of "transportation" the British applied to Australia. As a Yank, I'm forced to note that Australia might never have been populated with Brits and Irish were it not for the American Revolution, which made it inconvenient to dump more UK criminals here. We were, after all, the shorter commute. (Though the Irish kept on coming even after, and we're the better for it.)

Racial and ethnic jokes aren't cool anymore. But we can still do national jokes, right? Usman's comment makes me think of my favorite Down Under joke (which most of you probably know):

A New Zealander is applying to emigrate to Australia. He fills out a long form, and then is interviewed by an immigration officer, who poses questions about his work history, his health profile, and his political affiliations. Finally, the officer asks, "Do you have a criminal record?"

"What?" the New Zealander asks, quite shocked, "do you still need one?"

Okay, you Commonwealth types have all heard that. But here's a Czechoslovakian joke from before the fall of the Soviet Empire:

Czechoslovakia announces it is forming a Ministry of the Navy. With all the military tension of the time, this drives the Kremlin crazy--what can this portend?

The next day, the Soviet Ambassador presents himself at the Czech Department of State. In the Secretary's office, he furiously demands, "Are you crazy? What are you trying to do with this annoucement of a Ministry of the Navy? Czechoslovakia is a landlocked country! You have no coastline, no ports--you don't even have any large lakes! Why would you need a Ministry of the Navy?"

"Well," the Czech Secretary of State replies, "you guys have a Ministry of Culture..."

And here is a whispered joke from Saudi Arabia in late 2001, right in the shadow of 9/11:

It is the year 2050. A father is taking his five-year-old son on a tour of the monument where the World Trade Center used to stand.

"What happened here, Daddy?" the child asks.

"Well, Johnny,"the father says, "an Arab extremist faction of terrorists used passenger aircraft as high-impact projectiles to undermine the structural integrity of major elements that were once erected at this site, resulting in massive destruction and loss of life."

"Yeah, I get all that," the child says. "But what the heck is an 'Arab'?"

I could go on. But I won't.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Simple Plan for Getting the US Out of Iraq, Part II

Alternative #2. Make Use of Our Indigenous Resources

Okay. I admit we can expect some pushback from the US State Department at the idea of installing the Chinese in the Middle East. As long as guys run the world, we’re going to have to deal with governments having this football concept of what constitutes winning, and one of the silly rules is that the expansion of anyone else’s dominance means you are losing. Stupid, yes, but a basic factor in how international relations work. So, here’s another innovative approach.

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world—we have locked up a bigger percentage of our people than anyone else. As far as I can ascertain, we've managed to lock up a bigger percentage of our citizens than any country in history. In fact, even in absolute terms we have more people behind bars than any nation has managed. The US has only a fraction of runner-up China’s population, yet we have about 2.2 million people behind bars, while China can boast only a meager 1.5 million.

Hey, we're number one! Do we rock, or what?

If you include people “in the system”—locked up, on probation, or on parole—our numbers are even more impressive: 7 million people.

Now, the majority of these people weren’t dangerous when they were sent to prison. The majority of them are petty thieves, drug users, minor dealers, forgers, people 19 years old who had sex with someone who was 17, or men who fell behind on child-support payments. But plenty of these folks come out violent and predatory. And, yes, some of the people in there were really scary when they were first locked up.

Our brilliant system of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes means that murderers and violent gang members are constantly dumped back onto the streets to open up cells for college students caught selling marijuana. Here in California we have more than 200,000 prisoners crammed into prisons designed for 83,000. Thousands of them are sleeping on cots in what were intended to be gymnasiums and auditoriums. According to the law, you can't let out the people convicted of drug offenses until they have served their full terms, so, to free up beds, guess who gets paroled? (There have been proposals to fix this obviously broken system, but the prison-guard's union, now one of the richest and most powerful entities in the state, dumps millions of dollars into campaigns opposing any sort of changes to the law or creation of treatment programs.)

Many states strip your right to vote if you have gone to prison; and, as a former felon, most lines of work are closed to you. What few people are aware of is that US federal law also prohibits felons from ever receiving Medicare or Medicaid—which in effect means that once you’ve served time, you will probably never have health care again. This has created a large segment of the population who has no investment in the future of our country.

Now, producing tens of millions of alientated, hostile people (if you include the people who are no longer "in the system") who have limited rights, limited prospects, and who have no vested interest in whether our government lives on or collapses...well, that might seem like a suicidal policy for a society to adopt. But we have gone at it relentlessly; a basic tenet of American government is that if something doesn't seem to be working, it's because we didn't do it hard enough.

Luckily, we're an innovative people. When a Yankee businessman steps in something unpleasant, you can rely on someone on his staff to figure out a way not to only scrape it off his shoe, but also to sell it to someone.

So, in the spirit of American can-do approaches, here’s my proposal—let all these people out of prison or off parole if they'll move to Iraq. I don’t mean enroll them in the military and send them as soldiers. I mean move the ones who want to go. Give them a cash grant and some weapons.

True, a lot of the folks who would sign on for this are members of different gangs who are sworn enemies, but I’m guessing that in the face of the nuttiness in Baghdad, they’d be able to set aside their conflicts and attend to the business of imposing gangster order. Our best guys are as full-on whacko violent as anybody over there--after all, we invented the drive-by shooting--and they are also smart enough to do these sorts of things without committing suicide in the process.

You can rest assured that once our folks work out the economic analogy that oil in Iraq is the equivalent of crack in the US, there won't be anymore oilfield sabotage. True, a violent, gangster-run state is an unpleasant thing, but that's what Iraq has always been, since the day the British and French invented the 'country' back after World War I. So, it's just a return to the status quo, except that our guys speak English. Mostly. Sorta.

The bottom line: Our gangs can beat up your gangs. Give the Crips and the Bloods and the Aryan Brotherhood a few months on the ground over there, and they be pimpin’ them insurgents' scrawny little asses all over Baghdad.

So, there’s my contribution to solving our major international crisis. I offer these ideas in a non-partisan spirit, and don’t see why they can’t form a critical plank in the platforms of both parties at their respective conventions. Think of it as an export.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Simple Plan for Getting the US Out of Iraq, Part I

This is not a political blog; this is a blog about books, especially my books. But much of Shock and Awe is about terrorism and the Middle East, and much of Tomorrowville is about the future of the prison system in the US, so I think I’m within my rights to talk about those topics. And, given that we’re in the midst of a presidential campaign, it seems like my patriotic duty to give the candidates some advice about how to handle certain pressing issues—especially since I’m certain they are all avid readers of this blog. Well, except John McCain--he's such a maverick. (Hi, Barack, hi, Hillary! Why, Mister Huckabee, what an unexpected pleasure...!)

Alternative #1. The Northeast Asian Approach

Why has China been so quiet about the genocide in the Darfur Province of Sudan? Because China has become a major importer of crude oil. The China National Petroleum Corporation has invested billions in Sudanese oil, and all their share of production (plus even more bought from other partners) flows straight to China. If the Chinese oil industry has an overriding strategic plan for the next few decades, it is procuring stable, reliable supplies of overseas oil.

So, here’s a simple way to get the US out of Iraq: Let China run the place. The Americans haven’t been able to stabilize the country with 130,000 troops, and oil production, which ought to have topped 4 million barrels per day by now, fluctuates between 1 and 2 million barrels per day.

And why can the Chinese do a better job where the US has failed? Sheer numbers. The population of Iraq is 24.5 million. The population of China is 1,321.8 million.

There are almost 200 Iraqis for every US military person on the ground in Iraq. 200-to-1 is not a good ratio.

I think China can afford to go one-to-one: just send one Chinese citizen to mind every Iraqi, and stick to them like their shadows. Pulling 25 million people out of China wouldn’t even be noticeable: the errors in the Chinese census are larger than that. In fact, send 50 million Chinese, and let them work in shifts around the clock.

You can bet the Chinese would stabilize the place, and you can bet they’d have production up to 5-6 million barrels per day. But wouldn’t that oil all go to China? Yeah, maybe. So what? That would leave more oil from other sources for the rest of the world. And, for those who aren’t familiar with such matters, let me add that Iraqi crude is pretty lousy stuff—high in sulfur and metals, and sort of an environmental nightmare. It’s the kind of oil the US and Europe don’t like in the first place.

There. See how easy that was?

Oh, I'm sure there will be objections from some entrenched special interests. Well, if you don't want to invite the Chinese in, I have another innovative possibility which I'll discuss in my next post...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Need a plot for your next novel? Here, it's free...

A real-life story in Texas is the basis, but I'm betting this could be transferred to Allcombe, or Tooting Bec, or Mars, or just about anywhere. (Except maybe the Middle East, where they don't like dogs.)

Amazing. Why even bother to come up with your own stories?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

From the desk of N. Cognito

As it turns out, neither of my publishers wants there to be confusion between David Isaak and David Whoever, so we're back on the pen name trail again.

So, what are the names of some pens? David Sheaffer? David Cross? David Biro? David Bic? Or, to take a page from Len Montblanc-Meisterstück (nee LC Tyler), David Montblanc? Other pen possibilities:


David Yard-O-Led is appealing, but perhaps a bit distracting.

There are also the generic foreign-language terms for pen:


but they all sound a touch, well, foreign.

Quiller? Penner? Scribner/Scrivener?

I've always admired Anne Rice's pen name for her S&M porn, AN Roquelaure, which is a slightly archaic French term for "cloak". And perhaps I could get somewhere with "Henshin" which sounds valid enough but is Japanese for "disguise". Anyone have any obscure and interesting words for "disguise," "cloak", or "mask"? (No, David Persona doesn't seem to work.)

Anagrams are always good, but I think "Isaak" has too many vowels. I can't turn it into anything. Maybe I could adopt Iain Banks' first name and add that into the mix: Iain Isaak = aaa iii k n s. If nothing else, I could form a Hawaiian place name, like Ka'a'ani'isi. (Not quite right--Hawaiian has no "s".)

Though "Sanders" was good enough for Pooh, it's a little generic.

At the moment, I'm leaning towards a tip of the hat to JRR Tolkein: the name Isaak isn't to be mentioned outside The Shire, so I'll go traveling by the name of Underhill. David Underhill. DT Underhill.

Or, since so many fantasy writers have three first names (JRR Tolkein. George RR Martin, MFW Curran), maybe I need three initials: A.B.C. Biro. David R.R. Montblanc. I.M.A. Yard-O-Led.

I always liked George Harrison's pseudonym when he played on the Cream song Badge: L'Angelo Misterioso. But it's been done.

Or perhaps the name is Bond. James Bond. That's got a certain ring to it.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Stephen Koch (My favorite books on writing)

Stephen Koch, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop.

Is it possible to come up with a less-appealing title? Possibly, but you’d really have to apply yourself to the task. Nonetheless, hidden beneath that ugly title, and between the shocking safety-green covers (makes it easy to find on the shelf, I must admit) is one of the best writing books ever, well, written.

As well as being a novelist himself, Koch was long the head of the creative writing program at Columbia University (the one in New York City, not the one in Bogota), and the mentor of many other novelists. Yet the book is far from academic, and Koch is one of the least dogmatic of teachers. If there is any single philosophy he embraces, it is the belief that what works, works.

Most writing books, intentionally or otherwise, situate themselves somewhere in the Great Chain of Prose; the authors tend to value precious, MFA, lit-magazine prose on the one hand, or assume that you want to be Dan Brown on the other. Not so with this book: Koch joyously embraces the full spectrum of literature, and he peppers his arguments with quotes from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Stephen King, Vladimir Nabokov and Patricia Highsmith, Truman Capote and Edith Wharton…and about a hundred other writers. (Indeed, his habit of quoting so many snippets from interviews with writers has irritated some readers. I think it’s one of the great things about the book, and led me to many interviews I never would otherwise have read.)

This probably isn’t the best book for a true newbie writer. It doesn’t give assignments, it doesn’t do case studies, it doesn't mess about with definitions of the obvious. Moreover, it assumes you are well-read, and, perhaps more important, widely read. It doesn’t teach technique or the details of craft, but instead discusses concepts. Because of this, it tends to be of more value to, and enjoyed more by, those writers who already have a fair amount of writing experience behind them.

Koch makes a sharp distinction between “story” (which he considers essential and fundamental) and “plot” (which he believes consists of the details of how the story unfolds, and is therefore a matter of both craft and choice). He also has fine discussions on drama/melodrama, the problem of the improbable, and the “invention of your style.”

This is not the place to come if you want lessons on past and present tense, or how to craft POV, or why to avoid the passive voice. This is a book for writers who want to sit down and enjoy a wide-ranging discussion of all the issues in writing that lie somewhere between art and craft—in other words, where we all really live and work. I've bought copies of this book for many writer friends, because it's a sure thing; within a few days I have calls or e-mail telling me how much they are enjoying it.

One of the unusual strengths of Koch's book is his chapter on revision. One is constantly reminded that "writing is mostly rewriting," but the process of rewriting is often treated as the most mystical part of the process. Koch attacks the problem with real verve, but he recognizes that writers produce their first drafts in very different ways. He suggests that drafts should alternate in speed: If you're a fast first drafter, who slams the words down the way a potter gets the clay onto the wheel, then you should count on a slow, meticulous second draft; if, like me, you're a slow first drafter, then you should pick up the pace when you revise, to avoid getting mired in your previous work.

If you do get stuck in revision, he has tactics to consider--for example, Rewriting From Memory:

Some prose is a tar baby. Touch it and you just sink deeper into tar. If your battle with some passage is leaving you bleary-eyed and frustrated, it's often best simply to return to your original inspiration and without so much as a backward glance, quickly write out the whole thing again, from scratch, and from memory.

At the same time he advises a certain ruthlessness, however, he also cautions:

Cut, but don't cut out your heart...From the very beginning, the definition of your job has been to trust your own excitement and make it pay off. It still is. Never condemn your own prose. Redeem it. If you do, the original excitement will come back, but it will come back fulfilled and alive with a power that will be new to you.

So much for the refrain of cut, cut, cut! First, do no harm.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Price On My Head... Switzerland. Apparently the Swiss have been searching for me since April 4, 2007, and after a worldwide manhunt, they're closing in on me.

It's scary. I've seen those guys who guard the Pope. If you added some white makeup and round red noses, you'd have clowns, and there's nothing scarier than clowns (not even animal-human hybrids).

Actually, the police and army in Switzerland may not dress like they do at the Vatican. I'm not sure, because I didn't see any police or military folks the whole time we were in the country. The Swiss are an orderly lot, and if one of them commits a crime, they make sure they inform the authorities in advance, who then issue an appointment time for them to turn themselves in.

In rare cases they may have a car chase, but they issue a permit first, and no one exceeds the speed limit. It's quite an efficient system, really--though, as anyone who watched the OJ car chase can testify, a medium-speed car chase doesn't make for gripping drama.

Since I don't speak German, my understanding of my crime is a little hazy. The gist of it seems to be that on April 24, 2007, I was operating my Personenwagen at 17:06 Uhr. The Ubertretungsort was the Tunnel Arisdorf, Bergspur. After a series of data points, they come to the bottom line:

Geschwindigkeitsuberschreitung: 6 km/hr.

Which I'm guessing means exceeding the speed limit by 6 km/hr, which is about 3.5 miles per hour. Since I go faster than 3.5 miles/hour when I walk, it seems like the kind of number that would be laughed off. Here in California, we're more approximate: "70 miles/hr" pretty much means any speed from 61 miles/hr to 79 miles/hr. We're easygoing; we have concepts like "kind of married." But I guess the Swiss are a bit more precise about such things.

Okay, busted. Mea effing culpa. And I will pay them their Euro soon as I can figure how to do it. (Their little form is in German, too.)

But pay it I will; I have no desire to serve time in Switzerland. I mean, if they dress the Swiss Guard like that, imagine how they dress Swiss Prisoners...

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Genre. Branding. Pen Names. Oh, and World Peace.

Len Tyler is asking hard questions over on the Macmillan New Writers blog. Genre. Branding. Pen names.

“Genre” is one of those words with triple meanings. Even in literary criticism, it can be used as meaning Aristotle’s categories (Tragedy, Comedy), or the form and diction level of the story (fable, tale, epic, saga, realist, metafiction…). The latter usage is what John Gardner means when he says that “the writer’s primary unit of thought is genre…”. The third meaning, and, increasingly the dominant meaning, is the marketing sense, which ever gets sliced thinner, as in “Sensuous Time-Travel Romance” or “Christian Urban Dark Fantasy.”

I believe it was Lawrence Block who said that genre in the marketing sense was a concept that was useful to everyone except the writer.

I never really thought hard about the topic of genre when tackling a project. When I wrote Shock and Awe, I didn't plan to write a thriller, but it soon became apparent that's what I was writing. I'm not overly fond of the thriller genre, and, to tell the truth, don't read many thrillers, but it was the right form for the story I wanted to tell and the issues I wanted to wrestle with. And now--ka-zam!--I'm a thriller writer. Luckily, it turns out I enjoy writing in the genre, even if reading in it can get iffy.

Until my current work-in-progress, I had never set out to write something in particular. Now I find myself trying to write the kind of book the author of Shock and Awe might write. It's a bit odd, and poses new kinds of challenges for me.

A couple of my other books tend to be more humorous and a little goofily postmodern, and if you had to bin them, they'd probably end up in the "fantasy/sci-fi" bin, even though most fantasy/sci-fi fans would probably loathe them. (Most sci-fi fans also loathe it when you call it "sci-fi." I'm not sure why.) I think that a pen name will be important for those. I'd hate to have someone who bought Shock and Awe buy Tomorrowville expecting more of the same.

Now, under the MNW contract, Macmillan has the first option of publishing my next book. And I have the option, legally, of submitting whatever I like, and saying,“There it is—that’s David Isaak’s next book, this Time-Travel Romance.” And Macmillan would have the option of telling me to shove off and take it over to Boon and Mills (where, no doubt, they would find I was the author of Shock and Awe, and tell me they might have a few marketing problems with my image. And in case you’re wondering, no, I haven’t actually written a Time-Travel Romance.)

But I can’t see how this scenario benefits anyone. I’ve written a thriller. It's an extremely unusual thriller in terms of its approach and even some of its techniques, but I can't imagine anyone sorting it into another bin. Whatever small credibility my name carries with readers is as a thriller writer, and that credibility is less useful further afield—and indeed in some genres, is a definite liability. Therefore, I believe that both MNW and I agree that the next thing of mine they publish ought to be in at least the same general vein as Shock and Awe, and that when they pick up the next “David Isaak” book there can be surprises—but that the sort of book it is shouldn’t be one of those surprises.

Let me hasten to point out that this applies to me, but doesn't apply equally strongly to all MNW authors. It would have been very weird indeed if, say, Edward Charles hadn't followed up his first book with another historical novel. And Brian McGilloway would be tarred and feathered if he didn't follow Borderlands with another Devlin novel. But many of the other MNW books don't fit as neatly into slots as mine, or Edwards', or McGilloway's did. So some of you have more latitude.

But I have other books, none of which fit in the thriller box, and I’d rather not leave them buried forever, so the only rational thing to do in the long term, crass as it sounds, is give them their own brand. (MNW still gets right of first refusal, of course, but these are things they won’t want.) And the number-one branding of fiction is the name of the author. Pen name, here I come.

I know the Iain Banks/Iain M. Banks or Roger/RN Morris thing seems to work well enough, but "Isaak" sticks out a bit more than Banks or Morris, so I'm inclined to adopt something farther afield. Or maybe I just like the multiple identity/secret identity aspect of it. (WANTED: David Isaak, aka Joey “Bonkers” Bonello, aka Doctor "Dogz 'n Kidz" Roofieman aka The Scarlet Pimpernel…)

I mean, even Winnie the Pooh lived under the name of Sanders.