Monday, September 29, 2008

Our Odd Plants, I

A few folks have observed that the pictures of our backyard suggested that we had somewhat odd plants. I suppose we do. And since I don't have time to write anything intelligent these days, I guess it's time to share our plants.

Here's one of our current favorites, Solanum pyracanthum, which I believe translates to "Firethorned Nightshade," which is a rather romantic name. This one is about two months old, about 18 inches high, and promises to get a lot taller.

The popular name for these, insofar as they have a popular name, is "Porcupine Tomato." Granted, it is in the same family as the tomato (and potato, and eggplant), but quite frankly I don't see the resemblance. When it bears fruit, I'm expecting something more like little black belladonna berries, not tomatoes...but we shall see.

I believe this plant is native to Madagascar, an island filled with odd plants. But wherever it hails from, it clearly had a difficult evolutionary childhood. It is covered with spines--lovely spines that start out red at the base and flame up into a fiery orange-yellow at the tips. And they are sharp, oh yes indeed my precious, as sharp as the thorsns on any cactus I've ever met.

When I say "covered with spines," I'm not kidding. These little babies have spines on their trunk, spines on their stems, spines behind their innocent-looking flowers, and even spines on their leaves. This is a plant with issues.

I've spoken to it kindly and suggested that we don't intend to harm it, but if anything it's getting spinier. Which is fine, really, as, seen in the sunlight, the spines are almost painfully beautiful.

A fellow Californian has warned on the web that in this climate these plants, which are supposed to form a 2-3foot high bush, turn into trees. He claims to have one eight feet tall that throws seeds everywhere, resulting in an ever-encroaching army of tiny seedlings which are equipped with vicious, untouchable little spines from the moment they sprout.

It is growing with astonishing rapidity. But I assume he's exaggerating a bit...

Friday, September 26, 2008

You Brits Are On Notice

The Taliban in Northern Pakistan has sent the following letter to a newspaper in Pakistan:
Those without beards, those who drive on the left like the British, those who sell shaving kits, make-up or bras, will be killed.

Now, I'm not surprised by the loony and hateful sentiments expressed here. These are the same people who have burned down 230 schools in Northern Pakistan because they allowed girls to attend. The Nazis displayed rather restrained behavior and a sensible and compassionate philosophy compared to the Taliban.

But it wasn't the preposterous thrust of the message that caught my attention. No, it was the line "...those who drive on the left like the British...". What exactly are they getting at? If they just mean "those who drive on the left," why don't they simply say so? I think they're getting at something else entirely. Otherwise they would have said "...those, like the British, who drive on the left..."

Bob Goldthwaite once noted that that the number of deaths by gunshot was roughly 300 times higher in the US than in the UK. And he went on to point out, "This either shows that gun control really works...or that British people can't hit the broad side of a barn."

I think that's what the Taliban is on about. It's okay with them if you drive on the left. But not if you drive like British drivers while you're over there on the wrong side.

I'm not sure why they're picking on the British. Okay, the British driving system is undeniably silly in some regards. For example, I have a friend who is trying to get a British license. (Recently succeeded, by the way.) The last time he failed the exam, it was because he turned the steering wheel before the car was in motion. Apparently some genius has decided this wears down the tires, or maybe tyres, and is a major safety hazard. That's absurd, like arguing that you should never turn around while walking upstairs because pivoting on your foot wears down the stairs. At some molecular level it's true that it increases wear, but the idea that it's a major factor, or even an infintesimal factor, in the safety of a tire, is preposterous. A tire will have failed for a thousand other reasons before it blows out because of turning the wheel while the car is stationary. You could sit in your driveway and whip the steering wheel back and forth until you were dizzy, and it would still have the same erosionary effect on the tires that a stiff breeze has on the north face of the Tate Modern. Whole species could evolve, prosper, decline, and go extinct before turning the wheel while stationary would whittle down a tire to an extent anyone could notice.

Okay, the British may not be the world's finest drivers. That would probably be the Italians--or at least the Italians who survive those laneless Darwinian roundabouts. But the British certainly aren't the worst. Not even the worst of those who drive on the left. Offhand, I can assert with moral certainty that if left-side drivers are to be killed, we ought to start with those who drive on the left like Thais, Indonesians, or Indians. Fifteen minutes driving in Bangkok can make you rethink your opposition to capital punishment.

Or, best of all, the Taliban should start with people who drive in Melbourne, Australia. Despite the staid atmosphere of Melbourne (which is a bit like I imagine England might have been in the 1950s), their traffic system is insane. The most egregious feature is that to make a right turn (the equivalent of a left turn in right-side countries), you are required to pull far onto the left side of the intersection so you are parked diagonally on top of the crosswalk, partly facing the direction you wish to go, and smack ahead of all the traffic wishing to go straight. (If I haven't drawn that picture in your mind, it's because it can't really be done without a chalkboard. Even then, people don't believe me. I didn't believe it myself the first hundred times I saw it. Next time I drive in Melbunn, I'm renting--sorry, hiring--a car with an automatic transmission, so when I panic all I have to do is jump on the brake and stare rather than fumbling wildly about.)

If the Taliban wanted to kill people who drive on the left like the Melbournians (Melbournese? Melbournites? Melbournisians?), I could see their point. True, I think it's a bit extreme. But it makes a lot more sense than targeting the Brits.

Unfortunately, the Taliban has--or, if you're British, the Taliban have--not yet hired me as a policy consultant. So my opinion is unlikely to sway them. Therefore, let this be a warning to all of you.

Especially you bra-wearing, make-up-wearing, beardless British drivers (who I'm guessing are mostly, though perhaps not exclusively, women). If you fall into that class, you'll be safer from now on driving on the right. I suggest you honk loudly as you do so.

And don't blame me. I'm just the messenger.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More on Arcs

S. Boyd (Sam) Taylor dropped a comment on my previous post, noting that a teacher once told him that if your protagonist didn't change, you didn't have a story...and that he'd been looking for a good counter-example.

I think there's plenty of counter-examples. Many of the Greek myths, for example, feature iconic characters who never change.

Well, a lot of them end up dead, which I suppose is a change, but very often they persist in being the same people up to the point where they stop breathing. And a common element in classical tragedy is a protagonist who doesn't change, and therefore circumstances around him change--usually in a way he dislikes. (And then he or she ends up dead, too.)

A lot of them who end up dead also end up as constellations, which I suppose a lawyer could argue is one of the biggest changes you can imagine. But most of these constellation-people were unchanging in life, and, up in the sky they remain icons for the forces they personified. Take Hercules--does he have a character arc? C'mon.

(I'm not saying all mythological characters lack arc. Gilgamesh, for example, learns many things in the course of his epic, and his outlook on life is transformed.)

And we don't need to retreat to ancient myths. In Fleming's novels, James Bond never really changes; neither do many superheroes in comic books. (In fact, superheroes who do change were considered to be a revolutionary step in the early days of Marvel Comics.)

One of the entertaining things about the "reboot" of the James Bond franchise in the movie Casino Royale is that the Bond of the movie isn't yet the James Bond we know, as illustrated in the hilarious (to Bond aficianados) exchange:

BOND: Vodka martini.

BARTENDER: Shaken or stirred?

BOND: Do I look like I give a damn?

In Casino Royale, for once, Bond has an arc. He starts as a chilly but impulsive don't-give-a-damn type. Toward the end of the movie, love makes him begin to open up to life. But then all his hopes are destroyed, and in the very last scene we have the Bond we know: closed off, smug, and transformed from chilly to solid ice. But this arc is a Just-So story, like How the Elephant Got His Trunk. It's all in service of explaining how someone became the ever-unchanging Bond.

Some people latch onto the Bond/superhero examples to assert that unchanging characters are inherently two-dimensional or cartoonish. I don't think this needs to be true (Broadcast News has complex, three-dimensional characters)--at least not for the length of a single story. Unchanging characters can be perfect guinea pigs to conduct that experiment for which novels are the greatest laboratory: What is the result of a particular unyielding personality type and worldview encountering life?

On the other hand, if you have a series character who never changes--like Poirot or Holmes--they are bound to feel cartoonish when we see them in book after book. This may be why Conan Doyle was constantly adding character traits, such as cocaine addiction, to Sherlock--they helped round out a character who wasn't growing across time.

You can argue that unchanging characters are usually less interesting than characters who are changed by events, and I wouldn't disagree. But to argue that unless the protagonist changes, you don't have a story, is just silly.

I mean, really: Did Noah have an arc?

[The answer, incidentally, is 'no.' For 600 years before the Flood he was the most righteous and upright of men, and for the 350 years he lived after the Flood, he was...well, the most righteous and upright of men. No arc.]

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Raiders of the Lost Character Arc

By the time a literary concept becomes entrenched in Hollywood, you know there's something wrong with it. I admire Joseph Campbell; I've even read his books. Hey, even books apart from the ubiquitous Hero With a Thousand Faces. Of course, most people in Tinseltown haven't read even Hero (which doesn't prevent them from talking about it). Instead, the more literate ones have read Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey, while the less literate have taken a weekend workshop in The Hero's Journey from some screenwriter.

But, much as I admire Campbell, if I hear about the "template" of The Hero's Journey one more time, the person speaking is going to find themself joining Eurydice in the most inaccessible corner of Hades, never to return to the world of the living.

But, enough of that particular rant. What is ammoying me at the moment is that the related buzzwords, "character arc", have now become permanently lodged inside Hollywood's thickish skull. It's not a bad concept, character arc, though it's a little vague. But I'm getting pretty damned tired of being told that the important characters in every successful story have one. And, this being Southern California, what writers talk about gets pikced up by Hollywood, and then in turn is recycled out of Hollywood and back into the coffeeshops by the more paint-by-numbers sort of writers. You can't mention anything about a character without someone asking, "Okay--but what's his arc?" Because current gospel is if said character doesn't have an arc, we don't have a story. Well, horse patootie.

My counterexample: James Brooks' Broadcast News. The people at the beginning of the story are exactly the same people at the end of the story. Sure, they're bigger and older and a little sadder, but if that's a 'character arc' then the term is pretty useless. (If you haven't seen Broadcast News, watch it. Brilliantly structured, and pulled off so entertainingly that you don't notice the big pillars of the structure.)

Brooks isn't subtle about his non-arcs, either. There are three protagonists, and they are introduced as children in three short prologues, each of which end with a subtitle announcing who they are destined to become, such as "Future Network News Anchor."

Holly Hunter's character is in many ways the compass of the piece, because she is afflicted with a devastating clarity that lets her see what is happening...and forever destines her to be unhappy. (One character says to her, "It must be nice to always be right." With her voice cracking, she manages to reply, ", it's terrible!")

One of her traits is that she micromanages, and there is qhat appears to be a recurring throwaway character joke: she is constantly instructing taxi drivers, in excruciating detail, of how best to navigate to their destination. ("Don't go by the park, because this time of fay there's always a lot of people try to...")

After the climax of the film, when she is utterly defeated and beaten, she climbs into the back seat of a cab and says, "Don't take the Beltway, because at this time of day there's gonna be a lot..." She pauses, and then says, "Oh, go any way you want."

This looks like an arc of sorts, doesn't it?--a little epiphany, a shift in her character. But as she slumps back in the seat, fighting tears, she gathers herself and mutters under her breath, "But New York Avenue's faster."

The real message of Broadcast News isn't about how people change. It's about the fact that people really don't, and someday need to accept who they are. Character is shown to be surprisingly inflexible, and character is shown to be destiny. The movie plays as a comedy, but it's really more of a Greek drama.

I admit, you can make a great story out of how a character is changed by events. But you can also make a great story out of how someone refuses to be changed by events--or even how someone refusing to change can drive events (ala A Man for All Seasons).

Remember, if Hollywood executives are chanting it, it can't possibly be wisdom.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Macmillanite Visits California

Many of the London crowd will recognize Jonathan Drapes, author of the hilarious MNW novel Never Admit to Beige. Fewer will recognize the sands of Hermosa Beach behind him. ( Okay, I admit the sand isn't terribly distinctive. It takes an expert to distinguish the sand of Redondo Beach from the sand of Hermosa Beach, and I doubt that most readers here are trained Sandinistas...or whatever it is they call sand experts.)

With Jonathan is his better half Katherine, and, in the startling plaid hat, their daughter Jessica, who at this point had about enough of fooling around and being cute for visitors and wanted to head off for bed.

Though Jonathan had been a denizen of London for some time, he's on his way home to Brisbane; England's loss, but Australia's gain. Luckily, they decided to stop over just up the road from us (well, by California standards). So Pamela and I had a chance to have a chat and dinner with them, and JD and I had a chance to whine a bit about the whole process of writing.

While Macmillan New Writing may be a very British imprint, if you sum it up they've now published quite a few of us seditious aliens. At this point, I guess that--lessee, one, two, three, four...I make it no less than seven of us are from the outside. (That would be five Americans--Michael Stephen Fuchs, Peter Anthony, Ann Weisgarber, Doug Worgul, and, of course, Yours Truly--as well as the delgates from India [Suroopa Mukherjee], Ireland [Brian McGilloway], and, of course, Jonathan, who hails from the outskirts of Oz.) Jonathan, who works in advertising, was savvy enough to relocate to London just before his novel was published. (And now that it's out and the novelty effect has worn thin, he's savvy enough to disappear. This is somebody who understands PR.)

Alas, those of you who live in the UK and didn't meet Jonathan and Katherine seem to have missed your chance. Though I suppose he might move back next time he publishes a book. In the meantime, you can always pick up a copy of Never Admit to Beige, which I guarantee will be one of the funniest books you've read. Almost every review on the Amazon UK page for the book uses the phrase "laugh out loud." They mean that in a very literal sense; don't read this in public, or you'll finding everyone edging away from you.

And, best luck to Jonathan, Katherine, and Jessica back on the Gold Coast.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Three of Me for Two

The intrepid Matt Curran has pointed out that the paperback of Shock and Awe is on the 3-for-2 table in Waterstones, which is an instance of what the Japanese call 'the ascent to heaven.'

[nb. Actually, 'the ascent to heaven' is when someone working in a Japanese corporation takes a job in the government body that regulates the corporation. But I love the phrase and had to sneak it in somehow.]

So, those of you near a Waterstones could dance on down and pick up three copies, keep one, and give two of them to friends. (Or, if you decide you hate the book, you could instead give all three to people you dislike.)

To be fair, though, Matt says that Faye Booth's Cover the Mirrors and Annabel Dore's The Great North Road are both there as well, and you might want to buy those two instead of the two extra copies of mine. (Sigh.) If you want to maximze your Forest Products Consumed Per Unit Cash--and pick up a truly unusual novel--you will definitely want to buy The Great North Road. Faye's Cover the Mirrors is a marvelous read, but weighs in at a sensible 318 pages; and Shock and Awe, at 472 pages, contains a few more words than any reasonable person could want; but, at 679 pages, The Great North Road can stop any bullet that doesn't have a full metal jacket.

I recommend buying all three.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Fruits of Surgery

Leslie Schwartz, a fine novelist I know, once advised a class of writing students, "Be fearless about cutting, even if the sections you cut are some of your best writing. You can always set them aside in files of their own and use them for another project some day."

Then, with a sly smile, she added, "Of course, you'll probably never use them--but telling yourself you might makes the cutting less painful."

I have cut passages. And in the editing of Shock and Awe, at Will's behest I added back a section I had cut before I submitted it. (He noticed something was missing, and he was right).

But, as Leslie suggests, I've never cut anything and then used it in another project. I keep hoping this might happen, but it never seems to come up; my books don't seem to be written so that a passage from one might be dropped into another with only minor adjustments. (Indeed, not even with major adjustments.) I was nosing through my computer folder of fragments the other day, and I still don't see any use for them.

My most interesting fragments are those that were "planned cuts." When I'm trying to get a major viewpoint character on paper, I often write a scene that I have no intention of including in the book--one that in fact would be a distraction from the story. These are usually personal scenes from some other time in the character's life; an interaction that gives me a sense of how the character would behave in a situation that never is touched on in the story.

I tell myself this adds to the submerged-iceberg of what the reader never knows, yet somehow senses. The exercise gives me a weird sort of confidence I have the 'inside story' on the character, that I have some voyeuristic insight denied to others who have not read that extra scene.

When you think about it, my whole theory is a little cracked. I mean, I ought to know more about my characters than anyone else does, because, at least in principle, I invented them. And I shouldn't be able to get any extra knowledge by spying on them in private, as I'm making up those bits, too. Yet an extra, undisclosed scene makes me feel closer to a character than if I published it, makes me feel as if we share a secret bond.

Oh, well. No one ever argued it's sensible to sit alone for hours making up stories about nonexistent people in the first place.

PS. My sister Amber sent me an e-mail informing me that inventing a scene not intended to be presented in the work is one of the techniques of Method Acting.

I'm apparently a Method Writer. Who knew?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Your Unpublished Novels

Long ago, at least as time is measured in the blogosphere, I posted on the topic of unpublished works and the number of unpublished novels many well-known writers had piled up before they published their debut novel.

In the world of screenwriting, your unsold screenplays are said to be sitting in "your trunk," and are considered to be a possible resource. Writers, a gloomier lot, tend to be a little ashamed of their unpublished novels, and often refer to the place they are stored as a "drawer," which has the virtue of sounding less roomy.

[n.b. In my earlier post, Cate Sweeney wrote to tell me that in Britain "trunks" tended to refer to male swimwear. We use the word in that sense too, though it's a bit dated, but by "What's in your trunk?" folks in Hollywood mean one of those old-fashioned steamer trunks--a giant piece of luggage usually stored in an attic. They aren't really asking what you have in your swimsuit. Or up your elephant's nose.

On the other hand, you can't really solve the problem by instead asking, "What's in your drawers?" Unsold writing is apparently always stored somewhere synonymous with points south of your navel. Go figure.]

In any case, in that post I asked other writers to let on what they had in the way of unpublished works. Matt and Aliya confessed to a number of novels in the drawer. (Lucy McCarraher said her MNW debut was in fact her first novel!)

I was reminded of this when reading one of Emma Darwin's posts some time back, where she mentioned she had completed 8 1/2 novels (very Fellini of her). Since she's published one and has another in the pipeline, I'm wondering where the other 6 1/2 reside and what her intentions are.

In the interests of full disclosure, my novels (in order of composition) and their current status:

Things Unseen: Needs revision, but probably publishable some day. Suffers from 1) Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink first-novel syndrome, as well as 2) Writing-every-day-instead-of-stopping-to-think syndrome.

Tomorrowville: Coming next year. Probably.

A Map of the Edge: Story line has a broken spine. Needs a major overhaul.

Shock and Awe: Published.

Earthly Vessels: Needs a little work. Might need an agent, but I'm not in the mood to look for one.

Work-In-Progress #1: Half finished. (What I'm planning on sending to MNW next.)

Work-In-Progress #2: Also half finished, and just sitting there.

Work-In-Progress #3: One-quarter finished, and has been sitting there for quite some time. (Of course, since I'm in the middle of W-I-P #1, I'm naturally having exciting ideas about #2 and #3. The grass is always greener, etc...)

Now my question to all: What unpublished works do you have? Are you revising them, or are they abandoned? Do you like 'em, hate 'em...?

I realize those are big and rather personal questions. Feel free to answer on your own blog, of course.

Or feel free to tell me it's none of my damned business.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Link Worth Following

Matt Curran has just composed a leaflet entitled "What to do if you suspect your child wants to be a writer"--Advice for Parents (spinning off from a government pamphlet on children and gangs). Go on--you know you want to read it.

Borderlands Arrives in the US of A

Actually, the release date for the US edition of Brian McGilloway's Borderlands was the day before yesterday, September 2nd, but some of us (and by "some of us," I mean "me") are a little slow. But there it is, on the shelves of the Huntington Beach Barnes and Noble, sitting proudly in the New Mystery section. Somewhat surprisingly, St. Martin's Press decided to stick with the original cover, which shows an unusual attack of good sense and good taste; usually covers are changed just on the principle of the thing.

I have discovered that unless you are JK Rowling, John Grisham, or someone else who has a large audience quivering with anticipation at the imminent arrival of your new novel, "publication date" is a pretty elastic concept. The stores may get the books out on the shelves even before they are "published," or they may find their way out of the back room a few days later when the stock clerk stops using that particular box of books as a lunch table. So far, of the five Barnes and Noble superstores within 10 miles of my house, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, and Orange all have Borderlands on display; Costa Mesa and Irvine's copies are still apparently in use by the stockboy. Borderlands is also on display at Borders in its Long Beach, Brea, and Yorba Linda stores, and I suspect it will soon be cropping up at others.

So, St. Martin's seems to be doing a good job of pushing the books out the door and onto the shelves, and I'm glad. This is more than a selfless interest in seeing Brian's book reach a wider audience; this is also an historic, but little-noted occasion. This is the first time a Macmillan New Writing book has jumped the Atlantic and been printed in an American edition. Many--probably all--of us would like to see our books do the same, but I suspect those of us residing in the US harbor special hopes in this area. (Though something tells me if my book hasn't made the jump by now...)

Irrespective of my vested interest in seeing Brian's book do well, I'd urge American readers to toddle on down to their local bookstore (or, okay, go online if you must) and pick up a copy of Borderlands. McGilloway's prose is flawless, his characters pop off the page, the plot is engrossing, and the setting unique. The book received deservedly great reviews in Ireland and the UK, and sold enough copies to turn most writers Elphaba-colored with envy.

In case you didn't get the message, My Fellow Americans, I'm suggesting you buy it. (And congrats, Brian!)