Tuesday, July 27, 2010

California Grievin'

aaa“You gotta car?”

aaaI shook my head, trying to be cool despite the fact that, in SoCal terms, she’d just asked, You gotta penis? and forced me to admit, Nope, ain’t got one.

That's a short exchange out of a novel of mine, written from the POV of a 15-year-old boy in 1960s California.

It goes without saying that we're a car culture here; even in car-mad America, California stands out as obsessive. In California, especially in Southern California, cars are nearly a necessity. For many (though I am not one of that number), they are also a deep source of pride and identity. Particularly in Hispanic Cruiser Culture (okay, amongst Pachucos), cars are decorated like shrines. (The word is chosen with deliberation. Sure, there may be fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror, but you are also likely to find a St Christopher medallion dangling beside them, and a statuette of the Virgin Mary on the dash.)

The custom of having the name of the boyfriend calligraphed on the driver's-side door, and the girlfriend's name on the passenger-side door even spread as far as Hawaii. (One car I saw in Honolulu had its doors labeled "Driver" and "Passenger," which I thought was pretty amusing.) That's one of the reasons that the song says Breakin' Up is Hard to Do; you need to have names scraped off, and that isn't cheap to accomplish without ruining the paint job.

Black American culture may be the source of the phrase "pimping your ride," but they are late in coming to the game. From flames on the side to faux-fur seats to hydraulic-lift struts to spoilers on the trunk, the Mexican Americans were there first.

And, of course, they were also the first to adopt custom rear window decals. These are large affairs, two to five feet wide, white lettering and designs on a clear backing. They might say any number of things--the name of the owner, the name of the owner's car club, the name of the car; the usual stuff.

But for the last decade, it has been common for rear-window decals to say things like

Grace Yglesias 1957 - 2009
Gone but not forgotten

embellished, of course, with a few angels and rays of light. And the practice seems to be spreading out of the Mexican-American community and onto the rear windows of all manner of other Californians.

At first, this seemed weird, and not just because it's odd to drive around in a cenotaph. (I've been waiting decades to use that word.) I mean, cars don't last forever. Are there tearful scenes when it's time to trade them in? ("But--but the Chevy is all we have left of Grandma!") Is there a scraping-of-the-decals ceremony? Do the cars have lower resale value because they seem haunted?

But then I understood. On average, most people keep their cars four or five years. That's a suitable, perhaps even excessive, period of mourning. But it's a way to get, as the psychobabble people have it, closure.

Trade in the car and close that chapter. One can't grieve forever.

Of course, this raises other issues.

"I can't believe he already sold the Jag--she's hardly cold yet!"

"I say she's still not over him. She's driving the Volvo around town, but I saw the Beemer is still parked in her garage."

As attractive as closure through trade-in might be, I think we ought to take a tip from the Vikings; when someone dies, we put them in their own car, set the thing on fire, and send it rolling down a symbolic stretch of freeway. More impressive by far, and a move that would certainly be supported by the automakers.

Of course, the California Air Resources Board isn't going to be too happy with this idea...

A Minor Yet Perplexing Problem

Remember the Tommy Tutone song Jenny? It's the one with the refrain, "Eight six seven, five three oh nigh-ee-ai-yine..." Naturally, many listeners decided to call that number, driving quite a few unfortunates insane in every area code.

Hence the convention with which all American movie audiences are all familiar: In movieland, all phone numbers start with a 555 prefix. That's never a working prefix except for connecting to certain phone-company phones (555-1212 is information in many area codes).

The Jenny problem makes many writers (and their publishers) leery about citing phone numbers in books. Some degree of caution also applies to addresses; some cite them quite cavalierly, while others take some pains to ensure that any specific address cited is nonexistent. (A lot of novels set in Manhattan are fond of giving street addresses that run beyond the end of the street, thereby situating the house or apartment somewhere in the river.)

We're pretty casual about made-up names in the US, which is a good thing, as no matter how improbable the name, someone out there probably wears it already. (One of my characters was named Boyce Hammond, which seems like a reasonably unusual name to me, but checking the web I find that there's at least a few out there.)

My current problem is one I haven't seen before. I've got a scene set in a columbarium (which sounds like a fancy name for dovecote, but is actually a series of vaults with niches for holding funeral urns). And my faithful protagonist is, for reasons irrelevant to our discussion here, seeking out a few particular niches--which need to be identified by their, erm, addresses.

The columbarium I'm using in the story is a real place. Any 'addresses' I might use will either be 1) already occupied, 2) empty and unassigned, 3) empty but already purchased by someone, or 4) nonexistent.

Damned if I can make up my mind the best tactic to take. If the address is 1), I may bother someone by asserting that someone else is stored in Grandma's niche. If the address is 4), anybody informed or curious enough to check will complain that there is no such place. And, if unoccupied, there's no way for me to tell whether the niche is 2) or 3). (And, presumably, all 2)s will someday become 3)s... )

It's a silly thing to worry about, I suppose. But it's a useful way of avoiding finishing the chapter.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Revenge of the Words

I don't exactly pine for them, but the years 1965-1974 had some advantages. Well, at least one: People used to listen to music. I mean really listened. It wasn't uncommon for someone to arrive at a party with a new album, and all conversation would cease while everyone present sat around and paid attention to the music.

Well, you might say, that's because of all the acid and hash and marijuana. And you might be right. The Age of Uppers which followed--a wave of cocaine that worked its way down into our present era of bathtub meth--almost inevitably ushered in multitasking and increased multichannel input, and all the other elements of Short-Attention-Span Theatre, and the consequence was one of the most ghastly inventions of all time, the Music Video. At last: A way for people to decide what music they liked by the way it looked.

Yeah, yeah, I know--some good directors learned their chops in the music vid business, blah blah blah. Well, HIV was good for the condom business, too, but that doesn't mean it was any kind of net boon to the world.

Over the last couple of years, however, music videos have been hoist on their own petards (and no mean trick, that, given how scarce petards have become). Words are now having their revenge through the medium of Literal Music Videos.

For those few who don't know, a Literal Music Video is one where the lyrics of the song in a music video are replaced with new lyrics that describe what is happening in the video--which, as we all know, usually has only a remote connection (if any) with the original song.

When I am overexposed to music videos, either from a party where they are playing on a television, or from foolishly watching the video of the theme song of the movie in the DVD extras, or after I've been around any of my nieces or nephews, I head for the computer and watch a few Literal Music Videos to wash the taste out of my mouth.

LMVs are like everything else: most are mediocre, some are appalling, and a few are outstanding. The masterpiece of the field is still David A. Scott's version of Total Eclipse of the Heart:

A picture may be worth 10,000 words, but a few words can reveal how pretentious a picture is.

And where, apart from the captions on a Literal Music Video, can you find lines like:

And they shouldn't fence at night
Or they're going to hurt the gymnasts... ?

Oh, sorry. You're right. Schizophrenics say things like that all the time.


Extra credit question: Why are so many of the funniest LMVs takeoffs on Jim Steinman songs?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

How Long is a Novel?

Writer Tikiman posts that his 52,000 word manuscript was rejected by an agent because it is too short to be a novel.

So, how long is a novel, anyhow?

A lot of sources used to peg it as a work of more than 50,000 words (and NaNoWriMo uses 50K as their definition of whether or not you have completed your novel in a month).

In that case, rounded to the nearest hundred words, The Great Gatsby (50,100) just barely qualifies, and neither Farenheit 451 (46,100) nor Slaughterhouse-Five (49,500) are novels.

On the other hand, Bradbury and Vonnegut are both arguably science-fiction writers, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America define a novel as a work of 40,000 words or more.

A lot of agents and publishers now seem to believe that 70,000 words is the starting point for a novel, and one publisher who takes submissions over the transom refuses to consider works shorter than 80,000 words. Even a baseline of 70K would exclude some rather wonderful books; right offhand:

The Color Purple (66,600)

The Hours (54,200)

Lord of the Flies (59,900)

A Separate Peace (56,800)

The Sun Also Rises (67,700)

It's still possible to find advice from publishers, literary agents, and writers advising "beginners" that to be published, they should keep it short--certainly under 80K. These same sources usually note that novels 100K and over should be avoided.

The problem with such advice is that it was usually either written in the 1960s and 1970s, or was written by people who last paid attention to the world in the 1960s and 1970s. The world has changed.

In the 19th century, the whopping great long novel was the style: Crime and Punishment runs more than 200,000 words, Middlemarch more than 300,000 words...and let's not even talk about War and Peace.

But in the 20th century, both literary fiction and pulp fiction began to run far shorter. Next time you're in a used bookstore that carries a lot of paperbacks, look at the mysteries and sci-fi from the 60s and 70s--slim little volumes, typically running about 200 pages. Longer books might be accepted for literary merit, and bestsellers tended to run long (even To Kill a Mockingbird approaches 100K), but the bread-and-butter of the industry was in the range of 40-70K.

It no longer is. Cozy mysteries run short, as do some of the categories of romance; but I'd guess that a typical non-cozy mystery nowadays is over 80K. Thrillers seem to average 100K or more.

There was a time when a unknown writer would have been considered insane for submitting a novel of 120,000 words. I'd guess that length is now about typical for first fantasy novels.

It's odd that, in a time where everyone talks about the shortage of time and the competition between books and other media, that novels seem to be getting longer. I can only conjecture that those people who still bother to read want something they can curl up and live inside for a while.

Another possibility is that books are now so expensive that publishers don't feel that the public will feel it is getting its money's worth from something slim. How this will balance out against rising paper costs in the longer term remains to be seen; but, then, in the longer term, we may all be reading on Kindles and Nooks anyway.

Which may offer hope to our pal Tikiman: In the future, length may vanish as a major consideration. Today, so much is constrained by the production and distribution costs of a book. So far electronic books are a sideline in the industry, but if they become the dominant form, life might be quite different.

There's nothing better than a good novella, but marketing considerations have driven them from the shelves. There may come a day when we'll see novellas and short novels as the market leaders. Right now, size matters. Tomorrow could be very different.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Giving My WIP the Treatment

I'm incapable of outlining a novel, because I never know what the heck the story is until I'm writing it. I'm hardly unique in this regard. (Ryan David Jahn has a nice post on the problem.) Someone at a writing conference once claimed to have done a survey, and had determined that two-thirds of writers outlined, and one-third didn't. I'm not sure if this was a survey of writers in general, published writers only, or what. The writers I seem to know aren't outliners--though some of them do plan in some fashion or another.

One thing I think would be nice about an outline is that you could see the shape of your story. That's very appealing. But since I discover my story as I write it, that isn't an option.

This time, however, I'm trying something new. (New for me, that is. I'm sure others have done it before me.) With 14 chapters now in hand, I'm writing something very much like a story treatment--those short narratives that describe the proposed course of a screenplay. These are invariably written in third-person present tense, and so I am doing likewise, hoping that the kazillions who have gone before me will have worn a path in the fabric of existence in which it will be easy for me to plod along.

What I'm doing is laying out the narrative with each chapter taking up a single, numbered paragraph. And, that now done, I'm using the white space beyond my current chapter to add notes about where it is going--things I now know are inevitable, things I'm toying with, things that might happen, questions to myself. The sort of stuff that used to show up in my little pocket notebook, but now laying out there as possible extensions to portions of the treatment that are already "in the can," as Hollywood has it.

It's far from a pre-writing outline, but I'm finding that it's nice to be able to scan the shape of, as the Prince Valiant comic strip used to say, Our Story So Far.

Perhaps I'm just fuzzy-minded, but I find that when I'm in the middle of a novel and think back on what I've already written, I don't have much sense of the proportions or patterns the plot is following. This gives me a little bit more of a clue.

Those authors of more stable mind probably don't need to be reminded of what they have only recently written. It seems that I do, and this little "treatment" is what I'm trying for the moment. If that doesn't work, I'm going to try the tattoo approach used by the fellow in Memento (see photo).
I'm hoping I can get by with my current methdology, as the tattoo approach could get expensive.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Further to "Everything Happening for a Reason"

On the Comment trail, Frances suggests that this whole question revolves around whether or not one is religious: If there is a God, then things happen for a reason; if not, then there is no overseeing power, and the answer is that everything is random.

I'm not sure that the question is as simple as the existence of "God," however, as monotheism accompanied by omniscience and omnipotence is only one option. Even the Old Testament Jehovah seems to be rather less than omniscient--he's always discovering, invariably to his displeasure, that something has happened without his awareness.

The Romans, for example, were often quite religious, but they were polytheistic, and recognized the idea of foreign gods they had never met. Sometimes it was a matter of 'my god can beat up your god,' and they were quick to adopt new gods and bring them on home. And the Greeks, of course, had a reasonably consistent pantheon, but interacting in an ongoing soap opera--and one god was often doing something while another was distracted.

Even so, it's not at all clear that the Romans or Greeks believed that everything happened because one god or another willed it. Their gods didn't necessarily pay much attention, nor did they seem to have a "plan" for humankind. They became intensely involved in the affairs of certain groups or certain individuals at certain times, but that's quite different from any sort of masterplan.

The idea that "God" is responsible for every detail of every thing that happens, with individual angels plucking leaves from trees at some predetermined moment, is very much a medieval Christian theory. Many Buddhists are quite religious but manage to get by quite well without a detailed plan from God; and, in Thailand, where the dominant religion is Buddhism well-supplied by Hinduism and whatever other pantheistic beliefs happen to appeal, there is a belief that prayer and sacrifice can influence events, but that doesn't mean that god(s) determine everything that happens. Sometimes they get involved, sometimes they don't.

Thailand is also a hotbed of astrology, and astrology presetns some interesting questions. Astrology doesn't always assume a god or gods. Nor do all forms of astrology assume the predetermination of events, despite the emphasis on timing. Some forms of astrology claim that certain 'flavors' of events will happen at certain times--for example, that one will go through a creative spurt, or will be physically challenged--but they attribute this to something more like the underlying laws of the universe, for which the movement of the planets is a sort of large clock.

In the view of some astrologers, we are on boats floating down a great river. The cosmic clock is able to tell us the sorts of things we will encounter as we float down the river--at this time there will be turbulence, further on the river will widen and smooth out--without attributing agency and purpose.

As to the people who RDJ meets in Los Angeles who say that everything happens for a reason--well, I suspect that most of them are vaguely New-Age California types, who would describe themselves as 'spiritual but not religious,' and don't believe in god or gods in the traditional sense, but have some sort of belief in a big soft fuzzy benevolence on the part of something out there somewhere.

Me, I believe in the Norse Gods and the Frost Giants. Ragnarok is Coming!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Everything Happens for a Reason"

On his blog, Ryan David Jahn tells a fascinating true-life tale about a recent encounter in Los Angeles. (Go read it. It's a slice of life cut at a very strange angle.)

After recounting the incident, RDJ observes:

But it doesn’t mean anything. There are no epiphanies to be had. You want there to be some purpose to life and the things that happen in it. This is why people say obviously false things like “Everything happens for a reason” when something shitty happens. But I think most of us know everything doesn’t happen for a reason.

Well, I dunno. I'm not too sure how the universe is organized. Maybe everything does happen for a reason.

My problem with people who say "Everything happens for a reason," is that I suspect all of them are starting from the premise that the universe is not only purposeful (as reflected in their mantra), but that it is also:

1) Benevolent, and
2) Gives a damn about us as individuals, and,
3) Doesn’t dislike them in particular, and
4) Is essentially fair.

There are other, less comforting hypotheses that explain all the facts while still assuming that "everything happens for a reason." Here's a dozen. I'm sure anyone can add more.

1) The universe is malevolent and is messing with us, and in situations where that appears not to be the case, the universe is setting us up for a really big, nasty surprise.

2) The universe is highly personalized, as in the case of the Old Testament Jehovah, and huge volumes of suffering, pain and death occur just so God Almighty can win bar bets with Satan (cf. Book of Job, and also Archibald MacLeish's play J.B.).

3) The universe cares strongly about certain people at certain times and is quite willing to wipe the floor with the rest of us. Much like what we as writers do with our secondary characters. As the Qabalists say, As Above, So Below.

4) The universe is gradually evolving a species of superwasp that will wipe out all life on Earth before colonizing the rest of the galaxy, and everything that happens is in support of that.

5) The universe is run by an evolving power that presently has the overall maturity and attitude of a very young human, probably male. The Bible tells us we are created in God’s image. Why should we be surprised when he/she/them/it decide(s) to pull our wings off and stomp on us?

6) The universe ensures that everything happens for a reason, but a universal idea of what constitutes ‘a reason’ doesn’t quite agree with ours.

7) The Egyptians (or perhaps the Yanomamo in the Amazon) worshiped the only true gods, and we are all heretics who are being punished.

8) There’s a reason, but it’s based on the branch of quantum physics called statistical mechanics, and it doesn’t care much about the trajectories of individual particles.

9) Sartre and Camus were right; everything happens for a reason, but it’s up to us to create that reason.

10) HP Lovecraft was right. Nyarlathotep and Azoth and The Old Gods are still out there and dreaming, and sometimes they roll in their sleep and one of us gets crushed. Despite this, be glad they are still asleep; were they awake, they would flay you and hollow out your bones to make pipes upon which they would play, among the gibbering half-mad spirits in the cold spaces between the stars, as your soul twisted in eternal torment.

11) God is sloppy. There are innumerable instances of this in the Bible, where The Lord gets annoyed with an individual and wipes out whole cities. Precision isn’t his forte.

12) There is a reason for everything, and the universe is essentially benevolent, but it’s run by a bureaucracy whose performance leaves much to be desired. The wages of sin are death. Quit whining and be glad that the taxes of sin aren’t a bigger percentage of your paycheck.

I don't know why I took the time to post all this. But I figure it happened for a reason. Probably because it's time to go upstairs and write Chapter 14.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Further on Long Shadows in the Genres

Many genre writers may feel smothered by the overwhelming effect that a single successful writer may have on a field; in some cases, that writer may seemingly end up owning the entire field.

This kind of success, can actually prove beneficial to those who swim against the tide--once again, Tolkein case in point. One can get a certain amount of notice simply by establishing a fantasy world that is distinctively and actively non-Tolkeinesque.

Of course, there is room in the genre of fantasy for any number of worlds. The process is more clear in other genres. Take Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, which almost single-handedly created and then dominated the spy thriller field in the 1950s and 1960s. There had been novels of espionage and international intrigue before Fleming, of course; writers as great as Conrad and Greene had dabbled in it, and Fleming owed a good deal to John Buchan. But Buchan's Richard Hannay is a far cry from Fleming's cold, competent, hedonistic, jet-setting Bond.

Now, Bond--love him or loathe him, as Frances would have it--and his glossy-surfaced world cast a huge shadow. Not only was he widely imitated, the Bond movies turned him into an imitation, and then a caricature of Fleming's actual creation. The Bond of the books is, despite a certain degree of surface polish, something of a bright thug. (In this regard, the recent "reboot" of Bond in the movie Casino Royale is closer to the original character than the other movies--and far closer than any of the post-Connery Bonds.) There's actually very little gadgetry in the books, and although the Bond of the books is rather chilly and glib, he doesn't use every bullet or bomb as an opportunity for a wisecrack.

One of the consequences of this kind of success, though, is that it creates opportunities for writers who initally define their work by way of contrast. There is no doubt that much of John Le Carre's success with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is owed to the fact that it is the Un-Bond--unglamorous, downbeat, and disturbingly realistic. Initially publishers would have nothing to do with it; and most of those who picked it up looking for a Bond imitation were either furious or bored. But word of mouth (plus great reviews from critics who were sick to death of Fleming wannabees) eventually gained the book a huge following, and it had a built-in hook: It's a spy novel, and it's nothing like Bond.

Without icons, iconoclasts have nothing to shatter.

Friday, July 2, 2010

On Ephemerality

I was pondering on the ephemeral nature of human endeavor the other day—yes, I really do spend my time that way, whenever I’m not surfing the web for free porn or spray-painting DI wuz hea on freeway overpasses—and it occurred to me that I’m laboring in the most ephemeral of all the genres. Thrillers—and other sorts of crime novels to various extents—have the advantage of being able to address issues of the moment. The reverse side of that coin, though, is that thrillers probably have the shortest shelf life of any sort of novel—with the possible exception of science fiction that predicts the near future.

(Oddly enough, the trick to writing near-term predictive science fiction that survives seems to be naming the book after the year it is supposed to take place: 1984 and 2001 still stand up quite well despite the fact that those years have come and gone. Oh, sure, you can argue it’s because they are outstanding novels, and I wouldn’t disagree. But it’s also curious that they are both named for years now past.)

Now, this set me to thinking about which genre has the longest shelf-life. And it seems to me that it ought to be historical fiction, which doesn’t risk being overtaken by events or fashion. But historical fiction risks assault from those within its own ranks (our Faye Booth is a case in point) who want to give conventional views of the past a good shake, and say, no, it wasn’t like that, it was like this.

It occurred to me that in principle fantasy novels ought to do best, since they don’t risk being overtaken by any aspect of reality whatsoever. (Though even then I suppose they have to worry about revisionist works like Wicked reconstituting the Oz novels.)

But in a post a while back, Tim Stretton pointed out that influence in literature, and especially in genre works, has a bi-directional time flow. Before you think I’m referring to some sort of quantum effect, let me hasten to explain: Tim was simply saying, rather more eloquently than this, that while it is obvious that books affect other books that come after them, it is equally true that how books are seen is greatly affected by later books. This is true for each reader—which is why Tim cautions that re-reading favorites is a risky business—but also true for the story-consuming public as a whole.

Tim mentions the case of Tolkein, who offers a fine example. Now, I think Tolkein’s achievement was staggering—a fusing of ancient threads and themes with certain examples of striking originality. He also stands as a monument to monomaniacal devotion, and, quite possibly, to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. To a great extent, he created the modern fantasy novel.

Tim’s point is that when Tolkein is re-read, he is re-read in the context of what has happened since, both in the wider context (writers rebelling against the Tolkein template), and in our personal experience (including everything we have read since, be it fantasy or lit-fic or noir).

I happen to know a lot of writers younger than me, and a fair proportion of the really young ones are fantasy writers. And I’ve known some of these fantasy mavens when, after growing up on fantasy novels and movies and comics, finally read LOTR for the first time. In general, they weren’t impressed. Why? Mostly because of context. These people had been reading stories with elves and dwarves—whose modern personae were largely codified by Tolkein—and orcs and wraiths and hobbits (who were all invented by Tolkein), for the whole of their reading lives. They also took for granted the inclusion of tons of maps, and appendices, and invented languages, and elaborate mythologies. I mean, that’s what fantasy writers do, isn’t it?

Well, not until Tolkein, they didn’t. And even today, I find it hard to point to anyone who did it at his level of detail (probably because he cared more about the history and linguistics of his invented world than he did about any given story placed in it).

In effect, what my young friends were saying is similar to the old joke: I can’t stand Shakespeare; the guy uses too many clich├ęs.

There is a danger in casting too broad and long a shadow: those who grow up in your shadow may take it as the normal level of illumination. And in a way, I guess this shows you just can’t win. Write something ephemeral, and you disappear; but, write something iconic enough to influence all that follows after, and you may find yourself blending into the furniture.

Well, I need to go upstairs now, and work on my ephemera.