Saw 10: The Act of Choosing

I’ve often heard the act of writing described as a series of choices.  If you think about it, that act of selecting what to put in and what to leave out is a large part of the process.  There’s a great scene in Adaptation where Nicholas Cage as Charlie Kaufman keeps backpedaling in his story to find the beginning.  Eventually, he resorts to, “Okay, we open at the beginning of time…”

Richard Curtis recently said that when he was writing Love Actually, he was so tired of the standard romantic comedy conventions that he decided to tell a bunch of love stories using only the key scenes from their individual movies.  On the opposite end of that equation, I’m currently rereading IT by Stephen King, a book in which no editorial process of any kind seems to have come into play.

IT has seven protagonists all of whose adventures are described in great detail both in 1958 when they are children and in the 1980s when they are adults.  That is a lot of story, I can tell you.  I would never attempt something like that – I just don’t have the chops or the patience – but I’ve seen King do it before so I wasn’t worried going in.  When he started recounting long diary entries regarding the very many barbaric incidents that have plagued the town of Derry I started to get worried.  And then, when he began doling out the back stories of random incidental characters, I almost jumped ship.

I decided not to, however, because even though the story has become simultaneously cruel and tedious, I now see it as a sort of grand experiment in following every detail down every rat hole for every character no matter how minor.  And once I finally make it to the disappointing end of the book, I plan to reread Matheson’s I Am Legend and Levin’s This Perfect Day and maybe even Rosemary’s Baby.  If you want an example of how to cut until you hit bone and then carve your initials in that bone, Matheson and Levin are your go-to boys.

I read This Perfect Day in 1985, stumbling upon it in the base library while stationed overseas.  Like everyone else, I read the entire thing in one sitting.  Levin is, to quote some critic whose name I can’t recall, ruthlessly efficient.  He must have really taken Strunk & White’s Prime Directive of “Omit Needless Words” to his very heart.  The Boys From Brazil, The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby: There are no extra words in these books.  Their story engines are jet turbines on rocket fuel.

Now let me take a step back and circle around to where I started because there is something that Matheson and Levin don’t do as well as King: Characterization.  You don’t care very much because the story is moving you along too fast for you to notice, but it’s true that most of those “needless” words Matheson and Irvin omitted would have gone to characterization.

In that light, IT becomes more of a cautionary tale of excess than a complete disaster.  I don’t reread Rosemary or I Am Legend every year like I do Salem’s Lot and The Black House.

It all comes back to balance.  As with most things in life, excess leads to ruination.  While my favorite feedback from readers is still, “I couldn’t put it down…” or “I was just going to read a chapter but I ended up finishing it one sitting…” I am convinced that well developed characters are just as important to that juggernaut of a story as plot is.

I just don’t need to know that the paper boy, a character who will never reappear in the story, is going to work his way into college, graduate with a B.S. in Computer Science only to be thrill killed in the alley behind a leather bar when he turns twenty – unless that information has some direct bearing on the tale being told.

EDIT: I don’t normally do this, but I feel the need to append some thoughts to this post.

1) I should have pointed out that King is comfortable working from either end of the spectrum.  The Dead Zone is a thin, fast moving, perfectly plotted story WITH great characterization.

2) The problem with IT isn’t its girth.  The Stand is another thick book with lots and lots of characters but its width fits the size of the story it’s trying to tell.  IT is sort of like taking a story the size of The Dead Zone and inflating up to the size of The Stand with mostly superfluous details.

3) When a book is well written, the reader doesn’t notice the time it takes to read it or the number of pages.  When a book nears perfection, the reader notices the number of pages only toward the end and only with the dread of knowing the story will soon be over.  King’s 11-22-63 and Bag of Bones had that effect on me while Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 seemed to dawdle along without any reason and then just stopped.  While reading that book, I was constantly checking how far I had left to go before I would be free of it.


Agents of S.H.A.L.L.O.W.

As a dedicated Browncoat and diehard Whedonite, I don’t believe what I’m about to write but I’ve been putting it off long enough that I feel like I have to say something.  Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is my least favorite new show of the season.  Along with having the most ham-fisted name since the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim California, it is just flat uninteresting.

I know, I know, cover me with cheese, but if you look in your heart of hearts, I think you’ll have to admit you feel it a little bit, too. 

Problems first showed up during the pilot.  I was tuned up for that event, having heard good buzz from footage shown at the cons, but I left the episode feeling a little meh.  I didn’t hate it but I certainly wasn’t as overwhelmed as I was after seeing the first episode of Buffy or Angel or Firefly.  Dollhouse was a little rough at first but it got very good very quickly, so maybe that signals some hope.

But the thing that worries me is the missing element: the characters.  Think about the Scooby gangs from Buffy, Angel and Firefly.  They were populated by fascinating individuals with their own internal lives.  The same was true of Dollhouse with both the dolls and the handlers having fascinatingly mysterious back stories that were handed out piecemeal over many episodes.  I can’t say I find any of the Shield (I’m just gonna stop putting all those stupid periods right now) Agents even remotely interesting.  They’ve even somehow managed to emblanden (don’t look it up, just trust me that it’s a real word) Agent Coulson.

And what seems to be filling in for amazing, complex back story is over-dramatic line readings.  Cobie Smulders’ “He must never know the truth.” was just plain embarrassing.  Melinda May just looks constipated all the time.  Grant Ward is as superficial as his name.  Fitz and Simmons are kind of fun but they need to differentiate themselves some more.  I can never remember who is biology and who is hardware.  And Skye is the biggest problem of all.  She has no depth.  She is not compelling either as a wildcard or as a stand in for the viewer.

Where is the Xander?  Where is the Wesley?  Where is the Jane?  Where are any of Amy Acker’s characters?

What we need here is an Out of Gas episode.  Of all of the great things Joss Whedon has done, that single episode may be the best 42 minutes of television ever.  It not only summoned up some serious anxiety and managed to use a broken timeline narrative to exquisite perfection, it also deepened our commitment to the show by teasing out some of the most interesting bits of history for our characters.  That’s right.  They became “our” characters very quickly.  

My worry is that there is no Out of Gas episode possible because these characters are too shallow to have lives.  We aren’t going to see Kaylee joyously kicking up her boots with the soon-to-be ex-mechanic or Captain Mal picking the right ship due to a thunderous case of love at first sight because nothing like that ever happened to Grant Ward or Melinda May.  From what we’ve seen so far, their characters are so clichéd that they could have been written by Tom Clancy. 

This is just so strange it’s hard to believe.  These are people who are responsible for some of the best television ever made and it feels like they’re just coasting.  Of course, it’s good enough for the stiffs.  They’re coming to the show in droves, so many of them, in fact, that the series already has a full order.  This may be the conundrum: If you make a show interesting enough to be great, it will languish in the fringes, but if you dumb it down enough to reach a mass audience of people with firmly limited imaginations, you’ll run for ten years.  Just like Two and a Half Men and According to Jim.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.  Let’s hope the Whedons are suckering us in with pathetic left jabs until we get close enough for the big right hook.

Cult of Character

Man, I really over committed when I first set out to write the trilogy in six months.  The second book has taken on a life of its own and now I find myself falling back to do a page one rewrite.  This is bad for the schedule but good for the story as now I have a better understanding of what has to happen in it.  So that happened and now it’s time to just admit that the trilogy will be done when it’s done.

When it is done, however, I’m thinking of trying something experimental.  Something crazy.  It came up the other day that Joss Whedon is so fluent in character that his plots hardly matter.  You really aren’t tuning in every week to see if they’re going to pull off that big train heist.  You’re tuning in to see how the character arcs play out. 

So I came up with an experiment/teaching-tool idea: write a series of short stories where the plot is so crazy and random and genre-busting that the only cohesive element that might keep readers attention is the character arcs. 

I’m not even sure I can do it (actually, I’m doubtful) but it would be a good palate cleanser after slogging through the monster effort of completing the trilogy.  It would have to be something of pure imagination where one story simply leaps into the other and the whole thing just keeps getting more outlandish.

The very idea of it rekindles an old passion of mine.  When I was young and overseas with the military and still struggling to get my novelist’s legs underneath me, I had a good friend who was never without a paperback book.  He’d just stick one his back pocket and whip it out whenever there was the slightest lull in our workload – which, if you were ever in the military, you will know is very often. 

The covers of these books made it plain that he was reading some pulp trash and I was still in my snob days of denying my own pulp leanings so I hesitated even asking him about it.  But one day things were slow and I was bored so I asked him what he was reading.

The Survivalist by Jerry Ahern.

If you are unfamiliar with this gem of back porch yarn spinning, as I was at the time, you are all the poorer for it.  I wasn’t just clueless about The Survivalist, I didn’t really know anything at all about pulp fiction – I had grown up reading golden age science fiction which is a completely different thing – so when he began to rattle off the specifics of this long running, completely insane story, I was immediately sold.  I ended up reading the first five or six books in what would turn out to be a twenty-seven (27!) book series before dropping it.

To be honest, it wasn’t the writing that grabbed me.  The characters were a little flat and most of them came from central casting and the writing wasn’t all that good.  It was really a Clancy precursor where the attention to detail describing the weapons systems precluded any actionable human emotion.   And the plots were ridiculous, going from an apocalyptic nuclear war, through Mad Max territory, to a Soviet invasion, to cryogenically preserved Nazis, to time travel and back again.  Every book was just some new curveball. 

It was amazing and practically incoherent, but it wasn’t the writing or the story that I found attractive, it was the idea that Jerry Ahern was out there doing this.  Maybe he really was sitting on the front porch of a cabin the Rockies with a pipe in his mouth, pounding out one hilariously improbable story after another on a manual typewriter. 

This was the image of writing – sitting around dreaming stuff up while other people went to real jobs – that had first caught my attention at eight years old.  I kept reading, even though I didn’t really care much for the stories, just to see what miraculous leap he would make next. 

I am not under any circumstances denigrating Jerry Ahern or his writing.  He provided me with hours of reading pleasure and ended up selling some 3.5 million copies of books in that series, so he must have done something right.  When I say that the leaps were hilariously improbable, I mean that as an expression of wonder that he was able to pull it off not as a condemnation.  Some people are into character, some are into plot.  I’m into character.  Jerry was more into plot.

Having said that, I’m now planning to move more into his territory but do it in such a way that plot goes crazy and characters hold the thing together.  I’m going to reach back to my comic book/pulp fiction days and throw together a serial of continuous improbabilities held together only by the characters caught in its web.

Something Wicked

Unlike most fathers, my dad was actually reticent about offering advice.  Don’t get me wrong, he was right up front about sorting you out when you did something wrong, but his unsolicited advice was rare and delivered without urgency or outward signs of importance.

As a prime example, I recall the time I decided to buy a 1977 MGB.  If one of my daughters came up with a plan like this, I would filibuster them with a longwinded, highly animated speech that would outlast their desire to make the purchase.  My dad said, “I wouldn’t.  A friend of mine has one and it’s always in the shop.”  End of story.  Needless to say, I bought the damned thing and it hung around my neck like for the next three years.

As an aside, let me just offer some unsolicited advice of my own: If you’re ever in a position to argue against Socialism with someone, don’t bother pointing to the failure of the Soviet Union.  Just point them in the direction of any automobile produced in the British Midlands in the 1970s.  Boom, argument over.

If had possessed my current ability to interpret his advice when I was eleven years old, I never would have read Something Wicked This Way Comes.  I was a big a reader and a huge science fiction fan in my middle school years, so big, in fact, that I had already consumed everything else Bradbury had to offer by the time I reached Something Wicked in our home library.

I was sitting in a chair in the living room reading by the light of the picture window when he noticed what I was up to.  He took a look at the book in my lap and said, “That one’s pretty scary.”

If it had been me, I would have snatched the book away, urgently saying, “Not this one.  Not yet.  This one will haunt your dreams and drain the light from your days.  All the other books in the library are yours but make no attempt to read this one.”

But I did not possess an understanding of what my dad was trying to tell me so I just shrugged that I wasn’t afraid and went about the business of reading. 

I don’t know if it was a mistake or not.  That book, so allegorical and yet, at the same time, so immersive and terrifying, changed the way I looked at reading.

Before Something Wicked, I had never read anything that truly scared me.  Unlike the terrifying experience of being trapped in a dark movie theater with a bloody vampire, I read with the certain knowledge that I could simply put the book down at any time if I got too scared.  Not only could I not put that book down, I couldn’t even make myself stop reading when it got dark.  This would not happen to me again until I read The Shining more than ten years later.

First of all, it’s about two boys near my own age.  Even though Bradbury says the boys are fourteen in the book, they read much younger owing to how he drew on his own 1930s childhood.  Secondly, the boys who are the protagonists are as helpless to resist being pulled into this slow motion nightmare as I was to simply close the book and put it down.

Bradbury was a great writer but he could be a little too twee for my taste from time to time.  In Something Wicked, he eschews all that melancholy and sweetness for what amounts to an acid trip through the world’s worst traveling circus.  He writes from the distorted point of view of the protagonists rather than from the more normalized view of the adults.  Also, adults apart from Will Halloway’s father, are mostly background characters.  Except for the evil ones from the circus, of course.  They’re everywhere moving with the irresistible power and overbearing omniscience of grownups.

This is one of those rare books that I love but don’t reread from time to time.  I did pick up the audio version about five years ago and it scared hell out of me all over again, though this time the scares seemed tinged with echoes from my childhood.