Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Rude Awakening in the Library Sci-Fi Section

At the library this weekend, I found myself gravitating toward the science fiction section. I have read a lot of sci-fi, but none at all recently. Back in my teens, 20s and 30s I read quite a lot, Heinlein and Asimov, Clarke, A.E. van Vogt and Phillip K. Dick and more. And then – don't ask me why because I don't know – I just sort of stopped.

But I'd been thinking about sci-fi the last couple of weeks. One of the members of the library writers group had submitted a couple of chapters of a piece. It wasn't good for a lot of reasons, and it had me thinking about writers who had handled a similar theme really well, notably Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land, which over the years I've read five or six times at least.

There was a particular passage in her piece, a conversation between the disguised alien secretly on earth to observe humans and a woman he meets. The dialogue is just terrible, they talk exactly the same. In any story you ought to be able to tell who is talking by how they talk, and certainly in one where one is a human and the other an extraterrestrial pretending to be human.

"That doesn't make any sense," I thought. "That would only make sense if ..." And it hit me. An idea for a story, a new take on an old theme. At least I think it's new, it's new to me, anyway. So I've been tossing it over in my mind, and that's undoubtedly what led me Sunday to the sci-fi section.

I came home with Stranger in a Strange Land, plus a collection of Dick's stories (Tori and I had recently stayed up late watching Total Recall, and I thought it might be time to read the story it was based on,) and a collaboration between Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl.

First I read the Heinlein, and I was surprised. The things that are good about it are still good – it's a delightfully jaundiced, cynical look at humanity as seen by a complete outsider. Morals, ethics, religion, politics, all are skewered.

But I was surprised by quite a few things. First, the edition I was reading, an Ace paperback printed in 2003, was really badly produced. Lots of missing words and wrong words and typos I'm sure weren't there in the earlier volumes I read. There was a stretch in the middle where there were one or two mistakes on every page. That sort of thing is distracting to the reader

Even more surprising, considering how many times I've read it, was how dated it was. It was published in 1961, so Heinlein write it in the late 1950s, no later than about 1960. And his idea of the near future was to have flying taxis, a colony on Mars and some different names for things that are obviously unchanged – stereovision instead of television, for instance. Other than that, it's still firmly stuck in the 1950s, with telephones still wired to the wall, newspapers, mail only delivered by the Post Office. In this future computers exist but only as giant mainframe number crunchers. Heinlein didn't – couldn't? – foresee the changes in communication that have shaped the world. And just writing that, I get it. He wrote in a time when the ability to move people and things quicker and more efficiently still defined modern. Our devices have changed that formula. Today we carry telephones in our pockets, many of which are more powerful than any computer that existed in 1961. They brought us together without physically moving us, and now the world is very different than that in which Heinlein lived, or that he could imagine.

Even worse was Heinlein's casual acceptance of sexual morality, even as he thought he was satirizing it. The second major character in the book is crotchety old Jubal Harshaw, whose dyspeptic tirades on art, religion, education and pretty much everything else make up the satirical heart of the book. (And don't get me wrong, I still love the character and will continue quoting him.) It's clearly Heinlein himself, thinly disguised, ranting about things that have been bugging him, and feeling all smugly superior for having such avant garde ideas. But he's still stuck in a mid-20th century mindset that has no room for women in anything like a position of authority, even disdain for women who "don't know their place." And though it celebrates the idea of free love and sexual freedom, it's clearly for heterosexuals only. Gay men dismissed several times as pansies, and one character saying she's glad she's not a lesbian, as if she was afraid she might have caught a disease.

But there was something worse, much worse, tossed off so casually I almost missed it, and so shocking it literally made me a little sick. It occurs when Jill is discussing her own sexual awakening and her surprise that that includes a bit of exhibitionism. And she tells Michael that that's not really that abnormal, "In nine out of ten rapes, the woman is at least partially at fault."

I almost threw the book across the room. My stomach did flip flops. I was so disappointed to read that I almost couldn't finish the book. And I still worry about why I hadn't ever noticed that passage before. Did I at one time believe such nonsense? I don't think so. (As a brother with seven sisters, then the father of three girls, I wouldn't have been allowed to believe that even if I was so inclined.) But it was a mindset so pervasive that I might simply have not noticed it in Heinlein's book, because until very recently a lot of people thought that same exact stupid thing.

Let's just remember, for the record, that a) Rape is not about sex. It's about power. b) No means no. c) As we've taught our kids, "maybe" also means no. d) Women have the right to dress however they want without it being construed as an invitation or a come on. Because e) Again, no means no.

Stranger in a Strange Land is still milestone book and worth a read. But I never noticed before how ridiculously dated it was, even when it came out. This is one case where maybe I should have let my memory of the book stand instead of reading it again. My recollection is that Asimov handled the idea of future worlds much better, especially in the Foundation series, which I loved. But do I dare put that to the test, after my disappointment with what I wrongly remembered as a masterpiece? 

I'm hoping for something better from the Clarke/Pohl book, which I just started.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The AP Stylebook – No, the Other One

I've been in journalism, first as a student, then a professional, for more than 40 years now (Ouch! I'm old!) and in that time, the Associated Press Stylebook has become my Bible. Perhaps some day I'll write something about it.

But this time of year, I'm talking about the other AP Stylebook – The Associated Pirates Stylebook.

It's a wee bit shorter than its better known namesake, but on International Talk Like a Pirate Day – every September 19 – it's invaluable.

For instance, the AP Stylebook is adamant on the subject of "Aarrr!" Aarrr is the indispensable pirate growl that has as many meanings as there are ways to say it, with different inflections for piratey delight, anger, disappointment etc. And it is NOT, NOT NOT pronounced or spelled Aarrgh. Aarrr is a pirate affirmation – "I'm here and alive!" Aarrgh is a sound of frustration, pain or disappointment. Aarrgh is the sound you make when you accidentally sit on a belaying pin.

Now, some people, especially Brits and folks on Canada's eastern coast, say "Yarr!" and that's fine. But Aarrgh is definitely NOT alright with pirates.

Aarrr is also a pirate's way of stalling for time, something to say while you're thinking of the correct pirate phrase for something else.Pirates can use "Aarrr" the way a politician used "My fellow Americans."

Cap'n Slappy and I have a video that gives the Five As, the five piratey words that form 
the basic starter kit for talking like a pirate. Ahoy, Avast, Aye, Aye aye and Aarrr. Actually, there's more than two dozen of our pirate videos there. Check 'em out.

You can see what amounts to the AP Stylebook online at our Talk Like a Pirate Day website.

There's a long (alright, too long) history of the holiday, a treasure map ofTalk Like a Pirate Day events going on all over the world, and one of the most complete link pages you'll find in the pirate enthusiast community.

So Thursday make sure to swagger and swashbuckle. It's one day a year to exercise your pirattitude (the attitude of a pirate) and let your inner buccaneer out to play.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

I'm Not Worthy

I'm 15 pages into Will Grayson Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan and all I can think is, "What made me think I can write?"

David Green I know. I've read a couple of his books and boy, he knows how to write today's kids. Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines are both great YA novels, the kind of book where you feel like you know these kids. If you are that age you want to be those kids, or hang out with them. I'm not familiar with Levithan, but I intend to remedy that in the coming weeks.

My son Max loves Green's work, has read everything by him in the library.

And now, 15 pages into Will Grayson Will Grayson, I suddenly see in a painful flash exactly why I was never able to make headway with my book, The Bones in the Closet. I have a great premise and some really good characters, but that's what they are, characters. The people in Green's books (and probably Levithan's although I don't know yet) are real people. And they write with an abandon I haven't mastered yet, a freedom I frankly am a little intimidated by.

I tell myself, "Well, yeah, but can they write pirate stories?" Because I'm still convinced Scurvy Dogs! is a good book, the one that's going to kick down the door of the publishing world. So I have that over them.

But if I'm going to make a story out of the really good premise for Bones, I've got a lot of work to do.

I've got to raise my game. Because I can write, but I'll have to write better.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Savagely Funny Advice

I've mentioned Chuck Wendig's blog A Terrible Mind before.

He may or may not have good advice when he churns out his weekly "25 Ways To ..." posts. Everyone's process is different, and what works for him might not work for anyone else. But he's always funny. Very, very funny in a savage way.

Savagely funny is good.

This week his column is 25 Steps to Edit the Unmerciful Suck Out of Your Story. See? Just the title tells you everything you need to know about him.

I wish I'd read this a year ago when I started the final revision of Scurvy Dogs! a task I thought would take a couple of months and which took almost exactly a year (although it is a much, much better book for having done it. Man, I wonder what I was thinking when I wrote half the original story. What crap.)

To give a taste of his style (and it might be the most important thing he says, about being merciless) here's his step no. 5, "Take Notes Like a Terminator."

"Your own notes should be cold. Merciless. Equal parts Follow me if you want to live and Your clothes: give them to me now. No emotion. Just the icy crimson stare of a sociopathic robot hellbent on fixing grievous errors (by driving a car through the front of a police station, if need be). Don’t only use the time to highlight stuff that doesn’t work. Highlight the things that do work, as well — stuff that, to you, counts as components of the story that do what they were designed to do. And okay, fine, if you want to drop the emotionless edit-bot motif for a second, feel free to doodle little happy faces or gold stars or tentacled elder gods giving you a thumbs-up (er, tentacles-up) in the margins to indicate: I’m making a note here — 'HUGE SUCCESS.'"

It goes back to what Arthur Quiller-Couch said – Murder your darlings. Don't fall so in love with your prose that you can't see whether it's doing its job, advancing the story. Anything, no matter how clever, no matter how amusing or beautiful to you, only belongs in the book if it advances the story.

Or, as Sean Connery's character says in Finding Forrester (my favorite movie about writing,) "You write the first draft with your heart. You write the second draft with your head." And what he doesn't add, but maybe should have, is your head has to be clear and cold. The only thing that matters in that revision is what works and what doesn't, and there are no free rides. If it doesn't work, it has to go.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ennui or Irony?

We were at Max's high school last night for open house. It was all fine. It's one of those things I've been doing so long I can't imagine a September without it. Trudging the halls looking for classrooms, meeting teachers, etc.

What made this one special was the banner.

In the gym, there were the usual hand-painted banners on the walls urging the team on. But the one that stood out was the most lackluster exhortation I've ever seen. It's hard to tell whether the cheerleader who came up with it was being ironic, or was just tired.

"Make Them Feel Some Kind of Thing."

Really? Make them feel some kind of thing? Any particular kind of thing, or just some kind of thing? Would jubilation do just as well as anguish? Both are "some kind of thing."

It's a long, long way from "Conan the Barbarian," where Arnold as Conan says that one of the great goods is, "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women."

On the other hand, with the schools reacting and overreacting to the threat of violence, maybe a lot of the old favorites have been ruled inappropriate. What would be the reaction to the crowd at a high school basketball game filling the gym with the chant, "Give 'em the ax the ax the ax!"

Kids today. Grownups today. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

She Did It Again and I'm Done

She did it again.

I wrote a week or so ago about getting the details right. The right details, the little things, bring the reader into your make-believe world, help it feel like a real place. And by the same token, getting them wrong can be jarring, and getting them really wrong can make it almost impossible to enjoy the book, or even finish it.

Well, I'm done with Susan Elia MacNeal and her World War II era mysteries. I love the era, and as I said, the first one wasn't bad, though somewhat predictable. But it contained a howling error towards the end that really shook my appreciation for the story. As a reader, I put her on a short leash, so to speak.

So in her second book in the series, Princess Elizabeth's Spy, she made another huge error, the kind that makes you question everything. And this time, she did it right up front, where it colored my perception of the whole book.

She had a character shot down near Berlin in 1940, after the Battle of Britain. That wasn't a problem. England did launch a few bombing raids on Germany, as if to say, "See? We can do it too."

The problem was that she had the character flying his Spitfire over Germany. Really? How did he pull that off? The Spitfire was obviously the most famous plane in the RAF during the war, arguably among the ten best planes ever built. But it was a short-range fighter, and with the English kicked off the continent after Dunkirk, there were no bases to stage a fighter sortie over Berlin, or any reason to, either.

That's why the bombing raids were so dangerous. They had to fly clear across France and into Germany with no fighter coverage.

If she had written that his Lancaster bomber had been shot down, I'd have believed her instantly. But her insistence on making it a Spitfire, doubtless because it's the most well-remembered plane in the RAF, makes it clear that she just doesn't care about the details. Yes, the Spitfire was an RAF plane. Maybe she thought it was more important that it sound right than that it actually be right. But if she thought that, she was wrong.

And for the record, while the Spitfire was the best plane the British produced, it wasn't flying in great numbers during the Battle of Britain. Historians (who MacNeal would have been wise to consult) credit the pilots in the less advanced but more numerous Hawker Hurricane with turning the tide of the war.

She then compounds the error by repeating it several times during the course of the increasingly improbable story. Then the narrator (omniscient third person) compares the relationship between MI-5 and MI-6 to that between the FBI and CIA, the latter of which didn't exist until 1947. This you could almost forgive, since the narrator isn't part of the story. But throwing in another anachronism just makes it that much harder to buy the story.

And then they get to the submarine. Maggie, her friend David and 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth are kidnapped and taken aboard a U-Boat bound for France. Every detail feels contrived, made up. The author seems to be using a picture in her head of a sub from a Tom Clancy novel, with long passages and a brig and fluorescent lights and a curious lack of crewmen crowded in. They escape by setting a fire in their cell which sets off an automatic sprinkler which forces the sub to surface. They then manage to avoid every member of the crew to get out of the sub, and they're rescued by the Royal Navy.

Good heavens! Didn't the author ever watch Das Boot? I don't know, because I haven't looked it up, but I'd be willing to bet the German U-Boats did not have rooms set aside as brigs, fluorescent lights or automatic sprinklers as described. I don't believe you could walk ten feet through a U-Boat without meeting a lot of sailors.

I don't believe the story, at all.

The climax violates a rule I just read in The Kill Zone mystery writers' blog. "The overall premise of the thriller must be justified in a way that is a) surprising, and yet b) makes perfect sense."

Princess Elizabeth's Spy fails that test completely.

And it's not as if she didn't do any research. I now know more about Windsor Castle and the village of Windsor than I ever wanted or needed to know, and that was before I stopped reading and started skimming. It feels like every single bit of information she picked up from the brochures and web sites ended up in the book. I'll repeat what I've said before. You don't need a mass of details. You need the right details.

Anyway, enough kvetching. If I don't like MacNeal's books, there's a really simple solution – Stop reading them.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

You've Gotta Love Dorothy

I have a new second favorite poem. I am not a fan of poetry, especially most modern poetry which I find to be – let me be blunt – crap.

My all-time favorite poem is Robert Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee." It's a family tradition. I can recite the whole thing, so can all seven of my sisters, at the drop of a hat.

But on our wedding anniversary each year, Tori and I go sit under a tree, drink wine, eat bread and I read her romantic poetry. "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment," "She walks in beauty like the night ...," "How do I love thee, let me count the ways ..."

The book I used to use is still in storage, so I went to the library last week and got a collection of classic poems. And I found a lot of the good ones. I also found this, by Dorothy Parker, and it immediately jumped to No. 2 on my list.

Indian Summer

In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please,
And change, with every passing lad,
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do.
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.

You've just gotta love it.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Fingers Crossed

And now, we wait, nervously, eagerly, anxiously.

Scurvy Dogs! has been sent off to Eddie the Agent.

He's been out of the office for more than a week and won't be back until Thursday, so he'll face a full inbox when he gets back. There's no telling how long it'll take for him to get to it, and it's not likely that I'll hear anything anytime soon.

But I feel very good about it. A parent loves all his children equally, and I certainly love Chance and Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter. But I really feel like this is the one.

Everything I learned about writing the first two and the feedback they got, plus the stalled effort on The Bones in the Closet, all of that got used in Scurvy Dogs! I really mean it. I can feel it.

This is the one.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Someone Way Smarter than Me: On Character

The test of any good fiction is that you should care something for the characters: the good to succeed, the bad to fail. The trouble with most fiction is that you want them all to land in hell, together, as quickly as possible,

                                                                  Mark Twain