Category Archives: Pembroke Hall Series

Dark Secrets of the Writer’s Heart

Does anyone else out there in the writing racket do this – when I get an idea for a new project that I think shows a lot of promise, I want to run out and buy a new pen and a new notebook or pad of paper and start writing immediately. Usually I calm down and a cooler head prevails – but on the other hand, I do have a lot of pens and notebooks floating around in my personal orbit.

I’m also going to confess a couple of related secrets. I have at least one novel I’m supposedly working on that I haven’t told you about. I’ve got it in my Palm and was supposed to be writing paragraphs in it here and there in stolen moments, and I was going to market it Not Under My Own Name and (gasp!) Not Through My Agent, just to see what would happen. Unfortunately, the nature of the project I picked seems to be so laden with detail that the Palm is not a good venue for it. What I need to be writing this way is a loose, rollicking literary-type novel that will only have one draft – but more on that in a moment.

Part of this behavior of mine is that I’m fascinated by the whole anonymity thing – like Thomas Pynchon, and until recently, Jandek – both of whom worked in a vacuum of publicity and no public appearances (and while Jandek has been performing live for two or three years now, he still remains an enigma).

I’m also fascinated by the genre of literary novels of the sort propagated by Vonnegut and Tom Robbins, the rollicking novel where anything goes whether it works or not, with a voice that gives you the impression it rolled directly out of the typewriter into the press, with no rewriting or intermediate drafts (I know that’s not the case with Vonnegut). So that’s one of the other things I’ve long wanted to try – writing a psychedelic kind of novel without much regard to structure or anything else, and send it off without revising it to see what happens (Not Under My Own Name and Not Through My Agent, of course). With my luck, I’d have an unintentional hit, and I’d have a lot of explaining to do with my agent.

Both of these add up to a long-held urge urges to write a sub rosa novel, not even telling my wife what I was doing.

Never managed to get anything to take off, though. There were always more pressing writing projects, never enough time.

Now I’m thinking about starting a secret writing project, but telling all of you about it (and considering the way my StatCounter and Bloglines numbers look, there aren’t all that many of you out there, anyway, so it’s practically – dare I say virtually? – a secret).

Here’s what happened.

I didn’t get to work on the play last night. Wednesdays are my Momsitting night so my wife and daughter can get to Church (I go to the Men’s Bible Study on Monday nights), and my mother was not having a good night. But I did have a very productive shower this morning, and realized that I sent the antagonist out onto a winter street dressed in nothing but his boxers. So I made a note in the manuscript (coincidentally, it was right at the point where I left off writing – or maybe it wasn’t a coincidence).

I also thought about what I wanted to do to And That’s the End of the News, electing to do major surgery on it, completely changing the motivating factor between K and her dead boyfriend from something icky to something much more dramatic. Also thought about whether I should edit that or finish the first draft of Deadline once I get the third draft of the play over to the Community Theater.

Then my mind drifted to a future post I want to do about how to avoid a visit from the Karma Police. I started thinking about one of the events from my past that I wanted to mention: how, when I was first married, I worked in a place that was permeated with evil. I mean, we’re all sinners, but at least I was trying to be good. Nobody else was. I was fired from this place, and within a year something bad happened to everyone else who still worked there.

Then I thought, I ought to have that happen in a novel.

Then I thought, that could be the theme of an entire novel; a guy comes in and is treated badly by a company with a corrupt corporate culture, and suddenly things begin going horribly, badly wrong for all of the miscreants.


Suddenly, a bunch of loose ends that I wanted to use converged onto this single notion and it became an idea:

  • The notion that one person walks into a new place and becomes, knowingly or un-, an agent of change,

  • the notion of telling a story in first person but not through the POV of the main character,
  • the notion of using an unreliable narrator to tell the story (maybe – the jury is still out on this one fitting in)
  • the chance to approach a novel as one that will be written in anonymity (well, relatively speaking, anyway…),
  • the chance to explore the idea of karma in a novel (I don’t believe in it, but the concept is fascinating, and it’s a handy bit of shorthand to use in explaining circumstance),
  • the chance to write a story about some of my experiences in corporate America,
  • the chance to tell a story in a looser, more rollicking style, as described above (but I’ll push it through several drafts, I promise),
  • the chance to tell a story with lots of allusions to Biblical events and/or pop culture that may or may not be symbolic,
  • the chance to write another “fun” novel like the Pembroke Hall books,
  • the chance to write in such a way as to show the power of writing only one page a day,
  • the chance to do something a little more useful with my lunch hours besides checking up on my blogroll or having my head handed to me during network games of Medal of Honor,
  • and of course, the chance to work on a secret project. Except all of you now now about it.

Scarily, all of this dumped itself into my head in the space of just a couple of minutes. After that one white moment, all of these pent up notions and bits from my writer’s wish list came rolling into my head like a dam had broken. My head instantly filled with pages and pages of notes that I have yet to write down (no doubt since I haven’t gone to the store to buy a new pen and notebook yet).

Now for those of you who are shaking your head and going, “Ah, Faust, not again, you poor, pathetic soul, you can’t just write a novel because some ideas fell into your lap,” I say, “Why not?” I’ve started novels with much less – one such notion, about an out-of-control law enforcement agency, became some scratchings on a yellow pad during a meeting, and those scratchings became the first chapter of The Mushroom Shift.

Besides, in a way, I hate it when this happens. It makes me feel like I have some form of creative ADD. On the other hand, this one comes in on the heels of something that I’ve always wanted for this blog but never quite gotten to do because of my long backlog of ideas. That is, to blog about a creative project from the time I get the idea until the time the last page of the final draft rolls out of the printer (and, perhaps even, ends up on the rack of the local book store).

So here’s what I’ll do. I’ll try and calm down about this whole thing and see if it’ll leave me alone for a while. I’m still zinging from the white moment right now. I’ll try to analytically look at the whole idea and try to see whether or not this will be another of my literary dead ends, or would be another really cool thing that I could do, both on the writing and on the blogging front (I can just see it – a secret notation on each post that gives the day’s progress, the translation of which is known only to regular readers – it’s better than saving up boxtops for a decoder ring!).

Okay. So a cooler head is going to prevail.

I hope.

taking all the pieces in the situation
hoping we can work it out
with fate on your side, luck and some pride
you are on the right line
it’ll be a sure sign
(via iTunes shuffle play)

1 Oh no… it’s a sign!

What’s in a Name?

A colleague of mine has decided to write a novel. He’s got a dandy plot lined up, he’s working on outlining it, but he’s hit a stopping spot. I recently got an e-mail from him asking, “what is a good way to come up with names for characters?”

What a great question.

Oft times we just look in the phone book and – voila! our character is named Herbert Marello. Or, if you want to be more subtle, take a first name from one page and a last name from another and… Richard Shockey. Hmmm, that one isn’t half bad.

It should be that easy, but most of the time, it isn’t. If you’re writing a novel about a two-fisted gumshoe, you don’t want to name him Peter Richard Swisher. You need to stick with rugged sounding, mostly monosyllabic names – James Bond, Jack Ryan, and Dirk Pitt, which I thought was a joke when I first heard it. But hey, folks I know swear by Clive Cussler, and he’s sold more books than I, so more power to him.

I know a writer who bases characters on people he knows, actually using their names in early drafts of his manuscripts. Then he goes back through with Search and Replace to change them out. You probably wouldn’t know the difference, but it’s kind of jarring to me, since I know a lot of his friends and his substitute names just don’t conjure the character for me like the originals do.

Romances have different naming conventions than Thrillers. You want to conjure up images of heaving bosoms and six-pack abs. A hero named Hank Finster isn’t going to work. Fantasy novels harken Medieval, so literal descriptive names can work – it wouldn’t be out of line to name a dwarf Orkin Footdragger. In science fiction, all bets are off. You could name a character Yggx Mmljkrets, and it would work – to a point. I had trouble reading Niven and Pournelle’s baby-elephants-invade-Earth novel, Footfall, because I had problems keeping their what’s-floating-in-my-alphabet-soup names straight. Not to mention if you name a character with a real ballet across the keyboard, you’re going to rue giving him/er/it that name halfway through your first draft.

Then there’s the convention of the torn-from-the-headlines potboiler. Let’s say you want to write a completely hypothetical fiction novel about an ex-running back who gets coked up one night, and, oh, let’s say he decides to hack an old girlfriend into little pieces. What to name him? Hmmm, I think something like “B.J. Henson” would send all the message you need. (Note to the literal minded: I’m kidding. Don’t do this. Don’t even write a torn-from-the-headlines potboiler. Not only is it the stuff of cliche – it’s also the stuff of lawsuits).

Here’s a look at some of my character names and the approaches I took when naming them – then I’ll finish up with some heavyweights to add more insight.

D.A. Payne (A Death of Honor) was inspired by actor E.G. Marshall. He was once asked in an interview what the “E.G.” stood for. He said, “Everyone’s guess.” I thought that was witty, and it said loads about Marshall’s personality. So I gave Payne the initials “D.A.” just so someone could ask what they stood for – and he could reply “Don’t ask.” He never told me what “D.A.” really stood for. It could be seen as a symbolic name, too, since his story begins with him being in a lot of psychological pain – although he doesn’t realize it until later.

Andy Birch (The Company Man) went through a couple of different names before I settled. One was Charlie Angeles – you can see that in the early draft of the manuscript, even. I later recycled that name in Ferman’s Devils. I don’t know how I hit on the name, but I liked it a lot once I hit on that combination. Could also be a symbolic name, since birch trees are known for bending under pressure. Don’t know if it fits The Company Man, though.

Just about every character in the Angel’s Luck trilogy is named after friends of mine from college. I either used their names literally, shortened them (May from Mainord, Vonn from Vaughan), or used some kind of nickname that pointed to them. Bear and Winters came from a couple of geeky 4-H kids I met after college – an odd Mutt and Jeff pair of friends, the idea of which translated rather oddly into a pair of bloodthirsty mercenaries.

The Pembroke Hall novels were different. Outside of the Devils, most of the characters worked at ad agency Pembroke Hall, and I wanted them to all have corporate sounding names. So while I was in the notes stage of the book, every time I read or heard a last name that sounded important and business-like, I jotted it down and then added it to my master list of names. Whenever a new character within the company came into play, I pulled one off the list and crossed it out. In a trick that harkened back to A Death of Honor, nobody at Pembroke Hall had first names except for the ill-fated Sylvester. A couple of other anomalies – director Charlie Angeles, a name booted from The Company Man, and the luscious Honnikker In Accounting, who is always, always, always referred to as Honnikker In Accounting (and that took a little work to keep the sentences from sounding clumsy when I did it).

Names can be chosen to impart an obvious meaning or to allude to something else. In the Pembroke Hall story, one of the replacement Devils was named Greg Samsa, after the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. It’s not an accident that he has apples thrown at him by Ferman, nor that his street name becomes Cockroach. Jimmy Jazz was named in honor of the Clash song of the same title, which gave me his hobby (playing jazz on the saxophone), and even his real name, James Jasczek. I actually did name one of Ferman’s associates Peter Richard Swisher, to highlight the irony of using an intimidating street name. And poor old “Jet” Georgeson was named because it’s a spoonerism of the name of one of the stable of Hanna Barbera cartoon characters. I never actually say it – but Ferman sings the theme song at one point in the book.

And sometimes when you’ve just pulled a name out of thin air and run with it, serendipity sets in. In my story The Right Tools for the Job, I named the two protagonists Henning (the old master vampire hunter) and Gottleib (his journeyman assistant). I don’t think it was until after it was published that I saw a piece of symbolism in those names that would make an English major proud. Henning was the name of a popular magician in the 70’s (the late Doug Henning), while Gottleib translates out of German as “God love.” In the story, Henning (magic or trickery or sorcery) fails to destroy the evil, but Gottleib (God love, God’s love, Christ) does. At one point that is probably my favorite moment, Henning runs away from the evil vampire, crying out “Gottleib! Gottleib!” I’m not saying that’s what it all means, nor did I consciously put it there. But it’s kind of neat that it worked out that way.

Of course, an analysis of character names in an Adam Sandler film might yield the same results.

Enough about my tricks. What do some of the big timers do?

If you’re Stephen King, you throw your weight around, as he did when he named the protagonist of The Dead Zone Johnny Smith. No author in their right mind would name a character “John Smith,” but King did. Actually, his reasoning is kind of interesting – he says he wanted to show with that name that the kind of fate that befell Smith could happen to anyone – he was literally an everyman. I buy that, and respect the decision, as much as I razz King in these pages. Other King character names are unexceptional and unmemorable to me except, perhaps, Carrie White – another could-be-symbolic name since the purity of white is stained with blood (in at least three different ways) during the course of the eponymous novel.

Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 is practically an encyclopedia unto itself of ways to name characters. There’s use of a foreign language (Lt. Scheisskopf, German for “sh*t eater”); slapstick (Major Major Major Major); vocabulary words (Popinjay, “a strutting, supercilious person”); character descriptions (General Peckem and Corporal Snark); euphonious nonsense syllables (General Dreedle); rhymes (Milo Minderbinder); comic effect (ex-PFC Wintergreen); plus names that reflect how we don’t always know somebody’s real name (Nately’s Whore, Nately’s Whore’s Kid Sister, the maid with the lime-colored panties, the Soldier Who Sees Everything Twice); and many others

I think Ian Fleming was great at naming characters. Forget the shameless double entendres that you see in all of the James Bond movies – Fleming had a real way with naming his Villains, his Henchmen (henchpersons?), and yes, his women. They all had names that reflected the right amount of larger-than-lifeness, toadyhood, or mystique as required by the plot: Monsieur Le Chiffre, Mr. Big, Sir Hugo Drax, Dr. Julius No, Auric Goldfinger, Emilio Largo, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Maria Freudenstein (villains); Quarrel, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, Rufus B. Saye, Colonel Rosa Klebb, Sluggsy and Horror, Irma Bunt (henchpersons); and of course, the women – Vesper Lynd, Solitaire, Gala Brand, Tiffany Case, Corporal Tatiana Romanova, Judy Havelock, Dominetta “Domino” Vitali, Kissy Suzuki, and Mary Goodnight.

With names like Chemo and Shad, Carl Hiassen has a real way with the names of comic henchmen.

Finally, Elmore Leonard is good at naming characters because he’s got an ear for the names that average folks have. Names like… well, just read an Elmore Leonard novel. He’s brilliant, and when you read one of his novels, you’ll get a lot more out of it than just how to name a character.

Meantime, I call first dibs on Richard Shockey, Hank Finster, Orkin Footdragger, and Yggx Mmljkrets – even if I have to cram them all into the same novel. Feel free to use B.J. Henson at your own risk.

The sunlight dancing on your rocky shores
The moonlight playing upon the water
Your memory will stay with me forevermore
Wherever I may roam

(via iPod Shuffle)

What Makes Something Funny? (Part 3)

Ace of Spades HQ takes a break from political commentary to discuss the eternal question (and one that has brought many Googlers to these pages), “What makes something funny?”

Ace kicks off by discussing a formula for humor as set forth by Dilbert creator Scott Adams in his new blog. According to Adams, humor is created, Chinese menu style, by combining more than one of the following elements: Cute, Naughty, Bizarre, Clever, Recognizable, and Cruel. In his book, choose two and you have funny. Choose four and you’ve knocked the ball out of the park. Choose five and you have unapproachable genius, something that only Bill Watterson in Calvin and Hobbes has done.

No word on what six of six is. It’s either this Jandek album, or, more likely, the funniest joke in the world, as conceived by Monty Python.

To bolster his formula, Adams shows analyzes a couple of neophyte comic strips and discusses what made Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side so brilliant, in light of his formula. I should note here that I disagree with Adams’ feelings on Calvin and Hobbes. He contends that the strip fell flat when the gags centered around the parents. To my mind, some of the most memorable gags occurred when you realized how the parents had to connive and scheme in order to deal with Calvin. Plus, C & H was about more than just the humor. Yes, it was consistently funny, but it was also beautifully drawn and expertly paced and timed. There’s a reason why many, including myself, consider it to be the best comic strip of all time.

(And yes, I’ve told my family that the only thing I want for Christmas this year is The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. Unless it’s that amber rosewood Nashville Telecaster that I played at the music store the other day…)

After discussing Adams/Dilbert, Ace provides us with a look at his own formula for writing humor. And what do you know, his thoughts work, too. Having read Ace for a while now, and having seen how he writes funny, I can see exactly how his formula applies. He calls it Premise and Tweak. You start with a mundane premise and then give it an out-of-left-field tweak that turns the premise on end. He gives a couple of examples that are good, albeit in a PG-13 sort of way.

What about me? This is my third outing writing about humor. I have two series of novels that are marked by their use of humor, have published one play that is a dark comedy, and am writing another that is carried along with humor. Surely I know something about the subject.

Well, the answer is that I know something is funny when I’m writing it. But I haven’t really analyzed it for what my formula is. Maybe later on down the road I’ll be able to tell you what my formula is.

In the meantime, here is what I do know about writing humor:

  1. Humor is one step away from horror and revulsion. Remember seeing Jaws for the first time? Remember how loud you screamed when the head rolled out of the wrecked boat? Remember how you laughed when it was over? You know how you laugh after someone gives you a good fright?

    Humor takes a lot of its effectiveness in the unexpected. Just like horror does. The only things that determine whether you scream or laugh are context and the other key to humor… timing.

    If you can combine the two – humor and revulsion – you get something that is unbearably funny, provided everything else works just right. There are only two movie moments in history where I was literally an inch from falling out of my seat because I was laughing so hard. One was the junction of these two elements.

    From Pee Wee’s Big Adventure: “And when they pulled the driver from the burning wreckage of the truck… he looked like THIS!”

  2. Another important factor in humor is incongruity. Hence, the reason why Ace’s humor formula works, along with a great many jokes – something comes along that doesn’t fit in, not really, but in an instant you realize it is appropriate and the surprise triggers a laugh. Such as in the joke that ends with Bill Clinton saying “Well there I was, sitting in this refrigerator, minding my own business…”

    Using incongruity is also tricky, but can pay off big time, too. The other cinematic moment that almost put me on the floor laughing uses it. That scene?

    From Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Right. One rabbit stew coming right up.”

  3. The rule of threes. Ever notice that it’s three nuns that walk into a bar? That the salesman tries three times to get into bed with the farmer’s daughter? That the penguin tries something three times before the punchline hits? That there are three guys standing in line to see St. Peter at the Pearly Gates?

    The rule of threes is important in terms of placing humor in context. In the case of the St. Peter joke, it gives you two perfectly rational explanations for why two men are waiting to get into heaven, setting you up for Bill Clinton’s story about sitting in the refrigerator. By pacing and timing the joke out, it sets you up for the incongruity.

  4. The power of humor mitigates grim circumstances. See again Jaws – the war stories sequence where three men on a boat compare scars. Right before the final battle with the shark. Or watch Robocop and think about what a grim, dark, unwatchable movie it would be if it wasn’t so bitingly funny. Incidentally, I had the idea for the Pembroke Hall novels for many years – but it wasn’t until I saw Robocop that I knew how to go about writing them. That film became my model for that project, using humor to disarm what was a very grim and unseemly premise.
  5. All the formulas work. Scott Adams’ is onto something with his formula. But so is Ace with his Premise and Tweak method. And so was Rowan Atkinson with the Rules of Comedy he gave in the PBS special Funny Business that I wish, I wish, I wish I could find on DVD.
  6. On the other hand, a lot of comedy seems to be instinctive. Some of us learn we can make people laugh and then we go back and analyze it. That’s what I’m doing in this series of posts. I suspect Ace was doing it before he realized he had a formula (if you see this, Ace, let me know). I would also bet that this is the case with Adams, too. Even Bob Hope had a formula (swiped by Woody Allen in his early, funny years).
  7. Edmund Keane was right: comedy is hard. Ask anyone that has done any theater. Which is why people who make it look so easy are gifted.
  8. For as powerful a tool as it is, humor is criminally undervalued. In my mind, two of the best film performances of 1984 were Steve Martin in All of Me and Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson. Both Oscar caliber performances, both ignored. George C. Scott was known for drama, but in my mind his best performance was brilliantly funny: as General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove. And as much as I don’t care for him, it’s a shame that audiences rejected Sylvester Stallone as a comic actor. His performance in Oscar should have taken his career in another direction.

    It’s just a shame that much of the literati rejects humor of any kind unless it is, well, woebegone.

The question is which formula works for you? Or do you have a formula of your own? If it makes people laugh, it no doubt is a winner. And if it’s something different than what I’ve discussed here, why not drop me a line and tell me about it? There’s always room in these pages for a Part 4.

Listening: Dandy Warhols, “Everyone is Totally Insane” (via iPod Shuffle)

PS. Highway Star by Deep Purple turned up in iPod Shuffle rotation while I was writing this post. Okay, okay, it’s another sign. I promise I’ll carve out some time and work on my new play this weekend.

A Tale of Two Covers

On the top, the cover of the Russian paperback release of Ferman’s Devils. Looks a lot like the hardcover. In fact, it’s pretty much identical to the hardcover.

On the bottom, the same book, same format, with a different cover. Released at the same time as the one on the left.

What gives?

Marketing, that’s what. The Russian translation of the Pembroke Hall books were released under the “Alternative” imprint of publisher AST. That’s the one they use for experimental and off-the-wall types of books. Tom Robbins books get these covers, as did Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.

But the other cover. This is from a separate imprint. It’s called “Classical and Modern Prose.”

Further investigation of this imprint on the AST web site led me to titles by Swift, Remarque, Pasternak, and Chekhov – along with Robin Cook, Arthur Hailey, and yes, Tom Robbins, whose work is undergoing the same kind of odd cross-pollenation.

Naturally, I’m wondering about all of this. Is it because of the critical review the books are getting there? There are a couple of other books about the advertising industry that were written by native writers, both of which seem to be oft-mentioned as minor classics – one of them, Generation P by Victor Pelevin (released in English as Babylon, I’m currently reading. And it seems that the Pembroke Hall duology precedes these books by at least four years (counting from Ferman’s Devils).

Perhaps the gurus at AST want to make sure that the book reaches out to the same audience that made Pelevin one of the most read authors in Russia. It could just be canny marketing, too. Two covers for two different audiences, both of whom would find something to amuse in the books. I’ve had experience in this area in a different way in the form of the oddly innocuous cover that the Science Fiction Book Club edition of A Death of Honor was given. I found out later that the book was crossed over to SFBC’s sister company, the Mystery Book Club. Had it been given a more SF-ish cover, it might not have sold in the latter venue.

There’s one more factor that might figure into all of this. Once upon a time, when I was busy filling out forms to pay for part of my son’s college education, I had to have my agent write a letter explaining that the sales I’d just made to Russia were a one-shot deal, and that he’d never, ever seen a Russian book deal that resulted in any income beyond the initial advance.

Well, a couple of months ago I got a check from my agent for over $100. A couple of dollars were residuals that had trickled in from sales of the e-book version of the Angel’s Luck trilogy. The rest was Russian money.

It wasn’t much, but it told me something important, especially in light of what’s going on with the books now – that the translation of Ferman’s Devils somehow got a toe-hold over there and made back its advance – and then some.

(Yeah, I realize it could be that the trilogy earned out a few bucks and they’re just really late in getting it to me – but with the timing of everything that’s happening with the Pembroke Hall books, this isn’t my preferred explanation.)

So if you’ve got a book that’s made some money for you, it’s getting good critical reviews, it pre-dates some native classics about the same subject – why not market it as a piece of… well, not Classical, but certainly Modern prose? And pushing it with two different covers appeal to the literati and those who like their fiction a little more experimental?

Hmmm. It’s a shame that my publishers here didn’t think of that.

Now I can make a confession: besides wanting the Pembroke Hall saga to be a single volume, I had always intended it to be a modern novel as opposed to an sf novel. It was to be set in current times, but because I was seeing some limited success in the SF arena, I filled it with SF tropes (many of which, a decade later, don’t seem so tropish) and passed it off on my agent and the public as an sf satire. I’ve wondered what would have happened if I’d followed my original vision – but on the other hand, if I had, I wouldn’t have given the world NanoKleen, which is one of my best ever SF ideas.

Perhaps it’s a good thing I wrote it the way that I did. As I said in an earlier post, the Russians got it – all the way around. They’ve got a long history of seeing SF as a special genre – it allowed criticism of the Soviet system that one couldn’t get away with in conventional literature (although the Russian reviews have yet to mention it as a piece of SF). They really seem to hit on the mentions of Russia that I make in the Pembroke Hall books, with all that talk about the Union of Mongol States and all of that. And they appear to have really connected with the whole concept of consumerism gone amok – something they certainly see first hand as a new, struggling capitalist nation.

Here the real irony. I grew up with the Russians as The Enemy. I even channeled those childhood fears into the nightmare scenario of A Death of Honor, where they were a few steps short of realizing their goal of a Communist world. But, as the years have gone by and the world has changed, I seem to have written something that is the perfect contemporary Russian novel.

What’s that sound? Do you hear it? Can it be that… God… is… laughing?

Listening: Eels, “Restraining Order Blues” (via iPod Shuffle)

The Old Gray Genre Ain’t What She Used To Be

I just received an e-mail from a reader who tells me he has read through the Angel’s Luck trilogy about ten times (!). I don’t think I’ve been through those books that many times counting writing, rewriting, editing, proofreading, and correcting the galleys (I never read the books after they come out). In his letter, he asks me, “Do you have anything on the horizon?”

This put me in the position of telling him that, with the exception of one SF novel that I really want to finish, I’m not really writing Science Fiction anymore.

Part of this is by choice – I realized a couple of years ago that there were other genres where I could do quite well that have larger audiences than SF, and my agent agrees.

But there are also some factors at work that I don’t have much control over. For one, I think a Joe Clifford Faust SF novel would be a tough sell right now. I was dropped by Del Rey for disappointing sales – never mind that there was zero advertising or promotion, other than the fact that they were fired up over the book and pushed a copy into the hands of anyone who came into their office (this is how I ended up getting my first agent, which is a lengthy story for another post – if I haven’t already told it). When I asked about advertising before A Death of Honor came out, I was told “Our novels sell themselves.” Guess what, folks?

A few years later the Pembroke Hall novels landed at Bantam. They did advertise them, in Locus, the magazine of the SF trade. When I told them I had an idea for a promotion involving putting copies in the hands of the people most likely to appreciate the book – ad folk – I was given another line about how they knew how to sell their own books. Guess what, folks?

The month that Boddekker’s Demons came out was the same month that Ferman’s Devils was taken out of print. I got a call from Bantam asking, “Do you still have that marketing plan of yours?” I did a mental debate about the wisdom of marketing a book that was the second half of a duology, especially when the first one had been taken off of the shelves, but shrugged and sent it to them anyway. I don’t know if they did anything with it. Likely not. The two books were my two worst sellers of all time – the two books combined sold fewer copies than my previous underachiever, The Essence of Evil.

It’s not a cry in my beer kind of story, and I’m not looking for sympathy. It happens a lot to authors. Musicians, too. Ask Stan Ridgway why he didn’t stay with Geffen Records. The bright side is that, because of the movie deal that went nowhere, the Pembroke Hall novels were also my biggest moneymakers, making more for me than what I made on the other five novels combined.

However, editors don’t look at what books make for authors. If a new Faust SF novel lands on an editor’s desk, he’s going to look at what previous titles did for Bantam and Del Rey. And that sales record sticks to authors like a bad credit rating. Thus, that one SF novel I really want to finish will be a hard sell if and when it gets to that point.

Another factor is that SF just ain’t what it used to be. It’s been beaten back into a corner by Fantasy, and what’s left of the genre has been co-opted by franchises, the largest offenders being the Star Trek/Star Wars axis.

There are still SF authors publishing SF novels, but try to find them. Just try. Without going to a specialty store. If you go into a drugstore or grocery store and find any speculative fiction at all, you’ll find a couple of classic novels by old masters (Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke), a couple of StarWarsTrek novels, and the rest are fantasy. Go into a Waldenbooks or other mall store, and you’ll get the same mix, only more of them. If you’re lucky you might find an old William Gibson (whose current works are now considered mainstream) or, if the planets are aligned just right, a Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s even getting tougher to find new and proper SF at Borders. But maybe that’s because the titles sell out because it’s the only place where they can be found.

Why has all of this occurred? A couple of reasons. As far as the dominance of franchises goes, it’s because, heaven help us all, they sell. Slap “Wars” or “Trek” on the cover of a book and you’re guaranteed that your carefully calculated print run will more or less fly out the door. Publishers, not being stupid, put before the public what sells, and it’s not necessarily what is good for them.

(This brings to mind the notion of another unwanted government agency coming up with an ever-changing, increasingly incomprehensible chart of Daily Intellectual Nutrition Requirements – “Sorry, you’ve had enough Piers Anthony – time for some Phillip K. Dick!”)

The rise of fantasy is something else altogether. Around the time the Lord of the Rings film frenzy was in full swing, one of the Mainstream Media newsmags ran a sidebar article on why SF had been supplanted by Fantasy as the escapist literature of choice. Their theory – and to be honest, I can’t disagree with their thinking – is that science has let us down.

I love to look at magazines like Popular Science from the ’50’s and’60’s. You get visions of personal flying automobiles, undersea highways – that whole sense of optimism captured by Donald Fagen in his song I.G.Y.: On that train all graphite and glitter / Undersea by rail / Ninety minutes from New York to Paris / Well by seventy-six we’ll be A.O.K.

Well, we might have the equivalent of Dick Tracy’s two way wrist radio now, but I still don’t have my own personal Gyrocopter. The underseaways and zeppelin routes never materialized. We did get longer life spans, but the antibiotics that did it for us are now creating superbugs that eat them (and us) for lunch. We used to go around in a peaceful oblivion, not knowing that a well-placed asteroid could End It All for us – now we’re setting up telescopes and satellite networks to warn us of things that we won’t have a chance to save ourselves from. We avoided the nuclear war bullet, but the waste management is another thing. We’re close to all being wired, and what does it bring us? Ads for Teen Slut web sites and prescription drugs without a prescription.

Sheesh. Compared to that, facing down a Balrog in a deep, dank mine, armed with nothing but a little mithril and a sword that glows when orcs are around is a picnic. A picnic, I tell you!

If SF is no longer the escapist literature it once was, it’s because science, in all actuality, is in the business of raising more questions than it answers. And, as I have alluded to before when writing about how to craft the genre, one thing you have to look out for is that An Answer science gives us always has some kind of unforeseen side effect. Nuclear power, si! Nuclear waste, nuclear weapons, hmmm…

There’s one last factor I suppose I should mention. I started out wanting to write mainstream thrillers to begin with. My big influence at the time was Michael Crichton, who had just blown me (and everyone else) away with The Andromeda Strain. Those were the kind of books I wanted to write. Adventures with cutting edge science. That I ended up in SF can, as well-chronicled elsewhere in these pages, be attributed to the fact that I got mononucleosis at an inopportune time in my college career and ended up writing what would become Desperate Measures just to prove a point.

So that’s where SF is, and where I’m not, and why. It makes me a little wistful thinking about it – it’s like leaving your small hometown and coming back to find they’ve built an Applebees. I will always like and respect the genre, but I don’t know that it’s home anymore.

Not to worry. My love of science is going with me. There are some science moments in and that’s the end of the news…, albeit in a more Crichtonesque vein. If you look at it that way, then perhaps I’m not so much leaving home as coming home.

Listening: Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless” (via iPod Shuffle)

They Get It

In an off moment I decided to do a little experimentation and figured out how to surf Google Russia using (what else?) Russian. I went to one of the Russian web sites that mentions my books, copied my name to the clipboard, and since I installed Cyrillic on my Mac as a system font, it was able to paste the right characters into the search pane at

I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, or even if I was expecting anything at all. I’m a realist at heart, and I frequently recall Wesley’s admonition from The Princess Bride: “Get used to disappointment.”

So I clicked the Russian equivalent of Search and got a whole bunch of hits. Clicked on the first one, expecting a book store listing.

Instead I got a review of Boddekker’s Demons. One I’d never seen. And it was quite enthusiastic, once I’d run it through Babelfish or Paralink.

Well, this is interesting, I thought. So I tried another one. Another review. And another. Before long, I’d collected half a dozen reviews for one or the other Pembroke Hall books, all from news or literature web sites. This was, I should note, more than I saw ten years ago when the books were coming out in my native tongue (and while I’m at it, let me add to that – I’ve also gotten more response from Russian readers about these books than from English-speaking readers).

Not all of the reviews were positive – at least from what I could tell given the torturous translations that Babelfish and/or Paralink put them through (the former seemed to be the most understandable, but crashed more – the latter was more reliable, but missed more words).

Here’s some of what I found, with highlights:

And No Happy Ending!” Critic Anna Andersen delights in Boddekker’s Demons, and in the comments section a fake Joe Clifford Faust writes in and offers to write a new novel for her. So I put in a comment saying that I was much nicer than the impostor made me out to be. This one came out the clearest in all of the translations, which speaks volumes for Anna’s writing ability.

Their urine, reptiles!” The Bookshop Window, which previously gave a nice nod to Ferman, tackles Boddekker, saying it was as if the two books were part of the same story (!). The strange headline (“Their urine, reptiles!”) is repeated at the end of the review along with some words that didn’t make the trip into English. I suspect it was a Russian idiomatic version of one of the parodistic catch phrases in the novel.

The given novel is a fertile field” is a reader’s review that concludes that Ferman is a “desirable read” with something for everyone.

one calorie for the mind” This was the most difficult to understand of all the articles, again, probably because of the original source. It isn’t a positive review, but it didn’t seem to be blisteringly negative, either. I don’t think. I’m not sure.

Who is Guilty?” This is a scholarly article about two recently published books with similar themes: Ferman and a British novel called Popcorn by Ben Elton. If that name rings a bell, it’s because Mr. Elton is a writer best known (in my frame of reference, anyway), for his work with Rowan Atkinson on Mr. Bean and the Blackadder series. Which thrills me to death.

What’s fascinating about this is that every review digs down into the book. The English language reviews I got talked about superficial things in the books, but these dig down into themes and influences and meanings. Since the Devils live in a demolished church building, they are in essence fallen angels. People flock to buy the products they advertise, but the irony is that they’re not an authentic street gang, not really – only Ferman could be considered a true street kid. As an author I applied the “pamphlets of my religion” to ad culture… the list goes on.

This whole thing thrilled my daughter. She’s fresh into literary novel awareness after being forced to endure Beloved by Toni Morrison, so she was grilling me about some of this last night: “Did you put that meaning into the book?” “No” “See! It’s a literary novel!” She couldn’t wait to get to school this morning so she could tell her English teacher that her Father was a literary figure in Russia (and she’s ready to pack her bags and go over).

My wife and I discussed this a bit last night. Part of it might be the whole “prophet without honor” thing, wherein I had to find an audience outside of my native tongue to be appreciated. That it happened in Russia is delicious. They’re new to the whole concept of capitalism, and from what we’ve gathered from talking to some natives we know, they admittedly have a streak in them that celebrates, or perhaps is simply fascinated by, suffering (for example, in Moscow On The Hudson, Robin Williams gives a brilliant little speech about how they embrace their misery and keep it as their own).

Whatever the reason, I’m still trying to keep this all in proper perspective. It’s nice to have the books appreciated and what I was understood – it’s like finally, someone “gets it.” Yeah, I know that no doubt there are people here who “got it.” But these folks are writing about it.

My wife said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Russians ended up being the ones who make the books into a movie?”

Funny, yes. Ironic, yes. And fitting somehow, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. Maybe it has something to do with the reptile urine.

And to Anna Andersen, who responded to my impostor-debunking comment, I say: I love you as a cat sour cream, too.

Listening: Ben Folds Five, “Don’t Change Your Plans” (via iTunes shuffle play)


Alternative options seem to be the theme recently. Yesterday my wife and I were talking about the Deadline project, and even though she hadn’t yet seen any of it, I’ve discussed some parts of it with her. So she was telling me an idea she had for the way the book should end. It wasn’t what I had in mind, but it did put the thought in my head that maybe I should write two endings to the book to see how they fit (hey, I recently saw where the DVD of 28 Days Later has not one, not two, but three alternate endings on it – guess the director couldn’t make up his mind how to end the tale).

Lest you think I’m blindly following what my wife says because she’s my wife – she has great editorial instincts. It’s my contention that she could have been a brilliant book buyer and editor. But she’s told me she would have hated that kind of work.

Here’s an example of her instincts at work. As I have mentioned, she reads most of my manuscripts chapter by chapter as they are written. When I was working on A Death of Honor, she made a comment to me after reading one of the early chapters: “I think Trinina is an interesting character. I can’t wait to see what you do with her.”

Indeed. What she had read was the only scene I planned for Trinina to be in. But after that comment I started thinking about Trinina and how she fit into Payne’s complacent little world, and well, it wasn’t long before she showed up at his doorstep, looking for help after having done something very, very illegal. It put a real complication in Payne’s life, moreso than what was already happening to it, and A Death of Honor was a much better novel for it.

That’s why I trust my wife’s instincts. That’s why I’m thinking about writing two sets of last chapters for Deadline.

Meantime, today I also thought of an alternate title for And/News. You’ve probably already deduced that And/News is my writer’s superstition name I’m using for this project (it was my original title for this book). I have another title I plan to market the book under, but if there are problems with that – there is a non-fiction book with the same title – then I thought I ought to be prepared. If a problem comes up, I guess I could revert to …and that’s the end of the news; but I really liked this alternative title. The only problem with it is that it doesn’t pay off until the last chapter – although it could work.

Maybe I’m worrying for naught. But it helps to be prepared. A Death of Honor was originally titled Amendment XXXI, but DelRey asked for it to be changed because, as my editor said, “it sounds too political.” I racked my brain to come up with a title and came up with a bunch of losers. I decided to come back to it and sat down with my son at the kitchen table and started playing with Play-Doh. A Death of Honor came to me about a minute later. And I had to come up with Handling It… as an “all encompassing series title” for the Science Fiction Book Club. So there is precedent.

Thus were today’s distractions. Now onto business:

Today’s Scorecard
Deadline – Chapter Five
174 pages (+6)
19,488 words (+ 672)*

And/News – Chapter Twenty
667 pages (+7)
146,922 words (+2700)**

NP – iTSP (Ben Folds Five, “Underground”)

*Word count for Deadline is approximate – the project is being written by hand.

**Today’s word count is inflated by about 1,000 words due to cut-and-pasting from the Reconciled Outline.

Another Toothbrush Postmortem

This morning I had to run down to the iBook before leaving for work to type in an addition to something I wrote last night. Just a little something to make it better.

While scraping the molars it also occurred to me that, while I referred to And/News as screwball noir, I’m not sure if that entirely fits.

I got the notion to try my hand at something like that after reading Tick Tock by Dean Koontz and being sorely disappointed. In his notes on the book, he mentioned that he was shooting for a cross between his usual gripping suspense and a screwball romantic comedy. I liked the notion of trying to put those two elements together, and told myself that I was going to try doing that sometime. Now I guess I am.

Thing is, when I started And/News, I decided to throw out some of the conventions of the screwball comedy. For those unfamiliar with the genre, here’s a short list:

1) The man is usually a stiff or formal type with his life in a certain pattern. Lost that one. Richard was at loose ends when he met K, being on the run from a failing love affair. That made him more vulnerable and less apt to do the obvious, right thing.

2) The woman is a free spirit. Kept that one.

3) The man usually gets dragged into the situation by the woman. Kept that, too… although Richard did want to dip his toe in the water. Or did he? One of the revelations from last night’s writing makes me wonder…

4) The woman is usually smarter than the man in the sense that her odd and zany ways seem to be the perfect action to take to help them survive. Tossed that one out, way out. I didn’t think that worked in Koontz’s book, and I thought that characteristic ran counter to what the genre of the thriller was all about. I thought it was more important that Richard and K not have the skills to survive, and by virtue of making it up as they go along, manage to stay one step ahead of the Pursuing Menace. After all, taking the proper action for survival dictates that you make sensible decisions that can be predicted. Right? But neither Richard nor K are capable of doing that.

In doing all of this, I have pretty much gutted the convention of the screwball romance/comedy/thriller. That’s okay, though, because I have another turn of phrase in mind that I’ve been using to describe the direction my novels are moving in.

I call it the Relationship Thriller.

Basically, the story is about the relationship between two or more people, and the thriller part is the MacGuffin* that causes a change in that relationship.

I’ve always been fascinated by the web of interrelationships between people. I once started work on a novel by making a large map of the characters involved and how their lives intertwined (that project is still on my “to be written someday” list).

Looking back at my body of work, I can see that this is where I wanted to go all along. A Death of Honor is about Payne relationship with Trinina and Nathan. The Company Man is about Andrew Birch’s relationship with the Astradyne company. There’s nothing like that I can see in the Angel’s Luck books – that’s just an outer space shoot-’em-up; and the Pembroke Hall books are satire; there are all sorts of relationships there, but that’s not what the book was ultimately about.

Maybe I was going the wrong way with those. Who knows?

However, I am headed back that way with …and that’s the end of the news; and Jamais Vu… and the mysterious UFO novel that is some years down the road.

I don’t think I invented this whole idea of the Relationship Thriller, but I’m certainly going out to stake out my claim.

NP – iTSP (Eels, “Jeannie’s Diary”)

*”(The MacGuffin is) the thing that the spies are after, but the audience doesn’t care.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Repeat Reading

An interesting morning postmortem on last night’s writing. I think it’s interesting that I’ve passed the 100k word mark and the story is showing no sign of slowing. I originally thought that it would run about 125k at most, but plans have a way of changing, I guess.

I’m wondering if, when And/News hits somewhere in my recently speculated word count, I should try as an exercise to edit it down to around 100k. I don’t know what purpose that would serve, though. So far the book seems to have everything in it that needs to be there. It’s also odd that when I sat down to write PH, I knew it would be a long project, knew that it would be about the length that it turned out.

Why the difference? Why is And/News still growing and developing? I’m not sure. Probable explanations:

1) I’m working in a new genre and haven’t developed a feel for length yet. My current projections are a fine length for a thriller.

2) With this book I am trying to commit more to character development. I was tired of my early books being criticized for thin characterization when it was there but cut for the sake of fitting into an editor’s page count. Boddekker had great characters, I think, but nobody read his story. So it’s Round Two.

3) The book is doing what it is supposed to be doing, growing organically, striding toward the length that it should be. Like Abraham Lincoln’s legs, which were long enough to reach the floor, And/News will be the length it needs to be to serve the story.

I suspect that the correct answer is all of the above.

I don’t know why I’m obsessing over word count at the moment. Likely because I’ve had “100,000 Words” pounded into my head for so long. I should stop worry about/obsessing over it and enjoy the rest of the write (I’m saving a vacation day in case I need it for my “last chapter marathon”).

I also realized something else about this project. I think And/News might be one of those books that actually improves on the second reading. This isn’t a negative thing – I think the book will be a great read the first time through.

See, I love films that become a whole different experience when you see them again. I’ve often said I envy people who get to see Casablanca for the first time. But it improves with subsequent viewings, because once you know how things turn out, you can see all of the subplots and intrigues that swirl around Rick’s Cafe and influence the final outcome. A lot of my favorite films are this way; The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Memento. And I bought Donnie Darko so I could try watching it again – it must get better with subsequent viewings (I liked the film overall but felt the ending goes horribly wrong somehow).

When you go back for repeated viewings with these films, you can see all of the clues that point the way to their conclusions, creating an entirely new viewing experience.

I can’t think of many books like that. Jean F. Merrill’s The Pushcart War was that way for me, but that was the difference between reading it as a 5th grader and then reading it as an adult and seeing all the wonderful satire that went over my head the first time.

I didn’t set out to do this. But it occurred to me this morning that And/News had the potential to offer… not a different, but an enhanced reading experience the second time through. And it has less to do with the thriller part of the book as it does the characters that are in it. I’m excited about the prospect.

Is this just my writer’s ego over asserting itself? I’ll have to get the book finished and published. Then you can tell me.

NP – iTunes (Garbage, “Stupid Girl”)

Repeating Yourself

I was so ticked off by this that I went out and bought a bag of Oreos. Dunked in hot black coffee and eaten when about ready to crumble, they’re heart-stoppingly good.

Had an interesting postmortem on last night’s writing session while brushing my teeth this morning. I realized that, more than anything in the world, I wanted to stay home and work on the book today. The words are all there, migrating from my brain to my hands. All I have to do is put my fingers on a keyboard and wiggle them. That’s what it feels like.

It got so bad that I actually opened up the document this morning and changed a line I wrote last night (I realized it was a punch line of sorts that didn’t live up to the setup I had given it) and typed in some notes for tonight’s go at writing.

I also thought about my inadvertent recycling of an idea from PH (the sudden revelation of an affair), and using it as a plot turn in And/News. In PH I used it as an icing-on-the-cake kind of thing (or as one of the Pembroke Hallers says, “A sweet little cupcake iced with cyanide”); it was just one more thing to go wrong for poor Boddekker (who was undergoing the usual end-of-novel torture that I put protagonists through).

In And/News, however, I do more with it. It’s a revelation about one of the characters that sends a relationship into a totally different direction, setting up a number of things for the end of the book.

I’ve debated doing this for a while and thought about doing something a little more conventional, but the thought of doing it that way seemed so… well, conventional.

The whole argument against doing it is that “I used the same device in another book;” and not just another book, but my most recent one prior to And/News (all right, I didn’t use it in the children’s book, but give a break there, huh?).

What I’m worried about is becoming John Irving. I was in college when The World According to Garp came out, and I read and loved it. So I tracked down some of his earlier books. Imagine my dismay when I started reading one… and looked at the summaries of the other three pre-Garp books… and found that they all contained the same key elements of writers, wrestlers, trained bears and quirky family members. It was like Irving rewrote the same book over and over and over again until he got it right with Garp – and then he wrote it one more time (The Hotel New Hampshire) for good measure.

(To be fair, I’ve been told that after Hotel, Irving retired his well-used props and went off in other directions. Good for him. I just don’t feel like following him there.)

I came to a couple of conclusions about the matter by the time I finished brushing my teeth. First, and the most obvious, was that in all likelihood the use of the same plot device wouldn’t even show up on the radar because nobody bought the Pembroke Hall books. Remember when I said the two books didn’t even outsell my previous worst-seller (The Essence of Evil)? It would have taken a third novel in the series to pass EoE, and even then it would have been only by about a thousand copies. The numbers were that abysmal.

But then it occurred to me – how do you determine what is an overused plot point and what isn’t? After all, love triangles figure conspicuously in five of the seven novels I’ve published (only DM and EoE lack one), and there’s one in And/News. Does that mean the device is overused?

I think it all depends on what you do with it. Is there a new approach taken with it each time, or is it predictable – like the character of the cop who is “only a month away from retirement?”* That could well be the case with the Suddenly Revealed Affair, too; it’s all in what is done with it, how it affects the plot and characters (pardon my cultural ignorance. but aren’t John Updike’s Rabbit books all about SRA’s?).

Of course, I could be overanalyzing things again. Perhaps I could have a Suddenly Revealed Affair in all of my books from here on out.

Sure. And they could all be about wrestling writers with quirky relatives and trained bears, too.

Just this one time, I promise. And then I’ll stop before I go blind.

NP – iTSP (Joe Jackson, “You and Me Against the World”)

*The sure sign of impending death or worse in many a novel and film.


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