Category Archives: Old Loves Die Hard

Artistic Integrity (Rant #2)

Well, this about clenches it. I’m getting ready to shrug off any notions of writing commercial fiction and just write books for me, even if they end up in the metaphorical closet under the metaphorical bowling shoes.

Yeah, I know, I’ve said that before. But I think I’m getting serious about it, because I feel like some of the things about writing and publication that meant something even five years ago are being cheapened by the minute. While we seem to be in a Golden Age for some things (acoustic guitars, for example), our literary culture acts as if it’s slouching towards Gomorrah when it comes to artistic integrity.

You know, that whole notion that you write something original and stand by it and that you don’t have to resort to false pretense to sell it.

I’m not talking about recent lawsuits involving Harry Potter or The DaVinci Code. Whether there’s actually a case in any of those suits I don’t know, and I don’t really care. Those are Gravy Train lawsuits. If either one of those books had sold as well as, say, Ferman’s Devils, there wouldn’t be a story. There wouldn’t even be a lawsuit.

No, this is about all the stuff I’ve been hearing about of late that up until now I’ve been silent on. The teenaged prodigy who “must have internalized” large portions of the novels that influenced her to start writing. The guy who appeared on Oprah and passed off the novel he cribbed from two other books as his personal memoirs. Or another memoir writer, formerly a specialist in gay erotica, who manufactured a Native American persona to sell his cribbed novels – and now, caught with his hand in the cookie jar, is shopping around his memoir about his memoirs (shades of journalistic fraud Jayson Blair, who played the race card while telling all in his memoir, Burning Down My Masters’ House… which brings up a question – how do you fact check the memoir of a plagiarist or fraud?).

Right now there may be one person jumping up and down as he reads this, screaming at me and saying the pot is calling the kettle black. See, I had a friend acquaintance in high school who was always accusing me of plagiarism.

We once read a story with a scene where policemen ran around talking in numbers to each other, obviously inspired by TV shows like Dragnet and Adam 12, where the crimes and the radio traffic were all numerically encrypted. I liked the idea so much that I cribbed it. I wrote a bit in a different context, where people talked in confusing strings of initials. For those three of you that read it, this evolved into the business with all of the initials in Old Loves Die Hard.

But my friend acquaintance couldn’t think of enough bad things to call me. I was a plagiarist, pure and simple, and I was going to burn for it. He made a career of denouncing pretty much everything I wrote during that period, and I came to realize that it was because he was jealous. There was actually something – one thing – that I was better at than he was. And he couldn’t stand it.

What he didn’t understand then – and what I couldn’t convey to him because, while I’d internalized the rules of how ideas worked, I hadn’t had experience enough with them to explain it properly – was that there was a difference between outright plagiarism and what Lawrence Block calls creative plagiarism.*

The former is wholesale copying of themes, concepts, ideas, and yes, even text, and incorporating it into one’s work and presenting it as original.

The latter is the process of seeing how someone else worked with their material, bringing their own ideas to the party, playing with it, letting it evolve, and then writing it new out of whole cloth.

The latter is a time-honored tradition among writers. It’s called formula. And if it didn’t exist, novels would have ceased after number 37 – because that’s the number of plots there are in the world. Imagine, a world where there was only one Harry Potter novel, one James Bond movie. Did you realize that Alien and Aliens have virtually identical plot lines – what a difference a screenwriter and director make. And John Irving used this to write his first few novels, arranging the same elements in different orders and sequences until he hit the lottery with The World According to Garp, and then did it one more time in The Hotel New Hampshire for good measure.

Block’s example of this is the occasion on which he was reading an Agatha Christie-like mystery, and at the end of the book it turned out that the butler had done it. He was sure the Vicar was the culprit. He had all of this mental evidence against him as he read the book. Then he started thinking, well if only this event had gone this way, and that event had gone that way instead… and pretty soon he had worked out a scenario for a new mystery novel that bore no resemblance to Agatha Christie.

But don’t tell my friend acquaintance that.

Now there is a less-honorable path that creative plagiarism takes – this is why you see Harry Potter ripoffs all over the place now (Boy wizards make money!), and why there was a horror boom in the 1980’s (Stephen King makes money!), and why we have new sub-genres like techno thrillers and legal thrillers (Tom Clancy and John Grisham make money!). And you know what? God bless America for that.

But there are those, like my friend acquaintance, who can’t differentiate between that and the kind of wholesale bottom-feeding plagiarism that has been roiling in the headlines since the beginning of the year.

This whole business of cribbing (and let’s call it what it is, which is stealing) with some false identities thrown into the mix has suddenly become a huge flaw in the industry – the literary equivalent of steroid abuse. Let’s face it, literature has had a long history of tolerance for character defect – we’ve had opium smokers, absinthe drinkers, heroin addicts, stoners, cokeheads, and full blown alcoholics functioning among our numbers since it all began, and that’s just under the heading of substance abuse. But even then they played inside the rules.

It’s not like this has never happened before – Stephen Ambrose, Janet Daily, and Alex Hailey have all been caught in the act at one time or another. It just feels like this dishonesty is reaching critical mass right now.

Like the rules have all gone out the door.

In this era of instant gratification, it’s no longer enough to have to come up with one’s own writing, especially when someone has broken the ground for you. Again, let me illuminate the difference here. “Hmm, Mark Haddon made a compelling character with an autistic narrator. What if I had an agoraphobic narrator?” “Hmm, these paragraphs from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time would work really well in my book. And nobody’s looking over my shoulder…”

This is all ironic, since the Internet, which is giving potential offenders access to even more resources, is making it easier and easier to catch these folks. I know an English instructor at a local community college, and she’s sometimes referred to as The Plagiarism Nazi by colleagues and students alike because of her eagle eye, her memory, and her ability to wield tools like Google in her quest for truth, justice, and original writing.

Perhaps that’s the problem. Maybe as many people as ever before are dipping their buckets a little too deeply into the literary well, but more of them are getting caught at it. And when those caught were those who commanded mid six-figure advances or more, were gushingly reviewed by the cognoscenti, or got plum interview spots on Oprah or Larry King, well, that makes the stench all the more foul.

But I don’t think that’s all of it. I think publishers are going the way of Hollywood, throwing unconscionable amounts of money at people and their books in search of The Next Big Thing instead of taking the time to nurture the careers of writers like they did back in the era of Maxwell Perkins.

When you look at all of that and you see the publicity a markedly original book can get, it’s just too tempting. There’s a lot of greed out there**. There’s a lot of temptation to take shortcuts because let’s face it, writing a novel is hard work. It can be lonely work. And when your friends are off at the pub tossing darts or doing whatever they do while you’re locked up in your silent little office, that’s when you hear the little voice telling you to pick up the ring… and slip it on your finger… just this once…

No. I’m not even going to give these folks, and any other of their ilk that much. I know too many writers who have worked too hard to produce original works that come from their own unique vision of the world to give plagiarists any justification at all. No matter what kind of childhood they had, or anymore, claimed to have had.

They’re thieves.

It’s wrong.

And when they give lame excuses like “I must have internalized those passages wholesale from my favorite novelist’s book” or “I recently learned that my essentially random and non-pervasive acts of copying are attributable to a psychological problem that I never even suspected I had,” they should be tarred with book-binding glue and feathered with the shredded remnants of their contract and manuscripts.

Okay. That’s enough. I’ll wipe the foam and spittle from my lips, having vented. I should be happy and serene for a while. Or for fourteen more minutes, until the next plagiarism scandal breaks.

Meantime, I’ve got work to do. A new novel about a southern belle who would do anything to preserve the plantation of her youth from the ravages of the Civil War. I’ve got it half done, even though I only started typing two weeks ago, and you want to know something? I’m going to dedicate it to my old high school friend acquaintance.

Listening:
I hear you calling, but I ain’t no fool
I’ve got to be stronger
I’ve got to get over you
Each time I cry, its a sign of my pain
Every tear that falls, carries your name

(via iPod Shuffle)

* Not that any of this would have mattered to my friend acquaintance – he would have found some other reason to hate my stuff.

** And I thought I was being greedy in 1978 when, on learning that Daw books paid a $2000 advance for a typical first SF novel, I said to myself, “I can do that!”)

Sense of Funny (What Makes Something Funny, Part 2)

JCF’s Christmas Play
Pages, 10/10/05: 6
Current Total: 16

All of the protagonists are introduced. The last thing I wrote before quitting was a knock on the door. When our hero (or it might be his wife – I may change things up a bit) answers the door, the secure little world I’ve created for them will get turned upside down.

Figuring a minute per manuscript page, we’re 16 minutes into the play now. This is likely to run shorter because when I write a play (see Old Loves Die Hard), the success of it lives and dies on the pacing of the dialogue. I tend to write it fast and snappy except for the more dramatic parts. So the director will have to make sure the show moves.

I’m really conscious of length right now, because there’s a lot to do in this first act. My first impulse is to let my pre-editor kick in and leave out stuff that isn’t really needed, but who knows… I may get something I need by putting it in. I may suppress it and write everything in that tickles my fancy and then cut it later. I put in a couple of gags last night that I will probably end up cutting.

However, there seems to be an unwritten tradition in theater that the first act is the longest. I guess when people come into a theater and settle, you can push the amount of time they sit because they’re ready for a show. After that, things really need to move. This is great because, while I’d like to split the show into two perfect 45-minute halves, the realist in me doesn’t think it’s going to turn out that way. I think I’m looking at that or longer for the first act, and a shade under that for the second.

Those considerations aside, one thing I noticed while I was writing last night was my Sense of Funny. This is different from Sense of Humor, although SoH certainly influences SoF.

Sense of Funny, I have decided, is what goes on in the brain of a writer who is writing something humorous. While their fingers dance across the keys and words appear on the screen, something in their brain says, “now do this and people will find this funny.” It’s not what the writer finds funny, but his sense of what the audience will find funny. I don’t sit there and laugh at my own jokes as I’m writing because I’m not that kind of a guy. But there’s this sense that has kicked in while working on this play, a little voice (don’t start!) telling me that this is funny, or if I did something else or added a bit here, it would make something funny, or cause something already funny to be funnier.

I’m not really sure how that works.

Humor is a fascinating thing to me. If you think about it, the reactions you get are related to being frightened or surprised. People often laugh as a release after being frightened, especially if the fright was in vain (e.g., at a movie or in a Halloween haunted house – doesn’t often happen after you nearly have a head-on with a careless driver).

That’s a lot of what makes up humor – the unexpected. The other night I was going to accompany my daughter to a restaurant after a performance of Anne Frank. She was worried that I might not want to hang out with a bunch of teenagers. So I said, “Don’t worry. If there aren’t any adults around, I’ll give you a sign.” Then I coughed and said, “Sorry, my Tuberculosis is acting up.”

This nearly put her on the floor. She expected the cough business, but she didn’t expect me to dredge up Tuberculosis from the vaults of memory to ice the cake with. It made something mundane funny.

Humor can also disarm other unpleasantness. The film Robocop is a classic example of this. It’s a brutal, grim movie that would have been unwatchable if there hadn’t been so much dark humor scattered throughout. Like when the young executive is machine gunned by a malfunctioning Law Enforcement droid, a line given to the Old Man of the company is classic understatement: “I am very disappointed,” he says, almost over the body of the deceased. Jaws is another great example, where Spielberg uses humor – three guys on a boat getting drunk and comparing scars – just before turning on the tension full bore as the shark returns to attack them.

Humor can also raise the stakes in a drama. I was in the green room on opening night with two teenaged boys who play SS flunkies. They had no prior theater experience, so it’s been fun watching them learn. We were watching the first act of Anne Frank on the closed circuit TV set up for the actors, and they were shocked when the audience laughed at something.

“Hey!” they said, outraged. “They’re not supposed to laugh at this play!”

“Sure they are,” said another actor. “Some parts of this play are really funny.”

Then I said, “Besides, their laughing now will make it hurt even more when we go in and haul the families off to a concentration camp.”

Using humor, the authors of the Anne Frank play cause the audience to see the Franks as real people… and subsequently, they bond with them. And when real life intrudes and only Otto survives, that makes it all the more powerful.

So use it, but don’t abuse it. And if you’re into writing comedy, watch out for your Sense of Funny. Feed it well on all kinds of comedy, and it will serve you well.

Listening: Jules and the Polar Bears, “It’s a Shame” (via iPod Shuffle)

Regret

I pretty much stand behind everything I’ve written so far.

Wait, hang on. Do over. Let me rephrase that.

I pretty much stand behind everything I’ve published so far. There’s a difference between that and some of the struggling-to-find-my-voice ramblings from early in my career and some of the mean-spirited things I wrote in high school because I knew I couldn’t throw a punch at the person who inspired them lest I get creamed.

Even my play, Old Loves Die Hard, which is an odd duck, a relic from another time when I wanted to write comedy and I had a high school teacher who wrote in my yearbook that she expected me to be the hometown’s answer to Neil Simon.

That was before I caught mono and discovered I could write novels.

I still stand behind the stuff in the early SF novels I did, even though maybe I shouldn’t. I’m talking the language used by the characters, or the virtual replay of the marital rape scene in The Company Man, a device that allowed the main character to have sex with someone that readers wanted to him hook up with (The twist was supposed to be that when it happened as a virtual event, it was a replay of the husband’s recorded memory of a sexual assault. I thought it would have the dual effect of showing what a piece of slime the husband was, and would be so repulsive and degrading that readers would feel bad about wanting Birch and Jade to hook up. It worked better as the former and probably not at all as the latter). They came from a time when I was still trying to find myself as a Christian, and while I tried not to overplay these elements, I worked hard not to do any of it gratuitously.

So it’s all good. No regrets.

Until now.

My mother has been living with us for a couple of weeks now. She’s not able to live on her own, and we’re happy to take her in. As it turns out, she’s had as many bad days as good since she’s moved in with us, with the rest falling into various stages of decline or recovery.

Little things like infections that you and I would shrug off with antibiotics, aspirin and a day of sleep knock her for a loop. She regresses, not voluntarily, back to the days when she was a little girl bed bound with rheumatic fever. During these times she calls out for both parents and her two brothers (all deceased), asks if she can go play or if she can have cake.

There’s nothing we can do about it except our best efforts to see her through it until she is lucid again. Doctors have scratched their heads over what’s going on – I guess that’s why they call it practicing medicine – although I don’t think there are any geriatric specialists on the payroll. So I sit and hold her hand and, of late, pretend to be Mom or Daddy or Ben or Jimmy and tell her that everything is going to be all right, and that she can have cake when she gets better.

And the other thing I do is kick myself for writing Chapter Seven of Ferman’s Devils.

Specifically the part that, ironically enough, is posted here as a sample from the book.

I have recorded elsewhere that this chapter was originally cut from the book as I was writing it. There are some important transitions that take place in part of the chapter, but as I was working I was mindful of my agent’s propensity to worry about manuscript length, and I realized I could drop the entire chapter and work in the transitions elsewhere.

Then Bantam books bought Ferman and decided to release it as two books, and all of a sudden I didn’t have to worry about length. So when I went to edit the manuscript, with the blessing of editor Anne Groell, I wrote the missing chapter into the manuscript.

Then the problem was that I needed a transition between the two major events in that chapter. I tried putting in a one paragraph solution, you know, the kind of “half a day went by, which I spent resisting Bainbridge’s attempts to have sex with me” kind of thing that we sometimes use to pass time quickly, but it just didn’t work in the flow of things. The two events collided with each other, and I needed a physical buffer.

So I fell back on an idea I’d had that I didn’t think I’d be able to place anywhere, namely, what would nursing homes be like once all the rock and rollers and acid casualties of the ’60’s were old enough to fill them? I combined this with a mental lapse I’d recently had, where I couldn’t remember which Beatles album featured the song A Day in the Life (both my guesses were painfully wrong), and the whole trip to the Woodstock Home was born, complete with a dementia-suffering grandmother who had acid flashbacks and accused her grandson, the narrator, of collaborating with Richard Nixon.

It’s made up of verbal and visual slapstick (although most people miss that Grandma Missy is playing air guitar in bed because I underplayed it), and was a great scene. And when I did the first half of the chapter as a reader’s theater bit for a community celebration of science fiction, it was a huge hit, thanks in no small part to a couple of theater friends who helped me out.

But right now I don’t feel so great about writing that little bit of fun.

It’s not the first time I’ve written something that hit close to the edge. I almost withdrew the manuscript of A Death of Honor when Del Rey was looking at it because when the first pictures of the HIV virus came back, they looked just like the spore cases that my biological villain created. It was accepted and published, and of course because of the time lag, I took a hit for trying to capitalize on AIDS. There have been other things to happen with different books, but this is the first time it became personal.

I don’t believe in Karma, so I don’t think this is cosmic payback for anything. Besides, there are lots of other things I’ve written that could haunt me in other ways – ways that I probably deserve a lot more than the angst I feel about Chapter Seven right now. It’s just one of those goofy things that happens in life.

Besides, if I’d written the scene as a straight dramatic piece, I’d probably be patting myself on the back. I’m just a little sore because I played Grandma Missy’s dementia for laughs – and now that I’m seeing it up close and personal, I’m not finding that it’s very funny.

Now maybe it’ll all look better as Mom settles in, or I at least get used to her up-and-down condition. Or I come to realize that hey, I didn’t do it on purpose. And it’s not like Mom is a ’60’s acid casualty or anything like that. And it’s not like I wrote the scene to get back at my parents because they weren’t part of that generation. I am. So maybe it was a shot at my classmates, the ones who overdosed themselves into early graves and pickled their brains and instead of being the best and brightest of the school ended up being trash collectors or plutonium handlers or something.

Right, Joe. Just keep thinking that. We all know you wrote it because you thought it was funny.

Anyway, I’ll get over it. And I promise it won’t stop me from doing something else like it in the future. Nor will that stop me from seeing some kind of consequence in the future, either. But that’s the price we all pay for being the creative types that we are.

Just remember one thing as your fingers dance across the keyboard to bring your characters and their world to life. It’s always the frivolous stuff that does the most damage when it turns around and you see that it has a knife in its hand.

Listening: Camel, “One of These Days I’ll Get An Early Night” (via iPod Shuffle)