Category Archives: Other Writers

Real or Fake?

jackalope1So I’m reading a Kindle sample of a novel and in the beginning pages a character is listening to a song on the radio. The singer’s name is made up, the popular song being sung is made up, as are the equally unimpressive lyrics1. Then I find out that the singer got famous when she was on a TV program called Popstar! and, well, that along with some of the other problems I felt the book had, it kind of did me in for wanting to read the rest. I mean, why not just say American Idol?2

Why not indeed? I mean, doesn’t Stephen King, who some people praise for his immersive style of writing, sometimes drown you in brand names – Louie sat in his La-Z-Boy recliner with a Budweiser and a bag of Doritos, and turned his Sony flatscreen on to ESPN, waiting to see the start of the Boston Red Sox game… I think King’s point is to have people believe his creepy stuff could happen in the real world, so he throws in real world stuff in the name of verisimilitude. And it works for a lot of readers.3

On the other hand, you have writers who throw in fakes, and, well, I can’t really explain why. Years ago I was really excited to start reading James A. Michener’s Space, his novel about the U.S. space program. But early on it described a character going outside to look at the night sky “in the state of Fremont” – and my suspension of disbelief came crashing down like a house of cards. I mean, yeah, it’s a novel, but it’s a novel about NASA, it takes place in the United States and some of the other characters are real people, like Werhner Von Braun and Lyndon Johnson… then why make up a state fercryinoutloud? Why not just say Kansas or Nebraska or Iowa?

Now there are times when you definitely want to fake it. If you’re an insider to history or popular culture and you want to vent your spleen on the subject from an insider’s point of view, the roman a clef is the way to do it. Just change the names and everything is good to go. And if you want to keep your job, better fake your name, too – Anonymous is very popular among this set, and you can join novels like Primary Colors and Elimination Night4, along with all the attendant “who wrote it?” publicity.

Unfortunately, to me novels like that become a jokey guessing game with no real point. Everyone knows which Presidential candidate is really Bill Clinton, which recently rehabbed rock star grasping for relevance is really Stephen Tyler. if you’re going to this, I have two pieces of advice: first, make sure you have a really good lawyer. Second, if you’re going to fake the names, go all the way. Don’t play the assonance game and make William Clinton into Wilson Fenton (Primary Colors makes him Jack Stanton). Doing that strikes me as being too cutesy and cloying. Make him Frank Stevens instead. And if you’re going to have a cameo by an iconic figure, you have to be consistent and play it out ’till the end, changing his/er name, too. Just don’t call him Rob Snopes.

In Science Fiction it’s easier to get away with fakery. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing about things that sound different in the future because, well, things will sound different in the future. Except when they stay pretty much the same, as evidenced by the brand names that pop up in films like 2001 and Blade Runner.

Still, when you’re in the future you need to play nice. While working on the Pembroke Hall novels, my editor asked me to change the way that I talked about Timex in the book. They were afraid the watchmakers would be offended by things and the lawyers would come out. I made the alteration because she had a point, it was an easy fix, and I didn’t really have anything against the company or their products.

If you’re writing Historical Fiction, then it’s probably best not to fake it at all. Readers of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist partly did so to watch how the characters interacted with a future President who at the time of the novel was Police Commissioner of New York City. They didn’t want to guess which leader Theophilus Rosenfeld turned out to be. The trick to not faking it here is use the real person’s character to enhance the goings-on – a recent episode of Downtown Abbey centered around a meeting with playboy Prince Edward, whose womanizing ways contributed to the plot in an ironic way.

So if you’re going to be real, play nice and be consistent. And if you’re going to fake it, well, go in all the way and don’t be ridiculous about it.

That concludes my thoughts. This is Joe Clifford Faust, signing off from the state of Midlandia.

  1. But then, I’m at the age where most of the lyrics I hear on the radio are unimpressive.
  2. And I have problems with ALL these shows that grind out cookie cutter singers, but I’m not going there today.
  3. See, I can write about King and not say anything nasty!
  4. Which I always thought was a really lame fake name for American Idol. Popstar! is much better.

R.I.P. Tom Clancy

What to say about the passing of Tom Clancy?

Well, first, he was no Elmore Leonard, whose passing a few weeks ago was a huge loss. Leonard was a great stylist, a keen observer, and a master plotter. His stories were lean and mean until the end, and he had a knack for throwing unexpected events into his novels that you never saw coming, but made perfect sense when you looked at it in context of the story.

(I’m saying this now because I was in the throes of blogging apathy when Leonard died, and never gave him a proper sendoff in this forum.)

One of Clancy's two best novels, IMHO.  The other is Executive Orders.

One of Clancy’s two best novels, IMHO. The other is Executive Orders.

Clancy’s work probably outsold Leonard’s, but then he practically invented the genre of the technothriller. And if he didn’t, one of my Facebook friends commented earlier, then he certainly made it a popular genre and refined it to the n-th degree.

Unlike Leonard, Clancy got a little lazy in his later years. His success enabled him to purchase part ownership of the Baltimore Orioles, and I’m sure that took up much of his time. At one point he went seven years between releasing a novel, and when he did, astute readers noticed that it had been written as a collaboration with another author. All of the novels he has released since then have been in collaboration with one of three other writers. One of those, a title called Search and Destroy, was cancelled by Clancy’s publisher prior to release. I always meant to put on what’s left of my Journalist’s Hat and try to find out why, but never did.

(I picked up on this before the book’s release, and my original post about it, along with the ensuing series on Ghostwriting it inspired, has proven to be one of the top draws to this site.)

Chock the ghostwriters up to “old author’s syndrome”, wherein an aging author reaches the point that ideas are more plentiful than the time to write them, and so they get farmed out to a competent lesser-known writer who can match the spirit and style. This isn’t a new thing – Arthur C. Clarke, Anne McCafferey, and Clive Cussler count among those who have done this, and if you look carefully at the new releases, you’ll see others – even younger successful authors – doing this now.

Like all popular authors, Clancy also succumbed to King’s Bloat – a publisher-inflicted disorder in which editors are too busy and/or scared to edit the work of an author who has become an 800 pound gorilla, and subsequent manuscripts suffer in quality as a result. I loved Executive Orders, but it could have lost some wordage and been even better. The last Clancy novel I tried to read was The Bear and the Dragon, and I felt it was such a mess that I never finished reading it (I can’t say if Clancy’s three ghostwriting collaborators put him into a Word Watchers program to take off some of that weight – I might have to pick up one of the newer ones to see). For me, the best of the pre-bloat Clancy came in The Cardinal of the Kremlin, in which Clancy proved that he could shuck aside a lot of the tech stuff and write what was basically a darn good spy novel.

So the industry that was Tom Clancy has left us, and there’s nobody that I can see on the horizon that could take his place. Perhaps that’s a good thing. And no, I’m not even going to try. I’m still struggling to become the first Joe Clifford Faust.

On Fan Fiction


Is this a sandbox that you really want to play in?

Okay, I’m going to do it. I’m going to discuss fan fiction. I’ve been avoiding the subject for many years because I don’t think much of it. To me it’s like cheating, playing in somebody else’s sandbox. I suppose it has its uses – supposedly some successful writers started out writing FF, and it let them cut their writing eye teeth. From my point of view though, writing FF, even if you’re going to go into “regular” fiction later, deprives you of the experience of developing characters and world building because you’re writing about Kirk and Spock or The Doctor or Harry Potter, ad nauseam.

Okay, so you can learn some of the basics of prose with FanFic. But what if you wrote something to that order, and you decided that it turned out pretty darn good, and instead of letting it languish in the fan community, which is the fate of most, you do a little Microsoft Word trickery and change “James T. Kirk” to “Dirk Manly” and “Yeoman Janice Rand” to “Honeysuckle Heartthrob” and “The Enterprise” to… okay, you get the idea. Then you take the resulting mess and pass it off as something original.

That couldn’t happen… could it?

Oh, yes, indeedy it could. And did. And not just with Fan Fic… but apparently with a particularly specialized kind of FF called Slash, in which the “Slash” indicates a certain form of congress between two characters who consent or otherwise during the plot. So you could have “Doctor/Sarah Jane” fanfic (pronounced “Doctor Slash Sarah Jane”) in which those two characters do the horizontal tango, or Neo/Trinity fan fic, or one particularly disturbing subset called “Kirk/Spock”, but we won’t go there. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

It seems a sharp-eyed reader on Goodreads discovered a very disturbing parallel between a piece of Edward/Bella fanfic called “Master of the Universe” and a certain bestselling piece of erotica.

That’s right, you’re already ahead of me. In “Master”, the Twilight characters get their freak on and it turns out that Edward is more of a freak than the original books hinted, but that’s okay because Bella seems to like it… and what do you know, after some Search and Replace and a little tweaking, Cullen becomes Grey, as in Fifty Shades of.

If you don’t believe me, here’s a link comparing the two. Just keep something in mind – I have not read the entire selection – I just looked at enough to convince me. I have no idea if this is from a particularly graphic part of the novel or not, and take no responsibility for content. This is the courtroom of the blog, and I’m presenting Exhibit A.

I’m not sure where to come down on this. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and have no plans to. If I’d been a fan of the series, I’m not sure what I would think. Probably that it was cool that somebody made it out of the bush league and was now swatting for the majors. But as a writer, I can’t help think that this is a huge swindle. When most of us pick up a novel, we expect it to be an original work, and while FSoG is self-plagiarism, it is plagiarism nonetheless, as devoid of originality as most movies coming out of Hollywood nowadays. Oh, wait a minute…

Anyway, there’s one other point that remains as Goodreads reviewer Alicia implies in her review/expose of the book: bad writing is always bad writing.

But on the other hand… the readers of Fifty Shades of Grey aren’t looking for Ernest Hemingway when they pick their copy up to read. And I to be honest, I don’t know what I’m worried about. I suspect it’s too much to ask for Erotica/Slash to have some kind of integrity.

The Scariest Thing You Will Ever Do as a Writer

The Scariest Thing You Will Ever Do as a Writer by Susan Kiernan-Lewis

This is a great post about something all writers should be able to do. Luckily for me, I’ve always been pretty fearless about public speaking. Early in my career I showed up to talk to a college Creative Writing class with no notes, spoke for an hour, and the instructor told me it was the best-organized speech she’d ever heard in that class.

But it never occurred to me that I could take copies of my books and hawk them when it was over. Doh!

We can all still learn, folks. And it’s not too late for you. Get out there and speak!

JCF TV #2: The Most Important Muscle in a Writer’s Body

Who’s That Writer…

…who hadn’t released a new novel in seven years… and then as of December 13th of this year, will have released his third novel in twelve months? Each with a different ghostwriter?

The answer, with some possible excuses for his behavior, can be found in this old post of mine from June of last year.

To Thine Own Writing Be True

It’s been an interesting experience getting The Mushroom Shift ready for publication.

I mean, here is a novel I wrote almost 25 years ago, and as I’m reading it, and as I’m having my Kindle read it to me as part of the proofreading process, I’m discovering something about it that I hadn’t expected.

It’s a really good book.

Yeah, authors are supposed to say that sort of thing. But I don’t say that about many of my others – not A Death of Honor or The Company Man, or the three books of the Angel’s Luck trilogy. While I can chat them up to interested readers, I don’t think they’re particularly good, largely because I hadn’t yet hit that mystical One Million Words mark.1 Of my published novels, Ferman’s Devils/Boddekker’s Demons is the first one I can page through without cringing, largely because (I believe) by that point I’d actually Gotten Good.

Yet here is a novel that was my third (written after Desperate Measures and Honor2), before I had Gotten Good – but I can mostly read/listen to it without wincing. Plus there are moments in the book that make me marvel at how good it really is.

Granted, there’s one scene in The Mushroom Shift that I have long considered one of my best pieces of writing ever – but one scene does not a great book make. Mushroom I think is a great book, in spite of the fact that my writing style hadn’t completely evolved. Why?

Well, I’ve been thinking it over, and I believe I might have the answer.

The Mushroom Shift was written for love. It was written for the sheer joy if sitting down and telling a story. It was written because the story was coming out of me, and not for any sort of commercial consideration.

The others from that period were, well, written to try and make money.

Ditto the story about Ferman and Boddekker, which was something I wanted to write for a long time, and had a great time doing so when I finally did it.

Ditto again for Drawing Down the Moon, in which I defied my then-agent’s advice and sat down and wrote it because it was a story I wanted to tell. Well, DDtM is also a great book because I think I have officially Gotten Good now, but you see the pattern forming.

There’s something to be said for tossing commercial considerations out the window and writing for the love of the process.

Need more proof?

Open up your web browser, point it at Amazon dot com, and look up the Stephanie Plum series of novels by Janet Evanovich. Check out the reviews of the early series; One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly

People love ’em.

Now check out the reviews of books Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen. Evanovich’s readers are turning on her, accusing the writer of making her books dull, boring and repetitive – basically phoning it in for the score.3 One reviewer even accuses her of milking the series after allegedly reading an interview in which Evanovich advocated doing exactly that.

I’m guessing that the one thing on the minds of all of Evanovich’s disgruntled readers right now is, “Where is the love?”

Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad about writing for money. But there seems to be a strange phenomenon that occurs when you do that. You start keeping commercial considerations in mind, and perhaps you start getting a little shy about letting loose for fear of offputting your readers. And pretty soon you’re doing that thing of stamping the novels out using a cookie cutter formula.

I suppose it’s nice work if you can get it.

But so much more satisfying… and a much richer legacy you will leave… if you be truthful with yourself as a writer, if you push yourself out of the box, and simply write for the sheer joy of creating, of telling a story you want to tell rather than shooting for the lowest common denominator.

Who knows? Your fans might even like it, too.

  1. Or that new iteration of skill honing, the Ten Thousand Hour mark.
  2. That’s right – those early novels weren’t published in the order in which they were written.
  3. And actually, in the interest of full self-disclosure, I found her books dull, boring and repetitive after just two. Along with highly irritating. But she makes more money writing than I do, so you can’t argue with success.