Category Archives: Writing Cliches

Cannibalism

literary-cannibalism

Okay, that might be off-putting.  Perhaps a better title would be recycling. Repurposing. Reusing. Renewing. Resuscitating.

But I like the word cannibalism because it brings to mind a survivalist mindset – They cannibalized the wrecked vehicles for parts and were able to get one working.  Kind of that whole Flight of the Phoenix sort of thing.

I’m talking here of course about literary cannibalism.  Not the kind where you ingest, say, something by Stephen King, and the parts that don’t stay down are used for something of your own creation.  No, I’m talking about where you take parts out of something you’ve already created and recycle, repurpose, resuscitate it for use in a new project.  Yeah, self-cannibalism.  Ewww.1

Part of this comes from the admonishment for writers that I make from time to time, namely never throw anything you write away. True, that novel you started and got 140 pages on before you realized it was, alas, misbegotten2 may never get finished and see the light of day, but there may be something in it – a character, a scene, technology, some bit of great writing – that would have a great life in a future project. You just never know what it might be until you get there.

For example, when I was writing The Company Man, I came to a scene where Andy Birch walked into a greasy spoon and started to chat up the waitress there. I stopped with my fingers on the keys, staring at the screen, and had an epiphany: I’ve already written this scene. And with that I dug out an old, dead pre-Desperate Measures3 unfinished manuscript provisionally titled Book of Dreams and there, 25 manuscript pages in, was the scene I needed. So I put the pages next to my computer and typed them in (the manuscript being from my typewriter days), changing the names on the fly, and there it was.

There are riskier forms of cannibalism. I once came to a point when writing the Pembroke Hall novels where I started to strip The Mushroom Shift for parts. It was an easy decision to make – at that point in the mid-1990s, Mushroom had exhausted the possibilities of where it could go. Editors were shaking their heads over what they could do with it, and my then-agent wasn’t as enamored of the book as I was. It looked at the time like it was one of those novels that would forever remain in the closet under the bowling shoes, so I put it up on blocks and started taking out parts.

Fortunately, I didn’t strip it completely. One of the conceits in Mushroom was two characters with the first name of Steve, both on the same shift. In the we-band-of-brothers mentality of law enforcement, they became one unit, the Steve Brothers. I pulled this out and translated it into Pembroke Hall-ese to show something similar – not the bonds of camaraderie, but how a bunch of creatives treat their own when left to their own devices. In a company where everyone is known only by their last name (and, occasionally, the department in which they work), two employees, Upchurch and Churchill, get branded as… ah, but you’re already of me. This didn’t cause a problem because nobody had read Mushroom, and at the time I thought nobody would. But now I’ve published it myself and run the risk. It’s okay, though, because I’m confessing now… and because not that many people read the Pembroke Hall books.4 And speaking of that…

There is such a thing as cannibalizing yourself a bit too much. I’m thinking of John Irving, whom I discovered as a college student via that made-for-college-student novel, The World According to Garp. I loved the book at the time, and sought to familiarize myself with Irving’s earlier work. I was disappointed to find that each one was the same combination of writers, wrestling, bears, unicycles, and motorcycles, all pillaged from Irving’s personal life5, all of which made Garp so much fun, all of which now seemed so… derivative. It was like this for novel after novel, even into his first post-Garp book, The Hotel New Hampshire, and it felt to me like Irving had just recycled the same elements over and over and over until he hit the lottery.

Now I have to come clean and admit that I have done this myself. And I actually got caught at it. See, the Pembroke Hall novels rolled over and played dead on their release, so badly so that Ferman’s Devils was taken out of print the same month that Boddekker’s Demons was released. In the ensuing years when I was working on Drawing Down the Moon, it occurred to me that I needed to throw readers a curve about a character’s sexual orientation. I knew I had done the same exact thing in the PH books, but I figured – hey, nobody has read them… I can get away with it.

Except I didn’t. See, one of my first readers of Moon had gotten her hands on the PH novels and read them, and so it wasn’t long before I got an email back from her on the former saying, “Do you have a ‘thing’ for lesbians? Just asking since one has featured in both novels (wink, wink)6

Mousetrap, meet fingers.

All said, there’s a fine line to tread when pillaging your literary past for parts. If you use them enough times they can become a trope, and then a cliche within your writing, like Irving’s writer wrestler bears (although I think he has since left these behind), Dean Koontz’s noble dogs, and Janet Evanovich’s wrecked cars. And while some people might find these recurrences comforting signposts, I personally think it’s lazy writing. But then, I’m not a bestselling writer. Take from that what you will.

Meantime, no more similarly named co-workers or surprise lesbians from me. At least, not until I hit the charts.


1 Now you know why I chose Stephen King as an example.
2 In my case, a little thing called Bellvue Seven, which withered and died between A Death of Honor and The Company Man.
3 Desperate Measures being the novel I wrote before A Death of Honor. The order of publication was, of course, different.
4 Outside of Russia, that is.
5 But we all do that, which is fodder for another essay.
6 Paraphrased to make more funny.

Oh, Fudge!

Where to come down on the idea of cussin’ in one’s books? I’ve gotten away from it for the most part, mostly because I’m a Christian and try hard not to use it myself. But I’ve also sat through enough TV versions of films where the language is softened, and for the most part the writing works without it (except for the moment in Heartbreak Ridge where Clint Eastwood refers to a compromised operation as a “cluster flop”).

If the profanity is taken out and not given a ridiculous substitute, most writing functions surprisingly well. I’ve gotten along without it nicely for a couple of novels now, although in Drawing Down the Moon I resorted to some comparatively minor epithets during a couple of moments when the emotional tension was ratcheted up so high that it seemed the scene couldn’t exist without the kind of expression that exists when you call someone a son-of-a-bitch.

One thing I don’t think most writers consider when using profanity is how it is perceived by the reader. Folks, most readers ain’t looking at it the way that a lot of us do. For example, John Grisham has been praised for years for “not using profanity” – but he does. The thing is, he uses it ever-so-sparingly.

This tells me that in minuscule amounts profanity becomes overlooked as part of the story and doesn’t even enter the reader’s consciousness. There’s not enough to alert the reader’s radar, so it flies under it naturally.

Unlike when I went to see Dog Day Afternoon once upon a time a long time ago. A bunch of us from college went, and one girl who was unenlightened about “cinema” (as opposed to “movies”) became bored with the plot early on and began to count out loud the number of F Bombs dropped by Al Pacino. And you know what? Thinking back on it, it was distracting. Not the girl’s count, but the fact that there were so many that it demanded counting. How else do you account for people tallying the number of F words in films like The Big Lebowski, or pretty much any movie in which Joe Pesci or Robert DeNiro are allowed to do some ad-libbing? It’s like there’s a saturation point for this particular epithet, and once you pass a certain number of uses, it pushes the meter from “Useful” to “Tolerable” to “Offensive” and into “Self Parody.”

Oddly enough, this didn’t seem to happen in The Commitments, but then the word wasn’t flowing exclusively from the mouth of one particular character – it same from everyone, as if it was a part of the street argot. And it worked that way.

My take is to use profanity infrequently and only when emphasis is needed somewhere. I’m not so sure I buy into the whole “it’s part of the character” thing anymore because it has become so over-used (see below for an exception).

While there was profanity in A Death of Honor, there were only two F-bombs – one in a confrontation with a jackbooted version of that universe’s police, and an expression of disgust and dismay near the book’s end. My editor called me up to talk about this since Del Rey wasn’t known for that kind of language, but what’s interesting is that she was concerned with the second instance of the word – almost as if the first hadn’t existed. I guessed that was a sign that it felt natural in the first application, and seemed gratuitous in the second – although I would have traded the first to keep the second, which is where I really felt it belonged.

Interestingly enough, there was almost no profanity in Honor – at least not in the traditional sense. When I initially wrote the first chapter, one of the things I postulated was that language would change in the future, so I used a different, odd word as a profane expression. However, since Honor was only the second novel I’d written, I lost my courage to see that part of the book through and used common contemporary cussin’ instead. But I kept the idea in the back of my mind… and when the time came to write Ferman’s Devils I had a lot more confidence… and that’s why the characters there say “ranking” all the ranking time. It’s up to readers to figure out why it’s a cussword (and no, I don’t give any clues – but it was accepted).

Incidentally, “ranking” is almost the only cussword in Ferman. There are two others, used only once each – “bastard” and “ass”. The only reason I used them is because I heard them used in actual TV commercials while I was writing the book, and put them into the advertising universe to make a point.

For the most part I think profanity is a spice where you err on the side of less is more. That said, there are exceptions. Right now I’m in the process of coding my unpublished police novel for the Kindle. It’s based on what I observed when I worked as a Sheriff’s Dispatcher, back during the Ice Age. It’s thick with creative profanity because that’s what I heard. Some time after I wrote it, in a moment of idealism I decided to rewrite it without the profanity. But when I started doing that it just wasn’t the same book. Taking the profanity out ruined the whole tone of things. So I decided to leave it in.

Ultimately, it’s the decision of each individual writer to make. Just keep in mind that your readers are more involved with the story than you think, and if you’re gratuitous with the language, it may push the aforementioned Profane-O-Meter into Self Parody faster than you think.

And be cautious when I finally release The Mushroom Shift for the Kindle. The language really is terrible, and some folks don’t ranking like that.

Blame it on Bierce

Caution: Due to subject matter, spoilers abound. If you don’t want to learn shocking surprises like Soylent Green is made of people, do not read the following.

I’ve been cheated by my favorite television program. Tuesday night I knew going in that Dr. Gregory House was going to be shot by a former patient, and figured that it was the typical end-of-season ratings hogging stunt that most networks expect of (or extract from) their products. Still, House thrives on risky material, so I sat down with my wife and daughter to watch the season closer, an episode prophetically titled No Reason.

I started wondering early on that something was amiss. The characters were off. After House was shot, his Baker Street Irregulars kept coming to him to confer on another case, but it didn’t seem right. At first I thought the writing was off, and then about fifteen minutes in, the thought flashed through my head: I’ll bet this entire episode is going to be a near-death induced dream. My rational side said, no, David Shore is a sharp guy and knows enough not to pull something like that.

Finally, at the point at which House ate a chili dog with his assailant, I said it out loud. “This whole thing is going to be a hallucination.” Actually, what I said was, “This is going to be An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” But more on that later.

My wife and daughter looked at me. I don’t think they wanted it to be that way, either, but on the other hand they know my writer’s instinct. A couple of months ago, my son was over for a visit and we were all watching an episode of Law and Order that opened with a cop lighting a bunch of candles in front of the locker of a fallen comrade. I told my son, “Watch – the last thing in this episode is going to be them blowing the candles out.” That’s what happened, and my son was alarmed: “Dad, stop! How did you do that?” He still talks about it.

(It’s a talent – I was once on a date where I was dragged to the Chevy Chase film Foul Play. My girlfriend had seen it, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see her watching me to see what my reaction to certain events would be.* I knew she was eyeballing me during an early scene where Goldie Hawn was threatened by a snake she hadn’t yet seen, so I leaned over to her and whispered, “The snake is a pet.” She got so mad she slapped me. No, that wasn’t the one I married.)

So the episode plays out with increasingly bizarre hallucinations on House’s part until – guess what? It turns out that the whole episode was just a hallucination that took place between him being shot and the time they started to wheel him into the operating room.

I think this was a really, really bad idea.

See, there are several problems with using the “hallucination” or “it was all a dream” device in fiction – three that I can think of off the top of my head. These are:

1) It’s a cheat.

It’s a cheap trick used to tell a story that maybe you don’t want in your continuity, but think would be neat to tell (if you’re writing a series of some kind). An old college buddy just sent me this link to a site that collects and mocks comic book covers (with special emphasis on DC titles). One mystifying thing I see a lot in these galleries are covers like this, where we’re told that the tale beneath the covers is “imaginary” – that is, not a part of the comic’s continuity. After all, Lois Lane wouldn’t really marry Lex Luthor in real life, would she?

Excuse me… but even if this particular story (and there are many other “imaginary” stories documented on this site’s pages) wasn’t imaginary… it’s still imaginary because it’s a piece of fiction.

There’s an emotional investment a person makes when suspending their disbelief to read your work. And when you pull this ending out of someone else’s bag of literary tricks, you’re abusing that investment by ignoring their ability to suspend to begin with. Thus, using the “’twas only a dream” gambit is a cheat because you don’t trust people’s suspension of disbelief to kick in and carry them through the story, so you remind them that everything is a made up fiction with a “surprise revelation” at the end.

That’s it. Treat your readers like they’re stupid.

2) It negates the dramatic effect of the story.

Even Freud said, “sometimes a dream is just a dream.” If Shore wanted House to do some navel-gazing, he could have done it in the recovery room – even with the device of having his assailant in the same room with him (unlikely as that would actually be).

Yeah, I know there was some soul-searching on the good doctor’s part during the hallucination, but… really… couldn’t they have found another vehicle for it? I mean, I’ve had some really interesting revelations when I was sick as a dog and my mental competency needle had dropped well into the red. Next time you see me in person, ask me about one memorable epiphany: Hmmm… makes it’s own gravy! But only if you really want to know.

Think about it – how seriously do we take dreams in real life? And never mind our own – have you ever had to sit through someone else telling you about a dream they had? …and so we were at my house, only it wasn’t really our house, if you know what I mean, and Herb came in, only he was six-foot four and had blond hair, and he had this thing in his hand…

So now you’re writing something that you want someone to take seriously, yet when it comes down to the wire, you’re willing to dismiss it all?

That’s it. Treat your story like it doesn’t matter.

I suppose this is a handy thing to do if you want to keep the story out of your main continuity (if you have one), but why assign such value to a story line and then pull the plug on its “reality?” Stephen King has, I dare say, made a tidy living putting nightmares to paper, and not once that I know of has he said, “And then the little girl woke up, and all of the vampires turned out to be just dust bunnies under the bed.”

If it’s only a dream, what’s the point of telling it? Everyone dreams.**

3) It’s been done before. Unto death.

And its also been done better. See Ambrose Bierce’s classic short fiction An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Go ahead. Click over and read it right now, if you haven’t already. I’ll be waiting when you get back.

Bierce’s story was the first manifestation of this plot line that I know of, and in this case the first is the best. But it certainly wasn’t the last. Here are just a few examples of how this has been used and abused since Bierce first put stylus to paper:

  • Dallas – the writers of this TV series wrote off an entire misguided season of their show by revealing that Bobby Ewing’s sudden reappearance in the shower was merely the indication that his wife had just wakened from a dream. Even Paul Harvey was indignant about this.

  • Jacob’s Ladder – Tim Robbins survives Vietnam and comes home to debilitating and increasingly worse nightmares, followed by the revelation that his survival and the years that followed was a drug-induced hallucination which took place in his dying moments back in ‘Nam. If you read the Bierce story like I asked you, you’d see this was a direct lift. Except for the drugs.
  • Robot Monster – That cheesy sci-fi movie with the monster that’s a guy in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet and TV antennas on his head, while a Lawrence Welk machine blows bubbles and scary Theremin music plays in the background. Turns out to be a dream of a little kid who read too much about atomic bombs, or watched too much TV, or ate too many chili dogs. I don’t care.
  • Carnival of Souls – A creepy little movie that’s another direct lift from Bierce, right down to the river. But this one is great, as only a low-budget production can be. Less really is more.
  • Newhart – Not to be outdone by Dallas, the writers of Bob Newhart’s Vermont-based sitcom wrote off the entire series in the final episode by having Newhart wake up to reveal it was all a dream had by – Dr. Robert Hartley, his character from The Bob Newhart Show. I didn’t care that much for Newhart, but this was brilliant.

So unless you can pay faithful homage to Bierce’s story, or put a radical new spin on it (whether seriously or in comic fashion, as Newhart did), it’s best just to step away from the idea and leave it to lay on the ground. Besides, you’re a writer, right? That means you have lots of other worthy ideas. Except for that one about the two people who crash their spaceship on a jungle planet, and the pilot’s name is Adam and the copilot’s name is Eve… lose that one, too.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I am considering writing a thriller about the difference between dreaming and waking – and even writing the novel “live” online – but I promise it won’t have this kind of ending. Many other twists, I hope, yes. But this novel isn’t about the dream. It’s about waking up.)

In the meantime, I’m interested to see what David Shore does to pull off the remainder of the House-gets-shot story line at the beginning of next season. From past experience I know that House can do things that should indicate shark-jumping, but manages to actually get away with them. I want the show to succeed as do millions of other loyal viewers… but were I David Shore, I wouldn’t push my luck.

Listening:
I been bad – it don’t feel good
But I’m so good at it that it hurts
I get you worried that there are no rules
And you start clinging to a magic word

(via iTunes)

* My wife does the same thing if she’s seen something and I haven’t – but she doesn’t know that I know she does it . Someone tell me, is it a girl thing or what?

** If you say you don’t dream, what you mean is that you don’t remember your dreams.

BONUS LINK: “But Captain America, didn’t you get your super powers from drugs?

Fight Club

My wife got clocked by a goat over the weekend.

Really. She was over at a cousin’s house helping my daughter, the future goatherd, get acquainted with her future herd. One of the goats that (thankfully) will not be making the trip over bounded toward my wife and rammed its head into her chin.

I was trying to be a good husband and help her take care of her wound when she got home, but she got suspicious of my line of questioning. I kept asking about details that went beyond the normal realm of being a sympathetic husband.

Finally, she confronted me. “You’re going to put this in a book, aren’t you?”

So I came clean. No, my plans were not to have someone get attacked by an overzealous goat in And/News or any future novel. But it did occur to me that the impact of goat skull on human chin could be roughly equivalent to taking a fist there.

One reason you don’t see a lot of knock-down drag-out brawls in my books is that they’re not realistic. They’re Hollywood. Ask anyone who has ever been in a real fight. You might trade a couple of blows and then the two of your are rolling around on the ground, jabbing and biting. As fun as the fistfight sequence is in The Quiet Man, it’s pure fantasy. And even though I’m writing fiction, I want to make it realistic.

Sometimes when I give a talk about writing, a question I am frequently asked is how much research I do on my novels. My answer is that I don’t know, because I tend to do ongoing research all of the time. I never know when a piece of information gleaned here or there will be something I can use in a novel. So while I was busy interrogating my wife about her injury, it was with my internal understanding that I would use this information someday. I just don’t know when.

So the writer’s lesson today is: Never stop asking questions. Never stop learning. You might not get an “ah-ha moment” that gives you a plot or an idea for a novel, but you will certainly find out something that you can use as the mortar that holds it all together.

NP – Eels, Electro-shock Blues