Mercenary

May 4, 2015 — Leave a comment

Can you write something good and honest, purely for profit?

It seems anathema to most literary-minded novelists. What you write is somehow connected to your soul. You can’t just write a novel the way you assemble a model rocket, without it coming out trite.

But is that true?

I suspect that no matter what you write, part of you is going to show up in it, and that in itself can become a spark of life. I also think that if you try to be entertaining, you probably will be.

Literary fiction, for the most part, runs counter to that. It’s a journey toward some form of artistic truth, and its entertainment value lies almost purely in sharing that journey. This is why it’s usually boring, and doesn’t sell well. (I suspect the consumers of most literary fiction magazines are, themselves, literary fiction writers.)

Sure, there are a few geniuses who are so good at capturing life in their hometowns that they’re inherently interesting. But they are exceptions. For every Eudora Welty, there are a thousand schmucks trying to capture suburban American life. When they can’t make that interesting, they make it post-apocalyptic. *Ahem.*

One of the few rules I’ve followed since beginning this self-publishing thing is “finish what you start.” So I will finish the western I’m piddling with. I’ll try to make it entertaining, and not just personal therapy. I’ll publish it. If it’s good, yay. If it’s bad, the world will keep spinning.

Then… maybe I’ll just look at the marketplace and try to meet the greatest hunger. I imagine that would be romance. Can I do that? Of course, in a literal sense, I can write anything. I’ve already written technical manuals, marketing campaigns, and sci-fi novels. I would need to read a few of the best ones, and learn something of their ways before diving in.

But the core question remains: Can I write a romance novel that’s good, if it’s not something I’m naturally attracted to? Can I create something a stranger will enjoy, not just a supportive friend?

It’s a perversely interesting challenge.

Can a good writer truly write anything? Or does there have to be a natural core drive to bring out his best work?

Tell me, muse

May 1, 2015 — 2 Comments
This is caption text.

Intracloud lightning by Jonathan Ball, Arkansas, 2011.

When I was a kid, DC Comics was a has-been. Marvel had been putting out more interesting stuff for a decade: Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Avengers. I still liked Batman, mostly due to the 1960s TV show, which I did not take as parody. But… Superman? Really?

Then, somewhere around 8th grade, I quit reading comics. Dad was dying of cancer. I got a part-time job at a motorcycle shop, and was more interested in Playboy and Hustler than anything the two major comics came up with.

I enjoyed Superman: The Movie. In band, I got to play the French horn lead to the score, which opens with a beautiful solo. Still, life seemed cheap and unpredictable, and the nobility of Superman evaporated in the sunlight outside the theater or concert hall. I even tried on the superhero outfit of my world — the football uniform — and blew my knee out. On crutches, the week after Dad died, I knew that life was cruel, God was indifferent, and Superman was for children who hadn’t been hurt yet.

Friends in college told me about the cool stuff Frank Miller was doing with Batman, but by then I was a young man getting an English degree, wrestling with Homer and Joyce. Bruce Wayne’s midlife crisis didn’t interest me.

Now I am middle-aged, and I find that DC speaks to me again, but not in the way I would have predicted.

Before I get to why, I have to confess that I’ve started watching their animated movies, and some of them are phenomenal:

  • The Dark Knight Returns: Frank Miller’s 1980s comic, with old, angry Batman, and Superman as Reagan’s personal WMD, produced as a two part film
  • Justice League: Doom. Members of the Justice League are taken out one by one… and cold, indifferent Batman’s to blame
  • The Flashpoint Paradox: In an alternate timeline sparked by the Flash’s nemesis, Batman has no issues with firearms… or whiskey

It’s fun to see the old heroes re-imagined by my peers. Superman is what we’d like to be: all powerful, generous, and above it all, retreating to a spacious crystalline fortress when the world’s problems overwhelm us. Batman is what we’d really be, given the chance: rich, misunderstood, and eventually broken, left cursing at a screen in a dimly-lit cave.

To my surprise, it’s another DC hero — the Flash — who speaks to me now. I too am just a guy, running around, trying to fix everything, and needing allies to get me out of scrapes. I’m not strong like Superman, or smart like Batman. I’m just trying to keep up with my kids, with my job, with my second wife, and all I know to do when the world overwhelms me is run faster.

Looking back over my life, even with all the good that’s in it, if I had Flash’s power, I too would be tempted to run so fast I broke the time barrier, saved Dad, made wiser decisions, and left this world behind. The memory of my life would exist as a dark comic book in this new world, a place where life is joyful, God is smiling, and Superman isn’t necessary.

The catch? In such a place, I’d have nothing to say, and Homer’s words would have never reached me:

Tell me, muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.

The Odyssey, Book I, Verses 1-5, translated by Richmond Lattimore.

Suffering doesn’t make you a hero. It just gives you the opportunity to become one.

Whether that hero is Odysseus, the ancient Greek answer to Batman who struggles for a decade, or Leopold Bloom, the modernist answer to Odysseus who struggles through a single day, is up to each of us.

(I chose the Flash.)

Letting go

April 12, 2015 — 6 Comments
Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation, 19th century.

Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation, 19th century.

Sometimes you need a little booze and a lot of months between you and your writing before you can see it clearly.

Last night at a cookout, some friends told me what they liked and didn’t like about my scifi trilogy. It matched what I’d seen in reviews, and from sales: They liked the first book, but not the other two. With a couple of beers and a year or two since writing them, I could see why.

When I wrote 300 MILES TO GALVESTON, I decided I was writing a trilogy, for no other reason than “I feel like writing a trilogy.” It had nothing to do with whether or not the story merited three books.

I had a clear vision for the first book. Well, maybe that’s revisionist history… I had a focused passion for the story, even if I didn’t know where it was going. I wrote it in six weeks, and had that good feeling I got when I’d crafted a decent short story in college. I’d missed that in my life. I needed to feel that, again.

My friend Evan designed an elegant, clever cover, and I felt even better about it. Then it made $300 in the first month on Amazon, and I felt like an author.

When I started the second book, MISSIONARIES OF OMO, I was really into my self doubts about religion, which usually reflects doubts about myself more than God. I’m not getting into a theist/atheist thing. I’m fine with whatever you believe, as my own beliefs are rather fluid. Anyway, I used fiction in that book, and OYU’S TRIDENT, to explore those ideas, and while it fascinated me, it only resonated with a tiny minority of readers. Of course, how else could it go? Imagine starting a conversation with a stranger on the finer points of religious studies, when they didn’t even sign up for the class or ask you to teach it. Bo-ring.

If anyone gets to this blog post and wonders what happened to books two and three, I pulled them from Amazon, and republished the first book as a stand-alone, because that’s what it truly is. If you’d still like to read books two and three, just reach out to me through my contact page or in a comment on this post, and I’ll send you an ebook copy you can import to your Kindle, for free. I’d he happy to hear what you think, good or bad, and at this point could laugh along with you if it just doesn’t catch your fancy.

Update 4/15:

I’ve learned that Amazon just doesn’t forget… so even though I’d like to pull the last two books, they’ll remain listed for all eternity (even if they’re unavailable). So, I surrender. :)
The ebooks have been re-activated on Amazon, and will be free April 16-17:

I’m not sure what I’m going to write next, if anything. My western has stalled. I may just need to take a break. I know the writer’s discipline is to plow on, even if it’s tossed pages, but I just tossed 400 of them, and feel more like drinking coffee and staring out the window than writing, for a while.

omar_code

I watched The Wire when it came out a decade ago, and like everyone else on Earth, loved it.

I recently rewatched all five seasons on Amazon Prime, and noticed things beyond my reinforced love.

I still think it’s the best TV drama I’ve ever seen. It shatters the good guy vs bad guy tropes, both on an individual level and societal (war on drugs, race relations, school reform failures, death of the working class, death of journalism, disintegration of the family, government corruption), but somehow manages not to be preachy about it.

The Wire shows what can be done when you don’t have to worry about advertisers. I can’t imagine a show like that being done anywhere other than subscription TV, like HBO.

If you haven’t watched the series and intend to, don’t read further. It’s free on Amazon Prime right now. Go watch it. I was stunned at how good it is, both the first viewing a decade ago, and again this year.

Here’s where my thoughts went after my second viewing of The Wire:

Major Rawls is shown to be hanging out in a gay bar, when another gangster is hunting down Omar (the robber of drug dealers, who is also gay). This revelation is never returned to. Why not? Feels like a loose thread. Could have made his character more interesting. It’s fine to say “he’s gay, so what?” but then there’s little point in revealing him in the gay bar the way they did (and for having a photo of his wife and kids on his desk). It felt important, but wasn’t developed. It could have made him more sympathetic. As it was, he was 99% unlikable, which is unusual for the show. Most of the characters had at least one endearing trait.

Does no one in Baltimore own a rifle? I get that certain people like Omar, Chris, and Snoop are scary, but one guy with a rifle on a roof could take care of these folks without worrying about getting face to face (or within Omar’s shotgun range). It just seems obvious to me, but maybe that’s because my introduction to firearms was hunting, not slinging on a corner or walking a beat.

When Chris beats Michaels’ stepdad to death on the street with his fists and feet (instead of just shooting him in the head and hiding him inside the abandoned house he was walking him toward), he was probably taking out his rage from being raped himself, as a child. It’s never discussed, but emotionally, it seems obvious to me. One of the many things I admire about the show is how they don’t slap you in the face with character development. You just pay attention, or you don’t get it.

That said, I saw no explanation for why McNulty goes from settling down, generally satisfied guy at the end of Season 4 to womanizing drunk in the intro to Season 5. It felt random. There were no events shown or implied that would naturally inspire this sort of flip. Sure, he’s a chaotic guy, but that transition just seemed nuts. If they had simply shown him bored or tempted, it might have made more sense. I guess he was frustrated at the lack of progress in the investigation of the vacant building murders, but it wasn’t set up like that onscreen, so the sudden change felt unnatural.

I found Marlo less cool the second time around. He’s just a guy who’s so afraid of losing power that his only response to a problem is murder. Even Stringer was more sophisticated than that.

Avon and Omar became more interesting, because I could better see their passions beyond money and status. They are the core tragic characters, from the drug dealer side of the story. Marlo and Stringer are simply antagonists, pushing Avon and Omar’s stories along (and as an echo, Bodie’s). In a traditional tragedy, Marlo could have been rewritten as a storm, or some other amoral force. He doesn’t have enough sophistication, as presented, to feel fully human.

Overall, the main character of the series isn’t Detective McNulty, it’s Baltimore. Sure, McNulty is our everyman tour guide, but the main character is the city itself. Baltimore cannot be defeated, no matter which side of the law you’re on; it can only be survived.

That said, the actor who plays McNulty, Dominic West, is brilliant. First, I hate it when English guys do American accents so well that I can’t tell. Second, when he plays an American trying to do an English accent, it’s hilarious.

Yee haw

March 2, 2015 — Leave a comment
Public domain photo, 1959.

Source: Wikimedia, public domain photo, 1959.

I’m writing a Western.

And dammit if Stephen King isn’t one step ahead.

In today’s New Yorker, King talks about a short story he published in that magazine called “The Death,” set in 1889 Dakota Territory. In his interview, he reflects on a key issue I’m facing.

Whether Jim Trusdale actually did kill Rebecca Cline was less interesting to me than Barclay’s change of mind.

(Barclay is the sheriff who was, at first, convinced Jim was guilty.)

In my Western, working title “The Last Man You Kill,” I’m finding that how the man becomes a killer, and how that affects his mind, is the story. It would be easier to write about white hat/black hat conflict, but I find that boring (and phony — white hat/black hat stories are usually political statements masquerading as entertainment).

In my story, an old killer is writing a last letter to his son, and reflecting on a life defined by murder.

I have no idea if the story is a novella or a novel. As King says:

I’ve had short stories grow into novels, but I’ve never had a novel shrink into a short story, or even a novella. Sometimes, the story I’m working on starts to put out blossoms—it’s the only way I can describe it.

It’ll be fun to find out what “The Last Man You Kill” sprouts into. I love that I can just write it, publish it, and see if people like it. I don’t have to please an agent who’s focused on market trends, or an editor who may have different tastes.