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.

ColorPurpleThe Color Purple starts with the repeated beating and raping of a teenage girl. Romeo & Juliet ends with teen suicide. Both are broadly considered literary classics. When I read them in my teen years, there was no warning, though of course I knew how Romeo & Juliet ended before I ever tried to read it. The beginning of The Color Purple made me wince, but I still finished the book, and found the experience worthwhile.

I believe that reading challenging works can develop your emotional strength. You develop sympathies that might not otherwise happen in normal life, and wrestle with questions you might never ask yourself, if you’ve never been exposed to child abuse or addiciton or war.

This, too, is the key mechanism of scripture. People read about Jesus, for example, think about his story, and relate it to their own lives. Going to church is, essentially, repeat-reading the story, with the guidance of literary critics called priests and elders. The story is enhanced with music, and you are guided through your inner world to reflect on all this through discussion and prayer. Religion is one of the most powerful examples of how stories can shape character.

Should the Bible open with a warning? Should we be cautioned at every book within it which contains a story of genocide, adultery, prostitution, or selling children into slavery?

I find warnings presumptuous. There is no single standard for sensitivity. I had a mother in law who would flinch if anyone tapped on the window to get her attention, because a Nazi soldier had done that at her home when she was a child. Many Americans regualrly watch shows which pivot on acts of horror — all the primetime spinoffs of Law and Order and CSI Whatever come to mind — yet those kidnappings, rapes, and murders don’t seem to affect the digestion of our dinners.

I’ve found that, since becoming a father, I can’t handle stories where children are abused. I don’t need a trigger warning about that — I just turn it off or close the book. It’s not something that bothered me as a young man. It’s a new trigger, a new sensitivity. As an adult, I have the maturity to say, “No thanks.” I have an internal warning, which I heed.

In America, we are particularly sensitive to sex, but flippant about violence. I find this to be a backwards morality. We are much more likely to be exposed to nipples than exploding heads in real life. Our sensitivity to nakedness is a Victorian leftover. Attacking it makes us feel proper, when actually we’re pretty sick. Rape and murder shouldn’t be entertaining — even as a setup for revenge fantasy — and pubic hair shouldn’t terrify.

Fiction isn’t the problem. We humans are a wonderful, yet perverse, species. Sometimes, our fiction too readily reflects that.

On fiction and life

February 3, 2015 — Leave a comment

linklater_still-300x169I really enjoyed hearing this from director Richard Linklater on yesterday’s (Feb 2) PBS NewsHour (fast forward to the last 10 minutes of the program). It parallels my own thoughts on fiction, and life.

“The artificiality of so much plot always bugged me… I think the three act structure is an artifice. A lot of plot points that work so well in a thriller… [don’t] happen in most of our lives.”

At the same time, he’s not an improviser. “I wouldn’t know how to turn on a camera and just see what happens.”

Here’s an extra clip where he talks about being glad his own childhood wasn’t as recorded as today’s generation, and here’s a post on the five films Linklater feels everyone should see. (I’ve seen none of them.)