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Friday, March 24, 2006

The Void Moon and the Formula

If there's one thing I hate, it's sacred cows. Sometimes the desire to hold something precious blinds one to its true qualities, and I'm not just talking about the One Ring here. I'm talking about writers I admire, specifically Michael Connelly.

I've been a huge fan of the Harry Bosch series ever since I picked up Trunk Music one day and sped through it. Since then, I've read every single Harry Bosch book and am awaiting the next. They're smart, cleverly written, and most of all, entertaining. Reading a Michael Connelly book is like watching a master at work. You can see the artistry and yet you have no idea how it's done.

But I'm starting to figure it out, and listening to an audiobook version of his non-Bosch novel Void Moon was the catalyst. It's not a bad book, not at all. In fact, it's quite good, with clearly drawn characters, an engaging plot, and plenty of suspense to go around.

But I'm onto Connelly's style, and it's been bugging me. Not only because I like Connelly's work, but because I hope to avoid some of the following tics in my own.

First, Connelly often writes in the third person, past tense. He doesn't go all the way omniscient, but instead uses a limited form, reserving his omniscience for the viewpoint character. In Void Moon, there are only two view point characters, the ex-con thief Cassie Black and the gun hired to catch her, Jack Karch. When you're on a Cassie chapter, you know her actions, her thoughts, but you only see the other characters and their actions through her eyes. Same thing with Karch.

That in itself isn't a problem, and in fact, it's an effective way to structure a book. You get to see the story through their eyes, and you also get to see their inner thoughts. However, in order to keep that effect rolling, Connelly resorts to using a few stale devices. There are too many sentences that start with "Cassie knew" or "Cassie saw" or "Cassie decided."

Wait, wait, I know, I know. So horrible! "Cassie knew!" Oh, the humanity. But hear me out.

Here's a few examples from a single chapter:
Karch was about six feet from her. He decided it was too risky to make a move from that distance.

"He had hoped she would actually put the weapon away but nonetheless was pleased by what he saw. He decided to stay on the offensive."

"She held the Sig by the barrel in her other hand and also at her side. Karch knew he had her."

"Karch looked over at the wastebasket next to the bed table. The photo of Cassie Black and Max and the umbrella drink could be seen over the lip of the can. He knew without a doubt then that it had been taken in Tahiti."

There's nothing really wrong with any of those sentences. The technique is an effective way to get into a characters head, to see what they're thinking.

But the formula can get old. Just because you have a viewpoint character doesn't mean you have to filter everything in the narrative through them. Sometimes you can just come out and say it.
Karch was about six feet from her. It was too risky to make a move from that distance.

That wasn't so bad, was it?

Another thing that I never noticed until I listened to Void Moon is the incredible detail Connelly goes into. This is a trap I find myself in all the time. You start writing and instead of saying "He got into the car adn drove off," you say, "He opened the door and slid behind the wheel. After putting the keys into the ignition, he gave them a turn and the car started. He put his foot on the gas and drove off."

These extraneous details can be cut out, not only because they're not very interesting, but because they are completely unneccesary. Saying "He got into the car and drove off" is economical, concise, and it conveys the same exact thing as the longer, wordier version. (It also encourages the reader to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations.)

Take this passage from Void Moon, where we learn every detail about parking a car in a garage:
"After a few more minutes he turned the car into the Cleopatra's entrance and followed the signs that said SELF PARKING to the rear of the property. He drove into the west parking garage as he had told Grimaldi he would. He found a parking slot on the fourth level and then he and the girl took the stairs down to the ground floor. Karch walked quickly, holding the girl by the hand and tugging her along."

Did you get all that? I hope so, because it's very important to know that he self-parked in the west parking garage on the fourth level. Well, alright, beyond providing some versimilitude, it's not important at all.

There was a passage that I can't find now that, swear to god, detailed the steps required to get a cellphone out of a backpack. It went something like this: "She flipped open the flap on the backpack and her fingers dug around for her cellphone. Finding it, she pulled it out and dialed a number."

That kind of detail is enough to make you yawn. Seriously, just say "She got her cellphone out of the backpack and dialed a number."

Obviously I don't expect a best-selling professional novelist to take advice from a soon to be unemployed paper pusher with a part time writing fetish whose only published work consists of a pair of short stories and a handful of music reviews. But when I'm writing my book, I'll be looking out for those formulaic verbs and too much exhaustive detail.

So thanks, Mike. Not only have you shown me what to do, you've shown me what not to do, too.

God Hates Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps is in town this weekend to remind us all that God Hates Fags. Maybe you've heard of this clown. He and his family have this unfortunate homosexuality fixation, and I mean a fixation. It's so bad that they don't just hang out on street corners screaming that God Hates Fags, they're now protesting at funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq.

Why you ask? Because the United States tolerates homosexuality and that makes God mad. Since God is mad, he's punishing the US by killing our soldiers in the streets of Baghdad.

Obviously this is complete nonsense and no one, and I mean no one, but the Phelps family is buying it. (It should be noted that most of Phelps's disciples are from his own immediate family. Not much of a congregation, if you ask me.) In fact, it's making a lot of people pretty angry.

I'm one of them. When my Mom told me Phelps would be protesting at her church, I thought about paying old Phelps a visit. My motivation, to be truthful, was to get a picture of him to accompany an angry blog post, but I told myself that if I had an open shot, I'd take it. A man like Phelps deserves to be decked.

And I'm not alone on that one. When Uncle Jim saw news of the Phelps visit in the paper, he had this to say:

The cover of the Rocky Mtn News yesterday (3/23/6) had a picture of a guy at a soldiers funeral with a sign that read "Thank God for dead soldiers". Now let me just tell you it made me sick!!! No it really made me sick, I thought I was gona throw up. I felt the veins in my head and neck pounding, I was pissed. That son of a bitch holding that sign don't know it, but they are damn lucky I only saw it on the newspaper and not in person. I too, am lucky. If I did see this I could not control myself. One punch, thats all I would need. I would have punched that fucker so hard it would have broke every bone in MY arm!!!!! I don't like to fight, I'm a family man and have a lot to lose. However, that soldier who was dead, just lost every thing he had!!!! Now it may not have changed that persons mind by kicking his ass, but let me tell you this. I promise you they would never hold up a sign like that in my presence!!!!! In todays Rocky, there was a woman kicking the American flag like a soccer ball on the ground. Let's find her! I will start a fund with my own hard earned money. Let's get together and start a movement to buy her a one way ticket to Iraq. I'm serious!!!!!!! How can we do it? I'll give her a brand new flag too. Let's just get her there and turn her ass lose to do what ever she wants to do. No protection from US forces lets just get her there and drop her ass off in some remote part of Iraq. I'll bet they find her dead body within two weeks full of bullet holes.

Dumb ass fuckers!!!! Man they piss me off. You have the right to speak your mind, but you cross the line when you do what I spoke of here. In my book, you cross the line I'm gona knock your ass back across the line!!!!

If anybody wants to hold up a sign like that again, kick our flag on the ground or burn one, PLEASE let me know where and when!!!! If they have the balls to do it, then have the balls to do it in front of this US MARINE!!!!

I pity the man who incurs the wrath of Uncle Jim.

So this is what we're going to do. We're going to start a fund to send the Phelps family to Iraq. It's only fitting that they see first hand what our soldiers are dying for over there. Maybe then they'll stop disrupting the funerals of the fallen. Or maybe they'll run into an IED and see how divinely inspired they really are.

Of course, that's just to prove a point. We don't seriously think we can get the Phelps family to take a pilgrimage to the Middle East. Phelps has chutzpah, but that doesn't mean he has a spine.

Uncle Jim is down for the first $20. I'm down for the second. Anyone else?

(All proceeds will be sent to a charity benefitting the families of fallen soldiers.)

So Much for Red America

So much for Ben Domenech and his Red America blog at the Wash Post.  Apparently there were some allegations of plagiarism.  Yikes!  As the Post says in its statement:
Plagiarism is perhaps the most serious offense that a writer can commit or be accused of.
Ending a sentence with a preposition, however,  is a lesser crime that probably won’t result in anyone’s resignation.  

Domenech didn’t even last a week.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Hardcore Violence

I watched David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence last night and it’s been sticking.  Those are the best kind of movies, the kind that stick.  As the title implies, it’s a violent movie, but the affecting thing about it is that it’s not the usual Hollywood violence, sustained and slowed down, but it’s more menacing, like real violence.  It’s sudden, incredibly violent, and then it’s over.  When it’s all said and done, there are only a handful of truly violent scenes, but each one sticks with you, some more than others.

Often you see the effects of gunshots in movies.  You see the squibs go and the shirts explode and the fake blood come out, but rarely do you get a good look at what a gun can do to a person’s face.  In A History of Violence, you get a close up of it.  That’s not to say it’s gratuitous, not like any number of Swarzenegger or Stallone pictures, with their emptied clips and village destroying explosions.  It’s stunning and gross and it’s not something to be taken lightly.

To say anything more would be to ruin the movie (I’m half tempted to anyway) so I won’t discuss Viggo Mortensen’s performance, or Ed Harris’s scary eye make-up, or the fact that it’s based on a comic book, excuse me, graphic novel.  I will say this though.  I really only liked Cronenberg when he played Dr. Decker in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed.   Never been a big fan of his movies.  But I liked this one.

I Am the Boss

The Jewish population in Afghanistan dropped by half a week ago.  An octogenarian named Ishaq Levin apparently died of natural causes, leaving behind Zebulon Simentov as the only remaining Jew in Kabul.  That’s not funny, but what Zebulon had to say about his late fellow is:
"He was a very bad man who tried to get me killed," he told the Associated Press news agency, "and now I am the Jew here, I am the boss."
Speaking of the boss, I’ve been thinking about my outsourcing idea.  I decided telecommuting jobs would be too much of a hassle.  I’d be reduced to a middle man, and what if they screwed up?  I’d take the heat.  It just sounds like too much trouble to entertain.

But I heard there are Chinese sweatshop factories who take custom orders from foreign entrepreneurs.  So I could have them make something for me, T-shirts or belt buckles.  I could sell a few of them and then hire someone to continue selling them, building a demand, which of course would mean more orders for the sweatshop.  Again, I’d be the middle man, but I’d be rich!

Of course, I jest, but I have to admit that if I were an ambitious entrepreneur,  I wouldn’t be above using a sweat shop factory.  Here’s why.  True, the workers only get paid a buck a day or whatever, and the working conditions probably aren’t that great, but we’re talking about the Third World here.  What these people make in the sweat shops is often above the median income rate of their fellow citizens.  In fact, it may be true that a young Thai woman would make more sewing the swoosh on a pair of Nikes than she would with her own stall of vegetables at the local market.  

As for the working conditions, they don’t have all the building and fire codes we have, the worker protections, and if they do, then they lack enforcement.  Just like so many other expensive things in a capitalistic society (minimum wage, OSHA standards, et al)  if it’s not enforced by law, it won’t exist.

Our own country went through a similar stage, with our own sweat shops and child workers, and in many ways, we’re still going through the process now in regards to illegal immigrants.  There’s an incentive for business to take advantage of these people, and I mean that in morally neutral “good” way.  And truth be told, the workers, with their meager salaries and crappy working conditions, do benefit in the end.

There is one problem with this cheap labor though, and it’s a big one.  It’s not fair.  (Then again, life’s not fair.)

They do it because it’s good for them, even though they are getting screwed, and yet it could be so much better.  They could be like the factory workers of America, unionized and vibrant.  (?)  Or they could be like me…well, let’s hope it’s even better than either one of those examples.  Hell, it could be better for all of us.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Moonbats and Wingnuts Descending a Stair

Justacoolcat and Jamoker were talking about blog disclaimers.  Not to be self-referential or anything, but here’s mine.  That also happens to be my very first post.  How very special.

Speaking of illegal immigrants, the State Patrol found a whole mess of them trying to get through the storm that’s made the roads an icy hell the last two days.  Apparently they were crashing all over the place.  

I don’t want to sound bitter or mean, but telecom sucks.  

This story hits close to home too.  My job isn’t being outsourced to India, of course, but someone’s is.  But that gave me an idea.  I’m going to get a few telecommuting jobs and then I’m going to outsource all the work to India for pennies on the dollar.  Trust me on this one.  Globalization works.

I found this post pretty amusing.  It’s got an acid tongue for sure, but this part merits some consideration:
They estimated the country (of Iraq) could spurt about ten billion bucks' worth, per annum, into our gaping SUVs, vs. the 6 billion a month it costs us to keep our guys and gals in the Halliburton chow line. Three more years, minimum, says we'll send another 200 billion chasing the 251 billion we'll have thrown down by the end of this month. For securing potential oil revenues in the 100 billion dollars a decade range, I think this deal blows.
I’m sure that’s just some more moonbat bullshit.  It’s all about freedom and democracy, right?

And what’s a moonbat anyway?  I’m not sure exactly, but Ramesh Ponnuru, who I saw on Bill Maher the other night, called Glenn Greenwald a moonbat at the wingnut site, The Corner.

In today’s No Shit Sherlock category, this is what the President of the United States had to say at this morning’s press conference:
But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life.
And I always thought that we realized that a long time ago.  Still, it’s not right to call the President dumb.  He’s just a little slow.

Got it bad, got it bad, got it bad. I'm hot for teacher.

And this just about sums it up.

Red State

A new conservative blog swaggered onto the pages of the Washington Post today.  Hosted by Ben Domenech, whose bonafides as a Bush man are unquestioned, starts off with a little healthy hyperbole:
This is a blog for the majority of Americans.
You can puke now or later.  You know as soon as the word “majority” is mentioned, “tyranny of the” is right behind it.  But I love this part:
Democrats who have won major elections since 1992 have, with very few exceptions, been the ones who distanced themselves from the shrieking denizens of their increasingly extreme base, soft-pedaled their positions on divisive issues and adopted the rhetoric and positions of the right -- pro-free market, pro-business, pro-faith, tough on crime and strongly in favor of family values.
Such flowery language.  “Shrieking denizens,” “increasingly extreme.”  Hell, that could be anybody.  But Domenech does a good job of listing some issues close to the conservative heart.  In this day and age, who’s not pro-free market though?  And what does pro-business mean anyway?  Profits over people?  Uh, no.  Tough on crime?  Hell yeah.  But I don’t know what all this pro-faith and family values crap is.

“Family values” as a political issue is bullshit.  It always has been and it always will be.  It’s a cultural issue, which can be addressed in many ways (Get to it, free-marketers!)  but government is not one of them.  And pro-faith?  Bah.  There is an established wall between church and state and there has been for a long time.  It’s one of the things that makes the United States of America the United States.  The last thing we need is a bunch of Christian socialists dressed up as “conservatives” trying to make us the Christian Republic of America.

Domenech promises big things though.  Just listen to him boast:
Red America's citizens are the political majority. They're here to stay. It's time to start paying attention to what they believe and why.
Should be interesting to see what else he comes up with.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

FFF! Madonna Edition

FFF #29 – Madonna and Me

     I never said you were going to believe me, so that’s alright if you don’t.  But it’s true.  
     I had sex with Madonna.
     This was years ago, though, back before she was big.  Well, she was big, but she wasn’t yet Madonna.  It was during the Papa Don’t Preach years, when everyone freaked out when she cut her hair.  She was taking a break from filming Who’s That Girl? in Maui and that’s where I ran into her.
     She was sipping a Cherry Coke poolside with Griffin Dunne and her husband, Sean Penn, who were passed out under umbrellas with half empty cervezas in their paws.  I was on the diving board, my back to the water, balancing on the edge with the balls of my feet.  I knew she was watching me and in my heart I said, this one’s for you.
     “Cannonball!  Cannonball!” she cried.
     I sprang off the diving board into a perfect backflip, and as I approached the water, I tucked my legs in and rolled.  SPLASH.  A geyser of poolwater erupted from the pool, soaked everyone within ten yards, including Madonna, who squealed gleefully, and her compatriots.  Sean Penn got up, steaming mad.  
     “Come on, man.  What’s the big idea?”
     I was backfloating peacefully towards the side of the pool, a satisfied grin on my face.
     Griffin Dunne, in real life the milquetoast he often portrays in movies, wiped his wet shirt fretfully, then squinted up at Penn.  “Let’s go surfing, huh?” he said.
     “Surfing?  This punk drenches us and you want to go surfing?”
     “Sure, why not?  We’re in Maui.”
     Penn nodded.  “And the surfing is good.”
     Dunne wrapped a dripping arm around his buddy and they started walking towards the exit.  “Besides,” he said, “he’s probably got a lawyer.”  I languished by the wall, watching them leave.
     When they were gone, Madonna looked at me and said, “Now you got me all wet.”
     “You asked for it,” I said, squinting at her through the sunlight.
     She got off her cabana chair, shook the towel off her short blonde hair, and jumped into the pool, a cannonball like mine.  She burst out of the water, breathing in and giggling.
     “Good one,” I said, nodding approvingly.
     “That one was for you,” she said, paddling over to me.  She reached an arm out and grabbed the wall next to me.  Her face was an inch from mine.  I was penned.
     I touched her face and she leaned in to kiss me.
     “What if your husband comes back?” I said.
     “Sean?  Fuck him.  He’d rather go surfing with Griffin.  Let him.  I can keep myself entertained.”  She had started to stroke my chest and now she leaned in to kiss me.  Her lips were ferocious, her fingers passionately clawing my back, pulling me closer.  I embraced her and leaned into her body and we began to float, towards the middle of the pool.
     And then I….

More Herzog

Here's Werner Herzog ruminating on the nature of the jungle from My Best Fiend. He makes sounding grim poetic.

Herzog

I had the crappiest weekend. Here's why:

About fifteen minutes before I left the office for the weekend, my boss calls me into her office, where her boss promptly explains that I'm getting laid off on April 2. So I have about two weeks to find a new position within my company (unlikely) or I'm joining the ranks of the unemployed.

I've been a big stress ball since I found out, but what can you do? I have some money saved up and I should be getting a severance package, too. If I can't find a job, I can always go on unemployment, although my plan of course is to get to work immediately.

But it still sucks.

On another note, I can sympathize with this guy. Obviously, I'm not willing to take it to that extreme, but I must admit the thought has occurred to me. It's a vast right wing conspiracy to prevent me from mating and thus spawning the master race. Ha!

And even though I've got bad news on the job front, there's good news on the football front. Terrell Owens, crybaby millionaire, is reportedly joining the Cowboys. It's only fitting, since his ego is the size of Texas. And it's good news to the Broncos, whose locker room integrity remains strong.

I've been on a Werner Herzog kick lately. It started after watching Grizzly Man, his documentary about bear-lover Timothy Treadwell, who lived for 13 summers with brown bears in Alaska before being killed and eaten by them. Herzog edited a lot of Treadwell's own footage of the bears into his film, narrating it with his dour German accent, and in doing so, produced one of the most unique documentary films I've seen in a while: the story of a man, his life, his death, his naivete, his good intentions and unintentional harm, all told in a respectful and interesting way.

At one point, Treadwell is mourning to loss of a baby fox, who had been killed and partially eaten by other animals. Treadwell, the ever-sensitive self-described patsy, cries and coos to the dead animal. "I don't understand," he says.

Herzog, though, Herzog understands. While filming Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, Wrath of God in the Peruvian jungle during the 70s, Herzog came to understand the cruelties of nature all too well. And while Treadwell sniffles over the fox carcass, Herzog's voice explains the difference in their opinion: "I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder." And when he looks into the eyes of a grizzly, Herzog doesn't see any kind of understanding or brotherhood. He sees "only the half-bored interest in food."

So which interpretation of nature is more correct? The facts speak for themselves.