Friday, December 27, 2013

Writing With Horsepower

I've been making a conscious effort to work on the more creative writing, as opposed to blogging, that I consider my specialty.  I've got a good four or five projects swimming around in my head in various stages of development and the sad fact is that is where they will stay unless I make the effort the write them down.

After reading that god-awful story I blogged about the other week, I looked back on a story I've been working on for what seems like years, and I don't want to say I was impressed with myself, but it was pretty clear to me that what I had in my first draft was better written than what was published in that's story's final draft version.

Here's an example of the (pedestrian) writing from the unnamed author's awful story:
There had come a time when Margaret became sick of dieting and sick of being plain.  Once she'd made quite a success of herself in the advertising business, she could afford to give her entire body, from face to feet, a complete workover.  And she did.  Plastic surgery, liposuction, tucks here and there;  her lips were injected with collagen, her eyes were improved, her chin and cheekbones were enhanced and her breasts were enlarged.  

Et cetera.  You may have read that and thought to yourself, "I don't know what you're talking about, dude.  Maybe you're being too critical.  That's not too awful."

Maybe.  But this is why I think that's weak writing:  It's redundantly wordy and artless.  Just in case you were unsure of what the author meant when he wrote "her entire body," he's there to clarify that he means "from face to feet."  And yes, it's true if you give your "entire" body a workover "from face to feet" of course it's going to be "complete." 

And to make matters worse, the author knows his vague adjectives are not pulling the weight, which is why he goes into specifics about the plastic surgery, lipo, and other procedures, descriptions of which are no less vague or artless.  "Tucks here and there," somewhere on her "entire body" I'm guessing.  "Her eyes were improved."  What the fuck does that mean?  And you mean to tell me that when she got her breast enlargement surgery, "her breasts were enlarged?"  Thank you, Captain Obvious.

Anyway, in my own writing, I try very hard to make every word count.  I don't like using unnecessary, non-descriptive adjectives, and I don't like pointing out the obvious.  Excessive detail is not always a good thing.  Sometimes it's just excessive. 

At any rate, below is an excerpt from my current work-in-progress, tentatively titled The Losing End.  It's a crime story about a gang of con artists unraveling at the seams as they learn the true price of betrayal.  After the jump, I'll post a somewhat lengthy excerpt.  It's still in draft form and rough in some places, but one thing I hope you'll notice is that, despite being almost 500 words long, it's rather lean and efficient, at least compared to the example I cited above.

So click below to read it:

A Brave New World

Data mining can be a little scary.  Witness the brouhaha over NSA spying.  But it can also be useful, as can be seen in these new e-reading services that track reading habits.

Check this out:
Scribd is just beginning to analyze the data from its subscribers. Some general insights: The longer a mystery novel is, the more likely readers are to jump to the end to see who done it. People are more likely to finish biographies than business titles, but a chapter of a yoga book is all they need. They speed through romances faster than religious titles, and erotica fastest of all.
 The whole point, of course, is to help publishers give people what they want, which --and this is only my opinion-- they kind of suck at now.   Publishers seems content trying to squeeze more and more money out of fewer and fewer readers, not even trying to make some kind of sustainable reading culture that cuts a wide swath.  Publishers are slaves to trends, never leading, always following.   They operate as if the whole point of their enterprise is to make books look impressive on store shelves.  The reading part....ah, who cares as long as book sells?

"Paranormal romance" may just be a buzz word for a horror novel that is not scary, but it now has it's own section at Barnes and Noble.  The old horror section, on the other hand, no longer exists. 

And "young adult novels?"  What a joke.  Absent the the bogus marketing distinction, most "young adult novels" would just be considered genre novels with broad all-ages appeal.  These books are just shorter, more tightly written versions of the "adult-adult" crap almost no one reads.

Where does a guy go if he wants to read an adventure story that's around 200 pages?  You go to the "young adult" section and hope you find one that's not too dumbed down or you troll thrift stores and used bookshops looking for old paperbacks from the 50s and 60s.  You go looking for Louis L'Amour, John D. Macdonald, Alister Maclean. 

Or you can read the poorly written 400 page monstrosities puked up by a guy with two more books left on his contract.  John D. Macdonald wrote two books a year.  He didn't take two months off to fly to Hong Kong for "research" and he didn't fluff up his word count rehashing that "research."  He wrote books that were meant to be read.

I can think of no better improvement to the book biz than if they spent more energy publishing books that are meant to be read.  This Scribd service may help them do that.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Bukowski and Lansdale

Got an Amazon gift card for Christmas and first thing I got was the new story collection from Joe R. Lansdale, Bleeding Shadows.  Looking through the Table of Contents, I have read precisely none of these.

Included, for the first time ever, are some poems.  Champion Joe explains:
And then I went to my Charles Bukowski collection.  I had his prose, and I really enjoyed his novels and short stories.  I think Bukowski was a bit of a bullshitter and the kind of guy I wouldn't have liked much in person, but I did enjoy his work.  He wrote simply and clearly and about things a lot of writers would be afraid to touch.  I had a book that had his poetry mixed in with some prose, and I started reading.  Something clicked.  I liked his poetry.  A lot.
So he wrote a few himself.  I can't really judge the Lansdale poems.  Some are funny, and one about writer's block I identify with, but I'm not a poetry guy.

I have, however, had this same experience with Bukowski's poems.  He makes it look easy.

Remember this Levi's commercial?  Watch it now as a short film:

The Laughing Heart
your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.
I've always liked this one, too:

Five Reasons Why "Miami Vice" Is Not a Good Movie

1)  The cast.  Jamie Foxx as Tubbs was smart.  Naomie Harris, a criminally underemployed actress from England, is excellent as Trudy.  But Colin Farrell as Sonny?  To hide his Irish accent, he lowered his voice an octave or two.  It doesn't work.  And then there's the unfortunate hair decisions:  the droopy Morgan Spurlock mustache, the mullet.  He looks, and sounds, out of place.  But he comes off way better than Gong Li, a beautiful woman and excellent actress who nevertheless does not speak English

The producers would have been wise to hire an English-speaking actress to overdub her dialogue.  I'm guessing few people would have noticed.  Or, here's a revolutionary idea, allow her to speak Chinese.  Subtitles are not the deal breaker they used to be, and that could have been used for dramatic effect.

Since Sonny can drive Go-Fast boats, fly planes, engage in tactical operations, surely it wouldn't stretch the imagination too far if he also speak Chinese, which would have given him reason to hook up with Gong Li's character --they speak the same language-- much more than the one that director Michael Mann gave them:  These are my leads and I need a romantic sub-plot.

Yes, a goofy lifeless one in which your male lead looks and sounds ridiculous and your female lead speaks in an unintelligble phonetic pidgin.

2)  The plot.  I've seen this movie more than five times now, and I still don't think I can summarize what's going on.  There's the Aryan Brotherhood.  There's Columbian drug dealers operating out of Cuba.  (Maybe they're Cuban?)  There's an FBI taskforce teaming up with city cops that apparently have unlimited budget resources.  Yes, I realize it's a bit silly to watch a crime movie and wonder about who's doing the accounting for all the smuggling boats and the jets, but it's hard not to when you have undercover Miami cops who have the equipment and permission (!) to engage in major Sealand battles.

3)  Michael Mann.  Don't get me wrong.  I thoroughly enjoy Michael Mann movies, but I've seen enough of them to also thoroughly not enjoy his weaknesses.  He's got a keen eye for the visually striking image.  His subject matter --cops and killers-- is always interesting.  I've always liked his penchant for realistic gun violence. 

But he always has to work in some lukewarm romantic subplot, almost like he's chasing the success of The Last of the Mohicans, whose romantic subplot worked so well precisely because it wasn't lukewarm.  You cried when Daniel Day Lewis saved Madeline Stowe from the evil Indians in Mohicans.  Bet you didn't do anything but blink when Colin Farrell said goodbye to a weeping Gong Li in Miami Vice.

4)  The lack of humor.  This has been a problem for Michael Mann during his entire career.  I mean, I really enjoyed Ali, but Michael Mann had Will Smith (!) playing Muhammad Ali (!) and it's never funny?  What a wasted opportunity.  Ali was a great boxer and an inspiration, but he was also a very funny man.  You don't have to make the damn thing a comedy to have some lightness to it.

Just look at Schindler's List.  It's perhaps the most gut-wrenching movie about the Holocaust ever made, but sprinkled in all that monochrome organized murder are some funny moments.  The humor enhances the drama. 

I think the last funny moment in a Michael Mann movie was when Al Pacino talked about Ashley Judd's "GREAT ass!" in Heat, and that was not only improvised by Pacino, it was almost twenty years ago.

5)  Style over Substance.  Yes, Mann pioneered using HD digital cameras to "see into the night."  Yes, he's great at finding exotic locations.  I really do have a soft spot for those magic hour shots of someone staring out onto a body of water.  Really beautiful.

But I've watched less-beautiful movies with more heart.  I've watched dumber movies with more heart.  But the only movies I've seen that are so slick, so well-made and so emotionally cold are movies made by Michael Mann.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Raid: Redemption

It's Christmas, so I'm automatically thinking of Die Hard.  But instead of rehashing what I love about that movie, I'd like to introduce you to another action flick set in a high-rise that has nothing to do with Christmas or Bruce Willis.

That movie is The Raid: Redemption, a brutal cops versus gangsters story from Indonesia.  There's not much to it: a SWAT team raids a high-rise occupied by a gang that's not afraid to fight back.  There's a whiff of a subplot about corrupt officials, but it's mostly just fighting.

Gun fights, knife fights, hand to hand battles.  Guys jumping out of windows and improvising explosives.  A kind of Indonesian Die Hard.

This scene gives you an idea of what I'm talking about.  Warning:  Not for the faint of heart.

These guys took it to another level. My favorite part is when he smashes a guy's skull down the wall, breaking the light and all the tiles.  Just boom, boom, boom, BAM.

This movie belongs in the canon of cinematic ultraviolence and will probably show up on "Top Ten Fight Scenes in Movies" lists until they stop making fight scenes in movies.

And my Christmas gift to you.  Merry Christmas.