On Writing Fiction; or, “Mysterious Man starts writing another book”

So, I am currently in the early stages of writing a new book.  It’s going to be much longer than the last one–probably will end up being a novella, but maybe a novel if I’m lucky.  It’s already about as long as the longest story in my first book, and I’m still introducing the main characters and conflicts.

I’ve tried to incorporate the helpful suggestions and critiques I’ve received from my first attempt–many of which came from Blogger friend P.M. Prescott, to whom I’m very grateful. The book so far is much more like the last story in the collection,  ‘The Quarry”, in that there is more dialogue, and the dialogue is used to convey information about the characters and setting, rather than just using the description.

One of the hardest things about writing fiction is that I’ll get stuck with a certain”voice” in my head, and it gets translated to the page it permeates the whole story.  In the last collection, the “voice” was very much like H.P. Lovecraft’s, and Lovecraft rarely did dialogue.  And regardless, when you have a single authorial voice, it can make it hard to write dialogue that seems like it’s really multiple people–you have to be careful to differentiate how they speak, so it’s clear who’s who.

That is not to say there is not any description.  The other thing that I’m working on is putting a little more thought into the descriptions, to try to do a better job of painting a picture for the reader.  In previous work, I’ve consciously shied away from doing too much in the way of description, because I think that too much can bog the story down, and that sometimes the most effective way of scaring somebody is to leave some things unsaid or just hinted, so their mind fills in the blanks with the scariest things they can imagine.  But it’s a delicate balance, and I may have gone too far in the direction of vagueness before; making the scenes seem too clinical and detached.

The other thing I’m doing differently this time is what I’m doing right now: occasional blog updates on my progress.  I’ll maybe even post an excerpt or two, depending how it goes.

Why Bill O’Reilly Doesn’t Need To Be Punished

I’ve always liked Bill O’Reilly–which is weird, because I don’t agree with the majority of his political views at all.  His bombastic style is definitely not “real journalism”, but I’ve always found it entertaining–a lot like John McLaughlin.  People say he’s a bully, and I can’t really disagree, but his manner reminds me of my Irish family members–they’ll yell and swear and browbeat somebody in an argument, and then afterwards shake hands and say “great to see you”.

Yeah, I guess I’m probably in a tiny minority as a liberal who likes O’Reilly and can’t stand Olbermann.  I like to be different.  I once read that Robert Frost said “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.”

Anyway, so O’Reilly has been caught misrepresenting his role in various events–saying he was present in “a war zone” during the Falklands conflict, when in fact he was not; saying he was knocking at George de Mohrenschildt‘s door as de Mohrenschildt committed suicide, when O’Reilly was not even in the state at the time.  Coming so soon on the heels of the Brian Williams scandal, people are calling on Fox News to suspend him, just as NBC suspended Williams. Of course, Fox has not done that.

The reason for this discrepancy is that O’Reilly is an entertainer, whereas Brian Williams is a news reporter.  People who watched Williams expected to get factual information, and when he didn’t deliver, they got mad.  People who watch O’Reilly just want to be entertained.  Some love him, some hate him, but they all just want to see what he’s going to do next.  Whether any of it resembles truth is not relevant. This was proven quite conclusively when O’Reilly totally screwed up the history of the Malmedy massacre, saying the Americans committed the atrocity against the German SS prisoners, when actually it was the Germans committing it against the Americans. That’s a pretty pathetic error to  make.

But who cares if O’Reilly doesn’t know history?  He’s an entertainer.  Hence the comparison to McLaughlin–no one knows what he’s talking about half the time, even the other panelists, but it’s fun to watch, by golly!

That’s why NBC had to punish Williams, but Fox doesn’t need to punish O’Reilly: they’re not really in the same business.  In NBC’s business, credibility matters.

Long Lost Stories

What’s with these long lost stories turning up lately?  First they unearth a Harper Lee novel from somewhere, and now a Sherlock Holmes story has been found in an attic. This Gilbert and Sullivan fan hopes the Thespis score will be next, but that may be too much to hope for.

I’m expecting the next thing will be that we start uncovering works by famous classic authors that mimic modern-day ones.  Someone will find a Jane Austen manuscript about a lady being courted by a vampire, or that Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote something about a school for wizards.

Kidding aside, what lost books/stories/other media would you hope to see discovered?

My review of the book “The Shining”

As I promised when I reviewed the movie, I finally read Stephen King’s  novel. Interestingly, I’d say I have about the same overall opinion of it as I had of the movie: it was interesting, but very flawed.

That’s not to say, though, that they are similar–there are huge differences between the book and the movie.  Let me start with the ways I though the book was better than the movie:

  • Wendy seems like less of a shrieking idiot, and more of a fully-realized three dimensional character.
  • Mr. Halloran has more of a role to play than just “show up and die” so that Wendy and Danny can escape at the end.  The scariest part of the book was the moment when the malign influence of the Overlook briefly tries to take hold of his mind, just as they are about to escape. (However, there are also problems with Halloran’s survival–I’ll get to that.)
  • The suspense of whether or not Halloran will reach the hotel in time is very, very well done.

But then are the things the movie gets right:

  • Getting rid of the stupid attacking hedge animals–that would have been even worse on screen than on the page.
  • Also, getting rid of the wasps.  Actually, most of the hotel’s early attempts at harming the characters are pretty laughable in the book.
  • In my review of the movie, I complained that Jack Torrance seemed “like a blundering, angry buffoon”.  This is lessened in the book, but there is an even bigger problem–a problem so big I’m going to drop the bullet point format to discuss it.

The problem is that instead of Jack seeming like a buffoon, the hotel itself seems like a buffoon.  At the end, when the Overlook has almost fully possessed Jack, it forgets about its own boiler, causing it to explode.

If you accept the strong suggestion that the Overlook is a conscious entity, then this is equivalent to someone forgetting to make his heart beat. This makes the hotel seem less scary and more of an obnoxious idiot.  Which is even worse than Torrance seeming like an obnoxious idiot.

Then there was the problem of Mr. Halloran’s survival.  I was sort of conflicted about this, because I really liked the character; but in the movie the fact that he is killed by the possessed Jack makes the supernatural forces seem like a more credible threat. In the book his survival cheapens the haunted hotel’s powers even more.

Finally, the other thing that annoyed me were the repeated references to Poe’s Masque of the Red Death. I felt like it was suffering the same problem I noted in the movie Prometheus and its references to Lawrence of Arabia: “this story isn’t so great–maybe inserting a few bits from something better will spruce it up.”

Both the book and the movie had interesting concepts in them, but neither one quite works. I read that King apparently disliked the Kubrick movie so much he backed a miniseries that was more faithful to the book.  I’ve yet to see it–I’d be curious to see how it handles the hedge animals.

Harry Potter and the Desaturation Filter

I happened to see a bit of the first Harry Potter movie on TV the other day.  It was about as I had remembered: too faithful to the book, to the point where it got dull.  (An explanation of the rules of Quidditch is funny and entertaining on the page.  On the screen, it is boring.)

For whatever reason, I decided to also watch the last Harry Potter film as well afterwards–mostly just to see how the cast aged.  But what I noticed, due to the discussion of color in my last post, was how different everything looked from the first film to the last.  I’m not talking the actors here–I’m talking about everything.

Apparently, Voldemort’s rise resulted in a change in how light is reflected.  The colors in the first movie–while still relying heavily on orange and  blue–were nonetheless fairly vibrant and distinct from one another.  By the last movie, everything looked completely washed-out and greyish brown.  It appeared that someone had applied a desaturation filter to everything except the magic spells.

I’m guessing they think they were doing a good job matching the darker tone of the story in the last movie by doing this.

They were wrong.

The movie was so visually uninteresting that it physically hurt to watch.  That’s not good film-making, and it’s not a good way of matching the tone of the story with the scenery.  It can be, sure; but it is not automatic.

The first Harry Potter film was by no means a triumph of cinema, but it was fairly decent visually. The last one was borderline unwatchable because of how uninteresting it looked. I might not have thought too much more about this though, except that I then happened to watch a couple scenes from the movie Apocalypse Now a few days later.  Now, I don’t think it’s an especially good movie, because the story doesn’t make any sense, but it does have awesome cinematography. If you couldn’t tell from the title, it is a rather thematically “dark” film as well, and yet the ending scenes where Martin Sheen goes to assassinate Marlon Brando have plenty of vibrant color.

Here is a still from the climax of Apocalypse Now:

Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now”. Used under “fair use” for the purpose of criticism. Image via IMDB.

Here is a still from the climax of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

Still from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”. Used under “fair use” for the purpose of criticism. Image via IMDB.

How is it that a picture of a camouflaged man standing in a muddy lake at night is more visually compelling than a wizards’ duel?

Some Say the World Will End in Orange, Some Say in Blue

Great article by Rosie Cima about why Hollywood movies tend to have an orange and blue color palette: http://priceonomics.com/why-every-movie-looks-sort-of-orange-and-blue/

I first noticed this with video games, when Shamus Young pointed out how Mass Effect 3 overused this palette.  Once you notice it, you realize it’s everywhere and it makes it hard to watch modern movies. 

A sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird”?

There are two books I consider to be “Great American Novels”, and one of them is To Kill a Mockingbird. (The other, by the way, is A Confederacy of Dunces.)

So you might think I’d be excited that a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird is being released. But I’m not.  It strikes me as bizarre, more than anything else.  Supposedly, Harper Lee wrote this book–entitled Go Set a Watchman–prior to MockingbirdAccording to Wikipedia: “It was set aside when her editor suggested that she write another novel from the young Scout Finch’s perspective. The manuscript was then lost for many years, until being rediscovered by her lawyer in the fall of 2014.”

Now, how could they possibly misplace the sequel to one of the most famous books written in the last half-century for this long? If that’s actually true, it suggests that somebody screwed up royally. This article says “Lee’s lawyer found it affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird.” Huh. An original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird. Where was this typescript? Something like that would very valuable, even if it had no other forgotten sequel attached to it.  So I would presume it would have been kept somewhere safe in the years since Mockingbird became one of the most famous books in the world.  And I would think whoever was keeping it would have been careful to keep it in good condition, and thus noticed the other book attached to it long before now.

But it seems crazy to me that, even after it became one of the most widely-read books in American history, even after it was made into an award-winning movie, Lee’s editor never thought to say “hey, what about that other book you were working on? Since evidence suggests people like your writing, maybe you ought to give that one a go.”

It strikes me as very, very hard to imagine that people in the book business are that sloppy.

So, what else might have happened?  Did Harper Lee get conned into agreeing to release something she didn’t want to release, as this article suggests? Did they have somebody else write it and have Lee agree to put her name on it?  I have no idea, but the whole thing looks weird.

That being said, I’ll probably buy the book.

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