On Why Villains are Fun. . .

The world needs villains. Especially in Judeo-Christian America, we need villains in order to validate our own moral superiority; we need villains to be the living embodiment of Evil, to be out there committing the Big Crimes, so that the rest of us can shake our heads and keep right on cheating on our taxes and stealing our neighbor’s WIFI and parking in handicap spaces.

But philosophical and moral arguments aside, we need villains because well, they’re cool. And they have way more fun than most of us.  They allow us to watch (from a safe distance) as they not only succumb to their base desires, but really revel in them. Personally, I enjoy them for their unapologetic nature, for thumbing their collective noses at the world and saying, “I do whatever I want, whenever I want, and stop me. . . if you can.” Really, how fun does that sound?

Now think about this.  What would Superman be without Lex Luther?  Answer: just an uptight guy with glasses and a strong chin.  I mean, James Bond is just a womanizer without the likes of Auric Goldfinger and Dr. No;  without the many foes Bond has battled and defeated in those books and movies, he would be a cliche, a very one-dimensional character, who would have to find a rich widower to pay for his first-class air travel, gadgets, and dry martinis.  Hell, even my beloved Red Sox are much more fun to watch when they are pitted against the Evil Empire known as the New York Yankees.

Which brings me to an article on villains and villainy I found at a tumblr site called CleverGirlHelps. I linked to the entire article below, but I’ve excerpted some choice bits for those interested, as I am, in the dynamics of villains.

On the difference between a villain and an antagonist:

What makes a villain a villain is action. What makes an antagonist an antagonist is force against the protagonist. Again, these things can overlap, but do not always do so. I would like you to disregard the notion that villains and antagonists must be characters. They can be, but they do not always have to be.

On villainy as a reflection of the hero:

A villain can be a reflection or shadow of whatever the hero stands for and loves. A villain who is good at their job might be this because they represent whatever the hero fears, loathes, or is scared of. A reflective villain is more than not-the-hero, a villain is the essence of not-the-hero.

On villainy as conflict:

Conflict and villainy can easily coincide. Conflict is the basis of the story, the thing that drives the plot and spurs on the characters. Bear in mind, if your villain is a part of the conflict, I expect you to deal with the villain somehow before resolving the plot in its entirety.

Here’s the entire article, which is filled with smart observations on the subject as well as a variety of examples to back up her opinions. Check it out.

http://clevergirlhelps.tumblr.com/post/84565698794/hi-i-was-wondering-if-you-have-any-advice-on-writing-a

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Checklist for Writing a Mystery Novel

One of the many mystery/crime writing blogs I follow is called Writing Mystery is Murder by Elizabeth Spann Craig.  Craig is an accomplished mystery novelist and award-winning blogger, and she always posts incredibly helpful articles about the business of being a writer.  Recently, I was scrolling through the archives of her blog, and I came across a post entitled “Mystery Writing Checklist.” As I was (and am) in the process of outlining my third book in the Eli Sharpe mystery series, I read the article and found still more useful tidbits about preparing a mystery novel to be sent out into the publishing world.  Below are the items I believe are the most important. A link to the entire article is posted below.

Genre: Have you got a clear genre for your book? Thriller, cozy, police procedural, hard boiled? If you can’t identify your genre to an agent or editor, your manuscript won’t go too far.

To add to that, you might want to have a good idea what published authors write in your milieu; both agents and publishers always want to know where your manuscript will fit in the current market.

An Engaging Beginning: Have you started out with a bang? Or have you started out with some messy backstory that no one wants to wade through at the beginning of your book? Make sure you’ve lured your reader in from the very beginning so they’ll want to stick with you.  Think twice before using a prologue or using flashbacks at the beginning of your manuscript.

Personally, I do not like books that begin with prologues, particularly prologues that do not begin with action. Too, and this is just my humble opinion, many times too much of the mystery is given away in a prologue. Start with action, and sprinkle in relevant backstory throughout the narrative.

A Murder that Happens in First 50 pages or so: Don’t wait until you’re half-way through the book for a body to be discovered. Your reader may give up on you.

When I read mysteries, I want someone to get killed, kidnapped, blackmailed, or beaten pretty quickly. (And yes, I know that sounds awful).

Protagonist: This will be your sleuth or police detective. Are they likable people or at least people interesting enough for your readers to want to spend time with? What special talents do they have that make them capable of solving the crime? Are they easy to talk to? Have they spent many years in the police department? What sets them apart?

Of all the elements in a mystery, the protagonist is the most important to me. If the star of the book is interesting, I’m in. Characterization is always the hook for me. Write interesting characters, and interesting situations will follow. And when interesting situations follow, I’ll be reading.

Suspects: Do your suspects all have motive, means, and opportunity? Does their motive make sense and is it believable? Have you given the reader a chance to meet each suspect and learn about them? Have your suspects misdirected your readers and provided some red herrings? Have they lied to the sleuth and the reader? Do they have secrets? Do they have some depth?

Always remember MMO (motive, means, opportunity). And when it comes to suspects, try to avoid cliches.

Clues:  The clues need to be made available to the reader as well as the detective.  You have to be fair with your reader in providing them the clues, but make sure they don’t stand out too obviously in the scene.  If they do, think about pointing the reader’s/detective’s attention in another direction, quickly.  There also needs to be more than one clue–preferably three or more.

 

Exciting Chapter Endings: Don’t let your reader put down your book and go to sleep. Do you have some exciting chapter endings so they’ll want to go on reading?

When I was rewriting the second book in my Eli Sharpe series, I realized just how important chapter endings were (and are). Think of it like show business: always leave the reader wanting more.

Resolution: Did you catch the bad guys in the end? Did you tie up all the loose ends that you created? Did you explain how the sleuth/police followed the clues?

A professor of mine once said that the ending of a story has to be surprising yet inevitable.  The resolution, by extension, must make sense, and, if you’re writing a series, perhaps you could give a bit of hint about what’s next for the protagonist.

http://elizabethspanncraig.com/1386/mystery-writing-checklist/

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Famous Writers on Writing

I recently read an article about the work routines of famous writers, and a common theme emerged: discipline and dedication are far more important than talent or skill. I cobbled together the best quotes from some of my favorite authors. Their insights helped me stay motivated.

Tobias Wolff

I know I have to push through. Sometimes when I get to the other end it still won’t be that great, but at least I will have finished it. For me, it’s more important to keep the discipline of finishing things than to to be assured at every moment that it’s worth doing.

Bernard Malamud

There are enormously talented people around but the problem is getting organized to use your talents. A lot of people lose it, they just lose it. Life starts turning somersaults over your back and the next thing you know you’re confronting things that seem to you more important than getting organized to do your writing. And if you can’t get organized, then you can kiss your talent goodbye.

John Gardner

What this means, in practical terms for the student writer, is that in order to achieve mastery he must read widely and deeply and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what he writes, because practice, for the writer as for the concert pianist, is the heart of the matter.

Ernest Hemingway

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Ray Bradbury

My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.

Below are some good articles about the writing routines of famous writers. Definitely worth reading.

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/11/20/daily-routines-writers/

http://jamesclear.com/daily-routines-writers

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MacGuffin Revisited

Far be it from me to disagree with Alfred Hitchcock, but I believe the concept of the MacGuffin has evolved sense he first popularized the term with his 1935 film The 39 Steps. Below is a brief definition of the term from the excellent literary magazine The MacGuffin, which is published out of Schoolcraft College:

The moving force (and sometimes the solution) of a work of mystery fiction is referred to as a MacGuffin. . . Alfred Hitchcock used the term and said, “No film is complete without a MacGuffin because that’s what everybody is after.” . . .in short, the MacGuffin is any device or gimmick that gets a plot rolling. The MacGuffin itself has little, if any, fundamental importance, and, according to Hitchcock, is nothing in and of itself.

Now, I am a fan of Hitchcock’s films, especially Rear Window and Psycho.  AIthough I cannot be sure what precisely he means by “fundamental importance,”I interpret it this way: the MacGuffin is purely a way to kick start a story’s plot, and it has no real significance beyond that. Working from that interpretation, I must offer an alternative thesis on the subject: in films and books, the MacGuffin does much more than just get the plot moving. When used by skilled artists (including Hitchcock himself), the MacGuffin has both symbolic and thematic significance.

malteseTake mystery novels, for example.  More specifically, let’s examine The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett for a moment.  The valuable black bird figurine–a.k.a. the maltese falcon–does exhilarate the narrative, but it also becomes a symbol for greed (the figurine is worth a bundle) and trickery (the figurine turns out to be a fake); it becomes a tangible representation of human weakness. To take the idea a bit further, the maltese falcon also not only propels the plot forward, but it helps develop layer upon layer of characterization in the novel. In this sense, the figurine reveals (or helps to reveal) the uglier sides of basically every character in the narrative, sides which would have remained hidden without the introduction of the maltese falcon (the MacGuffin).

dude How about an example from the movies? The Big Lebowski, a personal favorite, has arguably two MacGuffins: the alleged kidnapping of Bunny Lebowski and/or the theft of The Dude’s favorite rug. But let’s discuss the rug as it is the more interesting MacGuffin of the two. When The Dude is employed to give the money to the kidnappers and get Bunny back, he isn’t so much motivated by the fee he will receive; he is more interested in recovering his beloved rug, the one that “really tied the room together.” Because the rug belongs to The Dude, who has precious little interest in material possessions, it takes on an added layer of meaning when he is willing to risk life and limb to recover it, and he does so in such a humorous and imminently watchable manner. Go a step further: I would argue that the rug has a metaphorical significance as well, for The Dude’s life before his rug is taken is tranquil; after the rug is “swept out from under him” so to speak, his life is chaotic and, in many ways, not nearly as happy.

hitchcockBottom line, I think Hitchcock’s definition of the MacGuffin is limited. In many ways, the MacGuffin contributes to a more deeply satisfying narrative in both film and books. I recently turned in my second Eli Sharpe novel to my publisher, and the MacGuffin in that one is a valuable baseball, which has been stolen. I intentionally tried to make the stolen baseball mean something different to every character in the novel, and, in a way, the baseball becomes a character in and of itself. Hitchcock did this also, made MacGuffins more than just plot devices. What’s more, I suspect he did it deliberately. How else would he have become such a master of suspense?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eat More Vienna Sausage, Listen to More Phish: Why Writers Should Go Back to Their Childhoods

Proust had his madeleines, but when I want to remember something from my childhood, I reach for a tin of Armour’s Vienna sausages. There is something about the taste of mechanically separated chicken, pork, salt, corn syrup and hydrolyzed soy that floods my brain with images from my misspent youth. . .me in my Little League uniform, looking out the bay window in my parent’s house, cursing the storm clouds on the horizon, knowing that the game would be canceled. I’d stomp my cleats on the wood floors and call Mother Nature horrible names and slam my head against the wood paneling in the living room until the anger subsided. (What can I say? I was an angry child, and I loved baseball.)

Now when I want to remember something from my so-called adolescent years, I queue up Phish on Spotify, and suddenly, I have bleached blonde hair and a face full of acne and a chip on both shoulders.  Suddenly, once again, I have a head full of dreams of becoming a granola-chewing, psychedelic-drug-taking guitar god a la Trey Anastasio, or Jerry Garcia before him. The songs–“Bouncing Around the Room”; “You Enjoy Myself”; or “Sample in a Jar” for any fans of the band–transport me back to how I felt dancing (horribly!) at their shows, how I felt driving around and around listening to live shows on my cassette deck and wondering if I could one day create music that made people feel the way I felt at that moment. The music was an escape from the (then) purposelessness of my existence. . .

Which brings me to my point: I love to write, to turn pain or pleasure into stories, and sometimes I need a tangible trigger to get me reacquainted with certain emotions from my past. Otherwise, how could I write convincingly about anything? I suggest that writers who might be stuck with a piece of writing try going back to their childhood and rediscovering a favorite food or favorite band.  Or, you could go the other way and revisit the sight of an embarrassing moment, the location of a cringe-worthy failure. (Believe me, I have enough of both of those to last three lifetimes).  In my opinion, writers need to be jarred out of their comfort zone from time to time, and what better way to do that than by eating over-processed foods that will cause hypertension and strokes, and listening to Hippie music with nonsensical lyrics and never-ending jam sessions.

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Analytical Couch Potato: Why Novelists Should Watch Television

Some people say that television rots your brain.  Some people say television is a mindless form of entertainment. Some people say television can rob you of your ambition and your creativity, especially if you’re a writer.

 

I am not some people.  I believe when used responsibly that television can be not only a source of instructive and engaging entertainment, but a source of inspiration as well.  Writers, should they choose to watch television shows with an analytical eye, should they be active rather than passive consumers of this medium, can actually learn some valuable lessons about writing, and, hopefully, use those lessons to improve their own work. Below is a list of television shows I watch (or watched), and what I learned.

  • The Wire (HBO).  This is an obvious choice because some of the best crime writers in America also wrote for this show. The list includes Dennis LeHane and George Pelecanos. But more important than the entertainment value of this, the best drama that has ever been on TV, is the show’s in-depth character development.  Take Omar, the scar-faced warrior who robs drug dealers.  What I learned from this particular character is that you can (and should) have a balanced mixture of stock qualities and unusual qualities in a so-called “bad guy.” Omar carries around a pump-action shotgun and talks like a thug, but he is also an unashamed homosexual and he accompanies his grandmother to church every Sunday.  Additionally, he has a strict moral code: “Come on now, when have you ever known me to out my gun on someone that’s not in the game?”
  • Luther (BBC).  On the surface, this show is just another police procedural, but if you analyze it from a structural standpoint, you can see how Luther is light years a part from Law & Order.  The show is not so much concerned with the detective work, but with the psychological motivations of both the detective John Luther, played by Idris Elba, and the criminal.  Within the first five or ten minutes of every episode, you already see the crime in question, and you know who did.  What matters is why the criminal committed the crime; what matters is why Luther is ruining his personal life to chase bad guys, and hint, it isn’t just because he wants to protect and serve.  Over the course of the episode, the point of view shifts from the detective to the criminal, and with each shift, you start to get at the why and not so much the how.  Any writer can benefit from watching this show, and taking note of how to build a character while building tension and drama.  The best novels, whether they be mystery or literary, science fiction or romance, contain well-rounded and interesting characters, not just cardboard cutouts that do things without reason or rhyme.
  • The West Wing (NBC).  This show is worth watching simply because of the dialogue.  Sorkin, the inventor of “the walk and talk,” is a master of creating rhythm and tension through dialogue.  Now mind you, it doesn’t always sound realistic, but it always creates a mood, a musicality that can hypnotize the viewer.  Good novelists also have a good ear for dialogue, and use it to ensnare the reader, pull him or her further into the story. omar_thewire

Creative Writing Exercise

So I’m teaching a creative writing class this semester, and one of my students, who is only twenty and already a talented writer, asked me two very astute questions about character development.  I recorded them here as well as my answers.

Question #1: I have an idea for a character, but he’s based on someone I actually know. What should I do?

Answer: Two things. One, write a brief character sketch that focuses on the physical attributes of the character. I find it is easiest to get to know a character from the outside in, not the other way around. Feel free to make up some details about this person; just remember to change the name to protect the unsuspecting. Here is a sample character sketch that I wrote for my student:

Coach David Lash was a short, stocky black man in his mid-seventies. Crowned the first ever African-American North Carolina State Tennis Champion in 1962, he wore a burgundy track suit, a black fishermen’s cap and black horn-rimmed glasses every day of his life.  His lower lip stuck out constantly, whether he was angry, which was rare, or happy, which was often.  During our tennis practices, he used to walk (actually, he hobbled as if one leg were slightly shorter than the other) onto the court in the middle of a point to give instruction, sometimes tennis instruction but more often it was life instruction. When he did this, his wife, a woman with iron-gray hair and perfect dentures, would yell at him to stop fussing, but he would stick his lip out farther and grab my racket and show me, for the one-hundredth time, the correct form for a crosscourt backhand.  As he repeated the proper backhand technique, racket back, shoulder turn, swing low to high, finish behind the ear, he would explain that if one refused to strive for perfection and grace on the tennis court, one would surely turn to drugs, meaningless sex, and petty crime. Up close, I could see Coach Lash’s mottled skin and dark bloodshot eyes. Up close, I could smell him: a mixture of Vasoline and stale coffee and some other scent I couldn’t place at the time, what with me being an upper-middle-class white teenager with my very own bedroom, car and ample allowance.  But later, after my acne faded and my voice changed and the world kicked me in the gut a few too many times, I came to realize that Coach David Lash, whose grandparents were freed slaves from Kentucky, had the smell of experience on him, experience and lessons harshly but wisely learned.

Two, answer all the questions in a character questionnaire. This will allow you to get to know the character’s quirks, habits, tastes, and, most importantly, his motivations.  Here’s a questionnaire that looks pretty good: http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/106

Question #2: When writing a novel, should you load the opening chapter with the protagonist’s back story, or dole it out little by little throughout the narrative?

Answer: Dole it out little by little. Try to reveal character back story through bits of dialogue, or very brief flashbacks. Avoid long flashbacks and long monologues as these clog up the narrative, slow down the pace, and pull the reader out the story. But hey, don’t take my word for it: read what the late-great Elmore Leonard had to say about prologues and back story here: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html

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