Saturday, May 22, 2010

Trickle Down Timeline by Cris Mazza

In Trickle Down Timeline, Cris Mazza delivers another smart, abrasive collection of short stories you'll find yourself immersed in as if you were reading a novel. The collection is framed on the scaffolding of the 1980s, one story for each year of the decade. Between and throughout, facts and cultural references are sprinkled like commercials, reminders of other facets of a decade that has been boiled down to neon and gimmicks, excess and Ronald Reagan soundbytes. This is an alternative history, with tidbits like this: "Michael Jackson, who had purchased the entire Beatles music catalogue two years before, attempted to purchase the bones of the Elephant Man." Or this one: "A twelve-day-old baby, born with a cardiac malformation, lived for three weeks with a baboon heart." Anyone who lived through the decade with any level of consciousness will find themselves saying, "Oh, yeah, I remember that." And those who didn't experience it will see another side of a time period most people seem eager to reduce to its cheapest cultural icons. The Rubiks cube. The Delorean. Cheap stuff like that.

The stories are pulsing with Mazza's familiar in-your-face energy, that sort of gritty, at times unattractive realism that refuses to be ignored. This kind of reading is sometimes an intense joy but seldom what you'd call pleasant. It's like watching reality television, in the most grindingly mundane, and profoundly unelevated settings. But the cameras are never revealed, and the characters in all their flawed varieties just reveal themselves mercilessly, into the wide open space of Mazza's literary eye.

Is it voyeurism, that makes reading Cris Mazza so pleasurable? It feels like a guilty secret at times, like a VH1 show writ sublime, where there's beauty in the degradation, transcendence in the small moments of hopelessness, the banal details of everyday life for average characters transformed by the unflinching exactness of the description into something timeless. Until a woman trying to disgust her husband's friend by calling a meatball a bull's testicle becomes a statement on what it means to be female, and a dying dog becomes a symbol of a lifetime goal.

Brilliant, disturbing, disarming, Trickle-Down Timeline is an intimate collection with reverberations across a nation's zeitgeist.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Call Me Mario: What Video Games Teach Us About Writing Novels

Imagine Mario Brothers with no bombs, no carnivorous plants, no death pits, no deadly turtles. Imagine Donkey Kong with no giant monkey at the top of the ladder, throwing down barrels to kill you. Picture a version of Tomb Raider where Lara Croft just walks around picking things up and saying "Ah, nice, another priceless artifact. Better put it in my pack. My, I'm getting hungry." Sounds stultifyingly boring, and yet people write books on this model all the time.

In my work as a book doctor, I frequently run into pretty manuscripts with likeable characters and believable settings but no discernable plot. These books describe one average day after another, or a reasonable sequence of events which unfold without a hitch. The authors weave elaborate emotional landscapes and carefully illustrate relationships, but there's no problem, no conflict, no obstacle. There's no villain.

In trying to explain this issue to my clients, I realized that a book without a problem is like a video game where you can't die. Not very interesting, and why? Because nothing is at stake. If there are no problems, you're just running your character from left to right, enjoying the backgrounds and the soundtrack. And nobody is going to want to do that, without the aid of chemical stimulants.

What else can video games teach us about writing novels? Here are four important lessons:

RISK: Ever since Mario the plumber jumped on and smashed his first magic mushroom, video games have followed a very predictable formula. It's not about emotions or ideas, either. It's not about illuminating a slice of life. Game after game follows the the same exact framework: Character solves a problem by overcoming obstacles. That's it. The character saves the princess, liberates itself from a dungeon, defeats an evil ruler, or finds the missing gem by destroying enemies, avoiding obstacles, and solving puzzles. And the penalty for failure is death. Here's the truth: If you can't die, there's no point. And if there's no villain in a novel, no threat of destruction from some source, whether internal or external, there's no point either.

From Sonic Hedgehog to God of War, there are a million ways to die in a video game. What would Pacman be without ghosts? Just a way to move a yellow disc around a screen in the four cardinal directions? Now, does the character in your literary novel need to be hovering on the brink of extinction every living second? No. But there must always be something at risk, something at stake, some goal that is being pursued and something valuable that can be lost if the goal is not reached. Put a ghost in the maze. Put a wolf in the cave. Otherwise it's just more geometry, more scenery, more background. And nobody's going to pay money to read that.

SCENE: Not only are there big obstacles in video games, big villains like Dr. Neo Cortex, or Eggman, but there are minor obstacles in every scene. Every single scene has a pit with spikes, or an attacking wolf, or a zombie horde, or something. What does this teach us about writing novels? Not only do we need obstacles, we need obstacles all the time. Never write a scene without tension -- real, tangible, physical tension, whether or not it's connected to the overarching plot. Does jumping on penguins relate directly to Crash Bandicoot's overarching plot to collect crystals and save the world? No. Neither does your conflict in every scene have to relate directly to your main plot arc. But it must be there.

Somebody's cold. There's a storm coming. Characters fight over where to sit at the movies. A lightbulb is burnt out. It's hard, rowing the boat. Time is running out. The soup is too salty. I challenge you to go through your novel right now, and look at every scene you've written, and think, "How could I improve this with a piranha plant? Or a pit of spikes? Or a rogue sniper?" It doesn't have to be Dahlia Gillespie in every scene. But it should be at least a storm trooper or two. There is never a scene in a video game where a character takes a walk in the woods and nothing memorable happens. There shouldn't be one in your novel either.

CHARACTER MOTIVATION: A character in a video game never wakes up in the morning wondering what to do. Characters in novels I have recently read indulge in peaceful reveries over morning coffees, wondering exactly what they should do, where they should go, what projects they should take on. This is not interesting to read. A character in a video game knows exactly what he has to do both long term and short term, including staying out of the way of that fire-breathing minotaur, unlocking that gate, and of course saving the world. Some games actually have a "Quest Log" or a blinking X on a map, or some other kind of visual/verbal reminder of exactly what the character is supposed to be accomplishing. Every one of these guys on the right has a numbered to-do list and none of the entries on the list are "Think about myself" or "Go about my usual activities." Accounts of people's usual activities are boring as dirt, my friend. Unless I am your grandmother or you are paying me to read it, I won't.

PACING: Most video games still follow the same plot structure the earliest ones did. You play a few levels fighting your way through minor bad guys, and then you play a boss (a major monster/bad guy). You play a few more levels fighting through bad guys who are a little bigger, and then you fight a bigger boss. Repeat until you get to the boss at the end of the game, who is the Mother Brain, or Diablo, or Sarah Kerrigan Hive Brain, or whatever. This same structure works in novels, and if you look at any "how to write" book you'll see something like this:

What video games teach us about this plot structure is that as the bosses get bigger the sword gets bigger, the spells get better, the armor gets more effective. As your character ascends the "rising action" toward the climax, he or she is changing shape, redefined by the course he has taken, affected by the scenes he has been through, the obstacles he has overcome. In many games (and novels), while the action intensifies, the situation seems to get worse and worse and worse as you approach that epicenter of awfulness, where the ultimate battle takes place between you and the ultimate bad guy. What video games show us overtly that novels also have to achieve is the transformation of the character that allows the climax to make sense, the fight to be won by that same character that was so feeble and feckless in scene one. The character has to change, from start to finish. in a video game, you can see it happening -- a +20 sword of smiting, a thousand power-ups, a flame thrower. In novels, it has to happen on the inside, but it's just as important.

Of course there are ways in which novels transcend the formulaic machinations of video games. But if you are looking for basics, they're all there, even in the very first Mario Brothers: an initiating incident, a problem, the fights, the obstacles, the villains, the rising action, the climax, and the denouement. Try it out: stand your novel up for comparison with your favorite video game, and see if your character needs a princess to rescue, a gorilla to fight, or maybe if more magic mushrooms are in order.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Widow and the Tree by Sonny Brewer

In a connected world, where every place is right next door to every other place via cell phones, airplanes, and the internet, it was really lovely to read a novel that was truly of a very certain place. The Widow and the Tree takes place in extremely rural Alabama, and the disconnected nature of the location separates the reader from any particular time, or any invasive modern influence. Without the ringing, buzzing, and informing, what's left is a quiet book that ends up booming, a small story that resonates.

A five hundred year old live oak is the central character, as it frames the lives of a few strange characters who also inhabit this swampy and wild backwater. If you told me before I cracked it open that I would be deeply engrossed in a novel which is essentially about a tree, and tangentially about a couple of hermits, I would have been skeptical. However, the scene that Sonny Brewer paints is compelling and surprising in its depth. Rather than limiting the book, the narrow scope propels the reader farther into the landscape, so it's possible to read a chapter about the noises a bird makes tapping on the branch of a tree and actually still stay engaged. It's possible to really be quietly present in this dangerous, haunting world of the Ghosthead Oak and start to know it, or at least to know how much you don't know about it.

The book is small, but it penetrates like a bullet. It's as specific as a fingerprint, and as unforgettable as a face. I'm impressed with Brewer's restraint, both in language and in characterization. There is nothing goopy and romantic about this widow, nothing drearily tragic about her hero either. The wilderness is hard, and the book is hard, but it's also beautiful in its simplicity.

The Widow and the Tree is a prime example of why MacAdam/Cage is great and would be sorely missed.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Water for Elephants: a Master Class in Craft

Water for Elephants was a runaway bestseller, a breakout book for author Sara Gruen, and a book club darling. The comments you hear in reaction to this book range from "Loved it" to "It blew my mind, changed my life, and I chewed my own wrists open when it was over." Not everyone likes every book, but I have to say that this one has met with universal approval from readers of every stripe. Writers, take heed. Water for Elephants is more than a good story; it's a seminar in technique from which aspiring writers could definitely benefit.

Lesson #1: Milieu. Choose to write in a world that people want to read about. Gruen set her book in a traveling circus during the depression. I wanted to read it before I had any idea what the plot might be like just because of where it was. For this book, you could almost write the pitch just based on the setting: the time, the place, the freaks, the violence, the hidden world, the desperation... it is automatically interesting just because of where and when it is. Want to write another book about someone who lives in an apartment in a trendy neighborhood in a modern city? Good for you. Have fun tweaking that one. Sure, Gruen had to research the hell out of her book, but she wisely chose a deep deep deposit of fuel in which to sink her well.

Lesson #2: Pacing. Water for Elephants has no down time. There is no break in the plot, no difficult middle section, no long period of rising action and building complication. The story goes from peak to peak, escalating constantly from the day the main character sets foot on that train to the very end. Gruen provides relief from the action by switching from the main plot in the past to the framing story in the present, but she never gives us a slow chapter in the circus plot. Looking at the structure and pacing of WFE, you realize that the thing about writing a novel is, you really don't have time for those slow chapters. Are you sitting on a middle section that kinda drags, just because things are "developing"? Are you happy with a plateau in the center of your book? Don't be lazy. Ratchet up the slope of that line that takes you from low start to high finish. Steeper is better. Don't waste time on low energy chapters.

Lesson #3: Transparency. In this book, there are no distractions from the characters, the story, and the world that Gruen is revealing to us. Her prose is not glamorous; it's not fancy. It is effective because it disappears. It's the kind of book you forget you're reading. You think you're listening, and not listening to some pretentious twat rhapsodizing just to hear herself talk, but listening to a story urgently told, every detail important. Instead of witnessing the construction of a narrative, it's like we're seeing a curtain pulled back. The focus is only the story, only the work, and it's so clearly rendered it's like a pane of glass. Any imperfection and you know you're looking through a window. So when you're writing away and you're falling in love with a turn of the phrase, a bit of something you think will be called "lyrical" or whatever, think carefully about whether what you're adding in there is going to show up in that pane of glass, or whether it's going to work to make the view more clear.

Writers, if you're waiting to read Water for Elephants, don't wait any longer. There are more than a few ways to tell a story, but here is a very successful formula for you: 1. Write in an interesting world. 2. Write without pause, relentlessly, every scene amplified and alive. 3. Write transparently. You're not the focus, the words aren't the focus, but the story is the focus.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Ten Questions to Ask Your Friend Who Just Read Your Novel

An aspiring author recently asked me to help him figure out what to say to his friends before he gave them his novel to read. He wants them to read critically, give him honest feedback, but he's afraid they'll just phone it in because they like him.

When you hand your friend a novel you've written, he or she knows you've slaved over it for months, maybe years, and how much it means to you, and how devastating it would be if he told you "Oops, it's terrible." He doesn't want to be critical, or hurt your feelings, which is why the most common response from a friend who critiques you is something along the lines of "It's good!" or "Good job!" Hearing "I liked it" presented as a critique is not helpful to you at all. But how can you get your friend to be honest when she only wants to make you feel good?

Here are ten questions to ask that will not put your friend in a tough spot, but will still give you some useful input on your novel:

1. At what point did you feel like “Ah, now the story has really begun!”
2. What were the points where you found yourself skimming?
3. Which setting in the book was clearest to you as you were reading it? Which do you remember the best?
4. Which character would you most like to meet and get to know?
5. What was the most suspenseful moment in the book?
6. If you had to pick one character to get rid of, who would you axe?
7. Was there a situation in the novel that reminded you of something in your own life?
8. Where did you stop reading, the first time you cracked open the manuscript? (Can show you where your first dull part is, and help you fix your pacing.)
9. What was the last book you read, before this? And what did you think of it? (This can put their comments in context in surprising ways, when you find out what their general interests are. It might surprise you.)
10. Finish this sentence: “I kept reading because…”

Your friend is probably still going to tell you, "It was good!" However, if you can ask any specific questions, and read between the lines, you can still get some helpful information out of even the most well-meaning reader.