Monday, April 27, 2009

Gratuitous Sex and Violence

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I’m in the midst of slogging my way through the latest thriller by a NYT bestselling author. I’m putting myself through this torture because I like to keep current with the publishing industry, and because the subject of this particular book touches close to something I’ve written myself. Since I’m not enjoying the process, I’m reading fast. And I’ve found I can skip the action sequences without missing anything. I’ll come to one and think, Oh, good; the bad guys are going to try to kill the heroes again; I can skip ahead at least ten pages!

If that isn’t the definition of gratuitous violence, I don’t know what is. I’m reminded of the gratuitous sex scenes that populate so many of today’s romance novels. When I was judging RITA entries, I frequently found myself skipping sex scenes, too. Now, since authors put in sex and violence in order to make their books more entertaining, yet some of their readers are actually skipping those scenes, something is obviously wrong.

So how does a writer keep an action sequence—or a sex scene—from being boring?

In the best action sequences or a sex scenes, something happens that actually moves the plot forward. We learn something new about the characters. The characters learn something new about themselves or each other. The action ups the stakes. Or it changes the characters’ motivation. Or it changes the characters’ goal. Or the characters acquire new information that causes them to alter their course of action. But something has to happen besides just violence or sex. When nothing changes—if the characters and the conflict are all the same at the end of the scene as they were at the beginning—then the scene is gratuitous. The writer could yank the car chase/shootout/sex scene from the plot (or the reader could skip it) and no one would notice. The plot line would flow on without interruption or confusion.

Unfortunately, today’s audiences are so addicted to sex and violence that writers frequently feel the need to insert sex/violence every so many pages/minutes. Now, it’s pretty hard to make each and every one of those scenes pivotal. Yet I do think it is possible to have gratuitous sex and violence without boring the more discriminating members of your audience. How? By creating sympathetic characters.

If your readers care about your characters, they will be carried along by the action, both because they care what happens to the characters and because they like spending time with them. If I’m watching a movie and I don’t like the characters, I have nothing at stake; I couldn’t care less if they killed or caught. Oh, our heroes are being shot at again? Yawn. Let me go make another cup of tea…

Even if I don’t care about the characters, an action sequence can still hold my attention if it’s well done, if the sequence is original, or funny, or cleverly orchestrated. Ironically, the NYT bestselling author of the thriller I’m reading at the moment writes really, really bad action sequences. They’re unoriginal, unbelievable, and badly executed. There is absolutely nothing to entice me to read them. So, I skip. A lot.

Of course, a lot of people really don’t care if the sex and violence in a book or movie is gratuitous or unoriginal--they're actually reading/watching for the sex and violence. Sigh.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Unheroic Heroes

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I’ve been pondering the dynamics of heroes ever since I finished reading a recent mystery/thriller. The book had a lot going for it—after all, I finished it, and as most of you know by now, I have a tendency to put books down and never pick them up again. Not only did I finish this one, I even sat up into the wee hours of the night reading it, something I almost never do. But I’m not going to tell you the title because I have some unkind things to say about this book.

While not exactly lyrical, the writing was good. The book is set in winter in the Rockies, and the author does a wonderful job of hitting on all the subtle, telling details of the mountains in a way that took me right back to my youth in northern Idaho—I could feel the nip of the sub-zero temperatures, hear the squeaking crunch of the snow, smell the sweet scent of the pines. The plot had a few issues, but the author set up the story in a way that I could see the horrific, inescapable train wreck at the climax building from early in the book—which is undoubtedly why I ended up missing a few hours of sleep. I just couldn’t look away.

So what was wrong with this book? The characters. It’s not that they were clich├ęd or cardboard or unbelievable, because they weren’t especially so. They were just…unlikable. And (except, obviously, for the hero) they were meant to be. Apart from the protagonist’s wife and daughters, all the women were either crazy, power-mad bitches, or shallowly obsessed with their looks, or dumb sluts—or all three. The men—with one exception—were surly assholes. Now, I’m all for conflict on every page, and it’s hard to get conflict if all your characters are saints. But when everyone in your book is portrayed as unpleasant, and we’re looking at these people through the eyes of your protagonist, it starts to feel like maybe the protagonist is one of those guys who just doesn’t like anyone and who especially has issues with females. And that diminishes him.

I also had problems with the protagonist’s behavior. At one point, the law officers arrest a man they think is the killer. The suspect (the one male character who is not a decidedly unpleasant individual) has surrendered peacefully, yet one of the deputies hauls off and smashes the butt of his rifle into the man’s face hard enough to break teeth. A great place for our protagonist to step forward and act, well, heroic, right? But what does our protagonist do? Nothing. So the deputy smashes the poor suspect in the face again. What does our protagonist do? Nothing. He doesn’t try to stop him. He doesn’t protest. And, afterwards, he doesn’t report the incident. In other words, he behaves in a very unheroic manner.

Of course, in real life, most guys wouldn’t do anything. I know that. But I don’t want to read about the kind of guys who go along to get along, the kind of guys who would torture kids in some CIA black prison because they were “ordered” to. I want the protagonist of a mystery/thriller to be heroic. And this writer didn’t deliver. He didn’t even have the protagonist agonize over his failure to do something to avert/stop/compensate for this injustice; that would have worked, since he could then have grown during the course of the book and acted like a hero at the end. But it didn’t happen. After this disgusting display of police brutality, our protag simply goes on with his life and forgets about it. Eeeww.

In the end, our protagonist does risk his life to stop the train wreck we’ve seen coming. By that point, his stepdaughter’s life is also at risk, which does a great job of “upping the stakes” since we now have a pretty, blonde-headed (of course she’s blonde), emotionally vulnerable little kid in danger of being swallowed up by the train wreck. Yet I’m left with the impression that if she hadn’t been his stepdaughter, he wouldn’t have risked even his job, let alone his life, to avert what he knew was a horrific abuse of government power.

Now, the writer of this book may be a great guy. He may not have issues with women. But I doubt it. This is the second of his books I’ve read, and my reaction to the first—which I read a couple of years ago—was very similar. So I don’t think I’ll be reading him again—I don’t like being left with a bad taste in my mouth. Which is a shame, because there are some things he does very well.

Oh, and he killed a cute, pathetic little dog and the kid—both unnecessarily. When “they” tell writers that’s not a good idea, they’re right.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Triumph of the Underdog

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The triumph of the underdog: it's something we all want to believe can happen. But how often to we get to see an underdog triumph in real life? Not often, which makes those few, rare moments all the more precious.

Picture a frumpy middle-aged woman from a small town in Scotland. She’s never been married; never even been kissed. But she dreams of becoming a singing star. She gets a chance to go on a national talent-scouting program, and she grabs it. When she walks out on stage, everyone laughs at her. They think she’s going to make a fool of herself. Then she starts to sing, and audience and hardened judges alike gasp in wonder at the beauty of her voice. By the end of her performance, they’re on their feet, cheering, with tears running down their faces.

Of course, this song can make me cry under even ordinary circumstances. But this performance—ah, this performance is sublime.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

What Really Happens to Heroes

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I was planning to do a post today about heroes in fiction, but instead I’m going to write about a real-life hero, Dr. Ivor van Heerden.

As deputy director of LSU’s Hurricane Center, van Heerden created a hurricane modeling program that predicted—very accurately, as it turned out—what would happen to the southern Louisiana coast and New Orleans if the area were hit by a major hurricane. Horrified by what he knew was going to happen, van Heerden spent the years before Katrina battling to get everyone from FEMA to the Army Corps of Engineers to listen to him. They laughed at him.

His forecasts predicting massive levee failures and flooding in Eastern New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish, and the Lower Ninth Ward, were published in the Times-Picayune the day before Katrina hit and helped convinced many to flee. He was at his post at the Hurricane Center, sleepless, through the long dreadful hours of Katrina’s landfall. After the collapse of the federal levee system, he was in the city, watching the water sweep away homes and businesses. This a man who, through intelligence, dedication, and hard work, helped save the lives of countless thousands. After the storm, in a white heat of anger, he sat down and wrote a book called, The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina. It’s a gripping read that will leave you sick and angry and wanting to shake a few people. More than a few people. (I blogged about it when I read it in August of 2006, right after we moved back into our house, here.)

Not only did van Heerden write a book, he also agreed to head the forensic investigation on what went wrong. Dubbed Team Louisiana, this investigation prepared the report The Failure of the New Orleans Levee System During Hurricane Katrina for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. Because of his expertise and the accuracy of his forecasts, he was frequently quoted by various media outlets. Needless to say, his comments were not flattering to the Powers That Be.

So how did LSU treat this hero? In November of 2005, they told him to stop talking to the media because he was hurting the university’s chances of getting federal dollars (not to mention reflecting badly on George Bush, good buddy of the University’s chancellor O’Keefe). And now, under the direction of Louisiana’s new Republican governor, LSU has fired van Heerden. Their reason? None given, not to the press, nor to van Heerden himself.

Risking his job, Van Heerden fought long and hard to get the truth out there, to save lives, to save our city, to save our coast. That’s heroic. Now, he’s paid the price. In popular fiction, he would ultimately triumph as a reward for making the morally “right” choice. But this isn’t fiction; this is life.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Sixth Annual Jubilee Jambalaya Writers Conference

Most writers’ conferences are informative, and they’re usually good places to make contact with editors, agents, and other writers. But I don’t think there are many that can compete with the Jubilee Jambalaya Writers' Conference in Houma, Louisiana, when it comes to good old-fashioned fun. Picture great jambalaya for lunch, good music, and lots of friendly, pleasant people who love books and love talking about books.



This year, Steve and I were able to stay for the Saturday night shrimp, crab, and crawfish feed that Tina, one of the organizers, always puts on for the presenters. As the night wore on, F. Paul Wilson started strumming the guitar; a motley crew sang along. And then Tina--who's been battling cancer with a courage and grace that awes me--dragged out her wigs and charmed everyone into posing in them for pictures. Since I don’t have their permission, I’m not going to post the photos I took of some of the other authors. But this one of Steve looking like an aging hippy is just too good not to share.



I guess it's only fair that I suffer the same fate, so here’s you-know-who in a red wig.

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What can I say? I love this conference!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Hello, April!

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I don’t know about you, but I am really glad to see the back of March. In the past month I have: finished my fifth Sebastian book, What Remains of Heaven; seriously injured my eye; slogged (one eyed) through my editor’s requested revisions on my second thriller, The Solomon Effect; lost one of my cats; caught a nasty case of bronchitis that provoked a porphyria attack; and slogged (bucket within reach) through massive editorial rewrites for What Remains of Heaven. I’ve also participated in the presentation of an all-day workshop for aspiring writers at our local Barnes and Noble; had my youngest daughter home for spring break, and presented a luncheon speech at the Metairie Literary Guild. I started plotting my sixth Sebastian book, tentatively entitled What the Dead Tell (I know I won’t be allowed to keep that one), and then, yesterday, I sat down in a white heat and wrote the first chapter.

Coming up this month, I need to finish nailing the plot of the Sebastian book and write the first 35 pages and synopsis; plot the third thriller and write that proposal; and participate in the Jubilee Jambalaya conference down in Houma, where I’m presenting a workshop on plotting. It’s still a lot to do, but this is the part of writing that I love. Unlike (cue morgue organ) the dreaded edits.

Why do I hate edits so much? Because at that point, almost every book I’ve ever written strikes me as a piece of cr*p. I am painfully aware of the story’s warts and weaknesses. But time (or my own talent) has run out: this is as good as it gets, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s never good enough.

But the proposal stage (cue bird song and time elapse photos of spring flowers unfurling) is a time for falling in love, when my story idea is still a bright shiny bauble toward which I reach with excitement and wonder. There is no book, only an idea, and as we all know, falling in love with an idea is so much easier than loving a reality!