Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Secular Case for Christmas

My friend forwarded this from the New York Times, in which self-described secularist Laura Miller explains why she enjoys The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe every Christmas, and by extension, Christmas itself.

My friend was saddened and disappointed by the writer's wrong understanding of the source of Christmas. For my part, I'm more or less with Flannery O'Connor -- If Christmas is not the beyond-strange act of a Creator breaking and entering His creation, passing as a weak and helpless creature beset by enemies, but instead is only a sort of Hallmark special, a cosmological Thomas Kincaide painting, then to hell with it.

For me, it's the breaking and entering that makes the rest of it -- Father Christmas, the Yule log, even our funny little Chinese-made whirligig Nativity scene, which this year we're powering with Hannukah candles -- make sense. As we all know from history, weather, and science fiction, when one world breaks into another, there's a lot of swirling and mixing, and surprising things attach to each other. No wonder, then, that everywhere Christmas goes, local reminders that winter doesn't last forever get attached to it (and I'm not entering the argument over whether the Roman solar feast arose before or after the arrival of the Christians, because it makes no difference).

But if the writer likes the Hallmark-Kincaide-Picadilly smorgasbord aspect of the Holiday Season, then she's welcome to her enjoyment. To me, it's like eating the paper wrapped around the chocolate truffles, but if someone doesn't believe that the truffles are edible or even exist, what can you say to prove otherwise?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

How novels get started

On Aug 17, 2008, at 2:48 PM, Anastasia K. Bond wrote:

Fr. George gave me your basket! Not quite sure why he was so desperate to unload it, but you drove away just as I came looking for you. I can bring it next Sunday, or you can swing by sometime to pick it up.

Wouldn't this be a great prelude to an inciting event?? Priest randomly hands off something that must be delivered to someone else...


On Sun, 17 Aug 2008 15:09:05 -0700, "Jan Bear" said:

I'll get it next weekend. I always get it next weekend, or the weekend after that, or the weekend after that. That's our Father George.

Inciting incident: Priest hands off basket with instructions to pass it on to another parishioner. It seems like a simple thing until:

Thriller: Priest is murdered

Mystery: Recipient disappears

Fantasy: Mysterious voices emanate from the basket

Science fiction: Alien comes to earth in spaceship and demands basket

SF farce: Alien comes to earth in basket-shaped spaceship and threatens to destroy the earth unless basket, which represents their god, is released to them.

Comedy: Basket turns out to be a valuable gift to the parish that the priest has mistaken for a different, similar, and not valuable basket.

Romantic comedy: Person to whom the basket must go turns out to be the story's love interest, and deliverer feels that he must pretend to be Orthodox in order to persuade recipient to go out with him.

Any more?

Jan B.

On Aug 17, 2008, at 4:22 PM, Anastasia K. Bond wrote:

Suspense: A third party stalks parishioner 1, looking for an opportunity to take the basket

Military thriller: the launch codes are cached in the handle of the basket. Navy SEALs are dispatched to retrieve it, but Spetznatz wants it too...

Cozy mystery: the basket disappears during the potluck

Chick lit: the Crones find money stashed inside and take it on a road trip

Cozy mystery 2: the cats sense something far more suspicious about the basket than the fur of Mocha and Sadie

Techno-thriller: the basket is equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment to spy on parishioner 2. But while it is in parishioner 1's hands, it broadcasts her evil plot to slip mind-controlling drugs into the prosphora.

Clancy: Meanwhile, in Moscow, a babushka gives an identical basket to Patriarch Alexei. Her KGB son finds her dead the next morning. At the same time, an Iranian baker receives a midnight visit.

Koontz: Parishioner 1 hands it off to the wrong person. Now everyone wants her dead.

Evangelical: Parishioner 2 is angry with Parishioner 1 for accepting the basket. Can they both see their wrongdoing and find strength to give the basket to the local soup kitchen?

Have we created a monster yet?


Sunday, August 03, 2008

Another blog

The last thing I could justify, since I post here so seldom, is starting another blog, but I offer the excuse that it's a group blog, it's a finely focused niche topic, and it's fun.

In that spirit, I offer you the Crones' Old Book Reviews.

The idea is that there's a vast world of literature out there, and the length of our reading list doesn't change the fact that when anybody reads a book for the first time, it's new.

The main difficulty is going to be getting my fellow crones to dive into the pool. (Hint, hint, Barb and Susan. If Mocha and Sadie can review a book, so can you.)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Murderer's Mom -- the pitch (in progress)

Grace asks: "I get more and more curious about your book. Do you have a blog entry somewhere back there that talks about what it's about, what it's called and all the rest of that? If not, do you feel like doing one just to fill me in?"

Here's the elevator pitch (in progress).

I got the idea for this book when I read the transcript of a dispute between Jeffrey Dahmer's parents over what to do with his brain. They seemed like normal people, each trying to do what's best according to their own lights, and I wondered what it would be like to have a killer in the family.

The story is the emotional and spiritual journey of a middle-class mom, Claire Davidson, whose 22-year-old daughter murders 15 college students in a campus spree killing. In the aftermath, Claire faces the death-penalty trial of her daughter, the dissolution of her marriage, dangers to her children from their peers and their own attempts to deal with the atrocity. She goes on a journey of discovery through her daughter's life, to find out what happened to the girl and how she herself had become a Murderer's Mom.

(Pitch format from Michael Hauge's Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds. He'll be giving a workshop on story structure in the Portland area in July.)

Friday, May 02, 2008

Word count, May 2

Got back to the story for the first time since before Pascha. It was OK to skip Holy Friday, Holy Saturday and Pascha, but Monday through Thursday of Bright Week? I had a lot of other stuff to do, but also, it's resistance against this painfully shitty first draft.

So I sat in my coffee shop and got just over 500 words and gave up. On the way home, I gave myself a stern talking-to about the fact that the Robert Penn Warren paragraph I posted earlier today was certainly not a first draft and that you can't get to a paragraph like that without a first draft. That was one thing.

The other was that -- as I despairingly notice that I seem to keep coming back again and again to the same set of fictional "facts" -- they are relevant again and again in the story. Instead of thinking that it means I need to find the final resting place for them, before I know all the alternatives, I need to realize that it means they're important, and each time they come up, I learn something new about the character's backstory.

With those two bits of advice, I came home and finished off the word count to 1,035. And the latter observation turned out to be true. I now know that my protagonist will have to make a journey to visit her ex-husband, to Las Vegas perhaps, but maybe someplace else. I don't know for sure where or when.

So I'm back at it again. My preliminary plot planning is making the writing possible, but not much easier. But possible.

When the poet writes a novel

From Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.

"No," he said, and it was another voice, quiet and easy and coming slow and from a distance, "I'm not here to ask for anything today. I'm taking the day off, and I've come home. A man goes away from home, and it is in him to do it. He lies in strange beds in the dark, and the wind is different in the trees; he walks in the street, and there are the faces in front of his eyes, but there are no names for the faces. The voices he hears are not the voices he carried away in his ears a long time back when he went away. The voices he hears are loud. They are so loud he does not hear for a long time at a stretch those voices he carried away in his ears, but there comes a minute when it is quiet and he can hear those voices he carried away in his ears a long time back. He can make out what they say, and they say, 'Come back.' They say, 'Come back, boy.' So he comes back."

I've been trying to tell people what I love about the writing in All the King's Men, and I generally descend into hand gestures and gibberish. But here's a sample from my ongoing transcription of the novel. Read it aloud, thoughfully. Listen to the rhythm; notice the repetitions. Notice that it's a muscular prose -- by which I mean that it carries information, not just feeling, and the feeling is in the information.

It is also tough-sounding -- which is in the sounds. It has Ks and Ds and not a lot of Ss and Ns.

I can't imagine it being written by some 22-year-old in love with her own voice (of whom I frequently am first, without the excuse of being 22 years old). It's the sound of a man's voice (the first-person protagonist is a man). A woman's voice could be as strong, but it would be different, I think.

Anyway, enjoy.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Jonah and plot structure

I got to read the book of Jonah at this year's Holy Saturday services. It's a short book, maybe a five-minute read, even aloud, and it offers some some great insights into story structure.

The book is in four chapters. There's little or no ordinary world, and the story opens with the call to adventure.

God tells Jonah to go into Ninevah, "that great city," and prophesy. Jonah heads for Tarshish (Spain -- the end of the world), because he doesn't want to do it. Now there is a refusal of the call. In fact, in this story, he enters his special world -- the ocean voyage -- trying to avoid the adventure that's set out before him, and Act IIA (chapter 1 of the book) is what happens when he does that. (Note to self: if I ever want to have the character spend the first part of Act II trying to escape from the adventure, it can work.)

Well, that attempt to escape doesn't work, and the sailors end up having to toss Jonah overboard to save their own lives. In chapter 2, he gets swallowed by the "big fish" and has his "belly of the whale" experience.

In hero's journey and screenplay story structure, the "belly of the whale" is not the climax, but rather the midpoint. It's a place in the story where there's a change in context (Larry Brooks) -- a plot twist, the arrival of a new bit of information for the characters or the audience. In the belly of the whale, Jonah accepts his mission of going to Ninevah.

In hero's journey language (see Christopher Vogler's The Writers Journey), it's the Ordeal , the place where the character meets death. It might have a near-death experience, a symbolic death, a death of dreams or of ambitions; the audience may be led to believe the character died. This point in Jonah's story has given the name for this point in the story.

Michael Hauge (Writing Screenplays That Sell and Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds) relates the midpoint to the place where the protagonist loses his "identity," a false self or an incomplete version of the self. In Shrek, for example, Shrek's identity is the bravado that protects his inner vulnerability. At the midpoint Jonah accepts the fact that he is a prophet with a mission and begins actiing like it.

In chapter 3, Jonah goes to Ninevah, "that great city" and persuades the people to repent. The king calls on everybody to fast, including the the cattle, and repent from their wicked ways. Jonah's mission is successful, and he prevents them from being destroyed.

Jonah spends chapter 4 whining because God didn't actually destroy Ninevah (injured pride is the issue, it seems). He sits outside the city and asks to die. God makes a plant grow up to shelter him from the heat, and then the next morning the plant dies. Jonah complains again that he'd rather die than live under such conditions, and God replies that here's Jonah complaining about the death of a plant but not caring about the 120,000 people of Ninevah and (in a concluding line that stands out as both funny and profound) "also much cattle."

So chapter 3 contains the climax (though without the details that would make for suspenseful reading, in a modern sense), and chapter 4 is his return with the boon. Also in chapter 4, Jonah drifts back into his identity one last time, and God corrects him. The story doesn't say anything about his return to his home or what he brought with him, but the inclusion of this story in the Scriptures is itself proof of the boon -- which apparently includes the information that God loves all peoples and "even much cattle."

Now, the story of Jonah comes up literally constantly in the hymnography of the Church. Jonah's song in the belly of the whale is called for at every day's matins, and the hymnography refers incessantly to Jonah's "belly of the whale" experience as a parallel for Christ's death and resurrection.

Rabbit trail: If you want to know where Flannery O'Connor (The Complete Stories and Flannery O'Connor : Collected Works, among others) gets off having such bizarre and unorthodox characters as Christ figures, just take a look at Jonah. But back to the point.

Now, I don't want to go into, right here, how Christ's life is the prototype for the hero's journey, so let me just assert it and go on. But the Scriptures tell a number of hero's journeys. One is the story of mankind; another is the story of Christ himself. But here's the thing. For Christ's story (and maybe for man's story, too, but I'm not finished thinking about this), the death and resurrection are the midpoint, not the climax. The thing is, we don't know the climax. Beyond the indications from Scripture, we have only guesses and speculations about the harrowing of sheol, about breaking down the bars of death, about what Christ meant when he told the myrrhbearer not to touch him because he had not ascended to his father, about what the Ascension actually entailed.

But this isn't about the climax; it's about Jonah and the belly of the whale, and I'm done talking about that.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Word count, April 23

Word count Tuesday, zero, zip, zingo. Bad me!

Word count Wednesday, 1,000, bringing the book total to 14, 400. The added words were all in the same scene where the story went its own way Monday, and now I've "discovered" that my characters are distant relatives of characters in another book I'm working on. This is either a fictionally appropriate and literarily fun thing that will enrich both stories or a complete, dead-end rabbit trail. I think it may be the former; I feel it's likely the latter. I'll fix it later? Or I'll dump it all in disgust?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Words of wisdom

It's 6:45ish here in the land of sun and snow, where you have to ask whether that white stuff on the ground is the current form of spring shower (I blame global warming) or a drift of cherry blossoms -- anyway this would make great weather for my book, but it's fall, and Oregon fall is nothing like this -- but I'm meandering again --

Anyway, to begin again, it's 6:50ish Pacific Daylight Time, and I haven't started my daily word count (it's next up, really), but I have a word of wisdom from Patrick McLean of The Seanachai podcast. He, too, is working on a novel, and he observes that you have two good hours per day; the rest is paperwork.

He's a sparse podcaster -- having another life, which he details in the linked podcast. And if you like, I recommend his "Collections." And A Round on Werner is a story I haven't been able to delete from iTunes, because I listen to it every now and then for a slightly different take on the world.

I'll update with a word count later.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Word count, April 21

Word count as of Monday, April 21 -- 1,000 for the day, and 13,400 for the project. I took Sunday off, and I think a day off once a week will do me good.

It was a hard thousand words, and I almost quit for the day after 500. The story took off on its own, and my protagonist took an action I expected to happen after the halfway mark. I think I'll give it its head for the time being and see where it goes. I can always add more to Act IIA or shuffle the scenes around, if this gut-level impulse turns out to be a rabbit trail.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Word count, April 19

Word count as of Saturday, April 19 -- 1,125 for the day, and 12,300 for the project. I haven't made up my recent slackery, but progress continues.

A police interview gave an opportunity for backstory, but I haven't made nearly the deft use of it that Robert Penn Warren did. Still, as I keep reminding myself, I am exploring the territory; I am exploring the territory.

Weather symbolism entered, a placeholder, I hope, for something better, which I'll fix later.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Word count, April 18

Word count as of Friday, April 18 -- only 650 for the day, but past 11,000 for the project.

Very bad writing, which is still better than no writing. My protagonist crossed the threshold into the special world.

I need to know a lot more about murder prosecution. I've got to do some field trips to the Oregon Supreme Court to see murder trial transcripts and I need to pay a visit to the Office Indigent Defense, who are the state's public defenders.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Word count, progress update

At Christopher Vogler's workshop last weekend, he told about how he strengthened his resolve to finish his book, The Writer's Journey. It helped him, he said, to make the announcement outward -- to tell family and friends that he had decided to complete it -- and to make the announcement inward.

He compared the latter to shouting down a deep well in the center of himself, "I'm going to finish this book." He said that there are segments of the well that are out of alignment -- they are the places where we know why we don't want to, where we see what outcomes we fear, and so we don't necessarily get the message all along the well without some effort.

I've been working on my present project since last September. I've been futzing with the plot, mapping the second act so that I can get through the swamp, and I think I've reached a point where I can start the process of making a road through the journey.

I had written most of the first act -- the Ordinary World -- when I realized I needed to do some reworking, and I haven't been a complete slacker, only a partial one, and arguably going more or less along with it, though I might go a few days or even a week at times before getting back to it.

But I've decided to dive into that well. I've got 10K words written (counting what I've done this week), and if I write a thousand words a day, I should have a solid first draft in less than 90 days. A thousand words a day of first draft takes only about an hour or an hour and a half, because it require me to put my editor brain to sleep in the backseat and just write, write, write.

So I want to post progress reports on my mainstream women's fiction, to help me say accountable to myself and the world.

Monday -- 1,056 words
Tuesday -- 1,034 words
Wednesday -- 968 words
Thursday -- 150 words (I had work and stuff and didn't get to write until I was too tired to write)
Friday -- now has a 2,000-word goal.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A weekend with Christopher Vogler

I've been a fan of Christopher Vogler since, I don't know, the '90s, maybe. The second edition of his classic storytelling handbook, The Writers Journey, has been on my bookshelf for a long time. I had been thinking it was probably time to update, but wasn't sure.

I picked up a copy last week so that I could get it signed when he spoke to the Oregon Writers Colony annual spring conference at the Sylvia Beach Hotel and the Newport Performing Arts Center in Newport last weekend.

It's mostly the same handbook that it's been -- his streamlined approach to Joseph Campbell's popularizing of The Hero's Journey for storytellers of all kinds. He's been a screenplay consultant for Disney Studios and all around Hollywood, but the principles work for novels also.

He's also added sections on catharsis, polarity, how the body signals whether the story is working, and the importance of trusting the path.

I haven't read those sections yet, however, because I got to page xvii of the introduction and ran across a concept that has revolutionized my approach to my own novel in progress. Here's what it is. He describes the story as existing in four movements, and each movement has its own motivation and goal. For example, in Act I, the hero wants to escape his boring life. He crosses the threshold at the beginning of Act II, and now in Act IIA, he wants to become familiar with the new world. In Act IIB, he is trying to escape from the special world, and in Act III, he brings back the knowledge or the gift that he acquired there.

As I lay in bed thinking about how that applied to various plots, I realized I was describing Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

More to the point of my story, it also worked with All the King's Men, which I've been comparing everything to over the past few weeks. Jack Burden's motivation -- and very profoundly inner motivations at that -- go through a metamorphosis that fits that description very well. In fact, divided along that pattern, it works out to a sort of thesis-antithesis-synthesis -- which was exactly the insight I needed to get through the Second Act Swamp.

It's hard to get through to the new appendices in a book when one sentence in the introduction has you mulling the concept for a week. It's like getting a bag of all-day suckers for Halloween.

Anyway Christopher Vogler is an affable, supportive teacher, and he's talking about a return engagement in the summer of 2009.

And for another look at story structure -- same concepts, different terminology -- check out this workshop by Vogler's fellow Hollywood screenwriting consultant Michael Hauge, July 12-13. See you there.

Friday, April 04, 2008

What does my character want?

I don't think I'm the only novice novelist who has trouble coming up with where the character is at the beginning of the story and what she wants before she has the piano dropped on her head at the end of the first act.

My characters have been criticized (with justification) as being too passive. Readers have said that they had a hard time identifying with them -- a classic sign that their motivation is not clear enough.

I was mulling over this little problem today in light of my story in progress, currently called Murderer's Mom. I have a good set of problems for my protagonist (the "murderer's mom" of the title), but I'm having a hard time getting the events to fall into their structural inevitability. If my plot were a box, it would rattle.

And then I thought, how do you know what anybody really wants? Isn't it by what they do? The woman who works in the garden all the time wants, perhaps, to see her botannical design come to fruition, or else she wants the experience of the sun and damp and the smell of dirt on her hands. A man who wants to be a writer, writes. A woman who wants to live in an orderly dwelling might keep her house spotlessly clean, or perhaps spend all her time at the office, where she has control over her environment and the tasks that she needs to do. There are more possible manifestations than goals, but everybody wants something, and everybody's efforts to get it reveal what it is.

But more than that, and here's what gave me some new insights into my character's character, everybody who wants something, who makes choices to bring that something about, also shows it by not doing something else. The woman who works in her garden but doesn't keep her house very clean is saying something about what is and is not important to her. The man who has all the time in the world for his son but none for his daughter is saying something about his relationship with his son and with himself, as well as with his daughter. The man who turns down a well-paying job in order to become a cab driver is saying something about what he considers important and what he doesn't.

So here's my resolution. Every character worksheet (I have a dozen of them, and they are continually morphing) should have a line on it about what the character doesn't do and why.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Another backstory technique -- alternating chapters

Adding to yesterday's thoughts on backstory, Cory Doctorow's podcast novel, Eastern Standard Tribe, uses a different method of revealing backstory.

Like Warren, he starts his novel in medias res and goes backward, after setting the hook, to establish a little about who his character is and why he's there.

A couple of differences, though. Doctorow opens the story at the character's crisis -- or the Inmost Cave in Hero's Journey lingo -- the character's darkest moment. His backstory begins at the beginning of the plot; he even leaves off the Ordinary World and begins with the first plot point, or the Entry into the New World (the traffic accident with the future girlfriend). Eastern Standard Tribe is a lighter novel than All the King's Men, and I'm sure Doctorow would be the first to point out that he's not a U.S. Poet Laureate writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. But there's a difference in audience as well, and Doctorow's futuristic tale of a man considering the value of smarts versus happiness has an edgy, post-modern feel to it, without so completely abandoning tiresome forms that he gives up the entire concept of story.

Short version: it works for what he's doing. Like Warren, he anchors his story in time and refers back to the story present as often as he needs to for the audience to remain oriented and involved. Like Warren, he faces the danger of losing audience interest because of the technique he's chosen, but he overcomes the danger though effective use of action, dialogue, scene, and characterization to open the backstory. One other factor working in his favor is the shortness of the work; it's easier for the attention-deprived reader (of whom I am first) to keep coming back, because the novel's very lightness promises that it won't be hard to pick up the thread again. (Contrast my tendency to set aside Umberto Eco novels, even ones I love, for months before picking them up and finishing them.)

Both Warren and Doctorow use an ironic touch that points out the incongruities of life. The humor helps in Warren's case to wash out any tinge of purple and in Doctorow's case to maintain a breezy, engaging style.

It's worth noting that both have first-person narrators, who receive the reader's permission to tell the story any way they please, as long as the writer, in his persona as narrator, keeps it interesting and keeps us unconfused. Both succeed. For the student of backstory, it's a good contrast to explore.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Backstory and the Call to Adventure

Something remarkable about All the King's Men (earlier post on the subject here).

Between the Call to Adventure in disk 4, maybe, of 18 (here's a brief overview of the Hero's Journey and the stages; The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers is Christopher Vogler's indispensable handbook on using the monomyth in fiction and screenplay writing) and the Entry into the New World, which happens in disk 8 -- that is, between Willie Stark's demand that Jack Burden find something on the upright old judge and Jack Burden's first attempt to do so -- is roughly a quarter of the story.

That's not a measure of the passage of the plot, because Jack says that he begins the assignment the very next day. In the interim, the author gives backstory on all the relevant characters. It's the right place, because the reader has already been hooked into the story by the three disks on the drive to Willie's home in rural Louisiana, 1936, and in fact, the backstory sets the hook deeper. We know now why it's important to Willie (the Huey Long character) and Jack (the first-person protagonist) to destroy the judge. More, it reveals the stakes -- what's the worst that can happen if it all goes wrong? And Jack tells us just at the edge of the threshold, on disk 4, that it all does go wrong; almost everybody is dead by the time the narrator gets around to telling the tale.

But it's hard, as anyone will know who's ever tried to do it or has read with any sympathy an inexpert author's attempt to carry it off, to lay in a quarter of a novel in backstory without losing the way back to the present time. The writer is playing huge risks with the reader's sympathy (for the characters) and attention (many a book has been left on the table when the reader says, "Who? What? I give up"). It's easy for a writer to fall into a kind of, "Sit down and listen up. It's going to be good for you. This is what you need to know so you can get to the good part of the story." And readers (of whom I am first) are inclined to refuse anything that's good for us. If it doesn't taste like chocolate (or at least avocado), I'm off to look for something tastier.

Warren pulls it off by putting it in scene and dialogue and characterization that never feels like "description." I don't think he could have pulled it off without Jack Burden being the narrator. Warren anchors the flashbacks and flashforwards several times by returning to that day in 1936. The day becomes a sort of direction pole set up in the story, so that when we circle back, we know where and when we are. But his technique has the words, "Professional writer at work. Do not try this at home," written all over it.

On the other hand why not try it at home? A striving storyteller doesn't crash a car. He just fills pages with fiction that's too hard for him. But if you want to see an expert driver take a sport SUV through the slopes of the Andes, past volcanoes and roaring rivers and breath-stealing chasms, rent, buy, or check out this book.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Election-season reading

Election season is a lot like Lent. It's a clash of ideals and pragmatics, where all the vices come out on display, partly because of the fierce effort to, at best, keep them at bay and, at worst, to hide them from the view of others. It's a time when people on one side of the aisle are tempted to uncharitable judgments against people on the other side of the aisle -- or, for that matter, their own side of the aisle.

Elections, like Lent, bring out the best and the worst in us. The best -- an honest and frequently sacrificial effort to bring good government to the people, as our Church calls us to pray several times a day:
Have mercy, O Lord, upon our president, and all in civil authority, and save them, together with the armed forces of our country. Give them peace and continual victory over injustice and evil in all places. May they keep Your holy Church secure, that all Your people may live calm and ordered lives in Your sight, in true faith and prayer, with godly deeds.

The worst -- a naked grab for power. The problem is -- and here's the reason so many good people want to hide under their pillows until it all goes away -- it's hard from the inside to see where public service has become a power grab, and it's hard from the outside to see when what appears to be a naked power grab might be a sincere act of public service. And vice versa.

So when I was browsing through my county library and found a copy of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men on CD, I picked it up because, having lived in Louisiana, I knew a little about Huey Long, because Robert Penn Warren had been a poet laureate of the United States and I was interested in how a poet would handle a novel, and because I had been comparing the populist governor and aspiring president to a certain candidate in the current race.

The reading has been even better than I anticipated. Warren, the poet, catches the rhythm of southern speech without even a tinge of purple. He shows the process of good intentions for public service turned to a naked grab for power. The reader, Michael Emerson, does the voices like someone who has lived all his life in Louisiana.

For a look at the political process that's uplifted just by the art of telling, as well as the reality that very little really changes from cycle to cycle (of course, the stakes are higher than we think; it's just that they're always higher than we think), I highly recommend this one.

UPDATE: OK, I'm stunned. The Michael Emerson who reads the book as if he's never been outside of Louisiana is the same Michael Emerson, born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who plays the creepy Ben Linus on Lost. I've moved beyond impressed at his acting ability to awestruck.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Novel Start Seminar: How to Disappear Completely

I think I mentioned before I dropped off the face of the earth that I wanted to think through what makes a good beginning for a novel. And as a case in point, I thought Myke Bartlett's How to Disappear Completely: The Terrible Business of Salmon and Dusk was almost a textbook in hooking the reader and not letting up until the very end.

Now, How to Disappear is a podcast novel, which makes it almost a separate genre -- not quite as different as a film or a complete audio drama, but still an experience of the ear more than the eye. And what Bartlett brings to the genre is considerable -- a British accent, a flair for voices, the perfect music for bumpers and transitions. So it's fun to listen to. But bad audio can ruin a good story more easily than good audio can save a bad story, and How to Disappear is a good story.

Briefly, it's a sort of urban fantasy/noir detective with romance. And it's about parallel worlds -- an arena that has appealed to me ever since I fell in love with Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz as a kid.

So how does Bartlett create a world so engaging that I can't stop listening to the story? That I record on CD and then "read" three times in a row, twice for entertainment and once for technique? The answer is the magic of the basics: characters you care about what happens to in situations that make you wonder how it will all turn out. A flair for detail and surprising situations. It doesn't hurt that his detectives are time travelers and that they seem to wander a territory like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.

By the way, when I went looking for the website, I learned that the next in the Kilbey Salmon series, My Chalk Outline, has begun.