Monday, June 29, 2009

Stories Set to Music

This is not going to be about musicals, just so you know. I went through a phase where I listened to some of them, and I confess I still like "Les Mis." I do enjoy opera, I have seen "Cats" .... once .... and that's about where it ends. (Choral music is a different story, and Bugs Bunny is in a category all by himself.)

No, this is a rumination on the role music plays in storytelling. The obvious examples would be modern films, where the score has become an important part of the story on the screen. "Jaws" might not have been as effective with John Williams' foreboding score - and the wisdom of when not to use it. One of the most famous scenes in the movie, that leads to one of the more well known quotes ("We're going to need a bigger boat.") is one that happens without music. By that point in the movie the audience had come to expect the cue, and when it wasn't there to suddenly see the shark creates the shock and surprise that make the scene work.

But there are more subtle examples, too, including ones that happen behind the scenes. I tend to score the scenes in my head as I write, or sometimes before I write. There have been certain scenes in my stories that took at least some indirect inspiration from the music I listen to. (And a scene on the highway that owes its existence to Nine Inch Nails.) This is probably a by-product of having grown up in an era where the music in movies took on a much more prominent role and became a much more intrinsic part of the story.

I say this purely off the top of my head, as aside from a few notable examples like "The Great Escape" and others, I don't remember a lot of the classic films making as much or as significant use of theme music. I'm not sure if it's an accurate statement, but it seems to me that it's a modern trend... though, again, I could be wrong. As I write I have a few more examples springing to mind, but even "Lawrence of Arabia" which has this broad, sweeping theme that suits it didn't quite make use of that theme and others in the same way that films such as "Star Wars" made use of their musical cues.

Of course, I can't actually set my books and short stories to music. I can mention music in the story, as other authors have done, but I have to confess when I first read "The Gunslinger" I was unfamiliar with "Hey, Jude" and so the importance of that piece of music to the story was lost on me. It didn't impact my appreciation for the overall story, but it did mean I wasn't privy to one of the nuances of it. I think this is a risk whenever you make a reference to a particular song. Either your readers will get it, or they won't, and odds are if they don't they may not be inclined to go look it up.

Consequently, though I almost have to listen to music when I write, I don't directly transfer what's coming out of my speakers onto the page.

Though if I get the chance to control what music gets used when my books become movies... well, that's a different story. Anyone have Danny Elfman on speed dial?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Going After Stereotypes With an Axe

Read a story about Backcountry Mail Service and it got me thinking about stereotypes and other elements of story-telling. At one point in the article someone remarks that just because they're living out where it's remote doesn't mean they don't want to be modern. (One of them gets Netflix, for example, even though it's 30 miles to the nearest town... and probably not all of that is over what would count as "road.") Yet that's one of the automatic assumptions lots of people make about life way out in the woods. That it's all backwards, rustic, oil lamps and firewood and outhouses, and that everyone needs to use an axe for just about anything.

(Actually, the axe is, I have heard, pretty indispensable.)

And while some of these places may not have indoor bathrooms (though in this day and age I doubt that - you can put an enclosed septic system in just about anywhere), that doesn't mean they aren't connected to the world at large. Satellite tv and internet has largely solved that problem - after all you can't get Netflix without a computer I don't think - and so the automatic assumption many make that backcountry equals backwards just doesn't fly.

I think the trick as a writer is to recognize when you're making those assumptions as a shortcut for developing character. I myself have written characters who live off in the back woods someplace, and yes, they are anti-social. This isn't always a stereotype, though, as I had a great uncle Jim who remarked in all earnestness that it was time to move the day he saw three cars go past his house. Not at a time, mind you, just all day. Three cars per day was too much for Uncle Jim. The important part is not to let your setting or other aspects become a too-easy shorthand for establishing your own character. If you don't do that, you've lost a dimension to your character that could have made him or her much more interesting.

Getting back to the news story, it's the little details that can help set things apart from the stereotype and make things more personal, more individual. The fact that the pilot needs a pillow to sit on, or that the other pilots purposefully overbid to make sure the guy who's done the job since the 70's got to keep the contract, are things that make the news article more vivid, more personal, these take the people (who are in this case real people, not characters) from a cookie-cutter image of what people who live out there must be like to a more nuance portrayal of who they really are.

And not one of them was mentioned as having a really big beard.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Long Empty Road

I've put nearly forty thousand miles on my car in the last three years. I hadn't quite realized I'd spent that much time on the road until I got to thinking about all those miles. As I've mentioned in a previous post, I don't mind spending time driving. It gives me time to think and the opportunity to see things that are unusual or just odd or even just curiosities. I've seen things that have led to story idea, and things that have indelibly stuck in my head. Two of those were tragedies, or at least under tragic circumstances. The third was just an odd confluence of events that had me in the right place at the right time, and created an almost eerie feeling.

The first was the van on fire. This was many, many years ago, on a trip home from Pittsburgh. Off by the side of the road was a mini-van. It was engulfed in flames. We'd seen the glow on the side of the road from a ways off, and by the time we got there we were in the far lane. I wasn't driving at the time, and I remember being able to feel the heat coming through the passenger's side door, even though the van was off in the shoulder. It didn't look as if anyone was in it, and the emergency crews weren't in any great hurry. The flames were bright orange, Crayola orange, and the blackest, thickest smoke I've ever seen just poured off it. Whatever color the car had been, the frame inside those flames was even blacker than the smoke.

The second was the car that flipped side over side down by New Haven. I was driving back to Boston and so barely saw it out of the corner of my eye, but a car in the southbound lane apparently hit the embankment coming out of a rest stop and just flipped, side over side, along the edge of the road. I never did find any more details about that, and contrary to Hollywood expectations there was no giant explosion after it rolled.

The third was where this blog gets its title from. It happened again on the way from New Haven to Boston, on the interchange near Hartford. I came off the ramp, onto the stretch of highway... and there was no one. No other cars in sight. It both was and wasn't a momentary thing. On the one hand, there didn't immediately appear another car, so I had the entire highway to myself for a good minute or so. Which really isn't all that long. I came around the next curve and found myself in traffic again.

Yet, for a moment, on that one stretch, I was it. It wasn't the first time I've been on a road where I was the only car. I live out in the countryside and have been numerous places where there wasn't another vehicle anywhere. But that's out in the country, and you expect that sort of thing. It's one of the reasons I'm out here in the first place. On the interstate it's a different story. There are supposed to be other cars there, especially in New England. Not having any, on a three lane highway, during a Sunday evening when it was a high travel time.... It was a little spooky for a moment. Like something was out of place, and I was a part of whatever it was that didn't fit.

There was no cliched "last person on earth" moment. I was driving, after all, and I don't think the apocalypse is going to conveniently speed along at 70 mph. It just had this feel to it, because it was something out of place from what you expect.

Now I'm not going to end this by saying each of these incidents has prompted some sort of story idea. Rather, it's just a reminder that there are fantastic things that, though we most often see them in books or movies, they can and do happen in real life. And that when they do, no matter how often we may have seen them in fiction (heck, in any given Bruce Willis movie you can just about guarantee a flipping car - except for the one with the dead people) they still have the ability to make an impression in real life.

And that's a concept I can take to my characters.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Things Forgotten

So, I'm moving. Which as anyone who has been through it will likely attest to, sucks. Sure, there might be someone out there who enjoys the process... but they are sick, sick individuals and not to be trusted. However, it's a process that does come with its own reward, not least of which is an opportunity to winnow out some of the stuff that's accumulated over the years and yet hasn't been used in decades. (No exaggeration there - I found an old backpack frame that I had back in high school. The camping backpack type, not the books for school type. I figure it may be a while before I can do that again, so it's "hello, Craigslist!")

More importantly though, with that winnowing comes the chance to revisit things I had forgotten about. This includes items of nostalgia (which reminds me, there was another blog entry on that subject I meant to pen a while back...) which, though I'm not keeping them, provide a momentary and pleasant side-trip down memory lane. There are also items that, having suddenly found them again, warrant dusting off and bringing out into the light to be used again. Those are the type of things that you look at them and wonder why you put them away in the first place. Sometimes the answer to that becomes apparent after a moment's reflection, and sometimes you never quite adequately answer it.

I suspect you all see where I'm going with this.

I was sorting through my folders the other day - digital ones, not the physical ones - and came across a number of story ideas that had been started and then for one reason or another not finished. Looking at some of them, I realized that while the idea was good the execution wasn't, and so they need to be filed away again in the idea pile until such time as they germinate into something more. I haven't deleted them, because being digital files they take up hardly any room, but I did right down the central idea in my little writing notebook, alongside other ideas that occurred to me in dreams or bookstore restrooms. (Yes, a bookstore bathroom. It was either the notebook or the toilet paper, and the idea was good enough to merit inclusion on more permanent paper.)

Some of them, though, are gems. Or if they aren't yet they can be with just a little polishing. I am noticing that most of the better ideas - and the ones that made it into better stories - are the ones that are more recent. Though that's relative, because the most recent any of these had been looked at was at least four years ago. Some of them stretch back farther than that, though, back to the time when they were stored on 3.5" floppies. That puts them back in the days when I was in college.

(I have no short stories from high school, as while we did have computers my first one was an Apple IIc. The kind with no hard drive. So anything I wrote on that old monitor, with its black background and strangely fuzzy tri-color text font, has long since been lost unless there is a print copy somewhere in my parents' basement. ... Given the quality of some of the things I wrote then, I would hope not.)

Yet even among the ones layered in feet, not inches of digital dust, there were some concepts worth exploring. If nothing else, by taking them out and looking at them it helps me appreciate not only how long I've been at this, but also how far I've come since I've started. And that's something I can take with me wherever I go, and it doesn't even need bubble wrap or a cardboard box.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Nice Work... If You Can Get It

I could wax rhapsodic here about the Cole Porter tune, as it has become a jazz standard, and go on to compare it to that writing trope about how all stories are just variations on a half dozen basic stories or so.... but I've done that post already. Besides, although I was listening the Thelonious Monk run through it on the piano the other day, and even though it is one of my favorite jazz standards... I'm not really musician enough to comment on the perils and pitfalls of playing something that's arguably been done to death already.

So instead I am just going to rant. It's my blog, I'm entitled.

There are a number of advantages to being a freelance writer, even one of my limited caliber, in this day and age, starting with the ability to send in both work and queries without keeping the Post Office or Fed Ex in business. Responses can be immediate, both to queries and to actual articles, giving me the ability to quickly modify my submissions if for some reason I haven't quite nailed the assignment as it was given. Likewise I can get paid faster (thank you, PayPal) and don't have to fuss with sending everyone my tax and account information.

Of course, that also means that most employers aren't taking taxes out. This isn't that big of an obstacle, as even without internet based pay, a number of the people I have freelanced for have not taken taxes out anyway. I don't see why not, as I can't imagine it's easier for me to do it than it is for some publishing vendor who probably has an accountant on staff... but so it goes.

No, the real obstacle is the lack of an office I can stomp down the hall to and complain. Don't get me wrong, I like working from home and if it were slightly more profitable I'd make it a full-time occupation. But when the company you're freelancing for is located more than an hour or two drive from you, you lose the option of being able to approach an actual human being with your complaint. This has drawbacks. Chief among them are the ability to hang out in the office of said human being until your problem gets solved.

Instead, I have to send something off to an anonymous help desk. Where they may or may not get back to me in a timely fashion. And where they may or may not understand the problem as I have first explained it to them. And where they may or may not be inclined to fix it. More often than not, they don't. Then I lose time, patience, and possibly an assignment because some tech guru off in California didn't bother to sort through his queue fast enough.

When the day comes that video conferencing is standard, and everyone can do it, the first thing I hope it allows me to do is to virtually park myself in the virtual doorway of someone's virtual office, until they deal with my problem. Because I can be persistent and stubborn that way, in ways in which sending off an email to some anonymous help desk just doesn't satisfy.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Change in Tastes

I have discovered, as I get older, that my tastes have changed. Now, while with food some of this is as much a result of biological processes both mysterious and nefarious (for example, pickles seem to bother me now, and I don't know why, and it upsets me because I like pickles), with other things such as books and music I suppose it's just a question of growing out of things.

Though for some things, there are outlying causes. Such as the writers I liked, as they got older they either got sloppier, or as my own writing improved I came to notice that they were sloppier. Or they got preachy. One of my favorite writers has now penned his last novel with a certain character, and I hated to admit but I was glad that, when I finished it, I knew he was done. Whereas the earlier novels had been active, intense, densely-packed but deftly-paced plots, this last one seemed to be one endless speech after another.

I stopped reading Tom Clancy for much the same reason. Also because, having lived in China, 'The Bear and the Dragon' didn't ring true to me. At least not the first 500 pages. At which point, still nothing had happened. Which may have had more to do with it than anything else. (Yes, I exaggerate. It was 250 pages, and nothing had happened. In the time it takes other books to be done, that one hadn't even got going yet.)

Some of my changing literary tastes also have to do with my own sense of disbelief. I am willing to entertain the notion of ghosts and nasty things that go bump in the night. On the other hand, I have much more difficulty believing in the kind of conspiracies that fuel most of the works of Ludlum and others like him. Some of this is just my lack of belief in conspiracies in general. Keeping a secret for generations, much less centuries, seems to me a losing proposition unless the number of people who know about it steadily die off. It's the nature of a conspiracy that the more people who know about it, the less secret it tends to be.

Other aspects of it are just simply my lack of belief in the lengths with which these conspiracies go to. It starts to stretch the realm of believability. I'm not just talking about the frozen heads of former fascist leaders, either, but how these organizations always seem to know everything that's going on, always one step ahead (or just behind) the hero, who himself (or herself, though that's really rare) has only just made the spectacular leap of logic to figure out where to go.

Mind you, when Muldur made those leaps on the X-Files I bought them, but then you kind of came to expect those little weird logic leaps from him. It was part of the character, and they weren't these successive little steps, on after the other, each one scaling new heights of impossibility.

Which is, I suppose, why I stopped browsing that section of the bookstore. It's just as well, I have more than enough things to read as it is.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Every once in a while, I stumble across a word that doesn't quite mean what I thought it did, or at least doesn't apply as broadly as I had been led to believe. I'm not sure how that happens, precisely, other than to say that given the breadth of my vocabulary, it's surprising it doesn't happen more often than it does.

Though that sounds somewhat... egotistical, at the very least. But it isn't meant that way.

Often, it's simply a result of having heard the word in question used improperly often enough where I mistake the meaning that I know for it's common usage. Assuming I ever knew the proper meaning in the first place. I'm willing to admit that sometimes I've just always been wrong about what a word meant. Fortunately, most of those haven't been words that have occurred with any kind of frequency in my communications, otherwise I'd look more foolish than I already do.

I do try and improve my vocabulary, and yes, subscribe to one of those "word of the day" things. I like those because even when it's a word I know, they provide the etymology of the word. Or should that be entomology? That's one of those where I know one is bugs, and one is words, but often get them turned around. At least, I think one of them is bugs...

And yes, sitting at my computer I can easily look them up and determine the difference - as I just did, because despite the topic of this blog I'd just as soon not commit said mistakes in the actual entry - but sometimes taking that moment away from whatever else I'm doing disrupts the flow of thing. So as long as the spellchecker signs off on the word (which ironically it does not do with "spellchecker") I'm inclined to let it go and hope I catch it in the editing phase.

If it's in conversation though, the only way to catch it is to have someone else know the difference, which doesn't always happen. And in not catching it, in helping to perpetuate an incorrect meaning, I sometimes wonder if I am shaping the future etymology of the word so that, generations from now, it will come to mean what we all think it does.

Or if they'll just point and laugh at what idiots their forebears were.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Consistency of Dress

I don't write children's stories. Don't ever plan to (well, there is that one "Alien Bill" idea I've had kicking around in my head, but so far that's where it has stayed). Certainly have no intentions to illustrate them, ever, though there have been books brought home from the library where I have thought "I could do that. Heck, I could do better than that." But I don't foresee it as a career option, ever.

Yet, that aside, there are things that puzzle me in children's stories, that cause me to at the very least question the quality control process. Issues that, had they occurred in a movie or adult book, would be torn apart in the name of continuity.

Like the anthropomorphizing of animals, specifically the use of clothes or mode of transport. Now, let me say, straight up, there are two ends of the spectrum here as near as I can tell. There is the Beatrix Potter end, where animals consistently wear clothes, and in general behave in somewhat human fashion without giving up their animal natures. I have no issues of consistency with Ms. Potter; all her creations seem to wear clothes as a matter of choice, rather than necessity, and revert to their furry, four-footed (or webbed, or... whatever frogs have...) selves as needed.

Then there are the bears of Martin Waddell, or rather his illustrator, Barbara Firth. Big Bear and Little Bear, for those who have not read of them are bears without clothes. They have a cave, it is furnished, and they walk about on their hind legs, but by and large they are still bears. (And if you haven't read them, even if you don't have kids, you should do so anyway just to see what a quality children's tale should look like and then find a child to read it to. ... After you get their parents' permission, of course. Going up to strange children and arbitrarily reading to them will, in this day and age, get you odd looks at the very least.) Like the world of Ms Potter, however, the Bears' world is one of consistency. Their level of humanness stays within certain limits.

In between are things like "Angeline Ballerina" and "The Wind in the Willows." Now, before the hate mail starts - I think both are admirable works. Different levels, but admirable works. But both have the same problem. Angelina seems to alter back and forth between having to wear clothes, and running about furclad (as opposed to skyclad... which one might argue no furred or feathered animal can ever quite manage), with no real explanation ever given. It's arbitrary within any give book - one panel she'll have a dress, the next she's showing up for school with just her bag on. And there seems to be no logical recourse to it.

Likewise, Toad in "Willows" drives a car, rides a horse, and gets arrested by people, all of which would seem to suggest a rather gargantuan Toad. (One who, in other hands, might make much of the fact that a toad of such size could easily dine on pets and small children.) Other times, it is made quite clear that the animals are of their natural size and stature, especially in regards to one another. Again, there is no explanation, no logic given - it just happens.

And while the argument can be made that I am reading too much into the story, and that children don't see these things, I point out that my daughter caught one of them in another book. In that one, the cat had a small bag tied to its tail - a bag it seems to lose in the illustrations, but with no explanation given in the text. It just disappears from the illustrations.

Sloppy storytelling, if you ask me.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bad Endings

Sometimes, no matter how much I like a book, or a movie, it's undone in the last few moments when the author or director flubs the ending. It's never the intention to do so, mind you, and I'm sure the director or author would quibble with my interpretation of their actions, but I have discovered more often than not that when this happens it was done to give the movie or book that added little twist, that extra punch.

It's like spiking the last sip of punch at a party and expecting it to improve the already consumed bowl of bad punch. Or even good punch, because it generally annoys me most when, up to that point, I had actually been enjoying the book or the movie. It might be a twist that makes no sense given the plot to that point. Or it might require the characters to act, well, out of character. Or it just might be a shock ending that's simply there to shock, and so even if it makes some semblance of sense, it just doesn't fit.

Like the frozen head of Adolf Hitler. (Which, in a side note, was what I was originally going to title this post. Then I thought better about it, given the weirdos out there on the web. I expect the various people that might hone in on that title are as computer savvy as the rest of us.)

But I'm not kidding about the frozen head. It was a suspense book, one of those conspiracy-driven plot things that, by and large, I have stopped reading in my later years even though at one point my bookshelves were lined with Ludlums and Ludlum wannabes. There's another blog entry in that change of tastes, but I read the book in question here shortly after I got to China. So it was a case of beggers not being choosers.

It was an entertaining enough yarn up until then, and although the eventual premise behind it - namely being able to graft someone else's head onto someone else's body - was, in retrospect, rather ludicrous, it had been presented with enough gravitas that it wasn't causing me to not enjoy the book. Then, in the climactic scene in the Alps, the author pushed the envelope just a hair to far with, you guessed it, the frozen head of Adolf Hitler. Under glass, no less. It made "The Boys from Brazil" seem almost like a documentary by comparison.

Other works have lost me at the end, too. Like "Hannibal." No, not the book, where the ending, though ludicrous, was still somewhat satisfactory. No, I mean the movie, where Lector, who has, through both movies (there were only two at that point) demonstrated that he is nothing, if not in control of his situation, somehow finds himself handcuffed with no other recourse than a meat cleaver. This is *not* the Lector we've been watching unto this point, because that Lector would not have left the handcuffs lying around unless he had the key for them in his pocket. Made no sense at all, and was there strictly for shock value.

Likewise some B-list movie I saw once with Adrian Paul, of "Highlander: The Series" fame... Well, ok, he's done other things, and I first saw him in "War of the Worlds" which should, I think, firmly cement my geek credentials here. I don't remember much of the movie in question, other than it was some sort of puzzle flick... and that the ending, clearly done just to be a "twist" didn't fit at all. Moreover, I didn't like it, and it ruined what had been an otherwise enjoyable little film up unto that point.

What's an author to do about it? Well, for starters, it's made me vow never to do anything like that with my own works. Secondly, from time to time it gives me ideas about where to go and what to do and those lead to little gems that, eventually, find their way into stories. Most of the time with no resemblance to their starting point.

(As a final aside, I don't quibble with "The Natural" or "Jaws." One deviates from the source - okay, both do, but one more famously so - and the other was just, on the face of it, kind of silly. But even knowing that, both endings fit the films they are in, and make them work, and we as the audience don't question them.)

Saturday, June 6, 2009

On the Tracks

[A brief note before I begin: This is one of those posts I meant to write a while ago, and hadn't written only because I was convinced I had already. But if I did it disappeared somewhere, so I rather think it didn't get written at all. Which is why I am writing it now.

Clear enough?

Ok, probably not, but there are days when that's just the way my mind works.]

I like trains. Toy trains, real trains, trains in museums.... you name it, I like them. I have no idea why, other than some overly-romanticized ideal about train travel. Which really isn't entirely accurate, because I've traveled on modern trains. Which is hardly romantic. No offense to Amtrak, who more or less got me where I wanted to go on time every time I took them, in far more comfort with fa less hassle than any airline, ever. But there was hardly the level of glamor, intrigue, and all-around mystique that one would associate with, say, the Orient Express, for example.

This does not apply to all modes of travel from by-gone days, mind you. I think luxury liners were, back when they were the best way to cross the ocean, much as they are today when they are used for just touring: overcrowded, overpriced, and overhyped. If I'm going to be on a boat, I want it something with as small a crew and passenger manifest as possible, preferably just me. (Which would be more easily accomplished if I knew how to sail.)

It might also have to do with my views on "Titanic," which were less than favorable.

Trains, on the other hand, don't suffer from that kind of bad publicity. Aside from the Orient Express, I don't think trains have ever been heavily hyped, and even then it was still more about getting from one place to another than anything else. The OE was essentially First Class train travel, back when much of the rest of it was still effectively coach.

Still is, in fact,

Yet no other mode of transit I know allows you the opportunity to walk about and admire the places you're going though, or going to, as much as being on a train does. There is something about wandering down to the observation car and looking out at the passing countryside that made even the otherwise mundane and repetitive cornfields of middle Illinois appealing. I like that there are still sleeper cars and diner cars, and even if the only dining car I've ever truly been in was little more than a snack bar, it was more than you'd find on a bus or a plane.

I also find trains to still retain their aura of mystery about them. I can still envision secret meetings and nefarious characters on board a train, much more so than a Carnival cruise ship or a 747. Granted, more Hollywood movies use planes as settings than trains, but that's because there's the added suspense of falling out of the sky, which you don't get with a train. And I know if I had the choice of where to set a story, I'd rather put it on a train - even Amtrak's more functional, less romantic trains - than any other method of getting from A to Z.