Friday, January 29, 2010

Death of a Character: The Show Must Go On

It's been a while since I touched on this topic. I've covered a bit of ground in this little ongoing theme I have here. I've dealt with replacements, the "really really truly we're not kidding they're completely dead," and resurrection. Yet there's another kind of character resurrection, and that's when an author dies but his most beloved creation lives on. Which is why it seemed appropriate to dust off this last little bit I had to say on it in the wake of an author's passing. Robert Parker died earlier this month, and I for one shall miss him.

Parker's most iconic creation was, of course, Spenser - spelled like the poet and no first name ever given. (Except maybe once, but I think perhaps that was a typo in one of the early books.) Much has been written elsewhere about that, and he penned other characters as well, most of whom I liked and enjoyed. I have read all the books, and read that there were, I think, two more books ready for publication. I will look forward to them, and be sad when I finish the last one knowing it is the last one, but I must also say I hope that's where it stops.

Ironically, Parker himself took on another author's creation post-mortem. He finished Raymond Chandler's Poodle Springs and then wrote one more Marlowe book based on Chandler's notes. However, he didn't keep going after that, and if any author can be said to be a reincarnation of another one, or a reinvention, then Parker was that to Chandler. Spenser wasn't Marlowe, but he was a Marlowe for his times. And he had the good sense to let Marlowe rest in peace once his creator's ideas were done.

Other characters have not been so fortunate.

James Bond is an example, so too now is Jason Bourne. Neither character ever died, but with the death of their creators I think they should have been allowed to. On paper, anyway. I love the Bond and the Bourne movies. Just not as fond of the later books, even though I like Lustbader, who has taken over the Bourne helm. The Bond books are another story altogether. There were (perhaps are) rumors that there was a final "Travis McGee" story, penned by the author in anticipation of his eventual passing. To the best of my knowledge that's just a rumor, and thankfully McGee's been left alone. Sherlock Holmes has also been penned once or twice by other authors.

Never successfully, in my opinion. Not for the caliber of writers that have attempted it, mind you, and not because they weren't good stories. Some of them were very good stories. But they weren't quite Holmes and Watson. Close, perhaps, and an excellent imitation, but never quite the real thing.

Bond, Bourne, and Holmes were all resurrected for one simple motive: money. The series are money-makers, and the new Bourne books didn't appear until Matt Damon built a franchise. I suspect for that reason there won't be any rush to hand Spenser's reigns over to someone else. (The Tom Selleck CBS movies based around one of his other characters are different. Like the Robert Urich Spenser for Hire series, they have established their own universe, more of a "based on" than anything else. There is apparently one more Jesse Stone book, and I shall mourn him after putting down his last tale, too.) There isn't the oodles of money to be made from it that there are with the others.

I do think, however, that characters like that ought to be left alone. There is no way to capture the original voice of their authors, not completely, and so they come off as the imitations they are. When the only reason not to come up with your own character - as Lustbader has done in the past - is money, while I can't begrudge an author for taking a pay check (heck, I'd take it), I wish the powers that be behind it would have the good sense not to offer it in the first place.

As the horror cliche says, sometimes it's better to let things rest in peace.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Luddite Lite: The Elevator

I hesitate to call these posts a series, as this is only the second time I've visited this topic, but as I have a few more ideas in my head on it, and as they are all more or less the same subject, we'll call them a series anyway.

This one is about the elevator. I admit to being a big fan of the elevator, under the right circumstances. When I was moving furniture into my current home it would have been helpful to have one to the third floor, especially with the narrow stairs. I've lived in apartments where without the elevator getting up and down to my apartment each day would have counted as serious exercise. And if all else failed, there is that scene in Ghostbusters to remind me what a good thing stairs can be.

Where do these stairs go?
They go up, Ray.

However, there are plenty of times when the stairs will do just fine. If I'm only going up one floor, it seems rather a waste to take the elevator. My legs work just fine, and I certainly can't make the argument that I don't need that extra bit of exercise that will come from climbing a flight or two of stairs. Sometimes the biggest challenge in taking the stairs is simply finding the stairs in the first place. Elevators are given pride of place in the floorplan, while the stairs are often shunted off to the sides.

There are also the slow elevators. There is a building on the campus where I currently work where, even going up three stories, I am generally faster on the stairs than the elevator is. It seems to have a permanent case of the slows. I suspect I might be able to go up and down before the elevator makes a single trip, and do it without breaking a sweat.

Most people know this, I would think, and I would expect any reasonably health-conscious person who can use the stairs would do so. Like so many of my expectations towards me fellow human beings, this one is often proved wrong. I saw someone waiting at the notoriously slow elevator the other day. A university student, who looked to be in good health, and who was even dressed as if they were on they're way to go jogging or some other workout. (I say on the way "to" because I was close enough that they didn't smell like it was on the way "from.") They even had a water bottle in their very streamlined little back pack. And yet, there they stood, waiting for the elevator. And waiting, and waiting.

Me? I took the stairs.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Just Because I Write It, Doesn't Mean I'd Survive It

I was having a conversation with another writer about something that happens in her story to her main character. There's a portent in this other writer's story, one of those "bad things will happen" moments - though as is so often the case it's more like "bad things have happened but worse is coming" - and it got me thinking about heeding the warning signs. I write, sort of, within the horror genre and certainly read a fair amount of it. I've seen my share of zombie movies (some good, others not so much), vampire movies (ditto), and werewolf flicks (mostly bad), and know everything I probably ought to know when it comes to dealing with these things, assuming it would ever happen.

For example, there's the horror staple of the spooky shopkeeper. You know, the one that runs the shop in the basement, where it's kind of dark and dusty, or badly lit with flickering bulbs, and even if the shopkeeper looks reasonably normal, you just know something is off. Surely, having written and read enough stories where this is just the beginning of bad things, I'd know better than to buy anything in such a store, right?


Because I have bought things, or at least browsed and wanted to buy, in places just like that. All the time. (Heck, it sums up any number of comic shops I used to frequent in my younger days.) And quite honestly, as these objects are always something slightly old and slightly odd, they are precisely the kind of things I would buy at a flea market or antiques shop, no matter that the purveyor looks like a gypsy who was around selling trinkets for the crusade.

Or zombies. Never actually met one, but I don't own a flamethrower. I don't own a gun. I only nominally know how to fire any weapon, and that would mostly be the kind of weapons without enough firepower to do anything other than annoy a zombie. Assuming zombies get annoyed. Sure, there's the baseball bat... but honestly, my athletic skills are kind of like my combat skills. In other words, they are really limited. I might get in a lucky hit, but odds are, I'm toast.

As for staking a vampire.... Yeah, right. Sure. My best hope would be to keep running until daylight, and hope like heck that works. Which would not be a great hope, because I don't run very well. I'm not a jogger.

Nope, my athletic skills are mostly water-based. I'm great in the pool. Trouble is, all the horror nasties that are in the water are a lot faster than I am. I've see Jaws. Heck, I've even seen Deep Blue Sea. I'd definitely be more Samuel Jackson than LL Cool J in that one. So unless the terror is, oh, say, a sea urchin, or better yet a turtle, I'm probably dead in the water there, too.

And I strongly suspect yoga's absolutely useless as a monster survival skill.

All of which leads me to conclude that in real life, I'd much more likely be a sheep to the slaughter than the last survivor.

Thankfully all the monsters are staying where they belong. For now.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Odd Combinations

I was staring into my freezer the other day at what little remained of the mint chocolate chip ice cream. (Which is no longer green, much to my disappointment. Granted, I think the coloring is purely a result of food dye, so it doesn't need to be green. Nor does white mint chocolate chip ice cream taste any different, at least according to my mouth. However, it was missing... something. More on that in another entry, I think.) There wasn't much left, maybe a scoop and a half, which is about all I eat anymore anyway in keeping with my general philosophy on "moderation in all things." Which I abandoned New Year's Eve but hey, some occasions are worth it. This occasion, however, was mostly an "I feel like ice cream" occasion.

More specifically, I felt like an orange juice float. Now orange juice (or soda, but honestly I prefer juice) and vanilla ice cream is, as far as I am concerned, one of the greatest taste creations of all time. My wanting for one on this day came from having acquired a very simple recipe to create an Orange Julius at home without paying for the trademark. That said, I wasn't in the mood to bother with even the simple recipe - mostly on the strength of not wanting to dig out and then afterwards wash the blender. So I opted for a simpler float. Only the only ice cream I had in the house was the aforementioned mint chocolate chip.

Now, in theory, there was nothing about the combination that shouldn't have gone well together. I've had those chocolate oranges, which are great, and orange mint, and chocolate mint. It was just putting all three of them together, in the forms I had, that might have yielded strange results. Erring on the safe side, I opted to try it first with a spoonful of ice cream and a shot glass of orange juice. Which is the most action my shot glasses have seen in quite some time. Anymore I think they're just decorative in my house.

The combination, as odd as it might have sounded at first, came out very well, and it got me thinking about other slightly odd combinations, but in writing. Now as what few followers and/or faithful readers I have here will already know, I tend to write things that fall into the interstices between genres. There tends to be a bit of dark humor and comedy that creeps into things, even if I'm writing something that might ostensibly be horror. My ongoing works are also a mix of science fiction and other things, as I busily write along creating my own genres. Sort of.

I'm not the only one who's done this, though, and certainly not the most famous example. The best example that comes to mind for me is when Dean Koontz penned a children's book. Now Koontz is one of those authors that I invariably read while freely admitting that his catalog is somewhat hit or miss for me. (Though I recommend the "Odd Thomas" series to anyone.) He is also, along with King, one of the few authors I have ever read who have managed to scare me just by reading a book. I don't remember the title, though I think it was "Night Chills," and it had to do with rats. Large quantities of evil rats, in the dark, crawling over everything, and peering out from shadows so you could only see their eyes. Gives me shivers just thinking about it.

Yet not only did he write a children's picture book, he wrote one about Santa Claus. Having read it, I will affirm that it works well as a children's book and a piece of horror. Slightly more humorous in that vein is a book we have home from the library in the Skippyjon Jones series. It's not really horror, per se, but parts of it lean toward that end, and yet, again, the combination works really well.

Horror and comedy have also been put to good use, even if sometimes it's black humor. The zombie sheep movie was... well, just hilarious on the face of it. Zombie sheep? Who comes up with these things? Shaun of the Dead also falls into this category.

Odd combinations can also get you reading other genres you wouldn't normally venture into. I picked up a romance novel once thinking it was something else from the description. It was, but it was also clearly romance. It was also a good read. (And the sex scenes steamed up my glasses.) I didn't continue to read the author because her emphasis was on the romance genre and hence her plots were somewhat formulaic, but it broadened my horizons some. (Literary-wise, mind you, not karma sutra-wise.)

Often times these ventures get labeled cross-overs, but I don't think that really fits. Especially when it's what the author regularly does. "Cross-over" to me implies a once only foray into a genre. Lack an actor who normally does action flicks attempting comedy or romance or something. I'm not saying there needs to be a new terminology, at least not yet, but I think there ought to be more room to exist between the labels. We tend to have to package things as "either/or" in order to convey what it is, and tend to rely on the old adage that as long as it's good it doesn't matter what it is, but it does matter what you call it, especially when you're trying to get someone to try it.

As for me, I'm off to buy more mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Too Much Information

(Feel free to hum along to the Duran Duran song as you read, though the point of their song is somewhat different from the following smattering of thoughts.)

I have too much clutter in my head. And by "clutter" I mean absolutely useless bits of trivia and information which, aside from those random moments where I can pipe up and say "I know that!" serve no other purpose in my head other than space filler. If you read or saw Dreamcatcher by Stephen King (and if you have to choose the read it, the book was far better) there is a section that takes place inside a character's head, where everything he's every thought is filed away. My head is like that, only combined with the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I've always been aware of this, but it was brought to the forefront the other day when I was reading something on various TV themes. They mentioned one in particular - a short lived show from the 80's that was born of the "heroes in/on vehicles trend" spawned by Knight Rider and Airwolf. Which show, you ask? It was called Street Hawk. What, you don't remember it? Don't worry, you're likely not alone. I retained it primarily because I was 11 when it came out and to an eleven-year old, the idea of a vigilante riding around on a souped-up motorcycle was cool.

So was KITT. I was eleven.

Which in a complete aside, was old enough to notice and be bothered by an eventual plot continuity problem with Street Hawk which had to do with how he maintained his secret identity. But I digress, and that could be an entirely separate entry on it's own.

As I said, it came up in conjunction with a discussion of TV themes. It turns out that this particular theme was written by Tangerine Dream, which I did not know. It also turned out that, even without clicking the link that was so generously provided, I could hum the theme. No words, so no singing, but I had the tune down. In my head, I was even in tune. (Reality was slightly different.)

The show ran for all of thirteen episodes, not even a full season. When I was eleven. It spawned no spin-offs, and while it wasn't as bad as, oh, say "Manimal" or the show with the computer guy and the cursor that followed him around - which was apparently bad enough for me to have forgotten the title completely* - it's not exactly the kind of thing that should have formed a lasting influence.

And yet, inexplicably, it did. Or at least I retained enough of it to make the connection reading about it again all these years later.

That's just one example. My head is full of those little tidbits and snippets, and while I could make the argument that, as a writer, you never know when one of those little things will blossom into something bigger and more important... I suspect they are just largely useless for anything other than taking me down random tangents at random moments.

Or the occasional moment when I can pipe up and say, "Hey, I know that!" even when no one else is in the room.

*An hour after I posted this the title occurred to me as I was making lunch: it was "Automan."

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ghosts of Novels Past

I keep a notebook, as any good writer should do. It's there for me to jot ideas in when they occur to me at a time and place where I can't implement them, or simply have no use for them. (I once came up with what I believe is a lovely pastorally poetic line in the little boys' room at a Barnes and Nobles. I haven't used it yet, but it's there.) It's not a fail-safe, as the ideas have to be written down in order to be recorded, and they have to be written so that I can read and decipher them later. A failure on both counts has occurred more than once.

After jotting something down the other day, it occurred to me that I've reached the point where I ought to figure out a way to organize what's in it. Far beyond that point, really, but the easiest solution for me is using different colors. I keep pens of different colors on hand anyway as a holdover habit from my teaching days, and color-coordinating would provide the visual clues I work best from.

Besides, it's pretty.

As I was flipping back through the pages - occasionally scratching my head over an entry - unsurprisingly the bulk of the entries were for what is now the completed novel. (Not my first overall but the first that's worth doing something with.) I spent the better portion of a decade and a half with that book in my head, working on it in various incarnations, so if the notebook - which I've had about half that time - wasn't packed with notes and ideas on that book, it would probably be a sign I wasn't thinking about it enough.

I didn't read through all of it, but I noticed some things that I had once contemplated that were, in the end, left in the notebook. Other items are things that have found there way into the subsequent work, which is set in the same universe. (In a small-scale "world of my own making" meaning of universe. I'm not Herbert or Asimov.) Some of what I had written down was bits of dialog I was trying to make work, or descriptions of items I'd had ideas on in the name of world-building. It was funny to see how something I had reduced to a single, non-descript line to fuel a necessary plot event had at one point taken up an entire page in the notebook.

Though I point out it's a small notebook, 8 1/2 by 5 1/2. It seems a size that suits me, as I use a similar size for my freelance notebooks. Those are one per project though, unlike the writing one which acts as a catch all.

It just felt a little odd to be looking at notes for something which was no longer an active effort, creatively speaking. Sure, I'm agonizing over the query, and hoping like heck I won't have to write a synopsis, but the work itself has sat, largely untouched and unmessed with, since I put it through the editing process and pulled it out the other side. I'm not a tweaker, and once something is done, it's done, and now in it's wake it leaves all those unused notes.

Maybe some of them will be resurrected later, but I suspect most of them will be lovingly packed up and tucked away (metaphorically speaking - the notebook stays out), taken out only occasionally to be reminisced over before being set aside once more. Not all ghosts are restless ones.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Revolving Resolutions

Start of a new year, start of new lists, new resolutions. Quick show of hands: how many have the same thing on their list this year they had last year?

I'm as guilty of that as the next person, though it's not always a bad thing. Some resolutions are things you ought to keep to, year in, year out. You could argue after a certain point they stop being resolutions for improvement and just become things you do, and therefore shouldn't count as goals, but I don't buy that. Some things are constant goals, and there's always some room for improvement even on the perennial ones.

Sometimes things drop off the list one year for various reasons, only to end up back on it at a later date. Maybe it was something we thought we outgrew, or something we put away for a bit and have only now come back to. Maybe it was just something we stopped codifying at the beginning of each year only to realize we needed it on that list to reinforce it.

One of mine this year is taken from a poster I had up in college. I came across it when I moved this year and have put it back on my wall. I was going to quote the whole thing but then realized that it's copyrighted, someone might object, and starting the new year of with a bit of plagiarizing - or at least unauthorized reproduction even when credit is given - was probably not the way to go.

It bills itself as the creed of the sociopathic obessessive compulsive, and while I no longer agree with all of it as wholeheartedly as I did in college - though the one about using a bulldozer to deal with bureaucracy still sounds about right - there is a comment about patience and persistence that I find pertinent. It reads, "Patience is a virtue, but persistence to the point of success is a blessing."

Which is part of what this whole writing profession is about. You have to keep at it, else you're not going to get anywhere. It's not guarantee of success, as other things go into that formula, but it is an integral part. You have to keep at it. And if it helps to put it on your list of resolutions, year after year, then I say by all means move it to the top of the list. (Another on the list on my wall reads, "If it's worth doing, it's got to be done right now.")

Just as long as it actually gets done, and isn't being recycled year after year because you never fulfill it.