Thursday, July 30, 2015

how to be lazy as a writer (and still write a decent story)

Before I get into all the things "wrong" with the short story "Long Tom Lookout" by Nicole Cullen, which was included in the 2014 Best American Short Stories collection and is therefore, presumably, a exemplar of the best of the species, the tl;dr is actually this: This is a pretty good story, in spite of how its mechanics fall back on what I will argue are modern literary fiction conventions. I want to make two points by this:

1) Literary fiction is no different from any other kind of fiction. There are expectations and a kind of standard for the field. Some writers break out from this, but you can follow the pattern--sometimes without any innovation at all--and make readers believe you have succeeded in the genre.
2) There's nothing wrong with this. All genres are capable of providing life-changing imaginative connections even when being genre-conventional. Plot, theme, and characterization can make up for the lack of innovation in style and language for a writer.

What are these conventions that I see in Cullen?

1) Listing, often in triples, the things that a character notices as a way to establish scene
2) Highly specific nouns that most people would not really know the names of as a way to establish scene.

"Sin" #1:

When I'm reading a story, particularly a story in third-person limited, I am often distracted when there is a tone of narration going on that seems at odds with the character's POV the narration is providing. A third-person limited POV should give us only what a character can see, touch, taste, think, feel, etc. It is okay for the narrator to interpret for the audience, even to do so with thoughts that the character herself could not verbalize, e.g. "Monica was, in short, getting to that point in her relationship when she would start to invent reasons why the relationship would not work out." This is fine, and doesn't interrupt my enjoyment of the story. But when the author (not just the narrator) seemingly takes over the sensory apparatus of a character and uses the character's eyes, nose, and ears to sense what the author wants to sense, I want to call foul. Examples from "Long Tom Lookout":

- The headlights flood an irrigation canal black with water, a jack fence, and the beginnings of a field.
-The last few days on the road have been an experiment in cause and effect—the boy’s inability to communicate, his self-destructive behavior, his obsession with maps.
-...she thinks back to the rare find of a buried railroad tie, the smell of wet sagebrush, her father bending to touch the pink of a bitterroot flower.
-Nine years have passed and now she’s back with sixty-four dollars in cash, a truck in her husband’s name, and a boy that isn’t hers
-She passes a Wonder Bread truck then a flatbed hauling hay bales and two barking dogs. On the hillside above town, houses begin to wake.
-...the property has gone steadily downhill: warped cedar shingles, rusted wrought-iron fence, flowerbeds usurped by star thistle.
-Her mother stands in the side yard, dressed in a mud-hemmed housecoat and muck boots, throwing feed to the chickens.

I could go on (and on and on), but since all of these examples are within the first 750 words of the story, I think that will suffice. Oh, fuck it, let's do one more:

-Through the grain of the screen Lauren sees a woman impossible to please—dirt-caked knuckles and a gray braid. Glasses hang from a gold chain around her neck.

I included that last one because it looked for a moment like there would only be two things the narrator picked from Lauren's POV to show the reader, but then...BLAMMO!! The third was just waiting in another sentence. These examples are all before Lauren and her son get out of the car to meet her mother, which is when the action really starts.

Why do I have such a critique hard-on for picking out these tripled scene-setters? (To be fair, the second one in the list is more of a catalog of things that have happened than things in the scenery.)  Well, I don't really think this is such a great sin, to be honest. Writers are told to present "details that matter," and I suppose most of these details reasonably set tone and Lauren's interior landscape.

 I guess one problem I always have in a 3d person limited PoV is the leakage between what is the PoV character's observation and what is the author interpreting those observations for the reader. This very much kills the magic of the story for me on many occasions. I realize that the narrator's voice isn't the same as the character's voice, unless we're in first person. But when the narrator continues to pick up on things in the main character's field of view in triplets, it starts to take over the attention of the reader in a way I don't think is intended. The narrator can pick and chose from what the character has available to inform the story, but the narrator can't move too far away from the voice of the character without being a character him/herself. When Cullen writes "Through the grain of the screen Lauren sees a woman impossible to please," that's Lauren's thoughts that the narrator is giving us access to. Presumably, then, all of these sensory details are things that Lauren perceives. And if she perceives everything in groups of three, we have to wonder if this character has some kind of OCD.

Three is a satisfying number. If the character sees three things, we feel like this is a more authentic description somehow. But falling back on it so much that even I noticed it is going to the well a lot.

"Sin" #2

I don't know who started the tendency to go crazy with Google and look up the exact words for things (or find things you didn't know about and put them in your story), but I see this everywhere. I don't believe Lauren would know pyrite from granite. Or what balsamwood, cheatgrass, and Canada thistle are by sight. But all these things appear in the description. To me, this is a break in the direction of third person omniscient, to a narrator who is able to break the surly bonds of the character and be a lot smarter than the character is. I honestly believe that lit fic has developed an unspoken rule that it is permissible if not outright expected that a narrator will break from the constraints of the character whenever scene is being described. Why? Well, I think it's kind of a bourgeois sentimentality. We want beautiful descriptions of scene, because when we go to our book clubs and don't really understand what the book is about, we can always pick out a few passages of description and talk about how beautiful we think they are. I mean, it's fine. I've done it. I looked up the kinds of grass that would grow in the lowlands of Illinois down by the Illinois river and put that in my story. But I really could go for an easing up of this tendency.


This is a really compelling story. Lauren is feeling all the powerful emotions of new parenthood, all that sudden being needed. She is trying to connect, but failing. Her attempts to nurture end up vomited back up like the Huckleberry milkshake she gives "the boy." She is telling herself that her reasons are altruistic, and that she is being much put upon, but the reactions of others seem to call this into question. It's clear that we at least have a mix of altruism and a desire to somehow reconnect with Keller through Jonah. She's a lookout who can't look out for herself, certainly not for Jonah, which makes her doubly isolated. This is good stuff that scratches at the meaning of parent-child bonding, how it complicates the play between romantic love and our fear of being alone. None of this is weakened because Cullen employed some modern lit-fic stock techniques. She makes up for her mechanical plainness with a good plot and a good character working toward a complicated and meaningful theme.

I get tired of always hearing about how much people value original language or language that makes you stand up and take notice. That's not really what people want. If that were true, then 70% of stories in literary journals wouldn't sound an awful lot like one another. So what I'd like is for us to just drop the charade that great technique is what we want because we're such smart, literary readers. I'd like "literary" fiction to open up to stories that don't sound so "literary," that is, that follow conventions other than the ones that lit fic uses. Because at heart, lit fic isn't really better writing or more linguistically virtuosic most of the time. It's just people doing what they've read other people do in order to tell a story that nobody else has told yet. That's what this story did.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Top Ten Suckiest Parts of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy

While my writing hobby is still stalled (I've actually tried out two 'non-literary' stories while on my break since last December, but mostly I'm not writing), I'll use this blog, since I have it, to scratch another itch that I've had for a while. It's nice to use this time when I'm not being ignored or critiqued to critique the hell out of somebody else's work.

Unlike Walking Dead, which was my last list/diatribe, I actually had an emotional attachment to Tolkien before the movies came out. My dad read them to me when I was young, and then I read them again in high school. I thought about them often when I was in the Marine Corps, hating life, and they were sort of an inspiration to keep slogging along.

I'm not a purist. I understand movies are movies and books are books. None of my criticisms boil down to "this was different in the book." I was fine with not having Tom Bombadil. It was okay to have Saruman be killed by Wormtongue on top of Orthanc, rather than during the (elided) Scouring of Shire. Arwen saves Frodo and not a mystery elf who might have actually died in another part of the Tolkien legendarium? No problem. My hates are more of the "the movies changed something and made the story worse in so doing" flavor. Here we go:

The list

10) The drinking scene. While I understood the need for humor and was willing to tolerate Gimli's transformation into D and D dwarf to get it done, this scene wasn't really funny and took up a lot of time. The beginning of RoTK is really slow. It takes us a half an hour just to get to "Sauron is going to attack Minas Tirith." We could have just had Gandalf figure it out while talking to Saruman and saved time for other, better material.

9) "Fake death #1"--Sam Gamgee. Nearly every character has a fake death at some point in the Jackson trilogy. Aragorn has like three. By the end, it was easy to see that Gollum wasn't really dead when he seemed to fall down the crevice. These add minutes the films desperately needed to do other things, but they also take away the emotional impact of the two, real "fake deaths": those of Gandalf and Frodo. I guess it was okay to have the audience wondering along with the three walkers whether Pip and Merry had made it. But Sam didn't need to have his own fake death at the end of FoTR. It served nothing plot-wise, and telegraphed other, more important fake deaths.

8) Sam has too many Rudy speeches. Sam isn't terrible in the movies, but when he's bad it's by being too much of what he is. The Sam of the books is quiet and has a hard time finding his words. When he does speak, it carries more weight. He does his talking by his actions. In movies two and three, hardly a Frodo/Sam scene goes by without him talking up believing in the good in the world and holding on to hope.

7) Insertion of too many "this is the theme of the movie, guys" lines. "You're part of this world!" In movie one, Gandalf's words come during a tense lull in the action soon before he falls. They carry weight. You've got to play that with a light hand, though. Too much is just wearisome. TTT is dripping with these lines, and RoTK isn't free of it, either. Pick the best ones and drop the rest, Peter. And for God's sake, don't write your own.

6) Creating a conflict in TTT between Aragorn, who wants Theoden to ride out aggressively against a much larger army, and Theoden, who seemingly is healed from one blindness to go right into another. This conflict makes no sense. Strategically, Theoden was right, and there wasn't much to argue about. They were badly outnumbered. Get the high ground and dig in. Aragorn never argued this in the books, because he isn't stupid. This speaks to a real annoying feature of the movies: EVERYONE has to have a narrative arc, no matter how convoluted a route it takes to get them there. Theoden can't just fight the Uruk-hai. He has to be tentative about it before he is inspired to be brave, to be a LEADER about it. That's dumb.One of the cool things about Tolkien is that some of his characters are somewhat static. That sounds terrible, but it's what makes them different from every story you read today. They're static in a good way--they persist in their beliefs. They defy the usual narrative arc. Rather than becoming something new every time, they sometimes become the fullness what they were meant to be all along.

5) Fake death #2, Aragorn falls over the cliff. (Also, he almost gets killed by a troll in RoTK, almost drowns in runoff water in TTT, etc., but this was the worst.) This took a VERY long time. The only plot point advanced by this long side trip is that Aragorn thinks about his past with Arwen. He could easily have done this while riding along on the way to Helm's Deep. The opportunity cost of having this (and the wolves scene that goes with it) in the movie was the lost chance to have one really great scene from the book, the one in which Aragorn stands on the parapet before dawn and speaks to the Uruk-hai. It could have been a great scene in film, and it would have advanced Aragorn's true narrative arc--"Do I have enough greatness in me to accomplish what I desire to?" Instead, the audience got the hint even more that only Boromir is going to die for real.

4) The suckening of Faramir. Sam compares Faramir to Gandalf in the books. He is wise. He is never tempted to take the ring. He says if he found it on the road, he wouldn't pick it up. The movies need to give him an arc, though. "I want to get this to make my father love me, but I must resist. I will eventually learn to resist." That's so...modern. It's familiar. We already know this story. We love LoTR because it's different from every other story we read today. Don't make it more like them.

3) Frodo pushes Gollum into the pit of fire. One friend of mine said this is "like Jesus Christ coming down off the cross to kill all the Roman soldiers." Gollum falls in through his own uncontrollable lust, and possibly through the grace of Eru. That's how the ring works. It seals its own doom.

2) Not having Eomer at Helm's Deep. In the books, he forms a friendship with Gimli, with whom he at first had severe animosity. There is a funny bit about Gimli going off on a raid at one point so he doesn't fall asleep. In the movies, in order to make "Eomer forgives his uncle" a story, they keep him out of his great role.

1 1/2: Also, related to the Helm's Deep scene, something I just thought of: There are about five cutaway shots of women and children looking scared from their refuge within the caves. Did we really need this many shots of random fear to be reminded of the stakes of the battle? Do we feel more invested in the outcome because some redshirt townies will be massacred if the Uruk-hai win? 

1) Gandalf gets fucking pwnd by the fucking Witch Fucking King of Fucking Angmar. Fuck you, Peter Jackson. We wasted ten minutes on drinking contests and Gandalf holding a chamber pot, but we don't have time for the MOST MADE-FOR-CINEMA MOMENT from the books? Actually, the theater version didn't have Gandalf losing his stand-off. It's almost like the books: Gandalf says a few words, Witch King says a few words, then horns, horns, and the Witch King leaves. The feeling in the book is that it might have been a stand-off, but I wouldn't have bet against Gandalf. Here it is:

(Really cool scene in which the battering ram breaks through. Then...)

     In rode the Lord of the Nazgul. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgul, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.
     ALL SAVE ONE. (caps mine, because I just got an erection while typing that) There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax: Shadowfax who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Rath Dinen. 
     "You cannot enter here," said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. "Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!"
     The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold! he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter.
     "Old fool!" he said. "Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!" And with that he lifted high his sword and flame ran down the blade.

    Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.
     And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin's sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.

  So, yeah. Fuck yeah. That's the scene they had to nail. Instead, we get (in the extended version), Gandalf getting his staff broken and cringing, only to be saved by the horns. Jackson knew better than to put this in theaters. He'd have been lynched. In the first place, it makes no sense. The Witch King has the only effective leader in the city lying in front of him, and can't take three seconds to finish him off before he goes to see about those horns?

    But there's a bigger offense here. Gandalf, when he comes back from his battle with the Balrog, is something set apart. I have a sense that he fears nothing in Middle Earth except Sauron himself. Aragorn seems to second this. When he meets the risen Gandalf in the book he says " are our captain and our banner. The Dark Lord has Nine. But we have One, MIGHTIER THAN THEY (caps mine): the White Rider. He has passed through the fire and the abyss, and they shall fear him. We will go where he leads."

     I always read those last lines when most men my age take Viagra, and it works much better. I think I just impregnated the cat. And I don't even have a cat.

     Jackson felt, I'm sure, that he had to build up the indomitable nature of the Witch King prior to his death at the hands of Eowyn. But he really didn't need to do it at Gandalf's expense. He could have simply had the Witch King sweeping the fields of horsemen, much like Sauron did in the opening scene of the trilogy. This was utterly a false step, and it's not faithful to Gandalf's own narrative arc. What did his resurrection mean if he is so powerless? He is the greatest of a great order. He is the carrier of Narya, the ring of fire. He is the one, the white rider. This is all great film ready-made. But Jackson missed the layup.