James Scott Bell
The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down. The people ride in a hole in the ground. – Betty Comden and Adolph Green, On the Town
John Ramsey Miller
We have all seen movies on television where key scenes are deleted or language altered–often comically when they try to make the word fit the actor’s lip movements, or change “you Mother F*cker!” to “you silly nut” –that we are accustomed to it. The other night I was watching one of the new shows (Harry’s Law maybe)and one character called another an asshole. Did the censors stop working at the networks and go to work on Disney cartoons?
You know I like realism and I’ve got a cast-iron gut, but I was stunned last night watching BONES. This “Gravedigger”, a red-headed female serial killer, ex-prosecuting attorney in an orange jump suit stepped from a paddy wagon and was walking to the courthouse door when her head vaporized in a red wet cloud. Most realistic head blowing up I’ve ever seen and it was so seamless that, had I not known how illegal it is, I would have sworn they killed an actress (you know who was about to die of some dread disease anyway) for the shot. Then they showed closeups of people being washed with gore. It friggin looked like the special effects guy tossed a giant slurpee glass full of blood and brain tissue into the actor’s face and shirt. I was so startled I laughed. That was followed by the slow panning of the corpse, whose head was just not there, a cluttered pool of blood. This wasn’t HBO, this was Fox (I think). I’ve always thought of BONES as a light-weight drama. Those days are over.
I think some things are best shown …well, maybe less graphically. The parts of the exploded head were given a close up as the lab team prepared to reconstruct the skull on a lazy susan. Why the hell put it together? Identification to check what amount of her head actually evaporated? The shot made what was left look like a meat-lovers pizza special where the a drunk chef used half a side of beef on it. I’m talking chunks the size of toddler fists with teeth, with features and some with tufts of red hair. Man-o-man. Actually, woman-o-woman. Then they showed a corpse in a tub of lye. Everything below the waterline was bone sticking through mushy tissue… And then they had a scene with that corpse on a table in the lab. Ugggghhh!
Did I mention that my four-year-old grandson saw it? I’m sure his mind will never be the same. He was at the table behind me, and when I laughed he looked up from his coloring book. “Dotz, I want to see it again.” I changed the channel to Sponge Bob, after pressing the record button, and I had to explain special effects just like I have explained to him that Jurassic Park doesn’t have actual dinosaurs, or that there are no Transformers demolishing buildings and so forth.
So here’s my point. Do you think audiences have become so desensitized as to accept these radical changes involving what is on the tube. Where do we go from here? When is reality too real? Have I finally become as old fuddy duddy? Well, I didn’t think I was. Truth is I know the next steps and how close we are to leaving NOTHING to the imagination. That, I find truly sad.
I feel for kids. We had Roy Rogers and six guns that shot dozens of rounds if the cowboys were in a running fight. Our kids have bullets exploding heads. I’m going to start wearing a raincoat when I watch TV, just in case blood splashes through the screen.
By John Gilstrap
My first two published novels, Nathan’s Run and At All Costs, are out of print, and the rights reverted to me several years ago. Thanks to the somewhat startling success of the first two books in the Jonathan Grave series—No Mercy and Hostage Zero—Kensington Publishing purchased the reprint rights, and both will reappear on the shelves in 2011, first as eBooks and then as pBooks.
They’ll be published in reverse order, however, with At All Costs scheduled for a May release and Nathan’s Run coming out in August. The rationale here is all about practicality: At All Costs introduces FBI Agent Irene Rivers, a secondary yet pivotal character in the Grave books. With the latest Grave book, Threat Warning, coming out in late June, the reverse order seems like an attractive marketing platform. I guess we’ll see.
Enough shameless self-promotion for now.
It’s an interesting exercise to revisit stories I wrote thirteen and fifteen years ago. I have the opportunity to change anything I want—whether to merely put on a fresh coat of paint, or to pull down the Sheetrock and move the walls. I tell you that it’s tempting. If I were to write either of those books today, telling the same story, they’d be structured a lot differently. I’m startled by the degree to which my storytelling instincts have evolved.
But I’m going to resist the temptation—mostly. Fact is, I’m still very proud of both books, and I still think they’re well-written, even if I would write them differently today. They are, in fact, the books I wrote at the time, and the purist in me wants them to remain blazes on the trail I walked in the 1990s. They reflect the sensibilities and the world view of a young father with a small child, written at a time that was in so many ways different than today.
But I can’t leave them alone entirely. In fact, I think I’d be foolish to leave some elements untouched. For example, there’s one scene in At All Costs that I put in specifically under pressure from my editor at the time. I never liked it, and after the book was published, I cringed that it was there. Well, it’s not anymore. It wasn’t mine to begin with, so I don’t apologize for taking it out.
A little trickier are the changes I plan for the ending of Nathan’s Run. My original manuscript ended with a wrap-up chapter—a coda, if you will, much like the codas that end most of my later books. I took it out under pressure from everyone in my publishing food chain—from my then-agent’s assistant, through my editor and beyond. Since then, I have received hundreds of letters and emails from readers who wanted to know precisely the information that I had originally included in my manuscript. I’m putting it back.
Because it’s the ending, though—literally the last images of the story—this change makes me nervous. Part of me wants to put in some kind of note that says, “This used to be the end of the story,” but the rest of me acknowledges that it’s a mistake to interrupt the reading experience. I’ve got three weeks to figure this out, so there’s room for advice (hint, hint).
Most appropriate to threads that have been discussed here in the Killzone is my plan to largely defuckify both books.
Now, before any of you start slinging accusations of hypocrisy, let’s make this clear from the beginning: I told the publisher I wanted to do this, not the other way around. In fact, defuckification vastly complicates things for Kensington.
Again, my rationale is simple and practical: Hundreds (and hundreds) of letters and emails from fans telling me that they loved the books and believed that their children/mother/father/sister/brother would love it, too, if only they could share it. The language was the dealbreaker.
And you know what? They’re right. There’s a lot of gratuitous profanity in those books. In Nathan’s Run—a book with a twelve-year-old protagonist—there’s a passage that rhymes with “you trucking punt.” The story doesn’t need that. Perhaps no story needs that. (For the record, when I wrote that passage in 1994, I don’t think the C-word was as loaded as it is now. And, for the record, the epithet is directed from one male character to another male character.)
By way of full disclosure, a few F-bombs will remain, but in each case, I feel that they’re essential to the scene. In each case, I test-drove the scene sans F-bomb and they didn’t work.
My question to Killzoners is this: Is it okay for authors to “improve” upon their work when given a second chance, or should the first go-around live on forever?
The popularity of the anti-hero (man or woman) continues to be a strong trend in literature and in pop culture. With their moral complexity, they seem more realistic because of their human frailties. They are far from perfect. They tend to question authority and they definitely make their own rules, allowing us all to step into their world and vicariously imagine how empowering that might feel.
Some classic literary anti-heroes that are personal favorites of mine are:
Holden Caulfield in the Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Roland Deschain in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Lestat in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, Hannibal Lecter (as Clarice’s white knight) in Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and even Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
And here is a short list of noteworthy anti-heroes from the small screen:
On the TV show, HOUSE, Dr. Greg House is addicted to pain meds, a by-product of his damaged leg. He’s also obnoxious, abrasive, brutally honest, and definitely politically incorrect in how he deals with patients, but he’s damned good at what he does—saving lives. His public face appears to be a detached man who ridicules any real human emotion, yet he’s fascinated by true emotion too. It’s as if he’s an outsider looking in, an observer of the whole human experience. We never quite know if he really cares about his patients or is merely obsessed with being right as he puzzles out the reasons for the illnesses.
On the cable show, DEXTER, the strange anti-hero, Dexter Morgan, is a serial killer with a goal. He hunts serial killers and satisfies his blood lust by killing them. He’s got peculiar values and loyalties with a dark sense of humor. And he’s absolutely fascinating to watch.
On the new show HUMAN TARGET, Christopher Chance has a dark history. He’s a do-it-all anti-hero, former assassin turned bodyguard, who is a security expert and a protector for hire. He works with an unusual and diverse team. His business partner, Winston, is a straight and narrow, good guy while his dark friend, Guerrero, is a man who isn’t burdened by ethics or morality. Each of these men has very different feelings about what it takes to get the job done, but they’ve found common ground to work together. And their differences make for a fun character study. (My favorite character is Guerrero and I wish his character had more airtime.)
I’ve put together a list of writing tips that can add depth to your villain or make your anti-hero/heroine more sympathetic, but let me know if you have other tried and true methods. I’d love to hear them.
1.) Cut the reader some slack by clueing them in early. Your Anti-Hero/Heroine has a very good reason for being the way they are.
2.) Make them human. Give them a code to live by and/or loyalties the reader can understand and empathize with.
3.) Make them sympathetic by giving them a pet or a soft spot for a child. Write the darkest character and match them up with something soft and you’ve got a winning combination that a reader may find endearing.
4.) Show the admiration or respect others have for them.
5.) Give your villain and anti-hero similar motivations for doing what they do. Maybe both of them are trying to protect their family, even though they’re on opposing sides.
6.) Give your villain or anti-hero a shot at redemption. What choice would they make?
7.) Understand your villain’s backstory. It’s just as important as your protagonist’s.
8.) Pepper in a backstory that makes your anti-hero vulnerable.
9.) Give them a weakness. Force them to battle with their deepest fears.
10.) Have them see life through personal experiences that we can only imagine but they have lived through. They must be much more vulnerable than they are cynical to deserve the kind of significant other that it takes to open them up to love.
11.) Make them real. To be real, they must have honest emotions.
If you have favorite anti-heroes you’d love to share, I would love to hear from you. And tell us why you like them so much. I’d also like to know if you have any other writer tips to share on creating anti-heroes. Creating them can be a challenge worth taking. Editors sure seem to love them too.
By Joe Moore
There is a title sought after by all writers, fiction and non-fiction. Having it behind your name means you’ve made it, you’ve reached the highest level of skill in the publishing industry. It adds legitimacy and validation to your claim to be a writer, and it’s prestigious and honored by all. You get to place it after your name when, for example, you make a public comment and are quoted or you contribute a blurb to a fellow author. It’s a badge to be worn with pride. And once you’ve achieved it, you keep it for life.
It’s the title: New York Times bestselling author.
Sure, there are other bestselling lists. But none has that crystal clear ring of authority and accomplishment like the NYT list.
For those who have garnered that title, congratulations. Quite a few have made it onto the list. For everyone else, keep trying by writing the best book you can. Who knows, someday your name might be there, too.
But there’s actually one more level of achievement to that title, one very few manage to obtain. It’s the most prestigious of all.
#1 New York Times bestselling author.
There’s nothing higher. There’s no better. I’ve never seen a writer claim to have been #6 New York Times bestselling author. Being #1 is like being the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Sure all those other generals and admirals are members of the Joint Chiefs. But there’s only one Chairman. And there’s only one #1 on the NYT list.
I was chatting with a few fellow authors the other day and a couple of hypothetical questions came up. If you become a #1 New York Times bestselling author, what would you try to do next? Go for a Nobel? Maybe a Pulitzer? Oprah Book Club? If your next book also reached #1, would it be considered better than the first one? What if it only got to #20 or didn’t make the list at all. Would that mean that it was not as good? Or that you’ve failed somehow?
In answering the questions, we all agreed that as writers we would still keep writing. That’s a given. But in our minds and in our hearts, what would be that next sought-after goal? One author suggested he would write his next book under a pseudonym and try to achieve the #1 status again. Another stated that after achieving that title, nothing else mattered in the area of prestige.
So lets have some fun in a non-scientific survey. If you became a #1 New York Times bestselling author, what would you strive or hope for next? How would you top being #1?
THE PHOENIX APOSTLES, coming June 8, 2011.
”The Phoenix Apostles demands to be read in one sitting. – James Rollins
These days I’m interested in all things related to brain function, so a bit of news caught my eye about the brain and creativity. Researchers have discovered that for artists to become creative, they must muzzle their inner critic.
In an experiment, scientists measured the brain activity of jazz musicians as they performed a memorized piece of music, and then measured it again when the musicians did an improvised piece. Different brain regions lit up, according to the type of performance being given. During the improvisation, the medial prefrontal cortex–the part of the brain that allows self-expression–was more active. During the memorized piece, the dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions–the brain areas that monitor and correct performance–were more active.
In other words, in order to be creative, we’ve got to silence our brain’s inner critic.
For a writer, it’s not always easy to silence an internal critic. Take me, for example. I’m perfectly capable of stalling for days over a single paragraph, even a particular sentence. I’ll rewrite and rethink, tweak and prune, until I’m practically clawing at the walls of our house.
Recently I’ve developed a coping strategy for my internal critic, which I’ve named Harpy Harriet. When Harpy starts whispering in my ear, telling me things like, “Man, your writing sucks. You suck. Whatever made you think you were a decent writer?”, I merely type a little placeholder, and move on. Inevitably, when I return to that spot after having forged ahead in the manuscript, it’s much easier to write the revision.
But Harpy is a sly, cunning opponent, always scheming to get the better of me. She keeps changing tactics. Recently she’s tried to convince me that my medical issues have done a Flowers For Algernon number on the creative parts of my brain, rendering it incapable of producing decent prose. The only way I’ve been able to reassure myself is by going to my critique group. My group members don’t know anything about Harpy–they just tell it like it is about my prose. And so far, everything seems normal. I’m not like Charlie, regressing to a creative IQ of 68. I’m okay (at least as far as the writing is concerned). I can tell Harpy to take a hike.
What about you? Do you ever have to wrangle with a harsh internal critic? How have you put a muzzle on it?
UPDATE: In honor of some of the suggestions in our comments today, I am adding a picture of the Lamisil Monster as a candidate for the Inner Critic…lol.
I happened across a quotation while surfing the net this afternoon. It was headlined across the top of the website for Joseph Beth booksellers, a small independent chain in the Midwest which regrettably has gotten smaller over the past several months but continues to do yeoman’s work at their flagship store in Cincinnati. The quotation, from Emilie Buchwald, is: “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” Just so.
The earliest book that I can remember my mother reading to me is Rudy Kazootie, Detective. The title is all that I can recall about the book; googling images for that title brings up an unfamiliar cover, pictures of Rudy Giuliani and Prince, and, uh, some other reproductions of a more mature and scatological nature. It struck a chord in me somewhere, however, opening up some channels in the brain that never closed. I subsequently learned to read on my own at the tender age of four by reading the Harvey run of Dick Tracy comics, purchased from the Tremont Pharmacy in Upper Arlington, Ohio, which always seemed to have a new issue of the book each time I went there. When I reached grade school, my dad, probably alarmed to some extent by my taste in literature, came home with some hardbound books in what were known as the “All About” series, featuring such titles as All About Archaeology by Roy Chapman Andrews, among others. He would sit between my bed and my brothers and read to us for fifteen minutes or so; after the lights went out, the flashlights went on and the reading continued. All About Archeology eventually gave way to Sax Rohmer and Fu Manchu; Dick Tracy never gave way to anything — I still read those strips, to this day — but shared space and time with the Hardy Boys, when I discovered that the serial off something called The Tower Treasure on The Mickey Mouse Club was part of a long-running series that had some thirty-odd volumes at that point in time (1960 or so). I read every one I could get my hands on before I happened to take a good look at the paperbacks displayed on the revolving wire racks at the drug stores and made the acquaintance of a gentleman named Shell Scott, whose knowing leer promised a peek into territories which I had yet to chart and am, alas, still exploring.
It is a somewhat tenuous and tortured trail, indeed from Rudy Kazootie on my mother’s lap and to Shell Scott and…well, never mind. But Buchwald’s premise holds true. I read every Golden Book I could get my hands on to my sons, both of whom somehow went from Bert and Ernie to Elmore (Leonard) and Vince (Flynn). And my younger daughter, to whom my wife read for hours each night, has been reading Vonnegut and Bradbury since she was eleven. And the pattern continues. My older son, who never wanted children but who has become the best father I know, reads to his daughter on a nightly basis. Maybe some day, one day, you will read something by her to your children.