Great Art is About Killing Dragons

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Earlier this year I spent three days at Disneyland with the fam, including the two grandboys, ages 4 and 2. Let me tell you, it may be the happiest place on Earth, but for three days it’s also an endurance test. My daughter told me, via her FitBit, that we averaged 21,000 steps each day. My dogs were screaming for mercy.

But we had a stupendous time. I mean, how can you not when you experience the park through the wide-eyed wonder of two small boys?

In Fantasyland there are five indoor rides within close proximity of each other. The most popular is Peter Pan. There’s always a long wait to get into this one. Right across the way are two rides for which there is virtually no wait time: Snow White and Pinocchio.

So as I waited in the Peter Pan line, I wondered, Why should this be?

I have some theories. For one thing, Peter Pan seems the most magical because you’re whisked away in a pirate ship to go flying through the sky—over Victorian London and then Never Never Land itself. There’s just something about flying that every kid loves.

Yet why should poor Snow White and Pinocchio be so lonely? There might be one reason parents don’t take their little ones on these rides—they’re scary!

I mean, in Snow White, there’s a sudden turn from happy dwarfs and singing birds to a frightening old crone who turns on you holding out a poisoned apple. From there it gets even darker, with thunder and lightning, and the crone appearing at the top of the hill wanting to smash you and the seven dwarfs with a big rock! (Confession: I recall going on this ride when I was little, with my big brother, and I was terrified.)

Pinocchio has more of a house of horrors type of scare. Pinocchio and Lampwick are taken to Pleasure Island where they smoke cigars, play pool and such. But as a consequence they are turned into donkeys. That’s not all. Just around the corner a giant whale jumps out at you, jaws agape! Sure, you end up safely back in Geppetto’s workshop, but it was one hairy journey to get there.

So I wonder if concerned parents simply don’t want their younger children to be frightened. I also wonder if that might be an opportunity lost. For fairy tales don’t exist in a vacuum. They are meant to be didactic. As G. K. Chesterton observed:

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. (Tremendous Trifles)

Which invites the question: is great fiction always moral? We know there’s plenty of darkness swirling around, especially since anyone can upload a book or video. But is it “art” to wallow in the darkness?

The respected editor Dave King mused about this at Writer Unboxed:

Why are so many gifted writers drawn to the dark side of life? Why are they driven to present characters who are hard to love or lovable characters in situations that are either hard to follow or hard to endure? Why does it feel like work to read them? And why are they winning awards for this?

The best art, from painting to fairy tales to commercial fiction must have, in my view, a moral vision. John Gardner put it this way: “I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life . . . that is worth living. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss.” (On Moral Fiction)

And turning again to Chesterton:

All really imaginative literature is only the contrast between the weird curves of Nature and the straightness of the soul. Man may behold what ugliness he likes if he is sure that he will not worship it; but there are some so weak that they will worship a thing only because it is ugly. These must be chained to the beautiful. It is not always wrong even to go, like Dante, to the brink of the lowest promontory and look down at hell. It is when you look up at hell that a serious miscalculation has probably been made. (G. K. Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions, 1911)

There are dragons everywhere. Sometimes they have form, as in, say, a villain wanting to kill good people. Or there might be inner dragons, psychological beasts keeping a character from full form and function in life. Readers read to experience the battle, and the outcome. If the dragon is slain, it’s upbeat. If the dragon wins, it’s a tragedy but also a cautionary tale. In either case, there’s lesson to be drawn (the “return with the elixir” in mythic terms) that helps us make it through this vale of tears.

Erle Stanley Gardner (creator of Perry Mason), once said:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

(The above, BTW, is the governing philosophy of my Patreon site.)

So I offer this up for discussion. Do you think art should have a moral compass? (Yes, we can disagree about what vision is moral; but good art should at least be about making an argument for the vision, don’t you think?)

By the way, I was greatly pleased recently to learn that my oldest grandboy’s favorite bedtime story is “St.George and the Dragon.”

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Escapism Rocks!

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There’s always been a certain amount of stress associated with being alive. In pre-historic times, this was largely based on concerns over being eaten by large animals. Or by having pointy things stuck into your body by the tribe down the road. At the same time, you had crops to attend to and weather events to deal with. All with no TV, internet, or Candy Crush.

Later on, the Greeks sat around inventing philosophy and giving people more reasons for stress, as in, trying to figure out the point of this bewildering existence. Religion was asking the same questions in places like India, China, and Jerusalem.

As the great historians say, stuff happens. Like war. More stress. In America we had a war oddly called “Civil.” And later joined the right side in a couple of wars big enough to be called “World.”

In between WWI and II, we had the Great Depression, and the stress of actually getting food onto the table. Jobs were scarce. Prospects, in many cases, dim.

Which is where escapism stepped in to offer rays of entertaining sunshine. You had the movies, of course. For a dime you could spend a few hours with Astaire and Rogers, Gable and Tracy, Hepburn and Grant. Radio was pervasive, providing laughs from Benny and Hope and Fibber McGee, and adventures with The Lone Ranger and The Shadow. And comfort by way of “fireside chats” delivered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself.

But by far the most popular form of escapism came by way of the pulp magazines. In the 1930s the pulps were booming. Newsstands and drug stores carried dozens of magazines with names like Black Mask, Dime Detective, Amazing Stories, Adventure, and Thrilling Western. Popular series characters (what the great pulp writer Erle Stanley Gardner called “the writer’s insurance policy”) included Nick Carter, Doc Savage, Tarzan, Conan the Cimmerian, Buck Rogers, Sailor Steve Costigan, and Bill Lennox.

Indeed, some of our best American writers came out of the pulps—people like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard, Fredric Brown, and Horace McCoy. Not to mention the many steady professionals who knew one thing above all—how to tell a dang good story.

And just what did these stories have in common? I think Gardner himself said it best:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

I believe this is still true. Which is why I’m launching my own short fiction channel via Patreon.

If you’re not familiar with Patreon, it’s a site where artists of various stripes can find support for their work. Friends, family, and fans become patrons of the artist. Usually that comes in the form of monthly pledges, in return for which a patron receives various benefits, such as early access to new work or a personally autographed print.

But there is another model called “per creation,” which seems to me more applicable to writers. In this model, patrons are not charged monthly, but only when an actual story is published. My job is to deliver the goods, which means entertaining escapism for a busy reading public. Stories you can read on the subway or the bus, or while waiting for the doctor, or simply at home after a long day when you don’t feel like cracking Moby Dick.

All of the details about this venture are on my page. I hope some of you will join me in this venture. The stories I publish will not appear anywhere else. You’ll be able to read this exclusive content online, on your phone via the free Patreon app, or on your Kindle, Nook or Kobo ereader.

My first story will come out June 1. It takes place in Hollywood in 1945. There’s a movie studio, a murder, and a studio troubleshooter named William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster. He’s going to be a series character, so this would be a good time to get in on the ground floor.

Because in times such as these, escapism rocks.

So what are some of your favorite books, movies, or TV shows when you simply want to escape?

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Be Productive, Persistent, and Professional

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’ve written often in this space about my admiration for the pulp writers of old. As I was learning the craft myself, I often turned to these writers for inspiration. Not just for their stories, but their practices as well. I found they did three things above all—they were productive, persistent and professional.

Productivity

The first mark of the successful pulp writer was productivity. They wrote. They wrote a lot. And they usually wrote on manual typewriters, several of them producing up to a million or more words a year.

Frederick Faust, aka Max Brand

Indeed, perhaps the most prolific author of all time, Frederick Faust (better known by his pen name Max Brand) wrote 4,000 words a day every day for about thirty years. How on earth did he do it? Especially since he drank whiskey all day and then, when finished with his fourteen pages, settled down to his serious drinking? (I do not recommend this method.)

Pulp writers had to be productive. They had to put food on the table, especially during the Depression. They were often being paid a penny a word. (Erle Stanley Gardner figured out that if he used a character’s full name in dialogue attributions, it was an extra penny. Thus, you’ll see his Perry Mason stories filled with: “Come in,” Perry Mason said. “Hello,” said Paul Drake. “Shall I stay?” asked Della Street.)

Be productive. Set a weekly quota of words. What can you comfortably do? Up that by 10% and keep track of your daily output on a spreadsheet. Review and adjust your quota every year.

“The most critical thing a writer does,” said the late Robert B. Parker, “is produce.”

Persistence

In the pulp days, if you wanted to break into a market, you had to overcome hundreds of rejection slips. In the 30s and 40s, the golden age of pulp, most magazines had headquarters in New York. Many a writer moved to the Big Apple so they could walk around and knock on doors and meet editors personally.

While they waited for a break, they continued to write and cop “hobo soup” at the automat. (That’s where you’d get a cup of hot water and dump in a healthy dose of ketchup, salt & pepper, and stir, then crumble in saltines—all these ingredients were free.)

Now, with digital self-publishing a viable option, you don’t have to wait to be published. But in most cases you’ll have to wait to make significant headway in the market. How long will it take before you start seeing more than coffee money come your way? That all depends on how productive you are (see above) and if you operate like a professional (see below).

Professionalism

The pulp writers approached writing as a job. They had to. They didn’t have time to sit around cafés gabbing endlessly about theories of literature. So they studied the markets, figured out what worked in those markets, and learned how to make their own writing better.

You can do the same. Study markets, expand your craft, and keep writing and adding your own spices.

When pulp writers sent in a manuscript, they made sure it was typed cleanly. When they talked to an editor, they made sure they spoke cleanly, for burning bridges was a fast route to the soup kitchen.

They had egos, sure, but they kept them in check because publishing is a small world. On occasion they’d push back on an editor messing with one of their stories, but they tried to keep it respectful. It was a good thing Twitter did not exist in the 1930s.

Professionalism still matters. Even if you self-publish, readers will pick up a vibe about you, stretching from the design of the books themselves all the way through your social media footprint.

So be wise about your profile, remembering what Erle Stanley Gardner said: “I serve the reading public.”

So should you. Which is why I’m happy to announce a new book, one I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s designed to teach the secrets of the great pulp writers, everything from how to be more prolific to the best plotting methods to my exclusive Start-a-Plot Machine.

HOW TO WRITE PULP FICTION is available now. Here’s where you can get it:

KINDLE

NOOK

KOBO

PRINT VERSION

A final word on pulp fiction. A certain class of literati has sniffed at its very existence. I even read one jeremiad that claimed commercial fiction writers have “sold their souls” to the “devil” of profitability, and how can they even look at themselves in the mirror?

Yeesh.

Well, I continue to shave in the morning and my mirror is clean, and I delight in what a successful pulp writer named William Wallace Cook (writing under the pen name John Milton Edwards) wrote over 100 years ago:

The tale that moves breathlessly but logically, that is built incident upon incident to a telling climax with the frankly avowed purpose to entertain, that has no questionable leanings or immoral affiliations—such a tale speeds innocently an idle hour, diverts pleasantly the harassed mind, freshens our zeal for the duties of life, and occasionally leaves us with higher ideals.

An honorable goal, I would say.

So, TKZers, how are you stacking up on the three Ps—productivity, persistence, professionalism?

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Avoiding Reader Burnout by Texting the Gods

(c) Copyright 2017, Random House Books for Young Readers

I’ve been repeatedly having the same vaguely disturbing conversation in person and via email with a number of individuals recently about books and reading. The topic is variously referred to as “reading fatigue,” “book burnout,” and “reading slump,” among other terms. The complaint centers upon the perceived feeling that new books being published are “all” following the same pattern. Elements of that pattern would include 1) “the placement of the word ‘girl’ in the title; 2) the unreliable first-person narrator; and 3) a missing child/husband/sister who seems to suddenly reappear with an inability to explain their absence.

It is true that publishing industry generally is reactive and not proactive. We all remember The Da Vinci Code. That book became a sub-genre unto itself. It seemed for a while as if every other newly published book concerned a hunt for an ancient relic that, depending on what it was and who was hunting it, would destroy, save, or enslave the world. Going back a bit further, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and John Grisham’s The Firm revived the popularity of the courtroom thriller, though it’s not as if that sub-genre ever really went away, once Erle Stanley Gardner had taken that beachhead in the 1930s with his Perry Mason novels.

There is some method to publishing’s madness, based on the proposition that if the public likes a certain type of book then it will want more of the same. I don’t recall a research  ever calling me and asking, “If you went to the library tomorrow, what type of book would you look for?” My answer would be “bound,” but that’s beside the point.

What does this mean for budding authors? My best advice is to not follow trends. If someone writes a book about an alcoholic housewife on a train who suspects that she has witnessed a murder being committed, and it becomes a bestseller, write your book about something else. Flip the script. Write about a recovering alcoholic who is as reliable as a Fossil Haywood and who, while doing some backyard gardening,  believes that she sees someone being murdered on the LIRR. I’m only kind of kidding. Do something different, because by the time you write your book and find an agent the publishers will probably be looking for something else. As for readers: if you’re tired of new books, look for an author who is new to you, or go back to the past and seek out something in your favorite genre among the mountains of books that have been published in the past sixty years or so. You can also seek out a couple of go-to authors. When I do my own reading, and nothing seems to please me, I pick up one of Timothy Hallinan’s fine novels, or an Elmore Leonard book, or start working my way through James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux canon, among others, to shake me out of my doldrums. Reading is good for you. You don’t want to stop.

Whatever you do, whether you are writing or reading or both, please don’t develop the impression that there are too many books. One of the blessings in my life is my association with bookreporter.com. I started reviewing books for Carol Fitzgerald’s website twenty years ago, and one of the many happy results of that relationship is that I receive new books of all sorts on an almost daily basis. Some of them are outside of my interest or demographic or whatever you wish to call it, as was one which I recently received entitled Greek Gods #squadgoals by Courtney Carbone, a children’s book editor and author. I thumbed through it and was totally lost — I don’t get the whole ‘#’ thing, or tweeting, Instagram, Pinterest, and the rest,  and probably never will — but the premise of the book was interesting, if incomprehensible to me in execution. It tells the stories of Greek Mythology from the point of view of the participants while assuming that they had smartphones and could text one another. I passed the book onto Samantha,  our (almost) eleven granddaughter. Samantha lives in the same city as we do, and as a result — another blessing — we get to see her frequently. I left Greek Gods at her place at the kitchen table. She came over for a visit, picked it up, and was entranced. She put her phone down, ignored the computer, turned off the flat screen, and started reading it from beginning to end, laughing all the way and sharing passages with us. Samantha is no stranger to books. She is working her way through that wonderful Warriors series by Erin Hunter and the likes of R. L. Stine, Chris Grabenstein’s Mr. Lemoncello books, and a host of others. This doesn’t happen by accident. Her father —my son — is a reader himself, and makes sure that she gets to the library and a local children’s bookstore pretty much on demand. I was happiest, however, about Samantha devoting full focus to Greek Gods. Whether she will at some point down the road pour over Edith Hamilton’s classic work on the subject, in the same manner in which those wonderful Classics Illustrated comics led me to H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and yes, Fyodor Dostoyevsky,  remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that from Samantha’s perception there won’t be too many books, or not enough interesting ones. There simply won’t be enough time to read them all.

Back to you. What book or series would you want to read right now, time and availability permitting? For me, it would be Richard Prather’s Shell Scott series, in the original paperback editions. You?

 

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