Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bold Venture Bulletins #6: Golden Perils

Golden Perils

I’m currently behind in writing several things, but making haste in catching up with my commitments -- a couple of short stories, a couple of scripts. In between writing, I make time for reading, since that’s my best method of “feeding the muse.”

Watching movies and television can be fun and entertaining, but it doesn’t necessarily pay dividends for writing in the short story format. If you want to be a better author, you must write often, but you should also read other good authors.

Right now, I’ve been chain-reading Parker novels by Richard Stark, alias Donald Westlake, about the remorseless professional criminal of twenty plus novels. They’re exciting and well-written, but occasionally I feel guilty that I’m not pushing myself to read other material, to get outside the so-called comfort zone.

Then again, I get on obsessive pop culture kicks, and I only want to discuss one subject for weeks or months.

But how does this affect one’s writing?

When Moonstone Books was assembling The Green Hornet Chronicles, I developed an original story (which borrowed the title of an episode of The Untouchables) about the illegal lottery in Detroit. “You Can’t Pick the Number” had several false starts, not the least of which was my admiration for Dashiell Hammett. I had been reading The Glass Key, a novel of corrupt big-city politics, when work began on The Green Hornet.

Eventually, the story stalled somewhere in the middle. Joe Gentile asked that stories average somewhere around 5,000 words, and my first draft was nearly 12,000 words. My narrator meandered from one scene to another, waiting for something to click, and very deliberately avoided making judgments on characters. Gestures and unconscious habits were described in excruciating detail. Scenes dragged on and on.

Finally, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t write in Hammett’s style – not for this particular story, anyway. Ned Beaumont’s both-ends-against-the-middle approach worked in The Glass Key, but Hammett had several thousand more words at his disposal. The story dealt with corrupt politicians making back-room deals; The Green Hornet deals in that milieu, for certain, but readers are expecting a certain amount of blood and thunder. I was eager to deliver.

Then, I began reading an issue of The Destroyer, the long-running adventure series created by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir. In many respects, you can’t get much different than The Green Hornet. In one series, a respected newspaper publisher dons a mask and begins dismantling the underworld and corrupt politicians, a masked vigilante posing as a master criminal. The Destroyer recounts the exploits of a former policeman turned government assassin, the disciple of an overbearing Korean master of Sinanju, the sun source of all martial arts.

Murphy and Sapir allowed their protagonists to thwart all manner of evil – corrupt politicians, terrorists, vampires, renegade robots, all against a Cold War backdrop. They also brought political satire to their series, and the narrator unabashedly smirks and sneers at the hypocrites and criminals on Remo Williams’s hitlist.

I might have been reading The Destroyer #26: In Enemy Hands when I said, “The hell with it,” and revised the Hornet story with a vengeance. Descriptions of criminal types, which had been impartial, now reflected my general disdain for those who better themselves at another person’s expense.

The highlight of my story was Patrolman Pat O’Brien, an aging beat cop who blamed the world for his under-achievement. He was introduced as a minor character, gobbled up a large portion of the text, and was slated for the proverbial cutting room floor. Fellow author and pal C.J. Henderson implored me not to excise him from the prose, stating he was the best part of the story.

So O’Brien’s scenes remained intact (after heavy revision), and a certain amount of improvisation took me further away from my synopsis. Officer O’Brien became a more prominent character, with his wavering allegiances, and played out the final denouement.

The Glass Key pointed me in the right direction – I wanted to make my Hornet story a little more hardboiled, and nobody boiled their prose harder then Hammett. But reading Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir’s prose reminded me that it’s alright to pass judgment on characters, and to get inside their heads and their histories.

Hammett’s prose is very linear. He believed in allowing a character to act tough, rather than telling us he was tough.

Murphy and Sapir often poked and probed the edges of their prose. Plots in The Destroyer are usually linear, but the narrator often elaborates on a character’s history, even incidental characters that only appear in one scene. And they aren’t afraid to point out that the emperor has no clothes – even when, occasionally, the emperor in question is the hero of the series.
Once I stopped trying to be an impartial narrator, I turned a 12,000 word lump into an eight-thousand word action yarn. Ironically, the leaner prose carried more substance, in the form of character back-story and plot twists, than the rambling first draft.

So that leaves me wondering what I should be reading while writing fiction. I read somewhere (God knows where) that one author (can’t remember who) makes it a point to avoid fiction when he’s writing. Nonfiction feeds his prose with interesting factoids and opens the doors to other plot possibilities. Also, he fears that another author’s fiction may exert its influence over his unique voice.

As I’ve learned, that can be good or bad.

For the present, I’m trying to ration my fiction reading. Gobble up as much of it as you can, but once I begin work on another story, the fiction gets put away until the project is finished. That’s not easy, since I don’t retain nonfiction as well – a mild OCD that shields my brain from anything that smacks of education.

Nonetheless, until these stories and scripts are finished, I’ll be reading books about the history of Union Square in New York City, the memoirs of a Trenton prison guard, and a book about Hitler and the personality quirks that make psychopaths tick.

If only the history and science books had been written by Donald Westlake, I might have done much better in school.

Rich Harvey is a New Jersey-based writer and graphic designer.

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