Analytical Couch Potato: Why Novelists Should Watch Television

Some people say that television rots your brain.  Some people say television is a mindless form of entertainment. Some people say television can rob you of your ambition and your creativity, especially if you’re a writer.

 

I am not some people.  I believe when used responsibly that television can be not only a source of instructive and engaging entertainment, but a source of inspiration as well.  Writers, should they choose to watch television shows with an analytical eye, should they be active rather than passive consumers of this medium, can actually learn some valuable lessons about writing, and, hopefully, use those lessons to improve their own work. Below is a list of television shows I watch (or watched), and what I learned.

  • The Wire (HBO).  This is an obvious choice because some of the best crime writers in America also wrote for this show. The list includes Dennis LeHane and George Pelecanos. But more important than the entertainment value of this, the best drama that has ever been on TV, is the show’s in-depth character development.  Take Omar, the scar-faced warrior who robs drug dealers.  What I learned from this particular character is that you can (and should) have a balanced mixture of stock qualities and unusual qualities in a so-called “bad guy.” Omar carries around a pump-action shotgun and talks like a thug, but he is also an unashamed homosexual and he accompanies his grandmother to church every Sunday.  Additionally, he has a strict moral code: “Come on now, when have you ever known me to out my gun on someone that’s not in the game?”
  • Luther (BBC).  On the surface, this show is just another police procedural, but if you analyze it from a structural standpoint, you can see how Luther is light years a part from Law & Order.  The show is not so much concerned with the detective work, but with the psychological motivations of both the detective John Luther, played by Idris Elba, and the criminal.  Within the first five or ten minutes of every episode, you already see the crime in question, and you know who did.  What matters is why the criminal committed the crime; what matters is why Luther is ruining his personal life to chase bad guys, and hint, it isn’t just because he wants to protect and serve.  Over the course of the episode, the point of view shifts from the detective to the criminal, and with each shift, you start to get at the why and not so much the how.  Any writer can benefit from watching this show, and taking note of how to build a character while building tension and drama.  The best novels, whether they be mystery or literary, science fiction or romance, contain well-rounded and interesting characters, not just cardboard cutouts that do things without reason or rhyme.
  • The West Wing (NBC).  This show is worth watching simply because of the dialogue.  Sorkin, the inventor of “the walk and talk,” is a master of creating rhythm and tension through dialogue.  Now mind you, it doesn’t always sound realistic, but it always creates a mood, a musicality that can hypnotize the viewer.  Good novelists also have a good ear for dialogue, and use it to ensnare the reader, pull him or her further into the story. omar_thewire

“Important” Novels Can Be Entertaining: Book Review of The Circle by Dave Eggers

the circleMae Holland is one lucky girl, for she’s just landed a job at the most prestigious and powerful internet company in the world. The Circle (ominous name, no?) has a sprawling campus in northern California that has everything from bowling alleys to libraries, dormitories and restaurants, day care centers and gymnasiums, and, quite often, employees never leave after the work day is finished. On campus, there are parties and athletic endeavors; there are famous musicians and artists and chefs and other celebrities brought in to perform or cook or just hang out.

Soon after taking the job, Mae becomes one of those Circlers who prefer life on campus, who prefer living in the ultra-modern dorm rooms to her own apartment. Mae’s rise up the corporate ranks is meteoric, and after she agrees to go “transparent,” which is when one wears a tiny camera on one’s person and broadcasts every minute of one’s life out to millions of strangers on the internet, she really gets caught up in the terrifying vision of The Circle’s three founders, this idea of Completion.

The Three Wise Men, as the Circle’s founders are called, invented an algorithm that links a person’s email, banking accounts, social media, and purchasing into one account known as a Circle account. No longer do users have to remember dozens of passwords; long gone is the hassle of identity theft, for a Circle account has eliminated these problems. The only issue is the Circle also has nearly unlimited access to personal information.  As it gobbles up start-up companies left and right and gains more and more control of the government in Washington, D.C., the Circle will achieve Completion when it makes having a Circle account mandatory for all Americans, when it makes voting mandatory through the system it invented called Demoxie. For Mae, the stakes really escalate when she becomes romantically involved with Kalden, who may or may not be a spy looking to bring down the Circle.

What is truly stunning about this book is how Eggers captures the zeitgeist of the early 21st century, how he builds an entire technology-obsessed, dogmatically-idealistic world peopled with realistic characters, ones we would all recognize as friends, or neighbors, or colleagues, or students.  Too, he manages to be funny and serious at the same, for this novel is both important and entertaining. The Circle is on the same plane as Orwell’s 1984 and Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, but it also has the humor (and heart) of. . .pick any novel by Vonnegut.  Eggers’s commentary on privacy, corporate monopolies, free market, government, human nature, and the Millenial generation are all spot-on, and, remarkably, not didactic or preachy in any way.

Bottom line, The Circle is a brilliantly written novel that is both timely and timeless.  Eggers has always been an ambitious writer, and thematically speaking, in this book he throws up half a dozen targets and hits them all, dead center.

Creative Writing Exercise

So I’m teaching a creative writing class this semester, and one of my students, who is only twenty and already a talented writer, asked me two very astute questions about character development.  I recorded them here as well as my answers.

Question #1: I have an idea for a character, but he’s based on someone I actually know. What should I do?

Answer: Two things. One, write a brief character sketch that focuses on the physical attributes of the character. I find it is easiest to get to know a character from the outside in, not the other way around. Feel free to make up some details about this person; just remember to change the name to protect the unsuspecting. Here is a sample character sketch that I wrote for my student:

Coach David Lash was a short, stocky black man in his mid-seventies. Crowned the first ever African-American North Carolina State Tennis Champion in 1962, he wore a burgundy track suit, a black fishermen’s cap and black horn-rimmed glasses every day of his life.  His lower lip stuck out constantly, whether he was angry, which was rare, or happy, which was often.  During our tennis practices, he used to walk (actually, he hobbled as if one leg were slightly shorter than the other) onto the court in the middle of a point to give instruction, sometimes tennis instruction but more often it was life instruction. When he did this, his wife, a woman with iron-gray hair and perfect dentures, would yell at him to stop fussing, but he would stick his lip out farther and grab my racket and show me, for the one-hundredth time, the correct form for a crosscourt backhand.  As he repeated the proper backhand technique, racket back, shoulder turn, swing low to high, finish behind the ear, he would explain that if one refused to strive for perfection and grace on the tennis court, one would surely turn to drugs, meaningless sex, and petty crime. Up close, I could see Coach Lash’s mottled skin and dark bloodshot eyes. Up close, I could smell him: a mixture of Vasoline and stale coffee and some other scent I couldn’t place at the time, what with me being an upper-middle-class white teenager with my very own bedroom, car and ample allowance.  But later, after my acne faded and my voice changed and the world kicked me in the gut a few too many times, I came to realize that Coach David Lash, whose grandparents were freed slaves from Kentucky, had the smell of experience on him, experience and lessons harshly but wisely learned.

Two, answer all the questions in a character questionnaire. This will allow you to get to know the character’s quirks, habits, tastes, and, most importantly, his motivations.  Here’s a questionnaire that looks pretty good: http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/106

Question #2: When writing a novel, should you load the opening chapter with the protagonist’s back story, or dole it out little by little throughout the narrative?

Answer: Dole it out little by little. Try to reveal character back story through bits of dialogue, or very brief flashbacks. Avoid long flashbacks and long monologues as these clog up the narrative, slow down the pace, and pull the reader out the story. But hey, don’t take my word for it: read what the late-great Elmore Leonard had to say about prologues and back story here: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html

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Book Review of The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

After twenty years together, Jodi and Todd have come to a bad place in their relationship. Todd, a successful real estate investor and serial cheater, has impregnated his oldest friend’s daughter, Natasha, who is twenty-five years his junior. But unlike his other dalliances, Todd is in love with and wants to marry Natasha; he wants (or thinks he wants) to start a family. Meanwhile Jodi, a part-time therapist, is kicking herself for never agreeing to marry Todd, something he proposed many times over their more than two decades together. In the eyes of the law, Jodi has no legal rights to anything, like, for instance, the couple’s expensive condo in downtown Chicago, or Todd’s sizable real estate holdings. After much reflection, Jodi realizes that everything she did for Todd–the cooking and cleaning, the emotional support, the looking the other way on his trysts–mean nothing to him, and she must do something about it. The whole sordid affair comes to a head when Todd serves Jodi with eviction papers, and from there, his violent demise is imminent, and, at least in this reader’s mind, somewhat justified.

Regarding the question of “Will Todd be murdered?,” there is no suspense. You learn practically in the first ten pages that he will meet a violent end. And yet, this an incredibly suspenseful novel, well-paced and gorgeously-written. The chapters alternate between Jodi’s voice and Todd’s and are each labeled HIM and HER. How the author completely inhabited the minds and bodies and souls of both Todd and Jodi is a marvel and was a true pleasure to read, but even more impressive is how she managed to make Todd hate-able and likeable at the same time, how she portrayed Jodi as both victim and perpetrator.  The author’s prose, the way she develops character deliberately, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter reminds me of the writing of Henry James and, more recently, Jonathan Franzen.  There were passages in this novel that were so lovely, so true, and so unflinchingly honest they demanded to be read aloud.

Bottom line, while this isn’t a mystery in the Whodunnit sense of the word, it is by far the best novel I’ve read in the last six months. The character development, the pacing, the prose, and yes, even the plot manages to, in the end, surprise the reader. I’ve read reviews of this book that compare it to Gillian Flynn’s work, particularly Gone Girl, and I can certainly see the similarities.  However, I do think The Silent Wife has one major difference: Gillian Flynn’s books are really, really good, and Harrison’s novel is great. Tragically, Harrison died recently of cancer, and I can’t help but feel a sting of selfish anger, for there will be no more books from this fantastic author.

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Salinger Documentary

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why Salinger, a documentary currently on Netflix streaming, upset me so much, and I’ve come to a few conclusions.

First, it made me incredibly sad to learn the famous recluse built a brick building about two hundred yards from his house in New Hampshire, and he’d hole up there for days, sometimes weeks at a stretch, and just write, ignoring his family. I imagine his son and daughter looking out their bedroom windows and being able to see their father, but they couldn’t go talk to him; they couldn’t go visit with him unless they wanted to provoke his ire. Ditto Salinger’s wife. Now, on the one hand, I found myself envious of the man’s dedication, not to mention of the amount of free time he had to write and think and read. On the other hand, it sickened me to learn he (almost) completely ignored his family in order to write. Although I do live in my head, I still need connections with people, especially the two most important people in my life: Harry, my son, and Libby, my wife. Not only have those two made me a better person, they have also made me a better writer because I have experienced love through them. For that, I am lucky. Perhaps Salinger wasn’t so lucky.

Another thing that upset me was the man’s peculiar (I’m being kind) interest in young women and girls. Putting aside for the moment the unspeakably horrible things he witnessed during WWII, Salinger maintained a lifelong fetish for females who were not quite women but not quite girls anymore either. The film made it seem as if he wanted to live vicariously through these girls while also instructing them on how to live. This type of narcissism and self-righteousness can be found in Salinger’s later works, and yes, it is definitely present in Catcher in the Rye. 

I suppose what struck me the most about this documentary was that I, unfortunately, identified with Salinger. That instinct to hide from the world and indulge in writing and movies and books and daydreams and forget everything else is very real to me. At thirty-four years of age, I still haven’t shaken the romantic notion of the artist recluse, and it is a fantasy that I indulge in weekly, sometimes daily if I am particularly depressed or anxious. I, like Salinger, have impossibly high standards for myself and the world, and it truly bums me out when I don’t meet them; when the world–that beautifully-flawed orb I often times curse one second and marvel at the next–disappoints me, I want to escape, I want to retreat back to my favorite books and movies and TV shows and poems where there are fleeting moments of perfection, where the artist revealed something indelible about the human experience, and, not to sound adolescent, but you’re just not quite the same afterwards. Whatever else Salinger was or did or thought, he was also a guy who wrote Catcher in the Rye, a book that has more than its fair share of perfect moments. That book inspired me at a particular time in my life, made me comprehend certain things about the adult world and about myself.  But if you ask me if those perfect moments in that one book–a book I now have little patience or use for–excuse all his other transgressions, the answer is a resounding NO.. .

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http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1596753/

 

 

Book Review of UNTIL DEATH by James L. Thane

Tomorrow, I’m posting an interview with James L. Thane, so I thought I’d repost my review of his excellent police procedural UNTIL DEATH featuring Detective Sean Richardson. I’ve also read and enjoyed the first book in this series entitled NO PLACE TO DIE. Check them both out.

Review

Imagine you’re a top-shelf “escort,” and some whack-job gets a hold of your day planner and starts offing your clientele, one by one. What do you do?

In Until Death, Sean Richardson, a Phoenix homicide detective, is tasked with investigating a series of murders that seem, at first, to be unrelated. But then Gina Gallagher, an off-the-charts-beautiful call girl, comes into the police station and drops a bombshell: the recent homicide victims were all her clients. And her day planner, which contains the names of all her clients, has gone missing. From there, Richardson works the clues, and they lead him on a goose chase involving the men in Gallagher’s life: a lawyer who turns out to have installed a secret camera in her apartment, an ex-boyfriend who takes pictures of her a la a peeping tom, and a host of other johns/well-heeled businessmen with money and motives to spare.  Like in any good mystery, practically everyone has a motive, whether it be jealousy, revenge, or just general creepiness, and it takes a while–perhaps too long, in my opinion–for Richardson to sort through the motives and alibis and solve the case. However, in the end, he does, and the penultimate scene is dripping with tension and drama and well worth the wait.

For me, the women in this novel are what elevate Until Death above the many, many police procedurals lining the bookshelves.  Gina Gallagher, a high-end escort/personal trainer, is anything but a stereotypical call girl. She is pragmatic and a calculating business woman, but at the same time she has a heart and a brain. Nancy Ballard, the grieving wife of the first homicide victim, is also interesting. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but Thane does an excellent job of shifting the narration between Sean Richardson, the lead homicide detective on the case, and Ballard, who plays a significant role in the case’s conclusion. From a reader’s standpoint, I think that Thane captured the voice of an angry, grieving, and vengeful widow very well, and he does so without slowing down the pace of the narrative, which is paramount in a police procedural. While Gallagher and Ballard were certainly well-drawn, I most say I found Maggie McClinton, Richardson’s partner, to be the most compelling character in the entire book. She is foul-mouthed, tough, and capable, and I am hoping to see much more of her in future novels.

Bottom line, this is a solid, highly-readable book, and I look forward to the next in the series. In the meantime, I will go back and read No Place to Die, the first in the series.

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http://www.amazon.com/Until-Death-James-L-Thane/dp/1477849467