Writing Archives

October 9, 2007

Realistically Speaking

I think I broke something.

I’ve been working on this novel and I’m about 90% done and want to throw it all out. The characters are pretty much cardboard, but that’ll get fixed in re-write. Your first pass thru is a o tike watching a TV pilot: the actors haven’t quite got it, and the characters evolve over time. The bigger problem is I want to put more violence in it and I can’t figure out how. I mean, most violence is just stupid. You could go your entire life without being chased by a van full of heavily-armed gunmen. Most anything I think up reads totally contrived and, well, like B.S., so I just delete days of typing and bang my head against the fridge.

Is it just me or are most fight scenes just totally stupid? Even when I was writing comics, I always felt obligated to get some action in there, but that’s where the story usually started to feel like a comic book. In real life, violence breaks out rarely, sporadically, and usually quite quickly and it’s done. The French Connection car chase is the rarest of oddities, and the large assortment of disposable bad guys leaping out of windows just seems so *done.* Once upon a time, Frank Miller used to be fairly brilliant at this (and maybe he still is): at making violence poetic and believable (my favorite: a locked-jail cell scene with that newspaper reporter from Daredevil). Now, I’m sure he was borrowing heavily from Japanese comics and film, but nowadays, everything from Tom Cruise films to the Bourne films to Kill Bill seems over-the-top and contrived. I can write it, but I don’t believe it. The only fun you ever get from writing a novel (which pays pretty much nothing and takes forever) is you get to scrape along the cellar of your soul, writing something you actually believe in. Much as I want the bullets to fly, I don’t want to pollute the work with this phony crap, such that the reader gets to chapter eight and groans, “Now comes the phony crap.”

In Bourne, there’s these spy-types that are after Matt Damon, and they send one unbelievably super-deadly assassin after another. Of course, Damon has to beat them up, which puts the lie to how deadly they are. My lead character is fairly kick-ass herself (and, hopefully, convincingly so), but any bad guys I send after her have to get whuppped or (a) my gal’s not so tough and (b) it’s a very short story.

Also, you know, from page one, the bad guys are gonna lose. From page one of any story, you know that either the bad guy’s going to lose or the good guy is gonna get killed in the process of, you guessed it, making the bad guy lose. There is virtually no suspense anymore.

It’s possible I’m trying too hard. Every turn in the plot where some cliché I hate presents itself, I kick it over. Which gives the plot some fairly interesting twists, some the reader will see coming that, hopefully, will blow up in their face later on. Trying to outpace reader expectation is probably the worst part about writing, but you’re also trying to write a book you, yourself, would find interesting. Part of what makes reading comics so difficult for me is the action scenes, where the writers put on their “comic book hat” and start doing silly things like dressing terrorists in uniforms in NYC and having them ride on the outside of an elevated subway train. No offense to the writer, but I checked out of the story.

Denny O’Neil once told me that he’d more or less lost his ability to suspend his disbelief and write things that were just utter nonsense. People trying to shake Batman’s hand. In the real world, nobody wants to shake Batman’s hand. People *run* from Batman and Batman prefers to not stand around and have his hand shaken. Of curse, in the real world, there is no Batman. Or, if there were, there’d be dozens upon dozens of clowns who’d dress up like him and get shot in the face trying to *be* him just so they could get their picture in the paper or, perhaps, have adoring crowds shake their hands.

In the real world, Batman would get sued. A lot. And real cops would figure out who he was in about an hour or so.

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November 6, 2007

Almost Home

Okay, think I’m almost done. I spent almost six weeks re-writing the same chapter and doubting that I ever had any real talent for this in the first place. This is what makes writing so difficult and what makes me so angry when artists and others just assume ‘anyone can do it.’ Well, pal, anyone can’t. I’ve been writing professionally for 28 years, and *I* can’t do it.

As for the violence thing, that’s been largely the problem, me adding in fighting and running and so forth and then reading it and wanting to leap in front of a bus. It just feels so fake. I can see the reader rolling her eyes going, “Oh, please.” Oddly enough, as some have pointed out, here, when I have the bad guys clobber each other, that seems to work. A nifty throat-slitting in a men’s room worked out real nicely, actually, and seemed completely organic to the story.

But, I have otherwise written myself into a fairly impossible situation, where nobody is really motivated to harm our protagonist, so the best we can get are these moments where the reader *expects* Cliché Violent Act #12, but it doesn’t happen. This gets old fairly quickly, so I need to comb through and prune these moments a bit so there aren’t so many of them.

At the end of the day, I personally think we, as a society, have become inundated with violent acts of increasing levels of improbability and silliness in our art forms. So much so, perhaps, that maybe we’re beginning to expect such outrageous stuff in our actual lives. I think the real action of a drama are the human conflicts, not the bar fights. And, if I thought the bar fights worked, I’d have left them in. But, right now, it just feels like, every 50 pages or so, ‘There Priest Goes Again.’

I found it curious that, despite the hype, the film American Gangster really didn’t have all that much Gangster in it. If you step back a bit from the overly-long film, I doubt there are terribly many acts of violence (and only one actual sex scene, although there are several scenes of topless women working in a drug lab). I liked the film (more on that later), but I was watching for the violence. I thought what was there was useful, needed and appropriate, and that Ridley Scott used some restraint in not making any of it too over-the-top. I actually found that to be a comfort, and felt better about the overall ratio of violence to drama I am working with.

The point of which may be moot, anyway, for the complexities of concept, the book being too religious for secular publishers and too secular for religious publishers. I stopped by a Christian bookstore the other day and scanned through some of the stuff on their shelves. Blehh. Bland, watered-down rounded-edges stuff that either makes God seem like a Boogeyman (that Left Behind stuff) or the Quaker Oats guy (the lame historical romance stuff. What’s the point of a historical romance novel without bodice-ripping?!?).

I sincerely doubt that Christian bookstore—or any other—will carry my book, which de-constructs the black church in specific and fundamentalist Christianity in general. I wanted to write about the real world, not some sanitized, fake Falwell-approved version of it. The violence, sex, ruthless backstabbing and cussing in the book will only seem shocking to white Christians, as black Christians experience this every day.

Conversely, I want to talk about faith—real faith—not sanitized, watered-down inoffensive TV faith. Any expression of faith—of any variety—is bound to offend someone. I want to have as honest an examination of faith as is possible within the reasonable limits of a whodunit, and not get chastised by my publisher (as I did in my Green Lantern novel, where my editor was an atheist who continually accused me of trying to proselytize through my manuscript because the Spectre kept talking to and about God. I (and, thankfully, DC) had to continually remind the editor that The Spectre has worked for God for 70 years. It’s always been God. I told him, far from my forcing my beliefs on people via this book, this editor was forcing *his* atheism on people by demanding we never refer to The Spectre’s boss as “God.” So, we simply called him “The Boss.” Then he complained about the capitalization, but DC backed my play).

Politics and religion are tricky subjects to work into novels, I suppose. Religion most especially, unless you are undermining or debunking something a la The Da Vinci Code. Appeals to real faith will likely offend someone, so I can imagine secular publishers not being terribly interested. But, from what I saw the other day, Christian publishers are far worse. The homogenized mush I browsed through yesterday really alarmed me, that Christian publishers (or, perhaps more accurately, Christian retailers) shy away from anything with real edge to it. It’s all Pat Boone down there, this brainwashed pap. It’s almost as if Christians—and, I suppose I’m mostly talking about white Christians—are afraid of most anything that challenges their beliefs, even if the one challenging it is a believer as well. I figure, anything you believe in ought to be able to stand a bit of scrutiny. Your truth shouldn’t have to go into hiding or resort to censorship in order to be true. It ought to be sturdy enough to withstand someone occasionally kicking the tires.

I had fun working on this. I’d like to create a whole sub-genre of fiction designed to make Christians lose their bullshit fake-faith, and replace it with something purer. That’s what this work challenges the reader to do. A shame I doubt anyone will ever publish it.

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