Entry for Bad Writing Contest

GoodReads has an SF/Fantasy group called Dragons and Jetpacks, which is currently running a bad writing contest. Here’s the entry I just submitted. This is the worst writing I can do. I’m actually kind of scared of this. I fear it might cause brain damage. Read at own risk.

HIS NAKED PAST

They strolled on the parchment-spawned forest path. There was not a cloud in the redundant sky, though o’er-shadowed they were by the wings of the dragons in flight. Dragon-Sword Night-Moon looked over at RavenMoon NightTree’s profile. It must be admitted, he thought, she has a figure of attractiveness. The heat slammed into them as they walked, covering everything in a layer of heat.

“It’s hot,” observed RavenMoon. “But,” she added, “let us not think of the heat, the glistening heat. I would fain stroll here on the path, the parchment-spawned forest path, anon.”

But Dragon-Sword Night-Moon was o’ercome by lust, lust for RavenMoon. “Lust,” he rasped forth. “Forsooth, luuussssssst!”

RavenMoon looked at him. “Did you say something?” she inquired delicately, but with precision. She wasn’t sure if he had spoken, and she wanted to know if he had spoken, and if so, what he had said.

“No,” said Dragon-Sword dishonestly. “Let us look at the fruits that are borne upon the branches of the magic trees.”

“I agree, Dragon-Sword. Let us.” They examined the fruits that were upon the trees, observing the fruits’ various characteristics.

“The fruits may be nutritious if we become hungry,” stated Dragon-Sword, mentioning an important fact.

“That is correct,” stated RavenMoon NightTree, agreeing with Dragon-Sword Night-Moon. “The fruits may also be nutritious if we are not hungry, though in that case we would choose not to eat them.”

But Dragon-Sword was not unpreoccupied. He was thinking about his past. His naked, naked past.

He had hoped to end the nakedness with the pantaloons. But the pantaloons had not helped. They had done the opposite of helping: They had made things worse.

The Killer and the Healer

Read this first. This story gives me goosebumps. I bet it will have that effect on you, too, at least if you know Calc.

Inspired by that…

It was one of the bad ones. You might have heard the public version of events by e^x, and it’s all true. But this is how it looked from the point of view of us, the cops. It’s the inside story of how following a crazy lead ultimately defeated one of the most remorseless criminals in history.

We didn’t know it was that bad at first, of course. When the constants got canceled, it seemed like a targeted set of killings. Systematic. Just business.

So we logged the murders, filed them away in our mental boxes as “routine,” and moved on to the next cases…

But the next day, the linears went.

Even then, we didn’t really understand what was happening. Most of us thought it was just retaliation. The constants got whacked, so their friends went after they guys who whacked them. Only old Detective Isaac Gottfried, who’s been around a long time (some say since the 1600s) really took notice. “This seems familiar somehow,” he said. “Mark my words, this is going to be one of the weird ones.”

We nervously dismissed him as a crank.

But the next night the quadratics went.

After that, everyone knew Old Isaac was right. This wasn’t typical turf wars, gangs protecting their Cartesian spaces. Something else was going on.

We put out our feelers, and just got rumors: Someone… or some thing… called the Differentiation was operating in the area. And it was just getting started.

I’ll spare you the details. It was grisly even for those of us in police work. The next to go were the cubics. Then the quartics. The only ones untouched were e^x and the lowest of the low, 0, maybe too humble to be noticed.

Naturally we suspected those two. We put surveillance teams on them, watching them continually, but it wasn’t them doing the killing. Even when they had several undercover cops tailing them, the murders continued.

We were at wits’ end. “Track down that other rumor,” my Chief told me. “The one from years ago.”

“That’s just a myth!” I protested. “I’ve never even seen her.”

“You have a number to call, right?”

“Yeah, but I’ve never used it. The things I hear about her are… weird.”

“Look,” my Chief said, “we have no leads, except this: She comes from the same place the killer does. Word on the street is, they’re Doppelgangers, mirror images, exact opposites.” He paused, pulled the shade in his office window down, and whispered, “There’s even a rumor that she can bring the victims back from the dead.”

“Come on, Boss!” I said. “That’s just an urban legend. It’s never been verified!”

“We’re desperate, Detective,” he said. “Make the call.”

By then we had no choice. So I did it. I called in the Integration.

We agreed to meet at a local dive that evening and I got there early. She strolled in a little later, carving a path through the cigarette smoke that filled the place. She was a slinky-looking dame, with a graceful curve to her figure. It looked elegant, but at the same time kind of like a cobra about to strike. I waved her over and she sat down next to me at the bar.

“You know what’s been going on, I guess,” I said. “Everyone does, right?”

“Of course,” she answered. “And I know who’s doing it.” She said that she and the Differentiation came from the same place. When I asked where that was, she just answered, “The limit.” And that was all I could get out of her on that subject.

“Can you help us nab the bastard?” I asked.

“No,” she said, and my heart sank. But she added, “I can help the victims, though.”

“How?” I asked.

“Take me to the corpses.”

I settled my tab and we went onto the street. “The morgue’s this way,” I said, and started walking, but she grabbed my arm.

“There’s a better way to get there. Follow me.” She headed in a different direction.

“This is an odd variation on how I’d get there,” I said.

“Yeah, I’m variational,” she snorted.

When we got to the morgue I showed her the remnants of the functions that the Differentiation had gotten to. She didn’t seem upset at all, just nodded. “I can help. I must warn you, though… they won’t be exactly the same when I’m done with them.”

“What the heck does that mean?” I asked.

“Look, they’ll keep most of their original important and interesting properties, I promise. So if you can just step out of the room while I work…”

I was about to object that I couldn’t leave her alone with evidence in murder cases, but as the Chief said, we were desperate. So I just nodded and went out into the reception area.

A few minutes later, out came the constants, who had been reduced to zeros by the assailant. Now that the Integration had done her magic on them they all kinda looked the same – like the letter C – but they were alive! They walked out on unsteady legs, but who cared? They were crying tears of joy.

Next were the linears, who had been reduced to constants by the attacker, and now it was clear what the Integration had meant when she said they wouldn’t be exactly the same. They were all recognizable, alright… but now they all had + C attached to their backs, like ranks of Quasimodos shuffling through the towers of Notre Dame.

Then the quadratics. One of them was a cute little babe I’d known before the attacks, who went by the handle 3x^2 +5x –3. Now here she was, but she had a + C attached to her, like the others. “I’m more general now!” she said with what I thought was forced cheerfulness. Sure, I thought…. more general, but for that very reason she’s lost her uniqueness. But I didn’t say anything. Anyway, it was really good to see her walking again.

Next out were the cubics, stumbling out of the morgue, blinking at the light their eyes hadn’t seen in days.

Then the quartics. On and on it went, a joyous procession of re-animated functions. I saw 10th-degree polynomials, all their local extrema, which had gradually diminished in number during the horror, restored.

Well, everyone knows how it went down after that. We’ve never nabbed the Differentiation, but with the Integration in town, the Differentiation has never been able to take out anyone else. And when the Integration called in her sidekicks, Initial Condition and Terminal Condition, the Differentiation wasn’t even able to mutilate functions with those extraneous + C’s any more.

Things will never be exactly as they were before. But the reign of terror is finally over.

Loosen Up the Ole Synapses

One rule I have is no alcohol while writing (caffeine’s okay, natch). And no other drugs ever. None of this tortured alcoholic author for me, thanks.

But once a year I allow myself an exception: One beer, one cup of coffee, then let yourself rip on the word processor. The combination of alcohol and caffeine loosens up the ol’ synapses in ways that can be amusing. Readers of The War of the First Day can probably identify the one scene in that novel that emerged from this method.

Actually, while I allow myself to do this once per year, I haven’t actually done it in three or four years.

You don’t want to make a habit of this, obviously, because you don’t want to become dependent on it.

Wow, Hemingway Sux

Review of A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway.

Astoundingly bad. I read most of the first chapter, then the first paragraph of the second chapter, then discarded the book. If an author can’t prove himself minimally competent after a chapter, to hell with him. Really, a medium-length paragraph should suffice to demonstrate competence.

I shall provide some examples from this… thing. Normally I focus, not on the details of word choice, but on higher-level aspects of a novel such as plot, characterization, pacing, theme, and so forth. The details of the writing are of secondary importance (generally speaking) and are often given far too much attention in critical commentary. However: the details of word choice are a minimum condition for an author to be a good writer. If you can’t write an English sentence that doesn’t call attention to itself with its horrible, strained awkwardness, you can’t be a novelist. Not in my universe, anyway.

Alas, here is the first paragraph of the “novel” (you have to put that word in quotes when you’re talking about garbage of this appalling quality). The really bad part is the last sentence, but I have to include the entire paragraph, because if I just inflicted the last sentence on you, you might suspect that it reads better in context. Actually, it reads worse in context, as I will explain in a moment. You know you’re got a bad writer on your hands when ripping passages out of context actually improves them. Anyway, here is the first paragraph:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

God, how astoundingly bad! You have to be trying to write badly to produce sequences of words this disgusting. One should read this only through leaded glass, and with trained medical professionals standing by.

As to why the last “sentence” would be better out of context: Note that we’re told about the fucking soldiers marching three times in this paragraph. It’s not merely redundant; it’s ludicrously redundant. However, if you read the last sentence out of context, you’d only encounter the marching soldiers twice, so the redundancy would be moderated. A similar point is true of the leaves. Enough with the fucking leaves, you weirdo! What, do you have a leaf fetish or something? Or it is a dust fetish? Damn, that’s bad. I mean, how bad does your writing have to be for it to be improved by being stripped of context?

Here it is again, with some of my thought processes while reading. I can’t include all my critical thoughts because it would quadruple the length of the paragraph:

In the late summer of that year [God, just stop! What year!? Seven words in and I’m already irritated. If you’re not going to tell us the year, then why not just say, “In the late summer”?] we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun [Why the fuck are you telling me this? Also, how can a river bed be dry? Is it seasonally dry? Like there’s only water during the spring runoff from the mountains?], and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. [If the water is running swiftly, and deep enough to appear blue, it’s presumably not the dry season. If it is, we need this explained. Overall assessment: WTF?] Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. [Brace yourself; here comes the monster:] The trunks of the trees too were dusty [Yes, obviously the dust would cover whatever it touches. We get that.] and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road [You already mentioned that.] and the dust rising and leaves [Already mentioned, thanks.], stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching [FUCK! Third time you’ve mentioned them!] and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Not to be judgmental, but God, that’s bad. Wait, that is judgmental. Oh well. And I love that last “except for the leaves.” LOL. He’s pretending we need to know that “except for the leaves.” As if it has any real purpose there. Is this supposed to be profound or something? The road was bare… Except for the leaves, man. EXCEPT FOR THE LEAVES!

But if you think that’s bad, try the second sentence of the second chapter. You might want to take a shot of vodka first. Ready? Here we go:

The mountain that was beyond the valley and the hillside where the chestnut forest grew was captured and there were victories beyond the plain on the plateau to the south and we crossed the river in August and lived in a house in Gorizia that had a fountain and many thick shady trees in a walled garden and a wisteria vine purple on the side of the house.

Yes, that’s one sentence. Fuck, that’s bad. Now what’s wrong with it? Actually, you already know what’s wrong with it – it’s (1) incoherent garbage and (2) breathtakingly pretentious – but it’s worth dwelling on a little. A sentence is basically one complete thought. (This is a simplification that’s good enough for my purpose here.) If it meanders all over the place, it’s a bad sentence. (Unless the author knows what s/he is doing and does it with a clear reason in mind. But plainly that’s not what’s going on with this sentence.) Now as I said, I usually don’t focus on the sentence level in reading a novel, but that’s because most novelists can write good sentences. Their sentences aren’t so bad that they force you to spend time diagnosing their deficiencies. The rule of thumb is that you should not focus on individual sentences for the same reason you don’t focus on the workings of your refrigerator: Because these things are supposed to function so well that you don’t have to think about them. You only think about the workings of your refrigerator when it stops working. So it is with Hemingway and individual sentences. They call attention to themselves and force us to talk about them because they’re so very bad.

To continue: What’s wrong with that sentence is that it attempts to contain more than one thought. Hemingway rambles from military victories to a house where he lived to the fact that it had a fountain, to the color of certain flowers in the garden. These things are not connected to each other. In fact, the only thing I can think of that would excuse this writing is that the narrator is supposed to be mentally damaged, and so this incoherent stream of thoughts is deliberately incoherent. I am going to make a mental note to look this up after I finish writing this review. It would go a long way – though not all the way – to justifying this horrible writing. The reason it wouldn’t go all the way to excusing the clunkiness is that the narrator’s mental deficiencies should be established before we get too far into the novel. We shouldn’t have to wonder why the prose is so very bad; we shouldn’t have to imagine possible excuses for the author. It is the author’s job to make the situation clear with reasonable alacrity.

It needn’t be totally clear at the outset. Some hints that the narrator is not mentally normal would suffice at first. Some obviously misspelled words, or a reference to having been institutionalized, or a reference to a nurse that insisted on the narrator eating his meals on time. Something, for God’s sake, to allay our fears about the garbage we are reading. In fact, subtle hints, applied correctly, can be more interesting than an explicit revelation at the start. E.g., it might gradually unfold that the narrator used to be mentally normal, but sustained an injury in the war that has damaged his mind. That would be tragic, but would certainly help to make the point that war is bad, etc. (I’m assuming here that Hemingway actually has a point. I have nothing to go on other than the novel’s title, which suggests it may be thematically anti-war.) I find myself hoping that this is in fact what’s going on, because if it’s not, I’m hard-pressed to explain the cult of Hemingway other than as a deliberate joke by the world’s literary establishment on the rest of us.
[LATER: I’ve checked various summaries, and there’s nothing about the narrator being brain damaged. So the writing IS actually as bad as it seems at first! God!]

A good test of whether something SUX is to ask yourself this: If it came out that the whole thing was an Emperor’s New Clothes joke on the world, how would you feel about it? Would you say, “Wow, that was really subtle; I’m not ashamed that I fell for it.” Or would you say, “Damn it, I always thought that was BS; why didn’t I call it out?” (If you see something, say something!) If your answer is the second one, you have good grounds for suspicion that it is, in fact, just BS.

In the movie Housesitter there’s a scene in which a con woman improvises some BS. Later, one of her friends says, “Wow! You’re a genius. You’re like the Ernest Hemingway of bullshit!” To which I respond, no, that title’s already taken; Ernest Hemingway was the Ernest Hemingway of bullshit.

Ass-kicking chicks are cool, but why?

From Heinlein’s Friday to Underworld’s Selene to Sanderson’s Vin to my own modest (*snrk*) effort’s Lilta, there’s something about chicks who kick ass that’s cool. But what is it? No one has ever defined the quality that makes ass-kicking chicks so very excellent.

Feminist grrrrrrl power? No, it’s not a political thing. Besides, it doesn’t matter whether the ass-kicking chick is kicking female ass or male ass.

Violation of expectations? Maybe thirty years ago! But nowadays what’s more common than chicks kicking ass? So no, that’s not it.

What, then? What, Fleet? Please enlighten us with your superior insight!

Very well, since you said “please.”

It’s the lack of ego.

See, being physically tough is part of masculinity. So when a man kicks ass, he’s more masculine as a result. Or anyway, he’s perceived as more masculine. For a man to kick another man’s ass means he, the victor, has out-manned the other man, so to speak. So even if he’s not thinking, “Ha! I’m more man than you,” he might be thinking it, for all we know.

Now contrast this with women. Since kicking ass is not part of the definition of femininity, a woman who kicks another woman’s ass is not thinking, “Ha! I’m more woman than you,” or “Ha! I’m more feminine than you,” or whatever. There’s no female ego thing that is on the line here.

This leaves open the idea that the woman is kicking ass only because she has to. Indeed, the best female ass-kicking scenes, in fiction or movies, have this quality: The woman is a good guy in a situation in which she has to fight her way out or die, or something like that. This applies, e.g., to Heinlein’s Friday, who never picks a fight in that book; she only fights her way out of bad situations when they descend on her.

Notice that when it’s drawn off into messaging, in the nature of a woman kicking a man’s butt to show that Girls are just as tough as boys!!! it becomes boring message fiction. Yawn. Suddenly the fun is gone.

There is more dignity and drama in a person fighting because she has to than because she’s like, “Whoo hoo! I kicked your butt!”

You have to love that scene in True Romance in which the young woman kills the professional hit man who was sent to kill her. He almost does her in, and she takes a lot of damage. But in the end, she kills him. And you’re like, “Whoo-hoo! Thank goodness!”

“But wait,” you say. “Men can kick ass in an ego-free way too.” Well, maybe, but you never really know. And even if a man doesn’t pick a fight, he can still be glad in a male-ego way that he won it. Note I’m not saying that there’s necessarily anything wrong with being happy about winning a fight – that depends if the winner is a bad guy or a good guy. Nor is there anything wrong with being glad specifically in a male-ego way. But it can be a distraction from the drama you, the author, are trying to create in a fight scene. And it changes the emotional tone of the fight.

Undeniably, the emotional sense of two men fighting is different from the emotional sense of two women fighting. If we want the reader to be focused on good versus evil, or something like that, we don’t want the irrelevance of “Ha, I kicked your ass so I’m more of a man than you!” distracting us.

And that is why chicks kicking ass is a cool thing: It’s pure kicking ass, devoid of ego distractions.

Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and Art

A pounding, furious Shakespeare, a blizzard of passion, romance, rage. This is not youthful passion viewed through a polite filter of iambic pentameter. This is just youthful passion; savage, wild. Did Shakespeare himself intend this play to be this raw, one wonders? Or did Baz Luhrmann see something in this drama, this wild thing, that not even the Bard himself fully realized was there?

Shakespeare has been part of the canon for so long that we tend to treat him like grandma’s fragile antique china; if we handle him too roughly, we fear, he’ll break. Boy, is this wrong. Of all the authors who aren’t breakable, Shakespeare’s probably Number One. “We have to analyze him with delicate, careful, refined sensibilities,” we think, “or we’ll shatter his subtle– ” No. Shakesy is robust, rough, strong, bold. He’s not grandma’s delicate china dinner plates; he’s the bull rampaging in the china shop.

We also tend to be overawed by Shakespeare’s towering reputation, but that too is mistaken. If you let professors of Literature (no doubt inadvertently) make you afraid of Shakespeare, you’re mistakenly thinking Shakesy belongs to Literature professors. No, Shakespeare belongs to you and me. Everyone can understand his plots, which are about things like love, power-lust, jealousy, revenge, war, etc. They are things all human beings intuitively comprehend well enough to follow along, even those who have never been in a war or been in love, etc.

Baz Luhrmann saw all this in Romeo and Juliet and put it into his production of the movie. He perceived, or perhaps remembered, what’s it’s like to be madly in love at age 14, when you have no emotional control, when your skin has not yet been thickened up by the scar tissue we all inevitably accumulate with experience, when you are not experienced enough to have a “been here before” distance on love.

Shakespeare is not mannered, or rather, sometimes he is, but the manneredness is just a part of his style (sometimes). His substance is brutally, nakedly human. Baz Luhrmann saw that in Romeo and Juliet, and made sure it made it onto the film.

(The main genius here is Shakespeare, obviously, but Luhrmann is also a genius for seeing through the fog of reverence that surrounds Shakespeare and producing R&J the way it should be produced, as uncontrolled young love.)

For another good example of this, consider… Beethoven. “An evening of music!” you say. “How charming! I shall purchase tickets to be seated in the center of the seventh row. I look forward to tonight’s performance with pleasure! Perhaps some wine and cheese later!” BEWARE. Beethoven is not polite, and you are at a performance of the mighty Third Symphony. (Yes, I said Third. If you attend a performance of the famous Fifth, you know what to expect. If you go to hear the Third, you have no idea what’s about to happen to you.) Beethoven is about music that slams out of the orchestra and punches you in the face, hard. After you stagger to your feet, you spit out a couple of teeth, wipe the blood off your chin, and say, “Holy Shit, that music isn’t polite! It’s a force of fucking nature!” Welcome to the Beethoven club, noob. From the grave, Ludwig says, “You’re welcome.”

Why weren’t you expecting that? Because again, Beethoven is such a classic, he is so totally part of the canon, that you think he’s fragile, like your grandma’s china. Wrong. See, the thing is, some artists get to be in The Canon because they deserve to be. What did Beethoven see that let him compose music like that? For one thing, he saw that music is not supposed to be polite. Fuck the string quartet! Music is supposed to be expressive. And that means, among other things, that it’s supposed to get your attention. Boy, does Ol’ Ludwig know how to do that! Those opening notes… no, you can’t call them that… those opening blasts of the Third… You won’t just put your cell phone down; you’ll drop it to the floor in shock. And off you go.

Before you know it, you’re on the musical equivalent of a roller coaster, and not just any roller coaster either, but the Extraterrestrial Nuclear Chemical Warfare Superman Death Spiral. This is the one that doesn’t just have the usual pro forma sign saying, “People with heart conditions shouldn’t ride this ride.” It’s the one that actually has a history of lawsuits because of all the people who went into ventricular tachycardia while they were on it. And several virgins emerged from the end of the ride pregnant, somehow. Yeah, THAT roller coaster. (Why doesn’t the music world warn you about this one? I think it’s because it’s more fun for them when they don’t. They probably attend performances of the Third just to look at the expressions on the n00bs’ faces. [Note to self: I should totally do that.])

The point is, Ludwig had a definite vision of how music should be, and he gives it to you, hard.

That is how to do Art.

Review of Last Call, by Tim Powers

This novel is an excellent example of magic being incorporated into a modern setting so convincingly that you find yourself half believing it.

In the Las Vegas area, a game of power is played out over the course of decades by a small number of people who can use magic. (Magic affects everyone, it is implied, but very few people are aware of this.) The magical system, based on the Tarot, is heavily Jungian; it is powered by archetypes of the conscious and unconscious human mind. The story involves figures like The Fisher King and The Fool, as well as greater powers like Artemis/Diana, Dionysus, and Death.

Those who understand the ways that these archetypes are linked to the human soul can use them to their advantage… but this often – or always? – requires some sort of sacrifice or trade-off. The girls who are trying to assume the role of Artemis cannot ever touch meat or alcohol – literally never; one time in their life and they’re permanently ruined for the goddess role! The man who (unwittingly) plays the role of the Fisher King can’t touch alcohol without it slowly killing him, etc. This is because they are in opposition to the god Dionysus, the god of wine.

As often occurs in this subgenre, the magic is presented subtly at first. In the opening pages, we’re not even sure if the magic is real or if the man who is trying to use it is insane. Later it is presented as if it’s merely magic in the psychological sense of allowing you to influence other people. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that the magic is quite literal, e.g. the main villain can kill people and take over their bodies; he inhabits them.

In one astounding sequence of scenes the hero, Scott, gives in to his craving for alcohol. The spirit of alcohol, Dionysus, appears to Scott in the form of the ghost of his late wife, and Scott’s plunge back into drunkenness manifests in his mind as a sexual orgy with her. At some level he knows this, knows that what seems to him like wild sex with his wife on the hotel’s sweat-drenched sheets is really him drinking himself well-nigh into a coma. But the illusion seems real, and Scott doesn’t much care. When it’s over and he has started to recover, he thinks, If that was sex, I am ready to gladly embrace Death.

Incidentally, this scene is an excellent example of a literal event and its metaphorical meaning blending perfectly. An addictive drug as seduction could hardly be portrayed more vividly. And of course, as with all good metaphors, the metaphorical reading is optional; the scene functions perfectly well as a literal manifestation of Dionysus using magical illusion to attack one of his enemies.

(This example also gives the lie to those who claim to find no value in the fantasy genre. Addiction as a psychological attack could not be presented so forcefully without magic, because we need Dionysus as a literal enemy to make this scene possible at the literal level. And of course, it can’t function metaphorically if it doesn’t function literally. I rarely bother arguing with idiots who disdain fantasy – a certain level of idiocy deters one from bothering – but sometimes it’s irresistible. While I’m on the subject: In the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger has to protect her family from her enemies, who might strike at her family in order to strike at her. To protect them she must erase all knowledge of her from their minds, so that even mind-reading enemies cannot link them to her. She uses a magical spell to permanently delete herself from her parents’ memories, and never sees them again. Such an emotionally wrenching scene would be impossible without that magical spell.)

Scott and his wife’s ghost, or rather the illusion of his wife’s ghost, then drive out into the desert (for reasons I’ve forgotten). As they’re tooling along, Scott opens a bottle of wine and says to her, “Would you like some of this?”

“I am it, darling,” she replies.

After they’ve reached their destination and are searching an abandoned building in the desert, the image of his wife begins to decay. Soon enough, it is apparent what it really is for Scott. He looks at the crouching skeleton, decorated with a few scraps of hanging flesh and surmounted by a malevolently grinning skull, and realizes, This was indifferent Death. This was nobody’s ally.

In terms of the plotting, I have only one objection (SPOILER WARNING): Scott has lost his eye and his father knows it. So his father doesn’t recognize him when he shows up again in the 1969 Assumption game? It doesn’t even occur to him that the guy with one eye might be his son? Come on, Powers! This could have been dealt with somehow, e.g., Scott is self-conscious about his eye, so he wears shades. People have been known to do this in card games! The same objection applies to the second set of Assumption games that are played circa 1990. Seriously, another player with one eye? His father doesn’t notice or get suspicious? Aargh!

But overall, this is a very good novel indeed. I cannot recall ever having read anything quite like it. I suppose some of Stephen King’s fiction from the 1970s and 1980s has a similar combination of narrative propulsion and magical peril, e.g. The Stand.

Powers wrote two sequels to Last Call, but this novel is so good that one fears a sequel might be a let-down. I intend to re-read it before I take a shot at a sequel, so that before I have to absorb more material, I can re-absorb the pleasures of this ka-pow of a book at a leisurely pace, instead of the furious pace at which I first read it.

Review of Nothing Lasts Forever, by Roderick Thorp

The movie Die Hard was very loosely based on this. The novel is much darker than the movie. The novel manages to be both didactic and cynically amoral; there are no good guys in it. The Marxist terrorists are just Marxist terrorists; they’re not glamorized at all. But at the same time, the corporation whose building they take over is also portrayed as a bad guy, looting the third world and engaging in arms dealing to fascists, etc. It’s weird. There’s a hint of “capitalists are evil and corrupt and deserve everything bad that happens to them,” but it is also made plain that the Marxists are nothing but killers who enjoy killing, and that when people like them obtain power, the next thing that happens is massacres and genocide. This is stated explicitly. Therefore, Thorp really does not seem to be taking anyone’s side. Also, instead of the cop’s ex-wife in the building, it’s his daughter, and she dies at the end, plunging to her death along with the head of the terrorist gang. Gah, why? Is there a message there? Or is it just a tragedy? It’s hard to tell what Thorp intended.

I think Hollywood made the right call when they transferred this to the screen. They removed the cynicism and political aspects (is nihilism political?) and turned it into a battle against a group of common thieves. In other words, they turned it into a good action movie.

Pacing and structure: The beginning is horribly slow. Nothing interesting happens until page 40, which is when our hero first hears screams from elsewhere in the building. Before that, it’s just a bunch of largely purposeless ruminations about his professional and personal past. It tells us the hero is familiar with anti-terrorism methods, but that could have been handled in less than a page. PAAAADDING! I admit it; skipped ahead. The Los Angeles Times called the novel, “A ferocious, bloody, raging book so single-mindedly brilliant in concept and execution it should be read at a single sitting.” Well… once it gets going, sure. In fact, I did read it in one day. But the beginning suggests that the first draft wasn’t long enough and Thorp had to pad it out.

I’m not sure who the target audience for this novel would be now. Even if you like the movie, that’s not a good reason to read the novel because the movie is significantly better. I think perhaps the best candidate for this is an aspiring Tinseltown screenwriter who would like an example of how to take literary source material and turn it into a movie. Unlike many other cases that come to mind (cough, The Hobbit cough), Hollywood’s choices in conversion here were spot-on.

Showing, telling, and description in fiction

I briefly weighed in on a discussion of the “show don’t tell” rule on LibraryThing recently and I want to expand on my point.

The benefits of the “show don’t tell” rule are clearly seen for characterization. You don’t say, “Bob was insane and evil.” Rather, you show the reader Bob going around trying to get his co-workers fired if they wear belts that don’t match their shoes, or whatever. That way the reader hasn’t just been told a rumor about Bob, as it were; the reader sees Bob’s behavior and draws his/her own conclusions.

Even here, though, this is just a rule of thumb, not a law of physics. There actually are contexts where you should say “Bob was insane and evil,” e.g., you’re at a moment where it helps the reader to be told that, but you can’t afford to slow the pacing with details (and Bob is offstage), etc. Note if that character appears later, you should follow up and show detail supporting the original “told” part.

The “tell” as such isn’t necessarily bad technique; rather, the “tell” without the supporting “showing” of the particulars (at least eventually) is bad technique.

However, if your specific instance is very clear, you can eliminate the tell part entirely. E.g., if Bob tries to get his clothing-mismatched colleagues fired, we don’t need to be told that he’s evil. But even with a more subtle character who’s torn in conflicting directions about something, you generally don’t need to say “he felt conflicted.” Take a man who wants to be both an actor and a rock star. If you clearly show him wrestling with this, you simply don’t need to say “he was wrestling with (etc.)” Indeed, it would be ridiculous to bother including it.

In physical description, e.g., of a person, a little tell mixed in with a lot of show can go a long way. Examples below.

Ayn Rand understood all this: The author provides both abstract summaries/evaluations of the sense of an event (or description, e.g., of a person or scene), and also the supporting particulars that justify the abstract evaluation.

Let me offer an example:

She was very ugly. Her eyes were so pale they seemed colorless. Her mouth was soft, puffy and more or less formless; it suggested weakness, as though unwilling to commit to any particular shape. Her hair was a nondescript light brown, the color of dishwater.

The particulars (the details of the face) “prove” the evaluation (she was ugly), and the evaluation gives meaning to the particulars; it unifies, explains them, and tells the reader why the author chose to include those details.

The particulars support the generality; the generality gives meaning and purpose to the particulars.

Such is the writer’s power over the facts presented, and the evaluation attached to them, that a few small changes in what is expressed and how it is expressed can support an entirely different judgment. For example:

She was very beautiful. Her eyes were pale; they seemed ethereal, angelic. Her mouth was soft, suggesting it was waiting to yield to a man’s kiss. Her hair, a muted sienna, allowed her face to hold all of one’s attention. The overall effect was strikingly sensual.

Notice the “objective facts” about the woman’s appearance are almost exactly the same in these two passages. Changes that are seemingly “only” a matter of nuance make them very different in terms of the overall impression. But it is not only a difference of “marketing”; I also did some fine brushwork with the objective details. For example, in the first passage her mouth is shapeless. In the second passage, it isn’t; it is soft, as if she has an inner eroticism that is, consciously or unconsciously, making her hold her lips (an important erogenous zone) in a sexual way. In other words, in the second passage there is a suggestion of intent in the shape of the girl’s mouth that is not there in the first passage. In the first passage, she’s simply a brain-dead idiot with a flabby mouth. In the second, the suggestion of purpose actually conveys the opposite impression: life, vitality, sexual energy.

This is what you can do when you think about what you’re doing.

By the way, the foregoing examples illustrate the fact that Art (yes, I capitalized Art) is largely a left-brain activity. You have to be consciously aware of what you’re doing. (I am going to write an essay on this at some point in the future, but it will be longer than a blog post.) Rand: “A beard and a vacant stare are not the defining characteristics of an artist.” (Heh.) While instinct certainly has its place in Art, to use it in a good way, you must know what you’re doing. If you’re an aspiring artist and someone tells you that you should usually go by your inscrutable instinct, run away from that person as fast as you can. Whether they know it or not, their advice will screw up your ability to create.

Above I said, “Note if that character appears later, you should follow up and show detail supporting the original ‘told’ part.” Indeed, setting the stage with a little bit of tell can leverage the show later. E.g., if it’s a fantasy novel and a character off stage has been set up as a Witch Queen who is responsible for maintaining sexual desire in the world, then when you finally show her to the reader, the show parts will have more impact. From one of the last chapters in my novel The War of the First Day:

We all turned. A woman sat on one of the rocks. She wore a hunter green silk garment that draped her with careless flair; it flowed around her baring just enough skin to tease the eye without satisfying it. Her crossed legs slanted provocatively from the folds of cloth and she held a pair of green gloves in one hand. She sat still, as if she had frozen immediately after removing the gloves, projecting an air of casual dominance. She had long brown hair, gray eyes, and perfect skin with a hint of an olive tan, and she was beautiful to the point of it seeming rude. Her face, intrusively, seemed to take over the glade because the eye didn’t want to look at anything else. Lesser women—all of us—felt ourselves turning invisible. This was, of course, Aventa Vulpa, the Queen of Lust.

She gave me a smile that would have made a man’s brain drop out through his anus and said, “So you’re the girl who [spoiler elided].”

To summarize, the rule “Show don’t tell” should be thought of as a general rule, a rule of thumb. Here is something much closer to an unbreakable rule, a meta-rule:

For any given rule of writing fiction, you should either:

(1) Follow the rule,

or,

(2) Break the rule for specific reason that you can articulate to yourself. This is basically just saying that you know what you’re doing.

Even this meta-rule isn’t always right, because sometimes you just have to follow your gut.