Comedy In Fiction

LaughterOne of my favorite movies of all time, Front Page, features one of the first cinematic examples of what has come to be known as "snappy dialog": a rapid-fire exchange of witty banter and rejoinders. When a stand-up comedian drops a clunker (delivers a joke that earns little to no laughter) he can sometimes be heard to say, "On the way home tonight you're going to get that and laugh your head off!" With snappy dialog, the one-liners dropped in that machine-gun barrage can often go by so quickly you find yourself laughing at it minutes after the scene has already passed.

Examples, you ask? Well, I was recently watching a sci-fi/fantasy show set in the midst of WWII in which, as a byproduct of a sci-fi event, a group of unknowing people are healed by very thorough nano-robots of an alien virus. A woman then walks up to her physician to report, "My leg's back! I had only one leg, and now the other's grown back!" To which he replies, "Well there's a war on. Is it possible you miscounted?" This line is delivered so flatly, almost as an aside before the scene goes back to the main plot, I found myself laughing still minutes after the show had ended.

LaughterIn another example, the captain of a ship on which a bomb is about to explode is on the intercom demanding his crew find a way to jettison the explosive.

Captain: "How about we stuff it in an escape capsule?"
Crewman: "There are no escape capsules."
Captain: "Are you sure?"
Crewman: "Yes, Captain."
Captain: "Have you looked everywhere? Under the sink?"
Crewman: "Yes, Captain."

I enjoy comedic dialog, if done well, and strive to include it as much as possible in at least one of my ongoing series of suspense adventures. In an unpublished manuscript of mine there is a scene in which one character comments on a bullet wound that only creased the main character's scalp:

"What happened there?"
"Freak knitting accident."

And the dialog goes on, taking no notice of the joke. The funniest dialog is when it isn't acknowledged by the characters in the scene. In an interview, Mel Brooks once said of an actress, "She didn't do comedy. When she delivered a line, she couldn't stop herself from broadcasting it, all but winking at the camera and saying, 'Here comes the joke, folks!'" The very nature of comedy is the surprise. The funniest dialog is delivered non-sequitur, and it's even funnier when others in the scene act as if it's a perfectly normal thing to say.

LaughterDouglas Adams, celebrated British comedic sci-fi writer wrote this bit of a giggle:

"I have detected disturbances. Eddies in the space-time continuum."
"Ah...is he. Is he."
"What?"
"Er, who is Eddy, then, exactly?”

Here, an anomaly of the English language leads to a misunderstanding, giving rise to comedy.

I've heard other comedic people, writers and comedians, say comedy either comes naturally to a person or it doesn't. It cannot be taught. What's your opinion?

I often think I'm quite hilarious. Some don't agree. Which leads to another point: some comedy is subjective. I, for example, don't find bathroom humor funny, as a rule. The recent cinematic trend in gross-out humor leaves me cold. Other's nearly pass out with laughter. On the other hand, many hold that puns are the lowest form of humor. For me, contrariwise, a well-placed pun or double-meaning will send me into gales. Triple-, quadruple-meanings...the more facets an entendre has, the funnier it is.

Physical comedy is very hard to do in fiction. Don't believe me? Try describing your favorite comic strip to a reader. The challenge comes in explaining an action without dragging the joke on so long that by the time you get to the punch line the reader has already outthunk you and moved on. You need to develop a talent for pithy narrative. Good comedy writing is some of the tightest, most backloaded writing I've ever read. Even if you don't write comedy, it's good practice for any kind of writing.

An example of bad physical comedy in fiction?

"Lucy holds the football upright by the tip, an evil gleam in her eye. Charlie Brown, tongue planted firmly in the corner of his mouth, narrows his eyes and takes aim. He charges, planting his feet to pour on maximum speed. Just as he swings his foot at the ball, Lucy pulls it away. Charlie can't stop, and his momentum carries him off is feet, to where he it seems to him he is actually suspended for several seconds, time enough to scream, 'Aaaaaaargh!' When he falls he slides on the grass for a yard or so before coming to rest, staring at the sky. 'You blockhead!' he hears in the distance as Lucy struts away, not laughing, just disgusted."

This scene comes off as rather sad when written out this way. (BTW: It's my opinion Lucy secretly likes Charlie Brown. Every time she pulls the ball away she's testing him to see if he has yet become the man(boy) she needs him to be to justify her crush. But the subtext of cartoons is a whole other blog topic. One for true fiction-nerds.)

Now consider this physical scene:

"Turning the knob, she tried to open the door quietly, but it creaked as it opened. She tried to step through gaps in the crime scene tape, but it stuck to her pant leg, then her sleeve, and before she knew it she was stumbling through the door, a-tangle in the sticky stuff, hopping on one leg and trying to pull it free of her clothes."

Here the writer could have gone on to describe the scene in greater detail, and if this were any other kind of scene you might encourage them to do so. But in a comedic scene, it's only the action that convey's the humor, not the color of the door or the texture of the clothing that made the tape stick so well, etc.

One more point: strive to make your comedy as inclusive as possible. When you make others laugh at the expense of another, it's fun for your audience, but not so much for its victim. Puns aside, this is, in my opinion, the true lowest form of humor.

What's your favorite comedic moment in television, film or literature? Leave comments below.

Something Extra

I recently read a women’s fiction novel by an author I’ve enjoyed before, Lisa Jewell. It had the usual things she does well: interesting characters, complex relationships, an appealing and well-developed setting. But it had something else, a suspense plot. This “something extra” made it an even more compelling book. The book worked as women’s fiction already. The suspense plot took it to another level.

I’ve noticed this kind of “genre crossbreeding” is happening more and more. It started in romance years ago when authors began adding suspense to create the romantic suspense sub-genre, and paranormal elements to create paranormal romance. Then historical mysteries took off, followed by mysteries with fantasy or sci-fi elements. And what is urban fantasy, other than an action/adventure novel set in a fantasy world?

Even literary fiction has gotten in on the trend, with authors adding strong genre elements to books written in a literary style. An example is one of my favorite mystery authors: Benjamin Black, which is the pseudonym of John Banville, an acclaimed literary writer. There's a mystery at the core of his Quirk series, but the writing is also beautiful and evocative, providing a thrilling and enriched reading experience.

In the very crowded publishing world of today, there are so many well-written genre books that you have to find some way to set your novel apart. Adding elements from another genre is a good way to do this. A friend of mine, Amanda Cabot, writes inspirational romance. In her most recent novel, she added a mystery subplot. From the reviews she’s gotten, readers loved it. The mystery was “something extra” that made the book even more satisfying.

In some ways, the trend can be a disheartening. You’ve reached the place where you’re very good at writing books in your genre. Now you realize you have to up your game and work even harder. But another way to think of it is an exciting opportunity to stretch and expand your skills.

Without my really planning it, there ended up being a mystery subplot in the historical romance I recently finished. In addition to the love story and the other usual plot elements, someone attempts to murder a secondary character. I’m not a plotter, so after I finished the first draft, I had a lot more revision to do than usual. I had to make sure the timeline made sense, the clues were there and the mystery—in addition to everything else—got wrapped up satisfactorily.

The book was more work than any I’ve written in years. But it was also challenging and gratifying. Knowing that I’d enriched the story by adding a mystery made me more hopeful my publisher might be interested in the book, despite the fact that medieval romances aren’t exactly a hot commodity these days.

I don’t know if the mystery subplot is why my publisher offered me a contract. (Yay!) But I don’t think it hurt. What about you? Are there cross-genre elements you could add to your next project?

Rocky Mountain Writer #87

Laurence MacNaughton & A Kiss Before Doomsday

We check back in with Laurence MacNaughton, whose new urban fantasy A Kiss Before Doomsday is set to launch in a few short weeks, just about a year after he debuted his new series with It Happened One Doomsday.

We are back with Dru Jasper and her crystal shop and her magical powers and sorcerers and major problems trying to stop, yes, another impending apocalypse.

Laurence Macnaughton grew up in Connecticut and sold his first magazine story at age 19. Over the years, he’s been a bookseller, typesetter, printer, copywriter and a prototype vehicle test driver.

Following the Q & A, Laurence reads the opening scene from A Kiss Before Doomsday.

Laurence MacNaughton's website

Intro music by Moby Gratis

Outro music by Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com

Gary Reilly Was The Greatest Writer I Ever Knew

Gary Reilly was the greatest writer I ever knew.

Variety, volume, and quality.

All three.

RMFW writer friends of mine – and anyone writing fiction out there – I ask this: how many writers do you know who put together 25 novels (most of them in near-perfect shape) without ever receiving a word of encouragement for an agent or publishing house? In fact, Gary was discouraged many times. He would query now and then, get rejected, and keep writing.

Twenty-five! And most only need a light dusting, editing wise, to get them shipshape today.

Quality? Three Colorado Book Award finalist nominations so far. Booklist has raved about Gary's series. National Public Radio has twice talked about Gary's works in a positive light. And Gary's Vietnam fiction has drawn praise from Ron Carlson, Stewart O'Nan, Gregory Hill, Tim Bazzett, John Mort and David Willson, who reviews books for The Vietnam Veterans of America.  The single story Gary had published during his lifetime was accepted by The Iowa Review and later included in the fourth volume of The Pushcart Prize anthology, the best fiction from small presses.

Yes, quality.

For many of his works, Gary Reilly did what writers are taught to do. He drew stories from his life. And livelihoods. For many other stories, he conjured from his quite active storytelling imagination.

So Gary wrote about going to war. He wrote about driving a taxi. And he weaved into his books many of the frustrations about being an unpublished novelist.

Gary, who died in 2011, left behind a mountain of fiction.

Here at the worldwide headquarters of Running Meter Press, we are closing in on the half-way mark of publishing Gary’s works.

Later this month, on Friday, June 23, we will launch The Discharge, the third book in Gary’s trilogy about his experiences during The Vietnam War.

The series started with The Enlisted Men’s Club, set in The Presidio and around San Francisco as Private Palmer (Gary’s alter ego) faced the grim prospect of going to war. Private Palmer drinks beer, smokes cigarettes, and tries hard, during the occasional training run, to imagine what lies ahead.

Palmer touches his shirt pocket for a cigarette, then drops his hand. The smoking lamp isn’t lit. Do real grunts smoke on patrol? The point-man has an incomprehensible look of panic on his face. Lt. Norbert turns him around by the shoulders and shoves him back toward his position. Can patrols in Vietnam be as half-assed as this? Palmer knows he could very well end up in the Infantry and that he is not guaranteed to remain an MP once he arrives in a combat zone, though maybe that’s just Army Apocrypha. He will never be able to separate his illusions from his ignorance. When he was inducted he had expected everyone to end up with nicknames, like Bookworm, Lefty, or Ace. His nickname would be Colorado, as in, “Colorado bought the farm last night, Ace.” Everyone would look like Bart Maverick, Bret’s less-interesting brother. When they got into arguments, they would raise their chins and say things like, “Back off, buddy boy.”

In The Detachment, Private Palmer is “in country,” but he’s an MP and his combat is internal. The Detachment is 154,000 words. It’s a one-year arc and its three parts are beautifully distinct. The war is nearby and Palmer and witnesses its toll, but he’s not fighting out in the jungles of Vietnam.

The sounds of the choppers fade as they fly toward the PX, cross over it, then separate and begin spreading out in a combat formation, their fantails easing back and forth, the Hueys now like tiny fish idling against a river’s current. A circle of light suddenly appears on the mountainside, a white disk that must cover twenty square acres, and at first Palmer thinks it has come from a helicopter. The circle probes the hillsides, slithers along its rills and gullies in search of VC, moves as rapidly as if Palmer himself were twitching the beam of a hand-held flashlight across the far ranges, thousands of meters swept in less than a second….

Tracer bullets streak toward the side of the mountain, the Hueys now like angry spiders spinning endless red threads, raking the gullies, the rills, the folds as the circle of white light stops, creating a bull’s-eye target for the bullets tearing up the earth…

The battle sounds cease, the faint pulse of the earth no longer throbbing at irregular intervals through Palmer’s soles. The massive spotlight begins to drift slowly north along the hillsides, its shape changing as it traces every mound and crevice like a flattened liquid cat in a cartoon sliding off a chair.

And in The Discharge, Private Palmer returns home to Denver and, quite frankly, here’s where I get chills.

I think about all the soldiers who have returned home, alive. I think about how returning soldiers from Vietnam were treated.

I think about how anyone would find meaning in life after seeing so much killing or being the cause of your enemy’s death. The suicide rates among veterans is a harrowing issue to this day and it's no accident that suicides play a major role in both The Enlisted Men’s Club and The Detachment.

Gary’s fiction captured the reality of the mental state of his fellow soldiers—and, of course, his own.

Coming home in The Discharge, Palmer (no longer Private Palmer) faces heavy bouts of ennui and a lack of purpose. The first section is bleak. Hopelessness is right around the corner. What to do? How hard to work? And what will hold meaning?

In the first section of this third novel, Palmer is looking for an anchor and ponders going to California so he drives up Berthoud Pass in a raging snowstorm and gets stuck, dreaming of San Francisco.

The whitened top of Geary, electric trolley cars every five minutes, the sweet odor of saltwater and green leaves and sandy Sunset Beach. At the beginning of this journey he thought he would somehow find himself at that place in the morning. He put a wine bottle to his lips, but there was no wine left. He set the bottle on the floor and it tipped and rolled and stopped.

He held his beer can until it was empty and he tried to think about the things other than the things which can never be escaped, and all the time he kept promising himself that the one thing he would not do alone in the dark mountains was cry about it. It seemed to him finally the only thing he had any control over, and when it began, he found he could not stop it.

He wept until the morning light turned the road and the forest to red and then to gold as the sun lifted above the far plains and shrank, and the road and the snow between the trees grew white as burning phosphorous.

In the second section of The Discharge, Gary switches to first-person as Palmer goes to Hollywood. In real life, Gary came very close to being hired to write for stand-up comedian Louie Anderson and this middle section gives an idea of how high Gary’s hopes were—and how he managed to deal with the disappointment. Or did he?

And in the third section, back in third-person again and back in Denver, Palmer decides to start driving a cab, just as Gary did. Still, Palmer is looking for routine and a sense of place in the world of work (without doing too much). And we see fictional Palmer "meet" the future fictional Murph, The Asphalt Warrior.

Murph is Gary’s greatest creation, the asphalt philosopher Brendan Murphy, star of eight novels to date. (Booklist has called Murph "a truly original fictional creation and National Public Radio has raved about the series as "huge fun.")

Murph, as fans of the series know, is an unpublished novelist as well as being a cab driver. As a cab driver, Murph wants to earn as little money as possible—just enough to keep his bohemian life afloat. And Murph is bound and determined to never get involved in the lives of his fares, a personal mantra that he violates on a regular basis (for our comic benefit).

But in The Discharge, as Palmer finds stability and comfort in the cab driving business (despite some harrowing moments), Palmer saves himself.

He’s still looking for escape, a way out of the now and the ordinary and a way to deal with what he experienced in Vietnam, an experience to which he “refuses to attach any nostalgia.”

How does Palmer escape? How does he heal himself?

By becoming an artist.

Against the darkness, he turns on the kitchen light. He sits at the table.

He’s got a mountain of fiction to produce and it offers him hope, a way forward. We can feel it.

We've published 11 novels so far. Ahead, a couple of 'noir' mysteries in the vein of Patricia Highsmith, at least one more Murph, some science fiction, some fantasy, and some big, old-fashioned multi-generational literary fiction.

Despite the occasional ray of hope from an agent here or a publisher there, Gary Reilly never stopped writing (right up to the end). He was a writer, through and through.

Gary Reilly knew his place in the world, as a storyteller. And an artist, the greatest writer I ever knew.

++

Join us at The Tattered Cover for the launch of The Discharge:
Friday, June 23 | 7 PM
2526 E. Colfax Ave.

More: www.theasphaltwarrior.com

Gary Reilly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Novels Are Like Onions

When I started writing, my biggest hang-up was the misguided notion of Writer with a capital W. If I’m a real Writer, I thought, I should be able to sit down whenever I feel like it and write something good—nay, groundbreaking! If I’m a real Writer, the words should magically pour forth from my sweat glands onto the page! Right?

Wrong. And as a result, I spent years just trying to get off the ground as a writer. I would get a spark of inspiration, sit down to write the Next Great American Novel/Short Story/Poem/Whatever, then give up half an hour later when I realized the first draft wasn’t even close to perfect. I would then decide “I’m not a real writer” and quit writing for months—before coming back to repeat the process all over again.

Then a couple of years ago, when I started my current novel, something finally clicked. I was watching Shrek one night while working on my first draft, and I realized that novels, like onions and ogres, have layers. Many, many layers. This applies not only to book-length fiction, but to any form of writing, including memoirs, short stories, poems, and even this blog post. It takes a lot of time, thought, and effort to get all those layers in place and working together, so no first draft is going to be perfect. And guess what? That’s okay.

Imagine building a house: you can’t paint the bathroom until you’ve installed the plumbing. Some budding writers (including me, at one time) think that being a writer means pouring cement, wiring electricity, and picking out drapes all at once. But in fact, writing anything requires multiple drafts so you can put all those layers into place and make sure they’re working together. This, dear writer, is why the writing gods created revision.

Here are some of the many layers I’ve seen in my writing:

  • Premise
  • Plot
  • Conflict
  • Pacing
  • Characters
  • Physical description
  • Emotion
  • Motivation
  • Character relationships
  • Suspense
  • Foreshadowing
  • Voice
  • Tone
  • Mood and atmosphere
  • Setting
  • Worldbuilding
  • Dialogue
  • Body language and facial expression
  • Internal thoughts
  • Themes
  • Symbolism
  • Writing style
  • Word choice
  • Imagery
  • Metaphors and similes
  • Chapter breaks and cliffhangers

I’m sure there are more. But from this list alone, can you see why it’s unrealistic to expect to do it all at once? Start with a single layer, or a handful, then let the others fall into place as you revise.

Which layers to start with? That’s up to you. In my experience, it varies from one writer to another and from one project to the next. My current novel started with a premise and a main character—they were the foundations of the house. Then I added elements that came relatively easily to me, like pacing, foreshadowing, and dialogue. It wasn’t until several drafts later that I finished fleshing out my worldbuilding and added my best imagery and metaphors.

Because there are so many layers, it can be hard to spot the ones that are underdeveloped or missing altogether. This is where critique partners and beta readers come in. If they’re reading for big-picture stuff (i.e., not copyediting for you), they’ll notice if something is lacking. I remember finishing what I thought was the final draft of my current work-in-progress, only to have readers tell me I had left out my main character’s thoughts and feelings. That’s a huge layer to omit—and because I was so close to the work, I never noticed it myself.

So don’t fret over these layers. Start with what feels natural and just keep going, getting help from your trusted readers. Like peeling an onion, let yourself discover the layers as you peel them back one by one. And yes, there will probably be a few tears, too.

Rocky Mountain Writer #85

Charles Kowalski & Mind Virus

We’ve got sage advice this time ... all the way from Japan.

Charles Kowalski a few weeks away from the release of his first novel, Mind Virus, but it’s been a long road to reach this point.

And Charles knows it was all meant to be. He had just the right amount of encouragement, he says, at just the right time to keep going, to not give up.

Charles Kowalski is a two-time winner of the Action/Thriller category for Colorado Gold Award, for Mind Virus in 2013 and also in 2016 for the forthcoming Day of the Watchers.

Charles divides his time between Japan, where he teaches at a university, and his family home of Maine.

This is a special podcast because it marks the first international interview for the Rocky Mountain Writer. And, yes, members of RMFW live all around the world.

Charles Kowalski's website

Intro music by Moby Gratis

Outro music by Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com

Let It Percolate!

Let it Percolate!

Stephanie Reisner

It's happened to all of us. We're someplace horribly inconvenient and a great idea pops into our heads. We do our best to record that inspirational thought for later when we have time to sit down and write. Then, when we show up at the computer to type it all up, the moment is lost, the excitement is gone, and we end up staring at a blank screen. Or, even worse, that beautiful idea only generated two hundred words, and that was that. Certainly not enough for an entire novel let alone a single chapter.

This has happened to me more times than I can count, and I imagine it has happened to many of you. I have something for you to try next time that great idea shows up on your doorstep. First - go ahead and welcome the idea by jotting down a few fevered notes, but don't rush to the computer to try to flesh it out. Not yet. I know - it sounds completely counter-intuitive, doesn't it?  We've been told most of our careers that inspiration is fleeting and that you need to take it and run with it when it shows up. Especially since we’ve all had the experience of sitting in front of the computer staring at a blank page and that taunting, blinking cursor.

Here's what I propose: Instead of rushing to try to throw down ten thousand words on your fantastic flash of insight, stop. Let the idea percolate. Sit on it for a few days, weeks, or months – however long it takes - and let the idea grow. Right now, it’s just a seed. Not every flash of inspiration is a solid, healthy seed though. Sometimes these inspirational seeds are too small, and may only grow into a sub-plot or just a story point in a current or future project.  But if it's a really good idea and big, a solid, healthy seed -- it's going to grow. Those are the seeds some of us want because they are the fuel for those intense ideas that often grow into multiple books.

Five Tips to Help Your Ideas Grow:

  1. Talk the idea over with a friend or family member.
  2. Mull it over and flesh it out in your mind before putting pen to paper. I often put the idea through various scenarios just to see how versatile it is. I often discover that the more versatile the idea, the better.
  3. Start some pre-writing. This can include character descriptions, outlines, notes, and even locale descriptions. For fantasy or sci-fi authors, this could take the form of world-building.
  4. Start a storyboard or mind map. Large whiteboards are perfect for this. For those of you who like to visualize your story – the storyboard or mind map can be just the inspirational mana you need for a strong start.
  5. Read. It helps fuel the imagination.

When you let ideas percolate, you may just discover that the big ideas will stick around and grow until you have no choice but to write them down. By the time they demand to be written, chances are you'll have built more backstory, more plot, more characters, and so on, which is going to make the pre-writing or initial writing smoother. Finally, follow-through. By telling you to let ideas percolate, I’m not saying you should put them on the backburner forever. At some point, you will need to commit pen to paper and get it out of your head and onto the written page. Stories can’t just stay in our heads or they can clog the mental plumbing. So be disciplined, be vigilant, and write. Good luck and happy writing!

***

Stephanie Reisner began writing at the age of ten and never stopped. Under S. J. Reisner she writes fantasy, romance, and YA. She also writes erotic and paranormal romances as Anne O'Connell, occult/paranormal thrillers and horror stories as Audrey Brice, and non-fiction books and articles under yet a different pen name. Her most recent releases are Saving Sarah May (S. J. Reisner, Romance), Ascending Darkness (Audrey Brice, Supernatural Mystery), and Taming Trish (Anne O'Connell, Erotic Romance). When she's not writing she's hiking, gardening, or just hanging out with her husband and cats. To learn more visit: www.sjreisner.com

 

Completely Annihilated

No, "completely annihilated" does not mean this a column about drinking.

This is about something Mario Vargas Llosa once said.

Okay, I’ll back up.

Last week I had a cool opportunity in New York to moderate a panel at the Edgar Symposium. This is a day-long event prior to the Edgar Awards, the annual prizes for the best in mystery and crime fiction.

The title of my panel was “The Author’s Life.” My panelists were all finalists for one of the top Edgar Awards—best short story, best paperback original, best novel, etc.

Left to right: Tyler Dilts, Reed Farrel Coleman, Wendy Corsi Staub, Megan Abbott, Patricia Abbott, yours truly.
My panelists were Patricia Abbott (“Shot in Detroit,” best paperback original); Megan Abbott (“Oxford Girl,” best short story); Wendy Corsi Staub (“Blue Moon,” Mary Higgins Clark award); Reed Farrel Coleman (“Where It Hurts,” best novel); and Tyler Dilts (“Come Twilight,” best paperback original).

In prepping ideas for the group, I thought it might be fun to pose the same questions to my panelists that were also asked of famous writers by The Paris Review.

For instance, in 1957 Truman Capote was asked “Do you like anything you wrote long ago as well as what you write now?”

In 1996, Richard Price was asked, “When you’re writing a book do you tend to avoid reading other books?”

In 1993, Don DeLillo was asked: “Athletes—basketball players, football players—talk about ‘getting into the zone.’ Is there a writer’s zone you get into?"

In 2013, Ursula LeGuin was asked, “Did you ever catch yourself thinking about potential book sales when you were considering a project?”

And in 1968, John Updike was asked, “Are you conscious of belonging to a definable American literary tradition? Would you describe yourself as part of an American tradition?”

After we went around on the panel hearing answers from Edgar Award nominees, I read a portion of the answers from what the writers said in The Paris Review. It was interesting. There’s not enough room here to include the Paris Review answers or what my panelists offered up, but it was fun.

Llosa was asked: “Do you choose the subjects of your books or do they choose you?”

(Great question, huh?)

I highly recommend the entire interview, but his answer to this specific questions prompts Llosa to make a great case for the “irrational” elements of literary creation.

Llosa says he wants to write novels that “read the way I read the novels I love.”

And then he says this: “The novels that have fascinated me most are the ones that have reached me less through the channels of the intellect or reason than bewitched me. These are stories capable of completely annihilating all my critical faculties so that I’m left there, in suspense … I think it’s very important that the intellectual element, whose presence is inevitable in a novel, dissolves into the action, into the stories that must seduce the reader not by their ideas but by their color, by the emotions they inspire, by their element of surprise, and by all the suspense and mystery they’re capable of generating.”

Yeah, who doesn’t want to write a novel that is capable of “completely annihilating” all of a reader’s critical faculties.

Just a new standard to shoot for.

I thought I would share.

Sometimes you have to put technique aside and let the imagination go.

Right?

++++

PS: The guy who ultimately won for best paperback original (Adrian McKinty, “Rain Dogs”) was unable to sit in on my panel due to personal issues, alas.

PPS: Megan Abbott and Patricia Abbott are the first daughter-mother combination of writers to ever be finalists for the Edgar Award in the same year. How cool is that??

Rocky Mountain Writer #79

Kevin Michaels & Still Black Remains

Kevin Michaels is the author of the just-released Still Black Remains, a novel that takes readers down into the gritty streets of New Jersey with gangs and the Mafia.

Michaels is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel Lost Exit, as well as two entries in the Fight Card Books series: Hard Road and Can't Miss Contender.

Michaels' short stories and flash fiction have also appeared in a number of magazines and indie zines, and in 2011 he was nominated for two separate Pushcart Prize awards.

On the podcast, Michaels talks about the appeal of writing gritty crime fiction and he talks about an organization he founded called Story Tellers that works with under-served teenagers and young adults in a community-based effort to develop and promote literacy through writing.

Michaels left the corporate world to focus on writing but he's realistic about the work ahead. “Writing is a craft,” he says. “Study it, play with it, keep improving.”

Kevin Michaels on Facebook

Literary Wanderlust

Intro music by Moby Gratis

Outro music by Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com

All Hail Conan! (And Buy The Book)

I’m here today with a handy tip for the season of the gift.

Order a copy of Conan the Grammarian, Practical Guidelines on Grammar and Craft for Fiction Writers.

A mere $10.

(Actually, $9.95.)

And then give it to a writer friend for Christmas or your holiday of choice. Birthdays would work, too.

Boom, done.

Does the mere mention of the word ‘grammar’ force you to make a face like you’re eating cold undercooked lima beans? Or pickled beets?

Think again.

This book about grammar is (dare I say it?) refreshing.

Inspiring.

And very (very) funny.

cover-conanWritten by former RMFW president Susan Mackay Smith, Conan the Grammarian is a handy, engaging book that will linger around your desk or writing nook for many years.

The book is a distillation of Conan’s columns in the monthly RMFW newsletter. But everything has been re-written and beautifully organized. And, in terms of production values, Susan Mackay Smith shows all independent publishers out there that a self-produced book can look as sharp and feel as professional as anything coming out of New York City.

Conan claims grammatical errors are “unforgiveable” and, of course, this book goes out and proves that very fact. I didn’t spot one typo. On top of all that, the interior layout makes digesting this volume a snap. (Bibliography, glossary, and index, too.)

Yes, there’s a lot here about grammar. But focus on the second half of the title – practical guidelines and grammar and craft for fiction writers. Every lesson in grammar and usage is written with an eye on the fiction writers’ needs. Smith is writing this for you, the fiction writer.

The “Pets and Peeves” section might be worth the $10 alone (especially if you are about to submit to an agent or send a manuscript to an editor).

Same with “Toward More Colorful Writing.” This section will give you a boost and also give you a few issues to ponder as you edit. It’s a snappy checklist for self-improvement. This is “Perfect Abs in Twenty Minutes A Day” and, this time, it works.

I devoured Conan the Grammarian with a smile on my face and a pen handy to ink-up the pages with underlines at key passages and stars in the margins.

Do any of these sound useful? “Narrative & Description; Showing vs. Telling.” “Voice.” “Action.” “Clichés of Characterization.” “The Hated Revision.” Twenty-seven sub-chapters in all, you can do the math. The reading is brisk and the points are efficiently made. (Having judged Colorado Gold and other writing contests for years, Susan Mackay Smith knows when the brain starts to hurt or the eyes glaze over.) When I was finished, I felt as if I had a new, higher bar to reach. I felt like a better writer.

Conan wants the ideas and the story in your head to reach the reader in clear, efficient and powerful fashion. You may think you know what you are trying to say, but is the story in your head making the journey to your reader's imagination in the most effective way possible? The most clear?

Conan may not be cuddly, but he will set you straight.

Just $10!

Actually, $9.95.

(Get two; one for you and one for a writer pal.)

Order on Amazon here.