Friday, March 26, 2010

Hurtin' Heroes

All right, quick quiz: who's the prolific, (180 books) manly, adventurer/author pictured above? If you guessed Thriller Guy you're forgiven, it's an understandable mistake, but you're wrong. That's Lester Dent, author of the Doc Savage series, books that were also made into a radio show, movies and comic books. And which are still available today.

TG recently finished reading and reviewing an excellent thriller (sorry, contractually I cannot name this book for several months), where the hero had by page 67 been badly beaten up three times, stabbed and generally mistreated by friend and foe alike. After finishing the book, TG realized that these days most heroes are getting off pretty light when it comes to being on the receiving end of physical mayhem. Sure, there are exceptions like Ray Banks' characters and a few others, but most big-name authors are letting their guys off easy. They might pick up a flesh wound toward the end of a book, but generally they win all their fist fights and escape relatively unscathed after other attempts are made on their lives. It was not always thus.

When the young folk gather at TG's knee and ask for help with their cute little novels, TG always counsels: “Make the best possible characters and then do the worst possible things to them.” Actually, TG thinks he stole that line from John Irving, but John will never notice this little blog and he wouldn't care anyway. Actually, many years ago, John slept with one of TG's old girlfriends, but that's another story and TG never carries a grudge. (Big shout-out to John -- Still living in New Hampshire and writing about bears?)

Anyway, until recently heroes had to work hard and take a lot of punishment to come out on top of the villains. Lester Dent knew that, and Doc Savage, while fabulously tough and smart, took his lumps and more with every adventure. Note the torn shirt, which was de rigeur on all of this series' pulp covers. Doc wasn't a superhero, but, well, let's let Wikipedia do the explaining...

Doc Savage's real name was Clark Savage, Jr.. He was a physician, surgeon, scientist, adventurer, inventor, explorer, researcher, and, as revealed in The Polar Treasure, a musician. A team of scientists assembled by his father deliberately trained his mind and body to near-superhuman abilities almost from birth, giving him great strength and endurance, a photographic memory, a mastery of the martial arts, and vast knowledge of the sciences. Doc is also a master of disguise and an excellent imitator of voices. "He rights wrongs and punishes evildoers." Dent described the hero as a mix of Sherlock Holmes' deductive abilities, Tarzan's outstanding physical abilities, Craig Kennedy's scientific education, and Abraham Lincoln's goodness. Dent described Doc Savage as manifesting "Christliness." Doc's character and world-view is displayed in his oath, which goes as follows:

Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it. Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do. Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.”

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, That's a very fine credo, but what the hell is the point here, TG? Sorry. The point is that Lester Dent wrote an instructive short essay on how to plot a 6000 word short story. It's a useful instruction for not just short story writers, but novelists as well. Perspective authors and professional authors alike would do well to read the essay and apply its lessons to their own writing, particularly Dent's repeated instructions on how to treat your hero: “Introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble.” “Shovel more grief onto the hero.” “A surprising plot twist in which the hero preferably gets it in the neck bad.” and again: “Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.”

So let's get with it, thriller writers; time to start beating the crap out of your heroes.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Insiders; Guns

Wasn't it Lenin who famously said, “Whenever I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun.”? Well, whenever Thriller Guy reads a press release or jacket copy that blares, “Written by the ultimate insider!!," or, "Only an insider could...” TG reaches for his gun. Actually, all of TG's guns are locked up in the gun safe, far from the hands of curious kiddies, except the one he keeps in the bedside table, locked and loaded for when the Bad Guy creeps in, (Cue sound of window breaking downstairs) bent on revenge for that day long ago when TG put him down or away. But those are other stories from the distant past.

You wouldn't believe how many books TG receives for review that are penned by government, agency, spy, military, whatever, Insiders!

Warning bells always go off when inserted publisher's material promises that the page-turner TG is about to read has been penned by the “ultimate insider” and is filled with never-before-seen details of some secret government agency. The problem, with a few exceptions, is that most of these books just aren't very good, that the newcomer insiders don't really know much about thrillers or the writing of thrillers, which results in poor structure, broken genre rules and just plain bad writing. I believe the scenario probably goes something like this:

Top level, usually government employee retires, having risen to the top of his/her field after a long professional life. Someone, a friend, spouse, family member, agent, random person at a cocktail/dinner party, says to the retiree, “You really know a lot about (fill in the field of expertise), I'll bet you could write a great thriller. You could make a lot of money. Tom Clancy did it, and he was only an insurance guy. You must have a million stories you could tell!”

The retiree thinks, Tom Clancy, he made a ton of money. How hard could it be? I'm as smart as any writer. And I do know a million stories. Besides, I can always hire someone to help me if I get stuck.

TG is one of the guys who is in the business of ghosting these books, the guy who is hired on when the Insider gets stuck. And they always get stuck. (Contact TG through his Alter Ego's website, for competitive rates).

TG was once asked to a meeting by a literary agent to talk to a female Secret Service agent who had “A hell of a tale to tell.” TG was perfectly willing to take the meeting, especially since it was being held at an old Washington landmark restaurant, The Guards. From experience stretching back over many drunken years, TG knew that The Guards sells perhaps the finest blue cheese burger in Washington. And excellent martinis. And the agent was buying.

TG arrives at the restaurant. The Secret Service Agent was obviously getting along in her career, but still seemed mildly attractive and fit. The first thing they, the agent was there as well, told TG, after he had ordered his usual Tanqueray martini, (with a twist) was that the agent was carrying a gun in her purse, which was prominently placed on the table. TG assumes that he was supposed to be impressed. Please.

She's going to retire in a year or two. She's got a ton of great stories,” the agent says. “Funny stuff. Really, fabulous stuff. It's going to make a great book.”

How many times has every professional writer heard this line? Usually it's at a party of some sort, a guy leans over and says something like, “You're a writer? I worked for the gas company for thirty years! I got a million great stories. Tell you what, I'll tell you the stories, you write 'em up and we'll split the money fifty-fifty.” Hey, whatta deal!

TG is drinking his martini, (OK, he's on his second martini) the literary agent keeps yakking away, the Secret Service lady just sort of sits there, nodding, looking kind of sad. Every once in awhile she cracks a tiny smile.

By now TG is tucked into his cheeseburger. “Tell me a funny story,” he says, around a mouthful of blue cheese and beef.

One time,” the Secret Service lady begins, solemnly, “Early in my career, I show up for work in the morning at Secret Service headquarters (wherever the hell that is) and on my desk, open to the centerfold, is a Playboy magazine. I look around the room, which is full of guys, and no one is looking at me. I pick up the magazine and throw it in the wastebasket and start my day as if nothing had happened.” At this point the agent is laughing, semi-hysterically, “Great story,” she crows, slapping her meaty thigh, “Really great. You showed those guys.”

TG finishes his burger and has another drink. There were more stories, but TG can't remember any of them. They weren't any better than the first one. Truth be told, TG was pretty drunk by then. Things just sort of petered out. The agent paid the bill. TG left, promising to think about an angle for a possible book.

The next day TG sat in front of his computer trying to put some sort of a good face on the meeting, but it was not easy. Make no mistake, TG is perfectly willing to whore in his ghost personae, particularly if there's the hope of decent money. But there wasn't anything on which to hang a proposal. The SS agent wasn't the first female in the service. It sure didn't sound like she had been seriously harassed by her male counterparts. (Excepting the horrendous Playboy centerfold incident.) Her years in service sounded routine and fairly boring. The point is, just because you work someplace interesting doesn't mean you are interesting. Even if you carry a gun. And it sure doesn't mean you have a story to tell, or the imagination to spin your knowledge into fiction, or the ability to write it in any format. Even if you've hired a ghost to do the heavy lifting.

TG doesn't tell this story because it's the exception; in fact it is the rule. Every professional writer has been through some version.

Oh, TG was going to report on the latest Insider thriller he has reviewed. Actually, it was damned good.

Stay tuned.