Sunday, December 22, 2013

For those of you who wrote asking about Thriller Guy's condition after eye surgery, thanks, TG is fine and will undergo surgery on the other eye tomorrow. The following blog was typed using only two fingers and one eye. The things TG does for his loyal readers...

Mrs. Thriller Guy, (MTG) TG’s wife, often complains that TG spends too much time discussing the finer points of the writer’s life and the technical aspects of novel writing. “Too much inside baseball,” she says. Well, these are the things that TG finds interesting, so those of you who have wondered in here looking for sex tips or cat pictures you’ll have to go elsewhere. At least today. But come back later, who knows when TG will slip in a little pornography to up his stats.

TG recently reviewed a thriller, which will remain unnamed because of legal reasons, and was disappointed in both the writing and the fact that he never really engaged with the story. It might not always sound like it in this blog, but TG starts every book with the hope that it will be good or better than good. This one wasn’t. A big flaw in the novel was the conflicted villain, who ricocheted between feeling simply misunderstood and being flat out insane, but the real problem was the author’s incessant attempt to scientifically explain what was essentially an unexplainable science plot. The villain had built a machine that enabled him to not only see into the future in 24-hour increments, but at the same time the same machine could be used to cause earthquakes and tsunamis. It seems to TG that one superpower would have been hard enough to sell, but no, various characters yammered on for pages and pages about how all this was scientifically feasible (though readers with even the slightest scientific knowledge would know that it was not) until TG wanted to throw the author into his time machine where he would be sucked down into a miniature, captive black hole. This got TG thinking about the phrase, “suspension of disbelief.”

TG’s area of criticism, book-wise, is the contemporary thriller. To read these books, one must have a very high tolerance for believing the unbelievable. Heroes get shot, sometimes multiple times, and are quickly patched up and back out on the street. CSI-type lab results are available to detectives within minutes rather than days or weeks. Secret anti-terrorism units headed by the president of the US sanction killings and approve improbable missions with great regularity, ditto government agencies that have the technology to listen in on the phone calls of everyone on the planet. Oops, no need to suspend disbelief for that last one. In other words, many of the hallowed tropes of thriller fiction must automatically come under the suspension of disbelief blanket. TG accepts this as part of the reader/writer deal. So what happened in the aforementioned novel where the villain unleashed his oh-so-versatile time travel machine?

(Side Bar: TG’s alter ego, Allen Appel, writes time travel stories. Years ago his editor/writer pal Bhob gave him some excellent advice, which TG has noted on this blog before, “Never try to explain the unexplainable.” Appel has hewn to this advice through five of the Pastmaster novels. He is now writing the sixth, in which he is flying in the face of this dictum. TG is reserving judgment on whether this tactic will work until the novel is done. It may be a mistake; it may work. We’ll see.)

Wikipedia has an excellent article on the subject of suspension of disbelief. In this article, they discuss the common definitions and explanations. It turns out that the phrase was coined in “1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a ‘human interest and a semblance of truth’ into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.”

As time passed, the phrase began to take a slightly different meaning, so that by the 20th century it was agreed that it was incumbent on the reader (or someone who was watching a movie or a play or video game) to be the one to suspend his or her disbelief before even starting the book; you show up ready to believe whatever the writer is dishing out. So, to ask the question again, why wasn’t TG able to swallow what this particular author was serving up with his time-travel machine? The answer was/is, because he, the author, wasn’t a good enough writer to convince, maybe enthrall is a better word, TG into believing in the fictional world he was crafting. This is a return to Coleridge’s notion that in the earlier understanding of the idea it is incumbent on the writer to make the trick work. This was expanded in an essay that J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in 1939, where he was defending the writing of fairy stories. It’s a long essay and pretty dense in places, but TG found it enlightening. Here’s the crux of Tolkien’s argument, at least for our purposes:   

"Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker's art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called "willing suspension of disbelief." But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful "sub-creator." He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is "true": it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying ... to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed."

So for TG, the writer whose book he was reading for review failed at creating his Secondary World. And this wasn’t just because his time machine didn’t adhere to the rules of physics, or that the rules of some of the other tropes of fiction were broken, but because the guy simply wasn’t a good enough writer to pull off the trick of writing a successful novel. His villain was inconsistent and unbelievable, some of the other main characters were, again, inconsistent, switching sides back and forth just to create a false illusion of twists and turns, his back story rambled on to little effect, many details of the story were glossed over in unbelievable ways when a little extra work could have made them palatable, his basic structure was often garbled, jumping back and forth between various characters in yet again an attempt to gin up some excitement. And yet, the book was published by a major publisher, where, presumably editors worked at editing books, editors who could have pointed out many of the mistakes the author was making, but who didn’t. Mistakes that could have been easily fixed. And why didn’t they? That’s a topic for a whole ‘nuther blog, one that TG will get to someday when he can convince an editor to come clean on why publishers seem content to publish books that are deeply flawed by mistakes that could have been fixed.

And TG hastens to add, this was not the worst book he has read in the last year. It just happened to have been the one that brought the phrase suspension of disbelief to mind. So what’s the takeaway here?

Don’t expect the reader to do the heavy lifting when it comes to buying whatever premise you’ve based your novel on. It’s the writer’s job to create a world wherein all things are logical and consistent.

It’s not enough to explain the more difficult, high concept aspects of the plot, you need to pay attention to everything else as well. Because if you do, you will have gone a great distance in getting the reader to believe what you want him to believe, what he must believe if the novel is going to be successful.

One good way to do it is to ask your beta readers to tell you if you have succeeded or failed in doing this. And then be man or woman enough to take comments that are given and work on those aspects of the work that they refer to.

Remember one of TG’s dictums: When a reader tells a writer that something strikes him as being wrong, that does not mean the reader is correct. What it does mean is that some aspect of what has been commented on needs work. It needs to be “fixed” so that it fits and works successfully within the Secondary World of the novel.

It’s not enough to have a great concept, a shiny machine, a sexy, superhuman hero and an arch villain of incomparable evilness, you need to craft an entire world where all of these aspects can thrive, and be believed. Within that Secondary World.

The secret? If you’ve created your world so it is consist and, more importantly, interesting, readers will believe anything. Yup, anything. So put your time in on every aspect of your novel. Don’t try to convince us that the machine will work, show us that the machine works.

 In his essay, Tolkien gave this small example that TG thought was funny.

“I once saw a so-called “children's pantomime,” the straight story of Puss-in-Boots, with even the metamorphosis of the ogre into a mouse. Had this been mechanically successful it would either have terrified the spectators or else have been just a turn of high-class conjuring. As it was, though done with some ingenuity of lighting, disbelief had not so much to be suspended as hanged, drawn, and quartered.”

TG knows exactly how Tolkien felt.

But forget the books where you have to hang, draw and quarter disbelief. TG suggests we remember the great ones, where the unbelievable is perfectly believable, where the Secondary World becomes the Primary World, at least while you’re reading them.

Or writing them.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Have a Thrilling Christmas

Those of you who missed last weeks advertisement for Allen Appel’s classic novella, The Christmas Chicken, both in recorded version and as a Kindle, can scroll down to the previous entry or go here for the recorded and here for the Kindle version. And while you’re at the Kindle store, why not stock up on Appel’s other books so you’ll have plenty in the queue for the upcoming year. The Pastmaster series, featuring history professor/time traveler Alex Balfour has been a fan favorite for many years. If you’re waiting around for George R.R. Martin to finish up his next Game of Thrones, you could simply start Appel’s series with Time After Time and work your way through the following four books, Twice Upon a Time, Till the End of Time, Sea of Time, and In Time of War. And while you’re at it, give yourself a pat on the back for supporting this dedicated, hard-working writer. Now on to our regularly scheduled blog…

Actually, there is no regular blog this week. Consider this a placeholder. Thriller Guy is heading off in a few minutes to get eye surgery to remove a cataract. A simple operation these days, far simpler than the scores of times over the years that TG has had to go under the knife to remove various slugs from his many firefights and to be sewn up after being blown up.  So TG would like to stop and thank all his readers and wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Hopefully TG will be seeing you again in a few days. Stay tuned for updates.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

Before beginning Thriller Guy’s valuable, incredibly incisive, brilliantly fascinating essay about one more facet of the trials and tribulations of writing a novel, let us pause for a moment for a commercial message. Yes, it’s that time of year again, time to sit down with a Kindle or audio version of THE CHRISTMAS CHICKEN! Why all caps and the exclamation point? Because were all so damn excited about this wonderful holiday novella, especially the audiobook version narrated by the incomparable Brad Wills. It’s the heartwarming story of a young blind boy in Victorian England who asks Santa for a dog for Christmas. What he gets is, well, a chicken, and being unable to see, he just thinks it’s an odd breed of canine. Hilarity ensues. Trust Thriller Guy on this, it really is funny and, as much as it goes against TG’s tough guy image, heartwarming. Plus, it’s a quick and easy answer for your gift-giving needs. So throw a few bucks TG’s way; if you don’t like The Christmas Chicken, TG will send you your money back. Let’s show the world that social media really can work for the creative good. Buy your copy of the Chicken for Kindle here, and the audiobook version here. Thriller Guy thanks you, and Allen Appel thanks you as well.

(TG has been informed that there are those of you who aren't sure how to go about handling these new fangled gadgets and technical process involved in downloading audio and Kindle files. If you would like a two-CD set of the audio Christmas Chicken that you can simply pop into any regular CD player, scroll to the bottom of this blog entry and you will find Allen Appel's email address. Write him and let him know you are having problems and he will let you know how you can receive your very own physical copy.) 

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog…

Thriller Guy was tooling around town in the Thrillmobile the other day, listening on the radio to an interview with author Robert Stone. Stone is a “literary” writer, meaning he doesn’t write thrillers, but TG remembers the excitement he and his artist/writer pals experienced back in the early ‘80s when reading Stone’s first two books, A Hall of Mirrors, and Dog Soldiers.
Without going into detail, these were books infused with the potential and perils of the 1960’s and probably would feel dated if read today, but maybe not, as they were terrific books. At any rate, Stone was talking about the difficulties of being a writer, saying that the loneliness of the job was such that probably many great books remained unwritten because the authors could not endure the loneliness that writing long work entails. TG came home and looked up a Paris Review interview with Stone he remembered reading years ago. Here’s Stone back then on the difficulties of writing, when asked if the process is easy for him.

“It’s goddamn hard. Nobody really cares whether you do it or not. You have to make yourself do it. I’m very lazy and I suffer as a result. Of course, when it’s going well there’s nothing in the world like it. But it’s also very lonely. If you do something you’re really pleased with, you’re in the crazy position of being exhilarated all by yourself. I remember finishing one section of Dog Soldiers—the end of Hicks’s walk—in the basement of a college library, working at night, while the rest of the place was closed down, and I staggered out in tears, talking to myself, and ran into a security guard. It’s hard to come down from a high in your work—it’s one of the reasons writers drink. The exhilaration of your work turns into the daily depression of the aftermath. But if you heal that with a lot of Scotch you’re not fit for duty the next day. When I was younger I was able to use hangovers, but now I have to go to bed early."

There’s a lot of good writing information in this paragraph, some of which TG doesn’t agree with, but most of which is spot on. Readers of this blog will recognize several hobbyhorses TG has ridden in these pages in the past. Yes, it is goddamn hard, though sometimes a writer will have stalwart fans who do care if the writer produces new work. (TG references the terrific fans of Allen Appel’s Pastmaster series who have written him over the years urging him to get off his lazy ass and write a new adventure for Alex Balfour, his time-travelling, history professor hero. These same fans funded Appel’s Kickstarter project to write that very book, which will be number six in the series. So some people do care.)

“When it’s going well there’s nothing in the world like it.” He’s right about that, even though those moments are rare. There’s a larger feeling of satisfaction when one has finished a day’s work, or a chapter or, in the end, an entire book, that suffuses the writer and gives him or her the courage to start the work anew each day, knowing what’s ahead of him as he faces months and even years of uphill writing, clawing his way to the novel’s conclusion.

Then Stone remarks on the loneliness issue. The Paris Review interview was written almost 35 years ago, so this notion of loneliness was bothering him even back then. TG agrees in general, only he sees it slightly differently. TG sees the work of writing as being alone, rather than lonely. The difference being, loneliness implies a certain amount of pain, where being alone is simply a condition, one that TG does not mind, and in fact, thinks is essential. TG feels that the writers who populate all the good tables in Starbucks are pretty much poseurs who will, in the end, produce nothing much, or at least nothing of much worth. Writing demands concentration; why submit yourself to surroundings that constantly impinge on concentration? Though TG does understand the need for companionship. But that can be achieved by going out for coffee or better yet, a drink, with a friend. AFTER WORK.

Stone’s next point is the most interesting to TG, the idea of being exhilarated all by yourself. Any real writer will instantly understand this feeling. You’re all alone and you’ve just written something that you know is good, usually a scene, and you have this overwhelming feeling of, yes, exhilaration and power in your abilities. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it can overwhelm you. (Note Stone’s staggering around in tears.) And he goes on to say two things that TG thinks are separate issues, even though the interviewer seems to have thought they were the same (as maybe Stone did as well).

The need to drink to bring oneself down from this particular high. TG has commented on the role of alcohol in the writing process many times and understands the need to drink to turn off your brain so you can re-enter the real world after being holed up with your own imagination for however many hours you’ve been writing. What you are trying to achieve with the drink is to stop consciously attending to your work, and let your unconscious take over. (There are probably less toxic ways to achieve this, but TG doesn’t know what they might be, though the various theories of Mindful Thinking are popular these days.) As noted above, TG has written about this many times before because it’s important to encourage your brain to solve work problems on its own. If drinking, in moderation, helps, and it sure seems to, at least for TG and most of the writers he knows, then drink. (Does TG need to insert the usual warning about some of you abusing this sort of advice so you can be an alcoholic and feel good about yourselves?)

Then Stone seems to throw in another twist: drinking to heal oneself of the inevitable depression of the aftermath of the exhilaration. TG doesn’t think that the exhilaration of creation automatically leads to depression, though maybe for Robert Stone it might. And TG also thinks that drinking to avoid depression is always a very bad idea. If for no other reason than the one Stone suggests, as you get older working with a hangover becomes harder and harder and a serious waste of creative time.

Now before you head back to your writing desk full of new determination and energy, take a moment and buy a copy in any format of The Christmas Chicken. Sit back after work and read or listen.

And have yourself a well-earned drink.

For a CD copy of The Christmas Chicken, write Allen Appel at this address: