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Death and Ratings

True DetectiveA famous author (whose name I can’t remember, darn it, but it may have been Larry McMurtry) once said that it’s easy to make readers cry. You write about a beautiful child and give it a beautiful dog, and then you kill the dog. Instant tears. But he went on to point out that, in this instance, the author hadn’t really earned those tears. She’d just used a kneejerk response rather than really moving her readers.

I thought of that point while I was watching the fall premiere of Bones, a show I used to like a lot. If you haven’t seen the show yet, I’ll make this a SPOILER ALERT. A very popular character dies quite unexpectedly and the cast is, of course, devastated.

I wasn’t devastated—I was pissed.

Let me be very plain here: I’m thoroughly sick of TV shows killing off characters just to rouse or upset the audience. If characters die because of a necessity of the plot, that’s one thing (and I’d argue that a lot of the deaths in Game of Thrones probably fall into this category, as well as the death of Will Gardner on The Good Wife). But to kill off a popular character because it’s the end or beginning of the season and you need something to get people talking is both lousy storytelling and cheap exploitation. Of course we’ll cry when a character we like dies. But the creators of the show haven’t earned those tears—they’re using us.

I stopped watching Torchwood a couple of years ago for just that reason, although I’m a huge John Barrowman fan. The director/creator of the show had started killing off cast members for no particular reason other than that he could. He claimed that the deaths all had dramatic merit, but the only reasoning I could see was that the constant deaths seemed to underline the fairly bleak point of view of the series. After the first few deaths, I got tired of it and stopped watching.

But now the whole “kill-a-character-for-the-season-climax” thing seems to have become a rule. And so often, the result is just cheap thrills. Just a way to get viewers to have a reaction without actually earning that reaction through careful story-telling. Now it’s almost more unusual to have a story end without killing somebody off. And right now the level of carnage on television series frequently seems to be a result of laziness. You can almost hear the writers saying, “Aw hell, let’s just kill somebody. That’ll wrap things up.”

So how do you earn those feelings instead of getting them by exploitation? The old fashioned way: plot, character, the slow development of a relationship between audience and story. And it’s possible to do this without killing off someone just because it’s easy. Consider True Detective, for example. Now I’m fairly sure most people have already heard about the ending of the show, but in case you haven’t: SPOILER ALERT. Neither of the heroes dies. They easily could have—both were badly injured in the final battle, one of them critically. But not only do they live, the writers gave Matthew McConaughey’s character a terrific, life-affirming closing speech. Would the ending of True Detective have been more devastating if the writer and director had chosen to kill off one of the leads? That possibility hangs over the entire series, but the choice to let both men live in the end didn’t result in a “feel good” conclusion. Instead, it left me feeling both wrung out and satisfied. Rust’s final monologue was far more moving—and yes, devastating—than his death would have been.

True Detective earned the audience’s respect, and they did it without resorting to character murder. I’d like to think that was an example others will follow, but I’m not exactly optimistic. Unfortunately.

Yeah, It’s Legal Here

RockiesSo I live in Colorado. I’ll now pause for the obligatory pot joke. It’ll probably be some variation on “Rocky Mountain High.” At this point, trust me, Coloradoans have heard every possible variation on the “Rocky Mountain High” joke. If we laugh, it’s because we’re basically polite people.

Two years ago, in 2012, Colorado voted decisively to legalize marijuana. It took a year for a legislative committee to work out the regulations that would govern pot sales, and not all cities allow it to be sold. However, in Denver and Boulder (the two cities I’m closest to), pot sales are legal. Out of state people are always asking me how pot has impacted our way of life, and if Colorado has changed now that pot is legal. My answer is the same to both questions: “It hasn’t.”

I should qualify that by admitting that the state has received a fair amount of revenue from marijuana taxes (around six million dollars for June 2014 alone) and that money should produce some results eventually. But immediate effects have been nil.

And the inevitable follow-up questions. But don’t people smoke pot at public events like festivals? Probably, but it’s not obvious and not a problem from my point of view. Aren’t you afraid of being hit by a driver who’s smoked pot? I’m a lot more afraid of being hit by somebody who’s texting his girlfriend, since the statistical chances of that are a lot higher.

We Coloradoans are sort of tired of this topic, to tell you the truth. We understand the novelty of it all, but the jokes are no longer funny and going over the same topics again and again is monotonous. So here are some things we can talk about instead.

  1. The scenery. The Rockies are just as majestic as ever, and most of us are willing, even eager, to talk about them and give you some ideas for places to visit.
  2. The weather. It’s gorgeous at this time of year. And even in the winter we have more sunshine than clouds. Even our snow is pretty.
  3. Sports. Denver is the most sports mad city I’ve ever lived near. There are pro teams for everything from football to lacrosse. Not everybody can talk about sports with equal enthusiasm (I’d run out of things to say pretty quickly, for example), but we can usually sustain at least a short conversation.
  4. Fitness. Colorado is legendarily one of the fittest states in the union. Ask many of us for advice on running, riding bikes, skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, etc., etc.,etc., and we’ll happily babble on for several minutes.
  5. Food. The Front Range is foodie heaven. Farmer’s markets everywhere. Great restaurants. Just ask. We’ll tell you all about it.

So you see there are lots of things we can talk about that don’t involve marijuana. It just takes a little thought. And please, I beg you, spare me any jokes about how pot makes thought difficult. We’ve heard all of those too.

The “Authentic” Voice

Pieces of My HeartI enjoy showbiz biographies, the good, the bad, and even the ugly. If you’re an old-time movie fan like me, it’s fun to read anecdotes from people who were involved in making pictures you enjoy—or even pictures you didn’t like much. My most recent read was Robert Wagner’s autobiography Pieces Of My Heart, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Wagner, of course, started out as a juvenile lead, one of a group of young leading men that included Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson. But unlike some of the others in that group, Wagner has managed to keep working for the past sixty years or so, moving from leading man to character actor and from movies to television when the opportunity presented itself. Sadly, he’s also well-known for his marriage to Natalie Wood, which ended in her accidental death aboard their boat, the Splendor.

I said I enjoyed Wagner’s book immensely, and I did. It was written with style and verve and a nice balance between personal stories and views of the industry as it changed from old Hollywood to new. After I finished reading, I checked the reviews on Amazon out of curiosity to see if others enjoyed the book as much as I did. For the most part they did, but one negative review struck me particularly. The reader was outraged that Wagner had written the book with a collaborator, Scott Eyman. From the reader’s point of view, the presence of a collaborator meant that the voice in the book couldn’t be Wagner’s. The book was, therefore, a cheat, an inauthentic voice.

Now I obviously have no way of knowing how “authentic” the voice here is, just as I have no way of knowing what the working relationship was between Eyman and Wagner. Clearly, some collaborators do more than others. At least the collaboration in Pieces Of My Heart is acknowledged—not all celebrities are willing to admit they had help. And the experiences described are obviously Wagner’s. The book’s style is tremendously appealing and tremendously readable. Is that style Eyman’s or Wagner’s? I have no idea.

However, I’ve read or tried to read a few showbiz biographies that were written with little editorial help. I remember one recent one by a comedienne I particularly admired—I gave up before the end of the first chapter. It was close to unreadable.

The reader/reviewer who trashed Wagner would probably find that book more “honest,” but he would also find it a lot less easy to read. I’d argue that Wagner’s decision to work with a professional writer was a good one. He has a story worth telling, and one that deserved to be told well.

And I have a secret for the reader/reviewer: none of us does it alone, or at least we don’t if we’re smart. Even self-published authors hire editors if they know what they’re doing. Facility with language is a gift, and not everyone has it in equal amounts. Moreover, it’s very difficult to read your own prose objectively. At the very least critique partners and beta readers can give you a quick jolt of reality.

So Wagner had a collaborator, and together they wrote an absorbing book. The voice in this book may or may not be Wagner’s, but it’s an interesting voice that serves the story well. Given my choice, I’d far rather read a well-written collaboration than the alternative. More power to them both.

Letting It Go

50 Shades of GreySo William Giraldi wrote this article in the New Republic a couple of months ago about Fifty Shades of Grey. You’ll notice I’m not providing a link to said article—feel free to look it up if you want, but I’m not giving Giraldi any more clicks than he’s already gotten. The article is another in a long series of articles by various authors meant to demonstrate the author’s cleverness by trashing the book. None of them has seemed to slow down EL James.

I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, and I can’t really comment on it beyond being mildly annoyed by those who insist on using the term “mommy porn” to describe it. Had Giraldi confined himself to trashing the book, I’d have no more to say about it than about Dave Barry’s trashing of the book (which is considerably funnier).

But Giraldi used Fifty Shades of Grey as a jumping off point to trash romance and romance readers in general. In many ways the reaction among romance writers to this aspect of his article was far more interesting than the original article (but then just about anything would be). The response in Smart Bitches, Trashy Books is a good summary. But my question here is maybe more fundamental: Why bother?

Articles trashing romance are a regular feature of high brow discourse. And every time one is published, we trot out the same responses. Romance is the most popular form of genre fiction. Romance is dominated by women and sometimes gets trashed because of it. Romance is a huge genre with a large set of subgenres, as well as a dizzying variety of writing styles and registers. It can’t be lumped together into one basket and dismissed. And the response to these counter arguments is always a massive shrug. The literary fiction establishment and male critics in particular are hostile to romance, and probably always will be.

Romance has three characteristics that these guys (and I use that word advisedly) object to: it’s written by women, it invariably has a happy ending, and since it concerns romantic relationships, it usually (but not always) includes fairly explicit sexual activity. None of these characteristics is likely to change, and thus neither is the reaction to romance in general.

So why bother to respond at all? Yes, Giraldi is tremendously annoying, as well as flat out wrong about several things. For example, he seems to believe that women who read romance read nothing else and thus have no acquaintance with Great Literature. As someone who has probably read at least as much of that Great Literature as Giraldi (including Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon), I call bullshit.

But here’s the point: you won’t convince him. And there’s no reason to try. Giraldi can read what he likes and so can we. Neither of us is likely to have any impact on the other. The Romance Writers of America have expended a great deal of effort to improve romance’s reputation, but they can’t stop guys like Giraldi. Meanwhile, those of us who read and write romance go about our business, occasionally grinding our teeth at the William Giraldis of the world.

Yeah, those guys are snots. So what? As long as publishers go on publishing the books we like to read, who cares? And frankly, given the profits to be found in publishing romance, I’m fairly certain that nobody’s going to shut romance down. So let’s let Giraldi go off and read his Thomas Pynchon in peace. Maybe if we don’t jab at him, he’ll forget about us. And maybe if we don’t click on his article, the rest of the world will also forget about him. And that, my friends, would be a satisfying conclusion.

booksSo I’m sitting in this workshop listening to this Very Famous Writer (VFW) talk about how to write. She’s obviously a major catch for the workshop organizers because she’s willing to spend over an hour telling aspiring writers how to do it. Now I’m well past the aspiring point (for better or worse), but I’m in the workshop too because I respect this particular writer and I’m interested in hearing what she has to say.

Early in her presentation she picks up a pile of papers and waves them at the audience. Apparently they’re a printout from an online workshop on creating characters. She doesn’t show them to us, but I have a pretty good idea what they include: a profile for each character, backstory for each character, probably goals/motivation/conflict for each character. Pretty standard stuff. But the VFW is having none of it. She tosses the pages into the wastebasket, proclaiming, “Don’t do that stuff. You don’t need that stuff. Just start writing. That’s the way to do it.”

All around me, the aspiring writers are scratching madly on their legal pads. I, on the other hand, put my pad and pen away. Because I know the VFW isn’t going to say anything that will work for me from then on.

You see, I use a version of those lists—one I got several years ago at a workshop run by Delilah Devlin and her sister Elle James. I outline each of my characters. I even outline the plot of my book before I start writing. And it usually works for me because that’s the kind of writer I am. It’s common to divide writers into planners and pantsers, and I fall firmly into the former group, but I also think that kind of reductionism is sort of…unhelpful. In the end, this discussion is about the writing process, and each one of us should have her own.

Many years ago, I was a writing teacher, and as a writing teacher I read a lot of research about the whole writing process. Oddly enough the biggest initial discovery about the writing process was the idea that there’s a stage called Prewriting. Everybody has one. It’s the stage in which ideas percolate up and get you started. Some people, like me, benefit from writing those ideas down or going through some exercises (heuristics if you want to be technical) that get those ideas going. Other people work best doing what’s called a discovery draft: writing a first version of their work that helps them formulate their ideas. Neither approach is better than the other. Each depends very much on the psychology of the writer for the degree of its success.

And so, to return to the VFW, she’s found an approach to prewriting that works for her, and that approach is to sit down and write a draft. More power to her. That approach won’t work for me. I know this because I’ve tried it and failed. I need to get to know my characters first and then let the plot sort of develop from that knowledge. I’ll probably change the plot from this preliminary version, sometimes drastically, as I write the first draft of the book. But I need to have that preliminary work done or I won’t be able to get very far before I quit in frustration.

And to me, that’s the problem with a lot of writing advice given by writers. We tend to take our approach and, because it works for us, expect other people to do the same thing. But they won’t. They can’t. They aren’t us. The best we can say is, “This works for me.” And then other writers can adapt it. Or not.

As we head into conference/workshop season, I recommend that all aspiring writers keep this idea in mind. Listen to what people tell you, but only use what works for you. Trial and error will help you figure out what that is. In the end, it doesn’t matter how famous the VFW is. Her process is her process. The fact that it isn’t yours doesn’t mean you’re a lousy writer. It just means you’re you.

woman writing
The wonderful Jenny Bernard, author of the Bachelor Firemen of San Gabriel series for Avon, has tagged me for the Writing Process Blog Hop. This is one of those “answer some questions” deals, with these four questions: What am I working on right now?, How does my work differ from others in the genre?, Why do I write what I do?, and How does my writing process work? Simple, right? So without further ado, here are my answers.

 

1. What am I working on right now?

Book 3 of a new trilogy set in Colorado. It’s another small town series, but this time it’s a mountain resort town rather than the Texas Hill Country. Oh, and there are reality shows involved. Bad reality shows.

 

2. How does my work differ from others in the genre?

I guess I take a sort of ironic view of my writing. I’ve tried writing straight and serious, but somehow funny and sarcastic always sneak in. Maybe that’s because it’s the way I view life—if you can make a joke, even a small one, you can make yourself feel a little better in bad situations (although I freely admit that not all situations are funny).

 

3. Why do I write what I do?

I love to read historicals (particularly Regencies), but I don’t think I could write them. I’m more interested in contemporary situations and the way people think now. While it’s fascinating to see how romance works in a very constrained society like Regency England, it’s more interesting for me to see how it works out in a society like ours that has very few constraints and a lot of choices. How do people make romantic decisions when they can’t rely on social conventions to make those decisions for them? In a way, I think contemporary characters have a tougher time—they don’t always have social guidelines to rely on so they have to form their own.

 

4. How does my writing process work?

I’m a planner, but my planning doesn’t necessarily limit what I can do. I begin with a series of exercises I got years ago from Delilah Devlin that help me figure out who my characters are and what motivates them. Then I outline the plot. And then I start writing—and usually throw out large chunks of the outline. It helps me to have a blueprint of where I want to go when I get started, but since I’m writing a book rather than constructing a building, I’ve found I can make adjustments in the plan without bringing the whole thing down around my ears. Usually.

So there you have it. I’ve tagged some other writers to have them also answer these questions and when their posts go up, I’ll link them here.

 

Americana musiciansLast year, a writer on Salon posted an article called “14 Amazing Country Songs For People Who Hate Country.” I read it, of course, although I was pretty certain I wouldn’t agree with it. And I didn’t. The problem was that the author hadn’t stopped to ask why people might “hate country.” He simply went in and posted links to fourteen songs he liked, and since he and I apparently have very different tastes, they weren’t songs I was crazy about even when they featured artists like Emmylou Harris who are some of my favorites.

A lot of people may hate “country” music because they think it’s twangy and old-fashioned. These are people who have apparently never listened to the product coming out of Nashville these days, which in many ways is indistinguishable from any other pop music. I may not be a fan of George Jones, but you’d never mistake the guy for somebody recording in LA. I can’t say the same for Taylor Swift. I’d say the list of fourteen songs on Salon might really appeal to people who feel dislike country music for this reason.

But what about people who hate country for that very reason—that Nashville music sounds like everybody else’s music these days? For them, that list won’t do much. For these people I have an alternative suggestion—Americana music (T. Bone Burnett calls it “American Traditional,” but I think that’s confusing—which “tradition” are we talking about?). Many Americana artists, like Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen, have spent some time in Nashville. Some, like Emmylou, still live there. But their music sounds nothing like the music coming out of mainstream Nashville these days. It’s rougher, more raw, and less predictable.

So here are 14 Americana songs for people who don’t like Country Music. Maybe you’ll like them. Maybe you won’t. But you’ll never mention them in the same breath with Taylor Swift.

1. “Gallo Del Cielo,” Joe Ely. Joe is my number one evidence for the inadequacy of the “Country” label, although he usually ends up in the Country Music section of music stores. This is his most popular song—not rock, not what you think of as country, and it’s about cock fighting. Enjoy.

2. “Melinda,” James McMurtry. James is the number two evidence for the inadequacy of calling an artist “Country”. He’s from Texas, and he can do a credible Townes Van Zandt cover, but he’s an original. This is a lovely ballad from his St. Mary In the Woods album.

3. “City of Immigrants,” Steve Earle. Choosing a single Steve Earle song is practically impossible, but this is one he wrote after moving to New York from Nashville.

4. “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” Rosanne Cash. Oh my, how to choose only one Rosanne Cash song? This is from her latest album, The River and the Thread, which ranks up there as one of my all time favorites. Keep in mind—Rosanne Cash was a bestselling Nashville artist in the eighties and left to make the kind of music she wanted. Bless her.

5. “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” Buddy Miller. If you want some old time torch and twang, Buddy Miller’s your guy. He’s also a first-rate Nashville session man and songwriter. The real deal, in other words.

6. “Heroin Addict Sister,” Elizabeth Cook. I have no idea if this song is biographical or not, but it breaks my heart every time I hear it. Cook’s a Florida country singer with her own Sirius show.

7. “Cornbread,” Band of Heathens. My, my yes. You’ll need a fan for this one.

8. “Shelter From the Storm,” Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris. My all-time favorite version of this Dylan song from Crowell, a modern outlaw.

9. “Pancho and Lefty,” Emmylou Harris. Speaking of my all-time favorite versions—no one does this Townes Van Zandt song better than Emmylou.

10. “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” Carolina Chocolate Drops. A old-time song done old-timey style by a wonderful trio.

11. “Look Like a Bird,” Amanda Shires. New music that sounds like old music, sort of. A modern Appalachian melody.

12. “Coming Home,” Robert Earl Keen. “The Road Goes On Forever” is his most famous song, but I like his quieter love songs like this one.

13. “Dublin Blues,” Guy Clark. One of the Grand Old Men of Texas music with a beautiful song (and Emmylou on backup).

14. “Never Chase a Man,” Esme Patterson. Sort of a ringer since Patterson isn’t exactly an Americana singer. This song is an answer to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”

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