Saturday, December 6, 2008

Are Heroes a Fantasy?

A review of Hollywood productions and published fiction might lead the casual observer to believe that the traditional hero is dead. The antihero now reigns supreme, and even the antihero is moving further and further toward the dark side. (The flaws of James Bond, Batman, and Spiderman are etched more deeply in recent films.) Protagonists are increasingly nasty characters that you would seldom invite into your home. What gives? Are the publishing houses and movie studios just giving audiences what they want?

I don't think so. The public is still drawn to traditional heroes, despite the fact that the creative class has relegated them to fantasies. People flock to Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, and Superman. John Wayne's continuing popularity shows that traditional heroes endure across the years and generations. Hollywood and publishers attribute the popularity of fantasies and old style westerns to blind escapism. The filmmakers and publishers have come to believe that art must depict the mundane everyman or a sadly decayed society. Meanwhile, the public is forced to search out heroes where they can find them.

Are heroes a fantasy? No, they exist in real life and we admire them not just their deeds, but for their selflessness. Every civilization in ascendancy honors and depends on their heroes. And one way to honor heroes is with our stories, whether around the campfire, in print, or on celluloid. Good fiction lifts and inspires us.

Wouldn't it be great if everyone aspired to be heroic.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Shut Mouth Society at the Kentucky Book Fair

I'm pleased to have been invited to participate in the Kentucky Book Fair.

The central purpose of the Kentucky Book Fair is to bring writers and patrons together in celebration of their mutual interest and to promote awareness of the importance of writing and reading. The Book Fair uses proceeds from the Fair to benefit causes associated with the promotion of reading and writing.

The Kentucky Book Fair, now in its 27th year, is a one-day event, held this year on Saturday, November 15, 2008. The event takes place in Frankfort, the state’s Capitol City. The focus of the 2008 Kentucky Book Fair will be Abraham Lincoln because his bicentennial occurs on February 12, 2009 and Kentucky was the state of his birth.

Although the invitation was based on The Shut Mouth Society, I'll be signing all my books. Over two hundred authors are confirmed, so this is going to be a large and exciting event. If you like to talk to authors or other people interested in writing, this is going to be a great place to meet people.

I hope you can make it.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Shopkeeper trailer on YouTube

Do book trailers help people select books? I haven't a clue. Even though I don't know if they provide value for book buyers, I went ahead and had one made for The Shopkeeper.
If you have an opinion about The Shopkeeper trailer or book trailers in general, I'd sure like to hear your thoughts.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

"Evil be to him who evil thinks" Edward III (1312-77)

The Western Writers of America reviewed The Shopkeeper in the August issue of the organization's Roundup Magazine.

Best, James D. The Shopkeeper, A Steve Dancy Tale. Wheatmark. Trade paperback, 233 pps., $18.95. ISBN 978-1-58736-922-3

Steve Dancy is set on experiencing the West. At first glance, he is nothing more than a dilettante Easterner intent on writing a journal about his adventures on the frontier. He’s not running away from a hopeless life. To the contrary, he’s educated and seems to have enough money for his simple needs. Although anxious to avoid trouble, he can be pushed only so far, and when he chances upon some bad men doing unspeakable things to a woman, he feels he must take a hand. It isn’t long before he’s caught up in gunplay, which leads him into taking desperate measures, including buying a bank and a hotel, and influencing the upcoming gubernatorial elections. Dancy is a far different man than these Westerners think he is. Wealthy after selling off his Eastern businesses, maybe he should have told them what kind of goods he sold, because he’s sure not like any other shopkeepers they know.

This is a fast paced tale with an interesting hero. In structure, with short chapters, crisp dialogue, and lots of movement, it’s reminiscent of a thriller. Sadly, neither of the women in this story were enduring, the older too evil and crass to believe, and the younger far from worthy of the infatuation the hero apparently feels toward her. The motivation seems weak for all the mayhem that ensues. Still, you’ll certainly find enough twists and turns to provide an entertaining and exciting story.

I loved the review, but… "the older too evil and crass to believe?" This worries me because Mrs. Bolton was the only antagonist to survive in The Shopkeeper. Steve Dancy certainly finds her evil and crass ways unbelievable, but Mrs. Bolton has a villainous nature that might crush our gifted Mr. Dancy. I just hope that he wakes up and sees her for what she really is before the climax to Leadville.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Characters Matter

Characterization is a crucial aspect of fiction. We know this because it's drilled into us at school, in workshops, and in all the how-to books and journals we read. The protagonist must come across as real and interesting enough to pull the reader through to the end of the story. A common mistake, however, is to focus too much attention on the protagonist. When you read a great book or watch an outstanding film, it's usually the antagonist that lifts the story above the ordinary.
film, movies, hollywood
Chigurh From No Country for Old Men

Protagonists, especially those of the heroic breed, are bound by rules and common perceptions that somewhat inhibit creativity. Antagonists, on the other hand, are wide open for manipulation. They can be bad to the bone like Hannibal Lector or Chigurh. They can be nasty or evil, but mend their wayward ways like Ebenezer Scrooge or Darth Vader. The reader may be misdirected to believe the antagonist is bad and then everything is turned around like with Boo Radley and Mr. Darcy. Antagonists can make a story memorable, even when the antagonist isn't even human— like Moby Dick or Christine. The one thing these antagonists all have in common is great character development.

Your concentration on character development shouldn't even stop with the protagonist and antagonist. Nobody willingly hangs around boring people and nobody wants to read about characters with cornmeal personalities, not even bit players. Everybody inside the covers of your book has to be interesting. Give each of them a distinct personality. If you have a character like a postman or waitress that only appears for a couple pages, don't describe their personality, show it. You need to do it with dress, movement, or dialogue. Show, don't tell, is more difficult with the brevity of a minor player, but you only need to spice the character enough to make him or her three dimensional.

Here's an example from my novel, The Shopkeeper

I asked the hotel clerk for the best lawyer in town. He directed me to a man named Jansen who had an office across from the Capital building. I then asked to see the chambermaid in my room so I could give her some special instruction. After a brief wait, an exceptionally skinny girl arrived whose cheap dress fell straight down from her narrow shoulders.

“You sent for me?” she asked.

“I would like you to do me a favor. I’ll pay handsomely.”

“All right.”

“I haven’t told you what I want yet.”

“Tell me … and then I'll tell you what handsomely means.”

That took me aback, but I plunged ahead. “I want you to write a letter and sign it with another woman’s name. Can you write?”

“You mean can I forge?”

Friday, May 16, 2008

Basic Training-- Learning to Write Professionally

Everybody drives a car. Many fantasize they can race at the NASCAR level, but few daily commuters would actually venture beyond their daydreams and onto a professional race track.

Everybody writes something every day. Many fantasize that they can write the great American novel. But unlike car racing, sometimes aspiring writers venture into the professional world without the proper equipment or adequate training.

NASCAR actually has multiple levels, much like baseball has with their Single A, Double A and Triple A minor leagues. Racers don't start by driving nearly two hundred miles an hour in bumper to bumper traffic. They start by competing in amateur Saturday night racing at a local track and then work their way up through the increasingly competitive semi-professional and professional venues.

What's the equivalent of Saturday night racing in writing? Regional magazines, special interest magazines, journals, or small newspapers are a good start. You may believe web publishing serves as a good training ground, but if you want to elevate yourself to the equivalent of Daytona, I disagree. Writing is a solitary effort, but publishing is a team sport. You need to learn how to work with publishers, editors, and book designers.

Publishers know the market . Even if you aspire to write poetry for a select audience, submitting your work to a small journal will build your understanding of what this select market wants and how you can better connect with them.

Many writers hate editors. I love them. They've saved me from embarrassing mistakes and challenged me to improve my work. No matter how you feel about editors--or how you emotionally handle criticism--you will not break into the big leagues until you learn to work with editors. Race car drivers may appear to be alone on the track, but the pit crew prepped their car for competition and the crew chief continuously whispers advise into their ear through a headset in the driver's helmet.

Writing is the only way to build experience, so continue to publish on the web, but also submit your work to a vetted venue. Writers want to be read. Some by the discerning few and others by the masses. You can find readers on the web, but to enhance and improve your craft you also need to participate in the traditional publishing world.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Basic Writing Tools

Here's your starter set. Good Luck!

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
Your book is in here. 
Some assembly required.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition
Assembly Instructions.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Speed Demons vs. Slowpokes

Open Range
The movie Open Range started me thinking about plot pacing. Westerns films are supposed to be action/adventure, but Open Range is not Silverado—which opens with sudden gunplay and corpses thrown in every direction. In Open Range, the audience never sees nor hears any shots until the end of the movie—when all hell breaks loose. The intent is to shock the audience with a tardy eruption of violence that puts the main characters into mortal danger only after the viewer has learned to care about them.

Which technique works? Both. The correct pacing depends on what the storyteller is trying to achieve. The storyline in Open Range is a set-up for the finale. The scenery, characters, and the depiction of the fabled Old West lifestyle are just enough to keep the viewer’s interest until the big payoff. Open Range has a well-conceived plot and a strategy for developing that plot—something that can’t be said for every hyperventilating action flick.

Ever since the movie Speed, the audience at an action/adventure film expects to get their adrenaline pumping within the first 180 seconds. Hollywood does this with rapid-fire cuts, pulsing music, a banging soundtrack, and life-threatening scenarios that are frequently just a preamble to the real story. (Actually, the credit for heart-throbbing openings probably belongs to the James Bond series, but Speed found ways to twist the knob to the right.)

Dan Brown did the same to novels. He opened da Vinci Code with a gruesome murder and then slammed his foot on the accelerator until the reader felt breathless while lying in his La-Z-Boy recliner. Brown uses one hundred and five chapters for a relatively short novel—some chapters are as short as a single paragraph. This is the equivalent of a film editor making forty-five cuts in a one-minute action sequence.


A downside of this trend is that critics assume that anything done with deliberation must be art—or worse, that art in film or literature must be painstaking slow. (Once Upon a Time in the West must be art because it moves slower than a septuagenarian fastening his seatbelt in a parking slot you want.)

The speed of the story should match the subject matter and the predilections of the target audience. Whatever pace you choose, it should be a choice, not an unwitting byproduct of the other story elements. The only hard and fast rule is that a plot must never come to full stop. Plots move or die. Even dialogue must always move plot or characterization. (People don’t want to watch or read the banal things we say to each other.)

When you read your next book or watch your next film, stay aware of the pacing. If you enjoy the experience, chances are that the story is told at the right speed to properly draw the characters and develop the plot for the genre’s audience.

Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Hollywood Celebrates the Anti-Hero

In 2008, USA Today ran an article titled "The good, the bad, and the anti-hero." The lead sentence claimed that, “Heroes are old hat.”

Are old fashioned heroes a thing of the past? They were in the selection of 2008 Oscar-worthy movies. The public might disagree. The four anti-hero films nominated for Best Picture grossed less than $190 million combined. (The fifth nomination, the indie film Juno grossed $126 million all by itself, primarily from word-of-mouth.) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford domestic box office was less than $4 million, despite starring Brad Pitt. 3:10 to Yuma did better, grossing a little over $53 million domestically to barely cover it’s production cost.

(3:10 to Yuma came the closest to portraying a traditional hero. In the end, however, Hollywood couldn’t help itself, so it killed the Christian Bale heroic character and Russell Crowe rode off to rule the unruly West. The anti-hero once again won.)

The USA Today article actually classifies Chigurh in No Country for Old Men as an anti-hero. In my mind, an anti-hero is a morally handicapped individual who overcomes his or her dark side to perform a heroic deed. As the article points out, we have a long tradition of celebrating the anti-hero and the anti-hero certainly deserves a solid place in literature and film. The Javier Bardem character, however, never veers away from his villainous role. He is scary evil from start to finish. Chigurh is a fascinating character, but he is not an anti-hero. If anything, he’s an anti-villain.

In the USA Today article, under a heading, "Rising out of the Vietnam Era” Lisa Dombrowski, associate professor of film at Wesleyan University said, “Most people will date the rise of the anti-hero to the 1960s, when the entire cast of Bonnie and Clyde and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf were nominated. There was a shift to embracing characters that are highly flawed yet compelling.”

Maybe it’s time we shook ourselves free of the sixties. Society needs heroes. They exist in the real world and we need them in fiction to serve as role models.

Friday, February 15, 2008

What happened to the Western?

Westerns were hugely popular for over a hundred years and then the genre suddenly fell into disfavor. Not only were Westerns popular in the United States, but the whole world devoured them. The Western was a staple of fiction, Hollywood, television, and daydreams. What happened?

The Western genre became a niche market because it abandoned traditional Western mythology. Westerns aspired to be art.

In recent decades, art has tended toward cynicism. The creative classes insist that true art illuminate our sins and our despair. The literati hooted, heckled, and hissed at the uplifting mythology of the Old West. Rather than a virtue, the talents required to tame a frontier became vices. Man killed—and man killed all the beautiful things. Bad stuff happened to good people, and for no apparent reason other than that life was unfair. The fashionable wanted art to reflect their world view, and the fashionable were in a funk.

And exceptional art did happen. Sergio Leone, an Italian enamored with the Old West, took the negative perspective and made it mainstream. His Dollar trilogy were his experimental etchings and Once upon a Time in the West, his masterpiece. A host of copycat films solidified the fashion and Westerns were henceforth required to portray the Old West with all of its faults and transgressions.

This fashion appealed to the elite, but a funny thing happened on the way to the movie theater—the public veered off in another direction. The general populous found it increasingly difficult to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys and the stories didn’t make them feel good about their ancestors or themselves. But they found a solution. They just quit coming.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What makes an appealing hero?

I asked myself this question as I tried to figure out why the Western genre had been relegated to a couple of obscure shelves in most bookstores. I tried to noodle this out for myself until I came upon Raymond Chandler’s 1950 definition of a hero. He was describing a detective hero, but it fits nonetheless. Here is my abridged version of Chandler's hero.

suspense, thrillers
Raymond Chandler
“…down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
“He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.
“The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.”

When publishers and producers abandon their penchant for off-putting antiheroes and return to this model, the Western will leap back to prominence.

People want heroes they can admire and long to emulate.