Monday, April 7, 2014

The Free Bin: Movie Novelizations, Writing Dialogue, and Luxurious Silence

This week’s collection of articles that have captured my attention includes a few longer pieces. If you’re used to bite-sized web articles, it might take some arm twisting to get you to read them, but consider making some time (or sending them to your Kindle for reading later). They’re well worth it.

An assortment of movie novelizations, jammed together unevenly by me. 

  • “The Endangered Art of the Movie Novelization” is the topic of a Random House article that covers a lot of fascinating ground. Before you say “Good riddance,” take a look. There’s some great background on the history of novelizations (including the fact that the first popular one was King Kong). Frequent novelizer Alan Dean Foster weighs in on topics like being privy to script changes, and the fact that when a director decides to change the ending, a re-write on the novel has to happen in a flash.

  • TV Writer may be for those who write teleplays, but they often have advice that transcends the medium. A recent post on writing dialogue addresses some particular annoyances, such as characters who say each other’s names for no good reason. It’s a quick read, so use the extra time to subscribe to the TV Writer feed. It should prove useful to anyone writing just about anything.

  • “Silence has become the ultimate luxury,” says an article in the New Republic, so much so that we’re willing to pay for it. This comprehensive piece covers silence as a commodity, from Amtrak’s silent cars to noiseless appliances, but it also digs deeper into our preoccupation with eliminating noise.

  • When is a joke too soon? Slate looks at humor that follows tragedy and tries to get to the bottom of why some types of humor work while other jokes fall flat. The Onion’s post-911 headlines generated a lot of positive responses, which they say is largely due to the fact that they chose the right targets for their satire. Timing, then, is only part of the equation. 

  • Does reading literature make you a better bully? The Stanford Center for Ethics says it can. A heightened ability to understand human emotions can make one more skilled at manipulation and harassment. While that doesn’t mean that reading automatically makes meanies, the panel disagrees with the notion that reading automatically improves morals, as some have tried to prove.

Have you read any movie novelizations? Made any jokes too soon? Botched your dialogue or been a bully? Let me know. If not, we can all enjoy the silence.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Book Preview: Upcoming Titles from King, Ellroy, Cronenberg

There aren’t a lot of books I get excited about before they’re even published—my regular readers know that a lot of what I read is 50 years old or more—but there are a few titles on the horizon this year that have me just about peeing my pants. They’re all available for pre-order, so if you’re feeling just as incontinent, go ahead and nab them. They’ll be in your mailbox on publishing day, before all the slugabeds can get them at the bookstore.

James Ellroy’s Perfidia (September 2014)

It’s been years since a new Ellroy novel has come out (five, if you’re counting), so the announcement of a new title is exciting on its own. What’s even more exciting is the fact that Ellroy is touting Perfidia as the first book in a second L.A. Quartet. That means not only three more upcoming books, but also that they’ll undoubtedly have the scope, historical weirdness, and unflinching brutality of the four previous connected books. In an open letter on his agent’s website, Ellroy says we can expect some of the characters to reappear, too. (Read more/pre-order)

Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes (June 2014)

This is one of two books King is releasing in 2014, following two big titles last year (Joyland and Dr. Sleep). While die-hard fans will also want to pre-order Revival, it’s Mr. Mercedes that most intrigues me. I enjoy King the most when he’s focused on real-life fears rather than the supernatural, and this novel seems grounded in reality at its most harsh: a mass murderer with plans to kill again, and the cop trying to prevent another atrocity before it happens. (Read more/pre-order)

David Cronenberg’s Consumed (September 2014)

Even if you’re not among the coolest people who have seen all of Cronenberg’s early films, you’ve got to appreciate him as a writer. He’s successfully adapted the works of some modern literary greats into original screenplays, taking on Don DeLillo (Cosmopolis), J.G. Ballard (Crash), and William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch). Now he’s written his own novel, and while it’s his first, the premise is not only promising, but also suitably Cronenberg-ish. Check out the description that hooked me in an instant. (Read more/pre-order)

Do you plan to read any of these forthcoming titles? Anything you’re anticipating in 2014?

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Free Bin: Procrastination, Amtrak Residencies, and Free Homes for Writers

It’s time for another link round-up of interesting stories I’ve found related to books, writing, and the occasional oddball thingamajig. 

What is the allure of trains? Amtrak wants writers to find out. (Loco Steve/Creative Commons License)

  • A non-profit in Detroit has figured out what to do with the supply of empty houses, and is using them to attract creative types to the city. Write-a-House is renovating homes that low-income writers can apply to lease. The kicker: if the writer stays a minimum of two years, he or she is awarded the lease, for keeps.

  • Amtrak is considering a plan to offer residencies to writers that would allow them to write on their trains during free round-trip rides. The idea is still on the drawing table, but the giddy response from writers predicts that there would be a slew of applications.

  • Who else is giving stuff away? James Patterson is. The author plans to give $1 million to independent bookstores, to use however they like. No word on whether or not it will be broken up into 117 payments. (Yes, that’s a crack about his excessive number of chapters.)

  • The Atlantic ‘s article about writers and procrastination goes beyond the surface, and may even touch a nerve a two. It looks at the psychological reasons behind procrastinating, and why, for writers, it’s “a peculiarly common occupational hazard.”

  • Here’s one for mystery and crime writers: Crime Library examines whether or not one could actually use an icicle to kill a person.

Have you come across any notable book news in your web surfing lately? Are you considering a writer’s residency, or perhaps an icicle murder? Spill it.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Literary Embarrassments: 8 Books the Authors Wish They Had Never Written

It’s a tragedy that throughout history, some authors have deemed their work so horrible that they saw fit to obliterate it. Evelyn Waugh, George Gissing and Nikolai Gogol are just some of the notable writers who have torched their own works. Without the books around to judge, we’ll never know if Gogol’s second and third installments of Dead Souls were any good, or if they instead amounted to the literary equivalent of, say, Dead Souls II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold followed by Dead Souls 3-D. 

The bigger tragedy, though, at least for the authors, is writing something terrible and not burning it. The following works run the gamut in quality, but what they do have in common is the shame of their authors.

Check out these 8 cases of writer’s regret:

1. Neil Gaiman’s Duran Duran biography 

If you click the link, get ready for some sticker shock.

Gaiman may have won a Hugo, a Nebula, a Newbery Award, and a Carnegie medal, but alas, there’s no prestigious prize for 80s pop band fan bios. Duran Duran: The First Four Years of the Fab Five (1984) was the first book Gaiman ever wrote, and he refers to it as his “dark secret.” After the copyright lapsed and reverted back to the author, the publishers wanted to bring out a new printing. Gaiman was thrilled to be able to say “No, thank you.”

2. Martin Amis’ video game guide

With a surprise guest appearance by Christopher Hitchens.

Martin Amis, the Booker Prize short-lister, son of the more famous Kingsley, and world’s oldest enfant terrible, wrote a guide to video games in 1982. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s avoided talking about it ever since. What is most surprising about Invasion of the Space Invaders, besides its entire existence, is that it’s written in much the same style he uses in his fiction.

Writing on Pac-Man, Amis says, “Do I take risks in order to gobble up the fruit symbol in the middle of the screen? I do not, and neither should you. Like the fat and harmless saucer in Missile Command (q.v.), the fruit symbol is there simply to tempt you into hubristic sorties. Bag it.”

Also: “PacMan player, be not proud, nor too macho, and you will prosper on the dotted screen.” The Millions writer Mark O’ Connell says, “I’m no expert, I’ll admit, but I’ll go out on a critical limb here and suggest that this might be the sole instance of the use of the mock-heroic tone in a video game player’s guide.”

Amis writes in the introduction about his first encounter with a video game machine, while hanging out with a “hard-drinking journalist” pal in Paris, circa 1980. The friend in question is believed to be Christopher Hitchens, in what is surely his one and only video game guide appearance.

3. Harlan Ellison’s Doomsman

You've got a better chance of getting this book signed by Lee Hoffman (and she died in 2007).

In a career spanning five decades and over seventy books, it stands to reason that some of Ellison’s work is going to be better than others, but Doomsman is pretty much unanimously thought of as terrible. (Typical GoodReads review: “dreadful, overwrought and sloppily written.”) In fact, a mere four pages after a character’s eyes are poked out in a torture session, Ellison writes that “he looked up.”

Ellison himself hates the book, especially as he says it was “radically altered” by editors. While it’s not impossible to find, it’s reportedly impossible to get signed. Several fans have claimed that, upon being presented with Doomsman, Ellison will tear it up on sight. Some say he’ll pay you for it first, and at least one reader says he tore the Doomsman half of the double novel away and signed just the half with Lee Hoffman’s Telepower. Ellison discarded his own half.

4. Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me 

A departure for Fleming, it's some fans' favorite Bond novel.

If you’ve ever wondered why the movie version of this Bond novel is not just somewhat different from the book, but actually has nothing in common with it whatsoever, it’s because Ian Fleming wouldn’t allow it to be filmed. He sold the rights to the title only, after the book proved to be sort of a bomb. He refused a paperback reprint of the book in the UK, effectively trying to bury it completely.

What’s wrong with it? To start with, a lot of Bond fans don’t like that he doesn’t even show up until about ⅔ of the way through the novel, which is told from the point of view of a young Canadian woman. Critics fell over themselves to pan it. “His ability to invent a plot has deserted him almost entirely,” wrote the Glasgow Herald. The Observer went one better: “I hope this doesn't spell the total eclipse of Bond in a blaze of cornography.”

5. Dan Brown’s 187 Men to Avoid and The Bald Book

A whole penny on Amazon, if you dare.
Inane Dan Brown completists have actually driven up the price of The Bald Book.

Dan Brown may have sold 100 gazillion books, but the critics have never liked him (The Washington Post: “His novels are like high-stakes, 500-page Mad Libs”). As a result, Brown spends a lot of time defending his writing. He doesn’t do much defending of his earliest work, though: he pretends it doesn’t exist. You won’t find 187 Men to Avoid: A Survival Guide for the Romantically Frustrated Woman listed on Brown’s website. Written under a feminized version of his own name (Danielle Brown), the novelty book is a slapdash and not-very-funny list of types of men women should avoid, e.g. those who “think farting is cute.”

Soon after finishing Digital Fortress, Brown released another novelty book, this one a collection of bald jokes older than your grandfather (“you’ll never worry about going gray”). While his wife is credited as the author this time, Brown’s literary agent says that it was Brown who did the writing. Perhaps needless to say, The Bald Book is also absent from Dan Brown’s author website.

6. Louis L’Amour’s Hopalong Cassidy novels

L'Amour's denial of writing this series seems rather sad. Read his son's story for a better understanding.

Icon of the western genre Louis L’amour wrote some Hopalong Cassidy TV/movie tie-ins under the name Tex Burns in the early ‘50s. They were very much work-for-hire, over which he had little control, and the end result shamed him so much, he denied writing them for the rest of his life—and for decades, wouldn’t even admit it to his family:

“When asked, he told people that he had never written about Hopalong Cassidy, that he had never written as Tex Burns. At autograph sessions he would refuse to sign the Hopalong books that fans would occasionally bring. And for years he worried that these books which he tried so hard to ignore would be reprinted and brought back into circulation.”

L’Amour’s son has written about his father’s uncomfortable relationship with Hopalong in more detail here.

7. Neal Stephenson’s The Big U

Stephenson's reluctant re-release has cover art more befitting a serious author. This is not it.

Sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson’s first novel was a satire of college life that he himself admits was pretty terrible: “The Big U is what it is: a first novel written in a hurry by a young man a long time ago.” After the later success of Snow Crash, The Big U (which was scarce because no one had bought it in the first place) started commanding outrageous prices on eBay. Stephenson then begrudgingly allowed its reprinting, believing the only thing worse than the book itself was people paying $500 to read it.

8. Philip Pullman’s first novel


Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials is plenty acclaimed, earning him the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Prize, among other accolades. His first book, though, written in 1972, is one he “adamantly” refuses to talk about, according to his fansite. In fact, he refuses to even name it, perhaps in the hopes that no one will ever find it. (The book in question is The Haunted Storm, but don’t tell Pullman you heard it here.)

Do any of your favorite authors have early titles that they ought to regret? Do you think the above writers are silly for trying to disown their works, or would you do the same?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

5 Things No One Ever Told Me About Freelance Writing

When I left my sixteen-year bookstore job to tackle full-time freelance writing, I was plenty prepared. I’d been doing freelance work on the side for years, writing for magazines and doing web work for a growing list of clients. I also did my homework before taking the plunge, reading what experienced freelancers could tell me about what to expect.

Freelancing: day one.

I was prepared, then, for the droughts and the rainstorms (though I still felt a little shocked when I went through a stretch with no assignments to suddenly find I had twelve in one day—all with a one-week deadline). I was prepared for not really having days off (see previous line about twelve assignments at once). I was prepared for the fact that a freelancer sometimes has to be extremely aggressive about getting a client to actually send a check when the work is done.

Yet, there are a few things I still never expected from freelance writing.

You’re not at home all the time. It’s the opposite. You’re always at work.

While it’s true that you can spend the day in your nightshirt (and it’s glorious), there’s not much lounging around. In fact, relaxing at all can be difficult when your home is your office. It’s largely psychological, but be prepared for your house to feel a little less like home. Having a dedicated workspace helps, but there are days when the walls feel every bit as confining as the cubicle at a 9-to-5.

You’re the boss … but you’re also the janitor.

In other words, every job is your job. It’s not just that you’re the writer and the editor and the accountant—those are the things any freelancer ought to expect. You have to take care of all the little annoyances, too. Working on a project in an office, you can close the door and hold your calls. Writing at home means that you not only answer the phone (which seems to ring in direct proportion to how busy you are), but you also clean up the cat vomit.

The day speeds by.

Remember how the day used to drag at your other job? That you’d watch the clock and be horrified that only seven minutes had passed since the last time you’d checked? Start freelancing, and you’ll soon find that you can’t cram all the things you need to do into one day. When you’re paid by the piece rather than the hour, it’s almost like factory work. Though you’re writing articles rather than sewing buttons on jeans, you’ll still be shocked at how soon the whistle blows.

You’ll have even less time to work on that novel.

I worked much harder at my pet projects when I had a regular day job. It’s true that in some ways I needed the escape more to counter the workplace tensions, and my freelancing is vastly more fulfilling, but I do have hopes of completing a book, and there are scads of personal projects languishing on my laptop. Now that I need to make a living from my writing, those pie-in-the-sky writing dreams take a backseat to finding more clients that pay the day-to-day bills. Don’t despair that you’ll never finish your creative epic if you’re trying to write for a living, though. Like everything else when you’re freelancing: you’ll just have to put it on the schedule.

You won’t give every job your all.

Bear with me, because I’m not talking about delivering slipshod work. I’m talking about doing what’s required and not over-delivering to an insane degree. When I was freelancing part time, I often had only one assignment to focus on, and I tended to research the subject until I was practically an expert. I wrote and rewrote like my Pulitzer was on the line. That kind of passion is great, and I still like to feel that I give a little more than is expected, but now that I need to complete multiple assignments to make a living, I work faster and smarter. When I need to deliver a 300-word marketing piece for a seafood company, I don’t need to re-read Moby Dick. If you don’t reign yourself in, you’ll never be able to complete enough work to survive. Save your all for the projects that demand it.

Sure, I’ve run into some snags along the way, but in every case, I’ve adapted. I’ve tweaked my schedule. I turn off my phone. I take a walk when I feel like I’m losing my mind. Part of being the boss means finding the best way to get higher productivity out of my one employee: myself. But it also means making sure she stays happy. I’d like her to stick around.

What’s hardest for you about writing at home, whether you’re a freelancer, a novelist, or a blogger? Share your gripes, successes, and tips.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Book Review: The Big Gold Dream by Chester Himes

I despise tacked-on settings in books. It’s something I see a lot in the mystery genre, with stories taking place in some historical era or another, or in some exotic locale, but the story feels like it could take place anywhere. The setting is just a gimmick.
The Big Gold Dream by Chester Himes.

Chester Himes’ books don’t have that problem. His Coffin Ed & Gravedigger Jones series evoke a time and place that’s so much a part of the plot that it just couldn’t be anywhere else. You can hear the Harlem of the ‘50s and ‘60s. You can smell it. You can even taste it, as food seems to come up quite a bit, whether it’s the two black NYPD detectives eating spicy stewed chicken feet and okra in the back of a cramped shop (in All Shot Up), or Sugar Stonewall in The Big Gold Dream, sneaking into his girlfriend’s apartment to scrounge something to eat after days of evading the cops:

“He got out the big iron skillet, poured in some half rancid drippings from the lard can on the back of the stove and put the chops on to fry. While they were frying, he pried the hominy grits from the saucepan in one piece, and cut it into slices an inch thick.

When the chops were done he added more drippings, fried the hominy grits a rich brown, stacked them alongside the chops and fried eggs country style. He put the fried eggs on top of the grits and dumped the greens and okra into the pan, bringing it just to a boil.

He left everything on top of the stove and ate, standing, until it was all gone.”

But The Big Gold Dream isn’t a cookbook, however evocative the food descriptions are. It’s a crime novel, and Chester Himes does it hardboiled and brutal. He knew about crime firsthand, being in trouble more than out of it as a youth, and ultimately ending up in in Ohio Penitentiary for armed robbery. Himes started writing stories while in prison, as a way of avoiding violence, he said, and was published in places like Esquire. He continued writing after his release, and made friends with Langston Hughes, who introduced him to publishers and literary types. He went on to win the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France, and ultimately settled there until his death in 1984. Four of Himes’ books have been filmed: If He Hollers, Let Him Go!, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Come Back, Charleston Blue, and A Rage in Harlem.

Chester Himes in France, where he found critical acclaim.

The Big Gold Dream is the fourth in the Coffin Ed & Gravedigger Jones series, and it opens at an over-the-top revival meeting, presided over by the silver-tongued, flashy, and somewhat-sleazy Sweet Prophet Brown. Things get a little crazy after Alberta Wright has an epiphany, gets religion, and swigs some of Sweet Prophet Brown’s holy water. She collapses, and is thought dead, sending her boyfriend Sugar Stonewall fleeing. After a stash of money goes missing, things get a lot crazy, and the bodies begin to pile up. Just about everyone in the neighborhood is a suspect. If they don’t have the money, they’d certainly like to, and the fact that they’re just about all guilty of something, makes for all manner of deceptions, lies, and double-crosses. As Coffin Ed Johnson tells Sweet Prophet, “People will recrucify Jesus Christ for thirty-six grand.”

Some have complained that this particular novel doesn’t have enough of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, and it’s true that they take a back seat this time. I don’t mind one bit. The action is almost non-stop. A robbery/fight scene that takes place in pitch darkness, with both participants unable to see where the other is, or what he might be wielding, is terrifying and exciting. But even if there were less action, the parade of characters make The Big Gold Dream what it is. There’s the ex-boxer with his tongue cut out, trying to scrape by as a pimp. There’s the shy prostitute. There’s Harlem’s great undertaker, H. Exodus Clay, and a slew of everyday people from furniture dealers to bookmakers.

The Big Gold Dream in paperback, including the French edition, titled Tout pour Plaire.

It occurred to me after reading the book, that Sweet Prophet Brown is a lot like the character Daddy Rich that Richard Pryor played in the 1976 movie Car Wash. Daddy Rich’s arrival is a lot like Sweet Prophet’s street revival at the opening of Himes’ book. The similarities don’t end there. Car Wash also has a parade of disparate characters—prostitutes, preachers, everyday working folks—and only the thinnest thread of a through-story to bind them together. In The Big Gold Dream, the through-story is a crime, but just as in Car Wash, it’s the people that really make it what it is. 

While not my favorite of Himes’ Coffin Ed & Gravedigger Jones books, it’s still a good read. It might even be a good introduction to Himes for those who haven’t read him. If you like the glimpse of the Harlem cops you see here, you’ll be in for a real treat when you read the other titles that feature them more prominently.

This post was written for the Friday’s Forgotten Books event hosted by Patti Abbott. See her blog for a collection of reviews on all kinds of eclectic titles.

What books have you read in which plot and setting are inextricably linked? Comments welcome.