Monday, August 31, 2009

It Takes a Village to Create a Good Monster

Beguiling Serial Killer Dexter, image property of Showtime

Most of my adult life I have not signed up for cable TV. It's been a time sucking temptation I didn't need or want. But that's not because I'm some kind of stuck up puritan deeming the viewing of comedies and dramas on the small screen as sinful or wasteful. I just know myself - I love the distraction of a tale well told or a meal well cooked. In consequence my viewing of popular series has been as a customer of Netflix. I tell you this to explain the next part: I watch TV series after everyone else as seen them because I watch them on DVD.

I'm a big fan of the hit Showtime series Dexter and gobbled up Season 1 & 2 with avidity of appetite that left me with a very long wait for Season 3. I had to fill that time somehow. Dexter, serial killer with a code, is such an engaging and fascinating character that when I discovered that he was actually inspired by a book I was delighted. I'm one of those who love to read and believe that most books are better than the shows/movies made from them. I understand that it's hard work to adapt a book to a totally different medium and realize that the result often diverges enough from the original that the reader is left unsatisfied: their imaginative take on the events and characters far different than the script writer and director's. So to say that I was excited to find that Jeffrey Lindsay was the creator of one of my favorite television character was possibly an understatement. These were not books based on the hit series, but a hit series based on popular books, bound to be as good at the show if not better. I must be in for a treat so I bought all three extant books at once.

Here is where I'm going to offend Jeffrey Lindsay and all his fans. These were definitely the worst three books I have ever read as a series. I confess that I hated the first trilogy of Thomas Covenant by Stephan R. Donaldson nearly as much but for very different reasons, but in main if I have bothered to read three books by the same author about the same subject I'm probably hooked. I was not hooked; I was desperate. I wanted to be in Dexter's world and this was the best I could do while I waited for the series to return (thankfully they were both short and easy to read). Lindsay created an engaging character, a bold premise, and a convincing setup, and for that I will always be grateful. But after that he let me down with pedestrian writing and cheap tricks.

One huge mistake: his sister Debra finds out he's a killer in the beginning of the first book, but she loves him anyway in the second book. Where is the alienation that so defines the character? Doakes gets all his limbs cut off but clumps into the office anyway? Was that mean to be humorous? And the third book... I'm rolling my eyes at this one. In the third book Lindsay blows away his own brilliant premise by making Dexter possessed of a demon, rather than the interesting psychology that is hinted at (not actually explored because Lindsay is not that good of a writer) in the previous novels. The device of Dexter's inner monologue has its source in the books, but whereas it is very interesting and well done in the TV series, after three books you're tired of the boasting and whining:

"Gosh I'm a smart guy without any human emotions, why can't I do my normal brilliant analysis of this challenge right now?"

That was a paraphrase because I can't access the books anymore. Disgusted that I read all three I passed them onto another Dexter fan - who then did precisely what I did - read them all in disgust and then dumped them off somewhere like a dead body that needed disposal. I have googled around the web for evidence that others viewed Lindsay's hack writing the same way as I did, but I have not found it. I believe that Dexter is so arresting as a character in fiction that Lindsay is easily pulling the wool over the eyes of his readers, but the glamour can't last forever.

What is the point of trashing Lindsay's books in my blog since this is not intended as a review? I think, for me, that it's that the collaborative effort that took flight from Lindsay's brilliant starting point shows that the artistic process, even for crafting stories, doesn't have to be a lonely journey. We all know that movies and TV shows are the result of the work of a lot of people, but we always think of them in terms of a 'a writer', 'a director', or 'a star', but the fact is that all those people and more work together to produce a show like Dexter. Every link in the Dexter chain, from Lindsay's premise, to the uncanny performance by Michael C. Hall, is part of a greater whole of people coming together to create something unique in the world. At least that's how I like to think of it when I collaborate on my fiction projects - that we are bringing something unique into the world through our collective creativity and vision. Lindsay conceived Dexter, but it took 'a village' to raise this monster.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Reading to Be Write

Reading is to writing like water is to a fish. A couple years ago I realized that, somewhere around my middle thirties, all my reading had metamorphosed from fiction and poetry to research and essays. I was reading thick tomes on Ancient Egypt and the Wild West with a collector's avidity and little focus on the writing. The irony is that my abandonment of reading fiction coincided with my eager beavering at writing fiction. I was reading to learn about the places and periods that inspired me to write.

It took me a while to realize that I was no longer in touch with the storytellers that had created a love of literature in me in the first place. A couple years back I pledged to make the time to read novels and short stories again. I decided that as a writer I need to breathe in and absorb the work of other artists; not to mimic them but to learn from and be inspired by them.

As a kid I totally absorbed the classics and many of the great writers of the last couple of centuries from Dostoevsky, to Dickens, to Hardy. I read Lord of the Rings about ten times (yes I was that geeky child) before the age of sixteen. As an adult I have had far more difficulty getting into novels. I'm still looking for good writing but I also need good stories and a lot of modern novelists of the literary variety leave me cold - yes, I'm that kind of luddite. I still believe in story and plot. It's all style and in the head when I want something to actually happen. So from the classics of my youth I have been reading more along the lines of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard.

Much as I admire King's storytelling ability and craftsmanship (and have tried to absorb the lessons in writing that he can deftly apply) he can be lacking in the sheer beauty of words. Elmore Leonard is the king of 'spare' dry bones fiction and I'm finding that isn't what I want either. It's highly praised by editors and other writers at this moment in time, but I consider it just one style and just one possibility and not necessarily the pinnacle of literary mastery. I recently read No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy and it was excellent - the writing both hard edged and lyrical at the same time. McCarthy is an author that inspires me to be a better writer, and to pick up more of his books.

The key to reading fiction in order to learn to write better yourself is to read more thoughtfully. It doesn't mean you have to lose the rhythm of the story. It's more akin to enjoying fine wine. You just don't pour it into a jelly jar and gulp it down; you breathe in the aroma, sifting through the myriad scents, sip, roll it over your tongue, and then drink that baby all up. Feel free to mark passages that strike you. Query word choices that pull you up short and take you out of the story. Go back and read excellent bits again.

You should even feel free to mimic as a writing exercise, just remembering that all this reading and even mimicry is just a passage to finding your own style and rhythm.

So which writers inspire you? I would love to hear back from you all - so that I can find other gems and continue on my literary journey of discovery.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Slugs and Snails

The other day I was out in the garden, cleaning up the dead leaves, making nature look sexy instead of messy, when I came across some garden slugs. Ugh. Slugs.

slugI hate slugs; even their name is repellent. They're slimy little squishy eating machines: gross miniature monsters eating holes in the beautiful leaves of my imagined perfect garden. Though I hate to touch them I had no qualms about crushing them under the heel of my boot to rid the garden of their pestilence. A few minutes later I came across the common garden snail (escargot to you) and my reaction was quite different. It's still a garden pest and eating machine but instead of active repugnance I pick it carefully up by its stripped tortoiseshell-like spiral home where it brings a smile to my face as it starts to uncurl its little noble head from its body to peer at me inquisitively from its extraordinary eyestalks.

snailI couldn't crush it: I carefully carried it out of the garden. I never have been able to harm a snail. They're slippery, not slimy. They have beautiful shells. They have an elegance when fully extended, a sort of equine grace to their heads and the arch of their body as they navigate their world with a slow steady curiosity. I'm sure many of these are imagined qualities in my head, but my love affair with snails has been going since I was a kid when I would collect them to keep as pets, and carefully release them before I had them too long.

The same kid that showed such gentle devotion to his snails once stuck a match stick in the air hole of a slug, lit it, and watched it burn down until it melted the slug in a searing sizzle of outraged twisting writhing slugginess. I'm not proud of that moment and it didn't give me any fiendish pleasure but rather taught me not to torture animals - even ones I despise.

nudibranchThe irony of all of this is that slugs, to most people, are snails without shells. In the mind of most people they are quite similar, if not nearly exactly the same, and the slime of the slug is the slime of the snail. Each has the same disastrous effect in the garden as they munch their way across your favorite shrub, veggies, and flowers. Even biology bears out the opinions of most people: they are both gastropods that got out of the sea and crawled on the land. Slugs developed mucus to protect their soft bodies designed for aquatic living and snails have a shell, like many of their relatives. Sea slugs are some of the most beautiful creatures on earth, nudibranchs, and even some land slug species are quite extraordinary.

The fact is I'm prejudiced. Like most prejudiced people my reasons seem perfectly reasonable: slime, squishy, plant-eating. And just like most prejudices I can't see what I don't want to see like the fact that the snail is the same creature but with a shell. My prejudice is so ingrained it's visceral, but with open eyes can I cease my ridiculousness? I don't mean that I should cease to remove slugs from my garden or that I should love snails any less, but that I should simply stop hating the simple slug, humble relative of creatures like nudibranchs and snails, and give it the respect it's due. It's the respect that all living creatures deserve just for being what they were born to be. It's not layering my hatreds and fears on their backs until I can't see them anymore, but stripping away the layers to see that they are just trying to make a living the best way that they can.

What prejudices do you hold so close you can't even see them anymore?