Mark Terry

Monday, December 14, 2009

Writing 201: FRESHNESS (Conversation)

December 14, 2009

We’ll continue our conversation with The Divine Miss O. The topic today is “Freshness.”

Mark: Whenever the topic of freshness comes up, I immediately think of this pretty crappy movie called I LOVE TROUBLE starring Nick Nolte and Julia Roberts. It's about two competing Chicago newspaper reports, but the plot isn't really what we need to know. We need quick character descriptions, and Nolte's character was described as a tough, grizzled whiskey-guzzling, meat-eating old-style reporter and Roberts as a feminine, idealistic, vegetarian. And as soon as I heard the description of the characters, I thought, "Oh come on, the writer and director can't be that lazy, can they?"

Maybe freshness has to do with battling clichés. I immediately thought, Why not have Nolte be the idealistic reporter who's a vegetarian (for moral reasons, because he's trying to lose weight, because he had a heart attack and survived) and she's the meat- eating cynic. Even that small kind of change, a flip of expectations, would have gone a long ways to making the characters more interesting.

Erica: I agree that freshness is about avoiding cliche. What's tricky, of course, is that cliche carries truth. I have met detectives with drinking problems and psychologists with extensive personal issues. I worked in the UPI newsroom and met a reporter from Tel Aviv who traveled light, loved the ladies and a good cigar, and drank too much.

I think freshness is also about those "wow" moments. Those "why didn't I think of that" ideas. "The Gargoyle" by Andrew Davidson is one that comes to mind.

And before this digresses in the comments into a "there is no new idea under the sun"--yes, it's about archetypes and so on we have all seen before. BUT the freshness is in the details again . . . it spinning it in a way not previously seen.

Mark: I think we're all pretty aware of the conventions in storytelling, especially as it relates to genre. If you haven't been reading voraciously you probably don't have any business trying to write novels, but aside from that, most of us have seen a few thousand TV shows and movies by the time we're 18. You've got to be careful about hookers with a heart of gold, flippant side kicks, hard-drinking cops and PIs, damsels in distress, lone-wolf heroes, etc. And it probably is in the details. In PI fiction John D. MacDonald sort of set a standard with Travis McGee and his sidekick, Meyer; then Spenser with Hawk. Then you have to look at Robert Crais' Elvis Cole and Pike, and Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar and Win. The key to everything after Spenser seems to be that the hero is allowed to be moral, while the sidekick is a sociopathic. It's a weird convention, but each of them has managed to make their characters memorable and fresh at the time, sometimes by flipping the expected--Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar is a sports agent, and his lethal sidekick, Win, is I think a financial manager, very preppy, almost effeminate, but a total sociopath (which doesn't strike me as a reach for a Wall Street banker...)

So do you think--and hey, we've tripped right over characterization-- that you can consciously work on this? Are there questions you have to ask? I tend to build my characters sort of organically.

Erica: I think I am very organic as a writer, but I do consciously toss out anything I feel has been done before. Like I would never do a PI novel unless I somehow already had my (think yesterday!) HOOK. I just wouldn't go there . . . why? The question every genre writer has to ask, especially now, is what freshness do I bring to this genre?

Questions to ask . . . hmm . . . I don't know. For me, I think freshness, now that I am pondering it, probably stems from back story. I mean the up-front on-the-page characteristics are pretty important but . . . let's take Max Mingus from the novel Mr. Clarinet. He can pound the crap out of anyone, he is huge, well-built, tough. He drinks. He is a former cop. He is not above using violence, or even killing someone to get information. Sounds like a lot of PIs. But Max has served time for murder. He committed the murders as a police officer/homicide detective. Intentionally. Over a crime so horrific and perps so unreprentant that he hunted them down and killed them. Then he served time. As a cop. In general population. And even all that doesn't do it justice, since the devil is in the details of the crime and of Max's marriage and what happened while he was in prison to his wife, which is yet another layer to the back story. Add in that the cops he used to associate with think he's righteous, and his former partner is still his friend. And he has all these secondaries that are pretty compelling in the Miami scene, which is pretty edgy.

I think were Max just the PI with a violent streak . . . been there, done that. But the layers and poignancy and violence and horror of his back story (too complicated to fully do justice here) make him a different sort of PI.

Mark: I guess it's tricky and probably requires an awareness of the market. As you know, something as a challenge, I kept joking around on this blog and yours about character tags and writing a story about a dwarf PI who drinks stingers for breakfast, etc. So as a challenge to myself, I wrote a short story, FLATFOOTED, about Biz Leightner, PI, and I included all the character tags I used to joke about. I actually think the story came off pretty well (it's been turned down by one market and is still at another, but considering the market for short stories, who knows?), and I think you're right. It's like you can take all the details of a standard genre (character tags), but it's how you come to those and perhaps how the character responds. Biz was drinking a stinger for breakfast because he had been out on a stakeout all night. But I think, to my mind, anyway, where he became fresh had to do with his attitude, which was sunny, his relationship with his very tall mother, and his own confidence in his abilities despite being about four-feet-tall. So yeah, it's details, but also how you arrive at them.

The other thing I was thinking about was that in a typical story, particularly a crime novel, you're going to have certain turning points or reversals. One of the old standbys is to have the main character's partner get shot. Okay, fine, it can work. But by simply changing things, have the partner get put out of commission by having a heart attack, or having to deal with his wife's cancer, or hell, winning the lottery and quitting mid-case, you can do a lot to freshen up a genre novel. But I think it's got to go beyond: time to bring on the one-armed man.

Erica: I think, too, that some of it is the skill of the writer. And that's just developed over time, with that "voice" we discussed. In one person's hands the Max Mingus character I described is fresh. In another's, it might be heavy handed. I have to say that there were no false notes in his character. It felt very natural. I've read a lot of manuscripts when I never, ever really "believed" the author. It all felt too arranged, too many i's dotted and t's crossed in the secondaries.

And when you mention changing things up in unusual ways, look at Mike Lawson's character's lesbian best friend. Unusual for the genre. Or even Alex Cross's character--lived with his grandmother. Just a nudge here or there can go a long way.

The floor is open for discussion!


Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

I loved that movie, Mark! And they took that story and did it best, so maybe Erica's got it: it's in the delivery.

Okay, don't roll your eyes, LOL, but I think freshness begins with the readers. Whenever you write one bit, the reader draws conclusions about the next bit. To make a story fresh, we need to make the next bit surprise. If you give a reader 1+1, you have to make it equal 3 believably.

I noticed some of the most popular storytellers "write with a but." Okay, they sometimes literally write with a few too many "but" sentences, but (er) they are constantly seeking to twist every single description. If they tell you X, they'll make sure to tell you the next bit isn't Y because of Xab/4.

To me, freshness is twisting around expectations.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Makes sense.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Michele Emrath said...

I think of Dennis Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro. We've all seen the down-and-out PI and gorgeous Ex-he-can't-get-over before. But Lehane twists in the noir with the hard, urban Boston setting, and adds emotion and softness in unexpected places...and you have a completely new ballgame. Lehane is also a writer who can cross genres, jumping from the detective novel to literary fiction to historical mystery without much thought.

Patterson, I think, has worn out his welcome. He has forgotten how to twist expectations, as Natasha so aptly defined freshness.


11:04 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm not a huge fan of Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro novels, although I thought the movie of "Gone, Baby Gone" was astonishing. What felt fresh about the two characters in the books, to me, was how down-and-out and damaged they were. Heart-breakingly damaged individuals.

Patterson doesn't really write his books these days, he plots them and has others write them, and I given that he and his team are cranking out about 6 books a year, it's not surprising they're feeling formulaic.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hammett was the ace performer... He is said to have lacked heart; yet the story he himself thought the most of [The Glass Key] is the record of a man's devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.
--Raymond Chandler

I think that pretty much sums it up.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Sure, sums it up. But how do the geniuses do it? :-) When you posted your story a while back on Jon's blog, every reader said it reminded them even in the details of King's Stand by Me (even though everyone liked it). So how do people do it fresh? Of course, if we knew that, then we'd all be gazillionaires.

3:26 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Hi Erica:

Well, there's nothing extraordinary about boys camping in a clubhouse. King didn't invent it. Similar scenarios have probably been written a million times by a million writers who did the same kind of thing when they were eleven or twelve.

It's what boys do.

It's the subsequent adventures that makes a story extraordinary, I think. King's boys were off to find a dead body, mine a meteorite. Another author might have his boys sneak into a graveyard and witness a murder. ;)

So freshness depends on what happens after the initial set-up, I think. We move from the ordinary, what we've seen time and again, to the extraordinary, something new and hopefully interesting.

4:32 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I hear you. But I think that the SCENE was evocative of him. Your very quote was about how the "scenes seemed never to have been written before." So what elevates one writer to that level and another to people saying, "Gosh, this feels done before"? It it solely in what follows? I don't think so. I think it resides in characters and detail and so on. Anyway, that's what this whole discussion is hoping to get at.

5:09 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Right. Characters and details for sure. But if you read the beginning of King's The Body (the story that the movie Stand by Me was based on, a story I bought and read AFTER writing my scene), you'll see that the similarities really end with the set-up.

Most boys have some sort of hideaway, I think, a place where they go to hang with their friends and be away from parents. King's boys had a treehouse, as did mine, but his 1950s kids are playing cards while my 1930s have a prized brass telescope. The characters and details are completely different.

Now, there are iconic scenes that you would never want to touch (the shower scene from psycho, for example), outside of parody or something, but I don't think King's boys in a treehouse is one of those.

5:45 AM  
Blogger LurkerMonkey said...

This "freshness" question is much on my lately ... I'm writing heavily again, and the project I'm working on feels unlike other MG books in my genre (if I do say so myself). The setting is unusual (it's set on salt flats, and the MC's dad is a shrimper). And the mythology borrows pieces of various fantasy threads, including vampirism, dragon lore, and the idea of the Kwisatz Haderach from Dune.

So my concern isn't that the book isn't novel. My concern is actually the other way: that it will ultimately be inaccessible. You all know the trouble I've had connecting with the market so far, so part of me wonders if I'm being foolish for writing a book that's even less commercial—while possibly being more "fresh"—than any I've written so far.

So my question: When have you gone too far?

Jude & Erica ... having read the scene in question, it wasn't the fact of the treehouse and the details that were so strongly evocative of King for me. It was the tone. It read like King, and so when I hit the treehouse, the very first thing I thought was "King."

7:30 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

THe truth? I don't know. It's impossible to read everything in a genre or in a market, so things I've thought were new and fresh I've from time to time gotten a, "Oh, this is just like..." which might be a book that I'd never heard of before.

And there was the time when I wrote a book about a guy who discovers that his father wasn't actually dead, but had gone into witness protection, and now he's got both the mob and the FBI after him because they think he knows what his father did with the money his father stole from the mob...

And I started peddling it right around the time a book called, uh, The Firm, came out, about a guy caught between the FBI and the mob...

7:52 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

You know I am writing my least accessible book ever. But it feels so incredibly "right" at the moment.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Jon: Yeah, I think everyone wants something fresh yet familiar. So "originality" doesn't necessarily translate into salability. I just try to write something I would like to read, and hope millions of other people feel the same.

8:47 AM  

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