Prose style with mass appeal?

notes-514998Recently, ReasonTV posted the below interview with thriller author Brad Thor. Thor impressed me as smart, and Nick Gillespie’s praise for The Hidden Order intrigued me — because Thor had apparently built an entertaining thriller on the history of the Federal Reserve and monetary policy(!).

So I acquired a copy and have now read it. And something about Thor’s writing has been nagging at me.

The prose style doesn’t quite get to “clunky”; although looking at it as a new editor, there are a few issues that I, personally, would flag as needing to change apart from what I’m about to examine.

[The one that really yanks me out of the story, as a reader, is shifting viewpoint within a scene. Thor writes in third person limited (perfectly standard for mass market thrillers), and shifts between characters every chapter or three (same deal: bog standard), but sometimes he shifts viewpoints within the same scene for a paragraph or two, and it’s jarring. He’ll narrate things from his protagonist’s p.o.v., then for a paragraph narrate what the woman his protagonist is talking to is thinking, or fill in her background for the reader in a very obvious way. He signals it clearly when he does it, but it just rubs me wrong.]

But that only happens a few times in the book, and it isn’t what was gnawing at my backbrain for the first third of the narrative.

I think I’ve homed in on three aspects of what Thor is doing that was setting me off.

Over-explaining rather than showing.

Spelling out even the most obvious subtext.

Giving his characters thoughts that are banal, if not clichéd, but which are meant to resonate with his intended audience.

Let’s begin with an example of that last:

While there were lots of bureaucrats in the intelligence community whom Harvath [Thor’s protagonist] didn’t care for, there were also many exceptional Americans who risked everything day in and day out for their love of the United States.

The phrasing just makes this sentiment trite, and I about rolled my eyes. This is Dan Brown territory here, frankly, though Thor is generally a much better writer than Brown.

If this were written in corporate-ese, it’d give somebody a Buzzword Bingo almost instantly.

There are “many” (how many? In what proportion to the others?) “exceptional” (exceptional in the intelligence community? What is this, Lake Wobegon?) “Americans” (Um, yeah, US intelligence doesn’t generally staff with foreign nationals; this is just used to get some flag-waving going in a fairly anti-government book) “who risked everything” (Sorry, but the vast majority in the intelligence community are desk jockeys, and are manifestly not risking their lives every day. Field agents, okay, but that’s not “many”) “day in and day out” (Gosh, somebody should give them a vacation or something) “out of their love for the United States.” (By jingo!)

The whole sentence is just ear-rippingly trite. It’s something aimed at people who are not readers, because if they don’t read much, this sort of thing won’t jar their ears much.

But as painful as it is to read, this isn’t accidental or a sign of lack of attention. This is the twelfth book in the series, and the series sells very well. This style is purposeful.

Here’s an example of over-explaining instead of showing, with some cliché tossed in for good measure:

She was a very perceptive woman, an important trait for a homicide detective, or any detective, for that matter. You’d have to get up pretty early in the morning to put one over on her and even then Harvath was not sure how successful he’d be.

Perceptiveness, the reader apparently didn’t know, is an important trait for a homicide detective. Who knew!?

Indeed, being very perceptive is important for any detective. Wow!

The “you’d have to get up pretty early in the morning” thing has been a cliché for a century, if not longer, in standard American. It put me in mind of a Laurel & Hardy bit where Babe says “You have to get up pretty early in the morning to fool a Hardy!” Stanley replies: “What time?” and Ollie starts to answer, “Oh, about half-past— What time!”

That was in a Hal Roach-produced comedy in the 1930s.

Brad Thor uses it without irony or originality in the 2010s.

And, again, painful as I find it to be, he’s doing it this way for a reason. Which is that it seems to work.

When Ryan asked her mentor what favor the DNI owed him, McGee only said, “We both owe each other a few debts that neither of us will ever be able to repay.”

The solemnity with which he spoke told her the debts very likely involved tremendous sacrifice and possibly, human life.

This is a “flashing arrow“, and over-explaining. This is spelling it out so that even the dullest, most socially inept reader understands. This is making subtext into text, and doing it as obviously as one possibly can do so.

It brings to mind fictional author, visionary, dream weaver, plus actor Garth Marenghi’s brilliant observation: “I know writers who use subtext, and they’re all cowards.”

I’m of two minds about this.

On the one hand, I want to have as many fans and readers as possible. And it appears that one of the keys to selling lots of books is to do as much work for the reader as possible, spelling out subtext and implications overtly at every step. This doesn’t apply just to Brad Thor, either.

To varying degrees this “explain everything directly” style can be found (in decreasing degree) in Dean Koontz, Stephen King, John Grisham, and several other reliable best-sellers. For the record, I consider each of those to be a pretty good writer, each for different reasons, with Grisham being possibly, at times, a master prose stylist, in that he has at least a few times achieved the ideal Asimovian “so clear you don’t even notice you’re reading” style.

On the other hand, I find it disheartening that asking the reader to do even a little work seems to be a barrier to success. A literate, light, elegant style that’s easy to read can still leave a lot going on in the active reader’s mind without bludgeoning him with Every. Last. Detail. Lois McMaster Bujold is one example, but she only recently hit the bestseller lists, and she’s been publishing since the ’80s.

On the gripping hand, I actually believe that this Thor’s style is the easy path, but not the only one. Robert A. Heinlein, for an obvious example, slugged his way from the pulp ghetto to the NYT Bestseller lists when SF was “just not respectable” by, in part, writing in a style that easily fit with the way many people think and observe. He, in most of his writing, skipped the mind-numbing stuff and left in only the good bits, the interesting, important bits. That’s not especially easy, at least until you train yourself to it.

Here’s reason‘s interview with Brad Thor:

Ten-ish Albums

Credit: Unsplash  License: CC0
Credit: Unsplash
License: CC0
The rant against social media will happen, but until then, a meme challenge of the sort that used to be blogging’s bread and butter:

List 10 (or so) albums that made a lasting impression on you as a TEENAGER, but only one per band/artist. Not in any particular order. FYI- it can be an “old” record you discovered in your teens.

My teen years were ’88-’94. In no particular order, I came up with:

Dramarama — Vinyl

I’m actually writing a weird monograph using this album as a lens on the early ’90s, popular culture, the fickleness of popularity versus the staying power of true quality, and possibly whatever other random thoughts enter my head.

Dramarama, and this album in particular, are important in my life. I “discovered” them myself, and they were the first band I got quite annoying about trying to get other people interested in. Their sound, especially here, ran almost precisely contrary to the just-about-to-explode grunge sound from Seattle, which was a typical circumstance in the underappreciated band’s career. People who love them, love them. People who don’t get weirded out by the passion of fans, because their sound is deceptive.

And, unless you’re a very devoted Rolling Stones fan, you’ll probably miss the fact that one of the songs is a Stones cover — Dramarama nearly always did a cover song, and it was nearly always a very obscure song from a well-known act.

Mary’s Danish — American Standard

Another unjustly obscure band, this album was Mary’s Danish’s closest brush with hitting it big — they played the Letterman show, got at least some press coverage, and even got a cover song onto the Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtrack. Why that didn’t translate into their becoming a big name act is beyond me.

American Standard was the album where the whole band began to work together, instead of in two or three subgroups, and it delivers fully and completely on the promise of their two earlier studio LPs. There’s not a bad song, not one moment out of place, unless you really want to get nitpicky and include the cover of “I fought the law” (a good, energetic cover, but which just doesn’t fit the mood of everything that went before), which wasn’t even listed on the album art. Several songs here are on my permanent Life Soundtrack, and a few I quote frequently, without anyone ever catching on.

Social Distortion — Somewhere Between Heaven & Hell

Seriously, who can say “no” to rockabilly punk?

Cowboy Junkies — black-eyed man

Not only is it haunting and sad and hopeful and perfect, this is where I first encountered the genius of Townes van Zandt’s songwriting. “To Live Is To Fly” is one of my favorite songs, and the Junkies’ cover of it is the definitive version, to my mind.

Lou Reed — Magic & Loss

I vaguely knew Lou Reed prior to this album, being familiar with “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Dirty Boulevard” and probably a few other songs. But this was the first time I ran face-first into the sheer emotional power he could infuse into his words.

And a good thing, too. A year or two after absorbing all the thoughts and feelings of this meditation on losing two friends to cancer in the space of a year, I myself lost a high school friend to cancer. This album helped me cope with that.

3rd Bass — Derelicts of Dialect

I generally don’t care for rap. I still freaking love this album, juvenile diss tracks and all.

Nirvana — Nevermind

I was a teenager in ’91. Duh.

REM — Automatic For The People

“I will try not to burden you
I can hold these inside
I will hold my breath
Until all these shivers subside
Just look in my eyes”

It spoke to me then, it speaks to me still.

They Might Be Giants — Apollo 18

What’s that blue thing doing here?

Frank Allison & The Odd Sox — Hokey Smoke

The most obscure album here, since the Odd Sox were a regional band that, despite getting a positive record review in the New York Times, never got a record deal with a major label.

I saw Frank Allison perform live many times, sometimes solo in very small rooms, other times at the Blind Pig with his full band. His tunes were unique, his lyrics were bracingly smart and weird, and his view of life was amiably downtrodden and funny.

And if that doesn’t sell you, well, it seems to be a well-known fact that Frank Appreciation is a “you had to be there” sort of a thing:

Cracker — Kerosene Hat

“I know the whiskey, it won’t soothe my soul
And the morphine won’t heal my heart
But if you take me down to the infirmary
Oh yeah
I won’t have to sleep
Or drink alone.”

Jesus Jones — Liquidizer

Not even going to lie: I am still disappointed that this isn’t what Future Music sounds like. I’ll take this album over almost any techno.

Yeah, yeah, that’s twelve. Be happy I didn’t list thirty.

Downs and Ups

drinking-997189_1920Generally I try not to make a big deal out of it, but the fact is I struggle with depression. There are other things I deal with into the bargain, but depression and a cartoonish self-image are probably the biggest ones.

On the blog, this manifests mostly in my not posting, and even missing the “easy” posts for long stretches of time. In terms of the writing career, well, I haven’t published anything for a couple of years at this point. That kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

And then my Christmas happened.

The summary version of which is that a friend of nearly ten years, someone I trusted, proved he had never been my friend by betraying my trust as completely as he possibly could have, showed that he did it with full knowledge and intent, and then spent an hour twisting the metaphorical knife in my gut.

And, of course, because this is the way the world works, he got the “reward” in the situation, to continue on happily, while I’ve been left with a month of pain, guilt, loneliness, and the inevitable self-recrimination despite having done not one thing to deserve what happened.

So, I’ve been just barely able to function and miserable pretty much since then.

Those, overly simplified, are the downs.

The ups are, potentially, excellent. I just need to get over myself, or at least find a way to turn off the bad feelings for a while and ignore them, in order to get from here to there.

Because it turns out I’m good at some things I didn’t realize I was good at.

I’ve been waiting for six months to pull the trigger on an independent editing business. Because a pro author friend (okay, fine, it was Sarah A. Hoyt) took my notes from reading a manuscript of hers, and said I was a very good structural editor (story structure, character arcs, pacing, that kind of thing — the most abstract level of editing). But, again, the depression makes the “making things happen” rough, so that website and the necessary back end business stuff haven’t happened. This week, they should begin to happen.

It also turns out that several writer friends think I have a good voice, and at least a few want me to record their work to sell as audiobooks on Audible. And while I’m doing that, I might as well toss in some free culture-licensed books and public domain pieces, too.

This particular new career has to wait on a quality microphone and making at least a tiny space acoustically decent for recording. Which means I need to get the editing going first.

Then there’s my own writing. I need to get on that. And Sarah’s goading me on that front as well, demanding I finish a novel a month, and smirking (when I bitch that I can’t do it) that even if I fail, that’s six new novels in a year.

We’ll see about that. (It’s not impossible: My “novels” directory in my writing folder has at least 27 different projects, and a few of those are for series, not single novels.)

The potential is that I can live entirely off all this indie work, and quickly. In fact, if I’m half as good as I’m being told, I should be downright middle class before the end of 2017.

So things are looking to hit an upswing. If I can manage not to sabotage myself.

What does this mean for blogging, though? Hell if I know.

I stumbled and crashed last year with Writing Music Mondays, and while I could take the last several months’ worth of albums I already had selected and use them to extend into this year, at this moment I don’t feel like I’m going to. I’m also not feeling like doing the exploring and listening necessary to keep finding new material for an album a week going forward.

It’s possible that this is simply due to what I’ve been through the past month, as one of the effects is that I’ve been listening purely to either “comfort food” music I already know well, or else going almost exclusively with MandoPop in an effort to cheer myself up to the level where I can at least function every day. Seeking out and taking chances on new obscurities just doesn’t feel possible at this point in time. And as I’m about to become very busy with (hopefully) paying work that will take up most of my attention, I don’t know if I can commit to consuming enough new material to be able to find something worthwhile every week.

Even if I do find time to do that, I’m leaning more toward putting that time toward resurrecting the Creative Uncommons podcast, and maybe turning that into a monthly thing, perhaps even getting it to pay for itself, if not actually a profitable concern.

That is up in the air for now, though.

Also, at least a few acquaintances have been poking me to blog my thoughts on various topics, and I’m starting to feel the urge to do that again.

One of the topics I want to think out loud about is the vaporous impermanence of social media as it is currently instantiated in Facebook and Twitter. Those platforms are set up, purposely, to isolate the users from their friends, filtering content so that you only see around ten percent of what your friends are saying, more or less. A blog, and more to the point an RSS feed, doesn’t do that to you. The filtering isn’t done by someone else, but by the end user, which is as it should be. Blogs also are relatively more permanent, and likely to be saved by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, while if you want to find a Facebook post from a week ago, good luck to you.

So, I’m working on turning my life around and for the better, and what that means for blogging is as yet undetermined. There will be blog posts in the near term future, both requested and simply things that I’ve been thinking about. But beyond that, no promises, as I might shift most of my attention to supporting my new professions.

#Writing #MusicMonday: canzoni per i natali del futuro by Various Artists [Cervello Meccanico]

natali-futuroAi ya, this year.

So, I do have albums selected for every week between the last Writing Music Monday post and today, I just have to write them up and post them. And I want those out of the bloody way, so the rest of this week may see two to three posts per day. Or I may be lazy (I know, what a shock, right?) and they might not. I’ll try.

But for now, it is the first Monday in December, and time for Christmas music.

And, being me, I’m opting to start off weird. (Not to fear, the next two weeks will see plenty of more traditional music for you to enjoy.)

Today’s album is brief at thirty-four minutes, but I enjoy it. It is an album with a mission statement:

All of the most popular Christmas songs were composed during the 19th century, and are still used until today, despite being extremely outdated and obsolete. With this album Cervello Meccanico proposes a collection of songs intended to be more suitable for the present century.

What this is is a collection of experimental electronic works by various artists. Imagine if, e.g., Delia Derbyshire had set out to do new holiday music in her prime. A number of the tracks remind me of her work, and I mean that in a very positive way.

There’s also at least one (very good) chiptune.

Your mileage may vary on how festive or holiday-oriented most of the pieces make you feel, but there can’t be any new classics if you never listen to new songs, right? At the very least, the first track or two should be something you won’t mind having playing in the background at a holiday party or gathering.

Download canzoni per i natali del futuro by Various Artists [Cervello Meccanico] free from Cervello Meccanico’s site, the Free Music Archive, or the Internet Archive.

canzoni per i natali del futuro by Various Artists [Cervello Meccanico] is licensed under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Italy License.

#Writing #MusicMonday: Caligari: An Exquisite Corpse by The Chain Tape Collective

coverSo, yeah, I stumbled for several days. Tomorrow, we’ll return to playing Music Monday Catch-Up.

Today, we celebrate Halloween.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a key work in the history of film. It invented German Expressionism, started its own genre, and eventually influenced the American genre of film noir. The film is silent, and has no canonical soundtrack. It’s also public domain, which doesn’t hurt anything either.

So The Chain Tape Collective decided to set eleven composers loose on the film, and they produced not one, but two Creative Commons-licensed soundtracks. Each composer was given a part of the film and got to hear a bit of what the composer who worked on an earlier part had done, in true surrealist exquisite corpse fashion.

The results are very odd, as you might expect, and a lot of it sounds like a closet project from the ’80s done by a hermit devoted to modern music and antique films. It makes for disturbing, sinister background sonic wallpaper.

Which means it should be great for that horror novel you’re writing, or your late-night Halloween party tonight!

Download Caligari: An Exquisite Corpse free from the Free Music Archive.

You can also watch or download the resulting film free from the Internet Archive.

Caligari: An Exquisite Corpse
by Various Artists [Chain Tape Collective]
is licensed under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

#Writing #MusicMonday: Keep Going by Art Owens

coverThis post should have seen the light of day on 15 August 2016.

“Last year was tough, let’s make this a great year.” So wrote Art Owens about this 2011 release. And 2016 is really flipping tough, just in terms of the number of good people who’ve been dying, let alone the economy, the stark raving bonkers election cycle, and so much more.

So here, an all-too-brief bit of jazzy comfort food and encouragement.

I’ve shared Owens’s work three times before — with Simple One, About Life, and Space Rhythm — and while I freely admit he sometimes veers too close to smooth jazz for my tastes, he’s very, very good, as you can quickly learn listening to this album.

Beyond that, I’m not quite sure what to say about Keep Going. It’s only a bit over twenty minutes long, and yet, it is a complete experience. Owens’s trumpet and guitar skills are front and center, and the overall mood is, as you might expect from the motivation for and title of the album, upbeat and encouraging.

This year, I think we could all use a little of that feeling.

Download Keep Going by Art Owens free from the Internet Archive.

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Keep Going by Art Owens is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 International License.

#Writing #MusicMonday: Doumen Suite (斗门组曲) by Pharmacopia

doumen-suite-coverThis album was slotted for 8 August 2016.

This is the second album I’ve shared by Pharmacopia (a.k.a. Peter Dragotta), and his latest, as well as the only one he has recorded and released since expatriating from the United States to China.

My earlier share, Whiteboard Dinovisions, was so avant garde that I wouldn’t be shocked if some people just called it noise. Doumen Suite is only slightly less “out there” than that, so: fair warning.

However, if you want something with a groove, do at least give a listen to track three, “The Second Chapter”. If you like it, let the rest of the album play in the background. You may even find you enjoy it!

Part of the album description:

斗门组曲 (Doumen Suite) comes along with a great outlook for Peter Dragotta’s Pharmacopia. He has a new band from China, his now-adopted home. He has come back to the trumpet, his first instrument with a different approach. The session was recorded in Shenzhen with master bassist Xu Bo Wang (王旭波) and drummer Xiao Yu Deng (邓博宇)

Download Doumen Suite (斗门组曲) by Pharmacopia free from the Internet Archive.

Creative Commons License
Doumen Suite (斗门组曲) by Pharmacopia is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.