Friday, June 30, 2006
About two years before Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code hit it big, another thriller inspired by the genius of Leonardo da Vinci arrived in bookstores. The book is Cameron West’s The Medici Dagger.
The premise of this book is that in 1491 da Vinci crafted a weapon called the Medici Dagger, made from a revolutionary metal, indestructible and incredibly light. In modern times, the race is on to find the dagger. The bad guys want to unlock the secrets of the dagger to make a fortune in the illegal arms market. The hero for this action adventure is stuntman Reb Barnett whose father’s mysterious death in a fire when Reb was a child ties into the search for this ancient weapon.
For anyone who hated The Da Vinci Code, because of the quality of the writing, please never ever try to read The Medici Dagger. Not only is the writing very poor, but this story reads like a bad James Bond adventure, complete with pointless action sequences and the obligatory sexy female romantic interest who can’t quite be trusted. The most memorable moment for me in reading this book is when the main character, having gone quite long without any sleep, runs his car off the road and spins out of control. The point of this scene? Beyond proving what a really cool stunt driver the main character is (he keeps the car from crashing)… not much. I borrowed this book from the Barnes & Noble where I was working at the time because the premise was promising, but all I could think was, “Thank God I didn’t spend money on this.” It’s not often I’ll bash a book this harshly, but I’m afraid The Medici Dagger earns it. That said, for anyone just after a quick read with enough testosterone to choke a T-rex, this book is for you.
One positive thing I can say about this book is that you can tell West enjoyed writing it. He doesn’t try to do anything but be himself. Perhaps the most humorous thing about this book is that the main character is clearly West in disguise. West offers some fun insights into the movie biz, but you can’t help but think this sneak peak is a bit skewed to make the main character look really good. In real life, West has worked as a stunt double for actor Tom Cruise in numerous films, and there’s clearly a character in the early part of the book meant to represent Cruise. Even funnier, in light of the meltdown of the Cruise-Nicole Kidman marriage, is when we’re treated to a scene with the actor and his wife praising Reb for his excellent stunt work. Hard to read this and not chuckle as we’re treated to a look at the “happy couple.”
In my recent “Dust Jackets” entry for The Da Vinci Code, I mentioned how one literary agent suggested part of that book’s success might be owed to how it makes the reader feel smart. Anyone reading The Medici Dagger will not suffer from this side effect or anything similar to it.
Posted by Bill, the Wildcat at 9:28 AM
Thursday, June 29, 2006
One of the chief complaints issued about James Horner’s score for “Patriot Games” was that it was too brooding and dull. I don’t think anyone could have issued that same complaint with “Clear & Present Danger.” This score kicks off with a blast of brass instruments that about knocks you out of your chair if you make the mistake of turning your volume up too high.
Even though “Clear & Present Danger” saw James Horner return as composer, the scores didn’t really deliver any returning themes. The CD packs in most of the best tracks into the first half. “Operation Reciprocity” opens up very strong, the first half being very boisterous and fun. After that, we get the longest track on the CD, “Ambush,” which coincides with an attack on a motorcade. Where as the previous track comes out of the gates strong, “Ambush” gives us a slow buildup, which explodes about five-and-a-half minutes later into some heavy drums and dissonant flutes and strings.
With such strong music early on, the music tails off and never really regains the same level of excitement. That’s not to say the score is without some good music. “Deleting the Evidence” offers a similar buildup to “Ambush,” but on a smaller scale. “Greer’s Funeral/Betrayal” while a strong piece doesn’t really capture the same power it has within the film, because the film employs “Taps” within this same section. I’ve always wished that had been added into this track.
The CD provides ten tracks for fifty-three minutes of music, but I think it could have used a little more. The movie wasn’t without some powerful pieces near the end, but they get left out.
“Clear & Present Danger” offers a greater variety of music than “Patriot Games,” and while that makes for a more enjoyable listening experience, I don’t always feel as if the music ties together well. “Laser-Guided Missile” feels the most out of place, bearing little resemble to the rest of the score. We’re also treated to “Looking for Clues” which employs one of Horner’s most overused themes. For my part, I hear this music and think I’m supposed to be watching “Aliens” in which this theme made quite a few appearances.
One thing that might have helped this score would be a different arrangement of the tracks. I typically prefer a chronological score, meaning the music is put in the same order as it was used in the film, and you’ll find most scores are arranged in this manner. For the most part, “Clear & Present Danger” is chronological until near the end. The tracks “Escobedo’s New Friend” and “Second Hand Copter” are out of order. This was a good choice, but neither really gives the score a good punch to end things. Even the closing credits leave something to be desired. If the score wasn’t going to be chronological, then I think the music should have been completely rearranged.
Other Scores by James Horner:
Despite my knit picking, I enjoy the music to this film a great deal. I also think this score offered a better variety of Horner’s music even providing some themes that haven’t been overdone within his other films, a trait for which Horner has become quite notorious.
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
While “flash fiction” isn’t anything technically new, it’s getting a little bit more notice in my personal pocket universe thanks to a couple of people in the so-called blogosphere. The most recent tip of the hat to flash fiction comes from Jess in her Writer’s Weekly Question.
Writer's Weekly Question #21:
Have you ever written a piece of flash fiction? Do you think that flash fiction is an evolutionary step in American fiction, or is it just a "flash in the pan?" Is writing in this genre easier or more difficult? Why?
For anyone who’s read Jess’ post for this question, you already know I’ve written some “flash fiction.” My first publishing credit comes from a piece called “Unstuffed” which appears in the most recent issue of“Spinetingler Magazine.” Coming in at just under two-hundred-twenty-five words, my story about Ted E. Bear investigating the unfortunate demise of a stuffed doll named Andy was included in the magazine as an example of a genre called “Cozy Noir.” By the by, the magazine is holding a contest for the best example of “Cozy Noir.” The contest runs until September 5, 2006, so get writing!
Anyway, back to the question.
I’ve not dealt much with short fiction. Frankly, short stories scare the devil out of me. I’d rather tackle writing a book. That said, I doubt I’d have had the courage to write “Unstuffed” in this format if not for a post by the lovely H.E. Eigler of “Phantom Keyboard.” She recently posted two entries devoted to flash fiction. The first entry included links to websites where you can find tons of examples of flash fiction. The second included a flash fiction story of her own entitled “The Cowboy.”
Short short stories like “The Cowboy” and my “Unstuffed” aren’t all that new, per se. I can recall quite a few magazines listed in the almighty Writer’s Market that specifically wanted stories of this length when I last looked for places to submit my work. I remember being startled by this and wondering how anyone could write a decent story with such a minimal word count. Flash fiction does seem to be gaining a stronger interest thanks to the Internet, though. There’s something unintimidating about it as a reader, and it’s ideal for the impatient surfers of the world wide web.
Is writing flash fiction easier or harder than other genres? To do it well, I think it’s a lot harder. A bit of advice I took from a writing class in college was, “In a novel, ever paragraph counts. In a short story, every sentence counts. In a poem, it’s every word.” Flash fiction falls somewhere between a short story and a poem in what it demands of a writer. Still, “Unstuffed” just fell out of me with little or no trouble—a rare thing for me.
What’s the future of flash fiction? The one weakness is that no one’s going to get rich off of writing this stuff. Magazines just aren’t going to pay that much for a story incapable of filling an entire page. I don’t think it’s a “flash in the pan,” because we’ve really had it a long time. We’re just going through a period where it’s getting more interest. I suspect we’ll see it fall out of favor again and then make a comeback quite a few times, but perhaps the Internet will give it a stronger presence than it’s traditionally had.
Posted by Bill, the Wildcat at 12:24 PM
Saturday, June 24, 2006
In Thursday’s "Dust Jacket" entry, I discussed the writing merits of The Da Vinci Code. This closing entry to my review focuses on what makes this book stand out above all those other religious conspiracy thrillers, in other words, what made it a blockbuster.
Perhaps one of the most important elements comes before even a single sentence of the story. In big bold letters just before the prologue, we’re given a page entitled “FACT.” On this page, we’re given three important details about the story to follow. The first relates to the “Priory of Sion.” Brown proclaims this organization, one more than nine-hundred-years-old, actually exists and that its ranks have included some of the most brilliant scientists and artisans in history. Unfortunately, as the many “Da Vinci Code” documentaries have well established (Hasn’t every cable channel done one?), this is wrong. As Wikipedia so ably states, the Priory “has been shown to be a hoax created in 1956 by Pierre Plantard, a pretender to the French throne.”
The second fact we’re given is an organization that does actually exist, Opus Dei. This Catholic sect is portrayed as shadowy, wealthy and ruthless. It’s the idea of this group planted on American soil in the heart of our most powerful city, New York, that makes it tough to ignore this fact as a reader.
Then there’s the most important of the three facts. “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Oh, now there is a cleverly crafted sentence. “Accurate” offers so much leeway. Many people have hammered Brown for this statement, trying to corner him for fudging details. His website offers up an equally well-crafted reply which basically says that these items all exist, but that doesn’t mean Brown is calling every theory surrounding these items as fact. The point is that Brown is intentionally giving the reader just that impression, though.
If you look at all three of these elements, they’re basically designed to make the reader buy into the story that follows. The Priory is said to exist and is given legitimacy by the list of impressive names attached to it... a humorous detail considering that’s exactly the con that Plantard was playing when he picked out these names. The shadowy organization of the Opus Dei... real and attached to great power... basically fits the bill as your standard group of conspirators for any conspiracy novel. Then there’s that bit about the documents all being real. You could look at all this and say Brown is trying to con the reader into believing all this, and he probably is. After all, the point of a good story is to make the reader believe in it. So should Brown be “held accountable” for this? Not really. He’s just trying to suck in his readers as any writer would. I think that big honking “FACT” planted at the top of the page is a bit iffy, though.
This “factual” build-up has a lot to do with why The Da Vinci Code is so successful, I think. It’s part of the sales pitch. Some of you will probably dispute me on this, but if these factual details did not matter, then why have there been so many documentaries on this? The “Fact” page within The Da Vinci Code is designed to make the reader ask one thing and one thing only, “Could this be true?”
Now, there are other factors that go into why The Da Vinci Code was such a success. Perhaps more important than even that “Fact” page is the almighty word-of-mouth. Random House deserves a lot of credit for successfully marketing this book before it was even on the bookshelves at your local bookstore. Reps from the publisher made the rounds, speaking to booksellers and telling them what an amazing book this was. They got the booksellers talking who in turn got the customers talking. In the end, it wouldn’t have worked though if the book itself wasn’t such a good page-turner.
Thursday, I defended Brown’s writing, and I’ll reiterate that today. If it was such a horribly written book, then I don’t think it could have done as well as it did, even with the “Fact” page or Random House’s marketing strategy. I’m not suggesting this is “Shakespeare” or that it will stand the test of time, but it’s not the careless work of some hack either. Earlier this year in London, the writers of the non-fiction work Holy Blood, Holy Grail (a book Brown used in his research for The Da Vinci Code) sued Random House saying the ideas in their book were stolen. Brown had to write a sixty-nine page witness statement about how he does his research and what went into writing his blockbuster novel as well as his previous works. I read this statement, curious what Brown would have to say, and I was struck by the sincere passion he demonstrated for the art of the written word. Reading over that statement made me respect Brown as a writer.
Other Books by Dan Brown:
Brown’s next book, The Solomon Key, will supposedly focus on the Masons, a frequent player in conspiracy thrillers. That book was originally scheduled for release this year. The idea was obviously to cash in on the joint success of the movie adaptation to The Da Vinci Code. That book’s release has been delayed until next year. Could it possibly hope to match The Da Vinci Code’s success? I don’t think so. Everyone knows about the Catholic Church and recognizes its power. The Masons don’t carry that same kind of clout, but that doesn’t mean Brown’s next book won’t be a fun thriller and that’s about as much as readers should probably expect.
Thursday, June 22, 2006
Just what the hell makes The Da Vinci Code such a successful book? Ever since Dan Brown’s religious conspiracy thriller was released in 2003, people have been asking this question. More importantly, publishers, agents and writers have been asking themselves the same… every one of them eager to duplicate this book's success.
Perhaps one of the book’s most irresistible qualities is how it resembles the granddaddy of all scavenger hunts. Each clue leads to the next, starting with the mysterious summons of religious symbology expert Robert Langdon to the scene of a murder at the Louvre in Paris.
Months before this book’s release, my wife got her hands on an ARC (Advanced Readers Copy) of The Da Vinci Code. A representative from Random House had visited the Barnes & Noble where my wife was working at the time, and proclaimed this book was going to be huge. Even with the success that did follow, I have to wonder if she really had a clue just how true her proclamation would be or if she was simply spouting a prepared load of promotional smoke up the arse of these booksellers. Nonetheless, my wife brought the ARC home, started reading and was instantly hooked. I recall working on the computer with my wife on the sofa next to me. Every few minutes, she would say something to the effect of, “Oh my God! You have got to read this book!” She would promptly follow this statement with the most irritating qualifier, “But you can’t yet, because I have to let someone else at the bookstore borrow it next.” That I didn’t smack my wife for this repeated offense of literary teasing still amazes me.
Months later, the book hit the bookstores for real, and I got my chance to read The Da Vinci Code. Despite being a slow reader, the story hooked me and damned hard, too. The writing style reminds me of James Patterson’s mysteries. We’re hit with mostly short chapters, ending in one twist after another, forcing the reader into the same conclusion with each scene’s cliffhanger, “I’ll just read one more chapter to see what happens next.” The result is a book quickly read. The pace doesn’t allow for much analysis of the writing, at least not on the first read.
At a writer’s conference, shortly after the release of this book, The Da Vinci Code found its way into discussion more than once. Many demanded of the speakers how a book that wasn’t all that well-written had successfully taken over the publishing world. Perhaps the answer that rang most true for me was by agent Miriam Goderich with the literary agency Dystel & Goderich. She said several of the staff members read the book and then sat down to discuss what they felt made this book work. All involved agreed that it wasn’t a well-written book. They also agreed that reading the book made the reader feel “smarter.” Certainly, the book cleverly inserts a vast amount of historical “secrets” that open up some great talking points for serious discussion.
I will come to Brown’s defense on the criticism of his writing. I don’t think the book is as poorly written as many tend to proclaim it. His writing is formulaic, though. That’s indicative of his chosen genre. Thrillers are meant to keep you turning the page from one cliffhanger to the next with descriptions typically drawn on more modern references as opposed to descriptions with a more timeless quality. Why? Because such references are quicker and easier for a reader to grasp. Brown can hardly be faulted for doing what so many others have proven works. He just makes an easy target because of his success.
The Da Vinci Code isn’t the first book to come along with some conspiracy theory related to religion. Thousands of other such books have come and gone with far less fanfare, so what is it about The Da Vinci Code that makes it stand out above the rest? I’ll discuss that in Saturday’s entry. Yes, this will be a first for my blog, a two-part “Dust Jacket.”
Posted by Bill, the Wildcat at 3:35 PM
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
The second film in the “Jack Ryan” series saw a lot of changes. About the only cast member to return from “The Hunt for Red October” was James Earl Jones. Even the original Jack Ryan actor Alec Baldwin was replaced with the more seasoned Harrison Ford. The changes for this film included a new composer for the score. James Horner was signed on for the music, and while this certainly isn’t one of his more popular scores, I’ve always rather enjoyed this one.
The film involves a radical faction of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) targeting Great Britain’s royal family, so it’s not surprising that Horner decided to use a bit of local inspiration for the score. I think you can point to reasons this was a good and bad thing. On the plus side, it gave this score a very tense and moody sound. The bad? Well, there’s nothing to really tie it to the music from “The Hunt for Red October.” In fact, when Horner scored the third film in the series “Clear & Present Danger,” there’s very little to tie it to either of the previous Jack Ryan films. From a listening standpoint, the scores play as if from totally unrelated films.
As an individual score, there’s plenty to like about “Patriot Games.” The “Main Title” opens up with some haunting vocals provided by Maggie Boyle. A lot of the best music within this score contains her voice. The best piece with her in it is “Highland’s Execution.”
Another great vocal piece within this score wasn’t a composition by Hornerbut rather a piece by the Irish group Clannad. At the time of the film’s release, the song “Harry’s Game” was rather recognizable, because it was used in a popular Volkswagen commercial. I’m not sure how many would recognize it all these years later, though.
The score contains two long tracks, neither of which contains any of Boyle’s vocals. The first of these two long pieces is “The Hit,” which accompanies the terrorist attempt on Jack Ryan’s family in the U.S. I really like this piece, because it’s a nice slow build of intensity that manages to fit well with the rest of this mostly moody score. The other lengthy piece is “Assault on Ryan’s House” which I think does a less successful job in building the tension. It’s basically eleven minutes of suspensful music and little else. The tension level never really changes and makes for a dull experience after a while.
A lot of the serious movie score critics gave Horner a harsh thrashing for his work on this film. I will confess that while I enjoy this score, I can understand a lot of the criticism. The lack of a theme for Jack Ryan and his family and the recycling of themes from Horner’s previous films does hurt the final product.
Other Scores by James Horner:
One thing that I think proves “Patriot Games” was a better score than the criticism, though, was Horner’s score to another IRA-related Harrison Ford film entitled “The Devil’s Own” which came out a few years later. There are some notable similarities, but it’s clear that “Patriot Games” was by far the superior score of the two.
Posted by Bill, the Wildcat at 6:49 PM
Sunday, June 18, 2006
This week’s Writer’s Weekly Question gives me a chance to revisit my childhood.
Writer's Weekly Question # 20:
Have you ever created a character based on someone you know? Was it because you liked the person, or disliked the person? How was the character different or like the person you based him or her on?
My answer to this one is a definite “Yes.” In fact, some of the earliest characters I ever created were based on people I knew in middle school. I’ve made mention in a previous WW? that I used to create superhero characters and that I originally wanted to be a comic book writer. One of the oldest groups I created were called “The Demon Riders.” I had this thing plotted out for more than a hundred issues, not that I ever wrote one, but I also created drawings and profiles of the characters.
In the early days, I used the actual names of the people. Upping the challenge, I’d even go so far as to mimic the hairstyle of these people based on yearbook pictures. What’s humorous is to realize that I never borrowed someone to create a villain. When I did use someone’s name and persona, I meant it as a compliment, that I thought they had something within them that could be heroic. Most of them never knew I did this. A few did, most of whom were among my closest friends. Far as I know, only one person ever found out after the fact, and blessedly, she didn’t think I was some kind of stalker freak (I’d previously asked her out, got the “just friends” turndown, awkward teen angst followed... Years later, we ended up getting married to different people a week apart... Weiiiiiiiird).
These drawings come from my last crop of superhero drawings back in high school. The names have been blurred out, because there’s no way for me to know how these people would respond should they recognize themselves, no matter how unlikely it is they’ll see this blog entry. That said, I can name at least one of them. My best friend growing up, and the best man when I got married is Stephen Long. He lived on the street behind me back in middle school. Stephen’s inspired quite a few characters. We made up all sorts of superhero adventures as kids, and I can credit him with making me into a huge “X-Men” comic book fan.
Stephen has inspired more than one character of mine. The first was a character, codenamed “Hawk” at his request. Years later, I drew on a lot of my old characters from my “Demon Rider” days to create some of the characters within the book my wife and I are writing, The Last VanDaryn. This was the first time where the character really took on a life of its own. For a long time, the name of that character was Stephen Hawkke. Only recently did that change. The last name of Hawkke survived, but the first name was changed to something that sounds more in keeping with the fictional society of Iridia.
Ironically, I’m still using a lot of these characters, and as happened with Hawkke, they’ve grown into characters quite independent of their original inspiration. In most cases, the last names have been changed. They’re no longer superheroes, either, but rather agents within the CIA. They’re all characters within what I hope will be one of the biggest epics I ever write. That has a working title of The Dark Hours and is something of a reverse on your typical alien conspiracy theory. Only a handful of the original characters have carried over, though, and I doubt any others will. Stephen’s character is the only one who sports the name of his original inspiration, Stephen Long. For a long time, the character had even retained his nickname of “Hawk,” but with a “Hawkke” in The Last VanDaryn, I decided it was one Hawk too many. Agent Long would simply have to make a name for himself with his real name. Even more humorous, Stephen might find life as a third character within yet another book, but plans for that one are rather sketchy.
The Dark Hours unfortunately lingers in limbo. When will I get back to that story? Most likely, I’ll return to it after I’ve finished with The Last VanDaryn and The Cold Shoulder. The good news for me is that I’ve already written more than 50,000 words for The Dark Hours, and odds favor that a new draft will let me copy and paste much of my work from that previous draft. A few important changes are needed, but even my wife has said some of my best work was in there.
On a humorous note, my kids came into the room as I was digging out these old drawings and all the rest that were packed up with them. My six-year-old daughter, who is quite the budding artist, was mightily impressed. “Did you draw these when you were a little boy, Daddy?” I told her I did, and she was excited when she recognized “Hawk” in more than one drawing.
Posted by Bill, the Wildcat at 6:11 AM
Saturday, June 17, 2006
One of my favorite local writers is Dennis Danvers. I’m not a big fan of science fiction, but I love the stuff that Dennis writes. As is the case with a lot of science fiction, Dennis often draws on some universal religious themes for his writing. Religion plays an important part in what makes his book End of Days work.
First off, let me make it clear that his book is in no way related to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie of the same name. In fact, the only thing these two stories have in common is the title.
End of Days is set in an alternate future where the majority of humanity has abandoned life in the real world for an existence without death inside “the Bin,” a massive virtual reality program. People’s souls are transferred into the Bin and their bodies destroyed. Some resist the idea of life within the Bin, some more violently than others.
End of Days was Dennis’ second novel set within this world. I had previously read and enjoyed the first book Circuit of Heaven, and I was startled to discover very few of the characters from that book return for this sequel. They didn’t need to, and it’s best they didn’t. The most important character did return: the world itself.
For this second book, we’re given a man within the Bin who’s had enough of “eternal life” and wants to find a way to die. Then there’s Walter Tillman, one of the Bin’s creators, trapped alone within a prototype of the Bin.
In the real world, what’s left of it, Washington, D.C.’s ruins have fallen under the control of a religious zealot and terrorist named Gabriel. One of his young soldiers Sam has become disillusioned and finds himself at odds with the religious army he’s part of after stumbling upon the mini-Bin containing Tillman. Sam teams up with a female construct (a clone/servant race Tillman helped design) named Laura to rescue Tillman, but there’s much more at stake.
Gabriel has learned the Bin, which he thought he’d destroyed, still exists. He’s intent on finishing the job. Having found his own method for eternal life outside the Bin, Gabriel has time on his side, as well as an army. Even as his plans draw to a close, those within the Bin are facing the ultimate challenge to “life without end”: is there purpose to a life without death?
This was a special book for me, because it was given as a gift from Dennis himself at one of the James River Writers Conferences. I had mentioned to him that I’d enjoyed Circuit of Heaven and that I hoped I’d be able to find End of Days in hardback. That was on the first day of the conference. The next day, he handed me an autographed copy of End of Days in hardback. That also made me a little nervous about reading it. Knowing the writer of a book always creates this fear as a reader that if you don’t like the book, how will you ever look that writer in the face again? I’ve felt that fear almost every time I’ve read Dennis’ books, and I don’t know why, because his books never disappoint.
One of the most interesting things about this book is how it ends. One could argue that Dennis cheated himself out of a trilogy, because the last few chapters cover a period of several years. Yet, I’m not sure this book would have been as satisfying without those chapters, nor am I so certain the subplots within those chapters could be expanded into an entire book. I can definitely say that things do not work out the way you’d expect. The story contains a lot of great twists with some of the best within this section.
What makes Dennis’ writing so great is how he can take the fantastic and make it seem so ordinary… and in doing so, make it even more fascinating. He doesn’t try to predict the future within his books. Rather, he gives us a different view of the world in which we already live. That’s what the best science fiction strives to accomplish, and his books deserve a place among them.
Other Books by Dennis Danvers:
Oh, and a small note on the "Other Books" section above. You'll notice the book entitled The Bright Spot is written by a "Robert Sydney." For the long, long, long time readers of the Lair, you might recall this is a pen name of Dennis' for his most recent book. I might add that The Bright Spot is possibly my favorite book by Dennis.
Posted by Bill, the Wildcat at 9:38 AM
Thursday, June 15, 2006
For many years, my wife Sheri and I both wanted to write. Most of our writing ambition involved characters that would never meet, but after a few years of marriage (and six years of dating before that), something unexpected happened. We had created characters from the same “world,” and we both had stories we wanted to tell about them.
This created a real problem for us. I had finished the first draft of a story entitled The Knight of Death, a story that involved many of these shared characters and our shared reality. This led us to an interesting question: What would happen if my book got published? Would Sheri automatically be screwed and unable to use these characters and settings within books of her own for whatever copyright or other legal reasons there might be?
We posed this question to one of the literary agents speaking at the first James River Writers Conference. The lady in question was Jody Rein who runs a rather successful literary agency out of Colorado. When we asked her our aforementioned question, her reply was a rather honest, “I don’t know.” Jody did offer this bit of advice, though: since we both created it, why not just put both of our names on it? She also pointed out what a great marketing angle it would be to sell ourselves as a husband and wife team.
My wife and I took Jody’s advice to heart. After the conference, we decided to do the editing for The Knight of Death together. That way, the book would truly be a joint effort. Now prior to this point, Sheri had read the rough draft I’d done, and she hadn’t found any major problems with it. Well, once we started editing, she started finding a whole host of things that she thought didn’t make sense, a fact that left me irritably wondering where such insights were weeks before when it was just my book. Twenty pages into our “editing,” after yet another of my wife’s “brilliant ideas,” I rather angrily pointed out through grit teeth, “We aren’t editing anymore. We’re rewriting.” This was not a pretty moment in our marriage, one full of yelling, tears and even a moment where my wife went for a car ride just to get out of the house and pull herself together in private. No, I most certainly did not win the award for “Husband of the Year” in 2003.
Both of us licking our wounds, we continued our effort to rewrite The Knight of Death. I think the scene that confirmed for us how to write together involved a conversation between Knight Mikhael Bek and his sister, by way of adoption, Isabeau VanDaryn. Within this scene, Isabeau calls on Mikhael during the day as he’s asleep to confront him about his conduct which included an assault upon one of his fellow knights. Now, we had already discussed working on this scene together, the thought being I would write Mikhael’s side of the conversation and Sheri would handle Isabeau’s. Nonetheless, I was impatient and took a stab at it. All proud with my finished product, I let Sheri read it. Here is a summation of her reaction, “Isabeau wouldn’t say that…wouldn’t do that…none of it’s right.” I don’t think the “Hello” I had coming out of Isabeau’s mouth even survived. My lesson was learned. I couldn’t write the voice for this character my wife had created. That was the key to figuring things out, though.
The Knight of Death, in its finished form from that first joint effort, will never see the light of day. The experience was not a wasted one, however. We used that book to find our way to work together. When we approach a book, we essentially divide up the characters. Some of them are like Mikhael, who is basically a character only I can properly write... not merely in terms of his dialogue but his point-of-view. Likewise, Sheri has certain characters only she can write, like Isabeau. So when we write a scene in our book, the person doing the majority of the writing depends on which character’s point-of-view is best for the scene. Sometimes, it’s obvious. If none of Sheri’s characters are in the scene, then I write it. We’ve never made up a formal list. We just know who owns which character. There are a few shared characters, mind you. Although, we’ve had a few “shared characters” turn into “assigned characters” after it’s become clear one of us just can’t get the character right.
Once I’ve written a scene, I try to let Sheri get ahold of it as soon as possible. The main reason is to avoid “attachment issues.” What are attachment issues? The longer something I’ve written sits around, the more “attached” I become to that piece in its current form. The longer I have to get attached to it, the more resistant I get to any suggestions by my wife to change it. This works the other way, too. I get ahold of her work as soon as possible to touch it up where I think it’s needed.
Would that writing together was this simple, but there’s a lot of other work that goes into writing these books... work that takes place long before the first page is even written. We don’t always see these characters or settings the same. One of the principle locations in our book is VanDaryn Castle. Would you believe that my wife and I wasted the longest time debating the color of the brick? Nothing else, mind you, just the color of the brick. I saw it grey; she saw it off-white. I finally caved on this point, even though in my mind, I still see that castle in grey. One thing we agreed on was to make the castle round. Then we researched castles and realized what a logistical headache such a design would be. We kept it round, but the design of that castle nearly tested the limits of our patience.
The point is that for almost every setting, every character and every country... there’s a blue print, a profile or a map. Organizations such as the knighthood and priesthood need a detailed hierarchy. We had to build a history for this country that was once an empire, figure out how it became an empire and how that empire crumbled. We had to design our villain, figure out where he came from. When you write as a team, you can still let the story take you where it leads, but you can’t let the world be a whim. Before we ever wrote the first page, we had to profile each character, creating an origin and a basic description that included height, weight, eye color, hair color/length, scars, etc.
Even once we started writing, we found new things that need a little research or a file or a design. In one draft of a book, my wife decided to have a character given a fresh set of Iridian armor. The armor isn’t your typical medieval outfit. I’d never intended it that way. I had a drawing (which you see here) that offered the basic design. There’s a small problem with this armor. There’s no way it would ever work. More than halfway through our first draft of The Last VanDaryn, we had to completely redesign the armor for our knights. We checked armor books, searched websites that sold recreations of all sorts of armor throughout the ages. As we work our way through our second draft of TLV, we won’t need that scene, but all that research has made it easier to reference the knights' uniforms and define their actions and movements for the simple act of sitting down to relax.
Then there’s the most daunting thing of all: veto power. A scene isn’t done until we both agree it’s done. I had a chapter where Sheri decided it just didn’t work. The castle (one other than VanDaryn Castle) needed more description. There were details about the castle in the first draft that I’d left out. The conversation didn’t work. I went through this scene about five times. I changed a character, replacing him with an entirely new one. I even wrote up a profile for the jerk, and in the end, Sheri felt he didn’t work at all and had me change him back to the original character. She had me freaking furious, and I let her know it, too. The most frustrating thing of all was that she was right and she couldn’t do anything to help. Every character in the scene belonged to me. She simply couldn’t write this scene.
Ironically, we recently worked on a chapter where the shoe was on the other foot... an interrogation scene. After three vetoes, I had her ready to run me through with a sword. She finally demanded I try writing it, and I did. To do it, I still relied on the dialogue she’d already given her designated character. I just reordered it and completely reworked the wording of the interrogator (my skills as a 911 operator served me well, too). Even then, I could only take the scene so far. The scene was from her character’s point-of-view, and only Sheri could finish it. Our writers group recently critiqued this scene, and I can’t tell you how relieved we were when it fared well.
You might think after reading all this, “What the hell is the benefit of writing as a team with all that extra work?” The greatest benefit is that I can never lower my guard as a writer. My first editor is right there waiting to grab me by the scruff of my “wildcat” neck and throw me back to the keyboard to start over if I screw up. Working with Sheri pushes me to do better every time I write. I can’t tell you how excited I get when I write something I not only know in my heart is good but manages to surprise Sheri with something she wasn’t expecting. There’s also the benefit of brainstorming. Every time we finish a scene, the next question is always the same: So what’s next? Sometimes the answer is an easy one, but other times, it’s not so simple. We bat ideas back and forth, and in the end, we sometimes come up with a real gem. We did that just this week. We had hit a point in the book where I just didn’t know what to do next that wouldn’t make the plot lag, and the solution we found left me dancing around the office like an idiot. There are other benefits. Small a thing as it is, my description of clothing sucks. Sheri’s much better at it. When I hit such a point in a scene, I’ll often leave a comment in parenthesis such as “(cool dress to be described by my oh-so-lovely-wife).” My worst fear is to accidentally leave that in a rough draft we send to an agent or publisher.
There’s one benefit I haven’t mentioned that doesn’t affect the book. This reality we’ve created is a child of our marriage. Over the years, I’ve seen people who’ve been married less time than we have who have nothing to talk about with each other. Yes, we have our children and our jobs, but our writing gives us a unique reason to talk almost constantly. Our creative spirit keeps us close and with something new always to be found. It’s not just a devotion to our story, but a commitment to each other.
I know some of the Lair’s readers have long wondered about how my wife and I write together. I hope this answers most of their questions. You might be interested to know just how curious I am to learn how other writing teams manage this. Do they do it as we do, or have they found some other system? What would they think of our method? I’ve not yet had the pleasure of meeting another writing team to find out, but I can’t tell you how much I hope to one day.
Posted by Bill, the Wildcat at 4:58 AM