Tag: Fiction

Notes On “The Ungriftable Howard Zez”

First off, sorry for having been away for so long. The usual excuses apply.

Anyway, I’m afraid I don’t have a ton of notes to give for this story. It started when I asked myself how Howard Zez would try to finance Dope Dealers From Outer Space, and it occurred to me that since Howard was the perfect combination of arrogance and ineptitude, he was a man ripe to be conned. It also occurred to me to have his wife Peggy rescue him from the con, and in doing so reveal more of her own backstory. I also love using scams in stories. They provide a useful structure for the plot.

The con is a variation of one that a guy tried to work on me. The idea was to hire me as a tutor and convince me to take a cashier’s check to the bank for an amount far over what I was ostensibly to be paid for the tutoring job, cash it, then bring the money back to the operator to give him his “share”. The check would prove a forgery, of course, and since only my signature was on the check and I was alone on the bank’s cameras, I’d be the one stuck explaining things to the FBI while the con artist ran off with the loot. I decided to combine this fraud with a variation on the Spanish Prisoner con, using the smaller sting–the advance fee for the SP scam–as a way to rope the mark, Howard Zez into the bigger game, involving a forged check written on a genuine account.

My thanks to Page & Spine for publishing “The Ungriftable Howard Zez”. We’ll be talking about another story, “Your Time On Earth Is Finished”, in this space soon.

Leave a comment if you have a comment to leave.

Should You Outline Your Next Novel?

I don’t write a ton of stuff on literary craft here. (I haven’t blogged a whole lot period in the last couple of months, I know.) But the Twitter chat I had with Ann B. Gelder, who spends a lot more time blogging about craft than I do, should prove of some interest to those who make the enormous life mistake of choosing novel-writing as a career. (Seriously, read her blog. It’s full of good stuff.)

So, what about the rest of you? Outline or no outline? Know that there is only one correct answer, and I will judge you harshly if you get it wrong.

Some That Man Might Be?

All That Man IsAll That Man Is by David Szalay

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I kept waiting for the irony to kick in.

As I read stories of one white, straight, male, European protagonist after another, I kept waiting for the joke that would make the book’s title pay off. I confess I may have missed it. By the sixth story, I was getting antsy. But if the ironic twist was in there somwhere, I never saw it. Which means I had to take the title and the book as sincere and proceed from the assumption that David Szalay thought he’d truly found something universal about the life of men on Earth, and that the best way he could think of to report his discovery through a fantastically narrow range of characters.

I don’t think he has. The book’s title writes a check that the stories, taken collectively, can’t cash. It fails even to capture All That European Men Are. Not all European men are white, for one thing. And, for another, not all European men treat women as nothing but sex objects. (Also, not all European women are as one dimensional as Szalay’s.) To be fair, the last story does have a gay, or bi, protagonist. His sexuality comes into play only insofar as its revelation cost him his marriage, but he’s still a relief after eight straight straight guys. If only there’d been more like him.

All That Man Is contains a great deal fine writing. The stories, on a line-by-line level, are well crafted, with considerable wit, humor, and pathos. It’s just that the overall project strikes me as so ill-conceived that I can’t recommend it.

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I’m Looking For A Few Good Readers

A maximum of five, to be exact. I’ve got a version of Born Under A Bad Sign uploaded to a secret location on the interwebs, and I’d like the thoughts, impressions, and very souls opinions of a few smart people. There’s no rush. I’m letting the book sit for a few months while I work on other projects, but getting a sense of what’s working and what isn’t will help me focus on the needs of the next draft. Use the form below to email me and I’ll tell you how to fetch the draft.

Oh, and if you know me on Facebook or Twitter, DM me there. That’ll work just as well.

Have Any Of You Lost Friends By Including Them In Your Fiction?

I haven’t, mainly because I don’t think I ever have included friends, relatives, or acquaintances in any of my work. Any of you who’ve read my works and seen yourselves in them are wrong and should consider speaking to a therapist who specializes in narcissists. Don’t worry. I know a guy.

So I never have had to tell an outraged, or worse, insufferably preening social contact that they shouldn’t take it so seriously. “It’s just fiction, after all. Don’t make a big deal out of it.” Nor have I had some of them replay, “What do you mean ‘It’s just fiction’? That could be the image the world has of me until the sun goes dark, thanks to you, jerk!”

Saying “I (and you) should be so lucky” probably won’t mollify, so I was wondering what might in that situation. A better, or at least more accurate, response would be “Of course that’s not you, any more than the MacBeth of Shakespeare is the historical King MacBeth of Scotland.”

As Northrop Frye put it:

We can understand though how the poet got his reputation as a kind of licensed liar. The word poet itself means liar in some languages, and the words we use in literary criticism–fable, fiction, myth–have all come to mean something we can’t believe. Some parents in Victorian times wouldn’t let their children read novels because they weren’t “true”. But not many reasonable people today would deny that the poet is entitled to change whatever he likes when he uses a theme from history or real life. The reason why was explained long ago by Aristotle. The historian makes specific and particular statements, such as, “The battle of Hastings was fought in 1066.” Consequently he’s judged by the truth or falsehood of what he says–either there was such a battle or there wasn’t, and if there was he’s got the date either right or wrong. But the poet, Aristotle says, never makes any real statements at all, certainly no particular or specific ones. The poet’s job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place. He gives you the typical, recurring, or what Aristotle calls universal event. You wouldn’t go to MacBeth to learn about the history of Scotland–you go to it to learn what a man feels like after he’s gained a kingdom and lost his soul. When you meet such a character as Micawber in Dickens, you don’t feel that there must have been a man Dickens knew who was exactly like this: you feel that there’s a bit of Micawber in almost everybody you know, including yourself.

So if someone approaches you, the writer, saying “How dare you include me in your book”, read them this passage and say, “It’s not really you. I just included the part of you that’s also a part of everybody, the universal you.” If the person remains upset and cries, “But that image of me will outlive me!”, reply that their real complaint is not with you, but rather with death and time.

That should cool them off.

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I Am An (Anxiety) Dreamweaver

Scott Southard, keeper of a blog of literary musings, wrote a humorous post on literary genres, and the factionalism they encourage, that got me thinking about how I choose to answer the question “So what do you write?”

I generally say “literary fiction.”

I can’t not say that. Almost all of my published short stories, and certainly my first novel, fall easily into that category. Most of them are contemporary, realistic, and concerned with the inner life of a plausible human being. Also, I don’t mind saying it. It puts me in company with artists who get nominated for major prizes, and one of the terrible secrets of me is that I am, in fact, a major league snob. 

Still, note: I said most.

The first short story I ever got into print, and the only one I’ve been paid for so far, was a science fiction yarn about a man whose nanotech implants force him to commit heinous crimes against his will. My new novel is a historical thriller about a cop investigating a well connected serial killer in Nazi Germany. Though my concerns about the inner lives of plausible characters remain, these stories retain their generic trappings.

When I think of what genre means to me, I think that the ones we’re conventionally told are important (the one’s dividing the sections of a Barnes and Noble) are the ones least relevant to the work that I do. I trained as an actor, and to me, those genres are nothing more than a series of props and costumes that I try on. They shape things in their way, but they don’t dictate. There’s still something essential underneath, a set of concerns, interests, and fetishes, that are mine. How do we classify what’s underneath the trappings?

Northrop Frye to the rescue:

“There are two halves to literary experience, then. Imagination gives us both a better and a worse world than the one we usually live with, and demands that we keep looking steadily at them both.” (The Educated Imagination, 97-98)

Frye later names the two dreams the wish-fulfillment dream and the anxiety dream. Wish-Fulfillment dreams may have high stakes, but the action seldom veers seriously into unpleasantness. The goodies win. The baddies lose. And usually someone gets married, or at least laid, by the end. Paperback romances are wish fulfillment stories, but so are Twlight, James Bond books, Tom Clancy novels, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and many other stories both reviled and beloved. Anxiety dreams are satires and tragedies, mostly. The dreamer might root for the main character, but certainly wouldn’t want to be the main character. The action has similarly high stakes, but often heads toward grim, painful territory. If good people win, they do so at a cost that makes it look more like a loss. And bad people often as not go on, never facing justice. If anything, they may come out slightly ahead. Or sometimes, the antagonist isn’t bad. It’s often just someone, or a system of someones, or some arrangement of life’s circumstances that don’t give a damn about the protagonist. Such dreams include Catch-221984Crime and PunishmentLolitaKing LearBabbitt, and other tales both beloved and reviled.

Taken all in all, I’ve always responded more deeply to anxiety dreams than to wish fulfillment. I like a good adventure story as much as the next guy, but I don’t feel an impulse to write them. (Even if I start out writing wish-fulfillment, I usually not satisfied unless the protagonist suffers hugely, questions his belief system, and wins only an ambiguous victory at great personal cost.) If I could respond to the question “What do you write?” with “I write anxiety dreams” without having to recite a blog-post length explanation, I’d do it.

Actually, I guess I just did!