Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Top Three Reasons My Favorite Author (Dean Koontz) Pisses Me Off

Dean Koontz. One of the most successful novelists of all time. He's written a ton of novels, most of them very good, imaginative, suspenseful, well-researched and -realized. Some, though, are just... well, bad. Real bad. Like so bad that I physically repressed disgorging recently-eaten meals. TICK TOCK was the poorest excuse for a novel I've even stumbled onto.

Others, though, like STRANGERS, WATCHERS, INTENSITY, VELOCITY, WHISPERS, and even some of his "non-one-word title" ones are so good that a wanna-be writer can only sit and burn in envy at his skill. However, some of the feces drips into otherwise good works.

So, without further preamble, I present you with the Top Three Reasons Dean Koontz Pisses Me Off:

1. I can always hear his voice! Even in passages where the narrator should be an omniscient presence, coolly conveying fact colored with detail, or when the situation in the tale calls for seriousness, I can see his balding head (atrocious toupee and all) sitting at his computer, laying out the longest, most contrived, convoluted, and forced "funny" passages ever to appear in print.

Case in point: In his novel FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE, character Agnes Lampion's husband has died in a car accident en route to the hospital while she was in labor. This scene is shortly thereafter, when she's under the (false) impression that her baby has also died:

Severe thirst indicated to Agnes that she wasn't dead. There would be no thirst in paradise.

Of course, she might be making an erroneous assumption about her sentence at Judgment. Thirst would likely afflict the legions of Hell, a fierce, never-ending thirst, made worse by meals consisting of salt and sulfur and ashes, nary a blueberry pie, so perhaps she was indeed dead and forever cast down with murderers and thieves and cannibals and people who drove thirty-five miles per hour in a twenty-five-mile-per-hour school zone.

She was suffering from chills, too, and she'd never heard that Hades had a heating problem, so perhaps she hadn't been condemned to damnation, after all. That would be nice.

Sometimes, she saw people hovering over her, but they were just shapes, their faces without detail, as her vision was blurred. They might have been angels or demons, but she was pretty sure they were ordinary people, because one of them cursed, which an angel would never do, and they were trying to make her more comfortable, whereas any self-respecting demon would be thrusting lit matches up her nose or jabbing needles in her tongue or tormenting her in some hideous fashion that it had learned in whatever trade school demons attended before certification.

May I just say?: "AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!"

My question: why is there "humor" in this scene? Dean, you weave such good, suspenseful tales, but then you meander off into "This is just such a damn funny passage here that I couldn't possibly edit it down (or out!) just to sustain the necessary tone or reign my ego in a bit!" territory. How I love your stories when you keep this stuff out of them, but these days, it's a rarity. Let me clue you in, Dean: that passage is laborious and terrible to read. Grating and unfunny in the most irritating and out-of-place fashion. Is it your voice? Yes. Does your voice jar me out of my suspension of disbelief? Super-yes.

2. Unrealistic characters! Quirky characters are necessary in novels, I'll grant you that. Not everyone wants predictable, cookie-cutter stereotypes, but I wish Mr. K would keep it in the realm of semi-realism every once in a while. Example 1, from ODD THOMAS:

Pearl Sugars was my mother's mother. If she had been my father's mother, my name would be Odd Sugars, further complicating my life.

Granny Sugars believed in bargaining with God. She called Him "that old rug merchant."

Before every poker game, she promised God to spread His holy word or to share her good fortune with orphans in return for a few unbeatable hands. Throughout her life, winnings from card games remained a significant source of income.

Being a hard-drinking woman with numerous interests in addition to poker, Granny Sugars didn't always spend as much time spreading God's word as she promised Him that she would. She believed that God expected to be conned more often than not and that He would be a good sport about it.

You can con God and get away with it, Granny said, if you do so with charm and wit. If you live your life with imagination and verve, God will play along just to see what outrageously entertaining thing you'll do next.

He'll also cut you some slack if you're astonishingly stupid in an amusing fashion. Granny claimed that this explains why uncountable millions of breathtakingly stupid people get along just fine in life.

Of course, in the process, you must never do harm to others in any serious way, or you'll cease to amuse Him. Then payment comes due for the promises you didn't keep.

In spite of drinking lumberjacks under the table, regularly winning at poker with stone-hearted psychopaths who didn't like to lose, driving fast cars with utter contempt for the laws of physics (but never while intoxicated), and eating a diet rich in pork fat, Granny Sugars died peacefully in her sleep at the age of seventy-two. They found her with a nearly empty snifter of brandy on the nightstand, a book by her favorite novelist turned to the last page, and a smile on her face.

Judging by all available evidence, Granny and God understood each other pretty well.

Jeez, it's just like first-draft stuff to me. He types every little thought that enters his head, especially up in the "charm and wit" and "imagination and verve" paragraphs. This fist-fighting, gambling, hard-drinking grandmother stuff is the worst kind of tripe to encounter while reading, in my opinion. It's the same as seeing seventy-year-olds making gang signs, rapping, and saying "Yo, yo, yo" in a soda commercial. Reverse stereotypes are no more entertaining or easy to swallow than regular ones, Dean.

Example 2, from LIFE EXPECTANCY (again with the grandmothers):

"Outdoors in winter, Grandma only wore full-body snowsuits, which she sewed from quilted fabrics.

Having no tolerance for cold weather, she believed that she had been Hawaiian in a previous life. Occasionally she enjoyed dreams in which she wore puka-shell necklaces and a grass skirt, and danced at the foot of a volcano. [Hey, Dean, that's so funny, why don't you carry it one laborious step further? After someone's sold as many books as you, who would dare to edit any of it?]

She and everyone in her village had been killed in a volcanic eruption. You might think this would lead to a fear of fire. But she suspected that in yet another and more recent previous life, she had been an Eskimo who died with her dogsled team in a furious blizzard through which they were unable to find their way back to the igloo."

Oh. Pew. I mean... wow. Upon my honor, I will never write like this, no matter how inflated my ego becomes.

3. The rest of his books make up for this bullshit! Even though he slathers on this type of out-of-place and convoluted "humor," his suspense, mystery, and (other) characters are so good, I'm willing to make the trip with him through the "furious blizzard" of his jokes to get back to the good stuff. Thus, he remains both my favorite AND least favorite author of all time.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Blogs are hard for us procrastinators

Even if I was to ever get a regular readership (or even one reader) on here, what shot do I have of keeping them reading if the entries come quarterly at best?

I don't like writing entries, to be honest. It's work, just like all writing is, mainly because I can't just slop it down and leave it there with typos and first-draft terribleness for all to see like many bloggers do. That's not condemning them or claiming superiority. In fact, I wish I could just slap it down and be done with it; be better for my sanity. But I always have to revise, move bits around, edit, and tinker as if I were actually readying a short story for submission.

Bah, enough rambling. Let's give an update for "Robbie Singh." I finished the first draft down at the Barnes & Noble Cafe (a.k.a. Starbucks) in Roseville on May 29, 2006. I must say I felt just as pretentious down there brandishing my laptop and a serious "writer's face" as other people look to me: making a spectacle of simple computing with caffeinated accompaniment. I take solace in the fact that I made eye contact with nary a person for my whole time down there. I only went there the last two days of composition, since the library on base was closed for Memorial Day and I simply can't write in the house. I hear Irina and the kids and either feel guilty for not helping her with them or guilty that I'm writing instead of spending precious time with them while they're young and not teenagers. If I ever support myself financially through writing, I'm going to have to rent an office somewhere.

So after finishing the first draft, I followed the advice of every writer on planet Earth and put it out of sight/mind for as long as I could. In my impatient case, it was a little less than two weeks, which I felt was sufficient. The first complete read-through wasn't as bad as I anticipated, with minimal cringing. I don't go back to read any of my stuff til it's finished (other than to fact check or something), so I hadn't seen any of the beginning since early February. So, after that reading, I dove into the detailed revision on June 8. It's a painstaking process where many of the pages contain either 1) more cross-outs, word changes, and text-relocating arrows than actual typeface, or 2) a big angry slash across the entire page, under the equally angry word "DELETE," "REWRITE," or "WEAK." Gee, that's encouraging advice, isn't it? Considering I actually looked forward to this phase (probably because it wasn't first-draft writing), I found these annotations irritating when I started my current second-draft "re-type." Hmm... "WEAK." Well, that's specific. Nice of me to include what exact elements needed strengthening. God forbid I scribble a couple of notes or suggestions of how to improve the nebulous "weak" attribute of the prose. "DELETE" is easy enough to understand, but how about that favorite of mine: "REWRITE." Oh, goody. While wearing my revision cap and brandishing the "not-good-enough" wand, I deemed this section needing a complete overhaul. It makes me want to go back and slap myself. Not because the note isn't true as all hell, but because I write those instructions for improvement so lightly, so carefree, like I'm slashing up someone else's work. I fail to realize that it will be ME, only a couple of weeks later, who will have to labor for hours picking sections apart and reconstructing them again. Is this making any sense? Whatever, it does to me. :)

I'm almost done with Part 1 of the re-type. My original plan was to incorporate the pen and ink changes into my first draft files on the laptop via highlight, delete, alter slightly, move text, etc. But I've now determined that starting with wholly blank files and retyping from scratch is the way to go. Which means my beginning, with Robbie walking to work, started as five pages of highly edited bunk, but was later stripped to less than one. Wow. Tough to accept that kind of loss of effort, but undoubtedly only because I'm a beginner. I've heard of some writers throwing out hundreds of pages because the novel "wasn't working." HA! I make you this personal guarantee right now: I will NEVER throw out that kind of effort, I don't care how many kinds of fucked up it is. I will re-tool and re-work it until my eyes bleed and the universe unravels and the sun collapses in on us. I think a writer that would throw out that quantity of blood-sweat-n-tears, even in first-draft form, does it just so he can mention it at cocktail parties. "Sure, it was 200,000 words, but it just wasn't my best work. Best to scrap it and start over." Nice job there, Mr. Martyr Dostoevsky. Next time try a fuckin' outline.

Anyway, I got about 15,000 retyped of a probable 75-80k word final count. Then it goes out to my Mom, Dad, couple co-workers, Tara, Zach, Tom, Barb, their kids, Greg, Granny, and any other advance readers who think they can be honest enough to help me.

That's enough for now. Gotta get some work in tonight.