Why I Care About Breaking Bad

Say My Name, Breaking Bad
When critics want to convince their audience that a certain television show — or television event — rises above its peers, one word that gets tossed around is “cinematic.”

I understand what they’re saying…or what they mean to say. They are suggesting that television, even good television, is one thing. But movies? Man…that’s a whole other ballpark, and here is a show that can run with the big boys.

I guess I never really saw that distinction for myself. I don’t think of film as being an inherently “higher” artform than television. Both movies and TV shows have left me cold, and both movies and TV shows have moved me to tears. It’s all in the hands of the actors, and the writers, and the directors, and the composers, and everyone else involved. I wouldn’t say it’s a particular compliment to call a television show “cinematic.” Or, at least, it’s no more a compliment than it would be to call a great movie “so good it would make for a fantastic episode of television.”

Here’s where I’ll show my bias: I think a true complement to a television show would be to call it “literary.”

Breaking Bad is literary.

I say that because of its approach. Not its content, or its acting (though I’d have very nice things to say about those as well), but because of the way it layers and progresses its narrative. The way its details unfold in a way that actually feels like one sentence following the next.

Long, quiet stretches and deceptively brutal montages feel dense…like we’re watching a text play out but aren’t allowed to read it. There’s always a sense that even in its wordless moments, we’re being enveloped by narrative, by atmosphere…that we’re in the hands not of a writer or a storyteller, but an artist and a wordsmith.

I think this is because Vince Gilligan and his crew have managed to tell a story that functions exactly the way a great novel could. While episodes might have self-contained little narratives of their own (Walt chasing a fly, Jesse protecting a child, Hank being transferred to El Paso), they all function the way chapters would. They have their rising and falling action, their punctuations and their punchlines…but they layer. They reveal. They inform our readings of the other chapters, and they feel — for all their long, quiet stretches and moments of false relief — like important pieces of a greater whole.

It’s not a show you can parcel out. There’s no episode that truly stands on its own. A show described as “cinematic” might be easily broken into its spectacular component parts, but one that’s “literary?” No. No no no. That needs to stay together.

I’ve only recently caught up on the first half of the final season. The second half — the final chapters — will play out later this month, and I intend to review them. Why? Because this television show feels like the longest novel I’ve ever read, and it’s still one I don’t want to put down. But I know I must…because art is a statement, and statements end. And when it’s over: a long, quiet stretch. We can take as long as we like to think about what we’ve just seen. I get the feeling Walter White will not have the same luxury.

Breaking Bad feels literary because it’s unfailingly true to its own logic. While I wouldn’t describe the show as realistic, per se, I would describe it as relentlessly logical. Even now, as we tumble through these final moments, the characters are still dealing with repercussions of the very first episode. Nothing goes away. Consequences linger. The dead make their presences known. Details once so rigidly attended to now bubble to the surface, unseen.

I like that, because it provides a brilliant, ongoing tension that’s entirely earned by the show, and also because we never know when we’re going to see the same idea in a different light. In the article I linked to above — a discussion of the excellent “Peekaboo” — I talk about how Walter’s decision to cook meth gradually loses its own rationale: he needs the money to pay for his cancer treatment, but some old friends are willing to pay for it out of pocket. He needs the money to provide for his family, but he doesn’t stop when they have more than enough. His motives blur, almost visibly, but it’s only in this most recent batch of episodes that he explains why: he’s in the empire business.

It’s not about money, or drugs, or family, or cancer, or anything. It’s about pride, wounded decades ago, and what he sees as his first opportunity to earn it back. Walter is a broken man — there’s no surprise about that — but we’re still plumbing the depths of just how broken, and in what ways. And the fact that they can still pull this off, without re-treading ground or re-writing histories, is phenomenal.

I remember watching the first season and thinking that I didn’t like Cranston’s performance. Or, rather, I didn’t like one aspect of his performance: he seemed a bit too obviously broken. I saw a good man who was making some bad decisions, so I wondered why Cranston played him like a bad man making bad decisions. That was my first lesson to trust Vince Gilligan, and I haven’t stopped since.

And even now, toward the end, we’re not drawing limply toward a finish line. Breaking Bad is a story, a literary tale, and it continues to evolve right up to and through its final point. By his own hand Walter has lost Jesse and Mike…replacing them with Todd and Lydia, who are just competent enough for him to justify his decisions but flawed enough that we know what’s coming. It’s a ramshackle arrangement he’s built up around himself…and however tall he manages to get it, it’s only a matter of time before it all comes crashing down.

It’s a simple concept, and nothing particularly clever, but the way in which Gilligan and his crew pulled it off was just perfect. Jesse managed to be not only superior to Walter morally, but also intellectually as he’s the one who suggests the magnets and the train robbery while Walter is too upset to think straight. He blossomed into a more valuable member of the team than Walter could ever appreciate…and as soon as he did, he was replaced with Todd, who murdered a child in cold blood, and whose chief recommendation is that…well…he’s there.

And the cool, collected, calculating Mike…the one man who knows how both sides of the game must be played…is killed by Walter’s own hand. The moment that gun went off was an incredible one, played perfectly, Cranston’s face betraying the most genuine, “Oh shit,” he’s ever given this show, and for the first time he’s thinking it for the same reason as the audience. Now, with the last man who could have possibly navigated him to safety dead by the riverbank, Walter must turn to Lydia, another newcomer, easily shaken and prone to letting details slip unintentionally.

Walter had one world. He built another.

The madness of that small success encouraged him to knock out those supports and build another still.

His tower grows higher, but he’s using the wrong materials.

Just because he shot Jesse James…that doesn’t make him Jesse James.

It’s a warped tale of hubris and fate…both self-manufactured and the kind that is thrust upon you. It’s the story of a man who could have a gentle associate killed just to make a point, and then chuckle fondly when he finds a reminder of that person.

And then, of course, leave it on the toilet.

Just in time for his DEA brother in law to find.

Right after swearing the life off forever.

It’s a novel. It’s a work of literary fiction.

Just because you finished the chapter…that doesn’t mean the chapter is finished with you.

All you can ask is that somebody shuts up…and lets you die in peace.

Fuck I love Breaking Bad.

Paul Simon’s Impact on Language

Paul Simon

I’ve written about this before (on a different blog; don’t bother looking for it…it’s not there anymore) but I’m still kind of intrigued by the question: is there any other individual musician who has had as large an impact on the way we speak and express ourselves verbally as Paul Simon?

It sounds hyperbolic, I know, but what I’m referring to are the specific turns of phrase he’s injected into our every day speech…little verbal flourishes that meant little or absolutely nothing before he gave them meaning, and gave them to us.

Just look at this list of song titles (just the titles, mind you) and ask yourself how many times you’ve seen exactly these, or some very close variation somewhere, used in a headline, a caption, an anecdote, or anything else:

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover
Feelin’ Groovy
Bridge Over Troubled Water
The Sound of Silence
Loves Me Like a Rock
Homeward Bound
Something So Right
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
Slip Slidin’ Away
A Hazy Shade of Winter
I Am a Rock
Mother and Child Reunion
Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard
Still Crazy After All These Years
You Can Call Me Al
Somewhere They Can’t Find Me
The Only Living Boy in New York

That’s a lot. And I’m not sure any other single musician or lyricist can chalk up that much influence on the cultural vernacular. I’ll even let you combine all four Beatles…I still don’t think we get a list of anywhere near that length.

No deep, probing observations here…just something I thought was interesting. And by all means, please do give me other examples in the comments of musicians I’m obviously overlooking.

Why I, Partridge is Mandatory Reading for Anyone Who Thinks They’re a Writer

I, PartridgeAs you know, I’ve been reviewing self-published books on this blog recently. As you also know, I’m currently writing a novel of my own. So allow me to pass down something that’s done me a great deal of creative good.

Here’s the single hardest lesson I had to learn as a writer. Are you ready? It’s a pretty brutal one:

I sound ridiculous.

And guess what? So do you.

We all sound ridiculous…at least by default. That’s why literature, in all of its forms, has evolved a set of conventions. Romance, comedy, tragedy, mystery, memoir…anything you read will have associated with it a whole host of expectations. Conventions exist for a reason, and that reason is this: they double as the contract between author and audience.

When you read a piece of literature, it’s often fun to point out the tropes and conventions as you go. If you’re especially well-read in a particular genre you might even be able to map out what’s likely to happen next. The big mistake we all make is to surrender to a sort of cynicism that implies this to be a bad thing. It isn’t.*

Conventions exist because people like to know what they are reading. It’s similar to ordering meals in a restaurant…you like to have some sense of what it contains. You don’t necessarily need to know exactly how much of what is in it, or how it was brought together, or how it’s going to taste…but it’s not out of line to want some knowledge of what you’re about to eat. After all…you’ve been eating for your whole life. You know that there are certain things you simply don’t enjoy, and other things you enjoy very much.

When writing, those unspoken conventions serve the same purpose. We should be able to know if mysteries, on the whole, appeal to us without having to read every single one of them. Some will be better than others, sure, but that’s a given. We know that, and conventions don’t at all suggest anything in a qualitative sense. What they do tell us is a list of the ingredients the work is likely to contain. For instance, maybe you read Raymond Chandler and didn’t like the terseness of his writing. In that case, you may simply not be a Chandler fan. However if you read some Raymond Chandler and didn’t like the violence, the red herrings, the alternating seduction and cruelty, or the seemingly silly pursuit of some relatively minor object, then you can pretty much count on the fact that you don’t enjoy detective fiction.

That’s fine. That’s why those conventions exist. Those of us who like it know where to find it, and those who don’t know to look elsewhere.

They also exist in order to give writers direction. The greatest literary artists know how to elasticize them, distort them, give them new and interesting ways to work, but, ultimately, they are there, and they function as signposts. The author may then choose to pull toward those sign posts, to loop mischievously around them, or to deliberately drift as far from them as possible. In any case, they are still there…and if they weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate what the artist is doing.

You — yes, you, if you intend to write — need to understand this, because it’s what’s going to keep you from sounding ridiculous. These structures and conventions and signposts exist, all of them, explicitly so that you won’t sound like a fool. Because if you just allow yourself to write, without being well-versed in the conventions and expectations of your genre of choice…that’s exactly what you will sound like.

I, Partridge is the rarest of all possible comedy tie-in books: it’s the comedy tie-in book that is also, front to back, a work of art.

It’s the ostensible memoir of Alan Partridge, a fictional character who has appeared in multiple British television and radio programs, as well as stage shows, specials, and pretty much everything else. I, Partridge is that character, recounting his life experiences. And it’s a brilliant work of incredible unreliability.

Granted, if you’ve seen and heard Partridge’s earlier misadventures then I, Partridge doesn’t have to work quite as hard. You’ve seen him shove a piece of cheese into a BBC superior’s face and use the hand of a dead man to sign a contract that would put him back on television, so when Alan narrates these events differently, you understand very clearly the humorous disconnect.

However I don’t think you have to have seen any of that in order to enjoy — and as a writer learn from — the book. It functions within its own reality brilliantly, with Alan’s suspiciously too-careful recitation of details giving away the fact that something is being clearly fabricated.

Throughout the book he misunderstands social cues and signals that the readers pick up on, leaving his narration and the reader’s experience of that narration to diverge wonderfully. Alan continues down a road of doubled self-delusion (as he certainly believes that his readers are taking his lies as gospel) while we are able to parse and inspect the text in order to determine just how far from reality his narration really is.

It’s every bit as fascinating as anything Nabokov — the unrivaled master of unreliable narration — has ever done, but is infinitely more accessible. And for that reason, I think I, Partridge should be required reading for anyone who believes themselves to be a writer.

Alan’s ridiculousness is palpable, and it’s palpable simply because he believes he’s being anything but ridiculous. He couldn’t begin to entertain the fact that anything he’s saying would be suspect…and that’s exactly why it’s so suspicious. His readers stop paying attention to what he says, and start paying attention to how he says it.

Your readers will do the same thing. Because you sound ridiculous.

When reading A Soul’s Calling, there was a similar disconnect. Scott Bishop — or his textual avatar — fancied himself an educated, spiritual humanitarian…but he came across on the page as a foolish, selfish weirdo. When he says that demonic spirits interfere with his life and make people dislike him, he believes it…yet the narration diverges from the experience of the reader, who sees instead that people dislike him because he’s an actively insufferable human being. And when he — in an act of paramount dickishness — finds a prayer note left at base camp by a woman before him, he burns it instead of leaving it under the rock where she left it. Why? Because he knows how this prayer needs to be handled, and she obviously didn’t. In his mind, he did her a favor. Any reader in their right mind, however, would see this as a tremendously rude gesture, and the anonymous woman would be no less hurt by it than Scott himself would be if someone came along and kicked over his pyre because they personally didn’t think that was the right way to pray either.

Similarly, when Lawrence Fisher positions himself as an unfortunate misfit wrestling with the game of love, we as readers see clearly that he’s not alone…literally every woman he dates, whether or not that date goes well, is in the exact same situation, meaning it’s a bit harsh for him to expect us to both feel bad for him and laugh at them when he says they’re annoying, not pretty enough, or just plain undateable. Lawrence wants us on his side as narrator, but he spends so much time pushing away those who are already on his side that we end up distanced as well.

What’s more, he keeps distracting himself from his ostensible topic to quote irreverently from films and television shows, or discuss historical intricacies of his religion, or wonder how people can be rude enough to speak through BlueTooth headsets in a restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the book is only around 130 pages and he’s spent so much time on tangents that he’s left himself no room to getting around to his actual topic.

What writers need to learn, whether they intend to employ the method or not, is how unreliable narration works. And they need to learn that lest they start narrating unreliably against their will.

I, Partridge features exactly the same failings as the two self-published books I mention above, but with a difference: here, they are failings by design.

Alan assumes the applause for a crippled veteran are directed at himself, a low-level radio personality. He gets lost discussing technical details about headsets and cars and radio frequencies when he’s meant to be relaying interesting anecdotes about important people in his life. His “big breaks” for other up-and-coming performers typically leave them embarrassed, disgraced, and broke.

But Alan doesn’t realize any of this. He is the central comic figure in his own farce, but sees himself as a hero, overcoming tragedy after trial. He uses his complete command over his own memoir to rewrite history, and to paint himself in colors he could never achieve in real life.

Writers do that all the time. And that’s okay.

But they need to do it deliberately, and they need to do it well.

Because if they don’t, they’re just writing their own unintentional comedies.

It doesn’t take much to turn your heart-warming tale of spiritual awakening into a showcase for self-importance and silliness. It’s just a shift in perspective…and it’s the shift in perspective that comes automatically from giving yourself an audience.

I honestly would recommend I, Partridge to anyone who wants to be taken seriously, because the absolute best first step on that road is to see, first-hand, why nobody would.

* At least, it isn’t automatically a bad thing. If that’s all an author is doing, then that’s bad. But an author who uses convention as a framework upon which to build his or her unique story around it is simply doing his or her job as a writer. Railing against convention for the sake of railing against convention is something else many writers find it difficult to grow out of. But mark my words: the longer you spend fighting the form, the more you’re postponing the moment when you learn how to make the form work for you. In short, you’re delaying your own creative growth. So don’t do that.

Noiseless Chatter Spotlight: Retro City Rampage (2012)

Retro City Rampage

Good gosh!
The hero has arrived.

Last month, a game called Retro City Rampage was released for download on the Wii. By this point, the Wii is already dead, its place in the console market usurped by the WiiU. This was a too-late release for the system in another way as well: other versions of the game on competing systems were released in 2012. The game itself was announced in 2010…and development began all the way back in 2002. That’s an extremely long journey for anything on its way to a dead platform.

I remember the announcement well, because I decided more or less immediately that I didn’t want it. It seemed like a nice idea — retro-style games such as Mega Man 9, the Bit.Trip series and VVVVVV had a pretty high success rate as far as I was concerned, and I’d take a simplistic, difficult romp over a modern-day talky slog every time — but early screen shots, and then the eventual trailer, were enormously disappointing.

Or, rather, there was one specific thing about those screenshots and trailers that was disappointing: the sheer number of references.

Retro City RampageI’ve written about this before. I’m simply not a fan of references for references’ sake. I don’t like the modern tendency for the snake to wink as it swallows its tail. I want to see art that carves out its own space to inhabit…not lazily inhabit the spaces carved out by those who came before.

There’s a place in the world for parody — of course there is — but that place is not front and center. That place is not in the spotlight. When parody becomes the dominant form of expression you end up with garbage like Epic Movie, which ends up spoofing Nacho Libre because there simply isn’t enough straight-laced material to serve as fuel anymore, and comedy has to begin eating itself.

Personally, I’m happy to blame Family Guy for the glut of lazy references and recreations masquerading as something new. Parody has existed long before Family Guy, of course, and lazy parody has existed exactly as long. But only Family Guy seems to have found more success the lazier it gets, to the point that entire sequences and acts consist of word-for-word reenactments of other programs, films, music videos, or anything else the writers might have watched earlier that week.

It’s lazy, and it’s not creative. But people eat it up. Prior to its first cancellation, Family Guy knew how to pull off its warped style of twisted comedy. Since its revival, it’s circled ceaselessly toward a lazy singularity, replacing jokes and cleverness with joyless recreations. It’s not funny, it’s not interesting, and it even drifts into the territory of insult when they decide to lift wholesale scenes from other parodies, such as Airplane! Perhaps the Family Guy staff simply can’t tell the difference anymore. Certainly its audience can’t. And that’s beyond disappointing…that’s irresponsible.

Retro City RampageRetro City Rampage appeared to be following in those footsteps. One of the areas resembled the first stage of Metal Gear for the NES, complete with on-screen mocking of that game’s infamous Engrish. Two of the characters are named Bill and Lance, who we remember from Contra. A store called WonderHats uses the ThunderCats font. A dessert parlor is called Vanilla Ice Cream. Tee hee hee.

Even its title is a triple reference: Grand Theft Auto, River City Ransom, and Rampage. This is all before you get to the clear Back to the Future homage of its cover art. The entire thing just screamed out that it was pieced together from bits and fragments of better things.

It felt cheap. It felt lazy. It felt like it was attempting to coast on the goodwill engendered by its source material, rather than any merit that it could have possibly earned on its own. It wanted the laughter of recognition. And that’s quite possibly the least satisfying kind of laughter there is.

The game boasted a huge world to explore, but if all I was doing is finding cutesy puns on the signage and identifying bland references to better games, then it didn’t feel worth exploring. At least Family Guy delivers its own personal blend of offensive laziness to you passively…Retro City Rampage required interaction. It wasn’t enough to just groan at what you were seeing…you first would have to make the effort to track it down.

And I wasn’t interested in that.

But I learned something from Retro City Rampage. Specifically, I learned that Family Guy has done even more damage than I thought. Because not only does it train me to see references like this — even in things that I enjoy — as unnecessary and annoying, but it made me forget why people started making references like this in the first place: love.

At Nintendo Life, Featured Editor and all-around great guy Thomas Whitehead interviewed Brian Provinciano, essentially the single man responsible for the entire game. And it was a good interview, but here’s what really stood out to me:

It became public knowledge on Gamasutra in 2009 that a sales threshold is in place, whereas, if you don’t sell enough copies [as a WiiWare download], you don’t get paid a cent. […] Many developers became unable to sell enough units, and this became a reason for so many cancellations of announced WiiWare titles. The publishers knew they wouldn’t make a cent and needed to cut their losses. Between the office rent, hardware, insurance, game ratings and other costs, had I not done the WiiWare version, I could’ve saved around $20,000 – not even including my salary in porting it. And as it stands, virtually no games hit the threshold these days, so it’s only being released as fan service. A $20,000 gift to the fans.

There’s no chance — and I say this in the nicest possible way — that Retro City Rampage will hit that sales threshold. Most games released through the WiiWare service never made it, and that was definitely one of Nintendo’s major missteps with the Wii. Far from encouraging developers to put their best work into the console, it encouraged them to put it anywhere else. Releasing through WiiWare was expensive, and as more developers and games failed to turn a profit, fewer developers and games went near the service at all.

Retro City RampageWith fewer games, the audience simply drifted away. A sales threshhold that was already near-impossible to hit just got shoved that much further out of reach.

Additionally the Wii is dead. And, with it, WiiWare. Retro City Rampage comes long after most Wii owners will have upgraded to the WiiU, and the ones that stayed behind aren’t likely to be in the habit of checking the shop channel anymore. On top of that, just about anyone who was dying for Retro City Rampage would have simply bought it somewhere else over the course of the past year.

And yet, here it is. Not because it’s expected to make any money…in fact, Provinciano is convinced it will lose him money. And I agree.

But he released it because he could. Because he made enough money from its other versions to put this one out there on a Nintendo console, as a gift to the fans. A “$20,000 gift to the fans,” to be exact.

And that’s love. That’s love, and that’s nothing short of love.

That’s also what made me buy Retro City Rampage. I know this version of the game won’t make a dime, but I bought it anyway. Because that’s the least I can do. Far from the smorgasbord of lazy references and winking visual recreations of classic games, Retro City Rampage was made with love. How do I know that? Because nothing but love could make you shovel twenty thousand dollars into a release you already know will be totally unprofitable.

It’s what I remembered about references, about why people make them, and why they took such an easy foothold in parody and pop-culture: making them betrays, or should, a love for that source material. It’s a form of flattery, a form of tipping one’s hat, respectfully, to those that laid the groundwork for what you are now able to do.

Family Guy doesn’t express love. It can’t, because it feels none. Its references are lazy at best and outright mean-spirited at worst. Robot Chicken feels very much the same way. It lives to deflate the cultural ephemera of days gone by. By contrast, when Futurama incorporates the lore of other science fiction works into its universe, it feels like the show saying thank you…no matter how they subvert the character, idea or object. Futurama exists because its creators and writers love the genre, and want to play with the same toys. Family Guy might have existed at first because Seth MacFarlane loved the golden age of television, but it continues to exist just to feed more meat into the grinder. It all comes out the same. A joyless, tasteless, inconsequential mush.

Retro City RampageRetro City Ransom, which I can say now that I’ve played it, is great. But I almost missed it, simply because I forgot that references aren’t always lazy…they’re often, when done right, admirable. They’re a familiar seasoning in a new and exciting dish. At least, again, when done right.

Many years ago, in 1999 or so, I made two video games myself. They were both part of the same series. The first was called Larry Vales: Traffic Division, and its sequel was Larry Vales II: Dead Girls Are Easy. I haven’t thought about them in a long time, though certainly at the time I was working on them they were everything to me. I invested a lot of creative effort into two games that, for all their faults — and there were faults, boy howdy — people enjoyed. That was all I really wanted. I wanted to make people laugh, and I wanted people to have fun.

A couple of years ago I found a video on YouTube of somebody playing through the first game. I watched it, and re-experienced the game for the first time in around a decade. And I was overwhelmed by the number of references I crammed into it. Whereas Retro City Rampage mainly pays homage to classic NES games like Super Mario Bros. and Bionic Commando and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Larry Vales paid homage to The Simpsons, and 1984, and Pink Floyd. In short, it was everything that had inspired me, at some point…just as Provinciano refers back to everything that inspired him.

Watching that video, I cringed. I felt lazy. I felt as though I had every opportunity to make something interesting and unique, but I fell back on mindlessly referring to other things that I enjoyed, hoping that others would share in the nostalgia, and that would be enough. I was being a bit harsh on myself, I think now, but I also believe there’s some truth to that.

But that’s just the Family Guy effect. I felt guilty for making those references because the practice of paying gentle homage to your inspirations has been dragged through the muck and become something dirty, something lazy, and, above all else, something to be avoided.

Retro City RampageWhat I forgot — or, perhaps, was in no condition to remember — when watching that video, someone else playing through a game world of my own construction, was that I made those references out of love. They may have been lazy. They may not have been funny. But they were my way of saying thank you…of openly expressing my gratefulness for the so many wonderful things that made me want to create.

That’s a lesson Retro City Rampage taught me, all over again. There are a few bad apples that have poisoned the practice…but, in doing it right, it’s still as noble a way to tip your hat as it ever was.

References are a way of saying thanks. That’s something I’m going to try to remember again. Perhaps, one day, I’ll even give those thanks right back to Retro City Rampage, for showing me that someone, somewhere, still knows how to make them for the right reason, in the right way.

Hell, releasing Retro City Rampage at all, with the complete foreknowledge that it will only lose money, is a way of saying thanks. Provinciano is using Retro City Rampage as a sort of double-sided note of appreciation…he’s thanking the industry that inspired him, and the players who’ve been inspired right along with him.

It’s an admirable thing to do. And I really do hope he ends up turning a profit, against all odds, because it’s nice to see goodness rewarded in the world every now and again.

And the game is also, to put a fittingly obscene button on it, pretty fucking incredible.

Where Have I Been? Here’s Where I Have Been

Detective FictionSo it’s been quiet around here lately, and there’s absolutely nothing noteworthy about that fact. But I did want to pop in to let you know that, unlike every other time, I haven’t been totally unproductive. In fact, I’m writing a book.

It’s a project that I started for National Novel Writing Month a few years back. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the idea is that you are supposed to write an entire novel between November 1 and November 30. I’ve participated a few times now, and I’ve nearly always succeeded, but it’s very much worth noting that they define “a novel” as “50,000 words.” So you can very easily hit that number without bringing your story to a close, or even getting anywhere near an ending.

For many it’s just a writing exercise, which is great, but for me…I’ve always tried to do something more. 50,000 words of anything is a useful workout for a writer, but I feel a little let down at the end if I don’t have something I can share. Rework, rewrite, edit, extend, sure…but I at least need to come away with something I can show for my investment.

My first completed novel that I owe to National Novel Writing Month is Afterbirth: The Comedy of Miscarriage, which took me two years to write and another five to really shape into what I needed it to be. It’s a piece of work I’m immensely proud of right now, a book that manages to be clever and complicated enough that I can’t believe some schlub like me wrote it. In fact, it’s so good that nobody wants to publish the thing, and it’s sitting around doing absolutely nothing.

Detective Fiction was a deliberate response to Afterbirth. The former is massive in scope and scale, scrambling up scenes across generations and narrated by a self-serving trickster, leaving the reader to fend for himself or herself from paragraph to paragraph, trying to piece together the story that lies beneath what’s actually being said. It was hard to write. Heck, it’s hard to read.

So for my next project, my next real project, my next big novel attempt that I could actually spin into a finished manuscript at some point down the line, I went intentionally simple. It’s a straight-forward story without any significant leaps through time, with a manageable cast of characters, and with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. I didn’t want it to get too big. I didn’t want it to get too complicated. Because…well, I already had one of those. And it went–and continues to go–absolutely nowhere.

Detective Fiction, I reasoned, could make for an easier sell. It’s a simpler pitch, its first few chapters won’t scare people away, and I can make an effort to be a little more overtly funny. It should still be good, but it could be good in a way that plays more nicely with its readers.

My plan was to write a sendup of the detective fiction genre, starring a young man in the fictional Palmwood City, Florida, who decides to operate as an unlicensed private eye in order to draw focus away from a few other things in his life. I delved into some classic examples from Raymond Chandler to Arthur Conan Doyle and realized, shockingly, that these books were actually a lot better than I gave them credit for being. In fact, my attempt at a joke very quickly turned into a love letter, as I realized the reason that these stories endured: they only pretended to be about the mystery. They were always actually about the detective.

But I never finished the book. I wrote most of it, hit the 50,000 word goal, but never brought it to a conclusion.

And it languished for two years. While I did absolutely nothing with it. Honestly, I was afraid to go back. As simple as I wanted the book to be, I was still trying to provide three things at the same time to the reader: a good read, a genre pastiche, and a satisfying mystery…in roughly that order. And the more time passed, the easier it became to just assume that I had failed, that it was a scattered mess, and it wasn’t worth revisiting.

Recently, I revisited. And it was far, far better than I remembered it being. So I thought I’d dig back in, and give young Billy Passwater the conclusion his story so specifically deserves.

I have one chapter left to write. I intend to do that tonight. I will then spend months (at least months) rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting.

And before long, I hope to have something I can send out to agents. Something I can be happy to have my name on, and something they can be happy to have their names on as well.

I know I’ve been quiet, but I haven’t been unproductive. I hope you understand why I’ve decided to focus my energies elsewhere for a time…it’s now or never for Detective Fiction.

Noiseless Chatter isn’t dead. Detective Fiction doesn’t represent me having nothing to post here anymore. If anything, as the man himself once said, “Things should start to get interesting right about now.”

(Kudos to the friendly Ridley for that banner.)

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