PIZZERIA FAKE NEWS STORY FREE ASSOCIATION EXERCISE

yeah, i’m looking at you NPRThe story sounds like a drug-inspired paranoia trip. But here it goes.

Some conspiracy whack jobs on the interwebs told everyone that a pizza shop in Washington D.C. was a front for child-sex trafficking and satanic illuminati shenanigans. The conspiracy loons said Hillary Clinton was involved. Their mindless bilge was all propagated as news, when in fact it was fake-news. Fake-news seems to be more profitable than real news.

People believed these lies unconditionally and didn’t bother to check the facts or consider the source.

Death threats were made. Innocent people were harassed. Someone went into the pizzeria and shot off a couple of rounds from an assault rifle. He said he was investigating the claims about Clinton.

I told you it sounded crazy, didn’t I?

In my novel The Little Girl Waits (which you should buy right now) I have a scene where the traffickers are using an auto repair shop as a front for their evil, and the good guys go in to investigate. It is one of the better scenes in the book, IMHO. But that is fiction. This loon took a real rifle into a real pizza restaurant. A PIZZA RESTAURANT! That is not fiction.

So, the next time someone tells me that the elements in my novel aren’t “believable” I’m just gonna point to this.

I’ve come to think that believability in a story is slightly overrated. (By the way, have you bought my novel The Little Girl Waits yet? Go Ahead and get the follow-up to it, How Great is The Darkness while you’re at it.) When I pick up a novel to read, I don’t want it to look exactly like my everyday world. I want it to be different. I want the unexpected. I want to see believable characters in unbelievable situations. In fact, I like that sentence so much, I’m gonna set it off in its own quote bracket to highlight the point like they do in fancy publications.

I want to see believable characters in unbelievable situations

This gets back to another thing I believe in so deeply. Character trumps plot. We love characters. We tolerate plots. The plot only exists to reveal the integrity and grit (or lack thereof) of the character(s). I’ll use Harry Potter because it is so easy. The plot of what is going on and the whose it, spell it, when it, is very inconsequential. We care about Harry, his friends, Dumbledore, and the showdown with Voldemort. The characters are the plot.

Of course, the plot matters. I don’t mean to say it doesn’t have a role to play in the development of a good story. What I am saying is that character development matters far more, and it is the characters that keep the reader engaged. The moment the reader stops caring about the character he or she is likely to put the book down and go turn the television on  and watch the Gilmore Girls–because that is all character.

But back to the pizza shop. It is actually a place called Comet Ping Pong Pizza. Disclosure–I’ve never been there, so the pizza might be lousy.

I think they should lawyer-up and start the lawsuits. If I owned that business, I would sue everyone I could find that pushed that fake news story. I’m not generally litigation happy, but for crying-out-loud there needs to be some accountability here. Free speech is important, but I can’t shout, “Fire” in a movie theater and fake news propagators must be held accountable.

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This is not a real news story

 

There are two problems at play here, as I see it. The first problem is, as this (click here) article on slate points out, conspiracies to hurt children exist. One only has to think of Jerry Sandusky at Penn State or the Catholic Diocese of Boston highlighted in the film Spotlight. It is sickening to think about, but true. The second problem, though, is different. It is the problem that we attribute the worst possible societal crime to our political opponents. It is not enough to suspect a child-sex ring, but somehow it must be Hillary Clinton’s fault. Before the progresses get all high and mighty about this, they need to realize they are equally to blame when they all but accuse Donald Trump of having white hoods in his closet.

This is all problematic. But you know what else is problematic–who we blame. If  I hear one more person blame “the internet” or “social media” for this (yeah, I’m looking at you NPR), I’m gonna do something serious like eat an apple without washing it first. Dont’ try me!

This is not the internet’s fault. The internet is neutral, like a car. You can drive it wherever you want. The internet takes you places and grants you conversation. The problem is not the medium. The problem is that people have lost the ability to think critically. I don’t when it happened, somewhere since my childhood the important skill of analysis has vaporized.

Fake news stories have been here, since, like, forever! The National Enquirer was based on it in my childhood. People read it, but they knew it was garbage.

Somehow we’ve lot the ability to chuckle at the stupidity and move on.

The reason is we want to believe the garbage.

It reminds me a bit of my theology of zombies. You read that right. Zombies have a theology. The short of it is that the zombie genre and our fascination with it hints at a deep down feeling of unease that we have with our life. We have a sense that something is out of balance, something is not quite right in the world, and we are just one bad moment from ending the whole thing. This thinking has crept into our political world. We expect there to be a political apocalypse any day now, when our darkest nightmares are confirmed. It is fatalism that flows from a lack of spirituality. To read more about the theology of zombies, click here.

Therefore, the political enemy must, necessarily, be completely evil. He or she can’t just be wrong on the issue or the policy, he must be completely evil. So George Bush was compared with Hitler, Obama was a secret Muslim, Trump is a Nazi, Clinton is the Illuminati, and on and on and on. This kind of though pollutes our national discourse.

One more thought. Chew on this for a bit. A pastor friend of mine shared this week that someone he knew refused to pray for peace because he believed that the world needed to get worse and worse so that Jesus would come back.

That is how you end up with assault rifles at pizza joints where people are looking for presidential candidates sacrificing children.

 

 

 

CHALLENGES FOR WRITING FICTION

Man Typing on Laptop
The next scene is him throwing the laptop across the room.

I’ve spent lots of time this week trying to finish my new short story on the Deep Cove monster.  It will be the fourth installment behind Deep Cove, Deep Cove:  The Party Crasher, and The Deep Cove Lineage.  These sci-fi stories are written like a serial–a continuing story line.  It is almost finished and ready for others to proof.

As I’ve been working on this, and through the rollout of my new novel The Little Girl Waits, I’ve been pondering some of the greatest challenges for writing fiction.

1.  Deciding how much to leave out.  Fiction, because it exists entirely in the mind of the creator, can go as far as you want it to.  When I write about the woman being attacked by the monster, for instance, my mind sees the whole thing at once.  The problem is, the whole thing at once might bore the reader to tears.  I mean, seriously, does the reader really care what kind of shoes the old woman has on?  But at the same time I recognize these kinds of detail can give the story a rich, narrative depth.  It is always a struggle to know where to stop.

2.  Continuity in the story.  This is hard enough in a single novel, but it becomes increasingly difficult for me when the stories pile up, such as the Deep Cove series.  Many of the characters in The Little Girl Waits are from my first book or other short stories, and I had to really be careful that I didn’t change anything significant about their characters.  I almost did.  At one point I almost changed the gender and name of one of Butch Gregory’s kids.  Yikes.

3.  Continuity in the character.  I would like input from other writers on this one, because I find that maintaining a character’s voice is not the easiest thing in the world to do.  I’ve got a character, Colonel Crews, who in the Deep Cove Lineage has a certain demeanor and I am finding it hard to keep him ‘in character’ in the new story.  I don’t know why that is, because I wrote him the first time.  Why is it so hard to keep him in personality stasis?

4.  Fight scenes.  I love reading a good fight scene, and I think I understand the logistics of writing them and how they should work.  The problem I have is lack of experience in actual fighting.  The last fight I remember being in was in fourth grade.  A kid flicked my ear from the seat behind me on the bus and I lunged over the top of the seat, put him in a headlock, and pounded his nose with my left hand.  He never picked on me again.  However, not all fights can go like that.  I have to really work at writing these–even to the point of acting it out in the study to feel how the motion goes.  Oh I hope no one ever sees me fighting with myself through the window.  They will think I’m Edward Norton from Fight Club.

5.  Keeping the tension high.  Tension is the key to interest.  No one is interested if everyone is happy and the world is picture perfect.  Things have to go wrong and the threat of danger must be near.  I can do that fairly easily, but what I have a hard time is keeping it high.  As a human being, I want things to balance out cleanly before the next tension arises, but this linear mojo is not in keeping with life or good art.  It is far better when the tension swirls all over the place and never truly comes to resolution.  I find doing that to be a real challenge indeed.

There are many other challenges in writing fiction, but these are some that I’ve been mindful of on my most recent projects.  If you are a writer/artists, feel free to share what your major challenges are right now, or if you’re willing, share how you overcome some of these that I’ve mentioned.

 

 

image from Shutterstock

DO YOU THINK SPORTS BUILD CHARACTER?

I cheered when the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl.

I hope that the hapless Astros might someday cobble together a 15 game win streak.

And, as always, Hook ‘Em.

I make those statements so that you know I am not a prude when it comes to sports.  I enjoy a good game and I have my favorites.

This morning I heard an interesting commentary from the sometimes interesting Frank DeFord.  (To listen to the podcast called Sports Reporting:  The Way It Was . . . And Is, click here.)  Deford’s melodic voice sometimes is cogent and sometimes is not and is always cranky-old-manish, but this morning something he said struck a nerve in me.  He asked whether or not sports builds character.

It is something we’ve heard, perhaps young men more than women, over and over and over again all our lives.  “Sports build character” is almost chanted as irrefutable proof that high schools and colleges are justified in spending millions of dollars on stadiums and gymnasiums.  It is also what brings solace to parents standing in a February cold rain all day on a Saturday while their 6th grade son or daughter chases a soccer ball around in the mud.  Or sits on the bench.

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Colin Kaepernick showing his character by belittling Cam Newton’s character.

I disagree.  I do not believe sports builds character at all.  Sports may reveal good character, but it doesn’t build good character.  Good character is built by:

  • Parents
  • Teachers
  • Civics classes
  • Churches
  • Books
  • The military
  • Experiences
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Public service
  • Merit Groups (Like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts)

Character comes from a great many places–and from almost anywhere, except sports.  I will grant that coaches, as leaders, can help build character.  However, a coach is just as likely to not.

Paradoxically, sports tends to teach the wrong kinds of lessons, I think.  Sports teaches:

  • Arrogance
  • The bigger, stronger, faster are better
  • Privilege
  • Win at all costs
  • Cheating is okay if you don’t get caught
  • People are disposable
  • Classism
  • Misogyny
  • Triumphalism
  • Violence

In fact, let me recant myself.  Sports does teach character.  It teaches bad character.  When people got angry at Richard Sherman earlier this year for his antics after the NFC Championship game, they should have stopped and considered that his statements were the logical results of what sports teach.

I’m not against sports, really I’m not.  I just think we need to stop lying to ourselves with the deception that if we make our children play sports then it is undeniably a good thing for them.  It is not.  It is but one option in a large range of options, and it is an option that may get them hurt, bullied, or belittled.  I’m not even sure people under the age of 16 ought to be allowed to play league sports.  Of course, there is no money in that.

 

image from espn.go.com

 

 

 

DEDUCE THIS: SHERLOCK HOLMES IS AWESOME

Tonight Mrs. Greenbean and I watched the new episode of PBS’s excellent Sherlock. It was so great to see Cumberbatch and Freeman get back to their real work and stop playing around with hobbits and Star Trek. I thought I would reblog this old post from almost four years ago. Enjoy!

Last night I finished the final Sherlock Holmes full length novel, The Valley of Fear.  When I was a boy I read many of the Sherlock Holmes Shorts but never a full length novel and never as an adult.  Last year I read two collections of shorts, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Return of Sherlock Holmes.  Since spring break I have read the four novels.  The process has been, to say the least, enlightening.

When I read a classic novel, whether it is Dostoevsky, Dickens or Doyle I read as a writer admiring the greatness of another writer.  I do enjoy these stories, but more than that to learn from them.  From Doyle I have observed several trends.

1.  Character is not something independent of plot.  One of the great discussions I often encounter is which is more important—plot or character.  Doyle deftly uses the plot to unwrap the character.  It is in the process of chasing clues that we learn of Holmes OCD-like knowledge of every kind of cigar available in London and exactly what kind of ash it leaves.  Without the plot and the details of the story we would not have knowledge of many of Holmes curiosities.  Doyle does not spend a chapter telling us about Holmes’ obsession with tobacco, but unpacks it in one of the clues.  This has the benefit of wanting us readers wondering what other mysterious and compulsive tendencies this man has which are not relevant to the case at hand.

2.  Doyle is not afraid of the flashback.  In their own way each of the four novels uses extensive use of flashback storytelling.  One story has the flashback in the English countryside, another goes back to the American West, the other to the far-flung British Empire in the East, and the last one involves American coal mines.  Doyle uses this device to take the reader far away from London’s smog, squalor and crime to other parts of the world.  Since all the flashbacks are distant–years back, they serve to provide historical gravitas to the whole story.  Holmes work of consultant detective is not just the here and now—but part of a longer story.  The flashback gives the characters and the plot a depth which would be missing in a straight-line chronology.

3.  Another thing I’ve noticed, especially in a Baskervilles or Fear is how much Holmes is “off-screen.”  Dr. Watson has far more face time than the title character, as well as the benefit of being the narrator.  The special character of Holmes is developed carefully and then held at a distance.  I compare this to the trend in most stories—Dickens for example, and almost all modern writers, of having the main character in virtually every scene and on every page.  I wonder if it reflects a lack of ego on Doyle’s part in that his own personality flows through with the understanding that the world is in action even when he is not present.  How many of us live as if nothing important occurs when we are not around?  The technique works with Holmes powerfully as one who picks up the clues other shave left behind.

4.  I found it interesting how Doyle taps into ‘secret’ groups or ‘conspiracy’ ideals in his plot development.  In Scarlet, Doyle spends considering time painting the most negative possible picture on early Mormons.  Indeed, Brigham Young himself serves as a villain.  The secret society in Fear is clearly a reference to the Freemasons.  Added to this is the feeling of conspiracy in Baskervilles and the secret oath out in Four and we end up with a good healthy dose of playing on preconceived fears, notions, and prejudices.  No wonder the novels did so well.

5.  One more observation—and it is a quick one.  Doyle is equally effective at storytelling when he doesn’t have the archenemy Moriarty around.  Most of the Holmes canon does not include Moriarty.  Too often storytellers automatically gravitate toward building the nemesis without considering the power of their major character to carry the story.  It weakens our characters when they cannot stand on their own.  True, every story has some kind of conflict/enemy/opponent but it is not the ultimate enemy.