The Sacramento branch of the California Writer’s Club has put on some fine day-long seminars, including the one that got me started blogging (presumably, most people reading this think that’s a good thing).
The Club just announced a seminar in self-publishing to be held November 2. I invite every one with the interest and geographical proximity to check out the flier: Boot Camp two-pager
“As of 2004, only one out of NINE traditionally published authors ever saw a second book in print and 93% of all books published (traditional and non-traditional) sold less than a thousand copies (per Book Expo of America statistics).”
In other words, no path into print is easy, but now there’s a greater menu of choices than just a few years ago. The CWC workshops I’ve attended have been excellent, and I’m planning on going to this one.
I posted my first article here three years ago today – I thought it was the 30th until I looked it up a little while ago. There are more pressing dates to remember in June – our wedding anniversary for one, and the dog birthdays, but this occasion brings to mind some things I discovered that first summer of blogging.
A few days before my first post, I attended an all day blogging seminar hosted by the local branch of the California Writer’s Club. The teacher had an unusual qualification – he actually made a good living as a blogger. He did this by running eight different blogs on eight different topics which gained him 50,000 – 80,000 hits a month.
Beyond passing along the mechanics of WordPress, the seminar was geared toward his approach, which aimed at drawing advertisers and eyeballs. At first I tried to follow his rules, ones like “Posts should run between 150-250 words in length.” I still mostly aim for the 150 minimum – I trust his research suggesting that Google’s search algorithms favor messages at least that long, but I’ve tossed almost all his other rules. I did so because something unexpected began to happen – blogging took on a life of its own.
I’d taken the seminar for the worst of reasons. I had finished one novel and started another, and I fell prey to the notion, passed around in writing groups and magazines, that aspiring writers should migrate to social media “to build their platforms.”
From the start, this advice reminded me of something annoying that periodically happened in my technology day job. During cyclical downturns, when vertical mobility dried up, upper management would dream up busy-work tasks, like “write a five year career plan.” Given the dizzying pace of technological change, almost any kind of five year plan seemed like a joke. Fortunately, my supervisor agreed, so I’d email him something like, “My plan is to still have a job in five years,” and he’d mark it “Done.”
Once the blogging door started to open, I did something similar with the concept of “platform:” borrowing the tech concept of “just-in-time inventory,” I decided to wait until I needed one!
That may be a long wait, as it turns out, because the “blogging door” was a new entryway into writing-as-a-way-to-discover-things.” That was a door I’d let close on my fiction, because of inexperience more than anything else.
When I started my first novel, during a sabbatical from work, I would sometimes jump up at 5:30am, wide awake. “I wonder what’s going to happen today?” Later I realized the first novel was a mess, though I loved every minute of writing it. I joined groups, attended seminars, and devoured how-to-articles. Somewhere along the line, my stories stopped being mine. Once I knew what was going to happen on any particular day, I was no longer interested.
The blogging door remains open. Here I make new discoveries, surprising myself, and never know for sure where it’s going today. I also get to share the amazing discoveries of others, like the post I re-blogged last week in which Kristen Lamb presents a simple but powerful way of keeping the doors of discovery open in fiction (Write FAST and Furious).
I enjoy many blogs that have a singular focus, and this week of milestones, I found myself recalling the words of that first blogging teacher, who advised that this is the only way to go. I entertained the notion for maybe 60 seconds. It simply wouldn’t work for me, a poster boy for the late James Hillman’s concept of “the polytheistic psyche.”
Hillman often used the Greek pantheon to illustrate his concept of the “polytheistic psyche”
As Michael Ventura, a journalist and friend of Hillman’s put it: “For too long Western thought has mistaken the impulse to unify for the entity itself (the psyche) that needs such an impulse because of it’s very multiplicity.”
Ventura also said, “If you are the only one in the room, it is still a crowded room.”
In the beginning, I called this blog, “thefirstgate,” singular. I discuss the source of the name, the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets, in my About page. Then, as I discovered there are other interesting “first gates,” I made the name plural, and even registered the domain name, firstgates.com.
In the Spring of 2012, I received a notice that a similar domain name, thefirstgate.com (singular) had become available, and I could buy it. I did so, and since then, I’ve played with the notion of changing the name to emphasize my original inspiration.
I began this post, intending to announce a change to the singular form. Then I came upon this passage in Michael Ventura’s Shadow Dancing in the USA, 1985 (out of print). Here he describes the theory of “the polytheistic psyche:”
“…the notion that we have not a single center, but several centers; that each of these centers may act independently of each other; and that each center has in turn various active aspects, or shadings; and that all these centers are unified more by an atmosphere, an overall mood and rhythm, than by anything as solid as…an ego.”
No way, after reading that, could I surrender an ounce of multiplicity! So on the occasion of this anniversary, I will predict more of the same – not knowing quite what I’m going to say when I sit down to write. False starts and dead ends on occasion, but hopefully, ongoing and interesting surprises for all of us.
On such an occasion, I’d like to say something witty or wise, but wit and wisdom elude me, and in a way, the number speaks for itself. Like one of those major birthdays – the big five-ohh for example – all I can manage is a stammered, “Wow…that’s a lot. How did this happen?”
I more or less know how it happened, but that’s a story for another time. For now I’m posting some of my favorites, gleaned from a quick review of all the posts. I was aiming to cut the list down to ten, but it got a bit out of hand.
Enjoy! I’ll have a few reflections on this blog later on, but for now I will just affirm that if you keep coming back, I will too.
Lighter than air, posted October 21, 2010
In the fall of 2010, we couldn’t figure out where to go on vacation, so we wound up visiting nearby Santa Rosa. The posts that came out of this trip marked the point at which this blog, which I started the previous June, began to take off. Because the pictures remind me of this marvelous event, this remains a feel-good post to me.
True Grit, pothos, and westerns that stick with you, posted January 22, 1011
I loved the 2010 remake of True Grit, and it inspired trio of posts on westerns that truly moved me. I find the best western movies stir something like the vast western vistas do, which I called Pothos, a Greek word that means an insatiable longing for what lies beyone the horizon and is forever out of reach.
The world as shapeshifter: a Hindu parable, posted February 13, 2011
I’ve had a lifelong interest in Eastern thought. This is a great story and a good illustration of the Eastern view of the nature of creation.
A year of blogging, posted June 27, 2011.
I was just beginning to figure out what I was doing when this post was Freshly Pressed, which was wonderfully encouraging.
Shangra-La in Books, Movies and Legends, posted Oct. 31, 2o11
Something in us longs for an earthly paradise, and Shangra-La has been one of its names since David Hilton wrote Lost Horizon in 1933 and Frank Capra made the movie in 1937. As I said in this review, both seem dated now, but I still enjoy the portrayal of the legend.
The Empire Mine, posted November 28, 2011
With a visiting friend, we drove up to Grass Valley the Saturday after Thanksgiving to visit the Empire Mine State Park. It was a perfect fall day and we lucked out because the Historical Society people were decked out for the Cornish Christmas celebration, so named because numerous miners were enticed to the area from Cornwall because of their expertise in hard rock mining. A fascinating glimpse, narrated by experts, who explained everything from the mine blacksmith shop to the owner’s mansion. The mine owners had a wonderful rose garden, and if you visit at the right time, you can get cuttings of roses that date back to the 18th century.
The Open Culture website, posted February 9, 2012
This is a site with wonderful free resources that you are going to want to check out and bookmark.
The Icelandic posts, September 25 – October 18, 2012
I’ve been fascinated with Iceland since I did a report on the country in grade school. Last fall we had the chance to travel there with a small group of storytellers to discuss Njal’s Saga and visit some of the places where the thousand year old events took place. I was gratified to see how many people read and commented on my accounts of the sagas. That gave me confidence to increase my work folklore since then.
The Princess Mary box, posted December 24, 2012
The Christmas Truce, which broke out on the Western Front almost a 100 years ago, has always seemed one of the most poignant moments in modern history. This past Christmas, I discovered its connection to a small brass box I bought as teenager in a flea market outside Paris.
Tales of the Dummling, posted January 8, 2013
This was a difficult post to write. It was long, it took three days, and I doubted that many people would read it. I was all the more delighted when WordPress Freshly Pressed it. This was the third time I’ve had the honor, and this was the most meaningful because I was following one of my keenest interests, one that comments confirmed is shared by many others.
Remembering Ritchie Havens, posted April 22, 2013
Here is another chance to remember an extraordinary man and musician who left us in April.
The Worlds Revolve, posted May 13, 2013.
Now and then while writing, something both mysterious and familiar takes over the keyboard. This is the most recent time it happened here, and a post largely wrote itself.
Many writers will already know Kristen Lamb’s blog, but this article is worth rereading and rereading. She uses the metaphor of Kirk and Spock to discuss a classic method of bypassing the inhibiting part of our conscious mind. Such strategies are relevant to other arts as well: actors who practice improv, or visual artists who draw with the non-dominant hand to see what emerges. Enjoy this most encouraging post!
Many new authors slog out that first book, editing every word to perfection, revising, reworking, redoing. When I used to be a part of critique groups, it was not at all uncommon to find writers who’d been working on the same book two, five, eight and even ten years. Still see them at conferences, shopping the same book, getting rejected, then rewriting, rewriting…..
Great, maybe Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help took five years and 62 revisions to get her story published. Awesome for her. And yes, her book was a runaway success, but this isn’t the norm. It’s playing Literary Lottery with our careers.
For most writers, it will be hard to have a long-term successful career if our pace is a book or two a decade.
Most authors who’ve made legend status were all talented, yes. But many were (are) also prolific.
‘“It’s the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.” – Andy Warhol
I had planned to continue discussing the story of Jorinda and Joringel from the Brothers Grimm, but a pair of articles I saw on successive days suggested a compelling interlude. We’ll return to the forest shortly.
The first article, “Big data,” outlines ways that new software and methods can identify structures in parts of the oceans of data that retailers and governments have not been able to access before. Everyone knows that advertisers target us based on our Facebook likes. Now there are ways to do the same with the photographs we post and other aspects of our online behavior. New algorithms find new patterns in all our activities, online and off. This includes the movies we pay to watch.
The second article appeared in the May 5 New York Times, “Solving Equation of a Hit Film Script, With Data.” In it, Brooks Barnes writes about Vinny Bruzzese, a highly paid script consultant, who charges up to $20,000 for a sophisticated analysis of a screenplay in terms of past box office performance. Bruzzese, a former statistics professor, can tell you which sort of demons do best in horror films and warn you that bowling alley scenes are a hallmark of low-grossing movies.
Though Bruzzese’s services are still too taboo for most movie people to cop to, Barnes says studios have hired him to analyze at least 100 scripts, including an early version of Oz the Great and Powerful. Meanwhile, Scott Steindorff, who produced The Lincoln Lawyer said, “Everyone is going to be doing this soon. The only people who are resistant are the writers.”
“This is my worst nightmare,” says Ol Parker, who wrote the script for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. “It’s the enemy of creativity…It can only result in an increasingly bland homogenization, a pell-mell rush for the middle of the road.”
I wonder if there is a greater nightmare lurking for writers like Parker – not just computer driven analysis, but computer driven generation of screenplays? I’m certain it’s possible.
First of all, interactive online books have been around for some time. Secondly, I’ve seen how this works in the field of computer graphics. My day job involved microchip design automation, starting over 15 years ago – chips helping to draw the next generation of chips. But what really convinces me that elements of screenplays could be synthesized is a computer generated astrological profile I ordered on whim last winter.
I plugged in my birthdate, place, time and, paid $50. Sixty seconds later, I was reading a 20 page, Jungian-style analysis of my natal chart, that was uncanny in describing my relationship with parents, among other things. It’s not that hard to understand how it is possible. The Sun in Aquarius, at one degree, forty-four minutes, in the second house, has a defined meaning. Assemble text to match the possibilities, and the rest is just number crunching. A literary outline would have fewer data points.
Colonel Mustard in the library with a wrench, for those who remember Clue.
Or this. Pick your genre – teenage slasher movie. Choose setting (urban, suburban, rural). Choose decade. Chose your villain (insane human, mutant, supernatural creature). Choose your hero (I’ll go with brainy nerd who has a congenital limp and can’t get a date for the prom). Choose the hair color of a cheerleader he will rescue. Finally, pick a screenplay structure (Save the Cat), add any notes, and hit send. A few minutes later, you’ve got your outline and pitch, with no hint of a bowling scene.
Oh brave new world! Andy Warhol saw it coming 50 years ago when he said, “Some day everybody will just think what they want to think, and then everybody will probably be thinking alike; that seems to be what is happening.”
The alternative is simple too – we keep our day jobs and write all the damn bowling scenes we want to. Life is to short to let someone else dictate our demons. As my computer generated horoscope said: “You need to face your fear of the world’s criticism, and your tendency to sabotage your creative efforts out of a deep need to be approved of by society.”
Feel free to borrow that bit of advice whenever you want to.
What do these movies have in common: Alien, Fatal Attraction, and Godzilla? How about these: Star Wars, The Bad News Bears, and Lord of the Rings? The first trio belong to the genre that Blake Snyder called “Monster in the House.” The second set are “Golden Fleece” films in Snyder’s terminology.
He assigned distinctive genre names to help us think about films in a different manner and see connections we might miss with more familiar and less specific tags. Some of the names came from Snyder’s love of the roots of our story traditions. The Golden Fleece, for example, was the object of Jason’s quest in the myth of the Argonauts, while Theseus and the Minotaur is a “monster in the house” tale that is thousands of years old.
Snyder described his approach in Save the Cat, where he presented his top-down approach to writing a movie script, from idea to logline to pitch to outline to finished screenplay. He presented a model of 10 movie genres and 15 critical plot points. Save the Cat Goes to the Movies rounds out these concepts with detailed discussions of 50 well known and well respected movies – a valuable addition. Here’s an example:
“Monster in the House” stories have three three key elements, a monster, a house, and a sin. The monster often has seemingly “supernatural” powers: Jaws is an uber-shark, while insanity lends a lot of power to human monsters. The house may be a literal house, a spaceship, a town, or a planet, as long as escape from the monster is not an option. The sin is often greed (closing the beaches would hurt the tourist economy) or lust in a teenage slasher film. In the case of Victor Frankenstein and the atomic tests that spawned Godzilla, it is scientific hubris. Sometimes ignorance is the “sin.”
“Golden Fleece” movies are quest stories that span the millennia between Homer’s Odyssey and Bob Hope road movies. The elements Snyder identifies are a road, a team, and a prize. These movies run the gamut from comic (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) to deadly serious (Saving Private Ryan), but in every case, winning the prize is less important to the story than the lessons the (surviving) team members learn.
In my previous post, I discussed Snyder’s “Fool Triumphant” genre. His remaining seven categories also reveal unexpected similarities between movies where we don’t expect to find them. It is also illuminating to look for his plot points in our favorite films. Some of them are familiar through the names he assigns – “The bad guys close in,” “All is lost,” “Dark night of the soul.” Others require explanation, which this second book in the Cat series provides.
A map is not a territory, as an outline is not the gripping story our hearts and minds crave. That doesn’t mean a map isn’t useful in helping us reach our destination. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Goes to the Movies is a useful and stimulating map to help us navigate the wilderness of a stack of blank paper.
In an earlier post, Tales of the Dummling, (January, 2013) I discussed a theme from folklore, and specifically from The Brothers Grimm, which has long intrigued me. In this story type, the youngest of three brothers, whom everyone else considers a fool, triumphs because of virtues like honesty, compassion, and attention to the present moment.
I mentioned Forrest Gump, 1994, as a recent movie version of the theme, and several readers were quick to point out that Being There, 1979, with Peter Sellers also fits the type. I’m currently reading an excellent book on screenplays, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies, by Blake Snyder (1957-2009) that widens the scope of this kind of movie by calling the genre, “The Fool Triumphant.” This shift allows us to see the connections between many other types of tales where innocence and virtue are rewarded.
I reviewed Snyder’s first book on screenwriting, Save The Cat, in January, 2012. I expect to write a review of this book after I finish, but first I want to focus on Snyder’s words about films with “fools” as heroes.
Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther, 1963
He lists three key elements:
The “fool” is someone with skills or powers that are overlooked or unnoticed by everyone except (sometimes) an antagonist who resents the fool’s success. Example: Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther movies.
The fool is foolish to an establishment that opposes him or her. In Snyder’s words, “while he does not set out to do anything but live his life, it’s usually the establishment that’s exposed as the real fool in the equation. Have no fear, our unlikely hero won’t become a part of the system – or want to!”
Finally, Snyder says, a “transmutation” occurs for the fool. Sometimes this involves a change of name, as when Chance the gardener becomes Chauncey Gardner in Being There. It may be a change of life circumstance, like Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin. It may involve gender swapping as in Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire. The fool’s mission may change as it does in Legally Blonde, whereReese Witherspoon first enrolls in Harvard law to win back her fiancé, but then discovers that law is her true calling.
Reese Witherspoon for the defense in “Legally Blonde”
Blake Snyder identifies sub-genres in stories about the wisdom of foolishness. “Political Fool” movies include Being There, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Princess Diaries. Films like Tootsie, Miss Congeniality, and Some Like it Hot are grouped together as “Undercover Fool” stories. Forest Gump and Zelig are “Society Fool” movies.
In addition to Legally Blonde, “Fool Out of Water” movies include Stripes, Beverly Hills Cop, and Crocodile Dundee.
Snyder is aware of the deep roots of these stories. The fool “has a bead on the truth,” he says, whether it’s Shakespeare’s Puck, saying, “Lord what fools these mortals be,” or Forrest Gump, who “can find a whole universe sitting on a bench waiting for a bus.” In discussing Gump, Snyder suggests that ultimately, the fool opens our minds and our hearts to spiritual wisdom.
I thought of an 11th century Buddhist master, Tilopa, who lived as an itinerant sesame seed grinder. A thousand years later, people still study his teachings, which are very complex in one sense, but can also be boiled down to these “six words of advice:”
Let go of what has passed.
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t try to make anything happen.
Relax, right now, and rest.
Clearly such wisdom lies beyond the reach of anyone but a fool!
In literary gatherings, I usually introduce myself as part of the fantasy camp, but I’ve probably read and enjoyed just as many mysteries over the years. In my previous post, I gave a lukewarm review to James Patterson’s latest Alex Cross thriller. I think the real reason is that I’ve never bonded to Alex Cross the way I have to other favorite detectives.
Character is key to detective novels just as it is to other types of fiction, and this is separate from an issue that has surfaced over the last decade, the distinction between plot driven and character driven stories.
In character driven tales, some attribute of the protagonist begins and sustains the action, the way Katniss Everdeen’s sacrifice for her sister gets things moving in The Hunger Games. Mysteries are almost always plot driven – the story begins when the first body is found.
These days, agents and editors say they’re looking for character driven tales. Dan Brown wasn’t listening when he wrote TheDaVinci Code, now one of the five best selling books of all time, a distinction shared with The Bible and Harry Potter. Like much advice for writers, I think it misses the point. Regardless of what moves the action, we love novels with characters we love, in worlds we’d love to visit. Have you ever imagined yourself in Baker Street when Holmes jumps up and cries, “The game is afoot?”
If so, read on! I’ve listed a few of my favorite detectives, not necessarily in order, for that, like everything else, is subject to change.
Sherlock Holmes: This is obvious. How many popular books of today will still be read and loved 100 years from now, spawning a lively stream of new presentations in all the popular media of the future? I seldom reread mysteries – often there is no point when you know the criminal’s identity, but I still dive into Holmes for recreation. Has there ever been a more dastardly villain than Dr. Grimesby Roylott in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band?” And for chills up the spine, one sentence has never been beaten: “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”
I enjoy all the presentations of Holmes in film, but my favorite movie Holmes is still Jeremy Brett for his perfect blend of genius and madness, without the slightest trace of modesty:
Cadfael: The Brother Cadfael mysteries were the creation of Edith Pargeter, under the pseudonym, Ellis Peters. In early 12th century England, during a period of contention for the crown known as The Anarchy, Cadfael, a middle aged and disillusioned veteran of the crusades, becomes a Benedictine monk. With keen powers of observation, a scientific turn of mind, and an in depth knowledge of herbalism, he solves the many murders that just happen to happen whenever he is near.
I enjoy the film versions more than the books, thanks to renowned Shakespearean actor, Derek Jacobi, who plays Cadfael.
Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple: Most writers are lucky if they can create a single unforgettable character. Agatha Christie gave us two. Sometime in the early 90’s, I went on an Agatha Christie binge, and over the next few years, read all the stories of both characters I could find, some 80 novels in all. Poirot and Miss Marple turn up often in films and on TV. I’ve enjoyed several versions of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile.
The bad news is that Miss Marple stories are usually classed as “cozy mysteries,” a sub-genre with a distinctly unmanly name. The good news is that I’m too old to care. There is no definitive movie Miss Marple, but British actor, David Suchet takes the honors for his portrayals of Hercule Poirot:
David Suchet as Hercule Poirot
Wallender: To re-establish my manly credentials, I add Kurt Wallender to the list. Wallender is sort of a Swedish, existentialist, high plains drifter, and the most angst-ridden detective in the history of the world. The creation of Swedish novelist, Henning Mankell, Wallendar was adapted for British TV, beginning in 2008. Episodes are show up here on PBS.
The series stars Kenneth Branagh, another great Shakespearean actor. Branagh says Wallender is “an existentialist who is questioning what life is about and why he does what he does every day, and for whom acts of violence never become normal. There is a level of empathy with the victims of crime that is almost impossible to contain, and one of the prices he pays for that sort of empathy is a personal life that is a kind of wasteland.”
Don’t watch this guy when you’re feeling blue!
Kenneth Branagh as Wallender
Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn: These officers in the Navajo Tribal Police star in 18 mysteries Tony Hillerman wrote between 1970 and 2006. The grandeur of the American southwest and Navajo tribal beliefs are the background against which these unique detective stories unfold. Chee, the younger officer, struggles to hold on to tribal traditions in 20th century America. Leaphorn is more world weary and cynical, but he knows that where there is talk of witches and taboos, trouble erupts.
Hillerman, who died in 2008 loved the four corners and wrote about it so vividly that it’s really another character in the stories. His books won many awards, but he always said what pleased him most was being named a Special Friend of the Navajo Nation in 1987. Adam Beach and Wes Studi starred in three movie versions of Hillerman’s novels, including Skinwalkers, (the Navajo name for malevolent sorcerers), that is regarded as Hillerman’s breakout novel.
Amelia Peabody: Elizabeth Peters’ 19 book series centers on the adventures and detective skills of independently wealthy and independently minded Egyptologist, Amelia Peabody and her family, which at first includes her husband Radcliff Emerson (who hates his first name and refuses to use it), and their son Ramses, who was born as stubborn as his parents. Later Amelia and Emerson take in two wards, David, the son of a Muslim and a Christian whom they rescue from semi-slavery, and Nefret, a red headed former priestess of Isis who will eventually marry Ramses.
Set in the years between 1884 and 1923, there are rascals, rogues, adventurers, tomb robbers, mummy’s curses, and Sethos, aka, The Master Criminal. Historical Egyptologists and archeological events are woven into the series which ends with the 1922 discovery of the tomb of King Tut. The author has said that Amelia herself is based in part on Amelia Edwards, a Victorian novelist and Egyptologist, whose 1873 travel book, A Thousand Miles up the Nile was a best seller.
The middle east has changed since Peters began writing her novels, but they remain among my favorite beach reads of all time. For anyone who enjoys a good mummy movie or has ever fantasized lost tombs, pith helmets, and midnight at the oasis, these are great adventure stories, ever complicated by the corpses that turn up wherever Amelia goes.
I’ve only listed detective series here because I cannot remember every good singular mystery novel I’ve read. Please add any favorites of yours to the list. There’s always room for more, since the game is always afoot somewhere!