a novel by JOHN GRABOWSKI

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Gone girls

screen-shot-2017-05-21-at-9-54-41-pmEllen Page. Shailene Woodley. Anna Paquin. Elle Fanning. Dakota Fanning. Julia Stiles. Jessica Chastain. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Jennifer Connelley. Virginia Madsen. Connie Nielsen. Many others I’ve no doubt forgotten. Female stars in Hollywood have a disturbing tendency to be around for a few films, and then disappear into either minor roles or, at best, franchise series.

Of course this happens to the men too, and there are plenty of hot new leading male stars who have disappeared. But it seems to me the phenomenon is more common with young women.

Women seem to be more dispensable in modern filmmaking. Their parts are often more stock—yes, even if they’re an ass-kicking superhero or supervillain like Scarlett Johansson or Kate Beckinsale or Margot Robbie. Face it, it’s easy to replace one with another. Margot won’t do it, call Charlize Theron.

That makes a great payday but at the same time building a career is tough. How many actresses recently have, after their breakout picture, gone on to varied performances lately, besides Jennifer Lawrence, and that may be only because David O. Russell loves her. A few others come to mind—Michelle Williams, Keira Knightly—but not many.

Some say this is deliberate on the part of studios. It helps keep budgets down. Productions are less inclined to pay $15 million for a Julia Roberts when they can have a current “it” girl for four or five. Though they still spend upwards of $180 million on epic films, they aren’t doing it as often as they once did.

The biggest reason is simply it’s hard to find well-written lead roles for women—roles where they aren’t arm-candy to the male leads, or the damsel who has to be rescued. Sure there are a few bad-assers out there, like Michelle Rodriguez and Daisy Ridley, but those bad-assers have no depth. They’re as two-dimensional as the action figures they help sell.

So every few years we’re treated to a string of new “breakout” talents who take the world by storm with a tremendous performance in what I’m going to controversially call a legitimate film—Jessica Chastain in Zero-Dark-Thirty, Ellen Page in Juno, Shailene Woodley in The Descendants, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby—and then they either don superhero outfits or disappear altogether. Or both in succession.

It’s hard to develop acting talent when that’s your talent pool—superhero characters. It leads to a very infantile set of options for serious artists. And maybe that’s why the stars in Hollywood don’t quite shine as brightly—or as long—as they once did, not long ago. Hollywood today caters to teenagers and overseas box offices. And both are very fickle.

 

What makes my blood boil…

Better Dracula

I read Amazon reader reviews (and if anyone, hem, wants to review mine, it’s available from Amazon and I would enjoy reading a review), and I don’t know why I do, because it’s torture. I’ll be blunt: a lot of readers have peanut butter for brains. The things the write make me scream as I read them. I click on the link that lets me tell Amazon their review should be removed and when it asks why I want to write “Because reviewer is an idiot.” But that doesn’t actually work. Trust me.

The single biggest comment that drives me bananas is, “I didn’t like the main character” (or sometimes “I couldn’t relate to anyone”). So many great books get one star reviews because “None of the characters were likeable.”

What boils my blood is, did it ever occur to the reviewer that maybe the character(s) was (were) supposed to be unlikable? Or to do it another way, why must all main characters be likable? Don’t we learn more from characters who are unlikable?

When reviewers say they want likable protagonists, they’re telling me they want to insert themselves into the role of the main character so that they can feel heroic and good.

I can’t think of a more shallow reason for reading. Or writing, I thought we passed the superhero stage when we were children, and we realized no one was as squeaky clean and all American as Clark Kent.

Supper

Don’t get me wrong. Clark’s a great guy, but can we, as readers, ever learn anything from him? No.

The wonder writer Francine Prose says this is why she doesn’t cotton to anyone who tells her how she should feel. The purpose of good writing is to discover how you feel  yourself. The writer is a guide but not a dictator.

It means the journey isn’t pre-decided and pre-digested for you before you start.

I’ll repeat that.

It means the journey isn’t pre-decided and pre-digested for you before you start.

For some reason this is so hard for so many readers—particularly American readers—to get. Actually I’m being disingenuous (look it up) when I say for some reason; I know the reason. It’s how reading is taught in American schools.

Anything controversial isn’t touched anymore, for fear of backlash. So children are given pablum (look it up). College isn’t much better these days. And when people read on their own, well, look who the most popular writers are: Stephen King. Dean Koontz. Dan Brown. J.K. Rowling.

All these writers give you “reliable narrators.” Whether it’s a first person or third person narration, we’re supposed to take what they say at face-value. We’re not supposed to exist on a layer higher than them, evaluating what they as protagonists or guides present. But ladies and gentlemen, that’s where the fun is. That’s where you really learn to read.

“But,” someone said to me just the other day, “in Melville’s day people weren’t carting Moby-Dick to the beach either. They liked easy reading back then.” They did. The difference is they knew it was easy reading. No one would have called

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great writing, unlike today where people smugly post that “they know what great novels are” because they teach Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer in colleges. People who carted this rather than Moby-Dick around knew they were reading escapism, and didn’t think “all things were equal,” but in our egalitarian world of today that is the mantra. It sells merchandise in the short run, but it does overall growth of any art long term.

For those who retort by citing examples of material that was considered junk in its own time but is now revered, I’ll just point out that for every one example of that there are countless more examples of junk that is…still considered junk.

You should always want to be challenged, at least a little, when you engage in culture, any culture. I want to be challenged when I write. When I start something I often don’t know what I’m going to write, how I’m going to conclude. Readers who diss works because the author didn’t hold their hand aren’t doing themselves a favor. It’s like a diet of nothing but sweets.

And we know what that does…to the teeth and to the mind.

Another post I wrote a while back about this same topic is here.

Replay: Welcome to Kollikoonkill

Much of Entertaining Welsey Shaw takes place in the small New York town of Callicoon. And I mean small. The population of the official whole town is 3057 according to the latest census, but the main concentration of that, or “census-designated place,” is just 167, down from 210 in 2000.

Callicoon is located on the edge of the NY-PA border, about two hours northwest of Manhattan and right on the Delaware River. It’s an escape. Sort of an artists colony that never took off, Callicoon is delightfully away from it all. Until a couple years ago they didn’t have cell phone service. Many people still don’t have TVs or high-speed Internet. Want to know where dial-up is alive and well? Come to Callicoon.

It was featured in the opening scene of the movie TransAmerica, I’m told. (I haven’t seen it, and can neither confirm nor deny.) I love this place. It’s got a vibe all its own and it’s gorgeous in the fall. There are farmers markets and pot lucks, and a sense of community. Everybody knows everybody pretty much. It’s quiet at night, and you feel safe.

There are no first-run movie theaters, no video stores, just one supermarket, and only a handful of restaurants. (They’re quite good, though.) There’s lots of nature. It’s particularly breath-taking in October and November. I live in California, and we don’t really get a proper autumn. I miss the golden leaves, the red trees, the crisp air, the frost, the mist, the chill in the air.

Callicoon is a very patriotic town, but it strikes me, from my limited experience, as a mellow kind of patriotism. While strolling along the grass one day, watching people walk their dogs and commune with nature, I came across this monument honoring the fallen veterans of all wars. I was impressed enough by the site to specifically mention it in my story.

The town was named Kollikoonkill by the first settlers. It means “cackling hen.” Early Dutch hunters trained their rifles on the abundant turkeys in the region. They came for the good eats, and stayed for, well, maybe for the absence of wifi.

Callicoon boasts the country’s only hydro-powered radio station, WJFF, 90.5 FM. Well, actually it’s located in next-door Jeffersonville, but it’s close enough for Callicoon to claim some credit, I guess. Power comes from a dam 50 feet away adjacent to Lake Jefferson. In my novel, my main character Daniel fills in there occasionally, doing classical music shifts. In reality I’ve never seen it, but I did do similar shifts at similar stations in my college days. That’s how I first heard the incredible Kazzrie Jaxen, a fiery pianist of wit and wild imagination, who lives in Callicoon.

The Catskill Mountains and their many spas are nearby. There are nice hotels and plenty of places to pamper yourself, though I’ve never done it. The area is so scene a whole 19th century school of nature painting, the Hudson River School, derives from it. Some of those artists worked in and around Callicoon, and perhaps there are artists who still do. The Hudson River School is noted for its depiction of humans and nature in realistic settings co-existing peacefully rather than being in a struggle. This is the philosophy around Callicoon and its environs in general. People here are very in tune with nature. They are deeply concerned that the currently active and popular fracking interests, which are buying buying up properties, will start to pound oil and gas out of the ground, destroying much of the area’s natural beauty.

Let’s hope the environmentalists win. Especially since natural gas doesn’t seem like it’s going to be the big economic boom that was forecast.

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The toughest writing I’ve ever done

Back cover Entertaining Welsey Shaw

Yes it was.

I did draft after draft after draft. After draft after draft after draft. Spend months on it. One paragraph, about a hundred words.

And none of them seemed right. Rarely have words failed me the way they did when I tried to write the back cover “blurb” for my novel, Entertaining Welsey Shaw. Nothing seemed right. Summing up anything in a short space is hard. Summing it up to make people as excited about it as you are—to make them hopefully drop whatever they are doing and grab their Mastercard—that’s a lot harder. Doing all that and not telling too much of the plot and yet teasing out enough to make your short description memorable and unique—sans cliches—well, climbing Everest might be easier.

Time for a coffee…

I should be a good candidate for this game. For years I worked as a writer and sometimes producer for many a TV news station. We TV news people are hired partly for our ability to write copy that grabs the viewer and says “Stop what you’re doing and pay attention!”

Easy when you’re dealing with car crashes, fires and waterskiing dogs. Tough when you’re trying to describe an upmarket novel that doesn’t have your typical plot hooks—nobody dies, there’s no violence, and no one wakes up from a coma to discover their lover waiting at their bedside. No spells, no quests, no dystopian futures with cold pizza and bad TV.

Like I said, not easy.

I had to plug it while being honest. Avoid hyperbole…and the impulse is always to start out writing hyperbole. You find yourself using those tired words and phrases unforgettable, hilarious, exciting, page-turning. Then you backspace over them, only to replace them with more tired phrases that really don’t describe your book. You begin to feel that only your book can describe your book. But you can’t fit your book on the back cover of your book.

Time for an Irish coffee…

The thing is, it gets done. Every book that comes out has back copy, and sometimes flap copy (if the cover has flaps). So you go to your bookshelf to see how others did it. This is a good idea. I chose one particular novel I love that also has very little of the usual hooks and handles most mainstream books have. Plus it is one of President Obama’s favorite books too, which doesn’t hurt. How’d that novel get described? Was it a fair description? How much was given away? Was the copy mostly about atmosphere and expectations or was a lot of the mechanics of the story given away.

I studied it, but it ultimately didn’t help me a lot. I read some more, and while I gleaned some elements to use (and pitfalls to avoid), there was still no magic bullet solution.

So I went back and wrote some more. I never discarded so many drafts, never felt so impotent as a writer before, all the while knowing this was the most important writing in the book, because if this didn’t appeal to potential readers the stuff between the covers would never get red.

Time for a cognac. A de Fussigny. I’m telling you, it’s the best.

“Literary” writers have it made here. You don’t have to recount plotlines or hook readers when the author is a “literary” type. All you have to do is list the existing accolades and their pedigree. “BRILLIANT!” —Time. “ASTONISHING!” —The New Yorker. “A TRIUMPH” —LA Times. Then you read “Jason McGenius is a gradate of the Very Small Liberal Arts College That Cost Six Figures to Attend and a two-time winner of the Really Smart Person award. When not writing, McGenius travels throughout the country giving lectures on his books and appears regularly on PBS and NPR.”

I wish I had a bio like that. Who needs to worry about selling the book based on its content? The selling point is you’re buying a little piece of Mr. McGenius.

But I had to buckle up and take another whack at that blurb. Cognac finished, off we go. Dig deep. What’s the novel really about? What do I want the reader to take away from it? What would I like the reader to tell his or her friends?

Plus, there aren’t many places to go after cognac. I don’t do hallucinogens or illegal pharmacological substances. So my options for inspiration are getting limited.

I find myself weighing every word, because I have so few in the small space. That’s a good thing. It forces me to find not only fresh but efficient ways of seeing things. And after about three months and maybe 50 drafts, I have copy!

One important thing I learned is not to write copy you would want to see describe your work. The important thing is to write copy that you believe would motivate your reader base to buy it. Those are two different things. Try to find turns of phrase you think your readership relates to. I would not describe my story quite the same way to myself, but nobody cares about what I think.  :-)

Bottom line is I recommend anyone start thinking—really thinking—about their blurbs and flaps months before publication. Be prepared to write and rewrite and rerewrite. Because it’s tough, the toughest writing you’ll do for your project.

You’ll also really learn what the important elements of your story are. That will help when you’re talking about your project, from casual conversations at parties and get-togethers to talks you may give to pitches to potential agents or publishers at writers’ conferences. You only have about 15 seconds to really nab ’em. In blurb-speak, that translates to about 20-30 words.

Make sure they’re good.

And just to reiterate, because several people have asked me, Entertaining Welsey Shaw is now out, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells, and just about everywhere else they sell books (if you ask nicely). You can also either get it, or ask them to order it, at your local indie book store. In fact, there’s a list of such stores right here. Whatever way you choose, thanks to the internet, it’s easy to get.

“I’ve got SECRETS!”

Wayne.jpg

One of the biggest cliches in any discussion of writing is “Why do you write?” It seems to be a question that won’t go away. I find it interesting, especially since nobody asks the plumber “Why do you plumb?” or the carpenter “Why do you carpet?”

But I’ll also tell you my answer, the same answer William Goldman gave in his excellent 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade: “I’ve got secrets!

Secrets, you hear me, secrets! And I agree. I know things, big things. Things right under our noses, only I’ve assimilated and made sense of them and now I’m bringing them to you, wrapped in a nice candy shell of good writing, witty dialogue and poignant moments.

After all, isn’t this why anyone writes?

Actually no. The genre writers, I don’t think, care too much about this sort of thing. They write mainly escapism. I know I’ll get arguments—there are lots of people who find profundities in every Star Wars and Harry Potter installment—but I really believe genre is generally antithetical to discovery, to the search for truth.

Why? Because unless you break the rules of genre (and I love it when writers do—Jose Saramago is a great example), you have certain foregone conclusions. Most people find that sort of comforting; I don’t.

I don’t care for most westerns, but one of my favorites is The Cowboys, a 1972 John Wayne film. Why? Because Wayne, obviously the star, gets shot in the back two-thirds of the way through the movie. You don’t expect that in a Western.

Another is Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. There simply isn’t enough time to describe all the ways that one went against the grain.

 

By defying genre expectations, the creators are saying, “We’ve got secrets!” Because secrets keep the genres going! And going!

That’s why I write.

It’s lonely. When I was first starting Entertaining Welsey Shaw, way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and fire was newly discovered, I read somewhere, on either the internet or a stone tablet, a quote attributed to Toni Morrison†: If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, write it.

I liked that advice, and set out to do that. I was amazed no one had written the definitive ordinary-guy-meets-celebrity novel, a setup I thought was ripe.

But agents and publishers aren’t so lofty-minded. They want stories that are very close to what they’ve already published, so they can see it that way. Despite Ms. Morrison’s advice, most people don’t like to see something they haven’t seen before. Nearly every agent and publisher I showed the novel to wanted to know, immediately, what the “comparables” were, meaning, what’s “like it.” Some websites even gave examples: Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games. Yeah, agents and marketers think far and deep.

Okay, it’s hard to blame them. The business is tough, and most books, like most movies and most recordings these days, don’t make money. So they’re being very careful about what they publish. At the same time, being this reactionary often means missing the next big opportunity. Once upon a time Ms. Rowling couldn’t find anyone who would publish a 500 page book with all text and no pictures aimed at kids. It does sound absurd, doesn’t it? What smart money would pursue that?

What all this means is fiction, particularly American fiction, is wedded to genre. It’s not as bad in other cultures. But I can’t help but feel sad when I see people reading predictable stuff over and over again. I can sort of understand why predictability is desirable—you want to know, when you invest your time, what you’re going to get. An old friend recently told me this is why she goes to Disney World again and again: you know how your vacation will turn out. You know what you’re going to see, how you’re going to react, what they’ll make you feel.

Me, I love surprises. I’d rather try something new and not enjoy it. For one thing, all the things I do love were once new experiences for me, ones I was iffy about. For another, well, as I said, I love surprises, don’t like the predictable. When I go into an action hero flick, I know they’re going to succeed in their mission—blow up the big battle station or whatever—but there will be a big loss…probably the most lovable character will die. But nothing subversive will happen.

I live for subversiveness. Art is created when the norms bump up against subversiveness and friction results. If we still weren’t shooting hero cowboys in the middle of the picture, we’d still be making Stagecoach. Nothing wrong with Stagecoach. There is something wrong with still making Stagecoaches in 2017.

Daniel Ferreira, my protagonist in Entertaining Welsey Shaw, has secrets, and they come out in his writings too. At the point we join him in the story, however, no one is interested in them anymore. He had one break-out book, when he was fresh out of college, Since then no one has been interested in anything he’s had to say. So he’s turning out schlock for third-tier magazines and newspapers, a hired gun.

That’s how Entertaining Welsey Shaw begins. You can read the rest of it, too, as it’s now out, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells, and just about everywhere else they sell books (if you ask nicely). You can also either get it, or ask them to order it, at your local indie book store. In fact, there’s a list of such stores right here. Whatever method of delivery you choose, from drone to phone, thanks to the internet, it’s easy to get.

And there’s currently a contest going on. Entertaining Welsey Shaw is about a haphazard encounter between our Everyman Daniel and a famous, elusive celebrity. Tell me an interesting encounter you’ve had with a celebrity, either traveling incognito or in full view. The best story (judged by me) wins a free hardback copy of the novel–a $27.99 value as they say. The link is here—https://entertainingwelseyshaw.com/2017/03/24/giveaway-get-a-free-copy-of-entertaining-welsey-shaw-for-entertaining-the-rest-of-us-with-your-story/.

Good luck! And remember, genre is fun but surprises are better.

† I always say “attributed” because there are a lot of quotes that were not said by people who are famous for saying them, even well-known quotes.