Showing posts with label Joe R. Lansdale. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joe R. Lansdale. Show all posts

16 March 2018

We Got the Funk... and The Point!

Thomas Pluck
"You don't have to write." --Lawrence Block

That's from LB's "tape" (now available as a digital file) of writing affirmations. I bought it for the hell of it after reading his excellent and helpful book Write For Your Life, which I also recommend. I love it because I get to hear my literary hero tell me how great I am for an hour, but he also says that I don't have to write. In the beginning, I questioned the wisdom of such an affirmation. For those with anxiety, it is a godsend.

This is my favorite author photo of LB, from the affirmation tape:
You do not have to write.

He didn't need no pony tail.
The world will keep on spinning. The only person who will beat you up over it is yourself. The anxiety of that appointment with the writing desk can crush you, and that's what the affirmation is meant to counter. Just sit there and fart around and some words are sure to come out. (Along with a certain amount of flatus). Joe Lansdale has more of a tough-love approach with it. If you don't have to write, don't. Don't bother us with your scribbling if this is something you're doing because someone else says you ought to write a book, or you think it might be "fun." If you're driven, then you will write.


I let a book sit for two weeks. The same book I was chunking along with since winter began, the one I hit 65,000 words with in record time, came to a halt for a number of reasons. I got the flu. Work projects ate up my sleep, and I need a good night's sleep to operate. And then I let the anxiety creep in. I started worrying about how good the book would be, which is poisonous to a first draft. You can fix it later! I had a framework and an outline, I knew the scenes I needed to write, but the path to get there became a twisty maze of passages all alike. I even used that line in the book! (If you're not an old nerd like me, it's from Zork and Colossal Cave, two of the first text-based computer games written in the '60s.)

So to put it mildly, I was in a funk. A capital F Funk.

Which reminded me of my friend Matthew C. Funk, a once prolific crime writer who seems to have all but stopped writing. Which is a damn shame. Matt excelled at the hardest boiled stories from the Desire projects in New Orleans, and police stories set there. His stories were short and sharp, like a hideout punch dagger to kidneys. The last I'd heard he had a novel whose publisher went belly-up, and it hasn't yet found a new home. Which is a shame, because I'd really like to read City of NO, as it was called when Exhibit A had it. I reached out to Matt but haven't heard back yet. You can read some of Matt's stories at Shotgun Honey. Matt was also an editor for Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and helped me edit my early Jay Desmarteaux story "Gumbo Weather," which attracted the attention of agent Nat Sobel, and the story later appeared in Blood on the Bayou for Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans.

I know another writer who seems to have stopped after that imprint shuttered its windows, and it is a damn shame. They are both fine writers and the genre is lesser without their perspectives. Last night, an hour before we went to see A Wrinkle in Time--more on that later--I sat down and banged out half a chapter of my sprawling Louisiana novel, returning to the part set in Angola prison, and damn it felt good. The characters felt alive, and I felt proud to have given them brief life on the page.

I wonder if it was LB telling me I didn't have to, or my fear of meeting a similar fate if my publisher collapsed, or if it was Champion Joe Lansdale's Texas boot kicking me in the patoot that made me write when I thought there was no point to it? Or was it the freedom of not having a point?

Then again, as Harry Nilsson taught me, everything has a point. Even Oblio, the one kid from Pointed Village who was born without a point on his head, on his wonderful children's album, aptly named The Point!. Listen to it if you haven't. You may know the songs "Me and My Arrow" and "Think About Your Troubles", which had some success. Arrow is Oblio's pointy-headed dog, who jumps on his head so he can play ring-toss with the other kids. See, they toss rings and catch them on their pointy heads.... see the trippy animated movie, if you don't believe me!

Listen, it was the seventies. This made sense then. Or we pretended it did. My father, a burly construction worker who made Andrew Dice Clay's parody character seem realistic, loved this album. After he died, I listened to his vinyl copy, and while it's simplistic, it does have a point. Everything has a point, nothing is pointless. Writing this book doesn't have to have the purpose of creating a great follow-up to Bad Boy Boogie. It could be a learning experience. I'm weaving four narratives, and it is both invigorating and challenging, and even if I fail, I will have become a better writer in the process. So that's the point.

Depression, and "funks"--as I like to call non-clinical depression--are insidious. The clinical kind, you can only try to head off. Most people need medication and therapy and I won't diminish their struggle. Anxiety, which I have, is bad enough. But funks can be battled. It's not a fight, and you're not weak when you fail. You need to learn yourself, and see when they are coming, and do what you can to derail them or ride them out. I know that I feel better when I write on a schedule, but sometimes the story needs to simmer, and it's not ready to move on. For me, sitting at the desk and listening to music that goes with the story, or going for a walk--tough in the weather we've had lately--are both tools I use. When I go for a walk WITHOUT MY PHONE I am often amazed how story problems shake loose as I tread the uneven slate sidewalks of my "quaint" town. I like hikes as well, and Eagle Rock's trails will get more of my tracks once the snow melts.

Watching good movies and reading good books helps as well. I liked Black Panther and Annihilation. The former is just a good superhero and science fiction story that makes you challenge your assumptions. It's less violent than most--they use EMP weapons and hand to hand more than firearms, thanks to bulletproof vibranium armor--and is one of the best comic book movies out of the enormous bunch. And it's an origin story, so you don't need to have seen any other movies or read the books to enjoy it. Just plain good storytelling as well. Begins in media res, explains just enough, and ties everything together. The villains even have a point, no one is all good or bad, and there are a lot of characters to love.

Annihilation is more of a horror tale than science fiction. It uses the investigation of a terrifying anomaly to explore what it means to be human, and if a human being ever really knows another, which is one of my favorite subjects. It's beautiful, scary, entertaining, and puzzling, but if you don't like ambiguity... it may not be for you. It is more like Predator than 2001: A Space Odyssey and introduces humanity to terrors we can barely understand and cannot fight or control, so Lovecraftian with a dose of Crichton. I was expecting a story more like Arrival so it took some processing for me, but if you go in with the right expectations, you will be satisfied. And it is a movie we will be talking about for a long time.

The most polarizing film of late seems to be A Wrinkle in Time, which I loved. I have not read the books. I went in cold, and if you didn't like the changes made from the books, I can't argue with you. On its own, I found it beautiful and inspiring, and one of the best explorations of how a child deals with low self-esteem. It reminded me of Wonder Woman in a small way. When Diana walks up the ladder out of the trenches into No Man's Land, a lot of us burst into tears of joy. She was an outsider who refused to accept this is the way it is and her actions were the response, they are that way because you permit them to be. If you go in cold and accept the story at face value, Wrinkle will give you many, many such emotional moments as young Meg overcomes her self-doubts. It struck a nerve with me, because while my father didn't vanish into a wormhole, my parents did divorce when I was seven, and it was a personality-altering event. I became a mouse. Look at me and you wouldn't believe it, but it took years of physical and emotional training to break out of my introverted shell, and I still find parties about as fun to navigate as whitewater rapids.

The story is for children and throws no bones to adults. It never winks at the camera. You will either accept Oprah as a towering goddess of light or you won't. I chose to accept, and found it very rewarding. Chris Pine (Dr Murray), like everyone in the movie, is completed unabashed in their emotions. We are used to unabashed cruelty, but seeing that applied to wonder, joy, love, doubt... we often see it as mawkish, thanks to the "cool" factor that Madison Avenue has told us is paramount to protect our weak inner selves, preferably with a costume of expensive clothing and accessories, maybe an Omega Seamaster? I thought he was excellent, he reminded me of a cross between Fred Rogers and Carl Sagan. The villain is a childish and hateful universal force, and Ms. Which (Oprah) describes how it bends us toward evil so perfectly that it choked me up. We are all little children, sometimes. We just get better at hiding it.

The only movie I can compare it to is What Dreams May Come, which was also beautiful and unafraid to talk about love. It was also mocked for it. We've been fed bitter and cynical pablum for so long we can have trouble experiencing wonder. Cynicism is easy; if you can't win, why fight? Because fighting it is the point.

See how I tied all that up there?

P.S., You can listen to the full album of The Point! on YouTube before you go buy it.

21 March 2015

East Texas Tales

NOTE: Many thanks to Leigh Lundin for pinch-hitting for me two weeks ago, and posting one of my Criminal Brief columns in this space. My computer had put all four feet in the air, and I'm afraid my iPad and iPhone weren't up to the task of creating a new SleuthSayers column. I'm now back in the saddle, so to speak, with a repaired iMac and poorer by several hundred bucks, and I do appreciate the help, Leigh. (As promised, the answers to the fifty movie quotes that appeared in my post two weeks ago are included at the end of today's column.) — JF

Years ago, not long after I had begun this whole writing-and-submitting-stories thing, I joined a mystery readers' group in nearby Jackson, Mississippi. During my second or third meeting I sat beside a local news reporter named Bill Minor, an avid reader and author who even in his retirement from journalism still writes an occasional column for the state newspaper. Bill always gave me good writing advice, and on that particular day in 2001 he gave me a book and told me to take it home. "Don't just read it, study it," he said to me. "It's one of the best mysteries I ever read, by one of the best writers around." The novel was Joe R. Lansdale's The Bottoms, which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel and a slew of other awards as well. Bill was right, by the way, about how good it is. To this day it remains one of my favorite books.

And Lansdale, although not exactly a household word, is no one-hit wonder. He was writing and publishing stories and novels long before The Bottoms, and is still turning out great fiction in several different genres--mainly mystery, horror, and fantasy. I like his work for the same reason I like Stephen King's: his writing is always, above all else, entertaining. Sometimes it's profound and meaningful and even beautiful, none of which is a bad thing. But it's always entertaining.

Odd can be good

Lansdale is probably best known for--what's the word?--quirky fiction. His plots are complex, twisty, and violent; his characters are unique and at times outrageous (the legendary and terrifying Goat Man in The Bottoms, a gunslinging midget in The Thicket, a backwoods killer-for-hire named Skunk in Edge of Dark Water); and his settings are usually east Texas, which in landscape and attitudes is more like the Deep South than Texas. And much of his fiction seems to involve dysfunctional families, racial tension, coming-of-age plots, and a Great-Depression-era timeframe. (Another similarity to King is that Lansdale often uses children as his protagonists.)

I haven't read all of his many novels and story collections, but I've read most of them, and even though it's hard to pick favorites when you can think of a lot of things you like about each one, these are the six novels I've enjoyed the most:

The Thicket (2013)
Edge of Dark Water (2012)
The Bottoms (2000)
A Fine Dark Line (2002)
Sunset and Sawdust (2004)
Freezer Burn (1999)

Hap, Leonard, and friends

The books I've mentioned are standalone tales, but Lansdale has also written a number of series novels featuring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, one of the most delightful partnerships in fiction. Their adventures include Savage Season, Mucho Mojo, Captains Outrageous, Bad Chili, Devil Red, and Dead Aim. And thankfully, we'll soon be seeing them as well as reading about them: I'm told a TV series is under development for the Sundance Channel, which will feature Michael Kenneth Williams (from The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) as Leonard. Hap is yet to be cast.

A movie version of The Bottoms is also in the works, to be directed by actor Bill Paxton, and other film adaptations include Cold in July and Jonah Hex.

Whether you see his characters onscreen or on the page, I hope you'll give Joe Lansdale's work a try.

You'll like it.


Answers to my March 7 "movie quotes" quiz:

1. I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
Apocalypse Now (Robert Duvall to troops after an attack)

2. Where's that Joe Buck?
Midnight Cowboy (restaurant owner to his staff, concerning employee Jon Voight)

3. Be careful, out there among them English.
Witness (old Amish farmer to Harrison Ford, as Ford leaves for the city)

4. In the end you wind up dying all alone on some dusty street. And for what? A tin star?
High Noon (Lon Chaney, offering advice to Gary Cooper)

5. Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing.
To Kill a Mockingbird (old man to Scout--Mary Badham--after the trial)

6. You design TOY airplanes?
The Flight of the Phoenix (Jimmy Stewart to engineer Hardy Kruger)

7. Fat man, you shoot a great game of pool.
The Hustler (Paul Newman to Jackie Gleason)

8. I'm George, George McFly. I am your density. I mean . . . your destiny.
Back to the Future (Crispin Glover to Lea Thompson, in the diner)

9. He did it! He missed the barn!
Cat Ballou (Michael Callan, when a drunk Lee Marvin tries to prove his marksmanship)

10. Remember me? I came in here yesterday and you wouldn't wait on me. Big mistake.
Pretty Woman (the new and improved Julia Roberts, to salesclerk)

11. We in the FBI don't have a sense of humor that I'm aware of.
Men in Black (Tommy Lee Jones to housewife, when she asks if he's making fun of her)

12. I saw it. It was a run-by fruiting.
Mrs. Doubtfire (Robin Williams to Pierce Brosnan)

13. Any man don't wanna get killed, better clear on out the back.
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood to the group in the saloon)

14. Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Alfred Molina to a desperate Harrison Ford)

15. That's a negative, Ghostrider, the pattern is full.
Top Gun (control tower to Tom Cruise, when he requests a flyby)

16. You can't fight in here--this is the War Room.
Dr. Strangelove (President Peter Sellers, during the crisis)

17. I've got the motive, which is money, and the body, which is dead.
In the Heat of the Night (Rod Steiger to Sidney Poitier)

18. They say they're going to repeal Prohibition. What will you do then? / I think I'll have another drink.
The Untouchables (reporter to Kevin Costner and Costner's reply, at the end)

19. All these things I can do, all these powers . . . and I couldn't even save him.
Superman (Christopher Reeve to his mother, referring to his late father)

20. The next time I see Blue Duck, I'll kill him for you.
Lonesome Dove (Robert Duvall to Chris Cooper)

21. He can't go down with three barrels on him. Not with three, he can't.
Jaws (Robert Shaw to Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, on the ill-fated boat)

22. A wed wose. How womantic.
Blazing Saddles (Madeline Kahn to Cleavon Little)

23. How will you die, Joan Wilder? Slow like a snail? Or fast, like a shooting star?
Romancing the Stone (soldier to Kathleen Turner, before their fight)

24. Oh, my. I hope that wasn't a hostage.
Die Hard (cop Paul Gleason to himself as he watches a body fall from the skyscraper)

25. I'll take these Huggies and whatever you got in the register.
Raising Arizona (Nicholas Cage to convenience store clerk)

26. He saved my life, and yours, and Arliss's. You can't just kill him, like he was nothin'!
Old Yeller (Tommy Kirk to his mother Dorothy Maguire)

27. Stay on or get off? STAY ON OR GET OFF?
Speed (Sandra Bullock to Keanu Reeves, as they approach freeway exit ramp)

28. Snake Plissken? I heard you were dead.
Escape From New York (cab driver Ernest Borgnine to Kurt Russell)

29. And for a brief moment, Gordo Cooper became the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen.
The Right Stuff (narrator, at the end)

30. He kissed you? What happened next? / Then he had to go invade Libya.
The American President (Annette Bening's sister to Bening, and reply)

31. Nobody ever won a war by dying for his country. You win a war by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.
Patton (George C. Scott, during the opening speech)

32. I wish they wouldn't land those things here while we're playing golf.
M*A*S*H (Elliott Gould to Donald Sutherland, referring to incoming chopper)

33. Oh Captain, my Captain.
Dead Poets Society (Ethan Hawke and other students, to fired teacher Robin Williams)

34. I don't reckon I got no reason to kill nobody.
Sling Blade (Billy Bob Thornton, in answer to reporter's question)

35. Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you knights of New England.
Cider House Rules (Michael Caine, and later Tobey Maguire, to the orphans)

36. Sometimes nothin' can be a mighty cool hand.
Cool Hand Luke (Paul Newman to the other poker players, after bluffing)

37. Today I saw a slave become more powerful than the Emperor of Rome
Gladiator (Connie Nielsen, referring to Russell Crowe)

38. Talk to her, Dad. She's a doctor. / Of what? Her first name could be Doctor.
Sleepless in Seattle (Tom Hanks' son, and Hanks' reply, while they're on hold)

39. Come on, Hobbs, knock the cover off the ball.
The Natural (Coach Wilford Brimley to Robert Redford)

40. Way to go, Paula! Way to go.
An Officer and a Gentleman (Lisa Blount to Debra Winger, at the end)

41. I see you've been missing a lot of work. / Well, I wouldn't say I've been missing it.
Office Space (downsizing team to employee Ron Livingston, and reply)

42. I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.
True Grit (Robert Duvall to John Wayne, before the shootout)

43. Docta Jones, Docta Jones! No more parachutes!
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Jonathan Ke Quan to Harrison Ford, in their pilotless plane)

44. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her everything's all right. And there aren't any more guns in the valley.
Shane (Alan Ladd to Brandon de Wilde, after the shootout)

45. I'm thinking your head would make a real good toilet brush.
Heaven's Prisoners (Alec Baldwin to thug, in a New Orleans dive)

46. Left early. Please come with the money . . . or you keep the car. Love, Tommy.
The Thomas Crown Affair (Steve McQueen's note to Faye Dunaway, at the end)

47. Active is pinging back something really big.
The Abyss (sonar operator Chris Elliott, to commander)

48. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers.
Pulp Fiction (Samuel L. Jackson to a doomed Frank Whaley)

49. I need a ride in your el trucko to the next towno.
The Mexican (Brad Pitt, thumbing a ride from the locals)

50. This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.
Alien (Sigourney Weaver, after a really hard day)

21 October 2013

Thoughts on Writing

Today, I offer some greats thoughts on writing, used with his permission, from the multiple award winning author, Joe R. Lansdale. Joe's new book is The Thicket, recently released.  A story set at the turn of the Century and the East Texas oil boom. Young Jack Parker faces tragedy and catastrophe time and time again as love and vengeance follows him.  Oh, and don't forget to give a listen to Restless, the new album by his daughter, Kasey Lansdale.    — Jan Grape

by Joe R. Lansdale

  1. When I write I seldom know where it is going. I discover this every day. Now and again a story drops full blown into my head and it is just a matter of putting it down as quickly as possible, and in some cases novels are like that. Most of my work comes fast but I still work to make it good, and the next day I start all over by rereading what I wrote the day before.
  2. I try and do a reasonable amount each day so I'm a hero every day. Three to five pages is what I work for, but I don't fight it if I get more. I rarely get less. I can't remember when I got less, but it happens. This amount of pages is perfect for me, but may not be for you. But I suggest something reasonable. If I try to write a lot of pages day after day I burn out, and I push the story uncomfortably, and past what my subconscious is working on.
  3. I write each day until I feel myself starting to fizzle. When I feel that I usually quit, so that when I finish I can put it away in my head and let my subconscious work. I rarely ever work consciously on something, and it's why I don't collaborate much, because you almost have to do that when you work with someone. I like to write and quit and not think about it anymore, other than in the subconscious way. When I get up the next morning and start out again it is there. On the rare occasion when it's not I take a day off. If it's not there two days in a row, then I know I'm just being lazy and I play a word game or tell myself I will write one sentence or one paragraph, and this usually turns into a day's work.
  4. I don't prepare for the next day's work when I finish. I let it go and try not to do that. Once in a while something will come through or I'll see something that will cause me to spring up in the middle of the night and start typing. But mostly if I think too much about it, it's like burning a short wick, but if I forget about it until it's time, the wick is lengthened overnight. I try not to think about success or failure but only that I want to make it good and entertain myself. As I have said before I write for me because I'm the only audience I truly know. I don't write for the reader, but when I finish I hope the reader is a lot like me. Frankly, when I write I try to write like everyone I know is dead. This way I'm not worried about what anyone thinks.
  5. Another thing that works well for me is to read a little before I write. It can be fifteen minutes or an hour. This makes words feel comfortable. I try to read something different from what I'm writing, but not necessarily. I try to read off and on throughout the day, and have some days where I take the whole day off to read because I know I need it. I have some weeks where I read more than others, but I always read, and I usually manage three or four books a week—novels, or the equal in short stories, not to mention a variety of odds and ends I might read. Reading is the fuel, and you have to fill up the tank constantly.
  6. I have had some writers tell me they don't like to read when they write, but since I write a lot, when would I read? I don't think there's anything wrong with reading while you write. For me it would be wrong not to read while I write, or miss out on reading because it's something I love to do, even if I did not write.
  7. You should try to write naturally, I think, and what is natural to one may not feel natural to another. You should try to write in such a way that when your writing is examined it seems as if it is written on air and hard to duplicate. What makes writing work really well isn't the subject matter—though that helps. It's the way the writer puts it down and a good writer can make something normally banal seem interesting.
  8. Thinking ahead too much gives you time to worry. Let each new day be just that: a new day. Surprise yourself. Somedays the surprises won't be as good as others, but they should still be worth it. And the days it really surprises you, that's great. When you look at it finished you might be amazed to discover that it's all pretty surprising. You hope.
  9. Lastly, anyone who takes these thoughts and suggestions as law-of-the-land should be tarred and feathered. Well, made stand in the corner. These suggestions work for me and have worked for many others and might work for you. And they might not. But to find your method you have to experiment. Some of the way I work is advice I got from a writer who I spoke to years ago, and he doesn't still work that way.

Lots of readers have asked if I would do a writing book, and I think about it. But I also think that writing books haven't done much for me. Two have helped, and only for certain things. One had one piece of advice I have used, and the other had advice that helped me when I was starting out, but would probably be worthless to anyone starting out now. The first helped because it had the idea of writing only one page a day. That became three to five for me. The other had a lot of market advice that applied to the era in which it was written. That helped. Not so much now.

So many writing books have charts and arcs and all manner of things that really have nothing to do with the sound of the prose, the voice of a character, attitudes based on their past ... all of which you as a writer should know. I don't chart that past. It becomes too solid then. At some point I know why a character acts a certain way, good or bad. And I know too that whatever character I write about, they have to have both traits. Good and bad. But telling someone that and them doing it is another thing altogether.

Do I write for money? Yes and no. I write because I love to write, but I write with the plan to get paid. I pay bills by writing. I love to do it, but also love to do it for a certain amount of money. But I would write for nothing if I had a story I wanted to write and there wasn't a paying market for it. I would write it and put it away if I had to. Or I would sell it to a lower-paying market. I try not to do that, but I do from time to time.

You should write to be paid and start in the best market possible. Have faith in yourself. If it doesn't place where you like, go down the list. Find a home. Seeing something in print you're proud of spurs more creativity and more checks. You need both in this life. Starving and being paid poorly does not make you an artist.

For me writing is a passion, not an obsession. One is good and fun, the other feels a little like you're stalking yourself. I have to have things in my life other than writing to love the writing. I think if all I had was writing it would consume me. Not the life I want.