5 posts categorized "Manly Monday"

February 07, 2010

Writing a Woman


A warm welcome for Manly Monday Man J.F. Englert, who is is currently “researching” a fourth Randolph* book in Australia and, befitting this Manly Monday, staying right across the harbor from a town actually named Manly.  Even though the town features perilous surf conditions, sharks, blue bottles and a spider the size of a dime that will kill you in fifteen minutes, no Australian he has met seems to have ever connected the name of the town with idea of manliness.  What this says about Australian ideas of manliness (and womanliness) he hasn’t the foggiest.

 

 

Writing a WomanJFENGLERT and Randolph 

by J.F. Englert

 

When Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), the misanthropic writer from As Good As It Gets, is asked by a female fan how he writes his women characters so well, he replies:  “I think of a man and take away reason and accountability.”

 

The Melvin Udall approach has one obvious problem: Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt).  The waitress he falls in love with is the most reasonable and accountable character in the film.  Carol is clearly not a character written by Melvin Udall.

 

But Udall is right in what the quote suggests about the process of a man writing a woman.  Writing is artificial.  It’s not some kind of exercise in “being real.”  When something seems written from the heart, my bet is that it isn’t.  Art is a lie that tells the truth.  Even when you don’t detect them, there are tactics, artifices and devices at work. 

 

So how does a man write a woman?  Before the tricks, there must be research.            

 

First stop, Jane Austen for the basics.  Second stop, Virginia Woolf to re-enforce the first stop and deliver superb internal female monologues not found anywhere else. 

 

Take Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.  A close reading should make any sane, writing male immediately scale down his expectations for his own female characters.  Simply put, if all that Virginia Woolf has going on in Mrs. Ramsay’s head is actually going on then we are doomed.  For Ramsay’s every fifty thoughts, the average male has, perhaps (and this is being generous) one.

 

I’m not just playing on the old battle-of-the-sexes stereotypes, because it isn’t the quantity of thought that intimidates, it’s the quality.  Mrs. Ramsay is thinking about things that I and, I suspect, most males would never think of, no matter how much time we had to try to think them up, no matter what cheat sheet we had been slipped.  Mrs. Ramsay notices the subtlest tremors in the life of her family, she makes brilliant course adjustments and acute assessments of the people around her, she comprehends so much of what is lost on her husband who tramps like a rhino through everyone’s lives fuming about his career.

 

Woolf reminds me that the best I can do is make clumsy guesses like one of those navy ships dropping depth charges, hoping that every once in a while a submarine might pop to the surface.   While this is true of writing about anyone who isn’t me, it is particularly true of penning women.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  If we didn’t try all we would have left was memoir (we have too many of those already) and as Kathryn Graham, the critic, wrote: “Women do not always have to write about women…Indeed, something good and new might happen if they did not.”

 

And that’s exactly what I hope will result from all my bumbling:  Something good and new.  When writing women, I draw on what I’ve collected of female speech, habit, inclination, and reaction.  I observe and reflect.  Like David Attenborough in the wilds of Borneo, I try to stay out of the way lest I am stampeded or eaten.  I especially note those things that I would never think of myself, ways of being and doing that are genuinely alien to me as a male.  While sometimes those things involve questions of matching colors, more often, I’m sad to report, they have to do with being thoughtful of others’ feelings.  As a result, Zest Kilpatrick, the rather hard-edged female reporter in Randolph’s books, frequently tempers her edge because she is either thinking about others’ feelings or thinks she should be seen that way.

 

But the importance of tricks becomes apparent when you get to dialogue.

 

Building authentic dialogue is like playing a game of chess.  Better, it is like playing a game of chess in a Manhattan Starbucks during which a drunk, former child chess prodigy decides to teach you en passant and after things go well for a while, he knocks the board across the room because he suddenly believes it is being overrun by space monkeys.  There are rules that govern what your characters can and can’t say to one another but from time to time the board must be overturned.  You and your reader must be surprised. 

 

Before you have the surprise, you have to have the basics.  One fundamental approach is what we can label the call-and-response method of dialogue writing.  The first character says something; the second character replies, either using part of the material the first character employed or staying on point. This creates the agreeable illusion that two real beings are actually interacting on the page.  Here’s an example.  Man:  “Isn’t it just like a woman to notice that the milk hasn’t been put back into the refrigerator?”; Woman: “Isn’t it just like a man not to put the milk back into the refrigerator?”  (Note how this works just as well when the order is reversed).  The problem with this method is that it can become like training wheels for the writer, an effective, but addictive, way of getting the characters to speak that gets in the way of further development. 

 

Luckily, even the surprises can be helped along by a tactic. Let’s call it the non-sequitur method or, alternatively, the you-and-I-really-do-inhabit-different-planets-and-this-proves-it method.  Man:  “If we keep driving at this speed and don’t need to stop —we don’t need to stop, do we?— we’ll be in the city in two and a half hours max.”  Woman: “Do you think Gilbert is lonely?” 

 

These surprises, even if they’re built upon tricks, lead to other surprises, more genuine and telling about your characters, male or female.  Ultimately, though, writing a woman isn’t about writing a woman at all.  It is about writing a human being.  It is about writing the things we share and being surprised, and sometimes delighted, by the things we don’t.

 

In this, I’m backed up by a man who wrote one woman very, very well.  When asked about his “scandalous” character Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert said: “Madame Bovary c’est moi.” (Madame Bovary is me).


*A Dog At Sea, J.F. Englert’s third book featuring Randolph, a highly intelligent Labrador retriever turned sometime detective, has just been released.  A screenplay of the first book, A Dog About Town, is nearing completion.  Randolph blogs about food and other important issues atwww.adogabouttown.com. 

January 11, 2010

It Vill Be Okay

Another Manly Monday, brought to you by our friend William . . . and who says big boys don't cry?

IT VILL BE OKAY

BY Will Graham

The kindness of strangers….

It happens.  It happens all the time.  We’re just all so busy, so important, so on the go-go-go, so connected and networking, and in a rush rush rush, we don’t pay attention.

The single strongest memory I have of this is 1992, Vegas.  A frantic call from my brother; our mother had suffered a stroke, was in the hospital, and it didn’t look good.  I was on a plane five hours later, crossing my fingers and rediscovering prayer.

Got to the airport, my brother was waiting, mad dash to the hospital.  Mom was aware enough to know I was there, my brother and our father were there.  Her three boys were together again.  She couldn’t talk, I’m not certain she could see, but she squeezed my hand when I asked her to.  She knew we were there.

That very night, my mother had a massive stroke, almost flatlining.  The doctor was an old family friend, and granted us the courtesy of no sugar coating; her brain was the equivalent of a cup of yogurt.

The biggest problem with a stroke is no one really knows what will happen next.  Patients can live a long time, or they can fade away very quickly.  There’s no predicting.  None.

Nine days went by.  The three men were staying at home, I was in my childhood room, and it was a routine.  Wake up, get Dad up, head to hospital.  Wait. Sneak outside for a cigarette.  Come back.  Bad coffee.  Cafeteria food.  Wait some more.  Talk with doctor, talk with nurses, talk amongst ourselves.

And wait.

On the tenth day, we were ragged from lack of sleep, nerves stretched from waiting.  The doctor came in, was brutally honest yet again.  Things had changed, things were going downhill, it could be minutes or it could be hours, but it was going to happen and there wasn’t anything to be done.  A discussion was held, decisions made.  None of us were doing too well.  I stepped outside her room for a moment to compose myself.As I came through the door with all the grace of a Navy SEAL in a major hurry, I almost knocked over a woman.  Tiny, maybe 4’10” tall, silver hair, nicely dressed.  I caught myself, mumbled an apology, and tried to move forward.

“Boychic,” she said, looking up into my face.  “It vill bee o-kay.”  Thick, thick Yiddish accent that I recognized from my time in Miami.

I couldn’t stop myself, and blurted out, “No, ma’am, it won’t.”

Without another word, this woman put her arms around me and hugged me tighter than I’d ever been hugged in my life.  “Yes, baby, it vill,” she said.  “You don’t have to like it, but it vill be okay.”

I looked down at this little woman, a total stranger, and had a flash of pure rage.  Who the hell was she to tell me?  She didn’t know a goddamned thing.  She didn’t know me, she didn’t know my mother, who the fuck did she think she was?

She held on to me for another moment, then let go and stepped back.  Her eyes were bright and shining, she had a smile on her face.  “It vill, I promise you.”

I opened my mouth with every intention of blasting this nosy bitch who didn’t know fuck-all about me or my family right across the hall…. when I saw the tattoo on her arm.

Nothing fancy.  Nothing ornate.  Nothing special.

Just a series of numbers.  Six of them.  Almost faded away.

My brain locked.  The anger drained away.

I knew what those numbers meant.

I could not even imagine what this woman had been through in her life.  Yet she stood before me, bright eyed and smiling in a hospital corridor, reaching out and trying to comfort a grown man she had never met before and didn’t know who was trying very hard to hold on to what little shred of adulthood he had left.

She reached up, patted my cheek, said “You’re a good boy,” turned, and walked away.

I never saw her again.

Never got her name.

Never knew why she was there, who she was visiting, who she may have been in the process of losing from her life.  Again.

But I promise you this:

I’ll never forget her….

December 28, 2009

The "Chap" Stick Chronicle

TLC welcomes Rod Pennington, our final Monday Man of 2009. Rod has a 3 book deal for the "Penelope Drayton Spence" series, is writing the screenplay adaptation of the  first book in the series, The Fourth Awakening, and still finds time to do laundry. Is that a Manly Man or what? Check him out at www.rodpennington.net

The "Chap" Stick Chronicle

of Rod Pennington

With a physique better suited for a nose tackle in the NFL than a model for metrosexual skin care products, I would appear an unlikely candidate to write a novel with a strong female lead and viewpoint.   After five novels and two screenplays – all with strong male protagonists – I recently made the leap and got in touch with my feminine side.The transition wasn’t as tough as I had imagined. Years ago, my wife and I decided we did not want our daughters raised by strangers.  Since there was considerable less demand for free-lance writers than for free-lance microbiologists, I ended up playing “Mr. Mom.”  Not only was I there every day when the girls came home from school, I never missed a recital or sporting event.  However, in an environment where the only other male in the house was a cat--and the girls neutered him--I quickly learned my place.

Since I have done nearly all the cleaning and cooking for the past 35 years, my blushing bride has fallen into some bad habits. She is baffled by those two large white porcelain contraptions in the laundry room. For years she has had the “magic” clothes basket.  Drop your soiled laundry in it, and a few days later your clothes miraculously reappear clean and pressed, and hanging in your side of the closet.  I’m not saying she never cooks, but a few weeks ago I asked her to pick something up on her way home and she called me from the grocery store. She couldn’t find the deli. 

Even after having spent several decades being closer to Harriet than Ozzie, I learned many things while writing “The Fourth Awakening.”Cover2    

First I wanted to use two famous Charleston family names for my primary cast of characters – Middleton and Drayton.  Middleton Place is where they filmed the Mel Gibson movie, “The Patriot”, and Drayton Hall is one of the few surviving plantations from the Civil War. The lead character was initially Penelope Middleton Spence. When it was pointed out this made the initials of the leading lady in my continuing series “PMS”, she quickly became Penelope Drayton Spence.

As I plowed ahead with the early drafts, where I would often revert back to my masculine instincts, I started getting hammered from a variety of women.  I began getting comments like, “women do not open things with their teeth.” “A fourteenth generation southern belle would NEVER use that kind of language.”  “Women do not routinely lean on their car horns and flip people off.”  “She would never be seen in public in that.”

As the testosterone began to seep from my mental processes and be replaced with estrogen I had a revelation.  It was so obvious; it was stunning in its simplicity.  Women are not the “weaker” sex; they are the “sneakier” sex.

With the average male being substantially larger than the average female, guys throw their weight around.  Using brute force, men are generally more confrontational and will often bully their way through life.  Men swing broadswords while women use well placed stilettos. Men settle matters with their fists while women eviscerate their rivals with words. Tough guys pride themselves on their self-reliance; women know there is strength in numbers.  Where men use their brawn, women have to use their brains.

Then it hit me.  Was it possible that my wife didn’t actually think my running the vacuum cleaner and doing the laundry and dishes was sexy?  Could she have been leading me on about her inability to figure out the complexity of our washer and dryer? Women aren’t that smart; are they?  Naw!

September 28, 2009

Writing Thrillers in A Fast-Paced World

New York Times bestselling author David Hagberg writes some scary thrillers. Not only are they gripping, they’re way too close to what really happened – before the actual events. Today, David tells how he learned to foretell a future none of us wanted to see.

 

Writing Thrillers in a Fast-Paced WorldJEP_8234

David Hagberg

  

A number of years ago I proposed an idea to Tom Doherty, my long time publisher and friend, and it wasn’t much of a surprise when he turned me down. I wanted to write a novel about North Korea developing nuclear weapons, and three-stage missiles with which to deliver them.

"Too far fetched," Tom said. "North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world. People are eating grass soup. The lucky ones, at least."

But I had done my research using such sources as Jane’s Defense Weekly, Aerospace & Technology magazine and friends in and around the CIA. In the end I convinced Tom to publish the book, which he did in l999 under the title of "White House," and a short time later the world at large learned that North Korea was indeed developing nukes, and it was testing its Taepodong-series missiles. And in fact, Japan had become so alarmed at this development, that high-ranking government officials including then Prime Minister Kiezo Obuchi said something to the effect that his country did not have nuclear weapons but that " . . . we could have them."

In that instance my novel was damned near pre-empted by actual facts.

Since about 1992 or ‘93 I’d been reading about a Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden who’d been instrumental in driving the Russian army out of Afghanistan. He’d become a local hero. He was bright, rich and dedicated. His next target, he said, was the infidel west. Especially the U.S.

I dreamed up an al-Quaeda attack in which a major U.S. landmark was to be destroyed. Something that every person on earth could identify with America. My pick in 1999 was San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge, during a half marathon in which the president’s daughter was entered. Of course the runners were crossing the bridge when it was to be destroyed with a small nuke. My stories all have happy endings, so the bad guys were caught, and the attack thwarted.

Tom published my hardcover under the title "Joshua’s Hammer" one year before 9/11. The mass market paperback came out three months before the attack.

The point that I’m trying to make, isn’t that I’m some sort of a prognosticator, but that if you want to write thrillers in today’s world you damned well better have nerves of steel, because three-fourths of the way through a book your story could be rendered worthless.

You need to read too. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are both good sources for foreign news; so is Jane’s of course, which you can read for free at many libraries. The Internet for research gets better and better every day. Right now I subscribe to, among other sites, Homeland Security’s News at newsalerts@nationalterroralert.com. Some of the stuff they send out will curl your hair.

And, just lately I’ve been doing research on which nations are on the verge of producing their own nuclear weapons, and the list might surprise you. It has me. And I’ve started doing some blog posts.

But, and this is a very large caveat, research is more fun than writing. Know when to quit reading, and start writing. It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way over a thirty-five-year career writing novels. I’ve been caught short or more than one project, and that ain’t fun!

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September 14, 2009

Science Fiction vs. Mysteries: A Matter of Perception

 DSC_0075                                                                                 TLC favorite James O. Born is back with us for Manly Mondays. He returns as a new man – a writer of science fiction. Jim talks about how he became a cross-genre author named James O’Neal.

Science Fiction vs. Mysteries: A Matter of Perception

By James O. Born/James O’Neal

 

The last time I wrote for the Chronicles, it concerned buying lacrosse equipment for my daughter and suffering the prejudice of the Sports Authority clerk who couldn't believe a cute little girl could be involved in such a rough sport. I can assure you, from my career in law enforcement, that women are just as capable of drawing blood as men.

Perceptions are exactly what I want to talk about today.

I've written five crime novels under the name James O. Born. Because I have spent much of my life involved in law enforcement, people perceived the novels as being autobiographical when, in fact, they were anti-biographical. The novels contained all the quips and quick action that I wish I had taken in real life but the books were simply novels. I made the procedure and interactions between cops as realistic as possible but the plots were largely from my imagination. In magazine interviews or even casual conversations at Bouchercon, I could rarely convince people that the stories were made up.

A couple of months ago I published my first science fiction novel. It's called The Human Disguise and it's under the pen name of James O'Neal. Several crime fiction friends and bookstore owners asked me why I did something so different. The real answer is that it is not that different. In fact, the police procedure and tactics in The Human Disguise is quite a bit more realistic than many of the popular TV shows about crime today. I've yet to find a cop who didn't think The Human Disguise was more realistic than CSI. HumanDisguisesmall

Disguise

follows detective Tom Wilner as he tries to piece together a gangland shooting in southern Florida twenty years in the future. That's the storyline. It's the setting and subplots which set it apart from crime stories. Like many cops, his personal life is a mess. And one of the men he’s investigating has hooked up with Wilner’s estranged wife. In real life today no cop would be allowed to investigate someone who had stolen his wife. But in the future, when manpower is short and resources are almost nonexistent, the boss tells Wilner, "We don't have time for conflicts of interest. Find out who did the shooting and why, then close the case." And that's what adds a wrinkle to the story.

As a native Floridian, I looked at the way things were when I was growing up in the 1960s, how Florida looked when I moved away in the 1980s and how it looks today, then simply extrapolated the changes to the next generation. I took into account possible pandemics, the effect of terrorism, floundering economies and a few other more fanciful possibilities.

Although I completed the book three years ago, a few of my projections are starting to emerge. In The Human Disguise, Florida's tax structure has crumbled, forcing all the public safety services to be combined into one agency called the Unified Police Force or UPF. Several different pandemics have swept the globe and Florida is depopulated to the point of near wasteland. A report recently came out that showed Florida's population decreasing for the first time in fifty years. That was just a lucky guess.

I've been a fan of science fiction since I could first read. A story is as real and believable as the author makes it. I wanted more of a challenge than just writing about the things I hear other cops say. So I embarked on this new adventure to write something completely different than anything I had tried before. What I found is no matter how unusual you try to make things, somehow the world and society catches up to the point that it's no longer science fiction.

The truth is largely a matter of perception.