Gertrude Stein is a literary train wreck

I know the name Gertrude Stein, and understand that she is a Giant of Literature, so if you did your master’s thesis on Stein, or otherwise like her work, good on you. HOWEVER: For the first time, I truly read some actual words Stein wrote and published. And not something she dashed off on a napkin to pay the restaurant bill, but one of her most famous poems. And listen, she’s a literary train wreck.

Stein isn’t somebody I’d tell a student or new writer to emulate. If I actually cared about the new writer’s sanity and career, I would tell them this: read her words, then do the opposite.

Sacred Emily starts like this:

Compose compose beds.
Wives of great men rest tranquil.
Come go stay philip philip.
Egg be takers.
Parts of place nuts.
Suppose twenty for cent.
It is rose in hen.
Come one day.
A firm terrible a firm terrible hindering, a firm hindering have a ray nor pin nor.
Egg in places.
Egg in few insists.

Here’s another chunk:

All the time.
A wading chest.
Do you mind.
Lizzie do you mind.
Ethel.
Ethel.
Ethel.
Next to barber.
Next to barber bury.
Next to barber bury china.
Next to barber bury china glass.
Next to barber china and glass.
Next to barber and china.
Next to barber and hurry.

This goes on and on. It doesn’t get any better.

It just gets weirder. Here’s another section:

Cunning piler.
Next to a chance.
Apples.
Apples.
Apples went.
It was a chance to preach Saturday.
Please come to Susan.
Purpose purpose black.
Extra plain silver.
Furious slippers.
Have a reason.
Have a reason candy.
Points of places.
Neat Nezars.
Which is a cream, can cream.
Ink of paper slightly mine breathes a shoulder able shine.
Necessity.
Near glass.
Put a stove put a stove hoarser.

And here’s my favorite part.

When a churn say suddenly when a churn say suddenly.
Poor pour percent.
Little branches.
Pale.
Pale.
Pale.
Pale.
Pale.
Pale.
Pale.
Near sights.
Please sorts.
Example.
Example.

Notes

Listen, I get that Stein was being avant-garde, and purposefully deconstructing the stodgy old nature of poetry. I’m not ideologically opposed to literary and artistic craziness, if done well.

This poem isn’t done well.

If you told me a high school freshman turned this in and got an F from their English Comp teacher, I’d say yeah, that’s about right. Because it’s random, like they threw a bunch of words into some kind of spreadsheet and programmed javascript or whatever to compose sentences. Back in the old days, maybe they’d open random pages of the dictionary, pick a word, then riff off that word while stealing from Grandpa’s favorite bottle of gin and replacing whatever got drank with water so he never caught on.

When you’re already famous and you commit this sin against humankind, simply because you can, it’s seven separate kinds of self-indulgent.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: The fact that nobody can understand you doesn’t make you a genius.

Sure, you can become famous by going to extremes, then hopping on waterskis to jump the shark guarding the Outer Fringe of Extremes before you reach the Neutron Star of Complete Insanity.

The first man to paint a canvas black made some news. The second, third, fifth and 30th artist to paint a canvas black–or white, or whatever monochrome shebang you like–doesn’t shock us. And yes, the artist Banksy just had a painting sold that shredded itself as the sale concluded. New and shocking. What’s not shocking is now others will copy him, or come up with twists on the same idea, though none of those attempts will work half as well, or at all, because the surprise factor is gone baby gone.

I read that some of Stein’s later work is more accessible, which is literary jargon for “you might like this better, since it makes A LOT more sense.” That’s cool. I get that she was experimental. Here’s the thing, though: you do all kinds of experiments knowing 99 will fail and hoping for one to just rock. This doesn’t rock. Sure, it’s kinda interesting as a train wreck, in that you can see the pieces strewn about and think about why it’s a mess, and speculate on what she’s trying to say amidst all the wreckage. Yet when you really drill down on it, Stein’s poem is a lot like Bansky’s latest stunt: its only power is shock value, and only because Stein was rich and had all kinds of famous literary friends like Hemingway.

If a student or unknown writer had done this, we would never had known.

Romance novelists are a secret, epic army

Let it be known: we men must rethink our natural manly instinct that romance novels are something to ignore or avoid, like SEX AND THE CITY 2, which is indeed worthy of scorn, and woe unto any man whose girlfriend or wife coerced them into wasting two hours of their life to see that stupid thing. No bribe is sufficient.

Romance novelists are not only smart and funny, but many can write circles around most writers I know. These women are more talented than many folks writing about serial killers, elves or dinosaurs in spaceships (yes, this is a thing, try the googles) simply because there is so much freaking competition with romance novels.

Are there bad romance novels out there? Sure, just like any genre. But with so many books and writers, it’s like throwing 10,000 authors into the Thunderdome, tossing in a single chainsaw and refusing to unlock the door until there’s only one woman left. That woman is going to kick tail. She will be a writing goddess.

And the message is good. Romance novels don’t want men to be to be office drones, worried about TPS reports, or moody, over-educated basket cases like the men you read about in literary novels.

Romance novels want men of action and charm, packing swords if not guns, and sometimes guns and swords. Any man can learn this from hitting checking out romance novel covers. IT IS AN EDUCATION.

romance novels, fabio, romance novelists, rwa
Fabio and a sword is all you need. Shirts are optional.

Another bonus: romance is the largest part of the book business, which we need more than ever. If you care about books, literature and ideas instead of whatever is on the glowing tube today about the Kardashian idiots, you want to keep a healthy foundation of romance in the world’s fortress of books.

If we are truly men of action, we should band together, pool our resources and give romance novels serious tax subsidies. I’m not kidding here. Because romance authors and readers are a secret army doing a $16.5 billion public relations campaign for men everywhere. And, yes, the genre is bigger than that. It’s a big push for love of all stripes, which is a good thing, damn it. Life isn’t about having the biggest pile of dead presidents. It’s about family and who you love. As a husband and father, I get that.

So, romance novelists and readers, I am holding a mug of Belgium beer, which I raise your direction. Keep up the good work.

The Red Pen of Doom reluctantly nukes THE GREAT GATSBY

I take great pleasure in dissecting the first page of Popular Novels Which Actually Stink, or finding first pages that absolutely sing and figuring out why they’re so glorious.

The first page matters. A few examples:

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

By request, today we’re taking on page one of a classic of lit-RAH-sure: THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Sidenote: There are 5,832 various editions and such, so you’re page one may end on a different sentence and such. I tried to stop at the end of a paragraph, though as this is an older book, back when paragraphs lasted longer than most CBS sitcoms, this is kinda hard.

THE GREAT GATSBY

In my younger and more vulnerable years, (missing a comma here) my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, (this feels like odd, unplanned repetition of the “any one” in the previous graf, so strike “any”) but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. (Listen, we’re on the third graf already, and I’m not inclined to reserve all judgment, seeing how you’re coming off like a veteran bore.) The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was became privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon.; for the intimate revelations (“intimate relations” twice in this sentence, so close together, doesn’t work at all) of young men, or at least The terms in which they express them, (comma deleted) are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, (here we get repetition with a purpose for once and it does work) a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. (This is an awkward mouthful)

THOUGHTS: This is 100 percent interior monologue, which isn’t required by law to be boring. Though it sure leans that way.

Maybe it sets the mood.

However: If you’re basing a tragic hero’s entire motivation for making a ton of money to become a rich snob to impress a girl he loved and lost, and you’re hell-bent on starting page one with interior monologue about backstory, MAKE IT ABOUT THE GIRL.

Not the narrator. Not the narrator’s dad.

Not boring people who tell the narrator secrets while he pretends to sleep.

Make it all about the girl and Gatsby.

A huge part of the novel is throwing fancy parties to impress each other, right? I’m going off my memory from doing my own term papers on this thing. Never saw the movies. And when I do a first page, I try NOT to cheat by reading plot summaries and such, even if I’ve read the book.

Put a gun to my head and I’d delete this first page and start with the real inciting incident, which should be Gatsby and the narrator meeting the girl at a party way back when, so you can echo that later.

Or make it about about a small betrayal, from college or back during the war, to foreshadow the bigger betrayals and tragedies to come.

VERDICT: Doesn’t make me want to read more, which I wouldn’t unless the English 101 prof gave me no choice.

Sorry, F. Scott F.–can’t lie and say I liked this. Nuke the first page and go with a better hook.

The Red Pen of Doom destroys A SHORE THING by Snooki

Listen: the first page of a book shares something in common with the first moments of a song, the first five minutes of a movie, the first date, the first dance, the first steps of your first-born child.

It should be magic.

Raw and beautiful. Powerful and pure.

So on this silly blog, I pay particular attention to the first page of novels. Because you can bet Grandpa’s farm and every cow in sight that a brilliant page one foreshadows a good book, while a terrible collection of clichés and drivel on the first page will not suddenly improve by page 302 to make us laugh, cry and change our life forever.

The first page matters. Behold:

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

Today, we take on A SHORE THING, allegedly written by Snooki, though we all know she didn’t actually write it.

A professional ghostwriter did the boring “typing of words” part. Snooki did the hard work of cashing the check.

You will be shocked to learn her fellow castmates also got publishing deals, with Jwoww and The Situation also getting checks from publishers to put their infamous names on book-like substances.

Many trees gave their lives to give their words life.

I will pour one out for those trees tonight.

Here’s the text of page one, with edits and comments in red:

A SHORE THING

Life was hard. But a pouf? That should be easy. (Whoa, starting out a novel with a three-word cliché is a bold, bold move. Risky. And it doesn’t pay off here. Because anybody who says “life is hard” and follows that with an extended riff on the difficulties of Big Hair doesn’t actually have a hard life at all.)

Giovanna “Gia” Spumanti was a hair-raising pro. She’d been banging out poufs since age eleven, or as soon as her fingers were long enough to hold a bottle of Deluxe Aqua Net. (Maybe this is intentional, but the innuendo in the first two sentences of this graf is more juvenile than clever.) After ten years of trial and error to find the right combination of spray, twisting, and shine serum, Gia could add four inches to her overall height—which as five feet flat, she could use. Gia’s pouf defied the laws of gravity. It was her crowning glory. (“Crowning glory”–oh, how punny. Please riff on that more in the next sentence.) Although she’d love to wear an actual crown (here we go, as the prophecy foretold) of rhinestone tiara whenever she left the house, it just wasn’t practical. It could fly off on the dance floor and take out an eye. The pouf, however, wasn’t going anywhere (but up). (Wait: seriously? This is like one of those bad SNL skits with one joke they repeat for 10 minutes.)

Tonight, humidity was a bitch. Her thick black mane refused to cooperate. Gia brushed it out to start over—again—feeling discouraged. Her first night out in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, she wanted to present the best version of herself. Hundreds of guys would get a look at her, and she’d be searching among them for her near future fling(s). (I read a ton of fiction, and non-fiction, and this is the weirdest use of parantheticals I’ve seen in forever. Doesn’t work. Also, protags should be likable, and this graf of backstory just makes the reader see the protag as completely self-absorbed.) After the year she had back home in Brooklyn—landing and losing a couple of jobs and boyfriends—she deserved the sexiest summer ever.

Gia hoisted the front section of her hair, holding it high over her head with one hand.

COMMENTS

I binge-watched the first season of JERSEY SHORE while visiting my sister in H’wood, so I know enough to be dangerous about Snooki, The Situation and the entire sordid thing.

And no, this novel meant to be lit-RAH-sure.

However: Entertaining trash should still be entertaining, and well-done. This first page is neither.

In this sort of story, sure, you’re going to get a lot of interior monologue, including self-centered nonsense like this.

A full page about hair, though, is a bit much even if you put it in the middle of this kind of novel.

Dedicating the entire opening page to hair and backstory, plus backstory about the hair? My God. 

Here’s the lesson I take from this hot mess: life is hard, and what’s even harder is turning a reality show villain into a fictional hero.

Because that’s what the stars of JERSEY SHORE are: comic villains absolutely swimming in a sea of nasty hubris.

Every comedy targets an institution.

Your average sitcom pokes fun at families, marriage, kids and suburban life.

M*A*S*H* attacks the military and war.

FRIENDS put the bull’s eye on young singles.

The producers of JERSEY SHORE knew Snooki, The Situation and the rest of the gang were comic villains. They’re only fun to watch to see what kind of trouble happens, and every piece of trouble is far from random. Nobody gets hit by a bus while they’re using a crosswalk. Every episode is all about chaos and craziness that comes straight from the hubris of cast members.

Who will get drunk and start a bar fight?

Who’s so desperate tonight that they’ll hook up with anything and everything?

Which member of the cast is such a self-absorbed dipstick that they’ll get on the phone and try to order a pizza or a cab and give his last name as “Situation” and first name as “The”?

I haven’t read the rest of A SHORE THING and never will.

The feeling I get, though, is this is meant to be a comic romp, with the Snooki character, Gia, set up as the protag. That we’re supposed to laugh with her instead of laughing at her.

Sorry. Comedy doesn’t work like that.

VERDICT: Kill it with fire. Nuke it from orbit.

One man’s love letter to romance authors and readers

Listen: romance novels don’t get enough respect.

Not for the amazing army of authors. Not for the editors and literary agents.

And not for the millions of loyal readers.

That should change. Here’s why:

1) The world needs books more than ever

If you care about ideas and words, you should care about books.

Newspapers and magazines are below books on the food chain of ideas and insights. I say this as a former journalist who bleeds newsprint if you cut me.

Only books give a writer enough space and time to truly dive deep into a topic.

Every library is an arsenal of liberty and each book is a foot soldier in the war against ignorance, apathy and hate.

We need books more than ever, with propaganda, misinformation and tyrants—or wannabe tyrants—one the rise around the world.

Books matter. When it comes to ideas, they are irreplaceable.

Oh, television and movies make billions. Money isn’t the same as importance. TV, movies and the Series of Tubes can’t replace the role of books.

And the foundation of a healthy book industry? Romance novels.

It’s not even close.

Crime and mystery novels are No. 2, at $728 million a year in the U.S. book market. Sidenote: there are conflicting opinions of what genre is No. 2. I’m not getting into that fight.

Romance novels lap the field with a staggering $1.44 billion a year.

2) Romance is not a fad

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.

You can make a case that YA dystopian fiction was a fad, just like a zombie movies and books were once hotter than the sun but now colder than an icy hand wrapping around your throat at midnight in a graveyard.

There are fads in publishing, just like anything else.

Romance novels, though, are eternal and infinitely varied.

There’s contemporary and historical, futuristic and fantasy, gothic and paranormal, series and suspense, straight and LGBTQ.

Sidenote: I believe a good percentage of romantic suspense novels would get placed on the mystery and thriller shelf if you reversed the genders of the protag and love interest. Switch the genders of my favorite series, the Reacher novels, and bookstores would put those on the romantic suspense section. I own every Reacher novel and they all have a strong romance subplot, with the love interest the most important character aside from Reacher, somebody who gets more time on the page than the disposable villain Reacher will inevitably outsmart before he crushes their bones into powder. The fact that the gender of the protag determines where the book gets placed on the shelves kinda pisses me off.

3) Women rule the book world, yet men dominate book reviews

Women hold 70 to 80 percent of publishing jobs and make up the majority of both literary agents and book buyers.

However: male authors and male critics dominate book reviews.

That’s upside down.

It’s smart business to pay attention to what people buy, and dumber than dumb to ignore the actual market and what your customers want.

If movie critics ignored 90 percent of action movies and only wrote reviews for black-and-white French existentialist movies, the average movie-goer would be hacked off. I don’t care what industry you talk about. Car reviewers who only write about $240,000 exotic sports cars aren’t really helping their readers, who buying sedans and pickups and minivans.

Book critics and book reviews should reflect what book buyers actually put down money to buy.

4) Romance is a story that needs to be told

Literature—and all stories—is really about what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for.

War and action movies answer the question of what’s worth dying for.

The best stories about what’s worth dying for show how tough this choice can be. CATCH-22 doesn’t say World War II was a bad war. Clearly, Hitler needed to be stopped. The question Yossarian struggles with is truly this: After the war is basically over, do you really need to risk your life flying more missions that will probably get you killed, or should you save your life by becoming a deserter, shunned by your country but still breathing?

Romance novels are about what’s worth living for.

Who should pick as a partner or spouse, to love and cherish and maybe start a family?

That’s a massive, massive question. You better get it right, because getting it wrong can be the biggest disaster ever.

Romance novels show people struggling to make the right choice. Who should you pick as a partner in love and life?

5) Romance authors, editors and readers are strong where male writers are weak

If you’re a male writer, I’d suggest getting editors, critique partners and beta readers with a romance background.

Every. Single. Time.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Romance folks are strong where most male authors are weak. Seek them out. And when you need a professional editor, hire them.

The opposite is also true. I’ve edited novels for a number of female authors, including romance authors writing thrillers (or romantic suspense), and I think we both learned a ton each time. Strengths and weaknesses should be complementary, and you won’t find that with an editor, critique partner or beta buddy who’s a clone of you.

Also: romance authors and readers have the biggest and best-organized communities, online or in person. They have their act together.

RWA is an army, folks. Do not mess with them.

6) HFN and HEA are squad goals, people

Men should push for tax breaks for romance novels. Seriously.

This is my experience: My wife reads everything. She’s a trial attorney and the mayor, basically working two jobs. And sure, we have all kinds of books in our library and all over the house: books on rhetoric, the classics, non-fiction, thrillers, mysteries. Everything. Yet the last thing she or I want to do after a hard day is to read heavy non-fiction or dense, depressing lit-rah-sure, which on weeknights makes me feel like I have to pull an all-nighter to write a 20-page term paper, and I am done with all that.

Romance novels let her relax. They make her happy, just like reading thrillers makes me relaxed and happy.

Happy wife, happy life.

There’s a reason why if there’s no HFN (Happy For Now) or HEA (Happily Ever After) that it’s not actually a romance novel. Could be a tragic love story, like ROMEO AND JULIET, but not a romance.

The message of romance novels is that despite how hard it can be to pick the right person, and build a strong relationship with them, all of that is worth the effort. That’s why the ending has to be HFN or HEA.

I like that message.

Strike that. I love it.

It’s hopeful, noble and something we all need to hear.

Because in the end, it’s our relationships—not how many digits are in your bank account, or how fancy your car and house is—that really matter in life.

P.S. As a bonus, check out this great infographic from PBS. My only quibbles: at the end, they give FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and the e-book trend too much space, though this was back when that book was huge and e-books seemed like the future. Now, readers are pushing back for more physical books. Because hey, there’s nothing like the smell and feel of a read hardcover.

Barnes and Noble, tear down these walls

berlin-wall-falls

berlin-wall-falls

Readers and writers need each other, and we won’t connect when there are thick, artificial walls and book covers so filled with testosterone – or estrogen – that you may as well nail up signs that say “NO GIRLS ALLOWED” or “RUN AWAY, MEN, FOR YOU ARE UNWELCOME.”

I don’t want fiction so segmented that it becomes little fiefdoms, or ghettos, with this section for men, this one for women, little kids here, gay literature over there, big kids there, lesbians here, left-handed straight white guys here and right-handed women who are into quilting and cats in this corner. I read whatever Dan Savage and David Sedaris write, though I’d never have found them if you hidden them in a gay and lesbian corner, which is a bit too near a closet.

Good writing is good writing, period.

Here’s a brief plot summary for a novel. Read it and tell me where it belongs in Barnes and Noble.

Hank is an investigator who solves murders. But he can’t stop a new serial killer, at least not officially. Because that killer is going after the employees of his wife, a prominent businesswoman. This is a case Hank can’t touch and can’t ignore. The killer knows it — and he’s getting ever closer.

All too easy, right? This is pure mystery/thriller. You put it next to Lee Child and James Patterson.

Nope. It’s a romance novel. Some stores might get wild and put it in Romantic Suspense. This is BETRAYAL IN DEATH by J.D. Robb, aka Nora Roberts. All I did was change the genders of the protag and love interest.

The initials Nora Roberts put in her pen name also tell us something. Why do female authors, even crazy famous and insanely successful ones like Nora Roberts and J.K. Rowling, have to hide behind initials?

You could say J.K. Rowling went with initials long before she got famous, out of fear a female author wouldn’t be taken as seriously writing an epic fantasy novel. I blame J.R.R. Tolkien for this trend. (Sidenote: George R.R. Martin, you’re a copycat, but I love you.)

Yet after J.K. Rowling earned enough money to buy her own planet and staff it with Brad Pitt clones, she wrote a non-Harry Potter book … using the pen name Robert Galbraith.

So even the world’s richest author, who just happens to be female, still seems to feel there’s a bias against female authors.

As a writer, a reader and a man, I think that’s sincerely screwed up.

My wife has the World’s Largest Collection of Novels, including 5.92 metric tons of Deep Literature, fantasy, romantic suspense, non-fiction, plain old romance, sci-fi — basically everything. I wrote this post after comparing the backs of her romantic suspense collection to the blurbs on the back covers of my Ginormous Horde of Mysteries and Thrillers and saying hey, these are ALL THE SAME THING.

(Related post: Why every man MUST read a romance — and every woman read a thriller)

Let’s look at two more plot summaries, one for a book that turned into a movie and another for a movie.

A poor and passionate young man falls in love with a rich young woman and gives her a sense of freedom. They soon are separated by their social differences.

Has to be a romance. Even if I switched genders, there’s no other subplot involving a presidential race or a stolen nuclear bomb. Nothing but a love story, straight up.

Nope. Didn’t switch genders or touch this summary at all. Pulled it right from the IMDB page for THE NOTEBOOK by Nicholas Sparks, who says he doesn’t write romances or even love stories. He writes literature, and his stuff belongs next to Hemingway. (Not making that up. Go ahead and google it.) And yeah, they don’t shelve his books in the romance section, because “Duh, he’s a man.”

I’ve met a ton of romance authors from this silly blog, and whether they write historical things involving men in kilts, romantic suspense or wild stuff involving Shapeshifting Dolphin-Men and the Women Who Love Them, they are united behind one core belief: a burning hatred for Nicholas Sparks. (Related post: The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK)

One last shot, this time a movie:

Vanessa is beautiful, rich — and haunted by the deaths of her parents and her lover, who died during Vanessa’s secret crusade against the criminal empires tearing at the city. Now a recluse, Vanessa is jolted when a charming burglar steals her mother’s pearls while a new villain threatens the entire city. Should she open her heart up to the handsome new member of her board of directors, or should she risk everything by trusting the cunning thief in a risky battle to save the city?

Tough one. Might flip a coin here. Here’s the trailer for this movie, and yeah, all I really did was switch genders and leave out a description of the Batcave.

You might argue these are isolated cases, and that romantic suspense is a very different genre from romance, seeing how the love story is far stronger than what typically passes for a love interest in mysteries and thrillers written by male authors.

That argument is weaker than a half-cup of Folger’s Instant Decaf.

Lee Child is the kings of thrillers today. Every one of his novels has a love interest, typically the biggest character aside from the hero, a strong woman with a badge and a gun who (1) is crucial to helping Reacher beat the bad guys or (2) gets kidnapped along with Reacher, so it’s just the two of them against the idiots who made the fatal mistake of breaking our hero’s folding toothbrush.

Want to get more literary and old school? Take away the relationships and love scenes from the Easy Rawlins books and you’d cut them by two-thirds, making Walter Mosley cry. From reading every book in this series, I can say the heart of it isn’t really solving mysteries or racism back in the day, but the bromance between Easy Rawlins and his deadly best friend, Mouse.

The villains get far less attention. The latest Easy Rawlins novel has a villain showing up in the climax that I barely knew existed, and that was fine, because the real point was connecting Easy with all his friends and family one more time, especially Mouse.

You could argue all those books are written by men, and these other books, well, they’re written by women.  And sure, there are women who’ve always written thrillers or mysteries and their work has always gotten shelved in the neighborhood of Lee Child and James Patterson. But not many.

The reverse is also true. There are men writing regular genre love stories novels … but hardly any use their own name, or even initials. They’re using female names.

Online, these walls fall away. Books don’t have to get shelved in only one place – you can tag them in all kinds of categories. However, I’m one of those people who likes to go to actual Stores of Books, and hold them in my hand, and buy them using pieces of paper decorated with dead presidents. Call me crazy.

There is a benefit to a few walls. There’s no point in throwing everything together and making people search for books alphabetically.

I’m saying it’s possible to go too far in the other direction, and to miss out on broader readership by making tinier and tinier niche markets, year after year, with only a few books by big-name authors marketed to everybody. Keep this up and we’ll have one tiny shelf labeled MAINSTREAM and it’ll all be authors who’ve figured out they’re so big now, they don’t even have to write the novels, because they can put their name in big letters, the co-author in little print and let the checks come in the mail. Hey, it’s not a bad gig, if you can get it, and these authors worked hard. James Patterson is a master of co-writing a zillion books and you can tell he works hard with co-authors so each book is in his signature style.

What’s crazy is how far this trend has gone, seeing how an author being dead isn’t a barrier anymore. Books by Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum will keep haunting prime real estate of bookstores as long as lesser names are willing to cash the lesser checks.

It’s like Hollywood sequels made long after the original director and star died. Even if the book or movie is great — and Eric van Lustbader is a far better writer than Ludlum — it still feels weird. All those Tom Clancy books that Tom Clancy never wrote will, for years and years, take up a crazy amount of prime real estate at book stores. And that’s what I’m really talking about here: real estate at book stores, which is getting so Balkanized, the Balkans are going to sue for copyright infringement.

Break the mold, then set it on fire

“We’ve always done it this way” is a bad strategy. If you study breakout hits in any medium, they don’t stick to the mold. They pick that mold up, break it and set it on fire.

The first Harry Potter book was clearly aimed at kids. Look at the cover. And sure, 12-year-old boys buy books, and they see a lot of movies, and yes, Michael Bay has made 6.2 bazillion dollars with endless TRANSFORMER movies based on this demographic alone. Yet it wasn’t just 12-year-old boys who bought all those Harry Potter books.

People actually pay more attention to something out of the ordinary, as long as you don’t try to keep it caged up in its own little demographic closet.

It’s not true that men only want to read books, written by men, about young, perfect tough guys who are 6’4 billionaires. Who’s the most popular character on GAME OF THRONES, among men and women and whoever? This guy. BECAUSE HE’S AWESOME.

Peter Dinklage dancing, game of thrones, out-takes, funny

On paper, Peter Dinklage should get nowhere in Hollywood, while all the tall, young actors with chiseled abs should skyrocket into fame every time they’re cast into the latest action movie that costs $300 million and still bombs. Dinklage, Brian Cranston and the rest of the cast of Breaking Bad prove that actors don’t just have to look like Abercrombie and Fitch models to make it. Acting skills kinda matter.

Mike from Breaking Bad is an old man, but he’s far tougher, and more interesting to watch, than 99 percent of the perfect 20-something actors who get asked to carry movies like TRANSFORMERS 15: OPTIMUS PRIME GETS AN OIL CHANGE.

Find a wrecking ball

These days, publishers and booksellers are doing plenty of other demolition work. Every time a novel becomes a hit movie, teams of carpenters show up at Barnes and Noble to create a new section for this new genre that isn’t really new:

  • Young Adult Fantasy (HARRY POTTER clones)
  • Young Adult Fantasy Romance (Hey, TWILIGHT made a bazillion dollars, why not us?)
  • Young Adult Dystopian Craziness (HUNGER GAMES, DIVERGENT)

Next month, it’ll be Young Adult Zombie Dystopian Coming of Age Stories in Stick Figure Graphic Novel Form, (DIARY OF A WIMPY KID meets WORLD WAR Z)

Blake Snyder was onto something with his SAVE THE CAT books, where he smashed the myth that story and genre is about setting (westerns are in the Old West! Sci-fi happens in space!). Doesn’t matter whether your protag with a badge and gun wears pants or a skirt –  it’s a mystery/thriller.

Snyder broke down story into what happens and why, and how the story works. In the old, stupid model, JAWS is a horror movie, FATAL ATTRACTION is a domestic drama and ALIEN is a sci-fi film. Wrong. That’s looking at the setting instead of the story.

All three of those movies are a primitive, visceral version of the story he calls Monster in the House, which is one of the oldest tales ever. There’s a monster in the house, and either you kill the monster or it kills you.

Eating you is optional. Villain’s choice.

So this is my not-so-plaintive cry, which is different than a plaintiff’s cry, because I’m not suing anybody: I don’t care whether the story was written by a man or a woman, whether the protag is a man or a woman, straight or gay, short or tall, young or old. I don’t give a rip whether the story is set in 18th century London, present-day Seattle or a space station orbiting the seventh moon of Jupiter.

All I care about is whether the story is any damned good.

Thrill me, surprise me, make me laugh.

Bust the locks on some of these literary cages. Unshackle authors and readers from the obsolete expectation that demographics is destiny.

Set books free.

The Red Pen of Doom harpoons MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

Now, this classic book is so ingrained in our culture that movies can get all deep and interesting simply by alluding to a metaphor–which is like a simile, only different–that refers to this doorstop of a book.

Like this: “Maybe I’m Ahab and he’s my white whale” uttered by Bruce Willis in DIE HARD 17: THE HAIR DYES HARDEST could change that movie from just another 120-minute shootout in a nursing home into a penetrating examination of the purpose or life, or lack thereof.

Does that make editing the first page of this thing any harder?

Not really. Bring it, Melville.

MOBY DICK

by Herman Melville

Call me Ishmael. (People have been riffing off it for so many years that those three words are invincible. Can’t touch this.) Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. (This second line is also good. It makes the narrator a smidge unreliable, which is always interesting, and gives him a motive that everybody can relate to: being poor and wanting to see the world.) It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. (On your third swing of the bat, Herman the Meville, you whiff. Nobody cares about other peoples’ spleens and such. Kiss those words goodbye.) Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul;, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. (Whenever I read a ginormous sentence with five zillion semi-colons and commas, I reach for the red pen and turn it into a nice, short sentence with one comma.) This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. (Another semi-colon, but this is the last one that gets to live.) There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf. (Hate this sentence. It’s like our friend was talking to us about an interesting story, then started reciting beat poetry. Rewrite follows.) The city of Manhattoes is belted with docks and ships, like an Indian isle is encircled by coral reefs. Right and left, the streets take you waterward.

Verdict:

The fact this book is a classic doesn’t mean page one is perfect.

Herman the Melville is wordy on this page and he only gets wordier later on in this book, where he stops the action entirely to devote entire chapters to lectures about whale tails and such.

There’s a lot of fluff to kill, and I was pretty gentle with the word slaying. You could kill more.

Compared to most first pages, though, he does a good job of setting things up. Ishmael wants to see the world and that means sailing, because he’s not rich. So we’re in for an adventure.

How could we improve this? More foreshadowing. Maybe he mentions a friend who’s a sailor, the one who told him stories that got him interested in a life at sea, and this friend just served on a whaling ship that limped into port after getting attacked by a big whale. A ghostly white one. But his friend was drinking a lot of rum and tends to make up stories…

Banned substances for writers

Click here to read the whole post at McSweeney’s here, because it is brilliant.

My personal favorites:

CAPOTEX — A vintage 1960s designer drug. Unlike most other banned literary substances, this drug is often used by fiction writers and non-fiction writers alike. Artificially increases prose style and sophistication. May cause speech patterns to be affected. Known to induce cutting, witty remarks in some test subjects. Long-term use can lead to literary irrelevance.

SPILLAGRA — Boosts literary testosterone levels. Known side effects include involvement with femme fatales, consumption of rye whiskey in dive bars, and over-reliance on colorful similes. If hard-boiled dialogue persists for over four hours, contact a doctor immediately.

ORWELLBUTRIN — Regulates and encourages the production of dystopamine in the brain. Developed as a means of social control, but now listed as a “doubleplus ungood” substance by the Ministry of Health. In rare cases, subjects may imagine that they can hear animals talking. Should only be taken after the clocks strike thirteen.

Vonnegut, Einstein and a Grand Unified Theory of Writing

Kurt Vonnegut was the Man.

Go back and read his books. DO IT NOW.

Once you’ve read his books, and fully appreciate his literary genius, you can watch this low-definition video with horrible audio that still rocks because it has KURT FREAKING VONNEGUT.

I would have paid monies to have him as my professor. Now that I think about it, I did pay monies to have professors. Hmm. Though my journalism profs were top-notch. Props to you all.

Now, it’s not so complicated, is it?

Hero in a hole.

Boy meets girl.

Girl with a problem.

Albert Einstein — and thousands of other people far, far smarter than you or I put together, even on our good days when our fingers spark magic and the coffee we drink would do better on an IQ test than Michele Bachmann — spent many years trying to come up with a unified theory of everything.

See, the whole E=MC2 was only part of the answer. That’s the equation for energy. He wanted to do an equation that also explained gravity and whatnot. IT IS COMPLICATED. We will not get into it.

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein was a muffin of stud with epic hair. I salute him. Image via Wikipedia

But writing isn’t rocket science. Not even close.

Oh, people get all mystical and complicated, and come up with their own jargon and rules. Yet these self-appointed writing gurus all disagree, and they specialize so much that they know more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about nothing.

You’ve got screenwriters and reporters, poets and novelists, playwrights (who spell their name wrong) and songwriters (spelling it right, good job), copywriters and non-fiction authors — all with their own rules and jargon, their own writing conferences and groups that hand out awards.

You’ve got endless shelves of books about the craft of writing, each expert giving their own special equations to maybe solve a piece of  of the puzzle.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: We could unify this sucker, and we could do it without a lick of calculus or a single imaginary number. (Having -1 bottles of rieslings does nothing for me.)

So let’s do it. I have evil ideas, and have scribbled on the blackboard while cackling with glee.

But I’d like to hear what my brilliant writer friends say. How would you smash the walls that separate the different houses of writers?