Tag Archives: thriller

539. Alien Space Bats

If you have never heard the term Alien Space Bats, join the club. I found it while searching for an illustration for this post, originally titled deus ex machina. Alien Space Bats was a better title, so I changed it. ASB refers to impossible points of divergence in alternate history stories, as in, “It would take alien space bats intervening to make this story fly.” In short, it is a funnier way of saying deus ex machina.

Deus ex machina translates roughly as the God in the Machine, referring to an event in a Greek play wherein a God is literally lowered onto the stage to explain why everything happened as it did. It is all about plausibility and timing.

If, as a writer, you drag something into the story at the last minute to explain what has been going on, you are likely to be subject to ridicule, and deus ex machina is the phrase critics will use as a club to beat you with.

I ran into a variation of this back in the Precambrian, when I was in grad school. The class was on Indian history and culture. That is South Asian Indian, not Native American. We read a story in which the hero suffered terrible tribulations and at the very end it was revealed that he had done something bad in a previous life, and that was why all these things had happened to him.

My fellow students cried deus ex machina. I disagreed. If you were a Hindu, practicing or not, this story would have sounded reasonable. The bad things that happen to Hindus in this life are all explicable; they are all because they did something wrong in a past life and there is no point in moaning about it. As in life, so in literature.

It’s actually quite Christian, in a twisted sort of way. Fundamentalists don’t look to something individuals have personally done wrong, but to original sin to tell us why the bad things happen to good people.

Nowadays, New Age thinkers (?) have stood this on its head. You hear it everywhere, “Everything happens for a reason,” by which they mean that good will come from every apparent tragedy. It is undoubtedly the least intellectually valid cliché of the twenty-first century — but that’s a whole different sermon.

Now if you are or want to be a writer — and why would you be this far into this post if that weren’t true — you are the God and your computer is the machine. So ask yourself, why do bad things happen to your characters?

Metaphysically, you may be working out some personal trauma. Practically, you can’t have a plot without tension. But when it comes right down to it, neither of these is of any interest to your reader.

Your reader takes your story and temporarily treats it as real. When he reaches the point that he can’t do that any longer, he closes the book and you’re through.

So the question is, in your story, why do these things happen to your hero? In a thriller, it may be easy. His (or her) wife, husband, daughter, boss, company, governmental agency, or law firm has done something wrong and that is the reason your hero is on the run. Motivation is set from the get-go and the thriller formula becomes a matter of clever events to carry him/her through her/his tribulations.

If your hero has brought the troubles on himself, things get a little more interesting. If he/she has complicating factors and cross-motivations, even better, but you have to dribble all this out as you go along. You can’t do it as an info dump at the beginning and you can’t do it as a cheaters dump at the end. And in our world, a cheaters dump is a more honest word for deus ex machina.

You might get away with it in ancient Greece, but not in America today. Nor — recognizing that half the people reading this post are not from the USA and a fourth of them are from India — in any place where western style literature is the norm.

This is the game we have all agreed to play, so there is no point in whining about the rules.

If you have a reason for the things that happen in your story, but you don’t give hints along the way — if you save it all up for that dramatic reveal and dump it all on your reader at the very end, you’re on your own. I can’t help you.

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528. Repeat, with Variations

You hear it said — author Joe Doakes has written the same book thirty times. The phrase is sometimes supercilious and often has more than a touch of envy hidden in it. The implication is, “Hell, I could do that.”

True confession: I couldn’t. Sometimes I feel good about that, and sometimes I wish I could do that, because repetition is one of the main paths to $ucce$$. I keep telling myself it is not the only path.

If you are, or want to be, a writer, you should examine this notion from the viewpoint of a reader, standing in front of a shelf of books, with only enough money and time to buy and read one of them.

The one with the naked woman catches your eye (male viewpoint assumed; for alternate gender, insert your own preference) but you’ve been burned by that advertising gimmick before. One looks likely, but you’ve never read anything by that author before, so you hesitate. If you could find a book by a favorite author, you would be reassured. If you could find a book by your favorite author, featuring a favorite character, your satisfaction would be almost certain.

It’s that simple. In addition, the author has the advantage of not having to invent a new main character for each book. It might be that finding something new for an old character to do would become tedious, but I can’t report on that from personal experience. No wonder publishers want books that can become the first of a new series.

We are talking about comfort food books here; true escapist reading for the times when you want to think, but only just a little. Television substitutes. Something for the long-haul trucker to read at night to take his mind off the fact that his wife is two thousand miles away, and what he would really like to be doing is . . .; you get the picture.

For me, during my first twenty years of writing, my go-to escape was Louis L’amour. I was writing science fiction and fantasy; he was writing westerns. He didn’t exactly write the same book fifty times. If he had, I couldn’t tell his good ones from his bad ones, and he had both. (Read Flint or Conagher, but avoid The Haunted Mesa.)

After beating my head against the typewriter (this was pre-computer) for a few hours, I would pick up a Louis L’amour western and ride off across the plains. Thoughts of interstellar travel were banished until the imagination well refilled itself. It was good stuff, but I don’t read him much any more. I have them all memorized.

I also have Heinlein in the photo at the top, which is a little unfair. He was not guilty of writing the same novel over and over (people who have only read from the second half of his career may disagree), but he only had one character. Male, female, both alternating, old, young — it didn’t matter. Every one was the Heinlein character, so if you liked one of his books, you were likely to like the rest. And if not, not.

The Travis McGee books are a clinic in how to do a series character who can continue to repeat with variations. No one ever did branding as well as John D. MacDonald. Every book contained a color in the title. He wrote The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, the Quick Red Fox, and seventeen more shades. You could recognize a McGee book from across the bookstore. MacDonald’s biography was titled The Red Hot Typewriter. In it, he explained that before he committed to the series, he wrote the first two novels to see if he could stand to be married to McGee for decades. For more, see 49. The Green Ripper.

The Spencer novels belong here as well. I read with pleasure through the first ten or so; each one was reasonably unique and expanded his character. The next thirty were increasingly dreary repetitions; they provided a quick escape and as quickly faded from memory. I still occasionally re-read one of the early novels, but the rest were all one-and-done.

Today, when the writing stalls, I rinse my mind out with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I can’t say I really like them, but I always know what to expect.

525. Highland Laddie Gone

This is one of the fifteen that hit the sweet spot.

Of all the books on my best list, this is the weirdest, hands down. It sings, but its song belongs on a Ray Stevens album. Highland Laddie Gone by Sharyn McCrumb is the funniest book in history, or an incomprehensible mess, depending on how well you understand the backstory.

Which brings me to my backstory. I am not a Scot, but my wife is. Her mother, a Swede, became more Scottish than the Scots in pursuit of her husband’s culture. I learned to love bagpipe music and appreciate tartans from her. I also got into the habit of going to the local Scottish Games every year, where I found this book in a Scottish book stall.

The Scottish Games are an odd mixture of athletic events, genuine Scottish history, and romantic historical claptrap, with the last being the strongest element. I love them, but I am not fooled about how silly the whole concept is. I like the games like some people like Benny Hill.

The Highland Games are about as realistic as a bunch of modern Virginia women shucking their skinny jeans for hoop skirts and sitting around sipping mint juleps while their husbands reenact the Civil War — and that happens in this book, too.

There is also a Scottish marine biologist who has come over for the summer on a grant to study the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay, only to find out that the man paying the bills really wants him to study Chessie. If you don’t know, Chessie is the Chesapeake Bay equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster.

Our heroine, Elizabeth MacPherson is attending the Glencoe Games, one of the bigger venues. She is naive, slightly overweight, and in love with glamor but can’t quite pull it off. She solves mysteries, although the reader is left wondering how, and she has a wicked tongue for countering catty remarks.

The more I describe Highland Laddie Gone, the more I can’t believe it is one of my favorites. But it is jammed full of the humor of juxtaposition, both linguistic and cultural. There are at least five one-liners per page. Example:

When Elizabeth falls for the visiting biologist’s Scottish accent, she tells him, “I love your rrr’s.”

Taken aback, he replies, “Yes, your arse is rather nice, as well.”

Elizabeth knows the fake Scottishness of the games, but little about historical Scotland, and absolutely nothing about modern Scotland. Cameron, the visiting biologist, has never seen a Game and finds them incomprehensible; he has no interest in history, and all he want to talk about are modern Scottish sports teams. He and Elizabeth spend the entire book talking past each other, with hilarious results.

Then Lachlan, the dealer in fake genealogies and associated trinkets, is killed with a skian dubh, a ceremonial dagger. The call goes out, and the local sheriff is just over the hill at a Civil War reenactment. He tells his troops to stop being dead until he gets back, and heads toward the Game at a gallop in the full dress of a Southern cavalry officer. He sees the death weapon and says, “This will be easy. How many of these things can there be?” The attendees have to tell him that every one of the thousand kilted pseudo-Scotsmen has a skian dubh in his sock.

Elizabeth decides to solve the mystery, and all her friends push her this way and that, hoping she will find the clues they are directing her toward. Eventually, she does find the killer, but she never has a clue of what has actually been going on.

The  joy of this book is all in the one-liners. I’ve given you a few; there are hundreds more in HLG, but you might miss many of them if you don’t know the Games or the Reenactments.

If this sounds like fun, but you are only into science fiction, you might try Bimbos of the Death Sun or Zombies of the Gene Pool in which McCrumb takes on science fiction conventions.

Symphony 124

Ninety percent of the girls had watched the film calmly for knowledge, but only ten percent of the boys did. They had all come in to prove how much they knew already. As a consequence, they learned very little.

Their questions were different. They did not care about babies except to ask about defects and oddities. Their concern was the sexual act itself. If the questions had not been anonymous, probably none of them would have been able to ask anything. Preserving their image would have killed the whole experience.

They wanted to know:

“What is a hard-on?”

“What is masturbation?”

“Does it make you go blind?”

“Does it feel good?”

“Do girls masturbate?”

“What is a wet dream?”

“Does everybody have them?”

“What is a dick?”

“What is a cock?”

“What is a peter?”

“What is a boner?”‘

“What is an erection?”

“How can you keep from having them in public?”

Neil did his best to answer each question as simply and calmly as he could. Half of the questions were simply an attempt to bring their slang language into line with the new information the film had presented.

“How big is a penis?” Neil held his hands about six inches apart.

“Is everybody’s the same size?” 

“It depends on the situation. It varies a lot even for one person, from one erection to the next.”

“Do women like big ones better?”

Neil thought, How the hell should I know? and passed the question to Fiona. She fielded it gracefully and turned it around, pointing out that women weren’t as much interested in size as they were in tenderness and love. 

The boys didn’t even bother to listen to that answer.

By the time the boys left, running out into the playground to find some sixth grade girl to embarrass, Neil was exhausted and depressed. He and Fiona looked at each other and she said, “What a disaster.”

“Is it always like that?”

“It has never been like that before. The girls, yes; they were just the same as always, but the boys were terrible. You must be a bad influence.”

Neil invoked a four letter word he seldom used, and added, “Don’t even joke about that.”

“You know what I think? I think they have probably been like this every year and I just never got the chance to see how they acted because Tom or Glen always took this section alone.”

“It wasn’t that they were interested in intercourse,” Neil said, thinking aloud while he tried to make sense of it. “They weren’t; not really. I’ll bet you every one of them is a virgin.”

“You would have a hard time convincing me of that any more, even at their age.”

“It was all posture; all gesture; all trying to keep their places in the pecking order.”

“Pecker order, you mean!”

“That’s too close to reality to even make a good pun.” Neil gave up trying to put his feelings into words. He could only ask himself if he had been like that at eleven years old; he must have been.

Once again he faced the cruelty, the vanity, and the ignorance of the macho image. How did a boy go from that to become a real man, and why did so many veer aside from the harder path to become predatory womanizers, wife beaters, rapists, and child molesters? And what could he do to help them along the right path?

Fiona bid him good-bye and left. He gathered up the papers that lay scattered around the floor. It would not do for their questions to be found and circulated around the playground as a source of dirty fun. more tomorrow

442. Life is a Tunnel

Every once in a while, a phrase appears, demanding to be used. Sometimes it fits into whatever is being written at the time. Sometimes it hangs around for years before it fits. Sometimes, it just hangs around.

The phrase at the top came to me when I was considering a sequel to Raven’s Run. There were several stories on audition, and none were chosen. I don’t even remember which sequel this was supposed to go with. I do remember the scene it was to be part of.

Iain Gunn was looking out a second story window at an urban street. South San Francisco, I think. It was just beginning to rain. A girl with long black hair had just gotten out of a car. She was wearing a tight, short dress, and she was, of course, lovely. Gunn was waiting for someone to come along who was connected with the business he was just getting involved in, and this girl certainly was not that person, but she caught his attention.

She hunched her shoulders when the rain first hit her, but then she straightened her back and looked up. She raised her hands to the rain and smiled. No dancing around — she was a serious and sophisticated person — but she accepted the rain and appreciated the moment. She stood for a few more moments, facing Gunn but unaware of his presence. Her hair began to flatten against her head and Gunn could see beads of moisture trickling down her face. Then she turned and walked purposefully away. For her the moment was over, but it would remain with Gunn.

Life is a tunnel, three feet wide and seventy years long. The phrase hits Gunn (as it had hit me). She is just another of the million people he will nearly meet, nearly have some kind of relation with, one whom he could perhaps come to hate, or perhaps fall in love with. But he will never know.

If this were cliche #472 in the detective story handbook, he would meet her again and this would just be a foreshadowing of things to come. Meeting her again would be expected by the reader.

It is not meeting her that will make the incident meaningful. She will now become a symbol for all the things we miss as we live our random lives.

It’s not a new idea, and not the first time I’ve used it. These words in the opening paragraphs of Valley of the Menhir set the stage for what is to come:

Out there in the night that stretches away from us all — there where consciousness ends; where experience missed sets an iron boundary on our lives — there is a land of red sky and green sea, Poinaith, and another land where the gray sky leans down to lock hands with the sliver elfin forest.

Experience missed sets an iron boundary on our lives. Another phrase that jumped into my head, but in this case, just as I needed it.

We all live lives of found and missed opportunities. Our lives are a path from birth to death, as wide as our shoulders and as long as we last. We see so much, but if we were to turn three feet to either side, there are a thousand other lives we could live instead.

I’m satisfied with my life so far and I’m glad I was wrong about its length. I have more things to do, and more books to write. These last seventy years have been great, but I‘m not done.

427. A Grave Story

The paragraph below comes from Symphony in a Minor Key. Neil McCrae has read a ghost story at Halloween, timing it to end just as the bell rings in his sixth grade class.

Half the students leaped to their feet screaming, then broke into laughter, and went out for their break repeating juicy bits of the story to one another. Neil sat back with a feeling of satisfaction, mixed with amusement at his own self-indulgence.  There was a lot of theater in Neil McCrae, but he kept it on a tight leash. Once in a while, though! Just once in a while it felt good to cut loose.

Since the novel is based on my teaching career, it will surprise no one that Neil and I share a few characteristics. Keeping theatricality on a tight leash is one of them. Telling ghost stories on Halloween is another. This is one of those stories, based loosely on a joke I read in Boy’s Life back in the fifties.

Of course it’s a true story. I wouldn’t lie to you.

=======================

I had two brothers as students. I had one in my class one year, and his younger brother the next. They were always hanging out together. Some brothers get along; come don’t. These two were great friends.

They were outdoors types. The liked to fish and hunt. Their dad would take them canoeing, and sometimes the three of them would camp out together.

The year I’m thinking about, the last year I knew them, their dad had been really busy all fall, so they were on their own. They decided to go off together in the canoe, and go camping along the river.

I didn’t mention, did I, that the Tuolumne River runs along about a mile from the school where I taught? Or that the regional cemetery is right along the river? Of course, the students I told this story to, already knew that.

Since it’s a true story, I have to keep the details straight.

This particular fall had been rainy, and both brothers were involved in soccer, so they kept putting off their canoeing and camping trip. September came and went, and then October, and by the time November was just around the corner, they were getting pretty desperate to go. That’s probably why they decided to go on the last Friday night in October.

I probably wouldn’t have gone, myself, because it was Halloween, but these two had a habit of daring each other, and that often got them into trouble. So they went. They put in the river at Fox Grove and intended to sleep somewhere about five miles west, then paddle on down to Legion Park the next morning. Their mom was going to pick them up there. Too bad she never got the chance.

Everything went along fine for the first hour. They got a late start, but that didn’t matter since they could camp anywhere. It’s pretty wild down along the river. They got past the rapids under the bridge. They were pretty tame rapids. Things went well for the first few miles, but then fog began to form. That was fun at first.

Did I mention it was Halloween?

The fog hung in the old trees along the river bank, but they could still slip along below it. At first. Then it got dark, all the sooner because the fog was cutting off the moonlight.

Did I mention there was a full moon? That was part of the reason they went that night, because they thought they would be able to see by it’s light. They hadn’t figured on the fog. Pretty soon they couldn’t see anything. They got on down the river for a while by instinct. If you’ve been on the water enough, you get a feel for currents, and anyway, you can’t get lost on a river. It only goes one direction.

Still, it started to get dangerous, not to mention creepy, so they pulled up on a mud bank to think things over. They also had been drinking two liter Pepsi’s, if you know what I mean. They had to take care of that little chore, and they did, but while they were looking for a bush apiece, they got separated. They could hear each other clearly, but the river banks threw back such echoes that they couldn’t find each other. And then they couldn’t find the canoe. Finally, Joe – that was the younger brother – found a path up and shouted to Tom – that was the older brother – that they should climb out of the river bottom and meet on the flat land up topside. Tom shouted back to go ahead, so Joe went up.

That might not have been the best idea they ever had. They had made it further down the river than either one realized, and when Joe got to the top, he found himself in the cemetery.

Now Joe wasn’t particularly spooky. Camp fire stories of ghosts just bored him. But this was a real cemetery, and the fog in the trees looked like Spanish moss hanging down – you know, like in the stories of the bayous. He didn’t like it. He hollered for Tom, but got no answer. Then the fog thickened and the moon, which had been mostly obscured, disappeared completely. He found that he couldn’t see anything, so he put his hands out to feel, and found himself moving along, guiding himself by the tops of tombstones. He didn’t like that much either, but what are you going to do?

Tom, meanwhile, thought he had found a trail up, but it only led him into a bramble of raspberry bushes. It took him ten minutes to work his way through them and by the time he made it up to the top, his clothes were in tatters and he had blood all over his hands from fighting the thorns. He staggered out on top, panting with the effort, and found himself in the cemetery, too.

I know all this because I was one of the ones who went looking for them then next day, after someone had found their abandoned canoe. It was easy enough to track them, first by river mud footprints, then prints in the soft soil. We knew which was which because Tom’s shoes were much bigger, and besides, there were all those drops of blood.

What neither boy knew was that there was a funeral scheduled for that Saturday. The groundskeepers had dug the grave, and it was standing open. Tom found it first.

Of course, it was pitch dark, so he found it by falling in. The groundskeepers had done a good job. It was seven feet deep, with straight-up sides, three feet wide and seven feet long and completely impossible for Tom to get out of. And did he try! He leaped. He scrambled. You could see the next day where he had dug his fingers into the sides of the grave, with no success. I’m sure he shouted, but no one could hear him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he cussed a little.

Eventually, he exhausted himself and sank to the ground, curled up in a ball, and decided to wait for morning. He was half asleep when Joe found the grave the same way Tom had.

Joe fell in, and the sound of a body falling into the grave with him sent Tom to his feet. He slammed himself back against the side of the grave, wanting to scream, but no sound came out. It never occurred to him that it might be Joe, but every other monster from every movie he had ever watched went running through his head. He squeezed back into a corner of the grave in abject fear, while Joe picked himself up, turned, and began leaping and scrabbling at the wall of the grave.

About that time, just enough moonlight came down into the grave that Tom could recognize his brother. Joe slid back to the bottom of the grave for the third or fourth time as Tom reached out his bloody hand, with tattered sleeves hanging down, and touched his brother’s shoulder. His voice was hoarse from fright as he said, “You’ll never make it out of this grave.”

But Joe did. He screamed and gave such a leap that he outdid himself, caught his fingertips on the lip of the grave, scrambled like a madman, and was gone.

Tom was still there when we found him the next morning. I won’t say he was all right. I don’t think he was ever all right again. But he was there.

Joe was never found. They dragged the river. Friends, neighbors, and strangers turned out in the search, but it was useless.

Tom and his family moved away soon after, but I get Christmas cards from his mother every year. She tells me what Tom has been doing, but she never mentions Joe.

Me either. Except every year about this time I feel the need to tell his story. Just a cautionary tale, you understand. Nothing to do with me, whatsoever.

I wouldn’t lie to you.

After the Storm

Postscript to Into the Storm
Not to be read by romantic types

You would have to be numb from the waist down not to feel the sexual tension in Lydia and Michael’s common flight.

How did you react to it; what did you think of their respective personalities? Is Lydia the perfect victim-heroine from romance literature, who will be the making of Michael – eventually? Is Michael the wounded warrior whose soul Lydia will save?

If you read Into the Storm that way,
you might want to avert your eyes
from the rest of this postscript.

For me, Lydia is a wimp and Michael is a jackass with a mommy-take-care-of-me complex. I couldn’t imagine spending further time with them if they were not going to change. In the original concept for a novel, Lydia was going to change a lot, as Michael’s true character was revealed.

First a bit of backstory. Their communion is not telepathy; it is technologically enabled transmission of thought and feelings, an offshoot of the memory taping technology of A Fond Farewell to Dying (short version, To Go Not Gently). Each person has to choose to be implanted. Michael has browbeaten Lydia into doing so, working on her guilt that she can walk while he can’t. She is kind and naive; he is ruthless. Living in each other’s heads, she has fallen completely under his domination.

He wants to go to live in the Martian colony where the lower gravity will allow him greater freedom. Lydia does not want to go, but shortly after Into the Storm she gives in. Her futile resistance to the move and her resentment begin to grow her a backbone. On Mars she works to support them both, and begins to find independence as Michael turns his attention elsewhere. She is fascinated by her work and he is bored with it, which gives her respite from his continual prying.

As she grows apart from Michael, she wants to have the transponder removed, but the surgical techniques that were readily available on Earth are not available on Mars. She literally can’t get Michael out of her head.

Time passes. Lydia’s importance grows and Michael’s childish need for thrills does not abate. He is exploring Phobos in a powered spacesuit, the celestial equivalent of the powered wings,  when he crashes. Lydia, in her new executive position, is coordinating the response to a Mars-wide crisis. She has access to ships which could rescue him, but she cannot spare them.

She has to save Mars with Michael’s dying voice crying in her head. Then she has to face the honest fact that his loss is less tragedy than relief.

Not quite a romantic ending.

#              #              #

I still think it was a good story, but it would have been no fun to write, and no fun for any reader who didn’t have her own hated Michael to make it meaningful. If you have a Michael of your own (or a Michelle, it works both ways), you have no doubt already fleshed out this outline in your own head, and are voicing an evil laugh under your breath.

For the rest of us, all that is left is Michael and Lydia’s flight, which is physically exciting, sexually arousing, and more than a little creepy.