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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

THE BIG SICK

THE BIG SICK

Not being a fan of any movie Judd Apatow has ever been involved in, I was prepared to hate The Big Sick. After the recent soul crushing survival experiences of two other non-Apatow movies, Paris Can Wait (it can) and The Hero (it isn’t), The Big Sick was at the top of my Things I’m Not Going To Waste Two Hours On list. Then two independent sources I trust told me it was possibly the best movie they had seen all year (and, yes, it was not the only movie they had seen in 2017). These sources told me The Big Sick was a smart, emotionally sincere, funny film. However, they had said the same thing about Manchester by the Sea (except for the funny part), a film I would rather poke out an eye than see again.

Despite my resolve, I somehow found myself dragged to the local independent art theater waiting for The Big Sick to wow me despite my bad attitude toward it. Ten minutes into the film, inundated by the constant dropping of the F-bomb, I was ready to walk out. Eventually, however, I found myself caught up in the film’s sincere emotion (as advertised), the smart writing (again as advertised) going on around all the craters left by more dropping F-bombs, several laugh out loud instances (previously advertised), and moments of more gentle humor, all the more affecting for their appearance in the midst of a genuine tragedy.

The characters are very real, the performances nuanced, and the veracity behind the true story the film is based on is allowed to bleed through. The Big Sick is an A+ film unfortunately spoiled by pervasive, and totally unnecessary F-bombs in every scene. Personally, I blame Judd Apatow...

BRIT SPY—THE BARON

BRIT SPY—THE BARON

British crime writer John Creasey wrote more than six hundred novels using twenty-eight different pseudonyms. As Anthony Morton, he created the character of John Mannering, better known as The Baron, a not quite reformed jewel thief turned antiques dealer and adventurer. Between 1937 and 1961, Creasey wrote more than thirty novels featuring The Baron, making him—along with The Toff—one of Creasey’s most popular characters.

 
 In the mid-sixties, British television production and distribution company ITC produced a number of European based action shows starring Americans in the lead role. This practice helped ITC sell their shows in America and other syndicated markets demanding American actors. Robert Vaughn (The Protectors), Gene Barry (The Adventurer), Richard Bradford (Man In A Suitcase) and other recognizably American actors were happy to extend their reach to international audiences while also playing to those back home—including Steve Forrest as The Baron

In 1965, under ITC’s guidance, the originally British John Mannering became an American. Steve Forrest (best known for his later American role as Lt. Hondo Harrelson in S.W.A.T.) was cast as The Baron, going on to film thirty episodes of the show. One of the first color series on British television, The Baron made Forrest an internationally well-known figure.

In his television incarnation, The Baron not only became an American antiques dealer, but all mention of his days as a cat burglar-reformed or not—disappeared with his British passport. Instead, he occasionally finds himself acting as an informal undercover agent for Templeton-Green, head of British Diplomatic Intelligence. Mannering was assisted in his antiques business by David Marlowe. However, under pressure from ABC, the American broadcast network carrying the show, Marlowe was replaced by the much more winsome Cordelia Winfield.

The American network also required more changes. British vernacular, such as petrol, car boot, car bonnet, and more, had to be dubbed over with the appropriate American terms. And due to the cigarette company sponsorship of many American network shows, a mandate was established insisting characters were allowed to light up only in moments of leisure, never when they were frightened or under duress.

There were more changes. Having cast Texan Steve Forrest in the role of John Mannering, the producers claimed he was nicknamed The Baron for the 200,000 acre Lone Star State cattle ranch owned by his grandfather. In an early episode of the show Mannering is established as having been a US Army Captain in World War II, serving in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, where he recovered art works from the Nazis.

In the early books of the original series, Mannering gets married and remains so for the rest of his adventures. For TV, however, it wouldn’t do for a charter member of the jet set to be in the midst of domestic bliss. As a result, the character was returned to bachelorhood, much to the delight of the female character populating the show. Much of this set-up was to make The Baron as much like The Saint as possible in an effort to tag onto the success of Simon Templar’s coattails. 

Like The Saint, The Baron even had his own trademark car, a silver Jensen CV-8 Mk II with the registration BAR 1. However, unlike The Saint’s less outlandish Volvo, The Baron’s elitist Jensen didn’t provide the same sales boost for dealerships.  

Most episodes of The Baron were written by ITC stalwarts Dennis Spooner and Terry Nation (the man behind the creation of the Daleks). Other scripts were written by Brian Clemens (The Avengers) under the pseudonym Tony O’Grady. The show also shared production crew members and guest stars with many other ongoing ITC shows. 

While The Baron had his reputation as a jet-setter to uphold, filming of the show never left England. Along with sharing stand-in foreign locations with other ITC shows of the era, the backlot of Elstree Studios was alternately transformed into Mannering's antiques shop, a Mexican town, a Parisian nightclub, an East European police station, and many more exotic locations.

Like many of the shows from the spy crazy era of the sixties (such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Saint, Man In A Suitcase, The Champions, and Danger Man), feature films for European release were produced by re-editing and combining two part episodes from the shows. All part of ITC generating as much money as possible from its expanding collection of spy and adventure shows.

The Baron holds up well when viewing episodes on DVD, but remains an underrated show from the time period. Steve Forrest was a strong lead as John Mannering, American antique dealer living in London. The conceit of The Baron using his antique art expertise to freelance for British Intelligence was a viable concept. Ultimately, however, The Baron tried too hard to be a clone of The Saint and, in the process, failed to be distinct enough to have a longer run.

BALANCING TAFFIN

BALANCING TAFFIN

Journalist, road manager of a flying circus, cartoonist, and advertising copywriter, Lyndon Mallet is poised to bring back one of the most iconic characters in the hardboiled Brit Grit genre—Taffin. A savvy and savage tough-guy debt collector, Taffin made his debut in 1980 in two paperback original novels, Taffin and Taffin’s First Law, published back to back by British publisher New English Library (NEL).

Taffin is a tough-guy debt collector who when not working or teaching young tearaways the fine art of intimidation, is happy to spend his time reading books on philosophy and theory. He is a big fish in the very little pond known as Lasherham. He goes about his business in a quiet, polite manner. Nobody, however, wants a second visit from Taffin because it usually involves excruciating pain. Mark Taffin is decidedly overweight and unattractive, he’s a thug and a loner who prefers psychological manipulation to dealing out broken bones—unless necessary. He is the definition of menace. 

When asked what got him started as a writer, Mallet states, it was a venerable Olympia typewriter on a table beside my father’s easel. It was black and upright and I was allowed to thump on the keys so long as there was paper in it. My father used it for typing the captions which he pasted on to his cartoons. Macs, Photoshop and Indesign were improbable sci-fi back then.

Speaking about his Taffin novels, Lyndon gives this rundown: Taffin is about a small town debt collector who becomes indispensable when his community is threatened by a ruthless developer. Taffin himself—a looming, expressionless, monosyllabic character—is a mixture of two people I know, or have known, in real life. I don’t believe anyone invents a character from nothing. Taffin is the product of some personal experience of mine. 

When I write for him, I know what I’m talking about. He is not the average thug. Despite an intimidating demeanor, he prefers mind-games to physical violence when it comes to applying pressure. The story suggests that when the law is powerless, the will of the public can sometimes prevail. So far, so optimistic; but there is a darker subtext: be careful what you wish for—it may come at a price you’re not willing to pay. Taffin understands this, knowing if he does what everyone wants, they will eventually reject him for it. ‘If I took this job,’ he tells the villagers, ‘you’d be begging me to stop within a week.’ 

The sequel, Taffin’s First Law, was commissioned and written within four months of the first book appearing. Carola Edmonds, my Editor at New English Library, felt we should address some questions left unanswered in the first Taffin story as fast as possible—and anyway, I was on a roll. The idea of a wealthy American trying to buy a deconsecrated English village church had a certain appeal. 

There is plenty of precedent—London Bridge was sold and reassembled at Lake Havasu City, Arizona. And it seemed to me if a clandestine syndicate tried to sell the church in Taffin’s home village, the locals would have something to say about it. 

But before they could turn to Taffin, I would have to bring him back from exile, and there’s no better template for that than ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’. Taffin—the dead man—makes his reappearance sitting in the pub…and they’ve all come to look… 

In Ask Taffin Nicely, time has passed and Taffin has grown up. If he ever thought of himself as a hero, he doesn’t now. But the locals still find in his enigmatic nature something they need when they suspect their village is harboring a child murderer. 

For the first time we see Taffin working in parallel—but not in harmony—with the police. There is a prime suspect, but Taffin has his doubts. Not content to go along with the popular view he applies his mind to an alternative theory. What he finds nearly costs him his life.

Later this year, after a twenty-five year hiatus, Taffin will be flexing his muscles again in Taffin On Balance. This time his mandate is to protect the village where he lives when it is threatened by the planned incursion of a high speed rail route known as StarTrack.  

In anticipation of this new Taffin chapter, Lyndon Mallet has agreed to go under the bright lights of the interrogation room—an arena where Taffin himself would feel quite comfortable.
********
What details would be essential if Interpol issued an international fugitive warrant for Lyndon Mallet? 
 
They would be looking for a six foot, soft spoken, graying Brit, bearded or clean-shaven according to mood. More to the point, my wife and family would immediately want to know why Interpol was looking for me and I wouldn’t want to be the agent they confronted. My wife’s first question would be, ‘Have you tried the Cross Keys or the White Lion – if not, why not?’  At one time she might have suggested the nearest airfield. All that aside, Interpol would have to face the fact that I live a life of blameless domesticity in rural surroundings of matchless charm. If I have a double anywhere (other than in one of the aforementioned pubs) that’s who they’re looking for. Mistaken identity springs to mind. 
 
What were your earliest reading and writing influences?
 
Roald Dahl. Reading him in my teens taught me to write about subjects close to home. He lived in my village and much later I had the privilege of knowing him (we shared a book signing session once in a local bookshop). His grave is on the hill half a mile from where I’m writing this. Other major influences have been Ray Bradbury, George MacDonald Fraser, Patrick O’Brien, Arthur Conan Doyle, J. P. Donleavy, and Rudyard Kipling. 
 
How much influence did your father’s creative output have on your career choices?
 
Considerable. My father was a cartoonist with an independent spirit who never consciously tried to steer me in any particular direction. At the same time he managed to convey a sense of the discipline you need to go your own way. I learnt to draw by watching him at work. Any questions, the answer was always there. So was the typewriter. 
 
  
When you were writing the first Taffin novel were you aware of Ted Lewis’ tough guy novels Get Carter and GBH, which are now considered to be the start of the Brit Grit movement in British hardboiled novels?
 
I knew Get Carter through the movie but never read it or GBH. I’m not really aware of movements in novel writing. I grew up with a broad spectrum of writing and hardly read at all when I’m working on a book because it’s too easy to be diverted by a strong style. I read or I write, but don’t combine the two. 
 
How did you develop the character of Taffin, and did he have any real life counterparts?
 
Early contact with the motor trade put me in touch with the debt collecting business on both sides of the fence. The Taffin idea was sparked off by a friend’s account of ‘being present’ when his employer was having trouble with a supplier. Taffin’s look was based on a burly guy who drove an elderly Cadillac and did a passable Elvis at local gigs. 
 
How did you come to write Taffin’s First Law so quickly after Taffin was published?
 
That’s a simple one. My editor wanted more and I put the concept of a good night’s sleep on hold. 
 
Did your dissatisfaction with the casting of Pierce Brosnan in the film version of Taffin contribute in some way to the hiatus between Ask Taffin Nicely and the soon to be published Taffin On Balance
 
No. Pierce Brosnan made the character his own as far as the screen was concerned and I was fine with that. I once remarked Pierce Brosnan didn’t fit my original idea of Taffin. Later I was surprised to hear it had become an issue. In fact, if this latest book ever came to the screen, Pierce Brosnan would do a fine job. The producers set the Taffin movie in Ireland for various reasons. The original books are set in rural England. Taffin and most of the characters associated with him (myself included) are English.
 
What brought you back to the character of Taffin for a new novel?
 
I had an advertising career that made demands on my time. Life moved on. I had made a switch to scripting for TV and began writing other novels. I thought Ask Taffin Nicely had completed the Taffin trilogy nicely, but somehow the character stayed with me. I guess I always suspected there was more to come. There was a story I wanted to tell and there was only one character to put at the center of it. 
 
What can we expect from Taffin on Balance?
 
When the new high speed rail route StarTrack threatens a village, Taffin is forced to act in the face of corruption. Set against a background of the classic car trade, in which barn finds are always newsworthy, Taffin on Balance deals with manipulation, at Cabinet level, of a high-speed rail route, and resistance to it at village level.
 
Taffin is now running Muscle Motors with his long-time girlfriend Charlotte, restoring and selling classic American cars. The high-speed rail route StarTrack is threatening the village boundaries and some of the locals approach Taffin for ways of resisting it. He tells them there is nothing he can do, but events draw him in anyway.
 
It seems Taffin’s past is close behind. Someone is trying to put Muscle Motors out of business and it soon becomes clear the threat is well financed, the motive personal and the intention deadly. Taffin is forced to revert to his old skills as he faces corruption that reaches from his home territory into the heart of government.
 
Are there more Taffin tales waiting to be told?
 
Yes.
********
Thanks to Lyndon for taking the time to talk Taffin. Do yourself a favor and get acquainted with the first of Taffin’s adventures before Taffin On Balance becomes available in November, 2017...If you don’t, there might be a knock on the door from somebody you don’t want to meet outside the pages of a book...

FOR MORE ABOUT TAFFIN AND LYNDON MALLET CLICK HERE

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

SPECIES: GENUS ÉDITEUR

SPECIES: GENUS ÉDITEUR

First four words about editors—They are not God…

Now a few more words—Working with editors can be confusing and on occasion filled with frustration. I’ve worked with both the good and bad varieties, but I’ve also had the blessing of working with a great editor.

Good editors are the most common of the genus éditeur. These generally kind examples of the species, try to understand what you are attempting to accomplish with your writing. However, they are only willing to work with you if your manuscript is (other than a final copy edit) publication ready. They are pleasant enough, but harried and easily distracted by their own problems or workload. They are like parents who raise free-range children, allowing them to run wild, hoping they will eventually turn out okay.

Bad editors are like weeds in the flower beds of your prose. They are noxious, prevalent, and can choke the life out of your manuscript. Sometimes, you can feel as if this species of editor is reveling in picking your manuscript apart and insisting on changes because if they don’t change something they don’t feel as if they are doing their job—and sometimes they do it because the can. This breed of editor can leave you feeling as if your manuscript has been bored through with a Roto-Rooter. In general, to give them the benefit of the doubt regarding their level of malevolence, these sour individuals are simply not a good match for your particular manuscript.

Bad editors may actually be good editors when working in their favorite genre or with important authors—as opposed to working writers. However, when faced with being assigned to edit a manuscript from a genre with which they are not familiar, or simply don’t like, they can become as difficult as a four-year-old having a meltdown in the middle of the cereal aisle. They may view your manuscript as beneath their own literary aspirations. They believe they should be editing Thomas Wolfe or F. Scott Fitzgerald—you know, authors worthy of their attention—instead of wasting their time with you. 

If this happens escape while you still can.

The problem is, beginning writers often confuse the above species. You have to be objective when working with an editor. Are they helping you make the manuscript better, or are they undermining the power of your words?

Some beginning writers have a hard time overcoming the blinkers of  their own writers’ narcissism. They are like mothers who believe their fat, spotty, rude child—otherwise known as their manuscript—is perfect, and woe be to anyone who doesn’t lavish praise, or who dares to change a word. Writer’s like this can’t recognize when the suggestions and changes offered by a good editor are pertinent and needed. Unable to distinguish between the bright plumage of a Good Editor and the black belly feathers of a Bad Editor, they rant and rave and become their own worst enemy. Unless they really are the equivalent of Thomas Wolfe or F. Scott Fitzgerald (not going to happen), they will find the welcome mat missing next time they want to submit a manuscript.

There is another breed of beginning writer at the other end of the spectrum. They can’t imagine ever disagreeing with an editor. They often end up butchering their fragile bonsai tree of a manuscript trying to please an editor, who may or may not have the best interest of the manuscript at heart.

Great editors are rare and magical beasts. They are actually able to see what works and doesn’t work in your novel. They make considered and constructive suggestions, help you find solutions to manuscript problems, encourage you through the hard process of making changes, and become a true partner in the publishing process. If you are lucky enough to  come across a Great Editor in the wild, protect them with your life. They will make you a better writer and a better person. They might not turn your manuscript into a bestseller, but they will ensure it will sell better than it would without their input.

But let’s get back to the point of this diatribe—Editors are not God. 

As a writer, I’ve long believed the myth most editors are trolls living under their desks, snatching at any winsome manuscript trying to cross their transom. I am loath to give up this unreasonable impression, even though I now find myself turning into a troll as my own role as an editor expands.

Remember, an editor’s comments on your manuscript are opinions. We may be wrong (but probably not). Comments on your manuscript are not judgements of you as a person or even as a writer. I wrote a lot of bad crap before the scent of my pros began to become more acceptably aromatic.

Speaking for myself, I am completely capable of getting things wrong. If you send me a historical romance to edit, my tendency would be to strip down your flowing prose, excise all of the yucky moony-eyed stuff, editing you by the standards of another genre with which I am more familiar.

Hopefully, I have evolved as an editor to the point where I don’t do this. I have grown to understand the tropes of many other genres beyond my own. I could be a good editor for a historical romance or sweet romance or even an erotic romance. However, I will never be a great editor in those genres because I have nothing to add to make a manuscript better other than the generic literary conventions. I could make such a manuscript’s construction better, but I most likely couldn’t help it sing.

What does all of this mean when you submit a manuscript or work with an editor? First, when your chosen editor makes comments and suggestions, don’t take them personally. Try to be objective about them. Do they make sense? Do they make your manuscript stronger? Don’t be obnoxious, but neither be afraid to disagree. I personally am open to a back and forth literary relationship. I may not get what you are trying to do until you explain it to me. Once I understand, I can tailor my advice and encouragement.

I am certainly not the final word on the worth of a manuscript or even the changes I think should be made. No editor is. This is about your writing, not a troll’s editing. Still, as a writer, you need to be open and prepared to learn from an editor’s experience, while not allowing your vision to be derailed.
ONE FINAL NOTE:

If you are working with and editor or a mentor in a writers’ group or writers’ conference, shopping around for other input can be a dangerous path. After offering advice, no editor or mentor wants to be told be told in a whiney voice, “But you’re telling me the complete opposite of what so-and-so said.” This type of shopping for advice from different individuals will only lead you to a cornucopia of conflicting advice, causing utter confusion and frustration for a beginning writer.

An editor or a mentor offers advice and opinions. Throwing up your arms and telling an them another writing guru gave the total opposite advice, is the quickest way to make your current editor or mentor abandon you in midstream. If an editor or mentor’s advice is conflicting with what you’ve been told, keep your own counsel, consider the advice, and make a decision about which editor or mentor your instincts tell you is right. Then—most importantly—stop shopping around and stick with the individual who serves you best.

THE FISTS OF ROBERT E. HOWARD

THE FISTS OF ROBERT E. HOWARD

The minute I stepped ashore from the Sea Girl, merchantman, I had a hunch that there would be trouble. This hunch was caused by seeing some of the crew of the Dauntless. The men on the Dauntless have disliked the Sea Girl’s crew ever since our skipper took their captain to a cleaning on the wharfs of Zanzibar – them being narrow-minded that way. They claimed that the old man had a knuckle-duster on his right, which is ridiculous and a dirty lie. He had it on his left. ~ Robert E. Howard, The Pit of the Serpent

Although best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane, and other sword and sorcery characters, Robert E. Howard (REH) had a lifelong interest in boxing, attending fights and avidly following the careers of his favorite fighters. Even though as a child he was bookish and intellectual, in his teen years he took up bodybuilding and eventually entered the ring as an amateur boxer. 

During the height of the pulp magazine era from the late ‘20s through the ‘30s, REH used this background to make a good living banging out boxing tales for the likes of Fight Stories Magazine, Action Stories, Sport Story, Jack Dempsey’s Fight Magazine, and others. REH actually claimed his fictional fight tales—especially The Iron Man, and the adventures of Sailor Steve Costigan—to be among the best of his works. Primarily humorous in nature, Howard’s most popular and in demand boxing stories featured Sailor Steve Costigan. These tales were both creatively and financially critical to Howard’s development as a writer.

Costigan was a lovable, hard-fisted, and innocent semipro pugilist who regularly squared-off against dastardly villains in exotic ports of call. Tales featuring Costigan were at times laugh out loud funny and brilliant examples of what, in writing circles, is referred to as an unreliable narrator. Written in first person, the voice of Sailor Steve Costigan is full of malapropisms and creative, near-swear invective.

As the undisputed champion of the merchant marine Sea Girl, Costigan has a heart of gold, fists of steel, and a head full of rocks, all of which get him—and his bulldog Mike—tossed into constant trouble. Costigan is lovable for two reasons. First, he is just not smart enough to do anything other than punch his way clear of trouble. And second, when he starts punching, every reader feels the joy of the underdog overcoming the odds with the solid landing of every blow. 

No matter how ridiculous the situation he places Costigan in, REH never ridicules the character, always putting Costigan on the side of the angels. Readers know they should always bet on Costigan coming through victorious in a fight, and they would be more than willing to share a beer with him afterward. Not too many readers would want to share suds with the brutal Conan or the dour Solomon Kane. Costigan is accessible, a larger than life everyman.

Not all of REH’s boxing stories are funny. Aside from essays exploring what attributes REH believed made a great boxer, his other boxing tales were alive with the sound and the fury of the real world of the square circle. In particular, his novelette Iron Man, is a revered saga for those followers not just of REH, but of boxing enthusiasts in general.

Over the years, REH’s boxing fiction has been reprinted in various incomplete collections. However, between 2013 and 2015, the ultimate collection of REH’s boxing fiction was amassed by the Robert E. Howard Foundation Press and published in the four volume Fists of Iron collection. This has finally given these overlooked works their rightful place in the Howard pantheon. 

These beautifully bound and numbered, hardcover editions sport stunning, pulp inspired wrap around covers and contain every story, partial story, and scrap of idea Howard produced in relation to the sweet science of boxing. Editors, Mark Finn, Patrice Louinet, and Christopher Gruber each contributed insightful and extensive introductions to the volumes, in what was clearly a labor of love and appreciation for REH’s work.

The complete compendium of Fist of Iron has not only become a highly sought after collector’s item, but has preserved the two-fisted tales that helped a generation of readers to fight through the Great Depression and the tough years to follow. Even today, REH’s boxing fiction reads with immediacy and storytelling power. If you’ve never met, or never heard of REH’s boxing characters Sailor Steve Costigan, Kid Allison, Mike O’Brien, or Dennis Dorgan, now is the time to lace up your gloves, put up your dukes, and climb into the ring.
 
  
 
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NOTE: I would be remiss at this point if I did not mention a collection of boxing tales inspired by REH’s Sailor Steve Costigan Tales. Mark Finn, one of the editors behind the Fists of Iron collection created a series of short stories featuring a two-fisted character as a homage to REH’s Sailor Steve Costigan. As the editor of the Fight Card series of novels (now 50 strong), I had the delight of editing and publishing these stories in the collection, Fight Card: The Adventures of Sailor Tom Sharkey. 
 
Channeling the best of REH’s boxing tales, The Adventures of Sailor Tom Sharkey are a terrific blend of weird, historical, and humorous boxing stories to be read and enjoyed.
 
As for Sailor Tom Sharkey himself, he is one of the greatest heavyweight boxers to enter the legendary squared circle during the Golden Age of Boxing. Standing a mere 5’ 8”, Sailor Tom Sharkey is one of boxing’s most feared opponents…Gentleman Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, Kid McCoy, and Jim Jeffries all agreed he was their fiercest opponent and gave them their toughest fights. A colorful boxer both in the ring and out, he retired in 1904 after several legendary and controversial failed attempts to win the championship belt.
 
That’s the story you know, but it’s not the end of Sharkey’s story—not by a long shot. The Adventures of Sailor Tom Sharkey collects the rowdy, bawdy, burlesque, tall Texas tales of Sailor Tom Sharkey’s shenanigans after he hung up his professional gloves. 
 
There’s Sharkey’s brush with Hollywood’s “It” Girl, Clara Bow. There are chills as Sharkey and Kid McCoy face down a maniacal bandit. And the heat gets turned up when Sharkey rides the rails with Jim Jeffries and the Vaudeville Carnival into a clash with mad scientists and mummified menaces. And for the softer side of Sharkey, you can watch as he plays Santa Claus to a bunch of Tammany Hall orphans and ends up with a tiger by the tail—literally. These are the untold tales of the wildest tale-teller of boxing’s golden age…

AVOIDING THE CURSE OF BACKSTORY INFO DUMPS

AVOIDING THE CURSE OF
BACKSTORY INFO DUMPS

In fiction, backstory is what has happened prior to the current narrative frame of the story—the history created for a fictional character or situation. Properly used, it enriches a story by revealing cause and effect. Improperly used, it is a cumbersome boring information dump of exposition.

My first novel, Shroud of Vengeance, was part of an ongoing western series featuring a character named Diamondback. The books in the series were written by several different authors using a publishing house owned pseudonym. The editor gave me the bible for the series, which provided the limited information needed as part of the character’s backstory: Diamondback got his nickname after being the victim of a horrible whipping; he is wanted for a murder he didn’t commit; he wanders the west acting as a travelling judge settling disputes between outlaws and he is popular with the ladies.

The goal was to include this background information in an unobtrusive manner enabling the books to be read in any order without intrusive information dumps or large chunks of narrative explanation. Drop the nickname on the first page, show his scars when he takes off his shirt, and tie the plot into a dispute between dangerous outlaws for Diamondback to settle. With a series of this type, the main character remains static. There are no consequences or character arcs to carry over from one book to the next—as if each was a standalone novel.

Until the last decade most television series were also examples of this type of storytelling. This was perfect for reruns, as series could be shown in any order. Think about I Love Lucy. It doesn’t matter which episode a viewer watches, the set-up is immediately clear—wacky redhead doing wacky things. There is no need to know what has happened in prior episodes. There are no ongoing storylines to confuse the narrative if episodes are shown out of order. Many, many mystery and cop shows operated, and still operate, on the same principle. However, times have changed. Now, books and many of the most popular television series thrive on ongoing storylines continuing from episode to episode, or book to book, to maintain viewer/reader loyalty.

When my literary career moved on from writing under a house name pseudonym (which in the case of Diamondback just happened to be Pike Bishop) to Citadel Run, my first novel under my own name, I ran into this problem. What I had envisioned as a standalone novel, suddenly became the first in a series when the publisher asked for another book with the same characters. Staring at the blank page before first word of Sand Against the Tide, I was faced with the problem of how to integrate the complicated backstory and relationships of the characters established in the first book into the narrative of the sequel.

My issues with the situation included overcoming the fact I had wrapped the first book up with the main character retiring from the police department, and his female partner promoting to detective. I would never have done this if I had realized I was going to be writing more books with the same characters. As it was, I had to quickly figure out a fictional situation in which these two main characters could continue to interact together on the same case.

After Sand Against the Tide was published, I went on to write another standalone novel, Chapel of the Ravens. Not having learned my lesson the first time around, I again ended the novel in a way precluding an easy transition to a second book with the same character. Consequently, there was never a second book. Publishers love series characters as a way to build reader loyalty, and I was shooting myself in the foot.

When I sat down to write my next novel, Kill Me Again, I decided upfront I would also design the book to be the first in a series. As a result, I outlined a four book story arc for the main character, LAPD detective Fey Croaker. I also took into consideration story arcs for the secondary characters comprising her crack homicide squad.

One of my concerns was how much background from the first book in the series needed to be included in the second. And how about the third and fourth books? Did I need the same amount of backstory? More? Less? Or did I need any?

Currently, most television show writing staffs plan out a full season story arc before any individual episodes are written. When the individual episodes are created, there is already a larger established macro arc containing what information needs to be included in the micro arc of each individual episode to keep viewers watching.

There is usually a quick story recap provided, through dialogue, at the beginning of each individual script act. This is done to bring a viewer up to speed if they have just turned on their set or are channel surfing from other shows. Television also uses previously on… lead-ins before the new episode starts to remind regular viewers of story points, or bring new viewers into the fold.

The previously on… technique is virtually impossible to use in the novel form. Prologues have become unfashionable in our modern world of instant gratification. Contemporary readers want to jump right into a story without wading through a prologue providing either tedious backstory or unnecessary teaser information.

So, what to do?

In episodic television, you never hear long expositional explanations of character history or incidents from previous episodes. Instead, the action on the screen is so crisp and clear, viewers become invested in the show from the first scene. 

The same thing needs to happen on the page. 

To accomplish this, you need to emulate what occurs in the television world, where staff writers for a show create a macro story arc for the season before creating the micro story arcs for each individual episode. 

This way, each individual episode of a show contains all of the beats of the micro arc for the episodes specific storyline, as well as one, two, or three beats needed to progress the storyline of the macro arc.

To imitate this, you need to create a macro story arc for the first three to four books you plan in a series. Then, as you write the micro arc of the plot for each individual novel, you also included several elements from your macro arc which continues from book to book.

The macro arc for my Fey Croaker novels involved Fey’s personal life deteriorating and her character becoming more and more isolated until in book four, Chalk Whispers, events force her to deal with the demons of the abuses from her past.

In the first book, Kill Me Again, I established Fey’s background, laying out the beginnings of the macro arc, as she moved through the books specific plot of a current murder victim whose identity shows she was murdered ten years earlier—the micro arc of this specific book. 

In Grave Sins, the micro arc deals with a series of male murders possibly committed by an NBA rookie phenom. To keep the macro arc progressing, I included several elements to turn up the heat on Fey—her professional ethics are called into question; her low-life brother makes unreasonable demands and ends up as the killers bait. Without giving all the twists away, Fey ends the storyline completely isolated from family and increasingly distanced from her own team.

The micro arc of Tequila Mockingbird takes Fey and her crew into the world of deep undercover cops—referred to as mockingbirds—when one is murdered in front of station. As Fey unravels the plot, she is aided by a character with whom she can’t help falling in love despite the fact she knows he’s dying (more crushing isolation). There is a strong, action-filled ending to the book, but Fey finishes shattered, emotionally raw, and completely vulnerable—fulfilling the needs of the macro arc.

The four book macro arc culminates in Chalk Whispers, where it is completely tied into the micro arc of a plot involving a cold case investigated by Fey’s deceased, abusive, cop father. As the past comes back, it puts Fey’s life in danger, forcing her to confront all her own bad behaviors, co-dependencies, and mistakes, which have led her to this point in her life. She eventually finds personal vindication through the final resolution of the macro arc.

Within each of those novels, I also worked in macro arcs for each of the partnership duos comprising Fey’s homicide team—giving them each a specific, ongoing, subplot involving their own personal journey. The characters grow and change as they overcome their personal challenges while playing their parts in unraveling the plot—the micro arc—of each book.

By using a macro arc, which slowly spools out, each novel in a series has its own internal structure, allowing returning and new readers alike to keep moving forward without feeling they have either missed something or be bored by the same info dumps of backstory again and again. 

To recap: A macro arc contains those things your characters need to be slowly accomplishing as the series progresses. The individual plots to your novels comprise the micro arc story beats your characters need to rapidly accomplish in resolving the current story line.

If you follow a three or four book macro arc for your series, you won’t need any exposition about the past. If your writing is crisp enough, the established structure and character interactions will quickly become clear as they fulfill the micro arc in the current storyline. This is the dynamic that keeps the pages turning.

***When Citadel Run, Sand Against the Tide, and Chapel of the Ravens were converted to e-books, they also underwent title changes respectively, Hot Pursuit, Deep Water, and Penalty Shot...