Thursday, May 22, 2008

One Good Book

I just finished reading John Lennon and the Mercy St. Café by the blogosphere’s own William Hammett, who is better known here as Billy. Although I was never a huge Beatles fan, this is an incredibly fun book. If you are a Beatles fan you’ll likely enjoy it even more. John Lennon comes back from the dead and at first only a woman named Amy can see him. From the moment she does a wild surreal ride begins involving time travel, the Great Depression, Woody Guthrie, a road trip from New York City to California and back, folk and blues music, and lots of inside information about Lennon and his times. Highly recommended.

Here’s a few more thoughts about the need for characters to show consistency in mood and behavior over time. These developed from the comments section on my last post. First, it appears that characters in fiction actually need to show greater consistency than in real life. A real human can go from depression to laughter and we have to deal with it, but when a fictional character does this it “feels” unreal. It’s like with dialogue, where showing actual dialogue on the page reads awkwardly and what you have to do instead is create the illusion of reality.

Another thing is that it’s virtually impossible for an author to remain completely consistent in mood and tone across any work that is written in segments, as all novels must be. The cure for that is in the rewriting/revision process, when you can consider the work in much larger segments and polish any of the rough welds where the material was put together.



Heff said...

I have nothing to say, just wanted to be the first commenter.

Bernita said...

If Billy's poetry is anything to go by, no wonder you enjoyed the book.
I like that "rough welds" comparison. That's it, exactly.

writtenwyrdd said...

Sounds similar in plot twists to something by Tom Robbins.

Revision is, to me, rather like a friend's process after she casts her bronzes: clean off the excess casting material, buff off the sprues, excess and burrs, fill in the divots and then polish, polish, polish! Which goes rather well with your rough welds analogy.

Miladysa said...

lol @ heff

Billy's book is on my list of 'must read' and I after your review I am pleased that it is :-D

WH said...

Charles, wow, thanks! I haven't visited any blog for a couple of weeks--my life is all frenzy and work, no play--but I saw your review at Amazon and wanted to say "Thanks!" Much appreciated, and thank you as wll for this post.

And to Written, yes, Tom Robbins has had a very big influence on my prose style. You nailed it -:)

laughingwolf said...

book should be good...

the advice is sound too, especially on dialog, one of the tougher things to master, or just become adequate in :)

Steve Malley said...

I'm rather prone to variant name spellings, schizo weather and weeks with two Wednesdays in, but I do hope I avoid the 'bipolar super mood swing' trap.


cs harris said...

I think the worst problem I had with this was when Katrina hit halfway through my writing of THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT. I massively rewrote it, and I think it works because of the story progression, but the second half is still much lighter than the beginning.

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, and so you were.

Bernita, yes, his book has some very nice phrasing in it. Very much magical realism.

Writtenwyrd, that's a very good analogy. I tend to think of it much the same way, and it's why I actually enjoy revision.

Miladysa, I think you are a Beatles fan if I'm remembering right so you'll probably get some of the inside points I missed.

Billy, glad you are OK. I was wondering what had happened to you. I did the Amazon review just after finishing the book while everything was fresh. Well done. A fun read, for sure. I should have gotten the Tom Robbins connection since I really like his stuff. But it's been a couple of years since I've read anything by him. "Jitterbug Perfume" is a masterpiece.

Laughingwolf, I was so bad with dialouge when I started that some of my earliest stories didn't have any at all.

Steve Malley, as long as you don't have two Mondays. I didn't notice any glitches like that in Poison Door. I just couldn't figure out what the hell all those weird car models were. I kept looking for a Ford or Chevy somewhere. lol.

Candy, I didn't have any fiction manuscript going at that time but I can imagine that would have been a really weird thing. I did write Witch of Talera in 2 sections, broken by a period of about 6 months.

Lisa said...

I second the kudos for JOHN LENNON AND THE MERCY STREET CAFE! But you already knew that :) I finally get to the end of my WIP, I imagine I will want to rewrite almost the entire thing. After leaving it alone and then finally reading what I have so far, I was shocked at the visible change it took on from week to week and chapter to chapter. The good news is that I think it's getting consistently better. At least, I hope it is.

Mary Witzl said...

I loved Jitterbug perfume too, and it's been ages since I heard that title. And Billy's book sounds like a fun read, though I wasn't a huge Beatles fan myself.

You are so right about having to give an illusion of reality. I used to have the job of transcribing interviews and it is so true that if writers stuck to real conversation, the resulting prose would sound very awkward. There would also not be enough space in any book to record all the buffer words and hedges we use in everyday speech. Giving the illusion of reality is much harder than getting it all down faithfully, in tiresome detail.

When I was reading your last post, I wanted to make the comment you made here -- that people DO show inconsistency. I've heard the bereaved laugh at funerals, and I've seen happy people become reflective and morose, but again there are complex situations that cause these apparently inconsistent reactions that cannot be reproduced in writing -- they just wouldn't fit and the result would be chaotic and boring.

A thoughtful, useful post.

the walking man said...

John Lennon for leader of the free world. George Harrison as his Secretary of State! That sounds like a book I might actually read Charles thanks.

I agree about the character consistency coming in the edits. Of the seven longer works I have (55k+ words)I found so much work that they needed it took 5 edits each, to bring them to a readable format.

I think the key to rewrites though is knowing when enough is enough. There has to be some human reality in the protagonist to stop them from becoming formulaic.

*shrug* again just my opinion of the writing process and what works for me.


Charles Gramlich said...

Lisa, I found that happens with me too and requires lots of revision.

Mary Witzl, thanks. That transcribing job is a good one for a person who wants to learn dialogue.

Mark, yes, I do think it's possible to edit the life out of something. There is a place to stop, though how to figure it out is the problem.

ivan said...

I'm jealous.

The Mercy St. Café sounds like the kind of book I'd like to write,even though this kind of thing has been done in Toronto by the late Timothy Findlay.

But he had Emile Zola characters come back from the dead.

And all the critics cried, "Imitation."

I wanna imitate!

Cheri said...

That actually sounds like a really cool book. John Lennon coming back from the dead... millions of women swooning and Yoko Ono freaking out. Is it on Amazon?

Sidney said...

Sounds interesting. I've been reading some rock bios, and it's always interesting to see the ups and downs play out.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, fuck the critics, man.

Cheri, yes it is. That's where I got the cover image.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sidney, once in a while I get on that kick. I read Tommyland and The Heroin Diaries recently.

Sarai said...

Hum sounds interesting. There you go being an enabler for addicts

Barrie said...

Wow! What an interesting premise. Thanks for pointing out this book. And I just added you to my blogroll. :)

Shauna Roberts said...

I third Charles's and Lisa's praise for John Lennon and the Mercy Street Café. I read it a couple weeks ago and loved it. I wished Billy had made it another hundred pages longer.

X. Dell said...

The Hammett's going straight to my reading list, and not at the bottom either. I bought a novel some years back where Jimi Hendrix was the star of a fictional story that dealt with all sorts of things past and future, but lost it after reading only a couple of chapters (didn't find it easily, either--got it at a yard sale, of all places). This seems to be in the same groove.

Addressing the consistency issue, I understand that reality and realism are two separate things. I guess what I was getting at with my last comments are some of the hackneyed criticisms of narrative one often hears or reads. IMHO, authors/writers play to the expectations of audience with respect to what motivates people, what their reactions are, or should be. That's one of the reasons why a number of writers I've known write out the biographies (and sometimes, psych bios) of their characters.

The problem, as I see it, is the possibility of expression diluted into stereotype (especially in a novel where you have more room to roam--screenplays have to come in on a dime, so a great deal of complexity is usually not possible). As I said earlier, if the writer can explain the mercurial nature of one of his characters at some point, I'm willing to hold off judgment for the time being.

As with language, there seems to be an ebb and flow in literature. Mark Twain, for example, gives us huge insights into his characters by their dialog, which in large part incorporated the reality of the author's existence. The cadence, the shades of pronunciation, etc. are there for the reader to see. I haven't read that many 19th century novels to make a comparison, but I don't think his reliance on the reality of dialect was a norm.

Sure, neither you or I want to read a novel where character speech disfluency becomes disruptive. Who wants to read "" as people sometimes do over and over. But if used sparingly, and if funny, poignant or critical to elements of plot or character, then that's really the call of the writer and publisher whether or not the unnecessary word becomes necessary.

I think we would be a poorer readership if everyone approached writing the same way. I don't believe you're advocating a cookie-cutter mechanism for writing in this particular post or previous ones. In fact I don't really disagree with any of this. I made the statements I did in the previous post because I simply hadn't read the book you referred to. I thus had no context to gauge the character's strange behavior.

ivan said...


Funny thing.

A friend and publicist of mine, Jeff Mitchell, lately of the Newmarket ERA, said exactly the same thing when someone knocked my play version of The Fire in Bradford.

Yep. The long, the short and the tall.

Donnetta said...

Oh, I do so love John Lennon. Ever since I was 13 years old. This sounds like my kind of book.

Better go say hi to Lana.


Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Charles, I hope you don't mind if I impose on you and ask you to help me promote a guest I have coming to my blog this WEdnesday. Details are on my blog but the short of it is as follows: Dr. Gigi Durham, the author of the Lolita Effect, the media sexualization of young girls and what we can do about it, is guest appearing on my blog this coming WEdnesday to answer questions on this very important topic. It would be wonderful if you could help spread the word or at the very least stop by and be part of our Q&A discussions.
I think you will appreciate this discussion and I hope to see you there.

Thanks so much!

Michelle's Spell said...

The book sounds like a lot of fun! I'll have to check it out. I agree about the difficulties of keeping a tone/mood throughout the whole work. I usually have to revise most of my stories at least eight or nine times to make them work.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sarai, as an addict myself I don't want anyone else to get the monkey off their back.

Barrie, thanks.

Shauna, definitely a fun read.

X-Dell, I'd probably advocate if anything the opposite of a cookie cutter approach. I think there is room for all kinds of approaches, although the key to the successful ones seems to be that they feed the reader what the reader is looking for.

Ivan, smart friend.

Donnetta, I have a good friend who has been into Lennon for a very long time. Just for music, I was generally more into the Rolling stones than the beatles, but I definitely like some of their stuff, like "come together."

Ello, will do.

Michelle, different parts of a manuscript get differing numbers of revisions, although everything gets revised multiple times.