Would Dan Brown Read Your Script?

A couple of Official Big Things this past week or so have had the writing world all a’twitter. Literally. I’ve found both issues interesting, as a writer/reader lacking credentials to warrant an opinion to matter to most of these tightasses. Nonetheless, on this page at least, what I say goes. So dig. . . .

Big Thing One: Dan Brown Drops a New Book

If you are interested in reading at all you’ll probably know Dan Brown as the author of the mega-selling The Da Vinci Code. His new book, The Lost Symbol, just came out on Tuesday and sold a zillion copies. And was apparently already available via pirate copies online the next day. I’ll tell you what, there’s nothing like the dropping of a certifiable mega-seller to bring out the opinionaters.

I must confess I’ve never read any of Dan Brown’s books, so I don’t have an opinion on his writing. Julia read The Da Vinci Code, and her assessment of it pretty much assured me my to-read pile is high enough that I didn’t need to add to it with any of Mr. Brown’s work. I won’t likely buy this one either, though I would probably consider scoring the audio version if the whim should take me. Regardless, I’m sure his checking account balance won’t miss me.

I never got in a tizzy over the Harry Potter releases that such a big deal was made of either. I know I read the first Potter book, and maybe the second . . . but I didn’t care for the writing so I never read more. Obviously a lot of people do like those books, though, so more power to ’em.

But a lot of people get downright enraged over these kinds of books — the mega sellers. This snarky article talking about Dan Brown’s worst sentences is a perfect example. This kind of thing is just petty jealousy talking. I don’t care who the writer is — look hard enough for bad sentences, mixed metaphors and just bad prose, and you’ll find them. What one person sees as beautiful language is another person’s overwriting. I will take Robert E. Howard over Thomas Pynchon any goddamn day. That doesn’t mean I won’t read Pynchon, and possibly even like some of it, but if I’m on a desert island I know what I’m bringing and what I’m not.

Steve Weddle, writing for one of my favorite websites — Do Some Damage — sums it up in a way I can totally relate to when he describes the “page turner” qualities of Brown’s writing, in this excellent piece. In it, he makes a case for why people read Brown’s books, and boils it down essentially to this:

The reason people read Dan Brown [is] because they HAVE TO FIND OUT. His books are tons of fun because they’re not about the characters or sentence structure. His books are all about WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

And for Dan Brown, what happens next is selling another zillion books.

Sometimes a story is just a story, a trip from point A to point B with a little excitement sans high-minded bullshit. Don’t like it? Then don’t read it! I’m sure Dan Brown really gives a rip what some disgruntled whiner — whose own meandering story of essentially nothing can’t find an audience — thinks. Me, I don’t need everything I read to be some deep, moving tale of this or that. Yeah, sometimes a 7-course gourmet meal is just what the body needs for sublime pleasure, but other times a double-double will be every bit as good. Too much of either one would syphon off a bit of the pleasure, I think. Hell, the best sentence I’ve read lately is this:

“I sat and chewed, mindlessly content for the first time in what felt like ages, forgetting all the bullshit and the drama in the simple distraction of a good, greasy meal.”

That’s from Hoodtown, by Christa Faust.

Big Thing Two: Josh Olson Will Not Read Your Fucking Script

Screenwriter Josh Olson (he wrote the screenplay for A History of Violence) posted this article via a blog on the Village Voice website. It’s essentially a rant on people bugging him, because he is established and has contacts, to help them by reading/critiquing/forwarding/etc. their own work. Makes sense, and I can understand the sentiment. There was a time when my late band Lazerwolfs seemed to have a reputation of actually being something; I was fielding requests all the time from unknown bands who begged to do a show with us, under the (mistaken) impression that it would give them a leg up on getting in front of a bigger audience. What they didn’t realize is every little thing we did from day One to day The End was a hardscrabble experience to make anything happen just for us — we had no golden ticket to do anything anywhere. We had some successes, sure, but just as often as not we were playing for 5 people on a given show just like every other friggin’ rock band. So yeah, I understand the frustration. I also understand the liabilities, when you consider how lawsuit-ready (he stole my idea!) everyone is these days.

Just google “josh olson” and you’ll see all the references that picked up the article. With each article you’ll also see comments from people both in support of his words, and those who think he’s a jerk for saying them. What you probably won’t see is all the friggin’ twitter posts from authors jumping on board to sign on to his position. Some writers, like John Scalzi, have made similar comments before this article ever broke. In the aftermath of this one, I think Scalzi had two or three. Other writers, like my current favorite — Christa Faust — weighed in in other ways. For example, in a post from her blog she says:

Many people seem to be deeply offended by Olson’s article. I’m far more offended by the astounding, profoundly selfish sense of entitlement displayed by posters who feel they are somehow owed a leg up from successful professional writers they’ve never met. Which probably makes me a dick, just like Josh.

I have a question for all the other published authors and produced screenwriters out there. Did any of you get your start in the business by asking a stranger to read your unpublished/unproduced work? I’m not talking about a legit submission to an editor or publisher, I’m talking about an unsolicited email (or paper letter) sent to a writer you’ve never met. Anybody?

Because I certainly didn’t. I got my start by working my ass off, writing and publishing short stories and small press novels until I got good enough to get recommended for novelization gigs. Not by a random stranger I bullied or shamed into giving me a leg up, but by someone who admired my published work. Work they had already read because they liked it, not because I asked them to. After that, I got asked to write for Hard Case. Then my agent asked to represent me. The few scripts I’ve written so far have been done for people who asked me to write them. Never the other way around.

What I like about both Scalzi and Faust’s responses is they are addressing an issue and responding re: their own experiences. I respect the hell out of that, and there is a lot of value from their commentary. Fantastic. That’s why I keep going back to their blogs and keep buying their books.

Some of the other stuff I saw from writers, though, was a bit off-putting. Just jumping on Olson’s wagon seemed a bit . . . cowardly, I guess. If a writer feels so strongly about something like this, why not address it on your own? Many blogs and/or communications from a lot of these writers is decidedly one way — Buy My Book. I don’t fault them for that. But with that communication comes some risks; open the door, and you are going to hear things you don’t want to hear. That definitely comes with the territory.

Both Scalzi and Faust — among others — take reader comments on and address them via the conduits they’ve chosen to create. If a “fan” is being unreasonable, they aren’t afraid to tell them so at risk of losing a precious reader. But the flipside, to just hide behind another writer’s comments, say, “Yeah, me too!” and then just duck back behind the little wall of “I love you all!” said writer has put up, seems to me a little lame.

If a writer chooses not to engage with their readers at all via blogs, forums, etc. that’s fine, and I respect that. But if one chooses to engage, then fucking engage. Otherwise it’s all just press release, and to call it anything else is disingenuous.

Joshua Dysart — The Unknown Soldier (Vertigo)

I’ve been thinking a bit about doing some reviews of some of the things I read, if only to make this blog a little less . . . dumb. I’ve been reading a lot of fantastic writing lately, as I’ve tried to branch into reading stuff all over the literary map. It’s been heaps o’ fun, especially since I haven’t touched much fiction over the last few years. Tonight, after sitting down and reading a graphic novel that just came out a week ago, I decided this would be the one to kick it off because it is really, really good. I posted a version of this review initially on my GoodReads page, then left it over at the comic site I frequent, and still didn’t feel like I was doing my part enough to spread the word. So dig this. . . .

The Unknown Soldier
Written by Joshua Dysart; Art by Alberto Ponticelli

I first became aware of writer Joshua Dysart a couple years ago because he was working on a miniseries from Dark Horse Comics called Conan and the Midnight God. At the time I was almost exclusively buying Conan stuff, so I was all over it. I enjoyed the series, and actually exchanged a few messages with Joshua via our MySpace accounts. We also talked a little bit about an upcoming project (which I believe is still in process) he would be writing, the graphic novelization of Neil Young’s Greendale album/story. While we didn’t discuss it, I was well aware that many of Dysart’s MySpace “friends” were of a political bent very similar to mine, and I was pleased.

Fast forward a couple years and I find myself returned to actively reading about, following, and even buying comic stuff again. I was pleased to see Dysart was still in action; I started buying B.P.R.D. 1947, a new installment in a series I’ve always been interested in, and figured with his name in the credits it was a perfect time to start. I also knew he’d been writing The Unknown Soldier, so when the first trade came out last week collecting the first 6 issues, I picked it up.

The Unknown Soldier is powerful, powerful graphic storytelling. The Unknown Soldier character goes back to the 40s, originally, then was revived again in the 60s by DC Comics. It was the tale of a GI with his face hidden by bandages, fighting the good fight in WWII. For his story, Dysart has taken this theme, reworked it, and made it one of the most compelling trades I’ve read.

Moses Lwanga is an American doctor who has returned to Uganda, where he was born, to try and work for peace. Situations rapidly deteriorate, as situations tend to do in Africa, and he becomes the modern version of the Unknown Soldier. We also see flashbacks or visions that indicate maybe he isn’t entirely what he thinks he is, ala the Jason Bourne stories/movies, as his ability to fight, and kill, exceeds what one might expect from a man of his supposed background. This is the story of a man fighting against a corrupt government’s military, as well as against the rebels that oppose it. Think child soldiers. Think ghastly rapes and murder, and a whole lot of hopelessness. Meanwhile Lwanga wrestles with himself because he knows violence only begets violence, but he is compelled to eradicate it all single-handedly if he must. Believe me, my words over simplify the story Dysart is telling, but to explain further would reveal too much. It is heavy, heavy stuff.

What I love about this book is how Dysart has taken something he is passionate about — modern Africa — and worked raising awareness of its problems into the story he is telling, and doing it without sounding preachy. There aren’t good guys vs. bad guys — it is just a whole lot of bad, and the people who suffer the most are the ones who least deserve to. This is grim stuff, and probably not for everybody, but it is real. Meanwhile the main character has deep flaws, which only enhances the compelling narrative.

I sometimes squirm over all the violence in these “mature” lines from comics publishers — DC’s Vertigo line, Marvel’s MAX line, and indie publishers like Avatar, for example — because some of it seems like violence simply for the sake of violence (see, these days in comics they can get away with ultra-violence and still have the books on the racks next to “regular” comics, but sex is still pretty heavily regulated, a situation I find really freakin’ stupid). But the horrors Dysart portrays here are real, they are tragedies that happen every day; he knows, because he has traveled extensively in the areas he is writing about, and has documented these trips via his website. It is grim stuff, and Dysart writes about it fearlessly.

The art by Alberto Ponticelli is perfect for this. The scenes of the villages and landscapes are captured beautifully, and the colors are outstanding (normally mainstream comics art is divided up by pencils, inks and colors, but looking at the credits I’m led to believe that Ponticelli did all 3; if that is the case, then I am triply impressed!). The two creators combine for a magnificent one-two punch.

I was blown away by The Unknown Soldier. Kudos to Joshua Dysart for finding a way to blend social commentary — and activism — in a mainstream comics medium. This is what I talk about when I rave about how comics are underrated as an art form. If any of this sounds interesting, I urge you to check out Dysart’s website, then buy the book; preferably at your LCS (Local Comics Shop), or online if you don’t have one.

The Singer of Owls

“The Singer of Owls” by Margaret Atwood, from The Door

The singer of owls wandered off into the darkness.
Once more he had not won a prize.
It was like that at school.
He preferred dim corners, camouflaged himself
with the hair and ears of the others,
and thought about long vowels, and hunger,
and the bitterness of deep snow.
Such moods do not attract glitter.

What is it about me? he asked the shadows.
By this time they were shadows of trees.
Why have I wasted my lifeline?
I opened myself to your silences.
I allowed ruthlessness
and feathers to possess me.
I swallowed mice.
Now, when I’m at the end, and emptied
of words, and breathless,
you didn’t help me.

Wait, said the owl soundlessly.
Among us there are no prices.
You sang out of necessity,
as I do. You sang for me,
and my thicket, my moon, my lake.
Our song is a night song.
Few are awake.