Sunday, December 14, 2014

New Site

I have a new blog/website. Go to: www.gordongravley.com

Thanks to all those who have visited this site! Enjoy the new one!

Friday, August 1, 2014

We Are Big Brother

Even someone who's never read the classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-four by George Orwell understands the idea of Big Brother - an ever-watchful collective that monitors our daily activities and behavior, passing judgement and retribution upon those who threaten it. It's easy to draw a comparison to any modern-day government agency like the NSA or the CIA. But I think more realistically, through the prevalence of social media, that we, the public, have become our own Thought Police. We are Big Brother.

Media and the internet are inundated with people spouting their opinion about one thing or another. Any idiot can post a blog and drone on about whatever pointless topic strikes his fancy. (umm...yeah) And as it's always been, calm, rational sense is by-passed for the more ridiculous or absurd; he who rants loudest garners the most attention. Sensationalism always wins over eloquence.

Don't get me wrong. Free speech is a vital building block to our society. But lately, it seems, only as long as that speech jives with the values of those who "control" the mindset of social media. Case in point: Dinosaur and soon-to-be-ex-owner of the L.A. Clippers basketball franchise, Donald Sterling, was ostracized faster than a pro-nazi group at a gay pride parade because of his archaic racist views. This was after he was recorded - unbeknownst to him - making comments in what he thought was a private setting.

I don't condone the opinions of that ignorant old man, but if a person can't freely express themselves in the privacy of their own home, what is next, the privacy of our own minds? Are we bound for a Minority Report-society where we are condemned for merely thinking an opinion, no matter how repulsive, that is not harmonious with that of the public majority?Be careful what you say or how you interact with others or else they'll whip out their iPhone and wield it like a taser-gun upon what they deem as aberrant behavior, stopping your "free" speech dead in its tracks. Be careful what you think, because there may not be anyone there to defend your right to think it (as if there ever was). 

I have plenty of opinions about people, events, and ideals - some of which may not be considered socially acceptable. (I believe we all do, to some degree. Anyone who denies it is lying.) But they're mine, and no one else's business but my own. Unless I choose to share, such as in the case of this blog or other writings. Still, I have the right to do that, don't I? And yet, still, I try to carefully choose what I say and how I say it, so as to stimulate - rather than offend - ideas in those who might listen. I'm also careful because you never know who might be listening, or watching, or judging.

It's not the NSA, CIA, FBI, or any other government acronym, you should be worried about. It's the guy on the bus, or girl at the mall, or your neighbor, or... 

As Walt Kelly wrote so eloquently: 

"We have met the enemy and he is us."




Sunday, July 13, 2014

Details, Details

I find it interesting that two different authors can have radically different styles of writing but are equally popular with readers and equally effective at telling a story or conveying an idea, particularly in how they handle the details.  James Michener wrote tomes of 1,ooo pages or more with meticulous attention to historical and cultural detail. Louis L'Amour wrote hundreds of trim, fast-paced westerns - most of which you could enjoy in an afternoon of reading. Both sold 100's of millions of copies of their books. 

It's a matter of two things, I think: the writer's ability to tell a story, because everyone loves a good story, no matter what the quality of writing (just look at any best sellers list for evidence of that), and the reader's taste. As a reader, do you prefer a book rich with descriptive settings and character development, or one with a plot that accelerates at break-neck speed from word-one? In other words, would you rather spend an evening with Charles Dickens or Donald Westlake? 

Me, I prefer brevity, writing that uses just the right words and gets to the point. It's the writer that says in a single sentence what another would take a page to explain. Like the lyric from the Bob Seger song Hollywood Nights: "She was born with a face that would let her get her way." Or a Tom Robbins descriptive like:  "The sky was the color of Edgar Allan Poe's pajamas." Each creates a vivid image, fueled by the reader's own imagination. 

More is not always better. I'm currently plodding my way through Moby Dick. For the most part, the passionate, moving prose is riveting. But are the dry, encyclopedic sections about all the types of whales or the detailed account of how to decapitate a leviathan really necessary? In the hands of a lesser writer, such digressions would have quickly prompted me to re-shelve the book and move on to something else.

In Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, the protagonist, author Grady Tripp, is stagnated by not only the over-wrought state of his current novel but also by all the minutia of melodrama weighing down his life. He desperately needs to "eschew surplusage," as Mark Twain put it. Tripp's life simply has too many details.

Are the new versions of the original Star Wars films any better because George Lucas just had to add some CGI crap to certain scenes? Nope. They're still the same ol' hokey movies with cheesy dialogue that we'll forever love to watch over-and-over.

Of course, it is possible to have too little detail. My literary taste buds are left a little wanting after reading Raymond Chandler. And I remember the time I read Irwin Shaw's Rich Man, Poor Man, a book of so little substance that I forgot what I had read the moment I finished reading it. Like eating a soup of nothing but watery broth.

Finally, there's the shortest science-fiction story ever written, which goes something like:

The last man on earth sat quietly in his room. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door.  

(Which still has more substantial detail than Rich Man, Poor Man.)

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Originality

As I watched the movie The Hunger Games (I have yet to read the Suzanne Collins series. See my post "Readarcolepsy" for clarification.) I couldn't help but think of how derivative it was of The Running Man, Rollerball (the original with James Caan) or Death Race 2000, the Roger Corman classic with David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone. The cynical-bastard part of me was quite harsh in this regard and kept me from enjoying the film more than I could have. 

It was later that I thought, so what? So what that it reminded me of movies I'd seen before. Doesn't a certain amount of formulaic expectation define all genres? It's dystopian fiction, ergo...

True, The Hunger Games is very similar to those mentioned above. I wouldn't be surprised if Collins was consciously influenced and inspired by Stephen King's writing in the creation of a work in her own voice, for a new generation. But, again, so what? In generations to follow I expect there will be another Games, or Divergent, or Matched, etc. In the 70's there was The Last Tango in Paris; in the 80's it was 9 1/2 Weeks. Now we have Fifty Shades of Grey. As Kurt Vonnegut might say, and so it goes. 

The novel I'm currently writing was influenced by three different sources:

First and foremost, Kevin Brownlow's book The Parade's Gone By... and his accompanying eleven-part documentary Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film. Together they are the most comprehensive, enlightening look at that bygone era.

Next, Peter Bogdanovich's Nickolodean, a droll, slap-stick comedy from my teen years that is still one of my all-time favorites. The fisticuffs between Ryan O'Neil and Burt Reynolds is, in my opinion, one of the best fight scenes ever.

Lastly, The Great Waldo Pepper with Robert Redford, a nostalgic look at the end of yet another era - barnstorming, and those cowboys of the early days of flight.

(Do yourself a favor and check out any one of those wonderful works.)

If all goes well with this next book, I'll end up with something "original," derived from the inspiration of past works. 

By nature, we long for the familiar. Again, that's the whole marketing behind genres. I know what to expect when I read Louis L'amour; that's why I enjoy his books. My wife and I watched the movie Taken for the very reason to see Liam Neeson kick ass in pursuit of his daughter's captors! No surprises, but who cares! (We've even seen it twice!) Why is the nutritionally deprived food of McDonalds so popular? It's comfortable. It's familiar.

Being truly original, on the other hand, is not always so popular. Charlie Kaufman, writer/director of such movies like Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York, has one of the few original minds in Hollywood. But while his work receives critical acclaim, you'll probably never see him associated with a multi-million dollar summer-blockbuster. In the 90's, while many groups were trying to be the next Nirvana or Pearl Jam, bands like Baldo Rex from Boulder and Trenchmouth out of Chicago were creating sounds all their own. And yet, how many of you have heard of them? Raise your hands? Anyone? Anyone?

(Hey, I wonder if my current novel isn't selling because it's not about vampires, zombies, or it's not part of a romantic series. No one's interested in my book because it's original, unique. Yeah, that's it! Of course! That's been it all along! ...Oh, sorry...I digress.) 

The most difficult thing for any writer today is to be original; every story-line that can be written has already been written, and contemporary writers, at best, merely engage in the literary equivalent of musical themes and variations. I challenge anyone to read any novel today and not think of the similarities in others that have come before it.

I recently came upon this quote from Kurt Vonnegut, author of some of the most unique works ever, describing his writing of the novel Player Piano:

[I] "cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin's We." 

And so it goes.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Oblivious Hero

[In my last blog, I rambled on about my experience doing a virtual book tour. I'd like to briefly visit that topic again. For one of my tour stops, Alpha Male Books, I was asked to write a guest blog regarding the alpha-maleness of my novel's main character. The two challenges here were: Who is the book's main character? and Could they be considered an alpha-male?

I decided the narrator, Aaron Garrett, is the main character; he is the book's one constant presence. But is he truly an alpha-male? Well...I came up with what I thought was an effective connection to that idea. However, my blog was not posted in its entirety (perhaps due to space constraints?) and that connection was not included.

Happy with how the blog came out, and disappointed it was abridged, I'm re-posting it here. Those of you who've read my earlier posts will find parts of this familiar, but perhaps you'll enjoy the new spin, as well.]   

The Oblivious Hero

It’s safe to say that without Aaron Garrett I may have never finished my first novel. He rescued my literary career, such that it is.

Let me explain.

When I first started writing Gospel for the Damned, my first book, more than two decades ago, I had no idea how to approach so daunting a task as a novel. Where do I begin? What do I do with all the characters, situations and themes floating around in my little brain?

I can’t remember exactly how many drafts I wrote, but there were many. I had a pretty good idea of each character’s role and individual experience within the story overall but I couldn’t fit them together into a cohesive, meaningful whole. At first, I tried the omniscient or detached viewpoint, but it became exactly that – detached. I wanted a more intimate tone.

I then tried to write multiple first person versions, one for each of the main characters as the narrator. The problem there was that no single character interacted with all the others. For instance, Ben or Zac never would have accompanied Dane on one of her euthanasia calls, and she had no reason to be with them during their adventure in “the most dangerous part of the city.”

At one point I thought of making the book a collection of interrelated short stories (one for each character’s different perspective), like Hemingway’s Nick Adam stories, or Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. But that proved to be more laborious than a single narrative.   

Then, in the summer of 2004, while taking a course in writing research papers, I met Aaron Garrett. He came in the form of the voice – my own voice – I used in writing my papers. It was the voice of a conscientious, curious observer; a “journalistic” voice. The voice my novel desperately needed.

When I interjected Aaron Garrett – the na├»ve journalist who was “lucky” to be in the 2 percent of the nation immune to a disease that had wiped out a third of the West Coast’s population – into my fledgling story, all the pieces, like a kind of alchemy, miraculously fell into place. He became the novel’s hub, that critical cohesive element that brought it all together.

[This is where the post ends on the Alpha Male Books site. But it's within the remaining text where I attempted to tie my book to the site's theme.]

For the other characters, Aaron is a link to the world beyond their horrible situation, their glimmer of hope. Unbeknownst to him, he has come to their rescue; by exposing lies and finding truths with his words and ethically questionable actions, Aaron becomes a soldier for their future. He enters the quarantined city inexperienced and unsure of himself, but leaves with clarity and perspective that will forever after define him.

Like me, in the course of writing my first novel.

Once clueless and unsure of my own literary abilities, I now relish the prospect of creating a lasting body of work. To all those ideas I have for novels that loom over me with challenging stares I say: bring it on!   

Aaron Garrett gave me that all important individual “voice” for which every writer strives. And I thank him for that. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Virtual Book Tour

The older I get, the more I experience the science fiction of my childhood. The latest occurrence of this was the virtual book tour I participated in last month.

Traditionally (meaning: in reality), an author travels from bookstore to bookstore to meet readers, promote his work, and sign books. There's nothing like interacting with your audience face-to-face, right? But in today's world of Facebook and Twitter and online dating, just how much face-time do we ever actually engage in? From the dozens of tweets I get everyday, I know more about people I've never met or seen than I do about the woman I run in to at the mailbox each afternoon. For all I know there's a computer in a warehouse somewhere posting algorithm-induced messages, and none of those so-called "followers" actually exist! (Hmm...Story idea?)

I know I'm not saying anything new here. Social media's degeneration of human relationships, "cat fishing," the 2002 Pacino film Simone or the more recent Her, blah, blah, blah. It's all old news. (Okay, scratch that story idea.) And should we add the concept of virtually taking a book tour into the mix?

Over the course of a month, twenty-six literary blog sites generously sponsored my book. Some posted interview questions which I answered via email, or I was asked to submit a guest post of a topic of my choosing. A few even reviewed my book. (Favorable, flattering, and greatly appreciated reviews, I might add.) I connected with countless readers around the world and, in turn, they learned a little about me and my writing, all from the comfort of my home.

Or not.

The tour generated a few sales, and I gained two more followers on Twitter and Facebook. Otherwise, there was no feedback. I can't honestly say how many people visited those blog sites. It was more like running an ad in a magazine or on a random cable network. For all I know, thousands viewed my postings, but my lack of notoriety, marketing skills or something couldn't engage an audience. In the end, my virtual tour was exactly that: virtual.

Would I do it again? Yes. It's yet another way to present my work to the public. And even though the tour is officially done, my book and pertinent information can still be viewed on those sites. Building a readership via word-of-mouth takes time. All I can do is continue to put myself out there, keep writing my next novel, and the next, and eventually those readers, my audience, will become very real.

(Oh, man...what the hell will I do then?) 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Good Title Goes a Long Way

As I imagine most writers do, I try to put a lot of thought into my titles. I find it difficult to even begin a new project without some kind of working title. Yet a story's true title may not show itself until the writing is nearly complete; often, I don't know myself what a work is about until I'm on the final draft, so how can I know what to call it?

For most of its creation, my first book was known as Plague Psalms - a weak attempt at combining its two main elements: a large scale viral quarantine, and a smaller, but equally relevant, religious quarantine. I knew that wouldn't be its title in the end, but for a long time I couldn't come up with anything better.

Then the word "gospel" came to mind, and I looked it up in the dictionary, where it was defined as "good news." At that moment, the statement "The good news for the damned is the bond of hope it creates," which the minister and suspected terrorist, Samuel Elliot, says to his sons one day, emerged within my little brain. It was the epiphany I was waiting for - simultaneously I had found my novel's theme, and its title, Gospel for the Damned. That statement became the cohesive thread which tied all the other sub-themes and motifs together, and the title was my novel's true title.

For some time, the book I'm currently writing - about cowboys and silent films - had the working title of Cowboy Flickers ("flickers" being a derogatory term for silent movies). I never had my heart set on it, though; it was too superficial, probably because I hadn't yet written enough of it to know what the story was about. After deciding to make one of the characters a poet, who also suffers ever worsening episodes of dementia, I composed a handful of poems penned by him. The title The Quieting West found its way from my cowboy's crude lyrics to also be the novel's title, as though it was always meant to be.

Some titles that come to mind as favorites are: A Prayer for Owen Meany, Flowers for Algernon, The Island of the Day Before, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Ask my wife and she'll quickly respond with Crystal Singer. I'm sure you have some favorites of your own, as well.

Not so favorite titles? Any of the kind that leave nothing to think about, everything the story is about is in the title, without an ounce of ambiguity. The kind you see on the Lifetime Channel, for instance. The "My Husband's Third Mistress"-sort, or "Amy: Suicide of a Pregnant Teenage Paraplegic."

Sadly, one of my favorite books by John Irving, A Widow for One Year, is also one of my least favorite titles. (And I'm sure Mr. Irving couldn't give a rat's tail about what I think.)