I was once asked to write a one-page story about corn. Here is my one-page story about corn.
“Turn off the TV,” Margaret said. “I need to talk to you. About our daughter.”
“What has she done now?” Carl asked without looking up from the screen.
Without a word, she tossed a magazine into his lap. Then he did look up, and the cold, worried look on her face, and the way her silk hung dryly in front of her eyes, made Carl turn off Starsky & Husk in mid-car chase.
He held up the magazine, and the title said everything he needed to know. Shuckers. He stared at that title, not wanting to let his eyes drift down to what he knew he would find on the cover. But he had to look. And he did.
There she was. His little girl. Husk pulled back to reveal just about everything from silk to stem. The look on her face clearly saying, “Shuck you, Daddy!”
Carl rose from his seat, shaking. Then the magazine was sailing across the room, chased by three suddenly popped kernels from Carl’s own steaming brow.
Margaret stood up, having just dodged the kernels. “Carl, please. Don’t hurt her.”
“Hurt her? I’ll cream her!” Carl raged. “It’s that flake she’s been seeing, squirting his poisonous syrup in her ear about how he would make her a corn star. He’ll be chowder after I find him!”
“Carl,” Margaret said. “It’s no use. She’s lost to us now. If we have even a kernel of love left for her, then we have to just let her go.”
Through his rage, he looked into those eyes that had never lied to him through the whole twisting maize of their life together, and he knew she was right.
“You’re right,” he sighed. “Nothing I could say to her would make any difference. She’s done nothing but turn a deaf ear to us for years.”
Margaret grinned and patted his face. “‘Ear.’ That was very clever, honey.”
I know how this article ends because I’ve written it before. I wrote it two days ago and promptly lost it between the cushions of the Internet, and I’m now starting it again.
Losing my original writing and having to start over again has actually helped me to write an even better article, more clearly expressing what I was trying to get at the first time. That is, that writers should probably have a good idea of where they are going before they begin.
A friend of mine was recently reading Under the Dome by Stephen King. He said he was enjoying it so far and that it was exciting and a page-turner, but that he was worried about the ending. He was hoping it was all going to be worth it. I did my best to encourage him to keep reading without letting him know that, indeed, the ending sucked.
I don’t need to know!
In Under the Dome, a small New England town is mysteriously enclosed in a giant invisible dome. This gives King the chance to do what he does best: bounce a bunch of characters off each other—most of whom are a-holes—and see what happens. And in that sense, the book is a huge success. But the moment the first character asks, “What’s up with this invisible dome that just showed up out of nowhere?” I get very worried. When something huge and unexplainable happens in a TV show or book, the explanation is almost always “military experiments,” “aliens,” or some variation on “the Christmas spirit.”
And, if you know that one of these explanations is coming, when it finally does arrive it is so disappointing it makes you want to throw the book across the room.
But, like I said, I think the book on the whole is a success. The only huge disappointment is the explanation of the big unexplainable mystery posed at the beginning. This is something that has dogged a lot of long-form fiction. Many TV shows and novels draw a reader in with unexplainable mysteries so tantalizing that even though any explanation seems impossible, the reader or viewer just has to keep on watching or reading to see what could possibly be going on.
The two biggest recent examples I can think of are Lost and Battlestar Galactica. Both series drew audiences in with premises that were largely steeped in mysteries. What is the island? What is the smoke monster? Why do the Cylons want to kill the humans? What’s with the ghost Starbuck?
In the case of Battlestar Galactica, the finale was largely satisfying. But when it came to some questions that had kept people watching, the answers ended up being a resounding, “Uhhhhh….”
Another unanswered question: Why are Starbuck and Boomer both girls?
The ending of Lost was a mixture of that same “Uhhhh” mixed with “Dammit!” The “Uhhhh” from the mysteries the show just plain ignored, and the “Dammit” from the answers the show gave that either didn’t satisfy, or worse, were way too similar to theories that fans had in season one that the writers had flatly refuted.
Don’t bother asking.
Of course, its possible that no answers would be satisfying enough to match the tantalizing power of the mysteries themselves, but that’s a subject for another article (check your local listings!). The point is that when writers pose an intriguing mystery, they are setting themselves up for fan hatred down the road unless they’ve got it all worked out beforehand. Yes, they’ll buy themselves a lot of buzz and excitement as fans trade theories, but in the end, as in the case of Lost and to a lesser extent Battlestar Galactica, the fans will end up knowing that they’ve simply been toyed with for years.
It occurs to me that the only long running TV show that I can think of that had a number of huge mysteries at its core, and which eventually provided interesting and satisfying answers, was the often dorky but ultimately great science fiction show Babylon 5. Sometimes the reveals of these answers were clunky, other times they were properly, well, revelatory. But most importantly, by the end of the series, viewers had the sense that this five-year show was one cohesive story, and that it had been moving to that ending all along. And in fact, creator J. Michael Straczynski says that the entire arc of the story came to him in a flash all at once before he even started writing the show. Whether or not that is totally true, it feels true as you watch the show.
Dorky? Oh, yes. But satisfying!
I would argue that Lost, on the other hand, was a big case of the emperor’s new clothes and that the audience mistook teasing mysteries and non-linear storytelling for excitement and brilliance. It’s easy to make something seem cool when it’s unfinished. Because it could be anything, but you can’t imagine what. “There’s a bunker with food and a record collection underneath the island? What’s going ON??” Battlestar Galactica was more successful, though it was clear that when it came time to answering some of it’s most intriguing questions, the ones the audience most wanted explained, the frank answer from the writers was, “We honestly have no idea.” And Stephen King gave himself an excellent setting for his story, but it was a setting that required the kind of explanation he just could not provide.
I can’t beat up on him or any of these writers, because I’m currently in the same boat with a book I’m writing. I’ve got a neat situation that all these characters are running around in, but it’s a situation that demands an answer to the question, “How did this happen?” Or even “What is going on?” Do I flip a coin between “the military” or “aliens”? Or do I leave it frustratingly vague? Or do I promise to answer the questions in the next book?
Whichever I choose, I think I’d better figure out what I’m doing now, rather than try to retrofit some sense to things at the end. Otherwise I’ll be guilty, like a lot of writers, of stringing my readers along with a lot of what look like intriguing mysteries but are really just empty promises.
I think about my friend Hillary every day, but I’ve been thinking about her almost constantly since December 14th. Thirteen years ago she was carjacked and murdered by a lunatic. No guns were involved; just a knife and a crazy mind. And it was 100% random; she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I was in the same room with Hillary’s killer at his trial. When he was first brought into the courtroom I braced myself, expecting a bolt of lighting and a crack of thunder. But he was just this gross, messed up, toothless old man who had had a shitty life and long history of robbing and killing.
Looking at this man–I don’t know why I’m not saying his name, it’s Leonard Young–and thinking about how random Hillary’s death was, it occurred to me that she was killed by an act of nature, even though it was the act of a person. It’s like she was killed in a hurricane, or drove off a slippery road, or was attacked by a mountain lion.
I could not bring myself to fully blame her killer. Of course he killed her; nothing in his history suggested that he wouldn’t kill a random person for the use of her car. I’m not excusing him at all. He’s on death row right now and that’s where he belongs. But I think that expecting to have been able to stop him from killing one of my dearest friends is just unrealistic.
Hillary’s death taught me many things. Maybe most of all it taught me that the world really is random, in ways that are brilliant and horrible. On the one hand, if I hadn’t met Hillary in 1990, I never would have moved to Chicago and would never have met my wife and had an awesome son in 2007. On the other hand, if Hillary had bought tomatoes the day before she died, she wouldn’t have needed to run out to the store on that day, and she would not have crossed paths with a crazy person. (Or if I had maybe called her more often it would have altered her timing just enough for her to miss being killed, but that’s just my brain, please ignore it, as I try to do.)
Part of the reason humans have societies or communities or governments is to try to impose some order on the chaos of the universe. We make laws, we put down roads, we make clocks, we get the electricity where it needs to go. But the chaos always gets through the cracks.
Since the shootings in Newtown, there have been dual debates raging about gun control and mental illness. The gun people are always quick to point out that people kill people, and that this shooter was mentally unstable. Those who understand mental health issues are quick to guard against unfair assumptions about the mentally ill, pointing out that not all mentally ill people are dangerous. Some don’t even agree on what mental illness is, or what kinds of conditions constitute dangerous mental illness. Others say that the ease with which anyone can obtain the kind of weaponry this shooter had is insane.
Aside from extremists on one side or the other, everyone is at least a little bit right in these arguments, especially those who include the cold hard truth that no matter what precautions we take, no matter what restrictions we put in place, the chaos will always sneak through.
I don’t pretend to know what a fair and logical solution would be for controlling the weaponry that’s out there, or for screening people for possibly dangerous mental issues without turning the mentally ill into boogeymen. And I don’t mean to say the world is just a crazy place where horrible things happen, so just deal with it.
I think, honestly, I’m just writing now because I’m sad about Sandy Hook, and I’m sad about Hillary Johnson, and I hate that there are no guarantees. When Hillary died, part of our grief was the powerlessness we felt, and I’m sure that’s what’s driving a lot of people now. We want desperately to be able to fix the world.
We know deep down that we can’t fix it. But we can make it a little better. We can make it harder for things to fall apart. The way in which we strive to define our society defines who we are. And in trying to make things better, we’ll not only ease our own minds, but we’ll strengthen this society that we must put our trust in.
My son is going to grow up, as we all did, in a chaotic world, but we’re not going to raise him to believe that there is no hope. We’re going to raise him to understand that the important thing is not that horrible things happen, because that is inevitable. The important thing is how we react, change, and grow with everything that comes our way.
Filed under Uncategorized
How can you not judge a book by its cover? Especially if you haven’t read it? What else do you have to go on?
And when you’re a kid at a school book fair in, let’s say 1980, and the gym is filled with tables covered in book displays, and you find a book showing three kids running for their lives from gigantic tripod robots, how are you not supposed to decide on the spot that it’s the best book ever written?
The Best Book Ever Written? Looks like it!
I’ll cut right to the twist ending: I was that kid in 1980 when I found a copy of The White Mountains by John Christopher, the first of his Tripod Trilogy. For years, decades, it was featured prominently on the bookshelf in my room: One of the Best Books Ever Written. As I got older, it became one of the go-to touchstones of nostalgic conversations about how awesome my generation’s childhood was (even though the book was written in 1967). “Hey, what about The White Mountains?” “Is that the one with the tripods?” “Yes!” “I loved that book!”
Except that here’s the other twist: I never read the book until yesterday.
I had that thing on my shelf for something like twenty years, then it disappeared without me ever reading it. In a way, I didn’t have to. I already knew it was awesome based on the cover. Just the idea of kids versus giant robots (from space, I gleaned from the back cover) was awesome. And the fact that it had been written in England in the sixties but was still in print for a grade school book fair in Connecticut in 1980 suggested that it had something going on.
So last week I was reading a feature on the AV Club.com where people were talking about their favorite YA fiction, and Jason Heller wrote about the Tripod Trilogy, and even before I saw what he had to say about it I stopped reading and found the book on Amazon and “made it go on my Kindle,” as my mom would say. And I read it.
Is it the best book ever written? Even one of them? No, not at all. It’s a cool book, for all the reasons suggested by the cover, but it’s also pretty strange.
Will Parker is a teen living with his family in England hundreds of years after the Earth has been taken over by the Tripods. No one knows anything about the Tripods anymore, other than that when boys and girls reach puberty, the Tripods come to the village and “Cap” the kids, meaning they graft a metal mesh on their heads which renders them completely subservient to the rule of the Tripods. The day before his friend Jack’s Capping Day, the two discuss some doubts about just who and what the Tripods are, and if maybe being capped isn’t the best thing. But immediately after Jack’s capping, all of his doubts are gone, and so is his friendship with Will.
The bulk of the book is Will’s journey, with his two eventual companions, to find the White Mountains, a place where people supposedly live free from the Tripods’ influence. On their way they learn more about their world, and about the old world as they travel though ghost cities that have been dead for centuries.
One of the best aspects of the book—and probably one that would be most interesting to the younger readers the book is meant for—is seeing the spent leftovers of our world through the eyes of these kids who can only guess at what they are. What are those boxes on wheels that travel on steel rails, pulled by teams of horses? What’s this box with the numbered-and-lettered buttons on it? And what’s this egg-shaped thing and what happens when you pull this pin out of it?
On the other hand, much of the book is descriptions of traveling the countryside by foot, something most younger readers would almost have to skim over. And even when things get tense and the action ramps up, the sense of danger is often immediately deflated by things working out just fine, or by outside forces helping our heroes out.
The book does pick up as it goes along. And I have to say, by far the most effective scenes come at the climax, in the showdown between the boys and the Tripods depicted on that front cover on which I judged the book in the first place, 32 years before I read it. What comes immediately after this climax, however, is basically the words “The End.” This book ended so abruptly I actually shook my Kindle to see if the ending would fall out. It’s as if Star Wars ended with a title card that read, “And they blew up the Death Star.” Knowing that this is only the beginning of a longer series does ease that awkwardness a little, but I need to find out if it was originally written as the first part of a series, because if it wasn’t then this ending seems even weirder.
The flip side of all this quickness, abruptness, and lightness is that the book is enjoyably breezy. As a writer currently working on a genre book in which teens fight science fiction forces bigger than they are, I was pleased to see that an engaging story didn’t need to ponder its themes and events for pages and chapters in order to be effective. This is the trick with being an adult reading some YA fiction: The breeziness that the younger audience might require can seem to an adult reader either refreshingly economical or unsatisfyingly light. In the case of The White Mountains it’s a little of both.
But I’m excited to read the next two books in the series. I’m guessing that at the very least they will feature kids running for their lives from giant tripods.