Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Show, don't tell, for God's sake, Bram

Yes, it has been a great many days since we last checked in on Dracula and the valiant attempt to finish him off. I speak of the book's heroes' attempt, not my own. My efforts have been less than valiant. It's true that I have been unusually absorbed in trying to get my novel finally, finally out the freaking electronic door (nearly there! so close!). But it is also true that as I look at the battered paperback waiting for me on the coffee table, I see not a classic of Victorian literature, but a football-sized field of wet concrete, on the other side of which is...more wet concrete.

This should be the most thrilling part of the entire novel--the pursuit of the arch-villain back to his homeland--but there is just. too. damn. much. blabbing. There's interesting stuff going on, including Mina and the Count's psychic connection, which turns her into a sort of broken office intercom that allows the evil boss to eavesdrop on his rebellious employees. But every time the momentum picks up just a tad, we are treated to paragraphs like this:

"What does this tell us? Not much? No! The Count's child thought see nothing, therefore he speak so free. Your man thought see nothing. My man thought see nothing, till just now. No! But there comes another word from some one who speak without thought because she, too, know not what it mean, what it might mean. Just as there are elements which rest, yet when in nature's course they move on their way and they touch, the pouf! And there comes a flash of light, heaven wide, that blind and kill and destroy some. But that show up all earth below for leagues and leagues. Is it not so? Well, I shall explain. To begin, have you ever study the philosophy of crime? 'Yes' and 'No.' You, John, yes, for it is a study of insanity. You, no, Madam Mina, for crime touch you not, not but once. Still, your mind works true, and argues not a particulari ad universale. There is this peculiarity in criminals. It is so constant, in all countries and at all times, that even police, who know not much from philosophy, come to know it empirically, that it is. That is to be empiric. The criminal always work at one crime, that is the true criminal who seems predestinate to crime, and who will of none other. This criminal has not full man brain. He is clever and cunning and resourceful, but he be not of man stature as to brain. He be of child brain in much. Now this criminal of ours is predestinate to crime also. He, too, have child brain, and it is of the child to do what he have done. The little bird, the little fish, the little animal learn not by principle, but empirically. And when he learn to do, then there is to him the ground to start from to do more. 'Dos pou sto,' said Archimedes. 'Give me a fulcrum, and I shall move the world!' To do once, is the fulcrum whereby child brain become man brain. And until he have the purpose to do more, he continue to do the same again every time, just as he have done before! Oh, my dear, I see that your eyes are opened, and that to you the lightning flash show all the leagues," for Mrs. Harker began to clap her hands and her eyes sparkled.

First, and least of all: if you are going to do info dumps like this, please, please, not to do them in the voice of a guy whose command of the language is imperfect, and who nevertheless (Newt Gingrich-like) enjoys quoting from The Ancient Sages and The Latest Sciences to reveal his own amazing learnedness!

But why is this happening in the first place? Of course Stoker's was less of a show-don't-tell age than our own. Not bombarded by glowing, rapidly moving images every second of their lives, his audience most likely had both the patience and desire to slog through...I mean, peruse lengthy accounts of esoteric subjects. It is also likely that the desire for such information was stronger in them, certainly on the topic of vampires, which were not nearly as familiar a subject as they are to us. Insights not only into vampire lore, but into the makings of this particularly dangerous example of the type, were probably welcomed rather than skimmed.

However, this raises the more general problem I have with lots of genre literature: the overemphasis on world-building. Many people (Tom Clancy fans, say) love genre fiction precisely for the information it delivers about unfamiliar places, procedures, and times. Ultimately, reading such novels, for these readers, is just a more fun way of learning than studying a technical manual. Nothing wrong with that; I'd just rather learn the stuff by watching characters interact with these worlds. And I don't think much would have been lost had all this information been shown to us through the course of Dracula's misadventures in England and on the high seas.

And that's the other key issue. We have multiple points of view in this novel, but never Dracula's. I get the reasoning: he must be mysterious and therefore opaque. We also must not be tempted to sympathize with him in any way, although Mina herself, at one point, suggests that any decent Christian ought to try. (If what Van Helsing says is true, he really must be suffering something awful.) BUT. An inventive author could certainly present Dracula's point of view without demystifying him--in fact, one could make him far more mysterious that Van H's dry treatises (which he even admits are dry) turn out to be. Our sympathies with him, if invoked, could make the story even more disturbing.

The fact is, we don't quite see enough of Dracula. Yes, he has to be shadowy, and a little of him goes a long way.* But thus far we have really had too little, apart from his very entertaining scenes in the beginning. (Remember climbing down the castle wall headfirst, dressed as Jonathan?) He has become less of a being than a scholarly project of Van Helsing's--and Van Helsing clearly does not possess the gift of bringing the subjects of his inquiries to life.

Nevertheless, I press on...

*In the course of writing my novel, I have also learned that this is true of Bigfoot. I now no longer tell people my novel is "about" Bigfoot. However, he is a significant minor character.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


There's an interesting piece by Laura Miller on Salon about present vs. past tense in fiction. Evidently judges of various literary prizes are up in arms about the present tense. Too much contemporary literature is written in present, they say. It's too trendy, to MFA-y, and too wishy-washy--i.e. unwilling to commit to stating that something actually happened. Present supposedly creates a greater sense of unreliability, which I guess MFA types (especially girls) prize. The judges long, as it were, for the past.

As I am always a step ahead of the herd (usually because I am lost and have wandered into a farmer's field), I have already transposed my novel from present into past. I don't think it was because it seemed too trendy or wishy-washy. I wanted the story to seem more like a tale, a bit more mythical. If anything the past tense seems more flexible in the did-it-really-happen department. Present tense consumes the storytelling; there is no perspective, nothing outside the present moment, no wiggle room to say, wait a minute... Whereas the past could be someone spinning a yarn. It could be a tale told a thousand times already, by a thousand idiots, or liars, or tricksters, or people with poor memories. At the same time, it does have this oracular quality, but I think, in this day and age, that quality can be usefully played with.

Past also allows you to move closer to and farther from the action at will. There's room to insert reflective passages, but then you can dive back in and get really close to what is happening, for all intents and purposes, now.

As Miller says, if the writing is good, you'll get caught up in the story either way. You might not even notice the tense unless the writing is bad in other ways.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Robert Ferguson Observatory in Sonoma

On Saturday night we went to the public viewing program at the Robert Ferguson Observatory, which is in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Sonoma. In addition to the observatory's telescopes, the docents set up about a dozen telescopes in the parking lot. We got to see the Andromeda Galaxy, Jupiter + 4 of its moons, a couple of globular clusters... I'll go out on a limb and say this is the best stargazing opportunity this side of the Sierra.

The next public viewing night is Oct. 2. It's $3 very well spent, in my opinion. You'll feel extremely small, in an extremely good way.

Friday, September 10, 2010

New Short Fiction Series: March 13, 2011

Change in plans. An evening of my short fiction will be performed on Sunday, March 13, 2011 at the New Short Fiction Series in Los Angeles. (The previous date was October 2011.) So it's coming up! Save the date! Come to LA! The evening is called "What the Witch Wants, and Other Stories."

Borrowed Fire: Does Dracula have a psychology (part 2)? Or: the Gothic John McCain

As we make our way toward the final confrontation with you-know-who, we are once again treated to one of Van Helsing's patented info dumps, i.e. stuff it might have been good to know earlier. I suppose I should not complain. After all, I've been on Van H repeatedly for always going off to do research at the very moments when he ought to be vigorously pursuing Dracula with a stake. So now he's found out something kind of interesting about Dracula's psychology, and I guess it's better late than never. Besides, don't we all have the same problem--preparation vs. action? Research vs. writing? No matter what we're doing, it seems like the wrong thing at the wrong time, doesn't it?

Anyway, here's what he's learned:

"I have studied, over and over again since they came into my hands, all the papers relating to this monster, and the more I have studied, the greater seems the necessity to utterly stamp him out. All through there are signs of his advance. Not only of his power, but of his knowledge of it. As I learned from the researches of my friend Arminius of Buda-Pesth, he was in life a most wonderful man. Soldier, statesman, and alchemist--which latter was the highest development of the science knowledge of his time. He had a mighty brain, a learning beyond compare, and a heart that knew no fear and no remorse. He dared even to attend the Scholomance, and there was no branch of knowledge of his time that he did not essay.

"Well, in him the brain powers survived the physical death. Though it would seem that memory was not all complete. In some faculties of mind he has been, and is, only a child. But he is growing, and some things that were childish at the first are now of man's stature. He is experimenting, and doing it well. And if it had not been that we have crossed his path he would be yet, he may be yet if we fail, the father or furtherer of a new order of beings, whose road must lead through Death, not Life."

As before, this is not exactly a psychology. We're learning this info primarily so we can see what a formidable enemy Dracula is. He's extremely smart, and, for the first time, we understand he has a Plan.

Interestingly, vampirism seems to be akin to a brain injury--it causes faculties usually present in adults to vanish. I'm not quite sure what the reference to his being childlike means, but we might assume it's a radical narcissism, which doesn't recognize the existence of others as others. That obviates the need for any conscience, and explains his desire to populate the world with mini-Dracs. In his mind, everyone is either him, or should be him.

Yeah, this is overstated. Van Helsing's insights don't raise Dracula beyond the level of extra-scary monster. However, this description put me in mind of another character who could become a truly tragic monster, if someone wants to write that particular novel. I am thinking of John McCain. I have no evidence one way or the other to indicate whether he once was smart. However, like Dracula, he was a proud warrior. He was laid low by his enemies. At some point--perhaps as a result of torture, or that combined with years in the strange and stultifying castle of the U.S. Senate, plus two (or more?) failed runs for president--he developed a burning desire for vengeance. What he may once have been, he is no longer. He bides his time, learning and plotting as his conscience withers away. Until one desperate day, faced with what could be his final defeat, he makes a bargain with the devil. And unleashes a red-suited, bee-hived demon upon the earth...

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

My walk in the hills

Falling behind in my Dracula reading again...but not because I am bored! Or fed up with some of the kind of stupid stuff, like Jonathan, and Van Helsing's accent! Classic literature is wonderful and good for us, and I will get to it soon. But a week has gone by, and one feels one should post something. So I give you:

My Walk in the Hills

On Monday, Labor Day, Trev and I spent the afternoon at Costanoa. For those of you who don't know, this is a campground for people who hate camping. You can bring a tent and sleep in it if you really want to, or park your RV, or you can stay in a tent-cabin, or a cabin, or the lodge. Or you don't have to stay overnight at all, just hang out and pretend you are a camper. No one will know. There's a pretty nice restaurant with pretty good food and completely unpredictable service, and you can dart across Highway One to the beach. In the other direction there's a trail leading up a hill, with nice views of the Bay.

So after a fortifying campers' meal of pizza and pinot noir and a roast artichoke (OK and a banana split...IT WAS A HOLIDAY), Trev and I set off up the hill. This was about 5 p.m., prime hunting time for various grassland creatures. We saw a bobcat, which was a beautiful russet color with spots, and which looked at us with supreme boredom and contempt. Then we didn't see anything for awhile, other than deer and birds. Which are fine, nothing wrong with deer or birds. But in their very familiarity they can lull you into thinking that nature is benign and predictable, when in fact it has you in its cross-hairs...

On the way back down I was walking ahead, not in the moment as usual, probably thinking about my novel or reminiscing about the banana split, when I saw something waving in the grass. Maybe it was an unusually large tuft of pampas grass? Except it was black and white, and suddenly Trev was yelling and pulling me back. So it was a skunk. I came this close to getting sprayed head to toe. But I didn't. I guess it would have been a better story if I did.

It's all I've got, folks. I've been preoccupied. Back to Dracula.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Borrowed Fire: How character can help plot

So Dracula has been a bit of a slog this week. How can this be, when this week's reading culminated in the still-somewhat-shocking scene of Dracula forcing Mina to drink from a vein in his chest--like "a child forcing a kitten's nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink"?

Well, to get to this point, we have to slog through some pretty tedious plot logistics, which are rendered necessary by faulty characterization. If I may be so bold. Yes, I get that this is a horror novel, not a literary novel, and so characterization is secondary to plot. But in this case the plot problem is actually a character problem. Or maybe even a philosophical problem that hampers characterization.

Stoker, perhaps deliberately, misunderstands the nature of heroism. Dracula is fundamentally a story of good vs. evil, but Stoker mistakes "good" for "perfect." His male heroes, in order to be heroes, all have to be indisputably wise, brave, diligent, strong, and solicitous of the weaker sex. But his plot demands that all these perfect guys fail utterly to discern that Mina is being attacked by Dracula while they are out looking for Dracula. This failure would suggest that they are at least somewhat deficient in wisdom, bravery, diligence, strength, and consideration.

But in this understanding of heroism, that can't be. Therefore, we need elaborate explanations as to how this failure occurred that don't entail personal failings in the characters. These explanations are convoluted and ultimately not convincing. Contrary to the author's apparent intentions, they even make the characters look dumb and callous. After all they've been through--all the research, all the collating and comparing of documents, not to mention the wasting away and then the bloody murder of Lucy, which they all saw and participated in...they still have no idea what is happening to Mina.

To be fair, Mina herself seems to have no idea. She, like her husband and the expert Van Helsing, insist on seeing her problem as womanly nerves. She is more tired than usual, pale and weepy--which suggests being "visited" by Dracula is like getting your period. These symptoms confirm for both Mina and the guys that they were right in having her stay at home alone while the men went out to not find Dracula. The fact that it is unusual for Mina to behave this way does not raise any red flags--if anything, it seems to bring relief to all concerned (including the author) that Mina really is (just) a woman. We were right not to bring her along--just look at how exhausted she is from merely thinking about hunting vampires! Whereas we sort of suspect that Mina, if she had gone along, would have found and staked Dracula in a second, while the guys were still leafing through UPS notices, debating the whereabouts of the boxes of earth that Dracula has had shipped to England.

But what if Stoker had a different definition of heroism? Let's say Jonathan is a bit dumber than his wife. Say he's uncomfortable with this--it threatens his sense of manhood, which is already under threat because he's not brave, or at least thinks he isn't. This is understandable. He lives in an age in which women aren't supposed to be smarter or braver than their husbands; moreover, Jonathan has been through some serious trauma in Castle Dracula. We would understand if he were scared and confused, and perhaps too quick to attribute Mina's pallor to a stereotype that he knows, deep down, is wrong. And let's say Van Helsing was once a great vampire hunter. But the years, and the grisly nature of his business, have taken their toll. Some part of him just doesn't want to deal with Dracula. He doesn't want to cut off another head and stuff the mouth with garlic. He's old and tired. Maybe he even has some sympathy for the creatures he has to kill--cast out by God and man, and it isn't their fault, really...Can't someone else take over? I could even see Mina and Dracula having an interesting conversation before they...you know. Mina can't help being drawn to the Count--she knows he's bad, really bad, but so much more interesting than Jonathan, with his endless nattering about real estate and office politics...

So the scared young guy and the exhausted old guy and the smart but frustrated woman make a series of mistakes. Their psychology causes them to willfully misread Mina's illness, allowing Dracula to almost do her in. But they pull themselves together, despite their fear, exhaustion, revulsion, and stupidity, to do what they have to do in the end. Isn't that a more compelling definition of heroism? Overcoming one's flaws to do the right, and hard thing?

On the other hand, who am I to criticize? Dracula has, you know, done all right as a novel. It will no doubt outlast us all. It's a classic. And, again, I know Stoker didn't set out to write a literary/psychological novel. It's just that he almost did. And while I don't write genre novels, and can't really presume to tell others how to do it, it still seems to me that *even* genre novels benefit from having complex, flawed characters. It would make at least this plot more interesting and believable.