28 September 2010


Being a writer, I suppose I ought to blog about what I do from time to time. Pretty pictures are all well and good, but if one of them is worth a thousand words, well, there's still all those words.

I've had short stories on my mind for a while. I don't actually read all that many of them and I almost never write them. But a few years ago I was one of the judges on the Edgar Awards panel for short fiction. We had to wade our way through over 600 submissions. This year I was one of three editors of the short story anthology MURDER IN LA LA LAND, put out by Sisters in Crime's Los Angeles chapter. (I'm also on the board - speakers bureau director.) For that, I went over 74 submissions. And, I've recently had my first ever short story published, in DARK VALENTINE magazine. And even more, my second short story will be published next year in an anthology called BANGKOK NOIR.

Here's what I think about short stories. Most of them suck. (But, I'd probably also say that about most books, movies, TV shows, CDs, etc. - so you short story writers, don't take any special umbrage from that.)

Here's why most short stories suck.

They don't get off to a fast enough start. Ideally a short story should grab my attention in its very first sentence, or paragraph, or absolutely no later than about its third paragraph. This is the one thing that made wading through all those 600 plus Edgar and 74 anthology submissions tolerable. If a story hadn't got me in its grip by the end of the third paragraph, I didn't even bother reading any further. There is a slim, very slim, chance that a story that isn't quick off the block might somehow turn itself around and manage to become at least okay, but there is almost no chance it will be any better than merely okay.

They try to do too much. A short story isn't a summary of a novel, or an outline for a novel, or even an idea for a novel. It is a self-contained unit that deals with a small or focused enough story that it doesn't need to be expanded upon. It can deal with big ideas and have broad implications, but it shouldn't leave its reader wanting more - other than, ideally, more, different short stories by the same writer. Some writers use short stories to try out ideas that might eventually find their way into novels. They can develop characters who they later want to use in novels. But if a short story wants to be a novel, write the damn novel.

They do too little. You know the word "story?" Well, it means something. A short story shouldn't simply be a vignette, a slice of life, a snapshot of something. It needs a beginning, middle and end. The plot needs to go somewhere and get somewhere.

Short stories, at least good ones, aren't easy to write. They're hard. Some people have an easier time writing them than novels, but even those people work just as hard on them, if they do a good job of it, as novelists do on their longer stories. I find that on a per-word basis, short stories are harder for me to write than longer pieces.

As for "fucking dialog," it's on my mind this morning because last night I started, for the third time, trying to watch the TV series that everyone else on the planet, other than me, seems to love - THE WIRE.

(For those of you who have a sudden visceral reaction of, "what the hell's wrong with this guy, he doesn't love The Wire?" Get over yourselves. I'll admit I probably am missing a few braincells here and there, but you probably are, too. How do you, after all, feel about the movie CHRISTINE - one of the all time greats?)

I will admit that watching the first episode, for the third time, last night, I liked a lot more about it than I have on previous viewings. I liked the characters. I liked the apparent developing plot lines. I liked the camerawork. I enjoyed much of the dialog.

But something about the dialog bothered me as much this time around as on the previous attempts - all the fucking swearing.

Now do not get me wrong. I have no objection to swearing. Many of the characters in my own books swear, a lot. Some of them in multiple languages. One of my all time favorite scenes in anything ever, was the lengthy conversation in DEADWOOD between Al Swearingen (sp?) and the boss of the Chinese community in the town, in which the only word they used was "cocksucker." I don't even have any objection to gratuitous swearing, or swearing used for no purpose other than to shake up or even piss off the reader.

But THE WIRE is, quite obviously, an attempt at gritty realism. And I'm sorry, but its dialog is lazy. Every single fucking character is swearing in nearly every single fucking sentence of practically every cocksucking, motherfucking, big hard dick in the ear conversation that they have. That is just plain bullshit. It is fuck-stupid, limp-dicked, sloppy television writing code for: "hey, look at me everybody, I'm a gritty realistic drama."

People, real people, don't talk that way. Real people don't talk any particular way. Even real people in small, close-knit communities don't always talk the same way as each other, even when they do share a number of linguistic similarities. I've been around lots of real people in lots of different circumstances in small tightly knit groups and big ones and oddly enough they don't all talk alike all the time. I know cops who barely swear at all and seem uncomfortable when people are swearing around them. I know cops who need a translator for people who don't know all the up to date slang and swear words. Same with crooks.

In writing, all writing, even the kind that gets done for television, one of the most important ways to define characters is through the way they talk. If all of your characters talk the same way, maybe you can create a sense of community between them, (and in THE WIRE, a twisted sense of community between the cops and crooks), but it's at the expense of them as individual characters and at the expense of realism.

So now go ahead all you THE WIRE lovers, let me have it.


sydlexic said...

Like many series, "The Wire" took a while to find its stride. Stop watching the first episode over and over and go a little further; I think you'll change your mind. And I'll put "The Wire"'s "Fuck" scene against "Deadwood"'s "Cocksucker" scene any day.

Also, as I recall, the last time we watched Christine together, you fell asleep.

Bill H said...

Profanity is punctuation. A book by Jerry Cohen and William Murphy, "Burn, Baby Burn" was available in censored form at Herbert Hoover Junior High School, Indialantic, Florida. Published in 1966 by E.P Dutton, the Watts Riots were the antagonist, the city of LA being the protagonist and the characters merely being characters. Or whatever, mix them up, I don’t give an anal pore from a planaria worm. Point being that every word, that soon would be known in Nixon’s later years as “Explicative Deleted” was removed by an exacto knife or a razor. Yup, they was done cut out of the book. However (this is written after a couple of Taliskers), This made the book much more interesting, especially when you realize that if a word is cut from, say, page 21, page 22 also has a hole in it.

Stories Inc. said...

Man, you're strict, you're harsh and you're demanding when it comes to short stories (and their writers), aren't you? Hope you'll ever find the time to look at some of mine, though this is just an invitation, of course. I could use someone to break them down to the ground so I know how to resurrect them.
Thanks for the tips/criticism that can be used as pointers on your blog!