Gore Vidal said of a book written by Harold Robbins.
"This is not at all bad -- except as prose."
He also added:
"To call Harold Robbins an author is like calling a woodpecker a carpenter."
Those words were brought to mind by a milestone of history trivia.
On this day in 1184 BC, according to calculations made some 900 years later by the North African Greek, Eratosthenes, Troy was sacked and burned.
And we've been sacking and burning it, and other icons, ever since.
I thought to myself:
when did archetype devolve into cliche? And can we revive archetype back to life in our writing?
I asked that after thinking of the movie, TROY, and reading the reviews for AFTER EARTH and MAN OF STEEL.
An acre of craft goes into a bad novel.
How much more must go into a great one. You must fertilize it by going beneath the surface with wit and intelligence ... and love.
Yes, you must love your idea.
How else do you expect an editor to even like it if you don't love it?
And the protagonist ...
do you know him/her down to the depths of his yearnings, her doubts, his sense of humor?
Do you like him?
Would you like to spend time with him on a roadtrip? If not, why would expect a reader to want to spend days reading about him/her?
Whether he is Sherlock Holmes or Hannibal Lector, he thinks along lines that are beyond your abilities --
but not your dreams. He says and does the things you wish you could, whether in your dreams or your fantasies of revenge.
And you must know where he's going. Listen to Mickey Spillaine's wisdom:
Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle.
They read it to get to the end. If it's a letdown, they won't buy anymore.
The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.
And know what the readers want of your hero. Mickey has advise on this as well:
Imagine a guy hits Mike Hammer over the head with a wooden coathanger and knocks him out.
No reader wants that.
You hit Mike Hammer over the head with a wooden coathanger, he'll beat the crap out of you. That's what the reader wants.
And how do you discover what the reader wants? Read the kind of books you are writing.
Time's a problem with that? Stephen King has a word for you:
"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
And try to keep a sense of humor about it. Stephen King has a word about that as well:
When his life was ruined, his family killed, his farm destroyed, Job knelt down on the ground and yelled up to the heavens, "Why god? Why me?"
And the thundering voice of God answered, "There's just something about you that pisses me off."
— Stephen King (Storm of the Century: An Original Screenplay )
King winks at us and says,
"Fiction is the truth inside the lie. Good books don't give up all their secrets at once. If yours does, guess what kind of book yours is?"
But I began this post by talking about how to breathe life into cliche, making it vibrant archetype. How do you do that?
BRING IT HOME:
I thought about this method while walking today across a hospital lobby as I delivered rare blood to an ailing patient.
On the wall TV was the tail end of an interview with a poor woman, sobbing in despair and loss over the death of a loved one in Arkansas.
The CNN camera switched to the newscaster in the studio.
Her face was glowing. Literally glowing. Not somber with empathy. No, her plastic Barbie face was bright, cheerful even.
"That video certainly brings it home to our viewers, doesn't it, Bob?"
And I suddenly realized why her face was so radiant.
The cameras had caught a scene certain to grab the audience and boost the ratings.
She was oblivious to the trauma of the woman, fixated only on her own needs as a reporter, eager to be promoted to a better time slot.
Some writers are like that reporter. They want a bestseller.
They want to snare millions of readers. They need a tragic trauma to happen in the lives of her characters. In the compulsion to write of an epic crisis, they see only the details of the situation --
not the soul of it.
To touch our audience, to make our novel throb with life,
we must bring it home to the readers. We must touch the heart. Do more than describe what happens.
We must merge the terror, the heartbreak of the characters with the mind of the reader.
Speak to the universal fears of people everywhere:
abandonment, loneliness, yearning for love, caught up in a desperate need to belong, yet feeling always on the outside.
I believe most of us who write are more aware, more sensitive than that CNN reporter.
I think we believe what William Faulkner once wrote:
"A man's moral conscience is the curse he had to accept from the gods in order to gain from them the right to dream."
I believe we as writers must bear that curse proudly and follow the path William Faulkner urged the writers who followed him to take :
"Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do.
Don't bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. If you do that, you're a writer.
And a writer is a creature driven by demons. You won't know why they chose you. Luckily, you'll usually be too busy to even wonder why."
To me, TROY told the surface story. GLADIATOR, on the other hand, touched the heart, the soul of its viewers. Here's the trailer for that movie: