Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 31, 2016

Three Tools For Reading and Watching Popular Fiction

James R. PrestonJames Preston

Once upon a time my wife and I were sitting up late at night, reading. She had a romance novel, I probably had something by Heinlein or Asimov or Andre Norton. Suddenly, she yelled, “Arrrrrgh!” Or maybe it was “Gaaaah!” And she threw the paperback across the room, bouncing it off the wall, scaring the cat, scaring me. I said something like, “Uh, honey, sweetie pie, is something wrong?” Meanwhile thinking, she’s between me and the kitchen with all the sharp instruments.

“At the end an atomic bomb went off and they were all killed.” Well, hell, I’d throw a book across the room for that, too. If it was genre fiction and failed to do what I expect it to. It's just wrong.

Independce DayTo prepare for writing this essay I watched two of my favorite movies: Independence Day (1996) and Godzilla (1998). See the sacrifices I make for you, gentle reader? I knew I wanted to write about popular literature and film and its relation to so-called serious lit and film, and how they both relate to what we do, but until I watched those two again, I wasn't sure exactly why I wanted to, and if I had anything to say.

We all have them. Books and movies — stories — we love that are not critically-acclaimed and which more highbrow types look down their patrician noses at.

We’ve all been there, right? “When asked, “What are you reading?” You say, “Oh, I’m re-reading a wonderful early Jayne Ann Krentz” and the English professor down the block says, “Frightfully nice, I’m sure. I’m just finishing Crime and Punishment.” 

The odds are if you are reading this essay you read and write genre fiction, stories that, like Rodney Dangerfield, often don’t get respect. (If, on the other hand, you are working on a free-form non-novel about existential suburban ennui I can’t help you. No one can help you.)

For most of us these old friends are books we read growing up, that spoke to us. For me it was Ian Fleming. I said, “I want to do that.”

I think when we revisit those old friends now, we can learn from them, if we watch or read as writers. And I think there are three tips that will help you to articulate what it is about the work that speaks to you. 

First, ask yourself why this work holds so much appeal to you. 

For me, in Godzilla (1998) it's the character of Nick Tatapoulous, the hero. Here’s a guy in the pouring rain outside Chernobyl, (yes, that Chernobyl) shoving metal rods into the mud so he can apply current and shock earthworms to the surface for capture — and he’s singing. He’s having a good time; this is his work and he’s been at it for three years. This is a guy I want to know more about. (For the rest of the movie the people on the team fighting Godzilla call him “the worm guy.”) He’s quirky and driven and interesting. 

Second, put yourself in the place of the author and try to see what elements they cared about. This is sort of the flip side of Tip Number One. Those elements may not be huge parts of the story, but if they mean something to the writer you will be able to spot them.

In Independence Day the father-son story between Randy Quaid and his son is not essential, you could take it out and still have a movie, yet it is the most emotionally-charged part of the film, just as you could take the comments about assisted living out of the Evanovich books and they’d still work as mysteries, but they’d lack some of the punch. That’s where Evanovich’s heart is. You need to remember that when you are writing, holding it as an example to encourage you to leave a part of yourself on the page.

So far we’ve talked about two tasks when you revisit an old friend, book or movie: you ask yourself why you like it, and you ask yourself what meant the most to the creator. There’s one more tip and it’s a little more difficult.

Third, look for evidence that the writer takes the work seriously.

220px-The_Hideous_Sun_DemonThat’s an absolute must for good stories. There’s a 1950’s science fiction movie called (I’m not making this up) The Hideous Sun Demon. It's about a scientist who is exposed to radiation and later finds that when he got out in the sun he turns into a big lizard and kills people. I think it's a documentary. Even adjusting for inflation, the budget for this film was probably less than the catering budget for one day of shooting on NCIS. In the notes that come with the DVD, the creator, who plays the scientist/lizard, talks about the monster costume they made out of a wetsuit and how hot it was during filming, how in some scenes if you look closely you can see sweat running down his, uh, pants. Did he have to go to all that trouble for a movie aimed at an audience of kids at the drive-in who were more interested in drinking beer and getting to know their dates? No, of course not, but he cared and it shows in a small, but well-crafted movie.

That works both ways. The Robert Aldrich 1955 film noir, Kiss Me Deadly is an example of a writer that didn’t take it seriously. He said in an interview, “I wrote it fast because I had contempt for it.” (1) The film’s place in movie history is secure, but I think it sucks. The dialog is wooden, the characters some of the most unlikeable ever to slink across the screen, and it's untrue to the book. Mine is a minority opinion, but I stick to it. I hauled out the DVD and watched a good chunk of it to see if I still felt that way and I did.

So, why did I want to write about pop lit? Why, because I like it. Every time I see a new serious book and think I should be reading it, a new James Rollins or Caril Hiassen comes out and gets in the way. I write to entertain and I read for the same reason. That’s it. I can’t say I have no higher purpose, for me there is no higher purpose. How any of you remember the amazing, wonderful chapter in Stephen King’s it where the young writer struggling through a creative writing class suddenly blurts out, “Can’t a story just be a story?” Made me want to stand up and cheer.

Look, you may have a hard time explaining this to the woman who is finishing Crime and Punishment. She won’t get it because she reads for different reasons.

But you’ll know.

I’ve talked about a couple of movies and a few books that — thanks to you readers and to Fae who asked for another contribution — are my guilty pleasures. You know what? They’re not so guilty anymore, so thanks.

Now I’d like to hear yours. One of the coolest things about Writers in the Storm is the community, the sharing, so it’s time to fess up. Who knows? We all might find a new, unappreciated gem. What's your guilty reading pleasure?

 Sailor Home from SeaJames R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. The most recent is Sailor Home From Sea. He is finishing the second of a projected trilogy of novellas set at Cal State Long Beach in the 1960s. The next Surf City Mystery is called Remains To Be Seen and will be available in 2017. His work has been selected for the UC Berkeley Special Collection, California Detective Fiction. And when he needs inspiration for a great opening, he looks at a Jayne Ann Krentz.

(1)       Hiberman, J., The Thriller of Tomorrow, adapted from his book, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War.









31 comments on “Three Tools For Reading and Watching Popular Fiction”

  1. Your beef is similar to mine. James Clavell (He of 'Shogun') wrote a novel called "Taipan". He spent about 800 pages building up this savage conflict between two vicious pirates masquerading as businessmen. At the end, they're going to cut each other to pieces. They have swords. They're marching toward each other, both men determined to cut the other fellow up. And just when the fight is going to start, a typhoon comes along and blows them both away, presumably to their death. Readers never got to enjoy the fight.

    I bought Taipan because I'd read and loved Shogun. After Taipan, I never bought another one of his books. If I ever get to meet him, I'm gonna poke him in the chops before I break his nose.

    Deke Solomon

    1. LOL Deke, I think Noble House is a fabulous novel -- but I fear you are right about other parts of Clavell's work. However, you cannot fault his research. Preparing to write Whirlwind -- pilots in 1970's Middle East -- he learned to fly a helicopter, which according to my pilot friends is no small task. Thanks for the comment! Try Noble House, too, when you get a chance, but it is an enormous book. I think the hardback weighs as much as I do.

    2. I would recommend Clavell's King Rat, a fiction based on his POW experience in WWII. In fact, Marlowe and Grey from Noble House were first characters in King Rat

      1. Bob, you're right! I had forgotten about King Rat; been too long since I read it. And Marlowe & Grey do turn up in Noble House, carrying on their quarrel. Now that I think of it, Noble house begins with a typhoon, and another storm near the end (spoiler alert) kills the American investor. I guess Clavell loves big storms. Bob, did you read Whirlwind?

        1. No, I never got around to it! Read King Rat, Noble House, and Shogun. After that, I was tired of reading about Asia, though I did get back into it five or six years later with Michael Crichton's Rising Sun. After that, I was hooked on Crichton for... well... the rest of his life.

          1. I agree completely abut Crichton! Even State of Fear, which is not a very good novel (IMHO) but, when I went back to it I found very interesting. "The footnotes are real." Have you seen a book called The Science of Michael Crichton? It's worth a look. (I've read all of Crichton except the pirate novel and Micro, which I have started.) Thanks, Bob.

  2. I bought the first "In Death" book by JD Robb, thinking it would be a nice airplane read that I could leave in the seat pocket. But the Eve-Roarke dynamic hooked me, and I bought the next 14 in the series as soon as I got home. Over the years (and there are something like 40+ of those suckers now), she's added characters, and develops them further in each book. It's obvious she cares about them, and readers do, too.

    1. Terry, it's been a while since I have fallen into the "Oh, I'll read this in the waiting room and leave it." I think the last was a Robert B. Parker and it is sitting smugly on the bookshelf behind me as I write. I will check out the Robb books; they must be something to grab you like that. Can I assume there were aspects of the stories that influenced your work?

  3. I really like this post, James, because it is so true that it feels like selling your soul to write "just" for money. I love making money as a writer, but whenever someone says, "You should write another 50 Shades! Or Twilight!" I have to shake my head. You really do need to love a genre to write successfully in it. My own guilty pleasure tends toward mystery novels set in countries where it's constantly foggy and snowy, and where the sleuth always has a past nearly as dark as the criminals.

    1. Oh, Holly, you are so right! I have lost count of the times I have been told "You should send Mac to Maui," or some other vacation spot. "Um, he hasn't gone there yet," doesn't seem to be a very satisfactory answer. You probably have read Smilla's Sense of Snow, but have you looked at Martin Cruz Smith's work? He has some fine mysteries set in very cold places, I may be wrong but I believe one is on a fishing boat -- one of the factories that prepares the fish, gutting, and so on. Despite the fact that I just told you it was a novel about fish guts, it's worth checking out. Thanks for commenting!

  4. We share the same author love, James, but I cringe at those old science fiction movies. I have your lovely wife for introducing me to Jayne Ann Krentz and the romance genre. And shopping! Thanks for a fun post.

    1. The 50's SF epics are an acquired taste, Fae, that's for sure. Nevertheless, I still enjoy them. Who could resist Craig Stephens -- Peter Gunn -- fighting a giant praying mantis? They are examples of craft. The makers, when they were at their best, knew exactly what they were doing -- entertaining an audience that was half-drunk. Deep character exploration is out, action is in. I think the lesson is not "Ignore character" it's "decide what you want to do first." In their case it is entertain. Thanks! And do try The Deadly Mantis.

      1. My husband, Alpha Dog, LOVES those 50's Sci Fi flicks! I don't get why, but it's an hour when he won't be watching a Western, so I'm not complaining!

        1. Laura, I'm with you! I love lawyer books, too. It seems like there's a group of attorneys who find time to write books. That impresses me the same way doctor/novelists do. I'm glad I made you laugh, too. Yeah, we've all suffered through those heavy, heavy books. However, as a sign of things to come, I believe I saw a listing for a study guide for one of Stephen King's books, I think 'Salem's Lot. Does that mean there's hope, or that kids who are assigned the book will think it's Tolstoy?

  5. Guilty pleasure? Cozies with Brits. I think it's the immersion in another world with high-stakes encounters that manage to be both simpler and less threatening than my own everyday challenges. Rhys Bowen's "Royal" series, M.C. Beaton's Hamish McBeth, Lindsay Davis's Falco series.

    1. Hey, crb, I know what you mean about immersion. Sherlock Holmes was my first and I remember that book and just falling into it to this day. You might take a look -- there are electronic copies available -- at Bulldog Drummond. Written just after WW1, they are not bad at all, and very interesting for the attitudes. Drummond and his friends cannot adjust to civilian life. They miss the excitement of war. Sound familiar? Take a look.

    1. Sandy, thank you thanks you! I think King's book on writing is excellent, but a great deal of what he says could be extracted from his fiction. When I read that part of It I thought, "He lived through something just like this." I think telling a story is hard enough for me. Thanks for commenting and now get back to work! Type faster!

  6. Thank you James and Fae. I don't quite get the appeal of Literary Fiction. Reading it, maybe, in small doses, if the prose is majestic, but write it? Who wants to be with these people for weeks or months? Similarly, I don't get the lack of respect for genre fiction.

    Lee Child gave a talk at a conference I attended. The basic premise was our cave dwelling ancestors did not sit around the campfire talking about disaffection in the suburbs, alienation of the society, disillusionment of the rich or ennui. They talked about adventure, mysteries, fantasy and romance. Genre fiction is in our DNA. It'l okay to embrace it.

    1. Excellent, Robert! Yeah, I can hear Alley Oop (did I just date myself?) saying, "I am miserable with the quiet desperation of the sameness of our existence. Get up, chase the antelope, kill him, eat him. Isn't there anything more to life?" You're right, our ancestors said, "I went over the hill and this is what happened. There was a monster . . . " I bet Lee Child was great. I have not heard him speak, but I'd like to. If you can track down a copy, he has an essay in Mystery Scene, Number 85, Summer 2004. Thanks!

    2. I've heard Lee Child give that talk on more than one occasion, and he spoke of the way fiction evolved ... the relating of a group killing a saber-tooth tiger eventually became one cave man single-handedly besting three of them... and more.

      1. I envy you, Terry. I hope one of these days I get to hear Child speak. And how true! "Twelve of us jumped on the tiger" became "I fought it single-handed and beat it into submission." Thanks!

  7. You made me laugh, James. 'If, on the other hand, you are working on a free-form non-novel about existential suburban ennui I can’t help you. No one can help you.' Amen, brother. I used to read to learn - so I read Tolstoy in high school

    Now that I'm older, I can read whatever the hell I want. My guilty pleasure? Lawyer books. You know, those cheesy gritty defenders of slime books.

    I eat 'em up. No idea why.

  8. Thanks, Laura. We all have waded through (or dodged) those heavy, serious novels. Sign of the times: I saw a listing recently for a study guide, yes a study guide, for a Stephen King novel. I believe it was Salem's Lot. Will students recognize a great book, or will it be something they, too, wade through? There's something you could blog about. Enduring value . . .

  9. In my reply to crb, I neglected to mention that the Bulldog Drummond books were made into movies. They are actually worth a look.

  10. It's funny: Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite novels. But that doesn't mean I don't love commercial fiction too. A great story is a great story, period. (I often remind myself that much of what counts as a classic today was likely considered low-brow when it was written.)

    Your reference to B-movies made me think of when I watched the original Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1958). The premise sounds ridiculous, but there was a story behind it -- a mistreated woman seeking justice and revenge -- that made the film entirely watchable. You're right: Don't discount the importance of a great character!

    1. Julie, you're right and you're right! I loved Moby Dick when it was assigned, and The Three Musketeers is still one of my favorites. Attack of the 5-Ft Woman! yes, there is more there than meets the eye. I think the makers wanted to say something, although they didn't let that get in the way of Allison Hayes in a sort of giant miniskirt tearing things up. And the scene where the husband goes in to administer a lethal injection and sees a giant hand in the bed is priceless! Thanks!

  11. Fun read. I don't think I have any guilty pleasures other than Ngaio Marsh mysteries from several decades ago but I don't actually feel guilty about reading them. They're interesting reading contemporary fiction from different decades. I read what appeals to me and that could be something more literary, although in very small doses and when I'm in the right mood, to fantasy and sci-fi to historical fiction to whatever else. Growing up I do admit to gobbling up Sweet Valley High books and The Babysitter Club books even when I was far too old for them. I knew I should be transitioning into more grown up and literary books, but they were quick, silly reads. I stopped because I bought into the more serious books = smart.

    1. Rats! Sorry, dhanni, I did not see your comment. Hope my reply finds its way to you. Sure, Ngaio is great! I grew up with the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Tom Corbett, and Rick Brant. And I went back to take a look at The Tower Treasure just last year, and, you know what -- it ho;ds up well for what would now be a YA story. Thanks for sharing your faves!

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