What "The Eagle" and "Battle: Los Angeles" taught me about telling stories

      I have to laugh. I just read Roger Ebert’s review of Battle: Los Angeles and, while I greatly respect Mr. Ebert’s opinions, I do believe he gave that movie the lowest rating I have ever seen. He not only hated the movie but said that anyone who liked it was an idiot. Oops. Well, I did like it, I’m almost embarrassed to say. The movie is about a squad of U.S. Marines who fight aliens in Los Angeles, and maybe the fact that I am an ex-Marine influenced my feelings.
    In any case, the movie was filled with clichés: the Marine sergeant with a troubled past, the green lieutenant, the Marines learning to trust each other, etc., etc. But here is what I liked: I thought it was honest and did not over-reach. And while it did have some clichés, it didn’t have all of them. For example, there was a kid in the movie but he had a small part and wasn’t captured by aliens and then needing to be rescued. And there was a woman, but the hero did not fall in love with her. But what I especially liked was that the movie did not try to be more than it was. Rather than having epic, special effects battles, virtually all of the fighting was via small team tactics between the Marines and the aliens. This allowed the characters to stay center-staged and reinforced the idea that even vs. aliens Marine Corps combat training and marksmanship are effective. Hoo-rah!!
     The Eagle is the story of a Roman officer in first century England trying to recapture a Roman Eagle that his father lost while commanding a Legion some years earlier. Ebert loved the movie, but, to my mind it had several major similarities to Battle: Los Angeles.  First it involved similar, simple themes and wasn’t shy about invoking clichés. Second, the battles were, by and large, a series of small group encounters that allowed the story to stay focused on the characters. As I watched the movie, I was struck by how the simple values of courage, loyalty, and trust can stir emotions in viewers, almost as if we as humans are hard-wired to respond to them.
    These two movies caused me to ponder what are the elements of a good thriller. These days some would say it is unexpected twists and brutal action that grab a reader’s attention. However, I am more likely to say, it is about the emotions the story conjures in its readers/viewers.
In my next posting I will discuss what makes a satisfying ending in a thriller.
Jim Haberkorn
Zurich
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Writing Style – Likes and Dislikes

Like many people I have read hundreds of books in my life and count the moments sitting on a couch with a storm raging outside and a good book to read as one of life’s most enjoyable moments. But until I actually wrote a book myself, I didn’t have a clear appreciation of how much a writer’s style influenced my enjoyment of a book.
Writing style is a combination of vocabulary, sentence structure, emotional honesty, powers of observation, and perspective. And a thousand other things. Style can make or break a good story. Style can pull you in or push you away.
In my previous post, I focused on the style of Ernest Hemingway – a short, clear, no frills style that for me and many others touches our emotions in a way out of all proportion to the simplicity of the language. But I also admire the more intricate and layered style of Martin Cruz Smith in Gorky Park and Polar Star. Likewise the swirling, evocative, gritty style of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion.  Strangely, all those vastly different styles have the same effect on me – they pull me into their world where now I hear the sounds, smell the smells, and most importantly, feel the emotions of a reality that exists outside my mind only as marks on a piece of paper. What a miracle a great book is!
But there are also styles I don’t like. And if I had to generalize, I would say that I question any style that breaks me out of the story – that makes the ‘movie’ of the story that I’m seeing in my mind’s eye stutter like a film that has slipped off the sprockets. Sometimes this can be little things such as wrong word choice, repetitive sentence structure, characters that aren’t emotionally congruous or consistent, overlong descriptions, or obvious plot holes and ridiculous coincidences. But usually I can endure those types of errors as long as the book has other redeeming qualities. But for me there is one ‘style’ that absolutely ruins a book, movie, or  T.V. show, and that is one that attempts any form of manipulation of the reader or viewer.
An example of this are books and T.V shows where every chapter or episode ends with a contrived, unanswered question or secret calculated to keep the pages turning by cynically manipulating the reader’s curiosity. Or they have ‘obligatory’ sex scenes, gratuitous bad language and violence. For those authors, it appears to be not about telling a good story well so much as running down a checklist of required elements.
So, for me, as with people I meet, I have more tolerance for an earnest, sincere but unpolished writer than I do for a suave, skillful writer who is otherwise shallow, manipulative, and insincere.
My next post will be a plug for two underrated movies, The Eagle and Battle for Los Angeles and what I learned about writing stories from watching them.
Jim Haberkorn
Zurich
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A Few Comments on Writing Style

I recently checked out the reviews on Amazon of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Now, please keep in mind that, besides being one of my all-time favorite books, that book is also almost universally considered to be one of the top ten novels of the 20th century. Nevertheless, on Amazon there were a dozen reviewers who gave it only one star – with some even mocking Hemingway’s style of writing in their comments.
Now, hold that thought while I tell you a little story about Hemingway. He once wrote a short story in which, at one point, a duck hunter was sitting in a duck blind waiting for a flock of ducks to fly over. Hemingway described the scene in a single paragraph. The sentences started out fairly long as the flock was far away, and then got shorter and shorter as the ducks drew nearer, until finally the sentences in the middle of the paragraph were a single word: Bang. Bang. Then as the surviving members of the flock kept on flying to eventually recede in the distance, the sentences became gradually longer and longer as well. What Hemingway did was use sentence structure to heighten the sensation of the flock drawing nearer then flying away into the distance. Amazing, right? Still, some people will mock his style.
Hemingway had his own unique writing style: easily recognizable but very hard to copy. His style reflected his view of reality. One story is, that if he had to describe a room in one of his books, he would begin in his draft  by describing everything about the room, and then, one by one, start removing details until only a few were left – but in the end, those remaining details would be the few that he felt best conveyed the essence of the other details without having to explicitly write them all. Heavy stuff!  
Writers manipulate symbols on a page with the intent of triggering thoughts and feelings in a reader’s brain. When you think of it that way, it seems almost magical. But here’s the important point: The success of a writer’s style is based on two people. The writer and the reader.

I first read For Whom the Bell Tolls when I was eighteen. My father had pushed me to read it, and I did out of duty – until I came to the scene near the end of the book when Sordo and his men were trapped on the hill by the Fascist soldiers. Up until then I had read the book breezily and had not been particularly impressed, but as I read that scene I was blown away by the power and depth of feelings it evoked.  It then occurred to me that maybe the book was a whole lot better than I thought. So I did something I had never done before or since – I stopped reading at that point and began the book again, and discovered that the greatness of the book had been there all along – but I had missed it. 

My next post will be on some writing styles I’ve recently observed in thrillers.
Best regards,
Jim
Zurich
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The ‘Service’ of Writing Book Reviews

Over the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of reading several book reviews on Einstein’s Trunk, and I wanted to call attention to one book review service that I found particularly interesting and constructive. It’s called Sqeaky Clean Reads and it can be found at:  http://www.squeakycleanreads.com/ 

This website is run by a group of ladies who operate under the motto ‘Movies have ratings, why not books.’  Here is their modus operandi:  They read and review a book and, at least from the reviews I’ve read, spend more time and detail on the book’s good points than on its weaknesses – yet still manage to tactfully and respectfully point out a book’s areas for improvement. They then rate the book as to profanity, violence, sexual content, maturity of theme, and appropriate age-group. The net result is that they provide a service to authors as well as to readers.

Most people are generally sensitive about their work. But most authors need – indeed crave –  honest feedback from people they trust. If a book reviewer makes an honest effort to see a book’s good points, the author will most likely be open to the constructive criticisms as well – it’s just human nature – and perhaps write a better book next time. 

My next post will be my observations in regards ‘writing style’ in thrillers.  

Jim

Zurich

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Why no swearing in Einsten’s Trunk?

The answer to the question posed in the above title  – Ha! I hope you are not expecting anything too profound here –  is that since I don’t swear myself I really have a hard time putting swear words into my characters’ mouths. But, I’m not alone in this. If you are a connoisseur of thrillers you know that Lee Childs has very little bad language in his books. Also, I haven’t read any Clive Cussler since he started working with co-authors, but in his heyday he had almost no bad language, though I seem to recall that a few of Mr. Cussler’s earlier books were a little looser in that regards. John LeCarre too, has very little swearing in his novels, though he just did one recently about the Russian Mafia called, “Our Kind of Traitor” that was replete with bad, though presumably accurate, language.
In any case, I enjoyed writing Einstein’s Trunk without the vulgar language. It was a bit of a challenge trying to construct characters that would be taken seriously as villains when the most I would have any of them say was an emphatic, “Aw, heck”, but it was fun to try. I had to spend a little more time on the dialogue and a little more time creating the scenes, but in the end it was a challenge I enjoyed. Yohaba, too, liked to swear until Rulon asked her to knock it off. With Yohaba, I would simply refer to her ‘verbal napalm strikes’ or some such phrase to get the point across.
I’ve decided that in books and movies, writers put in bad language for two reasons. First, it’s an easy way to show that the bad guys are really bad and that the good guys are really tough and street-wise. Second, it’s a way of showing ‘realism’ or ‘grit’.
I think villainy and grit can be achieved in other ways, though, and it makes for a more satisfying read if writers try to do so. Shakespeare woke up one day and decided to write a love story – and he wrote Romeo and Juliet. No illicit sex, no swearing. Just real insight into this mystery we call ‘love’. Four hundred years later, we’re still talking about it. In the same vein, I’ve done a little studying on the psychology of combat and I can tell you without any hesitation that many of the so called ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’ thrillers today are not emotionally accurate and honest in how they portray people engaged in life and death situations. To me, that’s the realism I most appreciate.
I saw a movie the other day called, “The Company Men”. In the beginning especially, there was a fair amount of bad language but it was an emotionally and intellectually honest movie. It was about people being laid off from a large corporation and the way that affected their lives. After the movie I found myself talking with great respect about the people who wrote, directed, and acted in it. And the funny thing was, the bad language didn’t add one bit to the realism and honesty that made the movie great.     
In my next posting I will talk about movie and book critics and the roll I believe they should play in the world of writers, movie producers, and publishers.  
Best regards,
Jim
Zurich, June 13, 2011  
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The Super Rich make good villains

One of the things the TV series Prison Break did very well was to gradually expand the scope of the plot as the series went on. In the beginning it was a relatively simple case of a man being framed for murder. But over time it became a huge Matrix-like CONSPIRACY where even the U.S. president was a puppet whose strings were pulled by a secret shadow government run by the super rich. And to think: Prison Break came out before the 2008 financial meltdown!  

Towards the end of the second season of PB, a new villain emerges, an old, well-dressed man who doesn’t communicate verbally with his minions except via short notes on little pieces of paper. What a great device for a villain! – he behaves according to the rules of an unseen world – a world of Big Brother electronic eavesdropping which he probably helped to create.

My theory is that thrillers – both books and movies – in a Darwinian way, are a reflection of society’s current attitudes towards categories of people. I say Darwinian because a book that chose, let’s say, the Royal Canadian Mounties, as the diabolical bad guys, no matter how well written, would most likely so confuse people that no self-respecting agent would represent it – and therefore never get published. So Islamic terrorists, crooked politicians, mad scientists, Nazis, eco-terrorists, super criminals, secret government agencies, and drug-kingpins – they’ve all had their day in the sun in post WW2 thrillers and have all been  richly accepted as villains. And probably in their heyday all reflected a deap-seated societal fear.

Today, I’m seeing Islamic terrorists dwindle as the thriller villains dejour and the invisible super-rich rise to take their place – and I wonder if that is saying something significant about American society. When the culture chooses as its villain a shadowy, amorphous enemy with tentacles everywhere manipulating world events, does that imply that society feels pummeled by forces it can’t see, fight, or comprehend – and that the citizens see themselves as confused and manipulated. Hmmm…sobering if true.

My next posting will be on ‘bad language’ and why you won’t find any in  Einstein’s Trunk.

Jim
Zurich  

Jim
Zurich, June 8, 2011

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The joys and challenges of writing Einstein’s Trunk

        What I enjoyed most about writing Einstein’s Trunk was developing the characters, putting words in their mouths, and sometimes even sitting back in wonder at what they just did. When I first put the plot together, I had plans for two female leads, Yohaba, Einstein’s descendent, and Isabella, the South African agent contracted by the Russians. But I had no idea which one would end up betraying Rulon and which one would be his love interest. The decision was actually made by Yohaba when she threw herself at Rulon in her apartment. It was a total surprise even to me. I remember writing that scene and thinking to myself afterwards: Wow, never expected that! 
       Likewise, even later in the story, I still toyed with the idea of having Yohaba betray Rulon. But there was something about the way Yohaba waited outside his apartment after the fight in the Desperado restaurant and then ran up to Rulon in the rain that simply could not be denied. Eventually, Yohaba’s sincerity and honesty won Rulon’s heart – and mine. But Isabella may not be totally out of the picture. While she doesn’t appear in the sequel, I’m considering bringing her back in the third book.
       Far and away, the hardest part for me was writing the beginning. If you give too much description and background information in the beginning, you slow down the plot and bore your readers. If you don’t give enough information then people are confused – or too much information and you kill the suspense and erode curiosity. It’s a judgment call every step of the way.
      I also found it hard to write the physical descriptions of the locales and people. It was the same old question: How much do you describe, how much do you leave out, and how can you artfully include that information in the story without slowing down the action. The best beginning I’ve read where information, plot, action, and character development, were all woven together while keeping the story sizzling along and building interest was in Barry Eisler’s first John Rain book Rainfall.
      My next post will be about what I’ve learned about writing and getting published.  
Best regards,
Jim
Zurich, May 13, 2011

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Why Write Thrillers

First of all, thrillers are fun to write. With thrillers you have men and women running around getting in fights, escaping traps, solving riddles, and outsmarting bad guys. What could be more fun than writing about that? Second, for a writer, thrillers are also a bit of an intellectual challenge. You have to introduce characters and construct a plot that hangs together, leaves people in suspense, and provides clues without giving away the ending. Not easy to do, but fun to work on – like solving an enormously complicated puzzle where the pieces are constantly moving.  
But while all of this sounds like fun – let’s face it – it also sounds a bit shallow. Is that all that thrillers are good for – shallow, escapist entertainment? The answer is an emphatic no.
Two writers in particular have proven that thrillers can be used as a vehicle for exploring wider issues and even defining entire eras. Read any of John LeCarre’s cold war novels and you’ll see what I mean. Nothing captures the somberness and suspicion of post World War Two U.S. and Soviet relations quite like a LeCarre book. And the same thing can be said for Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park and what it does for the day-to-day grind of living in Russia during the early 1980s.
But good thrillers can also, as can any good story, do something for us far more important – they can help us understand our own values and who we are. Thrillers, almost by definition, present us with scenes of violence, betrayal, dastardly acts as well as bravery, loyalty, and honesty. As we read thrillers we match ourselves against both the villains and the heroes and in so doing learn something about what we believe and who we are.
I wrote Einstein’s Trunk, and the subsequent yet to be published sequel World of Hurt, because I wanted to say something about love, the complexity of human behavior, and about the courage that is oftentimes concealed and left unacknowledged in humble, simple people.
My next posting will be on what I liked best about Einstein’s Trunk and what parts I had difficulty writing.   

Jim
Zurich, May 2, 2011

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Revenge in Einstein’s Trunk

Right now Einstein’s Trunk is being sold by well over 80 resellers. Those resellers are mostly from the U.S. but many are from all over the world, including New Zealand, Australia, South Africa,  India, most of the countries in Europe, and many from countries whose languages I don’t recognize. (Note: I’m hoping one of those is Communist China and that president Hu Jintao will require all his citizens to own a copy of ET – ala the little Red Book – but that’s another story.)

Many of those resellers carry a short description of the book that was written by my publisher Cedar Fort, but a few have written descriptions of their own. There have also been a few reviews on websites that provided plot summaries, and I’ve personally received emails from people telling me what they thought of ET. In all of these descriptions very few have picked up the importance of Revenge in ET.

Even though ET has an end-of-the-world threat, that threat won’t play out unti April 13, 2029. I chose that date, by the way, because that is the date when  Apophis, a real asteroid that at one time had the highest probability of striking the earth as calculated by the Torino Impact Hazard Scale, is supposed to hit.

ET is not about saving the world. ET is about people, many of whom either know nothing about the asteroid threat or who are sceptical about it, who get caught up in the riddle of the trunk and from there descend in a downward spiral of revenge. In the course of fulfilling an assignment from their country, several Russian agents get put in the hospital by Rulon Hurt. At that point the hunt for the trunk becomes secondary while balancing the ledger vs. Rulon becomes the primary goal. ET is about revenge and its negative consequences. And, I suppose, also about the healing power of love and forgiveness. The theme of revenge continues in the sequel which I’ve just completed. If the first two books sell reasonably well, then I have plans for a third where saving the world will be the primary plot driver.

In my next posting I will talk about villians.

Best regards,

Jim

Zurich, April 23, 2011

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Humor in Einstein’s Trunk

Yes, thrillers are supposed to be serious, and, yes, I wanted ET to be considered a serious thriller, but still I put some humor in the book. Why?
Well, for starters I didn’t create the character of Rulon with the intention of making him humorous, but as the character evolved the humor just came naturally. First, Rulon doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s easygoing and uses humor to defuse situations, but he also has an ironic side to him and just naturally sees the funny side of things. Here’s an example: When Rulon first runs into Yohaba, she is working in a money laundering operation masquerading as a luggage store. He already knew the store was in the red, but when he is treated rudely by Yohaba, he quips to himself that there might be another reason the store was losing money. A little dry, a little subtle – but that’s Rulon.
Also, Rulon is good at the humorous repartee. At their first meeting in Yohaba’s apartment, Dmitry, Rulon’s Russian protagonist, offers Rulon a job. But then later, at the Desperado Mexican restaurant, after Dmitry has learned that Rulon has sent several members of his team to the hospital, Dmitry menacingly rescinds his job offer. But Rulon asks Dmitry if he can afford to be so picky given his spate of recent job openings. Again, a little dry.
In any case, the humor doesn’t overpower the book, but it’s there and hopefully gives readers one more reason to keep reading to the end.
My next posting will be on two of my favorite thriller writers: Barry Eisler and Martin Cruz Smith.
Best regards,
Jim
Zurich, March 28, 2011  
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