Monday, February 21, 2011

Bad Influences from Good Sources

As writers, we all own up (or should) to the things that influence us in a positive way. For example, I acknowledge the debt I owe to Robert B. Parker for my understanding of how to make a first-person narrative entertaining. But what about negative influences? What about the things that we tried to incorporate into our own writing that turned out to be huge, big mistakes?

I have two examples from my own career. One is Joe R. Lansdale's Drive In novels, particularly The Drive-In 2: Not Just One of Them Sequels. I read this one in the late 80s, when I was trying to develop my own voice and style, and it completely threw me off course for what turned out to be several years. It wasn't just that I liked the style, which I did up to a point; it was that it was so different from my own work, I took it as a sign that I was doing everything wrong. Clearly sincerity and forthrightness weren't what people wanted; they wanted irony and robust humor (I was half right, as the subsequent rise of uber-ironic Joss Whedon proved). What I missed was the meta-level of Lansdale's work, which was far more important than either the irony or the farting tyrannosaurs. So I spent years--no kidding, years--trying to work in a style for which I was entirely unsuited, and which I completely misunderstood. It was probably 1994 before I regrouped, found my own voice and began producing things that, whatever their overall merit, at least sounded like me.

The second example is the Martin Scorsese film The Color of Money, with a screenplay by novelist Richard Price. At the climax, veteran pool shark Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) finds himself about to shoot a game against his own protege, Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise). The whole film seems to have come down to this game, and the audience is breathless to see who will win. That is, until this exchange of dialogue:

Vincent: Eddie, what are you gonna do when I kick your ass?
Eddie: Pick myself up and let you kick me again.
Vincent: Oh, yeah?
Eddie: Yeah. Just don't put the money in the bank, kid, 'cause if I don't whip you now, I'm gonna whip you next month in Dallas...And if not then, then the month after that in New Orleans.
Vincent: Oh, yeah? What makes you so sure?
Eddie: Hey--I'm back! (shoots the break, screen fades to black)

This final minute of film completely realigns the story we've just watched. What seemed to be a standard, if well-done sports drama about the fall of the old and rise of the new becomes, in that moment, a story of the reclaimed self-awareness of Fast Eddie Felson. It's significant that we never even see the results of the break Eddie shoots, because in that moment the game of nine-ball, the whole impetus of the story thus far, becomes immaterial. Much like the first Rocky, it no longer matters who wins the game, because that's never been the real story. Only unlike Rocky, Scorsese and Price manage to hide that from us until literally the last minute.

I saw this as a challenge. I resolved to make every story I wrote hinge on this sort of twist, which is a whole lot trickier than it first appears. I think I only succeeded once, in a so-far-unpublished short story about jaguar hunters in South America. My other stories from this period left readers with a sense of "Huh? What?" Luckily I came to realize that the film's ending worked so well because it was unexpected, unusual, and rare. The moment people start expecting a twist at the end, whatever you come up with lost its potency (this was also later proved true by the flame-out of twist-meister M. Night Shyamalan). So I went back to writing stories that ended appropriately for themselves, which often meant just as the reader expects. That's not always a bad thing.

So let's hear from some other writers. Who influenced you in what turned out to be a bad way?


Pixie said...

Charlie Huston: he has a very sharp, caustic pulp style to his writing that is really excellent and works incredibly well for his novels (Shotgun Rule, etc.). Everytime I read one of his books I end up trying to emulate the style of both the voice and the plot, and I always fall short.

chaplainsmith said...

As we all know, one can never write any better than he reads. So there's really no such thing as time "wasted" on a "bad" book or author. But to paraphrase or twist a lyric, I was reading when I shoulda been writing! Even though I love Cormac McCarthy's novels (well, the Southern ones), I simply get envious that I can't write like that! So I become discouraged. Yet there are other writers who are more my style -- Carson McCullers, for example. And I get really frustrated trying to decipher Thomas Pynchon. Besides, his stuff puts me into a paranoid/network/sci-fi mode and I try to turn even the simplest of my plots into more plots/sub-plots/scenarios that get all tangled up and broadened into something the story is NOT! [Like I think I've "always" got to have at least one character who is a paranoid schizophrenic.] I still love what the fiction-writing prof, Jesse Hill Ford, advised: DO/WRITE/JUDGE A THING "IN TERMS OF ITSELF."

D.M. SOLIS said...

Wonderful Bill Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury. I'd try to write dialogue like Dilsey's, though I knew I couldn't come close. Then there was the whole time-warpy thing he did, let alone the issue of whose mind he was in, the mental health of the character, or lack thereof, and the age of the character at the time.

Great prompt. Thank you for asking. Peace and all good,