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Popular Mechanics

June 6, 2009

They used to say about the great Romantic geniuses that they must have thrived on chaos – the financial instability, the wild parties, the port and opium, the tumultuous affairs must have fueled their creativity.  I wonder about that.  It seems more likely to me that they were possessed of an eerie focus that enabled them to work like demons, a focus so intense they needed the most equally intense diversions to avoid going mad from concentration.  I must be a much more bourgeois artist, myself, the kind who gets knocked off the rails by even a handful of distractions.  A visit from a friend last week, hours picking up again at work, mom in the hospital after a knee replacement, perversely long spell of wet weather precluding hiking, having to wean myself off my personal trainer and work out on my own thanks to reduced circumstances, and my ability to read and think, never mind write, is off the rails. 

My reading lately has been restricted to pop fiction, the sort of things I’d read traveling, just to relax.  And honestly, finding good entertainment is harder than finding good literature – there are hundreds of years of Great Works out there, and lots of critics eagerly farming every release today for the good stuff, but most of what shows up on the shelves as entertainment, well, sucks.  I love “midlist” entertainment, the kind of work that, although well written and researched, is too full of action to be Taken Seriously, not enough long periods of introspection and suffering amongst the characters to be adjudged worthy.  I’ve hoovered up all the George McDonald Fraser “Flashman” books, all the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturins, all the Bernard Cornwell “Richard Sharpe” books.  And as far as pure relaxation stuff, there are even fewer writers you can count on – Harlan Coben is okay, though his people feel thin, especially in their emotional entanglements (Tell No One made a fantastic movie, though.)  Michael Connelly is a good example, but The Scarecrow is with mom at the hospital, so I was looking for other options.

I’d heard of Lee Child before but was wary – too many of the actioners are not only crappily written, but often come from a right-wing viewpoint – call it Clancyism.  Then I read in the Sunday New York Times last week about how Child used to bombard the Times with letters like this:

“I wish we could find some digital technology that would automatically remove Rush Limbaugh’s voice from his radio show. Then we could just listen to the pauses and the commercials,” he wrote in a letter published on Jan. 13, 2000. “I’d prefer that.”

So, reassured I wouldn’t be subjected to heroic Homeland Security types beating the crap Jack Bauer-style out of traitorous leftist reporters, I went out and got Killing Floor, his first Jack Reacher novel, conveniently packaged for us blind folks in one of those “plus size” mass market paperbacks, slightly taller than the regular kind to enable a larger, easier-to-read layout.  It was great fun.  It made me wonder why nobody has written a manual, “Popular Literary Mechanics,” the go-to guide on how to write good pop fiction.  Instead, each author has to figure it out for him(usually) self, trial and error and natural talent prevailing since creative writing courses abhor the common touch, and would never dream of teaching one to entertain the masses.

The basics are: short, punchy sentences; lots of action; a hero well-trained by the system and yet unconstrained by it; any authorial lack of facility working with emotions turned into an asset, creating characters designed to see introspection as a distraction from the hero’s journey, especially when it comes to killing bad guys; a romance that burgeons in the passions of danger and excitement yet which must be terminated in the end as the hero moves on; creating a sense of place relying less on flowery descriptive passages than on common reference tags (“the kind of downtown that died when the highway missed it twenty years ago”), and those techniques are just for starters. 

But there also more complicated mechanics in play, like how to fold research materials into the batter of the plot.  “Chrichtonism” is the wrong way, in my eyes, the early-on table-meeting exposition by which all the material is clumsily converted into dialogue.  Child is excellent at this, introducing two to three pages max at a time of expository conversation on the currency system, counterfeiting, etc. as needed, "dumbing it down” a bit for the masses but never talking down to them either – Reacher is the smart guy who plays dumb, which enables the reader to feel equally smart and secure when being lectured by the expert.  It’s definitely a style I want to imitate as I fold my own AI research into my book.

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