A Good Title Goes a Long Way

As I imagine most writers do, I try to put a lot of thought into my titles. I find it difficult to even begin a new project without some kind of working title. Yet a story’s true title may not show itself until the writing is nearly complete; often, I don’t know myself what a work is about until I’m on the final draft, so how can I know what to call it?
For most of its creation, my first book was known as Plague Psalms – a weak attempt at combining its two main elements: a large scale viral quarantine, and a smaller, but equally relevant, religious quarantine. I knew that wouldn’t be its title in the end, but for a long time I couldn’t come up with anything better.

Then the word “gospel” came to mind, and I looked it up in the dictionary, where it was defined as “good news.” At that moment, the statement “The good news for the damned is the bond of hope it creates,” which the minister and suspected terrorist, Samuel Elliot, says to his sons one day, emerged within my little brain. It was the epiphany I was waiting for – simultaneously I had found my novel’s theme, and its title, Gospel for the Damned. That statement became the cohesive thread which tied all the other sub-themes and motifs together, and the title was my novel’s true title.

For some time, the book I’m currently writing – about cowboys and silent films – had the working title of Cowboy Flickers (“flickers” being a derogatory term for silent movies). I never had my heart set on it, though; it was too superficial, probably because I hadn’t yet written enough of it to know what the story was about. After deciding to make one of the characters a poet, who also suffers ever worsening episodes of dementia, I composed a handful of poems penned by him. The title The Quieting West found its way from my cowboy’s crude lyrics to also be the novel’s title, as though it was always meant to be.

Some titles that come to mind as favorites are: A Prayer for Owen Meany, Flowers for Algernon, The Island of the Day Before, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Ask my wife and she’ll quickly respond with Crystal Singer. I’m sure you have some favorites of your own, as well.

Not so favorite titles? Any of the kind that leave nothing to think about, everything the story is about is in the title, without an ounce of ambiguity. The kind you see on the Lifetime Channel, for instance. The “My Husband’s Third Mistress”-sort, or “Amy: Suicide of a Pregnant Teenage Paraplegic.”

Sadly, one of my favorite books by John Irving, A Widow for One Year, is also one of my least favorite titles. (And I’m sure Mr. Irving couldn’t give a rat’s tail about what I think.)

Gordon Gravley

Yes, But The Book Was Better

I daydream sometimes about having a book I’ve written adapted into a movie. And that makes me wonder about the whole process and how much I would want to be involved. There are three scenarios, as I see it: write the screenplay myself; collaborate or consult with someone who will write the screenplay;or stay out of the way and let the (imaginary) filmmakers do what they will with my work.

Writing the screenplay myself is not entirely out of the question; I’ve written a few in my day. This would in no way, however, guarantee integrity in the transition from book to screen. I know enough about film making to know that every script goes through a metamorphosis – either subtle or drastic – in the process of its production. Also, I may be too close to the material to make an appropriate interpretation for the screen.

Then I wonder, does maintaining the integrity of a book to the screen really matter?

How critical is it that a movie be just like the novel? Not very, in my opinion. They are two different mediums, with their own rules of engagement; what may work in one will not necessarily work in another. We all have our own list of novels that didn’t translate well into a movie. A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy comes to mind, for me. It’s never been recreated very well in any form – television, radio, or film – for that matter. I think it has to do with an inability to effectively replicate the cadence and voice of Douglas Adams’s prose, as well as the timing of his dry humor.

In some cases, a movie can be quite different from the book and be just as good (or better). Blade Runner, the Bourne series, and Harry Potter and [insert series title here], for example. In fact, it’s rare a film is truly…um, true…to the original. Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five are a couple of my favorites in regards to an accurate translation, as well as both versions of True Grit – each wisely sticking to Portis’s wonderful dialogue. Francis Ford Coppola was true to S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Rumble Fish (which Hinton wrote the screenplay for) while still imprinting his own artistic style to them.

However, it does bother me when a film misinterprets or flat out changes what the author originally intended their book to be about. In A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick ends the movie, like the American publication, with our poor “hero,” Alex, being cured and able to go back to the behavior of cruelty and violence he once knew. Malcolm McDowell, as Alex, gives an enthusiastic thumbs up to the camera that all will be well. (I remember internally cheering for Alex’s recovery, even knowing the horrific lifestyle to which he would be returning. A testament to McDowell’s abilities, to make the audience sympathize with someone so terrible.)

But Burgess’s novel doesn’t end there; there’s another chapter. The original version of A Clockwork Orange (the version first published in the U.K.) ends with Alex regretting all the abhorrent things he had done. On his own, without the need of scientific behavior-modification, he chooses to be a better person. Morality cannot be programmed into us, it must be a choice made from within. Thematically, A Clockwork Orange the movie and A Clockwork Orange the novel are quite different. As much as I love the former, I prefer the latter.

Other than that circumstance, I think whether or not a motion picture is exactly like its book counter-part is irrelevant. They should be considered separately.

Now I’m going to jump to the third scenario I mentioned above, which is to stay away from the production altogether. Many authors are obsessed about how their work will be represented when adapted for the screen or television or whatever, an attitude I don’t understand.

Once Gospel for the Damned was published, I was done with it; it is what it is, and always will be. Nothing is going to change that. Ever. No matter what it’s adapted into – a movie, a stage-play, an opera (O.K., that would be weird, but I’d love to see it!). No matter how bad that adaptation may be, what I’ve written will never change. A band covering another artists’ song has no affect upon the original version. Not to compare my work to Shakespeare’s, but how many different versions of Romeo and Juliet have you seen? (I once saw a production where the setting was a post-apocalyptic world – Road Warrior-meets-The Bard!)

I like the idea of just letting it go – less work for me. I mean, I’ve already labored over the material once; why would I want to do yet another rewrite in some other form?

Of course, if I consulted or co-wrote with someone else (scenario number two), it might be less work, and I would still be able to hang out in Hollywood and mingle with celebrities! (Yes, this is trite, I know. But it’s my daydream. So bug off!)

[For a great read on this topic, try John Irving’s memoir My Movie Business, about his experience with his award-winning adaptation of The Cider House Rules.]

Gordon Gravley

Oh, Dystopia!

When I was sending my manuscript around to agents and publishers, a common criticism of why it was rejected was that it would be lost among all the other post-apocalyptic, dystopian novels currently out there. But, I responded in my head, it’s neither of those…or is it?

Dystopian stories are dark tales of a society oppressed by a totalitarian state, or one where technology overrides the human spirit. Classics like Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, of course; as well as the more recent Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner. (I’m glad to see a “resurgence” of this genre. I am soooo over vampires. Enough, already!)

As I did a little looking into this subset of science fiction, I realized many of my favorite stories and movies from my younger days are considered dystopic: A Boy and His Dog, Fahrenheit 451, and the films Soylent Green, Omega Man and The Planet of the Apes. (All starring Charlton Heston. There’s some fodder for conspiracy theorists, huh?)

And last but not least, A Clockwork Orange. However, is this brilliant piece of literature truly dystopian? The world in which the protagonist lives is not particularly horrible or oppressed; it is only Alex who is scientifically dehumanized into becoming a functional part of his community. This, then, defines A Clockwork Orange as being “heterotopian” – what happens to Alex is apart from the society around him, and yet, at the same time, a reflection of it. (He’s within a dystopia of his own, you might say.)

This is how I would describe my novel, Gospel for the Damned. What happens within quarantined San Francisco is a microcosm of the world outside of it, but I wouldn’t call that outside world dystopian, not in the same sense as those in The Handmaid’s Tale or Logan’s Run. And I certainly wouldn’t refer to it as post-apocalyptic. While, in my book, most of the west coast’s population is wiped out, the disastrous event does not span the entire country, in the same way hurricanes Katrina and Sandy devastated only certain areas.

I prefer to think of my work as speculative, and lump myself in with (by association only, not by level of artistic ability) the likes of Margaret Atwood, Harlan Ellison, and Ray Bradbury.

Finally, I wondered, why the increased popularity of this particular genre of doom in recent years, anyway?

Well, if art does indeed reflect life…

Gordon Gravley

Mark Twain’s Rules of Writing

Everything a writer should know can be found in Mark Twain’s Rules of Writing. In honor of the author’s birthday this month, I present them here:

1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.

3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.

6. When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel at the end of it.

8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.

9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.

10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.

11. The characters in tale be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

Also, the author should:

Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

Use the right word, not its second cousin.

Eschew surplusage.

Not omit necessary details.

Avoid slovenliness of form.

Use good grammar.

Employ a simple, straightforward style.

What’s So Scary About…?

I’ve got an inkling of an idea for a novel that involves some kind of horrific or disturbing element. So that’s led me to think about what I find scary. Or, as a place to begin, what I don’t find scary.

Vampires. Werewolves. Zombies. Any of your run-of-the-mill monsters I find tedious and dull. Even with all the re-imagining these “classics” have received in recent years, predictability runs amok. Not to mention, as soon as something becomes popular, it looses its edge.

I also don’t find the standard slasher-flicks particularly scary. Having the characters make stupid choices for the sake of creating suspense and the endless teasing toward the inevitable gory, violent end is far more annoying than scare inducing. Films like Saw and Hostel and other torture-porn are much more effective in creating shocking, disturbing images that stick in the craw of your memory long after viewing them. (Not to be confused with that delicious creepy feeling you get from a good M. Night Shyamalan movie.)

That’s what it really comes down to for me – a story or film’s lingering factor; how disturbing was it that I’m prompted to look twice into a dark corner for fear of what may be hiding there, or how easily do I jump at a sound from the shadows when I’m out walking the dog?

So, then, what is the impetus for such a reaction?

For me, it is the reality of such a horror; the likelihood of something terrible. If I hear a stirring in the darkness, the first thought that comes to mind isn’t something as ridiculous as a zombie, but rather, a psychopath with a crowbar. An episode of Criminal Minds has a greater fear-factor to me than, say, Paranormal Activity 3. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve read Ellis’s American Psycho and there are still passages I can’t forget. Why? Because serial killers are real. (Slasher characters like Michael Myers or Jason don’t count; they’re too cartoonish.) Women and children being abducted; people being brutally murdered in their homes; someone shooting up a school or coffee shop or movie theater – these are all too common horrors in our daily life.

It’s this connection to real fears that makes the work of authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King so effective. My own leanings toward claustrophobia prevent me from wanting to read Poe’s Premature Burial again. And who’d have thought clowns were scary. King did. (In Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s brilliant The Cabin in the Woods, of all its monsters and demons, the one moment that sticks most with me is the image of a clown laughing while it stabs someone to death.)

I guess what scares me, then, is the all too real inhumanity, the common disregard for life, that has become such an integral part of our culture – even generated by our culture, as American Psycho implies.

Okay, now that I’ve answered that question for myself, am I ready to venture into the darkest recesses of my imagination?

Mmmm…perhaps one more visit to the happy place of Star’s Hollow and the Gilmore Girls first.

Gordon Gravley