Fiction and Profanity—F-Bombs Away!

[Slim Pickens Riding the Bomb]
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

Recently, I reread an autobiographical novel I had written a number of years ago, thinking I could tidy it up for publication. Though I enjoyed much of the writing style, I was horrified at the frequency of f-bombs. Why? Because I don’t write that way anymore. And I couldn’t even defend the use of these words as critical to the genre. This book is essentially a dramedy—Life, Love and the pursuit of sex.

Some time after, I read an interesting post by PJ Parrish, which is a pseudonym for sisters and writing partners Kristy Montee and Kelly Nichols (see “Profanity in Crime Fiction: Reality or Lazy Writing?”). In it, they state …

There are different reasons why readers dislike profanity in their fiction. It can [be] colored by religious conviction, personal morals or just plain old taste. Authors are guided by the same impulses. Mark Henshaw, a Mormon crime writer, wrote a blog “Why I Don’t Use Profanity,” saying, “My short answer to the question is: because my mother reads my books. My long answer is a bit more involved.”

A Religious Debate
There are any number of articles and blog posts about whether foul language belongs in good fiction. If you’d like to test that assertion, try a Google search on “fiction and profanity.” According to Montee and Nichols, some authors write blue because they feel it’s required to make their novels realistic. Others, like Mark Henshaw, leave it out because their mothers are reading their books.

Now, I am not a prude by any stretch of the imagination. I have been known to let go, using strings of colorful expletives the way Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold. And I don’t happen to think most good writers choose profanity out of laziness either. Nevertheless, I’ve chosen to leave that kind of language out of my writing. Not because I feel I am better than everyone else. It’s mainly a marketing decision. In other words, I don’t want to turn off any potential new readers because they can’t get past the swear words.

Being “Authentic”
Not to take sides, but I do want to address the question of authenticity in fiction. Apparently, some authors feel that in order to depict realistic worlds (e.g., war, crime, etc.), they need to use lots of swear words. Well, I don’t think that’s true. If it were, then why isn’t urban crime fiction littered with liberal doses of the N-word? I don’t care how “realistic” you think your fiction is. The fact that you are telling a story means you are creating a world that doesn’t exist. Sure, it can resemble the real world, but in the end, it’s fake. And thank goodness!

Think about it. What if you were to write about real life exactly as it is? Wouldn’t it be kind of, I don’t know, boring? People don’t like to read fiction that depicts real life—they read to escape to a different life. And, yes, you should see things that are familiar. But a good writer is drawing you in with great characters and a powerful made-up story. So, if you agree that this is the case, then who is to say you have to include the f-word just to make things seem real?

Profanity and Violence
Very often, violent stories go hand-in-hand with profanity. Just watch any R-rated action movie. But this is not always the case. Take ‘The Conjuring,’ for example. This film received an R-rating from the MPAA. Why? Because it’s scary and violent. Yet, there is no hardcore swearing anywhere in the movie, according to the parents’ guide. So to those who think you need this kind of language to appear realistic, let me ask you this—What better time to let off a few f-bombs than when your mother is possessed by a demon? Yet, none are found in ‘The Conjuring,’ and the story still works.

Many of you know I wrote the horror thriller series TELL ME WHEN I’M DEAD. At the time, I made a conscious decision not to use certain expletives. Sure, there is some mild cursing but nothing hardcore. And, again, if you’ve read the work, you’ll know that these books are violent as hell. Some may disagree, but I believe I have created a balance that works. In my fictional world, people can find themselves in horrible danger and not swear like merchant marines. And readers can still enjoy a powerful story.

So what are your thoughts?

What in the World Is “Family Fiction”?

[Arrested Development]
Photo courtesy of Deadline | Hollywood

A while ago, I told you about a novel I had adapted from one of my old screenplays (see “Adapting a Screenplay—Fun Times”). As I was writing the book, I thought my biggest challenge would be making a decent novel out of what is essentially a blueprint for a movie, which is what a screenplay is. The good news? I showed a recent draft to a few trusted friends, and the consensus is that the story works. Now for the bad news.

Finding Your Genre
Typically, when writing a novel you have pretty good idea about which genre you’re in. We’ve been trained to think this way, and it’s my view that this is mostly due to the influence of movies and television. What’s the first thing an agent asks you (after “Who are you again?”)—what is it? And they’re not talking about the story, my friend. No, they are asking whether it’s rom-com, horror, thriller, period, coming-of-age, etc. In other words, they want to know how to market it.

And here’s the thing—because we as writers are already trained, we will write according to these predefined genres, or categories. Of course, Amazon makes it easy too. When you publish your book, you are asked to select up to three categories. Here’s one—Fiction->Romance->Contemporary.

But what if your story doesn’t fall neatly into a pigeon hole?

Genre Benders
This is where I found myself after finishing my novel. And I will tell you in all honesty, this is precisely why I had struggled with the screenplay. In my mind, I had a great story, but it wasn’t targeted at a particular audience (kids, millennials, older adults, etc.). So, now what?

Well, I had a great conversation with my friend Melodie Ramone, who I interviewed recently. Melodie is not only a brilliant writer, but she knows the publishing world well—particularly when it comes to what publishers want from fiction. And what they want is apparently no different than what those pesky Hollywood agents want—they want to categorize the book so they can market it in the same tired way they do all the others that fall into your particular genre.

Sadly, my book is what Melodie calls a “genre bender.” And, bless her, she didn’t discourage me from publishing it. Sure, I’ll probably never get a literary agent to look at it, but who cares? I’m focused on indie publishing anyway. Of course, I still have to figure out how to market the damned thing, and that is still the problem.

Family Fiction
In researching genre-bending types of fiction, I ran across a term I wasn’t familiar with—family fiction. I tried looking it up, and guess what—there is no definition. I found items as diverse as “Christian fiction,” “family saga” and “domestic fiction.” In fact, there’s a site called FamilyFiction.com that appears to try and own the brand, categorizing itself as a purveyor of Christian fiction.

When I searched Amazon’s Kindle store, I found that “family fiction” is a recognized search term. The first book that popped up on the list at the time of this writing was The Doctor’s Unexpected Family by Kristen Ethridge. You got it—Christian fiction. The second was A Legacy of Secrets by Jean Reinhardt, which is listed as a family saga. Then there’s Alone by Holly Hook, which appears to be targeted to the YA/Sci-Fi/Fantasy crowd. I saw other titles with “family” in them, which unfortunately means that Mario Puzo’s The Family is included. Now, most people are aware that Amazon is great at leveraging big data, but the fact that Christian fiction-themed books appear alongside stories about La Cosa Nostra tells me that family fiction is not a true genre, at least as far as they’re concerned.

Alternatively, if you visit Goodreads, you’ll find a list of family fiction that features books as diverse as The Round House by Louise Erdrich, The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling and An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L’Engle (which is part of her “A Wrinkle in Time” series). Now granted, the only reason the list contains these books is because readers shelved them that way, which tells me that readers themselves don’t really understand what family fiction is. They probably figure, hey, if it’s about a family, then it must be family fiction. So wait, could it be that simple?

Bringing It Home
Back to my story. My book is told mostly in the first person by a thirteen-year-old girl. But occasionally, I use third-person omniscient because there are important scenes that don’t include her but drive the other characters—her mother and father, for example.

I still haven’t figured out how I am going to market this thing, but Melodie gave me some great suggestions. I will keep you informed as to my progress. In the meantime, I would love to see some comments about what you consider to be family fiction.

‘Crimson Peak’—A Movie for Another Time

[Crimson Peak Poster]
Photo Courtesy of IMDb

Crimson Peak’ (2015)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Drama | Fantasy | Horror | Mystery | Romance | Thriller
Stars Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston
Universal
Rated R
Log Line: In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds—and remembers.

Don’t get me wrong—I liked this movie from the great Guillermo del Toro, a filmmaker I have admired since his amazing ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.’ And similar to that film, ‘Crimson Peak’ is beautifully crafted, like the china teacup Lucille uses to serve Edith her questionable tea. Unlike del Toro’s earlier effort, though, this movie felt distant and terribly formal to me—the Noble Style vs. a rollicking square dance. And, speaking of dances, there was no better scene to illustrate this aloofness than the one in which Thomas waltzes with Edith in front of her father.

There’s Horror and There’s HORROR
To me, the best horror is visceral, not mannered. Referring back to the Hollywood classics of the 1930s, ‘Crimson Peak’ felt closer to ‘Wuthering Heights’ than ‘Frankenstein.’ Sure, we get to see abominable CG apparitions, but even they are distant. They never really engage with Edith in a way that would induce sheer terror in a cultured young woman. Of course, I realize they are there to warn her, rather than scare her. But still … By now, movie audiences have been exposed to such fare as ‘Saw,’ ‘The Human Centipede’ and ‘House of 1000 Corpses.’ Pretty hardcore stuff, don’t you think? To my way of thinking, resurrecting gothic horror was a bit of a risk for everyone involved. Why did they do it?

That Damned Red Clay
I’ve seen a lot of horror movie devices over the years, but never clay. Usually, desolate places like Cumberland are filled with moors floating in a dense white mist. But clay? This didn’t really work for me. Sure, it was red and resembled blood, but …. They never really did anything with it—even when they had their chance in the cellar, which held huge wooden vats of the stuff. Maybe those scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. And as long as we’re talking about missed opportunities, what about Edith’s so-called writing? She managed to bang out one story and never really writes another word during the rest of the film. Okay, the movie is not about her writing, but the story would have worked just as well without it.

The Audience Has Spoken
‘Crimson Peak’ did not do well at the box office. As of this writing, it has earned $75M worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo, with a production budget of $55M. Compare that to Warner Bros.’ 2013 hit ‘The Conjuring,’ which to date has grossed $318M worldwide, with a production budget of $20M. To me, ‘Crimson Peak’ was a movie for another audience in another time.

In the trailer, the quote “Gorgeous and terrifying—it electrified me” is attributed to Stephen King. Terrifying? Really? Come on, Steve. I can’t imagine that anything short of an alligator chewing your fingers off one at a time would be terrifying to you. And certainly not this movie. Disturbing, yes—especially concerning the twisted relationship between Thomas and Lucille. Henry James would be proud. As I said, I liked ‘Crimson Peak’ but, sadly, I went into the thing wanting to love it.

Adapting a Screenplay—Fun Times

[Scream Poster]
Photo Courtesy of IMDb
Early in my writing career I focused entirely on writing screenplays—something I would not recommend to the foolhardy. You see, unlike novels, screenplays serve absolutely no purpose if you can’t sell them. They sit in a pile in the corner of your home office collecting dust, instead of appearing with nice covers on Amazon. That said, if you are lucky enough to have a written a screenplay that sold (I did that once), you might be on your way to an actual career in the movie business.

But enough about fairy tales.

Horror Comedy, Anyone?
I want to talk about a particular screenplay I wrote a few years back that had to do with a fourteen-year-old girl, a nasty marital breakup and a behind-the-scenes look at an indie horror film. Sounds fascinating, right? At the time I really thought I could make that thing sing. Now, from a technical perspective the work was professional. But I was never really able to generate enough interest. So … I tossed it into the corner and allowed it to gather a nice patina of dust.

Until recently.

I’d been toying with the idea of adapting some of my screenplays into novels. I mean, why let all that good writing go to waste? And I decided that, because I had just come off a heavy horror thriller trilogy with lots of bloodshed, I would tackle a fun horror comedy … with somewhat less bloodshed.

Novelization, Shmovelization
I’m just about finished with the “novelization”—something I’d never done before. And let me tell you, it’s hair-raising. In screenplays, each page is a combination of slug lines, short descriptions and dialogue. That’s it. Try turning that into beautiful prose that descends on the reader like the first gentle snowfall in a New England winter. The process is quite instructive, though, and I am learning more about voice than I ever thought I would.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress from time to time, but it’s my goal to turn this thing into an enjoyable book that captures some of the craziness of living in LA, from the POV of a precocious teenager. Wish me luck.

‘Maggie’—A Poignant Family Drama

[Maggie Poster]
Photo Courtesy of IMDb
Maggie’ (2015)
Directed by Henry Hobson
Screenplay by John Scott 3
Drama | Horror | Thriller
Stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson
LionsGate
Rated PG-13
Log Line: A teenage girl in the Midwest becomes infected by an outbreak of a disease that slowly turns the infected into cannibalistic zombies. During her transformation, her loving father stays by her side.

You see, the thing about zombies is, they’re incredible boring. I’m pretty sure that’s why George Romero always chose to marry the “ghouls” in his stories with political commentary. I had to learn this lesson myself with my own horror-thriller trilogy. You cannot expect readers to embrace three novels—nearly three hundred thousand words—if all they have to look forward to is a bunch of drooling braineaters on the loose.

Forget Zombies
‘Maggie’ is not a zombie movie—not in the normal sense. Yes, there are zombies in it—in particular, the title character, played by Abigail Breslin. But these are not the undead we are used to. They are victims of a plague that has swept the planet and has made ordinary people sick—slowly. They may no longer eat, but they can still talk and think and love. They don’t shuffle, and neither do they move ultra-fast as in World War Z.’ They are simply people who are dying.

Against this backdrop you have a father, played beautifully and with quiet strength by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is determined to keep his daughter not only alive, but safe for as long as possible. In doing so, he drives away his wife and their two small children, manages to earn the scorn of the police and quite possibly risks his own life. Because when the day comes that Maggie “turns”—and that day will come—he will be forced to either take her to a quarantine facility, where they will end her life with a death cocktail, or deal with her in his own way at home.

Family Is What Matters
If there’s one lesson that ‘Maggie’ teaches us, it’s that family and friends matter—especially in times of crisis. This movie didn’t have to be about zombies. Wade and his daughter could have ended up exactly in the same situation as a result of worldwide famine, cataclysmic climate change or End Times. It doesn’t matter. For me, the poignancy is most present in those quiet moments when Wade and his daughter are sharing a memory or a laugh. It’s when he desperately tries to get her to eat something to keep up her strength. And it’s when she’s starting to turn and he exhorts her to fight and stay human.

Box Office Fiasco
‘Maggie’ bombed at the box office. As of this writing, it has earned only $187,112 domestic, according to BoxOfficeMojo. And that’s a shame. I think perhaps LionsGate may not have known how best to market this film. I sympathize, though. As soon as you say “zombie” and Arnold Schwarzenegger, audiences are going to have certain expectations. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were thinking guns, brains, and lots and lots of blood. Too bad. This movie is not that.

I’m really hoping ‘Maggie’ does well on video. It deserves an audience—the right audience.

‘Lucy’—Asking the Wrong Question

Photo Courtesy of IMDb
[‘Lucy’ Poster]Lucy’ (2014)
Directed by Luc Besson
Screenplay by Luc Besson
Action | Sci-Fi
Stars Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi
Universal
Rated R
Log Line: A woman, accidentally caught in a dark deal, turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic.

 

SPOILER ALERT!

I saw the much-anticipated ‘Lucy’ last weekend and, before going into my review, I’d like to make a few preliminary comments. First, I am a huge fan of Luc Besson. Ever since ‘La Femme Nikita,’ I was convinced this guy could do no wrong. Second, I am in love with Scarlett Johansson—don’t tell my wife. Third, I’m very aware that no matter what I say here, this movie will make a ton of money. So that said, what’s my take?

I was disappointed.

This Was Two Movies
Apparently, ‘Lucy’ couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. On the one hand, it is a smart, funny, bloody sci-fi thriller that doesn’t skimp on the action. On the other, it’s an vfx-laden treatise on the history of man and his ability to utilize the untapped potential of his brain. Judging by the official trailer, I was promised the former. And I was getting it in all its Luc Besson glory until Lucy finally meets Morgan Freeman’s Professor Norman in Paris.

There was an upside to the mindy, spacey stuff that takes us from man’s beginnings with the original Lucy to the wonders of the universe. I enjoyed the visual effects—especially when Lucy stops Time with a wave of her hand. Sure, that’s cool. And the movie came in at ninety minutes, which meant we weren’t saddled with a slow-moving second act. But when the screenwriter stops caring that Lucy is on the lam and an evil Korean guy is after her, and opts instead to focus on her morphing into a frickin’ computer made of giant Nutella-like tendrils, that’s when you lose me.

Every Hero Needs an Arc
This is a basic tenet of screenwriting. As we’ve learned over the years, it’s the Hero’s Journey, people. The hero—or the protagonist—reluctantly sets off on a journey where a bunch of stuff happens. Whether it’s good or bad stuff doesn’t really matter. In the end it’s life changing. And there’s always a final battle, which the hero must win. Then he returns home changed and tells the others what he learned. The model may be old, going all the way back to Gilgamesh, but it works.

So what happened to Lucy? Well, she didn’t come back! Instead of an arc, we got a trajectory. She never gets to have the final battle with Mr. Jang—that’s left to the battle-weary French cop Pierre Del Rio. Once Lucy’s brain reaches a hundred percent utilization, she trips off somewhere beyond Time and Space, probably meeting up with an alternate universe version of herself, which is the OS from ‘Her.’ Seriously? What am I supposed to do with pure energy? I invested a lot of my emotions in this woman, and now she just disappears? And just like Professor Norman, I am left with nothing but a thumb drive with a bunch of ones and zeroes on it. Great. I guess I should start that backup now. Oh wait, she melted all the computers.

How Might This Have Worked?
The movie already has the elements of a great sci-fi action thriller—bad guys, experimental drugs, exotic locations and a woman who, though she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, starts out dumb as spit when it comes to choosing men. Speaking of bad guys, the only thing better than a Korean bad guy is pairing him with an English bad guy. Bravo, Luc!

As I said before, I was good with everything until the fateful meeting with Professor Norman. Previously, she had only spoken to him by phone or video screen. He was becoming her Alfred. But once she meets with the good professor and other scientists, we’re transported to the Science Channel as Lucy’s brain utilization increases and everyone discusses the nature of Time and Space. At this point, I wouldn’t have been surprised if everyone adjourned to a nice restaurant and spent the next five hours discussing Sartre or the symbolism behind clowns in horror movies.

Here’s my idea for a third act. When Mr. Jang and his army arrive at the university to kill Lucy, she is already starting to lose her powers because the drug is wearing off. That, coupled with a blinding headache and other side effects from the drug, it’s a question of whether she can still take out the bad guys before they can kill her. A massive final battle ensues where everything—the university, everything—is destroyed as Lucy battles with Mr. Jang and his men while becoming weaker and weaker.

At a critical moment, Mr. Jang shoots Lucy. Weak and bloody she still manages to send him to hell. Then she collapses as the professor makes his way to her. As the professor examines her, he realizes that she is once again human. How? Well, her irises appear normal. Working fast, he and Del Rio get her to the hospital, where surgeons operate on her and she recovers.

Epilogue. Lucy is standing outside the airport with Del Rio. She’s going home to see her parents. He says, “I guess we’ll never know what would have happened had you hit a hundred percent.” Just then, a toddler drifts into the path of an oncoming taxi, his mother running after him and screaming in French. Suddenly, the taxi stops completely, as if Time itself had stopped. The crying mother retrieves her child as Del Rio stares at Lucy in amazement. “What?” she says, smiling. Then she kisses the cop on the cheek and walks into the terminal. Setup for a sequel? You bet.

The Wrong Question
Every great movie asks a question at the beginning that must be answered at the end. In ‘Lucy,’ the question appears to be “what would happen if we could access our whole brain instead of just ten percent?” To me, that’s the wrong question. It has nothing to do with a hero’s life. What happened to Lucy could have happened to anyone—the conniving boyfriend, the French cop or Professor Norman.

I think a better question is, “Will Lucy become the person she is meant to be?” With my ending, I think the movie would have answered that. It still would have been a kick-ass story and we would have left the theatre satisfied that Lucy completed the hero’s journey.