Monday, April 14, 2014

The Fighter Still Remains

It's been awhile since I posted an entry. There have been several difficult weeks. I won't go into detail, but I will try to explain.

The movie Cinderella Man keeps showing up. The first time was when I got home from a work shift that went until the middle of the night, and I was able watch the final 15 minutes or so. I love the gritty, sentimental story of a man who took life's hard punches and kept coming back. It doesn't matter to me whether he won or not. The point is that he kept battling.

I was channel surfing this morning, and what was on? You guessed it. This time I watched the movie almost from the beginning, and there were so many scenes that weren't just good theater but life lessons that felt like a personal conversation. Sometimes life is tough. It hits you hard, and sometimes it kicks you directly in the crotch. But the point isn't that you've been kicked in the crotch, but what you do after that. James J. Braddock got back into the ring. He kept fighting. He never became one of the great boxing champions of all time, but he continued on with his character and integrity intact.

That is the definition of a champion.

Why this sudden reappearance of Cinderella Man in my life? Happenstance? A message that needs to be regarded? I don't know. I only know that the point is what I do after watching the movie twice.

I have dreams. I have goals, but there is a lot of clutter in parts of my life right now. It is time to clear out the clutter and move on. You see, those ideas of character and integrity are shining pillars to me. They are my anchors, along with family and faith. My God, family is such a blessing, a treasure. There also are all types of faith, and I reach to pull in as many of them as I can. It is a rich pursuit.

There is a companion piece to Cinderella Man. As I watched the movie, the lyrics to The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel kept coming to mind. I especially love the final verse:

 In the clearing stands a boxer,
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev'ry glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame,
"I am leaving, I am leaving."
But the fighter still remains.


Yes, it's a lot like that.



Sunday, March 2, 2014

"David and Goliath" Is a Masterful Game-Changer

I got absolutely hooked on Malcolm Gladwell's "David and Goliath" and its focus on confronting problems. Part of it is Gladwell's style, which is so simple yet so thoroughly researched. More than that, though, is the forceful way in which he delivers major messages with such gentle force.

Here's some background: I led YourHub, the grassroots journalism arm of the The Denver Post, and I used "David and Goliath" as a focus for how we would confront our challenges. Gladwell's subtitle is "Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants." I find that very fitting for YourHub. We lost six employees to reduction-of-force moves within the past year or so. We still must handle a hefty list of tasks even with this smaller staff.

I think that qualifies us as a potential David, and I urged my employees to think about ways "to create David" and learn to conquer our giants. I made a daring move during my last staff meeting as the head of YourHub (I since have taken on new responsibilities within The Post newsroom). I gave my employees all the power to make suggested changes. I told them that everything from team meetings to approving page proofs for publication to whatever was in their hands, and they had the power to make things happen. I told them that this was the moment when they could lead in the most democratic manner they will probably ever have during their work careers. I know it's not standard managerial procedure, but I am sometimes a little daring.

I thought the radical idea might engender some radical ideas. I asked for feedback. When that feedback arrived, I realized my move was more of a litmus test for my employees. Some said the extra responsibility was somewhat difficult, but they took it in stride. Those comments were in line with "it was manageable" to "it is what it is." Some grumbled, sometimes with a lot of grumbling. The grumblers felt I had abandoned my leadership at a key time.

A chance like this comes along once in a lifetime for most employees. If I were on the receiving end of my offer, I would have grabbed it. So far I have heard one concrete idea: One employee suggested that we have one big team meeting with all five teams present rather than having five small meetings, which is the policy I inherited and retained. Maybe there were other ideas, but none were given to me. Maybe they were to my successor, but I don't know.

Anyway, back to "David and Goliath" and its impact. It challenges the reader to think differently. It isn't just a repeat of "think outside the box." It is more about constructing a new box. It is about seeing the challenges and constructing strategies that put the power for change in YOUR hands as a staff. But that's just the power of this book. It not only gets you thinking, but it entices you to make bold moves ... and then see where the chips fall.

WHAT I AM READING NOW: "Live by Night" by Dennis Lehane. The author hooked me with "Moonlight Mile," and add the fact this book won the Edgar last year (over "Gone Girl" and others) made this a must-read for me. I just started the book, but Lehane's opening of the first chapter is classic. Take the time to pick up the book (I had to wait for a long time before any copy showed up again at my Barnes and Noble store), or simply read the opening chapter online. Amazon provides links to first chapters on a number of books, as do most authors' websites.

So, off to write some in my second Daniel Pace novel and then enjoy the Oscars tonight. I will do a followup blog on the Academy Awards tomorrow.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Obscenity Is a Necessary Evil

I blogged about this earlier, but it bears repeating. Do I use obscenity liberally in my day-to-day speech? No. Do I consider obscenity objectionable? Most of the time, but it depends on the situation or context. If I hit my finger with a hammer, I will guarantee you that I will utter an obscenity. (So too will most, if not all, of the pastors I know.)

There is a key phrase I used, and it concerns the use of obscenity in the novels I write: It depends on the situation or context. Now, I have never had a character hit his or her finger with a hammer, so the use of an obscenity in that situation has been a non-issue. I do, however, have a detective who litters the literary landscape with f-bombs. My antagonist does, too, usually when he is frustrated by the way events are unfolding.

Why do I do that?

Because that is the way life is, and I want my characters to be lifelike and exist within lifelike situations. I don't think there are many places of work where you don't hear a few obscenities during the course of a normal day. I work in a newspaper newsroom, and, trust me, there are more than a few obscenities uttered every day. Many of those are uttered by people who have a great love for the English language. But newsrooms are populated by people who face intense deadlines daily, face situations that can be quite trying as far as subject matter they cover, and almost every journalist develops a hard shell because of the nature of their work. "Hell" and "damn" are the tamest words you will hear in a newsroom.

(I will include a quick aside here. That "comfort zone" with hearing obscenity in a newsroom can be tested. I worked with a photo editor who not only would have made a sailor blush but probably would have caused Satan to say, "Did I hear what I think I just heard?" The photo editor was a walking Merriam-Webster's of obscenity. The thing that was objectionable to me was that there was no context to the swearing. It was an almost constant barrage. References to coitus, scatology, parts of the human anatomy, disdain for the focus of certain religions, etc., were all part of the daily, minute-by-minute language used. It was overused, and it became tiresome and bothersome in a hurry.)

For every character in my novels who swears there is a counterbalance of someone who doesn't. Another lawman who works with the detective regards obscenity as objectionable, and he points that out to the detective. My antagonist is balanced by my protagonist (who has several major flaws in his nature, but use of profanity isn't one of them). I have a woman who uses a few obscenities, but there is nothing out of kilter in that. Some of the choicest obscenities I hear are from that gender that is rumored to be so nurturing by its very nature. Yeah, well, there is the ideal and there is the reality. So it goes.

My point is simple: People swear, it is a part of life. I will use that if it fits a character or situation. It doesn't constitute my endorsement of it. It doesn't mean I am comfortable with it. I also am not comfortable with murder, but I use murder in my novels. I am not comfortable with violence, but I use violence in my novels.

I write about life, with its high and low points. Obscenity is just part of that landscape.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Dennis Lehane Masters the Tough Detective Genre

George Pelecanos is a victim of poor timing. It isn't his fault. He's a good author, and his The Way Home is a decent novel. It's just that I started his novel after reading Dennis Lehane's Moonlight Mile. Sorry, but anyone writing in the detective/prison/mob boss area of literature is at a serious disadvantage when Lehane's work is involved.

Lehane writes well enough that some of his books have become movies -- Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island. A wise producer needs to grab Moonlight Mile. It has the natural hook because it is a sequel to Gone Baby Gone, with an older Amanda McCready again in extreme peril.

Part of Lehane's master's touch is the plot line. He has a 16-year-old Amanda, a series of American goons who enter the world of Kenzie and Gennaro (Lehane's protagonists in a detective series) and the Russian mob. Danger lurks throughout the novel, as expected. But Lehane separates his work from the lesser detective series through two things, dynamic dialogue and unusual and vivid characters.

Lehane's dialogue crackles. The exchanges are sharp but not in a forced way. There aren't a bunch of pop culture references thrown in to provide "authenticity." Kenzie and Gennaro talk like the married people they are. An exchange Kenzie has with a reporter is particularly entertaining. And, best of all, the dialogue between Kenzie and Amanda and Kenzie and Yefim, one of the Russian mob goons, is literary gold.

The development of Yefim's character particularly intrigues me. Yefim is a bad man in a Russian-mob way, which means he won't hesitate to do anything no matter the brutality involved, but Lehane injects his character with a vein of sinister charm. Yefim's statements often come across as a Russian trying to sound like a modern American guy. Here is a snippet of Kenzie-Yefim dialogue:

"I like the Sony, but Pavel swears by the JVC. You take two. You watch both with your wife and daughter, tell me which you like best. Hey?"

"Sure."

"You want PlayStation 3?"

"No, I'm good."

"iPod?"

"Got a couple, thanks."

"How about a Kindle, my friend?"

"Nah."

"You sure?'

"I'm sure."

He shook his head several times. "I can't give those (expletive) things away."

I held out my good hand. "Take care, Yefim."

He clapped both my shoulders hard and kissed me on both cheeks. He still smelled of ham and vinegar. He hugged me and pounded his fists on my back. Only then did he shake my hand.

"You, too, my good friend, you hump."

See what I mean? I am looking for a copy of Lehane's Live by Night but haven't found one yet on my journeys to Barnes and Noble. Maybe I will order it online, but it's next on my list of "want to read" novels. There is a good reason for that. The man is immensely talented.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Movie Trailers As Literature: American Hustle

I admire those who can put creative power into small spaces. I enjoy the great lyricist who can entice you with a few verses. I also enjoy the work of those who put together movie trailers. Granted, few movie trailers are great, but some rise above the crowd.

Take, for example, the official trailer for American Hustle.  It starts out with Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper looking at a Rembrandt that Bale says is a forgery. He asks the central question: Who is the real artist here, the painter or the forger? Then the trailer hooks me with the next phase: Led Zeppelin hammering out Good Times, Bad Times as clips from the movie are reeled out in rapid-fire fashion. As soon as that song hit, I knew I had to see the movie.

Why was that trailer successful? Two little things: It leads with a philosophical question that ties into the Abscam investigation that is at the center of the movie, and then it adds a song that says this is going to be a snappy experience for the movie fan. Simple, concise, edgy. (Just a warning: Good Times, Bad Times isn't in the movie, which was a minor letdown.)

The lesson here for writers is to achieve the same thing in each chapter, or in each section of a chapter. Each little section can be its own little movie trailer. Hook together enough of those "trailers" and you have a pretty darned good novel. Sounds easy, doesn't it?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

I Am Writing New Material In My Second Novel!!!

I woke up in the middle of the night and had one thought banging against my brain. It was relentless, and I knew it was the right thought to have. It said this: "It's time to write new parts of a novel." So, I got up, pulled out my flash drive with the second Daniel Pace novel on it, and I started to work.

Writing new material didn't happen. (OK, my above title is a lie. So, sue me.) I needed to reacquaint myself with the parts of the novel I already started. I got fairly deep into this second creation, but I put it aside for more than six months. That was because my first novel in the series needed to be revised. Those revisions took three forms: revisions I know I had to make; a learning experience at Don Maass' week-long writing workshop in Virginia Beach, Va.; and more revisions on what I learned from Don and his team. Those revisions mean going over and over material with which I am intimately familiar. It's vital, but it isn't the most fulfilling work.

Diving into the second novel again has a certain cleansing quality. There is nothing more I enjoy in the literary process than creating new situations and putting my main characters through a little bit of personal hell. Revisions are simply sprucing up old friends. Creating new material is liberating all those thoughts I suppressed. My brain says this: Run free, my darlings! Cause chaos! Find love!

I also enjoy the new novel because it takes a different slant than the first one. Yes, Pace faces peril. Every thriller writer needs to put his main character through that, but the type of peril he faces is a world away from that in the first novel. It has a delicious element to it. I also know what the third novel in the series will be about, but I will need to explore various areas of science to be prepared for actual writing. I will promise this: It will be a harrowing experience. Poor Daniel. I do miss up his life terribly.

I am sure I will have another middle-of-the-night epiphany, and I will walk downstairs, fire up the computer, and drag Danny through more misery. I couldn't be happier to do it.

Ain't the writer's life fun?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Death of the Oxford Comma? Of Course

I read with glee (in some cases) and angst (in others) as the world of teachers, writers and common people weighed in on the apparent loss of the Oxford comma. The death of the comma turned out to be in error; it was just the Oxford public relations department that was dropping the comma, not the university as a whole. The fire storm that started because of the rumored demise amused me. When I first saw the news, I had only one thought.

What took Oxford so long?

I am a man raised in journalism. Journalists rely on Associated Press style, which regards the Oxford comma as an unnecessary intruder. It should be written like this, "The American flag is red, white and blue," and not this, "The American flag is red, white, and blue." The Oxford comma died a quiet death in my world during my middle years in college. I first displayed this lack of respect for the Oxford dictates while writing a short piece of fiction for an upper-level English class. The instructor noted my "error," and I countered by saying that there was no such error because I was being trained as a journalist, and newspaper folks didn't think much of the Oxford comma. He said he would take my journalism training into account, but he added (quite gently) that the comma has a justifiable purpose even if the AP doesn't agree.

My biggest laugh in this debate came a couple of years ago when I was reading the blog of a young literary agent in New York City. She defended the Oxford comma with the passion with which a mother would defend one of her children. It must be retained for the love of the language, she wrote. She was adamant about that. What caused me to laugh was that she felt it necessary to drop an f-bomb into her writing. I had to wonder, what hurts the English language more, the absence of a comma or the younger generation's overuse of the f-word as noun, verb, adjective and adverb? I argue that the f-bomb is more abusive, unless, of course, you are in the throes of passion and find it convenient to utter the word into your partner's ear, or creating a particular character who injects that term into everyday usage (which I do in my novels).

Now, I try to ignore the AP influences in my manuscripts and insert the Oxford comma. I am sure I am probably 50/50 in using "proper English." Those journalist's ways are so entrenched that they go on auto pilot. I am not a lazy editor. I believe spelling, grammar and syntax are vital and must be defended. I am just not going feel as if I have committed a faux pas if I omit an Oxford comma here or there. So there. Deal with it.