NVDT #41 – Move On or Serialize?

The Prompt – Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

I haven’t considered this. I write what I write.

But- I have a tome sitting on my hard drive that is five seasons of Netflix costume drama. It started life as a coming of age story about a head cheerleader who quits and wants to be a feminist, longs to meet one guy who’s not all hands and bullshit. And a wannabe musician who wants a girlfriend that’s “different.” Throw in a couple of lesbian fairy godmothers, a wise black saxophonist, a no-nonsense guitarist, a superjock big brother and a couple of 70s gender role confused get outta my way (in their own ways) mothers and…Well, it went on forever. Two were plenty. But I got a lot of mileage out of the last three.

Intentional Repeaters – I have several short story characters that repeat. Lamar is looking for the meaning of life in a lighthearted way. Jackson and Deanna, I rip one of their endless chapters of exploits (from those last three books) and turn them into shorts. Can’t just leave fun sidebar character interactions hanging out there.

Bobby B. Bobby allows me to assail all the stereotypes of a series character without becoming one himself. I consider Bobby’s stuff to be my paean to Elmore Leonard/Hitchock/Twain and all other caper storytellers. In a post-Katrina junkyard Bobby sees a top for a tractor, without the tractor, puts it on a swamp boat, meets a boat salesman, and a black lady manufacturing expert who understands automatic weapons and Swamp Vue is born. Bobby wants to learn the custom car business, goes to Hollywood, winds up running across the country with a college-educated bikini model, getting shot at by a phony handicapped pimp and a crazy topless dancer, the FBI in hot pursuit…Bobby sees a big box van with an air conditioner on top and before long, half the politicians, reporters and bad guys in Louisiana are after him and a third-generation Mississippi Madam for her client book. Plus it has parallel storylines and all the stuff a series needs. Bobby would be my series.

Loners – The first-person thing I’m in the middle of as an experiment will be my last. I like the characters, but it’s a one-shot. In fact, if I’m honest, it’s a writing exercise. To see if I could write something I liked, formatted loosely on something I read that was too full of research and filler but otherwise likable.

Here’s my real issue – I don’t need the hero’s epic journey or classic motivation that gets lost in facts and figures or even the old pulp trouble, more trouble, skin of the teeth escape within given parameters. Like me, a lot of my characters have no idea what’s going to happen next. They show up, something happens, next thing you know they’re on the river with Huck and Jim and dressin’ up in women’s clothes.

Point – Now, let’s talk about what bucking that story arc, blah-blah-blah set decoration, infamous Dan A and all the what’s his/her motivation show don’t tell except when you’re skipping the plot holes does to editors and scam artists posing as editors and grammar Nazis.

“Well, with things like this, slice of life, where is it going, what does he want? He says, but… ” No, they both get their asses kicked all summer long, did you not see the train wreck coming?

Seriously? I forget how Tom Sawyer and Becky got lost in the cave, but I remember they did and it was a big scene. Did Tom start out the day with “I’m gonna get lost in the cave with Becky today and cause a real commotion”? I doubt it. So when Bobby doesn’t say “Think I’ll take off with two million dollars and raise some hell” it doesn’t change or default his motivation none. He says he wants to get a “people” education. He damn sure does.

I went to college for a while. Did the concept of stream of consciousness and/or modified postmodernism drop off the curriculum in favor of formulaic spreadsheet bullshit? If so, how did Barbara Park sell so hundreds of millions of  Junie B books?

I get the whole conflict/resolution thing but that’s so overdone without something special, some spice, some people in it. Since the 50s life’s messy little problems have been being solved on television, neatly, in 30 minutes to an hour by understanding parents or quickdraw sheriffs or clever detectives. Enough of that procedural stuff, enough predictable formula arc, enough is three too many red herrings. I want to turn the page to see what happens next to the people. What they get into, what they learn, how they feel, what weirdos they’ll run into next.

To whit. We’ve become so formulaic, so programmed… I watched a Hallmark mystery yesterday (post-surgical pain meds make a lot of things tolerable) that paralleled a recent book review of Stevie’s. Overprotective Mom. The son was cardboard, the menacing gold digger wasn’t menacing or a gold digger just happened to be a potential girlfriend… pretty bland stuff. Everybody had million-dollar teeth, though, and it dripped with stereotypes, half of whom couldn’t even act at that level. But it’s on the air. Somebody like Michelle Frances wrote it and it was pitiful. Except for the teeth. Go Hollywood Society of Cosmetic Dentistry!

Question – When do we quit listening to “Well, it’s not the formula…” and just throw it out there, series or one-shots? I don’t feel I write well enough to say, well, here, read this, will ya? It’s not the same kettle of fish, but…



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Published by

Phil Huston


28 thoughts on “NVDT #41 – Move On or Serialize?”

  1. Nice to see these arcs and overlays all laid out in one post. I’ve noticed them but never felt I’ve completely connected the dots.
    Now, in other – critical – news. Is it a fact that saxophonists have to be black or terrible? On the one side, you have Marsalis and The Big Man Clemons; on the other, Kenny G and the greased up guy from The Lost Boys. No in-between.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure about the sax players. There are limited stereotype options. But this will net you a story. I was a product specialty artist relations person for one o& my list of synth companies. Artist x, a prominent sideman music director etc took any gig he could get to stay working. I get a call, terrible connection, his gear is acting up, needs a repair piece, I ask him where to send it. Well…send it to the cruise line

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I say cruise line office? Where are you? Um, uh, we’re off Belize. Th3 cruise line can find me. That’s crazy, I can fedex it to your next port, where are you, who you playing with? Well, um, uh, look, just, uh, well, I don’t want to tell you. It’s…just send it to the cruise line addressing faxed. Not until you tell me what’s wrong with Belize or wherever or whoever. Oh man…shit. Kenny G, okay? It’s a shit jazz cruise, alright? Happy now? Can I have my part now? Is Kenny worse than Debbie Gibson? Shut up, man, and just send me the fucking part! Did I tell you I saw Emerson in Japan? Oh yeah, who was he with, Al Stewart? No, no, not part of this, he said…hey, fuck you!


  2. Cardboard characters are boring, but sometimes they fill in the gaps in a reader’s imagination. If I’m not a jazz fan, and you give me the “standard” jazz player as a character, at least I have a concept of what they do. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. But, where’s the fun in that. I throw in spares on occasion but if you’re going to brush up against a character, they need to be characters. Because even given stereotypes you need to hang with them, not just get the “and then the hooker in the red Mercedes got him a job.” Check out my dump on last Friday’s click and run on Stevie’s site. I mean, we need to hang with characters, you know?


  3. Your comments are always interesting, Phil. What you said about short stories is particularly interesting to me as I am toying with the idea of writing a book of short stories with a South African setting. I don’t think any of mine are like a series though, they are all very different as to content and characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think short stories, regardless of location or genre do well as a series, if nothing more than a series of thoughts or experiences. Some famous author’s best work, where you can see them thinking, is in short stories and collections. Go for it. Get your Mother’s story even if the book gets backburnered. Before she’s not there and you can’t ask.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I hate formulaic, genre mash-ups are my thing. The problem is, what do you say when someone asks, “what’s it about?” And which category do you pitch it in? I mean, I write Miss Marple type mysteries – set in space! That guarantee’s a lot of people saying, “great but lose the space bit,” or “I’d read it without the Sci-fi.” I even had someone ask me for a refund once. Perhaps I should emphasise the dentistry more?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good teeth are a must. You can get away with really terrible, or no dialog, simply beaming those teeth. You know genre is what it is. Star Trek and Route 66 and Bonanza are all the same show, different costumes, different sets, so no one should object to a space cozy so long as the body in docking bay 7 turns out to be a retired dancer fallen on hard times. One of my favorite trans-genre scenes ever is Hans Solo in the bar, “Star Wars 1” good guys and bad guys and hustlers are universal.


  5. Perhaps the masses prefer life’s messy little problems solved in 30 minutes? However, nowadays instead of quickdraw sheriffs they have to be solved by bimbos or lesbian fairy godmothers with shining teeth, hourglass figures, and not a hair out of place…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Or on Lifetime and Hallmark by has-been stars of the 90s with bakeshops or dress shops or book shops along with a “stay out of this” wanna be boyfriend who would be better (and more believable) on an underwear package than as a policeman. And all that hair a color not found in nature and teeth to die for. Botox, fillers and lopsided eye work mandatory.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes! This is totally a Hallmark mystery movie! Those men are so pretty they don’t even look real. I just want to mess up their hair or black out a couple of teeth (with makeup.)

        I love shorts best. I have no patience for formulaic anymore. I want to read about people in their daily lives and what makes them tick. Get inside their minds a little. I know action and plot are necessary, but if i want a lot of car chases/ gun fights, i’ll watch a movie or TV.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. “May his wisdom guide tougher, wiser, and more savage writers than I have been.”

      I have lots of attitude, not so much energy. In my youth I had both, determined to make the world a safe place for synthesizers. I always thought a lot of ego was an inhibitor. I think I’ll do a Bob Moog post on the value of less arrogance, better work. In this age of everyone’s a dime store artist it’s tough, though, not to call out the Jell-O for what it is. I bite my tongue everyday.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Larry Niven has his Timeline of Humanity into which he plugs most of his novels. Rowling continues to milk her magic cow and could do so for decades. Piers Anthony Xanth stories. Cussler’s Pitt and Clancy’s Jack Ryan stories. I see timeline, magical canon, and character consistency themes.

    It’s nice, once you know a setting or character, to see them again from time to time.

    I say do both. Create whatever consistency meme you choose and write into that. But you don’t have to think you’re locked into it, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nothing locked in. But there’s only 37 or so plots. So Rowling is Clancy in a bathrobe with a wand and a speedy broom and Clancy is Cussler with different agencies. Jack Ryan is Little Joe Cartwright with better special effects. Robert Parker had Spenser who never aged. My favorites were Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee, two conflicted Navajos in a desert full of culture clash.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They did, metaphor mixer;) Chee was a replacement for Leaphorn. LH only made incidental appearances for a while because Tony found out after book three that Leaphorn didn’t belong to him anymore. He’d optioned the movie rights to an early book and Leaphorn went with them. Chee was a younger, more culturally conflicted character, more depth. I remember Tony told my dad way back when “How was I supposed to know I’d write more than one anybody’d want to buy? Where the hell was all this money when I had kids in college?” Somebody told me, one book out of the chute, ‘here’s your option check’ I too would say thank you very kindly. Hell, say no, get run over by a bus what was the point?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hillerman’s Navajo Nation is another great example of a “universe” into which one can write various stories.
        Series? Gotta maintain story arc from a->b->c… I’m having that trouble with my #2 in that Bonneville Sea story. I’ve setup boundaries and although the setting is comfortable to me, I have to maintain cognizance of the long line of prior events. I suppose it like writing a really long novel. Epic Fantasy style. Prison bars and shoe boxes.
        How about another swamp story, murder and gators and chiggers and love amongst the spanish moss and cypress trees?


      3. Story arc malarkey. Start somewhere, shit happens, shit stops happening. Until next time. Anyway. I keep shooting myself in the foot with this writing assignment I gave myself. First-person bank robbery, jeez. I keep letting the story go, as I must, and it leaves me going WTF and scratching my head. Not to mention minor outpatient redo surgery last week for what they failed to fix in December. Jesus. Yes, the issue of writing what you’ve already written in sequels or other books. I put that down to splaining, afraid the readers (or we) will get lost without sounding buoys. I admire Hillerman the most for his economy. He says he had to work on that because he was too economical. I can see that. But I admire the fact that a character can have misgivings and intuition and be well drawn with economy, not spending pages on it like McDonald does with Travis McGee. That said Trav fights some of the same windmills over and over. I suppose in case you only read one you’d know where he stood. Read ’em all and you skip his justifications and pyscho babble. As opposed to Hammett and Chandler and Robert Parket who kill people, maybe we feel bad about it, maybe we don’t, that’s the game, next. I suppose that is why I deplore much head time and spinning up some narration. But the helicopter out of nowhere last time out? WTF was that? Killing me.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. We held another Writer’s Workshop (virtual) last Tuesday, a few showed up. All we do now is review each others work. (Well, I review theirs.)

        They have so very far to go.

        Story arc. Uh, yeah. You got to have cohesion. You have to be driving to something or somewhere. Else, your readers get to the end (as if) and think “why did I just read this?” What was the point?
        You can tell this after a few thousand words: Is this story going to take me someplace or is it just scene blarney and character bloviation?

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Well, there are several devices that supercede, or kick arc in the arse. Where no given intent is telegraphed. A basket of yarn gets woven into a sweater. It weaves with characters and their exploits bringing them together, pushing them apart until all the background noise of collectible shotguns and family pride and cultures collides and…or where the arc is set up on the front end and either goes there or falls apart and you get an O’Henry twist. Anything outside the procedural is stranger comes to town (with a bank to rob) or a kidnapping or whatever and it’s characters driving. Or the hero’s journey where again the quest is set and it’s a series of toil and trouble getting there.
        Watch an old episode or three of Bonanza. Or the original StarTrek. Something where bad acting and adventure aren’t overwhelmed by set design and tinsel-y bullshit and it’s like watching an outline. A free education in arc. Every book starts with “Pa, we’re taking the wagon to town.” And ends with “Gee, Wally, I thought we were goners.”

        Liked by 1 person

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