Investigative journalism is a dying art, I guess. In their recent Fall Arts Guide, the Willamette Week sent New York Times bestselling author Laurie Notaro to infiltrate a local genre writing group. She revealed to all the world that... well, I'm not sure what she revealed. That amateur writers aren't as good at writing as professional writers are? That some people like Harry Potter fan fiction? It was pretty harsh, and directed at a bunch of folks who hadn't done anything to deserve negative attention. In the comedy business writing something like this is known as "punching down." In the rest of the world, it's known as being kind of a jerk.
Worst of all, Ms. Notaro didn't offer up any of her own work for the proverbial firing squad. She says in her article that no one got around to reading her submission, but you know what? Maybe wait a week. This isn't breaking news. Or tell the people you're writing an article about that you're writing an article about them. That should get your essay some attention. A big part of writing is putting yourself out there to be judged.
In the spirit of mutually assured destruction I wrote a short Boat Cop adventure for critique.
After the jump you will find a selection from that, as well as each of the five stories mentioned in the WW article, along with along with some commentary from me and an editor friend of mine who works at a local publishing house.
1) Harry Potter and the Big Book of Naughty Bits for Boys by Anise Leinen
Hermione glanced surreptitiously at the table where Draco and Ginny sat. Their heads were together, and they were whispering to each other now. And… Hermione frowned. Ginny’s hand was decidedly resting on Draco’s arm. Her eyes narrowed. She was rather glad that Ron hadn't seen that. “Ron, I’m not going to give up sleeping, eating, and especially studying in order to pursue projects that really ought to be left to MI5,” she sighed. “So why don’t we try this? I’ll recruit trustworthy first and second-years and pay them to go round and follow Ginny and Malfoy wherever they go. I’ll let them use that little camera phone my cousin gave me last Christmas, so they can record what they see and hear, and we’ll know exactly what happened. How does that sound?”
Despite the pearl clutching in Ms. Notaro's article, this is nowhere near what any right-thinking person would classify as erotica, much less the multi-tentacled mirror universe of human sexuality found in truly bad fan fiction. No one impregnates a breakfast sandwich. Sonic the Hedgehog doesn't light his husband Spock on fire. Everyone involved is of the age of consent in their place of residence (Hogwarts defers to Muggle Law in all things non-magical, I am reliably informed). In the section I was given no one even did it.
Rather, HPatBBoNBfB is an innuendo-laden comedy of errors predicated on Ron's mistaken belief that Draco is banging his sister. It's actually rather sweet, in the way sex obsessed teenagers can be once you stop being one. As a comedy piece it's probably got a ways to go, but there's a good structure and some of the wordplay is set up well. I don't know much about the Potterverse, so I can't comment on the canonicity of the piece, but that's ok because even typing the word "canonicity" gives me a headache.
MYSTERY EDITOR X-37: While I've got no fundamental problem with fan-fiction, I'd highly recommend that the author rework this as an original story. Working in an established fictional universe really distracts from what's otherwise a genuinely charming story. Inconsistencies in characterization and world-building that would otherwise be non-issues stand out in stark relief when you're writing in a constructed world with which your audience is as familiar as most readers will be with Harry Potter.
2) Demonology by Elizabyth Burtis
Gabriel rummaged around in his daypack until his fingers closed around a familiar shape. He pulled out the hip flask and took a long swig. The PatrÓn AÑejo numbed the dull ache at his center even as it burned its way down his throat. He wiped a drip from his stubbly chin, took a deep breath, and chugged the rest of the flask. Nope, no open containers here, he silently assured himself as the alcohol wrapped itself like cotton around his mind.
Here we have a good example of genre comfort food. Dr. Gabriel is a stubbled yet suitably vampy occultist and I guess a doctor and also a former priest. That may seem like a bunch of stuff for one guy, but let's not forget that Indiana Jones was a grave robbing archaeology professor named after a dog. The part of the story I read focused on a paranormal art opening at grimy bistro. Details like that really help distinguish this story from others of this type.
MYSTERY EDITOR X-37: If you're shooting for publishable commercial fiction, this is probably the strongest of the lot. It's nothing particularly new, but the author clearly knows their way around your genre, and it's a pleasant enough read. Plot-driven in a way that makes it feel somewhat scripted; the characters seem to move and speak mostly per story requirements.
3) In Loco Parentis by Max Bliss
The secure family chat window on Dakota’s 40-inch monitor dinged.
MOM-A: Haley is going to ask to go to the mall after school tomorrow.
Dakota knew better than to ask how MOM-A knew that. It was MOM-A’s job to know everything before it happened, while it was happening, and then to analyze it after it happened.
Dakota jumped down off the couch and walked over to his 16-foot square typing pad. The pad had all the letters, numbers and punctuation in a grid of pressure-sensitive dots. With his four paws, Dakota could type faster than most people with ten fingers.
Dakota: She knows that’s against the house rules.
Picking a quote for this one was difficult, as there is a lot going on in In Loco Parentis. Haley is a geeky high school teen, MOM-A is a sentient supercomputer and Dakota is a talking dog who drives around in a car sometimes. There's are also extended MMORPG chat sections and a hint of intrigue. That's certainly a lot to process in a few pages, but there is always enough of a plot thread to keep things from becoming too convoluted. This story could probably benefit from some focusing, but there are plenty of interesting ideas on display and it gets bonus points for coming with the frankly fantastic book cover that's at the top of the page. Seriously, I really like that book cover.
MYSTERY EDITOR X-37: I will admit straight-up that, after reading the WW piece, this was the story I was most curious about. It did not disappoint: this one is WEIRD. But it's also kind of brilliant, and while it's not (yet) the most immediately publishable of the lot, it's unquestionably the most audacious, and my personal favorite. Here's what I'd suggest if I were editing this: Cut the MMORPG, and make the surrogate parents the main viewpoint characters. They're far and away the most interesting, and the most sympathetic. Clear away the chaff and you're left with a strange, sweet, and genuinely engaging core that I really, really want to see more of.
5) The Lesser Talisman by James Gillaspy
A single puffy cloud hung in the still, dry air, high above the plain outside the city of Kanda's eastern wall. An hour before, a thousand chariots, supported by a thousand archers, had rushed from the city gates to form an arc, anchored on the south by the rushing waters of the Sa Nadime and on the north by the wide flood of the Alichem River. An observer sitting on the cloud would see only dark specks in a line, motionless except for a shimmering caused by thermals rising from the hot, sandy soil. Closer to the ground, the specks resolved into chariots and sweating men and horses, their seeming stillness an illusion.
This piece is ambitious in scale but not in scope, which is not a bad thing. James describes an enormous chariot battle with clarity and a good eye for tactics. Character and world building is spare but subtle. The protagonist is largely caught up in the battle as it plays out, but there's a nice touch contrasting him between the nearby general-king and his working class chariot driver. We don't learn much about the larger story, but I'd be interested in finding out what it is.
MYSTERY EDITOR X-37: Solid; caught and held my attention fast.
Honorable Mention: "Ass Burgers" by Kai Soderberg
“I saw him outside of school once. Still all dressed in black. I was working at the car wash on the drying side. That was quite a first job by the way. First thing my manager asks is if I smoke pot. I tell him yes and he hands me a packed bowl, tells me to go in the bathroom and smoke it because that is the only way to make the job bearable.”
Kai wasn't mentioned in the WW article, but he's in the group and it seemed unfair to leave him out. "Ass Burgers" is a compact little short story which plays out as a verbal duel between acerbic burnout and his therapist. There aren't robots or dragons in it, but the dialogue feels very grounded and the chronologically shifting narrative held my attention. I think what's next for this piece is to go through and decide how much of the authentic speech tics are working, and which are just adding clutter.
"Boat Cop: The New Adventures, Episode 313" by Ben Coleman
She was built like one and a half NFL cheerleaders, with a mane of tawny auburn hair like a lion who'd maybe stripped it's way through lion college. Two thick eyebrows went at each other like gladiatorial caterpillars, and two ruby lips pursed and parted like divorcing lemon enthusiasts. She was wearing a diaphanous gauze slip that made me rethink using the word diaphanous all the time.
"Please, I need your help," she said.
"Everyone needs my help," I told her, "That's why they call me Boat Cop."
(Note: Alison thinks I should release the rest of this, but there is basically no way I am going to that. Unless a really compelling argument is made for it in the comments I guess.)
Max: If Ross Macdonald and Chuck Palahniuk collaborated on a corny crime novel they might write something like Boat Cop.
Ben, here is what works really well. Boat Cop names his boat, his male dog, and his handgun Barbara. I already identify with his character. His loss of his beloved house pier (Barbara IV, I am guessing) and his conflicted pursuit of justice and cleavage really drew me in. I loved the shadowy lighthouse keeper as villain and I was relieved when Boat Cop told him off in such colorful language. Go, Boat Cop!
I have one piece of advice, however. Please don't take this personally and don't let it stop you from writing episode 314. How shall I put this? On page 2 you write: "She was built like one and a half NFL cheerleaders, with a mane of tawny auburn hair like a lion who'd maybe stripped it's way through lion college." That should be "its" (possessive), not it's (contraction). A professional writer like yourself should know these things. Maybe you wrote in haste. Just don't let it happen again.
Anise: There’s a lot of great imagery (the bearded ham, the Mariana trench brow furrowing). And there are lots of laugh-out-loud moments. If I have any criticisms, they would be 1.) A few of the earlier images don’t seem to work as well as the others. (How would a lion strip its way through lion college? What would it even be studying??) 2.) The first page doesn't really pull me in immediately. HOWEVER…
Once we really get into this (past the first page or so,) it’s so well done. Most people have no idea just how difficult is it to write a parody, but obviously, it does seem easy when the author pulls it off. You have done it very well here. Parody is such a precarious balance. You've picked up on the hard-to-learn secret, which is (IMHO, of course) that parodying specific details is only part of what you need to accomplish. You really do need to take on the whole genre and underlying ideas.
I would guess that you certainly are parodying Boat Cop itself (I've never seen it), but if that was all you did, it wouldn't really have worked. You've also managed to parody this particular type of action/adventure genre, as well as the hard-boiled detective sub-genre (the Marlowe/Hammett type.) This is why someone who doesn't know anything about the Boat Cop series (that would be me) can still enjoy this parody of it. I hope there’s more!
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